Three Victories in the Fight Against Islamophobia

by Michael Sean Winters

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Islamophobia is one of the uglier sins of our day. Also one of the more prominent. But, a victory was achieved yesterday in the fight against Islamophobia when Chief Judge Todd Campbell of the Nashville federal District Court ruled that the building of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee could proceed. In June, a local judge cited “tremendous public interest” in ruling that the new mosque needed to meet a different, and higher, hurdle from that imposed on other religious building permits. The lead counsel for the mosque was the Becket Fund’s Deputy General Counsel Luke Goodrich.

Earlier in the day, before the ruling, the Becket Fund released a powerful statement on the issue. The letter detailed the campaign of intimidation and violence to which the mosque’s members had been subjected. And, in the finest tradition of American concern for liberty, the letter stated:

We, the undersigned, represent a diverse array of religious beliefs and have disagreements on a wide variety of theological, political, and social matters. But we are united in supporting the right of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to gather in peace on their own property for their celebration of Ramadan.

We deplore the vandalism, arson, and bomb threats directed at this congregation. No congregation of any religion should ever be the target of violence for any reason.

We recognize that the word “sharia” can be used in a wide variety of ways and can be the subject of vigorous debate within our political and religious communities. But shrill, sensationalist rhetoric about “sharia” should not be used as a pretext to deprive Muslims of their right under the United States Constitution to the free exercise of religion.

The line about “disagreements on a wide variety of theological, political and social matters” was evident from the list of signatories, which included conservative legal scholar Rick Garnett and Frank Newball from the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The letter was organized by the conservative Becket Fund but was also signed by the progressive group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. There were Catholic, Baptist, Jewish and Unitarian signatories, among others.

While many Catholics are focused on the HHS mandates and particularly the restrictive four-part definition of what constitutes a religiously exempt organization, we must remember that the situation of Muslims today is more akin to the kind of anti-Catholic bigotry faced by our Catholic forbears. Catholics today are a quarter of the population of the country: There are limits to what any government founded on the consent of the governed will be able to achieve in attacking the Catholic Church. Muslims are still a small minority and, like all minorities, have much to fear not just from a few stray bigots but from the prejudices of the majority. We Catholics face a long-term and very complicated struggle to shape political, cultural and especially legal attitudes about the role of religion in society. Muslims must live in fear of physical attacks, of Molotov cocktails and arson, and other forms of intimidation of the kind Catholics have not faced since the 1920s.

Catholics also have an obligation, rooted in our history, to confront another emerging trope coming from the Islamophobists, the charge of dual loyalty or worse. I called attention two days ago to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s reckless and insidious charge that the U.S. government was being infiltrated by those sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Bachmann and four of her colleagues called for a government investigation into the actions of specific people, including Huma Abedin, longtime to aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The charge of dual loyalty was hurled at John Kennedy when he ran for President in the most crude and irresponsible manner. Kennedy’s response was effective – his speech to the Houston Ministerial Convention explained his intention to keep his faith and his politics as separate as humanly possible. Some of Kennedy’s language was unfortunate, conflating the undeniable idea that religion is personal with the patently un-Catholic idea that one’s religion is therefore private. We do belong to two kingdoms, and the Kingdom of God has first claim upon our consciences. But, most political decisions have moral and even religious significance without engaging the kind of eschatological issues that would properly worry those concerned about civil society. Kennedy was never the Catholic, American equivalent of the Shiite mullahs who rule in Iran. As his sister once remarked when told that someone intended to write a book about her brother’s religious faith, “That is going to be a short book.” But, Kennedy nonetheless had to rebut the charge that he would be prone to undue and inappropriate religious influence, that he would be governed by a dual loyalty, because of anti-Catholic bigotry. Our culture, our society and indeed our Church are still wrestling with where one draws the lines, wading through the cultural estuary where religion and politics meet, as meet they do, the separation of Church and State notwithstanding.

I was heartened to read in this morning’s Washington Post that Sen. John McCain has found his old mavericky self and, yesterday, took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to denounce these attacks on Ms. Abedin and others. His words were magnificent:

“Rarely do I come to the floor of this institution to discuss particular individuals. But I understand how painful and injurious it is when a person’s character, reputation and patriotism are attacked without concern for fact or fairness.”

“[The charges] are nothing less than an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable woman, a dedicated American and a loyal public servant. These attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis and no merit. And they need to stop now.”

In the great, free country of ours, we can and should debate and argue about issues like the consequences for U.S. foreign policy posed by the election of Mr. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the presidency of Egypt. We should also feel free to debate and argue over the policies pursued by the government of Israel, and the role of the religious parties in Israel in shaping those policies – they debate these issues in Israel often with greater vigor than we do here in the U.S.! And, the debate over whether and to what extent religious institutions should be granted exemptions from laws enacted to achieve a compelling government interest is a necessary debate, and one that will change with the times as neither the political life of a nation, nor the religious life of a people, will be static. But, what we must try and stamp out, both to honor our nation’s long history of trying to achieve religious toleration and our Catholic belief in the irreducible dignity of every human person, is bigotry. Whether in the form of a bomb threat against a mosque in Tennessee, or on congressional letterhead coming from the pen of Ms. Bachmann, bigotry must be opposed and, at this moment in our nation’s history, Islamophobia is the principal form of religious bigotry to be confronted. Hats off to the Becket Fund and the signatories of that letter - if people of such diverse political and religious sensibilities can join hands to fight Islamophobia, all Americans can come together to fight it. Hats off to Judge Campbell - he defended the First Amendment from the mob, reminding all Americans that the rights we share are shared by all. Hats off to Sen McCain - he was unafraid to challenge those on his side of the aisle whose false and reckless charges need to be confronted. Three for three in the fight against religious bigotry.

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