Op-Ed: The Real Muslims?

Candace Chellew-Hodge wrote last week in RD about the dogmatism enforced by some of the organizations ranked as top Christian employers. This got me thinking (and chuckling a bit) as I imagined compiling comparable rankings for Muslim American community organizations (especially given the financial woes and cross-cultural hijinks one finds in many such outfits, being early forays into American civic life by a relatively young community).

More importantly, this got me thinking about whether Muslim organizations might be said to similarly highjack the “M-word” (a new TV series?). While I haven’t heard of such heavy-handed measures being employed in Muslim organizations, I think there is certainly an analogous expectation of assent to a minimal standard of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Is this ultimately wrong? Is it objectionable for a religious or cultural minority to take steps to preserve its institutions from assimilation into the dominant culture? I don’t think so, as long as things are not taken too far. I used the word “dogmatism” in the first sentence intentionally (and approvingly), as religion is often about just that: theological beliefs that set one apart from others. These beliefs are inherently divisive—even if clannishness or sectarianism are ultimately contrary to their higher purpose.

For all the political and cultural influence of the Christian Right today, I don’t think there is any reasonable doubt that conservative Christians living in American society today find themselves in psychologically hostile territory (especially those of the self-proclaimed and debatably “Bible-believing” variety under discussion here). They must go about their lives in a culture that has come to glorify corrosive values of materialism, violence, and narcissism—anti-ideals that threaten their identity and hopes (not to mention those of people of many other persuasions) at every turn. Those factors are threatening in their own right, but conservative Christians (and Muslims for that matter) also face a variety of other perceived intellectual threats in the public square.

To borrow a term from their opponents in the culture wars: do evangelicals not have a right to “safe zones,” as well? Admittedly, evangelicals rarely face actual danger from packs of violent secular humanists. Perhaps “safe zone” is not the right metaphor; oasis might be more like it. In any case, it seems to me that they have no less a right to associate with likeminded people or to work to keep their communities true to their values.

There might be exceptions, cases where a faith-based company or institution occupies a position of unusual influence in its locale (the biggest employer in a small town, for example) and has a responsibility to its community to strive for inclusivity. But I suspect those cases are rare. Most such organizations can legitimately argue that those failing their doctrinal litmus tests have ample alternative employment options.

I can sympathize with some of Chellew-Hodge’s frustrations, as one of my pet peeves is how oblivious some Christians are to the possibility that non-Christians might find alternative, non-Trinitarian readings of the Gospels. And, of course, these frustrations apply all the more to the biblical literalists she describes, whose view of what constitutes Christianity is particularly, and pointedly, narrow.

As a Muslim, I believe that my non-divine interpretation of Jesus Christ’s message and story is eminently “Christian” in a certain sense: I believe it is rooted in what Jesus actually preached, as opposed to what became enshrined in Christian tradition. But I would never expect Christians to give my interpretations of the Gospels equal time with their own within their own community institutions.

This is particularly relevant to Muslims, as it goes without saying that Muslims find themselves in less-than-friendly sociopolitical circumstances these days. Whereas evangelicals get to represent themselves in American political life, when it comes to Muslims there is no agreement about who gets to speak for us. There are some self-proclaimed “Muslim” activists (with decidedly dubious connections to Islam and Muslims), defining themselves entirely by strident opposition and visceral hostility to both, that get inexplicably hailed by outside observers as the vanguard of progress in contemporary Islam.

In some cases this paradoxical new identity—the postmodern, post-9/11 version of the “self-hating Jew” of the 18th and 19th centuries—is parlayed into a career of low-wattage public intellectualism and public speaking, geared not to their alleged co-religionists but rather to constituencies actively committed to Muslims’ marginalization.

The analogy is not ideal, since Muslim organizations do not often face such hiring dilemmas. These curious mavericks are rarely seen outside fetid corners of the Beltway bubble, where a political economy of Islamophobia offers disenchanted Muslims professional advancement if they sing the right tune.

Of course, Muslims come in many shapes, sizes, and levels of religiosity, and there is no shortage of Muslims—including non-practicing ones—working for change without going to such painful, self-abnegating lengths. Some are not given the attention they deserve in the community, but thankfully arbitrary ideological litmus tests (e.g., a decade ago, it was not easy for even the most brilliant but non-hijabi Muslim woman scholar to land a spot on the speakers dais at major North American Islamic conferences) have become much less common as Muslims put aside the squabbles of yesterday.

While I think evangelicals deserve their own spaces and media, I find their case far more complicated. Unlike Islam, Christendom has been in throes of secularization for centuries, and the Christ of the Christian tradition seems to praise love and helping others as worship over concrete ritual and practice in a way that is alien to the staunch orthopraxy of Islam and pre-modern Judaism.

There are longstanding competing secular definitions of “Christianity” that privilege ethics and love (i.e. the Golden Rule) over theological commitments that have earned a place at the table. Christianity has its sacraments and rituals, but the details of a Christian’s daily living are not specifically guided by faith in quite the same manner as is a Muslim’s;the notion of a non-practicing Christian is, from a strictly theological standpoint, not as difficult to grasp as a non-practicing Muslim.

Having said that, the devil is in the details, and it is always difficult for an outside observer to detect the coded messages of an in-group. (Think of the McCain campaign’s disturbing “The One” attack ad, which basically called Obama the Antichrist—but on a frequency that only evangelicals reared on apocalyptic conspiracy theories could pick up.)

Chellew-Hodge quotes the following catechism from an evangelical organization:

1. We believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, authoritative Word of God.

2. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

3. We believe in the deity and humanity of Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, in His present rule as Head of the Church, and in His personal return in power and glory.

Does fundamentalist literalism lurk in the phrase “inspired, infallible, authoritative”? Would they blackball a Christian who held the Bible’s truth to be absolute, but found that truth in its overall message as opposed to its details? And does the final clause of #3 mean that to retain one’s status of a Christian, one must hew to popular but debatable beliefs in dispensationalist premillenialism that most of Christendom—past (the Church Fathers, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, etc.) and present (Catholics, the Orthodox, Mainline Protestantism, and even some evangelicals)—finds wanting?

I don’t think this is a common scenario today, but in the not-so-distant past (when petrodollars were for many the only source of funding for the new community’s infrastructure and institutions, and before the widespread disillusionment in the 1990s with the Wahhabi or quasi-Wahhabi indoctrination that could accompany this largesse) equally debatable and ahistoric doctrinal commitments were foisted within Muslim organizations.

Not so long ago, seemingly universal and inclusive labels like Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah, or “People of the way of Muhammad and his community” (which basically means Sunni, though sectarians of all stripes treat it as a literal description of their pet approach to Islam; it is surprisingly difficult to find an accessible but nonpartisan explanation of this crucial concept online) were routinely used as code in some Muslim organizations for “Sufis (to say nothing of the hated Shiah) need not apply here.”

As with those evangelicals who treat their rather novel dogmas as self-evident, such organizations overlooked how their strictures were quite out of step with the historical consensus within their tradition.