In 1995, a Muslim woman from Ohio by the name of Rose Hamid made a momentous personal decision. While recovering from an automobile accident, she engaged in a period of quranic study and reflection which led her to conclude that wearing some version of the traditional Muslim headscarf for women was obligatory. This was no easy decision for Mrs. Hamid. She suspected that, despite the “free exercise” of religion clause of the First Amendment, her employer, US Airways, may well object to her wearing the headscarf, thus placing her ten-year career as a flight attendant in jeopardy. When she returned to work in March of 1997, her suspicions turned out to be well-founded. On the basis of a company policy prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols – as well as on speculation that a scarf would make Mrs. Hamid less identifiable as a member of the flight crew in an emergency – she was prohibited from wearing what she had come to believe was a religiously mandated head covering while she worked. Apparently, even her efforts at creating a scarf which featured a prominent display of the corporate logo in the appropriate corporate colors proved unacceptable to the company. Mrs. Hamid appealed to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination against workers based on their religion, and which requires employers “to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business” (section 2000e, article j) (1). In response, US Airways “reasonably accommodated” Mrs. Hamid’s religious practice by assigning her to a new position which required no contact with the public. Although she did retain employment with US Airways, her career as a flight attendant did come to an end because of her decision to cover her head.
Much more recently, the Los Angeles Times reported that largely Somali Muslim workers at a JBS Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado walked off the job in early September of 2008, protesting the company’s unwillingness to adjust respite times in order to allow Muslim workers to break their Ramadan fast and pray the sunset prayer. As a result of their protest, 100 Muslim workers were laid off. Shortly thereafter, Muslim workers for a JBS Swift plant in Omaha, Nebraska followed suit. Instead, however, of being dismissed like their Colorado counterparts, they managed to convince the company to shift the break time in order to allow for fast breaking through 30 September 2008 (likely the last day of the Ramadan fast).
It is an understatement to say that, in the decade or so between the Hamid incident and the recent events at the JBS Swift & Co. plants, much has transpired to affect the degree to which U.S. Muslims have had to meet significant challenges to their civil liberties. Seven years after 11 September 2001, the early morning FBI raids of U.S. Muslims’ homes have considerably lessened, especially since Muslim communities throughout the U.S. have demonstrated their eagerness to cooperate fully with law enforcement officials in their attempts to prevent further terrorist attacks on U.S soil. Although there are still cases of unjust detentions of Muslim citizens at U.S. airports based on racial profiling, these have also lessened considerably. What has not lessened, however, are the incidents of negative attitudes toward Muslims and their religious practices. The headscarf for Muslim women continues to be a flashpoint for controversy. Muslim women who wear hijâb still experience racial, ethnic, and religious slurs, as well as institutional discrimination. In 2003, for example, a Muslim student who attended Regina High Schoolin South Euclid, Ohio, decided to wear the headscarf, despite the fact that neither her sister (an alumna of Regina) nor her mother covered their heads. Her mother supported the courage of her daughter’s religious convictions and fashioned understated scarves for her daughter that complemented her school uniform. The principal, however, decided to deem the scarf a violation of the school dress code which prohibits head gear of any kind. This was despite the position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops which recommends that dress codes at Catholic schools be modified to accommodate religiously mandated standards of modesty among non-Catholic students. Ultimately, in order to stay true to her beliefs, this Muslim girl was forced to leave the Catholic school she loved and enroll elsewhere.
A New Mosque
In June of 2004 a controversy broke out in Orland Park, IL – one of the southwest suburbs of Chicago. A group of longstanding Muslim citizens of Orland Park and other cities in the area were applying to the municipal government for permission to build a new mosque. The application was met by a groundswell of vocal objections from fellow citizens afraid that the new mosque would become a “haven for terrorists”. After a series of very rancorous public hearings in which the prominent pastor of the local Ashburn Baptist Church spoke out strongly against the proposed mosque project, the municipal government decided to ignore what it deemed to be unfounded fears, and the plans to build the mosque went forward. This does not change the fact, however, that the Muslim citizens of Orland Park nearly had their right to build a place to worship denied in the same way that, in 2000, anti-Muslim forces successfully blocked plans to build a mosque in nearby Palos Heights, IL, despite intense efforts at mediation by the mayor and a local Catholic priest.
Through the creation of national civil rights advocacy and media watchdog organizations such as CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) and MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council) (2), the Muslim community in the U.S. has been striving vigorously – with the support of many Catholics and leaders from other religious traditions – to defend their religious liberties in their own country. At the same time, U.S. Muslims have been anything but hypocritical in their approach to questions of religious liberty in majority Muslim countries. Many have spoken out strongly against the application of the hadd punishment (i.e., death) for an apostate from Islam stipulated in most conventional interpretations of Islamic law. This was especially true during, and in the aftermath of, the celebrated case of the Afghan Christian Mr. Abdul Rahman who, in March of 2006, stood accused of the crime of apostasy and in danger of execution by the Afghan courts for having become a Roman Catholic back in 1990. Many intriguing facts about this case were obscured by simplistic media sensationalism which tended to focus almost exclusively on the “barbaric illiberality” of the Afghan courts.
Freedom of Expression
One of the strongest and most respected intellectual voices in the U.S. Muslim community, Dr. Louay Safi, wasted no time in writing a response to the Abdul Rahman crisis. On 30 March 2006, a major U.S. Muslim online journal known as The American Muslim (Sheila Musaji, ed.) published Apostasy and Religious Freedom, a paper in which Dr. Safi argues that the apostasy issue has far more to do with restrictions on freedom of expression throughout the Muslim world than it does with traditional Muslim legal principles and moral values. Safi argues that, in the attempt to modernize induced by western colonialism, many post-colonial Muslim governments eagerly abandoned traditional Islamic legal norms and adopted European legal codes. Although these codes were welcomed and enforced by a westernized and secularized elite, they were never allowed to become the focus of informed public discussion and debate.
In other words, they never underwent a proper cultural vetting process. Consequently, in the eventual backlash that has developed against the widespread abandonment of deeply rooted Islamic values and ideals, Muslim societies are attempting to re-implement Islamic legal norms in the absence of the vigorous public and scholarly discourse necessary to reinterpret Islamic law effectively and authentically for its new historical and social contexts. Instead, totalitarian regimes – opposed to social reform and the loss of power such reform is almost certain to entail for them – continue to align themselves with traditionalist and literalist interpreters of Islamic law who, also concerned with preserving their authority, support the death penalty for conversion out of Islam as part of their overall opposition to genuine reform (3).
For Safi, Muslim values with respect to religious liberty could not be clearer. He points out in his essay that religious liberty is a bedrock element of quranic teaching which predicts punishment for apostasy in the hereafter, but which at no point commands capital punishment for this sin. He does admit that there are two canonical hadîth(4) which seem to warrant capital punishment for apostasy. In addressing this fact, however, he makes at least four important points. His first point is that, although a hadîth can legitimately be interpreted to specify or restrict a broader quranic injunction, it can never be used to contradict or undermine a general quranic principle (in this case, the principle of religious liberty and freedom of conscience). His second point, also emphasized by prominent Muslim scholars such as S.A. Rahman (5), is an allusion to the fact that each of these is a singularly attested hadîth (khabar al-wâhid) and therefore arguably does not have the necessary epistemological gravity to support the application of capital punishment. His third point is that the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions never appear to have executed a person solely because of a change in his or her religious belief, but rather left such individuals an open-ended opportunity to repent. His fourth and final point is one that has been made by many other esteemed Muslim scholars from around the world who are quick to point out that the ratio legis (Ar.‘illa) for the application of capital punishment in the case of apostasy is the extent to which this apostasy entails a palpable threat to the social order in the form of public attacks on Islam and/or treasonous activities against a Muslim state (6).
Dr. Maher Hathout, another widely respected Muslim leader in the United States, largely concurs with Safi. He maintains that the only limitation any state can place on religious liberty is when “an individual’s right to religious freedom…is directly harmful to public security”. Further reflecting on the problem of state infringement upon the religious liberty of individuals, Hathout writes: “The problem with the argument for punishment for apostasy is that it cannot be applied in any Islamic state without giving rise to the potential for abuse by the state itself. Erroneously equating moral with political power in the determination of law has led to the political repression that we see in Islamic countries today... In the context of freedom of religion, the state’s responsibility is to uphold and protect it as the right of all humans, as granted by God, without exercising moral judgment on the content and/or manner of exercising those religious beliefs” (8).
In March of 2007, a U.S. Muslim group calling itself Team Islam-by-Choice and led by Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq of Upper Iowa University developed a website and weblog having to do with the whole question of religious liberty in Islam (9). The website features a paper by Dr. Farooq which makes many of the same arguments as Safi and Hathout. Perhaps more significantly, however, this website also features an unequivocal statement – signed by over one hundred Muslim scholars and religious leaders from around the world, many of whom hail from either Canada or the U.S. – in support of religious liberty and against any punishment for apostasy in the name of Islam (10).
The statement reads: “We, the undersigned Muslims from diverse backgrounds, affirm: The freedom of faith and the freedom of changing one's faith. In light of the Qur'anic guidance and the Prophetic legacy, the principle of freedom of faith does not lend itself to impose in this world any punishment or retribution solely for apostasy; thus there ought not to be any punishment in the name of Islam or fatwa calling for the same” (11).
It would be no exaggeration to say that there is only a handful of U.S. Muslim scholars or religious leaders of any significant stature who have not signed this statement.
Although I have not conducted anything approximating a scientific study of the opinion of U.S. Muslim scholars and religious leaders on this specific point, I would estimate that a sizeable majority would be in favor of lifting the ban on converting from Islam to other religions found in the majority of Muslim countries today – with one strong proviso.
The Crisis of Conversions
The proviso is that we realize the practical fact that true reciprocity between western and predominantly Muslim nations on the issue of religious liberty demands reasonable social parity. In other words, it will never take root and blossom until and unless two closely related developments unfold.
The first is that the majority populations in Muslim countries no longer feel threatened by western colonial or imperialist dynamics. As anyone familiar with crises over Muslim conversions to Christianity is well aware, pressure to apply capital punishment in these cases still has a great deal to do with the specter of Christian missionary activity in the colonial period, and the perceived threat this activity posed to the social fabric of Muslim societies.
The second development is that the majority populations in Muslim countries become relatively free to express their Islamic values and ideals in far more participatory political contexts than the ones currently prevailing in most of these countries. Many of the U.S. Muslim scholars and leaders whom I know would emphasize that, although authentic religious liberty is an objective moral good to be pursued in every society without exception, it can only be reasonably and justly attained in those Muslim majority societies that have managed to reform their government and religious institutions such that both the power over religion and the power of religion are no longer concentrated in the hands of an elite few – be they reactionary secularists attempting to keep religion “in check,” or radical Islamists who want to create a totalitarian Islamic regime such as the one operative in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Until such time, I am sure that most U.S. Muslims would agree that Christians and Muslims must continue to do everything in their power – given whatever constraints of current circumstance they may be facing – to respect one another’s freedom of conscience and religious expression. Our two religious traditions demand nothing less.
(1) http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/vii.html (visited on September 15, 2008).
(2) The websites of these organizations can be visited on the Internet at www.cair.com (for CAIR) and www.mpac.org (for MPAC).
(3) Louay Safi, “Apostasy and Religious Freedom” in Sheila Musaji (ed.), The American Muslim (posted 30 March 2006): http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/apostasy_and_religious_freedom/ (visited 20 September 2008).
(4) The most well-known of the two is: man baddala dînahu fa-qtulûhu (“Kill whomever changes his religion”).
(5) See S.A. Rahman, Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi 1996.
(6) For example, this opinion has been expressed by: a famous former Rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Shaykh Mahmud Shaltut (al-Islâm: ‘aqîda wa-sharî‘a, pp. 292-293), and can be found in English translation in chapter IX of Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s Freedom of Expression in Islam (Islamic Texts Society, Louisville, KY, 2007); by the current rector, Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi [see the reference in Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed, Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam (Ashgate, 2004), p. 139]; and by the current Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gomaa (see Gomaa’s 21 July 2007 post on On Faith, an online magazine of The Washington Post and Newsweek:http://newsweek.washingtonpost/onfaith/muslims_speak_out/2007/07/sheikh_ali_gomaa.html. visited 19 September 2008.
(7) Maher Hathout, In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam, Muslim Public Affairs Council,
Los Angeles CA 2006, p. 152.
(8) Ibid, pp. 157-158.
(9) The website and blog can be found at http://apostasyandislam.blogspot.com; last visited 25 September 2008.
(10) The U.S. Muslim signatories include, among others: Dr. Abdul Aziz Sachedina (University of Virginia); Dr. Khaled Abou el-Fadl (University of California at Los Angeles); Shaykh Mohammed Ali al-Hanooti (Grand Mufti, Greater Washington, D.C.); Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub (Temple University and Hartford Seminary); Dr. Irfan Ahmad Khan (Chicago, IL); Dr. Imad al-Dean Ahmad (Director of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, Maryland); Shaykh Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani (founder, International Institute of Islamic Thought and past president, Fiqh Council of North America); Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq (University of Upper Iowa); Dr. Louay Safi (Director, IslamicSociety of North America’s Leadership Development Center); Dr. Ingrid Mattson (president, Islamic Society of North America); Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (Masijd al-Farah, New York City); Dr. M. Cherif Bassiouni (founding director, International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University and 1999 Nobel Peace Prize nominee); Dr. Asma Afsaruddin (University of Notre Dame); Dr. Maher Hathout (Senior Advisor, Muslim Pulic Affairs Council); and the list goes on. One curious feature of this list of signatories is that the drafters of the statement felt free to include the names of the so-called “Successors” to the generation of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as certain key medieval Muslim scholars, on the basis of evidence in the works of these figures indicating their support for religious liberty and concomitant disavowal of temporal punishment for apostasy in the case of individual conversions that poses no threat to social stability. Some of these pre-modern signatories include: Ibrahim al-Nakha’i (d. 713 CE); `Umar b. `Abd al-`Aziz (d. 720); Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 778); Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi (d. 998); and Abu `Abdallah al-Qurtubi (d. 1273).