Freedom of Speech v. Freedom of Religion? How American Muslims Are Countering Hate and Getting It Right

by vaughn_admin  //  

July 19, 2016

In the wake of yet another terrorist attack on European soil, many Americans and Europeans have expressed concern about accepting refugees fleeing ISIS-controlled regions, most of whom are Muslim, for fear of compromising national security. Cornerstone asks: Can Western democracies enact reasonable security measures while still retaining robust protections for members of minority religions seeking refuge? If so, how? 

By: Engy Abdelkader

… [A]nother part of defeating terrorists like ISIL, is upholding the rights and freedoms that define our two great republics. That includes freedom of religion. That includes equality before the law. There have been times in our history, in moments of fear, when we have failed to uphold our highest ideals, and it has been to our lasting regret. We must uphold our ideals now. Each of us, all of us, must show that America is strengthened by people of every faith and every background. –President Barack Obama, White House Press Conference with President Francois Hollande Nov. 24, 2015

We learn from history that hate speech and hysteria have dire consequences, the result of societal complacency,failed leadership and the lack of courage to stand up and speak out against hate. 
-US Representative Mike Honda, D-CA

In the wake of the Paris attacks, many Americans and Europeans have questioned their governments’ policies toward refugees. Citizens are fearful of terrorists posing as migrants to gain free entry into Europe and the United States. Scapegoating innocent immigrants in a climate charged with fear is nothing new. Recall, immediately following the tragic events of 9/11, Muslim, Arab and South Asian immigrant men bore the brunt of that backlash. 

Post 9/11 immigration policies included secret detention and proceedings; secret evidence withheld from defendants and their attorneys; a special registration program targeting males from 25 predominantly Muslim countries; new data collection programs; and the REAL ID Act making it tougher for persecuted men, women, and children to seek refuge in the United States, among other laws and policies. 

Sadly, the political rhetoric on the current refugee crisis has again devolved into sheer Islamophobia.

From a dozen armed protesters denouncing the “Islamization of America” in front of a Texas mosque to US presidential hopefuls Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee engaging in irresponsible political rhetoric demonizing American Muslims; from social media posts advocating the legal, political, and social marginalization of—if not violence toward—a minority faith group to a local Kansas politician showing a “warning” slideshow of criminals named Mohammed; from a Rhode Island senator sending an anti-Muslim email to a mayor in Virginia suggesting the internment of Syrian refugees, Islamophobic speech has reached a crescendo in bigotry since last week’s terror attack.  

As Rep. Honda notes, such hysteria has dire consequences. Myriad expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment not only marginalize the minority faith group politically while stigmatizing it socially, but they potentially make American Muslims, their homes, and places of worship more likely targets for violent attack. 

While Islamophobia has in fact intensified this past week, such vitriolic speech is nothing new. Since 9/11 and our wars abroad, American Muslims have worked hard to counter such bigotry. Here’s what they’re getting right:

American Muslims Persevere

While Islam is wrongly perceived as encouraging violence, American Muslims almost always respond to bigotry and hatred in peace.  

When thousands of protesters held signs outside of an Islamic conference in Garland, Texas, earlier this year, for instance, Muslims persevered. They requested police protection for participants and proceeded undeterred by those who would interfere with their First Amendment rights.  

When Muslims headed to the Oklahoma capitol building to learn more about local government, 50 protesters condemned them, attacking their faith and religious identity. Interfaith volunteers escorted Muslim attendees into the building where they sang the American national anthem. Participants then learned about the First Amendment and the significance of civic engagement. In the face of hate, American Muslims persevere. 

American Muslims Educate 

The American Muslim community pursues diverse educational initiatives both internally and externally.  

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, for example, CelebrateMercy organized a free webcast exploring the Prophet Muhammad’s peaceful responses to attacks and insults. In Islamic tradition, the Prophet’s conduct represents a model to be emulated by believers and the webcast sent a strong message that such violence is inconsistent with his teachings.  

Around the country, the American Muslim community regularly engages in educational initiatives to facilitate positive spiritual growth and development. 

American Muslims also strive to educate others about their faith and identity, redirecting the public’s attention to positive messages about themselves. Just last week, an American Muslim woman appeared on FOX News to challenge Donald Trump’s alarming anti-Muslim rhetoric while donning an American flag as a hijab. By doing so, she sent a powerful message about American Muslim identity. 

From opinion writing to social media campaigns to television programs to conferences, American Muslims get that education represents an effective response to fear, ignorance, and bigotry. 

American Muslims Protest and Counter-protest 

This past spring, a Michigan woman protested in front of the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor while carrying a sign that read, “I serve a RISEN savior Jesus Christ. Muhammad is DEAD.” Mosque leaders urged congregants to leave her undisturbed.   

A local American Muslim physician made his own sign that read, “Muhammad and Jesus = Love not hate.” As he stood across from her, hundreds of cars stopped by in support while informing the protester that she does not represent them. 

American Muslim youth have also engaged in protest to counter media depictions of Muslims that perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Consider the response to American Sniper screenings on campus. Muslim and Arab American advocates have labeled the blockbuster movie as dehumanizing.       

From the University of Michigan to the University of Maryland, Muslim student grassroots activities have prompted panel discussions and dialogue, exploring religion, race, and violence, following film screenings.    

When confronted with hate, American Muslims show agency. 

As you know, our country has a robust legal tradition that protects freedom of speech even when vile and reprehensible, with very few exceptions.  

As Justice Louis Brandeis explained in Whitney v. California, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” 

Thus, the doctrine of counter speech: “good speech” is the most effective response to “bad speech.”  

The doctrine assumes, however, that the target community has equal opportunity and sufficient resources to counter the odious speech. 

Despite their best efforts above, the minority faith group lacks the platform that so many others—Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Bill Maher, etc.—enjoy to perpetuate bigotry and hatred. 

In other words, American Muslims can’t go it alone. The doctrine of counter speech only works when all people of good conscious stand up against Islamophobia. 

Engy Abdelkader is faculty at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where she teaches courses on international terrorism and human rights as well as civil liberties and national security. 

This piece was originally authored on November 25, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.