Justice News

Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez Speaks at the Islamic Society of North America Convention
Washington, DC
United States
Saturday, September 1, 2012

Remarks of Thomas Perez at the Islamic Society of North America Convention

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Asalam Alaykum.

It is an honor to be here with you tonight at the ISNA convention. Thank you, Imam Magid, who by the way is a man who must either not sleep or have a twin, because you find him just about everywhere—at interfaith gatherings, speaking at civil rights events, international events, ISNA events, all the while working at his day job as Imam of the largest mosque in Northern Virginia, and still spending lots of time with his family. Despite all of this, he has always been willing to help the Civil Rights Division with things large and small, and we are grateful.

When I reflect on the state of the American Muslim community today, I am reminded of the opening words of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”

As head of the Civil Rights Division, I am confronted daily with examples of the worst of human nature: arsons of places of worship; vicious assaults and sometimes murder born of hatred; threats used to drive black families out of their homes, and on and on. It is easy to dwell on everything that is wrong with our species and our society.

And without question we are seeing real challenges to the civil rights of Muslim Americans, including arsons of mosques, assaults, and other hate crimes. We have a steady diet of these cases: we are currently investigating the Joplin, Missouri mosque fire; we have a trial starting in January in a prosecution of a man for allegedly burning a mosque in Corvalis Oregon. And we prosecuted three neo-Nazis who burned a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee to the ground. The number of hate crimes spiked dramatically after 9/11, then declined steadily for several years. Unfortunately, in 2010 we saw a 50 percent rise in hate crimes—not nearly at the levels that we saw after 9/11, but still very troubling.

But in addition to concern about hate crimes, what I hear when I go around the country talking to Muslim community leaders, is that they are as uneasy as at any time since immediately after 9/11, and perhaps even more so. Back then, they knew that the violence was perpetrated by the same hate-filled people who if they weren’t burning a mosque would be burning a cross on someone’s lawn. But what I am hearing, and seeing, is that in the last few years the bias has gone more mainstream. Mosques that have been in communities for 20 or 30 years, participating in civic activities and being good neighbors, are being met with picket signs and demonstrations when they apply for building permits. Indeed, as I will discuss further in a moment, at the Civil Rights Division we have seen a dramatic uptick in zoning controversies involving mosques in the last two years.

But before I go into the details of the problems we are seeing, and what we are doing about it, I need to emphasize that this is not the full picture of the Muslim American community. While this is, as Dickens would say, an age of darkness, and as the Islamophobes we encounter in our work amply demonstrate, an age of foolishness, it is also an age of wisdom and light.

Because the story of Muslims in America is a story of success. While a large number of Muslims have experienced discrimination or overt animus, the Pew Research Center reports that 82 percent of Muslims are satisfied with their lives, a number slightly higher than the general population. Muslim Americans are growing small businesses, earning advanced degrees in record numbers, building families, and thriving in so many ways. The Pew poll found that Muslims in America are pretty much like all other Americans (for better and worse)—watching sports on tv and playing video games at the same rates as everyone else, and going to worship services and self-identifying religion as an important thing in their lives at statistically identical rates as Christians.

While 22 percent of Muslims in the Pew study report having been called offensive names in the last year—a troubling figure—37 percent say a non-Muslim has gone out of their way in the last year to express support for them. We are not seeing patterns of residential segregation of Muslims in the U.S., and Muslims are well integrated into the workforce and civic life in the U.S.

While there has been a sharp increase in the number of mosque controversies over zoning permits, it is also true that the number of mosques in the past 10 years has grown strongly, particularly in areas like the Southeast where there has been general population growth—again, the data showing that Muslims are looking for and finding jobs, and growing communities, in much the same way as everybody else. And while mosques are disproportionately facing zoning denials, it is also true that in many situations zoning officials are doing the right thing and approving mosques using the same criteria they use to approve churches, despite the agitations of vocal minorities. Indeed, in our case in Murfreesboro Tennessee, which I will discuss in a moment, the Imam remarked that despite the rancor and opposition of some in the community, and all of the legal difficulties they have encountered in building a new mosque, good people from the community have continually come up to him to express their support, giving him great hope for the future. Indeed, he has received letters and even donations from American Service Members abroad who are embarrassed by how some of the mosques’ neighbors have been treating them.

But it cannot be ignored that there are great challenges for the Muslim communities and those of us in the business of protecting the civil rights of all. And I want to discuss what we are finding, and how we are dealing with these issues.

Religious freedom is often referred to as our First Freedom, since it is the first right mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and because the rights of freedom of belief and conscience are so fundamental. And there is perhaps no element of religious freedom as basic as the right of people to be able to gather for prayer and worship peaceably and without fear of violence. This expectation that people in free and just societies rightly assume was shattered on Sunday, August 5, when a gunman attacked the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He fired repeatedly, killing six worshippers, wounding three others, and wounding a police officer who had come to their aid. We at the Department of Justice join all Americans in grieving over this terrible tragedy: for the lives lost, for the damage inflicted on families, friends, and community, and for the blow to our collective sense of decency and our assumption that places of worship will be places of peace.

As Attorney General Eric Holder observed at the memorial service for the victims of the Oak Creek shooting: “We’ve seen an outpouring of support – from the larger community here in Oak Creek and across the state of Wisconsin; from Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faith leaders; and from countless Americans nationwide who are truly heartbroken by what happened here on Sunday. Sunday’s attack was not just an affront to the values of Sikhism. It was an attack on the values of America itself.” The shooting was an “act of terrorism and hatred” that “is anathema to the founding principles of our nation and to who we are as a people.”

Since 9/11, the Department of Justice has investigated over 800 incidents involving acts of violence, threats, assaults, vandalisms and arsons targeting Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asians, and those perceived to be members of these groups. We have brought prosecutions against 55 defendants in such cases, with 47 convictions to date, and have worked with state and local prosecutors in numerous non-federal criminal prosecutions.

These include the arsons of mosques and attempted arsons. They include bomb threats against mosques, including one against the Murfreesboro Mosque, which we are currently prosecuting. They include assaults, and in the case of Oak Creek, murder. We are doing everything in our power to stop this blight on our nation. Last year, we convicted more defendants on hate-crimes charges than in any other year during the last decade. This hate-fueled violence must stop. And people of goodwill are working toward this end. We saw this in the interfaith response to Oak Creek; We also see it in the work of Shoulder to Shoulder, a campaign started by ISNA and 27 other national faith-based organizations to reject bigotry and promote tolerance. In 2010, Shoulder to Shoulder mobilized an interfaith coalition that stood together to support the right of Muslim Americans to build places of worship and to condemn the plans of a pastor of a small Florida church to burn the Quran.

Muslim American leaders are also playing an important role to protect the religious freedom for people of all faiths, both in the US and abroad. ISNA is working with religious leaders around the world to announce Islamic standards and protocols for protecting the rights of religious minorities living in the Muslim world. And Imam Magid and a leading Coptic American Priest recently joined the President’s Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to support the religious freedom of all Egyptians, including its Coptic Christian community. It is worth noting that hate violence in the U.S. is not typically one faith group versus another. Indeed, polling finds that the trait that matches most closely with anti-Muslim bias is anti-Jewish bias. That is, the same people who hate and attack Muslims also hate attack Jews, and hate and attack various others. Attendance at religious services once or more per week correlates with lower anti-Muslim bias. So I have great confidence that combating hate is something we can make great strides to accomplish working together.

While as I noted that Muslims have been successful in integrating into the workforce in the U.S., employment discrimination remains a problem. Muslim cases currently make up 25 percent of religious discrimination claims filed with the EEOC. These cases spiked after 9/11, then receded, but have been trending steadily upward over the last seven years.

The Civil Rights Division has been successful in bringing suits to protect Muslims from employment discrimination under Title VII, such as winning the right of Muslim and Sikh bus and subway drivers to wear religious headcoverings on the job. We had alleged in the case that drivers were permitted to wear nonregulation headwear like ski caps and New York Yankees hats, but that the transit authority cracked down on Muslims and Sikhs trying to observe the requirements of their faith. We obtained a consent decree on July 3 of this year. The New York case also involved a provision of Title VII that requires employers to make a “reasonable accommodation” of employees religious observances and practices.The idea is that people should not be forced to choose between their religion and their job when there is a reasonable way to accommodate the needs of both. We were, for example, successful in winning the right of a Muslim teacher in Berkeley, Illinois to take unpaid time off to go on the hajj. And we were successful in prompting the state of Oregon to repeal a law that barred public school teachers from wearing religious clothing. That law had initially been aimed at Catholics back in the 1920’s, trying to keep nuns from being teachers, but was currently impacting Muslims and Sikhs.

It is very curious that when we have been successful in recent years in winning religious accommodations for employees, we have received criticism in some quarters—here is Dickens’ “age of foolishness again”—of importing Sharia law into our legal system. This is a canard. We have long protected the rights of conscience, dating back to when Abraham Lincoln exempted Quakers from compulsory military service during the Civil War. While we were criticized for taking the case of the schoolteacher who wanted to go on the hajj, for years the Department of Justice and the EEOC have brought cases for Christians, Jews, and others to have unpaid absences for religious holidays. These have included a number of cases involving a Christian sect, the Worldwide Church of God, which has an annual week-long religious festival where members come together in one place. When we won the right for members of the church to get time off from work, we were not imposing Biblical law on our legal system. And when we do the same for a Muslim worker, we are not imposing Sharia law. We are honoring the U.S. constitution and our longstanding and proud tradition of protecting religious conscience. We will not be cowed by those who throw around the creeping Sharia label to try to deny Muslims the basic right of religious liberty that all Americans enjoy.

We also are deeply concerned about harassment of Muslim, Sikh, Arab and South Asian students in schools. We see kids who are perplexed when somebody shouts to go back home, because this is their home. This is an inaccurate message. It is also a message that alienates and isolates individuals and communities, where we should be working to unite all Americans. I have often said that today’s bully is tomorrow’s hate crime defendant. So we are vigilant to ensure that schools are taking bullying seriously, and are held accountable when they do not.

We also believe that students are not required to leave their religion at the school house gate as a condition of receiving a public education. And so we have fought for the right of a Muslim girl in Oklahoma to wear a headscarf, and Muslim students in Texas to gather to say their midday prayers. Again, this is not about granting some kind of special privilege for Muslim students. We stand up for Christian students who want to form Bible clubs, and Jewish students who need excused absences on the High Holy days. This is not granting special privileges or implementing a religious code, but is part of the very American tradition of honoring religious freedom. It is part of our heritage of a government that does not tell us how to worship or what to believe, but ensures that we have a society where individuals can openly and fully pursue their own religious choices.

The Department of Justice is active in countering anti-Muslim bias in many facets of society, but we also must ensure that we are not engaging in such bias ourselves. Like all of you, I was very upset when it surfaced last year that two FBI training sessions had sponsored training presentation that contained stereotypical, inaccurate and bigoted material about Muslims and Arabs. There also was a problematic training about Arabs and Muslims led by an employee of a US Attorney’s office. The materials were wrong, and they were offensive, and they did not reflect the values and belief of this Department and this administration. The Deputy Attorney General was similarly outraged, and ordered a review of all training materials and procedures. He directed the Civil Rights Division to chair a DOJ working group to address the issue. We developed guiding principles on training that are now mandatory for all DOJ components. The first principle is that: “Training must be consistent with the Constitution and Department values: Training must promote, and never undermine, our fundamental principles of equal justice and opportunity for all, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and our other core national values.” We are continuing to lead efforts on training to ensure that the Department of Justice is not itself a source of misinformation and bigotry, something we have devoted so many resources to countering in hate crime and discrimination cases.

Finally, I want to discuss the area where we are seeing the greatest growth in anti-Muslim activity, the opposition to mosques. The Civil Rights Division enforces a law passed in 2000 called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, which protects people of all faiths from discrimination and arbitrary action by local zoning boards. Since RLUIPA was enacted in 2000, we have opened 31 cases involving mosques. Of these, we have opened 21 in just the last two years. This is unfortunately a growth industry. Last September we reached consent decrees in two cases, one in Lilburn, Georgia, the other in Henrico County, Virginia, in which we had alleged that city officials had openly expressed bias toward Muslims, and denied permits to mosques that had regularly been granted to churches. And just this July, we won a temporary restraining order under RLUIPA in federal court in Nashville that permitted the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to move into its new mosque.

If you are familiar with the Murfreesboro story, then you know that a mosque there that had been part of the community for more than 20 years sought to move out of the cramped former office space they were using for worship. The bought a large plot of land to build a new mosque in a zone where churches and other places of worship were allowed as-of-right. Zoning officials did the right thing and unanimously approved the project. The mosque was subject to several hate crimes — their sign was destroyed, construction equipment was torched, and the Imam received a bomb threat. I have gotten to know the mosque leaders and the Imam. They are salt-of-the-earth types who love the slow pace and family-oriented culture of Tennessee—they are doctors and professors and business people who have been involved for years in interfaith dialogue and community activities. They were completely caught of guard by the hatred.

But the hate crimes and protests were just the start. A group of county residents filed suit, making the claim that in fact Islam was not a religion, and thus a mosque was not a place of worship that should be allowed in that zone. Their theory was that Islam is a political ideology not a religion. The trial dragged on for weeks with self-proclaimed experts opining that the religion of more than a billion people in the world is not in fact a religion at all. We initially responded to this Alice in Wonderland series of events back in 2010 by filing a brief pointing out the obvious, and recounting how Presidents dating back to Jefferson have acknowledged that Islam is a religion, as has the Congress and the courts, including the Supreme Court.

The Tennessee court, of course, ultimately agreed, but what is surprising is that it did so only very grudgingly. The judge, in his decision dismissing the claim in 2011, wrote that “While we have previously noted the dangers, inadequacies, and inappropriateness of Sharia law, there is inadequate evidence in the record which supports this Plaintiff’s contention of a causal connection between the teachings of Sharia law and the actions of the county government. . . . The fears that the church building may be used as an arsenal for jihad or for some other clandestine purpose, or even for the teaching of Sharia law, is not demonstrated by the record and, at least at this point, remains speculation under the law. Should the religious meeting place be used for purposes outside the law, the county has the right to enforce the law.”

The mosque opponents were not done, however. In June of this year, as the mosque neared completion, they persuaded the state court judge that there had not been proper notice of the meeting at which the mosque had initially been approved back in 2010. While the county had used the same notice it had for consideration of churches, the judge ruled that this was an especially controversial approval: it was, he said “a matter of great public importance and a matter of tremendous public interest,” so greater notice than usual was required. He ordered the county not to grant the mosque a certificate of occupancy.

The county appealed the judge’s ruling to the court of appeals and asked the judge for a stay. At a hearing, the lawyer for the mosque opponents said "The bottom-line issue is, is this Court going to put some teeth in the law, or is this going to be the first ruling in the small town of Rutherford County where the Court's going to recognize and honor Sharia law. It's that simple." Plaintiffs' counsel's argument was followed by cheers from the audience, which went uninterrupted for approximately one minute.

For the past year, Imam Ossama Bahloul of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro had assured the children of his congregation that reason would prevail—that we were in an age of wisdom, not an age of foolishness-- and that they would be in their new mosque by Ramadan. He assured them that this is America, where religious liberty is protected, and they would be able to celebrate Eid in their new mosque. The day before the start of Ramadan, we proved him right. We filed suit and got an emergency hearing before a federal judge, who granted a temporary restraining order requiring the county to process the mosque’s application for a certificate of occupancy. The mosque got a temporary certificate, and started worship at the mosque on August 10 in time to hold Eid prayers at the mosque, and they received a permanent certificate last week. Mosque opponents, however, have vowed to fight on.

As a Roman Catholic, I cannot help but notice the parallels between the Murfreesboro case and the anti-Catholic hysteria that gripped parts of the country at various times in the 19th century. If you take the judge’s statement I quote above about “arsenals of jihad” and substituted “Canon law” for Sharia, and “popery” for “Jihad,” this could have been taken out of the minutes of the Massachusetts legislature in 1854, when the Know-Nothing party was in control. The anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothings, 1 million strong, took control of the governorships and legislatures in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and gained partial control in other states, such as Pennsylvania. But in Massachusetts, they gained the entire Senate, all but three of the 379 members of the House, and the governorship, and proceeded on their mission to “Americanize America.” They dismissed Catholic state workers, banned foreign language instruction in the public schools, and proposed constitutional amendments to deprive Roman Catholics of the right to hold public office, among other measures. And, sounding like the Murfreesboro judge, they created a “Joint Special Committee on the Inspection of Nunneries and Convents,” believing that “acts of villainy, injustice and wrong are perpetrated within the walls of said institutions as a result of their immunity from public inspection.” The Know-Nothings believed that Catholicism was fundamentally incompatible with American democracy and that Catholic immigrants could never become loyal Americans. As a Pennsylvania Know-Nothing leader put it, Catholic “principles and practices are in direct hostility to our Republicanism.”

Today of course, Catholicism is so much a part of American culture that such sentiments just sound silly. But people died in anti-Catholic riots, and churches and convents were burned to the ground. Someday, I hope and believe, the anti-Muslim fears of today will also seem just as strange.

After the federal court ruling that allowed the mosque to get its certificate of occupancy, Imam Bahloul, described the importance of the decision for the freedom of all Americans. He stated: “We are here to celebrate the freedom of religion and that the concept of liberty is a fact existing in this nation. The winner today is not an individual, the winner today is our nation and the fact that our Constitution prevailed.” He also noted: “ We set an example to people everywhere. We can look to the people in the Middle or Far East or in the middle of Africa saying to them ‘America is the role model. Try to learn from us in America.” He recognizes the challenges ahead. But he says that for every opponent of the mosque he sees, two people from the community come up to him and give him encouragement.

We are a nation of great principles of religious freedom. But as we have learned that these principles are not self-executing. We have to work hard to preserve them.  Ournation is rightly proud of the wide range of religions that people have brought with them to America since its founding, which they have exercised in freedom and which have become part of the fabric of our country. But there will always be those who are filled with hatred, but I have confidence that there are far more people opposed to such hate.

The well-wishing letters that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has received have far outpaced the hate mail. The outpouring of interfaith support for the Sikh community after the Oak Creek shootings reminds us of the goodwill of the majority of people, as does the work of ISNA’s Shoulder to Shoulder campaign and the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques. The outpouring of interfaith support that African American ministers received during the church arson epidemic of the 1990s resulted in passage of critical, bipartisan federal legislation that enabled us to bring perpetrators to justice and to rebuild communities. I am reminded of a story about the Philadelphia Bible riots in 1844, where a large group of Quakers locked arms and surrounded St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, preventing a mob from destroying it. We must in a similar way stand together and lock arms to prevent hate in all its forms from destroying the country that we love. I am here to say that the United States Department of Justice will stand with you, and all people of good will, to preserve this great nation and its fundamental values of freedom, equality and justice.

Thank you, and may peace be with you and with all Americans.

Updated September 17, 2014