Islam and America: The Challenge of Expanding the Judeo-Christian Paradigm

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Catholic University of America "Critical Insights" Panel
Washington, DC
October 5, 2010

QUESTION: “We have a growth of Islamophobia in the US. Is this part of what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American History?” Is it something more?

SPECIAL ENVOY ROSENTAHAL (with Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Chris Seiple, and Imam Akbar Ahmed): Our history as a nation has been one of continually trying to keep faith with our rights and values as we have become one of the most religiously diverse nations on earth – and one of the most religious. It hasn’t been easy, and we are not perfect. Our history has seen the public execution of Quakers in the mid 17th century in Massachusetts. We saw the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri in the mid 19th century. We have seen profound anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism in the 19-20th centuries. There were attacks on African American churches during the civil rights movement, and harassment felt by Muslims after 9/11.

But as a country, in every generation, concerned citizens and principled leaders have worked hard to right our wrongs through legal mechanisms, pro-active government outreach, responsible education, coalition building among diverse religious communities – to build a more perfect union, from the many – one.

As President Obama said at the Iftar at the White House in August, “Islam has always been a part of America. The first Muslim ambassador to the U.S., from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan – making it the first Iftar at the White House over 200 years ago.”

Muslim contributions to the US are too long to catalogue because they are so interwoven into the fabric of our communities – Muslims are successful in business and entertainment, in the arts and athletics, in science and in medicine. Muslims hold senior leadership positions in our government, and there are two Muslim members of Congress, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson.

Again as the President stated in August “our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are”.

But this program is to discuss the reality the country is now facing and how do we expand the Judeo-Christian Paradigm. Is there a growing sense of paranoia in the US? I don’t really know. But I do know that it remains extremely difficult to entertain real discussion of differences and multi-culturalism. But we must make the effort. We must understand one another so we can move forward together for the sake of our communities, our nation, and our diverse and increasingly interconnected world. History tells us that especially during economic downturns, scapegoats tend to be named, fear of the ‘other’ is more pronounced, and unfortunately hatred is stoked.

What we are seeing now is not just anti-immigrant sentiment with Muslims. Almost all immigrant communities in any country face integration challenges, but the experience of Muslims now is different because of 9/11. If for instance two immigrants could come from India to the US at the same time and in the same socio-economic status, one Hindu and one Muslim, no one would ever ask the Hindu to prove that he or she is a “moderate Hindu”. While deeply troubling and unfortunate – it is a reality. And I believe discrimination and prejudice need to be called out and condemned.

When Americans view Muslims with suspicion just because they are Muslims, this must be challenged. Our country was founded on the precepts that all human beings have inherent dignity and rights and that they are innocent until proven guilty. This is being turned on its head in the Muslim intolerance we are seeing.

People may hold bad ideas and intolerant thoughts, and may express them. But we hope others will use their right to freedom of expression to condemn and confront such bad speech.
And as bad as some of the statements and proposals against Muslims may be, the appropriate way to address bad speech is with other speech, and so it is gratifying to see religious and other opinion leaders condemn such behavior and insist on a civil discourse around religious tolerance.

And as intolerant as some of the statements and proposals against Muslims are, it is important – and gratifying to see religious and other opinion leaders condemn such behavior and insist on a civil discourse around religious tolerance.

So even in the face of all this – I am optimistic. The story of Islam in America is a story of progress, of success, of thoughtful writings, and of coalition building. So I believe the paradigm is already changing, the table is already expanding, and the messages of hate are being challenged. And this program is a good example of that.