Matthew Kaemingk: Welcome to Zealots at the Gate, a podcast of Comment magazine. I’m Matthew Kaemingk.
Shadi Hamid: I’m Shadi Hamid.
Matthew Kaemingk: Together we research politics, religion, and the future of democracy at Fuller Seminary’s Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life.
Shadi Hamid: We are writing a book together. This podcast represents an informal space where we can talk about how to live with deep difference. Thanks so much for joining us.
Matthew Kaemingk: Welcome to Zealots at the Gate. Friends, make sure that you subscribe wherever you listen. Please leave us a review. Honestly, you can write whatever you want in the review as long as you leave us five stars. We really appreciate five stars. Feel free to join the conversation. Ask us any questions. You can do that on Twitter, and you just use the hashtag #ZealotsPod. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can expect a friendly exchange with us there. But yeah, so let’s get started.
By way of introduction, I’m Matt. I’m Christian; Shadi’s Muslim. I’m more conservative; Shadi’s more politically liberal. I’m white; he’s brown. I’m a theologian; he’s a political scientist. I’m from the rural Northwest, and he’s from the urban Northeast. And so our identity markers indicate that we shouldn’t be friends, that we shouldn’t get along, that honestly we shouldn’t be talking with one another, Shadi, and yet we are. And this really is an opportunity to explore those differences without fear but with some level of curiosity.
And so today, Shadi, we are talking about religion and politics as always and a particular book that makes a rather big claim. And so, yeah, maybe I should turn it over to you, Shadi, and maybe you can talk just a little bit about this particular book and why we’re tackling it.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. The book is titled The Myth of Religious Violence. It’s by William Cavanaugh, who’s a Christian theologian. And putting the book aside—I mean, if you guys want to read it, feel free; it’s incredible—but we’ll try to capture some of the main points and then discuss and debate some of the related issues. And I think for me the fundamental question is this: Is religion a separate category? And here I should put “religion” in scare quotes. I mean, we use this word all the time, but we don’t really know where it comes from. We don’t know when it started to really exist as a separate category. And what I love about Cavanaugh’s argument is it’s a rather bold one. He argues that the concept of religion is quite literally a modern invention, that it did not exist before, at least not in the way that we understand it today.
Just to offer a couple notes that I found fascinating, he goes through some of the medieval history of the Latin word religio and how that wasn’t really even something that was discussed all that much. And he quotes another scholar, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who says this: “Throughout the whole of the Middle Ages, no one, so far as I have been able to ascertain, ever wrote a book specifically on religion.” Just think about that for a second. Okay. And then the first English definition of religion comes at around 1200 AD. And the definition is “a state of life bound by monastic vows,” which is a quite different definition than the one we might use today.
So all of this suggests that there is a complex history, and that allows us as moderns . . . Because we just assume that these are separate categories: we have religion on one hand and politics on the other. But maybe we should complicate that conception and challenge that idea that these are discrete categories that can be distinguished and that they’re almost in a way self-contained. And one way to think about it, and I think this is a way that a lot of us secular liberal types in the US just automatically talk about it—the realm of politics is the realm of rationality, order, education, knowledge. And then you have the realm of religion, which is irrational, which is about passion, feeling, spirituality, mysticism, otherworldliness, supernatural things, and it’s the interior. So we have religion as the interior and then politics as the exterior. That just lays out some of the ideas here. Matt, is there anything that stands out to you?
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, so I mean, just this very idea that there are some people walking around the world who are “religious” and then there are some people who are “secular.” And religious people and secular people are fundamentally different. It’s almost like they’re two different species. And Cavanaugh’s arguing that this whole idea that there’s two different kinds of people is a modern invention, that essentially secular people are by their nature rational, democratic, educated, peaceful, and religious people are irrational, violent. And it is actually a power play. Whenever you define someone as religious, there’s actually a power play going on whereby once I define you as religious, I define you as someone who needs to be tamed, someone who needs to be ruled, someone who needs to be pacified and integrated into secular society. And so it is used, Cavanaugh argues, as a way to justify secular liberal dominance over the state, that secular liberals are the only ones who can truly be trusted with state power because they have transcended religious superstition. They are capable of a level of peaceful democratic tolerance that those who are termed “religious” are not capable of.
So an important part of Cavanaugh’s argument is that whenever we use the word “religion,” there is a power dynamic going on about who is labelled religious and who is labelled secular and rational, because once you create that definition, then you’ve decided who gets to rule and who will be ruled according to this narrative. And it all starts with this story. And maybe I’ll turn it over to you, Shadi, because you grew up within political science. So you’ve heard this story many times about the wars of religion. Can you explain it in your own world of political science and political theory: how is this story of the wars of religion told, and what are the consequences of that, I guess?
Shadi Hamid: So the wars of religion are seen, first of all, as something that is part of a different era, not just in terms of time, but in terms of mentality—that this was a period in human history where people could actually kill each other in very large numbers around what might otherwise seem to be fairly minor doctrinal differences. So oftentimes it was Christians fighting Christians. So within the faith, intra-Christian divides. And then the modern mind might look at that and say, “Oh, look at what religion is causing.” And so there’s a causal argument that is often made that we see violence—ostensibly these are wars over religion or so it seems to be—therefore religion causes violence. And it’s worth questioning that causal relationship which assumes a lot of things, because if the category of religion didn’t previously exist, then the people who were fighting, they weren’t actually thinking to themselves, “Oh, I am religious, therefore I am fighting.” We’re sort of superimposing in retrospect that modern distinction and saying this is what happened many centuries ago. And that’s just a weird way to think about history and to understand history, I think.
In Cavanaugh’s book, there’s another example that’s raised, where, when we look at violence in ancient Rome, was it Roman politics that caused the violence or was it Roman religion? And we don’t know for sure because those weren’t two separate categories. They were all intertwined in very complex ways. And you can’t have the category of the sacred without having a category called the secular. One depends on the other. But in the premodern period, religion imbued everything. It was there. It wasn’t questioned. There was no secular or liberal alternative, because secularism and liberalism hadn’t actually existed yet. So without the thing to contrast against, religion couldn’t be its own category.
So that’s worth, I think, really digesting because I think so much of ideology and politics is about a contrast. We only come to know ourselves through what we are not. Ideologies only become ideologies in contrast to an opposing ideology. And we talk a little bit—
Matthew Kaemingk: We need an enemy. We need an enemy over which to define ourselves, right?
Shadi Hamid: And I should say, Matt, I’ve gotten this wrong, or maybe not wrong, but I think that I’ve fallen into this simplistic categorization myself in the past, and you’ve called me out on it. Because I think a couple of years ago, and you might have to remind me about the details, I think that I referred to you as very religious and you kind took slight offense to that, and you’re like, “Shadi, um . . .” Because I still have a tendency to think, well, okay, someone who is practicing, who is strict in their practice and in their observance of ritual, we would call that person, oh, he’s a religious dude or whatever. So challenge me on that.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. So it’s not so much that I took offense to it, but there’s a complexity to what we mean by this. And this is what Cavanaugh is exploring. Really, the modern term “religion” doesn’t really mean very much. Whenever these scholars of religious violence, whenever they try to define religion, they have a very hard time distinguishing “religious” motivations from “secular” ones. So what is the difference between the ways in which Islam and Christianity have motivated people towards violence from say the way in which Naziism motivated people towards violence, or communism? It’s very difficult for these scholars to make a distinction between “secular wars” and “religious wars” because Naziism held something very, very sacred. It had rituals; it had symbols; it had practices for drawing people into Naziism, training the youth up into it. Communism, similarly, they have their own little Sunday schools of training little young communists. People die for things that they hold sacred. And these distinctions between “religious” and “secular” violence fall apart once you really start analyzing them. But back towards your calling me religious . . .
Shadi Hamid: Well, how would you self-identify . . .
Matthew Kaemingk: Well, I think—
Shadi Hamid: . . . in terms of your observance?
Matthew Kaemingk: I would say that, yes, my faith and trust is in Jesus, and I do my best to honour what he has done for me through my life. But I guess the thing I wanted to chat with you about at that moment was that all people are giving their lives to some things. Some people give their lives to a career. Some people give their lives to a sense of their family. In the Christian faith, we talk about faith in terms of trust, like a sense of reliance. I rely on Jesus, but I see lots of other people rely on their education, or they rely on their charisma, or they rely on a certain understanding of human flourishing.
And I find Cavanaugh’s argument just very, very helpful, that if you’re trying to create a line, it’s really difficult to draw a line between these different forms of reliance, these different forms of trust, things that you’re willing to make real sacrifices for. I just find it compelling that really it’s just a power move of saying there are religious people over there and they’re fundamentally different from me, rather than an understanding that we are all human. And part of being human is looking for things and people and forces to put your trust in, something to hold onto. And so whenever someone calls me religious, in my head I’m thinking, You think you’re different than me and you’re not. You are just like me in that you are looking for something to put your trust in, just like I am. But it’s going to take distinct forms, and some people put a lot more thought into the trust and some people don’t. But that’s kind of what’s going on in my head.
Shadi Hamid: And I think those people are also saying not just that you are different than them or they’re different than you. They’re also saying oftentimes that they’re better than you because you are one of those religious people. And especially now when being an evangelical is seen in unfortunately a pejorative light, there is almost this centring of evangelicals as a threat to the nation, that they are the ones who are holding us back, that they are the ones who are most disproportionately Republican or disproportionately Trump supporters, so on and so forth. So they almost have to be put in this box so people know what the threat is.
And then sometimes they’re almost securitized just the way . . . And this makes me think, so in talking about all of this, I’m reminded of the post-9/11 context, and it just so happens to be the case that I’m thinking more about the post-9/11 period for different things that I’m working on. And it is a little bit blurry because it really does feel like a different era. And we did allude to this in our last episode about Andrew Tate Gate, that people don’t pay as much attention to Muslims an Islam. And that’s really great that we’re no longer a focal point of attention.
Matthew Kaemingk: You guys aren’t the problem. Evangelicals are the problem now.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, in a way you’ve sort of taken our place, thank God. Well, so it’s great that that’s happened, but it is worth remembering what it was like not too long ago in the post-9/11 context where Muslims and Islam were very strategically used as an other. So we were the liberal West; we were the ones who were advanced and successful. And here was the Middle East that was causing all this trouble. It was a font of terrorism, political violence, and fanaticism. And there were a lot of complaints during that period around why haven’t Muslims gotten with the program and gone through their own reformation and then enlightenment that there is this story of progress. But Muslims somehow didn’t get the memo, and we gotta push them to be better. We gotta encourage them. And oftentimes this wasn’t racist or bigoted; it could often be well intentioned.
It’s like, we want to help Muslims get to where they should be, because we know as Westerners where they should be. And so there was always this debate, and I sometimes I can’t believe that this was such a big thing at the time, but there was this obsession with debating and deciding who was a moderate Muslim. And there were all these classifications that were used to distinguish between the good Muslims and the bad ones. And to be a good Muslim, you had to be moderate. But the problem was if you were too practicing or if you wore your Islam publicly and talked about it publicly, you were no longer moderate. You were put in this different category where all you were really doing was being practicing and observant, which shouldn’t be associated with fanaticism. Praying five times a day and fasting and talking about it publicly doesn’t mean you’re in the category of extremism.
And that was the kind of move that people made very quickly, that it was the secular Muslims who were the moderates. So all these different concepts were being collapsed into each other, and we didn’t have as much of a voice publicly in the American public discourse at that time. And that’s really changed, which is a really great development. But at the time there weren’t prominent Muslims who were on TV, not too many of them. There weren’t prominent Muslims in senior positions of government. We didn’t have Muslim congresspeople, and now we have three. So I mean, a lot has changed, but at that time there was just this obsession with putting Muslims in all of these different categories. And I think it’s worth thinking about how that is now being done to Catholic conservatives or evangelicals who are now elevated as a threat to American democracy.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, and I mean, the shorthand is you see the religious minority, the conservative religious minority, as a problem to be solved. And so then the discussion is, how do we solve these people? How do we integrate them into the liberal consensus so that they can be peaceful and productive members contributing to the Western project and getting with the program, as you said? And I want to share a little story here that literally just happened this last week, and I’m going to try to be vague about the organization because I don’t want to spill. So an evangelical organization that thinks about faith in politics is approached by a big funder, and the funder is a more left-wing organization that cares a lot about the future of democracy. And they’re under the impression that evangelicals are a danger to democracy, but maybe we should fund some efforts to make evangelicals more democratic for the sake of America.
Shadi Hamid: Wow.
Matthew Kaemingk: So the pressure and the conflict for this evangelical institution is, yeah, we care a lot about democracy and so we want to take your money, but we really don’t like the way you’re talking about us and we don’t want to be compromised. But really this secular liberal funder is speaking in such a patronizing way about evangelicals, as they are the problem to be solved if American democracy is going to survive, and so we need to make them more like us. And so right there a power play is being made about who is the problem and who is the solution. And I just witnessed it this week. I just witnessed it.
Shadi Hamid: Wow. I didn’t know that there were these efforts underway to make evangelicals more democratic, which reminds me, to use the Muslim comparison, the whole post-9/11 debate around Islam and democracy. Is Islam compatible with democracy? Are Muslims committed to democracy? And can they be committed, drawing on their own faith traditions? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe they have to update their faith tradition so they can converge more with these democratic ideals. And there’s also something weird about posing a question like “Is Islam compatible with democracy?” Islam is a rich, multifaceted religion with 1.6 billion people. Democracy is a procedural system of government. Are these things really comparable? And yeah, I do think it’s incredible when you think about it.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. So really the problem here, as I see it, Shadi, is it’s a very simplistic story about history—that essentially we used to be religious and we used to be violent, and now we know better and we have outgrown our superstitious violent selves. And any form of force that we use today is just necessary in order to pacify those who have not yet been enlightened. And it’s the simplicity of the story. It’s the binary of them and us, that they are the problem and that we are the solution, rather than understanding that the issue is, first of all, much more complex—violence is not simply an issue of religion versus secularity, whatever that means—but also that we are all fundamentally human. And in being human, we are capable of violence, and we are capable of killing each other for a wide variety of reasons. And a simplistic dividing of humanity between the religious and the secular doesn’t actually help us understand what’s really going on beneath these violent movements.
Shadi Hamid: And it’s also just worth noting, to be basic about it, the most violent century in human history was the twentieth century. Is it a coincidence that that was the most secular century up until that point? You know, it’s probably not a coincidence. It just goes to show that the major wars, whether Nazis were driving them or communist parties and so forth, these were very much not traditionally religious or Christian or Muslim groups or communities or doctrines, yet we did see an outbreak of unprecedented violence. So obviously that’s a little bit simplistic just to drive the point across, but I think that it does undermine the very basic story that a lot of us here and are taught—that, oh, religion is something that we have to be concerned about because it can very easily turn violent when other ideologies don’t as easily turn violent.
And it’s also worth remembering that the US has been responsible for a lot of violence in the twentieth century as well, whether supporting right-wing dictatorships in Latin America, Asia, and Africa—wars that were justified by saying basically we were right, we were liberal, and this had to be done, as you were saying, Matt. And obviously the Iraq War is an example where some of this language was used, that this is a war for liberal, enlightened civilization against the forces of darkness. So clearly liberals are—
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. If we interrogate communist violence in the twentieth century, which is very clearly atheistic, if you examine the violence of Soviet Russia and of Mao’s China, do they strike you as rational and thoughtful forms of violence that are in any way unique from “religious” forms of violence? The level of brutality of Stalin and Mao, does that feel religious to you or secular to you? It really does create a problematic way in which you define religion and religious violence if you analyze these “atheistic” or “secular” forms of imperial violence.
Shadi Hamid: And if we also see violence as a particular extension of irrationality, I suppose that can be questioned. But irrationality is part of the human experience. So with or without religion, humans are going to be motivated by obscure things that might not make sense to other people. This idea that if everyone became secular or atheistic, irrationality would disappear is, I would say, self-evidently absurd, because I personally know irrational atheist. They exist. And obviously we just mentioned example of communism. And this gets, I think, to an interesting question that I struggle with, and I’m not here to define the word “religion” or come up with some ultimate answer. Scholars of religion have been debating this for decades, especially with the rise of new modern ideologies that complicate the conversation, because in some ways Marxism resembles religion in that there is a founding creed, there is a founding prophet, there are texts that practitioners and adherence have to read to become good, true communists. The one thing communism is lacking is a God, but in some ways the God of communism is the proletariat or the state that represents ostensibly the interests of the proletariat in the working class.
So are those religious impulses? And, of course, there’s a danger in drawing too close a connection to them because in some ways we’re saying that, oh, religion can be bad. And then by saying that communism can resemble religion, we’re folding them together in a pejorative way. So there is a risk of that. But just to say that just because there isn’t a God doesn’t mean that something isn’t religious. And it’s interesting to note that many Buddhist traditions don’t actually have a belief in a deity or deities, but generally scholars of religion will consider Buddhism to be a religion. So even—
Matthew Kaemingk: And we can name a number of examples of Buddhist brutality that are going on even right now in Southeast Asia. Buddhism in the West is often looked at as this very peaceful, chill thing.
Shadi Hamid: Exactly.
Matthew Kaemingk: One of the ideas that I wanted to bring up with you, Shadi, is Cavanaugh’s phrase “the migration of the holy.” What he argues is, with the wars of religion, when those came to a close and the nation-state in Europe took precedence . . . So before, you have the international Catholic Church as the holy, sacred thing in Europe, and then that is challenged in the Reformation and in the wars of religion, and the dominance of a Catholic Church is broken up in terms of how Europeans see the holy. And what Cavanaugh argues is that Europeans don’t stop thinking about the holy, but it migrates to the nation-state.
So before, it was very important to join the Catholic Church, to honour the Catholic Church, to be integrated into its community, and to recognize its authority. After the rise of the nation-state, to be a European is to submit to the European nation-state, to join the European nation-state, to be integrated into it, to serve it, and then ultimately to be willing to die for your nation-state, to be willing to die for the German nation or the French nation or the English nation. And so what he says is, it’s not that Europeans give up on holiness, but it transfers, it migrates.
So Europeans after the seventeenth century are still willing to die for something they regard as holy or sacred, but now they’re willing to die for a nation, for an imagined people. And this continues to today that we’re still willing to give ourselves for certain things, but it’s that the holy has migrated. And so he tells this story to challenge this belief that we as a human species have somehow fundamentally changed in the last five centuries. He’s saying, no, actually we’re still the same species in an important sense. And I’m just wondering when you read that section, what kind of thoughts came to you as you wrestle with these kinds of things?
Shadi Hamid: So if one believes in God, I think that leads to a certain set of conclusions about human nature. At least they do for me. So this idea that humans can progress beyond what they were before and change in this fundamental way, where, let’s say, war ends as a tool of international competition, which was a hope before and after World War I in particular where a number of writers fantasized about moving beyond war. And Norman Angell was one of those before World War I. But, of course, I think he wrote his book about this just a few years before the war broke out. And then, of course, World War I happens and disproves this naive understanding of human and scientific progress.
But if you believe that God exists, then presumably God is responsible for creating human beings. And if he created us as human beings, presumably he instilled certain qualities into us. And perhaps one of those qualities is the desire or even need for transcendent meaning. If that is how we were created, then no matter what we do or what we try, we’re never going to be able to transcend that, because it is part of our very constitution.
Now, if you don’t believe that human beings are a creation of God, then obviously you can take issue with that description. So this is one way that first principles really do better. Some of the disagreements that we have these days—we’re getting into arguments with people without realizing the source of the arguments and where they’re really coming from. So sometimes you have to go to the very start, quite literally the creation story, to understand how our perceptions of reality diverge.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah.
Shadi Hamid: So if you tell me that it’s possible to eliminate war, I’m going to say, well, that contradicts my understanding of the creation story and the qualities that God . . . And some of them are obviously, I mean, we can talk about sin and depravity, and we did talk about that in a previous episode, but you can’t have goodness without sin.
We as Muslims don’t believe in original sin the way that Christians do, but we do believe that sin is a real thing. And we don’t believe that sin can be extinguished because without sin . . . You wouldn’t know what virtue was without vices; you wouldn’t be able to improve and become closer to God if you didn’t have the experience of being far away from God. And this again goes to the idea of we can’t know something except through its opposite. And that’s why there has to be some kind of dualistic situation where these things coexist simultaneously. You can’t have good without evil. We wouldn’t know what good looks like without that, and we wouldn’t know what democracy looks like without authoritarianism.
Matthew Kaemingk: And your first comment there, it seems to me that this demonstrates, actually, if I could be so bold, an advantage that Muslims and Christians have when they do political science that secular liberals struggle with, because Muslims and Christians see human beings as made for community with God. We’re made to be in connection with God, and so we long to be connected to something greater than ourselves. And understanding that about human beings really helps when you’re trying to understand political behaviour, because you’re not at all surprised when human beings give themselves to things in powerful and passionate ways, because you have an anthropology that understands that this is core to who they are. It’s not an accident, but actually it’s a part of who they are.
Similarly, we recognize within ourselves, I would say—many Christians and Muslims recognize that we have taken a step of faith that we cannot fully prove to another person. And so when we engage in pluralistic discussions, we understand that we are making a few assumptions; we’re acting on faith. And you and I have talked about this a couple times, and I’d love for you to expand on it if you can, but just the way in which some secular liberals have not really examined their own faith, their own first assumptions. And so when they enter into discussions about first principles, about their grounding assumptions about life, they don’t seem to be very practiced in it. They haven’t thought about the ground that they’re standing on in the same way as maybe a Christian and a Muslim have really thought about “What am I standing on?” Could you expand on that a little bit?
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, look, that’s a great point because I think that the way that many secular liberals talk about these issues, it’s almost as if they’re self-evident. So they’re not used to actually explaining, as you’re saying. And this is the danger with taking something as a given and not interrogating where it comes from. And I think this often happens when a particular approach is so dominant in the mainstream culture, especially in elite circles, that because you’re so dominant, you never have to question yourself, where if you’re a member of a minority faith and you’re outwardly religious, you’re aware of why you are the way you are, because you see how the culture is very different from you.
And you’ve talked, I think, very eloquently in the past, Matt, about this idea of Christians embracing their status as strangers. It’s not bad to be weird. In some ways, you should actually be a stranger, and Christ was a stranger and that sort of thing is important. So I think that religion, then, does allow people to look inward, and that’s not what we normally associate with religion. We don’t see religious folk as being self-critical or self-aware, but to some extent liberals struggle from these challenges and perhaps even to a greater degree because they haven’t been pushed. And we want push.
Matthew Kaemingk: I’ll ask you a little bit more of a personal question on this, Shadi, because I see this in your own story. You swim in these waters, and yet you also are a person of faith, and you do the work of political science and political theory. You want to belong in these circles, and yet you also like to be a little strange. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about—I’m not exactly sure how to phrase this question—but essentially the strangeness of being a Muslim in political science, how that’s actually been an advantage for you in maybe questioning things within political science that other people take for granted, if that makes sense. It seems to me that a lot of your work is really good and it questions certain assumptions that many of your colleagues haven’t even really thought about.
I guess, by way of metaphor, a fish that goes with the flow doesn’t really understand much about the river, but it’s actually when you try to swim up the river that you learn the river a lot more. And so it seems to me that being a little bit of a strange Muslim in secular academic spaces, it’s revealed some things for you. And I don’t know if you could talk about that a little bit, as much as you’re up for it.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, yeah. I love the river analogy, and I just thought of this now. I’ve been very critical of DEI initiatives—diversity, equity, and inclusion—and the hyper-wokeness that comes with them oftentimes, in part because . . . Well, the river analogy, I think, actually shows the benefits of diversity if we don’t just do a surface-level diversity. So it’s not just, oh, someone’s brown or someone’s Hispanic, and you tick a box. You look for people who have swam against the tide because they understand and see things that the majority group doesn’t.
That to me is the kind of intuitive argument for ideological diversity, which sometimes overlaps with religious or ethnic diversity but not necessarily, because if you just hire some brown Muslim dude who is part of the majority secular culture and went to the same elite schools and isn’t particularly outwardly religious, then they’re not actually swimming against the tide or have experience of that. So they’re not going to be able to offer something that’s particularly distinctive. It’s just a thought that came to mind right now.
So if someone wants to make the religious case for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, this is probably the way to make the argument, that there’s a deeper diversity that we should be seeking out in hiring practices. And I was going to say in our friendships, but some people just like to be around people who are just like them. And I guess we have to respect that.
Matthew Kaemingk: Just to continue that, you can think of maybe a more liberal university who wants to have a couple of Muslim, a couple of Jewish, and a couple of Christian faculty on it, but they want the right kinds of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. So they want religion represented, but a tamed religion, a religion that will edit itself to fit in with the larger liberal consensus.
And I think the argument is that a university campus and university students would be better off learning from faculty who are fundamentally strange in this way, who really do own those convictions. And a deeply pluralistic university is going to have and welcome a clash of real worldview difference, rather than just looking for Christians, Muslims, and Jews and Buddhist who all sing the same song, in the same way that you look for black, brown, and yellow faculty that all sing the same song, as opposed to a genuine diversity of thought. And I guess I would just say that I find authors who are willing to be strange and are aware of their strangeness fundamentally much more interesting to read because they have considered those things.
Shadi Hamid: Now that I’m just thinking more about the personal story, and sometimes I keep some analytical distance, and I’m trying to be better at that, Matt, with your encouragement. But I do think that because I’m a brown, Muslim, minority person of colour, whatever, in a counterintuitive way it liberates me to be more strange because I know that I can get away with it, that there is more latitude offered to people of colour, and it’s harder to cancel them and that sort of thing. I hope this isn’t too controversial, but even if it is, I don’t care.
But I think if you’re a white male in elite circles, you gotta be extra careful about what you say because people know that you’re a white male, and that’s something that people are increasingly conscious about. And if you say something that is seen as off colour, then the charge of bigotry can be levelled against you more easily. It’s harder to do that—so if I’m saying something about brown people, it’s going to be hard to argue that I’m anti-brown, because it’s not persuasive.
But looking more, just to go back into my history a little bit, when I started undergrad, I was involved in pro-Palestinian activism. I was very involved in the anti-war movement as it related to the Iraq War in 2003. And I organized—we organized, but I was very involved in this—die-ins, teach-ins, sit-ins. A die-in is basically where you gather a bunch of people in the main square of university campus and they lie down as if they’re dead. And it’s a very evocative thing. And to do that . . . Just think about a die-in for a second. You’re literally announcing to the entire campus that you’re weird, not just intellectually, but physically. You’re putting yourself in a very weird position where you’re literally lying on the ground. To be able to do that or to be comfortable doing that, it requires something out of you. So in some ways I would recommend that people find a cause to organize around that goes against the main current because that teaches you something important.
But also the casual Islamophobic bigotry post-9/11—again, oftentimes people didn’t mean to be bigoted in this way, and it could sometimes be the kind of condescending or patronizing approach to Muslims like, “Oh, you Muslims.” So I remember one time I was at this reception in the mid-2000s, and I was saying something, and apparently it was appealing to this older, white, liberal couple. They were so nice to me, but they were too nice to me. So when I said something that they found compelling, they literally said something along the lines of . . . I almost can’t believe this is true, but I took a note of it many years ago. They said something to the effect of, “Oh, you’re so moderate.” And basically what they were getting at is they were used to hearing about all these radical Muslims and all the conflicts in the Middle East and terrorism, and here they were interacting with a Muslim at length for presumably one of the first times. And they were just surprised by how reasonable I sounded.
And that’s what we now call a microaggression. It’s not a big deal in the end, and it shouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s like, oh, that was interesting. People have this particular view, and instead of seeing it, I think, as something fundamentally negative, I think that I tended to see it as a character-building experience—that if people said things like this, it forced me to think more critically about these categories of good Muslim, bad Muslim, moderate, not moderate. And I always had a discomfort with these kinds of terms, even from early on when I was doing my graduate studies in the mid-2000s into the late 2000s. I definitely had a particular interest in challenging especially the “moderate Muslim” designation, which I always just found very cringe, if that makes sense.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah. And I think, getting back to that couple who was surprised at how moderate you were, I think that reveals the basic myth of religious violence in that it is based upon an us-them binary in that religious people are fundamentally a different species from secular people. And so what surprised them is that you were capable of a level of moderation that they thought was unique to their species, that there is this binary of us and them, those people who are still religiously backward and those people who are enlightened. They were shocked that there’s this commonality. We do need to wrap up, but I—
Shadi Hamid: I want to push you on one thing, Matt. Am I allowed to push you on something?
Matthew Kaemingk: You are. Go for it.
Shadi Hamid: I didn’t want to forget about this because it is very relevant to this discussion. Something that comes through in Cavanaugh’s book and also in the work of various Muslim scholars who critique secularism is that this idea of religion being interior, of being private, is a distinctly Protestant conception of religion. And if you look at someone . . . Of course, John Locke was also a liberal theorist, but certainly someone who was avowedly Protestant and even anti-Catholic. He saw Catholics as outside the fold. And there’s a quote from Locke that I think is really relevant, where he says, “All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind.” So true religion is interior. It’s very explicit in that quote.
He also makes a distinction between the outward force of the magistrate and the inward persuasion of religion. And in the work of Muslim scholars like Saba Mahmood or Talal Asad, and we’ve read some of their work as part of our own conversations, they do really emphasize this idea that the privatization of religion tends to come disproportionately from Protestant thinkers, whether they’re explicitly Protestant or they’re just drawing on that tradition. And I’m curious, as a Protestant yourself, what you think about those kinds of critiques? And do you think that there has been a history of Protestant scholars and thinkers and politicians basically falling into this illusion that religion is interior? And it’s also tied to, I think, certain theological suppositions that tend to be more associated with Protestant denominations than Catholics.
Matthew Kaemingk: There have been a lot of movements within Protestantism towards a privatization of faith, a spiritualization of faith, a way to domesticate faith as a private issue. Religion is something that you do in your solitude when you’re alone. The debate within Protestantism is: Is that a fundamental feature of being Protestant, or is that a perversion of the Protestant faith by the Enlightenment, by a secular form of enlightenment that wanted to tame the Protestant faith? So you tame the Protestant faith by making it a private and personal thing. So you say, “I just have a personal relationship with Jesus, and me and Jesus talk to one another, and that’s my thing, and you have your thing. But my personal relationship with Jesus is just my own private thing.”
I am of the camp that believes that that is a terrible perversion of the Christian faith and what Protestantism is meant to be, that both Luther and Calvin and other early Reformation Protestant thinkers saw the Protestant movement as being public. So John Calvin, for example, wrote about political issues, economic issues. He talked about what we should do about refugees, about what we should do about health care. He was not at all a fan of talking about the Christian faith as merely a private thing. And so I think of this privatization of the Christian faith as a lamentable perversion of the faith, that it is a public thing, that God is sovereign over all of life and that Christians need to be involved in public life.
The last thing I will say is, it is understandable in that one of the things that’s critical to being a Protestant is this understanding that faith is fundamentally a matter of the heart and that there is something immediately between you and God that needs to take place. And that is a very personal action that cannot be imposed on you by an outside force. And so it’s easy to understand how the heart-focused writings of the Protestants could be twisted into what we see today, which is a purely privatized spirituality where I say Jesus is my personal and private saviour, but he has nothing to say about my public or political life. So yeah, hope that helps.
Shadi Hamid: That does help. Let me ask you, though, the Christian conception of justification by faith alone, sola fide—I mean, that is a precedent in the tradition that could lead someone to a privatizing conclusion, because if the focus isn’t on works and deeds but on justification by faith alone and through one’s direct relationship with Christ, then what should we make of that? Is that also a kind of twisting of the concept?
Matthew Kaemingk: I would just say that’s just one part of the story. So, yes, I am justified by faith alone in Jesus, but I am also called to follow Jesus and to follow his teachings and to follow his words. So this transformation and this relationship that I’ve experienced has public consequences for how I behave and for how I act in the public square. So what you would have to do is, you would have to take the Bible and remove all of the discussion about politics, economics, race relations, love of neighbour, and you would have to whittle the Bible down to a few statements about Jesus being my friend and about Jesus saving my heart.
But in order to do that, you’d just have to cut out a lot of the Bible, and you’d have to cut out a lot of what Jesus said, because he called us to more than just a spiritual relationship. Jesus talks about how men and women should relate to one another; he talks about the government; he talks about the poor; he talks about the sick. So it’s very clear that he was interested in more than just a personal, private transformation. So sola fide talks about how I’m saved, but then there’s this question of what do you do after that? How do you live for the rest of your life? And the Bible has a lot of things to say about how we behave ourselves publicly, how we respond to that.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. No, that’s good to clarify. And I suppose that it’s evangelicals in America who are trying to republicize, if that’s the right word, the Christian faith, or to unprivatize it. And that is a source of major controversy, that evangelicals are seen as a focal point for this kind of Christianism or public Christianity or political Christianity.
Matthew Kaemingk: And some would say that basically Christians have behaved themselves so badly in American public life that we should take a moratorium, that we should step out of public life for a while because we’ve behaved so badly. And well, that’s a conversation for another time.
I’m going to ask you one final question. I’m going to wrap this up. During the last Ramadan, you did some fasting and some prayer, and one of the comments that I remember from you talking about that experience was becoming aware of how difficult and strange it was to be tired throughout the day and just being aware that you were not alike to those of your neighbours. And I was just wondering about that experience of strangeness, if you could just preview or give us a dip into that experience of strangeness in a largely secular city like Washington. Maybe you could give us a little bit of window into what came out of that for you.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. Well, since religion isn’t just private but also communal, and certainly that’s very much the case in the Islamic tradition, it makes it harder to practice in a place where most people aren’t Muslim. It is easier to be Muslim if more people are Muslim around you. And I think fasting is a very obvious example of this. If everyone else is fasting or everyone else is pretending to fast at the very least, because obviously some people aren’t actually doing it, but because of social pressure they’re going through the motions and they don’t want people to talk bad about them: “Oh, this person broke his fast in front of us.” It would also be disrespectful to friends and family to eat in front of them while they’re fasting. So all of this creates a certain environment where the built-in incentives are more clear. And it’s just easier to fast too, because if everyone is tired, then you being tired doesn’t actually cause much difficulty. If you’re not as productive at work, it’s not going to be a big issue with your boss because your boss isn’t being productive at work either.
Matthew Kaemingk: Yeah, I can remember us having an afternoon meeting, and you had to cancel just because you just felt so tired.
Shadi Hamid: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And I think that in recent years sometimes I’ve been bothered by fasting, just to be honest about it—a kind of frustration that I understand this is an important obligation, but at the same time I’m like, “This really hurts my productivity.” If only it didn’t, if only there was a way to fast without losing productivity. And that is a very modern, American way of looking at things, that you always need to be efficient. And anytime you lose efficiency, you get angry at yourself and you feel guilty; you’re falling behind. And the thing is, if 99 percent of the population isn’t Muslim, then you feel that 99 percent of the population is getting things done and getting ahead while you are falling behind. So that contrast . . . And you literally are a stranger in that way. You’re in a quite literal sense, well, not literal, because you’re not actually in a river, but you are swimming against the current in terms of the rhythms of work life.
But then through some of our conversations, it began to dawn on me more and more that I was looking at this fundamentally in the wrong way. I was lamenting; I was seeing this as a trade-off. I would say, “Okay, this is something I have to do; I’ll do it. And I feel bad that I’m getting behind.” Where I think a more constructive way of understanding this is to say, “Well, it’s good to not be productive. It’s something to be embraced, not lamented,” because that allows us to get a different view of how we organize our own lives—that not everything is about productivity; that faith, community, building one’s relationship with God, focusing more on friends and family, focusing more on the communal aspects of life, instead of being this person who’s at their desk, on their laptop, perpetually getting things done.
That is something that helps us. It doesn’t hurt us. And it just took a reframing for me. And now, by consciously being aware of that and thinking about it in a more explicit way, that can be enough to not feel that guilt, to actually embrace not being productive. And I’ve tried to apply that in different aspects of my life post-Ramadan, or outside of Ramadan or religious obligations, to say, “It is okay to not get things done.” And that shouldn’t be revolutionary. But I think that—
Matthew Kaemingk: Well, I think, Shadi, that’s so great. And I think what it also does is it reveals, if I can be a little pushy on you here, that it’s not just Islam that’s working on you, but it’s also the American dream of being productive and being efficient and getting things done. And there’s actually two conflicting value systems, and it’s actually when you fast that you reveal that there is a tension that you’re living in, between the desire to submit to God and the desire to submit to the pressures of the marketplace, that you be efficient. And if you don’t fast, you have a harder time seeing that tension. And it’s actually in the fasting, in the being strange, that you’re able to see something about America that you weren’t able to see before, and that your colleagues might not ever be able to recognize because they don’t fast.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah.
Matthew Kaemingk: We do have to wrap up. And I want to put a pin—
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. It’s a great note to end on. Oh, there’s another pin. Give us a final pin.
Matthew Kaemingk: No, no. I think that is the pin, because I want to have a conversation just about prayer and politics, and fasting and politics. I want to do this again and pick this up, but we do have to wrap up, friends. And so we want to say thank you. We want to say thank you for listening to us, this discussion of The Myth of Religious Violence and what on earth do we mean when we use this word “religion” and how in many ways it is a useless term. I hope maybe you think that way, and if you don’t, hey, you can email us, throw out the hashtag on Twitter. You can follow Shadi, @shadihamid, on Twitter. You can follow me, @matthewkaemingk, on Twitter. It is the Dutch spelling, which is the correct spelling. Our last name was not changed when we came to Ellis Island. We kept the g in our name where it should be.
Shadi Hamid: Wow, I didn’t know that. Okay.
Matthew Kaemingk: So, friends, if you like what you’ve heard, we want to encourage you to check out Comment magazine. Comment magazine is the host of our podcast, and they have lots of amazing essays on faith and politics and culture. Some really good stuff recently on friendship, a really amazing issue on politics and friendship, filled with some really great essays. And we want to say thank you also to our sponsor at Fuller Seminary, the Mouw Institute of Faith and Public Life. That’s an institute that I direct, and Shadi is also a research faculty member there. We’re proud to say that he is the first Muslim intellectual to be welcomed into an evangelical institution as a research faculty member. So we love having Shadi.
Shadi Hamid: Thank you, Matt. And I’ll also just say, too, that we covered a lot in this episode, and if you guys want to read on, we will include links to The Myth of Religious Violence in the show notes, as well as some of the other things that we mentioned as well. And with that, thank you for listening to Zealots at the Gate. Zealots at the Gate is hosted by Comment magazine, produced by Allie Crummy, audience strategy by Matt Crummy, and editorial direction by Anne Snyder. I’m Shadi Hamid.
Matthew Kaemingk: And I’m Matthew Kaemingk. We’ll see you next time.
Shadi Hamid: Thank you.