Nazli Chadhry of Commack listens to Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, founder...

Nazli Chadhry of Commack listens to Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, founder and chair of Karamah: Muslim women lawyers for human rights speak at the Islamic Center of Long Island about guaranteeing the civil rights of minority communities. (April 15, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

Civic and religious obligations to protect the rights of minority groups, particularly Muslim-Americans, were the focus of a panel discussion held Sunday at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury.

Legal scholar Azizah al-Hibri, whom President Barack Obama appointed last year to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, was joined by the Rev. Mark Lukens of Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway and Rabbi Michael White of Temple Sinai in Roslyn Heights.

Michael Balboni, a former member of the State Legislature and senior state Homeland Security official, also took part.

After arguing that the tenets of religious law Muslim-Americans follow should be grounded in contemporary society rather than distant times and places, al-Hibri said that in the past two decades, Muslims had been demonized and their civil rights violated.

"We are in a position where Muslims are unable to worship and practice their religion as guaranteed in the Constitution," she said. "We are now at the point where we ought to organize a civil rights movement for Muslims."

Balboni told the story of a young Muslim-American who routinely flew abroad without incident but was detained, seemingly without cause, by security officials the first time he flew after turning 18. Balboni cited the story as evidence of government overreach.

"In this incredible rush to do something [after 9/11] there were things that were not done right," he said, "or not done thoughtfully."

There was agreement that a more proactive approach to protecting rights is needed and a willingness to demand answers from authorities for actions like the flier's detention.

"We have to stand up," Lukens said. "We have to be prickly about our rights."

Lukens and White spoke of the duty to shield marginalized groups and back them in their struggles. Al-Hibri invited listeners to do just that.

"It's not our fight alone," she said. "If you care about the Constitution, work with us."

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