Interfaith Harmony--and Muslim Rights--in South Carolina

As a matter of principle and a practical necessity, the Baha'is of South Carolina have been at the forefront of the interfaith movement for decades.


In fact, as my recent book recounts, South Carolina Baha'is in the early twentieth century consistenly pushed the bounds of religious respectability in the state, in effect working to show that it was possible to be a good South Carolinian without being a Christian or Jew. That the Baha'is did so while also pushing the bounds of racial respectability--that is, while creating integrated local communities that defied Jim Crow--certainly made for some interesting times. Indeed, from 1911, when South Carolina's first Baha'i was condemned to death in the State Hospital for "religious obsession" until at least the 1970s, Baha'is across the state were subject to social ostracism, economic reprisals, intimidation, and violence at the hands of neighbors, conservative clergymen, the FBI, local and state officials, and the Ku Klux Klan. All the while they worked hard to secure legal recognition and social acceptance, culmnating in the early 1960s with incorporation of South Carolina's first local Baha'i governing council and a ruling by the state's attorney general recognizing the Baha'i marriage ceremony. 


These legal measures helped open the door for other minority faiths to find a home in South Carolina after the Immigration Act of 1965 removed white supremacist national-origins quotas from the country's immigration policy. A massive wave of newcomers, mostly from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, began to arrive in the 1970s, bringing with them an astonishing new array of religious beliefs and practices. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs (including Gov. Nikki Haley's parents), and Roman Catholics in much larger numbers and from a wider variety of countries than ever before, became a part of the fabric of community life across the state, from cities to small towns, with a minimum of discomfort. In countless instances, black and white Baha'is were among those who sought them out and helped make them feel welcome.


Today, Baha'is are pleased to be involved with Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, a relatively new statewide organization promoting inter-religious harmony and dialogue. This includes support for its recent statement regarding the rise of anti-Muslim bias in the United States and a meeting to discuss this important matter with Gov. Haley, as detailed in this article yesterday in The (Columbia) State.


It should be noted that Baha'is are hardly naive in this regard. From Malaysia to Morocco and everywhere in between, in virtually every country with a Muslim majority Baha'is are proscribed to some degree from practicing their faith, with the most egregious violations of Baha'is' human rights ongoing in the Islamic Republic of Iran, our religion's birthplace. Baha'is in South Carolina and around the world look to the religious and political leaders of these countries to vindicate their claim that Islam is a religion of peace, and strongly suggest that a good place to start is with liberating their Baha'i fellow-citizens.


But in South Carolina, with a proud (though hardly perfect) tradition of religious tolerance and providing a haven for refugees going back to the colonial era, Muslims are our family members, our friends and neighbors, our classmates and co-workers. South Carolina's Baha'is not only uphold our own community's freedom to believe, worship, assemble, and speak according to our conscience, but insist that our state's public officials and Christian denominational leaders use their considerable power to guarantee those rights to people of all faiths, including Muslims. We believe that no one in South Carolina should ever have to face the kind of baseless discrimination that Baha'is here did in decades past, and still do in other parts of the world.


Particularly after the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last summer, when the horrific consequences of ignorance and prejudice were made dramatically clear in the eyes of the world, those who hold legal and moral authority in South Carolina should mobilize themselves as never before to make this state a safe and welcoming home for all people, regardless of race, religion, or national origin.







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