Huge numbers of Americans barely know where Iraq is, yet alone know anything about her. And of those who do, most have a simple impression of the conflict in Iraq. Their media-fed view is that an evil jihadi militia is gruesomely sweeping through Iraq turning the country to convert Iran into an Islamist oppressive state. More sophisticated Americans supplement this view by actually knowing the two words “Shiite” and “Sunni” and thinking that the problems has something to do with a centuries-old conflict between these two sects. Some even know a bit of the Islamic history behind these two sects. But according to this excellent NYbooks post, the Iraq conflict is not fundamentally about a conflict between Islamic sects, but is “mostly about politics: access to government revenue and services, a say in decision-making, and a modicum of social justice.”
It is this level of analysis that I also push for when we study religion in general. Sure, looking at theological arguing points may seem important, but to truly understand religion is to see how doctrines serve politics, relationships, decision-making, and the human psyche. Sure, many believers may think that real religion is about metaphysical truth propositions, but they too are misunderstanding the large part of how such ideas work.
So, be suspect of the media when they dumb down events. Be suspect of simple labels as they tempt you to understand a country, a religion, a person or even yourself. The under workings of reality are much more interesting that the easy-to-remember labels.
This post is not necessarily meant to discuss Iraq, anyone’s lack of understanding, Islam or any such thing. There is too much to understand in this world, ignorance is inevitable. Instead, I am merely pointing out how easily we buy into simple, convenient explanations — and worse yet, how we take our own superficial understandings seriously.