U.S. Muslims wary about public display of Commandments

March 13, 2005|By Kamran Memon

I am the Lord thy God.

- opening clause of the Ten Commandments

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

- opening clause of the First Amendment

PEOPLE OF FAITH have mixed feelings about the posting of the Ten Commandments in government facilities, and American Muslims are no exception.

The opening clause of the First Amendment has been debated throughout American history. Does it mean that government cannot prefer religion over secularism? Does it mean that government cannot prefer one religion over other religions? Or does it just mean that the government can't set up a state religion?

The Ten Commandments come from the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. Some of the Commandments are purely religious (believing in God, observing the Sabbath and not worshipping idols), while others are moral in nature (prohibiting murder, theft and perjury).

The Ten Commandments have been posted for decades by various government officials, who sometimes deny any religious motivation. By posting the Ten Commandments, these officials are not declaring Judaism or Christianity to be the state religion, but they are certainly demonstrating a preference for religion over secularism and for Judaism and Christianity over other faiths.

Is it permissible under the First Amendment for government officials to post a biblical document? That's the issue the U.S. Supreme Court is wrestling with following recent oral arguments.

The First Amendment is supposed to protect religious minorities, such as American Muslims, from second-class citizenship. So should American Muslims be concerned about governmental posting of the Ten Commandments?

The Quran tells the story of Moses receiving tablets from God with guidance for his people. Muslims believe Moses was a prophet of God, and they believe in the message of the Ten Commandments. It can't hurt for Americans to be reminded about God and morality, can it?

But what if, next time, a government official wants to post something that makes me feel uncomfortable? Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, but what if a government official wants to post a declaration that Jesus was divine, or that Muslims are infidels? This potentially slippery slope leads me to sympathize with opponents of governmental posting of religious documents.

I also have doubts about the motives of some government officials who want to post the Ten Commandments.

I empathize with government officials who paternalistically believe that governmental posting of the Ten Commandments will expose the rest of us to good moral teachings and produce a better society.

And I empathize with government officials who worry that banning the Ten Commandments from governmental property would be another sign that America is losing its moral compass and that God is being marginalized.

But I worry greatly about government officials who want to post the Ten Commandments (and who knows what else, down the road) in order to put the rest of us in our place, to send the message that America is a Christian nation where the rest of us are second-class disbelievers.

I wonder how these government officials would react if American Muslims asked them to post a relevant Quranic verse in a courthouse or town square - for example, "O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both." Would these officials support it as a good moral teaching, like the Ten Commandments, or reject it as an idolatrous falsehood?

I'm also concerned about government officials who might exploit the Ten Commandments debate simply to mobilize their political base for the next election.

Honestly, I'd feel more comfortable if it were Moses, rather than government officials, arguing for posting the Ten Commandments on government property, because Moses' motives were transparent and pure.

Finally, a question arises as to whether posting the Ten Commandments provides any real benefit to society.

The Ten Commandments - with their reminders of God and prohibitions on stealing, lying and killing - have been posted in some town squares and courthouses for decades. Has that made us better people? Has that caused one less person to steal or kill? Has that caused one more legislator to honor a campaign promise, or to be honest about an opponent's record?

Only God knows.

Kamran Memon, who grew up in Bethesda, is a Chicago civil rights attorney and a founder of the Muslim Bar Association of Chicago.

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