Liberty and the Secular State: Guarantors of Religious Freedom for Muslims

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: M. Zuhdi Jasser

Islam’s holiest month, Ramadan, is a time for intense personal and community reflection. As we abstain from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset, we are given an opportunity to feel a new level of gratitude for our blessings, as well as to share more of what we have with the less fortunate. No denials, no excuses.

As Americans, we are free to accept or reject any tenet of our individual religions. Individuals are also free to reject faith entirely without fear of state reprisal. As a practicing Muslim, I fast during Ramadan, observe the five daily prayers, give to charity, read Qur’anic scripture, and adhere to a range of guidelines prescribed by my faith, such as abstinence from alcohol and pork. I have practiced my faith not just as a civilian, but also as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy. I have never experienced any conflict between my American identity and my Muslim faith. If anything, the fact that we have the freedom to practice any religion or none makes me freer to practice my faith with sincerity than I would be in any Muslim-majority society where a particular interpretation of the faith is coerced. In many Muslim-majority societies, the fast is enforced by law or social coercion, prayer times are mandated, and work schedules are modified during the month of Ramadan.

As a Muslim, I must ask myself: Is a coerced practice of Islam as meaningful—and as rewarded by God—as one freely chosen? The logical answer is no, that in order to sincerely practice one must have the choice not to. “Doing good works” requires no personal fortitude if no other option exists. 

Freedom of religion is the first right in the US Constitution because without it, no other right can stand. The Founding Fathers, who espoused a range of personal views when it came to God and faith, shared a common commitment to individual liberty. It was their vision that America would be a nation wherein faith would be a matter of personal choice and the expression of it an inalienable and protected right. It is this understanding that my family embraced as patriotic Americans the moment they arrived here in the 1960s to escape the persecution of Syria’s Baathists. 

Contrarily, while it is certainly true that anti-Muslim bigotry exists—including efforts by some to prevent the building of mosques and to restrict our religious rights—it is also true that we Muslims, like all Americans, are protected by the United States Constitution and a whole host of laws protecting our civil rights. Further, Muslims are not alone. Other religious minorities, in fact, continue to face a much higher level of persecution than we do. According to the FBI, 66% of hate crimes against religious groups over the last decade targeted members of the Jewish community, while 12.1% of these crimes targeted Muslims. Some Muslims point to the rise of “anti-sharia” legislation as an indicator of the oppression of Muslims in the United States. Indeed, bills like the one proposed in Tennessee have been far too broadly written, seeming to make any gathering of Muslims an illegal act. (This bill was later amended). Yet, on the other hand, those bills which did not explicitly identify sharia but more appropriately targeted those foreign laws which violate American standards of gender equality and religious freedom (like the Michigan law) were in fact supported by many Muslims, including our American Islamic Leadership Coalition. On either side of this debate, the American system is designed to give us room to comfortably support or actively dissent against policies and people who fail to fairly represent us. 

Because issues related to Islam and Muslims are so often in the media, individuals with malignant intentions, including both anti-Muslim bigots and Islamist supremacists, will do everything in their power to exacerbate tensions and stoke fear in their respective bases. In this month of atonement, we Muslims must honestly reflect upon the reality of the global scope and scale of religious repression done in the name of Islam (Islamism). Sure, Muslims have every right to advocate for our own civil liberties, but we must not be hypocritical. We must use our freedoms to protect, from the threat of Islamism, the values upon which this nation was founded: individual liberty for all people. We Muslims have a unique responsibility to be at the forefront of efforts aimed at countering the encroachment of Islamism in our private and public institutions, including courts. These efforts needn’t restrict freedom of speech for Islamists; in fact, it is both un-American and dangerous to push abhorrent speech underground, where it can easily foment into radicalism. 

Many Americans struggle with how to react and are rightfully concerned about the growing reach of political Islam at home and abroad by nations and movements empowered by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). There is no getting past the fact that the militants of Al-Qaeda, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, and the Taliban and the larger theo-political movements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat Islamiya share the anti-freedom ideology of Islamism. 

Some rush to condemn anything associated with Islam, from the construction of mosques to the wearing of the hijab (headscarf). Of course, while these things have been manipulated by Islamists, they are not “Islamist.” Rather, they are things Muslims also use and wear as part of our personal faith practice. Conflating personal faith practices with theo-political movements, activists and lawmakers run the risk of both empowering Islamists and contradicting core American values. 

Ultimately, while we need the support of non-Muslim allies, the primary responsibility of reform falls on Muslims ourselves. This Ramadan, we should reflect on how Islamism itself restricts our religious and civil liberties, and how it promises to poison interfaith relations and our engagement with broader American society. During Ramadan, we feel the lack of sustenance in the daylight hours, reminding us how central food and water are to our ability to survive. We should use this month to reflect on the fact that religious liberty, protected by a secular government, is the primary if not the only guarantor of our own religious freedoms. As American Muslims, we have not only the privilege of living in this great nation but also a tremendous responsibility to use our freedoms in such a way that we empower others to be free. By making efforts to celebrate and advance American ideals of liberty and freedom as we do at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, Muslims can help to advance an urgently needed message: that liberty-minded Muslims are the solution to both combating radical Islam and to eliminating the poison of bigotry.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser is the founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an organization dedicated to preserving American founding principles by directly countering the ideologies of political Islam. 

This piece was originally authored on July 9, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/6/28/liberty-and-the-secular-state-guarantors-of-religious-freedom-for-muslims