Reason vs. Rhetoric: Understanding American Muslims

NewseumEarlier this summer, Interfaith Alliance co-sponsored a daylong symposium, Reason vs. Rhetoric: Understanding American Muslims. Held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the British Council, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, the symposium explored issues facing the American Muslim community, their place in the broader national landscape, and how the American religious freedom framework compares and contrasts with the European framework. For those who missed it, full video of the day’s conversations is available on our website.

With combating anti-Muslim bigotry increasingly becoming a major focus of Interfaith Alliance’s work protecting faith and freedom  – and one of the biggest religious freedom issues facing our nation today – it was exciting to spend the day exploring these fascinating, important issues with experts whose credentials are truly impressive.


The first panel of the day set the framework for the whole symposium by getting us focused on the guiding religious freedom principles for addressing the current debates about mosques, Shariah, religious garb in the workplace, and other issues faced by American Muslims. From there, we looked at who American Muslims really are – the caricature vs. the reality – and also explored the role, growth, and public perception of mosques in America.

Additionally, Interfaith Alliance President Rev. Welton Gaddy moderated a panel on Shariah and other religious legal systems. He focused not only on what Shariah is and is not, but on the debate about Shariah in the political arena and the media, and why legislation seeking to ban Shariah is both unnecessary and a threat to religious freedom for all Americans.

On hand to answer our many questions were Julie Macfarlane, author and law professor at the University of Windsor, Sadakat Kadri, both a British barrister and U.S. attorney, and Marc Stern, Associate General Counsel of the American Jewish Committee. The discussion was lively and substantive. Rev. Gaddy remarked that if everybody in the U.S. really understood Shariah, “they wouldn’t be so worried about it.” Answering a question about the court cases used to justify anti-Shariah laws, Marc Stern reminded us, “There are judges who do dumb things [but], it doesn’t mean the system does dumb things.” I know I’m a bit biased, but again, I recommend taking a look at the video of the panel.

The sad reality is that anti-Muslim bigotry does not seem to be going away. While the anti-Shariah furor may be dying down a bit, we still have members of Congress holding hearings about the Muslim community and law enforcement engaging in religious profiling. And while we still don’t know whether the fire that consumed a mosque in Joplin, Mo., was an accident or arson, the sheer fact that the overwhelming assumption is that it was a hate crime is sign enough that this bigotry persists. But there are important bright spots amidst all the hatred, vitriol and ignorance, which are important for us to remember: At a time when it seems like there is so much that divides us, Interfaith Alliance coordinated a letter uniting 42 national organizations in defense of our Muslim colleagues and friends against Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) baseless accusations that they are connected to terrorists. We will keep striving to bring people together and to educate the public with symposia similar to the one at the Newseum that share the truth and dispel the rumors.