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Posted by on in Freedom of Religion

My English classroom in high school was covered in posters. Some had grammar rules, some showed pictures of authors, and others featured cats in funny costumes. But the one poster I remember most was a quotation. It read:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

Though I didn't know it at the time, this is a famous quotation from the Christian theologian Martin Niemoller. He was a German pastor who publicly criticized Adolf Hitler during the Nazi regime. Although he remained nationalistic and an outspoken anti-Semite throughout World War II, his criticism of the Nazi party caused him to be imprisoned for seven years in a concentration camp.

After he was released by Allied forces in 1945, Niemoller became one of the first Germans to talk about the guilt of the German people and the sin they had all committed through inaction . He spent the rest of his life as an advocate for international peace.

Now that I'm in my third year of studying religion, that poster-filled classroom seems a long way away to me, but Martin Niemoller's words seem closer and more urgent than ever before. In 2012 there were 5,796 hate crimes reported in the United States, 842 million people worldwide were undernourished, and just a few weeks ago, 60 people were shot in a single U.S. city over one weekend. This must stop.

Now that I work just blocks from the U.S. Capitol as an intern for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, I'm exposed to horrifying statistics like these more than ever. A few weeks ago I attended a conference advocating for equal rights for Arab-Americans with my fellow interns. We sat at a table and a woman shortly joined us. We introduced ourselves and told her we were interns with the CAIR. She told me about some of the work she does and then asked if I was Muslim. I told her no, I'm an atheist going to school in Minnesota. This shocked her and I gladly told her about my journey through the interfaith movement that led me to work at CAIR. But is the fact that I, an atheist, am concerned about Muslim rights so shocking?

When Niemoller died more than 30 years ago at the age of 92, he was still fighting for peace. I cannot begin to compare my effort to his long struggle for peace. I can't even compare it to the scores of people I've met in the last few weeks who dedicate their lives to advancing social justice. But I've learned how the status of one group affects the wellbeing of all.
Atheists like me must stand up to protect religious rights. Christians must stand for the rights of Muslims. Likewise, Muslims must stand up for the rights of their fellow Americans of other beliefs. Every group, minorities or majorities, liberal or conservative, religious or not, should work together to achieve peace. Not because one day they expect the other group to speak for them, but because of the loss they risk if they do not speak now.

In 1963 another international leader penned a famous letter from the cell of an Alabama prison. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."

Which leads me to ask some important questions: What kind of world would we live in if people only stood up for their own rights? Where would we be if all remained silent for any justice but their own? And most importantly: is that the kind of world we want to live in?

The answer, of course, is no. So it's time to do something about it.

Robyn Adams is a religion major in her junior year of college. She is currently working as a summer intern for CAIR's department to monitor and combat Islamophobia.

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Posted by on in Freedom of Religion

It's generally true that most lawmakers are lawyers, or at least are familiar with the law. It appears, however, that that may not be the case in North Carolina, where at least 11 Republicans sponsored a clearly unconstitutional bill that would allow North Carolina to declare Christianity its state religion by arguing that the First Amendment doesn't apply to states.

One of the basics of constitutional law is that the Fourteenth Amendment (the one extending citizenship to former slaves) makes it clear that states are required to follow the U.S. Constitution, at least the provisions of the Bill of Rights.

The relevant section is called the Equal Protection Clause, and it reads:

"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The purpose at the time was primarily to overturn Jim Crow laws, such as the barring of blacks from juries in West Virginia. But it has since been used much more broadly, to protect the infringement of citizen's fundamental rights as contained in the Bill or Rights.

Of course, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and religion. There is no more fundamental right in American tradition than the freedom to worship (it was numbered first for a reason). The First Amendment states, in its entirety:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Key in it is the Establishment Clause, which prevents the government from establishing a state religion.

Again, the Fourteenth Amendment means that states, and their divisions, need to respect all fundamental liberties of their citizens. But this point is apparently lost on some in North Carolina where the resolution with 11 Republican sponsors reads:

SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

The reason for this clearly unconstitutional proposal is to establish Christianity as the official religion of North Carolina and ensure that all prayers offered at the beginning of meetings can be Christian ones. The ACLU recently filed a lawsuit charging the Rowan County Board of Commissioners with breaching the Establishment Clause by having 97% Christian prayers at their meetings, and some in the state capitol are trying to run around this.

Hopefully those with a basic understanding of the US Constitution kill the resolution in committee, where it currently is, but if not it certainly can't be upheld by any federal court. A better proposal might be to require some basic civics classes for the Republican cosponsors. I'm sure CAIR or the ACLU would be happy to oblige.

Todd Gallinger is the director of chapter development at CAIR's national headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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Posted by on in Freedom of Religion

The System Worked for Tennessee Muslims
By Gadeir Abbas

Word count: 502

[Gadeir Abbas is a staff attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil liberties organization. He may be contacted at [email protected]]

This year, the Muslim community of Murfreesboro, Tenn., will likely be able to open its doors in time to share Ramadan together in the mosque they built, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM).

Houses of worship are built and opened all the time, but this one has acquired special significance. In opening its doors in spite of unprecedented obstacles and opposition, the mosque serves as a lasting testament to America's abiding commitment to religious freedom.

The obstacles and opposition to ICM opening its doors were breathtaking. Shortly after ICM received permission to begin construction, a viciously anti-Muslim groundswell rose up to oppose it. The protests were ugly.

Mosque opponents leveled accusations of treason and disloyalty, fueled by the bigoted notion that Muslims are somehow inherently predisposed to violence and subterfuge. The humble mosque even became a campaign issue. While running for governor, Ron Ramsey questioned "whether being a Muslim is actually a religion."

This wasn't the worst of it. Mosque opponents spray painted "not welcome" on a sign announcing ICM's future location. Construction equipment was set ablaze. And there was a bomb threat against Muslims worshiping in Murfreesboro.

Then came the legal assault. Four individuals appeared before state court Judge Robert Corlew, asking him to stop ICM from finishing construction of the mosque. And disappointingly, Judge Corlew turned his court into a circus, allowing the likes of Frank Gaffney to pedal anti-Muslim conspiracy theories as a witness, and attorney Joe Brandon to make outrageous claims that ICM, because of its affiliation with Islam, is a threat to Tennessee.

In a shocking setback, Judge Corlew utilized a heightened "Muslim-only" standard he concocted to prevent ICM from using its mosque. Judge Corlew's discriminatory standard effectively required government to provide greater notice to the public regarding zoning decisions for Muslim houses of worship than those affiliated with other faiths.

Predictably, in applying this discriminatory standard, Judge Corlew found that, for ICM, the government's notice was not robust enough to meet the more onerous standard he created. The judge then refused to allow ICM to receive permission to use the mosque that it built.

All of this is a lot for a single community to handle. But vandalism and violence, discriminatory government acts, and baseless smears--these expressions of religious intolerance will always, to some degree, be present in our society. The true test of America's commitment to religious freedom is not whether discriminatory things happen but how the country's institutions respond. And here, our institutions performed admirably.

The Department of Justice indicted Javier Alan Correa who federal prosecutors believe threatened to bomb ICM. The hate speech of anti-Muslim mosque opponents was countered by more speech refuting irrational fear with rational argument. And Judge Corlew's discriminatory decision preventing ICM from using its building was invalidated just hours after the Department of Justice filed suit on ICM's behalf.

It wasn't pretty, but the system worked. Muslims in Murfreesboro will be able to worship in their community, just as the First Amendment of our Constitution envisioned centuries ago.

-----

ISLAM-OPED: The System Worked for Tennessee Muslims

ISLAM-OPED is a syndication service of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) designed to offer an American Muslim perspective on current political, social and religious issues. ISLAM-OPED commentaries are offered free-of-charge to one media outlet in each market area. Permission for publication will be granted on a first-come-first-served basis.

Please consider the following commentary for publication. CONTACT: CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, [email protected], 202-744-7726 (c)

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