In this election year, let there be tolerance

  • Article by: IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF
  • Updated: February 7, 2012 - 8:42 PM

Distrust of Islam may eventually resolve constructively, if it follows the established pattern.

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As we enter the 2012 election season, should American Muslims be bracing for another round of Islamophobia?

Certainly the 2010 elections were rife with attacks on American Muslims, seeking to deny them the right to build places of worship and questioning their loyalty to the United States.

In Oklahoma, 70 percent of the voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that would ban the use of sharia, or Islamic, law in the state.

In January, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this state amendment was unconstitutional. The court upheld the basic rights of an American to practice his or her faith.

Suspicion of religions brought by new immigrant groups is not new in America. It goes back to the beginning of the country, as the Protestant majority warily eyed new arrivals.

It was an article of faith in American politics that Catholics would turn the United States over to rule by the pope. Anti-Catholicism was rife in political movements, sometimes turning violent. Not until John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president in 1960 were these biases finally laid to rest.

Jews faced massive discrimination socially, economically and politically in the United States for generations. Even in this election year, evangelical Christian suspicion of Mormons is helping to shape the political landscape as Mitt Romney seeks the Republican presidential nomination.

The genius of the American political system is that its founders acknowledged the divisiveness that religion can cause in a society and sought ways to assuage it.

James Madison recognized that freedom of conscience is essential to a free society. He supported religion; he understood that it was important to the underpinning of a stable and prosperous country.

But he believed that if government supported religion, then it would have to define what constituted a religion, and that would undermine a person's freedom of conscience and eventually damage the value of religion itself.

The First Amendment and the constitutional prohibition against a religious test for government office have allowed religion to flourish in the United States, and it has allowed the United States to flourish in the world as a society largely free of sectarian conflict and as a beacon of human rights.

So what has happened to those Catholics and Jews? The Supreme Court of the United States is now composed of six Catholics, three Jews and no Protestants, and few people take notice.

Certainly by sending the first Muslim to the U.S. Congress, Minnesota sent a message about religious liberty and politics. By having himself sworn in on a Qur'an owned by Thomas Jefferson, Rep. Keith Ellison countered the Islamophobia that arose on the House floor.

I believe two things are constant. Over time, new faith groups are accepted and become part of the American fabric. And over time, the American experience transforms an immigrant faith into some new American version that can be exported back to their home countries.

This is a good thing for Islam.

My hope is that in this election year Islamophobia will abate. Certainly in the last two years, America's 7 million Muslims have demonstrated time and again that they are loyal Americans who believe in American values and are contributing to building and protecting this country.

They are not a threat; sharia law is not a threat, and Muslims root for the Twins and the Vikings like everyone else.

Also, I hope that as revolution and sectarian strife sweeps through the Muslim world from Tunisia to Pakistan, maybe the world's Muslims can look to American Muslims for some help. In America, Sunnis and Shiites live together in peace.

In America, Muslims of all sects intermingle and intermarry. In my 46 years in the United States, I have watched them create a new, open Islamic faith free of many of the prejudices that are hampering their native countries.

That is what Americans of all faiths should applaud.

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Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the founder of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, multifaith and multinational project that works with state and nonstate actors to improve Muslim-West relations, and is the author of "Moving the Mountain," to be published May 2012 by Free Press. He will be the keynote speaker for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Minnesota annual banquet in Minneapolis on Saturday.

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