In honor of Ramadan, we're exploring the treatment of Muslim minorities in the United States. This week, we asked our contributors to discuss the legal, social, and economic obstacles that American Muslim communities face and to comment on what these challenges mean for the future of religious freedom.
By: Salam Al-Marayati
Speaking to a group of Muslims in New York the other day, I was reviewing texts from Prophet Muhammad on the covenant he signed with the tribes of Medina, in what became the model Islamic state after the Muslims' exodus from Mecca in 622 CE. The agreement is now regarded as the Medina Constitution, which contains striking similarities to our founding US documents. The prophet transformed the tribal order to one of open citizenship. He declared that religious freedom was a cornerstone of his new society: “Jews are a community alongside the believers,” and “they have their religion and the Muslims have theirs.”
What makes us American is our pledge to the Constitution. What makes us Muslim is our promise to fulfill the covenant in the Qur’an. It’s the pledge to principles and commitment to the rule of law that make me a stakeholder in the US Constitution as an American Muslim. I believe that the closest document to the principles of my faith is the US Constitution. Perhaps more people would realize this if they read the Medina Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, rather than being influenced by unfounded commentary on Muslims as intrinsically dissonant with Western values. I am freer to practice my faith the way I want to practice it in America than anywhere else in the world. Indeed, the US government argues for the rights of Muslim women to wear headscarves, whereas European governments argue against it. The US government defends the historical fact that Islam is a religion by defending the rights of Muslims to build mosques, such as the one in Murfreesboro, TN. Socially and economically, American Muslims are integrated into their communities throughout America.
Tribalism and racism erode the sense of both pluralism and constitutionalism. And herein lays the conflict: where religion has taken a nationalistic overtone rather than a pluralistic one; where religion becomes dogma and not ethics; and where religion is an instrument for power and not a vehicle for service. Under tribalism, religion does not become a means to develop understandings or social contracts but rather a force to oppress and avoid upholding promises in the dehumanization of others. That problem exists both in the Muslim world and in the United States. For us as American Muslims, that is where civil liberties become a daily struggle and should be a struggle for all Americans. We are challenged on the political level, when groups promote the notion that Islamic sharia law is nefarious, even satanic. Because Muslims do not belong to the “correct race”—as if a religion is made up of one race—or even the “right tribe,” then we are not measured by the same standards as everyone else in the United States.
I do not look at the anti-sharia campaigns as a legal threat, at least not yet. They will be overturned by the states and US Supreme Court. The campaigns, motivated by the desperation of political party ideologues, are designed to foment fear and drive Christian and Jewish electorates to the voting booths. What I worry about is the constant marginalization of American Muslims and their self-alienation. Marginalization and stigmatization threaten American Muslims' freedom of faith, freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom from intimidation and fear. These are political challenges that will have an impact on us in the future. It requires a desire to work for our political integration in the United States, as well as our social and economic integration. What is at stake is the ability of the US to continue its global leadership with moral credibility, founded in the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Salam Al-Marayati is president and co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
This piece was originally authored on July 7, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.