Steve Chapman, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has a piece in Human Events criticizing Sarah Palin for her opposition to building a mosque at Ground Zero. His argument seems to be that in guaranteeing freedom of religion, the First Amendment guarantees that all religions be treated identically. Therefore, argues Chapman, if you would allow evangelical Christians to build a church near Ground Zero, you must allow Muslims to build their mosque and community center—otherwise you are guilty of employing a double standard.
But the double standard only applies if you are dealing with two equivalent individuals or groups. You’re not guilty of using a double standard if you give the keys to your car to your sixteen-year-old child but not to your six-year-old. Likewise, if you support your own children but refuse to support your neighbor’s children, no one will accuse you of employing a double standard. In both these examples the two groupings are similar in many ways (your children, your neighbor’s children) but are different in crucial ways.
One way to avoid the double standard in regard to Islam is simply to declare that Islam is a political ideology, not a religion, and therefore not protected by the freedom of religion clause. For example, Geert Wilders has claimed that “Islam is not a religion” but a totalitarian ideology and therefore “the right to religious freedom should not apply to Islam.” Moorthy Muthuswamy takes a similar tack in his book Defeating Political Islam. Islam, he maintains, is basically a political ideology. Likewise, Gregory Davis, the author of Religion of Peace? Islam’s War Against the World argues that we need to reorient our thinking about Islam: “The first task of the West must be to reclassify Islam as a political system with religious aspects, rather than a religion with political aspects.” “How do you solve a problem like Sharia?” asks Mark Steyn in a playful paraphrase of the Broadway song. The simple answer is you reclassify Islam as a political organization.
But for hundreds of years Islam has been thought of as a religion—one of the world’s “great” religions according to most history books. While it’s undoubtedly true that many Islamic leaders cynically use religion as a cover for political ambitions, it’s also certainly true that many Muslims feel that in practicing Islam they are being obedient to God’s commands. For this and a number of other reasons it would be difficult to make a case that Islam is not in any sense a religion.
If Islam is treated as a religion and is therefore protected by the free exercise clause, what then? The First Amendment has never been interpreted to give people the freedom to do whatever they want just as long as they do it in the name of religion. In the late 19th century, Congress outlawed the Mormon practice of polygamy, and when the Mormons appealed the law, the Supreme Court upheld the ban. The Congress did, in fact, prohibit the free exercise of one particular Mormon custom. Congress would certainly also have the power to prohibit the free exercise of many Islamic customs, laws, and obligations that are in flagrant violation of federal laws. Crimes such as polygamy, underage marriages, stoning and whippings, honor killings and the murder of apostates are covered by existing laws. But there are other, more ambiguous areas where the free exercise of Islam might be curtailed for reasons of security. Should the wearing of the burqa be banned? Should mosques and Muslim schools be monitored for seditious activities? Should Friday sermons be pre-approved by government officials?
There are two main problems here. One problem is that there so many questionable aspects to Islamic teachings that mosques, madrassas and Islamic centers would require extensive, round-the-clock monitoring and supervision. This, in turn, would generate innumerable protests and civil rights lawsuits, and, most probably, increased media sympathy for Islam. Handled the wrong way, a tough crackdown could backfire and end up helping rather than hindering the spread of Islam.
The other problem is that such an approach sets up a slippery slope for restricting the religious freedoms of Jews, Christians, Buddhists and others. Any attempt to ban the burqa will elicit demands that nuns be forbidden to wear habits. Likewise, it will be argued that if Muslims can’t wear distinctive garb, Christians shouldn’t be allowed to wear crosses, and Jews shouldn’t be allowed to display the Star of David. And if you’re going to monitor mosques and madrassas for un-American activities, why not monitor churches, homeschools and Christian schools, as well? Granting the government sweeping supervisory powers over Islam might provide it with just the leverage it needs to haul Pastor Jones off to jail the next time he says the wrong thing about gay marriage.
It shouldn’t work that way, of course: people ought to be able to make distinctions. It ought to be obvious that Christianity poses far less of a threat to our society than does Islam. But thanks to thirty years of multicultural indoctrination, many Americans have succumbed to the notion that all groups no matter how different, must be treated the same. Thus Steve Chapman observes that even if Islam were “inherently violent and totalitarian” it would still merit the full protection of the First Amendment.