On Being An American and a Muslim:
Dilemmas of Politics and Culture
By Ali A. Mazrui
American Islam: Between Morality and Politics
The first paradox is that while American secularism is good news for Muslims (separating church from state), American libertarianism is bad news for Islam (such as the latest American debate as to whether same-sex marriages should be legally recognized nationwide as they already are in Hawaii).
The Democratic Party in the United States is more insistent on separating church from state, including its opposition to prayer in schools. This draws some Muslim parents towards the Democrats, since the Muslim parents do not want their kids to be under peer pressure to attend Christian prayers.
On the other hand, the Republicans are stronger on traditional family values and are more opposed to sexual libertarianism. This draws many Muslims (especially immigrant Asians) to the Republican party. Most Muslims share Republican concerns about abortion and gay rights.
The second paradox concerns the Clinton Administration. We have mentioned that while Clinton's administration had been more pro-Israel than any other U.S. administration since Lyndon Johnson, this same Clinton administration had domestically made more friendly gestures towards U.S. Muslims than any previous administration. We referred to the President's greetings to Muslims during the fast of Ramadhan in 1996. We referred to the First-Lady hosting a celebration of Idd el Fitr (the Festival of the End of Ramadhan) in the White House in April 1996 and 1998. Vice President Al Gore visited a mosque in the Fall 1995. And the first Muslim chaplain to serve the 10,000 Muslims in the US armed forces was sworn into the Air Force under Clinton's watch.
President Clinton received in the White House a delegation of Arab Americans to discuss wide ranging issues, domestic and international. We referred to the National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, receiving a delegation of Muslims (including this author) in 1996 to discuss the ramifications of the Bosnian crisis.
The Clinton gestures towards Muslims were sufficiently high profile that a hostile article in the Wall Street Journal in March 1996 raised the spectre of "Friends of Hamas in the White House" - alleging that some of the President's Muslim guests were friends of Hamas, and supporters of the Palestinian movement. The critic in the Wall Street Journal (Steve Emerson) had a long record of hostility towards U.S. Muslims. His television programme on PBS entitled Jihad in America (1994) alleged that almost all terrorist activities by Muslims worldwide were partially funded by U.S. Muslims. President Clinton's friendly gestures to Muslims probably infuriated this self-appointed crusader of Islamophobia.
The third paradox facing U.S. Muslims is that in foreign policy the Republicans in recent U.S. history have been greater friends of Muslims than have Democrats - whereas in domestic policies the Democrats are probably more friendly to Muslims than the Republicans. We shall return to that thesis soon.
The fourth paradox concerns the two Islams in America - indigenous and immigrant. But let us first return to the first paradox. In the United States Western secularism has protected minority religious groups by insisting on separation of church and state. That is a major reason why the Jews in the United States have been among the greatest defenders of the separation of church and state. Any breach of that principle could lead to the imposition of some practices of the religious majority - like forcing Jewish children to participate in Christian prayers at school.
In discussing the role of American Muslims qua Muslims (heirs of the Hijrah), we have to look more closely at their moral concerns in relation to American culture. Curiously enough, American secularism is indeed good news for Muslims in America. The bad news is the expanding arena of American libertarianism. Secularism in the political process does indeed help to protect minority religions from the potential intrusive power of the Christian Right. On the other hand, expanding American libertarianism in such fields as sexual mores alarms both the Christian Right and Muslim traditionalists in the United States.
These moral concerns in turn have consequences on how American Muslims relate to the wider political divide between Republicans and Democrats in both foreign and domestic policies.
In the 1990s more and more American Muslims are registering to vote and seeking to influence candidates in elections. On such social issues as family values and sexual mores, Muslims often find themselves more in tune with Republican rhetoric and concerns. On the need for a more strict separation of church and state, which helps to protect religious minorities, it is the more liberal Democrats who offer a better protection to Muslims. Let us look at these contradictions more closely.
The First Amendment permits religious minorities to practice their religions in relative peace. Of course, like all doctrines, secularism has its fanatics who sometimes want to degrade the sacred rather than permitting it. But at its best a secular state is a refuge of safety for minority religions. It is in that sense that American secularism is a friend of Muslims living in the United States.
But while secularism is a divorce from formal religion, Muslims see libertarianism as a dilution of spirituality. One can be without a formal religion and still be deeply spiritual in a humanistic sense. John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell were without formal religion, yet each had deeply spiritual values. Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Laureate for Peace, was at times an agnostic - but he was deeply committed to the principle of reverence for life - even protecting the lives of insects in Africa.
Religion has been declining in influence in the West since the days of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But it is mainly in the 20th century that spirituality in the West has taken a nose-dive. From an Islamic perspective, America has become not only less religious - but dangerously less spiritual. America has become not only more secular but dangerously more libertarian.
It is the libertarianism which is regarded as a danger to Muslims living in the Western hemisphere. There is the libertarian materialism of excessive acquisitiveness (greed), libertarian consumption (consumerism), the materialism of the flesh (excessive sexuality), the materialism of excessive self-indulgence (from alcoholism to drugs). These four forms of libertarianism could result in a hedonistic way of life, a pleasure-seeking career.
What is more, Muslim parents fear that American libertarianism is likely to influence the socialization and upbringing of the next generation of Muslim children - excessive levels of acquisitiveness, consumerism and diverse forms of sexuality.
It is because of all these considerations that Islam within the United States feels threatened less by American secularism than by American libertarianism.