Discussion of Legal Issues Facing Muslim Communities in the United States

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DISCUSSION OF LEGAL ISSUES FACING MUSLIM COMMUNITIES IN THE UNITED STATES

The Islamic Legal Society of the Washington College of Law at American University held an April 13 roundtable discussion on contemporary legal issues facing Muslim communities in the United States such as the use of secret evidence against them, employment discrimination, racial profiling and media portrayal. The speakers included Eric Shakir, civil rights coordinator at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); Kit Gage, national coordinator of the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom; and Hussein Ibish, national communications director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

Shakir spoke on civil rights and the status of employment discrimination, indicating that for the past three years it has steadily increased by 30 percent annually. He focused on three main points. First, that there are an estimated six million Muslims in the United States and Islam will soon be the second largest religion in the nation. Second, as Muslims increase in numbers they will become more politically active and assertive, and third, that the U.S. media, by the manner in which they approach Islamic issues, are building up negative stereotypes about Muslims.

Shakir carefully noted that "Islam is probably the most visible religion in the world" because of its many visible practices, such as daily prayers, Friday congregation services, the month-long daylight fasting of Ramadan and the hijab (or religious headscarf). He said the majority of CAIR's cases are matters of "religious accommodation," such as allowing Muslim men to wear beards in the workplace (in accordance with the Sunnah, or teachings of the Prophet Muhammad), permitting Muslim women to wear the hijab, giving two weeks of leave to enable Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, allowing for daily prayers during the work hours and time off on Fridays for men to attend group prayers at a masjid.

Shakir then described CAIR's three-step resolution process for handling civil rights cases affecting Muslims. First, mediation, by which the employer is contacted, and both the employer and employee are made aware of the legal aspects of the situation.

Secondly, education through sensitivity training, to inform the employer about the specifics of religious practices. This step is crucial, Shakir stated, as "most people don't express `religion' in the workplace," but in the case of Islam, Muslims practice their religion in and outside of the home.

Third, the litigation process begins, if necessary, but since CAIR does not employ lawyers the cases are then referred to attorneys. Shakir concluded by emphasizing the necessity of outreach to and education of the non-Muslim community to combat misunderstandings and stereotypes which often lead to discrimination. He also emphasized the need to network through lawyers and for greater awareness on the part of Muslims to understand their rights and the law.

Next, Kit Gage spoke on secret evidence and the aims of the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom. In light of the recent surge of government attacks on Arab and Muslim communities with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (which permits the use of secret evidence), and the Immigration Bill of 1996, the National Coalition came into existence. …