by Esmé Partridge
Friday, 6
May 2022
Idea
16:42

American liberals are confused about Islam

On abortion, they have embraced a religion they don't understand
by Esmé Partridge
Conservative christians have been labelled ‘Christofascists’ by liberal critics. Credit: Getty

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.

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Harry Child
Harry Child
6 months ago

What is going on with Unherd journalists ? This constant obsession with American society as well as the obsession with LGBT ++++ rights or extreme feminist agendas.is getting boring.
I will not be renewing my subscription.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
6 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

Ditto.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
6 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

American ideology tends to dominate the Anglosphere, unfortunately.

Richard Aylward
Richard Aylward
6 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

Maybe a sizable number of Americans read or contribute to Unherd? Maybe – as this Brit named Douglas Murray points out (among many) there is currently a War on the West. It is a global war and the West is not doing so well. Maybe – if one is on the side of the West like I am – it is vital to understand the enemy that one may defeat them. Maybe, as Mr. Moldbug Yarvin seems to indicate, the global peid pipers are associated with institutions in New York and London. One of those is in America for those of us that recognize quaint ideas like the nation-state and stuff. Maybe, post-British Empiire and prior to the Pandemic and the installation of Joe Biden as Vandal In Chief America may have been considered a global leader on many fronts. Maybe there are actually Americans that care about what goes on in Europe, European views of America, and American views of Europe in the context of a vehicle like Unherd, Finally, maybe what brought us here in the first place was being Unheard against the din of narrative and propaganda where, for example, Americans saw Nuremberg rising on the backs of greed and institutional capture, were being silenced for noticing, and reached out across the pond for others who feared implications. I want to live in a world where I don’t have to care about the agendas of the post-modernists and cultural Marxists. That time may not come in my reamining years.

Richard Aylward
Richard Aylward
6 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

I’ll give you this point – I found your reply to be so stunning that it supplanted my interest in any of the other articles I came here to read. And so far there are 27 up votes. WTF, Unherd readers…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Harry Child

Those issues, like it or not, form a major dividing line within the West, not only the US, and are therefore rather important culturally….

I find it much more disappointing that no one has actually commented with some knowledge on the substance of this article!
Which is all too typical on these fora.

I’d actually like to see some informed opinion on to what extent Islam is, or is not, more liberal on abortion.

Last edited 6 months ago by Andrew Fisher
JP Martin
JP Martin
6 months ago

You’re on safe ground whenever you start writing with the words ‘American liberals are confused about X’.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
6 months ago

Like everything else in Islam, prohibition on abortion appears to be arbitrary. The general rule is that it is not permitted after 120 days. Why 120 days? No idea. But hey, when you’re philosophy is that anything which appears to justify my lusts is good, then I suppose in the particular case, Islam looks like a “progressive” force.

Emre 0
Emre 0
6 months ago

When you have no idea about something it doesn’t follow that it is arbitrary – it rather means you don’t know about it. Islamic interpretation, as far as I know, talks about reception of a soul to a baby at certain point of its life. Before that point, since a baby hasn’t received a soul, it’s not forbidden to terminate.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
6 months ago
Reply to  Emre 0

Which then raises the question, why does a child receive a soul on the 120th day? Why not day 72? Or day 200? Or — and here’s a provocative one — at the moment of conception? It seems I’m not the only one here lacking in the wisdom of Islam.

M Harries
M Harries
6 months ago

Do you know upon which passages the 120 day rule is based? I presume there is no reference as to the differentiation of the foetus between 120 and 115, or any other number? Given the often incoherence of the Quran, it is mind-numbing that it is used as a guidebook.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
6 months ago

Not once does this author allow herself to use ‘pro-life’ for the Christian position on abortion. Several times she gives her ‘pro-choice’ credentials a polish just to stick the knife to these pesky religious nuts who dampen everyone’s sexual, economic and personal freedoms. In the news today, a child born at 23 weeks ‘perfectly formed’ said the parents (Metro 9 5 22 p11) – at an age that ‘anti-life’ proponents would have a child’s head crushed and limbs ripped off to enable the body to be removed from the mother’s womb. You do know that the body parts have to be counted in case the arm or leg got left behind? No? Not interested overmuch? Because it’s just a bunch of cells, isn’t it? Because I’ve got 12 children already and another child would be…[insert excuse] (not thinking of murdering one of the others though).
The womb should be the safest place for a child, not the most deadly. The rank hypocrisy of attacking Christians (anyone) who want those children to live by those who want to kill on the grounds of that child’s developmental age. The ‘anti-life’ denizens scream rare whatabouteries to conflate with the majority of abortions done for convenience sake. ‘O’ they scream ‘whataboutery the mother?’ If you don’t want that precious, precious life you made by mistake or poor timing, let me have her. Don’t you ever wonder at our distress and passion for those beautiful children.
But just you continue your blather, Ms Partridge – never mind the children.

Derrick Hand
Derrick Hand
6 months ago

The fundamental argument over abortion has little or nothing to do with religion itself other than attaching a statement of, “ because God said so” to the end of an argument. The fundamental argument over abortion is whether it is taking human life. And more importantly the most innocent and defenseless of human lives. For people who recognize conception as the beginning of “individual” life, abortion is tantamount to sadistic and horrific mass murder. And then the question arises is it morally acceptable to stand idly by while murder of the most innocent is being done. For them it is an atrocity that transcends the Jewish Holocaust by an order of magnitude. It is just that simple.
Complicating the matter are the issues of the rights of the unborn as well as the rights of the father. And the even deeper matter of human rights, in general. In any society no one is given a blank check regarding rights. While we like to believe that rights come from God the de facto truth is that rights are and always have been negotiable. 

David McKee
David McKee
6 months ago

It’s good to see a fellow SOAS alumnus make such an interesting contribution.

However, orientalism, as Edward Said conceived it, combines a patronising misunderstanding of an alien culture, with the power structures that make the people of the alien culture vulnerable to being rescued, whether they want it or not.

We in the West went to immense lengths to prove Said right, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, well…

Personally, I much prefer Ms Partridge’s reinterpretation of orientalism as cultural misunderstanding, full stop. As she shows, it can work in ways that Said never anticipated.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
6 months ago

“have taken to”; “calling out”; “culture war staple”; “trend periodically on Twitter”; “‘the Christian version of the Taliban’”; “(not for the first time)”; “seeing semblance”; “patriarchal and oppressive systems”; “women’s bodies”; “backlash”; “outrage”; “the conflation”; “the former”; “patriarchal force of oppression”; “rooted”; “the latter”; “yet most strikingly”; “‘wait till y’all find out’”; “have resurfaced”; “recent controversial”; “interviewed Jewish, Muslim and Catholic”; “more nuanced”; “American culture war-ridden”; “has brought on”; “oppressive Abrahamic predecessor”; “we are seeing”; “strange and surprising”; “perhaps”; “during the colonial era”; “these views persisted”; “orientalist tropes”; “dialectic”; “ironically”; “paradigm”; “the latest incarnation”; “this is not deny”; “goes to show”.

All delightfully enjoyed over a cup of tea, no?

Why is ‘Western values’ in italics but not ‘patriarchal and oppressive white Christianity’, from the piece? Western values are Western values.

I hope the swathes of sociologists who were deep analysing the covert orientalists among us took time out to watch some good old movies like Singin’ In The Rain: more so after 9/11.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
6 months ago

Just to add, the same old thing in same old drag. Americans need to enjoy life. They are in a grip of sanctimonious spouting. Life’s too short.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
6 months ago

I’m just in the middle of reading P J O’Rourke’s book “Driving Like Crazy”. I’m really enjoying it. He describes his visit to a NASCAR event in the South and how much fun, joy, optimism there was in the crowd. He concludes, “This country didn’t come from people who worried about the future. It came from people who whipped the future’s ass.”

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

This a million times. I moved to the South six years ago and I love its general happiness and optimism.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
6 months ago

Now there is in oxymoron: American liberal!

Mike Fraser
Mike Fraser
6 months ago
Reply to  Vijay Kant

My current favourite is; Responsible Journalism