Islam & Religious Freedom in the U.S. (by Mahmoud Harmoush)

MA student Mahmoud Harmoush

This post is written in conjunction with the Religion and Law in the U.S.” course dialogue project and is directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”

With this amendment to the U.S. constitution, I and many other religious people feel welcome to practice, establish, and propagate our faith in a peaceful and competitive multi-religious environment.  I appreciate and thank the founding fathers for their wisdom and for such a clause.  Due to my understanding of the “Wall of Separation between Church and State”, I did not ask or expect the state to help me establish my religious center (The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley – ICTV), nor did I expect the state to block my effort to establish the center for religious purposes after I met all city codes.  I expected the process to take its normal course like any other religious entity applying for a construction permit.

But as it turned out, the process took more than three years.  It cost more than average and had to go through a public hearing at the planning commission of the City of Temecula.  The city had to notify three hundred houses around the proposed site of the project and there was also an open invitation for people to come for the hearing.  There were hundreds in attendance to voice their opinions.  After more than five hours of listening to testimony and comments from both sides, the planning commission voted (5-0) for granting ICTV a permit to build.  I think they applied the “lemon test” and found our application to pass the test of secularity: no advancement of a particular religion and no governmental entanglement.

A few months later and before the expiration of filing time, the opposition filed an appeal to the City Council.  Another hearing date was set for January 25th , 2011 at Temecula New City Hall in old town Temecula.  Phil Willon from the LA Times reported: “After a marathon eight hours hearing that ended at 3:30 am Wednesday, the Temecula City Council unanimously approved the mosque, a decision officials said was based not on incendiary religious or political issues but rather on such mundane matters as traffic, parking and environmental impact.” In the same interview, I said: “This is a great day for all of Temecula” because it showed that freedom of religion is guaranteed even if it was not welcomed. (Read the article here)

For many in our society, incidents like Muslims requesting a building permit, the violent behavior of an individual Muslim, or even a political campaign like the one we have this year unfortunately trigger greater amounts of fear of Islam and Muslims.  The media and politicians, for limited popular gain, rush to denounce Sharia or to promise voters that there will not be a Muslim in their future cabinet – they inflame the negative feeling and thereby disturb the social harmony.

Mahmoud Harmoush, Born in Syria, Student at CLU, first year MA with a focus on Islamic Leadership. Imam of the Islamic center of Temecula Valley. Concern with Human Rights issues, Co-Founder of the Syrian American Council.