Religious Freedom and American Muslims Today

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This speech was delivered at the California Vision 2020 conference in Sacramento on Saturday, September 23, 2017. You can watch a video of Maha’s remarks here.


Religious freedom is the first right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and the Founding Fathers saw it as fundamental to their vision of America.

James Madison, our fourth President, widely credited as “the Father of the Constitution,” wrote: “A mutual independence between religion and state is found most friendly to religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.”

Particularly relevant today is John F. Kennedy’s response to attacks on his fitness for office as a Roman Catholic where he said: “For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been…a Jew— or a Quaker- or a Unitarian- or a Baptist…. Today I may be the victim-, but tomorrow it may be you…”

Religious freedom as enshrined in the US Constitution reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

There are two parts to this statement: the first prohibits the state establishment of any religious body; the second restricts the government from prohibiting the practice of any religion.

Despite this simple declaration, religious freedom has been a contentious issue throughout our history. Even after the Bill of Rights proclaimed freedom of religion as a founding principle, Native Americans were denied the right to practice their own religions well into the 20th century, while Christianity was forcibly imposed upon them throughout our history.

Also state and local governments continued to establish churches, impose religious tests for public office, and violate religious freedom in other ways. For example, Catholics in the nineteenth century often saw their churches destroyed by mob violence, while governments resisted Catholic efforts to build parochial schools.

And the scope of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty remains contentious even today.

In the famous 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court declared that employers opposed to contraception on religious grounds do not have to offer health insurance that covers contraceptives.

And the courts continue to battle over whether laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violate the religious freedom of those who on the basis of religious teaching are opposed to homosexuality.

American Muslims

It is in this context of ambiguity and challenges to religious freedoms that American Muslims find themselves, raising questions of religious freedom in new ways.

Most Americans are unaware that Muslims have a long history in the US.

Up to thirty percent of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas in the 16 and 1700’s were Muslims, though almost all were forced to give up their religion as other enslaved people did.

Significant Muslim immigration to the US began in the mid-1800’s, mostly from the Middle East.

The immigration reform of 1965, abolishing geographic quotas, led to a substantial increase of Muslim immigration from both the Middle East and South Asia.

Today American Muslims number about 5 to 7 million, and are represented in virtually all occupations, especially, doctors, college professors, lawyers, and, in Silicon Valley, as engineers and entrepreneurs in the tech industry.

Muslim women are the second most educated group of women in the United States, right after Jewish women, according to surveys.

American Muslims are a diverse community of people, more than half of whom were born in the United States, with significant percentages being second and third generation Americans.

40% of Muslims are immigrants like myself who hail from one of 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world.

Their belief system is Abrahamic, meaning they worship the God of Abraham, they follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad who is believed to be following the essential teachings of prophets before him that include Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

Muslims believe in the hereafter, where we will be held accountable for our actions in this world, a belief that speaks to our responsibilities and to the values we share with all other Americans, such as care for the needy, care for the earth and its creatures, care for our communities, our nation, and our world.

The aim of Muslims’ religious practice is fundamentally the same as that of other faiths: virtuous character in all of our conduct.

Islam strongly affirms the importance of strengthening families, advocating modesty in both dress and conduct, and shares many things with other religions, including prayer, charity, and fasting.

Despite its shared heritage and common values with other religions, Islam is one of the most vilified religions in the United States.  It really didn’t come to light until 9/11.  And for that reason negative perceptions about Islam persist to this day. Surveys of public attitudes show that Muslims are the most unfavorably regarded religious group in the country.

Shariah, for example, which refers to divinely inspired values and principles that Muslims look to for guidance on worship and ethics continues to be misrepresented by Islamophobes as a political doctrine aiming at world domination, which is nonsensical, but nonetheless believed by many Americans.

Even the hijab, the headscarf many Muslim women wear as a sign of modesty, similar to the modest dress of nuns and orthodox Jewish women, provokes hostility, and at times, hate crimes.

Some Americans, including some in public office, seem to think that the Constitutional protections of religious freedom should not apply to Muslims.

This raises another question about religious freedom: is it simply a legal principle to be upheld by the government, or it is a fundamental American value? For if it is the latter, then it imposes obligations on all of us, and not just on government officials.

As for the government, at least up until the last presidential elections, the federal courts have done a reasonably good job of protecting American Muslim rights. For example, in situations where local governments have denied mosque construction or expansion, the federal government has stepped in and overturned those decisions. The most notorious was the controversy over the mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where federal agents physically came in to make sure Muslims were able to enter their own mosque.

As for the attitudes and actions of the American people, as I just noted, surveys of public attitudes still show considerable fear of Muslimswhich not surprisingly has led to an increasing number of hate crimes against them. In the first half of 2017, after the elections, hate crimes against Muslims spiked 91% over the same period in 2016.

The worst danger to religious liberty comes when public intolerance and biased government action converge, and that is precisely the situation affecting American Muslims today.  There are numerous cases of local governments denying permits to mosques, which we hope the federal government will overturn.

There are today over a hundred bills banning sharia that were introduced in 42 states since 2010, and 15 have been enacted into law. These laws rest on the distorted perception that Shariah is foreign or dangerous. Well, banning Shariah is like banning Halakha for Jews or canon law for Catholics, the laws that guide Jewish and Christian worship and practice. Such bans are clearly unconstitutional, and yet these laws exist and continue to threaten the religious freedoms of American Muslims.

We now face a far greater danger of this sort. The current Administration has brought the Federal government into this Islamophobic orbit; we have individuals in public office, serving the highest governmental positions in the country, who are openly promoting fear and distrust of Muslims, indiscriminately accusing Muslims of favoring terrorism, suggesting a registry of Muslims in the US, and explicitly calling for a ban on all Muslim entry to this country.

In addition, the current administration seems to be in the process of redefining terrorism as something perpetrated only by Muslims, ignoring—contrary to the views of most law enforcement professionals—the fact that the greater danger is posed by white nationalist extremists, as we all witnessed in Charlottesville. And white nationalist groups are growing in recruitment, especially after Charlottesville.

Where do we go from here?

So where do we go from here when public attitudes and major sectors of the federal government converge to threaten the religious freedom that is our birthright as Americans and as human beings?

Crucial as the First Amendment is as a legal principle, we must recognize that freedom of religion or freedom of conscience goes much deeper than any legal provision. Without freedom of conscience, human beings are not free people.

With this as our starting point, all of us must take the initiative to learn more about this freedom, its history, and the current threats.

We must then resolve to fight back, individually and communally. We need to join and support the various organizations that protect this freedom; we need to write letters to the editor and post and tweet on social media; we need to make clear to our representatives in government that we expect them to uphold religious freedom fully and vigorously.

Learning, speaking, and acting together, we can preserve this fundamental birthright of our humanity.

Because as president John F. Kennedy’s warned us “Today I may be the victim-, but tomorrow it may be you…”

Thank you.