In This Country, Religious Freedom Is Real

By Imran Hayee for The StarTribune

My childhood memories of celebrating Independence Day are no different than those of my fellow citizens — except that it was on Aug. 14th instead of July 4th.

I grew up in Pakistan, which obtained its independence from British rule on Aug. 14, 1947.

As a child, I marked Independence Day year after year without having a clue about what independence really meant. As I grew older, I read from a speech of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, which he had delivered immediately after the nation’s independence was announced.

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples,” he said. “You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or cast or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

This was Jinnah’s dream, the founding principle behind the independence of Pakistan as he himself stated in the same landmark speech: “We are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. We should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in due course, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

Growing up in Pakistan, as a Muslim, I never saw Jinnah’s dream materializing. The constitution of Pakistan defines who is a Muslim — any “impersonator” is subject to imprisonment or death. Temples, churches and mosques not ascribing to a single distorted version of Islam are routinely attacked.

What caused the secular ideology of Jinnah to take this U-turn?

Soon after the nation’s creation in 1947, and Jinnah’s demise a year later, Pakistan’s rulers succumbed to the demands of religious extremists who wanted to convert Pakistan into a puritanical fundamentalist state.

Gradually, the monster of religious fundamentalism grew large enough to devour Jinnah’s philosophy of spreading freedom and equality.

I never experienced independence until I came to America 18 years ago. For the first time — when Independence Day was being celebrated on July 4th instead of Aug. 14th — I wanted to rejoice once again.

I was unaware of the history behind America’s Independence Day, but still, I saw freedom and equality prevail all around me. I could freely go to my mosque without having to fear the state’s interference.

As I learned more about the history behind July 4th, it reminded me of the same philosophy of freedom and equality that Jinnah dreamed for Pakistan. What made the difference in America was that its rulers never succumbed to extremists’ demands.

Rather, its forefathers risked their wealth and lives to uphold the principles of freedom and equality. Their sacrifices paved the way for a Muslim like me to emigrate from a Muslim country and practice Islam the way I wanted to but could not do in the country of my birth.

More recently, while some European countries have banned building minarets on mosques and the wearing of veils by Muslim women, U.S. courts have struck down any such attempted restrictions as unconstitutional.

Addressing the Muslim world in Cairo, President Obama proudly announced, “Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.”

As a Muslim-American, I feel proud and honored to be in America and find many reasons to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th. Among others, let me add that the founding principles of America’s Constitution are in perfect harmony with the Qur’an.

The Qur’an (2:257) proclaims, “There is no compulsion in religion. Surely, the right way has become distinct from error.” It further declares fundamental human equality: “O mankind, We have created you from male and female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another” (Qur’an 49:14).

These golden principles of freedom and equality have been implemented — in America. In fact, I find the American Constitution to be more Islamic than the constitution of Pakistan or of any other Muslim country in the world today.

Imran Hayee is a professor of engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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  1. July 4th, 2011

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