Bernie Sanders And The Mirage of Religious Freedom

Can religious freedom tolerate Islam?

Is the view that only Christians can go to Heaven an expression of islamophobia? Or is it just a basic tenet of (many denominations of) Christianity? Or is it both?

Last week, Bernie Sanders opposed President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought. His opposition was predicated on specific theological views Vought expressed that Sanders characterized as bigoted and islamophobic. One year prior, Vought argued that, according to Christian doctrine, Muslims are theologically deficient and “stand condemned.”[1]

The politics of this episode do not matter as far as I am concerned. What matters to Muslims is understanding what is considered to be the line between acceptable belief and unacceptable bigotry.[2]

The Mirage of Plurality

Interestingly, several notable American Muslim organizations echoed Sanders in urging the Senate Budget Committee to oppose confirmation of Vought, citing his theological views and denouncing them as islamophobic.[3] As a member of the same American Muslim community that these Muslim organizations represent, I am concerned about such denunciations.

The concern is simple. If Christians can be attacked, disqualified, marginalized, and condemned for their theological views, then so can Muslims and, as it turns out, many central beliefs of Islam would be and are considered by many Americans to be sheer bigotry in some shape or form.[4]

We have to take a step back and look at the bigger implications of debates like this. In the fallout of Sanders’ statement, both left wing and right wing groups found his position incorrect.[5] [6] To demand that Christian politicians and government officials believe that Muslims are eligible for Heaven is tantamount to imposing a religious test, and that would be a violation of religious freedom, where both the left and the right hold religious freedom to be a sacred tenet of secular democracy. Sanders was wrong because Sanders imposed his standard of acceptable belief on others and that is a violation of freedom of religion and conscience. Open and shut case.

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But what is being ignored is the larger question of how the notions of bigotry and discrimination can very easily be used and are being used to attack certain religious beliefs. This is a question that has far reaching implications for the very notion of separation of church and state itself.

To get a more solid sense of what is at stake, consider these concrete questions: Would Bernie Sanders support a Muslim nominee who believed that same-sex acts and relationships are sinful and a crime in the eyes of God? Would Sanders support a Muslim nominee who believed that only men and not women can serve in imam positions and lead prayers? Would Sanders support a Muslim nominee who believed (and frequently testified) that all religions other than Islam are categorically false and that there are no gods other than Allah?

These are just some basic established tenets of Islamic belief and practice, but they are seen as homophobic, misogynistic, and intolerant views worthy of condemnation and scorn as far as certain increasingly vocal factions in the West are concerned, factions that are found on both the political right and left.[7]

The Mirage of Privacy

The unavoidable conclusion is that insofar as a “free” and “healthy” society is one that minimizes the acceptance of “hateful” and “discriminatory” views such as these, then that society ipso facto must marginalize or otherwise curb certain religious beliefs. And it is important to note that none of these beliefs have to be public. They could all be privately held. In the case of Vought, imagine if he had not made any public statement about Muslims but nonetheless, at the hearing, Sanders directly asked him what he thought about Islamic theology. Could Vought express his private beliefs in that scenario? Or would he have to lie in order to avoid Sanders’ disapproval?

As far as Sanders is concerned, he is trying to determine whether Vought is a bigot and being a bigot does not require public pronouncement of bigoted views. We can certainly see this (to a limited degree) when it comes to anti-black racism. The billionaire Donald Sterling was rightly ousted from his position as owner of his professional basketball team, not because he privately expressed racist views to his girlfriend, but because he was a racist.[8] The erstwhile CEO of Mozilla Firefox, Brendan Eich, was ousted from his position, not because he donated to a campaign in opposition to same-sex marriage, but because he was a “homophobe.”[9] In other words, even if beliefs deemed bigoted go unexpressed and are carefully hidden in the furthest recesses of one’s mind, in a realm as “private” as possible, one is still liable for those beliefs in a secular state. And we can even imagine technology that could be invented for the purpose of rooting out “hateful” beliefs that people might be concealing in order to discover all the bigots and expose them to utmost social and political, if not legal, sanction.

Even without technology, “heathens” can be sniffed out. Consider how just recently the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic party, Tim Farron, was essentially forced to resign because of his Christian beliefs on abortion and homosexuality. For years, Farron had been very careful in keeping his beliefs on these issues private and maintaining that his religious perspective would not interfere with his public, political support for “reproductive and LGBT rights.” But that was not enough assurance for the thought police, as he faced incessant pressure to express his true views on the matter. Once it became clear that Farron had less than full-throated enthusiasm for abortion and homosexuality, his fate was sealed.[10]

The Mirage of Secularity

Those who defend Sanders’ line of questioning argue that it is legitimate to interrogate private beliefs because private beliefs can have public consequences in the form of one’s public actions. And, of course, public actions matter for those seeking public office.[11] That is a very plausible line of reasoning, but it is also one that completely undermines the principle of separation of church and state. Consider a simple scenario: If I am a Muslim living in a secular democracy, I should be concerned about a Christian becoming a legislator because, even if this Christian lawmaker vows to uphold a secular neutrality in his work and to keep his private beliefs out of office, nonetheless those beliefs will inherently affect who he is, what he thinks about the world, what he sees as right and wrong, and, ultimately, what he decides to do in his job. As such, there is a non-negligible probability that he will pursue legislation that I will either fundamentally disagree with given that we are coming from two different religious traditions or that might even negatively impact me in my life as a believing Muslim. Therefore, as a Muslim and a rational actor, I would definitely have to bear in mind the private religious beliefs of a Christian running for public office. And a Christian would reasonably have those same concerns about a Muslim politician’s beliefs. It is difficult to see how either line of thought is mistaken much less “islamophobic,” “christianphobic,” bigoted, immoral, and invalid.

In fact, we readily recognize this basic principle when it comes to normative issues seemingly unrelated to religion. If I am a part of the “pro-gun” demographic in the US, all else being equal, I will vote for candidates who share my pro-gun beliefs and oppose those who do not. I support candidates on the basis of shared beliefs because I reasonably assume that those beliefs will translate into actions, namely political actions that directly or indirectly support pro-gun legislation and public policy.

But then, what about any of this changes if my beliefs happen to be “religious” in nature? And, more importantly, who decides what is or is not “religious”? Because if we are willing to accept that “religious” beliefs are uniquely problematic in context of secular governance, then deciding what beliefs are “religious” and which ones are “non-religious” makes a huge difference and whoever is bestowed with the ability to decide either way yields tremendous power.

Case in point: Are Sanders’ universalist beliefs about who is or is not eligible for salvation religious or non-religious in nature? Those supporting Sanders characterize his beliefs as simply anti-discriminatory, with the understanding that anti-discriminatory beliefs are acceptable beliefs to uphold, enshrine in law, and ultimately impose on others in context of secular governance. Those criticizing Sanders, however, characterize his beliefs as inherently religious. According to them, Sanders is subjecting Vought to his particular theological understanding of salvation and that is unacceptable in a secular state. In other words, the acceptability of Sanders’ line of questioning crucially depends on whether his beliefs are characterized as religious or not.

Yet, is it not alarming that these important questions concerning religious freedom and the nature of secularism hinge on such subjective and malleable determinations of what is properly described as religious or not? If that is truly what separation of church and state ultimately is predicated on, that should not give much comfort to secularists committed to religious freedom, whether they be on the political right or left.

The Mirage of Liberty

The core of the problem according to legal and religious scholar Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is that the relationship between the law and religion fundamentally depends on a coherent and analytically sound definition of religion itself.[12] But then, who has the authority to provide such a definition? Attorneys, judges, legislators, and other legal officials are not religious scholars or otherwise in a position to opine on spiritual matters on any given religion, let alone all of them. And even if they were religious scholars, they would have to base their legal and governmental decisions on their personal understandings, which others might not view as religiously correct. In short, defining religion in a neutral yet robust way is a practical, if not theoretical, impossibility, and without such a definition, the guarantee of religious freedom has little substance.

To make matters more fraught, the fogginess of both the concepts of religion and discrimination makes it easy for certain political factions in secular democracies to target those with opposing beliefs. In the US, the charges of homophobia and misogyny have been used to great effect in legislating and adjudicating against conservative Christian business owners on the issues of same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, respectively.[13] In Canada, the now infamous “anti-hate” pronoun bill requires individuals to respect the “pronoun preferences” of the transgendered, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs about transgenderism, gender fluidity, etc.[14]

(Of course, the left does not have a monopoly on restricting religious belief and practice. The political left typically appeals to anti-discrimination and anti-misogyny in their effort to disenfranchise certain beliefs and practices, whereas the political right appeals to national security and public safety against “foreign ideologies.” The dubious reasoning, of course, is that putting restrictions on an “ideology,” or what the powers that be have labelled as an “ideology,” such as socialism, black liberationism, or islamism, does not contradict religious liberty.)

As far as Muslims are concerned, we can see an analogous dynamic play out in secular states throughout Europe and increasingly North America. Whenever political groups in these nations want to attack Muslims and Islamic law, they cite discrimination and bigotry (or national security or the preservation of national identity, depending on the country and political group in question).[15] For example, much of the justification used for the various hijab ban proposals in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and elsewhere is that hijab is inherently discriminatory against women.[16] Proposed bans on the Quran are justified on the basis that the Quran is “hateful” towards other religious traditions.[17] Islamic law as a whole is opposed because, among other things, within Sharia are “homophobic” condemnations of same-sex acts.[18] The call to prayer (adhan) is banned because it includes discriminatory statements against the gods of other religions (e.g., “There is no god except Allah).[19] The building of new mosques is also opposed because, among other things, Muslim prayer arrangements that separate men and women are seen as discriminatory to women.[20]

Some claim that the anti-Islam laws and policies in these countries are contrary to religious freedom. In reality, they are perfectly conformant with the ideals of religious freedom because it is understood that secular systems of law must promote the public good and ensure the legal rights of all even if it comes at the expense of the religious freedom of some, where discrimination is taken to be contrary to the public good. Of course, what is or is not rightly deemed discriminatory depends on what are taken to be legal rights, and that is a question that is in constant flux, punctuated every few years, in the US at least, with landmark Supreme Court decisions.[21]

What is crucial to note is that once specific anti-discrimination laws and policies go into effect, they have a significant impact on Muslim understandings of their own religion. Muslims shudder to think that their own religion is bigoted, racist, or misogynistic. To avoid that designation, Muslims will point to those “problematic” aspects of their faith and eventually, in one way or another, excise them from what they consider correct Islamic theology.

“Islam does not discriminate against people who want same-sex relationships,” it is argued. “Those doctrines that indicate otherwise are just homophobic interpretations that have been imposed on our LGBT-affirming faith!”[22] “Islam does not discriminate against women in prayer,” it is asserted. “Those doctrines that say women should pray behind men and that men’s and women’s spaces in the mosque should be separate are just patriarchal distortions that have been imposed on the Muslim community and have no basis in revelation!”[23] “Islam does not discriminate against religious minorities or preach salvific exclusivity,” it is declared. “Those theological views to the contrary are just medieval manifestations of base tribalism!”[24]

Muslims might debate the plausibility of any of these claims (hopefully not seriously). What cannot be denied, however, is how the secular state’s legal conception of discrimination significantly impacts Muslim belief and, in anthropological terms, actively constructs Muslim subjects who modify their religious doctrines and practices in order to bring them into conformity with dominant cultural and institutional structures. Christians, of course, face the same pressures, though not quite to the same extent given how much Christian tradition and history has influenced Western culture writ large.

The Mirage of Neutrality

Much more can be said and cited on conceptual difficulties surrounding the notion of religious freedom and its role in secular law and the lives of believers. But one takeaway that is relevant to Muslim faith in these trying times is that the idea of secular religious freedom is not a straightforward value that one either accepts or rejects.

This is important to recognize because Islamic civilization (past and present) and Islamic law are viciously and incessantly criticized for lacking a healthy respect for religious freedom in contrast to modern Western civilization and secular law. This creates doubts in the minds of many Muslims about the morality and basic humanity of their religion. The reality, in the phrasing of academics like Talal Asad, is that Islamic law creates spaces where certain expressions of plurality of belief and practice are allowed while restricting that plurality in other spaces.[25] But so does every other system of law, including the liberal secular ones that claim to uphold religious freedom.

Law by its nature is restrictive in its allowance and disallowance of certain human behaviors and beliefs. As philosopher Stanley Fish plainly put it, “How can a law that refuses, on principle, to recognize religious claims be said to be neutral with respect to those claims?”[26] The only question is, which kinds of recognitions or lack thereof are considered legitimate. This is first and foremost a metaphysical question that requires appealing to values and normative commitments that may not be “religious” per se, in the sense of flowing from one of the commonly recognized traditional religions like Christianity and Islam, but nonetheless is metaphysical and evaluative in essence. As I and others have noted elsewhere, liberal secularism lacks the language and the conceptual resources to sustain a robust debate on that metaphysical level and so has to resort to smuggling in such commitments under the guise of promoting and maintaining “liberty” and “equality” and curtailing “hate” and “discrimination.”[27] [28]

Recognizing and understanding these basic points can do a great deal towards dissolving Muslim doubts. It also provides Muslims in the West a more realistic picture of how their faith can be impacted and even manipulated by the larger forces of the secular state, a picture undistorted by the rosy yet hollow assurances of religious freedom.

Ultimately, Muslims in the West should internalize the fact that even though the law of the land has no concern for the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, the secular god is invoked and his commandments are written into law and his doctrines are imposed on all. And if he decides that Muslims should stop wearing hijab or that no more mosques should be built or that no more children should be circumcised or that no more halal meat should be sold, etc., etc., then those decisions will be enacted despite the hymns of “religious freedom” sung in the holy temples of the divine secular godhead.

The Mirage of Frailty

So what should Muslims do with this newfound understanding? What is the practical takeaway? Recognizing reality, of course, is in itself a boon and even if there were no other “practical” implications, the mere knowledge that something is a deceptive mirage has transformative impact for a Muslim’s state of mind and heart, not unlike how realizing that the worldly life (dunya) is not the permanent abode it appears to be propels the believer to new heights of spiritual awareness.

Beyond that, a couple of practical points do come to mind. First, Muslims in the West must come to grips with the fact that their religion is under intense scrutiny from committed secularists on both sides of the political aisle. In the US, for example, the right wing has ramped up “anti-Sharia” activism.[29] The primary claim they make is that Muslims who accept Sharia are extremists. This is because the Sharia prescribes, among other things, hudud punishments and is, in general, at odds with and anathema to certain “modern” values.[30] Having established that, it is then easy to argue that Muslims as a whole are a threat to national security and Western civilization and culture.

What makes the situation dangerous for Muslims is that the left, which recently has been keen to defend Muslims in terms of civil rights, is not willing to defend the Sharia. In fact, when push comes to shove, the left has shown a willingness to join the right in demanding, or at least pressuring, Muslims to denounce those provisions of the Sharia they find objectionable in terms of sexual ethics, women’s rights, salvific exclusivity, etc.[31] These dynamics are clear when one observes the views prominent Muslim activists and academics aligned with the left express on these shar`i topics, most notably their endorsement of same-sex marriage and the same-sex “lifestyle,” their enthusiasm for “trans rights,” their denouncements of gender separation, and their heterodox positions on many other well-established facets of the Sharia.[32]

At this point, the Muslim community in the West should, as a practical matter, be concerned about whether or not the Sharia as a normative and aspirational ideal can survive this onslaught and be preserved for their descendants. It is indubitably true that certain prescriptions of the Sharia are not, according to the Sharia itself, immediately operationalizable or even applicable to the contemporary Muslim community living in non-Muslim states. But, that does not mean that those particular prescriptions should be excised or otherwise censored, much less denounced. The Sharia has been transmitted in its entirety for 1400 years, generation after generation, and as soon as it reaches our generation, we as a community resort to hacking away at some of its most well-established provisions because we happen to find ourselves in a position of global political weakness at this moment in history? Is this what we want to leave for future generations to inherit?

In the face of this dire situation, we must not relinquish our grip on the Sharia, even though this may be akin to clutching a burning hot coal. As far as our political discourse is concerned, we can also push back against the external pressure by insisting that Muslims have had a long history of living under non-Muslim rule and their commitment to the Sharia was not an impediment to peaceful coexistence. But contrary to liberal secular delusions of grandeur, this coexistence was not due to the beneficence of religious freedom, but due to the fact that the Western world has been a fairly religious place relative to what it has become in the past three or four decades. Western civilization and culture has historically accommodated God’s law, or at least the concept of God’s law, even if, in practice, God’s law meant little for actual governance. As Christian scholar John Milbank observes, that ethos of respect for Divine mandate could comfortably accommodate the Muslim belief in Sharia, even if it did not accommodate all of its actual provisions.[33] But times have changed and in the postmodern world, the thought of a person being even nominally committed to God’s law is an affront to humanity. If Islam is going to survive in the West in any meaningful form, Western Muslims must resist these pressures, even if only in their hearts.


End Notes

[1] Green, E. (2017, June 08). Bernie Sanders’s Religious Test for Christians in Public Office. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from
[2] I have written on the topic of religious freedom and secularism elsewhere
[3] CAIR National expressed its position on its official Facebook page. Other American Muslims groups, e.g., Muslim Advocates, expressed similar positions, as cited by NPR.
[4] To follow this line of thought, read the argument forwarded by Ismail Royer.
[5] Davidson, J. D. (2017, June 14). Bernie Sanders Doesn’t Think Christians Are Fit For Public Office. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[6] Green, E. (2017, June 08). Bernie Sanders’s Religious Test for Christians in Public Office. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[7] Beinart, P. (2017, April 11). When Conservatives Oppose ‘Religious Freedom’ Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[8] Golliver, B. (2014, April 26). NBA investigating Clippers owner Donald Sterling for alleged racist comments. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[9] Lopez, T. (2014, April 04). We Shouldn’t Forgive Brendan Eich for His Homophobic Past—Yet. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[10] Ahmari, S. (2017, June 15). Liberalism: Believers Need Not Apply. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[11] Zogby, J. (2017, June 10). Sanders Is Right. Russell Vought’s Nomination Should Be Rejected. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[12] Sullivan, W. F. (2007). The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
[13] Koppelman, A. (2012). Gay Rights, Religious Accommodations, and the Purposes of Antidiscrimination Law. Southern California Law Review,88(619), 619-660. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674067561
[14] Bill C-16. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[15] The threat of “Islamic terrorism” has been the justification most often cited to attenuate Muslim legal rights in both the West and in many Muslim countries, but the plausibility of this line of reasoning, at least in part, depends on demographics. Most policy makers are forced to recognize that only a miniscule percentage of any Muslim population is inclined to violent extremism, and that percentage is typically smaller than what is found in the average population. Given this limitation, anti-Muslim, anti-Islam polemics in popular media outlets seem to have shifted in recent years to focusing on how Islamic law is contrary to liberal values of freedom, tolerance, sexual autonomy, etc.
[16] Murray, T. (2013, June 26). Why feminists should oppose the burqa. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[17] PETITION: The Quran to be removed from sale in Australia due to Section 18C violations. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[18] Yiannopoulos, M. (2016, June 12). The Left Chose Islam Over Gays. Now 100 People Are Dead Or Maimed In Orlando. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[19] Taylor, B., & Williams, A. (2008, March 13). The Adhan at Harvard | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[20] Richardson, H. (2014, September 22). Why Oppose the Building of a Mosque? Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[21] Sullivan, W. F. (2014). The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[22] Markoe, L. (2016, June 17). Muslim attitudes about LGBT are complex, far from universally anti-gay. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[23] Sanghani, R. (2015, August 11). The truth about ‘patriarchal’ mosques and their women problem. Retrieved June 14, 2017, from here.
[24] Wormald, B. (2013, April 29). Pew: Islam and Interfaith Relations. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[25] Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
[26] Fish, S. (2010, October 25). Serving Two Masters: Shariah Law and the Secular State. Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[27] Haqiqatjou, D. (2017, March 27). Hijab and Sex: Does Islam Respect Free Choice? Retrieved June 16, 2017, from here.
[28] Smith, S. D. (2010). The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[29] Aboubakr, H. (2017, June 18). Where are the Moderate Muslims? Retrieved June 18, 2017, from here.
[30] Wormald, B. (2013, April 29). Pew: Islam and Interfaith Relations. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from here.
[31] Howell, K. (2016, January 16). Bill Maher: ‘Fantasy’ to think Muslim refugees will ‘fit in’ in Western countries. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from here.
[32] Haqiqatjou, D. (2016, June 16). An Open Letter to the Muslim Community in Light of the Orlando Shooting. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from here.
[33] Milbank, J. (2010, August 23). Christianity, the Enlightenment and Islam. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from here.

5 / View Comments

5 responses to “Bernie Sanders And The Mirage of Religious Freedom”

  1. Asad says:

    Great article this is a necessary realization for our Muslim ummah

  2. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for a well-considered, articulate argument/article.

  3. Abdurrahman R. Squires says:

    As far as I know, the majority scholarly opinion is that Muslims are allowed to live in non-Muslim countries as long as they’re allowed to practice their faith openly. So what are Muslims living as religious minorities in the West supposed to do when–and I feel that this day might not be very far away–when saying that homosexual acts are a sin is classified as a hate crime or human rights violation? Or, on top of that, Imams at mosques are bullied by such laws into performing same-sex marriages? When that time comes, will we be required to make Hijra to Muslim (or even non-Muslim) lands where we will still be able to express our religious beliefs openly without being charged with a crime?

  4. Eric S. says:

    Great article! If government is allowed to silence one religious group, it can be used to silence and suppress every religious group.

  5. Omar I says:

    the other thing that scholars never seem to address is the legitimacy of islamic authorities without a caliphate.

    as i understand it, islamically, without a legitimate caliphate, sharia cannot be enforced by anyone except those who are heads of a family or community who have been given consent by the family or community. but this is contingent on the law of the land. i.e. a woman cannot initiate divorce because she consents that authority to the husband, but without an actual legitimate islamic authority, i.e. a caliphate, no external authority can justly enforce sharia. that’s why most muslim governments are a farce, at least as I see it.

    especially things like corporal punishment, it makes no sense that these things are carried out without a legitimate islamic theocracy/caliphate.

    legal rulings that don’t involve punishments are still to be adhered to for the sake of one’s own faith, but punishments for ignoring them cannot be legitimately enforced, at least as far as i understand.

    id appreciate any info on this if anyone has it.

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