In May 2010, the Regional Planning Commission of Rutherford County in Tennessee approved a request for the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM). It was a straightforward request that, legally speaking, should have garnered no controversy. But in a post-9/11 context, and in light of the heated and highly politicized controversy over the proposed Park51 Center in Lower Manhattan that was taking place at the same time, what ensued in Murfreesboro was anything but straightforward. At the June meeting of the planning commission, hundreds of angry residents showed up, some in Christian garb, to protest the decision to approve the building of the ICM.
It was in this context that Lou Ann Zelenik, a Republican congressional candidate, took the lead in voicing opposition to the ICM. At one point, she insisted: “Islam does not claim to be a religion but a social and political system that intends to dominate every facet of our lives.” Tennessee’s Lieutenant Governor and fellow Republican Ron Ramsey echoed these sentiments and questionedif Islam is “actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, cult” that reflected “a violent political philosophy more than [a] peace-loving religion.” Both Zelenik and Ramsey were making the same argument. Islam is not a religion. It’s an oppressive political ideology, which means that Muslims don’t qualify for the protections afforded by the First Amendment.
This framing of Islam as more of a nefarious political ideology than a religion is a staple in the repertoire of the Islamophobia industry
This view has taken root in presidential politics as well. In the past decade, presidential contenders such as Newt Gingrich and Ben Carson have argued that Islam is not on par with other religions because of its oppressive nature as reflected in “sharia law.” The implication is we must treat Islam not as a religion but as a political threat. That’s why Carson insistedthat Muslims should not be allowed to become president unless they “reject the tenets of Islam.”
This framing of Islam as more of a nefarious political ideology than a religion is also a staple in the repertoire of the Islamophobia industry. Anti-Muslim hate speakers such as Robert Spencer insist that Islam is not “just” a religion but “a political system that is authoritarian, supremacist, discriminatory, expansionist, violent, and aggressive.”
The irony behind efforts to question Islam’s status as a religion is that it’s quite easy to turn the tables and ask the same question of Christianity: Is Christianity a religion? Or is it an oppressive political system bent on discrimination and domination, prejudice and persecution?
Let’s not forget that the violent and brutal institution of slavery was defended by frequent recourse to Christian texts and teachings. Whipping slaves was justified by reference to Jesus’s words: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes” (Luke 12:47). Slaves were admonished to obey their masters in accordance with the household codes of the New Testament (Ephesians 6:5). The “Curse of Ham,” an interpretation of Noah’s cursing of his son Canaan in Genesis 9, became a core argument in the justification of slavery. Slavery was not peripheral to white American Christianity but an integral part of it.
When slavery came to an end, white Christians found new ways to perpetuate America’s racial caste system, including through lynching and Jim Crow laws. None of these practices or institutions would have existed apart from the investment of white Christians in a political order meant to maintain their superior position and status in a racist society.
The irony behind efforts to question Islam’s status as a religion is that it’s quite easy to turn the tables and ask the same question of Christianity: Is Christianity a religion?
Christians were also instrumental in some of the most notorious genocides of the past several centuries. The Nazi program of genocide was the result of centuries of Jew-hatred promulgated by European Christians. But Christians were also complicit, sometimes actively so, in the Holocaust itself, with groups such as the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) appealing to select Christian texts to justify the anti-Semitism of the Nazis.
Christian-sponsored genocide has been part of American history as well. Puritans in colonial America likened themselves to Israel and Native Americans to the Amalekites, an enemy of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. In the biblical account, God commands King Saul to kill the Amalekites, “both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:3). Puritans were to do their same in wars against the Native Americans.
Theories of Manifest Destiny also guided settlers in genocidal efforts against indigenous populations under the belief that white Christians had a divine responsibility to expand their dominion over the continent. Through a combination of disease and warfare at the hands of white Christians, native peoples suffered a depopulation rate of around 98 percent from the time of Columbus until the turn of the twentieth century.
The violence and aggression that fueled these genocidal campaigns were also features in the European colonial projects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The desire to Christianize and civilize “barbaric” peoples, along with notions of white European superiority, aided European empires in their quest to impose imperial rule over vast swaths of African and Asia. By the 1930s, Europe, along with its then current and former colonies, constituted approximately 85 percent of the earth’s land surface.
Even a cursory knowledge of the history of Christianity reveals that supremacy, expansionism, discrimination, violence, and aggression all feature prominently. So is Christianity not a religion? Is Christianity “a violent political ideology” that “intends to dominate every facet of our lives”? Of course not. Christianity is neither inherently violent nor peaceful, political nor apolitical. Christians, on the other hand, have interpreted Christianity in violent and oppressive ways. They’ve also interpreted Christianity in loving and liberating ways. Just as some Christians justified slavery by recourse to biblical texts, other Christians justified abolition by recourse to biblical texts.
Even a cursory knowledge of the history of Christianity reveals that supremacy, expansionism, discrimination, violence, and aggression all feature prominently. So is Christianity not a religion?
This is the inconvenient truth that anti-Muslim fearmongers deliberately avoid in their efforts to place Islam outside the bounds of “religion.” Practitioners of all religions interpret their traditions in a myriad of ways, and they do so in light of a whole host of political, social, cultural, and economic influences and agendas. This is as true for Muslims as it is for Christians. If we are going to give Christians the benefit of the doubt despite Christianity’s troubling history of oppression and violence, we must do the same for Muslims and indeed for people of all faiths. Otherwise, we should be honest and acknowledge that any argument questioning Islam’s status as a religion is nothing more than an effort to circumvent the First Amendment and to perpetuate the racial and religious discrimination that have featured all too prominently in Christianity’s own history.
Todd Green (@toddhgreen) is associate professor of religion at Luther College and a former advisor on Islamophobia at the U.S. State Department. He is the author of The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West (Fortress Press, 2019) and Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism (Fortress Press, 2018).
Chris Mato Nunpa, “A Sweet-Smelling Sacrifice: Genocide, the Bible, and the Indigenous Peoples of the United States, Selected Examples,” in Confronting Genocide: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, ed. Steven Leonard Jacobs (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009), 61.
Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (New York: Routledge, 2005), 3.