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In her recent New York Times opinion piece, Asma T. Uddin rightly criticizes the “disturbing trend … [of] state lawmakers, lawyers, and influential social commentators,” like Oklahoma Republican state Rep. John Bennett, who claim that Muslims in the United States don’t deserve religious freedoms granted to adherents of other religions because “Islam is not even a religion; it is a political system that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global conquest.”
The claim has been floating around for several years, but it’s nonsensical for a host of reasons. No reasonable observer would contend that Muslims are the only religious people who try to advance their interests through concerted and coordinated political action, as should be clear from the Moral Majority, the Christian pro-life movement, and the opposition of many conservative Christians to the Johnson Amendment. The fact that the most obvious examples in the United States derive from conservative Christianity is only because conservative Christians have been more intentional, vocal, strategic, and successful in their religious politicking. However, it’s clear enough that liberal forms of Christianity also espouse their own brands of politics.
The obvious national and international political aspirations of Western Christians make their criticisms of the entanglement of Islam and politics particularly bewildering. Such criticisms, therefore, could only emanate either from a stunning lack of self-consciousness or a quite conscious, knowing, and cynically self-serving denial of the nature of things.
Hypocrisy aside, the assertion that Islam isn’t a religion should be a cause for concern among conservative Christians as it can so easily and destructively be turned on Christian minorities in other parts of the world. Take India, for example, where Hindu nationalists regularly trumpet the tolerance and spiritual purity of Hinduism while criticizing Christians for their intolerance and their putative mixing of religion and politics. In language strikingly similar to Rep. Bennett’s, anti-Christian critics like Sita Ram Goel have claimed that “Christianity has never been a religion; it has always been a predatory imperialism par excellence.”
For Goel and others like him, historical Christian support for things like the crusades and the Inquisition—as well as for the aggressive forms of proselytization employed by evangelical Christians and the neo-imperial military campaigns of Western “Christian” nations—manifest the true (and truly concerning) nature of the faith. Recently, for example, Arun Shourie, journalist, occasional politician, and author of Missionaries in India, surveyed Indian Catholic missionary literature and concluded that it “sounds more like … the Pentagon, than like Jesus.”
Moreover, just as critics of Muslims in America suggest that Islam is intolerant and therefore incompatible with American democracy, Indian authors such as these have criticized Christianity and its cousins for their claims that they alone possess the singular path to God or salvation. “The fact is that intolerance is inbuilt into the basic Semitic [religious] approach,” wrote Ram Swarup in Hinduism vis-à-vis Christianity and Islam. Similarly, since at least 2011, the fiery Radha Rajan has been arguing, as she did for Vijayvaani.com, that all Abrahamic religions like Christianity are intent on conquering the world for their jealous God, and are therefore, “about political power and control of territory,” and that “Abrahamic ideologies are always about numbers.”
Fears about the growth of Christianity and claims like these have been used successfully to restrict religious freedom in India. Since the 1950s, seven Indian states have passed “Freedom of Religion” laws that ban conversion by “force, fraud, and allurement,” and in some cases require that potential converts register with local officials beforehand. While most religious people would agree that conversions by force, fraud, and allurement are undesirable, the impossibility of defining these terms precisely and the vulnerability of the Indian police apparatus to pressure and bias have led to such laws being used to regularly harass Christian evangelists, priests, pastors, and catechists even for doing things as innocuous as preaching in their own churches. Meanwhile, these same laws are never applied in situations where Hindus have been credibly accused of offering bribes to convert non-Hindus.
The point is not that India has a particularly bad record when it comes to religious freedom. India’s constitution provides greater protections for religious liberty than most, and despite the troubling trend of governmental officials increasingly refusing to condemn anti-minority harassment and violence, most Hindus get along with most non-Hindus in India most of the time.
Moreover, it must be kept in mind that it was not too long ago in the United States when the famous Presbyterian preacher, Lyman Beecher, resisted the immigration of Catholics to our shores based on the “political claims and character of the Catholic religion” (in his Plea for the West, 1835). Similarly, barely more than a century ago, in 1915, Georgia Sen. Thomas E. Watson (whose statue used to adorn the Georgia State Capitol lawn), accused the Roman Catholic hierarchy (in a book of that title), of being the “most damnable group of interlocked secret societies that ever met in darkness, and took hellish oaths to a compact of greed, and lust, and crime, for the sordid purpose of grasping uncontrollable power, boundless wealth, and a never ceasing supply of the most enjoyable women.” In addition, many forget, of course, that when the Ku Klux Klan was established for the second time in that same year, its white supremacy mingled with a virulent strain of anti-Catholicism.
The point, then, is that wherever adherents of majority religions declare a minority religion illegitimate due to its political pursuits, they misunderstand or intentionally misrepresent the reality of how religions and religious people actually operate, with potentially deadly consequences. If the entanglement of a religion with politics disqualifies it from the assurances of religious freedom, then no religion anywhere could possibly qualify. Those who make such claims succeed only in making it easier for others to deny the religious rights of their co-religionists elsewhere.