Pat Robertson and Crypto-Muslims

So last week, Pat Robertson was discussing the President’s religious beliefs with Erick Stackelbeck on national television, like you do, and mentioned the “chilling” prospect that the President could be a “crypto-Muslim.”

Personally, I found this very surprising, since Pat Robertson has previously said that he thinks that President Obama is an actual, non-super-sekret Muslim.  So I’m not sure why he’s downgraded the President from practicing Muslim to secret Muslim.  Maybe he noticed the President wasn’t praying throughout the day or fasting for Ramadan or really doing anything associated with Muslim practice.

I always find the concept of “crypto-ideology” fascinating, mostly because it’s such a tenacious idea.  It crops up in nearly every time period and in relation to nearly every major ideology.  Crypto-pagans in the Medieval period?  Check.  Crypto-Christianity in the Greek world?  Yup.  Crypto-communist in the 20th century?  Absolutely.  Any idea you consider to be dangerously subversive is an ideology that people are secretly harbinging.  It’s fascinating to me because it represents such a strange perspective on how ideas are communicated.  Ideas are not, as a general rule, communicable.  They don’t transfer between people without a broader context.  In fact, that broader context is really important – if you’re going to become exposed to new ideas, you have to have some way of accessing those ideas, they have to be in a language you can read and understand, you have to have the freedom of time and leisure to absorb them, you have to have the freedom of identity and movement that you won’t just be executed for showing any outward sign of innovation.

And yet, we continually have this idea that people will just hear about an idea and think, “yes, that’s for me!” and secretly adhere.

Certainly, this happens to certainly degree.  Loads of people run around calling themselves “communists” or “Christians” or “libertarians” without any clear idea of what that means.  Ideologies come with their own set of stereotypes, and some people want to have that stereotype.  This is particularly true when something has the stereotype of being subversive or countercultural, because being subversive and countercultural is cool.  Ergo, hipsters.  But if your concern is that these “crypto-whatevers” are going to infiltrate and spread their subversive ideas like a disease vector … then you’ve obviously never met hipsters.  People aren’t taken seriously for liking an ideology because it’s countercultural, and they’re almost never called upon to extemporize on their beliefs.

I admit, my favorite crypto-Muslim story is still one from the early centuries of Islam, one actually perpetuated by the Muslim world in general and by the Abbasid propagandists in particular – that the Byzantine emperor Heraclius secretly longed to convert to Islam.  The stories appear in several places, but the longest and most detailed versions (at least in extant sources as far as I’m aware) are in the universal history of al-Tabari.  The story goes that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent a letter of invitation to Heraclius, inviting him to Islam.  Based on either the letter or (in some versions) a vision or a brief interview with an Arabian, the emperor longs to convert to Islam, but cannot, because he is in dire fear of his people.  So instead he keeps the letter and holds a secret love in his heart for Islam.

Really, nothing much about the stories make sense.  First, the idea that a courier from Arabia would ever have an audience with the emperor of Byzantium is crazy.  He would have met with some stewart, who would have sent him away.  The emperor would be present to receive messengers from other royals, but the Muslims weren’t an important enough group to warrant this kind of reception.  And then there’s the communication problem – the letter could have been translated into Greek, but in all of the versions of the story, the emperor exchanges a few words with the courier.  Arabic had only just come into existence as a language, and it’s very unlikely that an Arabian would speak good enough Greek to be able to convey much of anything.  And finally, he’s the emperor.  Yes, there were coups and revolts in Byzantium all of the time, but the idea of an emperor expressing fear at his people makes no sense at all – emperors were supposed to be all-powerful, and even if they knew they weren’t really (which they probably did, considering Heraclius himself had led a revolt and seized the throne), he certainly wouldn’t announce that fear to some random Muslim courier.  Court politics were everything in Byzantium, and Byzantine royalty knew the power of information as well as anyone.

Again, the context is everything – there’s no context that makes the Byzantine emperor’s secret longing to join Islam make sense.  But that somehow never made the story less compelling.  Willful suspension of disbelief is a powerful thing, and it allows us to believe all kinds of things, including that there are waves of ‘crypto-whatevers’ running around, plotting our downfall.[1]

[1] Whatever.  Hipsters were plotting your downfall before you had ever even heard of them.  Amiright?[2]

[2] Sorry, I just *really* don’t like hipsters.

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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