Beware the New "Know-Nothings" (and Knowing Nothing)

For well over a decade now, Islam has occupied a contentious place in the American imagination and social landscape. The debate, which has often attracted nativist demagogues, has been taken to fresh heights by presidential hopefuls who seem to channel the spirit of the late 19th century "Know-Nothing" party, which spawned from a violent reaction against Catholic immigration.

Even if political correctness is "dangerous," ignorance is even more so. This same ignorance informed European civilizations' long history of anti-Semitism, fueling centuries of suspicion and hatred towards Jews, peaking in the evils of the Holocaust. There is no room for such ignorance in our world, and it must not take root and flourish.

Much of what has been said by these nativists -- such as banning the entry of Muslims into the country, or the registration of Muslims in a database -- deserves no reply. What is of greater concern is the xenophobic rhetoric which makes theological claims as to the nature of Islam. This is the rhetoric most capable of spreading falsehoods which proceed to become internalized, generating a false sense of knowledge and leading some to support the conclusions mentioned above.

One of these nativist demagogues, Ben Carson, has openly advanced the idea that "under sharia law, women must be subservient and people following other religions must be killed." He has also claimed that sharia allows Muslims to do "horrible things" to "divorcees," adding:

Now, there are components of sharia that place any religion that is not the same as theirs [presumably Islam] in a category of people they call the "kafir." You can do anything you want to those people and you can put them into an inferior position. You can also put women into an inferior position.

Perhaps religious scholars should thank Carson, as he claims to have resolved over fourteen hundred years of scholarly debate within the Muslim community in a single poorly-worded paragraph. I am not quite sure where he received his training in Islamic jurisprudence and legal philosophy to qualify him for this kind of activity.

The response to such rhetoric cannot be couched in equally absurd and essentialist claims about Islam, such as the argument that Islam inherently promotes equality between religions and sexes. This is patently unhelpful, and worse, dishonest. There are a number of historical examples that could be employed to disprove such a claim.

But what can be said is that Islam is more than capable of being something that these nativists claim it is not, and moreover, it can and has done so under the auspices of sharia. If not, how is it that the Prophet Muhammad's wife Khadija was said to be the breadwinner in his family, wealthier than her husband and in control of her own finances? If Islam has an inherent hatred of divorcees, how was it that Muhammad himself later married the divorcee Ramla bint Abi Sufyan, who was abandoned by her first husband when he converted to Christianity and left her stranded in Ethiopia?

How is it that Muhammad is said to have created a compact stating "the Jews are a community (umma) with the believers," if hatred of other religions is essentially ingrained in Islam? How is it that Ali bin Abi Talib -- claimed as the spiritual font of almost every formal Islamic mystical order, to give an idea of his influential station -- is reported to have said, "Our enemies are not the Jews and the Christians, but our own ignorance?"

Furthermore, Islamic societies throughout history have proven themselves capable of forming diverse scaffoldings. If they were by nature so repressive and brutal towards women and members of different religious confessions, how did Arwa al-Sulayhi become queen and high religious authority of medieval Yemen? Or how was it that during the Buyid regency of Baghdad, Christians headed the vizierate and even the war ministry? How was it that medieval Muslim students openly learned religious sciences from Christian theologians like Yahya bin Adi? How is it that during the Ottoman period, Christian and Jewish women seeking divorce often preferred Muslim courts because they hoped they would be heard more favorably there than in their own legal institutions?

Within Islam's own scriptures are a veritable plethora of injunctions that can be used to reinforce Islam's recognition of preexisting religious confessions. One can cite Koranic verses 2.67, 5.69, 6.48, 7.35, and 46.13 amongst others to support this point. One could also cite other verses, which can be used to allow for violence, subjugation, and hatred. It is much the same way as how the Bible is used both by those striving for peace as well as for those who wish death and destruction upon those who adhere to differing views.

How one defines oneself and one's religion is an ethical choice. And before Carson or anyone else levels the charge that Muslims today do not strive for harmony with their fellows in humanity, I would direct them to a document known as the Common Word, which is based on the "joint common ground" between Islam and Christianity and calls for "peace and harmony between Christians and Muslims worldwide" through theological arguments made by religious intelligentsia. It was signed by 138 of the world's leading Muslim scholars, including "the Grand Muftis of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Oman, Bosnia, Russia, and Istanbul."

The Common Word was received by none less than H. H. Pope Benedict XVI, who said that it "echoed a theme consonant with my first encyclical." One can listen critically -never blindly- to the arguments of these aforementioned Muslim and Christian religious scholars, or one can accept the uneducated and untrained theology of Carson -a theology which mirrors that of violent extremists who are themselves equally illiterate in the religious sciences.

As I have said, it is an ethical choice to accept one or the other. I hope that our society might live up to the virtues upon which it was built and reject ignorance in light of knowledge and moral courage.