Our Interview with Legal Scholar Asma Uddin on New Book

July 31, 2019

“I think it has to be the case that Muslims have to understand the intricacies of what’s at stake in the religious freedom discourse, and then reach out to the other side.”

On one hand, most Americans favor religious liberty for all. On the other, the American legal system has effectively otherized Islam and American Muslims in an attempt to narrowly apply this otherwise broad understanding of religious liberty. In “When Islam Is Not a Religion,” prolific author and legal scholar Asma Uddin addresses these and other related issues.

Recently, we sat down with Asma to discuss her new book. Here are some highlights from the conversation. 


MPAC: You named the book “When Islam is Not a Religion” and that might be provocative for some, so why don’t we start there? Why that as the book title?

Asma: I open the book … with a court case where the claim that Islam is not a religion was actually made in its most explicit form. I also then spend some time in other chapters looking at the ways that [the claim] is expressed in more indirect ways. [The title] is intentionally designed to draw attention to the particular claim, and then the subtitle, “Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom” is to tie that claim to concerns about religious freedoms. 

In your view, what is religious freedom? 

Religious freedom, under both constitutional jurisprudence and under the fundamental human right to religious discourse, is about either the religious individual or the religious group being free from the government interfering on their right to exercise their religious beliefs. Religious freedom provides pretty much absolute protection for religious beliefs and the way [they] get implemented into action. We really want protection for that, with [any] narrow exceptions depending on the particular legal context. 

Would you classify anti-Sharia legislation as a violation of religious liberty?

Oh, absolutely. What [is] important [is] to frame it as a religious freedom issue, and explain how similar sorts of concerns tie to issues that we face – even Christian and Jewish religious practice.

What are the ways that [religiously liberty] has been interpreted that brought us to where we are now, where this book needs to be written?

There is this major push among many people on the Right to have really robust religious freedoms — but at the same time they don’t really want any of that to benefit Muslims. And so, one way to make sure that this doesn’t benefit Muslims is to cut them out of the category of religion. So, the next question might be, why? And I think that that’s a very long, sort of complicated answer that I’m still in the process … of piercing through. I mean obviously there’s this idea peddled around that if we give [Muslims] religious freedom then they’re going to take over the [United States].

[Of] course another part is the fact that liberals and Muslims work together, and I think that their relationship is perceived by a lot of conservatives as essentially part of the attack on conservatism. Concerns about the end of Christian America are often coupled with fears about the ‘Islamization’ of America. 

Is it all doom and gloom, or are there some bright spots for American Muslims who are trying to arrive at a place where religious freedom truly is a liberty enjoyed by all? What would you recommend the role of American Muslims, civil society and government in the process of making good on those bright spots? 

There are certainly bright spots, and I try to highlight them. The Muslim community has stepped up, for instance, when Black churches were being burned down. When the Jewish cemetery was desecrated, there was a lot of fundraising that happened to help support those communities, and vice versa. There have been a number of Christians and Jews and other groups coming to the service of American Muslims when Muslims are suffering. And I think it’s important to see that – including noticing that some of those Christians are very conservative and traditional.

I think that our faith calls us to sort of take the higher ground. And to create a space of empathy and openness where we do engage with people even when they're literally hurling insults at us, and making, at times, physical threats. It’s like, well, how do we create openings for change? And I think it has to be the case that Muslims have to understand the intricacies of what’s at stake in the religious freedom discourse, and then reach out to the other side.

You can find and purchase “When Islam Is Not a Religion” here

You can learn more about Asma and her work here



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