The past week has witnessed an escalating political crisis within the New York Police Department, sparked by the revelation that over a thousand officers viewed an Islamophobic film as part of a training exercise.  The Third Jihad (view trailer here) was produced by the Clarion Fund, a New York-based non-profit that first gained notoriety during the 2008 election season when it mailed thousands of unsolicited DVD copies of an earlier, similar film, Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West (view trailer here), to voters in swing states, presumably in the hope of influencing electoral college votes.  New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had denied earlier rumors concerning the widespread screening of The Third Jihad; more shockingly, Kelly himself makes a cameo as a talking head in the film, although he claims that he was not apprised that footage of the interview would be used in the film.   In the wake of the report concerning the screening of the film—Tom Robbins of the Village Voice first broke the story on January 19th—Kelly issued an unprecedented public apology; while Mayor Bloomberg rushed to the commissioner’s defense, a variety of groups, including several Muslim organizations, continue to call for Kelly’s resignation.  Meanwhile, the film’s producers have vigorously redoubled their advocacy of The Third Jihad’s message, claiming that it only presents “the facts.”

The NYPD’s Third Jihad controversy presents many questions for those who track the politics of and about Islam in the contemporary United States.  For instance, one wonders what the airing of such a film in a “training”—presumably a context for teaching tactics and strategies in preventing crime—says about the institutional cultures of American police forces more generally.  As scandals surrounding racial profiling on the part of police officers have consistently underscored, the inculcation of and reliance on prejudicial caricatures of criminals by the police constitutes a threat to citizenship in general.  My concern here, however, is a broader theme related to The Third Jihad scandal:  the Islamophobic conceit that American Muslims pose an imminent threat to American secularism.

A still from The Third Jihad

Unlike its predecessor, Obsession, The Third Jihad is not explicitly about terrorism or violence.  Rather, the film’s central contention is that “much of the Muslim leadership here in America”—to use the film’s own narration—is plotting to undermine American secularism and its cardinal principle of the separation of state and religion.  Within the first several minutes of the film, its narrator, Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim doctor from Phoenix, reveals his post-9/11 discovery in ominous tones:  “It wasn’t until I saw this document, written in America, by American Muslims, that I understood what was really going on:  a strategy to infiltrate and dominate America.”   The weight of this statement rests clearly on the final phrase:  What do ‘infiltration’ and ‘domination’ mean in this context?

If ‘infiltration’ and ‘domination’ indicate an armed threat to the state on the part of American citizens—a thoroughly unlikely scenario, given the historically unprecedented military might of the U.S., both domestically and globally —then this is surely a matter of public concern.  But this is not what Jasser and the producers of Third Jihad have in mind.  Rather, the “strategy to infiltrate and dominate America” that elicits such patriotic paranoia on the part of the film’s producers amounts to a rejection of secularism:  certain American Muslim organizations and individuals reject the privatized model of religion that most (though certainly not all) Americans of other faiths accept and even valorize.

In his comments on the “Brian Lehrer Show” last week Jasser made this point explicitly.  He first asserts that Muslim American leaders in general are not “Jeffersonian democrats,” which begs the question:  Are the leaders of other American faith communities uniformly secularists who preach the rigid separation of state and religion?  Arguably, one of the chief virtues of American secularism has been its flexibility in accommodating communities, beliefs, and practices that do not valorize the Jeffersonian principle of separation.  But Jasser would nonetheless hold American Muslims to a higher standard:

…not every Muslim has sort of bought into the establishment clause…yes they may believe in it as a minority, but when they’re at home in their mosques, are they teaching the separation of mosque and state, or are they saying, ‘you know what, we follow the laws of the land as a minority but Islam is a way of life as far as laws, as far as society, and we want as a majority to have an Islamic state?’  That creates radicalization….evangelical Muslim movements in the West are not about violence, it’s (sic) about spreading the concept of political Islam within our communities.  (My emphasis; full audio available here.)

By Jasser’s own admission, then, the very organizations that The Third Jihad targets are not dedicated to violence.  The question then becomes:  Should we identify the refusal on the part of a minority religious community to accept the establishment clause and the separation of mosque (or church, synagogue, mandir, etc.) and state as a “strategy to infiltrate and dominate America”? I strongly think not.   Such an identification only makes sense if one assumes that any skepticism regarding the separation of religion and politics entails a political project to upend this separation entirely.

The question of how we should interpret the marginal American Muslim voices that do inveigh against the secular separation of mosque and state is unavoidable here.  For Jasser and the producers of The Third Jihad, such voices—and it is always worth noting that they are a distinct minority—demonstrate the fundamental incompatibility of Islam and American secularism.  However, if we look beyond the content of calls for an Islamic state, the relationship between even the most radical American Muslims and American secularism appears far from uniform or simple.

Although some few American Muslims may voice anti-secular positions that defy the Jeffersonian separation of religion and state, their very existence as non-governmental civil society organizations suggests that they also participate in and benefit from the institutional structure of American secularism itself.  In other words, even the most seemingly anti-secular voices within American Islam are affected by American secularism.   Secularism is not merely a political discourse, it is also a system for organizing and transforming religion.  But we can only perceive this transformative power if we refuse to reduce secularism (and its antithesis) to an explicit political position about the role of religion in public life.  Of course, from the Islamophobic vantage of The Third Jihad, such a nuanced rendering of both secularism and religion is neither politically expedient nor conceptually viable.

The producers of The Third Jihad envision a Manichean, either/or world in which one is either a good, secularist Jeffersonian democrat or a fanatical threat to the secular order.  However, given the massive asymmetry of power between the American federal government and American Muslim communities and organizations, such a threat to the secular order is practically inconceivable.  More pertinent, I think, is the following question:  Why is the rejection of the separation of religion and politics on the part of (some, certainly not all) American Muslims necessarily constituted as a threat to American secularism (even if, in fact, it is not)?  The anthropologist Talal Asad provides a clue to the answer of this question in one of his early, seminal articles on secularism*:  “Far from having to prove to existing authority that it is no threat to dominant national values, a religion that enters political debate on its own terms may on the contrary inevitably threaten the authority of existing assumptions.”

The point that Asad intends here, I believe, rests on a distinction between power and authority—although minority religions such as Islam lack the power to rearrange or transform the secular order, the divergent vision of the relationship between political power and religion that certain Muslims forward interrogates the very authority and naturalness of secularism, an interrogation that is easily transmogrified into a paranoid fear of the power of religion.  The notion that Islam or Muslims might infiltrate and dominate America is absurd and based on a misunderstanding of both Islam and American power.  This paranoia does register a real anxiety, however:  Through their refusal to accept the naturalness and desirability of the secular quarantine between state and religion, some American Muslims have destabilized the authority of American secularism.

In conclusion, a few speculative thoughts on the relationship between Islamophobia and the interrogated authority of secularism.  One of the principal complaints that Zuhdi Jasser raised in his conversation with Brian Lehrer concerned the monolithic image of Islam in America—in Jasser’s estimation, the equation of American Islam with its most conservative representatives obscures liberal efforts at ‘reforming’ the faith, such as his own.  It is deeply ironic, then, that The Third Jihad trucks in just such a monolithic image of Islam.

This monolith rests squarely on the tacit association of Islam with political violence.  The pernicious, syllogistic logic of this prejudice is simple:  for the Islamophobe, a) Islam is constitutionally prone to violence, and b) Islam does not mesh with American secularism, therefore c) Islam must constitute a violent political threat to the United States, “a strategy to infiltrate and dominate.”  For all that the producers of The Third Jihad deny that they are criticizing Islam as a whole, the iconography and language of the film strongly suggest otherwise.  It is no surprise that the broad strokes with which they paint American Islam have provoked indignation and anger on the part of countless American Muslims, including many who are otherwise perfectly happy with the secular separation of state and religion.

Jeremy F. Walton is an assistant professor/ faculty fellow in New York University’s Religious Studies Program.

*Talal Asad, “Relgion, Nation State, and Secularism,” in Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, edited by Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann (Princeton, 1999), pp. 181.