My parents, brother and I were on vacation in Florida, and we were talking about Donald Trump. The idea of leaving America if a scary Republican wins has always been a joke among high-minded liberals who can just fly off and find a job in Toronto or Geneva. But for my family, the joke had taken on a more sinister tone.
It was the Muslim version of “the talk,” and it went something like this: If, God forbid, it gets worse and a President Trump encourages a climate of hatred and persecution against American Muslims, then what are our options? Trump, after all, has expressed support for registering Muslims in a database and refused to disavow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch.
My dad was born and raised in authoritarian Egypt, later immigrating to Canada and then the United States.
To my surprise, he is still technically a Canadian citizen. We had a backup plan! As we played out the various frightening scenarios, my parents, after flirting with the idea of self-imposed exile, reached the same conclusion: This is their country too, and they would fight for it. They wouldn’t give up.
It was an inspiring thing to watch, and a reminder that it’s possible to be both fully Muslim and fully American — right-wing noise to the contrary. One 2016 survey actually found that “Muslims who say their faith is important to their identity are more likely to say being American is important to how they think of themselves.”
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 Koranic “inerrancy,” even among far-right evangelicals. Muslims believe the Koran is not only God’s word, but God’s actual speech — in other words, every single letter and word in the Koran comes directly from God. This seemingly semantic difference has profound implications. If the Koran is God’s speech, and God is unchanging and perfect, then so is his speech. To question the divine origin of the Koran, 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.