Is Struggling for Civil Rights the Pursuit of Happiness?
38th Annual ICNA-MAS Convention, May 26, 2013
(Speech as written.)
Salaam alaykum. Peace be unto you. Good afternoon.
My mother was born and raised in Scotland. She met and married my father, a U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant, in England. She came to the United States in the late 1960’s.
As she tells it, her first major impression of America was looking out of an airpalne’s window and seeing fires burning along the Detroit skyline.
That was a time of great unhappiness in our nation. The 1967 riot in Detroit resulted in 43 dead and 467 injured people. Damage estimates at the time ranged from 40-60 million dollars.
The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders’ 1968 report, the result of an investigation of civil unrest such as the Detroit riot, has a very famous passage:
"Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."
So our question today, “Is Struggling for Civil Rights the Pursuit of Happiness?” becomes easy to answer.
Happiness is difficult in an unjust, unequal society.
Happiness, Rights and the Revolution
Our nation’s founder’s embodied this reality.
Everyone knows the famous lines from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But I want you to hear what comes after that:
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
So, in laying out their justification for breaking from the British Empire, the Founder’s argue that government needs to be organized in a fashion most likely to allow those living under it the most safety and happiness.
If you read further, you will find a list of issues that the Founder’s had with King George’s rule, among those is this:
“He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”
So the Founder’s took the incredible step of breaking with King George’s government in part due to his “invasions on the rights of the people” and sought a new form of government more likely to “effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Happiness is difficult in an unjust society.
Struggling for civil rights might not always be the pursuit of our own individual happiness, but it is definitely a larger pursuit of peace and therefore happiness for larger communities.
For individuals being able to live in peace and security is the foundation of happiness.
If we live in fear of having our basic rights violated at any time, and we are not secure in the knowledge that our children are safe as well from having their rights violated, then no amount of education, success and wealth can ever make up for the lack of basic rights or enable us to build happy and content lives.
Nothing that I have said so far is surprising, shocking or particularly a revelation.
Upholding the Constitution
But here is a key, and for this gathering, crucial reality, that may surprise you:
American Muslims are on the front lines of protecting the Constitution ideals of a just and equal society.
There are people who, selling anti-Muslim stereotypes and fear, seek to return America to a legal system that treats one group of Americans as different from other. People who seek two societies—separate and unequal.
Worse, if you pay attention to Islamophobes like Pamela Geller or David Yerushalmi, there are those who appear to seek the rebirth of South African apartheid with religion as its new targeted class.
Indulge me, please, while I offer proof of what I just said.
First, we will look at efforts to legislate government-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims.
In 2011 and 2012, 78 bills or amendments aimed at interfering with Islamic religious practices were considered in 29 states and the U.S. Congress.
Sixty-two of these bills contained language that was extracted from Islamophobe David Yerushalmi’s American Laws for American Courts (ALAC) model legislation.
(As an aside: An internet search of “David Yerushalmi” returns results demonstrating his call for a “WAR AGAINST ISLAM and all the Muslim faithful.” You will also see his anti-woman, anti-black and similarly biased comments on the first results page. It is reasonable to be alarmed that a man so central to that anti-Islam hate movement in the United States is able to have real impact on legislators.)
73 of these bills were introduced solely by Republicans. Not just fringe legislators, but in too many cases this included state-level GOP party leadership.
Bills were signed into law in Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
I want you to be clear that this anti-Sharia movement is really a cover for Islamophobic sentiment.
In Tennessee, the original bill’s definition of “Sharia” was, in practical terms, the entire religious tradition of Islam. It stated that “Sharia” encompasses all content derived from “any of the authoritative schools of Islamic jurisprudence of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, Ja’afariya, or Salafi.”
They wanted to make being a Muslim illegal in Tennessee.
South Dakota anti-Islam bill sponsor Phil Jensen (R-District 33) told an audience, “It is alarming how many of our sisters and daughters who attend American universities are now marrying Muslim men.”
As you may have already concluded, these legislators frequently have no idea what they are talking about.
The Star Assistant in Alabama reported, “But no one—not even Sen. Gerald Allen, who sponsored the bill—can point to examples of Muslims trying to have Islamic law recognized in Alabama courts.”
Allen could not even define Sharia. When asked he said, “I don’t have my file in front of me.”
When pressed about why the Alabama bill’s definition of sharia matched one found in Wikipedia, Allen’s legislative staff “confirmed that the definition was in fact pulled from Wikipedia.”iv
Now college students that I know tell me that Wikipedia is not a valid citation in their papers. I find it intriguing that it is, however, a valid source for things that may become the law of the land.
Texas legislator Leo Berman said his bill was necessary because he had heard, but apparently had not actually tried to confirm, that one American town was allowing judges to use sharia. “I heard it on a radio station here on my way into the Capitol one day. I don’t know Dearborn, Michigan but I heard it [Sharia law is accepted there] on the radio. Isn’t that true?”
Missouri Speaker of the House Stephen Tilley also “could not provide an example of foreign law trumping domestic law in Missouri courts,” reported Politicalmo.com. The article noted that Tilley’s office later issued a statement outlining one case in New Jersey, but that poor ruling--which in fact received no support from Muslim groups because it involved a man claiming it was his religious right to rape his wife--was rightfully overturned by a higher court.
CAIR is in the forefront of efforts to reject legislating government-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims. The Constitution is the law of the land and we like it that way. We agree with people of the Jewish and Catholic faiths, who already have an established tradition of using religious mediation, that, within the law, we are free to make choices in accordance with our faith.
In accordance with Islam, my marriage contract required me to pay a mahr to my wife. Why anyone would be upset with a woman getting money that is hers to invest as she sees fit, I have no clue.
In accordance with Islam, my home financing involves no interest. Similarly, my financial investment strategy avoids putting money into gambling, pornography and weapons manufacturing. I have no idea why anyone would think such things are a threat to American democracy.
So let’s turn back to the anti-Islam legislation.
CAIR’s lawsuit against Oklahoma’s anti-Islam constitutional amendment asserts that the law would violate the First Amendment, which says no law can be passed that promotes or vilifies a particular religion, and the Supremacy clause, which says the Constitution is and will remain the highest law of the land.
Interestingly, CAIR gets accused of trying to subvert the Constitution while we are making these arguments this constitutionally-subversive legislation.
So far, four federal judges have ruled in our favor and that law is on hold.
An appeals court ruling on the legal challenge concluded in part that arguments, “that the proposed state amendment expressly condemns [the plaintiff’s] religion and exposes him and other Muslims in Oklahoma to disfavored treatment -- suffices to establish the kind of direct injury-in-fact necessary to create Establishment Clause standing.” The ruling also notes, "Appellants [those representing the state of Oklahoma] do not identify any actual problem the challenged amendment seeks to solve. Indeed, they admitted at the preliminary injunction hearing that they did not know of even a single instance where an Oklahoma court had applied Sharia law or used the legal precepts of other nations or cultures..."
Mainstream Candidates Willing to Subject Muslims to Unequal Treatment
As a second example that Muslims need to defend our faith in order to secure the Constitution’s ideals of securing each person’s equal right to liberty let’s look at the recent presidential election.
Herman Cain was for a while the frontrunner for the GOP’s presidential nomination.
Speaking to Christianity Today on March 11, 2011, Cain said that followers of the “Muslim religion” have “an objective to convert all infidels or kill them.”
Cain also said that Muslims who wanted to serve in his administration would have to take loyalty oaths. He explained to Fox News host Glenn Beck that he would not require similar oaths from Mormons or Catholics, “Because there is a greater dangerous part of the Muslim faith than there is in these other religions.”
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says there is no “religious test” for public office.
So, here we have a man, a frontrunner, committing to undermining the Constitution. Did he get tossed from the stage?
He got applause.
Rick Santorum, also a frontrunner for a time, endorsed religious profiling during one of the GOP presidential debates, saying, "Obviously, Muslims would be someone you'd look at." In January, 2012 journalists brought attention to a lengthy Islamophobic rant Santorum gave in 2007 at David Horowitz’s “Second Annual Academic Freedom Conference.” Santorum asserted that in order to “win” against a vaguely-defined Muslim enemy Americans must “…educate, engage, evangelize and eradicate."
A former Speaker of the U.S. House, Newt Gingrich, yet another onetime frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, told an audience that he feared that by the time his grandchildren reach his age “they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”vii (I am not sure what that means either.) According to Gingrich sharia is a "mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States."
The good news here? Even the Republican-party nominating process, which in my opinion pushes candidates too far right to win a mainstream presidential election ultimately rejected this kind of extremism. That’s good, but each man was in turn the frontrunner.
Optimism Can Reign Supreme
Threats to each person’s equal right to liberty are not new to America.
In fact, the Constitution as originally enacted treated black people as three-fifths of a human being and left them as property. Women were denied the seemingly basic equal treatment of getting to cast a vote in a presidential election until 1920. Those insults to humanitarian principle were rectified.
Even after slavery was ended, African-Americans were subjected to horrible treatment and discriminatory laws.
They did not hide.
Rev. Martin Luther King was wire-tapped by federal authorities. In an FBI memo, he was called the “most dangerous and effective negro leader in America.” J. Edgar Hoover called him a “degenerate.”
Today, those same federal authorities get King’s birthday off as a Federal Holiday.
I look to Japanese Americans as a prime inspiration and source of hope. Like Muslims, as a group they were blamed for an attack on this country. They were placed in internment camps. We likely have them to thank as the reason we were not similarly treated. They were vocal. They organized and after forty years of their hard work, the government acknowledged that what was done to them was wrong.
In fact, we inherit a rich tradition of standing up for an America that is based on a level playing field. Catholics were discriminated against. Jews were discriminated against. Mormons have been discriminated against. Each in turn has pushed back.
Today, it is our turn to push back.
I guarantee you that bias and efforts to treat someone as an enemy other will shift. We must push back to honor those before us and to ensure that the next targeted group does not say, “The Muslims failed us.”
The Ultimate Rebuke
So. Happiness is difficult in an unjust society. American Muslims are on the frontlines of helping ensure our nation does not take a wrong turn and become an unjust, unequal society.
There is one final benefit to consider.
In his counter terrorism speech on Thursday, President Obama said, “Indeed, the success of American Muslims, and our determination to guard against any encroachment on their civil liberties, is the ultimate rebuke to those who say we are at war with Islam.”
The way we, as Muslims, defend those liberties, for ourselves and everyone else is our ultimate rebuke to the Islamophobes.