In Support of a Speaker’s Practical Interests

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Did you catch the story, the other day, about Republican Presidential candidate, Ben Carson, and a campaign speech he gave in Iowa City? He distinguished between calling Islam a religion and classing it as a “life organizing system.”

If you missed it, then skip to the 44:10 point of his speech, where he turns attention to the “existential threat” that is ISIS and then gives his audience a weekend homework assignment to learn more about Islamic origins.

Later, a Mother Jones reporter then followed-up with him:

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What I find interesting about this clip, and subsequent quotations, is that, to me, Carson is doing little different from countless other social actors in our culture: using the category religion to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate social groups, all in support of a practical set of interests.

The difference, of course, is that Carson’s choice of what counts as a religion (and, in his case, to be valued and protected) is sufficiently different from a number of people on the political and theological left that it stands out for some listeners — but (and this is the important point) they’re doing this no less than him; for when it comes to Islam we now have a large body of literature, written by everyone from politicians and journalists to scholarly specialists, authors who identify with Islam and those who do not, on what (according to each) really counts as authentic Islam as opposed to examples of where it has been “hijacked” by inauthentic “extremists” and “fanatics.” The former qualifies as a religion while the latter ends up being understood as a dangerous political ideology.

That each might draw the line in different places should not lessen the fact that they’re all drawing lines — and in self-interested ways. For some, only what yet others see as sub-parts of Islam qualify as religion while for yet others Islam as a whole fails to join the family of religion.

There was a time when few learned Europeans thought Buddhism was a religion but, instead was merely a contemplative philosophy. And today, Buddhist monks who support or opt to use violence confound those who wish to understand Buddhism as something entirely apart from practical political action.

My point?

It seems only when someone deviates from the dominant way of classifying that we are able to see at least their use of categories as political tools, as having rhetorical rather than just descriptively neutral effect. But instead of focusing on others’ uses, we ought to use someone like Carson to shine a light on how these terms are usually used, to be able to see their so-called normal use in a whole new light — and thereby to understand all acts of classification as being a form of political speech with intended (and unintended) effects.