A Muslim Benedict Option
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.
But, he writes, as American Muslims have turned to the left, their children have become enthusiastic supporters of progressive social values, such as gay rights, that are inimical to Islam. Hamid writes that there is a debate going on within Muslim communities — out of sight of the mainstream — among Muslims who believe that their communities have been too quick to ally with the left, and to accept social progressivism without objection. More:
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’.”
Hamid pays a visit to Al-Maqasid, a Muslim Ben Op community in Macungie, Pennsylvania. These people really get the Benedict Option, I must say, certainly more clearly than do many Christian critics of the concept. For example:
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.”
It’s really fascinating to consider the particularly Muslim difficulties that those believers have, living out Islam in a non-Muslim society and culture. Hamid talks about the blessing of American liberty — American Muslims, he says, are the freest in the world — but how this also, of course, challenges Muslims in the same way it challenges Christians: if people live in a society in which they are free to reject the religion, and see others rejecting it, how does the faith hold on to them?
This is the greatest challenge facing all religious believers in the modern, and postmodern, world. As Charles Taylor has so eloquently explained, what it means to live in “a secular world” is that it is not possible to be unaware of the fact that you could live as if God did not exist, and your ancestral religion is false. Even the truest believers cannot be unaware that their faith is in some sense a choice — this, in a way that someone in the medieval era did not grasp, because religious belief was so normative.
J.D. Vance has a great essay about his conversion to Catholicism. I’ll comment on it separately, but I want to mention here that in it, he writes about how his Appalachian family weren’t really churchgoers, but atheism was unthinkable to them. J.D. writes about how he embraced atheism at college:
I won’t belabor the story of how I got there, because it is both conventional and boring. A lot of it had to do with a feeling of irrelevance: increasingly, the religious leaders I turned to tended to argue that if you prayed hard enough and believed hard enough, God would reward your faith with earthly riches. But I knew many people who believed and prayed a lot without any riches to show for it. But there are two insights worth reflecting from that phase in my life, as they both presaged an intellectual awakening not long ago that ultimately led me back to Christ. The first is that, for an upwardly mobile poor kid from a rough family, atheism leads to an undeniable familial and cultural rupture. To be an atheist is to be no longer of the community that made you who you were. For so long, I hid my unbelief from my family—and not because any of them would have cared very much. Very few of family members attended church, but everyone believed in something rather than nothing.
Boy, does that ever hit home with me. I’ve written many times before about how my folks weren’t big churchgoers, and we rarely if ever talked about God in the house. But the idea that one would see this as a sign that they weren’t Christians would have been literally unthinkable. When, back in the middle of my own college-age experiment with unbelief, I read Kierkegaard’s line about how when one is considered to be a Christian simply by having been born into a society, Christianity ceases to exist, I thought about my own natal culture.
Kierkegaard was talking about 19th-century Denmark, but he could have been talking about my people and my place. He taught that Christianity — real Christianity — always involved choice and consent. It required a personal relationship with God, not simply the following of moral rules or cultural conventions. In the kind of world I grew up in, this was simply not how most people saw it. I asked my dad once during this time how he knew he was a Christian. He told me that he figured that because he was baptized, he was a Christian. Theologically speaking, that was true, at least from a traditional, sacramental view of the faith. Baptism doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a good Christian, or that you’ll go to heaven — we are all free to fail to live up to our baptismal promises — but it does make one a Christian.
Anyway, when I was a young man, and found my way back to Christian faith, I judged the cultural Christianity of my parents and their social milieu harshly. I don’t feel that way anymore, at 53, and it’s not because I think they made the right call back then — I don’t — but because it’s so easy for me to understand how they simply did not recognize how the world was changing, and how fast. Reading Charles Taylor gave me a lot of insight into the lack of social/religious understanding people of their generation in a Southern small town. But believe me, even though I’m a more devoutly practicing Christian than my folks were, I think all the time about what I might be missing in terms of preparing my children to be Christian adults in this post-Christian world. Once you realize how little control you have over what your kids will believe as adults, you understand what a crapshoot parenthood is.
However, in doing this Benedict Option work, I’ve come to see a couple of things. First, even though the secular movement of American culture has become far more distinct, and acute, since my parents were raising kids in the 1970s, there are still plenty of Christian parents who are just as complacent in their cultural Christianity as parents of my folks’ generation were — except they have far less excuse. The ordinary Christian mom and dad of 1973 did not know what was overtaking the culture. It is impossible not to know in 2020.
Also, I have come across Christian parents who seem to believe that because they cannot control how their kids will turn out on the faith front, that they should not do anything out of the ordinary to make it more likely that their children will embrace a mature faith. This, I think, is a cop-out. The goal of the Benedict Option is not to sequester children from the secular world entirely, but rather to create a social environment from them in which it will be easier for them to choose the faith as adults. When the Pennsylvania Muslim said this:
“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.”
… he could have been speaking in the voice of Marco Sermarini, one of the leaders of the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic community in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy. As readers know, I profiled them a bit in The Benedict Option. Marco and the other dads and moms in that community know that there is no way to force their kids to stay in the community, and to remain there in their seaside city of 50,000, especially when there are many more economic opportunities in Rome, Milan, and Italy’s bigger cities. What they hope to do is to show them a way of life that integrates God, family, and community, in a way that inspires these kids to love it more than they love what the world has to offer. And if the kids grow up and feel that they have a calling to live elsewhere, then they will go out into the world with the love of God, as Catholic Christians, planted deeply in their hearts, and having formed their minds. We really cannot expect more than that.
It’s interesting to reflect on how as a Christian in post-Christian America, I would probably feel better with the Muslims of Al-Maqasid as my neighbors than with nominally Christian people who fully accepted the immoralities of popular culture. But that’s the world we find ourselves in. And here’s a further strange thing, something I can’t quite figure out. I would feel more comfortable with these Muslims as neighbors than with hardline fundamentalist Christians. Why? Because if we lived around Christians, I would feel that my Christian children would have to constantly be on defense about their Orthodox Christian faith, whereas with Muslims, this would probably not be contested territory. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but these kinds of thoughts are the paradoxes of pluralism in post-Christianity.
Below is a short clip introducing Al Maqasid. My thought after watching it is: good for them; I want to have an Orthodox Christian version of this. If you’re a Christian, listen to this clip, and think about what a Christian version of this would look like, as a way of healthy formation and of evangelization to post-Christian, secular America. Again, if you want to see a great Catholic version, go to San Benedetto del Tronto.