At the Interfaith Youth Core, we think this is about something else as well: building an inclusive America. In the past, groups ranging from Baptists to Catholics to Jews have been excluded. The current exclusion of Muslim Americans is manifesting itself in everything from vocal and ugly protests against mosques from California to New York to alarming levels of prejudice. According to a recent Time poll, nearly a third of voters don’t think Muslims should be able to sit on the US Supreme Court or run for President. What’s more, almost a quarter of Americans STILL think that Obama is a Muslim.
The political philosopher Michael Walzer wrote “The challenge of a diverse society is to embrace its differences while maintaining a common life.” America is the most religiously diverse country in the world and the most religiously devout nation in the West. Here’s the bottom line: intolerance of our neighbors weakens the bonds of our diverse nation. This means intolerance is not the problem of any one ethnic or religious group – it’s a problem for America.
It’s telling that though the Time poll reveals widespread prejudice, almost 2/3 of respondents don’t even personally know a Muslim American. We know from a 2009 Pew Forum study that individuals who are familiar with Islam and/or know a Muslim personally demonstrate a more positive view toward the religion and decreased prejudice against Muslims. America is a nation with more Muslims than Episcopalians, and as Americans get to know their Muslim neighbors, they might be surprised by how this interaction changes their perspective.
Consider the story of the Rev. Myra Bethke, who tragically lost her brother in the attacks on the twin towers on 9/11. Rev Bethke has a very different response than the 9/11 families who oppose the Park51 project. She says that she doesn’t think of Muslims when she thinks of her brother’s death. Instead, when she thinks about Muslims, she recalls those who she shares a table with at her church’s interfaith Thanksgiving services, and the mosque that her confirmation students visit. She says, “This, to me, is Islam. Not the people who got together and decided to hijack the religion as they hijacked the planes.”
Rev. Bethke suffered the ultimate loss on September 11, 2001. But she supports Park 51 and is a member of the bereavement group who announced their support for the project back in May, “September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.”
If more Americans knew their Muslim neighbors, more of us could start getting the “Us” and “Them” right in this controversy: “Us” being Americans of all backgrounds, including Muslim Americans, and “them” being extremists from any tradition. We must separate the 9/11 attackers - violent terrorists – from our fellow Americans.
Our legislators in Washington have a unique opportunity at this moment in history to speak to their constituencies about the inclusive arc of America. They can inspire people to engage in interfaith partnerships that can bring tremendous value to local communities that make up our great nation.
We must remember what Rev. Bethke teaches us: in America, we don’t let the crimes of a few define an entire community. In America, a community group should be able to build institutions that serve the common good wherever it is legally allowed according to local ordinances, especially if those institutions advance our nation’s highest principles, such as religious pluralism.
In America, we don’t discriminate against people of any religion.
In America, we will not be divided by faith.
In America, everyone has a place.
In America, we are better together.
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based non-profit working to positively engage religious diversity and build interfaith cooperation nationwide. He is author of Acts of Faith and writes a featured blog for The Washington Post, The Faith Divide.