Posted by Ryan J. Suto on July 14, 2017 in Blog

2017-07-14.pngEarly in July Representative Trent Franks of Arizona offered a troubling amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. That amendment was entitled “Strategic assessments of the use of violent or unorthodox Islamic religious doctrine to support extremist or terrorist messaging and justification.”

The amendment sought to empower the Secretary of Defense to create two assessments of "the use of violent or unorthodox Islamic religious doctrine,” one by “relevant” government employees and the other by ‘non-governmental experts from academia, industry, or other entities with appropriate background and expertise.’ The findings of those two reports were expected to be presented to the Congressional Committees on Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Homeland Security and Intelligence.

The short amendment stated no reason as to how the Defense Department has the qualifications or purview to identify "Islamic religious doctrines, concepts, or schools of thought" used by extremists, nor the ability to discern who are the "thought leaders or proponents" of these alleged branches of Islam. There is further opacity as to what actions the Trump Administration would have taken with the resulting findings. What is clear, however, is inclusion in these assessments would have further stigmatized American Muslims without due process or any clear procedure to object to how the government characterized their most personal religious convictions. 

Indeed, the American principle of the separation of religion and governance rests on the truism that governments possess neither the ability nor authority to define, restrict or prefer specific religious doctrines. Importantly, the language of the amendment does not limit the scope of the studies, allowing for the “strategic assessments” to investigate Muslims both at home and abroad, raising troubling First Amendment implications.

Moreover, the conducting of these “strategic assessments” by the Defense Department regarding Islamic groups and leaders, as well as the intended referrals to intelligence- and military-related Congressional committees, continues to frame Islam and all Muslims as only terrorists, potential terrorists, or allies to expose fellow Muslims as future terrorists. The amendment spills no ink acknowledging the 1.6 billion Muslims, both in the U.S. and abroad, who have no greater relationship with terrorism than the adherents of other belief systems. 

In Congress, Rep. Franks defended his amendment, stating, “Right now, there is a certain spectrum within the Islamist world that is at the root of the ideological impulse for terrorism.” In opposition, Rep. Keith Ellison stated on Twitter, “The amendment would have “abridged the free exercise” of an entire religion.” From the House floor, Rep. Ellison went on to note that the government can and should instead study terrorism and what motivates people to commit terrorism.

Today, the Franks amendment was ultimately rejected by a 208-217 vote (R 208-27, D 0-190). Notably, if only five more Republicans supported the amendment, or if only five Democrats did so, the Franks Amendment would have been enacted with the rest of the bill, which passed the House the same day. 

The pernicious designs of the Franks Amendment, and the uncomfortably close vote which almost enacted it, should remind all Americans how precious our freedoms are, and how vigilant we must remain to protect them.