Religious Literacy and Understanding, For Our Own Sake

You can’t really form productive relationships with many every day folk in the U.S. (nor Mexico, South America and Africa) if you’re completely ignorant of Christianity, and, increasingly, its more charismatic groups, which are seeing explosive growth. Unless you can *get* where people are “coming from,” you won’t understand them, and the spiritual is a huge part of that. The spiritual will always become more a focus when material things fail, and they are failing on a massive scale unseen since the ’30s.

As the U.S. falls, others prosper. You can’t understand what is going on in China right now (their return to their once-familiar role as #1 global superpower) if you have no clue what Confucianism is, and the role it is playing in Chinese policy and politics.

You can’t understand how cultures across the globe are responding to the rapid changes happening, a revolution in technology and society and the economy unprecedented since the Industrial Revolution, without religious literacy.

The Islamic world and the dizzying variety of cultures within it (peoples from North Africa to the Arabian peninsula to the Indian subcontinent to China and Indonesia, each very different from the rest) are in transition too, and you can’t hope to understand what is emerging without educating yourself about Islam, its beauty and its diversity and its role in people’s lives.

a rudimentary map of the countries with significant Muslim populations
a rudimentary map of the countries with significant Muslim populations. This is what I mean by "the Islamic world."
photo by Saif Dahlah/AFP via Getty Images
PHOTO CREDIT: Saif Dahlah/AFP via Getty Images. Click the picture to go to the source, the NYT Lens blog's Pictures of the Day, August 20, 2010

Can anyone look at this photo of this Muslim girl praying to the ONE GOD, and not grasp in some way how beautiful Islam can be? There is no reason to think this girl is part of radicalism or terrorism. Only those who have closed their minds, part of the “Angry White Male” anti-tolerance, fearful, anti-intellectual fervor that’s re-emerging in force in America, would post negative comments about this beautiful photo. During times of economic anxiety, rejection of the foreign and retreat to the familiar is easy, and it spreads.

When I see deep religious ignorance, like foaming opposition to an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan because so many people can’t distinguish between the peaceful Sufis behind the Park51 project and the radical Wahabbis who support terrorism, I know we need to refocus on religious literacy and understanding.
We’ve got right-wing protesters waving signs based on fear and ignorance about Islam and rich liberals who are just as clueless about Islam as they are about Christianity; the woman that cleans their house more likely to know what Pentecostalism is than her “educated” bosses. And then there are countless hipsters and hippies with their “all religions are the same, different paths up the same mountain” crap, which ignores very meaningful differences and conflicts, and makes real religious literacy harder. All this should change.

Learn! Sufis are known for the whirling dervishes, not terror. To my knowledge, there’s never been a Sufi terrorist! It’s the splinter groups, usually radical elements of the Wahhabbi sect that want war with the West.

Wahhabism is the ultra-conservative revivalist brand of Islam that sprung up in the 18th century, rejecting traditional Sunni scholars and interpretation in favor of a new, extreme, purist form of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism brings us radical interpretations of Jihad, a focus on destruction of infidels, everybody but them seen as infidels, etc., ideas which were not widespread within Islam prior to Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab starting the Wahabbi movement, which has provided the foundation for radicalism (though it’s important to note that radical interpretations can be–and are–challenged on a textual basis, even within the movement). The radical splinter side of Wahhabism is the ideology of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, the Taliban, Hamas. Regular Wahabbism is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia (in fact, Wahabbism is inseparable from Saudi history, from the first Saudi state (which came into being because of an alliance with al-Wahhab) onward… Note: today, most in this movement prefer the term Salafi/Salafism. The spread of radical Wahabbism hijacking Islam, a great and beautiful Abrahamic faith (some parts of the Koran are downright pacifist!), and how oil wealth has funded radical madrassahs that have caused problems from Yemen to Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent, is a really serious problem and should not be minimized.

But, my point is, media so often paints ALL Islam as crazed Wahhabi radicals likes al-Qaida, when, in reality, Islam reflects the incredible diversity of 1.5 BILLION people (read here about the many divisions in Islam). Americans can understand the nuanced and many differences within Christianity: Protestants and Catholics, Mormons and Baptists and Episcopalians, but most of us don’t understand the difference between Sunni Wahabbis and Sufis, or between Sunni Wahabbis and Shias.
Historians can easily argue that Wahhabism formed as a simpler, puritan alternative to the heavily mystical Sufism. Wahabbism is a fundamentalist response, like the “Restorationists” that sprung up from the “Second Great Awakening” in U.S. Christianity. Wahabbism is certainly (in style and content) in stark contrast to Sufism. A Wahabbi would look at the Sufi tradition of whirling dervishes and see pointlessness at best and heretical “innovation” at worst, because whirling like that isn’t in the Koran. Wahhabism rejects traditional scholars and leaders and hierarchy (akin to “the priesthood of all believers” in Protestant thought) because that may lead to “innovations” incongruous with their ultra-purist beliefs.
In diametric opposition, Shia Islam tends to emphasize scholarship, a hierarchy of Mullahs with a Grand Ayatollah (roughly analogous to the Pope) at the top, veneration of Saints, going to shrines, etc. Shia Islam is so different than Sunni, like Puritans vs. Catholics, it’s easy to understand why they’ve been in conflict for so many centuries. And Sufi mysticism is so different, you can see why Sufis are a persecuted minority in both the Sunni and Shia worlds (here is a spot-on op-ed about the precarious position of Sufis in today’s world: Muslims in the Middle). Islam isn’t a united force, and never was; it’s at war with itself in countless ways.
The diversity in Islam is real, and meaningful to understand anything going on in the world right now. But so often, media portrays Islam as one MONOLITHIC enemy. This is false, and pushes us to support stupid and disastrous decisions (like bombing and invading majority-Shia Iraq because we’re mad at al-Qaida, a Wahabbi Sunni splinter group).

Most worrying: the attitude I’m constantly hearing is ETERNAL WAR with all Islam, even super-peaceful Sufis. Too many blame ALL Islam for 9/11, somehow even Sufis are seen as connected to 9/11 even if they have been against Wahabbi interpretations of Islam since before America was founded; they can never escape! It really scares me when demagogues paint all 1.5 BILLION Muslims as enemies. Not only is that unjustified morally, it means more wars, it means we can forget our counterinsurgency strategy (which hinges on convincing Muslims we have no beef with their religion and winning hearts and minds), it means more hate; we’ll need to bring back the draft if we want war with over a billion people!

An economic and technological revolution is happening. The globalization train has left the station. Our success (hell, because of all our countless mistakes, OUR VERY SURVIVAL) as an independent nation-state will hinge on nation-building at home, which requires 1) unprecedented investment in infrastructure, education and R&D which requires 2) the absence of budget-crippling overseas conflicts which requires religious literacy and understanding and 3) welcoming the best and the brightest immigrants to our shores which requires religious literacy and understanding and 4) groundbreaking levels of diplomatic and economic cooperation with foreign powers, which requires religious literacy and understanding! 1-4 will determine whether America sinks or swims and each of these need a lack of cultural/religious animosity that keeps us divided and off-task, which, once again, requires religious literacy and understanding.

We have to have religious literacy and understanding to help us with the heavy lift ahead of us to rebuild our country. Religious literacy and understanding, FOR OUR OWN SAKE.

Every high school and college should be make mandatory reading Stephen Prothero‘s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t and
God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter
for a basic overview of the religions shaping our world. Or at least read some of the links in this post.

But, America needs more (much more) religious literacy and understanding. For our own sake.