Muslim nations could learn a lot from the US.
By Merve Kavakci
from the September 28, 2009 edition
Washington – This summer Muslims were murdered in Holland, Germany, and Belgium – four victims of hate crimes.
These murders are just the latest examples of Islamaphobia coming out of Europe. But Europe is not the only place intolerant of its Muslim citizens. Even in some Muslim countries, expression of religion is often perceived as a threat to the secular state.
One of the best places for a Muslim to live is the United States. In a lot of ways, conditions are better here than almost anywhere. As a Muslim not permitted to wear my head covering as a politician in my home country, Turkey, I know.
Think about it: In Turkey, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, you will not find a lawyer with a beard or a student at a university wearing a head scarf, but you can find plenty in New York City. In Tunisia, you won’t see a religiously dressed physician at university hospitals – but you can in Alabama.
In the majority of Muslim countries the government is an intrusive enterprise with eyes and ears everywhere. The result is bleak. Countries reward only sycophants of the “divine” state. Muslims feel stifled by the encroachments of the establishment and lack of religious tolerance. If a man or a woman wanted to organize a protest against the government to gain the right to practice their religion more openly or be politically active against the status quo, may God help him to escape from the wrath of the state.
Many Muslim countries promote homogeneity while their citizens yearn for a right to diversity, which will give them the ability to practice their religious rituals freely.
In America, on the other hand, doors open to accommodate people’s religious beliefs. And that, along with citizenship rights and the opportunity to exercise the freedom to practice Islam day in and day out, is what makes the US so good for the millions of Muslims here.
American Muslim women can engage in any sport they choose wearing their religious garment – unlike in France and Italy where Islamic-approved swimsuits, and therefore Muslim women, are not welcome in the pools.
The White House and universities alike host iftars to celebrate Muslims’ holy month of fasting. Elementary school students can attend Friday prayers without having to worry about absentee records.
These small but significant examples of freedoms attest to the country’s sine qua non of inalienable citizenship rights: freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
That is not to say that the US is exempt from the mistreatment of Muslims. Racial profiling and workplace discriminations sometimes do occur. Yet the difference is when American Muslims face an unjust treatment, they have recourse where they can find justice.
Examples abound: The Justice Department sided with Muslim high school students in Texas who weren’t allowed to pray on school premises during lunch break in 2005, when they took their complaint to the federal government.
This year, a judge has ruled favorably in the pretrial lawsuit brought by six imams who were detained in 2006 for “flying while Muslim.” This would not happen in many Muslim countries since judiciary bodies are generally under the thumb of the regimes that promote coercive secularization.
Post-9/11, the US did mistreat some Muslims. But today, the Obama administration is making amends by probing alleged CIA torture and by closing the Guantánamo prison. There, after early abuses, officials accommodated detainees’ religious needs. So-called Muslim nation-states could learn from these steps in their treatment of devout citizens.
As President Obama tries to mend America’s relationship with the global Muslim community, he should promote “democratic” change from within, supporting any push from within countries for more heterogeneity.
Supporting the will of the “people” alone rather than the (semi) dictators, even when it is difficult, could make a huge difference.
Dr. Merve Kavakci is a lecturer of international affairs at George Washington University.