[I]t’s possible to be both
fully Muslim and fully American—right-wing noise to the contrary.
Still, I understand why many Americans might find Islam puzzling and foreign.
There’s no contradiction in the term American Muslim; but that doesn’t mean
Islam is like other monotheistic faiths. It isn’t, in part because it doesn’t
lend itself as easily to modern liberalism. The more I’ve studied my own
religion—its theology, history and culture—the more I’ve come to appreciate how
complicated it is and how much more complicated it must be for people who are
coming at it from scratch.
Contrary to what many think, there is no Christian equivalent to Quranic
“inerrancy,” even among far-right evangelicals. Muslims believe the Quran is not
only God’s word, but God’s actual speech—in other words, every single letter and
word in the Quran comes directly from God. This seemingly semantic difference
has profound implications. If the Quran is God’s speech, and God is unchanging
and perfect, then so is his speech. To question the divine origin of the Quran,
then, is to question God himself, and God is not easily put in a box, well away
from the public sphere.
Differences between Christianity and Islam also are evident in each faith’s
central figure. Unlike Jesus, who was a dissident, Muhammad was both prophet and
politician. And more than just any politician, he was a state-builder as well as
a head of state. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined
in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined. To argue for the
separation of religion from politics, then, is to argue against the model of the
very man Muslims most admire and seek to emulate.
Islam’s outsized role in public life leads, circuitously, all the way to the
“burkini” controversy. Westerners might ask themselves: Is it really that big of
a deal if a few French mayors ask women to wear a “normal” swimsuit on the
beach? Well, yes.
If you’re a Muslim woman who wears the hijab—covering the hair and most of the
body—you can’t wear just any swimsuit. Some women, of course, are pressured or
even legally mandated to wear the hijab (as in Saudi Arabia and Iran), but most
choose to do so; it’s about their personal relationship with God. Regardless of
whether we like it, the predominant scholarly opinion today is that wearing
hijab is fard, or obligatory. Although Western feminists may argue that covering
up is sexist—it can encourage the idea that women are primarily sexual
objects—asking Muslim women to take off the hijab is akin to asking them to
violate their connection with the creator.