On Wednesday of this past week, in downtown Philadelphia in the midst of the Democratic National Convention, I attended a seminar hosted by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) called, “Working for the Common Good and Challenging Anti-Muslim Rhetoric.”
With the campaign rhetoric becoming more and more heated and with so much of that rhetoric aimed at dehumanizing particular groups like immigrants and Muslims, I found this interfaith gathering of faith leaders to be quite refreshing. The seminar featured a number of scholars and speakers, all of them challenging the diverse faith communities represented to show the world— and especially our political leaders— how religious groups can work together to create harmony and justice for religious minorities in the United States. Indeed, we were challenged in the opening reading from the Qur’an to “compete with one another in doing good” for all people.
But to work towards the perfection of our world means we must acknowledge the obstacles to harmony that exist in the country today. Dr. Christopher Bail from Duke University began our time together by sharing results of the studies found in his book, Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream. Dr. Bail reminded us that immediately after September 11, there was tremendous support extended to the Muslim community. Anti-Islamic groups were considered fringe and were largely ignored.
Yet, since that time, the anti-Muslim narrative of these fringe groups has begun to seep more into mainstream media coverage and political discussion. This is how we have gone from President Bush showing his support for full protections for American Muslims by visiting a mosque immediately after September 11 to current calls to ban all Muslims from entering the country and the vilification of refugees who constitute the most scrutinized and screened group of people entering the United States. Although the U.S. Congress introduced the Freedom of Religion Act of 2016, a bill that says that immigrants may not be denied entry to the United States due to religious beliefs, Islamophobic legislation has long been a part of our political landscape.
Though much of our political discourse has been spitefully aimed at religious minorities like Muslims, the panelists who spoke at the seminar reminded us of the very many positive steps being taken around the world to create harmony and justice between governments and religion. One spoke of a gathering earlier this year in Marrakesh, Morocco, where representatives from many Muslim countries came together and called for constitutionally protected religious freedom for religious minorities in majority-Muslim countries. Dr. Sayyid Syeed, the Executive Director of ISNA, reminded us that these steps in Marrakesh were modeled on the Medina Charter, created by the prophet Muhammad shortly after arriving in the city of Medina, where he established constitutional protections for Muslims, Jews, and Christians who lived in the city.
Calls for justice are also sounding closer to home. We heard from other speakers— Jewish and Christian—who spoke of various efforts in their local communities to do more than just engage in interfaith dialog (important in its own right), but to work collaboratively with one another toward the realization of harmony and justice for all. We at Americans United are involved in one of these efforts: the Pledge for Religious Freedom, which will eventually be delivered to elected officials. AU Executive Director Rev. Barry Lynn signed the pledge, committing us to “uphold and defend the freedom of conscience and religion of all individuals by rejecting and speaking out, without reservation, against bigotry, discrimination, harassment, and violence based on religion or belief.” We will continue to urge other faith leaders to sign on to protect all of our religious neighbors.
As we see all too often, there is much in our current political discourse which seeks to exploit and dehumanize members of religious minorities. Yet, there are also vital efforts happening and real possibilities for all of us work together for harmony and justice to become a reality for all people.