In what is both a reflection and an amplification of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in this country, Donald Trump has called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."
Trump's xenophobic statement and the popular fears it reflects have to be addressed intelligently and forcefully. We should begin addressing them by admitting that there are unique challenges with integrating Muslims and Islam itself into polities shaped by Western liberalism. But it is a task that has to be done. It cannot be avoided even by the most extreme restrictions on immigration or travel, because Muslims are our already our neighbors. And in an age of decentralized authority and instant digital communication, Islam will remain a way of life available to anyone in the West.
A particularly intense example of America's Trumpian Islamophobia was captured at a town meeting in Virginia over plans to build a mosque. A man erupted at a Muslim who was speaking, "Every Muslim is a terrorist, period." Others at the meeting applauded the erupting man for saying that he didn't want Islam's "death cult" in his town.
That is ignorant and wrong. But if you will, consider a more thoughtful and advanced version of this argument: The Prophet Muhammad was a military leader and conqueror, a militant posture that shapes Islam to this day. The Grand Ayatollah was telling the truth when he said "Islam is politics or it is nothing." Osama bin Laden's fatwa against America was totally consistent with the texts and spirit of early Islam. Today's millions upon millions of non-violent Muslims could reasonably be described as lax Muslims.
It's easy enough to dismiss that argument as bigoted, too, and to note that it fails to recognize the very real variety within Islam. At the same time, we should recognize that our culture entertains similarly structured arguments against more familiar religions.
People argue that Christianity is inherently sexist. Or that Catholicism's view of authority makes it resistant to civil law. We see and sometimes nurture the same preening, vandal spirit of the "Draw Muhammad day" when we call a condom-portrait of Pope Benedict art. Some of the right-wing criticisms of Islam or the customs of immigrants from Islamic countries can have a distinctively secularist flavor, for instance, their fear about the spread of female genital mutilation. It's possible that the discomfort some progressives have with criticizing Islam itself forcefully would disappear if Muslims seemed like a less vulnerable minority than they are. How do we get there?
Some say that today's anxiety around Muslim immigration is as irrational as previous fears about integrating immigrant Catholics in American life. That's too glib. While even the highest authorities in Catholicism of the 19th century did occasionally declare itself hostile to liberal society, the truth is that liberalism itself was shaped by its Christian inheritance. Islam's tensions with the West run much deeper than Catholicism's tensions with America ever did. Islam differs in important ways from Judaism and Christianity. There is Islam's emphasis on jurisprudence over theology. And Islam's form of triumphalism, which has more difficulty reconciling itself to a world in which Islamic ideas are marginal.
But Western Christians or secular people should not presume to tell Muslims that true Islam is violent. It is easy to find quietist strains of Islam that impress with their piety and devotion to the texts that are at the heart of Islam. A number of scholars and Islamic commentators, from Muhammad Abduh to Fazlur Rahman, have preached an Islam that is in creative tension with the West, rather than outright conflict.
Besides, America's liberal bargain, more than Europe's, is capacious and could accommodate a variety of expressions of Islam, just as it accommodates a variety of other religions, some of which build communities that strike us as illiberal. The challenges this represents may be truly awkward, but they are nonetheless necessary.
Consider the community of Samtar Hasidic Jews at Kiryas Joel in Monroe, New York, which has historically fallen within my own Congressional district. This community of Jews sees huge increases of its population because of its incredible fertility rate and welcome attitude to its own co-religionists. Nearly 90 percent of the community speaks Yiddish at home. Nearly half cannot speak English competently. It is widely reported that religious authorities in Kiryas Joel can swing the vote of the town and with their vote, the divided Congressional district in which it sits. Kiryas Joel's residents have an awkward and sometimes legally combative relationship with their Monroe neighbors over planning and development.
There in Kiryas Joel is much of what people claim to fear about Islamic integration, a separate, "unmeltable" group, one that keeps to its own language and folkways. And yet Kiryas Joel's peaceful existence with its neighbors is a testament not only to that community's genius, but the genius of America as well. There is simply no pressing reason for New York to tear up its very generous legal settlement to assimilate Kiryas Joel on its own terms.
Similarly, there is no inherent reason for America to tear up its legal settlement in response to Islam itself. There may be good reasons to limit immigration from Muslim nations. I believe there are. But they are not substantively very different from reasons to limit immigration from any or all nations.
And finally, if the anti-Muslim chauvinists really cannot handle any of the above arguments, the final argument for finding a way to better integrate Muslims should be to prove the superiority of the West itself. Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities have existed within Islamic civilization for over a millennia, not without incident, and not without awkward or painful compromises. If the West is better and stronger than Islamic civilization, it should be able to tolerate religious minorities better than Islamic civilization, too.