Many if not most people tend to equate denial of freedom with criminalization backed up by the possibility of jail. In reality, however, there are many other ways to restrict a person’s freedom. Generally speaking, if the price of exercising a particular freedom can be made high enough, people will simply ignore or consciously forfeit its gradual loss. This price can be in terms of money, loss of reputation, or fear of being ostracized, brought under suspicion or associated with unpopular groups, individuals, ideologies or agendas. The recent Supreme Court decision, for example, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Committee, granted corporations the right to make campaign contributions. While it directly imposed no restrictions on the freedom of non-corporations, it clearly reduced the ability of individuals to protect and promote their rights and interests relative to those of the super-rich. Yet, the disparity in money and influence between the average person and large corporations is so massive that most people will simply ignore the impact of this decision on the meaningful exercise and eventual erosion of their political rights and freedoms.
In a similar vein, Islamophobia aims at associating Islam with such negative, destructive and unpopular ideas and commitments that non-Muslims are naturally brought to fear and loathe the religion, while Muslims end up internalizing a quiet, nagging impulse to disassociate. When this occurs, even those who remain within the fold can end up in a state of agonizing tentativeness, because they can only express themselves within the confines of socio-political norms whose boundaries they can only guess at or intuit, given the disparity between Americans’ theoretical commitment to freedom and equality and their actual experience as socio-political pariahs. Ultimately, Islam ends up domesticated and Muslims reduced to the role of background singers, with no voice of their own with which to engage, let alone challenge, the state or the dominant culture, all, ironically, in the name of protecting their freedom to be Muslims.
Among the most effective means of impugning the appropriateness of Islam to the American socio-political landscape is to promote the idea that Muslims are and must be opposed to the U.S. Constitution. According to this view, if Muslims are honest, they will admit that they are religiously bound to work for the overthrow of the American political order, because one cannot be simultaneously committed to Islam, and certainly not sharî‘ah (and used here in its broad, negotiated sense) and the Constitution. If a Muslim claims that he or she is so committed, he or she is either mistaken or intentionally engaging in taqîyah, i.e., perpetuating lies to protect the Faith. In a recent essay I was invited to write for the University of Chicago Divinity School (1), I pointed out several fallacies, oversights and mischaracterizations in this position. Here, however, my concern is with another dimension of this charge, namely its potential to disfigure if not undermine the religious freedom of Muslim-Americans.
Perhaps the most operative implication of this argument is that religiously committed Muslims are not and cannot be “loyal” Americans. For “loyal” Americans do not recognize any truth – and certainly not sharî‘ah – that might be deemed higher than the Constitution. Rather, this is the kind of thinking one finds among such Middle Eastern extremists as Usâmah b. Lâdin or Sayyid Qutb, who presumably reject all Constitutions as blasphemous, man-made encroachments on God’s rightful monopoly as Lawgiver. Given the post-9/11 moment in which we live, it is easy to see how such an idea might catch on among non-Muslim Americans. And it is equally easy to see how in response many Muslims might want to dissociate from sharî‘ah, not necessarily because they believe it is wrong (let alone dangerous) but because it has been associated with the views of those who despise and or want to destroy America and who in turn are despised and targeted for destruction by America.
Of course, such arguments are deployed almost exclusively against Muslims, especially the insinuation that only ‘Muslim fundamentalists’ of the most wantonly violent tendencies could possibly impute any primacy to religion beyond the realm of inward belief to the concerns of socio-political reality. But is this really true? Is it really only fifth-column, America-hating Muslims whose religious commitments take them beyond the Constitution? And is it really the highest expression of American patriotism to set off alarm bells only when Muslims express such commitments?
Let me share here an excerpt from a sermon entitled, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” delivered by none other than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Ling, Jr. back in 1956. In it, Dr. King places in the mouth of the Apostle Paul enthusiastic praise for America’s material achievements, alongside disquieting misgivings about her morality, in particular, her moral relativism and the tendency to equate “right” with what “everybody is doing”. In this context Dr. King warns Christian-Americans about allowing their Faith to become limp and domesticated to the point that they forget where their ultimate allegiance lies. Thus, he reminds them:
You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity, both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to the nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and, if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory, evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.
Who would take this statement by this great American as proof that anyone who places God over the Constitution can only remain lukewarm if not secretly hostile towards the American constitutional order? What social critic throughout the entire 20th century could we claim to have been more peace-loving and more committed to the wellbeing of all Americans than MLK? Do deep religious commitments – again, beyond the realm of inward belief – always and necessarily imply unwarranted subversion, anti-social violence or violent attempts to topple the American state? Is this the legacy of MLK?
Of course, this sermon was delivered over half a century ago. As such, many might insist that it reflects a bygone era and a bygone mode of American authenticity. Today, some might insist, no one, except perhaps the most incorrigible ‘fundamentalists’, could hold let alone express such views. But even half a century later one finds such commitments explicitly voiced by figures far removed from any fundamentalism. In his book, God’s Name in Vain (2001), Yale law professor Stephen Carter writes:
I love this nation, with all its weaknesses and occasional horrors, and I cannot imagine living in another one. But my mind is not so clouded by the vapors of patriotism that I place my country before my God. If the country were to force me to a choice, and, increasingly this nation tends to do that to many religious people, I would unhesitatingly, if not without some sadness for my country, choose my God.
To be sure, Muslims must avoid crass, naive and over-inclusive understandings of what constitutions actually are or do. And they must be careful – and courageous enough! – not to exaggerate the real or potential conflicts between sharî‘ah (again, in its broad, constantly negotiated sense) and the American legal order, over-blowing, e.g., sharî‘ah’s scope to the point of assuming substantive conflicts between such things as supposedly ‘Islamic’ versus ‘un-Islamic’ traffic laws, building codes or FAA regulations. Still, the testimonies of Dr. King and Prof. Carter raise important questions: If Christians are free to express the above-cited views, why should this be denied to Muslims? Are Muslims who express non-conformist, religious commitments the greatest threat to America? Or is it those who gloss over the bigotry, political maneuvering and subliminal terror that restrict Muslims’ ability to speak their religious conscience? If Christian-Americans can cherish their status as Americans, despite their non-conformist criticisms, must Muslim-American critiques always imply unbridled hatred or a will to destroy? And does all of this ultimately suggest a lingering difference in America between freedom of religion and the religion of the truly free?
I believe it does. But I also believe that beyond simply complaining about it, Muslims must find the courage to consider the profoundly gifted insight of yet another Christian-American. In his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, the celebrated theologian Reinhold Niebuhr points out that the moral or rational suasion that might be effective in interpersonal relationships is almost never enough to resolve serious conflicts between social groups. Rather, he notes, oppressed, marginalized or stigmatized groups will only be able to press their case against the dominant forces when they amass enough power — political, economic or socio-cultural — to alter the latter’s behavior. As Niebuhr put it, “collective behavior… can never be brought completely under the dominion of reason or conscience.” Rather, “when collective power, whether in the form of imperialism or class domination, exploits weakness, it can never be dislodged unless power is raised against it.” Even reason, Niebuhr insists, is virtually powerless against group-interest. For as interest-groups, “Men will not cease to be dishonest merely because their dishonesties have been revealed or because they have discovered their own deceptions. Whenever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it.”
In other words, through moral or rational persuasion, example, education and the like, Muslims might be able to alter the negative perceptions and insidious deployments of non-Muslims with whom they have a direct relationship (friends, colleagues, family members, etc.). But the phenomenon of Islamophobia as a whole will not likely second-guess itself until it is confronted by enough Muslim power to make doing so appear to be in its own interest. The sine qua non of such power, of course, is Muslim unity (not to be confused with uniformity). For without it, there can be no Muslim power, and “freedom of religion” will continue to fail, frustrate and confound American Muslims. In the end, however, it may be that of all the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the freedom to seek power, far more than any freedom to indulge one’s religion, remains the scariest for Muslims. It may be, then, this right that remains the least likely to be exercised, the first to be ignored and the earliest to be allowed to pass quietly into the night. The rest, if we are not careful, might be purely a matter of time. And God knows best.
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