Despite some malice, most Americans respect Islam, religious diversity

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Smoke still poured from the Pentagon as I looked out my window in Arlington, Va., one year ago today as I write.

Now the building is completely restored – but it will take much longer to fully heal the wounds inflicted on America that terrible day.

Americans knew on Sept. 11, 2001, that our nation was forever changed. But what we didn’t know then – and what remains uncertain today – is what kind of nation we will be.

The answer won’t be found in defeating terrorism (it will always be with us), but rather in our response to this new challenge to our freedom and security.

From the beginning, America has been defined by freedom. In fact, the history of the United States could be told as the story of the ongoing struggle to expand freedom more fully and justly to greater numbers of people.

Throughout this story a key litmus test for measuring the advance of freedom is how the religious majority treats religious minorities – especially in times of crisis. Americans are all for “religious liberty.” But when internal or external pressures stir ancient religious divisions and rivalries, some Americans retreat to the Puritan definition of religious liberty: “Freedom for me, but not for thee.”

From our earliest days in the 17th century, when Governor Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam (now New York) turned away a boatload of Quakers and tried to refuse entry to Jews, there have been some Americans who fear the “strangers” in the midst of the “saints.” Only tiny Rhode Island (thanks to the extraordinary Roger Williams) opened its arms to people of all faiths and none – those the clergy of New Amsterdam called “the riff-raff people not tolerated in any other place.”

Fear of foreign invasion by “alien” religious groups – a fear that came to be called nativism – has been a recurring theme in American history. In the early 19th century, Protestant Americans celebrated religious freedom for all – until waves of immigration brought hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics to these shores. Protestants formed nativist movements (including the infamous Know-Nothing Party) to deny citizenship to Catholics and other “foreign” elements.

Just as some Americans argue today that Islam and democracy are incompatible, so did many 19th century Protestants agree with John Adams when he wrote that “a free government and the Roman Catholic religion can never exist together in any nation or Country.” Adams was right about most things political – but about this he has been proven deeply wrong. Today Catholics constitute nearly a fourth of our population. And the Republic still stands.

Jews arriving in America faced similar barriers. The great influx of Jewish immigrants beginning in the mid-19th century made a small religious minority (that had generally been accepted) more visible and thus vulnerable to nativist attacks.

A defining moment in the ugly story of American anti-Semitism occurred during the Civil War, when many Americans were looking for a scapegoat for the nation’s troubles. Frustrated by the high level of illegal trading between the North and the South (much of it involving army officers), General Ulysses S. Grant adopted the age-old European habit of punishing the Jews to teach others a lesson. He expelled “Jews as a class” from the territories he commanded, forcing many to leave everything almost overnight.

Grant’s unjust scapegoating of the Jews reflected the widespread bigotry of the times. Although his order was soon rescinded by President Lincoln (in the mildest of rebukes), the incident unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism throughout the nation. “The war now raging,” wrote one Jewish leader, “has developed an insanity of malice that borders upon the darkest days of superstition and the Spanish Inquisition.”

What about the present crisis? When the terrorists attacked America in the name of Islam, millions of American Muslims felt afraid in their own country – many for the first time. How has the nation responded to this latest test?

For the most part, Americans deserve high marks for the treatment of Muslims in the United States. Give President Bush much of the credit for setting the example by word and deed. Within weeks of the attacks, there he was standing in a Washington mosque – in his stocking feet, no less – surrounded by American Muslim leaders.

Most Americans have gotten the message. The fact that extremists in Saudi Arabia and other places have interpreted Islam in narrow and dangerous ways doesn’t condemn Islam itself. Muslims in America – like all Americans – are also victims of the terrorists.

True, there have been hate crimes directed at Muslims and Islamic centers around the country. But the numbers have been surprisingly small. In fact, one poll taken earlier this year reveals that the attitude of Americans toward Muslims in the U.S. is more favorable now than it was before Sept. 11, 2001. And many American Muslims report countless acts of kindness and support from their fellow Americans.

It’s also true that a few evangelical leaders and media commentators are trying to paint all of Islam, and thus all Muslims, with the brush of terrorism. And a small number of latter-day nativists are seizing the moment to argue for keeping Muslims out of America and expelling those who are already here.

But unlike earlier eras of religious prejudice and intolerance, most Americans today don’t define “American” in sectarian terms. Most of us now agree that religious diversity is a fact of life in 21st century America. More than at any time in our history, we are now one nation of many peoples and faiths.

What kind of nation will we be? Despite some danger signs, Americans can be justly proud that we begin the new century with a renewed commitment to religious liberty as a fundamental, precious, inalienable right for every human being.

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