My beautiful state of North Carolina appeared in national and international news headlines last week in a troubling fashion. The Rowan County Defense of Religion Act supported by 14 state legislators, all of whom are from the same party, sparked a controversy whose dust has yet to settle. It is amazing how news travels and gets sensationalized so quickly in modern times. I received emails, phone calls and interview requests within hours after the news broke, from many corners of the world.
For those who didn’t follow very closely, here is the main part of the resolution:
SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings, which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
I received these developments with mixed feelings of anger, frustration, joy and hope. First, as an American Muslim leader, very often I am deeply embarrassed by and put in a position to explain the shameful and troubling actions of fellow Muslims elsewhere in the world. It was an ironic break to be put in a similar situation—not because I am a Muslim, but because I am a proud N.C. resident. Even though I know Islam and Muslims neither own nor produce all the crazies in the world, it was therapeutically comforting to see a similarly troubling action right at home. Seeing the embarrassment and puzzlement of some Christian friends in response to this resolution, you can’t help but feel reassured. Misery always likes company.
As the reality started sinking in further, anger and frustration took over my relief. We are in 2013, and have spent 200-plus years striving to improve our secular democracy and strengthen our civic society, which is a beautiful mosaic of many religions, cultures and colors. And 14 well-educated elected officials are trying to establish a state religion: SIGH! The legislators who cooked up this circus do not mention which religion will be the official religion of North Carolina if this resolution becomes a law. If, however, you pay attention to the context of this resolution and pay even closer attention to these legislators’ personal and professional records, the brand of religion they are promoting is clear.
These are indeed deeply troubling and potentially dangerous developments, as they are familiar signs of much bigger and more harmful troubles for our entire nation. These politicians are playing with fire by mixing religion and politics in such an unwise, harmful and destructive way. Think about it: Everyone, including these 14 elected officials, knows that this resolution will never fly and will never become law. Even if it becomes a law here in North Carolina, our federal government will shoot it down, as it will be in direct violation of the Constitution. Then why are they doing this? Why are they seemingly making fools of themselves and harming the reputation of their political party, religion, state, country and more? These politicians cannot be that naïve and disconnected from the reality. They are doing this because they were made to believe, by themselves and others, that this is the easiest way to score political points in N.C. based on their reading of current political affairs in our state. These people look at the outcomes of Amendment One and the results of our recent presidential election, and they are playing a very dangerous, shortsighted, cheap and selfish political game by introducing this resolution. So it is not entirely pointless as far as these politicians’ present and future personal ambitions in politics are concerned. It may serve very well in the short run for them if we don’t do anything about it.
However, these unwise leaders of our state do not realize that this fire they are playing with could spread much more quickly and turn into a much bigger disaster than they think. These developments could further divide our already very divided nation; they could potentially give rise to certain exclusive and harmful forces that are already troublingly louder and more powerful than before.
No one knows this destructive game better than the millions of American Muslims, including myself, who have come from countries where reckless politicians’ dangerous experiments in mixing religion and politics have had devastating consequences for the entire nation. These cheap political games tore apart the social fabric of those societies, disturbed social harmony, gave rise to intolerance and enmity, and turned long-standing friends into enemies as they disturbed centuries-long neighborly, brotherly-sisterly and loving relationships.
Unfortunately, most developed and healthy societies react to harmful trends in substantial ways only when things seem to get out of control. My only hopeful expectation out of this madness is that the Defense of Religion Act will shock so many lazy, inactive and silent moderates to finally respond to the loud call for action. I believe these moderates, both locally and nationally, still represent the overwhelming majority of people here in the United States. I wonder: If this tragic resolution doesn’t wake them up and motivate them to act against the troubling rise of exclusivism and its various threats to our secular democracy and civic society, what will?
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Abdullah on Twitter @aantepli.