The Citadel is The Military College of South Carolina, a state institution. The reaction to the school’s decision to refuse to allow a Muslim student to cover her hair with a headscarf has unveiled a woeful ignorance of the nature of America’s strong Constitutional commitment to freedom of religion. I was especially disturbed by Asra Nomani’s statement, quoted in the Washington Post, “Women and girls, of course, should have a right to wear — or not wear — the headscarf in society, if they wish, but it is truly an insult to the struggle for secularism and civil rights in this country to conflate the headscarf with the struggle for religious and civil liberties in the United States.” We fully support Asra Nomani’s right to dissent from the majority opinion on Islamic law, but her presumption that religious freedom in America applies only to religiously mandated rather than religiously motivated action is flat wrong.
The South Carolina Religious Freedom Act was designed to “restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), and Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), and to guarantee that a test of compelling state interest will be imposed on all state and local laws and ordinances in all cases in which the free exercise of religion is substantially burdened.” Those who have argued that the hijab is not mandatory for Muslim women raise a point irrelevant to the question. The Citadel is an institution of the state and as such must respect religiously motivated acts as well as religiously mandated acts. Beards are not mandatory for men in Islam, but those who wear beards because it is encouraged by the Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) have their rights respected under the standard that this law was intended to restore. The woman who chooses to wear or not wear a headscarf, like the man who chooses to wear or not wear a beard, is alone responsible to God, the Exalted, for her actions, but no state institution (including the Citadel) has the right to deny the religious freedom of an American citizen without meeting that compelling state interest tests.
The purpose of the religious freedom act is to restore the constitutional standard of strict scrutiny, that the practice of religion may not be infringed unless the purpose of the law is shown to serve a compelling government interest and that it serves that interest in the least restrictive manner possible. Whether a religious act is religiously mandated (as, say, prayer) or religiously motivated (as, say, the skullcap for Jewish men) is irrelevant. The questions the Citadel must answer are: what is the compelling government interest here and is this the least restrictive means of meeting it. If the Citadel’s answer is that the compelling state interest is crushing any semblance of individuality, that “interest” strikes this writer as neither compelling nor desirable. Any truly compelling interest they may have would no doubt apply to the armed services themselves, and they have found less restrictive means of meeting them, with no need to force women to display their hair.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute