More and more we can find examples in which Muslims are reduced to their material culture and religious culture: Muslim women reduced to their hijabs, niqabs, burkas, chadors; Muslim men represented as repressive, violent, fanatic and irrational and so on. Just read some commentaries about Muslim women, or about Muslim life in general, and you will be able to understand why I say that Muslims are reduced to their ‘material culture’.
The main element of this grievous fallacy, as I have explained in The Anthropology of Islam, is the idea that Muslims are shaped by culture and in particular by their own religion: Islam. If you think that this cultural objectification of Muslims is innocuous, it is time to rethink and read the story of a woman in Germany who was killed because of her hijab.
Contrary to the expectations of many, the killer is not her husband or father trying to defend their honor or Islam, but rather a white German neighbor whom the victim had brought to court for slander. Indeed, for this killer, what he wanted to offend, and then ended in murdering, was not the victim as a human being, but rather her dress, her hijab, the cultural material expression of what he hated: Islam.
And so blind hatred brought the killer to stab the victim eighteen times, and in the midst of the chaos, when her husband intervened in an attempt to save his wife, a nearby security guard shot him instead of the aggressor. When the critical decision to shoot must be made, it must be made in seconds. Unfortunately, in this case, cultural stereotypes provided the target before objective judgement could.
Some of these stereotypes are ‘latent’ and the product of mainstream discourses, while others are expressly aimed to represent Muslims as different, prone to violence, controlled by Islam (whatever it might be), and as somehow ‘less-than-human’. I could spend energy to provide, link after link, examples for each category. Yet, it would be an endless, if not futile, effort. Rather, let me debate the root of and the methodology behind such pernicious process.
First of all we have to consider that ‘Muslim’ is essentially within any discourse a mere linguistic label that can only derive its meaning from contexts. Surely ‘Muslim’ is not a ‘person’ in the agency signifier of the term, but rather an ‘idea’, or in other words, an abstraction. Let me put it like this, paraphrasing Bateson’s example (which refers to lions instead): if you happen to be sitting on a train and notice a dark complexioned man wearing a long beard and a Muslim cap sitting near you, and if his cumbersomely large rucksack makes you feel uneasy, it is a logically incorrect mistake to say that you fear the ‘Muslim.’
Indeed, there are no ‘Muslims’ or even ‘Christians’, ‘trains’ or ‘rucksacks’ present within your mind (i.e. brain). Instead, there are only mental representations of the above nouns alongside millions of others. Bateson refers to these representations as a ‘difference that makes a difference’ (i.e. a bit of information), or more simply, an idea. In other words, you have an ‘idea’ of the ‘Muslim’ seated on the train, or even possibly of all ‘Muslims’ as a category. It is clear, however, that it would be wrong to confuse your idea, your mental representation, with the reality of the Muslim person sitting near you.
A person’s mental representations are equivalent to a map representing a territory; but as Alfred Korzybski loved to remind us, ‘the map is not the territory’ (1958: 58). Furthermore, in the case of Muslims, the map is often shaped by illusion and abstraction – namely, that something called Islam may exist in itself. Of course, this is not the case.
You will never meet something called ‘Islam’ on the street or in the queue at the Post Office. Moreover, there is no person who can claim to know what ‘Islam wants’ because Islam is, in human terms, an ‘idea’, a bit of information, a difference that makes a difference.
There exist only ‘ideas’ about Islam, and these ideas can only be debated and discussed by people, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
Muslims are human beings. As all other human beings, they too think and act upon their thoughts that derive from various interpretations and contexts. Indeed, even when opinions and ideas appear similar, an attentive observer will discover that no two Muslims have identical ideas about Islam. Although the fact that a person, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, can only learn about Islam from another person and so forth, this process of learning does not occur within a vacuum. Instead, it happens within complex internal (mental and neurocognitive) and external (social and natural environment) contexts.
Back to the so-called ‘veil’, burka, hijab and women. It is clear that the reason for wearing one has multiple motives, both internal and external. Each case is different and personal and to try to discuss an ‘epistemology’ of ‘veil’ is not only a useless exercise but also an objectifying one. The danger is particularly high in anthropology and sociology, since these disciplines have a methodological tendency to deny individuality. I cannot other than agree with Rapport:
[there is a] social-scientific tendency to regard the individual actor as put upon rather than ‘putting on’. I find much here in the critique of displacement which accords with social-scientific analysis of individual behaviour in social-cultural millieux per se: ‘because’ motives are widely inferred while ‘in order to’ motives barely figure. Questions such as how individuals deal with life, how they make meaning in the midst of everyday life and change, suffering and good fortune, become questions largely of social determination. (2003: 52)
Indeed, the reality of everyday life is more complex – as is dealing with emotions, memories, dynamics of interaction and communication, so that, as Milton has observed,
First, the individual is the only entity in human society capable of experiencing emotions and having feelings, the only seat of consciousness, and therefore the only entity capable of learning. So, if we are interested in how human beings come to understand the world around them, we have to focus first on individuals, because societies and cultures as whole entities do not learn—individuals do.
Second, the individual is the only entity sufficiently discrete to have an environment […] I suggest that entities like ‘society’, ‘culture’ and ‘population’ are too abstract to be surrounded by anything with which a substantive relationship is possible. (Milton 2007: 71)
To reduce the individual to society is a misleading analytical approach, but to reduce the individual to his or her material culture and (stereotyped) religious beliefs is not only intellectually dishonest but also extremely dangerous. An example of the dangers of this approach can be observed in the objectification of Jews that occurred in Nazi Germany, and the Final Solution planned for the Jewish culture, and consequently the entire Jewish population, as the ‘Jew’ was believed to be merely an expression of Judaism.
Certainly today we can find some social scientists who fully embrace the fallacy of considering Muslims to be the product of a religion and material culture. An illustration of this can be found in much of the work of, for example, Dr Marie Macey (I will discuss her work in another post, but read this chapter to have an idea).
Sometimes, however, such–intellectual and analytical–fallacies can produce laughable results. Look at this academic article entitled, ‘Is ethnicity and religion an aetiological factor in men with rapid ejaculation?’
If you cannot access it (or if you are not linked to a university account), allow me summarise the ‘scientific’ research: the study analysed which group, on the basis of the religion they professed, has higher incidences of reported rapid ejaculation among Muslims, Christians and Others (there is ever an ‘Other’!). The study showed that Muslims, particularly those from Bangladesh, suffer the most from this unpleasant sexual disfunction, while Christians (all of them?) seemed to perform better in prolonging their bedroom antics.
However, if anyone now thinks that this may be a good argument to convert, say, Muslims in Afghanistan – think twice, since the same study tells us that Christians suffer more from erectile disfunction!
I think that this last example can clearly highlight what happens when we truly believe that ‘religion’ can ‘cause’ events and have effects on the behaviour of humans (or even their physiological functions!).
I hope that many scholars, and in particular doctoral students, will take seriously the weakness of a culturalist approach to religion, and consider the consequences of acting and making policies that draw upon such a false way of understanding Muslims, or any other religion.
Otherwise, one day we may wake up to discover Viagra vending machines in churches.