By Benjamin Villanti*
By Benjamin Villanti*
Morocco World News
July 21, 2011
This past Sunday, in an interview on Fox News, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain took the stance that communities in the United States have the right to ban the construction of mosques. A few days earlier, during a campaign event in the state of Tennessee, Cain had sided with opponents of a new mosque in the city of Murfreesboro. Speaking with reporters he had claimed, “This is just another way to try to gradually sneak Sharia law into our laws, and I absolutely object to that.”
During the Sunday interview on Fox, host Chris Wallace pressed Cain to elaborate on his position, “So, you’re saying that any community, if they want to ban a mosque…” Cain interrupted, responding before Wallace completed his question, “Yes, they have the right to do that.”
For readers not familiar with Herman Cain, he has risen from an obscure candidate for the GOP Presidential nomination two months ago to polling number three in the field of Republican contenders at 12% after being declared the winner of the first primary debate. Never elected to public office, Cain’s credentials include taking over as CEO of the failing pizza chain Godfather Pizza and making it profitable. He is also often credited with undermining Bill Clinton’s universal health care plan for his public criticism of the plan’s affect on small businesses. After an unsuccessful Senate bid in Georgia in 2004, Cain began working in conservative talk radio and writing columns.
The rising candidate’s position on the issue of mosques, however, is clearly in conflict with the US Constitution. One of the most basic protections in the Constitution is the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion, assembly and association. His comments Sunday about not being comfortable having a Muslim as part of his cabinet were also striking as an African-American, who has noted his experience growing-up in the South in the 1950s and 60s during segregation.
Usually for someone running for national office to make comments conflicting with the country’s first amendment rights, it would be the end of their candidacy. In the United States, any presidential hopeful declaring that a municipality should be able to ban the construction of a synagogue or Roman Catholic church would be roundly denounced in the media and by both political parties as a bigot, and that candidate’s bid would be over.
In the case of Cain, it may begin to take such a turn, and he may find that his candidacy has reached his peak. In a country that supported Barack Obama in 2008, the first African-American president as well as son of a Muslim, the majority of the population does not seemed swayed by such prejudicial appeals. The Republican Party might realize that such inflammatory statements are not mainstream enough to make a viable candidate.
However, in choosing to repeatedly take such a stance, apparently Cain doesn’t think so. In fact, his comments reflect a recent trend in the political discourse, pronounced over the past year, stemming from prejudice and misguided fear existing in the country towards Muslims. Cain’s reference to “Sharia Law,” which he repeated several times on Sunday, in particular, appears calculated.
Over the past year, more than twenty US States have seen legislation introduced to ban courts from considering “Sharia” or “international” law. Oklahoma approved such a measure in November, which has been temporarily blocked by a federal district court on the basis that it may not be constitutional.
This wave in state legislation is the result of misinformation campaigns that Muslims are trying to impose their religious law on Americans, citing as evidence court rulings that have referred to Islamic law. (US courts can apply religious law in cases when relevant and if it does not conflict with civil law). While being interviewed Sunday, Cain advanced this conspiracy, when explaining opposition to the mosque in Murfreesboro as “objecting to the intentions of trying to get Sharia law.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the largest watchdog organization in the US that monitors and defends against violations of civil rights, has been closely tracking discrimination towards the religious freedom of Muslims over the past ten years, including the “anti-Muslim bigotry” trend in state legislatures. According to the ACLU on its website, “Some politicians have taken up the unfounded idea that American Muslims somehow wish to impose Islamic law on U.S. courts as a campaign issue … As the presidential race heats up, we will be closely monitoring policies at the state and federal levels to ensure that discrimination is not written into the law of the land and that the US upholds its obligations under domestic and international law.” The ACLU, tracking the situation for months, essentially had foreseen the types of comments made by Cain on Sunday.
In addition, publicly opposing the building of mosques is not a new development. This was highlighted by the well-documented controversy sparked over the plan to build a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center. When President Obama became compelled to weigh in on the controversy, he came under so much pressure for his initial comments expressing support of the rights of the project’s organizers (whose plans were to include the mosque as part of an Interfaith Center), that he later tempered his remarks that perhaps its location near such a sensitive site was not a good idea.
However, anti-Islam-inspired efforts have so far been held at bay by the courts. Along with the court injunction temporarily blocking Oklahoma’s constitutional amendment, a Tennessee county judge ruled that the mosque in Murfreesboro could be constructed. As for the “Ground-zero Mosque,” the New York State Supreme Court made public last Wednesday its decision to dismiss an appeal by the project’s opponents that the 150-year-old building to be replaced by the project should enjoy “landmark status,” though it is reported that the ruling is likely to be appealed by detractors.
Notably, in New York, the mosque’s opponents have tried to use a law for protecting historical buildings to impede the project because they realized that their objections on any religious grounds would not be upheld under US law.
Also of significance in the New York case, Mayor Michael Bloomberg exercised political leadership in support of the rights of the project’s organizers to build the mosque. This has been clearly in stark contrast to most politicians that have weighed in of late on issues involving Islam and Muslims.
*Benjamin Villanti has been part of the United Nations community in New York since 2005, working in both public information and political analysis. He has a Master of Public Administration from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University. He is a contributor to Morocco World News.
Picture credit: Reuters