First Amendment rights: Extremism? Or religious belief?

First Amendment rights: Extremism? Or religious belief? August 7, 2009
Talk to each other

“A woman who loses her chastity is worthless,” lectures the sermon-giver at Asra Nomani’s mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia. Nomani carefully jots down this statement in her notebook, right alongside the speaker’s other assertion that “Jews are the descendents of apes and pigs.” Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent who came face-to-face with extremism when her colleague and close friend, Daniel Pearl, was murdered in Pakistan, is certain that these statements of intolerance in her local mosque are intrinsically related to acts of violence. Thus begins Nomani’s “struggle for the soul of Islam,” a struggle showcased by Brittany Huckabee in her recent documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown.

As Huckabee’s movie follows Nomani’s fight for women’s rights, it shows how her struggle against conservatism becomes intertwined with her repugnance with extremism. The film focuses on how Nomani ends up conflating the two, explaining time and again that there is a “slippery slope” between intolerance and violence. Nomani’s protest goes from wanting to give women a space in the main prayer hall to wanting women to stand beside men in prayer and to lead mixed-gender prayer. Any other view of gender organization in the mosque is, according to Nomani, a sign of extremism, akin to the type practiced by Pearl’s murderers. Yet, as one of the conservative women from her mosque notes, what does extremism have to do with women-led prayer?

Although Nomani insists that intolerant speech is directly related to violent action and should thus be suppressed, she provides no evidence to substantiate the connection. Furthermore, because she is convinced of this slippery slope, she feels that there is no room for what the moderates advocate: slow change based on diplomacy and compromise. Instead, she calls for and attempts to lead an all-out revolution, bringing the media into the fray and causing many members in the community to feel not only exposed and ridiculed, but also afraid to express their religious beliefs.

It is this latter element – the fear felt by conservative individuals in expressing their religious views – that reveals a previously unexplored aspect of Nomani’s reformist approach: its infringement on her co-religionists’ fundamental rights of free speech and religious freedom. Nomani’s battle was and continues to be widely covered in mainstream media, making her strand of thinking increasingly influential. At a time when Muslim organizations are under tremendous scrutiny and mosques are infiltrated by FBI agents, it would come as no surprise that Nomani’s campaign, and others like hers, help strengthen society’s and the government’s perceived connection between religious conservatism and violent extremism.

While elements of her mosque leaders’ views are admittedly deplorable and should be reformed from theological and social perspectives, the highly publicized nature of Nomani’s commentary is troubling in a time when many Muslims already feel their religious freedom is curtailed by the government. As long as their speech is not directly connected with imminent, violent action, for those who sincerely believe that what they are preaching is part of their faith, having to curtail it for no other reason than the threat of prosecution is an infringement of their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

The crux of the argument is that there is a definite, and very important, line between intolerant speech (constitutionally protected) and incitement to imminent violence (unprotected). Nomani-like reformism often targets speech that is, at most, bigoted or highly conservative, but which does not advocate violence, and seeks to suppress it. It amplifies intra-community issues so that they catch national attention and, likely, attract the attention of a governmental authority capable of exerting pressure. Such reformist approaches, in their quest for progress or even human rights, fail to recognize the effects of their actions on their co-religionist’s fundamental right to free religious expression. It is an infringement of free speech and free exercise rights when mosque leaders and sermon-givers do not voice their conservative views because of their fear of being equated with violent extremists by government authorities. Furthermore, while many people, Muslims included, would rather not have to hear intolerant speech, once speech limitations are legitimated for one group, transposing them to another becomes merely procedural, rather than substantive.

Consider, for example, that the same evangelical Christian groups that supported government investigations into Muslim speech now find their own religious speech under greater scrutiny. In the aftermath of the murder of Dr. George Tiller by Scott Roeder, there is a push to put evangelical Christian groups who advocate a strong anti-abortion policy under increased governmental scrutiny. More specifically, there is a call for greater enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), which targets whoever, “by force or threat of force … intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with …” either an abortion doctor or patient. Although the larger body of law makes intimidating statements relatively difficult to prosecute – given the finer distinctions between a criminally actionable threat and other sorts of intimidating statements – FACE, which allows for both governmental prosecution and private suits by doctors and clinic workers, does threaten free speech rights.

While the target of many lawsuits under FACE may be the Evangelicals, a vociferous pro-life position is characteristic of many Catholics as well. Speech restrictions on the former group can thus seamlessly be applied to the latter.

Which reflects a critical point: the survival of our most basic freedoms depends on our protecting them vigorously. The U.S. Constitution protects politically incorrect and intolerant speech, and even violent speech that stops short of incitement to violence, because to do so otherwise puts the state in the position of determining what is acceptable speech and what is not. Political correctness, for example, is a fluid concept, changing with time and circumstance; what is politically correct at one time or in a particular culture may not be in another time or in another culture.

And what some consider “extremism” may be another person’s genuinely held religious belief. Given the variability of people’s beliefs and perspectives, individuals should be free to negotiate these concepts among each other without the force of law imposing a particular view on them by punishing speech that the government finds problematic for social or political reasons.

While Nomani, as a non-governmental actor, does not violate her co-religionists’ right to free religious expression, her media-focused strategy to suppress such speech in a time fraught with anti-Muslim suspicion may easily convince governmental authorities to clamp down on conservative Muslims – hurting not just Muslims today, but other groups, now and in the future.

(Photo: Steve Rhodes)

Asma T. Uddin is an attorney and Editor-in-Chief of Altmuslimah

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