Religious Freedom

Most of us know the 1st Amendment because it gives us the right to free speech. As a writer, I appreciate that right and honor the responsibility it conveys. Thankfully, that amendment also gives us the right to freedom of religion.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Because of this amendment, in this country we are free to practice our various faiths as we see fit. I'm especially aware of this freedom since if I lived in another part of the world, notably in Iran or Egypt, I'd face serious persecution since I'm a Baha'i. I'd be denied an education and denied the right to marry. My property and material possessions could be taken away by the government. Or if my next door neighbor decides to steal my car, as a Baha'i in those countries, I'd have no legal recourse.

Yes, if I lived in another part of the world, I might be arrested and imprisoned because of my beliefs. Tortured. Executed.

As a teenager, I was horrified by the story of Mona Mahmudnizhad, a young Persian girl executed for teaching Baha'i children's classes. She was only sixteen and was hung along with nine other Baha'i women.

Thankfully, because of our First Amendment, I don't have to worry about that. Here in this country, someone might be mean to me and tell me I'm going to hell, but compared to the possibility of being hung or shot by a firing squad, I can deal with that.

Despite the persecution of my Baha'i brothers and sisters taking place in countries that are majority Muslim, I have nothing but love and respect for those who practice Islam. I believe that all of the world's great religions come from the same source, God, and are truly only one faith, even if some of the social laws of the religion may change.

Of course, not everyone feels that all religion is the same truth. Even among Christians, there is lots of fighting and arguing about which version of Christianity is better. Some people trash Catholics. Others trash Baptists, Methodists, and so on. Atheists and agnostics get lectured, and likewise do their share of lecturing.

We clearly have not yet learned how to be unified and respectful of each other's beliefs, which is the exact opposite of what religion actually teaches.

As I listened to the news today, I found myself thinking specifically about how as a nation we have not addressed our religious prejudices against Muslims. In fact, we are guilty of a great deal of religious prejudice toward our Muslim brothers and sisters.

I thought about all this while listening to a couple of news pundits debating the use of Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein. A typical statement was, "Well what's wrong with saying his middle name?"

Nothing's wrong with Barack Obama's middle name but what is wrong is the intent behind saying it over and over. It's used to fan the flames of anti-Islamic fears and prejudice in the hope that people will erroneously believe that the man is a Muslim.

Months ago, someone forwarded me one of those, "Freak Out Because Obama's a Muslim" kind of emails and it made me feel profoundly sad. The email was full of horrible lies and needed some serious fact checking. The emails have been circulating and circulating like a toxic poison in our collective conscience.

No, Obama's not a Muslim. But if he was, so what? What's wrong with that?

I wish the talking heads on TV would say this. I wish Obama would stand up and say it.

Instead, he passes out fliers featuring images of him at church. Instead he mentions being a Christian in his rallies. He should do those things because being a Christian and going to church is an important part of his life. I hope this is why he's doing this. He should not have to do it because he has to soothe our fears and pander to our national prejudices. The sad reality is that because of our nation's prejudices, if Obama was a Muslim, he wouldn't even be on a ballot right now.

Funny we can take folks' oil but we decry and demonize their faith.

Islam is a beautiful religion in its own right. Sure, there are people who justify their wrong, immoral and evil actions by cloaking them with the mantle of Islam. But that doesn't take away the original intent of Mohammad. If some Muslims say they hate Christians, they need to pick up their copy of the Koran and re-read how Mohammad venerates and honors Jesus.

I'm also quite aware that the same twisting of purpose was also done with Christianity.

Or have we all forgotten how people chose to interpret certain passages from the Bible to justify slavery? Decided that black folks were only 3/5 human? Denied women the right to vote?

People have done terrible things in the name of religion. But we can all do our part to create greater understanding. For example, for many years my parents have been part of an interfaith organization designed to create partnerships between the diverse faiths that should co-exist in this nation of religious freedom. Surely these sort of organizations exist in lots of cities.

On a day to day level, how many of us in our personal lives check those around us when we hear them subtly making comments that imply that all Muslims are terrorists? What do we do when we hear people say Muslims are going to hell because they don't have Christ in their lives? Do we agree if someone says Muslims are weird because they pray five times a day and don't drink?

In the face of such prejudice, I hope we can all bring it back to that all important first amendment and truly honor our freedom of religion. We can't take it for granted.


Jameil said…
I never knew a Muslim until I went to college. Or I was never friends with one. IDK. But one of my sorors is Muslim and has more morals than most of the Christian coalition I know. Like you said, this country is based on religious freedom. Unfortunately, it has not figured out religious tolerance.

Many people across religions believe condemnation is the only way to show their allegiance. Not just using Obama's middle name, but also releasing the picture of him in a turban. It shows there are still people who really believe everyone who wears a turban or has a Muslim name is the devil. Call me crazy but I have a little problem with slavery. I don't see every person who's middle name is Stonewall or Jackson or any other myriad of civil war era names and automatically think racist. Eh. It seems the ones who preach love and tolerance and claim to be most like Christ are the most love and tolerance-free.
1969 said…
I too have been asking the same question. What if Obama was a Muslim? So what?

I am tolerant of all religions, and agree also with Jameil....sometimes the biggest Bible thumpers are the ones we really need to watch out for.
Allison Miranda said…
Jameil said: "Like you said, this country is based on religious freedom. Unfortunately, it has not figured out religious tolerance."

Well said!

I think the media is trying to do whatever it can to sway this election, even if it means implying over and over again that Obama may be a Muslim (which like 1969 said, SO WHAT??!!).
Anonymous said…
I'm having an online discussion (me the heathen - he the Christian) right now and we've been very civil. I'm hoping that things remain this way.

I've visited a wide variety of places of places of worship over the years - I really just want to know about other faiths and I haven't yet found any group that doesn't hold that "elitist" attitude or "us vs them" as far as salvation goes. If the dogma leaders of all groups would encourage tolerance perhaps eventually the world would change.
Jen said…
It's extremism in all areas that's the culprit. That and prejudice and ignorance. Have you read The Faith Club? Even though you may want to beat on those women on occasion for their naivete (and maybe for their lifestyle, in general - joking, sort of), it's an interesting group. It's about three professional women in the NYC area - a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew, who all had children at the same preschool and got together after September 11th to write a book together. The book would help children recognize the similarities between the three faiths. What they found out, though, is that their own prejudices against the religions of the others held them up, and so they decided to explore that, instead. It's pretty interesting reading. They all learned a lot.

There I go... wrote another novel in your comments section again. Sorry!
Anonymous said…
As you say, Liz, each religion is as valid as any other and the problems only start when people insist their religion is the holy grail and the others are mistaken. And Jameil's right, it's often the ones who preach love and tolerance who show precious little of it.
It's the extreme of any religion that is a problem. I wouldn't care if Obama was a Muslim as long as he respected my own beliefs or lack there of.
Haute in LA said…
Liz, I am FOVEVER schooled by you. First off re: Obama we are on the SAME PAGE. I have been debating this very topic with many in my inner circle for the past few days. Even if he is NOI or Muslim SO WHAT??? Does that mean he doesn't inspire me? Nope. Does that mean he won't get my vote?? Eh, eh. Sad to say, this little rumor/tidbit about him has my own mother supporting Hilary. CRAZY!!!!

RE: Baha'i, I know nothing of the religion. But I am a nerd: I research and read up on everything, so thank you for sparking up a new interest in me.
I also believe that all true religions come from the same source, and that if God had intended our world to be boringly homogeneous, we would all be of the same race and practice the same religion.

Why would anyone want that?
Liz Dwyer said…
You all have left such thoughtful comments...and I will respond soon. But our second hamster literally just died so I'm digging a hole in the backyard and dealing with devastated children once more. It's very very sad.
Neil said…
Despite these commentators who are trying to drum up trouble, I think it is pretty impressive how little impact this has had on his campaign. Maybe I'm being too optimistic, but I think the two current Democratic candidates show a certainly growing maturity of the American public. I still think that a large percentage of the voting public actually do that that Obama is a Muslim, and aren't very concerned -- as long as the Koran isn't guiding his actions more than the Constitution. Even with all the talk of Hussein and Obama/Osama, he seems to be very popular.

Personally, I'm wary of having anyone TOO religious in their beliefs, of any religion, as President, because it usually makes them inflexible, like our current President.
Thanks for asking one of many questions that so few are asking. Why should it matter if anyone seeking to provide leadership in our society is Muslim (or black for that matter). One of the limitations of politics is that it has this way of constricting the possibilities for discussion rather than opening them up because ultimately a person has to "win". Ironically even journalists who don't have to worry about winning won't ask the obvious question that you've asked Liz. This is one of the reasons that bloggers can be so influential because we have complete freedom to express our ideas (at least until someone decides that we shouldn't)because we can't get fired and are not beholden to big corporate interests like every newspaper and tv journalist is in our society. Wouldn't be nice to live in a democracy that was a little more democratic. We have a looooong way to go. Keep saying what isn't being said girl. I'll keep doing the same.
Wonderful post. Thank you for saying it.
Miriam said…
I think the honest truth is that the media or politicians are trying to play on the Muslim fear.

Thus, to say that Obama is Muslim is sort of like a "turn off". They made ALL Muslims to be the ones from Sept 11. I think that is the big deal.

" Do we agree if someone says Muslims are weird because they pray five times a day and don't drink?"

Its very commendable. As a matter of fact, there is a Jewish tradition about it: they are nervous when dealing with an angry Muslim because of the fact that they pray 5 times a day.
Anonymous said…
Tempest in a Teapot.

The desperate act of desperate people.

It won't work.
Haute in LA said…
Awww, I'm sorry to hear about the hamster. I hope the kids are okay now.
Liz Dwyer said…
I totally apologize for such a slow reply to your comments. Hamstergate appears to be almost over. Now the boys want a snake. I don't think so! Anyway...

They had one Ohio voter on 60 minutes last night and he was saying how he likes Obama but he'd heard he was a Muslim and didn't know the National Anthem. So, the emails and pictures are working. It's so disappointing. The other thing I got to thinking about is how some people probably think it's okay to say they won't vote for him if he's Muslim, but what they're REALLY thinking is that they won't vote for him because he's black.

I agree with Jameil too. And really, black folks don't need to say anything against Islam since many of our slave ancestors were Muslim in Africa. But we're trained to forget that past.

The way the media works is vicious. They just want drama, gossip and innuendo. Forget about actually educating people on the real stories that are happening.

To even have an "us vs them' attitude is the opposite of what our actual spiritual practice should be. But individuals have a way of corrupting things and trying to make themselves feel better and superior. That's not how it should be. I look at the Golden Rule and how it can be found in every major how could it be that if you are not my religion, you're doomed to hell? The minute someone starts thinking that, they're wrong.

You didn't write a novel! :) Thanks for sharing about that. I haven't read that but it sounds excellent. I think many of us would come to the same conclusion the three mothers did. Good for them for coming together to try to create a model of unity.

But if all religions come from the same source, to say that the others are wrong would basically be dissing your own faith. They really all are the same spiritual concepts, but the social laws change to fit the needs of the society. I always tell folks that if Mohammad could've explained the science of how there were parasites in pigs, he would've. But folks were primarily uneducated and how can you explain parasites when microscopes haven't even been invented? So Mohammad makes a social law saying, "Don't eat pork!" Religion is very practical, even if we don't always realize it.

Exactly. I 100% agree with you! But there's a lot of people out there who think otherwise and have no problem saying so.

Haute in LA,
It's weird how even though it's been said a million times now that he's not a Muslim, some folks still believe it. I think we've just seen way too much negative media about Islam and it's hard to counteract that. A good place to start reading up on the Baha'i Faith is -- there's a lot of great info there. The library might have some books too.

I think all the time about how enriched our world is by all the diverse experiences that the world's religions bring. I remember back in my early twenties I went to the Parliament of the World's Religions because it was being held in Chicago. It was SO exciting and interesting to see everyone from all the different backgrounds all together in one place. Very moving, indeed.

Obama is very popular despite the best efforts of the scare tactics. But I think the fact that the scare tactics are even used at all says something about how far we still have to go as a society. We've come a long way but we've still got lots of changing to do.

It would be VERY nice to live in a "democracy that was a little more democratic". Journalists are absolutely beholden to corporate interests. You can't bite the hand that feeds you.

I heard about the blackout in Alabama of the 60 minutes story about Karl Rove's tactics against the Alabama governor. I mean, if we're living in a country where the TV stations follow commands and decide to not show a program because people in power don't want it to happen, well, there's nothing democratic about that at all...which is why we're all supposed to go distract ourselves by shopping.

I'd been thinking about this since I first got that email months ago, but with last week's increase in "Obama's a Muslim" type of hype, I really got so angry about it. I'm glad I wrote what I was feeling down. It's therapeutic for me!

That Muslim fear is played out in our national press so frequently and it's so offensive. I think people forget how folks didn't just come to the New World because they were adventurous. Christians wanted to leave Europe so they could have religious freedom. But it seems like it's human nature to forget about your own oppression and then turn around and be prejudiced against someone else.

I hope it won't work. But I suppose we'll all know in a couple of days whether it did or not.

Haute in LA,
They're really pressing the snake thing. AAGH! :) Thanks for asking though.
the last noel said…
It takes a mature soul to still have compassion for those who hate. Your sons are lucky.
Unknown said…
I have been so enraged these past two weeks about this very subject!

Thanks to you because you put this out there so eloquently and with just the right amount of affirmation!

Well said, and I completely agree.

I just wonder how we move forward and if this is an opportunity for all to grow.

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