Muslim groups say change in terminology would reflect new, diverse reality
Newhouse News Service, May 19, 2003
Leading Muslim organizations say it’s time for Americans to stop using the phrase “Judeo-Christian” when describing the values and character that define the United States.
Better choices, they say, are “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” or “Abrahamic,” referring to Abraham, the patriarch held in common by the monotheistic big three religions.
The new language should be used “in all venues where we normally talk about Judeo-Christian values, starting with the media, academia, statements by politicians and comments made in churches, synagogues and other places,” said Agha Saeed, chairman of the American Muslim Alliance, a political group headquartered in Fremont, Calif.
The budding movement is largely unformed, and religion watchers question whether it will succeed. Still, the call for new terms shows that words carry huge symbolic importance for Muslims trying to find their role in America after Sept. 11 and the Iraq war.
“These are not just let’s-make-you-feel-good words,” Saeed said. “These are words that define how we’re related to each other.”
Others take offense, arguing that to alter the phrase “Judeo-Christian” is political correctness and revisionist history at its worst.
“A lot of the ideas that underpin civil liberties come from Judeo-Christian theology,” said the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. “What the Islamic community needs to make are positive contributions to culture and society so we can include them.”
Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, said a “Judeo-Christian understanding of things like freedom of conscience and liberty” are embodied in the Constitution. “No offense intended,” he said, “but Muslims weren’t a part of that, even though they’re part of the discussion now.”
The conflict illustrates the power of words, especially those touching on religion, national history and identity.
From its founding to the late 1940s, the United States was commonly described as Christian, a trend epitomized by an 1892 Supreme Court ruling in which Justice David Brewer wrote, “This is a Christian nation.”
According to a 1984 scholarly article by religion writer Mark Silk, “Judeo-Christian” wasn’t used to refer to a common American outlook of values and beliefs until World War II, when the supposedly Christian Nazis and their death camps made future references to “our Christian civilization” sound ominously exclusive.
” `Judeo-Christian,’ which in 1952 looked like an incredibly inclusive term, doesn’t look very inclusive now,” said Silk, now director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, in Hartford. Conn., in an interview. “So we probably need a new term.”
But, Silk acknowledged, “I think Judeo-Christian-Islamic is going to be hard for the public to accept at this moment when you’ve just had people attacking the United States in the name of Islam.”
While “Judeo-Christian” may not be used with the frequency heard in the 1950s, it’s still a part of the vernacular, uttered recently by public officials ranging from Republican Attorney General John Ashcroft to Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat.
The movement to drop or change the phrase has some non-Muslim support, including the head of the National Council of Churches. The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the council, which represents 36 Christian denominations, said he prefers “Abrahamic” to “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” because it “rolls off the tongue a little easier.”
“The more inclusive we can be, the more committed we are to the founding fathers and mothers who struggled with the issue of respect for each other’s religious faiths,” Edgar said. There are other arguments for change, among them these:
• Numbers. The U.S. Muslim population is growing. Estimates are disputed but range as high as 7 million. This compares to an estimated 5 million Jews.
• Commonality. Even though many people emphasize the differences, Islam has similarities with Christianity and Judaism.
“We believe in heaven and hell, in doing good deeds, in following the Ten Commandments,” said Hannah Hawk, a spokesperson for the Houston Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Islamic values are not only compatible with American values, they’re almost identical. I personally believe the most Islamic country in the world is America, where we believe in freedom of religion, freedom of the press and equality of all.”
• Diplomacy. When President Bush mentions “churches and synagogues,” he’s quick to add “mosques,” but many Islamic nations still perceive the United States as a Christian country bent on dominating Muslims in a modern-day crusade. An inclusive change of language could alter that view, said Zahid Bukhari, director of Muslims in the American Public Square at Washington’s Georgetown University. “It would convey a very positive message that it’s not an issue of us versus them because Muslims are here,” he said.
• History. Some assert that African Muslims were among the slaves brought to America, as dramatized in Alex Haley’s “Roots,” a 1976 novel with a Muslim main character, Kunta Kinte. In addition, some argue that Islamic ideas helped shape the European West, which produced the values cherished by the Constitution’s framers.
“What we call Western culture is in fact based on Muslim Middle East culture, but the average American doesn’t know that,” said Sharifa Alkhateeb, president of the Washington-based Muslim Education Council.
Every time Alkhateeb, a consultant for textbook companies and school systems across the country, meets public officials, whether Secretary of State Colin Powell or a small-town legislator, she asks them to include Muslim names and places in their speeches.
“It’s exactly in those little things that people gain recognition as human beings or lose it,” said Alkhateeb.
Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab-American News in Dearborn, Mich., takes an even broader view: “I believe we should call this the United States of America, made up of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jews and others. This stuff about language has to stop. We are all just Americans.”
Mark O’Keefe writes on values and philanthropy for Newhouse News Service.