During the great immigration waves of 1900, a rabbi said of our melting pot, “All names are American names.” How wonderfully true. So too, all faiths are American faiths. America is made up of men and women of all faiths, and all are protected by the Constitution.
Colin Powell reminded us of this important fact Sunday morning asking, “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
The answer again is no, but there have been some who’ve suggested otherwise. In recent years, and especially since the horrifying events of 9/11, some have demonized Muslim Americans as a threat to our national security and indeed our American way of life. Some have questioned the loyalty of American Muslims calling for the barring of all American Muslims from public service and the military. And others have even proposed that, unless Muslims take a special loyalty oath, that we criminalize the practice of Islam with 20 years in prison.
We’ve seen this before. The same ugly things that are being said about Muslims were said about Catholics, about people of the Jewish faith, and about Mormons. And now, bigots are attacking Muslims and Islam. Like those who warned against a nefarious plot by Catholics or Jews to control American schools, banks, and the government, these racists ominously warn us of the dangers of accepting Muslims as Americans, lest we succumb to “a cultural jihad.” And such anti-Muslim rhetoric has led to real violence against innocent Americans, both Muslim and those perceived to be Muslim or Arab.
We can be thankful that most Americans, such as Powell, have stood against such divisiveness, condemning such intolerance and bigotry. Indeed, these patriots are determined to avoid the racism so many others–African, Jewish, Mormon, Catholic, and Japanese–all Americans–have sadly experienced in our nation’s darker moments. They, like thousands of Americans across our great land, have taken to heart the promise made by our first President, George Washington, in his 1790 letter to a Jewish congregation that Americans would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
I think it’s good that America accommodates all faiths. Americans of all faiths–Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist–bring strength to America and are protected by our Constitution and included in our national fabric. The Founding Fathers excluded religious tests from the Constitution, knowing fully that one day Catholics, Jews, Muslims and atheists could conceivably secure elected office. Indeed, when the first Muslim was elected to Congress last November, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a descendant of slaves, he swore his oath of office on the copy of the Qur’an–the Muslim scripture–that belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
Today, more than 6 million Muslim Americans are proud to live, work and serve our country. And, like their fellow Americans, they serve in uniform, both in the Armed Forces and as first responders. Arab and Muslim Americans have served their country in every war since the American Revolution, and over 6,000 serve with honor today.
Powell poignantly underscored this last fact stating, “I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards — Purple Heart, Bronze Star — showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.”
In relating the story of a fallen soldier, Powell echoed the immortal words of another patriot who, in 1863, stated “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The fallen–those who perished on 9/11 and the men and women who’ve died serving in Afghanistan and Iraq–in the words of President Abraham Lincoln “shall not have died in vain,” so long as we, regardless of race, ethnic origin, and faith or no faith at all, work together to promote our right of life and liberty for all people. And in doing so, we’ll honor the memory of those, like Kareem Khan, who “gave the last full measure of devotion” so that we may all continue to live in freedom.
Suhail A. Khan is a Washington, D.C., attorney and conservative political activist.