Thursday, December 3, 2009

"one of the world's great religions"

Cultural comparisons: 1

In his much-awaited Afghanistan speech tonight, President Obama referred to Islam as "one of the world's great religions."

I of course agree wholeheartedly (unlike the Swiss).

I knew exactly what he meant: he was referring to its number of adherents, its contributions to literature and the arts, its role as a pillar of western and world civilization (indeed, I have always taught my students to understand that Islam was part of the shaping of the West, for example, through its leading role in philosophy and science as well as theology).

Still, it made me wonder.

For one thing, it was a kind of political boilerplate and pandering, a throw-away line. (In fact, I was almost reminded—this dates me—of cadaverous deadpan comedian Pat Paulsen's 1968 presidential campaign. A spoof video had him say, in every little town, that this was the greatest place in America, his favorite place in America.)

For another, what else could President Obama have said? Let's extrapolate.

What reaction would Zoroastrianism—after all, found in the strategically crucial countries of Iran, India, and Pakistan—provoke? "One of the world's pretty decent second-tier religions"? (sort of like a college football team that's good but not on a par with the Big Ten? a baseball farm club?). Actually, I'd go with: "one of the world's oldest religions": true and safe, makes no qualitative or comparative judgment. Dodged a bullet there.

And wicca? Anthropologically and scientifically, one cannot of course differentiate between it and the established religions. Sorry to have to say that to traditionalists (differentiating historically is a different matter). For that reason, among others, it stands on a footing of equality at the Spiritual Life Center at neighboring Mount Holyoke College (to cite one example) along with the expected eastern and western faiths. But addressing wicca at all would be politically very unpopular. The wingnuts, after all, don't even want to believe that the President is a natural-born American citizen. They'd have a field day with this. Fortunately, there are no wiccan constituencies or crises on the horizon. Save for contingency plan, review later.

And what about cases in which multiple religions are involved? The "Middle East conflict" is, thank God (figure of speech), a no-brainer: "three of the great world religions," "three of the world's greatest religions," "the three great monotheistic religions," etc. Home free. Everyone is happy (well, except for the ones who are killing one another over their great religions).

But what if a President had to take a tough stand on events in Sudan? (don't hold your breath) Today, of course, the chief issue is the genocide in Darfur, in which Muslims are killing Muslims. You can stick with the original formula: now a doubly tragic conflict between members of "one of the world's great religions." It's a multi-purpose phrase.

But in earlier decades, the focus was on the war between the Arab and Muslim north and what was referred to as—it became a total stock phrase among journalists: just try googling it (I got about 5000 hits for that exact phrase and wish I owned the copyright. Bizarro)—"the largely Christian and animist south." Tough one. What does one say there: a "tragic conflict" (all conflicts nowadays are of course tragic; that almost goes without saying) involving "'two of the world's great religions' and, um, . . . what we used to refer to as a 'primitive religious belief,' not understanding that the term itself reflected a Eurocentric bias and could not do justice to its rich and complex vision of the interplay between living humans, ancestors, and nature"? Doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Fortunately, that one's largely behind us now anyway. Save for the files and hope for the best.

It must be hard to be President. I guess that's why he has speech-writers and vetters of speeches. Can't be too careful what you say nowadays (as Hillary and her staff evidently have yet to learn).

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