Both Muslims and Christians benefit from religious freedom. Why don’t they work together?

Legal expert and author Asma Uddin outlines potential solutions to the Muslim-Christian divide

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Conservative Christians cheered when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Christian baker in early June 2018, protecting his First Amendment rights.

Three weeks later, those same religious liberty advocates were mostly silent after the court upheld former President Donald Trump’s travel ban in a blow to American Muslims making similar legal claims.

“The difference in the conversation around these things was really fascinating to me,” said Asma Uddin, a Muslim legal expert and author.

Over time, she realized that Christians’ general lack of engagement with Islam-related religious freedom concerns was a symptom of a much larger problem.

It became clear that political polarization stemming from the fact that most conservative Christians identify as Republican and most Muslims identify as Democrat was deepening the divide between the two faith groups.

“Polarization has reached such a dire state that it’s motivating us to deny other humans, including other Americans, of their rights,” said Uddin, whose latest book, “The Politics of Vulnerability: How to Heal Muslim-Christian Relations in a Post-Christian America,” came out earlier this year.

In the book and in her ongoing work, Uddin is working to heal interreligious conflict and ensure that religious freedom advocates from a variety of faith groups are on the same page. Earlier this month, I spoke with her about the lessons she offers in “The Politics of Vulnerability” and what it’s like to be Muslim in America today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsey Dallas: What inspired you to write about Muslim-Christian relations?

Asma Uddin: In an America that is quickly changing and becoming a place where white Protestants don’t see themselves reflected in the dominant culture, many Christians are feeling a sense of vulnerability or a sense of being under siege. They’re using religious freedom to defend themselves, and so there’s tremendous urgency around religious freedom debates.

I began thinking that there had to be a way to use that urgency to help change their attitudes toward and relationships with Muslims. I wanted to point out that the precise thing they’re trying so hard to protect is the precise thing they’re undermining in other contexts.

KD: I’ve written a bit about the behavior you’re describing and referred to it as having a “double standard” on religious freedom. Do you think Americans have always struggled with this bad habit?

AU: In my book, I try to situate it in the social psychology of group dynamics. It’s natural to want to protect your own group when you feel like you’re being threatened by an out group.

We’re more prone to being fearful and hateful of others in the midst of demographic or geopolitical change. For example, in the 19th century when an influx of Catholic immigrants arrived, anti-Catholic attacks were common. More recently, fears about authoritarian governments in some Muslim-majority states have led to attacks on American Muslims.

We have these ideals of religious freedom, but there are challenges to them as the country continues to change and grow more diverse.

It seems to me that if people were plugged into their history and saw that fears they were concerned about before didn’t come true, then they’d see their fears won’t come true this time around either.

KD: In addition to providing some valuable history lessons, how else can we try to heal religious divides?

AU: In the last part of my latest book, I delve into potential solutions and try to plant some ideas.

One idea is to help people look past certain beliefs they might be opposed to and have them focus on principles they’re trying to protect.

For example, liberals are generally opposed to the conservative Christian position on same-sex marriage. But liberals might be more willing to tolerate that belief if they recognize that protecting it serves the bigger principle of protecting religious freedom.

Another idea is to promote self-affirmation. A lot of times, intergroup biases arise when someone feels like their group is losing and it feels like an attack on their self-worth. They end up lashing out because of a feeling of threat.

If you can engage them in self-worth exercises related to things that are not tied to that threat, they may be more willing to engage in bridge-building between groups. Their feelings of threat are allayed.

KD: The Biden administration has taken aim at religious discrimination by picking people from a variety of faith backgrounds for government posts. For example, President Joe Biden recently nominated a Muslim man, Rashad Hussain, to be U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Do you think such moves will help the Muslim community?

Biden nominates first Muslim to religious freedom ambassador role

AU: During the Trump era, Muslims were definitely an out group. The Biden administration, on the other hand, is intent on making the people who work in government reflect the actual composition of America.

I’m excited about the prospect of Rashad Hussain being nominated. He’s a friend of mine. But his nomination was partly made possible by the fact that he used to be the U.S. Special Envoy for Counterterrorism.

American Muslims still always somehow have to prove themselves to be actively engaged in fighting the violent strains within the religion. As I wrote about in my first book, Democrats aren’t against Muslims as a group, but they act as if there are good Muslims and bad Muslims.

In other words, old problems are still there. It would be naive to think, just because they’re not super obvious in the Biden administration, that somehow they’ve gone away.

Fresh off the press

Tucked into the more than 2,000-page infrastructure bill passed by the Senate last week was a paragraph on anti-discrimination protections that could cause legal headaches for religious organizations. The paragraph describes sexual orientation and gender identity as legally protected characteristics, which means that conservative faith groups that don’t recognize same-sex marriage or allow transgender people to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identity may not be able to participate in the associated grant program. I wrote about the religious freedom activists who, because of that paragraph, are calling for changes to the infrastructure bill.

Term of the week: Quranic tiles

Quranic tiles are a special type of tile used to decorate Islamic holy spaces, like mosques. As their name implies, they are adorned with verses from the Quran.

Quranic tiles were in the news last week after Customs and Border Protection seized a shipment of them at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Officials have said the shipment, which came from Iran for use in a new mosque, violated sanctions the U.S. has placed on the country, according to Religion News Service.

Muslim leaders are speaking out against the government’s actions and calling for release of the tiles. “They are not weapons of mass destruction,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Customs and Border Protection has said the tiles will be destroyed if they are not shipped back to Iran.

What I’m reading ...

The Holy Land Experience, a religious theme park built to compete with Disney World, has closed for good. Daniel Silliman, who regularly writes obituaries of famous faith leaders for Christianity Today, wrote an obituary of sorts for the unusual tourist attraction last week, exploring why the park never made it “to the financial promised land.”

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Livestreaming technology has been a godsend for religious communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. But now that many churches are meeting in person again, some faith leaders hope to turn their webcams off for good. “(In-person) church wasn’t just a bridge of 2,000 years until humanity reached Peak Zoom. It’s essential for the religion,” writes Collin Hansen in The New York Times.

One of my favorite religion scholars, Ryan Burge, wrote for Religion News Service last week about how evangelical Christians really feel about abortion rights. Using data from a variety of recent surveys, he makes the case that evangelicals aren’t as passionate about outlawing abortion as many political leaders assume they are.

Odds and ends

Last summer, the Supreme Court broadened the so-called “ministerial exception,” determining that employees can count as “ministers” under the law even if they don’t hold religious titles or receive specialized religious training. Employees who are considered ministers can’t sue a religious employer for discrimination, since the Constitution bars the government from interfering with faith groups’ choice of minister. Last week, a federal court cited that 2020 Supreme Court decision when ruling against a former Catholic school guidance counselor who lost her job after marrying her same-sex partner.

I’m the featured guest on the latest episode of “Cross & Gavel,” a law and religion podcast produced by the Christian Legal Society.

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