Islam, Islamic Anxiety and Muslim Women in America

Several recent surveys on religious attitudes in the US have confirmed the rise of anxiety among Americans towards Muslims and the grafting of that unease onto the political spectrum. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in addition to the results of Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s new book, American Grace, all point to American feelings towards Islam as an emergent factor shaping the contours of US political alliances and rhetoric. This growth trend, as Dionne and Galston write for the Brookings Institute, can be captured in responses to the question of whether Americans believe that Islamic values are compatible with American values. In the PRRI post-election survey, for example, two-thirds of Republicans answered this question in the negative compared to only thirty percent of Democrats. Newt Gingrich and Sharon Angle’s warnings about Shari’a law, mobilization against the Ground Zero Mosque, and support for the Oklahoma referendum banning any future implementation of Shari’a law are all recent manifestations of these sentiments from the American political right.

It would be interesting to probe the growth of these fears and anxieties a little more- are they mostly a function of the insecurities produced by the links between Islamism and international terrorism as John Green of the Pew suggests? Or do they have more to do with the non-Judeo-Christian otherness of Islam, as Putnam and Campbell suggest? Assuming a top-down institutionalization of Shari’a law is still a far off threat in America, what is most unsettling to voters on the right about American Muslims taking a more active part in American public life? In fact, what would that America look like anyway? Perhaps not surprisingly, and seemingly in response to this very question, a pair of pieces from the liberal-leaning media (nytimes’ “Muslim Women Gain Higher Profile”  and PBS’s “The Calling”) have sketched what that America could look like by showcasing the lives of Muslim women in the US. Neither of the pieces shy away from the women’s difficulties and sufferings, but both also celebrate just how much American-mosaic-building these women have accomplished by assimilating big American values while unapologetically adding their own religious values to the pot. It gives us a glimpse of how this experiment might succeed (again) and what the fruitful magnifications of such success might entail for both America and Islam.

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Middle East Christians and Religious Liberties

Ten days ago a gruesome attack on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad highlighted the oft-hid plight of the millions (seven by some counts) of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East who have been forced to take on the status of refugee over the last decade. The attacks also put a tragic endnote on the close of a Special Synod on the Middle East which brought together many of the leaders of the Middle East’s traditional Orthodox Catholic Churches at Nicosia on Cyprus (see Sandro Magister’s analysis here). The discussions and stories at the Synod brought to light some of the pricklier issues of religion-state issues in the Middle East today, especially over the status of religious minorities within a religious state.

While very few of the states of the Middle East (Israel included) claim to be “secular” states, nearly all of them claim to be democratic. This means that in most of these countries, Islam (or Judaism) retains a privileged place in state constitutions, even as those same constitutions, in theory, also privilege and protect individual rights of choice, expression, and assembly. In this light, therefore, Muslim representatives who were invited to the Cyprus Synod all stressed the tolerance inherent in Islam (and Islamic states) towards Christians and their Churches throughout their addresses.

Yet, as several of the Synod fathers pointed out, that religious tolerance, in practice, often only extends to the right to worship, not the right to conscience. In fact, one of the recent trends in religion-state relations in the Middle East, in countries like Iran and Algeria, has been the increasing criminalization of acts of proselytism and religious conversion away from the Islam of state.

While religious intolerance has been one factor pushing many traditional Arab Christians to leave the region, however, economic opportunities have attracted others. This has added new dimensions of complexity and opportunity to the status of religious minorities in the Middle East. In countries like Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, for example, Catholics have grown from representing 0 to 10% of the population over a fifteen year period, fueled by waves of individuals from the Philippines, Ethiopia and India taking up domestic and construction work. Just like Muslim immigration in Southern Europe, the dynamics these Catholic immigrants in the Gulf inject into their religious markets create new possibilities for rethinking the relationship between religion and state within non-secular political regimes. A shared vocabulary about human beings’ spiritual rights is indicative of the potential religious regimes possess to better their relationship with their religious minorities. As favored national religious institutions, official Islam ought to be in the best of vantage seats not only to help protect religious minorities (as Iraqi Christians plead) but also to help promote individuals’ freedom of conscience. Decriminalizing religious conversions would be a good place to start.

Ground Zero Mosque Reactions in the Middle East

For this month’s post, I thought it could be interesting to troll through some of the reactions of the Arabic world media to Obama’s iftar speech and the Ground Zero Mosque controversy.

What is most remarkable about such a troll is the lack of much of a reaction to the controversy. National papers in places like Egypt and Algeria have hardly reported on the debate and Arabic news giants like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Asharq Alawsat have either largely ignored the controversy or downplayed its significance for the Islamic world, as Abdul Rahman al-Rashid has pointed out here.

So why hasn’t the Ground Zero Mosque caught the attention of the Islamic world?

The lack of reaction might just be circumstantial, so far. As Jytte Klausen points out in her excellent study of the Danish Cartoons crisis, reactions in the Islamic world to the cartoons took months to develop and required the presence of both activists who promoted such reactions and leaders who missed opportunities to diffuse them.

That said, the lack of reaction also exposes a certain ambivalence in the Arab media about the controversy and towards America itself. On the one hand, the Islamophobia which the reactions to the proposal have revealed confirms rather than challenges many popular characterizations of US society in the Islamic world. On the other hand, that same Islamophobia has not emerged as the dominant actor in this story (yet). Leaders and intellectuals beyond Bloomberg and Obama have defended the proposal on the basis of democratic principles of separation of religion and state and, with their help, the mosque may still be built.

So while the controversy has brought fears about “Muslim” designs towards the US out into the open, it has also revealed a US public struggling to overcome that phobia. Depending on the how that struggle ends, this means that the Ground Zero Mosque might yet prove to help Obama in his attempt to reach out to the Islamic world. Alternatively, it could make such an attempt an even more ephemeral task.

Park 51 and Burkas

It has been revealing to watch the French parliament’s 336 to 1 vote in favor of the ban on burkas this month together with the controversy over the building of a Mosque near ground zero.  Both events expose the unabated social apprehension towards Islam and Muslims on either side of the Atlantic. At the same time, however, the controversies also tell us something about how differently that apprehension gets politically framed in either country and brings to light just how different the United States and France’s institutional separation of church and state really are.

France’s “assertive secularism,” as Kuru terms it, embedded in laicité, has helped create the 336 to 1 collaboration between the right and left in France. For once, the ban on the burka sits well with both the right’s defense of French tradition as Catholic and Western and the left’s contestation of that narrative along with their own, alter-defense of France from any political religious identity or authority. In either case, Muslims using the public sphere to express and thus promote their religious values simultaneously plays to the fears of cultural weakness on the right and religious authority on the left.

Such a fear of the public presence of a religion, in and of itself, is much more difficult to politically channel in the US, thanks to its institutionalization of a “passive secularism,” (Kuru’s terms again) which is much more permissive of religious authority in the civil and public, although not political, spheres. While it is true that many in the American right have publically targeted Islam (New York Post comments here), their accusations were inherently less anti-Muslim than the French right, and they tried to articulate that their opposition was to the “radical” Muslims behind the project, not Muslims in general. Likewise, the American left generally defended the project (see an interesting interview with the project’s developer here) and the rights of Muslims to finance religiously-inspired community projects as a desirable expression of diversity and tolerance and something that was quite American.

Tombs, Real Estate and Crucifixes: Church-state relations in Europe today

This week has seen a concentrated spate of church-state events in Europe: a tomb raid in Belgium by government inspectors looking for hidden evidence relating to pedophilia investigations, a corruption case involving real estate deals managed by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, currently the Archbishop of Naples, and the continuing saga of the EU vs. crucifixes in Italy.

So far, despite sending a sharp-worded statement about the respect shown to the tombs in Belgium, the Vatican has given full signal to cooperate with the civil authorities in both cases, although it has reserved its diplomatic rights in the Sepe case as stipulated by its Concordat with Italy (stipulations the Vatican does not enjoy in Belgium).

These structures governing the relationship between religion and state, as Belgium attests, have a surprising degree of variance throughout Europe, and often reflect the success of negotiations between liberal and conservative forces over the future of religion in political life in the early 20th century. While often taking advantage of and trying to expand these privileges in the years immediately following these deals, the Church more or less backed away from them after she had re-found her footing, for better or worse, in modern, democratic, post-war European politics.

Depending on the country, and the institutional deal, the Church has tried to articulate a new, public and even political voice over the last twenty years in Europe, one more closely tied to its strength in “civil” society than in state institutions.

The political maneuvering in these two cases, therefore, might tell us something about the level of confidence the Church has in its relatively new role as a civil society leader and how much distance with a the world of authority and privilege the Church still feels it needs to give up to preserve that role in Europe as the pedophilia scandal continues to tread its wake across the continent.

Interesting questions to think about as Italy brings its appeal on the legal decision against keeping crucifixes in Italian schools before the European Union’s Human Rights Court today.

Chicago’s Engaging Religious Communities Report

The Chicago Council of Global Affairs issued a report in February of this year entitled, “Engaging Religious Communities Abroad: A New Imperative for U.S. Foreign Policy.” The report, written by a task force led by Scott Appleby and Richard Cizik, was meant to provide a “framework” for U.S. policymakers to understand and respond to religious actors. In large part,  the report was intended to provide structure as well as practical recommendations to some of the principles Obama outlined in his Cairo speech for fruitfully engaging with the global Islamic community (and other religious communities in general).

One of the more interesting aspects of the report is a dissenting view tacked on to its end regarding the implications for the Establishment Clause of the U.S. constitution, and whether the clause puts constraints on the engagement of the U.S. government with established religions abroad (the dissenters don’t believe it should). The debate has continued over the last two months in a series of blogposts on the Immanent Frame by religion and politics experts.

While the taskforce authors do not recommend insisting that U.S. allies adopt Establishment Clauses themselves, they do recommend that the U.S. government use its Establishment Clause to encourage non-establishment norms in other countries as a means to “developing characteristics essential to a well-functioning liberal democracy.”

The report and the debate about it on the Immanent Frame illustrates just how deeply American scholars and policy-makers have internalized the association between the dis-establishment of religion and all the rights and liberties of democracy. Even one of the greatest critiques of the report, by Winnifred Sullivan, who denounces the simplistic nature of the report and the way it champions a new version of American Imperialism, herself equates Established Religions as being, “by definition not accepting of ‘pluralism, freedom and democracy.’”

This internalized association misses the startling wide range of religion-state arrangements which endorse and show favoritism to a religion or religions and the process by which many established religions, religious societies and democratic regimes have evolved over time, together, to better institute protections on human and social rights, including the protection of religious freedom. Rather than assuming Established Religions and Democracy are always anathema, a more complicated and interesting task for scholars is to take the variety of religion and state arrangements found in democracy more seriously. Among other questions, they ought to be asking what kinds of non-separation of religion and state have done a better of promoting a whole range of human and social rights, as well as ethical practices for good governance and economics, and how?

2 reasons to watch Hafiz Hussain

Earlier last month Obama announced the appointment of Rashad Hussain as a new special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). This is Obama’s second special envoy directed towards the “Muslim world” and part of his strategic “New Beginning” program he initiated in his speech in Cairo last June. His first special envoy, Farah Pandith, was designated as “Special Representative to Muslim Communities,” and, partly because of the nature of such a global charge, has done little concrete since then. There are at least two reasons to believe that Hussain might be able to do something more substantive.

First, Hussain enjoys a specific charge to the institution of the OIC. One of the most important transnational networks of sovereign states, the OIC has struck up an increasingly vocal note in its ambition to shape the contours of international discourse and policy, especially in the areas of Human Rights and the Middle East Peace Process. As Obama’s man-in-the-OIC, Hussain has the opportunity to make a concrete case for the existence of nodes of policy cooperation between the U.S. and the Middle East/Muslim World, and to lobby to make that cooperation happen.

Second, Hussain is Hafiz, meaning he has memorized the Qur’an in whole, and, what is more, he has played an active part in the American Muslim community, especially as a student involved in the Muslim Students Association. When questioned about what she had to say to the Muslim world, Pandith has responded with vague statements about lessons she learned meeting Turkish Muslim immigrants working for the state department in Europe (interview here). But when Hussain goes to make a case before the OIC, he can speak as the voice of one who’s been a protagonist for his own religious community in the U.S. and, Obama-Cairo-style, try to diffuse the facile anti-American stereotypes floating near his interlocutors by telling the story of his own American religious flourishing.

Hussain’s job is not going to be easy, and his profile also includes several disadvantages: He is exceptionally young (31 years); he is an Indian-American like Pandith (and, thus, like Pandith, is already stoking charges that the U.S. is not serious about taking the Middle East seriously); and his Islamic religiosity scares folks in the U.S. (see, for example, here ). But I would not count him out and hope his American story can help him along to substantive and fruitful bargaining at the OIC.