Is Trump right to doubt that Islam is a Religion?

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.

Jesuits at Moghul Court 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.

20 Responses

  1. Sebastian Gorka attended the posh Catholic school a couple of miles down the road from the slightly less posh one I went to. If he has doubts as to whether Islam is a religion, then I am very disappointed in him and/or the monks who taught him.

  2. In my view the Middle East militant uprising is all about the abuses perpetrated by Big Oil over the past century and has nothing to do with any religion. The west wishes to ascribe it to faith so as to distract from the real culprit.

  3. “I would argue that not only is Islam a religion, but for all practical purposes it invented the idea of multiple co-existing religions.”

    I need to seriously question this assertion Juan. Although I am well aware that Islam often both in practice and intent has this as an important element, I am not sure you can say they were the first.

    The Romans – occasional problems with Jews and Christians notwithstanding – had a deep tradition of accepting and tolerating the worship of numerous religions of various sorts. Traditional pagan practices existed along side those who worshipped Isis (Greco-Egyptian), or Ba’al (from Phoenicia, i.e., Lebanon-Syria), or the Great Mother (from Asia), or Mithras (from Iran), or the animistic gods of the Germans and Celts, to name a few.

    Judaism was tolerated as well, and pagan Greeks known as God-Fearers often patronized their synagogues (for which there is plentiful evidence from Asia Minor, among other regions). There was a large Jewish community in Rome itself, and still is, that dates from at least the late Republic (ca. 100 BCE, and maybe before) going forward, so a monotheistic system was co-existing with a polytheistic one in Rome’s very diverse Empire. Had Judaea not had the misfortune to be a particularly poorly governed province (sorry for stacking the adverbs!), it’s unlikely that there would have been rebellion in 66-70 CE, and subsequent rebellions after that (115-116, 132-35 CE).

    Even the Christians went largely ignored until major military and economic “stressors” hit the empire in the third century CE. The Neronian persecution of 64 CE was aberrational, and some now think possibly justified (!) if the Christians were genuinely responsible for the great fire that struck Rome that year. Persecution was largely a local thing, and sometimes emperors could and did put the kybosh on it (as Trajan did in the case of his governor of Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny the Younger). The persecutions of the emperors Decius (249-51 CE) and Diocletian (285-304 CE) came in the wake of extreme external and domestic threats, only to be followed by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 CE in which Christianity was officially tolerated and which, significantly, did not outlaw paganism (but started to put the slow squeeze on it). On the whole, the Romans were exemplary in their inclusivity, and recognized full well that this was a strength. They may have sneered at the self-castrating priests of the Great Mother, they may have outlawed infant sacrifice to Ba’al and human sacrifice to Germanic and Celtic deities, but they were for all that pretty accepting of various religions, poly- and monotheistic alike.

    • What you say is correct with regard to official Roman tolerance. However, it was at the level of practice, not conceptualization. The Romans don’t appear to have had the conception of “a religion.” Religio and pietas were about proper worship in general.

      • Yes, that is correct – in part because ancient pagan religion was arguably more performative, based on action via ritual, as opposed to any higher ethic or morality, even (arguably) spiritual function. Religio was about “doing”, pietas about “doing it right” or simply the fact that you did “do” the ritual (often until you got proper omens). It was often (by no means always) more about civic participation and identity, rather than spiritual fulfillment (well, except for mystery rights, like those to Bacchus or the Eleusinian Mysteries).

        Pietas was all about proper observance of religio, and also had implications of not just your demeanor towards religio, but towards your familia and the res publica.

        Correct me if I am wrong, but I can think of no war in antiquity based on any “religious” conflict. That may be a testament, if I am right, to your contention that they had no concept of “a religion”.

        What they did have a concept of was “superstitio” – which is how they spoke of Christianity and Judaism in order to “delegitimize” or disparage them. Superstitio is the religious practices of others – what you do; religio, observing the proper forms and observances, is what I (as a proper Roman) do.

        • The key to Roman diversity was that, as pagans, anyone in the Roman Empire could swear an oath to the god of the Roman polity while still being loyal to their hundreds of existing regional gods. That oath was the trusted basis of citizenship.

          But for monotheists, swearing such an oath was a crisis of conscience. Thus Jews and Christians were always going to be a problem when they weren’t in power, and if they were in power they were compelled to demand sole allegiance to their own single God.

          This is a problem of humans using gods and magic to reify an abstract concept: absolute, sovereign loyalty to mass institutions like The Law. Julian Jaymes, I guess, would have said that ancient pagans “heard” gods telling them to do the things that modern secular bureaucratic imperatives tell us what to obey today. I don’t know if current scholars accept that pre-secular people were really that alien. But even if they were just cynics faking loyalty to all the gods, a simple oath was good enough to keep Rome going for a lot longer than the United States of America will.

  4. More people should hear what Professor Cole is teaching, and then America would be a little better off when it comes to our passing judgement on the downtrodden Muslim community.

  5. I suspect Mr. Gorka is opting not to waste his time, or risk his position, by speaking the truth to his boss. The administration seems to think of laws like Capt. Jack Sparrow: “They’re more like guidelines, really…”

  6. Who the hell is the president of US, or for that matter any one in position of power in this country, to render an opinion on God or humanity. How many people have been killed in the past two hundred years on orders from US presidents or their men inside or outside of government. This last example of a US PRESIDENT is openly a charlatan. This whole charade says so much about the weaknesses of Muslim community in this country.

  7. Are we right to doubt that Trump is a genuine human being? His closest advisers? And Congressional Republicans as well. That is the question we need to contemplate.

  8. “I would argue that not only is Islam a religion, but for all practical purposes it invented the idea of multiple co-existing religions.”


    Sadly, generally speaking, Muslims have pretty much lost this notion, save a few Sufi groups and the perennials, and have become quite exclusivists.

    This is primarily due to them losing the simple and pristine message of the Quran as well as geopolitical situation.

    • O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.

      Quran Chapter 49: Verse 13

      And unto thee have We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it, and a watcher over it.

      So judge between them by that which Allah hath revealed, and follow not their desires away from the truth which hath come unto thee.

      For each We have appointed a divine law and a traced-out way.

      Had Allah willed He could have made you one community.

      But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are).

      So vie one with another in good works.

      Unto Allah ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ

      Quran Chapter 5 Verse 48

  9. ” The US rampaged around the Middle East undermining Arab secularism all through the Cold War.” I would enjoy a whole article elaborating this idea. Thank you for your work!

  10. The terrorists are winning. The rise of nationalism around the world is making an irrational and historically (as Juan Cole has stated) inaccurate argument. ISIL is winning when the most powerful nations in the world state that ISIL is Islam.

  11. Jonathan Lyons

    Max Weber argued convincingly 100 years ago that Islam was a Western religion, something apparent to anyone who has read the Quran. That some invoke it as an ideology does not change the faith’s fundamental essence, only its varied interpretation.

  12. Prof Juan Cole mentions an idea of Wilfred Canwell Smith

    The same stalwart says the following

    A quote from W.C.Smith Not a Muslim

    History has been such that the West’s relations with Islamic world have from the first been radically different from those with any other civilisation….

    Europe has known Islam fourteen centuries mostly as an enemy and a threat. It is no wonder that Muhammad more than any other of the world’s religious leaders has had a “poor press” in the West and that Islam is the least appreciated there of any of the world’s other faiths.

    Until Karl Marx and the rise of communism the prophet had organised and launched the only serious challenge to western civilisation that it has faced the whole course of history….the attack was directed both, both military and ideological. And it was powerful

    Quoted from the Book Islam in Modern Histroy (Page 109)

    Author Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

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