Last month, my wife and I joined a small group of Muslims and thousands of Christians at the annual March for Life in Washington to call for an end to what we believe is the unjust murder of unborn children in America. My wife’s hijab attracted interest, but we didn’t feel out of place among marchers, many of whom were white evangelicals.
Despite our deep theological differences on other issues, we were at home in the company of fellow believers.
Yet, the Muslim presence at the March is perennially small, even insignificant. In fact, Muslims also decline to join forces with conservative Christians on other traditional social causes such as opposing same-sex marriage.
While research suggests that American Muslims overall are significantly more liberal than white evangelical Protestants, there remains a significant pool of conservative Muslims who in a parallel universe would consider evangelicals their natural allies.
That parallel universe could have existed if the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hadn’t unleashed a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment. Without that, many Muslims would make common cause with evangelicals, something I hope is beginning to happen in America.
The absence of American Muslims from the social conservative space is a result in large part not of theology but of mistrust and even animosity between them and evangelical Christians. When I told a Muslim friend I was meeting with evangelical leaders to get ideas for greater Muslim participation in the March for Life, he asked incredulously, “Why would you talk to Islamophobes?”
His reaction was understandable. There is a widespread sense in the American Muslim community that American foreign policy is influenced by evangelical antipathy toward Islam, as in the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. A 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of white Evangelicals believe that Islam is not part of mainstream American society. Such views manifest in diverse ways, as in opposition to mosque-building in local communities, anti-Muslim screeds on social media and bans on travel from Muslim countries.
These evangelical misgivings about Muslims feed a cycle of secularization in the American Muslim community that I think is a loss for Islam. Terrorist atrocities such as the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016 fuel anti-Muslim views while impelling a skittish American Muslim community to distance itself from Islamic teachings on human sexuality that might seem “fundamentalist” to the broader society but are still common among many conservative Muslims. This tendency is welcomed by the left, which has made overtures to Muslims after such incidents while helping to reframe the community as an ethnic identity group. In turn, the association of some Muslims with the left feeds theories on the far right of a scheme by Muslims and liberals to undermine American values. This dynamic helps drive Muslims toward secular identity politics and away from social conservatism, and from the American tradition of religion in the public square.
But there are signs that warmer relations between conservative Muslims and evangelicals may be on the horizon, and with it, a broader confidence on the part of Muslims to live their religion in public. Evangelical leaders such as the Rev. Bob Roberts of Northwood Church in Keller, Tex., and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, have worked for the inclusion of American Muslims in public life and to persuade their religious communities that Muslims belong in the United States. Following their lead, evangelicals were prominent participants in a Muslim-led conference held in Washington earlier this week to promote cooperation between faiths for the public good. In doing so these leaders have exhibited great courage, as they have come under attack within their own communities for their efforts.
American Muslims have work to do as well. A community that perceives itself under siege tends to prioritize on the basis of self-preservation, and Muslims have tended to be prisoners of this mentality. Ironically, only by looking beyond self-preservation to become involved in the well-being of the broader society will Muslims assuage doubts that Islamic values are incompatible with American values. Thankfully, such work is being done by imams nationwide, such as Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Northern Virginia. Along with Roberts, Imam Magid leads “My Neighbor’s Keeper,” a nationwide group of imams, pastors and rabbis who together perform community service projects.
In the work of My Neighbor’s Keeper and in my own work with evangelical leaders, I find these to be the essential pillars of reconciliation between our faith communities: We must assume the other is sincere. We must recognize the other’s innate human dignity. We must desire good for one another as much as or more than we desire it for ourselves. We must recognize one another’s God-given right to believe and practice as we wish, and the right of others to disagree with and even criticize our beliefs, even as we affirm their truth. And we must forge personal relationships through cooperation for the common good, for therein will we see the blessing that God puts in the fruits of our reconciliation.
The state of relations between Muslims and evangelicals is symptomatic of the fractious, tribal nature of the modern American polity. If our faith communities can find the strength and courage to reconcile, our witness can serve to help heal the country as a whole. Lest we forget, despite their different theologies, this is the mission to which Muslims and Christians are both called.
Ismail Royer is an American convert to Islam and a research and program associate at the Religious Freedom Institute, a D.C. nonprofit organization. He served 13 years in federal prison for terrorism-related charges. Since his release, he has worked in the nonprofit sector developing strategies to promote religious liberty and undermine extremist ideology.