Insights on Religion and Islam from Vali Nasr and Nick Kristof

I’ve been reading Vali Nasr’s outstanding book, The Shia Revival, and was struck by a comment he makes in the introduction that ties directly into Nick Kristof’s opinion piece in today’s New York Times, "Looking for Islam’s Luthers".

The Shia Revival is required reading for anyone who wants to understood the roots of the centuries-old blood feud between Sunnis and Shiites.  It is particularly relevant in providing historical context for the current power struggle between these Arab ethnic groups inside Iraq.  Nasr writes eloquently and develops an insightful thesis into the motivation and tactics driving the Iranian theocracy’s strategic manipulation of the Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese players in the region (not to mention the U.S.) in the region.

In the introduction, page 23, Nasr makes a very important statement that may be lost to rationalists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins:

"Religion is not just about God and salvation; it decides the boundaries of communities. Different readings of history, theology, and religious law perform the same role as language or race in defining what makes each identity unique in saying who belongs to it and who does not."

Kristof’s column today makes a very important point in relating the ascendancy of religion in our time to social alienation:

"Islam is on the rise for many of the same reasons evangelical Christianity is surging: they provide a firm moral code, spiritual reassurance and orderliness to people vexed by chaos and immorality aorund them, and they offer dignity to the poor."

I would add to this that social fragmentation has been accelerated by the rapid pace of technological change since the beginning of the Internet age ten years ago. In the globalized Internet era, which is the breeding ground for the alienated, super-empowered individual, this quest for order and meaning becomes more and more urgent.  Anger and frustration can play out through nihilism, or they can lead to reform.

Kristof’s column focuses on Islamic feminism as a harbinger of reformist thinking in this religion. He concludes on an optimistic note:

"All this underscores that Islam is much more complex than the headlines might suggest.  The violence and fundamentalism gets the attention– and should be more loudly condemned by ordinary Muslims– but we would be close-minded ourselves if we ignored the more hopeful rumblings that are also taking place within the vast Islamic world. . . including, perhaps, steps toward a Muslim Reformation."

Like Nick Kristof, I am anxious to hear moderate voices reclaiming control of the Islamic, Christian, and Jewish faiths. 



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