I helped my Muslim friends break the Ramadan fast at the home of Abdel, an Indian scholar of classical Islam who works at the Great Mosque in Rome to facilitate interfaith dialogue and to ameliorate Islamophobia. Every time he hears someone insult his religion out of ignorance, he will stop and make friends with them, ask them how they developed their opinion, and offer his devout Muslim life as a counterpoint. He will share his stories and teach them. He is a courageous man.
The guests at the Eid were diverse–between eight of us we had five countries and three religions. One of the guests, a young man from Lebanon, had been living in Rome for two years and attended the American John Cabot University, where most of his friends were Italian Jews. He repeated this to me several times, perhaps because I am Jewish, as a sort of bridge.
The dinner was lively, and we feasted on couscous mixed with pomegranate seeds and tomatoes, on ravioli and eggplant parmigiana, on tabouli and vegetable soup. We discussed the hijab, hand gestures across cultures, Sicilian hospitality, and culturally accepted platonic physical intimacy between males in Arab societies. We discussed internal variations in religions and how sometimes smaller differences are more threatening than larger, more evident differences. I referred to intra-religious strife–Reform and Orthodox Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Sunni and Shia Muslims.
The young Lebanese man turned to me.
He said: “There is no such thing as a Shia Muslim.”
I asked him to continue.
“I grew up in Beirut with a group of friends and we did everything together. We were the same, Shia, Sunni, Muslim in any case. Until one day when we were teenagers. Their Shia leader told them I was against everything they stood for, and they had to shoot me.” With a forced smile the young man spoke of how his friends shot at him in the name of Shia Islam. “But they were not real Muslims,” he said. They were just nationalists, he said, supporting Iran blindly, immorally, following politicized decrees. He insisted, Shia Islam is not Islam and his friends proved it–because Islam would never condone his death. It had to be politics.
I responded first with sympathy. For childhood friends to turn on you in murderous, brainwashed vengeance!–it is an unfathomable betrayal. It would make anybody cynical; it would disillusion anyone from a stance that religions teach peace and fellowship. It would inevitably make a person self-protective, and behoove them to construct a narrative about the political coercion of erstwhile friends and what had converted them to enemies. For this young man, the detectable difference was the Sunni-Shia split, and his natural conclusion was that he and his foes did not follow the same religion. In his pained persistence, this young man seemed to seek consensus for his conviction that Shia are not Muslims. I tried to diffuse his pain with sympathy, listening to his story, hoping pain could be soothed by a listening ear and a humane presence.
Still, I had to say something else to him.
I had to tell him I did not think his was a story about Sunni and Shia Islam and which of them is true religion. Rather it was a story of human nature.
Naturally we want to believe that religion is good and beautiful, and that, if religions are true and correct, they offer healing and brotherhood. But we humans can also be selfish, frightened, desperate for approval, and easily enchanted by a charismatic leader with toxic rhetoric about purity and duty. Religion, especially in areas where people are religious, bears a lot of social capital; thus any individual or group who identify themselves with a religion, and figure out how to express their values and aims with religious language and imagery, can legitimate themselves greatly. The Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan did it with Christianity, though I imagine most Christians would deny that these groups were acting out true Christian values.
One litmus test for the truth of a religion might be the presence of a constructive, life-affirming moral framework and a response to human suffering–“by their fruits shall ye know them” (Matthew 7:16). And yet, religious legitimacy is not so clean cut. That is partially because what is “constructive and life-affirming” to one audience may seem the opposite to another. Christian identity cannot be delineated with a question as to whether one accepts Jesus Christ as their savior, because that can mean many things. Both Sunni and Shia Muslims follow the Five Pillars of Islam and perform rites thought to be clear identity markers. Even more tightly-bounded monotheisms like Judaism go grey at the boundaries where secular humanist Jewish groups gather, or when a Conservative Jewish rabbinical court makes a change in community law as to the inclusion of women and eventually LGB people to the rabbinate (T is not yet admitted).
Religious identity isn’t wholly a matter of agency but it also isn’t wholly a matter of community consent or religious authority. Even less decisively can the matter be settled by the judgment of an external party. Especially, in my opinion, when questioning the religious legitimacy of a community that is 14 centuries old–and especially when judgment against this ancient community comes from such a young heart, still smarting from betrayal and confusion.
“By their fruits shall ye know them.” There is something to that. Some say religion is the realm of values, ideals, sacred mystery, the moral–connotatively the realm of creative, life-promoting claims and behaviors. Can it equally be the realm of ideals of separatism, exclusivism, self-promotion, social Darwinism, and ethnic cleansing? Arguably these latter concepts reflect “ideals” that can be expressed in a rationally coherent and even inspiring manner. But they seem a little “off,” don’t they?
Yet, if religion is also considered to be the realm of culturally constructed identities, language, law, discipline, power dynamics, property ownership, and doctrinal boundary maintenance, a group espousing any moral framework can call themselves religious. They can co-opt religious language and be part of a given religion. This is Bruce Lincoln’s argument for the legitimate Muslim-ness of the 9/11 bombers: they engaged Muslim discourse, ritual, community, and institutional relevance. And yet many imams said they were not Muslim. Just as some Boston imams said they would not administer Muslim last rites to the 2013 Marathon Bombers because these boys were not Muslim.
Who is in, who is out?
What is, what isn’t a religion?
Is religious identity about language and identity claims? Or is it about some specific and “positive” moral content? These approaches to religion have very different consequences for the boundaries of religious communities.
My young Lebanese dinner partner applied a moral yardstick to judge religious legitimacy when he said that Shia Muslims are merely Iranian nationalist and not Followers of Islam.
What I heard at our Eid dinner table, more than a coherent moral argument, was the sadness of a young boy far from home, recounting the earliest of perhaps a series of losses. I heard him making sense of tragedy with religion, which is what many people do with religion. It is perhaps what religion is for. Whether his friends were making sense of their world with true religion, or bad religion, or non-religion is not something I can say. Perhaps it is not something that can be definitively said. But in any case, I am glad that they did not shoot him.