Sun 28 Apr 2013
In much of the Western world Sunday is traditionally the day devoted to religion (and picnics and sports and going to the beach when the sun shines, etc.). Even those who are not devoted to a particular religion find something to devote themselves to. So today I would like to devote my comments to the very idea of what it means to be “devout.” The tragedy orchestrated two weeks ago by the Boston Bombers adds yet another milestone to those who see Islam as a religion that promotes violence. Yet the two brothers who senselessly took several lives and forever altered the lives of many others appear to have almost no real knowledge of their religion. I am struck by the widespread use in the media of the term “devout” to describe the older brother Tamerlane. I am not at all surprised that an Islamophobe like Pamela Geller writes that “Again and again we see that Muslims who commit jihad violence are pious and devout.” Geller was commenting on an AP report that Tamerlane’s aunt had said he was a “devout Muslim” who prayed five times a day. The phrase went viral in the news media in part due to this sound bite but also because it reflected a common stereotype.
It seems that all it takes to be labeled “devout” as a Muslim is to pray five times a day, believe that 72 virgins are waiting anxiously to serve you in Paradise and be hooked on Internet terrorist sites. I don’t remember anyone saying that Terry Jones, the lunatic preacher who says he has a divine mission to burn Qurans, is a “devout” Christian. The Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik is usually labeled a “right-wing extremist” yet his writings show a profound regard for Christendom über alles. A person can be “devoted” to anything, including evil, but if I think of a “devout” Christian, Jew or Hindu, I think of someone who has internalized the devotional aspects of their religion due to an insight into the theology.
Of course there is nothing in new in damning your enemy as “devout” in order to denigrate a religion. The fact that one of the bombers was named after Tamerlane makes him an easy target for such damnation. In a 1970 translation of Reneé Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia (1970, p. 231) we read that “Tamerlane was a cultured Turk and a great lover of Persian poetry who yet destroyed the flower of Iranian civilization, a devout Muslim who sacked all the capitals of the Muslim world.” Really? Here is a case where being “devout” defines an overtly political insensitivity to members of one’s own religion. Did the 14th century emperor really think he was doing the work of Allah in slaughtering thousands upon thousands of Muslims among the estimated 17 million who perished at his command. And if he did, is he not as psychotic as Breivik? How many of those killed by the original Tamerlane were also “devout”?
The Boston Bombers and their kind seek to kill innocent people who have personally done them, nor Islam, no harm and are better defined as “devout terrorists,” devoted to carrying out terrorists acts, like Breivik in Norway. The two brothers happen to be Muslim and they also follow a twisted and shallow view of Islam which has admittedly been present since the very beginning of the religion, but the Boston Marathon is hardly a religious symbol. Had they gone after a major cathedral or Christian religious figure, it might seem a replay of the crusades mentality. Religious rhetoric does not trump politics nor the pathetic trajectory of personal despair.
If being “devout” means being oblivious to the basic human values of tolerance and peace that make religion meaningful, then we are all damned.
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