Why have I latched onto the discussion of Islamic conservatism, terrorism, and human rights abuses in the Muslim world, coming to closely follow writers from Sam Harris to Aki Muthali? More to the point, why do I harp on Islam? Even if we can agree that it's a serious issue that needs attention, certainly, there are so many other issues that do, too?
Why not climate change, or gun control, income inequality, or systemic racism in America? Why not any issue specific to America, over something that's really more of an issue on the other side of the world? While I do touch on all these other problems, I can't deny that my fixation on Islam seems questionably disproportionate. I think it's partly an issue of scale, and awareness of global proportions over ethnocentrism, as well as having some perspective on differing degrees of severity, but I'm not so sure these are quite the sparks that motivate me.
I think about what draws me to a writer like Sam Harris in particular, and the similarities of his own disproportionate focus. He didn't start out picking on Islam, and has even said that he'd really like to get away from doing so. Like myself, his background has more to do with philosophy and world religions, from ideologies, to studying meditation, to appreciating the spiritually uplifting quality of music and ritual. We both come from a background of thinking that these things matter. That these things actually matter a whole lot.
Would anyone say that Buddhism is all about what you bring to it? That bodhicitta can be all about peace, or all about violence, depending on the practitioner? That The Four Noble Truths are just tabula rasa for whatever we want to make of it?
No, it's only ignorance of these concepts that might make it appear that way. Maybe if you think religion is all about colored robes, funny hats, candles and incense, and all manner of words in other languages for family get-togethers. These cultural trappings of religion are of course part of it, and for many cultural adherents, the much larger part of it. From your average nominal Buddhist in Myanmar to their Islamic counterpart in Iraq. People just living their lives, following the traditions of the religion they grew up with. Not really the sort to do all that much navel gazing over it, one way or another.
That's fine, I don't mean that as any sort of critique. I just mean to say that's not the whole picture of what religion is about, and it is not the direction I'm coming from. When I delved into this stuff, it was very much a quest for ideas, new ideas, new ways of thinking about the world, and what I should consider important. Which religious concepts might hold some truth that I wouldn't find elsewhere.
I didn't read the Tao Te Ching, so that I could shape Lao Tzu's words to fit what I already believed. Concepts like anatta made no sense to me at first, and took quite a long time for me to really grasp. I was looking for ideas that would be new to me, that would help me make sense of this life. I was looking to build on my personal ideology, not just embellish it with culturally appropriated bells and whistles.
So yeah, I'm not too keen on this idea, espoused by the likes of Reza Aslan, that religious teachings hold no meaning of their own, that they're just ideological clay to be shaped by the practitioner. That is incredibly antithetical to my own experience- and I know, antithetical to the experience of many others. Some people adjust the concept of their religion, to fit what they want to believe. Others look to religion, to help them figure out what to believe. I don't know how anyone can seriously deny this.
We often read these works to figure out how they might have been originally intended, with the idea that they might hold wisdom of utmost importance. How our lives might be shaped by this reading can be so very different, depending on whether we're talking about Leviticus, or the Dhammapada. I've read a whole lot of this stuff over the years, and I guess that's why I find the idea that 1.6 billion people might approach reading the Qur'an similarly.. to be gravely concerning.
At least some of them are all too understandably going to come away with the belief that groups like Boko Haram and ISIS are absolutely right. My focus on Islam really comes back to my appreciation of religious significance in general. In this context, a context that has pervaded most of my life, Islam does appear to be uniquely and exceptionally harmful.
"The motherload of bad ideas," if you will. As is most religion, really, but those ideas are especially dangerous, when we're talking about an Abrahamic religion, prior to any sort of broad reform movement. In time, I'd even go so far as to say that I've come to feel more akin to Muslim atheists, than religious Jews. We've gone through our respective nonsense, to see it for what it really is. That's how important ideology is to me, and there is only one ideology I see wreaking the sort of global havoc and misery that Islam does.
I'm sorry if that hurts feelings, but those hurt feelings don't rub me the wrong way, quite like the sort of hardcore human rights abuses that are rampant to the Islamic world. That shit needs to be dealt with, and I find it far more pressing than whatever asinine thing Donald Trump's been saying lately.