Out of Many, One: Returning to roots of American pluralism post September 11th

There is a story about a Christian minister living abroad during World War II. His congregation sends him money so he can return home for Christmas. When he doesn’t come back, they ask him why. He says he used the money to help a group of Jews escape Hitler’s death camps and flee to safety.

“But they’re not even Christian,” writes one member of his congregation.

“Yes, I know,” the minister responds.

“But I am.”

All religions have both types of people in this story – the tribal and the transcendent. The tribal types see in the particular narratives of their tradition a narrowing of concern, and therefore care only about the people who look like them, talk like them and pray like them. The transcendent see in the same particularity a universalizing of care, and therefore focus their energies on all people, especially groups most in need, regardless of creed.

If tribal religion wins, it necessarily pits groups against one another based on identity. If transcendent faith wins, it opens the possibility for different identity groups to use their particular narratives to articulate a collective vision that includes everybody. To me, this is what America is all about. And to me, if that isn’t the future, there will be no future. That’s why I worry when I hear people talking about what the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 means for Muslims. The real question is what does it mean for America?

I say this fully conscious of the facts. For the last 10 years, prejudice against Muslims in America has been on the rise. In a 2010 Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans said their view of Islam was unfavorable, and 43 percent admitted to feeling prejudiced toward Muslims. A Pew Research report last year found that favorable opinions of Muslims had decreased between 2005 and 2009 by nearly 10 percent and that unfavorable views had risen.

These statistics were of no surprise to me after last fall, when we saw these views in action from sea to shining sea.

There was the Cordoba House controversy, where a community group that tried to build an interfaith center in lower Manhattan was viciously attacked to preserve the area as “sacred,” as if people praying in Arabic near the site of the attacks would taint it. Pastor Terry Jones in Florida threatened to burn the Holy Qur’an, and put up signs saying “Islam is the Devil.” Tennessee’s lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, said Islam – the 1,400-year-old faith of 1.5 billion people – could well be a cult and not a religion, and therefore constitutional religious liberty guarantees might not apply to Muslims. Protesters accosted families attending a fundraiser at a community center in Southern California. And residents came out in droves to vociferously oppose mosques being built in their communities, from coast to coast and everywhere in between. On the nightly news, I kept hearing about “creeping shariah,” a ghost threat from an industry trying to spread Islamophobia, boosting its ranks through spreading misinformation.

I’ve lived in this country since I was 2 years old. Before last year, I’d never been scared for my children, had never been worried that their names sounded too “Muslim.” My mother had never in 35 years been afraid to walk to our prayer services or tell her fellow teachers why she was fasting during Ramadan. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this prejudice sounded familiar. It wasn’t just about Muslims, and it wasn’t the first time that a religious community in America has been targeted.

In the late 19th century, the forces of religious division in America went after Catholics. Josiah Strong’s book, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Present Crisis, referred to Catholics as “the alien Romanist” who swore allegiance to the pope instead of the country and rejected core American values such as freedom of the press and religious liberty. The book remained in print for decades and sold nearly 200,000 copies.

In the early 20th century, the forces of religious division in America targeted Jews. Harvard University scholar Diana Eck writes, “In the 1930s and early 1940s, hate organizations grew and conspiracy theories about Jewish influence spread like wildfire.” In 1939, Father Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front filled Madison Square Garden with 20,000 people at a vitriolic anti-Semitic event complete with banners that read: “Stop Jewish Domination of America.”

Today, the forces of religious division demonize Muslims. Arguments that were marshaled against Jews and Catholics in previous eras are being advanced against Muslims today. You’ve heard the charges:

– The tenets of Islam are opposed to the values of America.
– Muslims have undue influence with American elites.
– Muslim integration into America is a veiled Islamic invasion.

It is easy to imagine Strong’s book written today with “the alien Islamic” replacing “the alien Romanist,” or a Father Coughlin- style rally at Madison Square Garden with tens of thousands chanting, “Muslims go home.”

Though the forces of religious division have always been alive in America, they have never defined America. The core principle of our nation is that a diverse people can live together in unity. Our motto, placed on the seal of the United States in 1776 when we became a country, is E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one.


Our founding fathers fought for this ethic. Addressing the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., as America’s first president, George Washington expressed this hope: “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

But unity in America is not to be taken for granted. Every generation must preserve and protect our nation’s core principle, and extend and expand it. Through the prejudice Muslims have experienced, we should raise the flag of pluralism, focusing not just on our own freedom, but on everyone’s freedom. This is an important part of Islam, and America is the perfect opportunity for us to apply this principle of our faith.

At its essence, I have always understood the message of the Qur’an to be about monotheism and mercy. Monotheism: That there is one God, our Creator, our Sustainer, our Guide. Mercy: God’s most prominent quality, the quality God requires us to embody to our fellow human beings. Our most common prayer is, “In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the Ever-Merciful.” The first lesson classical Muslim scholars taught their students was the famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him: “People who show mercy to others will be shown mercy by the All-Merciful.” In Islamic revelation, Prophet Muhammad is known as “the prophet of mercy.” “Mercy,” as Muslim American scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah writes, is “the stamp of creation.”

When I see my fellow Americans holding signs with such messages as “All I Need to Know About Islam I learned on 9/11,” I see a need in America that Muslims are uniquely able to fulfill. Some Americans have been introduced to an illusion – to a twisted image of Muslims, to a false framework of conflict that pits Islam against America. But the prevalence of this illusion is not inevitable. We must do our part to set them free.

Now more than ever, America needs its Muslims to stand up, to seek strength from our God of mercy, to follow in the footsteps of our Prophet of mercy, to fill our hearts with mercy and to change – by our own righteous example – those around us who are not living up to their God-given potential for mercy.

May we inspire them to understand that the real conflict is between pluralism and extremism, not Islam and America. May we inspire them to be better Christians, Jews, Hindus, Humanists, Buddhists and Sikhs. May we inspire them to build with us an America worthy of our founding fathers and folk songs.

Can you believe that, at one point, women couldn’t vote in America? That Japanese American citizens were put in detention camps because of the actions of the Imperial Japanese Navy? That Jackie Robinson was spat upon on the baseball diamond because of the color of his skin? That there were quotas on Jews at Ivy League universities? That the building of mosques was opposed across the country and a shocking number of people suggested that a Muslim should be disqualified from the Supreme Court or the presidency because of his religion?

One day we Americans will be as ashamed of the way Muslims on our shores were viewed and treated in 2010 as we are of Japanese internment and Jim Crow.

America’s promise is meant for everyone or we are not America. On this anniversary of a tragic day that spawned a tragic decade, let us remember that it is our responsibility – as Muslims and as Americans – to see that this promise is lived out. §

Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based organization building the global interfaith youth movement. Author of the award-winning book, Acts of Faith, Eboo is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, USA Today and CNN. He served on President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. You can follow him on Twitter@EbooPatel.


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