By Heather Weaver, Staff Attorney, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
"While there was no large-scale communal violence against religious minorities during the reporting period, attacks on...Muslims and their places of worship continued, along with incidences of intolerance..."
Pop quiz! To which country does the above quotation refer: (a) India; (b) the United States; or (c) both India and the United States? Technically, the answer is "(a) India," which is now on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom's watch list as a country in need of "close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments." Of course, in light of the rash of anti-Muslim sentiment and activities across the United States in recent months, no one would have faulted you had you chosen "b" or "c."
As Americans, we have long regarded our country as a bastion of religious freedom. The earliest colonial settlers arrived here seeking refuge from religious persecution, and by enshrining the principle of religious liberty in the Bill of Rights, the Founders hoped to save their future countrymen from similar torment. Priding ourselves on this history, we have held our country up as a paragon of religious diversity and tolerance, and indeed, via instruments like the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, declared ourselves a moral authority on the matter. Yet, a survey of the recent treatment of Muslims across the country suggests otherwise.
The Constitution's protection of religious exercise extends to people of all faiths, but with recent attacks on Muslims and the Islamic faith, it would be easy to surmise, mistakenly, that they are somehow excluded from this American promise of religious liberty. While the controversy over the planned Park 51 community center in New York City has played out on center stage in recent months, Muslims in no fewer than 12 states have faced similarly strident opposition to their efforts to build mosques and Islamic centers. And unlike in New York City, where both the local Landmarks Preservation Commission and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have rejected a baseless campaign to block construction of the proposed community center, government officials in some areas of the country have yielded to religious bigotry.
In Mayfield, Kentucky, for example, in response to community outcry, the town's Board of Zoning Adjustment reversed its initial approval of a permit to hold Muslim prayer services in a rented commercial space, citing purported parking concerns. Few, if any, opponents of the New York City community center, who claim that their objections are based solely on its proximity to Ground Zero, have spoken out against this kind of anti-Muslim effort in other states.
Of course, even where the local government stands strongly in support of constitutional protections for Muslims, America's promise of religious freedom for all can hardly be realized if Muslims continue to suffer persecution at the hands of private citizens, who seek to intimidate them into foregoing the exercise of those constitutional rights.
Opponents of a proposed mosque in Temecula, California, picketed local Muslim prayer services, bringing along dogs in a misguided effort to offend those worshippers who consider dogs to be ritually unclean. Some opponents of proposed mosques have gone so far as to say that they believe being a practicing Muslim in America today is no less than an act of treason. The American Family Association, an evangelical organization, declared recently: "Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero. This is for one simple reason: Each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government." Similarly, protestors at the Park 51 site brandished signs stating, "Everything I ever needed to know about Islam I learned on 9/11," a common anti-Muslim sentiment in recent months, while a church in Gainesville, Florida is proposing a Koran-burning event on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks
Let's be clear, those protesting Park 51 and other proposed mosques are entitled to their opinions and we support their right to express them. However, no matter how loud the opposition gets, our government must stand firmly on the side of religious freedom and protect everyone's right to worship, or not, according to their beliefs.
What is not protected, however, are violence and criminal acts. Unfortunately, as anti-Muslim bigotry has intensified across the nation, so too has violence against Muslims and their houses of worship. Since the Rutherford County Commission approved plans to build an Islamic community center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, local Muslims have been threatened, and two weekends ago, someone set fire to construction equipment at the site where the center will be built. In New York, a cab driver was stabbed because he identified himself as Muslim. And just last week, a group of teenagers in Carlton, New York, were arrested after they drove by a mosque hurling obscenities at worshipers during evening prayer, sideswiped a worshiper with their car, and fired a shotgun.
Criminal acts of religious intolerance only serve to distance us even further from the Founders' vision of America as a refuge for people of all faiths. If we are to reverse course and heal the injury inflicted on the Muslim community recently, we have to start in our own backyards. We must demand that our local governments respect and honor Muslims' constitutional rights to religious exercise. We must stand up to friends, family, and neighbors when they are tempted to succumb to fear and religious prejudice. Only then, will we restore our honor, truly realize America's promise of religious freedom for all, and serve as a shining example of religious tolerance and freedom to the rest of the world.