Though Christianity and Islam differ in many ways, both focus on faith, good deeds, and the struggle for salvation. Both provide rules for life purportedly revealed by the one true Creator.
Politically and culturally, the values of orthodox Christians align with those of Muslims in pursuit of the virtuous life and protection of family and property. Orthodox Islam promotes strong families and committed heterosexual marriage, discourages abortion, and prohibits homosexual acts, mind-altering drugs, and alcohol. Judaism and Christianity, in their orthodox forms, as well as many other traditional religions, hold to many similar beliefs and restrictions.
As atavistic degeneracy, materialism and “liquid modernity” erode even faith-based communities and families, can American Christians and Muslims work together in any meaningful sense on socially conservative causes? Or is there too much divergence and tension?
Islam and American Politics
There are around 3.4 million American Muslims. Many share similar social values with their conservative Christian, Jewish, and religious neighbors. Yet these groups don’t typically rally together or vote similarly.
Since 9/11, many Muslims feel more at home on the left than the right. Fully 66 percent of American Muslims vote for Democratic politicians, even though most Democrats’ social views are diametrically opposed to all but the most liberal interpretations of Islam. Muslim politicians like Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison and Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed champion the social positions of the activist left, bundling pro-environment and racial equality issues that are compatible with Islam with vocal support for access to abortion, same-sex marriage, transgender ideology, and drug legalization, all of which are forbidden (haram) in Islam.
Muslims pay a price for this alliance. To please the left, Muslims must embrace the role of victim and symbolic minority, overlooking the anti-religious, radical sexual and social ideology that’s come to characterize broad swaths of the left. To be accepted by the left, Muslims must be willing to be tokenized and used by others for their political or social agendas.
Realizing this, a growing number of American Muslims are becoming enthusiastic about partnering with Christians. One such Muslim is Ismail Royer, who wrote recently in the Washington Post and has written here at Public Discourse. Royer works at the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), where he encourages interfaith cooperation and fights the extremist ideology that once held him in its grip. Royer believes that labels like Islamophobia widen an unnecessary divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. He would like to see more Muslims publicly show who they are in a positive way, supporting Christians and religious freedom. Royer believes Muslims should push back at attempts by the left to use them as tokens or by the right to use them as bogeymen. He believes that Islam is entirely compatible with the American system, freedom of choice, and peaceful coexistence, highlighting the Treaty of Medina as a prime example of religious freedom in early Islam.
Obstacles to Partnership
Clearly, however, there are problems: significant numbers of Westerners see Islam as extremist and laden with potential violence in undiluted form.
Consider Bryan Fischer, who hosts Focal Point, a weekday radio show carried on over 180 stations, mainly in the South, which reaches about 2.3 million listeners per week. Fischer is a socially conservative evangelical Christian who backed Ted Cruz. He supports strong family life and a return to conservative Christian values and is firmly opposed to abortion, drugs, and same-sex marriage.
The possibility of American Muslims being partners, however, is anathema to Fischer, who refers to Islam in its purest form as a potentially deadly spiritual “ebola virus.” According to Fischer, Islam’s history is defined by barbaric violence and conversion “at the point of a sword,” whereas Christianity “doesn’t fight wars over things like the Trinity.” (Spoiler: pious Christians have done exactly that numerous times). Fischer says that despite some on the “radical left” who have absolutist tendencies “similar to Islam in some cases,” he’d rather stand with liberals he strongly disagrees with than with Muslims, since at least liberalism pays lip service to free speech.
Islam may seem traditional compared to the hedonism of modern society, but for Fischer it’s a false hope that Muslims could be allies of conservative Christians in any real way. “I think whatever similarities people see there are superficial and I think if there was any effort to work together concertedly on any of these issues they would fairly quickly fall apart if the effort was being made to work with Muslims who are true believers in the Qur’an and hold Muslim views of social issues,” Fischer says. According to Fischer, Islam is “fundamentally incompatible with American values rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Is Islam Compatible with the Judeo-Christian Tradition?
Socially conservative Muslim and scholar Dr. Shadee Elmasry, of the New Brunswick Islamic Center in New Jersey, disagrees. Orthodox Islam is very different from what Elmasry calls the “ignorant literalism” of Islamic extremists and anti-Muslim interpretations born of ignorance (jahl), both of which create heretical versions of Islam.
According to Elmasry, properly applied Sharia is not the monster Westerners think it is.
A lot of things are punishable by death or strong measures. But if you look at the conditions the Prophet placed, for example on adultery: four people have to be witnessing of the penetration. So in that case the companions of the Prophet even made a joke ‘If I walk in on a man and he’s sleeping with my wife I should just excuse myself until they finish because there aren’t other witnesses,” Elmasry explains. “In the actual reality of these functions it has to do with public decency – the loss of public decency. So that you’d be so public about it that four people are witnessing you right there and you have no shame.
Elmasry believes the current discourse around Islam is shallow, treating it either as an exotic, threatening fundamentalism or an effete symbol of minority oppression. Both views overlook the millions of conservative Muslims who are nonviolent and don’t fit into either category. These men and women don’t wish to be used in a tokenized narrative of “tolerance” or “diversity” or being a “moderate Muslim.” They are not demographic or religious symbols available for whatever political script of the moment requires their participation. As Omar Suleiman put it, “I am not your American Muslim.”
Elmasry grants that some convinced anti-Muslim voices are never going to look at his faith in what he regards as an accurate way. Elmasry believes that although anti-Muslim views have an internal logic, most who hold them are not actually trying to find out or express the truth about Islam but instead to shut down and demonize Muslims. Characterizations of Islam as extreme or dangerous are all about “pushing an emotion in the audience,” rather than seeking the facts, according to Elmasry. Still, Elmasry sees a possibility for Christians and Muslims to work together, handling theological disputes respectfully in the service of common social goals. “I’ve always felt that if you get educated folks together they could have a sea of difference between them but if they’re educated and have a calm approach to life they will find a way to find common ground,” Elmasry says.
As a starting point on Christian-Muslim cooperation, Elmasry sees potential for social conservatives to fulfill market demand, for example with movies or cable television scrubbed of inappropriate content. This would be a way, in his view, for social conservatives not to impose their views on others but to have mass media more agreeable to them while helping companies make a profit. Elmasry also points to the potential of using the existing secular framework municipally to increase the power of religious people, providing the example of where he grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, a town that has experienced a major influx of conservative Orthodox and Hasidic Jews from nearby Lakewood who have supplanted many affluent white Italian-American and other residents. Elmasry sees the high-birthrate, traditional Hasidim as a good model of how socially conservative people of faith can flourish within a secular framework and use existing laws to establish themselves.
Similarly, Daniel Haqiqatjou—founder of Muslim Skeptic, a website offering Islamic perspectives on politics, culture and faith— sees “a lot of room for synergy and partnership” between Islam and Christianity. He speaks out frequently against progressivism’s “aggressive narrative” on Islam and condemns attempts to water down and shift its conservative beliefs.
However, Haqiqatjou also acknowledges that the potential for increased cooperation is being slowed by widespread misunderstanding and distrust of Islam. While saying there may be “some racism” in opposition to Muslims who are of a non-white ethnic background, Haqiqatjou believes most tension is produced from simple ignorance. “Most white evangelicals don’t really understand Islam or they’ve been fed a caricature of what Islam is,” when in fact “Islam hopes to preserve values that are so crucial to the flourishing of human society.”
It’s not necessary for Christians, Jews, or traditionalists to agree with Islam or accept the Prophet’s revelation as authentic. All that is needed is a willingness to partner together.
Working Together to Fight for Religious Freedom
Dr. Kent Hill would agree. Executive director of the RFI in Washington, D.C. and former vice president of World Vision, Hill recently returned from Romania, where he’s helping the Romanian Orthodox Church in its efforts to work together with other faith groups, including Muslims, to protect religious freedom from increasing secularization efforts by the European Union. There is broad concern in Romania about secularization efforts by the European Union’s armada of Brussels humanists who wish to make Eastern Europe over in their image, especially when it comes to the understanding of the nature of marriage and human sexuality.
Hill, who converted to Catholicism five years ago from Protestantism, has respect for Islam and its capacity to be a productive partner in strengthening the rights of people of faith in the United States and globally. In particular, he points out that state-enforced Islam that disallows religious freedom is not true to early Islam. One can be a serious Muslim, Hill argues, and find within that tradition support for religious freedom and grounds for providing full citizenship to all in Muslim-majority societies. He’s been highly impressed by Ismail Royer’s work at RFI. Royer exemplifies the approach Hill believes will build bridges of understanding and cooperation between American Muslims and Christians. Hill notes:
Who’d ever think about a group of conservative Muslims like Ismail and some of his friends who marched in the pro-life march? But in fact, if you think of it, a serious, conservative Muslim – precisely a serious Muslim – would hold views on sexuality and on the preciousness of life in the womb that are similar to what a conservative Evangelical would hold.
The Christian and Muslim views on abortion are not identical, to be sure. According to Elmasry, the Prophet Muhammad taught that “the soul enters the womb 120 days after conception” and therefore abortion is only considered murder after that time. Still, many Islamic scholars agree it’s still sinful before that time, and only considered necessary in the case of physical danger to the mother or in the case of rape.
At RFI, Hill and his colleagues are focused on trying to build a basis for shared religious rights with Muslims and other faith groups, extending the mission of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. “The question is could you have something emerge since that document came out of the Catholic Church in 1965 – could you have something emerge like that from within Islam? It would be a game-changer,” Hill says.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is a friend of this cause. Late last year in Rome, Hill chaired a three-day consultation with Sheikh Yusuf for a group of Muslim and Christian scholars. Together they explored the possibilities of making case for religious freedom and citizenship for all based on Islamic texts and understanding. These Muslims who support religious freedom consider violent extremists to be often ignorant of Islamic thought, to be “using a false hermeneutic,” and often not even orthodox Muslims, but rather to be angry youth with gang and drug-infused pasts.
Hill points to significant appeals to support religious freedom across the Muslim world that many Westerners may not be aware of, including the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration and the 2017 Ansor Declaration in Indonesia. He also points to events in the US like the Alliance of Virtue For the Common Good Conference held in February of this year in D.C., which brought together Muslim and non-Muslim faith leaders and officials, including Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah and US Ambassador for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, to talk about how to partner on building a virtuous society.
“We’re not talking about just a few isolated individuals. There are several hundred major muftis and religious leaders,” Hill says, referring to influential figures such as Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, whose book A Thinking Person’s Guide to Islam presents a convincing case against terroristic violence in the name of Islam. Hill goes on:
If you study the last 50 or 75 years of the Middle East, the so-called Islamist extremists may be Muslim but there are a lot of factors going on that even don’t have to do with their extremist interpretations of Islam. . . . This notion that Islamist radical theology is a throwback to the Middle Ages and the earliest period is wrong. It really is a profoundly modern, anarchistic thing that has a lot more in common with late nineteenth-century Russian anarchism and the French Revolution model of kill anybody who disagrees much more than it does the truth about early Islam. A lot of it is a reflection of the worst of modern extremism.
Hill is optimistic about Islam in America, despite negative media attention or the focus on extremism. He doesn’t believe most Christians are prejudiced against Islam, though they are rightly concerned about the dangers posed by Islamist extremists. Still, Hill is concerned that “the temptation to fear that there is something in the DNA of Islam that is antithetical to religious freedom will grow to the extent that the headlines continue to be dominated by the violence and extremism of the Islamists.” Positive relationships can set a precedent for protecting the rights of the faithful and building better communities and strong families, according to Hill.
It’s Time to Find Common Ground
In the years to come, the potential for traditional Muslims and Christians to find common ground will increasingly come to the fore. In facing a far more insidious, wide-ranging and powerful extremism in the form of secular fanaticism and the embrace of scientism and nihilism, many Westerners may come to realize that Islam is not the enemy they thought. As for the Muslims, jihadism and progressivism are not the only choices. In fact, “both paths lead to exit doors from the religion.”
Christian cultural conservatives in America need to begin leaving behind institutional, brand-name conservatism and its facile anti-Muslim undercurrents if they want traditional life to have a chance. They would be well advised to partner with conservative Muslims and others who share their views on life, work, family, and the virtuous society. Muslims would also well advised to leave behind their lockstep alliance with the social justice left.
It’s time to start working together with people who are serious about promoting human flourishing. Those who are interested in real efforts toward a better way of life, who wish to promote the good and forbid the evil, should leave behind reactionary, oppositional thinking and help create worthwhile, respectful dialogue between Muslims and Christians.
Paul Rowan Brian is a freelance journalist who writes on culture, religion and politics. He’s reported for Reuters, BBC and Foreign Policy and contributed to The Hill, The American Conservative, The Federalist and The Week. You can find him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com.