Column: Not just for conservatives

Having always been a bit left-of-center, I expect the Bush administration to disappoint me on a number of fronts. But besides its handling of foreign policy and civil rights, the present administration has left me dismayed in another important, yet often overlooked, area. Specifically, I am upset at what the president has done with religion.

Most people might think I refer to the separation of church and state – I am far from it. Rather, what upsets me is how Bush and the present Republican Party have largely succeeded in equating religion with conservatism. So to be religious is to be conservative; to be liberal – a dirty word these days – is to abandon one’s faith. I find this odd, even contradictory. My own faith tends to push me toward more “leftist” values. Islam means condemning discrimination based on race and gender; so I believe in actively combating this by supporting affirmative action. Islam outlines specific guidelines for war, including strong provisions against the killing of innocents; so I generally oppose war. Islam also means not reaping the benefits of another’s work without just compensation; so I support paying workers a fair wage for their labor. And those of you who drink fair trade coffee know that it simply tastes better, too. But that’s beside the point.

We have to recognize that many deeply religious groups represent minorities and occasionally marginalized segments of society – segments that are most likely to be the ones to call for change. Muslims are not unique in this position. Jews have long been a part of this country and discriminated against as a minority group. Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, likewise, are mostly a racial and religious minority. Even many Protestant groups, particularly in the South, have predominantly African-American adherents whose calls for social reform could hardly be called conservative, even given their deep religiosity.

Islam cuts across a broad section of minority groups in the United States: African-American, South Asian, Arab, African, Kurdish and so on. Moreover, many Muslims here are immigrants. So Muslims, by virtue of their community, should also align themselves with calls for reform that would mean the betterment of the society in which we live – reforms that are not always provided by the party that tries to label itself religious.

I speak about Islam only because I am most familiar with it. But that should not affect my basic point: that religion is not something exclusively in the domain of conservatives. I see no reason why I cannot extend Jesus’ teachings about the virtues of charity to mean we have a greater need for social programs. I see no reason why I cannot take Muhammed’s displays of mercy to mean that we should oppose the way the death penalty is administered in this country. And I see no reason why I cannot apply Islam’s teachings regarding fair wages to some of the same causes concerning labor unions and other less “conservative” elements of society.

Because of Islam and religion’s communal role, they can serve a vital role in pushing labor-related issues. This is not limited to pushing for fair wages, but also decent working and living conditions for employees and greater employer understanding of employees’ faith. A great example I saw personally was in the Dell plant in my hometown of Nashville. Somewhere around a third of the workers on the assembly lines are Somali; at certain times of the day, with the employers’ understanding, everyone takes a break to pray and then returns to work. The result is a better employer-employee relationship due to the way religion is accepted as a part of regular life.

If all of this still seems vague, I suggest visiting the conference this weekend at GW in the Marvin Center, “Islamic Perspectives on Worker Justice.” Workshops will be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., covering more concretely some of the labor-related issues I brought up here. Feel free to email us at for more information.

-The writer is the president of the Islamic Alliance for Justice.

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