By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka again declined to say on Wednesday in an NPR interview whether President Trump believes Islam is “a religion.” He also doubled down on calling Muslim radicalism “radical Islamic extremism.” In the end he clarified that the US is not at war with Islam, saying that Islam is itself divided into pro- and anti-American factions and that he wants the pro-American version to win.
I have explained many times that the word “Islamic” is like “Judaic.” It refers to the ideals and the beautiful things about the Muslim religion. You can have Islamic art and Islamic ethics. You can’t have Islamic terrorism because Islam forbids terrorism. Likewise, university Centers for Judaic Studies focuses on Judaic religious thought and Judaic history, but wouldn’t typically teach about Jewish gangsters like Bugsy Siegel.
For the United States government to call al-Qaeda and ISIL “Islamic” extremism is to aid and abet them in their quest to be accepted by other Muslims as legitimate. They are terrorists, not Islamic. And just has you can have Jewish gangsters but not Judaic ones, you can have terrorists who happen to be Muslim but you can’t have Islamic ones.
Also of course, a phrase such as “radical Islamic extremists” is ludicrous and no right-thinking person should be guilty of its fallacies. It is redundant, since it implies that there are Islamic extremists who are not radical or that there are Islamic radicals who are not extremists. So it is just an asinine piece of propagandistic over-reach by the American (and apparently Hungarian) right wing, which undermines the fight against extremism and radicalism by raising the white flag of surrender on whether it is genuinely Islamic and whether Muslims should view it as legitimate.
Moreover, extremism is not always pejorative. An American conservative once said that extremism in the service of liberty is no vice. Some Muslims would agree. So you aren’t even succeeding, by using this phrase, in stigmatizing Muslims who commit terrorism, which was apparently the whole point.
The United States indirectly created al-Qaeda to fight the Soviet Union, so the idea that there is a civil war in Islam over anti-Americanism is ahistorical. The US rampaged around the Middle East undermining Arab secularism all through the Cold War. Political Islam was bolstered to some important extent by Washington, just as Hamas was initially supported by Israel to offset the secular PLO. Eisenhower and Dulles tried to build up the Saudi, Wahhabi king as leader of the Middle East. I was handed a biblical scorecard in the 1980s by which I was supposed to judge my congressman, put out by the American religious Right. It asked if he supported the jihadis in Afghanistan (among whom were al-Qaeda). That is, thirty years ago people like Gorka were insisting that we have to support the people he now sees as so threatening. Or else were were betraying Judeo-Christian values and surrendering to godless Communism.
While Muslim radicals are a problem, you’re much more likely to be struck by lightning than to encounter one, and I wouldn’t spend trillions of dollars on all this. White supremacists in the US are a much bigger issue.
So, on to the first point, or non-point, is Islam a religion? I would argue that not only is Islam a religion, but for all practical purposes it invented the idea of multiple co-existing religions.
St. Augustine complains in The City of God that there wasn’t a really good word for religion in his day. Religio meant the ties that bind and could refer to family or state as well as a religious community. Threskaia, the Greek for worship, just addressed one aspect of religion. Eusebeia or awe and reverence for the divine was used in Greek, but again was limited to describing an attitude.
Most early Christians, and many thinkers into our own day, rejected the idea that Christianity is a religion among the religions. Many saw four categories– the True Christian doctrine, paganism, heresy and the incomplete and stunted Judaism. They thought everyone but Christians were going straight to hell. Seeing Islam as a heresy and not a religion is an old theological move of Christian supremacists.
As Cantwell Smith argued, Islam in contrast took over the Persian idea of daena or den or din, which evolved to mean “religion.” Zoroastrianism was called in Sasanian times “weh din,” the good religion. The Qur’an thus calls late Greco-Roman-Arab paganism a religion (din). It calls Judaism a religion/din. Likewise Christianity and Zoroastrianism. And it calls the community of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) a religion (din). Not until the eighteenth century Enlightenment did the West achieve a similar understanding of religion as a global category and of each religion as in the same category as all the others. The Qur’an says that members of all the monotheistic religions, who do good works and have faith, are saved, something almost no Christian would have said until the nineteenth century, and even then it has remained a minority view.
16th Cent. Mughal Emperor Akbar welcomes Jesuits to his court
In the US system, the Supreme Court decides what a religion is (though ironically the Internal Revenue Service can play an important role, since religions are tax-exempt and so the IRS has to decide if a group claiming that exemption really is a religion.)
But of course the Constitution is where we have to begin.
The First Amendment says
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The word “establishment” is a technical term in 18th century practice, meaning to “make something official state policy.” The amendment is saying that the US government can’t have a favored, state religion. The Supreme Court later interpreted the 14th amendment to hold that individual states also can’t have state religions, since that would be discriminatory. (Madison originally had tried to restrict the states from having official religions but the senate voted him down at that time).
The obvious other side of this coin is that the government cannot actively discriminate against a particular religion, either. The Founding generation set up the US government to be neutral with regard to the religions.
The idea of religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment was based on an act passed in 1786 by the Virginia state legislature that had been authored by Thomas Jefferson, and which said in part:
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Gee, seems to me like Jefferson wouldn’t have wanted a Muslim ban. In fact, one of the arguments raised against this act in the Virginia legislature was precisely that it would allow the free practice of Islam in the Commonwealth. Jefferson’s opponents tried to limit religious freedom to Christianity. Jefferson battled back and won.
James E. Hutson explains:
“Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson followed Locke, his idol, in demanding recognition of the religious rights of the “Mahamdan,” the Jew and the “pagan.” Supporting Jefferson was his old ally, Richard Henry Lee, who had made a motion in Congress on June 7, 1776, that the American colonies declare independence. “True freedom,” Lee asserted, “embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion.”
In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted with satisfaction that in the struggle to pass his landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), the Virginia legislature “rejected by a great majority” an effort to limit the bill’s scope “in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan.””
Jefferson was ambassador in Paris in 1787 when the Constitution was being drafted, but he corresponded with Madison and strongly urged him to draft a bill of rights that would address religious liberty. Madison was influenced by the 1786 Virginia statute.
That is, the legislative history of the First Amendment demonstrates conclusively that it is rooted in Enlightenment conceptions of religion that saw Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism as all constituting “religions,” belief in which is a matter of conscience over which civil magistrates should have no control. So I would say that the Constitution implicitly recognizes Islam as a religion, even for an originalist who reads it through eighteenth-century eyes.
Of course, through the twentieth century the Supreme Court has further refined what it considers to be a religion.
The Newseum Institute explains:
“In the 1960s, the Court expanded its view of religion. In its 1961 decision Torcaso v. Watkins, the Court stated that the establishment clause prevents government from aiding “those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” In a footnote, the Court clarified that this principle extended to “religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God … Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”
Most recently, the late Antonin Scalia authored an 8 to 1 decision that Abercrombie & Fitch could not discriminate against a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf even if she did not explicitly ask for a religious accommodation. Scalia and his colleagues had no doubt whatsoever that Islam is a religion.
That is, there simply isn’t any question a) that the American legal tradition sees Islam as a religion and that b) its free practice on American soil, without fear of discrimination, is guaranteed by our most precious constitutional instruments, as demonstrated by their legislative history.
So the next reporter should please ask the recently naturalized Mr. Gorka to explain why he has not stood up to Mr. Trump on this issue, and why he characterizes the controversy as “theological” when in fact it is a matter of our civil constitutional law.