This is the first column I'm jointly publishing here and with Literati Press. I like what Charles Martin is doing there, and I approached him about religion writing. We agreed that it was a nice match. Give them some love, please.
If you need something that is demonstrably true not to be true, you are left with limited options. Among them is the hope that you will be speaking to a collection of ideologues who will believe you even if your words don’t cohere with reality because they want to believe you. This tactic seems to be the hope of conservatives who wish not to be seen as anti-First Amendment vis-a-vis religion and free speech where Islam is concerned.
What do you do if the second largest religion in the world creates massive problems for your PR campaign because nearly every single one of the more than one billion adherents insists on acting as agents of good conscience? How do you discredit a religion without seeming to be an opponent of the First Amendment? Conservatives are bizarrely committed to seeing Islam as a global threat, when it would be far simpler to see a few thousand criminals who falsely call themselves Muslims as a global threat. Since they are wed to this commitment, conservatives are left to explain how they can demonize an Abrahamic faith without being intolerant of religion.
One of our Oklahoma representatives made national news recently when he came up with the solution to conservatives’ PR needs, and now that solution is being widely distributed by Oklahoma’s largest conservative PAC. (I was almost certain that it wasn’t really his original idea, and it turns out that I’m correct.) John Bennett, an Oklahoma legislator, called Islam a “social, political system that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global conquest.”
Bennett somehow made the national news by advancing ideas that noted Islamophobe and former Florida legislator Allen West made popular in 2012 when he called Islam a “totalitarian theocratic political ideology.” In short, conservatives have decided that they get to define what is and is not a religion, and so conveniently, the conservative definition of religion excludes Islam.
The basis of the exclusion is that Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology, and in their minds, those are mutually exclusive categories. The Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee, referenced earlier, included Bennett’s comments in their most recent email newsletter to members, and in the same email was a link to Reclaiming America for Christ, yet another example of conservatives being tone deaf to irony.
OCPAC dismissed Islam as a political ideology, even as they registered their support for a form of Christianity that would “reclaim the culture” for “Christian values.” The idea is that America was founded on Christian principles and was therefore governmentally an expression of Biblical values, but conservatives fail to see that as an endorsement for a “theocratic political ideology.”
The blindness on their part is not due to explicit hypocrisy, and it pains me to say that. It really is based on a preferential epistemology which views their religion as true and all others as false. For my liberal friends, this really is not hypocrisy, no more than if you assumed someone was wrong for disagreeing with your liberal worldview. Reality is the water in which we swim growing up, and it’s not as if we are able to parse what we are taught; we simply accept it as reality. It is not until much later, perhaps on the verge of adulthood, that we parse the important stuff.
For most American political conservatives, Christianity is simply true, not a construct superimposed on reality to force life to cohere to a set of assumptions. That Muslims believe the exact same thing never occurs to the conservative religio-political tribe we refer to as the Christian Right. To engage in comparative religion would only weaken the force of the CR’s claims. They must be singularly true, otherwise they are simply competing metanarratives, so Christians believe the truth, and Muslims are deceived, even as their religions look much the same to outsiders.
As for the claims from conservatives, here is how Charlie Meadows, an OCPAC spokesperson, summed them up:
In my opinion, The Oklahoman and Tulsa World as well as some of the local broadcast media are far too politically correct and practice EXCESSIVE tolerance to ever know or tell the truth about the “religion” of Islam. What they have become is [sic] useful idiots for the agenda of the Religion [sic] of Islam which really isn’t a religion but more of a political and governmental system that uses a deity to advance their agenda.
This is the heart of the conservatives’ claim: Islam is not a religion. Rather, it simply uses a “deity to advance their agenda.” I’ll resist the urge to say, “pot, meet kettle,” but only barely. All theistic faiths use a deity to advance their agenda, but OCPAC and other faux religious conservatives assume that they are not using the deity; instead, they see themselves as advancing the agenda of the deity they serve, an agenda they happily ignore is not substantiated by an appearance of their deity to confirm any particular claims. All other faiths must provide evidence; theirs is simply true, and so political extrapolations become axioms.
It would be comically bad philosophy were it not for the insistence that legislation be based on this deity’s desires, said deity still not available to substantiate those claims. Fret not, though; there is a book. Never mind that Muslims also have a book. Only the Christian Bible is correct, and the JewishTanakh can only be interpreted in reverse, by filtering it through the New Testament and myriad extra-Biblical assertions.
All this aside, the question remains. Is Islam a religion or a political ideology? I’ll allow that Christians can be tone deaf to the obvious false dichotomy here. Ninian Smart came up with a complex matrix of categories that helped define religion, since the word is required to do entirely too much in general usage. How can “religion” describe feeding the poor and killing infidels, caring for the sick and torturing heretics, blessing babies and burning witches while still maintaining any coherence? The term itself is already asked to do too much, and it’s clear that many things the conservatives object to are part of that impossible list.
Smart’s categories were ritual, mythical, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, and material. Critics of Islam would be hard-pressed to find one of those categories that was not represented by Islam. Here is a very brief breakdown of correspondence:
- Ritual: Hajj (pilgrimage)
- Mythical: Qur’an, obviously
- Experiential: prayer, giving, fasting
- Social: Jumah, Eid al Fitr, fastbreaking, etc.
- Ethical: Shariah, obviously
- Doctrinal: Hadith
- Material: prayer rug, ka’aba, etc.
In other words, Islam is a religion. Of course it is. Conservatives want to deny it the status of religion to suit their own ends and to avoid being categorized as anti-religion or anti-First Amendment. It is an argument from preference, not principle.