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Over the land of the free

I write this week from the United States, as Muslims around the world and in America celebrate the beginning of Ramadan.
However, it is important not to forget those Muslims who are being prevented from taking part in this celebration, because of ignorance and religious bigotry. There are several places around the world where this is happening, but it is especially surprising to see it in the United States of America, a country founded on religious tolerance.
Americans pride themselves on the freedoms their constitution guarantees. Chief among them are freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of expression. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits restrictions on freedom of religion, and that was done in 1789, or 159 years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. As such Americans were pioneers in setting the bar so high. The First Amendment may be America’s greatest contribution to the cause of human rights.
One main reason for America’s belief in religious freedom is that any early Americans were religious refugees escaping the religious persecution and sectarian wars of Europe. They were determined to avert such conflicts in their new country. While still under British rule, a number of states passed laws that specifically safeguarded freedom of religion. For example, as early as 1649, Maryland passed the path-making Toleration Act, which explicitly stated: “No person ... shall be troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.” There were setbacks before the War of Independence in 1776, as Protestants sought to restrict Catholics’ practice of their faith. Therefore, America’s Founding Fathers sought to prevent such sliding back on religious freedom. When drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they were keen to enshrine in them the principle of religious freedom.
Reconciling faith and the Constitution took some efforts, and time, but it was generally agreed that freedom of religion should include freedom to worship according to one’s conscience and to bring up children in the faith of their parents; freedom to preach, educate, publish and carry on missionary activities; and freedom to organize with others, and to acquire and hold property, for these purposes.
That is the theory of religious freedom in the US, but practice deviated somewhat and religious minorities time and again have had to assert their constitutionally protected religious freedom. Congress, subject to political cycles and the need to placate majorities to secure election of its members, have not been always quick to move to safeguard religious freedom for minorities, leaving that task to courts, which are generally less affected by political cycles.
With this long history of religious freedom, and seemingly iron-clad constitutional guarantees of freedom to worship, it is surprising to see how Muslim Americans are being treated by their fellow Americans in several parts of the country. One recent case of blatant interference in Muslims’ freedom to worship is a case in Tennessee where Muslims have been prevented from completing the building of a new mosque. In the city of Murfreesboro in the southern state of Tennessee, opponents have succeeded over the past two years in stopping the construction of a new mosque for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. They have used violence, harassment and smear tactics to prevent the completion of this mosque.
Last Wednesday (July 18), a federal judge ruled that Muslims have the right to worship there as soon as the building is ready. While Muslims welcomed the judge’s ruling, in practice the decision has only stated the obvious about their “right” to worship there, but conditioned it to “as soon as the building is ready.” The building is prevented from becoming ready by a variety of spurious legal and administrative challenges based on guilt by association and bogus claims. The old mosque in Murfreesboro was built some 30 years ago and is no longer large enough to accommodate the growing Muslim community. However, when the community started construction of the new larger building, there was strong opposition by some extremist fringe that took the form of frivolous lawsuits, hostile rallies, bomb threats, vandalism and arson.
The Muslim community was upbeat after the judge’s ruling on Wednesday, and some of its leaders said that they expected to start using the new mosque very soon. They were also buoyed by support of their fellow Tennesseans and Americans at large. But the fight is far from over. There are still legal hurdles to go through and opponents may yet succeed in preventing the construction from being completed. An attorney for the mosque opponents said after Wednesday’s ruling that he was exploring options for legal action to challenge the mosque. Some of the opponents are planning to use administrative means to delay the construction indefinitely. Others may go back to violence to intimidate worshippers. It would be possible only through brave for political leadership to stand up to ignorance and allow Muslims of Tennessee to move into their new mosque. Regrettably, in this election season such political leadership may be in short supply.

— This article is exclusive to Arab News.
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