Law & the Courts

Some Arguments for Muslim Religious Liberty Are More Compelling than Others

Muslims pray on the Eid al-Fitr holiday in Brooklyn, N.Y., July 2016. (Reuters photo: Stephanie Keith)
The Constitution protects believers of all faiths equally. It doesn’t, however, validate the vapid multiculturalism of liberals who advocate for Muslims’ First Amendment rights.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had the following conversation: I’ll have just finished speaking to a church or a conference about the vital importance of American religious liberty, and some well-meaning, well-informed questioner will ask earnestly if all my words apply to Islam in the same way they do to Judaism or Christianity. When I say yes, the response is immediate. “But isn’t Islam mainly a political system?” they’ll ask. “Doesn’t Sharia law violate the Constitution?”

There are a remarkable number of Americans — including influential commentators, pastors, and religious leaders — who simply refuse to believe that Islam is a religion. Or, if they believe it’s a religion, they believe the sincere practice of it is antithetical to other American constitutional values. In other words, they believe that Islam and the Constitution simply don’t mix. It’s a belief that’s been circulating in conservative and Christian circles for some time, and now — thanks to writers such as The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart and public attacks on Southern Baptist leaders who supported the legal right of Muslims to build a mosque in New Jersey — it’s bursting into the open.

Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: Non-Muslims have examined an immense and complicated religious community that is even now in the middle of theological and (in many parts of the world) literal civil war, they’ve decided which of the religion’s competing strains is “true Islam,” and they’ve lumped every single Muslim into that single category. Or, at least, they’ve determined that there is sufficient risk that any given Muslim falls into that category to justify curtailing the rights of all Muslims.

It should be obvious that this line of reasoning could have catastrophic consequences for the protection of religious liberty more broadly. Imagine applying it to any other American religious community. Shall we have Ruth Bader Ginsburg define “true Christianity” and then use that definition to limit the rights of all Christians? Moreover, let’s assume for the moment that critics are right, and “true” Islam as practiced is indeed inextricably intertwined with political ideas and goals. Here’s a news flash: Both religious and political activities are protected by the First Amendment. Calling Islam “political” is no more an argument against the First Amendment protections enjoyed by Muslims than calling a church a “club” or a “civic organization” would be an argument against the First Amendment protections enjoyed by Christians. The First Amendment’s protections of free speech and association are, if anything, even broader (as interpreted by the Supreme Court) than its protections of the free exercise of religion.

The critics of Islamic religious freedom misunderstand the nature and extent of the right itself.

In many ways, the critics of Islamic religious freedom misunderstand the nature and extent of the right itself. Religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution has never been construed to mean that the members of any particular religion are exempt from the governing laws of the nation. Faith doesn’t grant anyone the constitutional right to beat their wife, abuse their children, or stone heretics. It doesn’t grant anyone the constitutional right to force other adults to join or belong to any religious, political, or social organization against their will. There are, in other words, existing, constitutionally valid laws that restrict or prevent the adherents of Sharia law from imposing it on unwilling others.

Yet not all arguments for religious liberty are equally persuasive, and many advocates of Muslim religious liberty do more harm than good by misunderstanding both the reality of religious belief and the increasing public impatience with political correctness. For example, it’s simply not persuasive or even correct to try to tell Christians that Muslims are their “natural allies” in the culture wars. It’s not persuasive to tell conservatives how many votes the GOP may be leaving on the table through its opposition to Islam. And it’s definitely not persuasive to argue for Muslim religious liberty by arguing for the virtues of the Muslim faith itself.

As a general matter, sincere religious believers see their faith as the path to God, rather than a path. As a result, the notion that we’re all on the “same team” is flawed in the most substantial and eternal way possible. It’s an illogical and unsustainable belief that’s rebutted by more than a thousand years of competition and outright conflict. So to argue the greatness and virtues of any given faith is to promote an exasperating form of utopian multiculturalism that belies the depth of the very real spiritual differences between faiths.

The virtue of American religious liberty, however, is that the Founders understood the intensity of those differences and created the best form of government for mitigating it: one that allowed for robust competition without permitting government coercion. It is such coercion that snaps the sinews of a multi-faith society, depriving men and women of their inalienable rights, and it’s such coercion that our society was constructed from the ground-up to protect against.

In the American constitutional order, those who are wrong have the same rights as everyone else, though they can’t use their rights to interfere with the rights and liberties of others. Our system of laws can handle jihadist Muslims. Our Constitution is robust enough to repel any call for Sharia law. We don’t have to violate the Constitution to save the Constitution, and you don’t have to compromise your commitment to religious truth to protect the rights of those who disagree.

— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.




David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Elizabeth Warren Is Not Honest

If you want to run for office, political consultants will hammer away at one point: Tell stories. People respond to stories. We’ve been a story-telling species since our fur-clad ancestors gathered around campfires. Don’t cite statistics. No one can remember statistics. Make it human. Make it relatable. ... Read More
White House

More Evidence the Guardrails Are Gone

At the end of last month, just as the news of the Ukraine scandal started dominating the news cycle, I argued that we're seeing evidence that the guardrails that staff had placed around Donald Trump's worst instincts were in the process of breaking down. When Trump's staff was at its best, it was possible to draw ... Read More
National Review


Today is my last day at National Review. It's an incredibly bittersweet moment. While I've only worked full-time since May, 2015, I've contributed posts and pieces for over fifteen years. NR was the first national platform to publish my work, and now -- thousands of posts and more than a million words later -- I ... Read More
Economy & Business

Andrew Yang, Snake Oil Salesman

Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and gadfly, has definitely cleared the bar for a successful cause candidate. Not only has he exceeded expectations for his polling and fundraising, not only has he developed a cult following, not only has he got people talking about his signature idea, the universal basic ... Read More

Feminists Have Turned on Pornography

Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminist movement has sought to condemn traditional sexual ethics as repressive, misogynistic, and intolerant. As the 2010s come to a close, it might be fair to say that mainstream culture has reached the logical endpoint of this philosophy. Whereas older Americans ... Read More
White House

The Impeachment Defense That Doesn’t Work

If we’ve learned anything from the last couple of weeks, it’s that the “perfect phone call” defense of Trump and Ukraine doesn’t work. As Andy and I discussed on his podcast this week, the “perfect” defense allows the Democrats to score easy points by establishing that people in the administration ... Read More