“Islam is a religion of peace.” “Islam teaches hate.” The current American and European public discussion about Islam can be characterized by fierce debates regarding the nature of the religion. Muslim and non-Muslim journalists, academics, politicians, and self-declared experts take turns in the media spotlight to declare the essence of Islam and, by extension, of Muslims. Inherently, most such Western claims derive from comparison with other religions – especially Christianity and Judaism – or secularism or atheism. These comparisons derive from a long history of European and American domestic conquest, foreign imperialism, and Christocentric travel. Demonstrating the power of Western hegemony, many non-Westerners have eagerly sought to create an essentialized version of “their religion” to fit the paradigm of “world religions.”
Some scholars and religious community members have challenged this approach and championed claims to Islams, Christianities, and Hinduisms. Others have indicted the comparative study of religion because of its imperial and Christian heritage. Others have sought to disqualify the comparative use of the category “religion” itself as a theme.
Since none of these approaches have proven broadly effective or convincing, observers of religions must move beyond a focus on labels such as “Islam,” “Christianity,” and “Hinduism.” Serving too long as both first- and second-order terms, these categories prove incompatible for comparison when both practitioners and outsiders make vastly divergent claims to their meanings. Only through a focus on Muslims, Christians, and Hindus – and their use of these terms – can scholars of the empirical study of religions create an adequate paradigm for comparison.
Peter Gottschalk is Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University. Peter’s research and teaching concentrate on the dynamics of cultural interpretation and conflict in the context of Islam, Hindu traditions, and the West. He is interested particularly in understanding how assumptions of mutual antagonism form between groups despite evidence of religious confluence. Peter enjoys presenting on these topics and has discussed them in the U.S., India, Bangladesh, Britain, Turkey, and other parts of Europe at colleges and universities, professional conferences, public events, and religious communities.
His published work includes: American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance; Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hindus and Muslims in British India; Engaging South Asian Religions: Boundaries, Appropriations, and Resistance. Co-edited with Mathew N. Schmalz; Islamophobia: Muslims and Islam in American Political Cartoons. Co-authored with Gabriel Greenberg; and Beyond Hindu and Muslim: Multiple Identity in Narratives from Village India.