What is legitimate public expression of religion and where does it cross into extremism? Counter-extremism activist Maajid Nawaz isolates the key factor as control, saying:
“Islamism is the ideology of seeking to impose any version of Islam over society. Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism.”
This definition clearly delineates the problem as political rather than religious.
But sometimes people confuse legitimate religious/cultural expression with attempts to impose Islam. This is partially because some religious practices are, while valid and non-coercive, very public and can be intimidating to those unfamiliar with them.
Here are five examples of where Islam in the public sphere is perfectly acceptable.
All faiths have the constitutional right to freedom of worship in America. But some are suspicious of Muslims who want to exercise those rights by building a mosque.
For example, a council meeting to move forward construction of a mosque in Georgia was cancelled in September 2016. An armed militia group had threatened to show up at the meeting and the council was worried about trouble. The militia made a threatening video. On the day of the meeting, two dozen protesters wearing t-shirts saying things like “Allah is not God,” and “Islam is of the devil” showed up at the courthouse to voice their opposition to the mosque. They did so while openly carrying weapons.
This is just one example of a proposed mosque that faced stiff opposition from residents concerned about Islamism.
“Existing and proposed mosque sites across the country have been targeted for vandalism and other criminal acts,” the American Civil Liberties Union recorded, “and there have been efforts to block or deny necessary zoning permits for the construction and expansion of other facilities.”
In 2012, PEW assessed 53 proposed mosques which had encountered opposition from local residents. Many of the objections were to possible noise, parking problems and other prosaic concerns that frequently greet any proposed new construction. However, some were opposed due to fears about Islamism.
While it is important to be aware of potential extremist preachers and activities (by researching the people and organizations behind the proposed mosque), most mosques are simply spaces for prayer and community events. The U.S. constitution guarantees the right to worship freely. The building a mosque alone should not be looked upon as an attempt to impose Islam on anyone.
Although some Muslim majority countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran impose dress codes, for most (although by no means all) Muslim women living in the West, covering their hair with a hijab (hijab) or longer garment is a choice. Since it doesn’t hurt anyone (John Stuart Mill’s harm principle remains one of the founding axioms of liberalism), there is no reason to try and remove a person’s right to wear one.
Yet sometimes people do target the hijab.
In 2016, a Georgia lawmaker proposed an amendment to the state’s anti-masking law to ban women from wearing burqas or veils while driving. The proposed law was pulled after a massive public outcry. In June 2017, the mayor of the French town of Lorette banned hijabs along with burkinis, an modest swimming suit worn by some Muslim women, in the town’s public pool.
Sometimes things get violent. A 14-year old girl in Georgia reportedly had her hijab ripped off in the street by a man yelling “terrorist.” The incident took place in a April 2017. A different attack in Milwaukee, also in April 2017, saw a man demand a woman remove her headscarf, then beat her when she refused.
There may be logical security reasons to ban full face veils in public, certainly at passport control or in court. But to ban headcoverings completely is an infringement of civil liberties and does nothing to curtail extremism.
It is important that police and FBI are able to do their jobs and for law enforcement can get the information they need.
Yet, at the same time, the American legal system is extremely complex. Talking to the police without a lawyer present is regarded as risky by legal experts, even if the person is innocent. Professor James Duane of Regent University explains how a people can accidentally incriminate themselves and provide information that can lead to them being prosecuted for a serious crime that they did not commit.
Just like any other citizens, Muslims need access to lawyers and legal advice.
Lawyers, however, are extremely expensive. The state provides a certain amount of lawyers to those without the means to fund an attorney. Yet these public defenders are notoriously overworked and underpaid and do not have the time to devote proper attention to each case.
It is therefore vital that citizens have access to community organizations that can provide them with subsidized access to legal representation. For an organization to provide that representation to Muslims is not evidence of extremism or support for terrorism. Rather, it ensures that Muslim Americans have the same 5th and 6th amendment rights as other citizens.
In the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) provided free legal aid to all members of gunman Omar Mateen’s community. Clarion has longstanding objections to CAIR, which was designated as a terrorist group by the United Arab Emirates. See our full factsheet on CAIR here. However, they provided a service in that instance that was necessary, even if it would have been better for someone else to have stepped in and provided it.
Not all religions require the same practices. Devout Muslims feel obliged to pray five times a day and eat meat slaughtered in a specific way.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act stipulates reasonable requests for accommodation of religious requests must be granted, as long as it does not cause undue hardship. Because of the relative vagueness of the law, workplaces have responded to Islamic religious requirements in different ways.
Some, especially Fortune 500 companies seeking to retain top talent, have gone out of their way to be accommodating. Public schools in New York City may soon be legally obliged to provide kosher and halal food to any student who requests them, if a bill was proposed by State Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Queens) in April 2017 passes.
Others have not been so accommodating. An operations manager at a United Parcel Service (UPS) warehouse in Minnesota fired two Muslims workers for taking prayer breaks in 2014. In June 2017 the former employees filed a lawsuit against UPS.
The Star Tribune reports:
“Abdullahi Dahir and Abdifatah Hassan said they had been allowed to pray as needed while at work until UPS hired a new operations manager. That manager refused to let Muslim employees pray outside of regular break times and also warned them against using trips to the bathroom to fulfill their need to pray five times a day, the suit contends. Those who didn’t comply were fired, the suit alleges.”
Sometimes it just isn’t possible to resolve disputes over religious practice in the workplace. In 2016 a judge ruled that a company which terminated 80 Somali meatpacking workers who staged a demonstration over a prayer times dispute did not contravene anti-discrimination law. The dispute had dragged out over some time involving strikes by different groups of workers, including those who were upset that the Somalis were perceived as being given special privileges.
Even where it is not possible for religious practices and the needs of a workplace to find an equitable compromise, it is still not extremist to request to be allowed to carry out religious ritual.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan described “being good to your neighbor, treating others with respect, look after the elderly, get involved in your community, if you’ve got wealth share it, look after the environment” as being “intrinsic to being a Muslim,” in an interview with Christian Today about his faith.
Many Muslims in public life feel similarly influenced by their faith to improve the world.
Imam Abdullah Antepli, head of Muslim Affairs at Duke University, delivered the opening prayer for the U.S. House of Representatives on October 4, 2017. He prayed that God should “empower us and these legislators to further improve the culture of inclusion and welcome to all in our nation and beyond.”
Antepli’s prayer is a clear example of a public Muslim using his faith to support a vision for a better America.
It is inevitable that a person’s faith will influence their worldview to a certain extent. In the best cases, religion drives people to succeed and to create positive change. Muslims who feel that their faith inspires them in this way are not radicals imposing Islam on others, they are simply participating in a pluralistic democracy as fully fledged citizens.