I know what life is like in a country roiled by violent extremists who use religion to turn neighbor against neighbor. I have seen communities and lives destroyed, futures twisted by hate and suffering born of mistrust, all to gain political ends. I have seen how the rhetoric of hatred leads to dead bodies in the street.
Like many others, I have been deeply troubled by President Trump’s recent anti-Muslim tweets. They were irresponsible and un-American, and they were unleashed on the world with no thought about the consequences. Instead of moving America—a land of many different peoples and religions—toward a greater tolerance, appreciation and understanding of one another, the President’s actions foster misunderstanding, fear and hate. I have lived in a country where religious differences were used to turn neighbors into enemies. Rhetoric, even casual and thoughtless rhetoric, is not harmless. It can lead to greater divisions and eat away at the fabric of civil society. That is what is happening in America today. I saw it happen in Nigeria. I fear it also can happen here at home.
We are citizens of the world’s greatest democracy, and it is our responsibility to stop hate from spreading. To remain silent is to be complicit. The consequences are grave, and the solutions start in our communities.
While I was president of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), the terrorist group Boko Haram overran much of the state, detonating bombs in the community. The university recruited and trained its own 600 person security force to protect the walled campus. Our state and community were in a state of emergency for three years.
In response, AUN called together Christian and Muslim leaders to join the Adamawa Peace Intitiative. That effort brought together members of religious communities and leaders in business, education and government to work side by side to develop programs that increased literacy, provided inter-faith sports teams, and created entrepreneurial opportunities. The university’s town of Yola became a refuge for those fleeing violence to the north, and as the crisis deepened, the Peace Initiative helped feed hundreds of thousands of people. We had to think long and hard about the causes of conflict and the road to community. To a remarkable extent, we succeeded. We learned that just as one can foment hatred, one can also pave the way toward cooperation and peace. What leaders do counts.
The President’s rhetoric, along with countless other acts of discriminatory behavior that occur in our communities regularly, are having corrosive effects. I believe we as communities must work to build bridges, not walls. It worked in Nigeria. There is no reason it cannot work in America.
That people are different, that beliefs and values and political views are different is a fundamental fact of human life. It has always been true of America. The challenge of America, now as at the time of its founding, is e pluribus unum: To forge one from many. It is up to our political leadership to foster cooperation and community, to continue to build this great and diverse and tolerant country. And if they fail to do so, it is up to the citizens to do their job for them.
It starts with us, right where we are. It starts with reaching out to neighbors. It starts with making political and civic leaders accountable. It starts with joining with our neighbors in the work of community building—for America is blessed with many such groups, right in our own home towns. It starts with raising our own voices, refusing to be timid, refusing to be cowed, refusing to be discouraged, refusing to acquiesce. And, it starts now.
Margee Ensign is president of Dickinson College and former president of the American University of Nigeria.