Anthony Weiner and ‘Secret’ Muslims

I admit – living in the UK, I think I’ve missed most of the obsession over ‘Weiner-gate’.  I know the general details, but from internet news, twitter, and the internet in general, it appears to be occupying a much larger portion of the shared American psyche at the moment than I’m really aware of.  So I have to say, my first response when I read Richard Bartholomew’s refutation of the accusations that Representative Weiner was a ‘secret’ Muslim was just confusion, as I had completely missed that this was apparently one of the stories being thrown around.

Once I got over the initial wtf? moment, though, I was amazed to find that this is apparently a fairly widely-held theory, at least so far as stuff-on-the-internet goes.

Bartholomew’s refutation hits most of the big points, but there are some smaller ones that I think are worth making.  The first is also the most pedantic – the fact that there’s really very little benefit in trying to guess people’s ‘secret’ affiliation, especially when it comes to religion.  On the one hand, religions are, at their core, a set of privately-held beliefs, and so someone could be something ‘on the inside’ that they don’t present publicly.  But at the same time, most religions have some degree of public ritual involved in being a member of that tradition, and whilst I suppose it’s possible that ‘secret’ Muslims are praying and fasting in secret, there’s very little reason that I can see for why they would bother.  Part of being a member of a religion is being part of the community, and the sociology of religion is always about identity and acceptance – that’s a big part of why people join religions, so doing so in secret would, at least for many people, defeat the purpose.

That fact aside (and the fact, as I’ve said many times before, that really people should be allowed to identify themselves when it comes to their religious beliefs, since no one else can claim to know what’s going on inside their heads!), the whole concern over ‘secret’ Muslims actually has a surprisingly long history.  As a strange-but-true illustration, within the first century of Islam, stories began to circulate in the Muslim world that Heraclius, the emperor of Byzantium at the rise of Islam, was a secret Muslim, who prayed by himself in private in the imperial palace in Constantinople.  It’s never entirely clear where these stories come from or why they circulate, but as Heraclius was a fairly beloved figure in Islamic writing, as in Christian history, it would appear that the stories were intended to give a reason for his good character.

In the case of Representative Weiner, there is a legitimate, albeit outdated, reason why these stories have circulated, namely that he is married to a Muslim woman.  It is the case that according to Medieval Islamic law, although a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman, the opposite is not the case.  Therefore, proponents of the Weiner-must-be-a-Muslim thesis argue, Weiner must have converted in secret in order for the marriage to be legit.

Although this might have been true in the 13th century, it’s hardly relevant today.  The reason why Islamic law prohibited marriage between a Muslim woman and non-Muslim man was that in the Medieval period, the various religious and ethnic communities were often heavily segregated, and it was presumed that, should the marriage end in divorce, any children would revert to the father’s tribe or religious community.  If the father was non-Muslim, the children would effectively be lost by the Muslim community.  Obviously this is much less of a concern now – interactions between various religious and ethnic communities are commonplace, marriages aren’t assumed to be for the sake of procreation, and in cases of divorce, it’s much more likely that any member of the family who wishes to maintain connections to the children will be allowed to do so, and that both parents will still have a say in the children’s raising and education, including their religious education.

Indeed, the final point brought up in Bartholomew’s article, the citation from Weiner’s wife’s Imam, Omar Abu Namous, who apparently encouraged the couple to stay together and seek counseling (much to the amazement of Ben Barrack, who focused on the fact that Weiner was born a Jew to argue that this means he ‘must’ be a Muslim) actually well-illustrates the reality of modern Islamic marriage – although there are still people who focus on the letter of the law, many (I would argue perhaps even most) practicing Muslims today are more concerned with the spirit of the law, how marriage is portrayed by the classical jurists, who obviously understand it as a serious undertaking that requires the commitment and patience of all involved parties.  Although the practicalities of the circumstances change as the world changes, the nature of the union remains the same.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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2 Responses to Anthony Weiner and ‘Secret’ Muslims

  1. Michael Mock says:

    That’s interesting – I wouldn’t have guessed that there was much history at all to the idea of “secret Muslims”, at least in the Western world. I assumed (and I still think) that the whole idea is pretty much just the Red Scare all over again, except updated for the new millenium.

    Heraclius being considered a “secret Muslim” in a good way just doesn’t seem terribly analogous to the way the term is being used now.

    • At some point I’ll try to track down all of the examples, but it’s actually pretty common. In some cases, it’s obviously an extension of the idea of 5th columnist, a concept that appears in almost every political or military work in any period of history – that seems to be the same way it’s used now. There’s also the flipside version, like in the Heraclius story, in which people are believed to be ‘secret’ somethings, but it’s seen as a curiosity or a quirk. A lot of the early Orientalists were called ‘secret’ Muslims, but this doesn’t appear to have been an accusation of conspiracy, more that they were beguiled by their subject.

      I imagine that the Red Scare is actually the same phenomenon – up until the nationalist period, religious conviction was one of the few belief structures that there would be any reason to have in secret. That changed once people started identifying by political ideologies, and so the same rules of ‘secret’ whatever were applied to political ideologies.

      And now I just really want to know if anyone in the USSR was ever accused of being a secret capitalist . . .

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