March 30, 2011

PROTECTING THE CIVIL RIGHTS OF AMERICAN MUSLIMS

Chairman Durbin and Ranking Member Graham, first let me thank you for allowing me to testify today.  I want to commend you for holding this important hearing on protecting the civil rights of American Muslims.

The right to freely profess and practice a faith – or not practice a faith -- is a fundamental right in our country.  After more than 200 years, our First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” continues to be the envy of many peoples around the world.

Even before the First Amendment was ratified, the Constitution contained a very important provision in Article VI, Section 3 that requires all federal and state officials to swear an oath or affirmation to support the Constitution but provides that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

In my own state of Maryland, only Christians could have full participation in public life until the Maryland General Assembly finally acted in 1825 passing the so called, “Jew Bill.”  I think my ancestors would have been proud to see me elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, the House of Representatives, and now the United States Senate.  Among other reasons, my grandparents also came to this country in search of greater religious freedom and tolerance.

Yet today, notwithstanding the protections in our Constitution and laws, I am very concerned that we are witnessing the demonization of a particular religion.  For the last decade, Muslim Americans have been the target of a growing wave of anti-Muslim bigotry.  It is our obligation to talk about this growing problem and what steps the government can take to reverse this trend and protect the civil rights of Muslims and all Americans.

In the 111th Congress, we took an important step forward to protect civil rights and that was the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.  This legislation gives the Justice Department new tools to combat hate crimes around the country, and strengthens the ability of DOJ to pursue hate crimes, including hate crimes based on religion.  I am pleased that DOJ is working to train attorneys and law enforcement officers at both the federal and state level to make sure we fully implement this law and aggressively enforce its provision. 

The Justice Department has indeed stepped up its enforcement efforts to combat hate crimes and discrimination against Muslim Americans.  I applaud these actions whether in criminal law enforcement or aggressive enforcement of our Civil Rights laws.

In 1975, the U.S. joined all the countries in Europe and established the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, now known as the OSCE. The U.S. Congress created the U.S. Helsinki Commission to monitor U.S. participation and compliance with these commitments. The OSCE contains commitments in three areas or baskets:  security, economics, and human rights. Best known for its human rights advancement, the OSCE has been aggressive in advancing these commitments in each of the OSCE states. The OSCE stands for religious freedom and protection of minority rights.

I am the Senate chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. In that capacity, I have raised religious human rights issues in other countries such as in France when, in the name of national security, the parliament banned burqas and wearing of other religious articles or when the Swiss restricted the building of mosques and minarets.

These policies restricted not only the religious practice of Muslims, but also Christians, Jews, and others who would seek to wear religious symbols and practice their religion as they see fit.

I have also raised human rights issues in the U.S. when we were out of compliance with our Helsinki commitment.

The United States, as a signatory to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, has accepted a body of international commitments relating to the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.  Considerable language concerns the freedom of the individual to profess and practice religion or belief as well as the responsibility of OSCE countries, including the United States, to foster a climate of mutual tolerance and mutual respect.  Indeed, in the OSCE context, the United States has pledged to “promote a climate of mutual respect, understanding, cooperation and solidarity among all persons living on its territory, without distinction as to ethnic or national origin or religion, and will encourage the solution of problems through dialogue….”

In the seminal Copenhagen Document of 1990, the OSCE countries “clearly and unequivocally condemn[ed] totalitarianism, racial and ethnic hatred, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and discrimination against anyone as well as persecution on religious and ideological grounds.”  They further committed themselves “to take appropriate and proportionate measures to protect persons or groups who may be subject to threats or acts of discrimination, hostility or violence as a result of their racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity….”

The OSCE states have recognized the importance of efforts to reach the younger generation in order to build up their understanding of the need for tolerance and the importance of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. Their outlook and perspective on the future are key.   The OSCE recognizes the importance of education.

The United States has played a leadership role with the OSCE, including at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, to focus attention on various aspects of intolerance and discrimination, including against Muslims.  The Helsinki Commission has been at the forefront of many related initiatives.  During the 111th Congress, I chaired a Commission hearing at which we heard from the special OSCE representatives appointed specifically to monitor and report related developments.  Among those testifying was the OSCE Personal Representative on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims.

The Senate is taking another important step in complying with our OSCE commitments by holding this hearing.  We need to engage the Muslim community in the United States.

I agree with Attorney General Holder’s speech last year to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, where he stated that:

“I’ve spoken to Arab-Americans who feel that they have not been afforded the full rights – or, just as important, the full responsibilities – of their citizenship.  They tell me that, too often, it feels like ‘us versus them.’  That is intolerable.  And it is inconsistent with what America is all about.  In this nation, our many faiths, origins, and appearances must bind us together, not break us apart.  In this Nation, the document that sets forth the supreme law of the land – the Constitution – is meant to empower, not exclude.”

The Attorney General also said:

“We are all Americans no matter the color of our skin, no matter the country of our families’ origins, and no matter how we worship.  We all have certain inalienable rights, coupled with civic responsibilities.”

Mr. Chairman, we cannot allow individuals or groups – to pit Americans against one another based on our religious beliefs – this only weakens our country and its freedoms. 

Let us hold dear the protections in our Constitution that safeguard the individual’s right to freely practice their religion. 

Our country’s strength lies in its diversity and our ability to have strongly held beliefs and differences of opinion, while being able to speak freely and not fear reprisals for holding a religious belief that is not shared by the majority of Americans.

We need to stand up against intolerance and injustice. Let us come together as a nation and move forward in a more constructive and hopeful manner.