To export religious-liberty values, let’s practice them at home

Sunday, March 30, 2003

A Muslim family's van is destroyed near Chicago, a Muslim teenager is badly beaten in California, a mosque is attacked in Illinois — and the list lengthens daily with new reports of harassment and violence across the nation.

This rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the United States would be big news in ordinary times. But with war raging in Iraq — and terrorist alerts at home — these are far from ordinary times.

For most Americans “small stories” about hate crimes are drowned out by the constant drumbeat of war coverage. But Muslim Americans (and those who look like they might be) are paying close attention. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has even issued a “Muslim Community Safety Kit” with tips for handling the threat.

Add to the mix intense government surveillance of Islamic groups and individuals since 9/11 and it’s not hard to see why many Muslims in America live in fear and anxiety these days.

Of course, most Muslim Americans — like most other Americans — understand and support the need for tighter security in the struggle against terrorism. Local Arab and Muslim leaders across the nation have repeatedly urged cooperation with law enforcement in the pursuit of terrorist suspects.

At the same time, however, there’s widespread concern that new government powers are being used to sweep up innocent people and invade the privacy of home and mosque. Backlash against ethnic or religious groups in times of war is nothing new. But as Japanese-Americans can attest, it can have serious consequences and leave lasting scars.

To their credit, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies around the nation appear to be waking up to the danger of over-reaction by government officials and hate crimes by demented individuals. CAIR reports that FBI agents are now meeting with Muslim and Arab-Americans in various parts of the nation to listen to their concerns, reassure them that the fight against terrorism is not an attack on Muslim Americans, and promise full prosecution of hate crimes.

Striking the right balance — securing the nation against terrorists while simultaneously upholding religious and other freedoms — isn’t easy. But it’s well worth the effort to sustain the American experiment in liberty.

Living up to our principles in the face of war is not only the right thing to do at home — it also serves our strategic interests abroad. The treatment of Muslim Americans is closely watched by Muslims elsewhere. By protecting religious liberty even in a time of danger, we send a clear message that Muslim and Arab-Americans are every bit as “American” as any other citizen of any other faith — or of no faith.

As it is, few people in the “Arab street” seem to know anything positive about America — including the fact that Muslims have more freedom to practice Islam in the U.S. than they do in most Muslim nations. Thanks to propaganda and indoctrination (and a history of past unjust actions by Western governments) many in the Muslim world distrust our motives for invading Iraq. According to a recent Zogby International poll of opinion in a number of Arab countries, only 6% of those surveyed believe that the U.S. is fighting the war in Iraq to promote democracy in the Muslim or Arab world.

When the shooting stops and nation-building begins, we’ll have to work hard to reverse this dim view of American aims in the Middle East. Among other things, that means making sure that we model at home the religious-liberty principles that we hope to export abroad.

We can start by looking for those overlooked hate-crime stories in our own community — and then reaching out to protect our Muslim neighbors. That’s what happened recently in Pomona, Calif., where non-Muslim Americans responded to a threat of violence against an Islamic school by putting themselves on the line to protect Muslim students. And that’s what needs to happen in every part of the nation.

Winning the battle against terrorism, however important, will not be enough. How we win is also critical. Our challenge is to act in ways that promote — rather than undermine — the future of democratic freedom in America and throughout the world.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. E-mail: