Many Americans are deeply misguided about Islam, according to an op-ed in the Washington Post by freelance journalist Michael Schulson. Those foolish souls believe that Islam is less a religion and more a political philosophy. More appalling, these bamboozled Americans now have a champion in the White House. In Schulson’s view, this is a misconception founded not just in prejudice but in provincial America’s cultural sequestration. This view is obnoxious and simplistic. Americans have not been hoodwinked into thinking that Islam is as much a theory of social organization as it is a religion; they have observed it.
Schulson’s op-ed reaches the conclusion that Americans like those in key administration positions are mistaken to see Islam as a political ideation before it has comprehensively made that case. Having assumed his conclusion, the author leaps into a fatuous attempt to diagnose the malady afflicting American minds. “For many Americans, confusion about religious law, political ideology and Sharia may reflect a distinctly Christian, and especially Protestant, way of thinking about the nature of religion,” he suggested.
Some may be more charitable toward Americans than Schulson. Americans could be forgiven for observing that the self-described Islamic State’s sprawling and noncontiguous Sunni caliphate across the Muslim world prescribes a theocratic form of governance. So, too, does the Islamic Republic of Iran, although its brand of Islamic theocracy is specifically Shiite. The Muslim Brotherhood is not merely a sect with a strict religious code but a political party—one that won free and fair elections in Egypt following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Only following the imposition of an onerous religious code was the Muslim Brotherhood’s government dissolved in a popular military coup. Even in formerly secular Muslim states like Turkey, the appeal of Islamism as not just a political philosophy but the foundation for a code of legal conduct is on the rise. And from Paris to Jakarta, acts of radical Islamist terrorism are justified by extremist networks as natural expressions of antipathy toward Western culture’s irksome secularism.
Political Islam is a model of human societal development that competes with Western secular liberalism. That’s not a smear or an insult, and those who subscribe to that philosophy wouldn’t see it as such. Political Islam is an ethos that particularizes a relationship between the individual and the state in a manner radically different from the way in which that relationship is commonly viewed in the Western world. Its code, if strictly adopted, stipulates distinct protocols defining appropriate interpersonal conduct, financial and monetary policy, and legal proceedings. Observing this empirical reality is not a strange display of fealty to vestigial Protestantism.
To illustrate his point for the closed American mind, Schulson concluded by noting that Islam is not the only major monotheistic religion with a semi-binding legal code. Halakhah, Jewish law, is not all that dissimilar from Sharia law, he asserted. Schulson observed, however, that centuries of anti-Semitic propaganda sought to tar the Jewish faith as exclusively political and generally intolerant—the unspoken assumption there is that, one supposes, the notion that Islam is just as political is a smear. Schulson pointedly avoids making a note of the fact that the world’s only Jewish state is an egalitarian, pluralistic republic. In stark contrast to its semi-theocratic, often overtly autocratic neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa, Israel is rated by Freedom House as the only nation in the region with a free press. The Economist’s Intelligence Unit gave Israel its highest ranking in over a decade of measurements in 2016—a stark contrast to its semi-or-overtly totalitarian neighbors.
The argument Schulson makes isn’t really an argument at all; it’s a pose struck for readers whose priority isn’t to understand political Islam but to squint disapprovingly down their noses at NSC director Mike Flynn. Like 20th Century Soviet-style communism, political Islam conflicts inherently with the West—they compete for primacy over the same mental real estate. Only if you were determined to overlook the obvious could you conclude otherwise.