Who gets to speak?


In the 2008 book entitled Who Speaks for Islam, authors John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed noted that when Muslims around the world are asked about their dreams, the overwhelming majority respond with the hope that they might get better jobs. In this international Gallup Poll that claims to represent the opinion of one billion Muslims worldwide, no one responded that he or she hoped to fight in a jihad. Yet, as we know, the so-called “jihadists” and “Islamists” characteristic brutality, ignorance, and intolerance too often express the public face of Islam. Islam is not alone in the problem of extremism representing the average.

In both Christian and Jewish circles, extreme expressions often define the religion for the whole. If you say publicly that you are a Christian, invariably the assumption is that you are against critical thinking, science, and social progress. It is as if being a Christian and being a socialist or an evolutionary biologist is not allowed. Yet, in North America today, the majority of people who identify with Christianity are frequently agnostic. Over two million people in Canada (the overwhelmingly single largest body of Protestants) identify with the United Church of Canada, even though less than half a million Canadians hold membership in this denomination. That large majority of non-practicing, loosely identified Christians who speak about their doubts and wonders are not allowed to count as part of the picture – really the major part of the picture – that is Christianity today.

It is equally true that in Judaism many people hold their identity as Jews through their culture and history but not necessarily their beliefs. Judaism has a long history of progressive thought, of atheism, socialism, and revisionary movements. Extreme forms of Judaism in Canada deeply skew the picture of this pluralistic and dynamic tradition. Yet, very often, Judaism is reduced to one political opinion or one form of practice. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam the question must be raised, “Who gets to speak as the representative of the tradition?” There is not a single answer to this question, but we can turn to two resources to help understand the question. One is social psychology in which a culture’s relationship to religion can be discussed.

The second is the Bible in which we find several instances of “speakers” for a community who may not reflect what, in fact, the community as a whole believes. In some ways the Bible gives us the precedent from ancient culture of the authoritative speaker, even though, in antiquity as today, there was always more than one voice. In social psychology one studies social units – the group, basically – at two levels: the relationship of the group to the “other” and the formation of the self, both within the group and out of the relationship. Group X defines itself according to certain features: what clothes group members wear, what beliefs group members hold, what code of conduct is observed. But group X also defines itself as “not Y.” Part of being X is not being Y. And indeed when Y does a certain act, X selfidentifies as those who do not do such an act.

If we conceive X and Y as political parties, we can easily understand how each party is necessary to the other in order to facilitate each one’s identity. Philosopher G.W.F. Hegel called this “the master-slave relationship”: you can’t be a master if you don’t have the “other” as slave, and vice-versa. What happens in society is that if the majority of the people are X, then being Y means being peculiar. Group X expects Y to be a certain way because Y is (or is supposed to be) the other. The plurality in Y is not seen because the overwhelming conviction of the majority influences the common reading of Y as this “other.” The plurality of Y is not seen and not heard, and if or when it is seen or heard, the X party will say to the Y, “Why then, are you not an X?” The overwhelming majority of people in Canada are essentially “secular.” This does not mean non-religious; most people are religious in one form or another.

What “secular” means is that most people hold to values not determined by a religion. These are the values of critical and independent thinking, gender and sexual equality, a basic sense of social justice, and inclusivity in language and practice. These values, despite arising in Western history out of religion, are not values defined within or restricted to a religion. They are common, Canadian values, formed in law outside of any religious tradition or identity. They are the values that make Canada and Western nations “secular,” that is, (theoretically) inclusive of all and not favouring one.

But when “secular” becomes the X, “religion” becomes the Y. This makes religion in the common perception that which stands against the secular: religion is expected to be the non-inclusive, the one that favours certain groups or people, and the intolerant. Though it is true that religions can be non-inclusive and intolerant, it is not the case that all religions are or that everybody within a religion is.

In fact, it is probably the case that most who identify with a religious tradition are largely secular in terms of values and attitudes. The trouble is that the largely secular body of X has learned to expect religion to be only Y: therefore, there must be distinguishing marks in religion that are not secular, like certain political or ethical opinions or certain kinds of intolerance. In a largely secular world, religion is not allowed to mix with secularity or even be a kind of secularity. It’s supposed to be identifiably “religious,” which means that only the extreme forms of religion count as religion. Only the extremist gets to speak for religion.

No one hears those Muslim voices that support minority religious rights in Muslim majority countries; no one hears those Christian voices that oppose the teaching of creationism as science; no one hears those Jewish voices that work for peace in Palestine with Palestinians and often on their behalf. These voices of reason and justice within religious traditions are not “extreme” enough to count as voices of religion in society. They are that peculiar part of Y that X seems unable or unwilling to hear.


David Galston is an Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University.

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