The Tangled Politics of America’s Woke Liberals and Muslim Millennials

The American left has pushed faith to the margins. Post-9/11 culture wars and foreign wars are bringing it back to the center

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The Tangled Politics of America’s Woke Liberals and Muslim Millennials
A Muslim woman takes part in Black Lives Matter protest in Cologne, Germany, on June 7, 2020/Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What is the proper amount of Islam in American public life? Pick a number from one to 10.

If we disregard the extremes, most people will land somewhere between three and eight, a spectrum that could roughly be translated as ranging from “My parents were Muslim, but I don’t know much about it” to “The president says his Islamic beliefs will guide his new agenda.”

On the occasion of the publication of his new book, “Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance,” I interviewed the Muslim writer and intellectual Mustafa Akyol and asked him, if his argument is that Islamic societies have become too coercive when it comes to faith, which society should instead be the model for Muslims? His answer: the United States of America.

“If there’s one model of secularity that I advocate,” said Akyol, “It’s probably the American model, where freedom of religion is emphasized and communities have full rights to practice their faith.”

This is an aspect of the reforming Islam movement that is both intriguing and underexplored, and it can be summed up in a question: What is the proper amount of faith in public life?

It’s a question that matters directly to Islamic societies around the world because there is no Islamic society in which public displays of faith — the adhan, for example, the Islamic call to prayer — are not prominent and where faith doesn’t play a role in public life, with, for example, politicians invoking God.

It’s also a question that matters directly to Western liberal societies that have communities of faith because the role of faith in public life is constantly shifting.

Most Americans don’t realize how much of an outlier the U.S. is when it comes to faith. Even for those who know it intuitively, the data can still be surprising. Take, for example, the percentage of adults who say they pray daily. In Western Europe — France, Germany, Austria, Denmark — the numbers, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center two years ago, hover around the low teens and below. In Britain, which in many respects is the closest Western country to the U.S., the number is just 6%. In the U.S., it is 55%. That is, more than half of American adults say they pray every single day.

Therefore, if Muslim societies followed the U.S. model — and Akyol is not alone among Muslim intellectuals in seeking to emulate the U.S. approach to faith rather than, say, that of France — they would still have within them ample space for public expressions of faith. These would not be countries where, as in the U.K. or the Netherlands, public expressions of religion are frowned upon.

On the contrary, they would be places like the U.S. where politicians could quote Quranic scripture and talk about getting more Islamic values into public life.

That is precisely why some would prefer the U.S. tradition over that of Western Europe. Indeed, when I asked Akyol whether that public religiosity was why he’d chosen the U.S. tradition rather than that of Western Europe, he said it was — “because for a lot of Muslims, modernity looks like a march into godlessness.”

“Many Muslims consider the idea of liberalism to be a version of atheism,” he said, “and believe that in a liberal society religion will lose its importance, people will just joke about it, and there won’t be any sense of sacredness in society … But to me, the U.S. is interesting because it’s a country where freedom and piety are not against each other, but they actually support each other.”

The parameters that advocates for a reformed Islam set on public expressions of faith also matter to Western societies with Muslim communities.

As Muslims have taken a higher-profile role in political activism — to be fair, the dark decades post-Sept. 11 have rather forced them to — they have also foregrounded their religious identity, and they’ve done so because many of the regressive laws and policies that target these communities have explicitly targeted them on the basis of their religious identity.

The war on terrorism, U.S. government surveillance of Muslims, and the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” all targeted Muslim communities not as groupings of Black, white, Arab, Asian people, but as Muslims. And as Muslim communities have fought for their rights, the political pole that has backed these communities most is the liberal one. Across the Western world, it is liberal politicians and activists who back Muslim groups and support Muslim community issues.

Indeed, Islamophobia, surveillance, and the securitization of Muslim communities has firmly become an issue of the political left, which sees parallels between the experience of ethnic minorities such as African Americans and Muslim communities. There’s an international aspect to it, of course, as evidenced by the “Muslim ban,” which is why liberals have taken a leading role opposing the Iraq War and supporting the Palestinian cause.

From one perspective, this linkage between the political left and Muslim groups is puzzling.

The left has historically been opposed to organized religion, believing its conservatism entrenches and justifies inequality and its communalism is a threat to individual liberty.

On that basis, one could expect that liberals would oppose religious identity. And indeed, they seem to do so when the groups espousing faith are part of the dominant power structure, or, to say it starkly, when those talking about religion are white men. The faith of brown men and Black women is less of an issue.

Yet the reason has to do with a hierarchy of liberal values, which sees undoing structural inequality and injustice today as a more vital political task than creating a liberal society tomorrow.

Where this intersects with Islamic intellectual tradition is on the topic of how a future society would be constructed. And there, it is interesting to imagine whether the idealized promised lands of liberals and Muslim communities are similar.

After all, Islamic reformers like Akyol want a more liberal Islam, but they want an Islam. They want faith and piety in the public space.

For reformers, an ideal society would not necessarily be liberal in the sense Western liberals understand it — such as holding liberal social values, being accepting of abortion and homosexuality, for example — but would instead be politically liberal, meaning it would allow minority faiths to both practice and — and this is the crucial bit — express their religious faith in public. That’s a critical distinction that liberals have yet to grapple with.

Liberals in the American tradition grapple with this distinction all the time because of the outsize role of Christianity in public life. But Western European liberals have forgotten how to grapple with faith, so religion has been comprehensively pushed to the margins of public life.

Even admitting this distinction is controversial, although it need not be. The controversy arises because of the idea that Muslim groups and liberal groups, despite overlap at the individual level, hold different views about how societies should be organized — and that those differences, over time, will become so stark as to lead the groups apart.

So, you might believe, as some conservatives do, that Muslims are taking liberals for a ride: that the ultimate destination to which Muslims want to lead the country is a very different one from where liberals would like to go. You might equally take the view of some conservative Muslims, who think liberals are out to change Islam by stealth: that by aligning so closely with liberals, Muslims will find their faith changed beyond recognition.

In both cases, the criticism relies on one group — well-meaning Muslims, naïve liberals, Muslims who want to integrate too much, liberals who accept too much in the name of respecting cultures — being tricked by the other.

The extreme version of this is to believe that liberalism and Islam are inherently incompatible — something that reactionaries on both the left and the right actually do believe.

But in fact, the idea of groups coming together, which may have differing views about how a future society should be organized, is the basis of politics itself.

The broad coalition of ideologies that make up the left today have different conceptions of what an idealized society would look like. Yet they agree on the political task of removing structural inequality and injustice today.

Liberals are willing to postpone the creation of tomorrow’s society until tomorrow; the more urgent task is fixing what is immediately and apparently wrong with society today. (Conservatives, as the label suggests, adopt a mindset that favors conserving what already exists and are more concerned that decisions taken today will change societies tomorrow.)

Once this dangerous period of overt and institutional Islamophobia has passed and the necessary widespread reforms for Black communities in the U.S. has been achieved, I suspect liberals will find their political differences with faithful Muslims and faithful Christians, in the Black community and beyond, magnified.

But those differences will not be insurmountable. There will still be Muslims who fight for liberal issues like abortion and white liberals who are sympathetic to faith being taught in schools. It will become just another political conversation.

The rising progressive wing of the liberal movement — the one so often derided as “woke” — has more in common with Muslim millennials than the previous political generation.

In fact, as the alliance has deepened, the two groups have found much more in common. While there are certainly questions about this alliance between liberals and faithful Muslims, and some on each side eye each other warily, I don’t share the belief that there is anything unusual or uniquely challenging about this political alliance. For one thing, the rising progressive wing of the liberal movement — the one so often derided as “woke,” as if that were a bad thing — has more in common with Muslim millennials than the previous political generation.

The political alliance between the left and Muslim communities that was forged over the Iraq invasion and the war on terrorism was more about Muslims as communities of color than communities of faith. In other words, for liberals, “Muslim” was a useful way of bringing together multiple communities of people from Europe, Asia, and Africa, rather than specifically about uniting around a faith. The war on terrorism lumped all Muslims together regardless of religiosity, so, the logic went, why not bring all Muslims together, regardless of religiosity, to oppose it?

But in the two decades since Sept. 11, both political communities have changed and the center of gravity of their thinking has shifted. A rising generation of liberals now looks at social institutions as the problem. They look at the way hierarchies are constructed — in society, at work, even in relationships — and believe the structures themselves are the problem. The same with schools, banks, the police, and so on. The value systems within these structures are the problem, not the people within them who are incentivized to uphold these values.

That analysis chimes with a changing Muslim political community, too. For Muslim millennials, integration is not the overarching political ambition that it was for a previous political generation. The current political generation of Muslims in the West applies a structural analysis of what is wrong with the world. This is where the overlap occurs. The two groups look at the structures of power and see clear links between the historical crimes of slavery and colonialism, as well as the hierarchies of race, gender, and faith, and the situations in the West and the Muslim world today.

If you wanted to take a specific example to see these intellectual trends more clearly, you could look at the Iraq War.

The political consensus on the left today is that 2003 was an illegal invasion. Whereas the generation that opposed the Iraq War was furious about the “illegal” part — angry that there was a march to war without democratic consent — the rising generation is more concerned with the “invasion” part. By what right, they wonder, does one country get to invade another — regardless of military power, democratic votes, or resolutions at the United Nations?

Theirs is a structural analysis of political competition. They look at the Iraq War and see not an America rushing to take political action heedless of consequences but an America grown rich through slavery, ruled by a small political class of white men, exercising power through a global system fashioned to privilege a small group of countries. Whether you agree with that analysis, the logics of power that were, to some degree, taken for granted are now being interrogated.

This structural analysis also encompasses the role of faith. If public displays of religiosity are rising among young Muslims — which they appear to be, although it is still very difficult to parse clearly — that is likely not merely a response to Islamophobia but also a reaction to this structural analysis.

Whereas a previous political generation wanted to integrate into Western society but still retain some aspects of their culture and faith, a rising generation asks, “But why can I retain only some aspects in order to integrate? Why can I not celebrate all aspects of my culture and faith and still be integrated?”

That’s what the Muslim community is moving toward, and it’s why public displays of faith are becoming much more common at the exact moment when those displaying them are so thoroughly integrated.

Once increasing faith in public life is understood as the result of a structural political analysis, rather than simply Muslims wanting to display their faith, then it becomes clear that a wider movement is taking place, one that Western European liberals will most likely be uncomfortable with.

Progressive liberals are upending some of the distinctions long thought to be immovable. As that movement shifts from analyzing hierarchies in society, work, and relationships to hierarchies in politics, some of the questions that were taken for granted will be upended.

One of those questions will be about the role of faith in public life, or, to say it more specifically, what exactly counts as the display of faith in public life. As religion shifts from being something about the afterlife to being something about culture in this earthly life, there will be a shift in what counts as the display of faith in public life.

This shift has already taken place with the Christian right in America, where the public declaration that you are a Christian has more to do with your display of morality in this vale of tears than in what you believe happens after. There is also a nationalist element to it, as religion becomes embroiled in wider culture wars. That shift, I believe, will continue among liberals, not from a religious angle but from a cultural one. Faith will be seen more as a display of culture, and the left will celebrate displays of that culture. The net result will be that faith becomes much more a part of the public conversation.

For European liberals, or those uncomfortable with too much faith in public life, that will be a surprise, a shock, and indeed an adjustment. In the same way that the formerly rigid hierarchies of gender or sexuality were broken and it has become acceptable, indeed esteemed, to publicly situate yourself anywhere along that spectrum, so the formerly rigid hierarchy of being “of faith” or not will be broken — with the result that there will be much more conversation about religion in public life. What that might mean for political discussion and political compromise is hard to guess.

In Europe and on the American left, faith has for decades been pushed to the margins. The culture wars in America, and Washington’s wars abroad, will bring them back to the center.

You can listen the full podcast episode with Mustafa Akyol and Faisal Al Yafai here

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