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By Eboo Patel

In the late 19th century, the forces of religious division in America targeted Catholics. Josiah Strong's book Our Country: Its Possible Future and Present Crisis referred to Catholics as "the alien Romanist" who swore allegiance to the pope instead of the country and rejected core American values such as freedom of the press and religious liberty. The book remained in print for decades and sold nearly 200,000 copies.

In the early 20th century, the forces of religious division in America targeted Jews. Harvard scholar Diana Eck writes, "In the 1930s and early 1940s, hate organizations grew and conspiracy theories about Jewish influence spread like wildfire." In 1939, Father Charles Coughlin's Christian Front filled Madison Square Garden with 20,000 people at a vitriolic anti-Semitic event complete with banners that read: "Stop Jewish Domination of America."

Today, the forces of religious division demonize Muslims. Tennessee's lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, says Islam — a faith of 1.5 billion people founded 1,400 years ago — could well be a cult and not a religion. Therefore, he continues, constitutional religious liberty guarantees might not apply to Muslims.

Mosques and Muslim community centers are being vociferously opposed from New York to Tennessee to California. A church in Florida proudly posts a roadside sign that reads, "Islam is of the Devil," and is planning an event called "International Burn a Quran Day."

The view of Islam

The same arguments marshaled against Jews and Catholics in previous eras are being advanced against Muslims today. You've heard the charges:

  • The tenets of Islam are opposed to the values of America.

  • Muslims have undue influence with American elites.

  • Muslim integration into America is a veiled Islamic invasion.

It is easy to imagine Strong's book written today with "the alien Islamic" replacing "the alien Romanist," or a Father Coughlin-style rally at Madison Square Garden with tens of thousands chanting, "Muslim go home."

The forces of religious division have always been alive in America, but they have never defined America. The core principle of our nation is that a diverse people can live together in unity. Our motto, placed on the seal of the United States in 1776 when we became a country, is E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one.

Our Founding Fathers fought for this ethic. Addressing the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., as America's first president, George Washington expressed this hope: "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill 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."

But unity in America is not to be taken for granted. Every generation must both preserve and protect our nation's core principle, and extend and expand it.

What we need today is a force advancing this value of unity and returning the voices of division to the margins. I think this force is going to come from an interfaith movement.

Here's what that could look like: Civic groups could organize interfaith service projects, such as those fostered by Habitat for Humanity, bringing a community's Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists and others together for an afternoon of volunteering and interfaith dialogue.

Pastors, rabbis and imams could preach about how the teachings of their respective religions inspire cooperation with those of different faiths. These faith leaders could then hold up things they admire about other faith groups.

'Any religious persuasion'

Universities could offer courses that emphasize the history of cooperation between religious groups instead of focusing just on the stories of conflict.

Political leaders could give speeches about shared values such as mercy, compassion and hospitality that  serve as common ground between religions.

Ben Franklin— like his fellow Founders Washington, Madison and Jefferson — would recognize such a nation. Franklin helped set in motion our traditions of openness, unity and cooperation. In the 18th century, he helped build a public hall in Philadelphia with the express purpose that it embody the true American spirit. He said that the hall exists "expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia ... so that even if the mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammadanism (Islam) to us, he would find a pulpit at his service."

The forces of religious division targeting Muslims seek to take America off course. We must not forfeit the territory to them. In America, we don't discriminate against people of any religion. In America, we will no be divided by faith. In America, everyone has a place. In America, we are better together.

Eboo Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core and was a member of Presiden Obama's Inaugural Faith Council.
































Interreligious Reflections on the New York Center and Mosque Project

By William Lesher, Chair Emeritus, Council for the Parliament of the World's Religions

What some in the media have referred to as "a fire storm" over the mosque debate in lower Manhattan is turning out to be a catalyst to launch a much needed national discussion (and tutorial) on Muslims in America.

Since this discussion was intensified by the exaggerated rhetoric and distorted claims of Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger in her post on May 6, a consensus seems to be forming among constitutionally committed citizens across the political spectrum. Fair-minded people are agreeing that the Imam and his wife in charge of the mosque project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, Daisy Khan and their supporters, have every right to expand their center and include a new worship space on the site. They have worked from and worshipped in this place for many years, two blocks from the World Trade Center disaster. Even though current polls claim that 7 out of 10 Americans oppose the project, opponents can hardly argue that the project planners do not have a constitutional right to carry out their vision. As one letter to the NY Times editor put it, "As a legal matter, there is nothing to debate. If a church or synagogue could be constructed on this site, so may a mosque. Period. The first amendment means at least that."

The location of the proposed Islamic Center touches the raw nerve that has elicited often shrill claims ranging from insensitivity to the families of the 9/11 victims and desecration of hallowed ground to an international Islamic conspiracy to subvert the nation. Given the fact that the vast majority of Americans know little of Islam and know almost nothing of the history and intentions of the center planners in lower Manhattan, it is not surprising that the barrage of misinformation that initiated and continues to stoke the current national discussion has filled this vacuum and created the sharp negative and often heated responses.

But now, as the national discussion continues, one might cautiously hope, even anticipate, that the time is right for a nation-wide learning process to unfold. This could become a time for Americans of fairness and goodwill to take the time to listen and to learn from people in the interreligious community and from Muslims themselves about the importance, the variety, and the beauty of this second largest religion in the world. And to hear as well, about the healing potential for having a thoroughly American expression of Islam close to the site of Ground Zero.

The Interreligious Movement in the US and around the world has been building bridges of understanding among religious communities, including Islam, for the last few decades. Many religious people in the US are affiliated with local interreligious councils or with national and international organizations like United Religions Initiative (URI) or Religions for Peace (RFP) or have participated in one of the four modern Parliaments of the World's Religions (PWR) with which I am affiliated. These people have led the way in this historic movement to develop knowledge, understanding, and respect for religious and spiritual communities of the world, many of whom have growing numbers of adherents in our towns and cities, states and nation.

People affiliated with the growing interreligious movement know about the great diversity that exists within Islam, not unlike the wide spectrum of beliefs, traditions and behaviors among different sectors in the Christian and Jewish communities. They know what William Dalrymple wrote about in an illuminating Op- Ed piece in the New York Times entitled, "The Muslims in the Middle," that Islam is not a monolithic religion. Rather it is as complex as Christianity and Judaism, with as many, perhaps more divisions, sects and traditions, some in opposition to others, as is true of every major religious group. Dalrymple helpfully teaches in his article how "Feisal Abdul Rauf...is one of America's leading thinkers of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam which in terms of goals and outlook couldn't be farther from the violent Wahabism of the jihadists. His videos and sermons preach love, the remembrance of God and reconciliation.....But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshipping apostate..."

Members of the interfaith movement are also leading the resistance to the resisters and need to do so more and more. In another New York Times article describing protests against mosques in several communities around the country, Laurie Goodstein focuses on Temecula, Ca. There she writes: "In late June ...members of a local Tea Party group took dogs and picket signs to Friday prayers at a mosque that is seeking to build a new worship center on a vacant lot nearby." She goes on to say that an estimated 20 - 30 people turned out to protest the mosque. But then Ms. Goodstein states what many of us think is the real story in Temecula, "that the protesters were outnumbered by at least 75 supporters" who affirm the right of the Muslim congregation in Temecula to expand their mosque. Something good is happening in Temecula when, less then a decade after 9/11, local citizens know and act on the difference between their mainstream Muslim neighbors and the terrorists whose actions violated the most basic tenants of Islam. It's too bad that the NY Times headlined the Goodstein article, "Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Resistance" and missed the positive thrust of the Temecula story.

Speaking from the experience of the Parliament of the World's Religions, the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona, Spain focused major attention on the issue of Religiously Motivated and Experienced Violence. After several days of intense workshop discussions, participants from across the interreligious spectrum, agreed that the minimum responsibility of religious communities is to come to the aid of any religious community whose house of worship is the target of an attack, vandalism, threat or destruction.

The recent Parliament in Melbourne, Australia in 2009 featured a strong focus on Islam. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf himself was a major presenter leading or participating in six interreligious programs with the following titles: "Applying Islamic Principles for a Just and Sustainable World"; "Sacred Envy Panel:

Exploring What We Love about Our Own Faith, What We Admire in Others and What Challenges Us in Both"; "Purifying the Heart and Soul through Remembrance of Allah"; "Dhikr As An Islamic Devotional Act for Inner Peace"; "How Islam Deals with Social Justice, Gender Justice and Religious Diversity"; and "Islam and the West: Creating an Accord of Civilizations." How much could such a teacher of Islam help to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding about this great faith tradition by continuing his long and much admired ministry in lower Manhattan where he has built an international reputation for promulgating a modern version of Islam?

So, while some call it a "fire storm" and do their best to make it so, there are other voices that seem to be gaining strength. Among the shouting and the uninformed outrage that sometimes seems ubiquitous, I sense that responsible media outlets and people in the interreligious movement are grasping the significance of this moment and are helping to seed the discussion with historical facts, accurate information and a commitment to understanding and respect. If this trend continues we will all learn important things about ourselves and about the most recent global religious tradition to enter the mainstream of American life.