TUNISIAN FRENCH scholar Nadia Marzouki published a book in France in 2013 with the title L’Islam, une religion américaine? In 2017, the book was updated with the events of the Trump campaign and additional analysis and republished in the United States as Islam: An American Religion.
Somehow along the way, as religious studies scholar Winnifred Fallers Sullivan notes, the question mark was dropped. The reasons are not entirely clear. Did something dramatic happen during those four years, not just to Muslims but, more important, by Muslims? Was it a marketing gimmick by the new publisher, Columbia University Press?
Either way, it raises a fascinating question: What does it mean to be an American religion, and can Islam in America be said to constitute one?
IN HIS RECENT book American Covenant, Philip Gorski writes, “To be part of a tradition is to know certain stories, read certain books, admire certain people, and care about certain things. It is to knowingly enter into an ongoing conversation, a conversation that precedes one’s birth and continues on after one’s death.”
The civil religious tradition was first invoked regarding the United States by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967. Bellah spoke of it as the “religious dimension” of the “political realm” and the “founding myth” of our national community. It stands separate from people’s traditional faiths but draws freely from religious language to sacralize national symbols.
IN HIS BOOK The Islamophobia Industry, author Nathan Lean points out that two months after the attacks of 9/11, Pew research showed that 59 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Islam. That was a 14-point increase from a similar poll taken in March 2001, several months before the Twin Towers fell. This was likely because U.S. leaders, including President George W. Bush, stated publicly and repeatedly that Islam and Muslims were not to blame for terrorism—terrorists were.
By October 2010, nine years later, only 39 percent of Americans expressed a favorable view of Islam.
What accounted for this dramatic drop? Yes, Muslims committed 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil during that period, attacks that tragically took the lives of 33 people, but this hardly seems overwhelming in a nation that experienced 150,000 murders in the same time span. Lean concludes that the “spasm of Islamophobia that rattled through the American public is the product of a tight-knit and interconnected confederation of right-wing fear merchants ... the Islamophobia industry.”
The controversy the “industry” generated around Cordoba House (the original name for what became known as “the Ground Zero Mosque”) was its first taste of sustained mainstream public influence, but it would not be the last. A few years later, many denizens of this world were either in or orbiting the Trump campaign and later his White House. “Fringe, Sinister View of Islam Now Steers the White House” was how a New York Times headline described it.
Trump himself appears to embrace this worldview. During the presidential campaign, he repeatedly made comments such as “I think Islam hates us” and threatened to enact this worldview into policy.
I WAS ONCE on a panel with a counselor who proudly claimed her identity as a woman as the reason for her feminist approach to counseling. Toward the end of the discussion, she told the story of a client who frustrated her. A highly educated middle-aged mother of three, this woman (the client) had stepped off the career track to take care of her children. The children were now grown, and she had come to counseling to think through her next steps. My fellow panelist encouraged this client to claim her identity powerfully and express it in public fiercely. The client liked this idea. Some weeks later, she told her counselor that she had gone back to the Catholic church of her childhood and started to attend pro-life rallies.
“That wasn’t what I meant when I told her to claim her identity and express it in public,” the counselor deadpanned, and the liberal university audience laughed along with her.
The exchange left me feeling queasy. Here was a counselor purporting to empower the identity and expression of a client in a period of transition and then being disappointed that her client hadn’t chosen the identity and expression the counselor desired. And the public affirmation of the counselor in a room full of people who clearly shared her worldview felt doubly unsettling.
SOME TIME ago I took a long walk with a favorite professor of mine from the University of Illinois. I talked about how I’d turned my undergraduate activism in the campus diversity movement into a full-time career, and he told me an interesting story about identity.
The week before, he had needed to shift his 9 a.m. class to 8 a.m. because of a mid-morning appointment. He promised his students he’d bring in Panera to make up for dragging them out of bed so early. One of his students, a white kid from a rural area in Illinois, had asked, “What’s Panera?”
Everybody else in his highly diverse class knew what Panera was, he stated matter-of-factly, making that white student’s distinctive experience all the more striking. “Shouldn’t any campus diversity movement that takes identity seriously be open to her uniqueness?” he asked me.
I stifled a laugh and turned the conversation to another dimension of identity, one that I felt really mattered. Surely my professor friend knew that the assigned role of white people in campus diversity programs is to listen to the bigotry that people of color have experienced and apologize for the ways they have benefited from racist systems. The only time they are allowed to speak proactively is if they occupy one of the other “preferred” identities—if they are gay, or female, or have recently converted to a minority religion.
In the weeks since Donald Trump was elected president—in between being scared out of my mind about the violent attacks on ethnic and religious minorities in America (my kids’ names are Zayd and Khalil)—I’ve thought about that rural white student. The place she’s from voted overwhelmingly for Trump. I wonder if she did. I wonder why I never wondered much about her before.
THE ATTENTION generated by Captain Humayun Khan’s Iraq war activities (as related by his father, Khizr Khan, at the Democratic National Convention) is not the first time that a military story was used to try to tamp down prejudice against U.S. Muslims. In 2008, Gen. Colin Powell responded to the charges about Barack Obama being a Muslim by saying “What if he is?” Powell then cited the image of a mother hugging the gravestone of her American Muslim son at Arlington Cemetery as an illustration of Muslim contributions to the nation.
I respect Captain Khan’s military service. Yet I can’t stop thinking about an issue that his father reportedly raised with him when he was leaving for Iraq: Are you troubled at all by this war? Lots of Americans were, concerned both about the questionable evidence used to justify the war and the many lives that were sure to be destroyed during it.
As most soldiers would, Captain Khan stated that decisions about which wars to fight were above his pay grade.
But it does raise a question for those American Muslims who were disturbed enough by the contours of the Iraq war to withhold their support: Are there ways other than going to a war you don’t believe in to express your patriotism and be welcomed by your country?
I’d like to think that there are, and that American Muslims have in fact demonstrated them. Take Salman Hamdani, who was a young American Muslim emergency medical technician on his way to work on 9/11 when he saw the planes fly into the buildings. He rushed over to the site of the attacks to help whomever he could, and died in the rubble there. The police investigated him for possible ties to terrorism because of his Muslim faith and Pakistani heritage.
Shouldn’t sacrificing your life to rescue others merit the embrace of others in your country, or at least shield you from their suspicion?
I SPEAK ON about 25 college campuses a year, which affords me a front row seat for current trends in identity politics. One of the things I’ve noticed is that when people say they are engaged in “diversity work,” what they often mean is that they are busy mobilizing their preferred identity groups toward their approved politics. The main role they see for those on the other side is to be defeated.
But the real challenge of living in a diverse democracy is not dealing with the differences you like, it’s working with the differences you don’t like.
In his excellent new book, Confident Pluralism, John Inazu, a professor at Washington University Law School and board member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, takes a long look at how to do this, with special attention to religious differences.
Disagreements with regard to religious matters are some of the most challenging ones around. That’s because religion is about ultimate concerns. Not only do faith traditions deal with issues—creation, salvation, morality, human purpose—that are inherently ultimate in nature, they imbue matters that may otherwise be viewed as mundane with a sense of ultimacy. That’s not just a random group of people over there, that’s the church, or the umma. That’s not just any old piece of land, that’s the place where the Second Temple once stood, or where Lord Rama was born.
Inazu opens his book with a sobering quote from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned.”
He is reminding us right off the bat that the stakes could not be higher.
IN THE EARLY 20th century, a group of esteemed scholars gathered in a little northeastern pocket of their own making and concerned themselves with the question of finding a distinctly American music. Where was this music? How might it develop? Could there be, out there somewhere, an American Bach?
They looked far and wide in the places that they knew; they searched for faces that they might recognize; they listened deeply in the idioms with which they were familiar. And they came away disappointed.
Jazz critic Gary Giddins chortles as he recounts the tale, pointing out that if these American Brahmins had simply deigned to take a train south from Boston to New York City, and stepped into the Roseland Ballroom on a Thursday night, they would have experienced the American Bach, Dante, and Shakespeare all rolled into one: Louis Armstrong.
Born to a 15-year-old who sometimes worked as a prostitute, raised in a New Orleans neighborhood so violent it was known as “the Battlefield,” sent to a juvenile detention facility at 11 for firing a gun into the street—his early years would surely put him on the pipeline to prison today.
Had that occurred, the distinctly American music that Louis Armstrong created might never have happened. The American songbook, as we know it today, simply would not exist.
WHEN IT IS prayer time, Rami Nashashibi prays. His Muslim faith is the core of his life and work, inspiring the two decades of advocacy he has done on behalf of the poor and marginalized on the South Side of Chicago.
But when prayer time arrived on an unseasonably warm day in December, Nashashibi paused. It was just days after the terrible terrorist attack in San Bernardino, where extremists calling themselves Muslims murdered 14 people and injured many more. Nashashibi was in his neighborhood park with his three kids, and he found himself suddenly struck by fear at the thought of praying in public and therefore being openly identified as Muslim at a time when so many equated that term with terrorist.
That neighborhood park happened to be Marquette Park. Fifty years earlier another man of faith stood not far from where Nashashibi was standing, and he too felt fear. That man was Martin Luther King Jr. He had come to Chicago in 1966 to raise awareness about discriminatory housing practices on the South Side. His march through Marquette Park was met with racist sneers and vigilante violence. A brick thrown his way actually hit him in the head and brought him to his knees.
IT IS A SAD truth that presidential election seasons widen our divisions. The candidates seem to view veering toward the extremes as a mark of “patriotism.” That ethic gets reflected in our broader political discourse.
This is dangerous stuff in a diverse democracy. The heart of the American idea is that different groups can advance divergent interests and still collectively see themselves as one people. Princeton philosopher Jeffrey Stout puts it this way: “[Democracy] takes for granted that reasonable people will differ in their conceptions of piety, in their grounds for hope, in their ultimate concerns, and in their speculations about salvation. Yet it holds that people who differ on such matters can still exchange reasons with one another intelligibly, cooperate in crafting political arrangements that promote justice and decency in their relations with one another, and do both of these things without compromising their integrity.”
He calls this process of relating across differences building a “civic nation.” In the pursuit of that high value, here is a personal story of building relationships across deep religious differences.
MY WIFE’S PARENTS are moderately observant Muslims. For many years, they lived in a Chicago suburb next to an evangelical Christian family who homeschooled their three girls. At first, the two families were pleasant to each other but had little contact. Things changed when, one year when my wife and I were visiting for Eid prayers, the girls next door poked their heads over the wooden fence and invited our boys to come over and play. Our boys whooped happily and went.
This of course meant all of us adults trooped across the driveway and properly introduced ourselves to the neighbors. We collectively overheard a fascinating interfaith conversation in the backyard, our oldest son Zayd explaining that he got out of school today to celebrate Eid, a holiday that Muslims believe in because we believe in the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. The neighbor’s oldest daughter responded that they go to school at home so they can follow a Christian curriculum because they believe in Jesus and the Bible. We adults shifted uncomfortably as we listened, knowing full well the doctrinal issues at stake. “Looks like someone learned something in religion class this week,” somebody commented, allowing nervous laughter to break out.
POPE FRANCIS arrived in the United States amid a flurry of talk about Muslims. There was Ben Carson’s statement that he would not want a Muslim to be president. There was The Donald’s promise that a Trump administration would look into the supposed network of Muslim terrorist training camps in the United States. And there was young Ahmed Mohamed in Texas, who got suspended from school and shackled in handcuffs when his science project was mistaken for a bomb. Maybe the police were concerned that he’d designed it in one of those fictitious terrorist camps.
It appears that many Americans are in a panic about the prospect of a Muslim takeover.
Domination by a foreign religion is an old anxiety in America. As we hang on every word Pope Francis utters, it is interesting to note that for much of our history a driving fear was that Catholics would amass significant political power and the pope would fly his flag at the White House. “Our freedom, our religious freedom, is at stake if we elect a member of the Roman Catholic order as president of the United States,” Norman Vincent Peale warned in September 1960 about John F. Kennedy’s candidacy.
With 30 percent of Congress now claiming to be Catholic, six Catholics sitting on the Supreme Court, several Catholics occupying high office (including the vice president, the secretary of state, and the speaker of the House), and a pope with much to say about major policy issues, that particular apocalypse appears to have arrived.
Mostly, it has been met with applause. The papal flag was indeed flying at the White House during the pope’s arrival ceremony—several thousand of them in fact, more than a few in the hands of the many non-Catholics in attendance. Recent surveys show that Catholics, along with Jews and mainline Protestants, are among the most well-liked religious groups in the United States.
THIS YEAR MARKS the 50th anniversary of the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, the 1965 proclamation on “the relation of the church with non-Christian religions.” I want to celebrate a great theologian whose life intersects with that moment and whose work exemplifies its ethic.
Paul Knitter grew up in a strong working-class Catholic family on the South Side of Chicago and felt the call to the priesthood in his early teens. After four years of seminary high school and two years of additional novitiate training, he joined the Divine Word Missionaries (or SVD), an order whose main work was bringing non-Catholics into the Catholic faith. His regular prayers included the line “May the darkness of sin and the night of heathenism vanish before the light of the Word and the Spirit of grace.”
Reflecting back on this practice in his book One World, Many Religions, Knitter writes: “We had the Word and Spirit; they had sin and heathenism. We were the loving doctors; they were the suffering patients.”
Knitter’s journey took a number of unexpected turns. As he sat with the other seminarians listening to the stories of returned SVD missionaries, he discovered that he was fascinated by the slide shows of Hindu rituals and Buddhist ceremonies. He even detected a hint of admiration in the voices of older SVD priests as they described the elaborate non-Christian religious systems that they encountered on their missions. One brought in an Indian dance group and explained that their performance was developed in a Hindu context but had been adapted to glorify Jesus. Knitter was entranced by the intricacy of the movements, and he found himself wondering whether “sin and heathenism” were the correct terms for a tradition that could inspire such beauty.
IN A BID to relive our traveling days, my best friend from college and I took a weekend road trip to Berea, Ky., to check out a folk music festival. We got to be dancing fools again for one beautiful, moonlit night, imbibing hippie music to our hearts’ content.
We also got a heart full of something else—a little thing called the American Dream.
In addition to being home to a cool new music festival, that little holler in Kentucky is home to Berea College. I’ve stepped foot on more than 100 campuses in my 10-plus years running Interfaith Youth Core. Berea is unique.
Maybe it’s because it was started in 1855 by a slave owner’s son as an interracial, co-educational school seeking to live out the school’s motto, drawn from the book of Acts, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” Maybe it’s because the admission requirements include being smart, being willing to work hard, and being poor. Maybe it’s because the tuition is free. Maybe it’s because all students have a 10-hour-a-week campus job, ranging from office work to janitorial work.
Yes, you read all that right. A man whose family owned slaves took the Bible seriously enough to risk his life to start a college that educated blacks and whites and men and women, together, a decade before the civil war came to a close.