A Time to Speak Out Against Islamophobia

I have always been proud to be an American. I am not so proud right now, as waves of intolerance against Islam and Muslims wash across our landscape. To remain silent is to acquiesce in what is taking place.

I do not know much about Islam, but I do know that all but a handful of the millions of Muslims in the United States are peaceful people. They are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. I know that they live their lives of work, play and prayer, just like other Americans. I know they are appalled by violence done in the name of their faith, just like other Americans abhor violence done in the name of their religion. I know that thousands of Muslim clerics and hundreds of Islamic associations in this country and around the world have condemned terrorism. I also know, sadly, that this is not the picture of Islam that the media present in the daily news.

I know that Muslims have a long and honorable history in America. Muslims fought in our war for independence, and the first country to recognize the new United States was Morocco. Most slaves brought forcibly to this country were Muslim, and they struggled mightily if not always successfully to retain their faith and culture. Muslims have fought for the United States in all its subsequent wars, and more than 5,000 serve in today's military. They have died for their country and will do so again. Muslims are in the U.S. Congress and on occasion have offered its opening prayer. Muslim Americans have served as Ambassador to the United Nations, as Director of the National Institutes of Health and are prominent scholars, engineers and scientists, among many other distinguished professions. Like all Americans, Muslims contribute to the diversity without which our culture and achievements could not be what they are.

I believe that proposals to register, restrict and target Muslims in America because of their faith are not only very wrong but counterproductive to the goal of eliminating the radicalization of Muslim youth. Since our founding, the free exercise of religion, unfettered by government, has been a bedrock of civil society and a boon to the flourishing of religious expression and faith-based works. The framers of our government knew well the lessons of history, that political persecution directed at any one religion puts all religions in jeopardy. Politicians and others who ignore or violate this basic truth of the American creed are false patriots.

I know that to defend proposals targeted at Muslim Americans as well as Muslim immigrants by claiming the Constitution does not prevent such action is a fundamental misreading of our founding documents. Slavery was justified using the same rationale until 1865, but it was always wrong. Denial of the suffrage to women was not prevented by the Constitution either, until 1920, but it was always wrong as well. The Constitution may be our rulebook, but the Declaration of Independence sets forth the core values which the rules are meant to protect. When we forget the Declaration, all manner of xenophobic actions get rationalized as "Constitutional." "Constitutional permissibility" is no justification for injustice. The Declaration has been a shining beacon with which America has lighted the world. When we dishonor its core values, that guiding light dims and America loses its moral force at home and abroad.

I condemn Syed Farook and Tashfeen Mailik for their mass murder in San Bernardino, but I do not fear or condemn other Muslims or Islam because of what they did. Neither did I fear or condemn all Christians or Christianity because Eric Rudolph, a self-proclaimed member of the Army of God, set off a bomb that killed one person and wounded more than a hundred at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta or all Jews or Judaism because Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League conducted terrorist activities here in the 1980s. History is replete with examples of murder justified in the name of faith, but these are perversions by a few that have never been condoned by the many. We should never treat everyone in a religion as if they are suspect because of the dark deeds of someone.

I believe that we must prevent, confront and defeat the perpetrators and would-be murders who engage in terrorism. I know that nearly one hundred percent of Muslims in America share that goal, and that we can all achieve it more surely if we respect and support each other. I also believe that I always have two choices when confronted by threats to our way of life. I can choose fear and intolerance, or I can choose hope and openness. As the Civil War approached, Lincoln called forth "the better angels of our nature." As the war ended, he called for "malice toward none, with charity for all." Are his words not equally appropriate today?

Winston Churchill once said of the United States that "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else." While I share his conclusion, we need not confirm his pessimism. We do not have to destroy our social fabric before we find out that Islamophobia is wrong. To my fellow Americans who are Muslim, I pledge that I will be guided by love for you as human beings and by hope not fear. To all Americans, please join in this pledge. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." What we weave for our future, we must weave together. I know that the only thing that can truly rend that garment is ourselves.