Misplaced Agency

Misplaced agencyThe assumptions within the assertions of identification in the Reza Aslan/Fox News interview have received some attention this week, including Craig Martin’s “Identity Claims Play out on Fox” and Russell McCutcheon‘s “Are You Buying It?” both on this blog. A different comment from Aslan, though, grabbed my attention (unfortunately not for its uniqueness). In addition to emphasizing his academic credentials to defend his study of the historical Jesus, published as Zealot, he argues that his identification as Muslim is irrelevant because his book “overturns pretty much everything that Islam also thinks about Jesus.” Since his work is not trying to promote Islamic orthodoxy, it seems that his religious identification is irrelevant.

Asserting that Islam, or any religion, thinks, claims, or teaches something is problematic in two ways. The Qur’an, along with a long history of commentary, includes references to a figure named Isa (in common transliterations of Arabic), whom most readers generally agree is the same figure that English speaking Christians identify as Jesus. Aslan’s assertion, though, implies a uniformity of thought, an essential conception of Isa among Muslims, that ignores the variety among those who identify as Muslim. Beyond that oversimplification, Aslan ascribes agency to “Islam” in a manner that cloaks the human actors who explain what the Qur’an and the history of textual interpreters identified with Islam mean. So, not only is the breadth of interpretations among those who identify as Muslims essentialized into apparently one set of ideas (which Aslan claims to overturn), but also Aslan attributes that essentialized conception to something named “Islam,” which appears to exist beyond human action. Aslan, thus, dehistoricizes those conceptions and legitimizes particular interpreters as describing “Islam” rather than asserting their own interpretations.

Even if Aslan’s remarks in this interview do not reflect his most precise linguistic constructions, as he might not have expected the interview to turn in the way it did, such assertions are not unusual in public or academic discourse. Granting agency to a religion becomes a shorthand way of explaining to students in undergraduate survey courses or media consumers what a scholar identifies as a dominant assertion of a portion of those who identify with a particular religion. Such assertions dismiss the contested interpretations, marginalizing those who disagree as outside the bounds of that religion. Scholars, at least, need to shift our standard language to be more precise about who interprets and selects.

4 Replies to “Misplaced Agency”

  1. The problem remains that this anti-essentialist position is also a position, and for that matter a kind of substitute essentialism of its own. It will be and can rightly be taken as adversarial and hypocritical, if not absurd, from the perspective of a believer.

    1. I absolutely agree on two points. Any position is a position, and someone who identifies as a believer may find my assertion that a religion cannot teach/speak absurd. My approach is to analyze the rhetorical techniques that participants use. Declaring that Islam teaches something, or any religion for that matter, is an attempt (often presumably sincere) to make one interpretation authoritative. If one is not a believer in a particular religion, which assertion do you accept as authoritative? Does Buddhism require vegetarianism, or does Buddhism allow the consumption of animal flesh, as just one example? Of course, these interpretations can be more or less convincing, depending on which texts a person chooses to emphasize (and often which opinion a person takes as a starting point). In the Aslan/Fox News interview, Aslan’s rhetorical move is even more interesting, asserting that he is a Muslim who is “overturning what Islam also teaches” serves his purposes in that context to authorize his interpretation as an objective scholar rather than a believer. Such rhetorical moves are what i find particularly interesting.

  2. Misplaced Criticism
    I agree that rampant oversimplification; ascribing agency to religions is a dangerous pitfall that too many writers/scholars/pundits fall into. Often the oversimplification is deliberate and polemical rhetoric; playing into our ugly political polarities by obscuring our understanding of the diversity of whatever the subject is at hand (Islam in this case) but this article does not go beyond chiding Aslan’s choice of words based solely on the text of this particular interview. Outside of this article, Aslan himself has argued the essence of your point in another unrelated NY Times article here: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/10/04/is-islam-an-obstacle-to-democracy/democracy-may-be-rejected-by-religions-but-not-by-believers

    It is true that Islam or any religion itself does not really “say” anything, it is also true that there are dominant assertions that for the purposes of his conversation were simplified, but how relevant would the fringes of Islamic thought on Jesus be in his conversation with Lauren Green here? Would this article exist if he had said “mainstream Islam” instead? How inaccurate was his choice of words here for that matter? Did his oversimplification in this case, heinously marginalize other Muslim perspectives on Jesus? Some examples would make for a better article… even if Aslan himself would probably not disagree with you in principle.

    1. Thanks for pointing out Aslan’s NYTimes article from last year. Aslan says there, “Religions do not exist outside of our interpretations of them.” I am not surprised that he recognizes this point. My critique, though, becomes even more pertinent. When scholars employ “dominant assertions,” as you phrase it, especially in the context of a popular discussion, we reinforce notions that religions are singular unchanging entities that Aslan, you and I all seem to reject. My intent in chiding Aslan is not to attack him but to point out how all of us (myself included) too often employ language that undermines the contextualized, careful assertions that we generally find more accurate.

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