Belief is a Practice

In an effort to cut through a lot of hot air being blown on the internet I recently argued that race (and gender) is a “technology of power.” I would like to follow that up with an argument that belief is best understood as a set of social practices, not as an internally coherent ideological system. This is because a large number of seemingly well-intentioned people on my timeline are arguing something along the lines of “we shouldn’t let Islam of the hook for terrorism.” In my previous post I argued that we should endeavour to engage the best arguments that we disagree with, not those easiest to dismiss. This is one reason I haven’t engaged this particular argument before. At first blush it strikes me as little more than laughable “clash of civilizations” Islamophobia (not that Islamophobia is funny). However, some recent discussions have convinced me that there might be a more anthropological version of this argument which is worth a more serious discussion. This argument has two parts: (1) that we should take people’s ideas seriously, including those of violent extremists, and (2) that we should not erase difference by arguing that all forms of violent extremism are the same (i.e. by arguing that not all, or even most, violent extremists are Muslims). I think few anthropologists would take issue with either point, but in so doing we would still not end up in the same place as those making these arguments.

Let’s start with taking ideas seriously. There are three problems I see with this argument. First, whose ideas do we look to? Not only is Islam a large and diverse religion, of which the kind of political Islam associated with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are a minority, but even those following the Muslim Brotherhood are much more diverse in their thought than most observers are willing to acknowledge.

Yet the declaration of jihad was tearing the Muslim community apart. There was never a consensus that the jihad in Afghanistan was a genuine religious obligation. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood refuted the demand to send its members to jihad, although it encouraged relief work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those who did go were often unaffiliated with established Muslim organizations and therefore more open to radicalization. Many concerned Saudi fathers went to the training camps to drag their sons home.

Even if we could identify a coherent ideology, or perhaps abstract certain commonalities across this diversity, we still have the problem that these ideas are not necessarily clearly understood or interpreted in the same way by those who act in its name. For instance, this profile of Chérif Kouachi, one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, says he described himself as a “ghetto Muslim” and that not long ago he was so ignorant about religion that one source said “He couldn’t differentiate between Islam and Catholicism.” But we need not rely on such profiles to understand that real people are bundles of contradictions who often believe in multiple contradictory ideas at the same time.

This brings us to the second objection which is that, for anthropologists, “emic” accounts of people’s own motivations are only one of several sources of data that anthropologists use in the process of constructing an “etic” interpretation. Taking people’s own words seriously means interpreting those words, not simply accepting them at face value. Psychologists understand that many explanations are post-facto justifications, not necessarily reflective of the thinking that led up to the action in the first place. This is one reason why anthropology doesn’t just rely upon interviews, but on participant observation as well.

Third, for the past fifty or so years anthropologists have increasingly shifted from thinking about forms of culture as a “code” from which people take marching orders to a view of culture as a form of social action, highlighting how people create and transform ideology and social structure through social action (including speech). (See my discussion of Asif Agha’s book.) Treating religious belief as a form of social action moves us from a conception of religion as a form of brain washing to taking seriously how people actually use religion, even transforming it through their lived practices.

But by focusing so much on individual interpretation, agency, and practice, do we go too far in dismissing difference? This is a valid concern. Anthropologists do not think action takes place in a void, nor do we dismiss the importance of ideology. However, we tend to treat these things at a different level of analysis than do many who rely entirely on written texts for interpreting culture. For anthropologists, culture is often manifest not so much in specific ideas, but in underlying rules of interpretation or in the very categories through which people think about the world. Thus, the numerous Chinese words for “uncle” reflects a history of patriarchal family relations and so, while Chinese people’s actual family practices no longer adhere to many of the old patriarchal customs, the words and categories they use to think about family still reflect upon that history and are meaningful for them.

In short, differences matter, ideas matter, beliefs matter, but for an anthropologist they don’t matter in the way that many people who talk about Islam think they matter. You can’t say we need to take people’s ideas seriously but then deny them the agency to interpret and act upon those ideas in their own unique and historically contextualized ways. An Arab kid growing up in the suburbs of France is going to read Islam in a uniquely French way and his radicalism may have much more in common with a follower of Le Pen than it does with someone living in the Middle East. That is why it is important to understand the socio-political context of French racism, not because those who bring it up are trying to blame the victims or something silly like that.

One thought on “Belief is a Practice

  1. You can’t hold a group accountable for an individual’s actions, even more so when the rest of the group doesn’t even share the same beliefs as the individual in question. It might be useful to dispense with Islam as a category when talking about this kind of extremism (ie, Charlie Hebdo, Copenhagen, Libyan Copts, Syria & Iraq in general). The beliefs that motivate the young men and women who go off to join ISIS – about apostasy, blasphemy, interpreting the Qur’an, the role of violence, etc – are simply not the same as the beliefs of the majority of people who call themselves Muslims.

    The Muslim people I know would never think it right to kill someone for drawing Muhammad, and thinking that it’s right to kill someone for drawing Muhammad is one of the necessary (but not sufficient) beliefs that motivated the two recent attacks in Europe. Given that, it’s hard to see how someone could blame ‘Islam’ or people who call themselves Muslims in general.

    I don’t think it makes sense to think of belief as being social practices. Beliefs are things you have in your brain about the world; combined with desires, they motivate – and, according to the classical theory of action (see eg Davidson, Dennett) cause – actions. If you think it’s evil to draw Muhammad, then that belief will motivate certain actions. Take any given human action and you can interpret it in terms of the ascription of plausible beliefs and desires, and that interpretation will amount to a tentative causal explanation of the action.

    Calling yourself a ‘Muslim’ doesn’t necessarily say very much about what your actual beliefs are. A lot of tourists visit Morocco, but many more litres of beer are drunk in Morocco than the combined population of tourists and resident non-Muslims could possibly drink: it seems many Muslims drink alcohol now and then. From their actions we can see that the vast majority of self-proclaimed Muslims don’t seem to believe that drawing Muhammad is so wrong that it justifies killing people.

    It all starts to get a bit Abrahamic if you think of belief as something out there in groups instead of something specific and physical inside the skull.

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