Is Islam Compatible with American Values?

Dec 05

On Oct 9, 2010, the Clay County chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State organized a lecture on “Is Islam Compatible with American Values?” I was invited to speak at the Fleming Island Public Library. What happened at the event is well summarized in a letter to the editor by Rev. Harry Parrott, President of the local chapter of AU. Click here to read Rev. Parrott’s letter.

Listen to a radio interview on WJCT’s First Coast Connect. Listen to the Dec 6, 2010 show.

A group called the ACT! For America, which by most accounts is a hate group, organized a smear campaign to oust me from the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, to which I was confirmed just a few months ago. You may remember the contrived controversy my nomination generated at that time. If you need a refresher, visit my blog. Most of April 2010 entries on my blog are about that controversy.

Unfortunately, once again the media played into ACT’s ploy and gave legs to the unfounded allegations made by ACT. The local NPR station, on their show First Coast Connect analyzed the situation. Click on Fri show of First Coast Connect.

On Sunday Dec 5, 2101 the Florida Times Union today, published a summarized version of my speech stating, “We are running excerpts from the speech on this page so readers can judge for themselves. The entire speech can be read on our Opinion Page Blog:”

Guest column: Is Islam compatible with American democratic values?
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In 2005, a Danish newspaper printed a cartoon depicting Muhammad, who Muslims believe to be the last Messenger and Prophet of God, with a bomb in his turban. This set off an international row as protests erupted from Europe to Asia.
In some Muslim countries, newspapers that reprinted the cartoon were closed. European countries evacuated staffs of embassies and Muslim countries withdrew ambassadors. The fallout also had economic repercussions. According to the Gulf News, Danish exports began to fall as consumers in Muslim countries shunned Danish products in protest.

This provoked the question: Is Islam incompatible with Western values? Are Islam and the West destined to have a clash of civilization?

Those who answer yes point to events like 9/11 or the cartoon controversy as proof positive of the inherent incompatibility of Islam and with the West.

Others who are more knowledgeable about Islam and Muslim societies say that neither 9/11, nor the cartoon controversy, are indicative of any inherent clash of values. The antecedents of such events are socio-political. Religion may at best be a contributing factor.

While people debate the place of Islam in American society, another reality is taking shape right before our very eyes.

According to The New York Times, a record number of Muslim workers are complaining of workplace discrimination ranging from being called “terrorist” to being barred from wearing headscarves or taking prayer breaks.

According to federal data, discrimination complaints by Muslims are up 20 percent from last year and up 60 percent since 2005. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found enough credibility in these complaints that they have filed several lawsuits on behalf of Muslim workers.

This summer we have seen tensions boil over as a pastor attempted to burn the Quran and many opposed to building of an Islamic community center in New York descended to embarrassing levels of incivility.

Unlike you, who are attempting to dialogue and learn, most Americans choose to remain ill-informed. As a result, today more people have a negative view of Islam than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Our media outlets, mostly cable news shows and radio talk shows, are major contributors to this trend that bodes ill for the long-term sustainability of our national interests.

A few politicians and religious leaders have only exasperated the situation by trying to ride the coattails of fear of Islam to electoral victories.

The situation has gotten so out of hand, that Time magazine ran a cover story, “Is America Islamophobic?” with the following comment: “In France and Britain, politicians from fringe parties say appalling things about Muslims, but there’s no one in Europe of the stature of a former House speaker who would, as Newt Gingrich did, equate Islam with Nazism.”

So how do we go past this rancor? By doing exactly what you are doing today. Trying to learn and attempting to dialogue.

President John Kennedy summed it best, “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”

To the question: Is Islam compatible with American values? The answer is yes.
Why? Because in a normative sense (Excerpted from Michael Wolfe’s The Next American Religion):

Islam is democratic in spirit. The Quran, on which Islamic law is based, enjoins Muslims to govern themselves by discussion and consensus.

Islam is tolerant of other faiths. Like America, Islam has a history of respecting other religions. In Prophet Muhammad’s day, Christians and Jews in Muslim lands retained their own courts and enjoyed considerable autonomy. It was the Muslims who made it possible for Jews to return to and live in Jerusalem after centuries of being outcasts.

Islam encourages the pursuit of religious freedom. The Quran clearly states that there is no compulsion in matters related to faith and religion.

Islam emphasizes individual responsibility. Every person is responsible for the condition of her or his own soul. Everyone stands equal before God. America is wedded to an ethic of individual liberty based on righteous actions. For a Muslim, spiritual salvation depends not just on faith, but also righteous actions.

Islam is egalitarian. The Pledge of Allegiance (one nation, “under God”) and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (all people are “created equal”) express themes that are also basic to Islam. If you visit mosques in America, you will find them among the most racially integrated congregations of faith.

Democracy and Islam

I would like to spend a little bit more time on the issue of democracy and Islam with particular emphasis on Sharia.

The former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim wrote:
“It is true that the founding principles of constitutional democracy, as we know it today, have their antecedents in the political philosophy of John Locke, which entered France through the writings of Voltaire and then deeply influenced the framers of the U.S. constitution.

“But the fact that these principles of political freedom and democracy were first articulated in the West does not preclude them from universal application, nor can it be asserted that they have not been expressed in other contexts.”

A majority of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims live in democracies, ample proof that there is no inherent discord between Islam and democracy.

But what about those Muslim majority countries, most of them in the Middle East, which are not democracies?

Is Islam the reason for them being held back?

The Council of Foreign Relations concludes that “a mix of historical, cultural, economic and political factors – and not Islam as a religion – explain why democracy has failed to take root in many Muslim countries.”

In fact, surveys by Gallup and Pew show that clear majorities in the Arab world would favor democracy as a form of government. The people most animated about this are the so-called Islamists.

Outside of the Middle East (which accounts for fewer than 20 percent of the global Muslim population), Alfred Stepan in the Journal of Democracy argues that Muslim nations are on par with – or outpace – comparable non-Muslim developing nations in terms of civil liberties and free and fair elections.

The democracy deficiency in the Arab world is more a function of oil than religion.
State ownership of oil has stifled the development of market economies and government transparency. Oil has allowed the monarchies in the Middle East to make a Faustian bargain with their citizens.

That bargain: Governments will not tax its citizens (oil revenues pay for government budgets) and in exchange the citizens will not demand voting or representation.
Let me quote Anwar Ibrahim, the erstwhile deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia: “If democracy is about giving dignity to the human spirit, then freedom is the sine qua non.”

Within Islam, the great Andalusia jurist Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi in the 14th century, articulated a perspective on the Maqasid al-Shari’a (the higher objectives of the shari’a), demonstrating the central role of freedom as a higher objective of the divine law. The very same elements in a constitutional democracy are moral imperatives in Islam – freedom of conscience, freedom to speak out against tyranny, a call for reform and the right to property.”

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