JUST LAW AND RELIGION
By Michael Kessler
Critics of a New Jersey mosque’s plans to hold a prayer event on the National Mall are wrong in their views of religious liberty.
The Star-Ledger reported last week that a mosque in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Dar-ul-Islam, will spearhead a national prayer gathering for September 25 in Washington, D.C., “that organizers are billing as the first event of its kind–organized prayer for tens of thousands of Muslims outside the U.S. Capitol building.”
The paper quoted Hassen Abdellah, president of Dar-ul-Islam and an event organizer: “Most of the time, when Muslims go to Washington, D.C., they go there to protest some type of event…This is not a protest. Never has the Islamic community prayed on Capitol Hill for the soul of America. We’re Americans. We need to change the face of Islam so people don’t feel every Muslim believes America is ‘the great Satan,’ because we love America.”
The Star-Ledger reports that “A permit from the Capitol Hill police, granted July 28, allows access to the area by the West Front of the Capitol building from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sept. 25, but the main gathering will occur at 1 p.m., for the Friday prayer service. Abdellah said he expects 50,000 people to attend, from mosques around the country, though non-Muslims are welcome, too.”
Abdellah stated the idea germinated after President Obama’s inaugural speech, and was reinforced by this summer’s Cairo address: “For the first time in my lifetime,” Abdellah said, “I heard someone of his stature speaking about Islam and Muslims not in an adversarial sense, but in the sense of being welcome and acknowledging we are integral citizens in the society — that we’re gainfully employed, we’re educated.”
This sounds like a wonderful idea in our scarred and fraught world–religious people coming to the nation’s capital in a spirit of unity, praying for their well-being and for that of the country and the world. What’s not to support about this?
Well, when Charisma magazine reported about the plans, not everyone claimed excitement for a large group of Muslims appearing together in such a prominent place: “Some Christians also are mobilizing to pray on that day. An e-mail circulating virally calls for Christians to oppose what they see as Islam’s growing influence on the U.S. through prayer. ‘If ever we needed to be crying out for mercy for America, it is now,’ the e-mail reads. ‘We must stand strong and speak Truth wherever we are and at every given opportunity. … May there be multitudes come in to the kingdom of God while there is yet time.'”
Indeed, one Nigerian minister (yes, based in Africa! thanks for watching out for America’s well-being?), Mosy Madugba, views the Muslim prayer gathering as “part of a spiritual battle for the soul of the nation. In an e-mail, the leader of Spiritual Life Outreach in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, called on Christians to fast from midnight Sept.25 until the Muslim prayer event ends at 7 p.m. “It is warfare time,” he wrote. “Do not joke with this. If Christians fail to frustrate this game plan in the spirit, you will regret the outcome.” Lovely that he’s so concerned about America, but perhaps he’s not speaking for Americans?
Yet others echoed this view, including Florida resident Karen Leach, who says “she plans to fast and pray on Sept. 25 because she sees the event as a subtle form of ‘cultural jihad.'” The chilling, racist, and xenophobic comments are already multiplying on the web, as plans become more widely known. Just a few of the choicest that represent the common themes:
“Islam is not a religion. It is a violent political ideology of which religion is only one component and is based on its own set of laws that has no tolerance for non muslims.”
“And Obama would not recognize one day of Prayer for Christians. That proves that he is definitely not an American.” (Of course, this totally confuses a private group gathering as opposed to official state action!).
Legally, there is no news here–a group of citizens went through the proper channels to get the necessary permits to hold a gathering on land the National Park Service has set aside as a public forum. As such, it’s open to everyone who agrees to abide by rules necessary to ensure the public safety. There can be no viewpoint discrimination in deciding between which groups gain access.
Theologically, it’s astounding to me that some Christians would cast all of Islam–a member along with Christianity and Judaism in the so-called family of Abrahamic religions–as an inherent enemy. The rich legacy of scripture, theology, and philosophy shared between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, betrays that the God of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are unquestionably one. The major doctrinal differences lay in the various conceptions of how God revealed God-self to the world. Fine–argue about the role and nature of Christ (as surely Christians have bickered among themselves about for centuries!), but if you call the God of the Muslim an evil, dark force, rest assured you, as a Christian, are slandering your own God.
But leave the law and theological disputation aside. Our American civic tradition strongly condemns this kind of intolerance.
No less an authority than George Washington can teach an important civics lesson about toleration and the basic right for the Muslim citizens to enjoy full, unquestioned access to public life. Washington would celebrate this prayerful presence of Muslims on the National Mall. I submit his letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island,” (now the Touro Synagogue) written in 1790, in which Washington declared both the unity of the Abrahamic descendants, but each religions’ right to enjoy the abundance of the new nation’s freedoms:
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
There is no idea of Christian supremacy in Washington’s words. Rather, in the new America, liberty is supreme: the United States has “given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Washington’s idea celebrates the tolerant, peaceful, and respectful living together with our Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, and “spiritual, not religious” fellow citizens. As we approach the date of the September rally, I hope there is cool reflection on Washington’s words. We should remind any nasty critics to contemplate the peace that passes all understanding and display some humility toward others who find their way through this world from a different religious viewpoint and culture.
Even regardless of what kind of toleration we can muster, we must reiterate loudly the legal right that all citizens have to equally enjoy public access and full participation in civic life–and the National Mall–as religious peoples.
Dr. Michael Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University.
By Michael Kessler |
September 11, 2009; 1:51 PM ET
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