It should have been a simple question: Last week, Trump counterterrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka was asked by a radio host whether the president believed that Islam was a religion. Instead of coming back with a quick yes – of course it’s a religion – he demurred. “This is not a theological seminary,” he said. “This is the White House, and we’re not going to get into theological debates.”
It wasn’t that he’d been caught off-guard. It was the second time he’d been asked by the same NPR host, Steve Inskeep. The first time, Gorka had evaded the question in a different way: “I think you should ask him that question. I’m not a spokesperson for the president,” he said.
The question has been dogging Trump advisers for months. At a conference in Dallas last August for the anti-Muslim group ACT for America, Michael Flynn, who was recently forced to step down from his post as President Trump’s National Security Adviser, said that Islam was not a religion but a “political ideology” that “hides behind the notion of it being a religion.”
What is going on here? There’s no serious debate, theological or otherwise, about whether Islam is a religion. Any basic primer on world religions will teach you that there are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world; that observant Muslims practice the “Five Pillars of Islam,” by praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, going on pilgrimage to Mecca, giving alms to the poor, and testifying that there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet. I have been a religious studies professor for over a quarter century and I have never heard anyone in my field question whether the world’s second largest religion is really a religion.