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Muslim Progressives

Paul Rowan Brian (“Muslims in American Politics,” November) has deftly laid bare the source of Muslims’ predicament in the United States: their profound anxiety over being accepted as “real” Americans, and the tendency of this anxiety to overcome their confidence in the truth of their religious principles. Muslims’ need for acceptance is what makes the flattery of the left so tempting to them, and the malice of many on the right so unbearable.

I witnessed this recently at a Catholic institution, during a panel discussion about the harm of American courts’ recognition of same-sex ­marriage. Two Muslims accompanied me: one an American-born college student of Pakistani descent, and the other a Nigerian visitor to America. As a Muslim I found I disagreed with almost nothing in the panel discussion, and my Nigerian friend was excited to find Catholic Americans who still held to traditional notions of marriage and the human person.

But my Pakistani-American companion left the event furious. During the Q&A, an elderly woman in the audience had in passing made a slightly disparaging remark about Muslims, and for my friend, this had poisoned the entire two-hour discussion. “I don’t ever want to be in these white people’s space again,” he ­blurted. A fascinating exchange followed: For nearly an hour, my ­Nigerian companion, a visitor to America unburdened by an identity crisis, tried and failed to convince a Pakistani-American that he should have the confidence to overlook insults for the benefit of working with those who shared his values.

Islam teaches that God is one, that he created the children of Adam with a noble nature, and that worshipping him includes fulfilling our rights and responsibilities toward one another. Without confidence in these truths, Muslims will continue to be consumed with pain over the right’s skepticism and disdain, will keep accepting the left’s offer of approval in exchange for the souls of their children, and will continue to stagnate as a secular victim identity group. Without confidence in these truths, Muslims will never find the creativity and vigor to fulfill the divine command: to work with people of all faiths to heal America’s soul and body, and leave this land better than it was when they found it.

Ismail Royer
religious freedom institute
washington, d.c.

Paul Rowan Brian’s assertion that some Muslim leaders have “softened” on LGBT issues in the face of a barrage from the left needs some correction. Yes, some popular Muslim activists couch their rhetoric on social issues in the language of intersectionality. But no traditional, mainstream American Muslim scholar or theologian has given religious legitimacy to the gay agenda, so ironclad is the Shari’a on the sinful nature of the homosexual act. Theology, however, is one thing; pastoral care something else entirely. “Come as you are, to Islam as it is,” goes a teaching from the Ta’leef Collective, a popular initiative that serves converts and those who feel excluded from the insular culture of many mosques.

Yes, many Muslims have signed a Mephistophelean deal with the left in exchange for safe haven from MAGA’s gaping jaws—the price being an elision of Islam’s normative stances against homosexual acts, wanton hedonism, drugs, alcohol, and more. And as Brian rightly argues, traditional Muslims do tend to agree with social conservatives on issues such as marriage, sexuality, and family values.

That said, do traditional Muslims and the left make for an “odd couple,” as Brian puts it? Though they trend socially conservative, traditional Muslims endorse many positions associated with the left that enjoy solid theological backing. In the realm of economics, some degree of wealth distribution is seemingly supported by Islam’s required alms-tax (zakāt) for the poor. On foreign policy, only the progressive left dares criticize Israel’s draconian policies against Palestinians and provocations at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It was the left that fought the Muslim ban, and which has been most vocal against institutional racism. This is significant: A substantial portion of American Muslims are black, and racial equality was a fundamental teaching of Muhammad, featuring prominently in his Farewell Sermon. In short: Muslims overwhelmingly vote left, but it’s not solely because the left is nice and the right is scary. The GOP, and American social conservatism more generally, would have to do a lot more than cease the anti-Muslim invective if they are interested in seriously engaging America’s diverse Muslim community.

American Muslims still lack political acumen, and various factions are only now taking shape. Some lean more left, others more right. Some of the most interesting thinkers, however, refuse the binary. Muslim scholars such as Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Yahya Rhodus, and Karim Lahham have encouraged Muslims to return to the Qur’anic call for man as “steward upon Earth,” and have preached uniquely Muslim takes on ideas such as localism, permaculture, and subsidiarity. Islamist thinkers have attempted to articulate an approach to politics that should resonate with some Catholic integralists. And ­Zaytuna College in Berkeley is trying to mix the best of Islam with a classical liberal education to forge a class of morally committed American Muslim public intellectuals. These are just some of the ways American Muslims have been mining their ­tradition for solutions beyond mere electoral politics.

Despite the real theological differences between them, serious, tradition-minded Muslims and serious, tradition-minded Christians share many of the same challenges. A reconfiguration of this relationship—from one of historical animus to one of principled and respectful cooperation—could have serious implications for the shape of American politics and society.

Rashid Dar
macungie, pennsylvania

Paul Rowan Brian seems to think that Muslim “orthodoxy” is uncompromisingly anti-liberal, but this is demonstrably not the case. Muslim orthodoxy, even in pre-modern times, has always recognized the right of non-Muslims to do things Islam deems morally repugnant, from consuming wine to marrying ­incestuously. Such “tolerance” in an American context falls perfectly in line with the “liberalism” of the left.

Meanwhile, contrary to Brian, “conservative” Muslims do not necessarily betray their religious convictions every time they compromise on a pre-modern position. Islam has a palpable prudential element, and its fundamental “conservative” commitment is not to the substance of past positions per se, but to the authority of the texts, precedents, and time-honored interpretive principles by which these are ratified. In its best tradition, Muslim “conservatism” has always been a negotiated ­enterprise.

Brian would be right to see Islam’s conservative impulse as clashing with liberalism were liberalism understood as an epistemology instead of a concrete battery of moral positions. For one can oppose liberal epistemology, for example, in the form of liberal versions of “freedom,” “consent,” “reason,” and the like, without necessarily negating liberal positions, such as allowing non-Muslims to eat pork or have abortions. Even the most assiduous commitment to the texts, precedents, and interpretive principles enshrined in Muslim tradition can yield “liberal” positions, just as it can yield “conservative” ones.

In this light, we might revisit ­Brian’s reference to Hamza Yusuf, Omar Suleiman, Zaid Shakir, and myself. Leaving aside whether these men are in full agreement, are their views on race, foreign policy, the environment, and workers’ rights liberal or Islamic? Are Shakir’s views on feminism conservative or Islamic? In short, given Muslim tradition’s interpretive ambidextrousness, why should these scholars’ espousal of the views Brian cites be seen as an intentional act of siding with “the left”?

I agree with Brian that many Muslim activists and organizations have thrown their lot in with liberal allies, presumably as quid pro quo for defending Muslims. Personally (and I claim no monopoly on truth here), I believe this is a mistake; I do not believe we can preserve Islam in America without preserving religion. And I see the left as supporting only domesticated forms of religion that applaud the state and the dominant culture while never ­seriously challenging either. Yet religious ­conservatives—not just Evangelicals—tend to look the elephant right in the face but only curse his shadow. They act as if they can protect Christianity and America by keeping Islam and other non-­Christian religions at bay, while liberalism, secularism, and ­scientism continue to degrade religion’s plausibility structure to the point of ­threatening Christianity’s health and viability. In this context, one must wonder what opportunities actually exist for Muslims to ally with Christian conservatives and what advantage Muslims might actually gain from such a relationship.

All of this begs Brian’s ultimate question of whether “American Muslims [will] define a place for themselves in American political culture.” Of course, we should avoid the temptation to see Muslims as a monolith. There will be Muslims whose views are motivated by liberalism, Muslims who are inspired by American conservatism, and Muslims whose highest priority is that their political views not run afoul of Muslim tradition. As long as all remain American citizens, all will have a place in American political culture. Perhaps the real ­question, however, is ­whether Muslims must accept the existing political culture in America as an ­unassailable given to which they must simply “adjust.” Might not the tradition of Islam (the optics of the ­contemporary Muslim world notwithstanding) provide insights, experience, and lessons that enrich America’s political culture and expand its possibilities beyond the present paralysis of the liberal-conservative, secular-religious divide? God knows best. 

Sherman A. Jackson
university of southern
los angeles, california

Paul Rowan Brian’s important point about Muslims could well be extended to many other newly immigrated groups: They are by instinct socially and culturally conservative and, unless alienated by hostile rhetoric, are natural allies for those who wish to maintain traditional norms and a healthy civil society.

My study of character education in seven Islamic secondary schools across the United States (“Muslims in the Melting Pot,” April 2016) found Muslim teenagers eager to participate fully in American life, and concerned with making contributions that would change the perception that they were an alien, dangerous presence. We also found that they valued opportunities to participate in community service projects and sports with peers from other faith-based schools.

It would be tragic if the anti-­Muslim rhetoric from Trump and his allies were to persuade this rising generation of Muslim Americans to take refuge in the swamp of identitarian alienation from the common American project.

Charles L. Glenn
boston, massachusetts

Paul Rowan Brian replies:

Sherman A. Jackson’s points are well taken. I would emphasize that we currently live in a popular culture in which “the right” of people to do something is often coupled with legislative and cultural promotion of behaviors and practices at odds with Islam and most world religions, rather than mere tolerance of such behaviors or practices. Nonetheless, I believe Jackson makes a vital observation when he writes that “liberal” or “conservative” Islamic interpretations are not necessarily correlative with contemporary American political labels. Surely he is correct that imposing secular political framing on questions of Islamic theology does not exhaustively portray the scope of theology and faith as a whole. Nevertheless, it is one useful angle—particularly in an American political context in which Muslim politicians often choose to uphold the positions of secular, liberal partisans and refer to their religion more as an identity marker than as a set of uncompromisable principles. Jackson is right that many Christians view Islam and other faiths as unwelcome, and continue to allow ­“liberalism, ­secularism, and scientism” to threaten the place of religion in the public sphere.

Rashid Dar’s analysis of the suffocatingly narrow political system Muslims and those of other faiths face today is also insightful, and he makes good points about how Muslims align naturally with the left on matters of economics, racial justice, and foreign policy. I too share Dar’s hope that more public figures will move beyond the binary political framework and engage seriously with the future of interfaith cooperation.

Finally, Ismail Royer’s anecdote illustrates well the “need for acceptance” that “makes the flattery of the left so tempting . . . and the malice of many on the right so unbearable.” In my view, he correctly notes that turning back to core religious principles and faith is the antidote to being appropriated as a “secular victim ­identity group” by the left.

Divine Household

John Cuddeback’s piece (“Reclaiming the Household,” November) persuasively articulated the distinction between family and household. The failure to develop households adds a helpful layer to understanding our current cultural moment and the reasons our social fabric seems to be tearing at the seams.

But the glaring hole in the piece is the lack of exposition on how we understand the oikos of the Church as the family of God and household of faith. Paul’s use of the term in ­Galatians 6:10, Jesus’s challenge to kinship in Matthew 12:50, and the role of ­various households in the growth of the early Church throughout Acts are key to understanding the concept of “household.” Our marriages and families, important as they are, are nothing less than prophetic allegories that find their fulfillment in Christ’s union to his Bride and God’s fatherhood to his children. The Church and the work of the Kingdom, ­therefore, ought to play an integral and inseparable role in nurturing our households. It is not enough to center the work of the household around a small business; we must center it around prayer. As we restore our households, ­therefore, we should integrate them with the Church, seeking the kind of close relationships and Spirit-filled society that transcends kinship.

The connection between Church and household explains why orphans and widows, those without a natural household of their own, have always found care in the Church. It is why celibacy was always celebrated as a legitimate, not inferior, vocation. This connection helps solve some of ­Cuddeback’s dilemmas. Groups of Christians pooling their resources, starting businesses, and living in community, for example, could end the necessity of the forty-hour work week, compartmentalization of work, and isolation of suburbia.

Seth Hedman
pella, iowa

John Cuddeback replies:

I am grateful for Seth Hedman’s letter and would like especially to affirm three of his points. First, the notion of oikos indeed has an essential place in the divinely revealed economy of salvation. Second, the human household reaches its fullest actualization in and through its supernatural role in the Church. And finally, for Christians the effort to reclaim the household today, as in any age, calls for its being centered in Christ through grace.

In my article I focused on the natural reality of the household, a reality with which many Christians and non-Christians alike have lost touch. In order to grasp the meaning of the household of faith or the household of God, we need first to have a firm understanding of the analogate that is first in the order of knowing: the human household.

Similarly, as grace perfects nature, the natural order of a healthy household is well worth a Christian’s careful attention. I emphasize shared work not because it is most important in the household, but because it is missing today. Its absence is seldom noticed yet keenly felt.

Membership in the Church does indeed ground duties and relationships that transcend human kinship. But that which transcends the human household does not replace it; rather, it confers on it a greater dignity and significance. I seek to make this household an object of more intentional reflection, so that it might achieve its full identity in the order of nature and super-nature.

Corporate Agency

In his excellent review (“Corporate Progressivism,” November), Patrick J. Deneen takes an essentially Marxist stance in explaining corporate ­support for the sexual liberationist agenda: “The sexual revolution’s egalitarian attack on patriarchy has been supported by corporations because it benefits their bottom line.” Economic determinism treats impersonal business entities as intentional agents: “World-straddling corporations have a strong interest in fostering atomized, denormed subjects.”Or again: “‘Conservative’ corporations” are in close alignment with progressive cosmopolitans. 

But do “corporations” as such really have goals, much less ones as complex as supporting sexual liberation in order to create a critical mass of deracinated individuals with lots of discretionary spending power many years down the line? Where is the seat of reason in this abstract legal form? Even if we take the term “corporation” as shorthand for the individual human decision-makers within it, do CEOs and PR managers consciously support gay and trans rights and a non-procreative marriage norm because they foresee a resulting surplus of consumer dollars? Or are we back to a Marxist determinism, positing that although those individual humans are not aware of that causal chain, their material self-interest somehow dictates their political actions? 

An ideological explanation for corporate support of the liberationist agenda is more straightforward, in my view. The people who run corporations are products of the academy, and have been marinated in identity politics and victim ideology. Corporate CEOs (or their wives) likely believe they are on the right side of history in fighting Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. And they intuit that doing so will earn their company plaudits from the mainstream media. Supporting single-sex, as opposed to trans-friendly, bathrooms, by contrast, will only reinforce the media’s anti-corporate narrative and possibly lead to boycotts—to be sure, an economic consequence, but one that is more directly the result of a traditionalist stance than is the fostering of child-free consumption dollars from a liberationist stance. Furthermore, college-educated employees would revolt if their employer adopted a traditionalist position on marriage and “gender.” (See the successful employee pressure to withdraw corporate support from the Boy Scouts during the conflict over openly gay troop leaders.)

Academic identity politics has colonized the “real world,” including corporations. Nevertheless it certainly is interesting that leftwing ideology dovetails with a robust bottom line.

Heather Mac Donald
new york, new york