Emma Green shows once again why she is the most interesting religion reporter in the country, this time with a story about how America is changing Islam. That is, she writes about how American life is altering Islamic norms for Muslims who live here. As the reader who sent this piece to me said, “There’s a lot going on here.” Yes indeed. Let’s get started with this excerpt:
American culture often presents two opposing paths for young Muslims. On one side are people like President Donald Trump, who retweets unverified videos purporting to show Muslim violence; says things like “I think Islam hate us”; and claims there’s “no real assimilation” among even second- and third-generation Muslims in the U.S. On the other are movies like The Big Sick, which depicts the autobiographical love story of Kumail Nanjiani, a Muslim comedian who rejects religion and falls in love with a white woman, devastating his immigrant family.
In reality, most Muslims are somewhere in between. U.S. Muslims—roughly 60 percent of whom are under 40—are going through a process that’s quintessentially American: finding new, diverse, self-constructed identities in their faith, ranging from fully secular to deeply pious. The contours may be particular to Islam, but the story is one shared by Catholics, Jews, and even the Puritans. Muslims are creating distinctively American forms of their religion.
Outsiders may think that radicalization of the young is the biggest worry. It’s a potential problem, but not the one that keeps Muslim parents up at night:
But for the vast majority of Muslim parents, teachers, and imams, the worry is the opposite: that the young will drift away from their faith. “The people [who] are anxious about [assimilation] are the people who are white-knuckling it, holding onto tradition, worried that they’re going to lose it,” said Zareena Grewal, an associate professor at Yale University. Imams will often compare young Muslims and Jews, she added, wondering whether their religious organizations will also be hurt by widespread disaffiliation. “They’re like, ‘Oh, the rabbis are panicking, so we should also be panicking.’”
Check this out:
In the lead up to their wedding this fall, the two had only minor friction with their families over religion, even though both sets of parents are more observant than they are. Although there was some disagreement about how the couple planned their nikkah, or Islamic marriage ceremony, they mostly avoided conflict by not really talking about Islam. “It’s difficult for my parents to address head-on a lack of religion,” Siddiquee said. “They don’t have some false pretense that I’m going to Jummah,” the traditional Friday afternoon prayer, “or I’m going to mosque or I even pray myself. I’m pretty sure they know that’s been a steadily declining thing for a long time.”
The pair hope they’ll eventually find a religious community that fits them—something more “progressive” and “flexible” than how they grew up. Islam is “a part of me,” Khan said, “but it’s not the main part.”
In some ways, this is a very Millennial story. Like others in their generation, Khan and Siddiquee have gravitated away from religious institutions and regular practice. Abdullah Antepli, an imam who teaches at Duke Divinity School, often sees similar patterns among the undergraduates he works with. “There is an incredible difference between the students and the parents in how they’re thinking about American Muslim identity,” he said. “The parents want to invest on the Muslim side of that hyphenated identity—they are really worried for certain aspects of that identity to be preserved.” Most students, however, “are negotiating and brainstorming on the American side.” There’s some evidence behind the anxiety: Less than half of Muslims under 40 visit a mosque each week, according to Pew Research Center, and only one-third of Muslims under 30 pray five times a day in keeping with traditional Islamic practice.
“The term ‘religious’ isn’t something that I really like,” she told me. “Too often, the connotation of ‘religious’ is someone who is very strict and focused on acts. I would say I’m very spiritual, and I have a very strong faith.”
Spiritual but not religious. We know how that goes. The story takes an especially interesting turn when Green interviews a married lesbian Muslim couple:
Taj and Nur decided to get married in January, right before President Trump was inaugurated. Despite the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell that legalized same-sex marriage in America, they were worried about losing their rights under the Trump administration. As the political atmosphere has become overtly hostile to Muslims, both Taj and Nur have felt that it’s important to claim their identities—all of them. “It felt really empowering, really beautiful, and like this strong political stance to claim like, ‘Yes, actually, I am queer, and hands down I am Muslim,’” Nur said.
Finally, this observation from Green:
This, more than anything, seems to be the through-line of Muslim love, and life, in America. It’s almost always an experience of multipleness, identity mixing, and navigating a lot of different expectations and desires from family members or the culture writ large. That itself is a deeply American experience, a form of assimilation to a country built on ambiguous, mixed identities.
Most definitely read the whole thing. There really is a lot going on here. Let’s try to break some of it down. Here are my takeaways:
- In this piece, you can see, I think, a key difference between life as a Muslim in America, and life as a Muslim in France. Not only is America more open to religion in general, American identities are a lot more flexible. Caveat: there are many more Muslims in France than in the US, as a percentage of overall population. Still, it appears that in this story, we see that one of the particular qualities of US culture is its ability to assimilate outsiders.
- But this same quality is not good news for orthodox Muslims, by which I mean Muslims who want their children to observe a theologically normative version of the faith. If you read the story, especially its discussion about marriage, you see that preserving Islam according to traditional norms requires a strong Islamic community. What parents — immigrants mostly, but not entirely — are discovering is that America’s pluralism changes the rules.
- It changes the rules most profoundly in a way discussed by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age. The US is the most modern nation, in terms of being a nation born in modernity, and founded on modernity’s principles. You cannot not know that it is possible to live a successful American life with any number of identities. The broader culture in which a child growing up here is immersed in offers nothing normative, not anymore. In fact, it encourages the self-construction of identity — something that Green’s piece notes. In fact, radical self-determination of identity is the only norm.
- Therefore it is possible in America for a civilly married lesbian to say ‘Yes, actually, I am queer, and hands down I am Muslim’. I say “possible” in that such a statement makes sense in a culture where self-determination is the only orthodoxy. To point out the contradiction in cases like this is to transgress against the social code by “denying” someone’s identity.
- But you can’t simply say that it is possible to be a sexually active lesbian and a faithful Muslim and have it be true — unless Islam itself changes its norms. It’s the same with Christianity, whose norms are radically changing precisely to accommodate what was once strictly forbidden.
- What is happening here is a crisis of religious authority. If the God of the Koran is God, and Muhammad is His prophet, then it is very difficult to see how active homosexuality can be reconciled with a life of fidelity to Islam. (I recognize that I don’t know much about Islam; if I am wrong here, please correct me.) It’s the same way with Christianity, the Bible, and homosexuality. I can’t say about Islam, but within Christianity, sexuality itself is deeply entwined with fundamental concepts within Biblical faith, anthropologically and otherwise. People who believe homosexuality is forbidden simply on the basis of a few explicitly prohibitive Bible verses are deeply uninformed.
- The problem that orthodox Muslims, Christians, and Jews face in post-Christian America is that all religions make accommodations to the cultures in which they are expressed. Which accommodations can a particular faith make and still be true to its core, and which ones must it hold on to? The easy answers are “no accommodations, ever” and “whatever accommodations you want” — but neither one of those are realistic. The rigidity of the former will break under pressure, and the laxity of the latter will guarantee the dissolution of the religion into the syncretic hedonism of contemporary America.
- How does an individual, a family, a community decide? And beyond that, how does it raise its children to affirm orthodoxy in a culture where heterodoxy is the only orthodoxy? In a culture in which affirmation of the religion’s norms could cost one greatly — including the possibility of losing the affection of one’s child?
- It is virtually impossible to create a religiously and socially conservative culture in America in which the choices an individual makes are strongly circumscribed by premodern religious and communal norms. As Emma Green’s story reveals, the search for a spouse is one place where old-world norms (e.g, courtship as a family affair) are hard to uphold.
- It all comes down to the fundamental division among religious people living in this culture today, one that affects every religion. Is religion primarily about what God says to us, or about what we say to Him?
There is no escape from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, only different strategies for how to cope with it. I am eager to hear the thoughts of Muslim readers of this blog about what a Benedict Option for Muslims would look like.