The latest seminar in the American Downfall series discussed the compatibility of Islam with American democracy on Wednesday, Sept. 13.
“We spent time defining the difference between Islam and Islamism or political Islam,” said Aaron Hagler, an assistant professor of history. “The discussion ranged from what is Sharia, what is Islam, to what role does religion have in the American public sphere.”
Shortly after the opening statement by Luke Ritter, a lecturer of history and the founder of the panel, Asem Yasser, a sophomore global business major from Alexandria, Egypt, and one of the participants, said the word “Islamic” should not be applied to groups who act out of accord with Islamic teachings.
Yasser said: “For example, the word ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — that doesn’t mean anything. That just means that they call themselves ISIS, and every time we say ISIS, we’re just reinforcing that narrative, but they are not — whatever they’re doing, it’s not part of any book of Islam. Islam is just based on Quran, the holy book, and Hadith.”
The discussion compared anti-Catholic sentiments of the past to anti-Islamic sentiments of the present.
“When Islam first arose, it was both a religion and a political community in one,” Hagler said. “There’s no such thing as separation of state and religion because initially Islamic polity had prophet Muhammad as its head, so he was both the prophet of the religion and the head of state, kind of like the mayor or the governor — president of it.”
According to a Southern Poverty Law Center article from Aug. 8, 2017, 120 laws designed to shield citizens from Sharia law were introduced in the United States since 2010, and 15 have been enacted.
“Anti-Sharia law bills are rarely explicitly labeled as such,” the article states. “Most legislators include the phrase ‘foreign law,’ and present bills as the solution to a larger influence of all foreign countries and religions.
“However, APPA (American Public Policy Alliance) explicitly says this legislation was created, ‘to protect American citizens’ constitutional rights against the infiltration and incursion of foreign laws and foreign legal doctrines, especially Islamic Sharia Law.’ ”
Seminar attendees also discussed the role of the First Amendment, which provides individuals freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
In the closing anonymous survey, all 17 participants voted “no” on whether Islam is a more violent religion than others, and most voted “yes” on whether they believed Islamophobia had anything to do with the 2016 election turnout.
According to a summary email sent by Ritter after the event, “approximately half of the students identified with some level of natural ideological conflict between Islam and American democracy, in the same way that all religions necessarily conflict with a secular state.”
Hagler said that democratic institutions, more than any other, rely on their informed citizens. He encouraged students to seek venues that challenge their beliefs.
“People tend to visit news media outlets — whether they be legitimate news organizations or just some weirdo’s blog — they’ll visit those that reinforce those pre-existing beliefs,” Hagler said.
“So I think that yes, it is the responsibility of individuals nowadays to go out and find more news than they may think is pertinent to them because I guarantee you, there’s more news that is pertinent to them that they are not seeing.
“It’s not anybody’s responsibility to drag them to something that they don’t want to see. People have to want to do it themselves in order to be an informed citizen, and this is especially important in democracies because the information they have actually has political consequences when we vote.”
Ryann Firestine, a sophomore math major from Dothan who has attended all three fall panels, noted the importance of the issues the panels raised.
“I think that they’re important questions that all Americans should be asking themselves,” Firestine said. “… I think that’s one thing that as a society—or you know, this generation, the Gen Z—I think we are very negligent in our presence on social issues.”
The next panel discussion, according to Ritter, will concern same-sex marriage. It will be led by Joungbin Lim, a philosophy professor, and will take place in the next couple of weeks.