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Islam & The Benedict Option

Says Pakistani-born US Muslim: 'Muslims are already living the Benedict Option'

Readers, I’ve got a very long flight today, and won’t be able to approve comments for some time. I want to share with you the transcript of an interview I did with a longtime reader of this blog who posts under the name “Jones.” I know his real name, and we’ve been corresponding for a while. He is a Pakistani-American lawyer of the Millennial generation, and a practicing believer in Islam. I think — I know — you will find a lot to mull over in his answers. I interviewed him as part of my research for my Benedict Option book — for the religion chapter, as I consider the question of Ben Op Christians finding common ground with Muslims and Orthodox Jews who are also resident aliens in this decadent post-Christian culture.

I mean, devout Muslims and Orthodox Jews would always be resident aliens here, in a sense, but increasingly, faithful small-o orthodox Christians will come to share their sense of being in this culture, but very much not of it. And in that we have an opportunity for fellowship, even mutual support. Here is the transcript, which I post with Jones’s permission:

How have cultural and political events in recent years changed your political views as an American Muslim (you were born and raised here, the son of immigrant parents from either India or Pakistan, right?)?

I was born in Pakistan, but came here when I was very young (less than one year).

Recent events in the United States have made me much more apprehensive about the future of Islam in America. I think Islam has a good, and even exciting, future in America, but recent years have made clear what sort of challenges we are going to face.

For many people on the right, including but not limited to the far right, the proposition that Muslims are an absolute enemy is a given; it no longer needs to be debated. And thanks to the Trump campaign, this contingent on the right has probably formed into an enduring force. Somewhere between 67% and 71% of Republicans support Trump’s ban on all Muslim immigration. 40% of Republicans, and 57% of conservative Republicans, believe that Muslims should be subject to more scrutiny than others merely because of their religion. Peter Beinart nicely sums up the situation on the right.

Meanwhile, as the Left starts asserting itself more and more as holders of a comprehensive ideology for governing all aspects of life, they are increasingly turning on Muslims, especially on the point where we most starkly conflict: sex and gender. A series of articles in The New York Times on Muslim women portends the future there, I think.

There are many different factions on the Right and Left, and only some of them hold strongly anti-Islam views. But those factions do exist, on both sides. I think Muslims are probably going to be treated as a political football, kicked around by both sides whenever it seems advantageous. That said, I was deeply heartened and even moved by the way the public, especially but not only liberals, reacted to Trump’s announcement of his Muslim ban. Even people like Dick Cheney were coming out of the woodworks to say that it was beyond the pale. Superficial politics aside, I believe that Americans at their heart are an open and inclusive people, perhaps more so than any other in the world. In many ways, you could say that there is no better place to be a Muslim—and more than once I have heard Muslims say just that.

In the mainstream debate, these issues often get discussed under the heading of “Islamophobia,” but I dislike the term and never use it myself. It’s disreputable as a debating tactic: it psychologizes the opponent, in a condescending way, and also fails to capture the essence of his view.

Why have I not mentioned any of the political issues that conservative Christians care about as a substantive matter, like gay rights, abortion, transgender rights, and so on? I think that Muslims are already at the end of the road that the Benedict Option leads down. In Islam, drinking alcohol is forbidden. But we all go to college and binge drinking is the primary—sometimes it seems like the exclusive—form of recreation there. In Islam fornication is forbidden. But in this society fornication is nearly universal, celebrated, and fiercely defended. I don’t think the idea of convincing our fellow citizens to think and behave like us even occurs to Muslims. Far more pressing is the question of whether we will be allowed to live the way we prefer to live, and to maintain our communities in relative peace. Therefore it’s much more urgent to try to prevent governments from banning mosques; to protect against massive intrusions against our civil rights through surveillance, illegal detention, and more; to allow schoolchildren to be taught about Islam; to reduce the rate at which Muslims are discriminated against in employment; etc.

What would you like Benedict Option Christians to know about Muslim Americans regarding these issues, given our mutual suspicion of each other, coming after 9/11?

Before I answer your question—

First, I don’t think the suspicion is mutual. I don’t think most Muslims bear any real hostility to Christians. To the contrary, I think they usually respect them, especially insofar as they adhere to traditional religious practices. Muslim Americans have respect for people who care about family, who live according to traditional values, who take care of their parents, who act and dress modestly, and who respect marriage. And the actual doctrines of Islam command respect for Christianity, recognizing the prophethood of Jesus and the virginal conception of Mary, after whom a whole chapter of the Qu’ran is named. In Islamic doctrine, Christians and Jews belong to the Ahl-al-Kitab, the People of the Book, who make up a privileged group.

I have to confess that my perspective is particular; it’s based on the part of the country that I live in. In truth, I very rarely interact with the kinds of conservative Christians your book (and blog) is aimed at. I live in the liberal Northeast, where practicing Christians are few and far in between. When we look around us, “Christianity” is not what we see. It’s true that, when I was growing up, my parents would distinguish between “us” and the people around us, who were different. What they meant is that “we” would not drink; we would not watch lewd things in TV and movies; we would not socialize casually with the opposite sex; we would go to the mosque, read the Qu’ran, pray, and fast. In short, Christianity was never the “other” for us in a practical sense; secularism was.

My only experiences with Christians have been in the university setting, where we Muslims would very often organize and cooperate with Christians and Jews to hold interfaith programming. My sense had always been that there was great respect and cooperation between people of different faith groups. I only realized later that this might have something to do with the highly liberal setting of the university.

Anyway, those were the expectations I brought with me when I first encountered your blog. I had started to discern that conservative Christians were among the few people around who lived like we did. I felt completely on my own in trying to figure out how to live according to traditional values in this society, so discovering that Christians were thinking about these same questions was very exciting to me—and it was a great source of moral comfort. Thus I always had a sense that Muslims and conservative Christians had common cause. Ironically, it was only after reading your blog that I started to appreciate how many Christians felt hostility toward Islam, as Christians. You could say I had a naive view until then.

What do I want Benedict Option Christians to know?

By far my most important message is: get to know us. Before you decide that you know who Muslims are and what they are about, go out and find actual Muslims and talk to them. Ask them about their lives, their communities, and their faiths. Visit a mosque and listen to the sermons for yourself. If you approach in good faith and with an open mind, I am certain that you will receive a warm welcome.

Do you think that, say, the average Manhattanite has a positive impression of conservative Christians? Do you think they view you the way you view yourself? If not, then why is that? If all I knew about Christians came from reading The New York Times and the Huffington Post, would I have an accurate sense of who Christians really are, what they are really like, what they really stand for? Probably not.

In a similar vein, I was educated at liberal institutions where the consensus was that “conservative thought” was an oxymoron. I decided that I owed it to myself to find out whether that was actually true. And if I wanted, I could have stopped after looking at the major conservative media outlets, which merely confirmed all of my worst impressions. If you want to find bad people and bad ideas, those are always out there, in any group. What you find will often be shaped by the spirit in which you seek.

I think the importance of abstract beliefs is overstated. The most important thing is to look at how people actually live. The truth is that the vast majority of Muslim Americans live by the same values that you do. If you spend time with them, you might be surprised at how much you find in common. That has certainly been my experience in dealing with Christians. Much of the essential work of any religion is in teaching its adherents how to be good people, capable of forming and living in good families and communities. As our respective traditions teach us, that work is hard enough. And I think Muslims and Christians share far more in common in their vision of the good life than either of us do with the secular mainstream.

I would say to people that if you accept Rod’s vision of where our country stands and where it is headed, then you have to conclude that the greatest threat to our well-being is a secular mainstream that is increasingly hostile to any religious ideas whatsoever, and certainly to the traditional core of the Abrahamic faiths. In the face of such an assault, it would be foolish for Muslims and Christians to let themselves be played against one another. We are likely to need all the help we can get in maintaining an America that hews close to its long, proud history of religious tolerance and liberty.

What’s more, our communities may have a great deal to learn from one another. Muslims may be able to teach you new things, just as I have learned a great deal from listening to Christians. We have to look for guidance and support in whatever forms we can find them.

After learning more about Christianity, I realized that there is another potential source of great confusion Christians might have regarding Islam. Islam in America is far less organized and coherent than Christianity. Most people pray at mosques that are little more than a bunch of people in the same area gathering together to pray. There is no formal hierarchy in Islam. Anyone who wants to get up and put themselves forth as an imam can do so. Being an imam is very different from being a priest: in many places, different members of the community perform the function every week. I have never been to an American mosque with a formal membership. If I want to pray at a particular mosque I simply walk in the door.

In short, there are no great national councils debating the minutiae of theology and deciding what policy stances to take, as I gather there are in Christianity. Moreover, American Islam is very diverse—there are Arabs from several countries, Egyptians, Pakistanis and Indians, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Malaysians, African-Americans, Iranians, and more. There is little interaction or coherence between these groups thus far. Most of these groups speak completely different languages. Many people seem to conflate Muslims and Arabs, but only 20% of Muslims in the world are Arab.

I encourage people to learn more about Islam by looking to scrupulously neutral, authoritative academic sources. Don’t put the cart of ideology before the horse of understanding. It would also help to know the basics of Western foreign policy in the Middle East in the postcolonial period to the present, to understand a little bit about where Muslims are coming from politically.

I like this passage from a post on your blog, quoting someone else:

Ironically, I am reminded at this point of a criticism the late New Left intellectual, Edward Said, made of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Said’s point was simple: At the local level, where people live next to each other, where they speak to each other, where they have to make their communities work because perpetual street fighting is not an option, the situation is always more complicated and hopeful than a collision of ideologies. Indeed, I might add to Said’s thoughts this paraphrase of something George Orwell said in another context: It is much harder to hate a man when you have looked into his eyes and seen that he too is a human being as you are.

How do you think about your own future as a Muslim lawyer, and perhaps as a husband and father in the United States, with regard to the social and moral environment, and the status of religious liberty? In that regard, do you think Christians and Muslims in this country need each other? And if so, what practical ways can we begin the engagement? What I’m thinking here is that US liberals think of themselves as allies of Muslims against conservatives, especially conservative Christians, but that is about a millimeter deep; most are not going to stand up for Muslims when it means choosing them over LGBTs and sexual liberty more generally. Right now, whether they realize it or not, Muslims are used by them as a way to beat up on conservatives. On the other hand, US conservatives, especially Christians, think of American Muslims warily at best, and as the enemy at worst. But is that the right way to see things? 

To be a practicing Muslim in this society is to be constantly rowing against the tide. Observing my faith is my personal moral responsibility, and not anyone else’s. But there is no doubt in my mind that environment affects how hard it is. And it’s easy to end up resenting the society around you when it feels needlessly hard.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure if this is a valid complaint: living a life of faith is never easy, and these kinds of obstacles often provide an important moral clarity. It’s common in Muslim circles to observe that American Muslims are often more committed practitioners of their religion than those “back home,” because you have no choice but to take personal responsibility for your faith. In these respects, the lives we live already resemble the ones that you envision for Christians after the Benedict Option.

In any case, it is not national politics, but this day-to-day struggle to stay true to faith that will decide the future of our religions in America. We reject materialist hedonism in favor of an ethos of moral self-discipline. We reject the cult of the autonomous individual in favor of fidelity to family and community. In these respects, there is a great deal of overlap in what Christians and Muslims want from modern society. We both confront a society that adheres to an increasingly aggressive and comprehensive secular materialism. And we both have an interest in preventing that ideology from unduly burdening our communities’ way of life.

When it comes to raising children, the problems become even more acute. A central task for any value system is to transmit its values to the next generation. This is where environment becomes really important. The one thing most crucial to intergenerational transmission is the formation of new families and the preservation of marriage. I probably don’t need to belabor the reasons why we face unprecedented challenges in this area. It may be a life and death issue for all of us. Traditionalists of nearly all cultures in nearly all times and places used to share a few basic understandings in this area. Now, in America it’s only a small number of traditionalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews that hew to those understandings.

I’ve been surprised by how quickly Muslims are adapting to contemporary America. What worries me is not that we will fail to adapt, but that the next generation will precipitately abandon or minimize any feature of Islam that is not cut to the measure of contemporary liberalism. All the young Muslims I know are educated in American universities, and in my eyes too many of them are eager to shear away the aspects of their faith that don’t fit neatly with current liberal attitudes. It’s as if they take the unerring truth of contemporary liberalism completely for granted. How long can such an amputated faith last?

I worry that the ranks of nominal Muslims will swell, and that the truth and beauty of the Islam that I love so much will fade from view. Much of what’s valuable about Islam to me is not how compatible it is with modern life, but how it challenges modern life on behalf of higher and deeper things. If we fail to hold on to these things, not only Muslims, but other Americans as well will suffer, having lost the opportunity to learn some things that only we can teach. I want us to occupy the middle ground, learning from the best of Western culture while preserving the essence of the Muslim way of life.

I don’t want to deny the differences between Christianity and Islam, nor am I asking you to endorse our theology. What we should both want is that America return to its best traditions of pluralistic liberalism. The American conception of liberty is that adherents of all religions should be able to freely exercise their faiths, and that the “free and open encounters” that result will be our best guide toward the truth. I was aghast when, not long after studying the Constitution’s Religion Clauses in law school, I saw The New York Times putting the term “religious liberty” in scare quotes every time it was used. The liberalism of the U.S. Constitution dictates that the state must be scrupulously neutral between competing worldviews and ways of life, equally protecting the rights of all.

Christianity and Islam are different, but in the eyes of atheists all religions are essentially the same: ungrounded superstitions standing in the way of social progress. If you are right, and the numbers of authentic Christians are rapidly dwindling, then neither of us can afford to go it alone. Adherents of different faiths should band together to defend the classical liberal compromise.

Right now, the movement for religious liberty is viewed as an opportunistic guise for the re-assertion of Christian domination. It would greatly enhance the credibility of Christians interested in religious liberty if they stood up for adherents of all faiths. And Muslims face many of the most severe, outright challenges to their ability to freely exercise religion: whether it is being under suspicion of terrorism for any outward display of faith, being pulled off of an airplane for speaking Arabic, having our mosques and even restaurants under extensive, multi-year surveillance that yields no actionable intelligence, nationwide movements to prevent the building of mosques, being subject to arbitrary detention and torture without due process, etc.

In practice, I think Ben Op Christians should try to find and reach out to local Muslim communities. Hold events together, serve the poor together. I have no doubt that Muslims would welcome such outreach. Of course I think Muslims should do the same, and have been personally involved in numerous interfaith efforts. I think the most valuable thing would be for us to develop personal relationships with each other. Recognizing and appreciating our common humanity is the first step, and I have faith that everything else will follow naturally from that.

Speaking for myself, I am rooting for Ben Op Christianity to succeed. I would much rather there be strong, functional Christian communities in the United States than that we all descend together into the morass of materialist hedonism. I personally regard the Christian tradition as a great source of spiritual insight, having been moved many times by Bach’s Mass in B Minor and the St. John’s Passion. I also revere the tradition of Western humanism, and my studies have taught me that it would be difficult to extricate this tradition from the background of Christian culture. If you tried to tell me that I, as a Muslim, cannot benefit or learn from these traditions, I would simply ignore you and keep going. I also think that America is destined to play an important role in global Islam. America might be the site of a world-historical turning point, a rich theological dialogue that has not been possible for centuries. There are things that are possible here that possible nowhere else. Who knows what the fruits of cooperation could be? Why don’t we just try and see?

[End of interview]

Note From Rod: I want to give my deep thanks to Jones for answering these questions at length, thereby giving me more than I hoped for. I want to also thank him and this blog’s other regular Muslim commenters, Alexander Valenzuela and “Mohammed,” who reads us in Iran. Their comments, both publicly and in private e-mails, have been challenging and edifying, and have opened my mind to things I had not considered before.