Muslims and the Culture Wars: Antagonisms, Alliances and Ideological Considerations in a Complex Social Mosaic

Muslims and the Culture Wars: Antagonisms, Alliances and Ideological Considerations in a Complex Social Mosaic

Caught between the competing narratives of ever increasing toxicity, Muslims, according to Saeed Khan need to be wary of the pitfalls of choosing sides both built on ideas and philosophies that undermine Islamic thinking and aspirations.

The so-called “Culture Wars” are, arguably, as toxic and traumatizing as conflicts involving active combat and military involvement. They tend to divide societies along ideological, religious and political lines of demarcation. These wars often target minority groups as scapegoats and the cause for perceived social strife when the majority population feels anxiety over losing power or because they seek to test their power by asserting it against weaker communities.

Currently, there are manifestations of the culture wars at play in a host of countries, many in the West, but in some cases, spreading to other parts of the world as well. Muslim communities are sometimes designated as the enemy in culture wars of their respective locales, subjecting them to considerable marginalization, discrimination and in some cases, persecution and violence. Yet in other situations, Muslims, though not the direct targets of these processes, find themselves in the vexing position of whether to engage in these debates and social skirmishes. In doing so, they may have to take a stand alongside those with whom they share little ideological commonality, or with those that might seek to cause them harm outside the limited scope of their interaction on the issue at hand. Beyond the ideological quagmires is the question whether it is expedient to engage in the culture wars at all, especially if they don’t directly concern the Muslim community. As the culture wars are pervasive and inescapable, Muslims are facing challenges in many places that are not of their doing, but also not allowing for the ability to avoid them.

The United States is currently in the midst of what is described by observers across the ideological spectrum as a series of culture wars. Depending upon the issue and the advocate, the manifestation of the “war” is framed as an existential threat to American society. Some of the more prominent ones involve gun control and the status of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. It is, as are many of the culture wars, highly polarizing, with conservatives opposing any limitation on their self-professed right to bear arms, irrespective of quantity or the rampant gun-related crimes that infect the country, especially with the incredulous number of mass murders where guns play a central role.

Gun control in America is a cultural issue because Americans, especially gun enthusiasts, regard guns to be a crucial and defining aspect of American culture. It is, interestingly, an issue with which Muslims appear disinterested. While surveys indicate that Muslim Americans overwhelmingly favor reasonable restrictions on guns such as universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons, gun control does not register highly as an issue in which they take an identifiable role in advocacy or activism.

Like gun control, perhaps no single issue in America’s culture wars has been as contentious, divisive or sustained as abortion. Since the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision where the US Supreme Court permitted abortion, subject to some limitations, especially after the point of fetal viability, women in the United States were assured of the notion that they enjoyed an important, constitutionally protected right. All that changed in the summer of 2022 when the Court held that women do not enjoy the fundamental right to privacy which undergirded the protections granted by Roe. In Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Court’s decision was the culmination of a fifty-year effort by anti-abortion forces to overturn Roe.

For Muslims in America, the abortion debate and recent judicial action has evoked both strong reactions as well as confusion. Many traditionally minded Muslims have lauded the Dobbs decision, arguing that abortion is haraam and thus must be proscribed. For others, they take the position that, as with other progressive causes, greater permissibility preserves one’s rights, given the always available option of self-regulation and choice to abstain from asserting such a right. Confusing the issue is the fact that oftentimes, and irrespective of the state where they may reside, the abortion legislation rarely comports exactly to Islamic tenets, which has neither a categorical prohibition nor an unchecked allowance. And as the abortion issue is well dominated by non-Muslim elements in American society, Muslims find themselves engaging with the issue, if they were so inclined to do so, with positions that are more extreme on either side of the divide than they might prefer.

Muslim Americans are sometimes dragged into the culture wars when they are utilized as convenient strawmen in the key public social debates. As conservative elements in the United States are behind promoting legislation designed to permit discrimination of people under the guise of religious freedom, particularly targeting members of the LGBTQ+ community, these same elements have been vociferous in charging Muslims as being the most homophobic segment of society.  However, when Muslims take a prominent public position opposing LGBTQ+ related policies, conservative voices feign solidarity for them. For example, Muslim parents in Dearborn, Michigan, a city with the highest concentration of Arab Muslims in America, have protested the presence of books normalizing same-sex parents and other LGBTQ+ related subject matter in primary school libraries. Similarly, Muslim parents in Montgomery County, Maryland, have lodged their opposition to the ability to opt out of certain curricular programming that teaches about LGBTQ+ matters as normal and acceptable. In both cases, opportunistic conservative politicians and media outlets have praised the Muslim parents for their activism. Of course, Muslim American attitudes on the LGBTQ+ issue are quite diverse. Among young Muslims, support for the LGBTQ+ community tends to mirror that of broader society. Imbued with a sense of social justice, they see the LGBTQ+ community as facing similar challenges of discrimination as Muslims in America and subscribe to the notion that coalition building is essential to combat hate and bigotry wherever it is directed.

The LGBTQ+ issue contentious on an intrafaith level as well. Within the American context, some liberal and progressive Muslim voices have objected to the increasingly vocal and public stance taken recently by well-known Muslim scholars. A letter titled “Navigating Differences” has been circulating via social media and other platforms as a response to various LGBTQ+ related incidents in the United States. The letter, signed by over two hundred prominent religious and community leaders, contends that Muslims have a constitutionally protected right to object to the purported imposition of LGBTQ+ values and materials, especially when they concern school-aged children. Under the pretence of an interpretation of the free exercise of religion clause of the US Constitution’s First Amendment, the signatories argue that Muslims should not be compelled to be exposed to content that is antithetical to their religious teachings and, apparently, religious sensitivities. The timing of this letter appears to coincide with recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the rights of Christian business owners to refuse service to members of the LGBTQ+ community under similar religious objection grounds.

Muslim American voices that have lodged their own objections to the “Navigating Differences” scholars have chosen to do so based upon a series of issues. For some, it is an ideological one, that the posture taken by the letter’s authors and signatories erroneously implies that they speak for the broader Muslim community, many of whose members have differing opinions on engagement with and support for various LGBTQ+ issues. There is also concern and even anger that the letter is a myopic alignment, intentional or not, with the very conservative and right-wing elements of American society who express unambiguous and enthusiastic Islamophobia. These same elements express their enthusiasm and support for Hindutva, while demonizing Palestinians as perennial terrorists. Lastly, there is frustration and skepticism that this particular group of scholars chose to comment on the LGBTQ+ issue but have been silent on a host of other social issues, including racial discrimination, immigration, economic disparities and Islamophobia.

A popular area of contention and asserting difference between Muslim culture and American society is the treatment of women.  Clearly, there are some serious challenges that confront the Muslim community, both in the United States and elsewhere vis-à-vis gender relations and the status of women.  However, for Islamophobes, Muslims are the archetypal misogynists, sexists and chauvinists, to the point of being perpetually and perennially violent toward women. They raise the fear of the impressionable that greater Muslim civic and political empowerment will invariably lead to the subjugation of women in this country – not just Muslim, but all women. Islamophobes contend that the protection of women is a valuable and vital line in the sand to prevent Muslim societal intrusion. At closer examination, however, two points require delineation in the discourse surrounding this issue. The first is that similar to the debate over homosexuality, Islamophobes proffer examples of Muslim attitudes and conduct from outside the United States, not from Muslim-Americans.  In addition, there is a remarkable similarity between conservative (non-Muslim) efforts to limit women’s rights in the United States and the policies and attitudes of the very Muslim countries they cite as a threat of impending Muslim influence in America.

Race often plays a factor in the culture wars. Xenophobia and bigotry otherizes people of colour where discrimination and hostility still present themselves through societal and/or state action. Recently, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States has gained prominence as a protest imperative against systemic racism. A series of killings of African Americans, either by individuals who seemingly acted out of racial prejudice or by law enforcement officials, evoked widespread condemnation among minority and left-leaning elements, especially when it appeared that justice was not fully served, with the perpetrators receiving little to no punishment. The 2020 murder of George Floyd, an African American by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, garnered international publicity. The subsequent conviction of those involved affirmed and amplified the BLM Movement, propelling it into a global phenomenon. Demonstrations were held in many cities around the world, showing solidarity for Floyd, as well as highlighting the racist atmosphere in their own respective locales.

In the United States, the BLM movement became an amalgam of social justice causes, linking itself with both the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) effort and also the LGBTQ+ cause. This broadened coalition attracted a wider range of activists and advocates, some who may have begun their activism more parochially, but ultimately embracing and championing issues beyond their immediate area of focus. It is one of the reasons why a sizable number of Muslim Americans joined the BLM movement, attending and in some cases leading demonstrations in some US cities. They were able to show their support for the BDS movement as well as solidarity with the African American community, including that of Black-American Muslims, as well as burnishing their activist bona fides with support for LGBTQ+ matters. Again, as the BLM movement went global, so too did the expanded construct of causes and their supporters.

Yet, the BLM movement was not without its critics. Some claimed that the BLM movement was a corporatized, bureaucratic and elitist structure that commodified and, in many ways, hijacked what had been at its inception an organic, grassroots imperative against racism that targeted Black Americans. In addition, it was argued by some Muslim voices that the BLM movement’s integration with other social justice efforts was problematic as it demanded offering support for causes that purportedly ran counter to Islamic tenets and teachings, particularly the LGBTQ+ issue. While Black Lives Matter, per se, could and perhaps should be supported, it was contended, the broader BLM coalition ought to be avoided. For many activists, such an admonition was not well received, as they felt they were engaging appropriately in civic matters that concerned their own communities as well as reciprocating support for groups that had shown solidarity with Muslims.

While Muslims are generally at the periphery of the culture wars in the United States, they are the direct and stated enemy in many cultural debates throughout Europe. In part due to the colonial legacy and Europe’s well-honed ethno-chauvinism and bigotry, Muslims endure hatred that is promulgated by both state and society. Much of this animus presents itself in systemic racism as well as attitudes toward immigration. Muslims are often blamed as bringing in an alien, antagonistic element into the European continent, an element seemingly antithetical to the purported values of the West. Recently, the enthusiastic welcome of Ukrainian refugees into the European Union (EU) and Great Britain due to the 2022 Russian invasion of their homeland stands in stark contrast to the hostility and draconian policies directed against Muslims and others of color seeking asylum from conflict and war.

In Great Britain and the EU, public engagement and coalition building is more elusive than it is in the American context. The default presumption among both the ideological left and right In Great Britain is that Muslims are unwilling or incapable of integration, irrespective of systemic and societal barriers to facilitate it. Rare is the occasion where a special interest group will either approach or champion the Muslim community on an issue regarding the so-called culture wars. On the left, there doesn’t appear to be the impetus for non-Muslims to defend Muslims that are under siege by society or state action. In France, for example, the silence among liberal and progressive sectors is deafening and reflects an ironic though unsurprising alignment with the ideological right on this issue, albeit for different reasons. For the left, the hijab bans and erasure of Muslims from the public sphere is due to its insistence to uphold laïcité, as they object to religious expression of any kind, though far less strident in their objections about other faith communities. For the right, conventional xenophobia and racism are deployed in their targeting of visibly observant Muslim women, though strangely, wealthy Gulf Arab women appear to be exempted from scrutiny as they frequent expensive retail outlets in Paris while fully or partially veiled. Muslims are regarded as an existential threat to French society; for the left, it is for their alleged encroachment on secularity, for the right it is their encroachment on Gallic purity.

In France, a woman’s modesty is apparently a cultural threat. Along with hijab and niqab bans, modest swimwear, i.e., the burkini has been banned. Right-wing political parties such as the National Rally (Rassemblement National, or RN, formerly the Front National) have resorted to enacting laws proscribing such apparel being worn in public. The RN has also targeted Muslim schoolchildren, the most vulnerable of an already vulnerable group, haranguing them by demanding schools notify the authorities in case any students took days off from attendance due to observance of Ramadan and/or Eid festivities. Banning the availability of halal meat in school canteens, blocking the construction or expansion of mosques, Islamic schools, even kebab shops are yet other examples of excluding Muslims from public spaces.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that societies may sometimes scapegoat a community while they are on the ascent in economic, military and/or geopolitical power. Nationalism, especially racial or religious nationalism, shapes the narrative to be one of exclusion, not inclusion, of the developing “success story.” Those minorities that can be cleaved from the majority identity are ripe for disenfranchisement as they become an inconvenient and unnecessary component of the “new society,” which operates from the conceit that the majority can and will succeed by itself. Such a project is underway, albeit in Asia, not Europe.

The spectre of culture wars is not limited to the West. The deteriorating condition for Muslims in India is in part framed within the language of culture. The institutionalization of Hindutva, a religio-chauvinistic nationalism, has gained considerable currency and depth over the past decade, particularly since the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. A concerted effort is underway to rewrite the narrative of India, a country that gained its independence in 1947 and that had maintained a delicate balance of secular pluralism among a highly diverse society. Recently, Muslim and Christian minorities have been targeted by rhetoric, policy and violence, both by civil society and by the state, which appears to be either reticent or endorsing of the former in its actions.

While Muslims have been part of Indian society, in some capacity or the other, for nearly 14 centuries, they are regarded as an invasive, alien force in the Hindutva narrative. As descendants of invaders, they are painted as being inauthentic as they are not indigenous to the land or, in the alternate, converts, forced or otherwise, from their original Hindu faith origin. Hindutva extremists offer Muslims two choices: “revert” back to Hinduism or leave India forever.

As with many culture war narratives, majoritarian purity is a common trope. Hindutva detests the purported mongrelization of Indian (read: Hindu) culture, irrespective of how diverse and vibrant it has made India. Inter-marriage, then, is seen as one of the most egregious forms of hybridization. Hindutva zealots frequently accuse Muslims of committing “love jihad,” the intentional mission of plying Hindu girls to form relationships with Muslim boys, ultimately allegedly forcing them convert to Islam to allow marriage to occur. This conceived protection of Hindu women and their honor is a common pretense invoked by cultural chauvinists, ironically so in the case of India, given the rampant rape rates in the country.

Another nefarious ploy to target Muslims in India is the accusation of beef consumption, permissible in Islam, but proscribed for most Hindus. Several Muslims have been lynched to death by so-called “cow vigilantes” that patrol the streets and attack Muslims, often without proof that they have in fact slaughtered a cow. Incidentally, India is one of the world’s largest beef exporters, with the major abattoirs Hindu owned. These details, inconvenient and hypocritical though they may be, are conveniently ignored within the broader culture wars mission to demonize Muslims.

Historical revisionism is underway to diminish or even erase Muslim cultural contribution to India. The music of Amir Khusrow, poetry of Mirza Ghalib, architecture of Taj Mahal and Qutb Minar are all under attack. We saw the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, under the pretense that it was erected on the site of the Lord Ram’s birthplace. Somehow, cultural modalities that not only contributed but also enhanced and defined Indian identity, are now considered inimical to Hindutva India. Christian communities are demonized, as the recent violence in the northeastern Indian town of Manipur demonstrates, because they are seen as the product of European colonizing forces.

Voices among all but a shockingly few in India, as in Europe and the US, are silent or tepid about the erosion of conditions for Muslims in society, and even those who appear to champion Muslim rights must be viewed with a certain modicum of skepticism as to whether they indeed support Muslims or are opportunistically exploiting their plight as a cudgel with which to bash their political opponents. Which poses an interesting and important question: even if Muslims cannot rely upon others defending the violation of their civil rights and civil liberties, are they still obliged, religiously or socially, to defend the violation of such rights and liberties of others?

There are four options for Muslims’ involvement with the culture wars. Each brings with it a balancing act, weighing of costs and benefits for the choice taken, as well as an important presumption that there is no requirement that the community achieve a complete consensus on exercising a single option. Too often, aspersions of malintent and ignorance lead to unnecessary discord and division at a time when the culture wars already place Muslims in the line of fire of other forces and agendas.

Option 1: Align with the “Left”

Muslims may be attracted to aligning themselves with various left-leaning elements within their respective societies. In many cases, these entities tend to be inclusive of groups, especially those that are perceived to be marginalized, victimized and/or targeted by powerful forces of state or society. In the United States, for example, when former President Trump announced and then enacted his so-called Muslim travel ban, suspending entry to the country from various Muslim majority countries, progressive and liberal organizations and individuals joined Muslims to protest the executive order, even facilitating lawsuits to challenge the President’s actions.

The political left also tends to avoid essentializing or stereotyping Muslims into a monolithic menace. Liberals and progressives defied the trend of perceiving Muslims as a security threat, en masse, whether after the 9/11 or 7/7 attacks, or other acts of extremism. At the same time, however, the political left may be reticent to link itself with Muslims, whom it feels are insufficiently liberal. In fact, so-called liberals may vilify Muslims for being too patriarchal, unsecular or anti-secular, too culturally traditional to the point of perceived intolerant to deserve their support.

Of course, a key factor that will dissuade Muslims from aligning with the left is that certain social and cultural positions that the left maintains may be antithetical to Islamic values and will cause consternation about whether alliance equals endorsement, normalization and legitimization of those perspectives. This is particularly evident in the current debates about sexual orientation and sexual identity. Such alignment may not be possible in every situation. In many European countries, the political left has no record of championing Muslim communities, and in many scenarios, the left reveals the limits of its supposed tolerance as it frames Muslims as being inimical to their notions of liberal, secular values. Liberal Islamophobia might be rhetorically gentler than its conservative counterpart and the legions of “Islamophobic warriors,” but it is no less racist and imperialist than the latter as it takes for granted the “white man’s burden” that serves as its impetus and soul cleansing mechanism. It trades candid hatred for patronizing insincerity.

Culture is a convenient battleground for societies to contest their structural fissures and flaws. It is exactly because culture is pervasive; it is literally the landscape where societies act, interact, detract and counteract social processes and forces that affect these groups, on local, regional, national and international levels. Culture wars are defined and determined by those in power, often to serve as a deflection and distraction from how the powerful are performing, whether it sends society in a positive or negative trajectory. When societies are undergoing pressure or negative change, culture wars become a convenient way to allow those in power to evade blame and accountability for why the flaws are occurring. Rather than accepting responsibility or offering correctives, controversy is created for which people feel threatened and fearful, along with the inevitable and accompanying scapegoating of usually the most vulnerable and least responsible for the maladies underway. These are called moral panics, pervasive feelings of fear, often irrational, that some entity threatens the values, safety and welfare of a community, country or civilization.

It is noteworthy that whenever and wherever there has been social strain due to ineffective state policy or external pressures, an internal, already marginalized and usually a minority group becomes the easy target for the miseries being experienced. In the 1930s, with the collapse of Weimar Germany, the National Socialist (Nazi) Party was able to capitalize on the economic wasteland in the country by blaming Jewish financiers and then the Jewish community more broadly. Lost in the analysis was the impact of the Great Depression, emerging from the United States, or the crushingly punitive measures imposed on Germany in the aftermath of World War I by the Allied Powers in the Treaty of Versailles. Instead of directing their anger and frustration at France, Great Britain and others complicit in the degradation of German institutions, the Nazis capitalized on a proximate “Other,” irrespective of how integrated and contributory they may have been to German society.

Today, in many parts of the world, Muslims are the archetypal “Other.” Islamophobia is often deployed by the perceived “culture” of Islam being inimical to the cultural paradigm of the existing, often majority population in that locale. Depending on the whims of the majority society, Muslims are either the prime “Other” or secondary or tertiary alien, qua cultural threat. In any scenario, there is the assurance that Muslims are then the or a perennial problem – their cultural incompatibly is not only a nuisance, but also a danger.

Option 2: Align with the “Right”

While not themselves in the crosshairs of some current manifestations of the culture wars, Muslims may find those particular battlegrounds problematic from a theological perspective. Perhaps no issue exemplifies this tension more than the LGBTQ+ disputes, especially in western countries. The intensification of the various debates on the topic, the perceived increased normalization and legitimization of the identity and behavior as well as the sense of its imposition upon society, especially on children as a required element of school curricula (even for children as young as six or seven years of age). For Muslims in countries like the United States, Canada and elsewhere, the contentious nature of the subject matter has led increasing numbers of the community to gravitate toward the political right, creating either an implicit or explicit alliance, to combat this trend. This approach might be seen as Muslims becoming civically engaged in their respective communities, demonstrating their role as stakeholders invested in how society should function. But the question remains as to whether the alignment with the right, even if justified as being limited to a single issue or two, is prudent given the ideological animus the right has shown, articulated and applied toward Muslims.

The well-established track record of right-wing hatred of Muslims may only briefly be suspended for an alliance of convenience; once the current issue is concluded, irrespective of the manner of its resolution, the right wing will resume their targeting of Muslims, perhaps even more so since their “distraction” issue is no longer present. Alliance with the right-wing also imperils existing relations with liberal groups, that may have asserted their support for Muslims in the past. In the American context, there is currently tension among some progressives that Muslim actions, seen as hostile toward the LGBTQ+ community, are an act of betrayal, whereby support among marginalized and targeted communities is not being reciprocated.

As with the case of the ideological left in Europe, the UK and elsewhere, Muslim alliance with the right wing may not even be a possibility to entertain. Conservative parties and entities do not court Muslims on cultural issues because they often scapegoat Muslims for being the cultural problem. Conservatives also don’t require or desire Muslim alliances to combat additional manifestations of the cultural wars with which Muslims might share their perspectives. Thus, if Muslims want to oppose certain cultural developments, they will find themselves doing so in a parallel course to the conservative efforts.

Option 3: Work with Both Liberals and Conservatives

Muslims certainly have the ability to engage in the culture wars on an ad hoc basis by championing certain causes of concern to their communities, without essentializing whether they are “right” or “left” issues. This approach allows Muslims to carve out an independent, even balanced assessment of the cultural landscape and engage with it in a manner that most accurately reflects Islamic and Muslim sensitivities. As many cultural issues are so polarizing in the current discourse, Muslims can, in fact, take a centrist or middle path in navigating the difficult debates.

While balance is certainly a prudent and practical path to take, a critical question to ask is whether Muslims should be involved at all in aspects of the culture wars that do not directly impact them. In some cases, Muslims are the cultural issue, but elsewhere, various social matters have gained primacy. As Muslims are a small, often beleaguered minority, an argument can be made that they resist the temptation and/or compulsion to join in conflicts not of their making.

Option 4: Disengage from the Culture Wars

Notwithstanding Muslims being centered as the prime “adversaries” in western culture wars, should Muslims participate in other cultural issues where they reside? One option available to them is to opt out, particularly if those specific manifestations of the culture wars are neither of their making nor directly linked to their own respective communities. There is a clear opportunity sit back and allow the major forces in those issues to bloody themselves and achieve whatever outcome occurs. Given the rather limited resources and social capital that many Muslim communities possess, perhaps disassociation is the most prudent alternative; after all, sometimes, it is possible not to take sides.

The culture wars that affect so many countries may best be understood and approached as manifestations of perpetual war, the need to scapegoat, demonize and marginalize social issues that are then associated, almost exclusively, with a particular, suspect group. In many countries, these social issues have sought to target Muslims as the causes of the conflicts in question or in some cases, the convenient strawman to be invoked as the public face of opposing what otherwise would be an acceptable social phenomenon. Muslims are right to engage in the culture wars where they have been designated as the cultural adversary, but as members and stakeholders of societies where they are not the agents or instigators of such conflicts, the question of whether they should become participants in the proverbial battlefield is more complex. Whether to engage or disengage is made more complicated and vexing with the quagmire of aligning themselves with others based on ideological compatibility on that particular issue. Tactical concerns must be acknowledged and juxtaposed to strategic realities in taking a course of action on an ever evolving and mutating battlefield.

Saeed Khan is Professor of Near East & Asian Studies & Global Studies and Director of Global Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, USA. He will be co-chairing the 2023 IHRC Islamophobia Conference, in December, on this topic.  His most recent publications include “What’s Going on Here? US Experiences of Islamophobia between Obama and Trump“, co-authored with Saied R. Ameli for Islamic Human Rights Commission publications. 

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