Donald Trump’s rhetorical excesses aside, he has a way of pushing us into important debates, particularly on immigration. He has done it again with his bracing proposal to force “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
I have no idea what Mr. Trump knows about either immigration law or Islam. But it should be obvious to any objective person that Muslim immigration to the West is a vexing challenge.
Since we want to both honor religious liberty and preserve the Constitution that enshrines and protects it, we have a dilemma.
The assumption that is central to this dilemma — the one that Trump has stumbled on and that Washington refuses to examine — is that Islam is merely a religion. If that’s true, then it is likely that religious liberty will trump constitutional and national-security concerns. How, after all, can a mere religion be a threat to a constitutional system dedicated to religious liberty?
As understood by the mainstream of Muslim-majority countries that are the source of immigration to America and the West, Islam is a comprehensive ideological system that governs all human affairs, from political, economic, and military matters to interpersonal relations and even hygiene. It is beyond dispute that Islam has religious tenets — the oneness of Allah, the belief that Mohammed is the final prophet, the obligation of ritual prayer. Yet these make up only a fraction of what is overwhelmingly a political ideology.
Our constitutional principle of religious liberty is derived from the Western concept that the spiritual realm should be separate from civic and political life. The concept flows from the New Testament injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.
Crucially, the interpretation of Islam that is mainstream in most Muslim-majority countries does not accept a division between mosque and state. In fact, to invoke “mosque” as the equivalent of “church” in referring to a division between spiritual and political life is itself a misleading projection of Western principles onto Islamic society. A mosque is not merely a house of worship. It does not separate politics from religion any more than Islam as a whole does. There is a reason why many of the fiery political protests that turn riotous in the Middle East occur on Fridays — the Muslim Sabbath, on which people pour out of the mosques with ears still burning from the imam’s sermon.
Let’s bear in mind that permitting immigration is a discretionary national act. There is no right to immigrate to the United States, and the United States has no obligation to accept immigrants from any country, including Muslim-majority countries. We could lawfully cut off all immigration, period, if we wanted to. Plus, it has always been a basic tenet of legal immigration to promote fidelity to the Constitution and assimilation into American society — principles to which classical sharia is antithetical.
So why isn’t that the end of the matter? Why is Trump being vilified? Why isn’t he being hailed for speaking truth and refusing to bow to political correctness?
Because Islam is more complex in practice than in theory.
In our non-Muslim country, there is no point in debating what the “true” Islam says or whether Muslims are at liberty to ignore or reform classical sharia. There may not be a true Islam. Even if there is one, what non-Muslims think or say about it is of little interest to Muslims. Our job, in any event, is to preserve the Constitution and protect our national security regardless of how Islam’s internal debates are ultimately resolved — if they ever are.
With that understanding, it is simply a fact that many Muslims accept our constitutional principles and do not seek to impose sharia on our society. They have varying rationales for taking this position: Some believe sharia mandates that immigrants accept their host country’s laws; some believe sharia’s troublesome elements are confined to the historical time and place where they arose and are no longer applicable; some think sharia can evolve; some simply ignore sharia altogether but deem themselves devout Muslims because they remain Islamic spiritually and — within the strictures of American law — culturally.
For those Muslims, Islam is, in effect, merely a religion, and as such it deserves our Constitution’s protections.
For other Muslims, however, Islam is a political program with a religious veneer. It does not merit the liberty protections our law accords to religion. It undermines our Constitution and threatens our security. Its anti-assimilationist dictates create a breeding ground for violent jihad.
If we continue mindlessly treating Islam as if it were merely a religion, if we continue ignoring the salient differences between constitutional and sharia principles — thoughtlessly assuming these antithetical systems are compatible — we will never have a sensible immigration policy.
I have no idea what, if anything, Donald Trump knows about sharia. I do know that it’s a system we must account for if we are going to succeed in welcoming pro-Western Muslims who will be a boon to our society while excluding Islamic supremacists who want to destroy it.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.