• Esmé L. K. Partridge

American liberals are confused about Islam

Published in UnHerd.


With the turning tide of US abortion law has come a predictable wave of anti-religious sentiment. Fearing that repealing Roe v. Wade will bring about an authoritarian theocracy, liberals of all stripes have taken to calling out ‘Christofascism’.


Such vengeance towards conservative Christians is nothing new, but an unexpected topic has been thrown into the latest conversations about abortion rights: Sharia Law. Being something of a culture war staple, these two words seem to trend periodically on Twitter with little impetus, but in recent days have found their way into commentary on Roe v. Wade. This started with a number of posts comparing pro-life Christians to Islamists, including one which asked ‘why does it feel like the Christian version of the Taliban is taking over America?’.


Secular opponents to the pro-life stance are (not for the first time) seeing semblance between ‘Christofascism’ and Sharia Law: both are perceived as patriarchal and oppressive systems that control women’s bodies and threaten human rights, democracy and other cornerstones of their particular interpretation of ‘Western values’.


But soon after, such comparisons were quickly met with backlash and accusations of Islamophobia. Many expressed outrage towards the conflation of the American Christian right with Islam, along the lines of the former being a patriarchal force of oppression rooted in white nationalism and the latter a minority identity which has been victimised by it. Yet most strikingly, these rebuttals were accompanied by a bold claim: that Islam, unlike oppressive and patriarchal white Christianity, in fact allows abortion.


‘Wait till y’all find out that in shariah law abortion is allowed in the first trimester and always if it endangers the health of the mother’, reads one viral tweet. Articles and legal rulings pointing to the permissibility of abortion in Islam have resurfaced. These claims follow a recent controversial segment from a Samantha Bee show in which she interviewed Jewish, Muslim and Catholic women on their religious attitudes to abortion to discover that ‘there is no ban on abortion in Islam’. In general, it seems there is an increasing will to present Islam as taking the more liberal, tolerant approach on the issue.


Theologically and legally speaking, it is true that the abortion issue is more nuanced within Islam than in the politicised forms of Christianity seeking to outlaw it. Islamic law, being comprised of four schools each with their own distinct interpretations, naturally accommodates pluralism (some have even described premodern Islam as a ‘culture of ambiguity’). In any case, it is plausible that some Muslims do not wish to align with the Christian pro-life position and its American culture war-ridden associations, just as others may not align with a ‘pro-choice’ alternative enmeshed in secular liberalism.


But what has brought on the political drive to assert that abortion is more permissible in Islam than in conservative Christianity, or even that Islam is overall more liberal and tolerant than its oppressive Abrahamic predecessor? It could be that we are seeing a strange and surprising reversal of orientalism: the perceived alterity between a barbaric and patriarchal religion, and one that is loving, humanistic, or perhaps ‘Enlightened’.


During the colonial era, it was Protestantism (and later, Western secularism) which viewed itself as upholding a humanistic culture of freedom and liberty in direct contrast to Islam, which orientalists deemed to be a barbaric and ‘backwards’ tyrannical despotism. Throughout the 20th Century and even more so after 9/11, these views persisted, in response to which swathes of sociologists analysed the covert orientalism behind those pitting Islam against the West.


But instead of doing away with orientalist tropes, it seems that some are now reproducing them. When it comes to the issue at hand, we are seeing the same dialectic — a liberal religion which supports personal freedoms versus an oppressive patriarchal theocracy — but turned on its head. Those condemning ‘Christofascism’ and presenting Islam as pro-choice are accusing Christianity of exactly that which Christians accused of Islam for centuries: backwardness. Ironically, all of this remains within the Western paradigm of a ‘good’ (i.e. progressive) religion.


This inversion of orientalism is not entirely novel. Since the 1960s, liberals have often looked to romanticised versions of religions like Buddhism and now, so it seems, Islam, for values which appear to be compatible with their own (even it means undermining what those religions actually hold). Sharia’s entry into pro-choice discussion appears to be the latest incarnation of this. This is not deny that Islam may be more permissive of abortion than those wanting to overturn Roe v. Wade; rather, it goes to show that non-Western religions are far from really escaping the grip of orientalism, even when attempting to do just that.