The United States was founded on the principle of religious freedom, among other governmental rulings that proclaim liberty and equality for all. Last week, the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs hosted several experts to discuss the current state of religious freedom in the U.S., through the Muslim perspective.
“When it comes down to it nothing is more basic than being able to walk down the street without being attacked because of your faith or to go to your place of worship and feel safe and able to worship there,” said Eric Treene, special counsel for religious discrimination in the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division.
Treene highlighted several cases—including the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, case, where Muslims experienced push back while exercising basic rights, like building a mosque.
“The burden is on the Muslim community to defend against this and this has costs. In a number of mosque building cases we’ve seen that the social and material costs are quite high,” explained Cyra Choudhury, professor of law at FIU.
Fear and disinformation can shape public opinion as incidents involving Muslim community members are reported to newspapers —many of which are falsely associated with terrorism, says Choudhury. This creates a snowball effect that may cause discriminatory acts against the Muslim community.
“[Another] consequence is actually a material consequence. For example, in the Murfreesboro case, we had to defend against this. We had to hire lawyers to defend this action and on top of that the mosque building was delayed,” added Choudhury. “Contractors refused to work with the Mosque because of the controversy that was generated. They simply walked off the job and the Muslim community had to pay more to build the mosque.”
Muslim hate crimes are under reported as a result of fear of deportation and the mistrust of authorities within the Muslim community, said Yasir Billoo, attorney and member of COSMOS.
There is a gap between what goes in the books as a hate crime and what actually might be a hate crime, he added. “There’s always a human element [to it].”
With the cases that do come forward, Biloo argued it's constant battle to uphold Muslim rights. “Especially from a minority religious community perspective, we’re not just trying to enforce our rights. We’re trying to win over hearts and minds. We want to be here for generations and generations to come and it becomes very different when we’re in litigation mode, when we’re constantly filing suit to enforce rights,” he said.
To combat these issues, the DOJ is working to educate communities and law enforcement on hate crimes and improve training processes, but they realize that more needs to be done.
“Education is a force multiplier,” concluded Treene.