The Difficulty with Diversity
Can American pluralism make room for an Islam that is truly different?
It is an unexpected consolation that the Trump era, while offering unusually severe levels of polarization, has also produced fascinating, even groundbreaking writing on the difficulties of living in a diverse, plural society. I believe that diversity is a good thing, but many of my fellow Americans seem to disagree.
This diversity skepticism might be problematic in moral terms, but it is not entirely unfounded. Early on in the new book Out of Many Faiths, the Muslim interfaith leader Eboo Patel notes that “the higher the diversity, the more people distrust their neighbors and the less they volunteer and give to charity.” So, whether or not we like it, diversity has become a “problem” that at the very least demands more creative ways of thinking and acting. The central task of Patel’s book—and the three welcome commentaries that accompany it—is to ask how we might move from mere diversity to a deeper pluralism and to understand the role that religion can play in the process. Diversity, Patel writes, “is simply a demographic fact; pluralism is a hard-won achievement.”
In taking on the challenge of pluralism, Patel focuses on American Muslims, since “the controversies swirling around Muslims are clearly the most salient, and they raise the sharpest questions about America’s traditions, values, and identity.” That 1 percent of the population should matter so much for such foundational questions is itself interesting; it is also something that the founders realized at the very start, with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin explicitly addressing the question of Islam. Muslims—because they seemed to offer the strongest contrast to Christianity (at the time) and, relatedly, because they have been weaker in terms of political influence—are a, and perhaps the, critical case for the limits of toleration in today’s America.
If Muslims are increasingly embraced on the left as a group notable primarily for its marginalization, then this will have long-term secularizing effects.
In addition, focusing on one faith community allows us to consider the positive role that religion has played and can continue to play in American democratic life—a simple, basic notion that was long taken for granted but is now questioned by many, if not most, on the left. It is difficult to imagine the United States developing as it did into a participatory, civic society in the absence of strong religious sentiment. As the political scientist Robert Putnam argued in Bowling Alone, “Faith communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America.” As various studies suggest, including Putnam’s own work, Americans who regularly attend religious services are significantly more likely to volunteer for charity activities and secular causes alike.
How Muslims make their place in a changing America, then, isn’t just about Muslims but about how to hold to the ideal of religious communities making America great. It is also about challenging the spread and normalization of Islamophobia. This rise in anti-Muslim bigotry has led many to see this as the worst period yet for American Muslims, exceeding even the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. But looked at another way, Donald Trump has unwittingly propelled Muslims into the cultural and political mainstream. According to polling by my colleague Shibley Telhami, few things predict partisan affiliation more than attitudes toward Muslims and Islam. In practice, this means that there are few better ways to signal your anti-Trump bona fides than by being pro-Muslim.
I watched, somewhat in awe, the images of citizens rallying around American Muslims who protested Trump’s first travel ban by praying at airport baggage claims in January 2017. Scenes such as that would have been hard to imagine after 9/11. In Washington, DC, where I live, various cafés and restaurants feature welcome signs at their entrances with a picture of a woman wearing a headscarf. A new crop of Muslim candidates are running and winning elections, including the first two Muslim congresswomen in American history. A Muslim comic, Hasan Minhaj, headlined the White House Correspondents’ Dinner for the first time in 2017. Meanwhile, Muslim characters are showing up in prominent films and television shows, including, perhaps most interestingly, a transgender, observant Muslim in HBO’s Here and Now.
Patel captures this mainstreaming of American Muslims in considerable detail, and this alone makes the book a worthwhile primer on the role Muslims are playing in a more plural America. To his credit, though, he goes several steps further, capturing something many of us have observed but only now are starting to fully appreciate: This cultural mainstreaming may come at a cost, particularly for more conservative Muslims, who, like their evangelical Christian and Orthodox Jewish counterparts, have tended to view popular culture as corrupting. The Muslim character in the first episode of Amazon’s The Romanoffs, for example, is a practicing Muslim who wears the hijab, or headscarf. She also finds herself in a steamy sexual entanglement with an older, non-Muslim man, which builds to an amusing if somewhat ludicrous conclusion. But it is Here and Now, with its Muslim, black, Asian, and gay main characters, that seems to go out of its way to reflect a now dominant intersectional reality among Democrats.
Are Muslims, then, different, or are they the same—“just” one among many minority communities, each with their own secular grievances? This question is weightier than it might seem. For conservative Muslims, Islam has traditionally been defined not by identity, but by a particular set of beliefs and the outward practice of the faith. However, if Muslims are increasingly embraced on the left as a group notable primarily for its marginalization, then this will have long-term secularizing effects. The distinctive theological commitments that practicing Muslims bring to public life will be diluted. They already are. The intermittent grumbling of conservative Muslims over this shift has stayed largely under the radar, in part because the most prominent American Muslims are either not traditionalists or have chosen to deemphasize their traditionalism in the interest of intersectional solidarity.
Then there are the growing number of Muslims who are what Patel calls “social” Muslims—those who aren’t necessarily theologically Muslim but still identify with aspects of Islamic culture and value their own Muslim origins. In this way, Islam becomes more akin to an ethnicity than a religion. One example is the actor and comedian Aziz Ansari, who previously described himself as an atheist or “not religious.” However, more recently—with Ansari speaking out about identity, Islamophobia, and his own Muslim background—it feels as if Ansari is Muslim, and Muslims have generally been more than happy to include him in their ranks, theological commitments aside. As Patel notes, we may have Trump to thank for this (or to blame depending on your perspective): “A consequence of powerful outsiders attacking an identity is that people with even the slimmest connection to that identity will feel offended, find that once-small part of themselves growing in personal significance, then seek to reconnect with that identity.”
In short, Muslims are becoming more integrated, but they are becoming more integrated within only one half of the country, the Democratic one. This might be an improvement (for those who live in majority Democratic areas) but it’s not exactly a solution. There may not be a “solution,” at least not a conclusive one, to any of this, and perhaps this is why Patel is less persuasive when he points to civil religion as a path out of polarization. These more prescriptive parts of the book suffer from the weaknesses of much interfaith discourse: a falling back on aspirational rhetoric of “we”-ness; that we are more similar than we are different; and that the good-heartedness of ordinary Americans will somehow win the day, because it should, and if it should, it must. Patel takes heart in the fact that the Christian tradition was nimble enough to incorporate Jews, becoming “Judeo-Christian” in the process: Why shouldn’t the Judeo-Christian tradition be able to continue a natural, and distinctly American, evolution and broaden itself to include Muslims too?
In answering Patel’s question, the scholar of religion Robert Jones, in one of the book’s three excellent commentaries, reminds us that it might be different this time, in part because Muslims are different. First, Muslims look different, and “the acceptance of religious diversity has always been entangled with perceptions of race.” A large majority of American Muslims are Arab, Asian, or black, so being accepted in the pantheon of whiteness is simply not an option for many. Second, the idea of an American “melting pot” has always been dependent on the dominant group—white Protestants and later White Christians—assimilating new groups on the condition that these groups were willing to conform to the prevailing culture. White Christians were willing to extend these benefits from a position of both privilege and confidence. They couldn’t imagine that their cultural and political dominance would soon be weakened. This ignorance of their own future status allowed for a sort of paternal generosity.
White cultural decline—whether real, perceived, or both—has another important implication: There is no longer a predominant culture for minorities to assimilate into assuming they even wanted to. As Jones explains, “With fewer and fewer goods exclusively reserved to be granted from white Christians in power, religious minority groups are finding that the sacrifices assimilation often involves are no longer worth it.”
In the second response to Patel, the political theorist John Inazu shares a similar pessimism over the prospect of a common culture that might bring Americans together. “In the face of less unity, I argue for reinforcing our differences,” writes Inazu. “In one sense, this tension points to the tragic dimension of politics: despite our yearnings for peace and unity, those elusive goals inevitably escape us in this life.” This view of human nature—drawing on Christian notions of brokenness and being fallen by sin—might be a dark one, but it is also liberating. The fear of difference, on both left and right, has spread through the body politic, but what if we came to see religious and political difference as something to be accepted and even embraced? Freed from the desire, or need, to search for sameness or similarity, Americans could come to terms with a new reality and one that is likely to remain: that there isn’t a common good to be found; that, because we believe strongly in different things from different premises, politics will be inherently conflictual; that there isn’t necessarily a resolution to political divides. If we come to terms with this, then we can better resist the urge to impose our own preferences on others.
This is a pluralism that is modest, and one might argue that pluralism, in any form, is impossible without humility about what can be achieved in this world and in this life. As the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper put it, “Nothing should be forced and nothing united which is not organically one.” One of his intellectual heirs, the American theologian Matthew Kaemingk, has updated Kuyper’s “Christian pluralism” for modern politics in an important new work, writing that “ideological fragmentation and division is simply the reality of life lived after the fall into sin.” Meanwhile, the scholar of Asian religions Laurie Patton, in the book’s third commentary, writes of a “pragmatic pluralism,” which she defines as when “one religion needs another tradition to be itself.” This is part of what makes the American experience of religion—and the American experience of Islam—exceptional. My engagement with Kaemingk, for example, has deepened my understanding of Islam’s own pluralistic precedents. While I cannot always fully grasp their complexity and power, the Christian concepts of brokenness and sin and grace have given me a language I didn’t know I had to speak about conflict, pluralism, and diversity in American life. I can’t say that learning about Christian theology has made me a “better” Muslim; but it has, I think, made me a better American. This is a blessing.Subscribe