Sociology and Anthropology

New Claimants to Religious Tolerance and Protection: A Case Study of American and Canadian Muslims

In The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, Arthur A. Cohen questions the notion that a ‘‘Judeo-Christian’’ tradition even exists, and suggests that it is an invention of twentieth century American politics spawned by efforts to form a cultural consensus and, in the process, homogenize religious identification and promote interfaith harmony. The conception of such a tradition is, in Cohen’s words, “. . . mythological or, rather, not precisely mythological but ideological and hence, as in all ideologies, shot through with falsification, distortion, and untruth.’

A political use of the term “Judeo-Christian” has gained particular currency in the latter part of the twentieth century as reliance on certain religious values, symbols and rhetoric in public discourse has both generated and reflected popular approval, the ideal of separation of church and state notwithstanding. Common assumptions about the place of religion and morality in public life are being reevaluated. In an era of greater conformity and consensus-building, ushered in by a general swing toward conservatism in North American politics, an effort is being made to resurrect a shared set of traditional beliefs and values thought once to be the backbone of American and Canadian life. Instead of celebrating diversity and pluralism in North America, the emphasis has been placed on the merits of unity and a shared sense of ethics. Conservatives are engaged in an effort to redefine American values and beliefs and ameliorate what they see as deplorable conditions precipitated by the liberalism, secularity and moral relativism of the 1960s. This corrective impulse is proving to be an important factor in reshaping both the religious and political scene.

It is in this context that the meaning of difference has been obscured. A commitment to pluralism has been an important part of the heritage of North American societies, especially Canada, since their inception and yet what is meant by reference to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition remains ambiguous. Rather than promoting interfaith harmony, the current use of the concept functions to exclude those who are judged to deviate from the social and cultural norm or to be nonbelievers, i.e., persons conceived to be a threat to the bedrock values of America. Observers of the North American religious scene have noted that religion is used as a means of negotiating one’s place in society and establishing identity.4 Public figures appeal to our sense of national identity and patriotism by talking about the United States as a “Judeo-Christian nation,” which, in effect, serves to exclude other religious groups (such as Muslims) and nonreligious groups from the mainstream of American Society.)

What is implied by reference to “Judeo-Christian” is even narrower those who actually mean to promote an exclusively Christian America use it to signify the defense of purportedly Christian-cum-American values and life-style from the inroads of secular humanism. President Reagan, in his 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, warned of the encroaching spirit of “modern-day secularism” and the designs of liberals and “secular humanists” who ‘‘proclaim that they’re freeing us from superstitions of the past” in order to destroy the “tried and time-tested values upon which our civilization is based.7 Allusions to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition of North America are not meant to applaud the religious diversity of our heritage, but to confront the threat of moral degeneracy-real or imagined-embedded in the advance of secular humanism, seen as liberalism under another guise. It is the elaboration of an ideology of “difference,” or a definition of “us” vis-a-vis “them,” of those who adhere to a conservative belief system versus those who do not. Very little, if any, recognition is granted to the content of the Jewish legacy and what is considered relevant-namely the Old Testament prophets -is appropriated and “protestantized” in the narrative of America’s Puritan experience, while the rest is discarded. The impact of this usage on the Jewish population of North America, not to mention the many other faiths, carries profound implications and raises questions about the commitment to the principles of pluralism and tolerance and the concept of religion found in North America.

The reality that this imagined or real struggle between Christian-cum-American values vs. secular humanism masks is one of growth and complexity, both in the number and nature of religious sects that have appeared on the North American horizon of late. Because of this growing diversity, there is a need to take a second look at the developing American concept of pluralism and tolerance.

Post-World War II developments in the religious composition of the United States and Canada, due in part to increased immigration from Asia and the Middle East , declining religious membership in the conventional triumvirate of Protentantism, Catholicism and Judaism and the concomitant growth of secularism, have produced a vastly more pluralistic religious environment in both countries. A diverse assortment of faiths now represents a sizable number of North American religious adherence. Among these the Muslim community is growing the fastest, at a rate that will make it the second largest religious community in the United States by the twenty-first  century.

This paper seeks to shed some light on the quality of the Muslim experience in North America and to document their efforts to become an accepted part of American society. Can America be identified as Judeo-Christian and still accommodate Muslims? The number of Muslim immigrants entering the United States and Canada has more than doubled since 190. During the same period, the number of North American converts to Islam has also risen. This rate of growth of the Muslim-American and Muslim-Canadian populations, combined with the recent wave of religious resurgence in the Muslim world and the popular association in North America of Islamic revival with international terrorism, presents a challenge to the shape of North American societies and their commitment to the principle of tolerance. The evolution of the objectives of the indigenous African-American Muslim community-from black separatism to accommodation and a stronger identification with the global community of “orthodox” Islam-is yet another factor which helps define the diverse Muslim community and Muslims’ claims for greater tolerance within the North American milieu.

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