5th Tuesday Guest Post: Islam & Religious Freedom in America

by Josh Shelton

825810372208816128-png__700There’s debate about whether the recent executive order can fairly be called a “Muslim ban.” On the campaign trail, the proposal started as “a total and complete shutdown on Muslims entering the US” and evolved into “extreme vetting.” When asked if the executive order had anything to do with religion, Former Mayor Giuliani also described the President’s intention as a “Muslim ban.” Legal permanent residents (with green cards) were also affected by this ban. Iraqi interpreters and other soldiers who fought and served alongside US troops are also barred from entering the US.

Whether the President intended to target Muslims or just possible terrorists, many Americans have a very hard time making any distinction between refugees, peaceful Muslims, and extremists.

Michael “Duke” Lowrie is a Bossier City candidate for the Louisiana House of Representatives this year, and he has proposed boycotting any business that employs a follower of Islam—not businesses making political or religious statements—literally any business with a Muslim employee. Lowrie went on to say, “I will challenge every Islamist (sic) I see to denounce their false god and religion. Those Islamist (sic) here walk among us in stores and we act as if they’re no different than any of us. Well I’m sorry they are different.” Far from being an isolated case of Islamophobia, Lowrie’s candidacy comes at a time when violence against Muslims has risen to post-9/11 levels.

Imagine if a politician was making these kinds of harsh statements about Catholics, Pentecostals, or Baptists. It may seem incomprehensible today, but there have been times when Americans were this paranoid about other groups of Christians.

Persecution of Christians in America

https3a2f2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com2fuploads2fcard2fimage2f3649662f08147d4b-988a-4a3f-b23d-4f2838a2a4b5In spite of America’s historical emphasis on religious freedom, virtually every religious and ethnic group has faced paranoia and oppression at some point. Catholics and German immigrants are two noteworthy examples. Anti-Catholic sentiment was present even in the colonial era, such that the founding fathers made a point of being inclusive. In the Bible riots of 1844, Catholic homes and churches were destroyed. Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon faith) was killed by a mob the same year. Even as recently as 1960, JFK had to give a speech assuring voters that he would not “take orders from the Pope.” What’s interesting is that the average believer still has a very limited understanding about the differences between different branches of the Christian faith. Modern Baptists generally speaking aren’t more informed about Catholicism than their ancestors; they have just learned that coexistence is easy and beneficial. Denominations can have fundamentally different ideas about the path to salvation, and yet they can also collaborate on work in the community.

Elevated Tensions in Times of War


Language barriers, cultural differences, and the threat of concientiousobjectorsterrorist attacks all heighten people’s anxiety about Muslim immigrants. Again, history has relevant examples for comparison. Amish and Old Order Mennonites are now viewed positively as hard-working Christians adhering to a peaceful and simpler way of life. Back in WWII, however, these communities were viewed with extreme distrust. Why would someone come to America and refuse to integrate into our culture? Many communities still persist in speaking Pennsylvania Dutch instead of English, even after generations of living in America. Even more incomprehensible, many of these able-bodied men were conscientious objectors in a war against German and Japanese imperialism. To an unsympathetic observer, it was easy to see the Amish as Germans on American soil.

All across America—Texas, Washington, and Michigan all have entire towns dedicated to German culture. Turbans and mosques seem threatening to many Americans, and yet we have come to see towns of German immigrants as tourist attractions. People who lash out against Muslims also end up attacking people of completely different faiths. Over 500,000 American Sikhs practice a religion from Southern Asia, and yet they are routinely harassed by people who perceive them as Muslim.

“But Islam is Different”

Some people claim that Islam doesn’t deserve protection as a religion because it also has rules governing diet, clothing, and other lifestyle choices. Of course, any Christian who opens their Old Testament will see long lists of laws governing everything from diet to fabric choices. Others have spread misguided fear about “Sharia courts.” The truth is that Americans are woefully uninformed about Islam. We’ve been at war in the Middle East for decades, and yet Americans know only a handful of second-hand stereotypes about Islam.

A 2007 photo of Munira Ahmed was the basis for the poster made by Shepard Fairey.

Nearly half of Americans do not know a single Muslim, and a majority of Americans know either nothing at all (30%) or not very much (25%) about the Muslim religion and its practices.

With over 1.6 million adherents, Islam takes many different forms in different cultures. Still, the vast majority of believers are concerned about extremism and opposed to groups like ISIS. Peaceful Muslims are potential allies in the prevention of terrorist attacks. On the other hand, making life harder for all Muslims will play into the East-vs-West narrative presented by ISIS and other extremists.

Myths About Islam

While Americans know incredibly little about Islam, we have all heard a few catch phrases  of propaganda that make religious war seem inevitable. The most problematic falsehood is that “Christianity and Islam cannot coexist.” The religions can and do peacefully coexist in countries all around the world. I personally spent two years in Cameroon, a country that borders Nigeria. I lived in two Muslim towns with a Christian population around 20 percent. I witnessed more tension between Baptists and Catholics in Louisiana than between Christians and Muslims in Cameroon. It is not a perfect democracy, and yet Cameroon maintains a high degree of religious tolerance nationwide.

A Methodist Pastor and a Muslim Imam collaborate together in Dallas.

Completely different religions can coexist in America just as easily as different denominations of Christianity. There aren’t campaigns where Methodist try to convert all Baptists, and churches with totally different beliefs collaborate to accomplish work in the community. The same type of collaboration is possible between churches and mosques. In Sweden, this kind of inter-faith cooperation has helped to find housing for refugees.

Founding fathers like Jefferson and Washington made it clear that America’s religious freedom extended to Muslims. Now, Christians must also determine a Christ-like response to refugees and immigrants with different cultures and faiths.


For More Information…


Here’s a GUIDE to what you can do when you see Islamophobia in action.


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