American Muslims don’t just marry their religiosity to their democracy - the more likely you are to go to a mosque, the more likely you are to vote - we throw the Democratic Party in as dowry. At a panel on this very topic, Arab-American activist Linda Sarsour clarified why.
“Republicans,” she explained, “are like your abusive ex-husband.”
Once bitten, she meant to say, twice shy.
Could a more thoughtful conservative break this pattern? Let’s test Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Since I and many like-minded Muslims view the left’s approach to the metaphysical charily, a New York Times columnist opining on religion and politics could have a shot.
Briefly, Bad Religion argues that American Christianity’s orthodoxies are being displaced by an ethos of sacralized self-esteem. Agreeing depends on your feeling that Jesus would identify with modern conservative Christianity. Reza Aslan’s Zealot captures how distant contemporary scholarship is from siding with such an assumption.
But though I err well on Aslan’s side, Douthat is still on to something. American religion is definitely changing, and not always for the better. We live in spiritually straitened circumstances. In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, for example, Gertrude Stein warns Gil Pender: “The artist’s job is not to succumb to the emptiness of existence.”
Claim that life lacks ultimate meaning, and soon religion becomes unimaginable. In Gravity, astronaut Ryan Stone must come to terms with her imminent death (this is not, I promise you, a spoiler.) “I don’t know how to pray,” she cries out, terrified. Nobody, she sniffles, ever taught me how. I may have teared up. How horrible to face your end.
How horrible not to know it is not your end.
Across the religious board
Hence what Douthat describes as a historic rapprochement between America’s traditional Protestants and Catholics. The challenges arrayed against their mutual ethics are sufficiently threatening. And since no community is immune from this shift, shouldn’t Douthat’s descriptions and prescriptions apply to American Muslims?
The debris from a great epistemic storm does not just rain down upon us but nearly reigns over us, and this should be of greater concernHaroon Moghul
Sadly, I must report that Sarsour’s ex-husband hasn’t changed his ways. Reading Douthat introducing Islam as “Christianity’s greatest rival,” caused me to embark upon this very column. When Douthat described Islam, a few pages later, as follows, I had to implement a breathing exercise:
“[I]n the more ethnocentric forms of the Muslim faith, the Arabs are implicitly cast as both the heirs of Abraham (through Ishmael rather than Isaac) and the real New Israel, superseding Christianity’s pan-ethnic Church and the original Twelve Tribes alike.”
Now, Douthat doesn’t have to talk about Islam. It’s a book about Christianity after all. But if he does so speak, he should be reasonably accurate. I do not deny of course that there is too much ethnic chauvinism confusing itself with Islam. But that is not Islam, either. While Arabic plays an outsized role in Islam, Arabs generally do not.
If you celebrate the English, count me out. I do not. But if you celebrate the English language, you would draw a wider circle – including me. English is a language anyone can speak, claim and love. The makings of a bestseller, indeed. The English Muslim scholar, T. J. Winter - Anglophone and actually Anglo - characterizes the Muslim tradition as “xenophilic.” Frequently, Winter points out, God condemns Arabs while lavishing His attention on Jews and Christians.
Maybe I shouldn’t be disappointed in Douthat for not knowing this.
But soon enough Douthat accuses George W. Bush of forcing democracy on the Muslim world. If you use force while claiming democracy, I must note, you are likely either not using force or not acting democratically. The Iraq War’s announced and primary goal was seizing Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. We had no plan for or evident interest in democratic transition. Iraqis - led by the likes of Ayatollah Sistani - forced our hand.
Forget the ex-husband. Who will play Ahmed Chalabi, jilted fiancé?
All the same, Douthat’s estimations of how American religiosity is changing deserve to be read by all American Muslims - especially those in positions of religious responsibility. No matter the mistakes he makes. The debris from a great epistemic storm does not just rain down upon us but nearly reigns over us, and this should be of greater concern.
Meanwhile, many of us are unduly worried about whether we fold our hands when we pray or keep them down when we should be worried about the Ryan Stones of our world, the woman who feels in her innermost being the need to speak to Him. But, she knows not how. It is terrifying to feel that alone. It is terrifying, too, that she is not alone.
Haroon Moghul is the Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. He is a graduate student at Columbia University, a widely-recognized speaker on Islamic thought and Muslim history, and the author of The Order of Light (Penguin 2006). Haroon's writings have been featured on Foreign Policy, Boston Review, Salon, Tikkun, Religion Dispatches, Al-Jazeera, Today's Zaman and Dawn. He is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and serves as an expert guide to the Muslim heritage of Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. Twitter: @hsmoghul