Taken for a Ride? Islam and Religious Liberty

President Erdogan, who is rapidly turning Turkey into a Caliphate, once said that “Democracy is just the train we board to reach our destination.” Is religious liberty also a train that Islamists ride until they reach their stop?

That’s an increasingly urgent question now that mosques are popping up all over the landscape of Europe, Canada, and the U.S. Are the mosque-builders genuinely committed to religious freedom for all, or is religious liberty merely a vehicle for increasing the power of Islam? After all, in those countries where Islam is firmly in power, there is little or no religious liberty for non-Muslims, and the liberty of Muslims themselves is severely restricted. They are not, for instance, free to leave Islam.

What brings this to mind is a 2014 post I came across on the Becket Fund’s website about a dispute over the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. There was a great deal of local resistance to the mosque, which culminated in a legal battle resulting in a victory for the Muslim community. The Becket Fund, along with the Department of Justice, stepped in on the side of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.

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The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty describes itself as “a non-profit, public interest law firm defending the freedom of people of all faiths.” People of faith do owe a lot to the Becket Fund because it has an outstanding record of defending religious liberties. Ninety percent of the time, Becket is on the side of the angels. But its intervention on the side of Islamic societies (there are others besides Murfreesboro) is problematic. The problem is that as mosques multiply, the religious freedom of everyone else begins to erode.

In Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Kuwait, Egypt, and other Muslim countries, the rights of Christians and other religious minorities are strictly curtailed. In Saudi Arabia, churches are simply not allowed. Islamic intolerance of other faiths—especially Judaism—is now spreading into Europe. As Muslims stream into the Continent, Jews are leaving in droves. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, recently asked:

Would you stay in a country where you need armed police to guard you while you prayed? Where your children need armed guards to protect them at school? Where, if you wear a sign of your faith in public, you risk being abused or attacked?

The trouble is, anti-Semitism is a feature of Islam, not a bug. While individual Muslims may be free of prejudice, anti-Semitism is baked into their religion. An ADL global survey found that in the Muslim Middle East and North Africa 74 percent harbored anti-Semitic attitudes. The highest percent was found in the West Bank and Gaza (93 percent), followed by Iraq (92 percent), Yemen (88 percent), Libya (87 percent), and Algeria (87 percent).

Of course, the Becket Fund wasn’t looking at the larger global picture. It was focusing on the American experience with religious diversity, and on the Constitution, legal precedent, and federal law (e.g. the Federal Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act [RLUIPA]). On strictly legal grounds, it may well be that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro had the better case.

It may be time, however, to start looking at the larger picture—not just the evidence of what happens as Islam spreads, but also the question of what kind of a religion Islam is. The Becket Fund piece says “The Muslim community soon faced vocal protests from local residents who claimed among other things that Islam is not a religion and that the First Amendment doesn’t protect Muslims.”

The Becket Fund piece dismisses these views as “hateful.” But isn’t that the crux of the matter? If Islam isn’t a religion—a view held by many thoughtful people—then why should it qualify for religious liberty protections any more than the Democrat Party should qualify?

I, for one, believe that Islam is a religion, but, along with the majority of scholars on the subject, I think it is a hybrid—part religion and part political movement. The question is, what’s the ratio? What if Islam is 50 percent religion and 50 percent political? Does it still qualify for First Amendment protection? What if the religious aspect is only 20 percent? Ten percent? At this point a scholar of Islam is likely to object that it is impossible to divide Islam into ratios. He will say that Islam is meant to be a total system of life in which the religious, political, legal, and social aspects are inextricably bound together. But if that’s so—and most scholars would agree that it is—then Islam is a system that rejects the separation of church and state, a key element of the American founding.

Like Christians, Muslims believe that they should not be excluded from the public square by the government. Unlike Christians, they believe that they should control the public square, and, if possible, the government. As Maulana Maududi, one of the twentieth century’s chief Islamic theorists, put it, “the purpose of Islam is to set up a state.”

But the Constitution is intended to prevent the establishment of state religions. That’s what the establishment clause is all about. Does a religion which seeks to establish itself over all other religions, and actually does so in practice, qualify for the special protection of the establishment clause?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” When you think about it, the First Amendment has remarkably little to say about religious liberty. There is no indication as to what qualifies as a religion and no provision for what to do when a quasi-religion like Islam comes along—a religion that, even by the admission of many Muslims, is incompatible with a democracy.

And then there’s the question of original intent. The founders lived in a country where there were no Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims to speak of. When John Adams said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” what religion and what morality did he have in mind? As I wrote in Christianity, Islam, and Atheism:

For a long time, we have had the luxury of not having to think very deeply about the relationship between our form of government and our religious tradition. Now that mosques are popping up all over, it’s time to ask whether our institutions presuppose merely a generic religion or whether they are linked to a specific religious tradition. The question is, are religions interchangeable? Will any religion provide a proper foundation for our form of government? Or were Adams and the other founders implicitly assuming a Judeo-Christian framework?

And what were the founders intending when they wrote the Declaration of Independence?

According to the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But to which Creator does the Declaration refer? It would make no sense to claim that Allah would qualify for the position, because in Islam all men are not created equal. Muslims, who are described in the Koran as “the best people,” are considered to be decidedly superior to non-Muslims… For the Shafii school of jurisprudence, the lives of Jews and Christians are worth one-third of those of Muslims, while the lives of Zoroastrians are worth only one-fifteenth. In other words, the Supreme Being assumed in the Declaration of Independence is an entirely different sort of being from the one assumed in Islamic law.

The Becket Fund piece ends with an admonition: “No religion is an island. When the rights of one are abridged, the rights of all faiths are threatened.” Well, yes and no. You could just as easily say, “When a certain quasi-religion gets a foothold in a society, the rights of all other faiths are threatened.” This isn’t a hypothetical; it’s a time-tested fact. And Muslim persecution of other religions isn’t just history. It’s happening right now.

Instead of asking what the RLUIPA law stipulates, it might be useful if courts started looking at what history and current events show. It might also be helpful if courts and legal foundations asked some searching questions about original intent and about the nature of Islam.

We can’t afford to continue to blindly declare our solidarity with Islam and assume that it’s like any other religion. That assumption by the way, is embedded in the very first sentence of the Becket Fund piece: “It was supposed to be like any other house of worship…” The theme continues in the next sentence: “Little did they [the Muslim community in Murfreesboro] know that their innocuous plans would incite a maelstrom of violence, bigotry, and an ugly legal battle.

How does the Becket Fund know that the mosque “was supposed to be like any other house of worship”? Numerous mosques have turned out to be centers of recruitment and radicalization. Many have been used as weapons depots. “Innocuous plans?” How does the Becket Fund know that the plans were innocuous? The plan called for an enormous mosque complex—53,000 square feet on a 15-acre plot. Yet there were only 45 active paying members in the Muslim community at the time. Where was the money coming from?

What about the mosque leader? Ossama Bahloul, the imam of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, was raised in Egypt and is a graduate of Al-Azhar University, an exponent of fundamentalist Islam. In an article in the Middle-East Forum, Muhammad Abdullah Nasr, an Islamic scholar and himself a graduate of Al-Azhar, wrote:

The Islamic State is a byproduct of Al Azhar’s programs. So can Al Azhar denounce itself as un-Islamic? Al Azhar says there must be a caliphate and that it is an obligation for the Muslim world [to establish it]. Al Azhar teaches the law of apostasy and killing the apostate. Al Azhar is hostile towards religious minorities, and teaches things like not building churches, etc. Al Azhar upholds the institution of jizya [extracting tribute from religious minorities] Al Azhar teaches stoning people. So can Al Azhar denounce itself as un-Islamic?

Bahloul graduated 4th in a class of over 200 at Al Azhar with honors in the field of Dawa (proselytizing). It makes one wonder if the Murfreesboro mosque is really going to turn out to be like any other house of worship.

Several years ago, conservative essayist Lawrence Auster argued that Islam is sui generis and should not be treated as though it were like all other religions. Because Islam is fundamentally different from other religions, he argued that it should not be afforded the protection of religious liberty guarantees. He wrote:

I believe it is possible that Islam’s First Amendment protections can be removed, through a law or constitutional amendment stating that Islam is both a religion AND a tyrannical political movement, and that as such Islam shall not be considered a religion under the First Amendment.

This, of course, is a radical proposal, and Auster conceded that in the current climate the passage of such a law is unlikely. It’s easy to guess the objections that would be raised. Liberals would yell “bigotry” and “hate,” and remind us of the equal protection amendment. Conservatives, even those who are skeptical of Islam, would worry about the slippery slope—the likelihood that increased regulation of Islam would lead to increased regulation of Christianity and Judaism. The slippery slope seems to be on the mind of the Becket Fund also. The leadership of the organization is made up mostly of Catholics, and the majority of cases it defends concern the religious liberty of Christians. The dangers of the slippery slope are implicit in the organization’s assertion that “No religion is an island: when the rights of one faith are abridged, the right of all faiths are threatened.”

But there are counter-objections to be considered. Auster makes the case that the slippery-slope problem can be avoided by making the legislation or amendment Islam-specific. It should also be noted that the slippery-slope argument goes both ways. If you let Christians wear crosses, and Jews yarmulkes, shouldn’t you allow Muslims to wear the burqa in public places? If you allow Jews to practice religious male circumcision, shouldn’t Muslims be allowed to practice female genital mutilation? If a Catholic priest is allowed to preach spiritual warfare, shouldn’t an imam be allowed to preach the necessity of jihad?

These are thorny questions to be sure, but by not raising them we only ensure that the slippery-slope tilts in the direction of Islam. As I wrote four years ago:

But it’s [Auster’s proposal] worth talking about, if only to help people realize that in Islam we are faced with a unique threat that cannot be fully understood—let alone addressed—within our existing legal and mental frameworks. Do our laws require us to maintain strict neutrality between the religion on which our civilization is founded and the religion that aims to dismantle it?

In other words, is the Constitution a suicide pact? Are religions that officially endorse jihad, jizya, and hatred for Jews just as legitimate in the eyes of the law as religions that abhor such things? These are questions that need to be asked, and promptly. While the Islamists are riding the train of religious liberty to their desired stop, the rest of us are missing the train altogether.


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