Thank you, Imam [Mohamed] Magid, for your kind words; for your hospitality in welcoming me today; and for your outstanding leadership of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center, especially during what I know has been a difficult time for many Muslim Americans. I am proud to stand beside you today. I also want to thank all of the inspiring faith leaders that we just heard from for their moving words. And I want to thank all of you – faith leaders and community leaders; activists and advocates – for all that you do, each and every day, to strengthen, empower and unite our communities.
It is truly inspiring to stand in this space, in front of this audience. This morning, we have gathered under this roof, in this mosque, as men and women of all races, creeds and colors. Some of us were born in the United States, our immigration status having been resolved several generations ago; some of us came here more recently in search of a better life. We may speak different languages; we may read from different books of scripture; we may call our God by different names. But we all love this country and the ideals for which it stands. We all want our children to lead lives of safety and opportunity. We all proudly claim the title of American. And we all hold, as Justice Brandeis proclaimed, “the most important political office … that of the private citizen.” In this assembly, I see a living expression of the American promise: the conviction that every person’s dignity is inherent and equal.
That promise is as old as our nation itself. Twelve score years ago, our forefathers boldly proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” But of course, when those words were written, a large gap existed between America’s founding ideals and America’s founding reality. The very hand that put those words on parchment had also signed the deeds for the sale and purchase of other human beings. For many of our ancestors – for women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants and countless others – the promise of American life rang hollow.
But the declaration’s revolutionary statement of equality was too plain and powerful – too “self-evident”, in Jefferson’s words – for that state of affairs to endure. Generation after generation of Americans heard the promise set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and they demanded that it be fulfilled: women who endured ridicule and condescension for seeking the ballot; black soldiers who defended freedom overseas, only to return home to a nation that wouldn’t let them vote, and that sometimes repaid their service with angry violence; marchers who braved the jaws of police dogs at Birmingham, and the sting of cattle prods at Selma; LGBTQ individuals who fought for their civil rights at the Stonewall Inn – through the courage and determination of these and countless others who have gone before us, we have slowly built a society that more fully reflects our founding creed of liberty and justice for all.
That does not mean our work is finished; as you are all well aware, the opposite is true. We all know this work is never finished. Just last month, the FBI released its statistics on the number of hate crimes committed in 2015. The report was a sobering indication of how much work remains to be done. Overall, the number of reported hate crimes increased six percent from 2014. That figure includes increases in hate crimes committed against Jewish Americans, African Americans, and LGBTQ Americans. And, perhaps most troublingly of all, it showed a 67 percent increase in hate crimes committed against Muslim Americans, and the highest total of anti-Muslim incidents since 2001, when 9/11 spurred so many reprehensible acts. And we know that there are many more hate crimes in communities across the country that go unreported.
In addition, all of us have seen the flurry of recent news reports about alleged hate crimes and harassment – from hijabs yanked off of women’s heads; to swastikas sprayed on the sides of synagogues; to slurs and epithets hurled in classrooms. The FBI is working with local authorities to review multiple incidents, and our agents and prosecutors are working to assess whether particular cases constitute violations of federal law.
These incidents – and these statistics – should be of the deepest concern to every American. Because hate crimes don’t just target individuals. They tear at the fabric of our communities, and they also stain our dearest ideals and our nation’s very soul. There is a pernicious thread that connects the act of violence against a woman wearing a hijab to the assault on a transgender man to the tragic deaths of nine innocent African Americans during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. As President Obama has said, it is “the moment we fail to see in another our common humanity – the very moment when we fail to recognize in a person the same hopes and fears, the same passions and imperfections, the same dreams that we all share.” The reason we have a cross-section of so many leaders from different faiths here today is because we believe so deeply in certain common values. Regardless of our faith, we believe that we must treat others as we would wish to be treated. Regardless of our faith, we believe that every individual is precious. Regardless of our faith, we believe in our common humanity, and we believe that, in the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr., “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That is why the Department of Justice – and the entire Obama Administration – regards hate crimes with the utmost seriousness, whether they target individuals because of their race, their religion, their gender or their sexual orientation. And that is why we have worked tirelessly over the last several years to bring those who perpetrate these heinous deeds to justice.
A cornerstone of that work is investigating and prosecuting hate crimes against Muslim Americans, as well as those perceived to be Muslim. Muslim Americans are our friends and family members, our doctors and nurses, our police officers and firefighters. They own businesses and teach in classrooms. Thousands of them have fought for the American flag. Many have died defending it. And yet, too often – especially in the last year, following a number of tragic terrorist incidents, and amidst an increase in divisive and fearful rhetoric – we have seen Muslim Americans targeted and demonized simply because of their faith. And to impose a blanket stereotype on all members of any faith because of the actions of those who pervert that faith is to go backwards in our thinking and our discourse, and to repudiate the founding ideals of this country. This is unacceptable in a nation whose Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of religion in its very first clause, and the Department of Justice has vigorously prosecuted a number of these repugnant acts.
In recent months, our Civil Rights Division – led by Vanita Gupta, who is here with us today – along with our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, have convicted a Connecticut man for firing a high-powered rifle at a mosque; a Florida man for threatening to firebomb two mosques and shoot their congregants; a Missouri man for the arson of a local mosque; and a North Carolina man who yelled at a woman and ripped off her hijab on an airplane. And in October, our National Security Division and the U.S Attorney’s Office in Kansas charged three men in connection with their plot to detonate bombs at an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, which included a mosque where many members of the local Somali immigrant community gather to pray. These are only a few examples of the Justice Department’s recent prosecutions. There are many more matters that we, often in close partnership with our state and local law enforcement partners, are investigating.
The Justice Department is also working to protect the rights of religious communities to build houses of worship without unlawful interference or harassment. Unfortunately, that task has only become more urgent in recent years. Members of the Civil Rights Division have heard repeatedly about more overt discrimination in both the tone and framing of objections to planned religious institutions, especially mosques and Islamic centers. Our primary tool to combat such discrimination is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. Since September 2010, the department has opened 50 RLUIPA land-use investigations, filed ten lawsuits involving land use, and filed eight amicus briefs in private parties’ RLUIPA cases to inform courts about the law’s provisions and requirements. In the last six years, 38 percent of the Civil Rights Division’s RLUIPA land use cases involved mosques or Islamic schools – a dramatic increase over the percentage of such cases brought during the previous decade.
Religious institutions aren’t the only vulnerable spaces we are determined to keep free of hatred and bias. We all know that in order for our children to learn and thrive, they need access to safe and inclusive classrooms. Earlier this year, the Civil Rights Division launched a new initiative with our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices that will significantly advance our ability to address religious discrimination in schools. And our Community Relations Service, or CRS – led by Paul Monteiro, who is also here with us today – works to ease tensions and promote understanding in communities and schools that have been rocked by traumatic incidents. For example, after a student was allegedly forced to remove her hijab in a school in Massachusetts, the school invited CRS to present its Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Cultural Awareness Program to the school’s staff. CRS also recently appointed its first ever National Program Manager for Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Communities, and I am so pleased that Harpreet Singh Mokha has joined us here today.
We are also concerned with crimes against our LGBT brothers and sisters. In October, we commemorated the seventh anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded the federal definition of hate crimes to included crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Here, too, we have been active, bringing hate crimes cases in a number of states around the country. Tomorrow, I am traveling to New York to meet with LGBT youth, and to reaffirm the department’s steadfast commitment to the rights and well-being of all LGBTQ Americans.
These are all important efforts, and their impact has been amplified by our efforts to train local and federal law enforcement agencies in how to recognize and investigate hate crimes; how to engage with communities; and how to encourage better hate crime reporting and data collection. These initiatives have helped us to build stronger partnerships between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve, and I am hopeful that those partnerships will stand as a bulwark against hate crimes for years to come.
I am encouraged by what we have accomplished together over the last eight years. But I also know that we face many challenges in the years ahead – challenges that will require the Department of Justice to remain an active force for good in communities from coast to coast. Our federal hate crimes laws are among the most powerful tools we have for creating a more just and equal nation, and career Justice Department prosecutors will continue to enforce them.
Nevertheless, I know that many Americans are feeling uncertainty and anxiety as we witness the recent eruption of divisive rhetoric and hateful deeds. I know that many Americans are wondering if they are in danger simply because of what they look like or where they pray. I know that some are wondering whether the progress we have made at such great cost, and over so many years, is in danger of sliding backwards.
I understand those feelings. I know that as we continue to demand a nation where all people are truly treated equally, we will be met with prejudice, bigotry and condemnation.
It is true that there is nothing foreordained about our march towards a more just and peaceful future. There never has been. Our centuries-long project of creating a more perfect union was not the product of fate, or destiny. It was the result of countless individuals making the choice to stand up, to demand recognition, to refuse to rest until they knew that their children were inheriting a nation that was more tolerant, more inclusive and more equal. That is why it is so fitting that we are here today in this beautiful house of worship, this place of deep and abiding faith. It has been faith that has sustained this fight since the beginning.
Faith – a small band of colonies could separate from the most powerful nation on earth and chart a course of freedom and equality.
Faith – a new nation and its ideas could survive a bloody and divisive civil war that arose from its original sin of slavery. And not just faith – the works that made it so when there was no guarantee of success.
I have been fortunate to have such people in my life. Two of them happen to be faith leaders: my grandfather and my father. They both lived at a time when their country regarded them as less than fully human, simply because of the color of their skin. And they both did their part to make the United States just a little more free and a little more fair. In 1930s North Carolina – where the law offered little protection to people of color – my grandfather used to hide neighbors in trouble under the floorboards of his house. My own father let civil rights activists meet in the basement of his church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
These were acts of enormous courage. But they were also acts of enormous faith and hope. Here were two men living in a country that put obstacles in their path to prevent them from voting; that told them they could only use certain drinking fountains; that told them that when the Declaration of Independence said, “All men are created equal,” it wasn’t referring to them. But they knew what those words meant, and they chose to act accordingly. They knew their portion of fear. They knew their portion of anger. And yet they never lost their hope that although their country was far from perfect, it was certainly capable of perfection. They both risked a great deal for that faith – never knowing if would work out or not – never imagining that the daughter of one and the granddaughter of the other would one day become the chief law enforcement officer of the united states.
My friends, that hope is still alive in our country. You and I know what the declaration means when it says, “All men are created equal.” You and I know what the Constitution means when it says, “We, the people.” So let us leave here united in our confidence, inspired by our faith and strengthened by our courage. Let us leave here with a renewed commitment to demanding nothing less than a country that is true to its founding promises. And let us leave here in hope – the hope that has brought the United States so far in the last 240 years; the hope that I am confident will carry us even further in the days to come.
Will this work be hard? It has always been hard.
Will there be challenges ahead? We have always known that “the price of freedom is constant vigilance.”
Will we persevere? We always do.
Let me recall a song from my faith, made famous by Mahalia Jackson: “Lord, don’t move the mountain, but give me the strength to climb.”
I want to thank you for allowing me to spend a few moments with you today to talk about the country we all love, and the future we all cherish. Thank you for all that you do in your congregations and your communities to vindicate the promise of American life. And let me assure you that long after I leave the Attorney General’s seat, I will continue to stand beside you in the cause of liberty and justice for all. Thank you.