Understanding Muslim identity, rethinking fundamentalism

The other day over lunch with David Hirsh I brought up a recent debate about the relationship between ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’. I asked what seemed to me an important question “Is it inevitable that to be Islamophobic is to be bigoted against Muslims?”  Hopefully you get the thrust of my question. In the same vein I could have asked whether it is inevitably antisemitic to be Judeophobic. The question was about whether it is bigoted to fear a given religion.

To which David replied “Yes, because all religions can be filled with different content”.

This unfixed nature of religion is evident in the enormous diversity of religious denominations, not only in the here-and-now but also over time. Islamophobia is a reaction to what Islamophobes insist is the correct reading of a holy text; they are irrational, singular – and therefore false – views of a religion. The irony of Islamophobes and anti-Muslim bigots is that they feel the same way about Islam as the extremists they fear.

But this won’t convince anybody who has a fear, let alone a phobia. I know such a person – he joined the BNP’s  embryonic coalition of different nationalists against Muslims. He considers me naive and, moreover, badly wrong. You have to know your onions to argue with people like him.

What might be helpful would be to look at Gabriele Maranci’s new book – Understanding Muslim Identity, Rethinking Fundamentalism, the introduction and index to which are freely available. His is a distinctly anthropological exploration of social identity and emotional fundamentalism:

By rejecting culturalist and essentialist reductionist approaches to it, I have suggested that we need to understand ‘fundamentalism’ not as a ‘thing’ (i.e. cultural object) but as a ‘process’, and start from the individual before looking at the group. Of course, it is only the reader whom can decide whether a book may be interesting or not, but I am sure that Understanding Muslim Identity Rethinking Fundamentalism provides something new to the scholarly debate on radicalism and religious violence. Indeed, although I focus on Muslims, the argument presented in this book is not limited to them, and the theory on which it is based may be tested on other forms of ‘emotional religions’ or even ‘emotional secularism’.”

This strikes me as a good approach to arguing with people who subscribe to the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory.

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