Most people, especially most religious people, are not aware that they are not living in a vacuum. They aren’t aware that their words and actions are politically charged, or of the wider implications and interpretational consequences. They think they are just being religious. They think they are just being religious and living their lives even when they are involving this in politics. When a Christian says that something political is against their religion and therefore it is wrong for everyone, they are not really intending for it to sound like what it sounds like to me. Even if it is something really, really oppressive. They are not thinking about what it means. They are not saying what they are with the intention that I believe they have. Because they don’t have that intention except for themselves (even if it sounds like otherwise), which is exactly why they’re not thinking about it. Because they don’t have that intention in the first place.
And when we are talking about Muslims, there isn’t just this blind. There is a double.
When I was in the fifth grade–after 9/11 (that is sort of how I sort out my life in those early years, I’ve realized, everything happened either before or after 9/11)–my mosque hosted an event at which it invited non-Muslims. It was sort of like a small quiet party. And the speaker, in all his good intentions, said something along the lines of, “The U.S. Constitution is a lot like shari’ah law.”
Of course that didn’t quite translate with the guests. There he was, the poor man, standing on the stage with an affectionate look and behind me the guests were shifting uncomfortably in their seats and silently exchanging panicked glances. I was 11. I rolled my eyes and turned around and called, “He doesn’t mean what you’re thinking!”
He meant of course shariah law according to the Qur’an, in which non-Muslims are not ruled by the laws of Muslims. In which, essentially, there is a distinction between what is required by religion and those who do not follow it, and it is understood that one cannot make compulsory something that is a part of a religion that another person doesn’t follow. This philosophy is extracted most specifically from this verse:
There is no obligation in religion. (Quran 2:256)
The verse is quoted by Muslims very often. (Of course you will never hear it reported as often as the “violent” verses even though it is used exponentially more often.) In fact it is so critical in Islamic discourse that it is embedded in very sermon, every lecture. “As Muslims we do not drink.” “As Muslims we give charity.” “As Muslims we should help the victims of the drought.” Meaning of course, that non-Muslims are not obliged. Nothing is absolute. You will rarely hear simply, “We should help the victims of the drought.”
This does several things: on the good side, not only does it promote religious virtue by constantly reminding Muslims who they are but it emphasizes that non-Muslims are not bound to these principles.
On the flipside, unfortunately, it also contributes to rendering the other as exactly that–the Other. Of course they’re not obliged to help victims of the drought! Barbarians! What else do you expect from a bunch of heathen non-Muslims? Uncivilized, only bound to the primary sphere of morality, unenlightened!
The point is (before I derail more than I have already) when reporters quote a Muslim saying things like, “The U.S. Constitution is a lot like shari’ah law,” they have no idea that this Muslim means, “There is no obligation in religion.” It’s twice as bad as when a Christian goes on and on about things they mean politically but don’t really mean politically.
Well, you know. Except for the War on Women.