"When Islam is Not a Religion: Inside America's Fight for Religious Freedom"
Author: Asma T. Uddin
Christy Vines is president of IDEOS Institute.
Religious liberty attorney and scholar Asma Uddin has spent much of her career defending the rights of people of all faiths from suppression by the state. Her inaugural book, “When Islam is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom”, furthers this fight and combines her experience as a person of Muslim faith and her legal and philosophical appreciation that all individuals have a right to religious liberty. Equal parts intellectual discourse and personal narrative, “When Islam is Not a Religion” provides us with an important and timely elucidation of the state of religious freedom in America. Whether you are a person of faith or not, what Uddin does masterfully is help us better understand that the ongoing erosion of religious liberty protections for one faith should concern people of all faiths and none. For to deny even one religious community the protections afforded others is to deny the preeminent constitutional freedom upon which all other constitutional freedoms are based.
For those unclear about the constitutional enshrinement of religious liberty protections, our First Amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” Yet despite debates to the contrary, the courts generally apply a broad definition to the term “religion”. Overwhelmingly, religious beliefs have been protected even when they depart from a particular or traditional theological dogma. In fact, a person does not have to belong to an organized religion or faith community to receive religious liberty protections. A person’s beliefs have been recognized as religious as long as they claim them as being "sincerely held" and they play “the role of a religion and function as a religion” in their personal life. In fact, James Madison defined religion in his moral and religious arguments for the need for religious liberty as “the duty we owe the Creator.”
As a former attorney for the Becket Fund, Uddin spent much of her career grappling with these tensions. In 2014 she was a member of the legal team that represented Hobby Lobby in the infamous Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case - a landmark Supreme Court decision. The court ruled that closely held for-profit corporations could be exempted from a regulation its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law's interest, according to the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) - the first time that the court recognized a for-profit corporation's claim of religious belief. So to say that Uddin has argued for the rights of all faiths (and none) is not made for dramatized effect. Uddin has indeed championed the rights of Protestant Christians, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Catholics and Muslims alike. Yet, despite her efforts, Uddin finds a compelling reason to pen for us a primer on the growing limitations being placed on religious liberty in America, in particular on those of the Islamic faith.
What Uddin argues in “When Islam is Not a Religion” is fundamental to US democracy and the underlying intent of the founders in the development of our religious freedom policy.
Early in the book, Uddin provides us with context for her concerns: “In December 2015, a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Americans favor protecting religious liberty for Christians over other faith groups, ranking Muslims as the least deserving of this right. Eighty-two percent voted in favor of protecting religious liberty for Christians, while only sixty-one percent said the same for Muslims. An August 2017 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that almost one in five Americans believes that, under the US Constitution, American Muslims do not have the same rights as other American citizens.”
What Uddin argues in “When Islam is Not a Religion” is fundamental to US democracy and the underlying intent of the founders in the development of our religious freedom policy. Moreover, she makes a compelling assertion on all our behalf: “As it turns out, because forcing one religious group to earn its human rights ultimately opens the door to diluting human rights for everyone…current anti-Muslim politics pose dire consequences for all Americans.” And she backs these statements up with very specific examples including the controversy and resulting adjudication on behalf of the building of the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, TN in 2012; the “Muslim ban” debates in 2017 and 2018; and, increasing incidents of hate crimes against Muslims, among others.
However, where I find fault with Uddin’s arguments is her focus on the Christian and political right as the main dissenters throughout the book. According to a 2017 Gallup poll of American voters, only 24% of those polled identified as Republican, with the largest group, at 42%, identifying as Independent. Given the data above - that only 61% of Americans voted in favor of protecting the religious rights of Muslims versus 82% for Christians – one would assume that these biases are spread more widely across political and even religious affiliations.
If we are to ever have a chance of bringing to a halt the marginalization of our own identities, we must challenge ourselves to do the same for others. As Uddin points out, there are loud voices coming from the right who desire to push Islam indiscriminately to the margins, and who do believe Islam to be a political and dangerous ideology. And though they are afforded the right to these opinions under the same constitutional umbrella that Uddin argues supports her position, I believe the overwhelming majority of those who oppose religious liberty protections for the Muslim community do so, primarily, out of fear rather than hate.
...the pace at which we consume information is such that we gravitate towards the brief and often attention grabbing headlines with little time spent (understandably) doing a deep dive on any particular subject.
Sadly, there is still too little space for those outside of the Muslim community to dialogue with and learn about the religious and spiritual ethos of most Muslims, almost certainly a result of our tendency to self-select into communities and relationships (and news feeds) that support our own world view. In addition, not only does a large percentage of the media average Americans consume (on both sides) provide little room for debate or nuance, the pace at which we consume information is such that we gravitate towards the brief and often attention grabbing headlines with little time spent (understandably) doing a deep dive on any particular subject.
I do not disagree with Uddin’s critical assessment of the current administration’s attempts to restrict wholesale access to the US Visa Waiver Program by citizens of primarily majority Muslim countries, however, one cannot deny that the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 by the Obama administration (which was previously passed by the House of Representatives as H.R. 158, and subsequently incorporated into the Consolidated Appropriations Act as Division O, Title II, Section 203), also focused on four majority Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, and countries on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list (Iran and Sudan). Foreigners who were nationals of those countries, or who had visited those countries since 2011, were required to obtain a visa to enter the United States, even if they were nationals or dual-nationals of the 38 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program. Libya, Yemen, and Somalia (also majority Muslim countries) were added later as "countries of concern" by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. Prior to this, in 2011, additional background checks were only imposed on the nationals of Iraq.
At IDEOS, our goal is to create a space for dialogue and dissent largely missing from today’s social and political landscape, and to expand the narratives of conflict to better respond to critical questions of society, culture and public policy.
Though I do not assume here to know the full intentions behind each administration’s passing of very similar legislation, a fuller and more beneficial argument can be made, I think, by addressing a more insidious issue: the growing divide between people of different faiths, colors, identities, and affiliations in the US and abroad. And while I do not intend this as an equivocation, I believe that there is a more powerful and fundamental force driving the narrative that Islam, and hence Muslims, are not to be afforded the same protections offered to other faiths; that those practicing the Islamic faith are not deserving of the same religious liberties as those of Christian faith, for example. A commentary about the impending crisis that will result from the continued demonization of difference and the rationalization of nationalistic preeminence would likely get to the true source of Uddin’s angst; and she has a lot to be anxious about.
At IDEOS, our goal is to create a space for dialogue and dissent largely missing from today’s social and political landscape, and to expand the narratives of conflict to better respond to critical questions of society, culture and public policy. As such, we work to equip individuals and groups with the mindset and skillset necessary to positively influence conflict scenarios and environments. Uddin clearly highlights the need for the expansion of narratives around religious freedom and for the creation of spaces to have them, for as she rightly points out, the future of the Muslim community in America is clouded by a political and cultural conflict that is in dire need of resolution. In fact, what is needed even more is reconciliation between all people of peace and life loving faith practices. If, for nothing else, to call out those who would exploit a religious label and spiritual practice for nefarious and self-serving purposes.
What Uddin does skillfully, however, is hold a mirror to the growing culture wars occurring over national identity, migration and religious pluralism in and outside the US. In addition, she examines the shifting tides of culture and identity through the lens of our “first freedom.” To ensure transparency, I will also share that Uddin is a personal friend and a woman of incredible insight and integrity. Her desire to see the Muslim community embraced as equal heirs to the liberties and protections that we as Americans hold dear, and that those liberties and protections remain in force for people of all faiths and none, is a testament to her character and commitment to American democratic ideals. I highly recommend readers of this review read her book for themselves. It is an illuminating and moving discourse on religious liberty in America and well worth the read.
Christy Vines is President of the IDEOS Institute. She is a published writer, international speaker and strategy expert, and has served as an expert and advisor to government leaders and agencies in and outside of the U.S. on issues related to women’s leadership and global gender equality; conflict mitigation and peacebuilding; international religious freedom and countering violent extremism. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Religion News Service, Capital Commentary and Christianity Today.