“It is a good day for religious freedom,” reflected Interfaith Alliance President and State of Belief Host Rev. Welton Gaddy’s after yesterday morning’s Senate hearing on “Protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims.” I have to say I agree – though we still have much work ahead of us. The hearing may not have been perfect, but sitting in the room, I was encouraged to see leaders in the Senate (both Democrats and Republicans) make strong statements in support of the Muslim community and religious freedom for all.
The hearing focused on the challenges facing Muslim Americans in their everyday lives, as well as our national trend of anti-Muslim sentiment’s dangerous implications for religious freedom and national security. As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), chairman of the subcommittee, noted in his opening statement, “Guilt by association is not the American way. And American Muslims are entitled to the same constitutional protections as every other American.”
One of the most positive parts of this hearing was that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Ranking Member of the subcommittee, demonstrated that this is not a universally partisan issue. In his opening statement, Sen. Graham reaffirmed the necessity of the hearing and reminded his colleagues and, by extension, the American people, “We must stand up for each other.” At a time when this issue seems to be an increasingly partisan one, I found it particularly encouraging to hear Sen. Graham say that he “will try to do my part as a Republican to let my party and anyone listening know that I totally get it when it comes to freedom of religion and the ability to practice different faiths.” Sen. Graham also spoke to the tension that sometimes exists between freedom of speech and freedom of religion, putting it in a broader context:
“To those who have freedom of speech, it’s a gift given to you by a lot of people who are risking their own lives so when you say things here at home…that create tension based on religious differences, particularly when it’s the Muslim community involved, you’re putting our soldiers at risk. We have soldiers all over the world, a variety of religions fighting in the name of America…at the end of the day, we’re all in this together…”
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) hit on a major point of contention when he questioned whether the hearing was called for at all, saying he was “perplexed by the focus” of the hearing. If, he asked, the focus of the hearing was to be on “the most egregious religious hate crimes,” why did the committee not hear about crimes committed against Jews and Christian?. To make his point, he cited statistics that show a higher number of reported hate crimes against these two religious groups than against Muslims over a nine-year period of time. Though Sen. Kyl is correct in his use of the data and I agreed with him when he said that “all bigotry is to be condemned,” there are several problems with his objection to the hearing on these grounds.
It is both appropriate in response to today’s climate of anti-Muslim sentiment and consistent with congressional precedent that this hearing was narrowly focused to address issues facing the Muslim community in particular. As Sen. Durbin noted, House and Senate committees have in the past held numerous hearings relating to discrimination against specific groups (Jews and Christians included), but yesterday’s hearing was the first held on discrimination against Muslims alone. As our friends at the Anti-Defamation League noted in their written testimony, there is reason to believe that anti-Muslim hate crimes are underreported, making this hearing all the more relevant and important.
Finally, regardless of whether or not they are as abundant, crimes against Muslims are just as heinous as crimes committed against any other religious group – and hearings on what the government can do to stem the tide of bigotry, hatred, and discrimination against Muslims are just as warranted. The government doesn’t just investigate the biggest problems facing our nation; rather, the government is responsible for protecting the civil and religious freedom rights of all, Muslims included.
As Rev. Gaddy noted in his written testimony submitted for the record of the hearing, the anti-Muslim trend we are seeing spans all levels of our society:
“We have seen it in the inflammatory rhetoric in our national dialogue; in the recently-held Congressional investigation into the so-called radicalization of the Muslim community; in state legislatures’ proposals to effectively criminalize Shariah law; and in local debates over whether the building of mosques should be permissible.”
Though yesterday’s hearing was a big step forward, “it is clear that those of us who stand up for the religious freedom of all faith communities have our work cut out for us.”