Once something becomes a political issue, it’s safe to say that productive conversation is going to come to a screeching halt. You don’t have to look far for evidence to support this claim. Gay marriage, abortion, and basically anything you can say about the economy are classic examples. Where there could be legitimate conversation about the nuances of these issues, we instead fall back on well-worn talking points, red herrings, and mudslinging. Oddly, this is the exact opposite of what should happen. Democracy is based on the fundamental premise that we can discern what is true from what is false and form a consensus based on verifiable facts. Without this, we’re simply stuck with a tyranny of the ignorant masses where what’s right is determined by who yells the loudest.
Compounding this is the fact that being a politicians requires one have an understanding of economics, foreign policy, political theory, ethics, history, legal theory, and about a dozen other different disciplines that are essential to the running of a country. These are areas of study that require a life time of learning to come to a proper understanding. But, out of pragmatic necessity, politicians must navigate these waters, either by leaning on the understanding of others or through their own understanding, when deciding on policy issues. I’d claim that this is an issue: just like we want who ever is piloting the plane we’re on to not be reading “How to Fly for Dummies” as we’re taxiing on the runway before lift off, we’d like to think that our politicians should have a solid background in everything that it takes to proverbially pilot our country. At least from where I stand, it just doesn’t seem like that’s reasonable or even possible to ask of our elected officials. The obvious problem with this is that complex issues almost by necessity become oversimplified and polemics replace careful argument.
Islam, when discussed in the context of American politics, runs into both of these problems. It has now been both politicized and oversimplified. As someone who has spent a decent amount of time studying Islam academically, I can tell you with reasonable certainty that politicians – especially those who use buzz words like “Sharia law,” “radical Islam,” and “Islamism” – either get it wrong or stretch the truth to the point that it breaks. Being that I’ve spent the past 5 years studying Islam, 95% of the time when someone talks about Islam, my blood begins to boil. Also being an atheist who was raised Mormon, I know the frustration that comes along with someone misrepresenting or oversimplifying what you believe. Because of my academic background in Islam, a slightly unhealthy desire for learning new things that wont get me a job and my love for telling people they’re wrong, I’ve decided to try to do what I can to help fight against the tide of ignorance in hopes of promoting a nuanced understanding of Islam and its one-billion-plus adherents that will leave us a nation better prepared to tackle what is an incredibly tricky subject.
But before I go any further I have a confession to make: by no means am I an expert on Islam. What I am, though, is someone who has taken numerous classes, read more books than I can remember, and constantly hounded my Muslim friends to answer questions about Islam. Islam is kind of an obsession of mine that I’ve constantly come back to over my academic career. In spite of my less than ideal knowledge, I’m going to use what little information I am armed with to help you navigate what will surely be a political season full of straw men and hyperbole.
So for the next year, I’m going to provide commentary on the various ways that Islam appears in politics. This is going to be one part fact checking, two parts commentary and to top it off there will be a hearty side of unnecessary bad jokes. Hopefully this will serve not only as a way for me to better understand Islam, but also for you to learn something along the way.
Adam Garner is a senior at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign studying philosophy and religion with a focus on epistemology, applied ethics, and 18th century British Empiricism. He is the Vice-President of Campus Outreach for the UIUC group Interfaith in Action, a Better Together Coach for the Interfaith Youth Core’s 2012 Better Together Campaign, and is the head of the Education Committee for the Illinois Interfaith Service Challenge. Raised Mormon, Adam is now an atheist that has one goal in life: to leave the world a little bit better than he found it through the power of rational discourse and interfaith cooperation. When not interfaithing or philosophizing, he enjoys watching cat videos on the internet, finding new Sci-fi shows to become addicted to, and teaching other people how to do handstands.