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Do we want a future where our religious faith makes us a target?

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 also proved to be an unfortunate turning point in America’s socio-cultural dynamics. For a nation that’s built upon the principles of separating church and state, America’s multi-religious identity came to the forefront as specific groups, especially Muslims or Hindus and Sikhs (who were presumed to be Muslims), became the targets of mistrust and prejudice, both institutional and social. While Americans enjoy considerable religious freedom regardless of affiliation or faith, the increased polarization of the religious communities post-9/11 is a major cause for concern. This issue is addressed in Breakthrough’s multi-platform Facebook game America 2049 which, this week, takes players to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

The future that America 2049 presents, and asks players to save, shows a country torn apart by hate and mistrust. Yet the scenario of the future isn’t too far from us today. The Gainesville Times recently published a letter to the editor that exemplified the extremities of religious and ethnic hate that exists in certain parts of the country. A reader, responding to the May 6 story of a Delta Airlines pilot refusing to fly with two Islamic imams onboard, said-

“It is impossible to distinguish between Muslims who are anti-American and just waiting for a chance to do us harm, and those who are merely pursuing their religious beliefs in this country. The only way to be sure and safe is to exclude them all. Such action would not constitute bias or racism against a particular nationality just because they may be different from us, or the condemnation of a specific religion because it differs from our beliefs but the action is necessary to create conditions in which it is safe to live without a constant fear of terrorism.”

Such blatant justification of Islamophobia is alarming and begs us to work towards much more comprehensive multicultural education. Such views are further bolstered with several states, such as Tennessee, looking to pass a state bill which would essentially ban the practice of Sharia law in the state. The letter received much criticism and supports the statistic put forth by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) that since 2000, the number of organized hate groups has increased by 50 percent.

America 2049 provides players with an interactive scenario where this situation — which is already all too real — gets worse in the near future. Players also learn about the strong Anti-Catholic sentiments that pervaded America in the mid-1800s. Such sentiments gave rise to a political party called The Know-Nothings – so called because members swore to deny any knowledge of the party when questioned by outsiders. The Know-Nothings exhibited an extreme disapproval of the wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants to the U.S in the mid-1800s, often engaging in violence and pushing for stricter immigration and naturalization laws to restrict Catholic presence in the country.

In a classic case of history repeating itself — a point America 2049 aims to make – we are now witness to similar sentiments against Muslim or Arabian/South Asian immigration to the U.S. The recent uproar around the proposed construction of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in New York City serves as an apt example of this prejudice. America 2049 aims to address such issues of mistrust and blind discrimination by challenging players to make their own choices on how to confront religious profiling by contextualizing the entire issue across history. The crucial question, therefore, is – in a country that prides itself on freedoms of many kinds, do we want a future where our faith makes us a target?

Photo courtesy of Crux Photography

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Standing Up for Your Faith Could Get You Arrested in Douglasville, Georgia

Guest blogger: Azadeh Shahshahani from the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia

Yesterday, I joined Lisa Valentine in front of the Douglasville Municipal Courthouse to announce a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the ACLU of Georgia on her behalf.

This was the same courthouse that Mrs. Valentine attempted to enter in December 2008 to accompany her nephew to his traffic hearing, only to be arrested and jailed for standing up for her right to wear a head covering according to her practice of her Muslim faith. “When we started out for the courthouse that morning, I had no idea I was in for the most humiliating and shocking day of my life,” said Mrs. Valentine.

After being informed by an officer that she would have to remove her head covering, Mrs. Valentine attempted to leave the courthouse and expressed her frustration with the policy to the officer. She was prevented from leaving, handcuffed, and taken before the judge who sentenced her to 10 days in jail for contempt of court. Mrs. Valentine was then taken to the booking area, where she was made to remove her head covering. She was detained first at the temporary holding facility at the courthouse and then in jail for several hours without her head covering before police determined that Mrs. Valentine did not fight with officers and that her “actions were primarily verbal and her resistance passive.” She was released that evening.

By locking up Mrs. Valentine and forcing her to remove her head covering in public, officers not only showed extreme indifference to her fundamental right to practice her faith, but also humiliated her and caused her unnecessary emotional suffering. For weeks, Mrs. Valentine could not sleep well. She felt deeply hurt and ashamed by the experience. “To be forced by someone else to remove my hijab in public was humiliating, and a serious violation of my privacy, modesty, and right to practice my faith,” said Mrs. Valentine.

In July 2009, the Georgia Judicial Council adopted a policy clarifying that religious head coverings can be worn in Georgia courthouses. The policy, which balances courts’ security concerns with individuals’ fundamental right to religious liberty, was presented by the ACLU of Georgia to the Supreme Court of Georgia Committee on Access and Fairness in the Courts at a June 2009 meeting. Mrs. Valentine was there to testify about the experience she faced at the Douglasville courthouse. But the policy serves as a recommendation to courthouses, and is not binding. The lawsuit we brought yesterday against the City of Douglasville and the arresting officers charges that Mrs. Valentine’s First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated, and asks the court to ensure that religious head coverings will be allowed in the Douglasville courthouse.

“I hope that no person of faith will ever have to experience the type of egregious treatment I suffered at any Georgia courthouse because of the expression of my beliefs,” Mrs. Valentine said yesterday. We hope so as well. It is outrageous enough for the government to hamper people’s free exercise of religion. Arresting and unlawfully jailing Americans for standing up for the right to practice their faith further violates the fundamental tenets of our democracy.

What happens when we give up the ideals that define us?

Incidents around the country continue to undermine the principles of equality, justice and dignity for all that have played an important role in making America the strong nation it is today. In a story reported by the New York Times, a Brazilian man, Genesio Oliveira, is facing deportation and separation from his husband, Tim Coco, an American citizen and resident of Massachusetts, soon after federal officials allowed him to be reunited with his husband earlier this year.

The current situation is reminiscent of the ordeal the couple went through 3 years ago when they were forced to live apart after Genesio was denied asylum on claims of being raped as a teenager in Brazil. The judge deciding the case said he found Genesio’s fear of returning to Brazil “genuine” but denied him asylum on the grounds that he was never physically harmed by the rape. This ruling received a lot of attention from civil rights and immigrant rights groups around the world who criticized U.S. officials for separating a couple that was legally married. Following a request from Senator Kerry in June this year Genesio Oliveira was allowed back into the country on humanitarian grounds. He fervently hoped that this would induce the Attorney General to reverse the initial ruling that forced him back to Brazil, but even on Sen. Kerry’s urging, Eric Holder is refusing to reverse the earlier decision in a way that would allow Genesio to apply for permanent residency and stay with his husband.

Laws that interfere with civil rights and liberties are making their presence felt on a national level, as is evident in the constantly evolving TSA (Transportation Security Administration) regulations regarding security screenings in airports around the country. Three of the largest Sikh advocacy groups in the country are opposing screening measures at airports that require hand searches of all people wearing turbans, even if they agree to undergo full body scans using Advanced Imaging Technology. Representatives from the Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund announced their opposition to screening policies that they say unfairly target members of the Sikh community.

Hansdeep Singh, a senior staff lawyer for United Sikhs based in New York, told the New York Times about a meeting that took place with TSA officials some weeks ago, in which members of Sikh groups had hoped to hear that with the introduction of Advanced Imaging Technology, there would be less hand and wand searches of turbans in airports. Instead, what they were met with was news of the development of “a patchwork of airport security policies… in which all turbans are searched.” Amardeep Singh, the Sikh Coalition’s director of programs, told the Associated Press, “The TSA told us, point blank, that turbans will now be screened 100 percent of the time.” Referring to the racial profiling and hate crimes that Sikh Americans have been faced with post September 11, 2001, Singh said, “Sikh Americans are already looked at differently in this country. Once you start pulling Sikhs aside for extra screening, it sends a message that the government is suspicious of them for the same reasons [other passengers] are suspicious of them.”

While TSA officials have not confirmed the introduction of a blanket policy, they reiterated Security procedures introduced in 2007 that included provisions for all “bulky” headwear to be searched. National Sikh organizations are urging their constituents to lobby Congress to overturn a blanket TSA policy that calls on all Sikhs wearing turbans to undergo a hand search of their turbans in spite of the Advanced Imaging Technology screening that screens metallic, plastic and ceramic through items of clothing.

In the midst of these incidents and policies that strike at the heart of this nation’s diversity, we did get wind of a heartening story that evidences a positive stance towards minority communities. Today, New Haven officials announced their plans for New Haven Promise, a new program that grants college tuition to high school students from public and charter school, provided that they maintain a 3.0 grade point average and 90% attendance rate.  The program, financed by Yale University, will pay up to 25% of the tuition for qualifying seniors who go on to public colleges or universities in Connecticut next year, up to 50% for the class after that, up to 75%for the following class; and up to 100% for the Class of 2014. According to Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., the program is like a “contract that says to kids: If you work hard, you demonstrate academic achievement and display appropriate behaviors, we’ll give you the tools to go to college and therefore inject choice and opportunity in your lives.”

Most importantly, the Promise will be open to all New Haven residents irrespective of their immigration status, and that includes those young adults who are undocumented and would be eligible for the DREAM Act, were it to be passed. Right now, students have to be legal residents or citizens in order to be eligible for in-state tuition rates and undocumented students are charged out-of-state tuition, which is about $10,000 at the state universities and $24,500 at University of Connecticut.

This is just one more step in the right direction for New Haven officials who are supportive of the immigrant communities that are an integral part of the city. From the New Haven Independent-

State legislators, including New Haven Sen. Martin Looney, have been pushing for a statewide version of the DREAM Act that would allow Connecticut residents who are undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition. DeStefano said he will urge the state legislature to pass such a bill; he also said he’s working with various in-state colleges to work out an arrangement concerning the issue. Until such a change is made, he said, Promise will pay “full tuition” for each eligible student, even if that student is an immigrant who must pay out-of-state tuition.

It is important that we work together to honor the diversity that is the strength of this nation. As long as we continue to deny equality, justice, dignity and liberty to some, we cannot guarantee human rights for anyone.

Photo courtesy of blogs.cnn.com

Sites of Conscience revive history and value of immigration

Arizona’s new immigration law has triggered intense debates on racial profiling and discrimination, reflecting a long-rooted anxiety about immigration issues in the United States.
But these debates aren’t restricted to the U.S. alone, with immigration-related controversies dividing countries including France, Belgium and Spain. Taking steps to ban the wearing of burqas in public, these countries have fueled divisive debates on religious freedom, discrimination and xenophobia. It’s a moment to look back and learn from the lessons from history. The Immigration Sites of Conscience, a network of 14 immigration history museums across the United States and Europe, are seeking to do exactly that, by remembering past struggles for justice and applying these to to understand today’s debates.

This is a crucial moment in time, and to prevent a backslide from democratic progress, the Sites of Conscience are offering unique opportunities for constructive dialogue by developing new public dialogues on community immigration issues at each of the sites through exhibitions, workshops, and public talks.

In Navigating Difference, a new interactive installation and program, the Sites of Conscience are taking this conversation transnational. At New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum, Italy’s Mu.MA/Galata Museo del Mare and Belgium’s Le Bois du Cazier, each museum will trace different paths that migrants have journeyed through time, simultaneously inviting visitors to answer a common question “Does immigration benefit my community?”. Through the installation, visitors will learn history, share their opinions, and see responses from both within their communities and from the sites in other countries. Beginning with this simple question, the new program will engage visitors in conversations that can be the first step in ‘navigating differences’ on immigration in Europe and the United States.

Join this incredible journey by become a part of this growing world-wide network and support historic sites inspiring social consciousness and action.

Photo courtesy of ellisisland.org