A frank discussion needs to be had about the legitimate Islamic Right, namely religious Muslims who are politically and socially conservative but not Islamists. Too often, religious Muslims and Islamists get lumped together in the same category, but in reality, opposing Islamism is about opposing a political ideology, not just conservative views.
Extremism is about politics, not faith. The difference between an Islamist extremist and a regular Muslim religious person is whether they see their faith as a totalitarian political solution, not how religious they are.
Unless countering Islamism draws a firm line there, it will consistently exclude the reasonable Islamic right.
The Religious Islamic Right
Theological differences aside, religious people from the Abrahamic faiths share more social and political beliefs than they disagree with, namely, the values of social conservatives.
Social conservatives hold a set of views about how societies should be arranged. These views prioritize community over individualistic loneliness, conservation over consumerism, and tradition over novelty. Above all, they prioritize marriage and the home.
There is nothing unique to what is sometimes called the “Judeo-Christian” tradition about these views. They are just as prevalent in Islam among religious Muslims.
For example, according to a 2013 cross comparison of religious attitudes on abortion conducted by PEW, the Islamic position on abortion is on par with the theological views of Christianity and Judaism. Most Islamic theologians view it very negatively, although it is permissible up to four months.
Regarding dating, the views are also similar. Religious Muslim families in America have been known to use informal networks of aunts and grandmothers to secure dates that might lead to marriage for young men and women too pious to date casually.
This is very similar to the shidduch system of Orthodox Jews. It’s also something that a lot of Christian conservatives, many of whom frown on modern sexual norms, might find more appealing for their own children.
For these reasons, a lot of Muslims used to vote Right wing. A 2001 Zogby poll, quoted by The Atlantic in a piece titled “How the GOP Won and Then Lost the Muslim Vote,” indicated that 42% of American Muslims voted for Bush, as opposed to 32% for his opponent Al Gore.
If Right-wing people view expression of these sorts of views as extremist when displayed by Muslims, but as laudable when displayed by members of their own faith, that is holding Islam to a different standard.
Of course, we are not talking about the cases where such religious systems become oppressive and involve coercion, restricting personal freedoms or even violence, it is unacceptable. Culture is never an excuse for abuse. But where there is no abuse, these attitudes are simply conservative.
What About Sharia?
Islam is not like Christianity. Sharia is a total code for life which draws on the rich Islamic tradition of scholarship to guide daily conduct. Although there are many different opinions on what sharia is, most Muslims agree that it is very important.
However, the point that Islamic Right differs from the Islamists is that the Islamic Right does not agree that sharia should become the law of the land – either at this time or even in the future.
Granted, many Muslims who are deeply religious may feel in theory that a global caliphate which implements sharia would be the best system of government. There’s just the “small matter” of who would be the caliph, and how to ensure the judges and administrators are decent people devoted to truth and justice, and not power hungry lunatics.
In order for them to pledge allegiance to a particular caliph, they would have to see some pretty clear evidence that this guy was in fact acting with the authority of Allah.
Evidence such as the coming of the mahdi, an Islamic messianic figure, and direct intervention by supernatural forces would be such indications.
In the meantime, they are content to live normal lives, follow their interpretation of sharia privately and live within under a democracy and secular law.
In fact, such views do not differ from those of religious Christians and Jews who also look to a future where the world will be run according to the “kingdom of God.”
Other religious Muslims would go further still and argue that sharia should never be imposed as state law.
Politics Not Faith
It is difficult to gauge accurately how many Muslims hold these views. What can be determined is which ideologies are dangerous and abusive and which are not.
The point is that it is unreasonable to expect Islam, alone among world religions, to cut off and excise its religiously conservative component to appease anxious non-Muslims.
If social-conservatism is a vital and necessary part of the national political conversation (and it is), then Muslims have just as much right to express that through their faith as anyone else.
What is reasonable is to highlight where that conservatism goes too far. The line, as always, is where it starts aggressing on someone else’s rights.
Any political ideology which seeks to impose religious conservatism as state law is the problem. It’s one thing to prefer the hijab for personal and spiritual reasons for yourself. To try and force others to wear it is something completely different.
In the meantime, barring any coercive circumstances, the “Judeo-Christian” conservative Right should open their doors to the Islamic Right — Muslims who share the same values as they do — instead of pushing them into alliances with the Left.