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Interfaith Resistance

Out of Many Faiths: An Excerpt

Interfaith Resistance

by Eboo Patel

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Eboo Patel’s newest book is titled Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise (Princeton University Press). Here he cogently argues that it makes more sense to talk about the United States as a “Potluck Nation” than a Judeo-Christian nation. In an interview with Religion News Service, he says, “At a potluck, you don’t want everyone to bring mashed potatoes. You want people to bring dishes that are distinct. You think to yourself, I’m really glad she brought hummus, and another person brought kebabs and another person a soufflé, dishes distinctive to their identity and heritage.”

In addition to founding and building one of the strongest interfaith organizations in the country – Interfaith Youth Core – Patel has become a major interfaith voice. Out of Many Faiths, his fourth book, explores diversity and pluralism in terms of what America stands for, the narratives that support the vision, and what is required for the vision finally to come of age. As usual, his prose is engaging, the stories compelling, and the focused passion of his cause shines through with hope in spite of all the struggle. Patel’s text is supplemented with commentaries by Robert P. Jones, John Inazu, and Laurie L. Patton, unpacking suggestions he makes.

Much of Out of Many Faiths surveys Islamophobia. The excerpt below, titled “Interfaith Resistance” (pages 62-65) explores Islamophobia in the Trump Administration.

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The careful reader will have noted that thus far I have not used the term civil religion to refer to Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims, employing the somewhat less potent phrase national narrative instead. No doubt American presidents play a significant role in articulating the character of the nation by offering new definitions of its key symbols. It was, after all, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan who virtually resurrected John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” metaphor, shifting its definition from Winthrop’s narrow Puritan one to the broader one of a nation of diverse people bound by mutual loyalty and equal dignity.

  Photo:    Cannon AFB

Photo: Cannon AFB

Trump has undoubtedly succeeded in making fear and hatred of Muslims part of our national narrative, at least for the time being. Has he succeeded in making Islamophobia part of our civil religion? He has most certainly associated his worldview with key American symbols – for example, by criticizing professional football players for kneeling during the national anthem. But in America’s diverse democracy, the voices and actions of presidents are not the only voices and actions that register. Another resonant characterization of the United States – “the beloved community” – was advanced by an individual who never held elective office and who, in the name of American ideals, opposed many midcentury American laws and held no small number of senior political figures to account. That man, of course, was Martin Luther King Jr.

The Trump era has seen an outpouring of rhetoric and activity that defends the dignity of American Muslims, warmly welcomes their contribution, and advances interfaith cooperation, all in the name of the American ideal of religious pluralism. Members of the legal community, for example, lost little time in challenging the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim policies. The acting attorney general of the United States and the attorneys general of the states of Washington and Minnesota pointed to Trump’s own anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric in their refusal to comply with the executive order. A federal district court in Virginia agreed with this argument, stating that the president acted with clear animus toward Muslims. The ruling prompted University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner to comment, “This is surely the first time a court has ruled that a president acted out of bigotry.”[1]

The administration’s revised executive order (covering six of the original seven countries and allowing Muslim green card holders to enter the country) met the same fate. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, wrote that national security “is not the true reason” for the order and that it “drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination.” Legal scholar Noah Feldman commented on the ruling thus: “It’s extraordinary for a federal court to tell the president that he’s lying; I certainly can’t think of any other examples in my lifetime.”[2]

There has also been a surge in civil society groups opposing Trump’s rhetoric and policies and advancing the cause of religious pluralism. Trump’s Muslim ban gave people both a concrete policy to protest and an obvious place to do it: airports. Thousands of people from a variety of backgrounds showed up carrying signs saying “Let Them In” and “Welcome to America.” A Chicago Tribune photographer captured an image of Muslim and Jewish fathers at O’Hare Airport carrying smiling children on their shoulders, one carrying a sign that said “Love” and the other a sign that said “Hate Has No Home Here.” The picture quickly went viral and expressed the mood of interfaith solidarity against xenophobia.[3]

Jews were an especially visible presence in these protests. The rising white nationalism during the Trump campaign had expressed itself in a spate of ugly anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from a shocking rise in slurs such as the “Jew will not replace us” chant, to the desecration of Jewish gravestones, to bomb threats at Jewish schools and community centers.

In fact, the dual rising hates of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia during the Trump era have served as a bridge over the troubled waters of Middle Eastern politics for Muslim and Jewish groups. Interest in grassroots organizations such as the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom exploded, and Muslim-Jewish councils began to be established in cities across the country and on the national level.[4]

In a widely reported speech, Jonathan Greenblatt, the president of the Anti-defamation League, in response to Trump’s threat to create a registry for Muslims, said, “If one day Muslim Americans will be forced to register their identities, then that is the day that this proud Jew will register as a Muslim.”[5]

Muslim civic leaders reached out their hands as well. Two prominent activists, Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi, launched a fund-raising campaign to repair Jewish gravesites desecrated in Saint Louis and Philadelphia. They exceeded their original $20,000 goal many times over, collecting over $130,000. El-Messidi volunteered at the Philadelphia cemetery where the vandalism had occurred, later writing on Facebook, “Seeing this in person was very devastating. Many people there were embracing one another in tears due to what they saw. I want to ask all Muslims to reach out to your Jewish brothers and sisters and stand together against this bigotry.”[6]

  IFYC Better Together Day at Boston University – Photo:    IFYC Facebook   , taken by Rabbi Elie Lehmann at BU

IFYC Better Together Day at Boston University – Photo: IFYC Facebook, taken by Rabbi Elie Lehmann at BU

Colleges have been the sites of some of the most inspiring interfaith activities in response to the Trump rhetoric, as well as the launching pads for interfaith leaders who have played an important role on the national stage. A case in point: not only has Duke’s chief representative for Muslim affairs, Imam Abdullah Antepli, organized dialogue trips for Muslim and Jewish leaders to Israel and the Palestinian territories, he also offered the following prayer before the United States Congress on October 4, 2017: “As the Creator of all, you made us different. Enable us to understand, appreciate and celebrate our differences.”[7]

Will this activity be enough to form a new civil religion narrative that not only opposes Islamophobia but proactively includes Muslims in the American community? In the next section, we will see how a similar movement accomplished this goal for Jews and Catholics, who were once viewed as foreigners and threats – much as American Muslims are today – but are now warmly welcomed under the civil religion banner of “Judeo-Christian America.”


Notes

[1] Eric Posner, “Judges v. Trump: Be Careful What You Wish For,” New York Times, February 15, 2017.

[2] Noah Feldman, “Court Essentially Says Trump Lied about Travel Ban,” Bloomberg, May 25, 2017.

[3] Vikki Ortiz Healy, “The Story behind the Viral Photo of Muslim and Jewish Children Protesting at O’Hare,” Chicago Tribune, February 1, 2017.

[4] Laurie Goodstein, “Both Feeling Threatened, American Muslims and Jews Join Hands,” New York Times, December 5, 2016.

[5]#NeverIsNow: Opening Remarks by ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt,” given at the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never Is Now” Summit on Anti-Semitism, New York City, November 17, 2016.

[6] Tarek El-Messidi, “News just broke earlier today that another Jewish cemetery was vandalized—this time in Philadelphia (where I currently live),” Facebook, February 26, 2017.

[7] Yonat Shimron, “Meet the Only Imam to Pray before Congress Twice,” Sojourners, October 5, 2017.

Header Photo: IFYC