Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves has been recognized as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  Last week we asked, Who is my neighbor?  This week we ask: How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? And specifically, how does that moral imperative of our faith relate to our politics?

            Sheikh Ali Gomaa is a former grand mufti of Egypt who was a proponent of a common word and who is now an influential cleric at Al Azhar University.  He has condemned those protesting Egypt’s state of repression under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as “putrid people” and riffraff” and praised police and military leaders, saying “The angels are supporting you from heaven.”  That kind of politics doesn’t reflect how we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

            This past week Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, a self-proclaimed “Christian” school, endorsed Donald Trump as the GOP nominee for President and said of Trump, “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.”  If that’s the way Falwell and “Christian” evangelicals understand the greatest commandment, then their hypocrisy is even worse than that of Sheikh Gomaa and other Islamist scholars who offered the greatest commandment as a common word of faith.

            Trump’s outlandish and self-centered lifestyle and his arrogant, xenophobic and mean-spirited campaign represent the antithesis of loving God and our neighbors as ourselves—at least according to the teachings of Jesus.  That’s a no-brainer for anyone who has read the Gospel accounts, but it appears that the “Christian” evangelicals who support Trump don’t put much stock in the teachings of Jesus.  They follow instead the distorted doctrines of evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and his deceased father, who founded the “Moral Majority.”

            At the other end of the political spectrum on religion and politics in the U.S. are those obsessed with avoiding Islamophobia.  Their efforts to avoid any criticism of Islam are in stark contrast with politicians like Trump and Senator Ted Cruz—and their fellow-travelling right-wing evangelicals—who purposely foment Islamophobia to promote their political aspirations.           
            Islamophobia has been defined as “…a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social, and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve “civilizational rehab” of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise).  Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.”

            To characterize Islam as a religion of hate and violence is an example of Islamophobia, but it is not Islamophobic to oppose radical Islamism.  Like Christian fundamentalists, Islamists are exclusivists who believe that their religion is the one true faith and that God condemns all unbelievers to eternal damnation.  Such religious exclusivism contradicts the moral imperative to love our unbelieving neighbors as ourselves and encourages religious hate and violence.

            Advocates against Islamophobia have emphasized avoiding “…combative language (i.e. attack, battle, battleground, fight, etc.)”  and using “…the word ‘harmlessness’—a positive word to express the consciousness behind this initiative—connoting a recognition of the oneness or interrelatedness of all life and an unwillingness to harm even perceived enemies.”  Karen Armstrong has described the history of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as a Battle For God.   Radical Islamism is a fundamentalist form of Islam that motivates Islamist terrorism, so that to discourage criticism of Islamism as Islamophobia plays into the hands of Islamist terrorists.

            Both Islam and Christianity are diverse religions with fundamentalist believers who deserve criticism for how they mix their religion and politics.  The greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves—especially our unbelieving neighbors—is the best test for the politics of Jews, Christians and Muslims.  It requires countering Islamist terrorism with force while supporting progressive Muslims who are seeking to undermine radical Islamism with libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law; and that requires criticizing fundamentalist religions, including Islamism, while avoiding Islamophobia.            

Notes and References to Resources:          

Previous blogs on related topics are: Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 21, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; The Muslim Stranger: A Good Neighbor or a Threat?, October 25, 2015; Faith, Hope and Love in a World of Fear, Suspicion and Hate, December 5, 2015; and Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016.

On Sheikh Ali Gomaa’s praise for President al-Sissi’s oppressive policies in Egypt.  See

On how U.S. support for al-Sissi’s repressive regime has undermined democracy, legitimacy and the ultimate stability of Egyptian politics, see

On Jerry Falwell’s praise for Donald Trump as exemplifying the greatest commandment, see

John Esposito has been an advocate for libertarian values in Islam and linked U.S. politicians like Trump to Islamophobia; and Esposito has asked, Why have we normalized Islamophobia? See

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