Muslim-Americans and “We the People”

The recent events in Egypt produced many stirring images, among them those of Muslims joining hands so that Coptic Christians could hold Christmas mass unmolested in the wake of a suicide bombing outside a church in Alexandria. Not quite a month later, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Coptic Christians returned the favor by joining hands so that Muslims in the square could pray in peace. On both occasions, participants offered this as their rationale: “We are all Egyptians!”

These actions, these demonstrations of unity in the face of manifest plurality, provide an example that we in the United States should strive to emulate. And yet it seems that many in our country, rather than joining hands to protect our Muslim fellow-citizens, would join hands to protect America from the threat allegedly posed by Muslims by sheer dint of their religion. “We,” so the thinking goes, must be protected from “them.”

Such talk of “us” and “them” among fellow-citizens suggests (among many other evidences) that our founding ideal of “We the people” still has not been actualized. We have not yet seen the day when we can chant “We are all Americans” and mean it, at least not if we're honest with ourselves.

To be fair, “We are all Egyptians” itself remains a vision as yet unfulfilled in many respects. I suspect that the complexities of Egypt’s diverse society will become more problematic, not less, in the years to come. Even the Muslim Brotherhood will need to deal with its internal div....

But coming to peaceful terms with the reality of diversity is the price of a free society: the threat of chaos, as we continue to see in the Middle East and elsewhere, all too often serves to justify authoritarianism. Peaceful difference is really the only meaningful answer to arguments of this oppressive sort.

Recent events in the United States suggest that peaceful difference still eludes us. Achieving it will require the difficult task of showing love toward those who hate. I offer three examples that call out to us for a loving response.

On February 13 in Yorba Linda, CA, a group of citizens—including two congressmen, Ed Royce and Gary Miller, as well as a local councilwoman, Deborah Pauly—gathered to protest a fundraiser by the Islamic Circle of North America. According to an ICNA press release, the monies raised would go to projects like “women’s housing, hunger prevention, family counseling, medical aid, emergency financial support and funeral and burial assistance.”

Among the evening's many ironies was a protester telling a Muslim man, Adel Syed, to go home and beat his wife (see the video here). By “home” the protester presumably meant somewhere in the Middle East, when Syed is in fact a native of Fullerton, CA. How might we help Syed's antagonist toward peaceful difference, even as we make sure that Syed himself belongs to “us”?

The continuing controversy over the proposed building of a Muslim cultural center, Park 51, in Lower Manhattan likewise affords an opportunity to foster peaceful difference through love. Of this center, Debra Burlingame, whose brother died in the Pentagon on 9/11, said, “The idea that you would establish a religious institution that embraces the very Shariah Law that terrorists point to as their justification for what they did ... to build that where almost 3,000 people died, that is an obscenity to me.”

Burlingame is the co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, a group whose website proclaims the “war on sharia” as a key to “preserv[ing] our Republic.” Such language suggests that the 600,000 Muslims living in New York City and environs, not to mention the 29 Muslims who died in the twin towers, don’t count in “We the people.” What can we do to foster a sense of solidarity between Burlingame and the Muslims who also lost family members on 9/11, not to mention the Muslims who live and worship in New York City and elsewhere in the United States?

Rep. Peter King’s Congressional hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims, about which Joshua Stanton has written so powerfully, also threaten the cause of peaceful difference. How can we help Rep. King to see that so many Muslims are on the side of America—and hope that America will be on theirs?

Peaceful difference, and the free society that it facilitates, will never come about if we think that the problem lies outside ourselves. People like Debra Burlingame, Rep. King, Pamela Geller, and the Yorba Linda protesters are not aliens or strangers, part of some “them” foreign to “us.” To conclude otherwise would be to bid goodnight to “We are all Americans.”

I believe that the best way to ensure that “they” (Burlingame, King, and so on) are a part of any “us” worth having is through the nonviolent assertion of moral presence, as practiced by Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and those of Egypt’s Muslims and Coptic Christians who placed themselves in danger to protect people of another faith.

We make an “us” by choosing, perhaps against our natures, not to respond to horrific actions with actions of our own that exacerbate division, anger, and hate, but rather with actions that encourage others to reflect on the morality of their own behavior.

We need to find a way—indeed, many ways—to stand with American Muslims, to say by our actions that “American” means them, too, and that their struggle is our struggle.

One of the articles of my Mormon faith is this: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own consciences, and we allow all men [and women] the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” Through this article, my faith invites me to stand in solidarity with Muslims and people of all religions (including atheists). Emily L. Hauser also offers some wonderful resources and suggestions about how we might achieve such solidarity.

But as we stand with our Muslim neighbors, we must be ever mindful that our actions ought to serve as an invitation, and not an affront, to those who think that the very notion of a Muslim-American is not only a paradox but a plague. “We are all Americans” and “We the people” depend ultimately on our including these neighbors, too.

If including Muslims in American society is one of the great moral challenges of our time, finding ways to bring those who hate Muslims within the fold, peacefully and without coercion, may be a greater challenge still.

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