Should Islam Be Classified as a Religion?

by Rebecca Bynum (February 2011)

The title of my new book, Allah is Dead: Why Islam is Not a Religion, seems to have provoked some controversy. Many people assume I must be overstating the case and have summarily dismissed my thesis without bothering to read the arguments and even attacking a third party for defending it. The U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on the controversy during the Murfreesboro mosque hearings.

U.S. Attorney Jerry E. Martin said his office and the Department of Justice had been watching the lawsuit unfold and couldn’t sit idly by as the opponents questioned whether Islam is a religion or a political movement bent on supplanting United States laws with Muslim laws.

“All three branches of government have repeatedly recognized Islam as a religion,” Martin said Monday during an afternoon press conference. “Presidents, as far back as Lincoln and Jefferson and as recent as President George W. Bush, have, indeed, publicly recognized Islam as one of the world’s largest religions.”

Others have pointed out that the Internal Revenue Service has a list of rules on what constitutes a religion for tax purposes and by those criteria, Islam qualifies as a religion. In general, however, the courts have avoided trying to define religion so as not to pass judgment on the merits of a creed. Doing so could constitute “establishment” of what religion is and is not, which might be a breech of the Constitution in itself. Therefore to date, the courts have been deliberately vague on the issue of what constitutes religion for the purposes of the First Amendment, but it is doubtful that state of affairs will continue given the general decline of the older Christian congregations and rise of all manner of new isms, ologies and belief systems like Islam. The days when the courts could assume that religions would fall within certain parameters are over.

The great argument of the twenty first century is a continuation of a very old argument concerning the nature of reality and its forms, but today we are also facing a fantastic argument about the nature of words, their definitions and the reality they describe. In this book, I take a highly focused look at Islam and whether or not it should rightly be classified or described as a religion, let alone an “Abrahamic religion” or one of the “world’s great religions” as it has been presented.

There is no question, of course, that Muslims themselves believe Islam to be a religion. And there is equally no question that Islam harnesses the religious impulse. But it can be argued that communism and Nazism likewise harnessed the religious impulse and that millions of people believed in those ideologies with full religious fervor and devotion. The fact of faith alone does not confer the status of religion on an ideology.

Furthermore, when Islam is analyzed philosophically it reveals itself to be much closer to ideologies such as material determinism, nihilism and even social Darwinism than it is to either Christianity or Judaism. It seems to me that Islam lies on the other side of nihilism from Christianity and the other religions and its morality is inverted – matter is elevated over value. In that sense, it could be termed anti-religion.

When proponents of unlimited mosque construction, for example, cite freedom of religion as their rallying cry, they are forgetting that individual liberty must be balanced by consideration for the welfare of society as a whole. The Constitution protects freedom of religion within certain bounds, but to date there has been no Constitutional definition of what actually constitutes a religion for this purpose. The Founders clearly meant to define religion in a Judeo-Christian context and America has limited religious practices in the past.

An important precedent was set when Utah was threatened with invasion and federal occupation unless the Mormons living there changed their religious practice of polygamy. Because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had a living prophet who could alter the religious tenets of the Church, essentially assigning polygamy to the afterlife, this change was made possible and Utah entered the Union after polygamy was officially banned in the territory. The Mormon Church now has protection under the religious liberty clause, but it did not while the church sanctioned and its members practiced polygamy.   

It must be acknowledged that the nuclear family is the fundamental structural unit of our civilization and has perhaps been the single social element most conducive to individual happiness and fulfillment. Polygamy is not marriage and should never be allowed protection under the idea of freedom of religion. There is little chance, however, that Islam will be changed to allow it to fit in with normal Western customs the way Mormonism was changed. A brochure distributed by the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, extols the supremacy of polygamy throughout, offering it as a superior lifestyle choice, but nowhere does it even mention that polygamy is illegal in America. It openly advocates breaking the law.

Concerning the definition of religion for First Amendment purposes, many factors need to be taken into account and compared with the Judeo-Christian religious tradition for which the First Amendment was intended. Religion as we have known it has been good for society. It has nurtured morality, strengthened the family, fostered public service and encouraged social harmony. Islam, on the other hand, is self-segregating, fosters ideas of Muslim supremacy and thereby sows seeds of social discord. Even its tradition of charitable giving is solely for the benefit of fellow Muslims and it utterly destroys the family through its adoption of polygamy.

In addition, Islam is the only religion that requires territorial sovereignty – its laws are laws of the land rather than laws of the heart as we are accustomed to finding in religion. In the Western tradition, legality and morality are two different things. In Islam, they are one and the same. And as Muslims press for their laws to become laws of the land, especially by suppressing criticism of Islam, the clash between these two systems of thought will intensify.

There is, however, a current of modern thought seeking to elevate a laudable personal virtue, that of tolerance, over the greater principle of justice. Is it just to tolerate polygamy in the name of religious freedom? The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 1878, Reynolds v. United States, it is not. Is it just to tolerate the unequal right to inheritance for women? Is it just to tolerate forced marriage? Is it just to tolerate antisemitism? Is it just to tolerate the preaching of hatred toward non-Muslims? Is it just to tolerate the teaching that Muslims are superior to non-Muslims and that men are superior to women? Is it just to tolerate a parallel legal system based on inequality?  There are things that our society cannot tolerate and expect to survive. Justice must take its rightful place above tolerance.

If Islam could be reclassified as primarily a social and political ideology, then the Western world would have a powerful tool with which to deal with its spread and could begin the process of containment in the same way the West contained communism, which in the end, seems to be the only realistic option before us with regard to Islam.

If, however, Islam continues to be classified as a religion and given the full protection and benefits religions receive in America, then we will be helpless to contain it and it will grow and spread without limit in Africa, Western Europe and our United States. Though Islam has many religious aspects, many so primitive they have hardly been recognized for what they are, Islam has to be taken as a whole and classified as an entire belief-system.

In fact, I believe Islam to be the duck-billed platypus of belief systems, not all one thing and not all another. It is a combination of religion and politics and one part cannot be separated from the other. That is why Islam cannot remain in the religion category. It must be recognized for what it is.

Of course, Islam is not the only threat to Western civilization and part of the defense of the West must take the form of revitalization of Western ideals including the belief in transcendent value. I have endeavored to offer some analysis and suggestions in this regard as well, particularly on how Jews and Christians might form a closer ideological alliance. Certainly no one will agree with everything in these pages, but certainly the debate needs to take place.

            What is Islam and what, if anything, should we do about it?


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Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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