Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Diversity in Religious Practice: Implications of Islamic Values in the Public Workplace

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Diversity in Religious Practice: Implications of Islamic Values in the Public Workplace

Article excerpt

The September 11th terrorist attack in the United States was indeed a definable moment for Americans. This has caused a growing level of concern among many non-Muslims Americans about the practice of Islam. Since embracing Islam is tantamount to accepting a way of life--spiritually, politically and socially, about how one must behave in family and public life--Islam's values will enter the workforce. For public administrators, rational concerns center on how this rapidly growing religion might be accommodated in a nation that upholds the principles of religious tolerance and democratic constitutionalism. Public administrators responsible for hiring may be more wary of Muslims working in government and even more so in areas of national security or travel. At the same time, recent immigrants from predominately Muslim countries are needed by security agencies to help combat terrorism. (1) Given the First Amendment and civil rights laws that protect public employees from discrimination based upon religious faith and practices, the tension between a religion--Islam--and state interests has never been so apparent. Although most work-related complaints do not result in litigation by the EEOC, (2) the rise in discrimination cases against Muslims (3) sounds an important note in the complexities inherent in "running a constitution" (4) and the challenges in establishing "constitutional competence" within each workplace. During times of national crisis, majority sentiment may impinge upon the public managers' views about employees who practice Islam.

To help public managers better understand issues of religious practice in the workforce, we begin with a brief review of the place of religion in the United States and its workforce. We follow that with an explanation of Islamic religious practices and the constitutional and legal principles that allow religious practice in the workplace. We then review current case law that illuminates some of the problems and resolutions to accommodating Muslim employees.

Religion in the Contemporary Work Environment

Multiculturalism and diversity are now a social reality in the workforce. (5) Given dramatic changes in the diversity of culture and language in the United States, it should be no surprise that America is also diverse in its religious beliefs. Islam, with a population of 6 million, is second only to Judaism in the United States. (6) Muslims outnumber mainline Protestants, such as Episcopalians or followers of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. (7) A nation of immigrants has now become the "most religiously diverse nation on earth." (8)

Although most think of Muslims as relatively new to the United States, the arrival of the first Muslims dates back to 1730. (9) Concern and confusion about Islam is not new. In the World's Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, an American convert to Islam, Mohammad Russell Webb, spoke about the stereotypes and ignorance of Islam in America. He said, "I have faith in the American intellect, in the American intelligence, and in the American love of the fair play, and will defy any intelligent man to understand Islam and not like it." (10)

Americans are not nominally professing a faith. According to a national Gallup Poll, 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and 48 percent talked about their religious faith at work that day. (11) President Clinton issued Whitehouse guidelines affirming the religious rights of public employees, and President Bush has expressed similar theo-centric values expanding the saliency of faith-based organizations as providers of services. (12)

This religiosity of America is an important phenomenon. (13) There is very little evidence to suggest that the present corporate and government environment of high technology, fierce global competition and corporate strategies to right size, realign and reengineer will change. In a society where job security is not guaranteed even in government agencies and where more employees are at a supervisor's mercy, it is not uncommon for employees to feel vulnerable, alienated or neglected. …

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