Religious Freedom in America
62nd Annual Jalsa Salana USA
(July 16-18, 2010)
"Religious Freedom in America"
By Amjad Mahmood Khan
Los Angeles, California USA
"There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, the right way has become distinct from error."
--Chapter 2, Verse 257
A few weeks ago, America celebrated its 234th year as a nation. As members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, we proudly joined in this celebration. For some Americans, a showing of loyalty by American Muslims might come as a bit of a surprise. With America mired in two wars with Muslim majority nations (Iraq and Afghanistan), and recent Gallup polls showing an unprecedented level of discrimination against American Muslims, it would appear difficult for American Muslims to take pride in the country they live in. Yet despite all of the polls and negative media attention paid to Islam in America, there probably isn't a better time in our history to be proud to be an American Muslim. This may sound like a tall claim, but some international perspective might help. Consider for a moment the state of religious freedom for Muslims in Europe over the past few months.
Last November, 57.5% of all voters in Switzerland supported a constitutional amendment banning the construction of any new minarets (an Islam symbol found on Mosques).
Last month in the Netherlands, the anti-Islam Freedom Party of MP Geert Wilders won 23 seats in Parliament. Wilders has publicly demanded that the Qur'an be outlawed and that Muslim women who wear head scarves be taxed.
Last week, the French parliament approved a ban of the burqa (or full Islamic veil) by a vote of 336 to 1. Support for a ban on the burqa is now widespread across Europe, with strong majority votes in Spain, Britain and Germany.
For American Muslims, these European headlines come as a bit of a shock. Compared to European Muslims, American Muslims appear to be progressing much better. U.S. President Barack Obama recognized this very fact in his speech last year to the Muslim world in Cairo. He said:
"Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."
No state in America has laws that ban minarets, headscarves, or any other kind of Islamic custom or practice of the kind France, Switzerland and other European nations seek to implement. In 2004, Oklahoma passed a law seeking to ban the wearing of headscarves in public schools, but a federal court quickly struck down the law as unconstitutional. This past April, Oregon ended an 87-year-old ban on teachers wearing headscarves in schools. What is it about America that enables American Muslims to exercise their faith more freely than anywhere else in the world? My speech this morning tackles this very important question in four parts. First, I will discuss the concept of religious freedom in America. Second, I will discuss the concept of religious freedom in Islam. In so doing, I will underscore the striking similarities between the two concepts. Third, I will discuss how the modern Muslim
world has deviated from the true Islamic concept of religious freedom in profound and tragic ways. Finally, I will discuss some of our responsibilities as American Muslims to champion the cause of religious freedom.
Let me begin by discussing the origins of religious freedom in America.