“It is apparent that despite religious freedom for all in our country, the reality is religious freedom is only for some.” Aisha Rahman, Esq.
On December 3rd, 2015, KARAMAH brought together the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and senior adviser on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights the to shine a light on the true state of religious freedom in the United States and Europe. Ambassador David Saperstein and Engy Abdelkader, along with KARMAAH executive director Aisha Rahman delivered introductory remarks. The ensuing conversation was moderated by General Secretary for the Board of Church and Society at the United Methodist Church, Reverend Susan Henry-Crowe.
This event was set against a backdrop of rising religious freedom violations in the U.S. and Europe. While at an event earlier this year on the nexus between women’s rights and religious freedom, Ambassador Saperstein posed the question to KARAMAH: what can the United States and other countries that stand for religious freedom do to help the cause of international religious freedom? To address this question, Ms. Rahman set the stage for the event by introducing the situation in the United States.
KARAMAH examines the issue of religious freedom, naturally, under the lens of the U.S. Constitution. In her remarks, Ms. Rahman outlined the fundamental constitutional rights that guarantee equal protection of all religious groups in the U.S. The first amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion or impeding the free exercise of religion. Article VI of the Constitution says, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Despite constitutional protections in the U.S., Muslims and other religious minorities are faced with second-class treatment everyday.
Unfortunately, added Ms. Rahman, because of a select few that are committing horrendous crimes in the name of religion, people, institutions and governments are turning against Muslims under the model of “collective blame.” Anti-Muslim rhetoric is on the rise. There have been calls for interning Muslims and not allowing Muslims to run for public office. There have been numerous reports of more mosques and Muslim schools being denied zoning permits to build. In Texas, Colorado and Tennessee, local and statewide coalitions want to ban the mention of Islam in history and social studies books. We have reached a stage where “merely teaching about Islam and its impact on our world history is considered “indoctrination” in religion rather than education.” This certainly has an impact on the youth which is evident in the numbers of Muslim American youth being bullied, profiled and hurt everyday. “The message is clear—Muslim Americans are the ‘other.’”
“We seem to be selective in the injustices we speak against, and we shouldn’t be.” Engy Abdelkader, Esq.
Turning to the situation in Europe, Ms. Abdelkader cited research coming from European organizations indicating that attacks against Muslims are alarmingly on the rise. While she agreed that the Paris attacks caused a severe backlash against Muslims, she chose to highlight freedom of religion violations prior to the Paris attacks. Way before November 13th, 2015, anti-Muslim incidents were reported in France, Belgium, Italy, UK, Sweden…etc. Often times, she argued, “we understand human rights violations and violations of religious freedom in the context of a traumatic response to a specific triggering event, such as a terrorist act.” However, this, she added, feeds into the anti-Muslim narrative that “Muslims deserve the treatment, discrimination, bigotry and prejudice they experience – [that] it is brought on them by their co-religionists.”
According to Ms. Abdelkader, discriminatory laws put in place by some European countries dehumanize and stigmatize Muslims. By banning the headscarf and other “conspicuous” religious garb in public schools, for example, some European countries are denying Muslim women who choose to wear the headscarf a fundamental human right—the right to education. Likewise, the rising job discrimination faced by Muslim men in Europe is an affront to the right to earn a living.
For some reason, said Ms. Abdelkader, “we feel very strongly and speak very loudly on behalf of the right of Muslim women and we do not hesitate to talk about employment discriminations in Muslim majority countries. It is fine as long as the perpetrators don’t look like us, but when the perpetrators are western, when the perpetrators are not Muslim, we become silent.[…]We seem to so be selective in the injustices we speak against, and we shouldn’t be.”
“For a country to say that it values religious freedom is not enough. It’s what happens to people on the ground facing real challenges that is ultimately the test to whether or not there is religious freedom.” Ambassador David Saperstein.
Ambassador Saperstein, whose primary charge is to focus on the global stage, predicated his remarks by explaining that the concept of religious freedom is not just the freedom to worship, but it is also the right to hold, practice, change and profess one’s innermost beliefs including the right to decide what religious garb to wear. Religious freedom includes the right of people to teach, preach, practice, observe or hold no religious belief at all if that’s what they want.
Ambassador Saperstein recognized that while many constitutions promise religious freedom, the reality is often different. “And between the promise and reality there is the aching abyss filled with shattered lives… people victimized, discriminated against, persecuted, oppressed because of their religious beliefs and practices.”
Ambassador Saperstein clarified the difference between the American experience and the European experience in terms of the separation between church and state. He also enumerated countries where religious freedom of Muslims is at risk and cited anti-Muslim incidents around the globe. He also admitted that in Western countries, although a legal framework promoting values of freedom of religion is guaranteed, governmental actions and societal attitudes do not align.
Ambassador Saperstein strongly condemned recent anti-Muslim rhetoric and said that “the language of dehumanization that was illustrated both in the United States and in Europe, gives people permission to engage in hate crimes and discriminatory practices. And when it comes from political leaders or public influencers, then it creates an atmosphere of impunity for such crimes.”
In a nutshell, the speakers agreed with Ms. Rahman that “before speaking about the international community, we need to remember the foundations upon which our country was founded and secure our rights, now more than ever, for our next generation. Only then will we be able to have legitimacy abroad and realize our full potential as a country that stands and was founded on the premise of religious freedom.”