WHY RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IS ESSENTIAL FOR ALL AMERICANS
BY ASMA UDDIN
My career is devoted to advocacy in favor of a broad concept of religious liberty. At the core, my position can be described as “religious freedom for some is religious freedom for none”—that is, religious majorities and minorities are not in conflict with each other and can only be fully protected if they work together, not against each other.
I make this point with both storytelling and data in my 2019 book, When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. The book is rooted in my work—mostly litigation—in both US and international religious freedom. The title may seem odd, but that’s because the claim it’s rooted in—that “Islam is not a religion” and that therefore Muslims do not have religious freedom—is in fact, odd. But alas, its oddity hasn’t prevented its rapid acceptance among certain prominent circles.
For example, it is not uncommon for speakers at large conservative gatherings to bash Islam and American Muslims with zero resistance from the crowd. Anti-Muslim agitators make their rounds regularly, delivering dire warnings about Islam and Muslims at the Western Conservative Summit, Values Voter Summit, and elsewhere. In July 2019, John Andrews, founder of the Western Conservative Summit and a former Colorado Senate president, stood on the Summit stage, under a banner proclaiming the importance of religious liberty, and said, “The simplistic approach of simply granting unconditional ‘freedom of religion’ to a religion that doesn’t believe in freedom—and never doubt me, Islam does not—that approach is civilizational suicide, friends.” In 2016, former national security adviser Michael Flynn said in a conference address that “Islam is a political ideology” that “hides behind the notion of it being a religion” and therefore Muslims should not be afforded rights to religious freedom.
Jody Hice, US representative from Georgia’s Tenth District, has in the past argued:
Most people think Islam is a religion, it’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component….It’s a movement to take over the world by force. A global caliphate is the objective. That’s why Islam would not qualify for First Amendment protection since it’s a geopolitical system….This is a huge thing to realize and I hope you do. This will impact our lives if we don’t get a handle on it.
Hice also emphasized what he saw as a fundamental conflict between Islam and the US Constitution:
These things are in no way compatible with the U.S. Constitution….Islam and the Constitution are oceans apart….The number one threat is to our worldview and whether we chunk it for secularism or Islam.
" AT THE CORE, MY POSITION CAN BE DESCRIBED AS "RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOR SOME IS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOR NONE"—THAT IS, RELIGIOUS MAJORITIES AND MINORITIES ARE NOT IN CONFLICT WITH EACH OTHER AND CAN ONLY BE FULLY PROTECTED IF THEY WORK TOGETHER, NOT AGAINST EACH OTHER."
Similarly, in a January 2018 press release, state senator of South Dakota, Neal Tapio, a Republican running for a spot in the US House of Representatives, questioned whether the First Amendment applies to Muslims. Many other GOP politicians have done the same. These lawmakers are not alone—other politicians and prominent voices have made similar claims in official press releases and other public statements and continue to do so with their constituents’ approval.
The rhetoric targets Muslims in an attempt to strip them of their rights, but the fact of the matter is—as I explain in When Islam Is Not a Religion—it hurts everyone. While courts can determine whether beliefs match up to the legal definition of religion, this is not what anti-Muslim opponents are concerned with. They are instead driven by more emotional concerns. Yet, if courts and legislatures are empowered to say that Islam is not a religion, they can accept the same claim about every other religious group the majority may fear. If courts start to parse Islamic doctrine in order to decide which parts are acceptable or likeable and which aren’t, as some prominent individuals want them to do, courts could conceivably parse the beliefs of every other religious group, too. Seen this way, it becomes clear how an attack that might seem relevant only to a very particular group tells us something deeper and more fundamental about American rights.
This was the message I repeated time and again during my book tour. With each audience, I outlined the range of threats by politicians, lawmakers, judges, and private citizens against Muslims’ full and free exercise of religion. I addressed diverse audiences—liberal, conservative, Muslim, Christian, and multi-faith—but my engagement with Christian conservatives was the most eye-opening. Some of the exchanges were warm, but some were decidedly not. In one case, it involved being defamed on stage as former US Attorney General, William Barr, looked on.
We do not support sharia supremacists themselves or their enablers or their apologists. And it pains me beyond words that this program that will be coming up after the attorney general’s remarks, you have such an individual who will be presented to you, I’m afraid, as someone who is a perfect example of moderate Muslims and a perfect interlocutor for us in interfaith dialogue and bridge building and the like …
I hope that you will not be misled into believing that this individual. I’ve nothing against her personally. But this individual and what she stands for—and most especially what she is doing with organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations (one of the most aggressive Muslim Brotherhood front organizations in the country)—must not be endorsed, even implicitly, by this organization.
I had hoped that she would not be given a platform. She is. I trust you to listen attentively, but I hope that you will not give her yourselves a platform.
That’s Frank Gaffney speaking, the founder of the virulently anti-Muslim organization Center for Security Policy, right before he introduced a talk by Barr at the National Religious Broadcasters’ (NRB) Christian media convention in February 2020.
I was watching the speech on the TV screen set up in the green room, my mouth agape. “Is this actually happening?” It was my first time at NRB, and I was already feeling a bit anxious about what to expect from the crowd when I went on stage for my panel presentation.
Dread welled up in my chest as Gaffney warned the audience “to not give her yourselves a platform.” Gaffney is well-known as a leader of what the Center for American Progress calls “Fear, Inc.,” a billion-dollar industry that strategically pumps out anti-Muslim messaging, organizes anti-Muslim protests and rallies across the nation, and drives efforts to strip American Muslims of legal rights.
What are they going to do to me? I wondered frantically. Was Gaffney rallying his troops, people who liked him and would follow his lead? Would they boo me off stage or empty out of the room—or worse? Engage in mockery, maybe violence?
Parshall (and the moderator of my panel) came running into the green room. “I can’t believe he did that! This is so upsetting!” Then, her expression changed from anger and alarm to genuine remorse. “I am so sorry, Asma. I will fix this.”
She came through moments later when we took our seats on stage. “[Gaffney’s comments] were ill-timed, inappropriate and hurtful,” she said. Standing and looking out over the audience of several hundred, she pressed, “Do I make myself clear?” She then turned to me and apologized again. As she did, I could see the audience members in the front row smiling up at me warmly, as if to say, “We’re on your side.” In that moment, I was reminded in a powerful way of what I had always hoped to be true: even in the face of blatant hostility, there are possibilities for peacebuilding.
"IF THE COURTS START TO PARSE ISLAMIC DOCTRINE IN ORDER TO DECIDE WHICH PARTS ARE ACCEPTABLE OR LIKABLE AND WHICH AREN'T, AS SOME PROMINENT INDIVIDUALS WANT THEM TO DO, COURTS COULD CONCEIVABLY PARSE THE BELIEFS OF EVERY OTHER RELIGIOUS GROUP, TOO."
What Parshall and I were doing that day was working to reduce “intergroup bias,” ultimately in the hope of fostering greater, more unified support for religious freedom. According to reams of empirical studies, group (or tribal) identity is core to who we are as humans—so much so that loyalty to our group affects us both psychologically and physically. Rejection, stigma, or social isolation literally triggers a physical assault on our body; on the flip side, when we are loyal to our group and receive its affirmation, we feel confident and happy. But tribal membership can also become toxic if our group (the “in-group”) feels threatened by the “out-group.” Studies show that feelings of threat lead to hostility, ranging from prejudice to a desire to strip rights from the out-group, and in extreme cases, even violence and genocide.
That’s exactly what Gaffney, as a member of the in-group (NRB’s conservative Christian audience) was trying to do: he was evoking bogeymen like “Muslim Brotherhood” and so-called “shari’a supremacists” to make the rest of his group feel threatened so that it would react to a member of the out-group (me) with hostility. Luckily, Parshall foiled his plan.
Before I even became acquainted with the science of group identity, I had developed my own principles of prejudice reduction. These were based on my extensive interactions with conservative Christian audiences around issues of religious freedom. In the NRB context, I applied them this way:
1. Center the human; decenter the politics: This is not a special interest pleading. Gaffney’s demonization of me is a proven partisan tactic, used by all sides, but we are not those caricatures. We are people with real spiritual yearnings whose right to exercise those beliefs must be respected.
2. Utilize legal literacy: Gaffney is deeply wrong in pitting Muslims’ and Christians’ rights against each other. The very nature of human rights, including the right to religious freedom, is that protection for some is protection for none. If the government selectively protects religions that it likes and does not protect the ones it doesn’t like, all beliefs are vulnerable to the arbitrary discretion of those in power.
3. Avoid condemnation/judgment: I understand that people’s fears of seemingly foreign Muslims might make one more receptive to Gaffney’s message—particularly at a time when the world presents so many uncertainties and potential threats. While I worry about the fear manifesting in problematic actions, I understand the fear as fundamentally human.
After I started reading about intergroup bias and prejudice-reduction strategies, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had been on exactly the right track. Without knowing the words for it, I had developed a strategy that de-escalated feelings of threat, expressed empathy, and focused on what social scientists call “superordinate goals” (in this case, a robust conception of religious freedom).
I had a general idea about what was going on and how one might go about solving the problems. I had something to build on. So, I did.
My first insight was to map the groups onto the political divide. Anyone watching the religion and politics scene in the US and the strategic messaging by Democrats and Republicans, particularly around the time of presidential elections, notices that conservative White Christians are spoken favorably by one side and unfavorably by the other side. And the exact opposite groups speaks favorably and unfavorably about American Muslims. Each group signals a political agenda and, in this way, serves as a proxy for the opposing political parties.
It’s a manifestation of group identity and group loyalty, which exert a strong, almost impenetrable, pull on us as humans. Social scientists explain that group loyalty is core to who we are. Group loyalty helps people avoid the strong psychological and physical effects of rejection. Studies have shown that we don’t just experience social isolation or stigma psychologically; these experiences also trigger a physical assault on our body. What this means in practice is that, even evolutionarily, humans are programmed to signal their allegiance to their tribe as a way of avoiding the loneliness and stress that comes with being cast out.
Our allegiance to our political tribes is no different. Elections can become pure team rivalry. Studies have found that in the election context, winning is what’s most important, and Americans are driven by what they oppose rather than what they support. For example, a 2016 Pew study found that “very unfavorable views” of the Democratic Party increased voting much more than a “deeper affection” for the Republican Party. Among Americans who are highly engaged in politics, this disparity became even starker—the more they hated the other side, the more likely they were to donate money to their own party. This may explain why politicians focus so much of their messaging on generating fear and hatred of the other party.
In our present political climate, these group rivalries pose ever more serious implications because of what political scientist Lilliana Mason in Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity calls the emergence of “mega-identities”: “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preference as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and favorite grocery store. This is no longer a single social identity. Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity, with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies.”
In this ever-widening circle, almost nothing is apolitical anymore. This includes religion and diverse religious communities. In my work, I have a core thesis: In the US today, Muslims—and especially liberal advocacy on behalf of Muslims—are traits of the liberal mega-identity, and opposition to Muslims is a trait of the conservative mega-identity. And conservative Christians indisputably belong to the conservative mega-identity.
Now, in-group favoritism doesn’t always result in out-group bias. That is, you can extend trust, cooperation, and empathy to your in-group but not the out-group, and while this is a form of discrimination, it doesn’t involve any sort of aggression or hostility toward the out-group. But tribalism in the religious context has been shown to result in out-group hostility. And there is evidence that Muslims, more than any other religious out-group, are the targets of this hostility. Perceptions of threat are part of the reason why. Oxford political scientists Miles Hewstone, Mark Rubin, and Hazel Willis write: “[T]he constraints normally in place, which limit intergroup bias to in-group favoritism, are lifted when out-groups are associated with stronger emotions.” Stronger emotions include things like feeling the out-group is moving against you: “[A]n out-group seen as threatening may elicit fear and hostile actions.” Whereas “high status” groups (groups that are a numerical majority and have power) don’t feel threatened by minorities when the status gap is very wide, they are more likely to feel threatened when the status gap is closing. In the US today, the Christian in-group does not feel the status gap is wide, and they have good reason to feel this way.
First, White preponderance is on the decline. In 1965, White Americans constituted 84 percent of the US population, and now Pew says White Americans will be a minority by 2055. In 1996, White Protestant Christians still made up two-thirds of the population. Today, they don’t even constitute a majority. What’s more, the decline of White Protestant America has brought with it a perceived end for some to the cultural and institutional world built primarily by White Protestants in the United States.
With this perceived end nearing, conservative White evangelicals feel besieged, and just as studies on intergroup bias predict, that vulnerability is being turned against the out-group. One aspect of this is revealed in surveys comparing perceptions of discrimination against Christians versus Muslims. In 2019, Pew found that Democrats and those who lean Democratic “are more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say Muslims face at least some discrimination in the U.S. (92% vs. 69%)….At the same time, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say evangelicals face discrimination (70% vs. 32%).” In 2017, the Rasmussen Report and PRRI found very similar discrepancies.
Unfortunately, the hostility goes beyond merely dismissing anti-Muslim discrimination to outright hostility and even attempts at limiting Muslims’ religious rights (precisely the trend I outline in When Islam Is Not a Religion). In this way, religious freedom (and not just the individual religious groups) in the US today has become a partisan tool.
Political scientists Daniel Bennett and Logan Strother have explored these subtleties in their work. In one study, respondents were told that the government had blocked a house of worship. The house of worship was first described generically; then it was described as an evangelical church; and in the third scenario, it was a mosque. When Bennett and Strother compared how respondents felt about protecting the house of worship, they learned that if you liked Muslims more than evangelicals, you were more interested in protecting the mosque. On the flipside, only 40 percent of respondents who felt more warmly toward evangelicals wanted to help the mosque.
The tribal approach to religious freedom ultimately rests in the deprivation (or perceived deprivation) of Christian conservatives’ rights. That feeling of persecution is further accentuated for them when it is contrasted with the apparent liberal championing of Muslims’ rights. The idea is that Muslims are already well-protected, and Christians are persecuted, and in that comparison, many conservatives find cause to dismiss, even oppose, Muslims’ rights.
The work of political scientist Andrew Lewis begins to probe this phenomenon. In one study, Lewis looked at how conservatives and liberals respond to religious liberty claims differently depending on how the information is presented to them. First, respondents read about Muslim truck drivers who had to choose between transporting alcohol in violation of their religious beliefs or losing their jobs. Respondents then learned that either a well-known liberal or conservative law firm was representing the truck drivers in court.
Lewis found that Democratic respondents were more supportive of the religious freedom claims when they were told a liberal law firm represented the drivers. They were also more likely to support conservative Christian claims after they were exposed to religious freedom claims by Muslims. As for conservative respondents, they were less likely to shift attitudes in support of Muslims but were marginally more likely to support them if a conservative law firm was defending the Muslim claimants versus, say, the unambiguously liberal ACLU.
That last finding reflects the opposing political mega-identities that are involved. Conservatives are not only opposed to Muslims as a religious out-group, but when Muslims work with liberals (as they often do), they are also opposed as a political out-group. Several other studies bear out this point: For example, in a study published in 2016, a group of political scientists at Brigham Young University (BYU) measured Americans’ levels of unease with and willingness to sanction negative speech about different religious groups. They found that Democrats “express the greatest unease—and the greatest willingness to sanction those who make the disapproving comments—with statements about Jews and Muslims.”
However, they also found that Republicans exhibit “exceptionally low levels of discomfort with and unwillingness to sanction negative comments about Muslims.” In a polarized culture, where our mega-identities rule, if liberals penalize anti-Muslim speech, conservatives make sure not to. It’s not that Republicans are above penalizing speech; they just don’t do it for Muslims—partly because Democrats do that, and Republicans don’t want to be like Democrats.
The BYU researchers found exactly these group dynamics: “[P]artisans of different stripes express strikingly distinctive patterns of concern.” They also found that the groups differed the most on the Muslim question: Muslims “most readily experience the effects of group-based religious bias.” Republicans “sanctioned [penalized] disparaging statements about every religious group but one: Muslims. Whereas more than 70% of Republicans sanctioned statements about all other religious groups … only 38% of Republicans sanctioned commentators making statements about Muslims.”
The researchers used social identity theory to explain their findings. Depending on which group you belong to, you face different social costs when you penalize negative speech about Muslims. For Republicans, the social costs—repudiation by their tribe—are highest for penalizing anti-Muslim speech. For Democrats, the social costs for the same thing are much lower, and the social benefits much higher. A series of studies conducted between November 2015 and June 2016 also highlight these costs and benefits.
The University of Maryland conducted three national polls measuring Americans’ views about Islam and Muslims. The last survey was done just days after the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, where a Muslim attacker killed forty-nine people and wounded fifty-three others. The polls found that Americans’ attitudes about Muslims improved between each of the three surveys, even after the Orlando shooting.
"LEGAL LITERACY MAKES CLEAR THE IMPORTANCE OF A CONSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK THAT PROTECTS EVERYONE'S RIGHTS AND LEVELS THE PLAYING FIELD. CENTERING THE HUMAN HELPS US MOVE BEYOND THE MERELY TRANSACTIONAL TO THE NECESSARY RELATIONSHIPS."
The positive upward movement, however, depended on one’s party affiliation. Republicans stayed relatively fixed across all three polls, whereas Democrats’ views rose by twelve points. Commenting on the findings in 2016, Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution noted the political context: “To agree with the view that Islam and terrorism are tightly linked … is to take Trump’s side of the political divide. On the one hand, this means that his core supporters will likely embrace his opinions….On the other hand, those who oppose him have the tendency to reject his view in part because it’s his and because he is using it for political gain. It’s less about Islam and Muslims, and more about taking political sides.”
That last line—“[i]t’s less about Islam and Muslims, and more about taking political sides”—gets at the fact that Muslims are treated or even seen less as Muslims and more as proxies in a liberal-conservative fight. Favorable views of Muslims are traits of the Democratic mega-identity, and negative views are traits of the Republican mega-identity.
Many other studies highlight various aspects of this proxy function. When my book tour for When Islam Is Not a Religion came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 shutdown, I took the time to collect the evidence for my second book, The Politics of Vulnerability: Today’s Threat to Religious Freedom, which I published in 2021.
But I didn’t leave the work there. Since then, I’ve set out to develop new studies that dig even deeper.
When I set out to write The Politics of Vulnerability, I was surprised by how much empirical evidence was out there to support my novel thesis. At the same time, after I assessed the existing landscape, I also identified several gaps. Most of the current research does not look at the interrelatedness of these two issues. Nor does it account for the effect of perceived threat on evangelicals’ attitudes about Muslims’ religious rights. Recent trends in the religious freedom space and the growing polarization of American politics requires fine-tuned studies to pinpoint how each group understands the other, why they react to certain religious claims with hostility, and what might be done to change each group’s perceptions.
To that end, I am now working to build on existing research by developing, testing, and publishing a data-driven framework for engagement that brings Americans together across political and religious divides. The data collection includes national surveys research that probes intergroup dynamics in the religious space and offers insights on engagement strategies that work to heal religious polarization; field experiments where I get to test my findings with in-person audiences; and finally, developing a written framework for engagement based on the survey research and field experiments. The work is still very much in progress, but I think it can really change the way we talk about these and other religiopolitical phenomena.
Yet, even as I detail the empirical basis for my approach, I know that my initial impulse was correct. It all goes back to my principles of prejudice reduction. When I speak about religious freedom with conservative Christians, I:
1. Center the human; decenter the politics: We’re all in it together. I am not advocating that Muslims’ rights take precedence over Christians’ rights or that minorities have unique or preferred access to human rights that members of majorities do not.
2. Utilize legal literacy: In fact, I work in very concrete ways to help make sure your rights are protected, too. I have advocated for those rights in the courts of law and the courts of public opinion. Only with coherence and integrity can we protect rights for everyone.
3. Avoid condemnation/judgment: And your fears, the ones that make you hostile to Muslims’ concerns about attacks on their constitutional rights—I just want to say, I understand. Dramatic changes in the world have left you in a vulnerable place, and your reaction—while deeply problematic in its effects comes from a place that is, at its core, very human.
Legal literacy makes clear the importance of a constitutional framework that protects everyone’s rights and levels the playing field. Centering the human helps us move beyond the merely transactional to the necessary relationships. And avoiding condemnation understands that this process involves basic facets of intergroup dynamics. At our core, we are not warriors for our respective tribes—we are people going through things that any person could go through and reacting as any human would.
My three principles offer a method that is in marked contrast to the prevailing, partisan approach. It is an approach developed with an eye toward real change instead of continued rancor.
There’s a lot at stake: The Muslim-Christian relationship in the US is complex in and of itself, but what makes this divide particularly worthy of bridging is that Muslims are proxies for Democrats, and conservative White Christians are proxies for Republicans. If we can solve this divide, we can solve so much more, too.
Asma T. Uddin is a religious liberty lawyer who has worked on cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, federal appellate courts, and trial courts. She is the author of When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom (2019) and The Politics of Vulnerability: Today’s Threat to Religious Freedom (2021). Asma was an executive producer for the Emmy and Peabody-nominated docu-series, The Secret Life of Muslims. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Teen Vogue. Asma lives in Washington, DC.