It is increasingly common, in the streets of the great Brazilian cities, for Muslim women to walk in their typical costumes. Strangeness is inevitable: what woman, in her right mind, would give up the freedom conquered over so many centuries? Hence the central question: why is the growth of Islam so frightening to the West? Devin Singh, author of Divine Currency – The Theological Power of Money in the West, and professor of religion studies in Dartmouth, United States, explains. The focus of this interview also lies on religion’s relation to money, subject in which Singh is a doctor. What does Islam have that we lack? Should we even fear him? Exclusively to FAUSTO.
FAUSTO – In Soumission, by Houellebecq, the significant increase in salary leads characters to consider sympathetically the conversion to Islam. In the end, what really counts in securing the future?
Devin Singh: I have not read the book so cannot speak in any informed way about it, but I do have concerns with the potential islamophobia that it may represent. Theorists have been speaking for some time about the sense of loss of community in the West, the erosion of traditional social ties, and the sense of anomie that results. Money and economic transactions are often seen as part of the cause of this. Islam is one of many types of symbols to channel that fear and sense of loss.
Islam represents an alternative pattern of community, one that is threatening precisely because it offers a sense of meaning and belonging that is supposedly disappearing from Europe. It makes sense that monetary relations would be one signal of this, as the novel suggests. Here the increase in salary is a sign of the hope for a new form of communal relation represented in the specter of Islam.
To understand international politics is it essential to understand religion?
Absolutely. Religion is a highly determinative aspect of culture and a force that has shaped nations and communities. Failure to pay attention to religion and naivete around it lead to many blind spots in international relations and politics. While it is obvious in the world today in some conflicts where religion is explicitly invoked (e.g., the Middle East, the Balkans, etc.), we need to pay attention to how religion still operates beneath the surface in supposedly “secular” political struggles.
To understand religion is it imperative to understand economics?
Again, I think so, absolutely. This is less widely accepted, of course. But in my research I explore how religion is shaped by economic ideas and practices—and vice versa. We cannot fully appreciate or understand the impact of religion without paying attention to how it interacts with economics.
For example, the conflict between the U.S. and Venezuela today can be seen as economic and political—and certainly it is. But one cannot understand the U.S. attitude toward communism and state socialism without also analyzing the fear of atheism that these politics and economics represent to Americans. The Cold War was an ideological battled that put religion at the center, and it still operates today.
How important is it for religion itself – whichever it is – that literature incites debate?
This answer depends on what we mean by religion and what religious traditions we consider. But many religions are oriented to texts (whether sacred scripture or informal teachings) and there will always be debates about interpretation. Some have even suggested that what creates a religious tradition is this history of debate and disagreement around texts, teaching, meaning, and interpretation. In this sense, it is absolutely important that literature incites debate, for this is what gives such religion ongoing life.
Why do we see the growth of Islam in the West as a threat?
Those that see it as a threat do so for many reasons, no doubt. A major reason, as I suggested earlier, is that it has come to represent or symbolize an alternative way to arrange community, social relationships, ultimate meaning, economy, and power. Whether or not it really is being represented accurately is not the issue in this case, because it has become a symbol and a place to project our own anxieties and senses of failure in the West. Just like a scapegoat becomes the object that receives all senses of sin, guilt, anger, and fear from a community, Islam is the current channel to direct our own dissatisfaction with our societies.
Do we have an “economic fear” of this growth either or only because of violence and moral restraints?
Jews were blamed for the economic crises faced by Germany during the rise of the Third Reich (and certainly before this and throughout the Middle Ages). Cultural others are often demonized because of their supposedly economic impact. Most of the public debate today around Islam cites concerns around Shari‘ah law and the other moral restraints you mention. Economics doesn’t appear as centrally. But it is certainly in the background as one source of fear and blame. Ironically, some theorists have suggested that Islamic banking practices might have prevented the financial crisis of 2007-8, so we may have much to learn economically from Islam.
Is it naive to think that politics and religion are two separate issues?
Ultimately, yes, it is naïve. It may be useful to use different ways of speaking when we want to talk about the ideas and practices we associate with politics versus religion. But it is unhelpful to keep a rigid boundary between the two. Politics and religion have been shaping and relying upon one another for as long as there have been politics and religion. Ultimately, both deal with questions of power, force, choice, legitimacy, and suffering.
Does money in the hands of religious leaders have dichotomous meaning? Can it have both a “godly aura” and be a curse, depending on the interest of who controls the narrative?
Always. While I think it is an overstatement to say that money is simply a neutral tool (since it is inescapably linked to centers of political power), the ways money is described largely depend on the narratives of those who wield it. In the early church, when Jesus communities were largely of the poor and marginalized, money was depicted as a danger to the soul. Money was demonized. Once these communities began to include wealthy members, and once bishops were charged with managing donated funds for the church and the poor, more godly uses of wealth emerged. In other words, the narrative shifted to make room for the increased presence of money, and church communities recognized that they could not be sustained long term without some use of money.
Existential questions form the basis of all religions, although religions are not the only ones to give answers. Philosophy, for example, fills this gap. Money does, too, in a way. Religion, however, accesses something in us that neither philosophy nor money access. Can you tell what it is?
Traditional definitions of religion claim that it speaks to matters of ultimate concern, or points to aspects of human experience not easily observed or explained by empirical realities.
Yes, there is an abyss of possibilities for arguments…
Typically, philosophy has distinguished itself from religion by claiming to deal with empirical realities or with matters that can be fully explained through reason. While religion certainly uses reason, it may venture into realms not accessible to reason as we know it, and make appeals to something set apart as distinct from day-to-day reality which has been called the sacred. Interestingly, both religion and money deal very much with matters of desire, as well as with hope and future expectations. This is why they can so often merge together. The struggle between religion and money is that each makes claims about what will bring happiness and satisfaction, and it is often difficult to reconcile the visions they each provide.
What led you to write Divine Currency – The Theological Power of Money in the West?
I have long been fascinated with the connections between religion and economics. From personal life experience as well as study, I have seen how both realms have tremendous impact and shape societies profoundly. While studying these connections, I came to discover how complicated money is and how theorists have struggled for centuries to understand and define it. Part of the challenge of understanding money is that it includes symbolic power and interacts with human hopes and dreams of survival and flourishing. In this sense, we might say there is no truly secular money. Money and religion always overlap. I wrote this book to begin to uncover some of these ancient links between the two and help us understand why money continues to have such sacred power today.