Approximately 1.8 billion people around the globe identify as Muslim today, which makes Islam the world’s second-largest world religion. This is a fact.
At the same time, some on the far right in the United States deny that Islam is a real religion. Theologians of different stripes have made this claim in the battle for religious supremacy, but recently it has become a legal argument made to deny Muslim Americans their right to religious freedom. The issue is now the subject of a book, “When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom,” by Asma Uddin.
Uddin is a legal scholar and lawyer who has represented people of all faith backgrounds in religious liberty cases from trial courts to the Supreme Court. She is the founding editor-in-chief of AltMuslimah, a website dedicated to discussing issues of gender in Muslim communities. She is also executive producer for the Emmy- and Peabody-nominated documentary series “The Secret Life of Muslims.”
I had the chance to speak with Uddin about what’s at stake for the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment in challenges to Islam’s status as a religion.
Can you explain first of all how Islam could be seen as anything other than a religion?
Honestly, when I first heard the argument “Islam is not a religion,” I had the same question: How is it even possible to think of Islam as something other than a religion? But when I heard the context — a legal case challenging the right to build a mosque — I knew the argument had nothing to do with a philosophical interrogation of “religion” generally. It had everything to do with depriving Muslims of rights. And when that’s the agenda, all kinds of absurdities become possible.
One of those absurdities is the ability and willingness to do to other religions what you would never stand someone doing to your own: taking a warped, out-of-context, ignorant analysis of it and deciding which parts should be afforded legitimacy and which should not.
Is this a new phenomenon?
From the moment the Prophet Muhammad said he was a prophet and messenger of God, he had to contend with claims that he was a false prophet. Necessarily, at the birth of any new religion, it deals with claims of being false. Vis-à-vis the dominant belief system, it is heretical, blasphemous.
The phenomenon I’m dealing with in the book is something else. Yes, today we hear many of the same words: that Muhammad is a false prophet and Islam is a false religion. There are numerous religious leaders, Christian leaders, who are telling this to their congregations as part of their religious sermonizing.
I have no problem with people holding absolutist beliefs about their religion being the correct one and others’ being the wrong ones. What I am contesting is the use of this claim that “Islam is not a religion” to argue for a selective interpretation of the First Amendment and religious liberty protections more broadly. This is an emerging phenomenon, and one that needs our urgent attention.
Read more at the Religion News Service. Follow the conversation at #whenislamisnotareligion