America is a bastion of religious freedom. A land where persecuted religious minorities find refuge from tyranny, and religious liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment. So goes the narrative taught in schools throughout the nation and entrenched in the psyche of millions of Americans.
For Muslims in America, religious freedom has proven to be more myth than reality. The very politicians who decry the loss of religious liberty for Christians threaten to unleash the state’s most repressive national security practices on America’s Muslims. To do so is not only rational, they claim, it is also patriotic.
How do Americans reconcile their belief in religious freedom with their support for anti-Muslim practices? How do they defend a Christian pharmacist’s constitutional right not to distribute contraception while simultaneously condemning a Muslim’s request to build a mosque? How is one the exercise of religious freedom while the other is anti-American sedition?
Although the United States does not have a state church, white Protestant Christianity serves as the de facto national religion.
The answer lies in the fact that religion has been at the crux of the racialization of law since the nation’s inception. Although the United States does not have a state church, white Protestant Christianity has, for most of the nation’s history, served as the de facto national religion; and the practice of other kinds of religion among immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, and even among white Americans has often been taken as a sign of unclear national loyalties and intractable strangeness. At various points this has been taken as a rationale for discrimination against members of the black church, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and numerous others faiths.
The post-9/11 era is in a sense the latest iteration in this checkered history. However, in this case we see the state entirely circumvented the narrative of religious freedom with the novel tactic of redefining Islam as ideology, thus placing it outside the purview of religion. In the eyes of the state, Islam is not religion, it is politics. And in turn, defaming, harassing, and attacking Muslims is not un-American; it is patriotic. Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, endorsed this viewpoint, but he is hardly alone in doing so. During the 2010 congressional elections, Florida representative Allen West unabashedly stated, “Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology, it is not a religion.” In June 2016 Oklahoma state representative Pat Ownbey shared an article on his Facebook page that stated Islam is not protected by the First Amendment because it is not a religion. The article calls for America to implement the “final solution” on “radical Islam”—a reference to the Nazi’s calls for the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. The same month, Texas senator Ted Cruz also promoted this narrative when he invited Frank Gaffney, a rabid anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist, to testify that mainstream Muslim organizations, such as the Council on American Islamic Relations, are terrorist organizations.
When Trump called for the surveillance of every mosque in America, his staunch religious freedom allies did not blink. Nor did they question their commitment to the First Amendment when they supported Peter King’s campaign for instituting the surveillance of mosques under the Bush administration. Similarly, mass spying of Muslim college students did not threaten religious freedom because the students were seen not as a religious minority, but rather as potential recruits for terrorism. Their Muslim identity was racialized and politicized, while simultaneously stripped of its religious traits.
As long as Islam can be equated with terrorism, advocates for religious liberty can wash their hands of any obligation to include Muslims in their freedom agenda. To them, stopping Muslims from practicing Islam, visiting a mosque, wearing a headscarf, fasting during Ramadan, or praying at work is stopping terrorism in America.
Stopping Muslims from visiting a mosque, wearing a headscarf, fasting, or praying at work is stopping terrorism in America.
Since 9/11, every aspect of Muslims’ daily lives is a target for the national security state. The government scrutinizes mosques, Islamic schools, charities, Muslim student groups, and Muslim-owned businesses, looking for verification of their preconceived belief that Islam is a political ideology, and a violent one at that. Law enforcement meticulously examines Muslims’ travel patterns, personal associations, and religious practices to validate their suspicions that Muslims are terrorists, and not adherents of a peaceful religion.
This, in turn, signals to private citizens that they too are justified in scrutinizing Muslim neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances. Islamophobia reassures Americans that they are reasonable in suspecting Muslims and in taking action on their suspicions. Subsequently, actions that are nominally un-American and discriminatory are viewed as rational and patriotic in the post-9/11 national security era.
During his campaign Donald Trump exploited and fueled these prejudices. He refused to rule out the creation of a Muslim registry, and called for a ban on Muslims entering the country. That Trump won the presidency despite his overt anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric highlights America’s thin commitment to religious liberty.
As Trump ratcheted up anti-Muslim rhetoric, Americans across the country acted on their prejudice. By the end of 2015, hate crimes against Muslims increased by 67 percent, and the number of hate groups increased by 14 percent. These hate crimes include armed men protesting outside a mosque in Texas, declaring their opposition to the “Islamization of America.” Muslims across the country also reported being attacked in parks while praying, being bullied at school, and being spat on while driving. Mosques in Florida, Virginia, and Maryland received death threats. The word “Jesus” was spray-painted on a mosque in California by vandals who also left a plastic hand grenade in the driveway. A month prior in East Tampa, Florida, a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf was shot at and nearly run off the road as she was leaving her mosque. In California, women praying in public were accosted by someone who proclaimed that “the Quran is evil . . . your god is Satan . . . Allah is Satan.”
By redefining Islam as ideology, the state has circumvented the narrative of religious freedom.
By early 2016, more than 60 percent of Republican voters supported Trump’s calls to bar Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from entering the United States. So it is no coincidence that Trump’s first major act as president was to issue an executive order barring entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, continuing America’s history of excluding non-white, non-Protestant faiths from the religious freedom narrative.
While the upsurge in anti-Muslim bias is partially attributable to Trump’s candidacy, it is also the predictable culmination of fifteen years of selective enforcement of counterterrorism laws against Muslims. Starting under Bush and continuing into the Obama administration, the so-called War on Terror has been a war on Muslims’ civil rights, including their religious freedoms. That the rise in violent white Christian nationalist groups has gone largely unaddressed is further proof that national security threats are defined largely by race and religion.
So long as Islam is considered politics and not religion, Muslims will be seen as terrorists whose religious freedom is not guaranteed. In the end, the religious freedoms extended to Muslims in theory ring hollow in practice.