Lately, Congress appears to be obsessed with Muslims. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) held hearings Tuesday (March 29) on "Protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims," and Chairman Peter King has announced a second set of hearings on "Radicalization in the American Muslim Community" in the House Homeland Security Committee, this set focusing on radicalization in prisons.
Although the word "Muslim" is the one getting the most media play, I believe these hearings are really about America, and whether we value the contributions of, and cooperation between, our many different communities.
Our founding fathers were emphatic on where they stood. When George Washington was asked about his preferred workers at Mount Vernon, he replied: "If they are good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa or Europe; they may be Mahometans (Muslims), Jews, Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists." For Washington, it wasn't just about the principle of freedom, but the practicality that in a diverse nation, bigotry toward any community not only hurts that group, but weakens the nation.
As the leader of the Continental Army, the first truly national American institution, Washington took a strong stand against anti-Catholicism. He banned insults to Catholics (including burning the pope in effigy) and told his officers to make sure Catholic soldiers were welcomed. He scolded those who disobeyed: "At such a juncture, and in such circumstances, to be insulting their religion, is so monstrous as not to be suffered or excused."
Later, as president, Washington took a stand against another prevalent form of religious bigotry: anti-Semitism. In 1790, he received a letter from Moses Sessius, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI, who was worried about the fate of Jews in the new nation.
Would they be harassed, hounded and hated as they had been for so many centuries in Europe?
"The government of the United States ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens," Washington replied. "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land 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."
Do these words still ring true today?
The King hearings in the House presented Muslims as a problem and, even worse, a danger. Yet that flies in the face of the best evidence. A recent study by Charles Kurzman at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill shows American Muslims were the key group in disrupting attempted domestic terror plots, and that domestic terrorism actually has multiple sources. Targeting the Muslim community -- especially while ignoring the multiple sources of risk -- hampers us from finding productive solutions to homegrown threats.
Furthermore, focusing on Muslims as a problem both ignores and frustrates the very real contributions Muslims make to America. An American Muslim, Muhammad Ali, is one of America's most celebrated sports icons. Another, Fazlur Rahman Khan, helped design the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building in Chicago. A third, Salman Hamdani, rushed to aid his fellow Americans during the 9/11 attacks, and died when the towers fell. Don't we want young American Muslim kids seeing Congress focus on the heroes of their community rather than the villains?
George Washington welcomed the contributions of many communities because that's what America is built on, and not simply in a theoretical way. Think about Catholic schools and hospitals, or Jewish philanthropic groups -- it wasn't that long ago such efforts were viewed as seditious threats. Today, America would be unimaginable without such institutions.
President Obama, for one, realizes this. "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers," he declared in his inaugural address. "We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth."
The Durbin hearings -- focusing on Muslim Americans as citizens, not some outside threat -- should be applauded. It's not just about protecting a minority religious community, but strengthening American society and reminding us of the tradition of pluralism set forth by those who built this great country.
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