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Americans manifested staggering rudeness and aggression during a public gathering with the local Muslim community on June 4 in Tennessee. The event, sponsored by the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC), was titled, “Public Discourse in a Diverse Society,” but there was more shouting than discourse. And worse, when a speaker mentioned a 2007 arson attack which burned down a mosque in Columbia, TN, the audience broke into shouts of joy. Joy. Yes, joy. Invest 14 seconds of your time to watch, listen to, and feel the audience’s celebratory hoots and hollers over the arson of a house of worship in America, at 19:04-19:18 of this video.
By contrast, the America we will celebrate on July 4 rests on the firm foundation of our Constitution combined with Americans’ support for our Constitution and commitment to public civility in disagreements about our rights. We cannot take any of these for granted. Education and cultural engagement related to these are vital to maintaining the strength of our foundation.
One example of the latter is the way Rohina Malik, a young Muslim playwright in Chicago, is leveraging her talents to show the value of our Constitution, the importance of exercising individual responsibility to stand up for it, and how to foster public civility with our fellow citizens. Malik’s 2009 play Unveiled stands firm for all Americans’ civil liberties.
The script of Unveiled reads as if she were at the June 4, 2013 event in Tennessee. Fortunately, the responses of Unveiled’s characters Layla, Maryam, and Inez, America Muslims, are more powerful than the jeers against them and the pressures each character faces to remove her hijab. They muster dignity, strength, and in the end the force of “quiet power” to forge an alternative path forward. Unveiled offers hope that there is an alternative to the rage and even hatred of the June 4 “Public Disclosure” event.
For example, when the character Layla encounters post-9/11 anti-Muslim furor, she challenges it. “What are you doing?” she asks. “Is this the solution? Is this helping the people in New York? I know you are angry. I am angry too! Get to know me. Get to know my community. We are good people, we want peace Get to know me. Get to know me “
At the “Public Discourse” event, when a Muslim speaker showed pictures of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women wearing religious head-coverings, someone in the audience shouted “Not here!” (17:24). Similarly in the play Unveiled, a man says to Maryam, who is wearing a hijab while pushing her child in a stroller, “Take that s– off your head.” The man follows his remark with laughter, then says, “You’re in America, take that s– off your head.” Maryam responds, “That’s right I’m in America, where I have my constitutional right to practice my religion and dress how I like.” She adds, “I’m an American.” The man continues. “If you’re an American, then dress like one!”
“I am dressed like one,” explains Maryam.
Religious diversity is integral to the fabric of America; religious freedom makes peaceful religious diversity possible. Religious freedom is more than just freedom of worship; it includes the right to manifest one’s faith publicly according to the conscience of the individual. For some Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women, wearing a head-covering in public is integral to living out their faith.
The contrast is striking. The June 4 anti-head-covering shouts of “Not here!” denigrated the basic right of religious believers to practice their faith freely. At same time, Muslims in America such as Rohina Malik, as in her play Unveiled, and the young Muslim woman at the June 4 event wearing a t-shirt featuring the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment, are embracing and defending the core values and traditions of America.
In Unveiled, Malik’s objective is not just narrow, internally focused self-protection of her own Muslim community. Instead she stresses that threats to the civil liberties of some threaten civil liberties themselves. The character Inez emphasizes, “And don’t you think this is just a Muslim problem, or an Arab problem. This is every American’s problem. We are all Americans, and we have to protect each other. Every American needs to realize: Today it is my rights, tomorrow, it could be yours.”
Characters such as Layla, Maryam, and Inez could respond to the hostilities directed at them, as hijab-wearing Muslims, with hostility of their own, but they don’t; revenge is not an option. Layla, for example, stresses the common humanity of God’s creation. “Remove the veil from your heart,” pleads Layla. “You see, I wear the veil on my head, but my heart is not covered, I can see the signs of God, they are everywhere. Remove the veil from your heart, and you will realize, that we are one This hatred and anger must end here.”
Near the end of Unveiled, Layla speaks of the power she discovered through her brother, who took his medical training into one of the World Trade Center towers to help on 9/11, and never came out. “It is a quiet power, but do not be fooled, it is stronger than wars and violence, it is the power of mercy, love and forgiveness.” This lesson from an up-and-coming American playwright is one we would do well to heed — for ourselves, our communities, and our country. This July 4, let us remember that America’s greatest power is her “quiet power,” and her “quiet power” is at its strongest when all of America’s citizens are included.
Jennifer S. Bryson, Ph.D., is a Visiting Research Professor in the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI) at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA. AnnElizabeth Konkel, a Mount Holyoke College student, is an Intern in PKSOI at the U.S. Army War College.