Islam in America

The question of Islam’s compatibility with classical liberalism is contentious. Pierre Manent’s essay republished by Law & Liberty discusses this controversy regarding Muslim integration in France.  French secularism’s (Laïcité) struggle with Islam is well known. Whether banning headscarves or attempting to prohibit Islamically inspired swimwear, France’s laws often conflict with Islamic practices. With radicalism in the banlieues stubbornly persistent, Islam also seems at odds with Laïcité.

Considering this, Manent deserves credit for advancing beyond simple dichotomies and pessimism about an inevitable clash of civilizations. He observes that the conflict between Islam and Laïcité is not rooted in inherent incompatibility but is contextual. The American context, where disestablishment rather than Laïcité dominates, underscores Islam’s compatibility with liberal society. Islam in the United States, contrary to certain narratives, promotes civil society and liberal values.

Two Approaches to Religion and Civil Society

The difference in political imagination between disestablishment and Laïcité is a primary driver of this divergence. As Manent observes, Laïcité is structured on the division between public and private spheres. It assumes a neat distribution of social activities along this dichotomy. Social phenomena, however, are not so discretely categorizable. For example, it is unclear whether a student wearing a veil in school adorns her body, a private act, or promotes her religion in a government facility, a public one. Given this ambiguity, Laïcité creates line-drawing controversies where conflict becomes inevitable, especially when a minority group is more religious than the whole.

The relationship between religion, government, and civil society is different in the United States. Rather than controlling or containing religion, American political thought holds religion as a positive public good, one the government should allow to flourish. Thus, American disestablishment does not seek to purge religion from public space. Instead, it allows religion to thrive, promoting the free intercourse of peoples from all faiths. Disestablishment thus avoids Laïcité‘s line-drawing problems and its subsequent discriminatory laws.

Despite many Americans’ discomfort with new religions, American civil and political society’s embrace of religion allows religious minorities and newcomers to adapt readily to their new context, not only strengthening the minority’s position within American society but also reinforcing liberal American civic traditions.

For several years, I have conducted research on Sharia’s role in America’s Islamic communities. What has impressed me most is  American Muslims’ dedication to the principles of constitutional liberty. They understand the secret that has long guaranteed our freedom and rights: only mutual respect and self-organization under the law ensures that individuals enjoy liberty. They also know the best way to realize these goals is by building civil society.

As Weber observed more than a century ago, churches have been preeminent institutions in American civil society. Today, Islamic Centers and mosques function similarly for America’s Muslims. Just as churches help individuals advertise businesses, find partners in marriage, and build community, so too does the mosque create networks of halal butchers, business groups, and matrimonial banquets.

Where Christian mediators provide amicable alternatives to adversarial legal wrangling, so too do Sharia committees. These bodies use contracts endorsing arbitration and other instruments to make their decisions enforceable in court (American law permitting) just like Christian counterparts. Far from threatening civic law, Sharia in America actually promotes it.

This message might seem surprising given Islamic radicalism, a threat Manent rightly identifies as an obstacle to Muslims’ integration. Islam in America is far less radical than in France, though. While statistics are murky, a review of the available data makes this clear. If we use Salafism as a proxy for extremism, France has a greater proportion of Salafist mosques: five percent compared to one. Comparing the number of nationals who joined ISIS from each country also confirms this. According to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, about 900 French nationals joined extremist organizations in the Levant. Only around 300 Americans did so.

The challenge for a liberal state like the United States is not eliminating Sharia. That would require eliminating Islam and is the cardinal error committed under Laïcité

The difference between French and American Islam is not merely integration. American Muslims, in creating organizations and assuming leadership within their communities, contribute to general liberty. Muslims’ establishment of religious institutions as their primary social affiliation reinforces the United States’ identity as a religious nation guided by principles rooted in the dignity of human nature. In doing so, they help combat the empty conception of the human as dominated by physical needs, pleasure, wealth, and material satisfaction. By forming religious groups, they add to the number of citizens who vote and lead guided by the deeper sense of humanity that makes liberty dear.

During fieldwork, I constantly noted Muslim communities dedicated to advancing the same basic principles of human dignity expounded in churches and synagogues. While details may differ, all religions share values like family, personal and social dignity, and the resolution of disputes without recrimination or coercive authority when possible. They weave the fabric of American liberty.

Religious Law in America

Despite strong differences in conceptions of law between Islam and Christianity, religious law is no stranger to America. European thought, following Christian teaching, separates law and salvation. Perhaps the division between law and spirit is clearest in 1 Timothy 8-11 where Paul describes the law’s purpose as the controlling of evil, sinful acts rather than the redeeming of souls. Islam and Judaism lack this separation. There, law helps the worshipper develop a harmonious relationship with God and achieve salvation. As a result, while Christian Europe viewed law as a tool of political organization and submission, Judaism and Islam add spiritual efficacy to law’s labors.

Mentioning Judaism is important because Jews and their law, Halakha, have a history in America. Jewish religious organizations predate the revolution. Consequently, while Sharia emerged in the United States in organized fashion after World War II (though Muslim immigration is longer), Halakha has a more enduring legacy. Jewish courts, or Beth Din, have operated formally on American soil for over a century and even longer informally. The rigor of intellectual and legal debate in Judaism contributed to many of America’s sharpest legal minds, most famously Benjamin Cardozo. Islamic intellectual institutions, including America’s first Islamic liberal arts university, Zaytuna College, make it likely that Islam, with a similar tradition of intellectual exchange, will make similar contributions. Already, Islamic institutions developed within American civil society, such as the International Institute of Islamic Thought, spread conceptions of Islamic law influenced by, if not rooted in, traditions of liberty throughout the world, returning a liberal version of the faith to often authoritarian or extremist homelands.

Radicalism is the primary concern over Sharia in the United States. While there are conservative Muslim groups in America, such as the Al-Maqasid community, disestablishment is a prophylaxis against extremism.

The French state controls religious groups, forcing social integration, through the 1901 law on associations. This compulsion builds tension anywhere religious practice varies from normative expectations. This tension increases concern about conservative groups threatening the social order because there are few ways they can integrate into Laïcité other than surrendering their religious practices. This forces conservatives into a false Hobson’s choice: either abandon religion or follow their conscience, oppose the state, and find common cause with extremists.

Disestablishment blunts this tendency. Our system allows conservative groups to practice with little government interference. Conservatives have every incentive to work within a system that promises them protection. Extremists become isolated in this world, finding few allies. Extremism lacks oxygen to survive and snuffs out before spreading. The numbers above regarding the lack of extremism in America compared with France bear this out.

Understanding Sharia underscores this point. Sharia is simply guidance on Islamic practice. It is not a different form of Islam or its radical branch. There are, therefore, varieties of interpretations of Sharia. While some are extreme, intellectuals like Shadi Hamid, Mustafa Akyol, Hamza Yusuf, and many others argue for a Sharia that emphasizes natural rights and liberal values.

While it is true that radical Islam uses Sharia to advance hegemonic agendas attacking liberalism, these strands are no different from the extremism that exists in any religion. Buddhism, for example, is almost never associated with violent extremism, yet Buddhist terrorists in Sri Lanka still occasionally attack Muslims. Buddhist extremists are responsible for violence in Burma. Any religion can incite violence in the right conditions.

The challenge for a liberal state like the United States is not eliminating Sharia. That would require eliminating Islam and is the cardinal error committed under Laïcité. Instead, America should encourage and promote interpretations of Sharia that harmonize and support liberty. These interpretations of Islamic thought, fortunately, dominate the discourse in both conservative and liberal strands of Islam in America. All the thinkers cited above are prominent Muslim intellectuals who are either American or spend considerable time working with American institutions.

The history of fundamentalist, revivalist, and conservative religious movements in the United States confirms America’s ability to absorb these elements without upsetting social stability. Perhaps the first minority fundamentalists to arrive in America were the Anabaptists (Amish and Mennonites) who conscientiously withdrew from the Quaker and Anglican society of Pennsylvania. These immigrants maintained their own language, religiously objected to participation in government, and as pacifists refused to military service. They were thus considered a threat to society, requiring defense by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

Mormons also formed religious communities self-circumscribed from (and occasionally mutually antagonistic to) mainstream American society. In fact, breakaway groups of fundamentalist Mormons still defy laws and social conventions, especially against polygamy. These fundamentalists do so without troubling the civic reliability of mainstream Mormons who fully engage mainstream America.

The United States hosts groups of fundamentalist Jews who fled European persecution. These groups, such as the Satmar, have a conservative interpretation of Halakha which precludes full involvement in American civic life. Despite being governed by an interpretation of religious law far more hegemonic than America’s Muslims, they are members of the polity whose political support is sought by prominent politicians.

We should never forget different circumstances produce different outcomes. This is true for nations and religions. Islam in France behaves differently than Islam in the United States, but in neither is the behavior of Muslims fixed. As residents and citizens, Muslims can either attack or uphold liberty. Which they choose depends as much on how society receives them as it does on who they are or their ideas. Manent reminds us that, even where Islam is hostilely received, integration is possible. The United States demonstrates this. The experience of Islam in America shows that if Muslims are given liberty, they behave responsibly and contribute to its growth. When this happens, they strengthen not only themselves, but also the nation they call home.

Reader Discussion

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on May 07, 2020 at 09:40:58 am

As Mark Twain's Puddin'head Wilson remarked: We can learn too much from experience. That is likely the case of looking at Europe and its various experiences with Muslim immigrants. Europeans countries have relatively homogeneous Muslim immigrants. The U.S. does not. Perhaps because of geography, the U.S. not only has Muslim immigrants from a larger number of countries and cultures (and varieties of Islam), but also those relatively more educated and professionally oriented. And the U.S. spans the continent and so, despite some clustering, immigrants are more widely dispersed. It should not be a surprise, then, that the American experience will be quite different than the European -- both for the non-Muslim majority as well as for the Muslim immigrants.
What will be especially interesting to watch will be another result: the effect of the more intellectual Muslims in America on the Muslim-majority countries.

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Robert Schadler
on May 07, 2020 at 10:13:18 am

Here are some of the thoughts that came to my mind in reading this over-intellectualized flight of sociological fantasy:
"Tiresome apologetics;" "Dangerously naive and soft- hearted;" "Weak-headed;" "Counter-factual;" "Reads like CAIR propaganda;" "A large dose of empiricism would help;" "Reality is always a good teacher;" and "This essay reads like John Lennon singing "Imagine," the world's most fatuous song:" "You may say I'm a dreamer, But I'm not the only one, I hope some day you'll join us, And the world will be as one."

One statement in this puerile essay is especially insidious nonsense, the kind of stupid stuff that Islamic terrorists thrive on. Believing this kind of stupid stuff got hundreds of young women raped in Sweden and gets innocent people killed all over western Europe. It's the kind of Democrat Party/New York Times stupid stuff that got people killed on September 11, 2001: "Muslims can either attack or uphold liberty. Which they choose depends as much on how society receives them as it does on who they are or their ideas."

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on May 07, 2020 at 12:01:14 pm

"Which they choose depends as much on how society receives them as it does on who they are or their ideas."

Correct BUT still Nonsense!
Let me rephrase this and help our cheerful anthropologist friend.

"they will be welcomed to the extent that they themselves are welcoming of their new culture."That is how it has always worked here in the USA and I suspect that the same is true, or would be true in France were the newcomers to demonstrate some loyalty to their new home.

As for the "intellectual" tradition of Islam, I would only ask: "Where is it?"
Is it likely that a theology that has been characterized as the most radically "voluntaristic" of all religious / philosophic traditions may produce anything approaching that of the West. When one considers that the Asharite School of Islamic Theology had gained, and maintains to this day, preeminence in Islamic thought / religion, it calls into question the ability, even the capacity for islam to achieve the same level of intellectually rigorous debate / thought as did the West. Asharite theology posits an all powerful AND (All too willful) Deity who, at a whim may declare Evil to be Good, to stop the Sun in its motion, etc etc etc. It is best summed up in this.
The phrase "Inshallah" is not a pleasant salutation but rather a COMMANDMENT. God wills everything - and there ain;t a damn thing you can do about it.
Now that is intellectually stimulating, is it not?

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on May 07, 2020 at 14:29:20 pm

Yes, a turn to the Golden Rule is always a good direction to set. Somehow it is just inherently satisfying, both emotionally and intellectually, which accounts for its “universality” within human society and most (maybe all?) cultures. Even the ideology of Islam makes reference to it, except there it is not universal but applied only to the body of believers, the “ummah”.

And thank you, Gabe, for the remarks about “inshallah”, a clarification that all of us imbued with Western ideas needs to hear/see. I gather that is also why the Islamic world in general (with a few historical and some more recent exceptions – Iranian missile and nuclear weapon programs, anyone?) tended to avoid scientific investigation and learning: “we have the Quran and thus ‘know it all already’ ”. In contrast, the recognition within the Christian post Reformation period that nature seemed to be following set laws, and that of course those laws were set by God, thus it was worshipful and merited to study nature to better understand God and his creation. Only after sufficient understanding of the real complexity of the universe did a more secular outlook start to take hold, or at least one relying on Providence and a more mythological and allegorical reading of the Old and New Testaments.

One the plus side, our author did cite that 2016 report from the Center for Security Policy, Sharia: The Threat to America (Abridged). While I had been aware of Gaffney’s work, this particular resource was new to me, so I have skimmed it and downloaded it for future reference. Thank you, Mr. Bristol. If other readers of your essay follow my example and also review that material, I believe we will all be better informed as a result.

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on May 08, 2020 at 06:48:07 am

Bristol fails to mention the commands within the Islamic source materials to dominate non-Muslims when possible. Life for non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries becomes more difficult the more "Islamic" that country is. By default, Islam is meant to strangle the life of non-Muslims. I know hundreds of Muslims who are wonderful people and excellent citizens. I also know that their core doctrines oppose freedom of life, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression.

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on May 08, 2020 at 11:44:07 am

Excellent essay, very much consistent with my own conclusions, based on our BU study of seven Islamic secondary schools across the US, and my involvement with the policy debates in Europe about the Islamic presence there. I spell some of this out in Muslim Educators in American Communities (Information Age 2008).

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Charles Glenn
on May 08, 2020 at 20:21:13 pm

Bristol is another useful dhimmi who won't open his eyes until his back is against the mosque wall and he literally loses his head.

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Horace Kindler
on July 10, 2020 at 13:37:23 pm

This article carts out all of the same old arguments for accepting. I'd love to watch Hitchens destroy this guy in live debate. RIP

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Alan Winters

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.