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Assistant Attorney General Perez Speaks at the Grand Opening of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro


Murfreesboro, TN
United States

It is an honor to be here with you this afternoon as you celebrate the opening of your beautiful new mosque. And thank you, Sheikh Ossama, for your kind introduction and for your friendship.

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 have a trial starting in January in a prosecution of a man for allegedly burning a mosque in Corvalis, Oregon. We just indicted a man last month for setting fire to the Islamic Center of Toledo, Ohio. And as you know, the Department of Justice prosecuted three neo-Nazis who burned the mosque in Columbia, Tennessee to the ground four years ago.

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. The 2011 figures will be released any day.

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. And you as a congregation know this first hand.

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 can be, 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% 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, which is a troubling figure, 37% also say that 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 of the United States.

I vividly remember two years ago when I first met with Imam Bahloul and several of the leaders from your congregation to discuss civil rights, and how one of the trustees said that Murfreesboro’s strong family values, safe neighborhoods, and friendly Southern ways is what led him, and others, to settle here. And you have thrived here: you are doctors and professors, mothers and fathers, small business owners, and hardworking Americans.

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, as I will discuss further, 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 opposition of some residents. Indeed, as you know, that is what happened here in Murfreesboro—you bought this land, which was zoned for places of worship, applied, and the County did the right thing and approved your plans unanimously.

Indeed, despite all the rancor from some quarters, what I have heard from Sheikh Ossama and others is that despite all the difficulties you have faced because of the opposition of some, good people from the community have continually come up to them to express their support for your right to be here. Indeed, as I am sure you know, he has received letters and even donations from American military men and women abroad who are embarrassed by how you have been treated. As a fellow American, these stories touch my soul and remind me why I am in this business.

But it cannot be ignored that there are great challenges for Muslim communities and those of us working to protect the civil rights of all. And I want to discuss what we are seeing, 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 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 this year, when a gunman attacked the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He fired repeatedly, killing six worshippers, and wounding others, including a police officer who had come to their aid. We at the Department of Justice joined 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 56 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, as you know, one against your 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 see it here today, with representatives of multiple faiths joining in your celebration.

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. 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. This past July, we won the right for Muslim and Sikh bus and subway drivers in New York to wear religious headcoverings on the job. Other employees regularly wore baseball caps, ski caps, and other unofficial headwear. But in addition to barring discrimination, Title VII requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation of religious practices. Last year, for example, we won the right of a Muslim teacher in Berkeley, Illinois to take unpaid time off to go on the hajj. While we were criticized for taking the case, for years, and in Republican and Democratic Administrations, the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have brought cases on behalf of Christians, Jews, and others to have unpaid absences for religious holidays. A number of these cases involved a Christian sect, the World Wide Church of God, that has an annual week long pilgrimage. These cases all stand for the basis proposition that people should not be forced to chose between their faith and their job.

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 also 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 anyone special privileges, but is part of the very American tradition of honoring religious freedom. It is part of our heritage that the 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.

Finally, I want to discuss the area where we are seeing the greatest growth in anti-Muslim activity, the opposition to mosques—something you know all too well. The Civil Rights Division enforces the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, which was passed in 2000 and 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 as you know, we filed suit in July to protect your right to worship in this wonderful space.

Imam Bahloul told us, back before we filed the case, that last year he 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 2012. He assured them that this is America, where religious liberty is protected by the Constitution, and they would be able to celebrate Eid in their new mosque. As you know, the day we filed suit, the federal court in Nashville ordered Rutherford County to process your application for a certificate of occupancy, despite a state court order barring the County from doing so, making this promise come true.

As you also know, the case continues, both in federal court and in the Tennessee Court of Appeals.  Because the case is ongoing, I cannot discuss it in detail; I also do not want to attempt to try the case from the podium here.  But I want you to know that the Department of Justice is determined to see this through and ensure that your rights are fully protected.

After the federal court ruling that allowed you to get the 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 also sees, as I see, cause for great hope.

We are a nation of great principles of religious freedom. But as we have learned, these principles are not self-executing. We have to work hard to preserve them. Our nation is rightly proud of the wide range of religions that people have brought with them to America since its founding, that they have exercised in freedom, and that have become part of the fabric of our country. But as the history of religious discrimination against Jews, Catholics, and Mormons, among others, demonstrates, it can be a difficult path along the way. We must remember, though, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, who said: “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The well-wishing letters that you have received from around the world have been heartening. Likewise, the outpouring of interfaith support for the Sikh community after the Oak Creek shootings reminds us of the goodwill of most people, as does the interfaith work of groups like ISNA’s Shoulder to Shoulder campaign, the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques that the Anti-Defamation League established, and the interfaith support we see here today. And 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