For many Americans, last week’s executive order on immigration was a clear case of religious discrimination since it singles out Muslim-majority countries and gives preferential treatment to non-Muslim refugees from those countries.
The implication seems to be that, in keeping with President Trump’s campaign promises, the United States will sort people at the border based on faith.
For other Americans, the executive order might not seem like a case of religious discrimination — not because the policy doesn’t differentiate between Muslims and non-Muslims, but because they are skeptical that Islam is actually a religion at all.
Google Islam, religion and politics, and it’s easy to find websites like PoliticalIslam.com, which claims to use “statistical methods” to prove that “Islam is far more of a political system than a religion.”
The argument travels outside the Internet fringe of conspiracy theories. “When we discuss ‘Islam,’ it should be assumed that we are talking about both a religion and a political-social ideology,” former assistant U.S. attorney Andrew C. McCarthy wrote in the National Review in 2015.
“Islam is not even a religion; it is a political system that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global conquest,” said John Bennett, a Republican lawmaker in the Oklahoma state legislature, in 2014.
A thoughtful, educated evangelical pastor recently told me that he thinks “religious liberty just needs to be protected for all belief systems, but there also needs to be clarity as to if Islam is fully a religion, or if it’s really a political movement disguised as a religion.”
The idea has adherents at the highest levels of power. “Islam is a political ideology” that “hides behind the notion of it being a religion,” national security adviser Michael Flynn told an ACT for America conference in Dallas last summer.
The growing popularity of this idea speaks to a profound disconnect in American conversations about faith — and it offers a way that many self-proclaimed advocates of religious liberty might defend discriminatory policies against Muslims.
It is difficult to think of a definition of religion that does not include Islam — an ancient tradition with practitioners who believe in one God, pray and try to live their lives in accordance with a scripture.
So why has this particular canard taken off?
Wajahat Ali, a writer, attorney, and the lead author of “Fear, Inc.,” a report on American Islamophobia, traces the idea’s recent surge to anti-Islam activists David Yerushalmi and Frank Gaffney. In 2010, Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy published a report, “Shariah: The Threat to America,” arguing that Muslim religious law, or sharia, was actually a dangerous political ideology that a cabal of Muslims hoped to impose on the United States.
“Though it certainly has spiritual elements, it would be a mistake to think of shariah as a ‘religious’ code in the Western sense,” the report argued. It also suggested banning “immigration of those who adhere to shariah … as was previously done with adherents to the seditious ideology of communism.”
“They misdefine sharia in a way which is not recognizable to any practicing Muslim,” Ali said. But the idea was influential. By the summer of 2011, more than two dozen states were considering anti-sharia legislation. More recently, Gaffney reportedly advised Trump’s transition team.
For many Americans, confusion about religious law, political ideology and sharia may reflect a distinctly Christian, and especially Protestant, way of thinking about the nature of religion.
“It’s hard to talk about this sometimes because there is no equivalent of sharia in the Christian tradition,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.” “Even when you’re talking to well-intentioned, well-meaning people who really want to understand, explaining sharia is very challenging because there’s nothing in Christianity that’s quite like it.”
This kind of wide-ranging religious legal code may be unfamiliar to many Christians, but it’s not unique to Islam. There are strong similarities between sharia and Jewish law, or halakhah, which itself descends from legalistic sections of the Bible that both Jews and Christians consider scripture. Both words derive from roots meaning “path” or “way.”
Judaism has also been accused of being as much a political program as a religion. The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an influential anti-Semitic forgery, falsely depicts Jews describing Judaism as “the one and only religious and political truth.”
Both sharia and halakhah include laws for communal as well as personal life. These traditions do not necessarily draw sharp legal distinctions between religious and other kinds of spaces.
Certainly, some Muslims may believe that faith touches all parts of their lives, including their political involvement. But the same could be said for devout members of almost any other religious tradition.
The entanglement of faith and politics is not unique to Islam. Consider the televangelist Pat Robertson, who ran for president in 1988 because, he believed, God wanted him to do so. After he lost, Robertson wrote about his hope for “one of America’s major political parties taking on a profoundly Christian outlook in its platforms and party structure.”
Nevertheless, Robertson told viewers in 2007 that “Islam is not a religion” but instead “a worldwide political movement.”
The idea of Islam as a political ideology fits well with our particular political moment. Since the fall of communism, some Western intellectuals, most notably the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, have argued that the next great global struggle will be between Western civilization and Islamic civilization.
“The ideology that is against the U.S. or the American values used to be communism, and now it’s Islam. And it cannot be Islam as a religion. It has to be Islam as a political ideology,” said Jocelyne Cesari, a professor at the University of Birmingham in Britain and author of “Why the West Fears Islam,” paraphrasing those arguments.
Increasingly, there seems to be a disconnect between those who understand the national conversation about Islam in terms of religious rights and the protection of religious minorities, and those who see it as a conversation about large-scale ideological battle.
As Cesari points out, thinking about Islam in these terms allows people to reconcile a commitment to First Amendment rights with a sense of Islam as an existential political enemy. The stakes could be high. “Once you look at Islam as a political ideology, especially one that is threatening, you can ignore or neglect all kinds of civil procedures or protection of religious freedoms that go with the status of being religious in this country.”
Michael Schulson is a freelance journalist in Durham, N.C.