Progressive Turn and Conservative Backlash: The New Twist in American-Muslim Politics

Responding to: Finding Faith in Impeachment?

By: Muqtedar Khan

January 23, 2020

For American Muslims, it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times. It is the age of Islamophobia, and it is the age of progressive politics and engagement. It is a time of conservative fears and liberal ascendance. From family values to the defense of civil rights and protection of the environment, American Muslims have become the repository of the best of the American ethos. But the community is also experiencing fissures triggered by the presidency of Donald Trump. This essay reflects on political developments in the American-Muslim community in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency.

President Trump’s impeachment proceedings are dividing some faith communities. Christians are divided over support for his appointment of conservative judges and foreign policy and revulsion at his personal conduct and racist-sexist posture both before and after becoming president. American Jews are divided over his antisemitism on one hand and his unprecedented support for Israel on the other. But American Muslims are more or less united in their rejection of Trump and everything he stands for. Even American Muslims who are Republicans, and are not afraid or ashamed to acknowledge it in public, are revolted by Trump’s hate-mongering and will be happy to see him impeached.

Trump’s campaign in which he accused Muslims of hating America and called for a “Muslim ban” and his multiple efforts to make that ban happen mainstreamed Islamophobia and even made it government policy. Hate crimes against Muslims went up sharply, and experiencing hate speech became a more common occurrence for American Muslims. But these developments also energized and galvanized the community to transform itself. It became more engaged politically, but it took its engagement a few notches up. The American-Muslim community went from mobilizing the vote and financing supportive candidates to actually running for office in unprecedented numbers and winning! Thank you, Donald Trump, for accelerating progress on this front. For someone like me, who has been encouraging the community to engage in politics for decades, this American-Muslim response was beyond thrilling.

The results too have been spectacular. Muslim representation in U.S. Congress went from two to three representatives. The new representatives, Rashida Tlaib from Michigan and Ilham Omar from Minnesota, are both firebrand politicians who have taken on Trump and his policies with such resolve that they have become national and international leaders. Trump supporters hate them; the world loves them. But Muslims have also won many other public offices such as attorney general in Minnesota and seats in both the houses and senates of various states. Abdul El-Sayed also ran for governor of Michigan. El-Sayed lost, but he made Muslim political candidates for high office more acceptable. 

The key to enhanced Muslim political success has been women candidates with progressive agendas. The community’s establishment is recognizing this. In an article arguing that the American-Muslim community is at the center of resistance to the Trump administration, Abbas Barzegar makes a point to emphasize the key role that American-Muslim women are playing. While the enhanced role of women is welcomed enthusiastically, some members of the community are becoming uncomfortable with the progressive nature of this trend. They are worried that the Muslim struggle for social justice and equal rights through political measures is forcing them to compromise on “theological and religious principles” in the name of political expediency. They fear that Muslims are throwing away religion for political gain. Commentators like Ismael Royer argue that the progressive left wants to change Islam itself. This division is growing and may eventually lead to a left-right divide within the Muslim community, similar to earlier divides in Jewish and Christian communities in the United States. 

American Muslims, as I have pointed out for decades, tend to be political liberals and social conservatives. This fault line is now flaring up as the new generation of American Muslims, excited by politicians like Bernie Sanders, are joining the progressive revolution in the Democratic Party. As the Republican Party becomes more and more Islamophobic, influenced by neoconservatives in its foreign policy and by white nationalism in its domestic policies, American Muslims find themselves leaning more and more towards the Democratic Party. But with the left turn comes a social agenda that cuts at traditional Islamic values and conceptions of family and marriage. This problem is becoming a wedge issue in the community.

One manifestation of this tension is over political alignment and association. Omar Suleiman, who is probably now the most prominent Islamic leader in the United States after allegations of sexual misconduct sidelined Nouman Ali Khan and allegations of racism and betrayal took the shine off Hamza Yusuf, felt the need to pen a long article explaining his political views, activism, and political affiliations. He calls for transcending the left-right dichotomy. This might be a safe strategy for those who are not on the ballot, but for those who seek political office or a public role, the path to power at the moment requires a left turn first. Asma Uddin in her recent book, When Islam is Not a Religion, captures the dilemma of conservative religious Muslims like Suleiman: They are demonized by the right and rejected by the left

There are two related issues that are simmering. One is the theological dilemma of how to deal with the growing acceptance of LGBTQ rights. Second is the issue of Muslims aligning politically with those who are themselves part of the LGBTQ community or are supporters of LGBTQ rights. Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, a faculty member in Zaytuna College, along with a reformed jihadist, Ismael Royer, is taking the lead on behalf of the traditional position. You can see in this video how he carefully rejects acceptance of gay Muslims who are not repentant. 

The political issue is the more pressing one, because defeating Donald Trump in November 2020 is critical. Will some Muslims vote for Trump if Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay candidate who wrote a beautiful letter to Muslims, becomes the Democratic nominee? Will some American Muslims vote for Trump because he has made efforts to limit gay rights? I suspect that Hamza Yusuf, who is against same-sex marriage, may have joined a Trump human rights initiative to stem the recognition of new civil rights. Will his supporters follow suit and break from the majority of the community and vote for Trump in 2020? Nearly the entire Democratic Party supports LGBTQ rights, will some Muslims turn away from it because of that and support a party whose leader called for a “Muslim ban”? This is the issue alienating some Muslims from the emerging progressive consensus in the community 

In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, I argued in an article in Al-Jazeera that American Muslims must accept this decision. We cannot fight against Islamophobia on the grounds that we should get the same rights as others under the law and then turn around and promote homophobia denying gay people equal rights under the law. I received some pushback from conservatives, but it was muted and behind the scenes. Then support for gay marriage was at 27% in the American-Muslim community, and now a majority of American Muslims support same-sex marriage. This left turn, from politics to beliefs, is the new wedge, and it is likely to become an important issue in the community in the coming election season and beyond. In my new book, Islam and Good Governance, I advocate that Muslims must allow the Islamic spiritual concept of Ihsan (to do beautiful things) to shape their public philosophy and politics. We shall see if this wedge issue leads to a beautiful outcome or an ugly political brouhaha.

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Progressive Turn and Conservative Backlash: The New Twist in American-Muslim Politics