I made some critical remarks about the anti-Muslim “freedom rally” held outside a Phoenix mosque recently. In case you missed it, the protestors were heavily armed and included Neo-Nazis wearing “SS” T-shirts and military fatigues adorned with the Sun Cross (Celtic Cross).
As my criticism circulated on social media I received several messages from people I’d never met or heard of. They disparaged Muslims and warned me about the “true nature” of Islam. As an Islamic studies scholar and a secular-humanist, I feel these misguided folks need some guidance and clarification. I want to discuss three specific tropes I saw repeatedly. Let’s tackle them one-by-one:
1. Taqiyyah: The Arabic word taqiyyah means “dissimulation.” In other words, concealing your true beliefs or opinions for the sake of avoiding persecution or death. Islamophobes truly love this term. Using it clearly makes them feel sophisticated and worldly. According to the common Islamophobic trope, Muslims practice taqiyyah all the time, and therefore the “moderate” or “peaceful” Muslims are only pretending. These “stealth jihad” Muslims are really working to conquer and kill and impose ancient laws on all non-Muslims, especially Americans. That’s the right-wing conspiracy theory fantasy anyway. The truth is that taqiyyah is much more mundane and reflects a very common theological dilemma in the religions of the world.
Taqiyyah originates out of a core theological question: If someone is persecuting, torturing, or threatening to kill you because of your religious beliefs, and you yield to the pressure and agony and say that you accept the beliefs of the persecutor or deny what you truly believe, are you suddenly an apostate who is going to hell? For example, when the disciple of Jesus Christ, Simon Peter (St. Peter), was recognized by non-believers after the arrest of Jesus, they accused him of being a disciple and he denied it. He denied it three times to save his own life. He practiced taqiyyah. He felt horrible about it, but is this to say that St. Peter was an apostate? Did the other disciples reject him? No, he was “the rock” on which Christ was to build his church, the Gospels say, and he went on to become the first Bishop of Rome—the first Pope, head of the largest Christian sect on earth today.
Similarly, the Qur’an states that Muslims who are compelled to deny their faith are forgiven by God, because true iman (faith) resides in the heart (qalb), not on the tongue (lisan). In addition, the Qur’an gives Muslims permission to eat pork or drink alcohol if their lives depend on it. For example, after the Catholic armies conquered all the Muslim lands of Spain, many Muslims outwardly became Christians and practiced Islam in secret. They’re called “Moriscos,” and they’re not regarded as hell-bound apostates. Many Jews did the same. That said, the Qur’an never actually uses the term taqiyyah. Its start comes later and is tied to the Shia sect of Islam, which for much of its history (the Fatimid, Buyid, and Safavid eras aside) existed under regimes from the rival Sunni sect. Shia theology (aside from Khomeini’s Velayat-e Faqih doctrine) recognizes only certain biological descendants of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima as legitimate leaders (Imams) of Islam. This position is rejected by the Sunni Muslims. Thus, Sunni rulers traditionally saw Shia Muslims as disloyal political dissidents. The Shia Muslims, for their own survival, resorted to concealing their true commitment to the Imams (leaders from Muhamad’s family), and this is called taqiyyah. Still today, taqiyyah is most closely associated with Shia Islam, particularly the dominant Twelver branch.
Now the practice of taqiyyah yields another important theological question. What about those who refuse to recant or hide their true beliefs under compulsion, choosing to suffer or die instead? Obviously it takes people of rare courage and conviction to endure persecution or accept death as a martyr. Not everyone is willing to do it. For example, early Christians in the Roman Empire marveled at Perpetua, who chose to die in horrific fashion rather than recant or hide her Christian faith. Similarly, Muslims celebrate the story of the first Muslim martyr Sumayyah who refused to recant her faith in God under torture and died at the hands of a pagan tribesman in Mecca. Muslims also celebrate the story of Ethiopian slave Bilal, whose pagan master was torturing him and compelling him to recant. Bilal did not practice taqiyyah, but he was not martyred. In this instance, he was rescued by Muhammad’s best friend (and successor) Abu Bakr, and he lived to become the first muezzin (announcer of prayer times) of Islam. So what happens to Sumayyah or Perpetua since they died? Does it mean that God abandoned them, but He saved Bilal? What if they hadn’t had the chance to perform rituals or deeds essential for their own salvation before they died? Followers of both Islam and Christianity concluded that such people (martyrs) were ensured salvation by virtue of their sacrifice. St. Peter and St. Perpetua took different paths (albeit Peter was reportedly martyred 30 years later), yet both are saints and looked on as righteous believers. Muslims, as they did on many other matters, have taken the same position as the Christians.
The idea that taqiyyah is an open license for Muslims to deceive infidels, conquer them, and bring about an “Islamic government” is pure fantasy. Yes, human beings lie for their own self-interests. But this builds off of older anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and secret meetings to take over the world (see e.g., the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion). Indeed, European Christians regularly accused Jewish minorities of plotting to poison wells or of kidnapping children to use their blood in rituals (“blood libel”). The same nonsense was used against Freemasons, and remains popular fodder for those fascinated by conspiracy theories and secret societies like the “Illuminati.” Now it’s the Muslims in Europe and America. Rooted in various economic and political interests, Islamophobes use the concept of taqiyyah to counter the overwhelming evidence that 99.8 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have no interest in violent extremist plots and murderous attacks on other human beings, such as those drawing Muhammad cartoons in Garland, Texas. Nor does that 99.8% see violent extremist ideas as part of the teachings of their religion. Islamophobes argue that taqiyyah is damning evidence that no Muslims can be trusted and they are enemies living amongst us, setting the seeds of our destruction. Various genocidal maniacs have said the same about ethnic and religious minorities throughout world history, ascribing tremendous power to the powerless.
2. Muslims Lie: Directly connected to the Islamophobic discourse over the concept of taqiyyah is the allegation that Muslims are religiously sanctioned to lie to people. First off, all people lie. We Americans have seen lots of politicians (even under oath) and religious leaders lie, especially about sex scandals. But this trope builds on what I’ve already discussed about taqiyyah and how Muslims are part of a grand plot to take over America and the world (despite the fact that many can’t even seem to overthrow the regimes in their own countries). However, the source material is a bit different. Islamophobes conflate the concept of taqiyyah with a hadith (story or saying) about lying. In a book written and compiled by a ninth century Muslim scholar from Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan, called Sahih Bukhari, there is a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that “warfare is deceit.” The great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said much the same, and the statement may even originate with him. Anyone with any knowledge of military strategy and history will tell you that this is common-sense stuff. During battle, armies throughout history have used tactics like false retreats (the Mongols excelled at this), hiding in ambush, or fooling a foe into thinking that your army is much larger than it actually is to achieve victory. Ideally you can win a battle without even actually fighting. We could call this part of “psychological warfare.” No one knows (or can ultimately determine) whether the historical Muhammad, who died in western Arabia in 632, actually made this statement. And all kinds of proverbial wisdom is attributed to Muhammad over the centuries. But what it’s inclusion in Sahih Bukhari does prove is that Muslims attributed it to Muhammad during the time of the Abbasid Empire in the ninth century. How this is damning proof that Muslims are religiously-sanctioned “liars” seems to me a ridiculous stretch of bigoted imaginations. To the contrary, the Qur’an and other sayings in Hadith books, including Sahih Bukhari, extoll Muslims to speak truthfully and stand up for the truth, even in the face of a tyrant. Even the Christian Bishop Sebeos of Armenia, writing one of the earliest references to Muhammad in history (~662), noted that Muhammad taught his followers “not to speak falsely.” And as one of the few criminal punishments actually listed in the Qur’an, we find that the Qur’an orders a person who lies about a chaste woman to receive 80 lashes as punishment. How is that for lying?
3. Islam is antithetical to America and its freedoms: Lastly, as one social media user put it to me: “Islam is not compatible with America.” This is a big subject, but I’ll discuss it briefly. For a long time, up until after the election of President John F. Kennedy, many Americans said the same thing about Roman Catholicism. They accused Catholics or “Papists” or “Romanists,” as Protestants called them, of having dual-loyalties. They said Catholics followed the laws (i.e. Canon Law) and dictates of the Pope and the Vatican before those of the United States. When Kennedy was campaigning for president in 1960, people used to ask him (with a straight face) whether he would serve the Pope or the United States as president. Sounds completely absurd, right? I think one day this rhetoric about how Muslims can’t be loyal Americans (despite Muslims who’ve already given their lives in service to this country) or that Islam is incompatible (as if Islam is or ever has been one monolithic ‘thing’) with “America” and its freedoms will sound equally absurd.
People who make this claim often point to sharia as the main source of the conflict between “Islam” on one hand, and “America” on the other. The word sharia means “path” and it’s conventionally used to refer to the comprehensive code for life and behavior that Muslims are expected to follow (or strive to follow) as faithful servants of God. In other words, it is the “path” to divine grace and salvation in this life and the next. There’s no one book called sharia. The Qur’an itself doesn’t have many laws, and some of the laws it does have are abrogated by hadiths. Instead, scholars who interpret the Qur’an and books of Hadith (stories about Muhammad) and apply them to all areas of life, both public and private, come away with an end product labelled “sharia.” As you guessed it, there’s no one sharia, and what sharia actually looks like has much to do with the scholar doing the interpretation and where and when he (or she) lived. Thus, a 21st century American Muslim scholar (‘alim) can see sharia very differently than a Saudi scholar, or a 9th century Iraqi scholar or a 14th century Syrian scholar. But beyond these basic points, Islamophobes claim that the mere existence of religious law in Islam is the problem. They claim that acknowledging another set of laws runs contrary to the standard requirement that American citizens follow only the laws of the U.S. government.
Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, and Mormonism (LDS), among others, all have “religious law.” When the great Protestant leader John Calvin helped establish a Christian government in Geneva, he didn’t see Christianity lacking religious law either. Indeed, he called for the great polymath Michael Servetus to be decapitated for denying the Trinity (they burned him instead). I think denying the Trinity falls under America’s freedom of speech, right? Thus, in this respect, Islam’s “religious law” is part of the historical norm and not the exception. Of the other world religions, Islam is most closely related (in a numbers of ways) to Judaism, and the means by which rabbis formulate halakha (Jewish law) is the model by which (later on) Muslim ulama (“scholars”) would formulate sharia (Islamic law). The history of Judaism in America probably has much to tell us about Islam in America and its future. A Muslim seeking to follow halal dietary laws is no more an affront to America and its laws than a Jew seeking to keep kosher or a Hindu who wants to avoid any beef or beef by-products in their food. Efforts to make halal alternatives available for Muslim consumers are not part of a plot to “Islamize” society. It’s a consumer preference, and the free market will respond to the demand, just as it has for kosher, vegan, and gluten-free products.
But what about the bigger issues, like freedom of speech? I already mentioned that the Protestant Christian leader John Calvin advocated the execution of fellow Christians for denying the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity. Likewise, Martin Luther called for Jewish synagogues to be burnt down, as the Jews stubbornly refused to proclaim Jesus as the messiah and convert. If it’s not already clear, the freedoms of speech and religion we enjoy in America are the product of the 18th century European Enlightenment. Not Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant. The Enlightenment was a reaction against restrictions on speech in Europe, including Christian (Protestant and Catholic) prohibitions against heresy or blasphemy, like Servetus expressing his own Christology or Galileo saying the Earth revolves around the Sun in the 17th century. But Christianity has adapted to America and its Enlightenment values fine. Judaism has too. There are periodic problems, but people work through them. Islam, as another Abrahamic religion, will be no different (if that’s not already apparent).
But if Muslims think it’s blasphemous to draw Muhammad, isn’t that a direct affront to the First Amendment? No, it is not. As far as I know, there is no law before the US government seeking to create a government ban of depictions of Muhammad. What we have in America is people who don’t like being ridiculed, insulted, and mocked by other people. I think that’s a pretty common human desire. Some Christians in America seem to think it’s an insult if you wish them “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and call it a “War on Christmas.” Catholics don’t want to see a crucifix in a jar of urine (i.e. Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ” photograph) or painting of the Virgin Mary made with animal feces, and they were understandably outraged by these things. Action was even taken to strip the National Endowment for the Arts of its funding. Of course that’s a very different response than the attack by two Muslims on the “Draw Muhammad” rally in Garland, Texas. But the contexts of these disparaging acts were very different as well. Obviously the actions of the two attackers in Texas were abhorrent and criminal. But these men should be treated as criminals, not as representatives for the world’s second largest religion. A school shooter is treated as an abhorrent criminal not a representative sample of some segment of America. The purported grievances of school shooters are different than these “Muslim extremists,” but I think the criminal pathos is the same. These troubled people are angry at being marginalized and disrespected and they go on shooting sprees against people or symbols of their perceived tormenters. It is woefully irresponsible and deliberately misleading to portray the actions of the two Texas gunmen, or the murderer of Theo Van Gogh, among others, as evidence of the incompatibility between Islam and America. Indeed it seems to me a strange argument to make given that some four million Muslims currently live quite well in the United States, two serving in the U.S. Congress, and have been here for generations, even going back to the colonial era. How can anyone say that America and Islam are incompatible when millions of Muslims demonstrate the compatibility every single day. Oh, that’s right: They’re practicing taqiyyah (sarcasm).