Peter Skerry is a professor of political science at Boston College and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is completing a book about Muslims in American society and politics.
By: Peter Skerry
January 23, 2020
As the impeachment of President Donald Trump lurches ahead, many of us marvel at the support he continues to enjoy from white evangelical Protestants. In the late 1970s I met with scores of such individuals in their homes and churches to learn about the Christian schools to which they were sending their children. Widely dismissed as “segregation academies,” their tax-exempt status as religious institutions was being challenged by the Carter administration, whose policy helped launch the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Nevertheless, I vividly recall the reservations expressed by many such Christians about the looming presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan, whose career in Hollywood and divorce from actress Jane Wyman greatly troubled them (see Peter Skerry, “Christian Schools versus the I.R.S.”).
Well, we’ve come a long way, baby! Not only did white evangelicals overcome their concerns about Reagan, but today they are a critical component of the base for a president who is not only twice-divorced but who remains unapologetic about his promiscuous sexual career and even boasts about it. And Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, is one of several evangelical leaders rallying around Trump in the wake of a controversial editorial criticizing the president in Christianity Today, the monthly founded by Billy Graham. With the Iowa caucuses looming in early February, there is little reason to believe there’s been much change from the results of this fall’s “American Values Survey,” which concludes that “white evangelical Protestants express strikingly different opinions about the president, compared to all other religious groups” (emphasis added). While majorities of other groups agree that “President Donald Trump has damaged the dignity of the presidency,” nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants do not.
Far less surprising is the intensely negative response to Trump from Muslim Americans. Both as candidate and as chief executive, Trump has gone out of his way to dismiss, denigrate, and discriminate against the sensitivities and interests of fellow citizens adhering to one of the world’s great religions.
What is surprising, even stunning, is what Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) said at a reception of her supporters in January 2019. On the very day she was sworn into office as one of the first Muslim women to become a member of Congress, as well as the first Palestinian-American woman to do so, Rep. Tlaib gleefully shared the reassurance she had given to her young son: “Baby, we’re going to impeach the @#$%&!!”
I have no doubt that many, probably most, Muslims believe Trump should be impeached. I am equally certain that still more Muslims find such foul-mouthed language, especially coming from a highly visible leader in a public forum, jarring and offensive, and even more outrageous coming from a Muslim woman speaking as a mother. In the current environment it would naïve to expect Muslim-American leaders to express openly their disapproval of Tlaib’s choice of words. To my knowledge, virtually none have. Nevertheless, this episode does suggest how Muslims in America may be assimilating to a culture—a thoroughly American culture—that is not just alarmingly uncivil, but crude and debased.
To be sure, no one should expect Muslims to be immune from political opportunism and hypocrisy. But to a non-Muslim who since 9/11 has met with and gotten to know scores of Muslims here in America as well as overseas, Rashida Tlaib’s comportment is particularly striking. On this and subsequent occasions, her language and demeanor have not just partaken of the in-your-face style of contemporary American culture and politics. They have also transgressed basic Islamic norms about the importance of proper manners and character development.
The point was recently summed for me by an imam whom I’ve known for a few years: “Islam is really all about manners.” The distinctive way that Muslims tend to conduct themselves was something I became aware of when I first started meeting with them in mosques, Islamic schools, and conferences. I’m not talking merely about female modesty, including reluctance or polite refusal to shake my hand. I have in mind the air of friendly formality with which many Muslims—men as well as women, especially but not exclusively immigrants—present themselves and deal with business associates, colleagues, and inquisitive social scientists, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.
I initially attributed such behavior to the norms of the socioeconomic strata in which Muslim immigrants were raised overseas. But after a particularly raucous graduation ceremony at an Islamic school in suburban Chicago, complete with foghorns blasted by enthusiastic parents and family members, I began to understand how Islamic norms were at least in part a response to aspects of Arab culture that were decidedly more expressive than what I had observed in more formal, non-familial settings.
And then from Muslim-American leaders like Dr. Souheil Ghannouchi, former executive director of the Muslim American Society and author of Muslim American Renaissance Project: Answering the Call Of God and the Country and Inspiring Change, I learned that the Prophet Muhammad once summarized his mission thus: “I was sent but to perfect good manners.”
Yet in Islam, manners are hardly mere conventions that members of society have found convenient to observe and enforce. The Jordanian Islamist Marwan Ibrahim Al-Kaysi makes this point in Morals and Manners in Islam, where he highlights William Graham Sumner’s focus on the unintended, unforeseen, almost serendipitous nature of the processes by which norms and values come to be adopted and taken for granted. In contrast, Al-Kaysi emphasizes that “Islamic manners and customs are not in this sense ‘unconscious’. They are derived from the two main sources of Islam, namely the Quran and the Sunnah, the Prophet’s deeds, words, and indirect commandments, and are therefore, in the strictest sense, divinely inspired.”
In Politics of Piety, her study of an informal women’s prayer group meeting in the shadows of a government-supervised mosque in Cairo, feminist anthropologist Saba Mahmood highlights still another aspect of the practice of Islam. The group in question is made up of highly devout women pursuing the strictest observance of prayer rituals—something that, as Mahmood points out, is viewed by many feminists as oppressive and inimical to Rawlsian valorization of the unencumbered, autonomous individual. Against this view, Mahmood argues that the pietistic women she observed “viewed socially prescribed forms of conduct as the potentialities, the ‘scaffolding’ . . . through which the self is realized.”
Invoking Aristotelian ethics, Mahmood highlights how these women sought to develop habits conducive to prayer, which in turn emulates the Prophet’s exemplary life. As she emphasizes, these women did “not assume that the desire to pray is natural, but that it must be created through a set of disciplinary acts. That is to say, desire in this model is not the antecedent to, or cause of, moral action, but its product.” In this same vein, Mahmood argues that “choice is understood not to be an expression of one’s will but something one exercises in following the prescribed path to becoming a better Muslim.”
As a Roman Catholic raised in the pre-Vatican II world of meatless Fridays and High Masses on Sunday mornings, I find a great deal of intuitive sense in Mahmood’s insight that for the pietistic women in her study “exteriority is a means to interiority.” But in an era when identity politics is the norm and individual self-expression is the summum bonum, such traditional Islamic values are embattled and endangered. And in certain respects, they may also be dysfunctional.
None of this is news to Muslim-American leaders, who have been wrestling with these dilemmas for decades. To varying degrees, these leaders have come to realize that while some practices will change, many others must not. But to my knowledge, few, if any, have publicly expressed concern about the bad manners exhibited by one of the first Muslim women to serve in the Congress of the United States.