"So which side are they on?" The question was part of a conversation I overheard on the street the other day, and it was in reference to people like me -- American Muslims.
As several of my country's embassies have been violently threatened by people of my faith, this seems as good a time as any to be clear about my answer: I am on the side of all those who seek a common life together. I believe America's founding creed, E Pluribus Unum, makes us humanity's best chance to achieve that possibility. I believe that Muslim values -- just like Jewish, Christian, Hindu and humanist ones -- can contribute to that spirit. And I believe, as the violence and ugliness demonstrate, that building societies where people from different identities live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty is one of the great challenges of our times.
We find ourselves in a terrible situation. The evening news in America is full of Muslims burning American flags and trying to breach embassies. The evening news in Arab countries is full of stories of Americans defiling the Prophet Muhammad. And the actions of a thuggish few are increasingly viewed as representing the sentiments of entire nations and religions.
The sad part is that those thuggish few are not just skewed representations of the broader whole, they actually stand in violation of their traditions. I believe as a Muslim that the mob violence we are witnessing does a greater dishonor to the Prophet Muhammad than the original offense. Muslims are meant to act in the tradition of the Prophet, who dealt with insults during his entire mission, responded unfailingly with mercy and commanded his followers to do the same: "You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness..."
Moreover, Islam is a tradition that protected pluralism from its beginnings. One of the Prophet Muhammad's earliest acts in his adopted city of Medina was to enact a Constitution that created a single political community -- barring tribal violence, establishing basic freedoms and assuring collective security -- between his growing number of Muslim followers and the various Christian, Jewish and pagan groups already present in the city. During Islam's expansion, the Caliph Ali sent his governor in Egypt a letter that said, "All people there are your equals in faith or your brothers in creation." The Quran affirms the holiness of this pluralistic view: "God made you different nations and tribes that you may come to know one another."
America, contrary to the strain of ugly Islamophobia that has become more prominent since 9/11, has a long and positive history of respect for Islam and Muslims. The Flushing Remonstrance, a 17th century document which established the precedent of religious freedom and goodwill between different faiths, explicitly includes Muslims: "The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sons of Adam." Thomas Jefferson famously owned a Quran and hosted an iftar dinner for a Muslim diplomat. Benjamin Franklin started a hall in Philadelphia and said that the pulpit would be open to all preachers, including a Muslim from Constantinople. An envoy appointed by President George Washington negotiated the Treaty of Tripoli with a majority-Muslim nation, a document which stated that "no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." The treaty was later signed by President John Adams.
Current events highlight a harsh reality of globalization. That people on one side of the world can create something that incites violence on the other side of the world. But there is a silver lining here: just as ugliness begets ugliness, so might beauty inspire beauty. Let's not let the handful of people who seek to spread hatred between faith communities pattern interfaith relations across the world. Now more than ever, we need to lift up those stories within Islam and America that speak to the power of pluralism. And we need to act on those stories, by working together to apply the values of mercy, compassion and hospitality that are shared across all traditions. I remember President Obama telling his Inaugural Faith Council, of which I was a proud member, that he hoped Americans of all faith backgrounds would participate in interfaith service projects together. This was not just as a way of strengthening our own nation, it was also an example of diversity leading to harmony in a world that is increasingly convinced of the inevitability of conflict.
In an interconnected world, the only chance we have is a common life together. If we are to build it, we must insure the bridges between us are strong enough to withstand the bombs of the extremists. As the American poet William Stafford wrote, "The signals we give must be clear now ... the darkness around us is deep."
Eboo Patel is Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core (ww.ifyc.org) and author of the new book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America.