Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the founder and president of Cordoba House, which aims to establish a compassionate, forward-thinking, and pluralistic American Muslim identity. He has engaged in outreach to moderates of all faith traditions, participating in interfaith dialogue and forging connections of trust and mutual support. He is the author of several books on Islam, including Defining Islamic Statehood: Measuring and Indexing Contemporary Muslim States (2015) and Moving the Mountain: A New Vision of Islam in America (2012).
The title of this forum—Healing Muslim-Christian Relations in the United States—suggests that there is a problem between Muslims and Christians as such in the United States, further suggesting that the problem may inherently be religious.
I dispute this hypothesis.
The proof: There is no conflict between Black Christians and Muslims in the United States or between Muslims and liberal Christian groups. The problem, therefore, is not fundamentally about religion.
When a problem is not accurately identified, we risk wasting a lot of effort trying to solve a “problem” that may not be a problem at all! If accurately identified, the solution is generally forthcoming.
All conflict between two parties arises because of a zero-sum game over something each party values. Most often, the thing fought over is power or something of economic value that one party wants and regards as its rightful share or is afraid of losing.
There is no conflict between Black Christians and Muslims in the United States or between Muslims and liberal Christian groups. The problem, therefore, is not fundamentally about religion.
When one of these groups is denied its desired value based on some differentiating trait of its group identity irrelevant to its claim—such as skin color, race, religion, sectarian or tribal identity, sex or gender—then that issue is seen as the cause of the problem. But it is only the cause of the problem because the more powerful party has prejudicially made it the cause. The solution, therefore, lies in persuading the more powerful party to give up its prejudice.
The problem posed by the subject of this forum is more accurately described thus: A subset of the group that identifies itself as white American (predominantly Protestant) Christians, which throughout U.S. history has shaped American discourse and has dominated all the power and economic centers of American life, is seeing its share of the power and economic pie ineluctably disappearing. This is because of its shrinking demographics, both as a percentage of the overall population and in absolute numbers. Demographic trends predict that by 2040, the majority of Americans under the typical retirement age of 65 will be non-white. This means that in 19 years, the majority of those shaping America—the majority of those in positions of power, whether in government or in the private sector—is projected to be non-white.
Faced with this existential crisis of their dwindling within the time span of a generation and the impending loss of power and its concomitants, white Christians have responded by attacking everything they see as different from them, replacing them, or being a threat to their general self-identity, their beliefs and values: Black Christians, Native American Indians, Muslims, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Latin Americans, non-white immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and even liberal Christian evangelical groups (like Sojourners, founded by Jim Wallis).
Faced with this existential crisis of their dwindling within the time span of a generation and the impending loss of power and its concomitants, white Christians have responded by attacking everything they see as different from them.
Donald Trump capitalized on this existential fear, gave voice to it, and rode this wave of fear all the way to the White House, leading a reprisal of the Confederacy in what we may figuratively call the American Civil War Version 2.0. Until this existential crisis is directly recognized as a problem needing a coherent and positive solution, Trump will continue to have a hold on this demographic. I do not believe that Trump has them in his hold, as much as that this demographic is holding on to Trump for dear life, just as a drowning man will clutch at any hand that reaches out to save him and not care a whit what crimes and offenses the owner of that hand has committed.
We can also frame this problem as a battle between two narrative visions: America as a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant country versus America as a cross-section of the global community, comprising all races, languages, cultures, and religions.
Abraham Lincoln summarized this problem eloquently at his Gettysburg Address in 1863 when he said that the American Civil War was a test whether America, as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can long endure.” The notion that all men are created equal was still a proposition, because it was far from being a reality.
In the twentieth century, America made major strides in realizing this proposition, such as the Civil Rights legislation. At times, America saw itself as a “melting pot” of races and at other times as a “salad bowl” of races. But as intermarriage between races continued, and has continued, the melting pot dynamic continues, while continuing immigration sustains the salad bowl metaphor. Going forward, the American aspirational challenge is how to build a multicultural yet coherent post-racial society that sees itself as one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all—a nation of all its peoples, by all its peoples, for all its peoples.
Going forward, the American aspirational challenge is how to build a multicultural yet coherent post-racial society that sees itself as one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
I believe that this objective is what has contributed to America’s global leadership, as immigrants from all over the world have come to America and contributed to its intellectual, economic, and political leadership.
But the transition and transformation of America’s white majority into a minority needs to be resolved. It may not be too long when an effective version of an “affirmative action plan” for white Americans may be necessary. That, however, is a question for politicians and economists.
On the religious front, Muslims should invoke shared religious values with Christians to positively shape the discourse toward healing.
God commands Muslims to say to the People of the Book, referring to Jews and Christians, “Let us come to a common word between us and you—that we will not worship other than God, not associate any with Him, and not take one another as lords instead of God” (Quran 3:64). This is a clear and unequivocal Divine command to Muslims to seek common ground with Christians.
Translating this command into the American context, we Muslims should therefore call Christians to a series of “Come to Jesus” meetings and work on shaping a common ground that will unite us as believers in the one God whom we both worship. Muslims believe in Jesus and in his message, and his directives are equally directives to us. For God commands Muslims in the Quran, “O you who have believed, believe in God, and His Messenger [the Prophet Muhammad], and the Book that He sent down to His messenger [the Quran], and the Book that He sent down before [the Gospel sent through Jesus Christ]” (Quran 4:136).
We Muslims should call Christians to a series of “Come to Jesus” meetings and work on shaping a common ground that will unite us as believers in the one God whom we both worship.
We both believe that God created humankind in his image—as God’s creatures in Islamic parlance and as God’s children in Christian parlance.
I therefore propose that we perform a paradigmatic shift in how we define our identities, a shift analogous to the shift from an earth-centric paradigm to a heliocentric or sun-centric paradigm. Instead of fundamentally defining ourselves based on our tribal, national, racial, or a plethora of other identities, which are based on our earth-centric physical traits, we should redefine ourselves fundamentally by our spiritually common trait as “images of God,” clothed in differing physical and national traits that are in God’s eyes analogous to wearing different clothes, and learn to see all others as equal “images of God.”
If we accept this as our deepest truth, then in the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of John 8:32, this “deepest truth” shall set us free from the “deepest bondages” of our earth-centric traits that enslave us, admitting us to that vision of a post-racial America that advances the American proposition of “all men being equal.”
I pray that we succeed in this initiative.