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In other instances, furor over Islamization has been set off by trivial and harmless measures that infringe on no one’s rights, such the installation on a few college campuses of foot baths for Muslim students to use for ritual ablutions. Such provisions are no different in principle from accommodations that benefit other religious groups, such as kosher menus in student dining halls.
Indeed, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment specialist, points out that many current disputes about public accommodation of Islamic beliefs and practices, or enforcement of private contracts and arbitrations based on Islamic law, are not particularly novel. “They’re not some special new monkey wrench that Muslims are throwing into our legal system,” he wrote on his Volokh Conspiracy blog on March 25. “Christians, Jews, and others have routinely raised such issues before, and continue to do so today.” In most such cases—for instance, when Catholic social service agencies ask to be exempted from state laws that prohibit discriminating against same-sex couples in adoption placements—conservatives are found on the side of more religious accommodation.
Such accommodations, large and small, are very much a part of American life. While single-sex hours at a few municipal swimming pools for the benefit of Muslims who observe traditional rules of modesty have raised hackles, similar provisions have been made for Orthodox Jews. In many areas with large Jewish communities, push-button-controlled traffic lights at crosswalks switch to automatic control on the Sabbath, when the Orthodox are not allowed to operate electrical devices.
Nor is there anything new about conflicts and controversies over religion and state. In upstate New York in the 1980s, parents in an Orthodox Jewish enclave sued the public school board because of their objections to female drivers on school buses carrying boys; when the suit was rejected, they created their own school district, which was green-lit by the state legislature but later blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court as overtly religious in nature. In some religious communities that expect all interpersonal disputes to be handled by spiritual elders—Jehovah’s Witnesses, ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Amish—there have been serious concerns about cover-ups of criminal acts such as child sexual abuse, because of traditional pressure to not report such crimes to the secular authorities.
How do critics of “Islamization” deal with these parallels? Last December, a Jewish reader on the website of Middle East Forum Director Daniel Pipes pointed out that much-reviled proposals to allow Muslims to voluntarily settle domestic relations cases and financial disputes in Shariah courts are analogous to existing Jewish religious courts or within-community conflict resolutions among Mormons or the Amish. Pipes responded: “Jews and Amish do not try to take over the United States; Islamists do.” Thus, all Muslims who ask for modest and standard accommodations for their religious values are equated with “Islamists” who seek to take over America, and any concessions to such requests are seen as “the camel’s nose under the tent”—the first step to public floggings, stonings, and beheadings.
Any accommodation of faith-based beliefs that violates fundamental liberties and individual rights should be firmly rejected, whether it’s the acceptance of religiously sanctioned wife beating or the recent suggestion by Washburn University law professor Liaqat Ali Khan that “desecrations of the Qur’an” should be outlawed because “given the presence of a growing population of American Muslims, Qur’an burning threatens domestic peace.” But the anti-Islamic backlash threatens essential rights too. Efforts to block the construction of mosques using government muscle are the most obvious example. The recent Shariah bans could prevent American courts from honoring and enforcing private contracts and agreements based on Islamic religious law, and perhaps even from recognizing the validity of marriages performed by Islamic courts abroad.
The Myth of the Muslim Monolith
The hard-to-swallow truth is that anti-Islam polemicists have a point: Islam is not quite the same as any other major religion. There is no country in the world right now where a Christian or Jewish government executes people for blasphemy, apostasy, or illicit sex; several major Muslim states do. Earlier this year in Pakistan, after Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer spoke out in defense of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Muhammad, Taseer himself was murdered. Large segments of the Pakistani public, including politicians and clerics, hailed his assassin as a hero. Even in modernized Malaysia and Indonesia, which have legal guarantees for religious minorities and are often cited as models of tolerance among majority-Muslim states, Shariah courts have the de facto power to bar any Muslim from converting to another faith or (for women) marrying a non-Muslim.
But many self-styled anti-jihadists—Geller, her guru and comrade-in-arms Robert Spencer, Michelle Malkin, and quite a few others—go further, claiming that fanaticism, intolerance, and violence are at the core of Islam and that the religion is impervious to reform. Spencer, who blogs at JihadWatch.org, adamantly asserts that terrorism is the real face of Islam and that so-called moderate Muslims are either liars or dupes who don’t understand the true nature of their faith. As evidence, he and others quote inflammatory verses from the Koran that prescribe the conquest and slaughter of unbelievers and enjoin the faithful against befriending Christians and Jews.
Yet the Bible has more than a few alarmingly violent and intolerant passages, and even the relatively pacific New Testament contains an exhortation from St. Paul to avoid friendships with non-Christians. Such verses have not prevented most Christians from coming to terms with modernity and liberal democracy. Much more of Islam is stuck in a pre-modern, authoritarian frame of mind. When a figure like Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi—the Qatar-based cleric who advocates capital punishment for apostates and homosexuals and the “light beating” of unruly wives—can be an esteemed religious scholar and a reputed “moderate,” it says a great deal about the current state of the religion.
But there are many Muslims who have condemned and stood up against terrorism, including those who recently volunteered to serve as human shields for Christian churches in Egypt after church bombings by Islamist fanatics. There are Muslim scholars who are advocating a revision of Islamic orthodoxy on issues ranging from women’s rights to blasphemy and apostasy, and who are challenging the age-old clerical doctrine that the Koran’s earlier, more peaceful and tolerant verses are nullified by the later, more militant ones. In 2004, over 2,500 Muslim academics from 23 countries signed a petition condemning “theologians of terror” (al-Qaradawi among them) who use Islamic scriptures as justification for political violence. It remains to be seen whether such voices will prevail in the Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East.
Islamist radicalism is pervasive enough to pose thorny problems for the West. Even in the United States, where the Muslim community is far more integrated into the mainstream culture than in Europe, some mosques have been used for terrorist recruitment and some supposedly moderate Muslim groups have provided a platform to those who advocate violence.
Al-Darsani readily agrees that the Muslim community in the United States has a problem with extremism. “It certainly does not help,” he says, “when their religious leaders use Islam as a tool to vent their political dissatisfaction through violent rants about how evil America is and how the West is waging a cosmic war against Islam.” Yet Al-Darsani is also convinced that “this is where freedom and tolerance come into play: As second- and third-generation American Muslims are exposed to freely exchanged ideas and establish themselves in America, they will become an integral part of the American fabric.”
The tolerance this requires is exactly what the “anti-jihadists” vehemently reject. Spencer’s JihadWatch site has argued that even secularized Muslims are potentially dangerous because either they or their children could revert to militant Islam. Comments threads on anti-jihadist sites are filled with calls to block Muslim immigration or ban Islam altogether.
With Muslims accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s population, the modernization of Islam is one of the 21st century’s most urgent priorities. But the obstacles to reform come not only from militant Islamism but from Islamophobia as well. The Islamophobes, after all, repeat everything the Islamists tell Muslims: that the West is implacably hostile to them and their faith, that the most extreme and violent form of Islam is also its truest form, and that a liberalized Islam is impossible. American Muslims, and America, deserve better.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young (CathyYoung63@gmail.com) is a columnist for RealClearPolitics.