Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said today that religious discrimination against Muslims has similarities to past rampant discrimination against Catholics and other groups, and he vowed that the U.S. Justice Department would try to stop it.
Perez, the chief of DOJ’s civil rights division, said he is responding aggressively to increasing reports of discrimination against Muslims. The cases vary widely, involving violent attacks on Muslims, allegations of employment discrimination and zoning barriers for mosques.
While traveling through the country, Perez said, he frequently hears stories of American-born Muslim children who are afraid to attend school because classmates harass them with taunts like “terrorist.”
“You’re being told to go home, and this is your home,” Perez said of the students’ plight. “That is an emerging growth area for us.”
His comments came during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the civil rights of Muslims. The hearing was welcomed by Muslim advocates, coming three weeks after a House committee led by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) held a hearing on American-born Muslims who turn to terrorist groups.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who organized today’s hearing, singled out King for criticism several times, quoting one King remark that there are “too many mosques” in the United States. King later backed away from the remark, but Durbin said it’s symptomatic of discrimination against Muslims. “We should all agree that it’s wrong to blame an entire community for the wrongdoing of a few,” Durbin said.
Perez repeatedly referred to “headwinds of intolerance” for Muslims, comparing their experience to that of Catholics, Jews and Japanese-Americans. “We will continue to use every available tool in our law enforcement arsenal to transform this headwind of intolerance into a tailwind of inclusion and opportunity,” he said.
Last month, he said, the Justice Department got a guilty plea from the 50th defendant charged in a federal criminal case related to anti-Muslim backlash against the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he agrees with the department’s actions in the vast majority of Islam-related civil rights cases. But he criticized its decision to take up the case of an Illinois school teacher who, as reported in The Washington Post last week, wanted three weeks off for a pilgrimage to Mecca. While acknowledging he’s “no authority on the hajj,” Graham said he thinks the teacher could have made the pilgrimage some other time.
“I think that’s going too far, quite frankly, and the fact that you took this case up is going to do more damage than good,” Graham said.
The Post reported that the teacher, Safoorah Khan, didn’t want to wait because Muslims are obligated to go to Mecca as soon as they are able and the hajj would not have fallen on her summer break for about nine years. Perez added today that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought a similar case in Tennessee during the George W. Bush administration.
An earlier version of this post misstated the federal agency that brought the case in Tennessee.