If Religion is Controversial, It Is Because We Make It So

Whether it is the Burkini, ritual slaughter, or violence putatively inspired by religion (see also a critical view regarding the Islam–terrorism connection), religion is back in public debate. Characteristically of the early 21st century, ‘religion’ almost invariably means Islam—especially when the news is bad. For balance, though, let’s mention clergy sexual abuse, one of the more persistent Christian controversies. And there are many more from all the world’s religions. Indeed, it would seem that we see religion mostly through the lens of controversy. If that is the case, perhaps there is something in religion that is intrinsically controversial?

There isn’t.

If religion is controversial, it is only because we make it so.

No social phenomenon is controversial as such. At first glance this seems counterintuitive: surely murder and incest, for example, are such horrible things that they are controversial for a reason. Well, yes, if you take the 21st century ‘West’ as your taken-for-granted model of society. But a closer look will show that even in modern constitutional states there are degrees of justification to killing another human being. There is a difference between premeditated murder and killing someone accidentally and in self-defence. More chillingly, killing of innocent civilians barely makes our eyes blink when the victims are in a far-away place and the killing is done in the name of just war. Incest is widely condemned in most countries and cultures, but looking back in time the elites from the Pharaohs to the Hapsburgs considered it the only way to preserve a pure bloodline.

How does religion become controversial, then? The short answer: Controversiality is not a quality of any belief or practice as such. Rather, it is the public reaction to religious beliefs and practices that makes them controversial. To put it in more academic terms, controversies can be defined as the activities of individuals or groups making public claims about conditions that are perceived as a threat to certain cherished values and/or material and status interests—and the responses to these claims. Controversies therefore need actual living people, a public platform, and a message easily recognisable by different publics to exist in the first place.

In other words, controversies are social movements in themselves. They appear and are sustained through the actions of people with moral and material interests at stake in the issue. Similarly, they die out when not enough people find the issue interesting anymore. The so-called Satanic Ritual Abuse was a major controversy in the 1980s, and although similar stories pop up here and there still, the issue—and the people who tried to sustain it—disappeared from public consciousness after the evidence started stacking up against the wildest claims. There is little chance that Satanism will ever kindle a public reaction on a similar scale again.

The fact that we acknowledge that controversies are social constructions does not equal moral indifference. Observing the human origins of controversies, and the moral and material interests involved, does not mean that we condone a practice. Nor does it mean that we cannot ask serious questions about, say, the welfare of animals during ritual slaughter, or about physical and mental child abuse by representatives of religious institutions. It does mean that we need to look at not only what religion (putatively) is and does, but also how it is talked about in public and who does the talking.

The problem with European discourses on public religion is that they have been hijacked by the far right.

There is a vast network of online and social media echo chambers that spout anti-Muslim discourse 24/7. What is remarkable is the consistency and conformity of this discourse. The movement has its own ideologues whose ideas spread like wildfire: a rant about the assumed sexual appetites of Muslim men—note the extremely common racialisation—posted in an English Defence League Facebook discussion gets picked up by a Finnish racist Facebook page the next day. The anti-Muslim far right of course has its folk hero in Anders Breivik, whose ‘manifesto’ echoed many of these common themes: islamisation, sharia courts for everyone, the enslavement of white Europeans, and so on. The ‘impressive’ thing about this discourse is how quickly, widely, and consistently it has been adopted by the far right in Europe and beyond.

Now, of course this discourse does not go unopposed. Most Europeans do not agree with the demonization of Muslims. Bald white boys freezing on the streets of Nordic cities are a fringe group—a potentially dangerous group, but a fringe group nevertheless. It is rather the mainstreaming of far right discourse that is the biggest obstacle to dialogue when it comes to religion. I mean, who needs UKIP or Jobbik when you have Theresa May and Viktor Orbán?

The impact of the ‘counter-jihad’ movement does not stop at a couple of populist leaders. The obsession of the far right about Islam is also reflected in the massive overestimation of Muslim populations by Europeans, revealed in a recent Ipsos Mori survey: For example: ‘British respondents put the current Muslim population at 15%, three times the 2010 figure, while they overestimated the projected 2020 population by an even greater margin (22%versus an actual projection of 6%)’. Right wing media gobbles up far right discourse uncritically and disproportionately. Reading the Daily Mail, it would seem there are few bigger threats to the proper Fish and Chips lifestyle than Islam. Sadly, often the broadsheet and other more respectable media is not far behind.

The far right might be fringe, but their discourse is mainstream. In high stakes competition for votes and media audiences, it seems the first losers are human rights, equality, and protection against discrimination.

Winter is the darkest time of the year and it seems that we have entered a long winter of populism and outright fascism in Europe. That the same thing is happening in the United States is bigly worrying. It is so especially for the poor and the minorities, especially religious minorities constructed as controversial.

There is, however, a silver lining that works with the seasons analogy: After winter comes spring. Because controversies are social constructions they can also be constructed differently. After all, Americans learned to live with Elvis Presley even though he was very controversial in his time. If previously deeply conservative Spain can lead Europe in the recognition of same-sex marriage, there is no reason to believe that current developments in Poland are Europe’s inevitable future.

Where the seasons analogy does not work is that social change is not an outcome of natural laws. Controversies die out because of people’s actions, not just of old age. As the second decade of the 21st century flounders, wounded, towards its end, exposing far right propaganda—especially its seeping influence in politics and media—is the key to the peaceful coexistence of religions and worldviews in Europe.


This article first appeared on religion going public. Republished with kind permission of the author.

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