“Is Islam a true religion or a political ideology masquerading as a religion?” One of my blog’s “followers” in early 2017 posed this question in the comments section of my February 25 post, titled “So-called religious liberty bills.” My reader went on to note that Sharia Law renders Islam incompatible with the U. S. Constitution. He added that since reasonable conversation on the topic is offensive to Muslims, it would be deterred by political correctness.
In this blog I have written only four posts that deal specifically with Islam. However, most of my 170+ posts on morality, church-state relations, religion, humanism, and science apply to Islam as much as to Christianity. I have read the entire Quran, travelled in Islamic countries, and visited “my” local mosque. None of that experience and study qualifies me as an expert in Islam. But despite my opinions being less schooled than I’d like, I have a few to share that are germane to my reader’s point.
Let us, then, return to my reader’s question. As is often the case, the wording of a question produces some of its difficulty. In this instance, I must first address “true religion” and “masquerading” before dealing with the matter of ideology.
The word true, I assume, means a religion is either (a) objectively accurate in what it expresses or (b) apart from truth, is possessed of some social legitimacy, that is, it is generally considered to be, in fact, a religion and is owed whatever measure of respect that entails. Objective truth has been demonstrated by neither Islam nor Christianity with anything approaching the rigor of scientific theory or scrupulous historical verification. Social legitimacy, on the other hand, is easily attained and normally means that some sufficient number of people believe the religion to be, if not true, at least worthy. Consequently, the adjective true means only that a given religion is accurate or valid in the judgment of the speaker rather than due to any utility intrinsic to the word itself.
The word “masquerading” I assume implies intent to mislead, implying here a political ideology dressed in religion’s clothing. Unfortunately, an ideology might be both religious and political. Finding elements of religion in a political ideology, just like finding elements of political ideology in religion is an easy search, indeed. Therefore, in itself it proves neither duplicity nor an unintended overlap. In other words, finding scraps of political ideology in either Islam or Christianity is not evidence for masquerading, just as is finding scraps of religious ideology in politics.
Early Christianity may have minimized mixing religion and politics (“render unto Caesar . . .”), but later centuries of Catholic domination were hardly examples of church-state separation. Royalty in much of Europe bowed to Rome. Even the 16th century insult to the Church by Martin Luther did not seek to separate religion from political ideology. In fact, I don’t know that political ideology was ever completely absent from either Catholicism or Protestantism. Indeed, while philosophers spread the Enlightenment, European settlers in America imposed harsh civic penalties for religious reasons.
The Enlightenment, despite its powerful effect in America and Europe did much to weaken, but never to break, religion’s influence over political matters. Liberalization—in the sense of freeing politics from religious control—did not come about as a voluntary relinquishment of church power. In other words, while to a lesser degree than in Muslim countries, Christianity sought not just to worship God, but to shape the state it relied on for protection.
Even today, Christianity—particularly in the United States and majority Catholic countries—is politically active in seeking special favors for religious organizations, religious practices, and religious values. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” for them is a one-way proposition: allow and protect my religion’s domination over other religions and non-religion, but don’t interfere with my religious autonomy. In today’s America, churches get tax breaks that are not given to non-religious nonprofits. Public schools face only spotty enforcement against their illegal proselytizing of children. Fundamentalist Christians are invited into those schools to distribute Bibles. Prayer and other elements of worship are made part of the school day. The courts are allowed to post on their walls religious messages reflecting majority opinion. There is no shortage of political issues for which Americans base their opinions on the religious positions of priests and ministers (e.g., birth control). In these and many other ways, the power and authenticity of the state is appropriated by majority religions to support their message and to make it appear that Christianity—in some cases a narrow band of Christianity—is, in effect, the national religion.
Still, when Islam is the majority religion, it is arguably worse, if by “worse” one means its suppression of competing philosophies, criminalization of blasphemy, and other instances of harsh control. Countries in which Muslims are in the majority experienced no Enlightenment movement comparable to that of Europe and North America. (One might make a similar case with respect to countries dominated by the Catholic Church.) The controlling political aspects of religion that were greatly reduced in much of the Christian world still exercise virtually unchallenged hegemonic power in Islamic countries.
The purpose of this post has been to consider the relationship of politics and religion relevant to an inquiry posed by one reader, to wit, whether Islam is “a political ideology masquerading as a religion” rather than “a true religion.” Having noted several points pertinent to addressing the question, I’ve chosen to deal with the issue in two parts, as is obvious from the title of this post.
In “Islam: religion or political ideology?—Part 2” I will add a few more considerations such as the risks of political freedom for those whose intent is to shut down religious freedom, the role of “political correctness,” the hazards of weakening the “wall of separation,” the choice to treat religious and political ideologies as different in the first place, Sharia Law and the Constitution, and other features of my questioner’s seemingly simple question, “Is Islam a true religion or a political ideology masquerading as a religion?”
Of more than 170 posts in this blog since early 2013, these are specifically relevant to Islam: “Islamic terrorism or just terrorism?” Feb. 24, 2015; “Islam—(1),” June 28, 2016; “Islam—(2),” Sep. 14, 2016; “Islam—(3),” Oct. 7, 2016.
Birthday note: Today in 1743 (April 13), Thomas Jefferson was born. Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist association [sic] on January 1, 1802 was prompted by the Baptists’ fear of jeopardy to their religion by the new, powerful government. Jefferson expressed his position that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State [italics mine, JC].”
John, thank you for continuing to do the hard work and separating the strands that comprise religious beliefs and political opinion. Our deeply held beliefs can and must be scrutinized in this era of confrontation and bigotry. We look forward to Part 2. No one group has a lock on morality or ethics, no one religion is “pure” or free from the taint of persecution and we need reminders.