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The philosopher Antony Flew (1923-2010) famously described a fallacy that has become known as the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy.  It was even published in the (real!) Scotsman newspaper obituary:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.

This analogy is often used uncritically in thinking about the way in which identity informs understandings of religion. For example, after the 11.9.2001 attacks on New York and Washington many argued that although the aircraft used to crash into the buildings were being flown by Muslims, ‘True Islam is a peaceful religion’ and the perpetrators were therefore not true Muslims. True Muslims would not kill thousands of people in an attack like that – and, of course, the vast majority of Muslims around the world condemned these attacks.  Maybe, therefore, even though they described themselves as Muslims, the attackers were not true Muslims?

In a Christian context, we can see something similar happening. Most Christians would argue that, according to their Scriptures, killing others is prohibited. And yet there are plenty of instances in which Christians kill other people. We don’t even need to look into distant history for that: George Bush and Tony Blair both professed themselves to be Christians, and yet they presided over devastating attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being killed.  But if true Christians do not kill, perhaps neither Bush nor Blair are true Christians?

This way of thinking, as Flew wanted to show, leads us nowhere.  Can we comment on whether someone is a true Scotsman (or Muslim/Christian etc.)?  Perhaps the problem here is the reification of a position into an identity marker.  Hamish McDonald might have a certain idea of what a true Scotsman is, but this idea centres around an abstract imaginary of the concept ‘Scotsman’ (and the Aberdeen sex offender clearly didn’t fit that image).  Using that kind of fixed notion, we will never find agreement on what a true Muslim/Christian (or even Scotsman!) might do.  We clearly need to find other tools.

Neil Smith and Cindi Katz, cited by Sara Ahmed (p12), discuss the difference between ‘location’ as a fixed point and ‘position’ as a relative concept, and perhaps this offers us a helpful way forward: ‘”In geographical terms, ‘location’ fixes a point in space, usually by reference to some abstract co-ordinate systems…” while “‘Position,’ by contrast, implies location vis-à-vis other locations and incorporates a sense of perspective on other places.”‘

If we understand self-descriptions of individuals in terms of positions, rather than fixed locations or identities, we might find it easier to comprehend the 11.9.2001 attackers or the Bush and Blair warriors.  After all, a statement such as ‘I am a Muslim/Christian’ (etc.) is usually made in relation to others: most obviously, perhaps, affirming commonality or marking difference.  It is, to use Smith and Katz, an implied location in relation to other locations, with a sense of perspective on other places.  This kind of positioning changes all the time, relative to our context.  We can perhaps understand this relative positioning better by thinking about Judith Butler’s ‘turning’ when a police officer calls out, ‘hey you!’  We change our position in response to the call: we turn to see if we are the one the police officer is addressing, and our position relative to everyone and everything else around us – not just the police officer – therefore changes as a result of that address, even if the call is not really meant for us.  Our location might not have changed, but our position has.

This kind of imagery can help us in thinking through some of the language used to describe positions.  We can understand the Muslim or Christian attackers and their statements of belief as positions taken in relation to others, rather than as fixed locators or identities.  This does away with the need to understand the true Scotsman problem in contexts such as those described above: we don’t then need to explain that true Muslims or true Christians would never kill others even if these particular Muslims or Christians did so.  Rather, we can look at how others who position themselves as Muslims or Christians (etc.) understand these contexts, and construct an understanding on the totality of these representations, intelligently assessed.

This also helps us to understand the adoption of certain kinds of language in contexts that at first appear to be misplaced; in this sense it is very easy to see how some of the ideas underpinning Critical Religion could lend themselves to a simplistic racism and Orientalism.  For example, it is important to think about how we understand an imam in Timbuktu who says that ‘Since the beginning of time Timbuktu has been secular.  Timbuktu’s scholars have always accepted the other monotheistic religions.  After all, we all believe in the one God, each in our own way.’*  The CR scholar might protest: aren’t terms like ‘secular’ and ‘religions‘ (as opposed to ‘religion’, maybe) concepts that originate in a Western context, with little meaning in Islam?  And yet: essentialising Islam in such a way, as if Islam in Timbuktu were the same as in Mecca, Beirut, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Detroit, is a failure to understand the positionality of the imam.

We need to take his statement seriously: he knows what he means with this language, and whilst we might understand the interview with the Western journalist as framing his comments, we also need to understand the Butlerian turn here: he is not (just, or even at all) necessarily moulding his language to suit her, the journalist, but is seeking to articulate a position, and in the articulation itself there is also a movement.  Seeking to pursue a constructivist position as far as we can possibly take it enables us to hear the imam and understand his reworking of the terms that we thought we understood – he is repositioning these terms and this language in adopting it and making it his own.  Whilst it might be of historical interest that terms like ‘secular’ and ‘religions‘ originate in the West, understanding the re-positioning and re-use of these terms should enable us to begin to better understand those who might appear to be the Other, leaving the No true Scotsman fallacy and our essentialist historical notions behind.

* “Seit Anbeginn der Zeit war Timbuktu säkular. Die Gelehrten von Timbuktu haben die übrigen monotheistischen Religionen immer schon akzeptiert. Wir glauben schließlich alle an den einen Gott, jeder auf seine Weise.”

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2006.

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: The Politics of the Performative Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.