Conference on Islam highlights how familiarity increases tolerance, understanding of differences

Written by William C. Duncan

October 29, 2021

At a conference on Islam at BYU earlier this month, Dalia Fahmy, the chair of International Relations and Diplomacy at Long Island University, mentioned a startling statistic: “76% of Americans have negative associations with the terms Muslim and Islam.”

That imposing statistic would seem to be an insurmountable hurdle to acceptance. But in an interview with the Deseret News after the conference, Fahmy shared an important caveat: “There is a very important mitigator that drops that 76% down to 30% or so, and that is knowing a Muslim and interacting with one.”

That principle is important not only for interpersonal relationships but also for protecting religious freedom.

At a Sutherland Institute conference in May 2019, a respected Jewish attorney, Howard Slugh, described this reality. In an essay on which his conference remarks were based, he noted: “Since many judges are unfamiliar with Jewish traditions, they are likely to misinterpret the nature or importance of such practices – to the detriment of Jewish litigants.”

He explained: “Jews observe [religious] laws that many judges may be entirely unfamiliar with, from refusing to wear a mixture of wool and linen to only eating wheat harvested at certain times of the year. Such laws are complicated, and there are even disputes within Judaism as to their exact application.”

When judges, or other lawmakers, do not understand religious practices, they are at risk of creating burdens on those practices.

He provided two examples:

In the first, a federal judge was

defending the notion that not all religious practices merit protection, [and] the judge chose a hypothetical law requiring citizens to turn “on a light switch every day” as an example of an imposition that was unlikely to be significant enough to merit a religious accommodation. But unknown to this judge, most Orthodox Jews consider the use of electricity on the Sabbath a violation of the Ten Commandments. The judge did not intend to denigrate Judaism or to undermine the rights of Jewish citizens. He simply was not aware of all the laws relating to the Jewish Sabbath.

In the second, “even more disturbing example … a prison prohibited Israel Ben-Levi, a Jewish prisoner, from organizing a Bible study group for Jewish inmates. Members of other faiths could study the Bible – only Jews faced a prohibition.” A federal judge

second-guessed Ben-Levi’s understanding of his faith and informed him that he was not entitled to an accommodation because, based on its interpretation, his religion actually prohibited him from Bible study. The court was wrong. It seems to have confused the requirement to have a quorum of 10 men for certain parts of a public prayer service with a nonexistent requirement related to Bible study. To make matters worse, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed this ill-conceived opinion. Their mistake led to a Jewish person being singled out for disparate treatment and Judaism being treated as a second-class religion.

Neighbors and policymakers both will make better judgments, of others around them and of those their legal decisions affect, with understanding of differences that comes from personal familiarity. That is not always easy to achieve, but just and equitable neighborhoods and public policies are worth that effort.

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