Ilhan Omar is in the news again with fellow countercultural congresswoman Rashida Tlaib after both were barred from entering Israel on a highly anticipated protest tour. So concludes one more episode in the ongoing political drama of killing (and defending) sacred cows that is likely to crescendo as the 2020 election gets into full swing.
Omar is working hard to leave her mark on American politics, but the controversy surrounding her seems less about what she says or does than about who she is—or at least who many Americans think she is. As a hijab-wearing refugee from a violent backwater of the Islamic world, Omar represents for many Americans the invasion of free institutions by an alien spirit of tyranny.
Let’s ignore the fact that Omar’s celebration of the LGBT lifestyle alongside her intersectional colleagues hardly embodies a traditional brand of Muslim piety. Let’s focus on what many Americans believe she embodies: the visible challenge of a rival culture as ours seems to crumble around us. Is it possible that the partisan quarrel about the rightness or wrongness of her actions is really a hidden debate about the “Islamic Question” that still remains unresolved 18 years after September 11, 2001? As the election cycle heats up, Republicans and Democrats are likely to dance around this question’s two sub-questions: How do we deal with the Islamic world, and how do we deal with Islam inside our borders?
If you ask me, the answers to both should be characterized by a single word: respect.
Respect is often misunderstood. The word, which comes from the Latin re (“back”) and specere (“look at”), does not necessarily mean admiration or reverence. To respect something merely means to stand back and recognize its independent existence and power. I respect thunderstorms. I respect oceans. I respect the vacuum of space. In a different way, I respect someone’s wishes even when they diverge from my own.
The current American policy toward the Islamic world is not a policy of respect. The US does not stand back and recognize the independence and power of the world’s second-largest religious community or the tremendous diversity within it. Ours is a policy of mirror-imaging, of refashioning, of controlling or attempting to control. For almost two decades we have worked hard to make the Islamic world like America, either because we think that’s what good Muslims want or what bad Muslims need. The policy pokes, prods, and meddles in the name of presumed commonality but only serves to repress the autonomous will of the friend we so desperately long to have.
Many conservatives think that all Muslims are Islamists or potential Islamists whom strongmen must dominate and keep in quiet subjection. But liberals are no better. Eager to overcome any talk of difference, they believe the Islamic world is the same as ours (“We’re all humans!”) and can only prosper if we sideline those pesky Islamists and their flawed interpretation of Islam. Sometimes the most self-consciously “pro-Muslim” Westerners are the ones least interested in understanding the Islamic world as it is. Both conservatives and liberals arrive at the same highly interventionist foreign policy by different reasoning, ignoring or actively seeking to curb the region’s popular will despite obvious moral dilemmas.
Our point of departure makes all the difference: If we assume cultural similarity between Islam and the West (which is to say Christendom or post-Christendom) is the only means for good relations, we will craft a policy that crams our moral vision down someone else’s throat with no regard for the vision’s edibility or the eater’s appetite. If we begin from the opposite assumption—that Islamic and Western cultures are not the same and our foundational texts and ideas are at odds on major questions of religion and politics—we will be far better equipped to affirm our views, respect the views of others, and find practical ways to bridge the difference.
Islam is not Christianity; the Middle East is not the West. We share some things, yes, but there is no obvious reason why we should want to be the same. There is, in fact, a strong argument that pretended similarities will only frustrate real coexistence. Christians who believe in the Hebraic God—a deity who limits his own will out of respect for the will of man and the desire for a love that is uncoerced, voluntary, and true—should understand that the potential for genuine disagreement is a necessary condition for real relationship.
A sound American policy toward the Islamic world will be one that starts with a recognition of difference. Christianity, like Judaism, is a subset of Hebraic civilization, which was constructed around a unique set of Hebrew texts and ideas that were bequeathed to the world by the people of Israel three thousand years ago. Islamic civilization is based on a different set of texts and ideas that were developed in and around the Arabian Peninsula fourteen hundred years ago. That the two civilizations share some similarities does not imply that they are two sides of the same coin; indeed, on several basic theological and political questions, they are two very different coins. Even when secularized, Hebraic and Islamic cultures bear the resounding echo of their foundational texts in the wide caverns of social and political life. That should be fine with us.
Having affirmed basic distinctions, our policy on the Islamic world will respect the freedom of Muslims to interpret Islam in any way they see fit. In their official capacity, leaders of the United States of America should not attempt to judge between “good” or “true” Islam and “bad” or “false” Islam. These are theological questions for Muslims to debate and decide. We should recognize that Islam contains within it the raw materials for both tolerance and intolerance, peace and violence. “Moderate” Muslims and “radical” Muslims are equally able to cite chapter and verse to back up their positions, and we have no moral standing to choose between them. We are forced to confront the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi as equally devout, if rival, adherents of the faith. The fact that both excoriate the other should not invite a Western attempt to adjudicate. Only Muslims can decide the substance and future direction of Islam, and to that extent Middle Eastern democracy should be respected—again, I use the word in a value-neutral way—even when its outcomes are different from what we might hope for.
But while we have no right to impose our values on the Islamic world, our policy must proclaim the right to protect our interests from Islam’s most violent impulses. Naturally, our greatest interest is the protection of American lives and the American way of life inside our borders. Also among our interests is the promotion of American values around the world through persuasive words rather than coercive action. One of our great strengths is our success in the realm of ideas and education. The promotion of those ideas and the spreading of that education should be far more central to our grand strategy than it is now.
In addition to promoting our values, the United States has an interest in protecting those who share our values. These allies include not only direct heirs of the Hebraic tradition, Jews and Christians, but also anyone else who subscribes to the basic framework of that worldview. While we have no interest in playing bodyguard, dropping into the Middle East every time one of our allies feels rattled, we should be clear about our right to protect friendships with countries and communities that share our values just as Muslims have the right to do the same. When our friends are in trouble, we should be unapologetic about helping them. That’s what friends are for.
A comprehensive American policy will do (if not necessarily say) three things: recognize the Hebraic foundations of the West, respect the Islamic foundations of the Middle East, and seek to build pragmatic bonds across cultural divides in the spirit of mutual respect. On the domestic front, it must defend the freedom of Muslim Americans to fully live out their faith within the confines of public law in a way that is no different from Christians or Jews or anyone else. That last part should go without saying.
Yet all of this engagement with the Islamic world presumes we first understand what makes our own culture unique. And here we arrive at the real reason why the Ilhan Omar debate has struck such a chord. The duel between liberals and conservatives over the Islamic Question derives from a more fundamental disagreement about the American Question: Who are we, where did we come from, and what do we stand for?
A country that is confused about its own culture cannot effectively engage cultures beyond. The rudderless character of American foreign policy is symptomatic of a muddled domestic identity, and cannot be remedied without a deeper recognition of the Hebraic context of America’s founding. Indeed, the recent clash between Ilhan Omar and the State of Israel may be the foreign policy iteration of a deeper historical drama in which Jews and Christians, still struggling over the meaning of the Hebraic tradition in an era of weakening faith, feel themselves challenged by another, more confident religious tradition that claims to supersede them both.