Federal Law and the Length of My Beard

I just finished re-reading an interesting article by Kathleen Moore, “Representation of Islam in the Language of Law: Some Recent U.S. Cases,” in Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad.

I quite like this article because it talks about the works of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in preserving the civil rights of Muslims. CAIR launches lawsuits on the behalf of Muslims who have faced some sort of discrimination because of their beliefs. This particular article focuses on a few cases of men who were fired/not hired because they had beards, and these beards were prohibited by dress regulations. CAIR argued that since the guidelines were based on appearance, not on a necessary safety issue, or due to the inability to perform the job, the guidelines were discriminatory as they effectively barred Muslims. On the surface, the cases seem to be good acts on the part of CAIR to ensure the rights of Muslims in the US.

However, for CAIR to have won the cases, that a prohibition against beards discriminates against Muslims, they had to argue that wearing a beard is incumbent on all male Muslims capable of doing so. They brought in expert witnesses, such local imams and imported mullahs, to swear under oath that wearing a beard was a religious obligation and not wearing one was not an option. The mark of a believer was to wear a beard, therefore all Muslim males have to wear beards.

CAIR won, Muslims lost. As part of the legal record of these cases, in order to be considered Muslim, you must wear a beard. If you don’t wear a beard, you are not Muslim, thereby losing any other legal protections. [I know this argument is a stretch of the legal rulings, but bear with me.] CAIR destroyed Islam by fossilizing a particular understanding of Islam; the diversity of thought that is Islam has been simplified to whether or not men wear beards.

It’s not in federal law, and it’s not a reasonable interpretation of what has happened to date. However, I think it is the logical extension of what is happening. Soon the definition of Muslim will be beard-wearing/hijab-covered, Arabic speaking immigrants. I’m uncomfortable with that being a legal understanding of what a Muslim is in the US; and eventually the legal definition will become the popular definition. CAIR has a mission and understanding of Islam; I will not begrudge them their activities, and occasionally they do some universal good, but I see no reason for other Muslims to support them blindly. We need protection and we need legal assistance, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of our religion.

2 thoughts on “Federal Law and the Length of My Beard

  1. they had to argue that wearing a beard is incumbent on all male Muslims capable of doing so
    Maybe that is what they argued. But they could have prefaced this with certain Muslims believe that and still had a case. One cannot descriminate against kippa wearing Jews in most places, even though most Jews do not wear one, for example. Muhammad Ali refused to serve in Vietnam based on his interpretation of religion. Other Muslims are free to serve if they want. This may be standard legal practise.
    I dont agree with a lot of stuff that CAIR does, and I question the fights they pick to fight, but maybe you are too harsh on them here.

  2. I think, Jawad, that’s what bothered me the most. They could have qualified the statement, been accurate and still won the case. The fact that they chose to make the unconditional statement is what deserves the condemnation.
    If you look at CAIR’s mosque report of last year, their selection criteria was based on a pre-conceived notion of who a Muslim was. More and more, as CAIR sets itself up as the voice of the Muslim community in the US, we have to make sure they either represent the diversity of the community, or that they are prevented from speaking for all of us.
    I do appreciate some of their efforts, particularly post 9/11, but I sense a growing effort on their part not represent Muslims, but represent Islam.

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