Speaking Strategically About Religion

A large chess set outdoorsOver the last week, many have written about the labeling of ISIS as religious or not, as Islamic or not, both in response to last week’s summit on violent extremism and the recent Atlantic article on ISIS. Defending his administration’s refusal to label ISIS/ISIL as Islamic radicalism or extremism or a religious terrorist group, Obama asserted that he wanted to avoid connecting Islam with groups such as ISIS for strategic reasons, because he does not want to reinforce their self-descriptions that frame the conflict as religious and their ideology as true Islam. Rather than rehashing arguments about ISIS, the question that interests me is the role of strategic notions embedded in all discussions employing labels (really any words) to describe oneself or some other. In many respects, any description reflects particular moves in the chess game that is human society.

Some of Obama’s critics suggest that Obama is too fearful of identifying our true enemy. One critic of Obama’s nuanced language, Peter Bergen, argued that ISIS primarily draws on a “theological ideology” He writes,

ISIS may be a perversion of Islam, but Islamic it is, just as Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the unborn child explain why some Christian fundamentalists attack abortion clinics and doctors. But, of course, murderous Christian fundamentalists are not killing many thousands of civilians a year. More than 80% of the world’s terrorist attacks take place in five Muslim-majority countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria — and are largely carried out by groups with Islamist beliefs.

He selects his particular examples strategically, and his use of the category “terrorist” to distinguish particular forms of violence ignores how people apply that term to some groups more than others. (Which mass shootings in the US receive this label?) The approach of critics like Bergen assumes that groups, and particularly religions, have an inherent character or meaning. They call it like they see it, because their observations are reliable, and Bergen observes that ISIS is an “Islamist apocalyptic death cult.” This critique, though, is also strategic. Beyond the potential for some to oppose whatever Obama says for political reasons, some of these critiques promote particular policy perspectives, such as arguing that using the label Islamic and identifying this as a religious war is necessary strategically to defeat ISIS. The conflict between Obama and his critics is largely one over which strategy in identifying another is better.

Obama also employs the language of absolute observations and definitions when he deems it useful. Some other critics have pointed out how Obama’s efforts to deny that ISIS has “religious” components involves a strategic definition of religion that only includes those elements that our society generally appreciates. His assertion that ISIS does not represent “true Islam” lacks the nuance that he often employs, as if any religion only allows one interpretation. In fact, that assertion employs a similar approach to ISIS’s assertion that only their interpretation of the Qur’an is valid. When to rely on nuanced understandings and when to make broad generalizations is itself a strategic choice.

More importantly, beyond the effort of some like Bergen and Obama to use labels to promote particular policies, any effort to simply describe ISIS, or any group, employs labels that carry strategic baggage, even when the person using it is not deliberately strategic. The category “religion” derives largely from governmental efforts of control that separate religion and theology as distinct aspects of society from other elements. The labels that identify Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as religious systems that are distinct from each other also engage particular strategic choices (primarily within European history) that mark each group as distinct. This is not simply description. Movements that have distinct texts and philosophical positions that each movement traces back to one figure are named, in some contexts (most notably Buddhism), as a single religion and, in other contexts, as separate religions (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Thus, it is not simply a natural designation to label those who identify with the Qur’an as followers of a distinct religion from those who follow the Gospels or the Torah. The labels reflect strategic divisions of the world that have been naturalized and accepted by various groups.

Recognizing how our language and social groupings are constructed within society, all of our terms for ISIS (or any group) are strategically derived terms, whether we are aware of it or not. Perhaps the first move we should be making is to recognize that strategic history. We are always involved in a larger chess game, even when assume that we are presenting a simple description of the world around us.


Photo credit: Large chess set.jpb by EurovisionNim (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

3 Replies to “Speaking Strategically About Religion”

  1. While I agree with the sentiment of this post, as someone who works on religious identities there is a markedly missing perspective here. What about the fact that ISIS identifies as Islamic and as the “true Islam”? It seems that by trying to downplay markers given by “us” to “them” we also neglect the importance of the markers given by “them” to “themselves”. I agree with something I read earlier (I believe it was McCutcheon) who was basically saying that attributing identity does come with baggage. However, we also can’t deny the baggage that is being imposed by the subject either.
    Why not take a more holistic and *causal* approach to trying to identify some sort of problem by its cause, not by the banners flown by its perpetrators? It reminds me of a paper that has stuck with me ever since I read it:

  2. Thanks for highlighting the other side of the identification process. Self-identification by ISIS, or any other group, is likewise strategic in its use of labels. As you imply, assuming that their claim to represent “true Islam” simply describes their sincere convictions ignores how any entity can have a variety of interests in how it self-identifies and identifies others. That is why I have argued previously for acknowledging whose application of a label we restate rather than simply declaring groups and objects by a label uncritically. In other words, ISIS self-identifies as following “true Islam,” some see them as following radical Islam or a perversion of Islam, and some, like Obama, label ISIS as terrorist and not representing religion.

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