Asma Uddin has an op-ed in the New York Times about an argument I’ve heard and engaged with a lot, always coming from the Christian far right. The argument is that Islam is not really a religion, it’s a political ideology masquerading as a religion and therefore it does not qualify for protection under the First Amendment. It’s an absurd and blatantly hypocritical argument.
But when it comes to religious liberty for Americans, there’s a disturbing trend that has drawn much less attention. In recent years, state lawmakers, lawyers and influential social commentators have been making the case that Muslims are not protected by the First Amendment.
Why? Because, they argue, Islam is not a religion.
This once seemed like an absurd fringe argument. But it has gained momentum. John Bennett, a Republican state legislator in Oklahoma, said in 2014, “Islam is not even a religion; it is a political system that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global conquest.” In 2015, a former assistant United States attorney, Andrew C. McCarthy, wrote in National Review that Islam “should be understood as conveying a belief system that is not merely, or even primarily, religious.” In 2016, Michael Flynn, who the next year was briefly President Trump’s national security adviser, told an ACT for America conference in Dallas that “Islam is a political ideology” that “hides behind the notion of it being a religion.” In a January 2018 news release, Neal Tapio of South Dakota, a Republican state senator who was planning to run for the United States House of Representatives, questioned whether the First Amendment applies to Muslims.
The idea that Islam, which has over 1.6 billion adherents worldwide, is not a religion was even deployed in a 2010 legal challenge of county approval of building plans for a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The plaintiffs argued that Islam is not a religion but rather a geopolitical system bent on instituting jihadist and Shariah law in America. Because Islam is not a religion, the argument went, the mosque construction plans should not benefit from the county or federal laws that protect religious organizations. The local court ruled against the mosque, but the Tennessee appellate court overturned the ruling and the mosque prevailed.
The hypocrisy is obvious. This argument is almost always made by people who push aggressively for their version of a Christian nation. They advocate policies based on their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, demand exemptions from generally applicable laws whenever they think their religious beliefs demand it, including the right to discriminate in business if they choose to, and organize primarily on the basis of their Christian views. Their version of Christianity is every bit as aggressively political as they imagine all Muslims are. The difference is that they have actual influence to get their religious views mandated by law, while Muslims in this country don’t have that kind of power and influence.
So by their own reasoning, Christianity is also not a religion and deserves no First Amendment protection. Of course, they won’t follow their argument to its logical conclusion, they just engage in special pleading. Because this is not a serious argument, it’s a pretext for denying the same rights and protections to others that they so loudly demand for themselves.