As far as minorities go, it appears that Muslims have been forgotten, so much so that a recent Wall Street Journal poll on discrimination towards different ethnic and religious groups quite literally forgot to include us. It was a sad day. But also, of course, a happy one. You know you’ve made it, or not made it as it were, when “White people” get their own discrimination category but you don’t—and when, at least among Republicans, White people are viewed as the single most oppressed ethnic group in America.
Fame and notoriety are always double edged swords, but in the case of the last several years—really from 2019 onwards, after Trump stopped obsessing over Muslims—the gradual mainstream-ing/disappearance of Muslims in the headlines has been a Godsend. For those who longed for (relative) anonymity, they now have it.
This is one of the reasons the recent dust-up around a painting of the Prophet Mohammed at a small liberal arts college stood out to me, as an object of both concern and fascination. And so I wrote about it in my last Monday Note, which you can read here. I had simply forgotten what it was like to be for my “group” to be in the news. But even here, something that was ostensibly about Muslims and Islam largely became a debate about wokeness, cancel culture, and the right to not be offended (which, as it turns out, doesn’t exist). Once again, American Muslims had been subsumed into broader culture war controversies not of their own making.
It’s not so much that Muslims didn’t matter. It’s that we mattered only insofar as our presence touched on other things that mattered more. To the extent that there’s a “brown rebellion” in the Democratic Party, Muslims are only one of the constituencies in question. But within the American Muslim community, the most immediate and tense divides revolve, in one way or another, around wokeness, children, and public education. See, for example, the Dearborn school board protests around books with sexually explicit discussions of gender identity.
Even this rather specific debate around depictions of the Prophet Mohamed isn’t really about Islamic orthodoxy as much as it’s about a particular style of registering grievances and taking offense to what are ultimately very micro microaggressions. Ismail Royer has an excellent, new piece in First Things that explores how the Muslim students at Hamline University conveyed their complaints to university administrators. Instead of arguing that images of the Prophet were blasphemous or legally prohibited by the sharia, they made distinctly secular claims about identity, belonging, and trauma. Here, to be a Muslim was no longer primarily about faith and God. It was about feeling marginalized and expressing that sense of being wronged, in the all too familiar lexicon of subjective harm, offense, and safety.
As one of the Muslim students put it: “As a Muslim and a black person, I don’t feel like I belong. I don't think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member.” Or perhaps more remarkably, another student said “Hamline teaches us it doesn’t matter the intent, the impact is what matters.” If this is, in fact, what Hamline University is teaching, then it is not teaching well.
The irony is that this rather novel idea of judging actions based on impact rather than intent—an unfortunate mainstay of social justice discourse—is almost the precise inverse of a well-known hadith of the Prophet Mohamed that “actions are judged by their intentions.” Apparently, however, it’s not as well known as it should be. Or else it has been forgotten for the simple reason that the language of grievance is something very different than the language of theology and the sacred.