The Conflict Between Religious Freedom and American Sensitivity to Islam

Many remember the widely publicized controversy in the wake of plans to build a mosque near the World Trade Center site in 2008, less than nine years after the 9/11 terrorist attack. The ensuing debate found Americans contemplating how to balance freedom of religion for Muslim Americans and their sensitivity to a post “9/11 world.” This debate continues 13 years later, most notably within state and local governments. Politicians and policymakers continue to struggle, as recently as the Norwalk, Connecticut lawsuit and mosque in October 2013, with the conflict between the constitutional right of freedom of religion and the demands of constituents with negative views of Islam and its perceived connection to terrorism.

Writing in the Journal of Muslim and Minority Affairs, Daniel Hummel explores the relationship between discrimination, violence, hate groups, and mosque controversies, while seeking to explain how public policy leaders should respond. In his paper, titled Principles over Prejudice: Social Dominance Theory and Mosque Controversy in American Cities, he concludes that policies that increase citizen participation within local governments encourage interfaith cooperation and that fully employing the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) pursuit of claims of faith discrimination could lead to decreased and resolved instances of prejudice.

Hummel details in his research the state of American attitudes towards Islam and how this social prejudice is an example of social dominance through hate groups (groups with beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people) in America. He argues that institutional forms of prejudice towards the Islamic faith and Muslim Americans are managed through the administration, “such as the Patriot Act and the No-fly list…not long after the 9/11 attacks.” In addition, non-institutional forms of prejudice can be observed through a 2010 Gallup poll, which found that “43 percent of Americans exhibit some level of prejudice towards Muslim Americans.” The poll also reveals Islam as the most negatively viewed religion by Americans.

Hummel uses the philosophy of Social Dominance Theory to explain how these societal and institutional factors of discrimination are created through group-based oppression and differences in power levels of citizens, and in particular to explain the rebellion of communities against the construction of religious mosques. Hummel utilizes the number of hate-based groups as a dependent variable in his analysis of variation, controlling for state population size and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Hummel finds that states with a higher occurrence of mosque controversies contained, on average, three more hate groups than those states with zero mosque controversies. However, Hummel’s data concludes that the number of mosque controversy occurrences and hate groups do not have a direct causal relationship.

Hummel notes that states with high GDP and large populations are associated with more frequent mosque controversy occurrences. He suggests this can be attributed to the Muslim community being made up primarily of immigrants and naturally flocking to states or localities with more job opportunities. He hypothesizes that the growing diversity of a state could be positively associated with the growth of hate groups. Ultimately, the amount of hate groups within a locale influences the power dynamic of Islamic religious groups, their relationship with the local government, and an elected official’s response to such controversies.

Hummel argues that because the expansion of religious organizations and facilities within a community symbolizes growth and permanence, mosques are often viewed negatively when they seek facilities to expand. Hummel’s research also explores the effectiveness of legislation such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons’ Act (RLUIPA), enacted in 2000. This federal law seeks to end discrimination and protect the free exercise of religion through land and property usage and municipal permits for religious organizations. The DOJ, after a decade of implementation of RLUIPA, released an investigation of only seven claims of discrimination against Muslims. Hummel notes that in the past two years there have been 35 mosque controversies, and takes issue with DOJ for their lack of proactivity to ensure Muslim Americans’ constitutional right to worship.

As a state grows, often so does its diversity. Hummel’s research helps explain the societal backlash against the permanence of mosques within American localities and how it is tied to hate groups and growing populations. As policymakers face controversies within their electorates, the author recommends encouraging interfaith cooperation coalitions and employing the full weight and gravitas of the federal government to protect constitutional rights for all Americans.

Feature Photo: cc/(Bobby Plasencia)'
Karla McLean
Karla McLean is the Senior Edition for The Pulse section of the Chicago Policy Review and a Master's in Public Policy student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in communication and urban policy issues.

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