By Dr. Aslam Abdullah
The newly-elected first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, must not be allowed to take an oath on the Qur`an, says Dennis Prager, a radio talk show host in Southern California. Why? It would destroy the foundations of American culture.
Really, if the culture is so fragile that it would disintegrate by a simple act of swearing in on the Qur`an, then it deserves to be analyzed carefully.
Since the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, and since the constitution is silent on the issue of requiring people to take an oath of allegiance on the Bible, the issue goes beyond the realm of legalities. The debate is about the future of this country and a discussion on changing demographic, intellectual and social realities.
Changes in the demography indicate that America has become the home of religious communities that were considered insignificant in the US only a few decades ago.
Muslims are over six million, Hindus are more than three million, Buddhists are about two million, Bahais are more than a million, and of course Jews are about seven million–and there are also Sikhs, Jains, pagans, atheists and agnostics, who together make up about 15% of the population.
With the exception of Jews, who accept the Old Testament and reject the New Testament, none of these minorities views the Bible as their Holy Scripture. Muslims acknowledge the divine origin of the Torah, Zabur (Old Testament) and Injeel, (New Testament), but believe they have been altered by men. Hindus have a polytheistic perspective, and Buddhist donâ€™t believe in the concept of one God. Bahais view all religions as being equal and add that their leader was the last exponent of a Divine message. 15% of the population is a significant number. Its religious identity cannot be ignored, and certainly commentators like Dennis Prager, (himself a Jew) have failed to recognize its existence.
Socially, these communities have their own religious institutions, and many of them are actively involved in the political arena as well. To expect them to show allegiance to a Book that they donâ€™t accept as a guiding principle in their everyday life is meaningless. Those who demand such an act either do not understand the significance of an oath, or do not take the act seriously. They are either reacting on the basis of their chauvinistic tendencies or their religious bigotry.
However, it is at the intellectual level that debate about using a book other than the Bible assumes much significance, because it is this discussion that is going to have its impact on the future of the country.
There are four different dimensions of the debate on the issue. Some believe the country is founded on Judeo-Christian traditions and the inclusion of any other religious tradition would corrupt the ideological foundations of the state. Then there are those who believe Judeo-Christian traditions are incomplete without Islam. They argue that America should recognize itself as a country guided by â€œJudeo-Christian-Islamicâ€ values. A third group argues that in a secular polity, no religious book should be required for an oath of allegiance, and a fourth believes that everyone should be given the freedom to choose whatever book he or she chooses, to take an oath of any office.
Those who believe in the supremacy of the Judeo-Christian traditions of the country comprise three perspectives. The first one include the vast majority of Americans, who sincerely believe the country is essentially Christian–and the constitutional freedoms primarily refer to guarantees given to various Christian denominations. They donâ€™t view other religions as worthy of impacting the social and cultural life of Americans. They believe others can enjoy freedom of religion as long as they accept the supremacy of the Bible.
The proponents of the second perspective argue that the Judeo-Christian traditions of America are crucial to maintaining the current political system and practices. Most of them realize that there is nothing Judeo-Christian in their theology. Jews, for instance, do not recognize the New Testament and consider Jesus as a false Messiah. However, they accept the supremacy of Judeo-Christian tradition for political purposes. They view Muslims as the most vocal opponents of their political policies and practices. In their view, Israel occupies a central status in the so-called divine politics, and America is seen as a country doing the divine work by ensuring that Israel fulfills the divine prophecy in years to come.
They tend to believe that the acceptance of anything other than the Bible would erode the political support for the state of Israel as other perspectives will gain legitimacy, thus, neutralizing or softening the stand of Americans on its continued one sided support for the state of Israel. It is this paranoia that has driven commentators like Dennis Prager to express his opinion loudly on the issue of taking oath on the Qur`an.
The third perspective within the Judeo-Christian traditions sincerely believes that the Qur`an has no place within the socio-political structure of the country. They believe that through their tireless tirade against Islam, they might intimidate Muslims to renounce Islam or at least to change those portions of the Qur`an they donâ€™t approve of. They view the Qur`an as a book contrary to their conservatism or liberalism promoting hatred and violence. They donâ€™t want to see the Qur`an finding its place in the corridors of power.
When Dennis Prager wrote his piece, he apparently had in mind the support that he would gather from the three proponents of the Judeo-Christian traditions.
And he did. The initial response to what he wrote came from right wing conservatives, political Zionists and extremist right wing groups. Prager knew he would not be able to stop Ellison from taking an oath on the Qur`an, but he could spark a debate about the Qur`an, raising doubts in the mind of average Americans about its relevance to America.
How should Muslims respond to the debate? From a Qur`anic perspective, Muslims can take either of two positions. Either they line up with those who believe that no book other than the constitution should be used for an oath of allegiance or that all books should be permitted for that purpose. Even though some Muslims may argue that the sovereignty belongs to God and by showing allegiance to the constitution they would be transferring the powers to the people who are considered the ultimate power in determining the legislative directions of the country.
However, the outcome of the debate would also be determined on the basis of Muslimsâ€™ outreach in explaining to others, including their opponents, what the Qur`an is and its relevance to America. If they fail in this attempt, they would not just become marginalized, but would become irrelevant to America as well.
Muslims have to realize that some amongst us have distorted the message of the Qur`an for their political gains, some have misused it for personal interests, and some have ignored the call of the Qur`an for justice and peace.
Through their behavior and constant references of the Qur`an they have created a negative feeling about the Qur`an among many non-Muslims. It is this outreach that will help most Americans overcome their fears about the Qur`an.