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Why protecting religious liberty matters to an atheist

My English classroom in high school was covered in posters. Some had grammar rules, some showed pictures of authors, and others featured cats in funny costumes. But the one poster I remember most was a quotation. It read:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

Though I didn't know it at the time, this is a famous quotation from the Christian theologian Martin Niemoller. He was a German pastor who publicly criticized Adolf Hitler during the Nazi regime. Although he remained nationalistic and an outspoken anti-Semite throughout World War II, his criticism of the Nazi party caused him to be imprisoned for seven years in a concentration camp.

After he was released by Allied forces in 1945, Niemoller became one of the first Germans to talk about the guilt of the German people and the sin they had all committed through inaction . He spent the rest of his life as an advocate for international peace.

Now that I'm in my third year of studying religion, that poster-filled classroom seems a long way away to me, but Martin Niemoller's words seem closer and more urgent than ever before. In 2012 there were 5,796 hate crimes reported in the United States, 842 million people worldwide were undernourished, and just a few weeks ago, 60 people were shot in a single U.S. city over one weekend. This must stop.

Now that I work just blocks from the U.S. Capitol as an intern for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, I'm exposed to horrifying statistics like these more than ever. A few weeks ago I attended a conference advocating for equal rights for Arab-Americans with my fellow interns. We sat at a table and a woman shortly joined us. We introduced ourselves and told her we were interns with the CAIR. She told me about some of the work she does and then asked if I was Muslim. I told her no, I'm an atheist going to school in Minnesota. This shocked her and I gladly told her about my journey through the interfaith movement that led me to work at CAIR. But is the fact that I, an atheist, am concerned about Muslim rights so shocking?

When Niemoller died more than 30 years ago at the age of 92, he was still fighting for peace. I cannot begin to compare my effort to his long struggle for peace. I can't even compare it to the scores of people I've met in the last few weeks who dedicate their lives to advancing social justice. But I've learned how the status of one group affects the wellbeing of all.
Atheists like me must stand up to protect religious rights. Christians must stand for the rights of Muslims. Likewise, Muslims must stand up for the rights of their fellow Americans of other beliefs. Every group, minorities or majorities, liberal or conservative, religious or not, should work together to achieve peace. Not because one day they expect the other group to speak for them, but because of the loss they risk if they do not speak now.

In 1963 another international leader penned a famous letter from the cell of an Alabama prison. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."

Which leads me to ask some important questions: What kind of world would we live in if people only stood up for their own rights? Where would we be if all remained silent for any justice but their own? And most importantly: is that the kind of world we want to live in?

The answer, of course, is no. So it's time to do something about it.

Robyn Adams is a religion major in her junior year of college. She is currently working as a summer intern for CAIR's department to monitor and combat Islamophobia.

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