On ‘Sacred Ground,’ and what American Muslims owe to the civil rights movement

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On 'Sacred Ground,' and what American Muslims owe to the civil rights movement
On 'Sacred Ground,' and what American Muslims owe to the civil rights movement

Ed. note: Below is an excerpt from “Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America,” the new book by one of our Sunday guests, Eboo Patel. Dr. Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based non-profit whose purpose is to make interfaith cooperation second nature in America and throughout the world. According to his bio on that organization’s website, his “core belief is that religion is a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division. He’s inspired to build this bridge by his faith as a Muslim, his Indian heritage, and his American citizenship.”

Being that today is the 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks and the panel in which Dr. Patel participated (with Sikh American filmmaker Valarie Kaur and Princeton professor Amaney Jamal) dealt with violence and terrorism after 9/11, we thought it best to share with you an excerpt from “Sacred Ground” pertaining to the conversation Melissa hosted on Sunday’s show. Read it below.

A few months after 9/11, my father went to a banquet hosted by a Muslim activist organization. Somber prayers were offered for the victims of the attacks, appropriate anger was directed at the terrorists. One of the hosts gave a passionate address about the coming threat to Muslims in America, how our rights were about to be trampled by the government in the name of security. The response, he told the fired-up crowd, should be a Muslim civil rights movement.

The chief guest at the dinner was the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Perhaps this man felt as if he was paying homage to the movement that Reverend Jackson had helped lead. If so, what happened next must have come as something of a shock. In his remarks, Jesse Jackson pointedly said that there was no such thing as Muslim civil rights. 

Jackson wanted to make sure his audience left with a full understanding of the meaning of the civil rights movement. The marches, the sit-ins, the braving of fire hoses and attack dogs, it had not just been about safeguarding the rights of one community - the purpose was to expand and secure a framework that protected all communities.

It was a movement not for the African-American Dream but, in the words of Jesse Jackson’s mentor Martin Luther King Jr, for “the American Dream, the dream of men of all races, creeds, national backgrounds, living together as brothers.” It was a movement that not only helped pass legislation dismantling racist policies in the domestic realm, but whose spirit changed immigration laws as well, ushering in the Immigration Act of 1965, legislation that allowed people like those gathered at that Muslim banquet to come to America. King had a vision of a nation where all communities participated in the privilege and responsibility of pluralism, a vision that included religious identity as readily as race: “One of the first things we notice about this dream is an amazing universalism. It does not say some men, it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men which includes black men. It doesn’t say all Protestants, but it says all men which includes Catholics. It doesn’t say all Gentiles, it says all men which includes Jews.”

“We weren’t fighting for black civil rights,” Jackson told his audience that night. “We were fighting for your civil rights. You have a choice right now: you can talk about an America where your people don’t get sent to the back of the bus, or you can talk about an America where no one gets sent to the back of the bus.”

Muslims in America, particularly those of us from immigrant backgrounds, are learning that to register our experiences in the narrative of American discrimination offers opportunities for commiseration, but more importantly, it gives us a dramatically expanded set of responsibilities. You quickly learn that other American communities used their moments of suffering to work for a nation where no one suffers. You quickly realize that other people’s struggles have secured your rights. It begins to dawn on you that you have a responsibility to use the moment when the spotlight shines on you to secure the rights of others. “Whoever degrades another degrades me,” wrote Walt Whitman. That is the heart of the American spirit. 

America has not been a promise to all its people. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,” Malcolm X said, “Plymouth Rock landed on us.” But, to borrow from Maya Angelou, the dust was determined to rise, and generous enough to carry the rest of us with. People who knew the whip of the slave master in Alabama, the business end of the police baton on the south side of Chicago, people who could easily have called our nation a lie, chose instead to believe America was a broken promise, and gave their bodies and their blood to fix it. As Langston Hughes, wrote:

O yes, I say it plain

America never was America to me

And yet I swear this oath

America will be

I could sense the emotion in my dad’s voice when he called to tell me about the event. He paused for a long time, collecting his thoughts, and then said, “We owe our citizenship to that movement.”

Watch the full discussion from Sunday’s show below and after the jump.



 

On 'Sacred Ground,' and what American Muslims owe to the civil rights movement

Updated