Hostages to Priests and Mullahs?

VIEW: Hostages —Yasser Latif Hamdani

American Muslims, as indeed other Muslims in western nations, very conveniently claim the global unity of the ummah, but when gross injustices perpetrated by Muslims against non-Muslims and also Muslims are pointed out to them, they distance themselves from the Muslim world

To my article last week on the issue of the Manhattan mosque, many American Muslims and indeed our own holy Pakistani Muslims responded with the refrain that they — the American Muslims — are not the ambassadors of the Muslim world in the US but are equal citizens of the United States of America, with rights and obligations under the constitution of that mighty state. Therefore, if they wish to build a mosque near Ground Zero, why should they be held hostage to how Saudi Arabia treats its minorities. This is a perfectly logical argument and one that must prevail for there to be sanity in this world.

It must, however, be pointed out that many non-Muslims around the world have come to view Muslim conduct vis-à-vis the question of citizenship as duplicitous at best. Where required, American Muslims, as indeed other Muslims in western nations, very conveniently claim the global unity of the ummah, but when gross injustices perpetrated by Muslims against non-Muslims and also Muslims are pointed out to them, they distance themselves from the Muslim world with an alacrity that amazes even the most sympathetic observer. Thus, it seems that their acceptance of nation-state and their acceptance of the ummah is never contemporaneous, or even principled, but opportunistic without exception. Had they instead admitted their unique status both as citizens of their western nation states as well as their position in the ummah, using themselves as bridge builders, perhaps events like the kind happening now in the US could have been avoided.

There is a strong reaction against Muslims in the west and, as I argued in my previous article, Muslims like Imam Raouf have not been any help. Pleading constitutional rights is probably the right thing to do, but how far is that logic going to have to be stretched remains to be seen. The US constitution in its First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (emphasis added).

If the municipal government of New York City was to now backtrack on its permission given to the building of the Islamic centre, would that amount to prohibiting the free exercise of religion? Only a court can answer that question, but it is a well known fact that a Muslim can exercise his faith and offer salat (prayer) anywhere he wants to. Furthermore, there are thousands of mosques all over the US, including New York City, and therefore the argument that free exercise of the Islamic faith is hinged on the building of this Islamic centre might not fly. Case law elsewhere will not be of much help to American Muslims. Are they perhaps now going to argue along the lines the extreme right wing Republicans argue when they seek to stop the interpretation of American law with the use of persuasive foreign judgements? Well, they better. Such is the precarious nature of their position on the issue of the Manhattan mosque.

For example, in the landmark Ismail Faruqui vs Union Of India from 1994, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that “there can be no reason to hold that a mosque has a unique or special status, higher than that of the places of worship of other religions in secular India to make it immune from acquisition by exercise of the sovereign or prerogative power of the state. A mosque is not an essential part of the practice of the religion of Islam and namaz (prayer) by Muslims can be offered anywhere, even in the open.” Harsh? Well you should hope, then, one does not seek as precedent Pakistani judgements on the question of religious freedom. Article 20 of the Pakistani constitution uses language that allows for the same religious freedoms as exist under the American or Indian constitutions. Need one quote then what our Supreme Court has ruled in the case of Zaheeruddin vs the State on the issue of Ahmediyya “places of worship”? Under the circumstances, one can understand why the American Muslims are so anxious in distancing themselves from the Muslim world and pleading the First Amendment of the US constitution as a sacred and inalienable right granted to them by that country.

Nonetheless, the commitment of American Muslims to the First Amendment is going to be severely tested come September 11, 2010, when a church of fanatical Christian fundamentalist bigots plans to desecrate the Holy Quran in Florida. The said act will be reprehensible, racist and bigoted, with the sole intent of causing hurt and rousing hatred against the Muslim community. The US’s right-wing, especially in the South, has a long history of intolerance against other faiths and races, mirroring the intolerance of the Taliban. Like the Ku Klux Klan, the leaders of the said church will also plead the First Amendment.

It is high time that all concerned realised that freedom given by the law and the freedom that we choose to exercise ought not to be the same. Whether we like it or not, in an increasingly open world, we are all hostages to each other’s good behaviour to an extent that constitutions and borders have become meaningless.

The writer is a lawyer. He also blogs at and can be reached at

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