What better explanation could there be as to why Neighborhood Interfaith Movement (NIM) invited Daisy Khan to speak at its 28th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Interfaith Celebration on January 16 than the recent tragedy in Tucson?
Daisy Khan is the wife of Imam Feisal Rauf and co-founder with him of the proposed Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan. Despite the fact that the Center is neither a mosque nor visible from “Ground Zero”; despite the couple’s well-known missions to Muslim countries on behalf of the U.S. State Department; despite the fact that there were Muslim prayers spaces in the World Trade Center for use by Muslim workers killed on 9/11; and despite approval of the facility by the local Community Board and city officials – despite all that some individuals have used the proposed center to stir up fear and hatred of Muslims, while some elected officials have used it to appeal to the baser instincts of some voters. Arizona, a “leader” in anti-immigration rhetoric, shows us clearly what happens when people demonize one another and stop speaking civilly even to those with whom they disagree.
Charles Dupnik, sheriff of Pima County, Arizona, said it well: “I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what [we] see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in. And I think it’s time that we do the soul-searching.”
How could NIM, an interfaith organization, ignore such provocations, even before the Arizona tragedy? Would not Dr. King have taken a lead in fighting the intolerance, fear, and anger taking over public discourse? Of course we should invite Ms. Khan, who with her husband is starting a nation-wide speaking tour on January 15 to address interfaith audiences. Months ago NIM invited her to Philadelphia for what has now become the first stop on her tour.
Religion has played a different role in America than in other nations. An early observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in the 1830s:
Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.
What made it possible for religion and freedom to live side by side in America? I believe a key lies in the diversity of religions in America. Think about it: at first many colonies had established religions, and intolerance was not uncommon. The “Founding Fathers” recognized that there would be no “United States” if there were a religious test of any kind; thus the First Amendment. By 1830 a mobile population spread myriad faiths everywhere. Americans were free to believe what they wished, and pray – or not – how they wanted.
Catholic himself, de Tocqueville was puzzled by the absence of dogma in American churches: “Go into the churches… [and] you will hear morality preached, [but] of dogma not a word.” He failed to see the connection between the open attitudes of the preachers and the ability of both freedom and religion to thrive here. As I once said to a religion class at a Catholic college, America is a tough place for a hierarchical religion to retain its power.
We are witnessing today a backlash against openness to religious diversity, rooted in theologies of exclusiveness, especially intolerant of Islam, and characterized by “oppositionality” – against gay marriage, against universal health care, against actively working to save the environment.
Is this trend good for religion and for America? NIM believes NOT AT ALL. History shows that when religion and political power mix, people get killed. There is strong evidence that forcing religious beliefs on people ultimately leads to the demise of religion. Were that to happen her, America would no longer be the one Western country where faith is widespread.
For most of the twentieth century religious groups here led the way in demanding social justice. It is not an accident that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a reverend or that the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s was drafted in the offices of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington. That, I believe, is the role religion is meant to play: to champion the right of every human being to reach her or his God-given potential.
NIM exists to demonstrate that individual faiths can maintain their moral influence over their followers without relying on secular power or denigrating other faiths. NIM believes that there is great power in faith groups working together for the common good. NIM believes in what Martin Luther King stood for.
And that is why we proudly host Daisy Khan. So join us at Arch Street Presbyterian Church (18th and Arch) on January 16 at 3 p.m. to welcome our guest to the City of Brotherly Love and learn firsthand how Dr. King influenced Ms. Khan’s work. Applaud as she receives the Shalom Center’s Prophetic Voice Award, enjoy the music of local choirs and teens reading Dr. King’s stirring words – and take a few moments to mourn the loss of life in Arizona.