Muslims and the Left: Can Social Conservatives Work in Social Justice?
September 20, 2017
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*This article originally appeared here. The Trump era has ushered in a new level of polarization leaving already left out groups feeling even more excluded. In navigating political alliances, we need to remain both principled and productive. This essay only seeks to address one particular angle of the Muslim political dilemma, which is the work of justice.
Rewind to 2006. The Democrats saw an influx of moderate candidates who sought to speak to an American population frustrated by two parties moving away from the center and no longer welcoming diversity of opinion in their ranks. These candidates were described by Rahm Emanuel as being “moderate in temperament and reformers in spirit.”  As John Kerry had been freshly defeated, Democrats found it pertinent to return to the assumed centrist politics of Bill Clinton, who despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal, left office quite popular for strong economic policy.  It wasn’t too hard to find Democrats at that time who were closer to being Republican on social issues that still worked within the party. In the late 1990s, most Democrats then would sound like Republicans do today on a host of subjects. Bill Clinton in 1996 said about marriage equality, “I believe marriage is an institution for the union of a man and a woman. This has been my long-standing position, and it is not being reviewed or considered.” 
Today the “Blue Dog Democrats” are a dying breed. Most modern usages of the term “conservative democrat” refer almost exclusively to fiscal conservatism as opposed to social conservatism. Marriage equality is the law of the land with much support from both sides of the aisle. America as a whole has generally moved to the left socially, even amongst moderate Republicans. Muslims are not immune to general societal shifts as the latest Pew findings have shown.  There is a saying that, “It only takes 20 years for a liberal to become a conservative without changing a single idea.”  No one would’ve anticipated the CEO of PayPal, proudly Gay and proudly supporting Donald Trump, speaking to a welcoming Republican National Convention crowd in 2016.  Then again, who would’ve anticipated Donald Trump actually being a serious candidate for President and embraced by social conservatives despite talking about grabbing women by their private parts?
So America’s social views and values, for better or worse, are always in rapid evolution often leading to previously unanticipated political vicissitudes. And that poses a unique problem not only to mainstream Muslims, but to all believers who subscribe to timeless principles.Quite frankly, it’s unfair to ask believers of any faith to eagerly bend to the political winds without honest authentic scholarly reflection on the boundaries of their religious texts in light of developing contexts.
We still have yet to see a President who doesn’t reference their religious beliefs as a primary influencer of their politics. But the religious language of many on the right has run people away not just from religious politics, but religion as a whole. The right has also taken a decidedly xenophobic turn that particularly scapegoats Muslims, and other minorities, for every problem under the sun. This, amongst many other factors, has entirely alienated a community that traditionally voted alongside conservatives. Many Muslims were driven to the left not virtuously out of conviction, but out of feeling obligated to fight back against a party that openly embraced Islamophobic ideals and candidates. And while Muslims are certainly not the only ones feeling alienated by the tea-party turned trump-fever wildness that has overtaken the right, they are the most visibly excluded.
In a struggle to survive, the Muslim community has desperately sought out any candidate willing to embrace it, even if that individual’s platform features fundamental differences with the community’s traditional stances. That in no way is an insinuation that Muslims do not sincerely fit in with the left on a host of issues. As a recent ISPU poll showed, Muslims are the most likely faith community to show solidarity with the Black lives matter movement.  Many Muslims are also economically liberal and have progressive views on healthcare. Bernie Sanders, a socialist Democrat, was able to bring out the Muslim community like no other candidate before.  But the problem with being a community that deals with genocidal rhetoric and a tragic uptick in hate crimes certainly motivated by reckless political rhetoric is that a threatened small fraction of the population is unable to independently express any form of a unique political identity. Because one side has excluded us so blatantly, we instinctively run to anyone else willing to include us.
One major overarching problem with that is that the rising left, while purportedly waging a war on intolerance, seems to exhibit a general hostility to religion that has excluded many of its key voters. But as society is moving more towards secularity, most minorities who are supposed to be championed by the Democrats still feel strongly about religion. In a recent New York Times op-ed titled The Democrats’ Religion Problem, Daniel Williams points out that “While only 47 percent of white, college-educated Democrats identify as Christians, Christianity remains the faith of 81 percent of African-American Democrats and 76 percent of Latino Democrats.” 
Like every community, Muslims are not a monolith by any means. A growing number are willing to adopt unorthodox social positions that are in line with many on the left, and many more have welcomed a libertarian “live and let live” approach. But Muslims do feel strongly about their faith, and if the left wants to secure a long term alliance with the community, they need to fully respect that. The alliance cannot merely be a means of political convenience in opposition to the right.
While believers who reject the bigoted politics of many on the right also are seeking a role in politics, it often seems like the “religious left” is only welcomed if it uncritically embraces secular positions. Liberals have to decide if they’re willing to embrace Muslims and other believers that are not interested in revising their holy texts, but are willing to work together to ensure a more inclusive, just, compassionate society. If Muslims will only be embraced if they abandon mainstream Islamic beliefs, the ally-ship being offered is both insubstantial and insincere.
Coalition building therefore must be grounded in shared, core principles that move beyond identity politics. For many substantive issues facing the American community, these are relatively straight forward. While focusing on human dignity means focusing on bigotry and xenophobia, it also demands of Muslims to have a strong and active stance against systemic discrimination in areas such as healthcare, the environment, education, and employment. Focusing on improving society means tackling head-on the impacts of poverty, of the destructive interventionist war machine, of poor nutrition, of bad policing, of immigration, of climate change, and of the school-to-prison pipeline. These are issues that cut across identities, disproportionately affecting certain populations, and therefore necessitate coalition building. When the work is focused, the ally-ship is clear and the advocacy is unproblematic.
Muslims should not shy away from establishing partnerships out of a fear of compromising principles as principles of justice, of health, of income security, of environmental preservation are core to Islam. It is upon these causes that we must continuously advocate. When seeking to elevate the human condition, it is important to be unambiguous about our beliefs, yet simultaneously unambiguous about our rejection of inequity.
To this end, important lessons can be taken from the Black church, which remains committed to liberation theology while generally maintaining socially conservative viewpoints. The African Methodist Episcopal church being the oldest black church in America, the church of Rosa Parks and those who were murdered in Charleston, still maintains socially conservative positions while remaining at the forefront of social justice work. As Margari Hill recently wrote, Muslims need to develop their own framework for an authentic liberation theology. 
Furthermore, Bernie Sander’s platform, while not flawless, focused almost entirely on the wellbeing of everyone, including those forgotten and left behind. He spent almost the entirety of his campaign on economic grievances minus the prodigious bigotry of Trump. For the most part, he actually didn’t make social conservatives uncomfortable.  He focused on the alleviation of human suffering which is neither singularly liberal or conservative. His campaign certainly had blind spots (particularly on Palestine), but the platform represented a potential refreshing new direction in politics. In that is a roadmap for Muslim Americans and other believers who feel strongly about the growing systemic neglect of a huge swath of the population at the hands of corporate interests.
And yes, focusing on the well being of everyone in society also requires forging alliances with any conservatives who reject bigotry, respect the rights of all people, and actively work to address inequities in society. This includes Orthodox Jews and even Evangelical Christians whose enduring commitment to their faith does not blind them from the responsibility they have to all of society. The present condition of the country requires as many people of different backgrounds and inclinations to be able to come to the table and make a difference together. This work is best achieved when people are comfortable and safe expressing their religion, identity, and views without the expectation that it will be suppressed or checked at the door by either side of the aisle. Unity is possible only with compassionate understanding and inclusion. And as long as this unity is in the pursuit of a more just society, it is fully a cause worth embracing.
The 40 hadith on Social Justice series by Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research is an attempt to create unique frames from the Islamic tradition on how to address these issues: https://yaqeeninstitute.org/series/40onjustice/