By Bridget Kustin
Last week, I returned to Baltimore after spending a summer researching Islam, finance, and politics in Bangladesh. I still haven’t unpacked–I want to preserve the memories of hospitality and gratitude that couldn’t be captured in my field notes. The smell of wood smoke on clothes worn as my village host prepared me an elaborate Ramadan fast-breaking meal. The parting gift of pungent spices from an Islamic bank officer who accompanied me across my rural field site, answering my questions for hours. And when I arrived home, an email from one of Bangladesh’s most senior figures in Islamic banking and politics was waiting for me, asking if I made it back safely.
As I recovered from jet lag the day after my return, a passenger asked a cab driver in New York City if he was Muslim. When the cab driver responded affirmatively, the 21-year old passenger offered the traditional “Assalamu alaikum” greeting, then apparently slashed the driver’s throat and stabbed his arms and face. According to news reports, this horrific act will be charged as a hate crime.
The cab driver was an immigrant. He came to America 25 years ago from Bangladesh.
Critics of the proposed “Ground Zero” Cordoba House insist that America is exceptional because opposition to different religions and religious institutions is expressed peacefully. This is not true. Violence against Muslims is not systematic or state-sponsored, but it still occurs. These individual violent acts are all but sanctioned by media and political figures who undermine the humanity of Muslims by calling their religion inherently violent, or an existential threat to “American values,” or an innate threat to national security.
A less severe position is that Muslims can be good Americans, but projects such as Cordoba House are insensitive. According to these critics, constitutional rights should be subject to good taste.
Commissioners Richard Land and Nina Shea of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a federal advisory body, have opposed Cordoba House as insensitive and as a potential security risk, respectively. USCIRF commissioner chair Leonard Leo directs a Tea Party group collecting signatures against Cordoba House, billed on its website as an “affront to decency and common sense.”
The irony of American advocates of religious freedom opposing a Muslim community center would make for pitch-perfect political comedy a là The Daily Show if it wasn’t so deeply troubling. As a former USCIRF employee, the deep disconnect between these commissioners’ overseas advocacy and their domestic intolerance of the religious freedom of Muslims suggests to me that Islamophobia has worked its way well into the mainstream.
During my tenure at USCIRF from 2007 to 2009–first in communications and then as South Asia researcher–commissioners defended the right of religious minorities to build and maintain their religious institutions, no matter the popular objections or prevailing social norms. Among the countries in my portfolio, commissioners argued for the rights of Christians to maintain churches in Orissa, India, despite strong anti-Christian sentiment grounded partially in the fear of “forced conversions.” In Pakistan, commissioners defended the right of persecuted Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims and call their houses of worship mosques–despite the widespread, impassioned belief that Ahmadis are not ‘real’ Muslims. Commissioners criticized Sri Lankan government for citing security concerns while restricting the freedom of individuals to worship where and how they pleased.
Indeed, USCIRF advocacy is generally dedicated to upholding Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that every individual has the right, “alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Commissioners Land, Leo, and Shea should protect Cordoba House under Article 18 with the same vigor they have extended to foreign countries.
In Bangladesh this past summer, I met many Muslim Bangladeshis who excitedly told me about friends or relatives living in the United States, while gamely answering my probing questions about Islam. How shameful that being Muslim in the United States is now suddenly enough to have one’s religious freedom restricted via popular pressure–or even to get one killed.
To my host community in Bangladesh, and to my fellow Americans: that cab driver’s life is just as innocent and just as valuable as any of the 3,000 lost on September 11, 2001. All of America is hallowed ground for the freedoms that have made this country great. There is no greater affront to decency than to allow the slow erosion of our commitment to tolerance.
Bridget Kustin is a doctoral student and member of the Drishtipat Writers’ Collective.