The detractors are wrong: Islam is like other religions

I converted to Islam in the 1990s. At the time, the decision was a radical transformation. It brought my life into a relationship with a moral ideal embodied by the Prophet Muhammad that placed productive demands on my daily life. Becoming Muslim didn’t require submission to a law of violence or death. Nowhere was I taught to stone the adulterer or kill the infidel. Instead, the Islam I learned encouraged me to be patient, respectable, and kind. It also told me that the injustices of the world were to be challenged by truth and protest. Islam, for me, was thus a religion that integrated self-improvement and social progress. The two went hand-in-hand. In that sense, Islam is much like other religions. To practice Islam is to commit to an ethical endeavor to make oneself and one’s world, however modestly, a better place.     

If I am to believe some of the Trump administration’s top officials, however, this is all a lie. Worse, I’ve been duped. Because in their view, my religion – Islam – is not a religion of ethics or goodness. On the contrary, Islam is not a religion at all. It is, rather, an ideology whose function is nothing more than world domination. And I, a Muslim, am a suspicious character in America because I, a Muslim, carry within me a program with only one outcome: the end of the United States as we know it. Sounds extreme. I know. It is extreme. But if you listen to some of the folks that to populate the Trump administration, it’s hard to deny. 

If I am to believe some of the Trump administration’s top officials, however, this is all a lie. Worse, I’ve been duped. Because in their view, my religion – Islam – is not a religion of ethics or goodness. On the contrary, Islam is not a religion at all.

Take the once very well-respected Michael Flynn, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant and former National Security Advisor who claimed that “Islamism” was a cancer within 1.7 billion Muslims and that “Islam is not a real religion, but a political ideology masked behind a religion.” Or consider the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who said that “people who deeply believe that Islam is the way” are a “threat to America.” After the Boston Marathon bombings, he also falsely claimed that Islamic advocacy organizations were silent in the face of extremism and that their silence casted “doubt on the commitment to peace among adherents of the Muslim faith.” Trump’s current National Security Advisor, John Bolton, is not much different. In addition to fraternizing with some of the chief American Islamophobes, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, Bolton has supported one of the most notorious anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, Frank Gaffney, who, among other things, argues that Shariah law is a totalitarian ideology and that American Muslims who follow it should be stripped of their citizenship. 

These are just some of the anti-Muslim racists who have served or continue to serve in the United States government. Whether they publicly declare that my religion, Islam, is a totalitarian ideology, or they embrace others who do, all of them give official life to the political discrimination of Muslims in the U.S. In some ways, this is worse than the social discrimination of Muslims found on bigoted radio like The Rush Limbaugh Show because it extends beyond the context of media and social life. It is, rather, a form of discrimination that finds expression in policies like the Muslim ban, which openly treats Muslims with suspicion because, as Flynn put it, we might be infected with the cancer of Islamism. And it is a form of discrimination that gains legitimacy from the position of those who support it. Both Bolton and Pompeo make right-wing racism seem like centrist beliefs because their position in the government is hardly one of an extremist. To say that the U.S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State see Islam as an ideology makes the claim worth entertaining precisely because it comes from the highest seats of power. Politicians are not normally seen as extremists. They are “our” officials appointed by our “elected” government, not radicals.   

Politicians are not normally seen as extremists. They are “our” officials appointed by our “elected” government, not radicals.   

Living under the Trump presidency, I worry about Flynn and Pompeo’s ideas. 49 Muslims were killed in New Zealand by a white nationalist who live streamed his murder on Facebook. While President Trump condemned the killing and right-wing media will surely try to exceptionalize the bloodshed, I know this act is inseparable from a growing ecology of fear among mostly white heterosexual men and women who have long despised the Muslim presence in the so-called West. I also know that, while not all anti-Muslim racists are willing to murder Muslims, they sustain an environment in which those who do gain inspiration. And I know that while I’m not a robot programmed to dominate America with Shariah law, my identity as a Muslim and the identity I have passed on to my children will be visible within a field of perception where Islam is permanently suspect. Although we may not be able to fully abolish the racism that drives anti-Muslim policies and violence, we can reduce its reach. And the clearest starting point is the expulsion of officials who give its wings the wind it needs. Bolton, Pompeo, and even Trump must be democratically defeated, and we need to elect officials willing to give Islam and Muslims what every other religion deserves: the dignity of a way of life that is irreducible to any single form and infinitely capable of bringing new light into a dark world. 

Michael Vicente Pérez is an assistant professor at the University of Memphis.

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6 Comments

  • Judith Armatolos says:

    Michael, You write beautifully and convincingly in defense of your religion. I am moved by your description of the impact of the conversion on your life. As an outsider from all religions I would just like to make a qualification and suggest that basically all religions, as well as most non-religious political ideologies, have an element of violence deeply embedded in their past. I agree with you that the anti-Muslim rhetoric coming out of some factions in the US is insulting. It is also hypocritical given the violence and atrocities the US, under a banner on Christianity, have and still inflict on the world. Most Christians would also deny that their religion advocates violence. Most Christians also seem to overlook or excuse US violence, perhaps with the vague hope that it might be somehow protective of them.
    I am concerned about the level of inter-religious hostility. I am also concerned that there appears to be a lack of complete acknowledgement on the part of religious people about the historical roots of their ideology. I know most Muslims embody peaceful approaches to life. I also know that all religions have the potential to offer their adherents violence as an option in the face of real or perceived challenge.
    Please do not take offense at my comment. I merely want to contribute to more open discussion.
    Judith Armatolos

    • “Most Christians would also deny that their religion advocates violence”

      PLEASE CITE THE COMMANDS TO VIOLENCE BY CHRIST.
      You can’t.
      You’re talking about the covenant of JUDAISM. Deut and Leviticus, right? That’s ALL you’ve got? Are you going to be stupid and pull the verse of the character in a story Jesus is talking about? You know, the King and the gold? The metaphorical ‘sword’ that Jesus claimed the Gospel will bring? Anything? Bueller?

    • Judith,

      Thank you for the sincerity of your question. It is absolutely undeniable that people who have and continue to identify as Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist (yes, Buddhists too), commit violence. It’s also true that many of them say their religion commands it. And in a sense, the religion does command the violence. However, I think we have to see how texts are understood to command violence. That means we have to look at the conditions (political, social, etc.) under which religious believers to turn violence and how they have come to understand the texts in a way that commands them to. Imperial interests, for example, worked well with the missionary goal of “saving” the “savages” by converting them to Christianity. Without being too reductive, the conditions of imperial power seemed to play a big role in making the question of violence in Christianity possible. Same goes with Muslims, I think. The real question for me concerns the situations that make inter-religious hostility possible. I don’t think it’s inherent to any faith to be hostile towards other faiths. And on the whole, I think religions direct people inward in a way that does not result in hostility (despite all of the complexity of the texts people believe in).

  • >”49 Muslims were killed in New Zealand by a white nationalist who live streamed his murder on Facebook

    I noticed you brought up ONE incident.. the only one that has occurred like it in recent memory.. yet no mentions of the Muslims slaughtering Christians by the hundreds in Nigeria, or the 70 Christians and 350 injured in Pakistan in March of 2017. 729 people were killed and 776 were killed by 132 Islamic attacks in MARCH 2019 ALONE.

    Also the NZ Shooter was an ANARCHIST, trying to be the Joker from Dark Knight – worse, he was likely a recent convert, since martyrdom is the be-all-end-all of Islam, notice how the victims were all elderly or western converts? Lastly, Islam IS NOT LIKE ANY OTHER RELIGION. NO OTHER RELIGION claims it’s book is DIRECTLY WRITTEN BY GOD and completely infallible. The OT and NT are written in third person human chronicle format. The Quran is also the ONLY RELIGION to take other religion’s characters, completely retcon and rewrite them, and claim the previous religions are ‘corrupted’. THE ONLY ONE.

    Christianity teaches against organized religion and theocracy, claiming personal relationship; Islam teaches complete totalitarian theocracy and groupthink ritual adherence. They are completely opposite, therefore the are NOT the same! This lazy approach is akin to saying all books are the same, all movies are the same, all governments are the same, all people are the same..

  • “These are just some of the anti-Muslim racists who have served or continue to serve in the United States government”

    Ok, you lost all credibility by claiming Islam is a race.

  • Michael Perez says:

    Majin,

    I don’t quite understand your point. Whether a religion commands violence is not bound to the text alone. If your argument is that the Quran advocates violence, then you have a serious problem: how do you account for the fact that the majority (meaning nearly one billion) of Muslims DO NOT believe that they are commanded to murder infidels? Part of the problem is that you are looking at the Quran with the goal of finding what supports acts of violence. I’m no scholar of Christianity but it is apparent that Christians have historically committed massive violence in the name of salvation and their peaceful savior. Also, the belief among Zionist Jews that God gave them Palestine (as Israel) has been the source of significant violence by Zionist Jews against Christians and Palestinians. And about your point about Islam as a race: note that I used the words “Anti-MUSLIM” not “anti-ISLAM” racists. This is a fairly complex argument but Islamophobia is, for many, a perspective on Muslims that is very much racialized. No, Muslims are not a race. Nor are Whites or Blacks. But people are racialized, which is a process that depends on a particular assumption about human difference. So if my credibility depends on my statement that Pompeo and Flynn are anti-Muslim racists, then it seems it remains intact.

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