Wearing the Veil in the United States

As veil-wearing is debated (and sometimes outlawed) in countries around the world, the U.S. Department of Justice is working to enforce laws that allow women to express their religious beliefs. All Americans have freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and this includes the right for Muslim women to wear the veil.

One such case of the U.S. government going to court to protect a woman’s right to veil occurred in 2009, when Essex County, New Jersey fired Yvette Besnier from her job at a county prison stating that her khimar – a religiously mandated headscarf – violated the uniform policy of the prison. The Department of Justice then sued the prison for violating Ms. Besnier’s right to wear the khimar, a right protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which requires that employers make reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious observances and practices.

On this American high school basketball team, some players wear the hijab, while others do not.

Ms. Besnier’s case is not unique. The U.S. Department of Justice has fought to protect the right of Muslim women to wear hijabs, khimars, veils, and other religiously mandated clothing countless times (Somali refugee Bilan Nur and 12-year old student Nashala, for example). In fact, the Department works to protect practitioners of the many different religions that exist in the United States.

President Obama highlighted this freedom of religion during his 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt. Speaking to a large crowd at Cairo University Mr. Obama said, “Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion….That’s why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.”

Reverend: “When our social fabric is strong between faiths, we as a nation are better prepared.”

“The fears that come from misunderstanding breed stereotyping between peoples of all religious backgrounds, and that is to our detriment,” says Reverend David Gray, pastor of the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Maryland.

Gray spoke to me about the role of fear in undermining religious tolerance at a joint interfaith service of thanksgiving November 14. He and his congregation joined members of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation and the Idara-e-Jaferia Mosque for a Sunday event themed “Standing Up for Each Other.”

“When our social fabric is strong between faiths,” Gray said, “we as a nation are better prepared.”  He added:  “Increasingly world events and politics are impacted by religions. And religion is impacting how different actors on the world stage are deporting themselves — individuals, small groups of people and larger groups.”

Gray feels so strongly about tackling fear head on that his congregation co-hosted a conference in March devoted to the topic of Managing Fear Through Faith, which explored how people of faith can help their country prepare for the social impacts of fear-inducing events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“There is no denying the diversity of the sacred space God has created in terms of belief,” Gray said.  He emphasized that the need to understand other faiths “doesn’t mean one waters down one’s own belief.” Such knowledge, Gray said, “can strengthen someone’s ability to be in dialogue and defend and articulate one’s own beliefs.”

Rabbi: “We are looking for the same ‘spiritual juice.’”

An attack on one religious faith is an attack on all religious faiths, says Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer. 

“Here in the West, when one of us [religious groups] is threatened, we are all threatened any time there is intolerance,” he said.  “It’s very easy for intolerance to be directed at one group and bleed into others.”

Rabbi Schnitzer, who leads the Bethesda Jewish Congregation in Maryland, shared with me his views on the importance of interfaith solidarity at a joint interfaith service of thanksgiving November 14.  He and his congregation joined members of the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church and the Idara-e-Jaferia Mosque for a Sunday event themed “Standing Up for Each Other.”

“Jews learned in the last century very clearly that being silent when anyone is persecuted ultimately ends up affecting us,” he said.  “We learned during the Holocaust we cannot stand idly by, because it allows horrors to take place.  Start early fighting that trend.”

Schnitzer noted that it was that commitment to religious tolerance that motivated rabbis in Florida to reach out to the Muslim community when Terry Jones, the pastor of a small fundamentalist Christian church in Gainesville, this summer announced plans to publicly burn thousands of copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. The leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, one of the oldest and largest organizations of Jewish clergy, condemned Jones’ threat. Jones ultimately canceled his Koran burning event.

According to Schnitzer, one of the necessary steps to tolerance of other religious faiths is “to acknowledge the validity of all expressions of God in the world — that they all have the same root, which is a desire on the part of humanity to attach to something much larger than oneself.  Whatever path you take there, nevertheless, we are going to the same place.  And we are looking for the same ‘spiritual juice.’

“Methodologies may be different; the rhetoric may be different; the texts may be different. But, again, the more you learn about the other texts and traditions, the more you see how similar they are, and you realize that primarily the differences show up as political statements and moments in history as opposed to real theological difference.  There are some differences – I’m not going to gloss over them – but at the core, they are still working for the same thing,” Schnitzer said.

Imam: “Look at each other with your heart.”

On November 14, I attended – the first time for me — a joint interfaith service of thanksgiving  that is held annually at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Maryland.  The service and luncheon that followed included members of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation and the Idara-e-Jaferia Mosque in Burtonsville, Maryland.

During the church service, which was attended by at least 200 members from all three congregations, Imam Abu Nahidian urged the attendees see the good in each other, since all of us have been created by God.  “Look at each other with your heart,” he urged.

He told the story of two blind beggars who got into a fight because each believed the other had been given alms they were unwilling to share.  The imam attributed much of the prejudice certain religious groups experience to ignorance and blindness of the spirit.

 At the luncheon discussion that followed, I was struck by the observations of some of the attendees that most Americans have never even met a Muslim person.  Do you think this contributes to a certain “blindness of the spirit”?

How Do You Deal With Religious Prejudice?

Muslims, Jews and Christians came together November 14 to attend the annual Joint Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Maryland. The event, held at the church and jointly sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, the Bethesda Jewish Congregation and Idara-e-Jaferia Mosque, attracted some 200 people.

It was the first time I had ever attended an interfaith service of this kind. The church service featured prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Afterwards, we all gathered together in the community hall for lunch. Sitting at round tables, we had a chance to get to know one another, but we had “assignments” to work on as well. The people at each table were asked to answer questions about how faith communities can support other faith communities and how faith communities can spread understanding among all faiths.

Muslims, Jews and Christians mull over questions regarding religious tolerance at the annual Joint Interfaith Service of Thanksgiving in Maryland.

At my table, at least, we abandoned the assigned list of questions to discuss how best to deal with friends and acquaintances who are hostile towards other faiths. Our table opened this topic to wider discussion in the hall and got some interesting suggestions. Among them:

• Hostility often stems from ignorance. Get to know people of other faiths.
• Hostility is often linked to fear. Learn where the fear is coming from.
• Hostility sometimes can’t be changed. Even if the person you are dealing with resists reason, speak up anyway – someone else may be listening, and you may be able to change their attitudes.

How do you try reasoning with people who are hostile to members of other religions?

Celebrating Ramadan and Religious Freedom

J. Scott Orr runs m.America.gov, a version of the America.gov website designed for cell phones and other mobile devices.

There they were in the White House’s State Dining Room, some 90 quests gathered at sunset, the flicker of white candles causing shadows to dance about gray, silken tablecloths. They were ambassadors, congressmen, government officials and community leaders, assembled to break their daily Ramadan fasts at an iftar with President Obama.

The event marked the Muslim month of fasting and self-reflection, but it was, at the same time, a celebration of religious freedom, tolerance and the history of Muslims in America.

“It is a testament to the wisdom of our Founders that America remains deeply religious – a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in stark contrast to the religious conflict that persists elsewhere around the globe,” Obama told the guests as they nibbled pitted dates and drank yogurt beverages.

“Our Founders understood that the best way to honor the place of faith in the lives of our people was to protect their freedom to practice religion,” Obama said. He went on to quote President Thomas Jefferson who wrote in 1786 that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”

Speaking of the third U.S. president, Obama noted that it was 200 years ago that Jefferson arranged a sunset dinner for a visiting Tunisian ambassador in what would be the first White House iftar. It wasn’t until the Clinton administration, though, that iftars returned to the White House, where they have become an annual tradition.

“Islam has always been a part of America,” Obama said, adding that Muslim immigrants “became farmers and merchants, worked in mills and factories. They helped lay the railroads. They helped to build America.” Obama said the first Islamic center was founded in New York City in the 1890s and a mosque built in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is still in use today.

Along with Christmas parties, seders and Diwali celebrations at the White House, Obama said, iftars “remind us of the basic truth that we are all children of God, and we all draw strength and a sense of purpose from our beliefs.”

Take a look at the full list of invited guests or watch a video of Obama’s remarks.