Religion is an ideology. An ideology is a system of beliefs/myths and practices/rituals that justify and reproduce particular social arrangements by normalizing hierarchy and systematically hiding power. An ideology is a subjectivity, an ideational system, serving as a guide to thought and behavior, shared by a number of people, which distorts reality in order to benefit some over others. An ideology may be associated with a particular culture or worldview; but it may also exist as a transcultural phenomenon, organizing thoughts and behaviors of individuals across cultures. Patriarchy, heterosexism, and so forth are examples of ideologies that cross cultures and may intersect with or embed in other ideologies.
Christianity and Islam are examples of transcultural ideologies. Neither is tied to a single culture (defined as beliefs, customs, norms, etc., of a particular group, space, or time), ethnicity (defined as membership in a group with a common cultural, linguistic, or national tradition), or race (previous definitions synonymous with ethnicity, now as membership in a group based on shared physical traits or phenotype, a classification system that has largely been debunked as actually describing something in the domain of biological phenomena).
For example, many Arabs (an ethnicity, albeit sometimes racialized) are Muslim. But so are many Asians, as well as many Africans and some Europeans. In fact, more Indonesians identify as Muslim than Arabs, yet most Indonesians neither speak Arabic nor identify with Arabic culture. Moreover, many Arabs are not Muslim, but are Christian or identify with some other religion. The fact that Muslims are a multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial grouping, widely distributed geographically, identifiable because of their religious identity, makes the reduction of Islam to any one of these other concepts a fallacious operation.
Any attempt to reduce an ideology to ethnicity or race is itself an ideological strategy to place that ideology beyond the reach of rational criticism. To draw an analogy, those who organized the ideology of classical liberal economics sought to put the class struggle beyond criticism by portraying political economic phenomena, except where it was artificially distorted by human intervention, as elements of a natural system, in much the same was as biology is an admitted natural system, and then claiming itself to be a science of a domain of reality.
Race is itself the product of the ideological system we call racism. It is not a biological phenomenon, as I have said. Nor is racism. But there are attempts to treat both as such. And that’s an ideological activity in itself. Indeed, in this way, while religion is not analogous to race, it is analogous to racism, and the classifications these ideologies create – believers, infidels, sinners, etc., for the former, whites, blacks, Asians, etc., for the latter – are suspect. The main difference is that, thanks to secularism, we have pluralism in religion, meaning that Western society formally accepts that one can switch religions and even, to some degree, stand outside any religious system, albeit not always without consequence, but is not ready to accept raceless or transracial persons. This fact is yet another reason religious identity cannot be reduced to racial identity.
The conflation of criticism of Islamic doctrine and practice to racism despite (a) substantial race-ethnic diversity among those who subscribe to this ideology and (b) a category error in likening idea systems to demographic categories (however suspect these categories are) is distorting our secular approach to governance, replacing a common systems of rights based on objective human conditions with cultural and moral relativism determined by a multiplicity of ideological standpoints. This phenomenon, which has wide-ranging political and legal implications (such as oppression and violence dressed in civil rights language), must be explored not only in its own development, but also through a comparison with Christianity, an ideology likewise based on the Abrahamic tradition, but for which the analogies of race and racism are not routinely applied.
What will we permit people to deny about their ideologies? Religious people claim that their good deeds are motivated by their religious beliefs. Charity is often characterized as Christian charity. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy of non-violence is said to work from Christian love, or agape, which means that loving a God who has so much love for people demands charitable action. Charity is a form of worship that is promoted by faith belief. Christians like to ask in situations, “What would Jesus do?” Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) asks, “What would Muhammad do?”
Members of religious groups are eager to own the laudable character of their faith deeds (to what extent faith belief is necessary for charity is a question beyond the scope of this essay). They should be just as eager to own the less positive aspects of their religious belief. In the case of Muhammad, we read in the Qur’an and the Hadith about his acts of compassion. But we also read about his acts of cruelty and hatred. It is said that Muhammad was a perfect man. Muslims are to emulate his character and manner (however much they are destined to fall short). Acts of compassion, cruelty, and hatred are all included in the range of choices available to Muslims in emulating God’s last prophet (which differ considerably from the range of choices available to Christians emulating Jesus). The disassociation with the downside (complicated by the denial that there is a downside) of the world’s major religions is a common feature of faith belief. And the extent to which this keeps the faithful from literally practicing their religion is a good thing.
On February 26, 1993, in bombing the World Trade Center, Muslims killed six and injured more than a thousand people. On September 11, 2001, in an attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC, Muslims killed 2,996 people and wounded more than 6,000 others. On November 5, 2009, at Fort Hoot, near Killeen, Texas, a Muslim killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others. On December 2, 2015, at a Christmas Party in San Bernardino, California, two Muslims killed 14 people and injured 22 others. On June 12, 2016, in a Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a Muslim killed 49 people and wounded 58 others.
Taking just these five incidents (from a universe of incidents of Muslim violence), and focusing only on the United States (one of many countries affected by Muslim violence), Muslims have killed 3,078 persons and injured more than 7, 000 people, mostly civilians, but also military personnel, police officers, firefighters, and rescue workers. These incidents were not random attacks. They were inspired by the ideology of Islam. They were not contrary to the actions of Muhammad or the spirit of the doctrine.
Muhammad was a warlord who sought to spread the doctrine of Islam through subjugation of surrounding populations. Like Muhammad, Muslims spread Islam wherever they live and migrate, encouraging others to become devout believers, and hoping that, one day, sharia will be the law of the land and that all people, whatever their religion, will have to submit to that law and pay tribute to the Islamic state. The end goal is to see the entire world under the rule of Islam. Not all Muslims believe such things. But hundreds of millions of Muslims do. Just as hundreds of millions of Christians desire global Christian hegemony (but with Jesus meek and mild, not Muhammad the warlord). Islam is the fastest growing ideology in the world, presenting a unique threat to freedom and security around the world, and its militancy is intensifying.
The goals of Muslim extremists are analogous to those of white nationalists: a world where totalitarian ideas form the basis of the law and dictate public and private relations and interactions. Yet those who argue that white supremacies should not be allowed to organize, publicly assemble, or openly express their opinions because their racist beliefs and opinions represent an extremist ideology, not only fail to make the analogous argument vis-à-vis Muslims, but instead rally around Muslims, defending Islamic ideology and practice as a “religion of peace,” claiming that Muslims are a persecuted minority who should be allowed to engage in their cultural practices, such as the sexist imposition of patriarchal modesty rules (these practices are sometimes even celebrated by non-Muslims), unmolested by secular rational norms.
When Muslims act violently, the response is not condemnation, as typically happens when white nationalists engage in violence, but marches expressing “solidarity” with Muslims. Islam’s defenders accuse those who act consistently with respect to doctrines of aggressive violence of bigotry, smearing them with the label “Islamophobe.” Imagine antifascists being accused of “fascophobia” – as if fear and loathing of hateful, divisive, extremist ideology could be irrational – and you will get a sense of the hypocrisy inherent in progressive Islamophilia (the irrational adoration of Islam).
The oft-repeated objection that most Muslims are not violent and, therefore, there is no cause for concern over the spread of Islam, is made rather irrelevant by the fact that most white nationalists are not violent, either. That most white nationalists are non-violent does not make white nationalism acceptable. To be sure, some white nationalists are violent. But, as evidenced by the thousands of deaths and injuries from the five Muslims attacks cited above, some Muslims are violent, too. In fact, in the United States and Europe, Muslims are responsible for far more violence over the last twenty-five years than white nationalism. The reality is that, because of the content of its doctrine, and because of the aggressive violence it produces, Islam is not a “religion of peace.” Violence in the name of Islam is not a deviation from the doctrine, but an expression of the doctrine.
Should Islam by banned? Should Muslims be barred from sharing their doctrines in public? No. This would be a violation of an individual’s right to express his opinions, associate with those who believe as he does, and assemble in public and collective announce that belief. The current disagreement over whether we should let white nationalists express their extreme opinions in public bears on the question of whether Muslims should be allowed to do the same. If the position taken is that we should not, then, if we wish to be consistent and avoid discriminating against people, we shouldn’t allow Muslims to express their extreme opinions in public, either. On the contrary, we must protect the right of Muslims, as well as white nationalists, to freely express extremist views in public gatherings. “Sharia for everyone!” “Death to America!” “Behead the infidels!” “Butcher those who mock Islam and its Prophet!” “Liberalism go to Hell!” “Democracy and freedom much fall!” “Islam is the solution!” as repugnant and terrifying as these slogans are, they are protected speech by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Individuals have a right to believe what they want to and to express those beliefs in public. Likewise, individuals have the right to tell the truth about what those views represent, the role they play in producing violence, and condemning those beliefs. Those of us who recognize the threat extremist ideologies pose need to be more assertive with our right to freely express the truth.