You Can’t Defend Religious Freedom and Ignore Injustice toward Muslims

In the past few years, there have been a number of high-profile conflicts and debates surrounding religious freedom in the US. Specifically, Americans have debated the proper scope of what that freedom entails and whether or not our government has been trampling upon that right. Catholics have often been at the center of these debates. And one can’t help but notice that these have been primarily focused on particular cases that affect Christians—over conscientious objections to things like the HHS contraception mandate and same-sex marriage. Yet recent anti-Islamic actions and statements should cause these advocates of religious freedom, if their convictions are sincere and universal, to address Islamophobia in their advocacy.

Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has spoken about his willingness to close down mosques that he evidently deems anti-American or somehow linked to an enemy of the United States. Even congressman Peter King from New York, often seen as a hardliner on such matters, refused to go as far as Trump, but argued that what is said and what happens inside Mosques need to be monitored by the United States government. Presidential candidate Ben Carson, meanwhile, has argued that Muslims who refuse to renounce the “tenets” of their faith should be ineligible for the presidency and that the principles of Islam are incompatible with America.

We are also seeing it in callous responses to the refugee crisis, one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades. People fleeing ISIS terrorists and Assad’s barrel bombs have been denounced as invaders, terrorists, jihadists, and diseased. Trump said these refugees could be a “trojan horse” for ISIS.

This anti-Muslim sentiment is not, however, only an American problem. Great Britain’s David Cameron has also indicated his willingness to close mosques. According to Trump, this is what inspired him to make the statement that the United States should be investigating and forcefully closing places of worship.

In Canada, now-defeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper supported a ban on the niqab and advocated for legislation that created a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline where Canadian citizens could phone in cultural practices that do not jive with “traditional Canadian values.” This came to a head when an immigrant woman who earned her Canadian citizenship was turned away at the swearing-in ceremony because she was wearing her niqab.

Islamophobia is obviously not a new issue, but our unwillingness to confront attacks on those that practice Islam puts all religious freedom at risk. One of the fundamental premises of the freedom of religion is that governments do not get to dictate how those within religious communities practice their religion. Each person, as a citizen of a liberal democracy, is entitled to practice his or her religion as that person (and those within his or her religion) see fit.

It is not the government’s job to tell Muslim women how they can or cannot dress simply because it upsets perceived “traditional” values. Likewise, it is not government’s job to dictate what places of worship are acceptable and what houses of God are illegitimate. However, if Catholics and other Christians do not actively fight to defend our Muslim brothers and sisters, then we have no one to blame but ourselves for the loss of religious freedom that will affect us all.

If we find it acceptable for the government to impose restrictions on Muslims and their freedom to openly practice their religion, then how can we object to government instructing Christians to comply with policies that violate Christian beliefs or other laws that trespass into protected areas of conscience and religious freedom?

Catholic Charities does not have to provide contraception to its employees and Catholic hospitals do not have to perform abortions because they have a religious exemption, but this exemption only exists because we recognize that government cannot tell Catholics how to practice their religion. Part of living in a free democracy is that others must allow religions this space, so that we can exercise religious freedom fully.

If we allow the government to dictate religious doctrine and religious attitudes, then religious freedom is a hollow shell that is stripped of its immense worth. If we allow others to demonize Muslim refugees and push Islamophobic narratives, we allow them to lay the groundwork for this undermining of religious freedom. It is fundamentally wrong to make the fight for religious freedom a tribalistic fight where Christians only take up the fight for other Christians. It is fundamentally immoral, and it is foolish, for as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. maintained, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.