Post-9/11 Muslim Religious Liberty: Has It Mattered to American Catholics?

In my first substantive post during the USCCB’s ‘Fortnight for Freedom,’ it would seem vital to first address American Catholics’ recent failings regarding religious liberty. Focus on failure easily devolves into now commonplace critiques of the Catholic episcopacy, but I highlight solely to draw wisdom from these experiences in crafting a different future.

In the aftermath of September 11th attacks, an ugly and ongoing assault against religious liberty unfurled from the overly empowered and newly funded Department of Homeland Security coordinating with its law enforcement arms. The wild frontier of anti-terrorism work commenced a government-orchestrated, populist fueled campaign against American Muslims we all still suffer from today.

Islamophobia effectively became enshrined in our legal system and the public discourse. Through agencies like the FBI, TSA, and NYPD (the last of these some allege was in collusion with the CIA), Muslims became suspects for mere religious observance. Islamic communities suffered from legally dubious wiretapping and surveillance, sting operations with efforts to develop informants in mosques, and standards from local police forces to the US military which linked orthodoxy and zeal for one’s Muslim faith to how likely they were to engage in terrorism. Just a decade later, government harassment is sadly a routine experience for American Muslims.

The situation is potentially worse in the American collective mind where Islam’s vilification continues to have currency in conservative media outlets, political campaigns, and their respective (though often overlapping) constituencies. Massive protests sought to block the Islamic community center and mosque projects at several sites around the nation and popular efforts to ban shar’ia law’s somehow perceived imposition on America actually pass state legislatures. Worst yet, American Muslims suffer from hate crimes and violence at some of the highest rates for any minority group in the United States.

This brief exposition exposes the dark reality fostered by American persecution of Islam within our borders (the persecution internationally may in fact be worse and only harms America’s image in the Muslim street). The oppression is systematic, it is populist and it leaves Muslims scrambling to find culturally appropriate yet faithful expressions of their faith. To their credit, the Islamic community in America exerts great effort to dialogue with other religious groups and society at large, cognizant of these problems. Their sacrifices should at times be more aptly described as self-imposed suppression of their religious liberty.

In large part, the American Catholic community fails to respond adequately to our brothers and sisters in faith. At higher levels in the academy and between clergy, interreligious dialogue takes place with a too rare trickle down into interaction between local religious communities. These dialogues often focus on theological or abstracted concerns or join in mutual efforts to do good in the world – none of which is negative and all of which still needs tremendous expansion.

Yet, given the context of the bishops’ current pronouncements on religious liberty, we must question where we were ten years ago and what have we done in the past decade to stand with American Muslims. Catholics may not inflict the institutionally based harm or majority negative opinions that other religious denominations in America suffer from regarding Islam. Catholics have not been marching in the streets in great number, have not been focusing our vast financial resources (as it seems exist now via this massive ‘Fortnight’ campaign) on fighting court battles to help Muslims, and have not been reaching out to be an active support in solidarity with those truly persecuted.

We must admit the mainline tactic of Catholics with passive inaction towards Islam, does not constitute true solidarity. It is not hard to see our failure to defend the religious liberty of Islam in the myriad ways American society has attacked it – and certainly not with the fervor now exhibited by those celebrating the ‘Fortnight for Freedom.’

On the basis of this failure alone, we must seriously question how appropriate the bishops’ call for all people of good will to rally for religious liberty is at this moment. How can we desire a partnership with the Islamic community if they have sought more fervent help from us for years and been denied the radical actions we now demand. Most importantly, how do we make amends for our failings so that true religious liberty concerns (not the fabricated ones more frequently elevated lately) can be addressed and defended for whomever raises them up.

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