It is the evening of his final State of the Union address, and the president stands at the podium, surveying the crowd.
The camera pans to the faces of those gathered. People of every race, religion and background are waiting for the president to speak to the state of our union. This year, in recognition of their immense sacrifice, some of the most powerful in the nation have given up their front row seats to members of America’s armed forces. Seated with them are Syrian refugee children, dissidents like Saudi Arabia’s Raif Badawi, whose freedom was secured through effective use of diplomatic muscle. Also joining them are people like Saeed Abedini, the Christian pastor who had been jailed in Iran for his faith. Seated in the crowd as well are Muslims who have spoken out against groups who undermine American values – Muslims who have been at the forefront in the struggle against radicalization and for universal human rights.
The president begins speaking – about the struggles the country has faced economically and in other ways. He speaks about violence in the streets and the need for change both among communities and political and leadership systems.
This year, the State of the Union address is unconventional: the president has dedicated the bulk of it to foreign policy and addressing the most pressing threat to global security today – radical Islam. He names it, “Islamism,” and distinguishes it from the personal faith practice of Islam.
“Let me be clear: Islam, as a personal faith practice, has been a part of the American fabric since our nation’s founding. We know that some of the very first hands to till American soil and to build our nation belonged to Muslims who were brought to this new land as slaves. Ultimately, these men and women became free, and some retained their faith. Over time, countless Muslims have come to our great country to seek a better life. They have fled dictators and theocrats, have started families, businesses and legacies here in the United States. Many of these families felt the assault of 9/11 in a very specific way: they saw that what they fled in their ancestral homelands had followed them Westward, and now endangers the land they call home.
Many of these Muslims – those who advocate for secular governance, who support full gender equality and don’t fail to address problematic individuals and strains of belief within their own community – are our number one allies in the fight against Islamism. My administration vows to support these Muslim heroes in the face of any and all hostility they may face. We know who their antagonizers are, and have taken steps to ensure that these individuals and organizations are no longer welcome at my administration’s functions. The FBI, DHS, and police departments around the country will be working to address Islamism head on, including purging their ranks of trainers and advisors who are associated with Islamist groups.
Further: my administration has been briefed about the very real and rampant issues of honor-based violence, female genital mutilation, and forced marriage in our country. I will be introducing legislation to address these crimes specifically, and to ensure that perpetrators are prosecuted to the fullest and most severe extent possible under law. This legislation also provides funding for a network of safe houses, emergency response teams and services for individuals who are in fear of or who are fleeing from these crimes.
Make no mistake: issues of radicalization, gender-based violence and Islamism will continue to be a national discussion. In fact, it will be a more robust national discussion than ever before. My administration will not back down, and will not be intimidated by any actor, foreign or domestic, who seeks to silence this discussion. We also stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies abroad, who are fighting this same evil. Our hearts ache for the women of Cologne who suffered sexual violence at the hands of apparently organized gangs. We support artists, cartoonists, and writers who continue daily to express themselves even in the face of what is now almost certain death.
On the international stage: we must not downplay the problem of radicalization, of terror, and of more subversive yet ultimately equally dangerous threats to our values – censorship, blasphemy laws, and the persecution of minorities in Muslim-majority societies. The United States stands with the Christians and atheists of Pakistan, the Shias of Saudi Arabia, those held in what is effectively modern day slavery building the ostentatious skyline of the United Arab Emirates, the women of Egypt who face daily harassment and mutilation, and countless others who seek only to live free and safe in their homelands.
My administration will begin building a roadmap to address our country’s troubling and dangerous relationship with Arab theocracies and dictatorships. We cannot both proclaim our commitment to freedom and human rights and then bow to the House of Saud. To continue doing so is to leave a legacy of hypocrisy rather than a legacy of liberty. Our country is better than this.
Nor will we back down in the face of terror: Iran must be held to task for its own brand of regional terrorism.
Which brings me to Syria: we – I – have failed in Syria. The blood of the hundreds of thousands of murdered Syrians is, in part, on my hands. I have called on both democrats and republicans to convene, and, for as long as it takes, work together to draft a plan to address the genocide in Syria. This solution must include the ouster of Bashar al-Assad, whose family legacy is one of tyranny, terror and death. Along with him we must also see the dissolution of his entire military killing machine and the Ba’ath Party, whose reign of oppression and misery has robbed the Syrian people of countless loved ones, as well as progress and joy. We have let this go on too long. I acknowledge that my own administration is tainted; in this era there is no use in denying that our own John Kerry has enjoyed a warm relationship with this fascist killer…”
“DAD! HE DID IT!”
What was that?! I reach up and rub my temple. A Lego helicopter, my children have learned, does not actually fly. I rub my eyes and see my older son pointing his finger at his baby brother. Sighing, I get up. “Kids…what did I say about throwing things in the house?”
It was a dream. President Obama is on television, placating the bad guys and cracking jokes. Twitter is talking about Michelle Obama’s dress. Business as usual.
As American Muslims, we at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy are particularly grateful for our country’s commitment to protect the inalienable right of each of us to freedom of expression and religion. We are grateful for the opportunity to secure the protection of our most basic rights in workplaces and in the public arena.
It is true that there is a vocal and troublesome minority who wish to see the religious rights of Muslims restricted or even eliminated altogether – but these individuals do not represent the broader American public and cannot find their position supported by the Constitution or Bill or Rights. Thus, we continue to see our existence as patriotic Americans and faithful Muslims as a blessed one, one in synergy and not in conflict.
Unfortunately, some of our fellow faithful not only disagree with us, but are doing their very best to amplify tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims at what is already a trying time for our country and the world. Further, these individuals seem to be actively encouraging Muslims – particularly those in especially marginalized communities – to perceive the United States as anti-Muslim.
Cargill Meat Solutions, a meat processing plant in Colorado, is located in an area with a large Somalian population. The plant employs a significant number of Somali Muslims, who have, according to reports, been able to take breaks for prayer in the company’s two “reflection” rooms. Details of the story are a bit vague, but sources say that a group of 11 employees wanted to take a prayer break together last month. A supervisor wanted to ensure that production would not be impacted, so asked the employees to break up into smaller groups to take their prayer breaks. The employees complied, but later resigned. Later, nearly 200 Cargill employees refused to come to work. They were terminated, per Cargill’s policy of terminating any employee who does not show up for work for three days without legitimate reason.
So, what is going on here? Naturally, CAIR is capitalizing on this story, asserting that Cargill is denying their Muslim employees their right to adequate space and time for prayer. That claim, however, is suspect: the supervisor reportedly agreed to let employees pray. They were simply asked to break up into smaller groups. What many unfamiliar with Islam may not know is that this is actually perfectly legitimate: while it is indeed considered a good thing to pray in congregation, it is not actually a requirement for all five daily prayers all week long. Further, a “congregation” can be a very small group of two or three. It is also acceptable to stagger the prayer time a bit – Muslims will not “miss” the entire prayer time by delaying by a few minutes (though Islam does have a way for Muslims to offer and/or address the issue of missed prayers). Further, Islamic prayers don’t actually take very long – thus employees don’t need a very long break to complete them, and employers can be fair without infringing on productivity. An employer allowing for short breaks for small groups, and offering a space in which prayers can be offered, is being reasonable. While all details of the case are yet to be clarified, we at AIFD suggest that well-intentioned individuals pause before assuming CAIR’s position is valid or well-meaning.
Why are we suspicious of CAIR’s position? If the employer did indeed allow for employees to pray together in smaller groups, CAIR would necessarily be demanding something unreasonable by asking for more. For example, if CAIR demands that the Cargill plant allow all 200 or so Muslim employees to be able to hold prayers at the same time, they are insisting that the plant halt productivity and even secure bigger prayer spaces. (The plant currently has two small rooms for prayer and reflection.) An additional point to consider is that two to five Muslims can do ritual ablutions (washing) in a standard bathroom in just a few minutes. Two hundred Muslims? This would take a very long time. That is, unless, the next demand is for large specialized rooms for this purpose. This would simply be asking too much.
CAIR also has a tendency to prey on those Muslims it can make into national stories regardless of the consequences to them. Here, CAIR is using Cargill’s Somali Muslim community – a group with multiple marginalized identities – to push a broader agenda nationwide. The Somali Muslim community is already vulnerable in many ways. Now some two hundred people who had stable work are potentially left without a way to provide for their families. Will CAIR ensure their security – whether by making up for lost wages or making sure they secure new employment if a deal cannot be reached? CAIR’s message is not one of constructive paths forward – but seeks instead to prove that America is hostile to Muslims and that Muslims. Through this, CAIR is stoking tensions between immigrant communities and the broader population, between people of color and their employers, and between Muslims and non-Muslims. If the civil rights of Muslims are truly infringed upon, they must certainly be defended, and boldly. However, CAIR is notorious for its opportunistic use of matters of faith and minority rights to carry out its nefarious goal of advancing an interpretation of Islam and Muslim existence which rejects pluralism, rejects diversity, and promotes hostility against dissidents, reformers, and those who truly support civil and universal human rights. We ask both Muslims and non-Muslims to not be fooled.
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