Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Religious Freedom for Muslims

Chelsea Langston


August 3, 2012

By Chelsea Langston 

During Disney’s golden resurgence of the 1990s, I spoke the language of Ariel, Jasmine and Mulan. It never occurred to me that I should think that Aladdin was set in a land of terrorists, of people who were fundamentally evil or different from me. Aladdin came out in the midst of Operation Desert Storm, yet this didn’t deter millions of families from embracing the romantic notions of Arabia. I don’t know if Americans as a society will ever embrace the je ne sais quoi, the alluring mystery, the unanswered question that once encompassed the expanse of land between Europe and Asia. For many Americans, that unanswered question became resoundingly answered in stone by a select few extremists on 9/11.

More than a decade later, American Muslims and Americans of Middle-Eastern descent often still face resistance. In Murfreesboro, Tenn., a group of Muslims have faced intense opposition as they have tried to construct and open an Islamic center. The mosque’s construction process has been rife with graffiti messages urging the Muslim group to get out, threats of violence and even a fire to building equipment, which the FBI is now investigating as a potential hate crime. Less than two months ago, a man was even indicted by the Department of Justice for allegedly leaving messages on the Islamic center’s telephone threatening that the center would be bombed on Sept. 11.

During a politically charged public hearing in 2010, Islam was called a non-religion, the Muslim group was accused of plots to replace American statutes with Sharia law and the mosque was labeled as a front for terrorist activities. Despite the widespread public resistance, the Islamic center’s building permit was initially approved. However, those contesting the building permit sued in state court and this spring, the state court found that the county planning commission had failed to provide adequate notification of the hearing, meaning that the Islamic center’s doors would remain closed behind piles of legal hoop-jumping and bureaucratic tape.

Finally, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division had had enough. Representatives of the Islamic Center and the Civil Rights Division filed two separate lawsuits in mid-July, requesting the Islamic group be permitted use of its new building. A federal judge recently granted a temporary restraining order that would allow the Islamic center’s congregation the chance to receive a permit to worship at their mosque for Ramadan, providing the Muslim group with the opportunity to practice their faith freely in the structure of worship they had built. 

The suit filed in mid-July not only sought permission for the Islamic Center’s congregation to use their building, the lawsuit also alleges that the mosque and its members were deprived of the right to practice their religion. According to the suit, Rutherford County violated both a federal civil rights statute and the U.S. Constitution by compelling the Islamic Center to submit to different standards than those of other religious buildings (churches) by virtue of the fact that the Center’s members practice Islam.

Although the Islamic Center’s congregation had aimed to be able to use their building for Ramadan, the mosque’s opening has been delayed until it receives its occupancy permit and passes a building inspection. However, many are hopeful that the Islamic Center will be open for its members before the sun sets on the last night of Islam’s holy month.

I am hopeful, too, that the sun will not set on basic tolerance and treating others the way we wish to be treated. James Skillen has stated that “principled pluralism means that government … should give equal treatment to different communities of faith.” As Skillen understood, the protection of our own religious freedom is intimately tied up in the protection of the diversity of beliefs in the public square as a whole.

When I read that Muslims are being kept from peacefully practicing their faith, whether in Tennessee or India or in my own neighborhood, I am offended. If we want to protect our personal and organizational religious freedoms as Christians, it is imperative that we stand up to protect those of other faiths. 

I hope we still live in a society where children can see Aladdin without thinking of terrorist attacks or politics. I hope that when my three-year old cousin hears the characters sing “A Whole New World,” she really believes that it can be. I know that I want to believe it can be, too. Shining. Shimmering. Splendid…and just.

—Chelsea Langston works at a consumer advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. She participated in the Center for Public Justice public policy leadership program Civitas in 2010.

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