In the 2000 presidential election, my parents, together with nearly everyone I knew in our largely immigrant Muslim community in suburban Pennsylvania, voted for George W. Bush. Republicans, they thought, were natural allies on matters of faith, family, and morality. It was then that many of our parents were becoming more religious on the heels of the Islamic awakening that had spread across the Middle East in the 1980s and 1990s. As we entered our teenage years, concerns about the effects of Western culture became more pronounced. Even though my parents were becoming more integrated and somewhat more “Americanized,” that fear of cultural corruption was something I distinctly remember feeling in our local community.
As the writer Asma Uddin, who comes from a similar background, describes her own experience to me:
Most Muslim immigrant parents are always going to consider America more “liberal” than where they came from. So even if America was relatively more conservative back then, it wasn’t conservative enough for my parents. I think they worried less than I do about what their kids were learning in school or seeing in the media, but the general idea was the same: create a safe haven, a community within the larger community, that reflects your way of life.
Today, Muslim Republicans are a rare breed. After the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration’s support for surveillance powers under the Patriot Act cast law-abiding Muslim communities under a permanent cloud of suspicion. The rhetoric of “clash of civilizations” and “crusade” didn’t help. And then there was the Iraq War. Over time, Republican politicians stopped even trying to court a community that saw their party’s national security agenda as anathema. The election of Donald Trump, with his unapologetic anti-Muslim rhetoric, represented the culmination of a fifteen-year process. In Trump’s America, a Muslim Republican is likely to face accusations of betrayal.
Arguments about a culture increasingly hostile to people of faith apply not just to Christians.
Meanwhile, Democrats have embraced Muslims as a core constituency in the party’s patchwork coalition. In some ways, this has accelerated the shift that our parents worried about. As Muslims – and particularly young, urban Muslims – become more integrated into American society, they tend to be shaped by liberal norms, even while remaining more religiously observant than the rest of the population. Anti-Muslim alarmists may decry “creeping sharia,” but what is actually happening within American Islam is “creeping liberalism,” as the author Mustafa Akyol puts it.
That Muslims are increasingly not just with the left but of the left has resulted in their adoption of some of the core beliefs of the progressive coalition. The most telling example of this is gay rights, with American Muslims going through an even more pronounced version of the shift that the broader American public experienced over the Obama presidency. According to a Pew Research Center survey, in 2007 only 27 percent of Muslims in the United States said that homosexuality should be “accepted by society.” By 2016, that number had increased to 52 percent. This may reflect what Uddin, in her book When Islam Is Not a Religion, describes as “a tacit agreement that Muslims, as religious believers, will never challenge any of the rights championed by the Left, such as a progressive vision of gender or sexual equality.”
Resisting the Progressive Pull
There is some grumbling among conservative Muslims, who feel that too many compromises have been made too quickly – and with little reflection in the process. Few outsiders will be privy to these debates, which have largely occurred within Muslim communities and in Muslim publications. Moreover, the most unabashed Muslim conservatives are the least likely to have (or want) a platform in mainstream media outlets. This makes it easy to underestimate the degree of discomfort among a significant, if still relatively quiet, minority of American Muslims.At the core of the conservative or “traditionalist” argument is the idea that Muslim activists can and should support the rights of non-Muslim groups and individuals – but only so long as such advocacy stays well within the confines of Islamic legal precepts. They criticize their co-religionists for being too eager for mainstream acceptance, with good intentions leading to moral distortions. Out of the sense of threat created by anti-Muslim bigotry,
Muslims are all too willing, these critics argue, to make common cause with problematic allies who hold beliefs antithetical to Islamic teachings. The Detroit imam Dawud Walid, for example, in Towards Sacred Activism, emphasizes “the difference between coalitions and alliances.” Alliances, he suggests, require a deeper mutual affinity and a commitment to supporting the other’s goals. Walid argues that Muslims’ ultimate loyalty and allegiance must be to God and God alone.
Ismail Royer, another prominent critic of Muslims’ leftward drift, writes that progressive organizations hope to “refashion Islam as a secular identity group centered on ethnic ‘brownness,’ and whose moral compass is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party rather than Islamic religious sources.” Similarly, the Islamic legal scholar Shadee Elmasry opposes identity politics and views the preoccupation with white Christian dominance as misguided. “I’m afraid many educated Muslims on the East and West Coasts have fallen into the trap that everything non-Christian is our ally. This is not the case,” he writes. He warns that liberals are simply “using Muslims as part of their diversity hammer to crush the white conservative establishment.”
These fears of cultural dilution and assimilation – in effect, of Muslims ceasing to be what they were – echoes the writing of a growing number of orthodox Christians who feel under assault from American secular culture and liberal politics. In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher loses little time in describing what is at stake. “The hour is late. This is not a drill,” he writes in the opening pages. Like the traditionalist Muslims discussed above, Dreher sees the progressive push for acceptance of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ self-definition as representative of a more pervasive antagonism toward traditional faith. He warns: “The broader culture in which a child growing up here is immersed offers nothing normative, not anymore.”
Dreher’s arguments about a culture increasingly hostile to people of faith apply not just to Christians. Not surprisingly, his proposals to “form intentional communities of religious solidarity” have begun to draw interest among traditionalist Muslims. The ethos of the Benedict Option – reflecting “a historically conscious, antimodernist return to roots” and cultivating “a sense of separation” – is likely to travel far beyond its Christian origins
In a sense, Muslim communities “were doing the Benedict Option before the Benedict Option,” says Rashid Dar, a writer and former Brookings researcher. “You can call it the ‘Muslim Benedict Option’.”
A Space of Our Own
Dar belongs to Al-Maqasid, a community, mosque, and planned seminary in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Its members are not necessarily comfortable with the phrase “intentional community,” but they share some similarities with Dreher’s vision of a place protected from the pitfalls of secular, individualist culture. One of its imams, Amjad Tarsin, describes Al-Maqasid to me as “a learning institution in a retreat-like environment.” Early on, a group of families intentionally moved to the Macungie area. After going on some nature retreats together, they grew closer, and wondered why they couldn’t be close all the time. As it turns out, they could.
At the start, there were differing visions of how “intentional” the community should be. They prioritized key religious needs while exploring other features to make the community more self-sufficient. As one member tells me, “We need to set up our own place to wash those members of the community who pass away, sort of our own mortuary. It would be nice if we can build up the chicken ranch next door and add goats and make milk. But those are nice-to-dos, not must-dos.”
Today Al-Maqasid is meant to be “a middle place”; one theme that comes up repeatedly is the notion of becoming strong at home to become strong out there, wherever that may be. As Dar puts it: “We want to engage with the world, but we want a place where we can live our lives as we want to live them, in our spaces. Once we have the freedom to do that, we can figure out how to engage with the wider society because we know our own principles and our own values. And we have breathing room.”
Having children, and worrying about them, tends to focus the mind and will. “I moved here for my kids,” a convert from Christianity and early member of the community explains. He hopes that after spending time at Al-Maqasid his college-bound son “will inshallah have the tools to deal with a world in which Muslims are reviled and looked down upon and still be centered.”
Islam under Liberalism
“We don’t have too much Islam, we have too little Christianity,” German Prime Minister Angela Merkel memorably said to applause in 2010. In a sentence, she captured the reality that the disappearance of public Christianity in Western Europe wasn’t just bad for Christianity; it also produced the stark appearance of Muslim difference and Muslim otherness.
Unlike in the United States, in Western Europe the place of religion – any religion – is considered a private affair. According to a 2018 Pew survey, only 10 percent of Danes attend weekly services and 9 percent consider religion “very important” in their lives. In Sweden, the comparable figures are 6 and 10 percent. These societies have reached a secular consensus in which overt expressions of public religion are frowned upon.
Accordingly, in Europe’s battle of ideologies, Muslims aren’t just Muslims: they become a proxy for a deeper set of issues including gender equality, sexual freedom, gay rights, long-term demographic shifts, and the decline of Christianity. Defenders of Europe’s secular status quo often claim that they are merely protecting the neutrality of the public sphere. But liberalism, particularly in its maximalist variations, is only neutral to those who are already liberal. As the political theorist Andrew March writes in Islam and Liberal Citizenship: “The practice of Islam represents a textbook illustration of both the appeals and the challenges of liberal neutrality.”
For Muslims as for Christians, to put up walls is to deny the possibilities of religious outreach, witness, and activism.
As Merkel recognized, the decline of religion can fuel religious polarization, increasing the gap between the observant and the non-observant. Even if conservative Muslims wish to be discreet, their faith commitments make that difficult: wearing a headscarf, requesting halal food or prayer exemptions in the workplace, or refraining from alcohol are, from a secularist perspective, both intrusive and ostentatious. Muslims come to appear strange and countercultural, standing athwart the steady march of progress toward the post-religious future that many Europeans assumed was already their present.
Here the United States still stands as a partial exception – at least for now. Enough American Christians are outwardly unapologetic about their faith that religiosity appears socially normal. Even if secular liberals know few people of faith within their own circles or find Christian witness off-putting, they at least know it exists. The visible practice of religion isn’t primarily associated with Muslims and Islam.
This explains why American Muslims, despite contending with resurgent racism and Islamophobia, are living in what may well be the freest environment for Muslims anywhere in the world. More conservative Muslims may object to secular drift or worry that their children will lose faith – while still agreeing that things are pretty good.
Paradoxically, America’s commitment to the free exercise of religion, even while it allows traditionalist Islam to flourish, also complicates a traditionalist understanding of the faith. Islamic law wasn’t designed for this. The classical Islamic legal tradition couldn’t have imagined a nation-state, much less one like the United States. Instead, it possesses a rich – if troubling from a modern perspective – body of jurisprudence on the matter of Muslims living under non-Muslim rule. This jurisprudence, discussed at length in March’s Islam and Liberal Citizenship, is full of warnings about the inherent difficulty, perhaps even impossibility, of living faithfully as a Muslim in a domain where Islamic law does not prevail.
For American Muslims, embracing their role as a creative minority may prove their greatest source of strength.
Today, this body of jurisprudence still applies in theory but is increasingly irrelevant in practice. It’s natural that a legal tradition developed in an age when neither democracy nor liberalism were plausible concepts would take a rather dire view of the situation of Muslims living under, say, Spanish Christian dominion. To live in a free, non-Muslim society – and one far freer for Muslim religious expression than the very countries, like Saudi Arabia or Iran, that claim to uphold sharia – has profound implications for how Muslims think about their relationship to the surrounding society.
I happen to think that American liberalism, in both its classical and progressive variations, is good – that it makes American Islam unusually vibrant, creative, and alive with possibility. But I can understand why others worry about where it is leading us, warning that now is the time to put up our defenses. For Muslims, the source of what is normative is divine revelation. America respects religion but also allows for an unfettered pluralism. How resilient can revelation hope to be in the face of an American idea as powerful as this? America may be making Islam safe for liberalism, but it may also make it something other than what it was – or, some would argue, what it should be.
Forming a Creative Minority
If the power of secular culture is growing, then a process of steeling oneself for what’s to come isn’t just smart; it’s the only way to survive. To stay cocooned in a narrow, separatist community simply isn’t practical – not even in Macungie, which, while pleasantly rural, is less than an hour away from the Philadelphia suburbs in which I grew up.
One Al-Maqasid member expressed sympathy for evangelical Christians who feel there is “a cultural assault happening which is taking people away from the church,” and says that often “religion is taken out of the discussion” in public life. “But,” he adds, “at the end of the day, the US Constitution opens up that space and allows us to have those conversations in a way that is unimaginable in many countries around the world.”
Practicality aside, for conservative Muslims as for evangelical Christians, to put up walls is to deny the possibilities of religious outreach, witness, and activism. In certain ways, Islam can seem an insular faith, but even when it is insular, it is always in some way concerned with the affairs of this world, not just the next. For the Muslims in Al-Maqasid, then, the goal is not to disengage from mainstream society, but rather to search for a different model of participating in it.
Speaking to Al-Maqasid members, I am struck by the lack of insecurity, vulnerability, and angst that has increasingly colored the discourse of Christian conservatives in the face of secularization. The members of Al-Maqasid are concerned about the future, certainly, but they are also confident. Looking ahead, they see not decay but rather the promise of growth. Admittedly, Islam has not traditionally understood itself as a minority religion. But for American Muslims, embracing their role as a creative minority may prove their greatest source of strength, allowing them to carve out a small space of their own in a secular world.