The “heart” of a religion

Quotation from John L. Esposito’s The Future of Islam, page 6:

If a group of Jews or Christians had been responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center, few would have attributed it to the beliefs of mainstream Judaism or Christianity. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by a Jewish fundamentalist was not attributed to something in mainstream Judaism; nor was the clergy sex abuse scandal attributed to the heart of Catholicism.The most heinous crimes committed by Jewish or Christian extremists are not tagged as reflections of militant radical Christianity or Judaism. The individuals who commit such crimes are often dismissed as fanatics, extremists, or madmen rather than labeled Christian or Jewish fundamentalists. By contrast, too often the statements and acts of Muslim extremists and terrorists are portrayed as integral to mainstream Islam.

I find it hard to disagree with Esposito here, if I read this as a commentary on yet another aspect of the seriously low quality of US journalism and public media.

Still, I’m uneasy about other possible interpretations. For example, it’s customary (and accurate) to point out that Islam is diverse, and that it is a mistake to adopt an “essentialist” view of Islam as a world religion. But few seem to complain as much about essentialism when an author asserts that violence or some other undesired characteristic is not one of the “integral parts” or the “heart” of a religion. Indeed, above, it’s unclear whether Esposito is generally uncomfortable with essentializing in the media, or whether he has a narrower complaint about negative essentializing—if it would be fine with him if the media were to treat Muslim-tagged violence in the same quasi-apologetic essentializing way reserved for Judaism and Christianity, saying that the heart of the religion remains pure.

One reason to be concerned here is that even without resorting to mythical essential qualities of a religion, it’s legitimate to ask what it is about certain varieties of Islam that lead them to be associated with violence. And it makes no sense to exclude specifically religious reasons from contributing to this.

For that matter, it also makes good sense to probe those causes that contribute to sexual abuse that are tied to Catholic history and doctrine. It is a good idea to ask about how some ideas within modern and historical Judaism may have contributed to the casual dehumanizing attitude toward Arabs so common in conservative Israeli and US circles. And yes, as nonbelievers, we could also ask how features of Enlightenment rationalism have contributed to our own set of ideologically-motivated disasters.