Religion comes in countless forms, depending either on the soil from which that religion arose or the soil in which it was planted. What we call Christianity in America is not what Guatemalans call Christianity. It’s not what Iraqis call Christianity. What we call Islam in the United States is vastly different from Islam in Iran or Saudi Arabia or Nigeria or Indonesia.
The notion that religion clashes with a culture is a misunderstanding of what religion is, but, more specifically, the idea that Islam clashes with American culture is just foolishness, naiveté, and lies. There is no clash between Islam and American culture. In fact, there is no clash between any religion and any culture because religions are inextricably linked to culture.
Think of it this way: Culture is like a vessel, and religion is like water — it simply takes the shape of whatever vessel you pour it into. And this is why the prosperity gospel — the notion that what Jesus really wants for you is to drive a Bentley — can exist in the United States, and why the liberation gospel — the notion that Jesus was a warrior who fought oppression and poverty — exists in El Salvador. Both versions of Christianity are equally valid. They’re just dependent on the culture of the community to which they belong.
When you look at Islam in the United States what you see is an overwhelmingly moderate version of Islam, but more interestingly what you see is a highly individualistic form of the religion. Islam is a religion that often advantages the community over the individual, but in the United States, where the culture is rooted in radical individualism, you see a radically individualistic Islam forming. An Islam that, in America, is not beholden to traditions or to the consensus of Muslim scholars and Islamic trains of thought that came before — it is an Islam that is innovative. You have a version of Islam that is vibrantly feminist. You have a version of Islam that promotes gay and lesbian spirituality. You have versions of Islam that are quite pluralistic and democratic. And in every one of these cases, what you see is a religion that has married itself fully into culture.
The first Muslims came to America on slave ships and have been a part of the fabric of this country from the very beginning. Islam has been in the United States since before there was such a thing as the United States. It’s true that in the last 50 years or so, there’s been an influx of immigrants into the United States, and they brought their own cultural norms, which again are married to their religious traditions. But within a generation, we have seen their children fully adopt and reconcile their religious ideals with their American culture.
When people talk about the clash between religion and culture, it mostly stems from ideological reasons. Ideologies are predicated on certain absolutes, which provide a certain confidence about people’s identities and where they belong in the world. It’s how people construct their very understanding of the universe. Ideologies can include religion, but they can include nationalism, culture, and race. People who tend to fall back on ideologies are trying to create a sense of stability about who they are and how they see themselves in the world.
The clashes we see are created by people, not by culture or religion. When people say Islam doesn’t fit in with American culture, what they really mean is that it does not fit with their sense of self and their conception of themselves as Americans. It does not jibe with how they understand what Islam means. But they are doing what most people do when they try to define themselves, which is that they are defining themselves in opposition to an other. And for a great many Americans, that other is Islam. They know nothing about Muslims. They know nothing about the religion or its history. It’s just that Islam becomes a byword for whatever is not American. And that’s fairly standard.
It’s an emotion, and that emotion is not predicated on facts or any kind of information. That emotion is predicated on an attempt to find themselves.
As told to Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, a contributing writer to Foreign Policy. This text has been edited for publication. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.
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