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Muslim Discipleship In Post-Christian America

US Muslims face a future of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

A longtime reader who comments under the name Adh-Dhariyat, writes:

I read your Youth Losing Their Religion post (love that double meaning) and the word “discipleship” really stood out to me from the context of American Islam. American Muslim communities are often populated by immigrants who come from lands where Islam is regarded as a fait accompli. “Well of course you’d be Muslim and pray and fast and not sleep around or drink alcohol! Astagfirullah! [Astagfirullah literally means “I seek forgiveness in God” but is also often used when encountering something wrong or shameful or un-Islamic.]

And so we (the children of those immigrants) go to Muslim Sunday School or we’re taught at home. We learn the prayers and history. We learn how to read in Arabic though most non-Arabs don’t necessarily learn the language itself. We fast with our parents during Ramadan. We say As-Salaam Wa Alaikum to the aunties and uncles though not to our own friends.

It’s all matter of fact. Doubt is not discussed. The hard work of discipleship is glossed over. I don’t blame my parents’ generation for that. It’s not really in their experience so how could they account for it?

Now rote memory teaching works just fine with some. But being a minority religion in an increasingly irreligious country, I think the more native that American Muslims become and the further removed we are from the ‘old country’, the more we’ll lose our religion. I can already see it in those of my generation who are barely even culturally Muslim. Or who are fully atheist. Plus, the Muslim population is growing at a time when inter-faith marriages are becoming more and more common. Lovely though they may be, I’d be willing to bet that children of inter-faith marriages are much more MTD than orthodox of either parents’ religion.

Certainly, there’s good in graying some of the retrograde lines which are drawn in old Muslim societies (humane treatment of homosexuals, better opportunities for women, etc) but eventually American culture will consume all lines of distinction, don’t you think? There’s vibrancy in difference and disagreement and we’re going to lose that. Astagfirullah indeed.

This is why I don’t share the anxiety many conservatives have about Islam in America (Islam in Europe is a different matter, for particularly European reasons). For better or for worse, post-Christian America is going to turn Islam into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism too. Look:


In Comment magazine, Shadi Hamid has a good short essay on Islam and diversity. He says that as Muslims become more mainstream in America, they are losing their distinctive identity. Excerpts:

Are Muslims, then, different, or are they the same—“just” one among many minority communities, each with their own secular grievances? This question is weightier than it might seem. For conservative Muslims, Islam has traditionally been defined not by identity, but by a particular set of beliefs and the outward practice of the faith. However, if Muslims are increasingly embraced on the left as a group notable primarily for its marginalization, then this will have long-term secularizing effects. The distinctive theological commitments that practicing Muslims bring to public life will be diluted. They already are. The intermittent grumbling of conservative Muslims over this shift has stayed largely under the radar, in part because the most prominent American Muslims are either not traditionalists or have chosen to deemphasize their traditionalism in the interest of intersectional solidarity.

Sure. If progressives dealt with Muslims as religiously orthodox Muslims — as opposed to a blank slate upon which to project their (progressives’) contempt for conservatives, especially Christian conservatives — they would find that solidarity harder to maintain.

At the same time, conservatives sometimes go out of our way to drive Muslims into the arms of progressives. Some Tarrant County (Texas) Republicans are waging a shockingly bigoted war to keep Dr. Shahid Shafi, a town council member and Republican, out of a leadership role in the county’s GOP. National Review‘s Jim Geraghty gives details here.  The gist of Shafi’s opponents’ case is that no Muslim should ever be a GOP leader, because sharia. That’s un-American.

It seems, then, that pressures from both the cultural left and the cultural right are pushing American Muslims toward secularism and liberalism. And this is aside from the general secularization that contemporary US society cultivates among all people (see Adh-Dhariyat’s comments).

Shadi Hamid wonders:

The fear of difference, on both left and right, has spread through the body politic, but what if we came to see religious and political difference as something to be accepted and even embraced? Freed from the desire, or need, to search for sameness or similarity, Americans could come to terms with a new reality and one that is likely to remain: that there isn’t a common good to be found; that, because we believe strongly in different things from different premises, politics will be inherently conflictual; that there isn’t necessarily a resolution to political divides. If we come to terms with this, then we can better resist the urge to impose our own preferences on others.

I think this is a realistic take, in the sense that it is the scenario that is most likely to keep the peace in an increasingly fractured culture and polity. But I wish I had more faith that it is achievable.

In the case of Muslims, there are screamingly obvious conflicts between the tenets of Islam and cultural liberalism. Is it possible for Muslims to stand up as orthodox when it comes to issues that conflict with core progressive commitments (especially on gender and sexuality), and still be accepted by the left? Is it possible for Muslims ever to be accepted by the right, no matter what? Or, is it the case that Islam is so different that the only way it can be mainstreamed in America is by giving up some essential parts of itself?

If Adh-Dhariyat is correct — and I think he probably is — Hamid’s questions may be interesting, but largely irrelevant. Adh-Dhariyat’s description of the way his parents’ immigrant generation handled the passing on of Islam to their kids reminds me a lot of the way my parents and their friends passed on Christianity — or failed to. They didn’t do the hard work of discipleship because they assumed that faith as a social phenomenon was a lot more stable than it really was. They could not imagine a society in which people did not believe in Christianity, or treated it like a hobby, but only that. This is how many, many of them lived, in fact! They did not grasp that nominal Christianity, which was sustainable in their generation, and previous generations, was not going to be able to withstand cultural forces in post-Christian America.

I’m wondering if American Muslims of my generation (Generation X) and younger are discovering the same thing. I’ve heard from several people this year that some faithful Muslims are buying my book The Benedict Option and trying to figure out what its cultural diagnosis means for them, as they try to raise their own children in this secular country. I would love to hear from Muslim readers about what the Ben Op would look like for them and their own families.

I would not be surprised if orthodox Muslims and small-o orthodox Christians, as well as Modern Orthodox Jews, discovered in the secularizing years and decades to come that we have far more in common with each other than we think. I’m not sure what that’s going to mean, to be frank. Does anybody?

I think often about something the late Orthodox Christian bioethicist Dr. Tristan Engelhardt told me once, about being at an international medical conference, and having a Turkish Muslim physician say to him, in a friendly way, “You and I are the only people in this room who believe in God.” As I recall, Dr. Engelhardt interpreted this to mean the physician was saying, “You and I are the only ones in this room who believe we are all answerable to a higher power.” And as medical ethicists, that mattered. The two men believed in different gods, but they were convinced that there were bounds beyond which humanity cannot transgress.

What might this principle mean for observant and traditionalist Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a truly and deeply post-Christian America? We’re going to find out.

UPDATE: Reader Jones, who is an observant Muslim:

Why do you think I read you? I mean, many reasons — but one of the reasons with the most staying power is that I believe everything that you document happening to Christianity is going to happen to Islam. In fact, it already is. To be honest, I think that even Christians’ broader laments about the troubles of global Christianity are already afflicting global Islam as well. People have the internet and social media in Muslim countries. They have smartphones. Etc.

I don’t really bother talking about it here, because the reality on which this whole problem is premised is one denied by the majority of your readers. Your readers believe that Muslims are “unassimilable”; the reality I see on the ground is that Muslims are assimilating too fast (in America; don’t know or really care about Europe). On one hand, I don’t expect people to believe it; on the other hand, I don’t expect them to worry about it — like I do, as someone that actually believes in and values Islam.

The other reason it’s never seemed worth bringing up is that, despite what I want, when (younger) Muslims assimilate they seem to assimilate to the part of the culture that conservatives hate. Wealthy, coastal, and annoyingly progressive. Young Muslims have started to see themselves as white liberals see them; as yet another in a laundry list of Officially Oppressed Groups. On one hand, this makes most of the right-wing’s concerns about Islam in America basically laughable; on the other hand, it makes Muslims just another part of the problem posed by progressivism. I don’t think any of this is settled for good, but that’s how things are looking at the moment.

Education and wealth are the main drivers of assimilation, and they are very tough to contend with. I recently realized that American Jews are the best example of the trajectory American Muslims are likely to go down. Judaism in America still has its “trappings,” the things Jews cling to as defining their identity. And you can keep some of that, and fancy yourself different, while still being utterly and predictably American in every meaningful respect.



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