Please Stop Using Islam to Critique the Abortion Ban: It Only Excuses the Very Christian, Very White Roots of Anti-Choice Movements

It is difficult to spot the Taliban forces in the 2020 March for Life crowd, yet memes containing white men in ski caps haven't resonated quite as well.

Like many other women living in Texas, news of the Supreme Court’s refusal to block Senate Bill 8 (SB 8) hit me hard. This extreme law not only bans abortion around six weeks in all cases of pregnancy (including those pregnancies resulting from rape or incest), but also encourages citizens to bring private lawsuits against anyone involved in “knowingly engag[ing] in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion,” awarding plaintiffs at least $10,000 (to be paid by the abortion provider or person assisting abortion patients) if successful in their suit.

This financial incentivization of litigation—offering literal bounties to those plaintiffs who win in court—almost certainly guarantees the fortification of our existing national culture of surveillance (perhaps best exemplified by the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign launched by the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of 9/11), and promises to throw Texas courts into chaos.

I, like many other Texans, have been mentally and emotionally bracing myself for the passage of SB 8 since Governor Greg Abbot first signed the bill in May of 2021. But what I was not prepared for was the torrent of social media posts that inundated my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds after the law went into effect that drew explicit connections between the anti-abortion restrictions and Islam. Hashtags like #ShariaLawInTexas and #TexasTaliban, as well as political cartoons featuring burqa-clad women in black “pray[ing] for Texas women,” or embraced by fist bumping, bearded men (one in a turban and the other in a cowboy hat) have gone viral. These tags and images show how Islam and Muslims continue to be used in America as short-hand for misogyny, barbarism, and oppression. 

As a Muslim woman living in Texas opposed to SB 8, and as a scholar of Islam, I can confidently say that these comparisons do far more harm than good. Not only do they rehash age-old Islamophobic stereotypes about the inherent and uniquely repressive nature of Islam (particularly in relation to the treatment of women), but they also overlook the roots of modern anti-abortion movements in America in connection with white Christian nationalism. The equation of SB 8 with “sharia law” and the comparison between Texas lawmakers and the Taliban displaces the very religious, very Christian, and very white roots of anti-choice movements in the United States (and abroad). 

These viral correlations between Texas lawmakers and “sharia” or “the Taliban” do little else than make misogyny a foreign problem—one that happens “over there,” a routine and expected feature of those crazy brown people and their backward nations, while at the same time making it seem like an “anomaly” or “exception” here. America is, after all, a liberal, Western country; we and we alone foreground women’s rights and other liberal democratic principles. 

Despite all of the hand-wringing about Muslim women’s oppression, Islamic legal perspectives on abortion have historically been quite diverse and nuanced—a fact obscured by Western oversimplifications of “shari`a,” and assumptions about Muslim male chauvinism. Muslim jurists and scholars connected the issue of abortion with complex theological questions about the timeline of “ensoulment,” or the process by which they believed a fetus was transformed into a full human being. A common opinion was that a fetus only became ensouled (and therefore fully human) at 120 days into pregnancy. Opinions on the permissibility of termination prior to this period differed. 

As scholar Sa’diyya Shaikh explains, some jurists prohibited abortion, some categorized abortion as a “discouraged” act, some viewed abortion as conditionally permissible, and others deemed it unconditionally permissible. Even after the 120-day period, termination could be justified when the mother’s life was in danger or when there were complications with the fetus. Even today, many Muslim majority countries, including Saudi Arabia—a nation rarely associated with women’s rights—have more flexible laws on abortion than what is allowed under SB 8. 

To be sure, Muslim traditions, texts, and communities aren’t free from the problems of sexism. And yes, the Taliban are unquestionably a repressive regime that denies the rights of Afghan women. But using Muslims and Islam to represent the essence of misogyny and oppression is not only reductive; it’s harmful—both in its perpetuation of Islamophobic beliefs about the inherent barbarism and brutality of Islam, but also in its refusal to acknowledge white Christian nationalism at the heart of anti-abortion legislation in America.  

The passage of SB 8 symbolizes, for me—a Muslim woman in Texas—the potential loss of my First Amendment rights. This kind of repressive legislation represents the real threat to American freedoms and democracy—not Islam.