Islam’s Problem Has Nothing to do with Islam

I second John’s question and raise him a question. What am I missing about Islam that has so many people acting like Muslims are like United Methodists? I don’t mean to imply that all Muslims are terrorists any more than all Methodists follow John Wesley. But for Never Trumpers to argue about Islamophobia as if fears of Muslims are irrational — precisely forty years into various forms of Islamic terrorism, and while ISIS has been a major source of news coverage — is well nigh extraordinary.

Did anyone remember, for instance, when Graeme Wood wrote a piece not in the American Spectator but in Atlantic Monthly about ISIS’ Islamic convictions?

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

Now if you want to distance the Muslim Brotherhood from terrorism, fine. But that doesn’t get you the faculty of Harvard University:

It’s fine to think that the Muslim Brotherhood is bad, terrible, authoritarian, or illiberal (in my book on the Egyptian and Jordanian Brotherhoods from the 1980s till today, I highlight the group’s illiberal nature at length). Eric Trager, who I have disagreed with quite strongly on matters relating to the Brotherhood, has called it more akin to a “hate group.” But even he has written against designation. The Brotherhood’s badness, one way or the other, has no bearing on whether or not it is a terrorist organization. Being a terrorist organization involves, among other things, ordering your members to commit terrorist attacks, something no one argues the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is doing.

Even promotional copy for events featuring two of the most western friendly and thoughtful interpreters of Islam, Mustafa Akyol and Shadi Hamid, notice that Muslim societies are not places where Washington Post editors send their children for university:

Predominantly Muslim societies suffer from low levels of political, economic, and civil liberties. Authoritarian political regimes, rigid social structures, and radical religious movements that suppress human liberty in the name of God loom large in the Muslim world. Is this liberty deficit due to a “dark age” of Islam, which can be overcome with reform and a different religious interpretation? Can Islam make its peace with liberal democracy, as Christianity and other religions did after their own illiberal ages? Or is there something different about Islam, making it inherently incompatible with a secular government and a free society? Mustafa Akyol, a longtime defender of “Islamic liberalism,” is optimistic. Shadi Hamid is more pessimistic, arguing that Islam is “exceptional,” in the sense of being essentially resistant to liberalism.

Maybe you want to claim that it’s all a matter of interpretation — some truth there — but that still leaves you having to distinguish better from worse versions of Islam according western liberal standards, which in and of itself means Islam is not United Methodism.

For that reason, it’s a little rich when Michael Schulson writes as if the problems of perception that surround Islam are really the constructions of President Trump and his advisers:

It is difficult to think of a definition of religion that does not include Islam — an ancient tradition with practitioners who believe in one God, pray and try to live their lives in accordance with a scripture.

So why has this particular canard taken off?

Wajahat Ali, a writer, attorney, and the lead author of “Fear, Inc.,” a report on American Islamophobia, traces the idea’s recent surge to anti-Islam activists David Yerushalmi and Frank Gaffney. In 2010, Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy published a report, “Shariah: The Threat to America,” arguing that Muslim religious law, or sharia, was actually a dangerous political ideology that a cabal of Muslims hoped to impose on the United States.

“Though it certainly has spiritual elements, it would be a mistake to think of shariah as a ‘religious’ code in the Western sense,” the report argued. It also suggested banning “immigration of those who adhere to shariah … as was previously done with adherents to the seditious ideology of communism.”

“They misdefine sharia in a way which is not recognizable to any practicing Muslim,” Ali said. But the idea was influential. By the summer of 2011, more than two dozen states were considering anti-sharia legislation. More recently, Gaffney reportedly advised Trump’s transition team.

For many Americans, confusion about religious law, political ideology and sharia may reflect a distinctly Christian, and especially Protestant, way of thinking about the nature of religion.

“It’s hard to talk about this sometimes because there is no equivalent of sharia in the Christian tradition,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.” “Even when you’re talking to well-intentioned, well-meaning people who really want to understand, explaining sharia is very challenging because there’s nothing in Christianity that’s quite like it.”

Actually, Christianity does have its equivalent. The mainstream media has called them theocons and Damon Linker, who wrote a book by that title, copped the plea:

Bannon and the intellectuals Neuhaus regularly published in First Things share the conviction that, at a fundamental level, the United States is a Christian nation — not just in the sense that an overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, but also in the sense that the country’s highest ideals and convictions (above all, about individual rights and innate human dignity) derive from a Catholic-Christian inheritance the vitality of which must be actively fostered and promoted by the culture. The two groups also tend to view the threat posed by Islamic terrorism in terms of a civilizational clash between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West (or “Christendom”).

But that’s where the continuities end.

At their best, the original theocons followed a tradition of Christian political reflection that insisted on placing the nation under the guidance and judgment of a transcendent God (and his extra-political Church) that stands apart from all this-worldly communities. That was in fact the theme of Neuhaus’ final book, published shortly after his death from cancer in early 2009.

Bannon, by contrast, tends to treat religious affiliation wholly as a function of ethno-national identity: “We” in the West must affirm our Christian identity or we will be overrun by dangerous outsiders (Islamists) who will impose a different identity upon us. In this respect, Bannon’s position is closer to Eastern Orthodoxy (and Russian Orthodoxy in particular), with its sanctioning of an official ethno-national church that mediates between individual believers and the Godhead.

Yet, to Linker’s credit, he can tell the difference between a good theocon and a fear-inspiring one, unlike many social justice types who think the campus of Princeton University is just like Ferguson, Missouri. I do wonder, though, if he remembers how his editors at Doubleday trumped up his book?

Do you believe the Catholic Church should be actively intervening in American politics on the side of the Republican Party?

Do you believe the federal government should be channeling billions of tax dollars a year to churches and other religious organizations?

Do you believe a microscopic clump of cells in a petri dish possesses the same rights that you possess?

Do you believe a doctor who performs abortions — and a woman who chooses to have an abortion — should be arrested and charged with murder?

Do you believe the public schools should actively teach children to doubt the scientific theory of evolution?

Do you believe legally available contraception is producing a “culture of death” in the United States?

Do you believe that the United States should be a Christian nation?

Do you fear Christians because you don’t fear Muslims?

No reason to fear Islam, no not one. Just think professional boxing and the NBA:

Can we imagine an America without Muhammad Ali, who was born Cassius Clay in Louisville and gained national fame when he won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 as a light heavyweight boxer? In 1964, Clay defeated Sonny Liston, becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion. A few years earlier, Clay had gone to Nation of Islam meetings. There, he met Malcolm X, who as a friend and advisor was part of Clay’s entourage for the Liston fight. Clay made his conversion public after the fight, and was renamed by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad as Muhammad Ali.

When he was reclassified as eligible for induction into the draft for the Vietnam War, Ali refused on the grounds of his new Muslim religious beliefs. Famously, reflecting on the racism he had experienced in America, Ali said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me ni**er.” His conscientious objector status was rooted in the teachings of the Nation of Islam, as Elijah Muhammad had earlier been jailed for his refusal to enter the draft in the Second World War.

. . . Or think of my other great hero, another American Muslim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The greatest basketball coach ever, the late John R. Wooden, thought that Kareem was the greatest basketball player ever. In his three years of eligibility under Coach Wooden at UCLA, Kareem was three-time player of the year, three-time finals MVP, and three-time NCAA champion. In other words, he had three perfect seasons while he earned his degree. He lost the same number of games at UCLA—two—that he did in high school.

Kareem converted to Islam in 1971, and excelled in the pros just as much as he did in college or high school. All in all, he won six NBA championships and six NBA MVP awards, was a nineteen-time all-star, and remains the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Combine that pro record with his three NCAA championships, and I don’t know how you can make the case for anyone else as the greatest basketball player of all time.

Christmas as Old School Presbyterianism’s Coexist Moment

Mustafa Akyol’s column on Christmas in Turkey revealed that paleo-Calvinists share much in common with conservative Muslims and Jews during the holiday season:

Islamists in Turkey, every year, come out on the streets or in their media with the slogan, “Muslims do not do Christmas.” Of course, they have every right to not to celebrate a religious feast that is not a part of their religion. But they not only refrain from Christmas; they also protest it.

In fact, those Islamists of Turkey, and other likeminded Christmas-despisers, often “do not know what they are doing,” to quote the noble words of the very person whose birthday is at question here. They typically condemn Santa Claus costumes and Christmas trees as signs of “Western cultural imperialism.” But Christianity is not merely Western; it is also African, Asian and, in fact, global.

Hmm. Christmas as a global solvent of local Reformed Protestant teachings and practices. Go figure.

Jews — ya think? — have similar problems with Christmas.

Israel, too, seems to have a similar problem.

I read about this in an Al-Jazeera English story titled, “Israeli rabbis launch war on Christmas tree.” It reported how the Jerusalem rabbinate issued a letter warning hotels in the city that “it is ‘forbidden’ by Jewish religious law to erect a tree or stage New Year’s parties.” In Haifa, a rabbi, Elad Dokow, went even further, called the Christmas tree “idolatry,” and warned that it was a “pagan” symbol that violated the kosher status buildings.

At a time when New Calvinists heighten their sensitivity to Muslims and Jews, when will they show a little concern for Old Calvinists?

When Calvinists Impersonate Muslims

Why does this description of Islam sound familiar?

So I think ISIS is a wakeup call for all Muslims, especially Islamists who see no problem in mixing religion with politics. You want sharia? You want Islam to “conquer” and “dominate”? This is what you get. And when you say, “No, no, that is not real Islam,” you easily become the “apostate” of the “real Islam” that the other guys believe in.

Look at how this works for 2k and neo-Calvinism:

So I think ISIS theonomy is a wakeup call for all Muslims Calvinists, especially Islamists transformationalists who see no problem in mixing religion with politics. You want sharia the Bible? You want Islam Christ to “conquer” and “dominate” every square inch? This is what you get. And when you say, “No, no, that is not real Islam Calvinism,” you 2 kingdoms easily become the “apostate” of the “real Islam Calvinism” that the other guys believe in.

We're Closer to Turkey than You Think?

This may be the most important context for considering the controversy over Islam at Wheaton College, namely, that Americans themselves are not all that comfortable with secularity and Islam reveals where the lumps in the mattress are. Rod Dreher quoted a poignant part of Ross Douthat’s column on how the West views Islam, as either as conservatives believe “radically incompatible with Western liberal democracy, and can never be reconciled to it; or, as many liberals believe, it is capable of assimilating to become as tame and non-threatening as most forms of Christianity and Judaism in the West.” In the Protestant world, either Larycia Hawkins or Tim Bayly. According to Douthat:

The good news is that there is space between these two ideas. The bad news is that we in the West can’t seem to agree on what that space should be, or how Christianity and Judaism, let alone Islam, should fit into it.

Devout Muslims watching current Western debates, for instance, might notice that some of the same cosmopolitan liberals who think of themselves as Benevolent Foes of Islamophobia are also convinced that many conservative Christians are dangerous crypto-theocrats whose institutions and liberties must give way whenever they conflict with liberalism’s vision of enlightenment.

They also might notice that many of the same conservative Christians who fear that Islam is incompatible with democracy are wrestling with whether their own faith is compatible with the direction of modern liberalism, or whether Christianity needs to enter a kind of internal exile in the West.

It almost sounds like Turkey’s war between Islamic friendly politicians and secularists, from a piece quoted sometime back from Mustafa Akyol:

As you probably well know, Turkey has long been stressed by political tension between religious conservatives and secular nationalists, the latter also known as the Kemalists. However, that main fault line is somewhat passé these days given the emergence of a new kind of tension between the religious conservatives who had triumphed together in (OR: previous) tension from years gone by. This time, it is the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and the powerful Fethullah Gülen Movement that are at odds with each other. . . .

The term I translated here as “referee” (“hakem”) is a powerful word in Islam, referring to a neutral and fair judge who can settle disputes. And it is interesting that Ms. Eraslan, a pious, headscarf-wearing Muslim, thinks that this “referee” may be none other than secularism. Of course, this would not be the type of secularism that Turkey’s Kemalists have imposed for decades. That peculiar ideology, called “laiklik” (from the French laïcité), was based on the assumption that there was something wrong with religion and therefore it needed to be suppressed by the state.

What Ms. Eraslan probably implied, and what Turkey indeed needs, is a more American-like secularism. In other words, it should be based on the recognition that there is a problem not with religion, but with the concentration of political power.

Unlike Turkey, though, and the conflict between religion and laicite, could the struggle in the U.S. be the one that animated fundamentalists and modernists during the 1920s? The political left in the United States, like modernists, does not advocate the removal of religion from public life. They like religion (think Martin Luther King, Jr.). Jim Wallis is not a threat to them.

So too, the right also likes religion of the right sort (see what I did there?). It used to be Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. Now it’s Rick Santorum and Kim Davis.

The problem is that both left and right embrace a form of American exceptionalism that needs religion to endow the United States with a righteous or holy purpose.

In that case, if we are still living with the dynamics of the fundamentalist controversy, has the United States learned lessons it can pass on to the Muslim world?

Thought Experiment

After reading Mustafa Akyol:

On this latter issue, however, President Rouhani Obama spoke recently in a tone very different from what Iranians Americans are used to hearing from their leaders. At a gathering with police commanders, he said, “Police do not have a duty to enforce Islam Christianity. No police officer can do something and say he did it because God commanded it or the prophet said Bible says so. It has nothing to do with the police.”

As an example, Rouhani Obama mentioned the imposition of daily prayer by the police. He said, “Can police interfere in this? Can he come into a bank and tell the bank’s president, ‘Close your doors, it’s noon and it’s the call to prayer.’ If someone is praying, can they go to him and say ‘Why did you pray fast?’ This has nothing to do with the police.”

As one could expect, these words raised objections from Iran’s the United States’ more conservative scholars, who believe that the state should be the agency of “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong.” This is an oft-repeated concept in the Quran Old Testament and it is the basis of all authoritarian Muslim theonomic institutions and attitudes. However, at least in our modern age, this authoritarianism in the name of religion does not nurture what it seeks to achieve, which is religiosity. Rather, it nurtures something quite distasteful from the Quranic biblical point of view: hypocrisy.

For if people pray because policemen come to their door and check them, then this means they will pray in fear not of God but of the police. They will worship not out of a genuine will to honor God but out of a social necessity.

This is why all “Islamic” states of our day and age attempts at Christendom nurture hypocritical societies, where many people behave as though they are pious when they are under the control of the authorities, but behave quite differently when they are free. The Islamic Christian goal, however, should be to raise individuals who are willingly to be pious when they are free, as they should always be.

Turkey In the Middle

The trip to Turkey for college honors students will not include the Harts this year — a seminar in Rome conflicts with the Turkey trip. But I continue to follow Turkish developments while finding Ottoman and Turkish history fascinating for teaching and reflection on the West and the relations between religion and secularity. (Have I mentioned that Orhan Pamuk is a gifted writer?)

Turkey is the place where East meets West. For many centuries East stood for Islam and West for Christianity (first Eastern then Roman). For the last century East has stood for Turkishness (a secular construct thanks to Ataturk and the Kemalists, who borrowed freely from the French Revolution’s laïcité) and West has stood for post-Christian secularism. The latest wrinkle in East-West Turkisk relations is an Islamic ruling party that is pro-development in a way that would make the Cato Institute happy and has led journalists to coin the term Islamo-Calvinist, a party in addition that has also sought admission to the European Union after how many decades of being a good ally in NATO. But for all of these ties between Turkey and the West, Islam apparently continues to be the stumbling block. A recent op-ed from the Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet Daily News, put it this way:

At the end of the day, being a practicing Muslim and using religion for political gains may not be mutually exclusive for some politicians. It all depends on how you look at religion and politics. But this type of questioning among Europeans demonstrates the state of confusion about Erdoğan.

In the early days of his prime ministry, he was welcomed by European leaders and applauded as the great reformer of Turkey. At one stage, even U.S. president Barack Obama said Erdoğan was among the three of four leaders he kept talking on the phone.

Nowadays, Erdoğan’s popularity has taken a dive among Western leaders. “When there is a problem in Europe, one leader takes up the phone and calls the other one and has a frank discussion. But with Erdoğan, there is no leader willing to talk to him directly about issues of concern,” a European diplomat told me. . . . What had separated Turkey from Middle Eastern, Arab, Muslim countries, despite living in the same geography as them, was the fact that we had a leadership that – as a NATO and Council of Europe member and as an EU candidate – at least tried to talk the same language as Europe. Now we have a leadership that increasingly talks a different language than Europeans. It’s no wonder that it was Rusian President Vladimir Putin who was the only one rushing to congratulate Erdoğan after his local election victory in March.

And yet, Erdoğan’s Islamic outlook (at least an Ottomanian version thereof) may actually be responsible for his unthinkable outreach to Armenians. Here is how Mustafa Akyol explained Erdoğan’s almost-apology:

. . . let me also note that this relatively more open-minded stance on “the Armenian issue” by Erdoğan and his party, compared to the rigidity of former political elites of Turkey, has some ideological roots as well. In a nutshell, Erdoğan’s “Ottomanism” simply gives him more room to be reformist vis-a-vis the Armenians (and the Kurds, for that matter), than the “Turkish nationalism” that the former elites subscribed to.

The reason is “Ottomanism” implies a broad umbrella under which Turks co-existed peacefully with other peoples of the empire, including the Armenians and the Kurds. The tragic expulsion of Armenians in 1915 was not an outcome of this pluralist Ottoman paradigm. It was an outcome of the fall of that paradigm. The Young Turks, who decided on the exodus, were subscribers of a new ideology called “Turkish nationalism,” which was, as one must see, a response to the Serbian, Greek and Bulgarian nationalisms of the Balkans.

Soon after the foundation of the Republic, the more secularist version of the Young Turk ideology evolved into Kemalism and became the official creed. Today, Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), which had defeated the Kemalist establishment, is building a post-Kemalist Turkey. In this view, the expulsion of Armenians and the forced assimilation of the Kurds are historic mistakes that should be corrected.

In short, the very ideology of the AKP allows itself to take formerly unthinkable steps to reconcile with the Kurds and Armenians.

In other words, Turkey’s Islamic past, seasoned as it was with encounters with the West, is capable of magnanimity that Europeans still find difficult (at least when it comes to Muslims).

I’m not pretending to be an expert on any of this, but when it comes to thinking about Christianity and the West, America as a “Christian nation,” religion in the public square, and the “forces” of secularization, throwing Islam and the Turks into the discussion always complicates categories. And recognizing the complexity of the world and humans’ experience of it should be a welcome priority for all those who measure life in square inches.

Turkey Needs the United States (not for the reasons you think)

Do politicized Christians in the United States understand what Turkish Muslims are recognizing, that it’s not the morality but the scale of the government? Ponder this from Mustafa Akyol:

As you probably well know, Turkey has long been stressed by political tension between religious conservatives and secular nationalists, the latter also known as the Kemalists. However, that main fault line is somewhat passé these days given the emergence of a new kind of tension between the religious conservatives who had triumphed together in (OR: previous) tension from years gone by. This time, it is the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and the powerful Fethullah Gülen Movement that are at odds with each other.

This new tension, like the old one, includes lots of mind-boggling details and jaw-dropping conspiracy theories. However, like the old one, it actually renders down to a simple question: the nature, and the masters, of the state. Since we have such an all-powerful and all-encompassing Leviathan, its control is a matter of life-and-death. Hence come all our bitter and zealous power struggles.

Another element in this new political tension is the Islamic credentials both sides have, according to their somewhat similar yet still distinct interpretations of religion. This religious element inspires a strong sense self-righteousness and causes the tension to get deeper and deeper.

But is there no way out? An interesting perspective came from an Islamic intellectual, Sibel Eraslan, who is a renowned novelist and a columnist for the conservative daily Star. She wrote:

“The [Gülen] Community-AKP conflict invites us to think more seriously on ‘secularism’… [because] the fight for political space and power among the pious forces us to look for a new referee.”

The term I translated here as “referee” (“hakem”) is a powerful word in Islam, referring to a neutral and fair judge who can settle disputes. And it is interesting that Ms. Eraslan, a pious, headscarf-wearing Muslim, thinks that this “referee” may be none other than secularism. Of course, this would not be the type of secularism that Turkey’s Kemalists have imposed for decades. That peculiar ideology, called “laiklik” (from the Frenchlaïcité), was based on the assumption that there was something wrong with religion and therefore it needed to be suppressed by the state.

What Ms. Eraslan probably implied, and what Turkey indeed needs, is a more American-like secularism. In other words, it should be based on the recognition that there is a problem not with religion, but with the concentration of political power.