Religious freedom for Muslims in America has become a significant issue in recent years, as Asma Uddin details in her book When Islam Is Not a Religion. We have seen campaigns in various communities to block the construction of mosques, and spikes in vandalism and harassment against Muslims. (Read CT’s interview with Uddin here.)
Earlier this week, a Baptist church in Michigan canceled an event titled, “9/11 Forgotten? Is Michigan Surrendering to Islam?” due to pushback from fellow Christians and politicians.
“The personal relationships with Muslims, that’s a game changer,” Todd Green, Luther College professor and former Islamophobia adviser to the US State Department, told ThePost. “It tends to make you less Islamophobic.”
Yet surveys from various sources have noted the friendship gap between evangelicals and their Muslim neighbors. More than a third (35%) of white evangelicals knew a Muslim personally in a 2017 Pew Research Center release, fewer than any other religious group, and evangelicals surveyed rated Muslims more negatively than other faiths.
The Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research found in 2017 that 17 percent of those with evangelical beliefs reported having a Muslim friend, while the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) reported this year that only 22 percent of evangelicals say they interact frequently with Muslims. FFEU, led by a rabbi seeking to improve Muslim-Jewish relations, also noted that 1 in 3 evangelicals with frequent interaction with Muslims viewed Islam as similar to their own faith compared to 1 in 4 evangelicals overall.
Is Islam a religion?
At stake is the protection of religious liberty, writes lawyer Asma T. Uddin in When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. Her new book details recent legal cases involving Muslims, arguing that restrictions on one faith community affect the freedom of all.
Formerly a legal counsel with Becket, a leading religious liberty law firm, Uddin has worked with the US State Department to advocate against the former United Nations resolution on the defamation of religion, which was seen by many as an attempt at international cover for blasphemy laws. And through the Legal Training Institute, she has worked to extend the American understanding of religious liberty to several Middle Eastern, North African, and Southeast Asian countries.
Uddin, a Muslim of Pakistani descent, has worked on religious liberty cases at the federal and Supreme Court levels—including the Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor victories praised by conservative Christians—defending evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, Native Americans, and Muslims. Christianity Today, which recently editorialized on why religious freedom isn’t just for Christians, spoke with her on the sidelines of the recent US State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
CT: American evangelicals are often concerned that Christians have their religious liberty threatened around the world, often in Muslim-majority nations. The focus of your book is Muslim religious liberty, threatened in the United States. What sorts of challenges do Muslims face in America?
Uddin: I think it’s important to point out that the book doesn’t just look at attacks on Muslims. The book looks broadly at the attack on religious freedom, seen through the prism of attacks on Muslims. I discuss violence against churches, synagogues, and Sikh temples.
But in terms of threats to Muslim religious freedom specifically, I look at the nationwide anti-mosque controversy, which started in earnest after the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” fiasco. From there, it spread to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which was the first community to be affected while attempting to build a mosque. That’s where the claim was made that Islam is not a religion.
To this day, there are ongoing struggles to build mosques. It’s not just litigation, but also arson and fire bombing. There is even a question about Muslim cemeteries, to the point where American Muslims are unable to bury their dead. That’s the challenge we’re facing to our human dignity.
I also look at the so-called anti-Sharia laws that now have been proposed in 43 states: 217 bills as of 2017. The movement continues in full force accompanied by “marches against Sharia” (religious laws based on Islam), where we see people taking to the streets. And not that long ago, there was a murderous attack in public transportation of two men who came to the defense of two women in headscarves.
As one of the few Muslims in Gig Harbor, I am aware of the need for understanding among different religions. I realize that many people in my community do not know much about Muslims.
A person once voiced a misconception to me about my religion being terrible to women: “Islam doesn’t give any respect to women.” This really hurt me.
It was just one of many comments and statements of ignorance I have faced while being a minority Muslim in America today. That’s why I set out to promote understanding and greater dialogue in my community.
However, as I grew older, and thanks to my religion classes, I came to see it as symbolic rather than literal.
We all have our misconceptions, but it’s how we choose to seek out knowledge and use it to correct ourselves that matters.
In today’s political climate, understanding within our community is needed more than ever. With that in mind, I decided to host an event to promote understanding across faiths.
The discussion took place Aug. 30 at the Lakewood public library and involved eight women of faith. What they said surprised me.
The participants were three Muslims from The Islamic Center of Tacoma, three Christians from The United Church of Christ on Fox Island, one Catholic from St. Charles Borromeo parish and one Jehovah’s Witness.
Each woman was very friendly and genuinely interested in authentic, meaningful conversations.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf speaks during a fund raising event at the Alliance Francis in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on July 2, 2015 [File: AP/Kamran Jebreili] [Daylife]
There was a time when Islam was a revolutionary force in America. Decades ago, “Muslim” was a political identity grounded in an ethos of dissent, exemplified by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Being Muslim meant standing up against white supremacy and global empire, whether in Alabama or Vietnam; it meant standing in solidarity with the struggles of black and brown people everywhere.
Today, many American Muslims eagerly claim the legacy of brothers Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X as their own, but lack the political courage and moral integrity by which they lived.
We have become a community without a principled political vision, impotent in the face of state oppression: the continuous FBI surveillance and entrapment and ever-expanding anti-Muslim legislation. Not only are we unable to organise on these issues, but we have also lost the common ethical ground that could unite us around a common political vision and action.
Until recently, despite the divisions within the community, the Muslim American community seemed united at least in its opposition to the Trump administration; that appeared to be the lowest common denominator of a shared American Muslim political identity. But then on July 8, Secretary of State and top Islamophobe Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights to advise the Trump administration – a serial human rights violator – on human rights. One of our most prominent leaders, Hamza Yusuf, accepted to become part of the theatrics.
On a Friday afternoon after prayers, 17-year-old Haneen Jaber filled out a form on the patio of the Muslim Society of Memphis.
About to turn 18, Jaber was registering to vote.
“A lot of the things that are going on in the government are made by the decision of the people,” Jaber said. “Don’t just stay in the back. Be up there in the front. That’s what you should do as an American. I believe I should put my part in and decide on good choices for America.”
Jaber was one of many Muslims around the country registering to vote as part of National Muslim Voter Registration Day. In Memphis, the American Muslim Advisory Council is holding registration drives at five area mosques, trying to increase civic engagement before the municipal elections in October.
The National Muslim Voter Registration Day is part of the #MyMuslimVote campaign, also taking place across the country.
Najmun Noor, West Tennessee program manager for the American Muslim Advisory Council, said Muslims around the world feel “beleaguered.”
“Others look at us differently,” Noor said. “This is a time (when) we want our voices to be heard (and) at the same time our rights to be established.”
Mariam Khayata, a political science and international studies major at Rhodes College, has done registration drives in previous years. There’s a realization among Muslims that they need to become more active in U.S. elections, she said.
What’s your superpower?
Participants at ISNACON’19 are invited to take a deep dive — to discover their passions and strengths, as well as the paths they can take to make a positive impact.
ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America, seeks to unify the Muslim population and create a better understanding of the religion, while also building interfaith relations and increasing civic engagement.
Slated for Labor Day weekend, from Friday to Sept. 2, ISNACON’19 will be held at George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston.
Each conference has a theme — this year’s is about how superpowers are not just überspecial abilities found in science fiction and comic books. Instead, each individual has unique characteristics and gifts.
The conference was designed to pull out these special traits and inspire and empower attendees. Special guests include presidential candidates and a popular late-night talk-show host.