What Does Religious Freedom Mean?

 1024px-A_church_and_a_mosque_in_Beirut_LebanonBefore I came to WYA North America headquarters here in the Big Apple State, I had a chance to meet with Grant Kollet, the Director of First Year Programs at the University of Washington, the college I attend. In a talk he gave during one of my classes, he challenged us to grow in our understanding of ourselves; he said that if we spend our entire time in college feeling comfortable, then we might as well not have come.  I met up with him later and told him how I had already felt this discomfort and tension in a lot of my women’s studies classes last year. I was very passionate about women’s studies (I still am), and as a freshman I soaked in a lot of what the professors said as “Truth” with a capital “T”. However I soon realized that some of my professors’ ideas collided with my own beliefs, and I was struggling to find what I believed as capitol “T” truth (I still struggle with this).  I felt like the person I was spiritually and religiously, clashed with the different beliefs being taught in class, which also happened to be the dominant beliefs among my classmates. Grant urged me to notice these moments of tension during my internship.

Disagreements between religious beliefs and secular beliefs have always been a source of tension for me. I think this tension comes from fear; not only a fear of the unknown, but also a fear that I am a part of the harsh polarization between religion and secularism.  During the first week at WYA, I was able to go to the United States Mission to the United Nations for a panel on Religious Freedom that gave me some new ideas in the internal dialogue I was having within myself.

The panel began with a talk by a social science researcher who presented the importance of religious freedom. He said that 8/10 people in the world identified with having a religion, and we are projected to have a more religious world. He also presented some disturbing information. He said that 43% of the world has restrictions on religion, and 73% of the world’s population is located in these areas, so religious restrictions are impacting almost ¾ of all people. The researcher’s team gauges restrictions on religious freedom by looking at government restrictions in a country as well as social hostilities that often result from these restrictions.

After this research was presented the panel began to introduce themselves, the panel represented a myriad of religions: there was a woman Baptist minister, a Catholic, a rabbi, and an imam… and they all walked into a bar. Just kidding. Having all of them come together despite different identities and religions helped to define the meaning of religious freedom in itself.

When it was the imam’s turn, he shared a very moving story. The imam, Khalid Latif, is an inspector and Muslim chaplain for the New York Police Department. He goes to the 9/11 Memorial every year with the police department. In 2009, he was at the memorial in his navy blue inspector suit and his kufi, when three suited men approached him and said that some of the Secret Service had noticed him from the top of the building and wanted to check “just in case” and asked to see his credentials. Latif went on to explain that he was a student at New York University on September 11th 2001 and was evacuated to Washington Square Park as the second plane hit. None of the grief, prayers, even emotions that he had felt that day and moments after standing in solidarity with those who had lost loved ones, mattered. He explained that the “validity of (his) emotions at that space” did not matter to the men in suits merely because of the faith he practiced. While Latif stood there trying to understand the situation, a lady who had lost her own son in 9/11 was nearby and had overheard the conversation. She came over and told the guard that what he was doing dishonored the memory of their loved ones who had perished in 9/11. Latif wondered what allows the people “uniquely poised to speak out” at that moment in time, to do so.

What I learned from this experience is that humans are spiritual beings, not just religious beings. Spirituality is about the connections we have with those around us, the souls, the humans, the Divine. We are connected in the inherent dignity that lives within us. Spirituality can be practiced in the form of a religion, but it must be respected in itself as an expression of our humanity and appreciated as part of the fullness of our beings. By not respecting the spirituality of people such as the imam who was profiled because of his religious garments, we fail to recognize the fullness of the human dignity in that person.

As the panel began to close the guy who was representing the Catholic Church said something that resonated with me. He said that he likes to think that he believes in a God, but the second he realizes that God only loves the people that he loves, he doesn’t believe in God anymore. Kapow. Something to think about.

By Monica Kim, an intern for WYA North America