“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land,” wrote George Washington to Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue in 1790, “continue to merit and enjoy the good will 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.”
I speak today as a child of “the Stock of Abraham,” as a Muslim whose faith tradition traces to the Prophet Abraham through his son Ishmael and as an American who’s increasingly uncomfortable witnessing today’s rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric.
I come before you this week to speak to you of faith, tradition, understanding and reconciliation, both in this letter of introduction and then on Sunday, Jan. 10, where I’ve been invited to speak to the community at First Church in Salem, Unitarian Universalist.
I ask you to recognize that Islam’s been part of New England’s religious and political fabric for generations. Early traders brought back spices, textiles and Scheherazade’s stories from the Middle East. Slave traders brought back Muslims from West Africa, some sold into slavery by Muslims, most of whom were forcibly converted to Christianity.
I ask you to recognize that there was no anti-Muslim rhetoric in the early days of the Republic. Tolerance was clearly articulated in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, where the United States wrote, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen — and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation …”
John Quincy Adams had a copy of the first Qur’an printed in America — by Isaiah Thomas in 1806 — when he defended the Amistad rebellion mutineers, many of whom were Muslim, and Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he wanted a meeting hall built in Philadelphia so inclusive “… so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”
Imagine a public figure voicing such sentiments in Philadelphia or Salem today, even as we recognize that today Muslim auto mechanics, jewelers, educators, photographers, doctors and students live amongst us, pay taxes and fight, and die, as patriots in America’s wars. Across America Friday prayers and Sunday school are regularly held.
Yet, today, throughout our communities — Muslim and non-Muslim — there is some unease and fear, not all unjustified, not all irrational, that keeps us from fully embracing each other as One Nation.
While the 9/11 attacks on the homeland, followed by a war of necessity in Afghanistan and a catastrophic war of choice in Iraq, were traumatic, Muslims should understand that most Americans never even thought about Islam before 9/11. On that day when Muslims seemed to appear, like Topsy, to set the world upside-down most Americans woke up realizing they knew nothing about Islam.
And Americans should understand that the perpetrators of such horrors and violence are no more representative of Islam that the KKK is representative of Christianity. That before 9/11 Muslims were so well assimilated that they only seemed to appear every 10 years — as part of the national census!
Another wave of anti-Muslim sentiment engulfed America when the candidacy and election of the our African-American president set loose some of our darkest demons; the birthers, truthers and deniers, united by fear and ignorance determined not only to disenfranchise President Obama but along with him anyone who was remotely related to “The Other,” primarily Muslims.
I know that most Americans aren’t haters and aren’t responsible for the fear, ignorance and invective that today dominates many public spaces. Muslims must work against that fear, not by simply quoting the Qur’an as a “religion of peace” but by engaging their communities. They must recognize that they’re freer in America than they’d be in many Muslim lands. To honor those freedoms they must engage, challenge and repudiate the rhetoric of hate the today consumes America’s political arena.
I ask you to understand that while it’s true that the Qur’an is the literal word of God, it’s not meant to be read literally. Like other sacred scripture, it’s rich in metaphor and allegory and, like other peoples of faith, Muslims try to understand and live within God’s words and challenges, whether in Salem, Sarajevo, or Timbuktu.
Muslims need to make that knowledge known, not as proselytizers but as peoples who share scripture, beliefs and values — who respect and believe in the dignity of all humankind.
I ask you, too, to recognize that the racist rhetoric in today’s political campaign is a challenge to all Americans.
Understand that today, for many Muslims, hearing fellow Americans, for craven political purpose, ignorantly attempt to disenfranchise, marginalize and target a faith community that’s been present in this nation for more than 400 years is not unlike waking up to see a cross burning on America’s communal front lawn.
Know, too, that if today Islamophobes triumph tomorrow the target could be any other American.
I want such struggles to end. I want to be able to breathe freely once again. To be able to disagree politically and feel unthreatened.
To express solidarity with the oppressed and the occupied, to agitate for social justice, and not be accused of supporting terrorism. To reclaim the promise of America that drew the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to our shores.
Cotton Mather once wrote, “Ah! Destructive Ignorance, what shall be done to chase thee out of the World?”
I believe most fervently that “to chase (ignorance) out of the World” we must start in places like First Church in Salem, Unitarian Universalist, where I, as a Muslim, as an Arab-American, have been invited to speak next Sunday, Jan. 10.
At 10:30 a.m. I’ll be speaking in the Sanctuary and then, after a coffee break, First Church in Salem will host a 12:30 “Ask a Muslim a Question” session. All are invited to both events — bring your thoughts, prayers, questions, challenges and critiques and join us in conversation.
Sunday, together let’s sit under George Washington’s fig tree and engage in fellowship and peace.
This column appeared originally in the Salem News (Mass.)