Islam in America: Choosing Pluralism Over Prejudice

About the best thing that's said about Muslims these days is they can't all be bad. Maybe so, others insist, but they all have that potential. This is the logic of prejudice, which holds up the worst elements of a community and fears that the rest will follow.

America is great because it believes in a very different idea: the logic of pluralism. The logic of pluralism affirms that every tradition has achievements, every community has gifts and that our nation is stronger when it invites those communities to contribute to the common good.

Every group has good elements and bad, and no community wants to be defined by its worst people. In my travels abroad, I've come across people who seem only to know about America's legacy of slavery and segregation, and nothing of our tradition of liberty and equality. I tell them that if the only thing they know about a nation with more than 300 million people and 200 years of history is the bad stuff, then they're simply not educated.

The same is true for people who know the Quran's verses on violence but not its verses on mercy, who know the names of Muslim terrorists but not the names of Muslim poets or doctors or scholars.

Our Challenge

President Obama focused on the importance of pluralism in his recent trip to Indonesia, a nation with the largest Muslim population on the planet, but also sizable communities of other faiths. He spoke personally of how Indonesia's diversity enriched his childhood experience in that country. And he spoke presidentially of how viewing diversity as a strength can help grow a nation's economy, stabilize its politics and make its culture more attractive. In fact, Obama highlighted achieving pluralism as one of the great challenges of our era. He pointed to Iraq's struggle to form a government inclusive of its different ethnic and religious communities. He remarked on the challenges Israelis and Palestinians continue to face in living side-by-side in a manner that builds up each other's stability and prosperity rather than tears it down. Nations like Indonesia and the United States, whose very mottos -- "unity in diversity" for Indonesia, "out of many, one" for America -- speak to pluralism, must not falter now, not when we are expected to lead the way.

That is why the recent spate of high-profile prejudice aimed at Muslims is bad not just for those who pray in Arabic, but for our whole nation.

America's news media and public figures have generally followed the ground rules of civil discourse and affirmed the logic of pluralism over the logic of prejudice. Remember the sense of pride the media conveyed when two black football coaches made it to the Super Bowl? Remember John McCain's gracious concession speech, praising America for traveling the long and winding road from the injustice of slavery to the election of a black president? Remember retired general Colin Powell's powerful statements on Meet the Press in the fall of 2008, saying America should be proud that we are a nation where any kid -- including Muslim children -- can dream of running for president?

That is the logic of pluralism: holding up the achievements of people from diverse backgrounds, grateful for how they inspire and strengthen our nation. Muslims, like every other community, have brought their gifts to America. The man who designed the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) and the John Hancock Center in Chicago, Fazlur Rahman Khan, was a Muslim. One of America's greatest sports icons, Muhammad Ali, is a Muslim. One of America's most popular poets is Rumi, a Muslim born in Afghanistan.

How We See Others

I want these examples of Muslim achievement to be foremost in people's minds, not simply the spasms of Muslim extremism. Juan Williams recently said that he feels scared when he sees people in Muslim garb on airplanes. I wish he instead felt hopeful, thinking, "This Muslim woman could be a great architect. This young Muslim man may be a great artist."

This Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for the contributions of all America's diverse communities. And let us remember that standing for the logic of pluralism when so many are falling prey to the logic of prejudice, may be America's greatest contribution to the world.

This piece was originally published in USA Today.