|Religious intolerance, American style||
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” states the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America in part.
I personally stand accused of attempting to exercise my presumed rights as an American to freely exercise my religion, Islam. Yes, I admit it, and I am guilty as charged!
While the First Amendment would suggest that America stands as an example of religious tolerance for the world, the reality in the American workplace appears to be quite different. Disagreeing sharply with the lofty rhetoric written centuries ago, American employers feel that they can dictate when and even if someone is to be allowed free exercise of their religion, especially if the religion happens to be Islam.
Indeed, U.S. law actually favors the rights of the employer over the rights of the employee when it comes to religious accommodation. “An employer does not have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices if doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer,” points out the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on its website. And, who is to say what constitutes “undue hardship?” Certainly not the religiously observant employee, unless independently wealthy.
For Muslims in America, there is the perpetual problem of finding a place to do the prayer within its time limits while at work. The importance of salaat is underscored by the mujtahids, who are emphatic that it cannot be skipped under any circumstances, even in the profit-obsessed American workplace. As a Muslim living in America, allow me to relate some of my recent personal experiences struggling with this at my employer.
I have always sought permission to use a location to pray, since praying from a usurped location invalidates salaat. When I started with my current employer, I was able to find vacant offices, rooms, or cubicles where I could offer the prayer in relative peace, but with the hiring of additional staff, not necessarily a good sign for an agency providing services to the homeless, suitable spots to offer the prayer have vanished one by one.
After exhausting all previously available nooks and crannies, I began to offer the prayer at the end of a public hallway next to a fax machine. Only a few days had passed, when I was called into the vice president’s office and sternly told in no uncertain terms that I could no longer pray there. The strange reason given for this decree was that families with children passed close by the location, as if Islamic prayer was something not to be seen by American children under 13 except under strict parental supervision.
I was offered three alternative locations for prayer: the top landing of the staircase leading to the cellar, the end of a long, dusty, and dimly-lit hallway in an unused part of the building, or a small room that previously served as the janitor’s storage closet. I suggested that I simply use my cubicle for salaat, pointing out that it would always be available, as well as relatively clean and safe compared to the other choices. Everyone seemed to be in agreement at the time that this would be a satisfactory solution. I even spoke to my coworkers and explained to them what I would be doing and why.
Now, doing the salaat in my cubicle appears to be a problem since my supervisor has informed me by email that I must find “a different space to pray.” While no reason is specified, vague excuses of needing access to my work area have been put forward as justification for this decision. If access to something in my cubicle was truly the concern, then whatever it may be could certainly be moved and located elsewhere.
It is also worth pointing out that other employees have placed privacy curtains at the entrance to their cubicles. Since my workspace is completely open at one end, I cannot hang such a curtain, so I simply place a sign reading “Please Do Not Disturb -- Prayer Time” that is visible to anyone approaching while I am doing salaat.
As if being ordered to pray somewhere else were not sufficient, I stand accused of “singing, praying, (or reciting) poetry while running checks.” Allow me to explain. While monitoring the monotonous monthly task of printing hundreds of checks on a noisy line printer, I admit that I have quietly recited suras from the Holy Quran to myself.
Apparently, such recitation has disturbed my fellow employees, and I must admit that at age 63, I do not hear as well as I used to, so perhaps my recitation has become a bit louder than I think. I have assured my employer that I will pay strict attention to the volume of my reciting and keep it to a barely audible whisper, but my employer adamantly insists “no singing, praying, or poetry while running checks.” In short, I have been ordered to cease my recitations of the Holy Quran at work.
I have tried my best to educate my coworkers about Islam and have striven to conduct myself in a manner that brings credit to the religion and not disparagement. I have done so in hope of enlightening them and breaking barriers of distrust and misunderstanding. I have even tried to warn of the dire consequences that are certain to befall their country due to their choice to remain ignorant about the truth of Islam, but apparently to no avail.
Such attempts on my part, as Ayatollah Seyyid Kamal Faghih Imani and the scholars in Isfahan point out, “will have no impact on the tenacious people who are obstinate. ‘An iron nail will not penetrate stones,’ but will only increase them in great insolence.”
These are my experiences attempting to follow the Islamic faith in the American workplace. While the right to freely exercise religion is inscribed in the U.S. Constitution, and religious tolerance is a catchphrase, the opposite seems to be the reality.
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