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Op-Ed

From burkinis to the Koran: Why Islam isn't like other faiths

My parents, brother and I were on vacation in Florida, and we were talking about Donald Trump. The idea of leaving America if a scary Republican wins has always been a joke among high-minded liberals who can just fly off and find a job in Toronto or Geneva. But for my family, the joke had taken on a more sinister tone.

It was the Muslim version of “the talk,” and it went something like this: If, God forbid, it gets worse and a President Trump encourages a climate of hatred and persecution against American Muslims, then what are our options? Trump, after all, has expressed support for registering Muslims in a database and refused to disavow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch.

My dad was born and raised in authoritarian Egypt, later immigrating to Canada and then the United States.

To my surprise, he is still technically a Canadian citizen. We had a backup plan! As we played out the various frightening scenarios, my parents, after flirting with the idea of self-imposed exile, reached the same conclusion: This is their country too, and they would fight for it. They wouldn’t give up.

It was an inspiring thing to watch, and a reminder that it’s possible to be both fully Muslim and fully American — right-wing noise to the contrary. One 2016 survey actually found that “Muslims who say their faith is important to their identity are more likely to say being American is important to how they think of themselves.”

Still, I understand why many Americans might find Islam puzzling and foreign. There’s no contradiction in the term American Muslim; but that doesn’t mean Islam is like other monotheistic faiths. It isn’t, in part because it doesn’t lend itself as easily to modern liberalism. The more I’ve studied my own religion — its theology, history and culture — the more I’ve come to appreciate how complicated it is and how much more complicated it must be for people who are coming at it from scratch.

Contrary to what many think, there is no Christian equivalent to Koranic “inerrancy,” even among far-right evangelicals. Muslims believe the Koran is not only God’s word, but God’s actual speech — in other words, every single letter and word in the Koran comes directly from God. This seemingly semantic difference has profound implications. If the Koran is God’s speech, and God is unchanging and perfect, then so is his speech. To question the divine origin of the Koran, then, is to question God himself, and God is not easily put in a box, well away from the public sphere. 

Differences between Christianity and Islam also are evident in each faith’s central figure. Unlike Jesus, who was a dissident, Muhammad was both prophet and politician. And more than just any politician, he was a state-builder as well as a head of state. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined. To argue for the separation of religion from politics, then, is to argue against the model of the very man Muslims most admire and seek to emulate.

Islam’s outsized role in public life leads, circuitously, all the way to the “burkini” controversy. Westerners might ask themselves: Is it really that big of a deal if a few French mayors ask women to wear a “normal” swimsuit on the beach? Well, yes.

If you’re a Muslim woman who wears the hijab — covering the hair and most of the body — you can’t wear just any swimsuit. Some women, of course, are pressured or even legally mandated to wear the hijab (as in Saudi Arabia and Iran), but most choose to do so; it’s about their personal relationship with God. Regardless of whether we like it, the predominant scholarly opinion today is that wearing hijab is fard, or obligatory. Although Western feminists may argue that covering up is sexist — it can encourage the idea that women are primarily sexual objects — asking Muslim women to take off the hijab is akin to asking them to violate their connection with the creator. 

There are dress codes in Judaism too, of course, but it is only a relatively small number of ultraorthodox women who observe them. The hijab, by contrast, is ubiquitous in Muslim communities, and in some Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, the majority of Muslim women cover their hair. Again, this is often a conscious choice: Many Muslims take their religion so seriously that they want to observe seemingly restrictive and pre-modern dress codes. This is the case even in Turkey, where millions of women cover their hair despite decades of secular government and forced unveiling in state institutions.

This fact gets at something deeper, which often goes unsaid because it suggests there is — or at least there may be — a clash of cultures. Islam seems, at least by Western standards, unusually assertive and uncompromising. Critics might see it as full-blown aggressiveness. But Muslims often point to these qualities as evidence of Islam’s vitality and relevance in a supposedly secular age. To put it a bit differently, this is why many Muslims like being Muslim.

Whether consciously done or not, to be unapologetically Muslim today is to, in a way, show that other futures are possible, that the end of history may in fact have more than one destination. If Islam has been — and will continue to be — resistant to secularism, then the very existence of practicing Muslims serves as a constant reminder of this historical and religious divergence.

I realize that some of my fellow American Muslims will view such arguments as inconvenient, portraying Islam in a not-so-positive light. But it is not my job to make Islam look good, and it helps no one to maintain fictions that make us feel better but don’t truly reflect the power and relevance of religion.

In the West, the common response to the challenge of theological diversity has been banal statements of religious “universality.” All too often, interfaith dialogue, however well-intentioned, is about papering over what makes us — or at least our beliefs — different. It is a tenet of our American faith that we’re all basically the same and ultimately want the same things. This is true in some ways, but not in every way.

The crisis of culture and identity — one that sees the rise of the far-right and white nativism in our own country — makes it clear that our differences and divides are real. We would all be better off acknowledging — and addressing — those differences rather than pretending they don’t exist.

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