No, religious freedom isn't about who you can discriminate against

No, religious freedom isn't about who you can discriminate against
Comment: Rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the US is seeing Muslims and Jews denied services in the name of 'religious liberty', writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
03 Jul, 2019
A small group attend an 'anti-Islam' rally in New York, June 2017 [Anadolu]
It's clear we are living in the age of fear and loathing of the foreign "other". 

A slew of signposts, statistics and signals make this reality abundantly clear, but none more so than data that points to a dramatic spike in hate crimes against religious minorities during the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

In the years 2001-2015, there were more than 2,500 anti-Muslim incidents, which targeted more than 3,000 Muslims in the United States, alongside more than 12,000 incidences that targeted Jewish Americans, according to the FBI.

The rate of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate crimes in the country, however, has spiked disturbingly since Trump was sworn into office in January 2017. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise given the 45th POTUS has told the American public "Islam hates us," and given he has shared anti-Semitic memes in his speeches and on Twitter, while also describing neo-Nazis as "fine people".

At the end of Trump's first year in the Oval Office, hate crimes had surged 67 percent against Muslims and 37 percent against Jews, including the tragic attacks on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2017, and the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota in 2017.

These statistics and blood-soaked incidences of violent, racist hatred tell only part of the story, however, and don't account for how religious based discrimination is occurring and increasing in the day-to-day lives of religious minorities.

New research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has found that an ever-increasing number of Americans think it should be permissible for a small business to refuse service to religious minorities if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

22 percent of Americans support a business owner's right to discriminate against religious groups today

In 2014, according to PRRI, less than 12 percent of Americans supported the idea that a business has a right to provide service to Jews, if doing so violated the religious belief of the business proprietor.

Five years later, this number has jumped, with nearly one in five supporting the right of a business owner to discriminate against his or her Jewish customers because of their faith.

While PRRI didn't record data for views about Muslim small business customers in 2014, it found that 22 percent of Americans support a business owner's right to discriminate against them today.

Led by the Republican Party, American voters are being told religious freedom is less about having the right to practice a religious belief in private spaces of the home and places of worship, but more about having the right to discriminate against others in public.

Protesters in California rally against US President Donald Trump, racism and white supremacy [Anadolu]

"Religious freedom was meant to shield marginalised communities from persecution," Arjun Sehti, author of American Hate: Survivors Speak Out, told me. "Instead, it's being used as a sword to discriminate against them. Conservative judges, led by the Supreme Court, are eliminating sacrosanct civil rights and kowtowing to those who wish to exclude entire populations of people from this country."

These changing views towards Muslims and Jews in the United States not only bring back into view Europe's darkest days, when Nazi laws excluded Jews from full participation in civic and social life, but also the more recent horrors of American history, when discriminatory laws were passed to prevent African Americans from accessing "whites only" private and public areas.

Too often when we talk about religious based discrimination, we focus almost exclusively on the kind of hate crimes and violence we see in newspaper headlines and viral posts on social media, but both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are more pernicious and stubborn than that.

Islamophobia denies Muslim Americans equal access to education, employment, housing, and private services

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both a form of racism that springs from the same well - the preservation of white supremacy. Muslims and Jews - or anyone perceived to be such - are denied, or restricted in their access to employment, education, socio-economic mobility, freedom of movement and free speech, and are subjected to laws and strategies that unfairly discriminate against them.

And in the post-9/11 era, Muslim Americans remain an object of suspicion and fear. A good example is the national freak out that ensued when the country's first elected black Muslim Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar (D-MN), tweeted, "It's all about the Benjamins, baby," in reference to a Puff Daddy song title, to explain why US foreign policy is so heavily influenced by the Israel lobby. In comparison, the collective silence that took hold when the US president tied her to the attacks of 9/11 is particularly telling. 

Islamophobia not only denies Muslim Americans equal access to education, employment, housing, and private services, but also produces negative health outcomes.

The effect discrimination has on a person's physiological well-being occurs via several mechanisms, according to Runnymede, the UK's leading think tank on race equality and race relations.

Read more: Racialised as white, treated otherwise: How anti-Arab hate becomes invisible in the US

"First, racism increases exposure to the internalisation of negative messages that may lead to decreased self-esteem and poorer mental health; second, exposure to racist stressors, such as interpersonal discriminatory treatment, may result in physiological changes and to the subsequent onset and worsening of disease, and last, racially motivated violence directly affects mental and physical health."

Given PRRI has demonstrated the American public is becoming increasingly willing to view discrimination based on religious grounds to be acceptable social behaviour, then the hardening of attitudes towards religious minorities must be understood as nothing short of a modern a silent killer.


CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.