When President Obama addressed the nation after the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., he reiterated the call to resist animus toward Muslims.
This was a familiar message — the same we had heard from President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. We aren’t at war with Islam, both presidents have said, but with an ideology built on distortions (or medieval-minded interpretations) of the Islamic religion.
Even so, many Americans still need to be reminded that Muslims, rather than our enemies, are our friends, neighbors, colleagues, scholars, leaders, doctors, mechanics. They’re our fellow Americans. Even so, we continue to struggle even with the terminology we use to distinguish between everyday Muslims and radicalized terrorists.
This is particularly distressing given that language and communication are so crucial to winning what is in the long term an ideological war. None too soon, we’re beginning to hear reasonable voices rise above the din of nationalistic jargon from some of our lesser, if glaring, lights.
One such voice belongs to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). In his finest debate hour, Graham issued a passionate apology to Muslims for Donald Trump, who has said among other things that we need a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
“Donald Trump has done the one single thing you cannot do — declare war on Islam itself,” said Graham. “To all of our Muslim friends throughout the world, like the king of Jordan and the president of Egypt, I am sorry. He does not represent us.”
Graham then thanked Muslim Americans for their military service to our country. Bravo.
A full-page headline in the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, similarly caught my eye recently: “To All Muslims: Trump Does Not Speak For Us.”
These sentiments, still relatively rarely expressed, are crucial not only to civility but also to national security. Anti-Muslim rhetoric merely buoys the terrorist narrative that the United States is the enemy of Islam. Thus, demonizing or marginalizing Muslims leads not to greater safety but to greater numbers of recruits willing to self-detonate in the service of something no sane person recognizes.
It is also rude and un-American.
It’s funny, in an unfunny way. We seem to have no trouble demanding that moderate Muslims condemn the radicals, but we’re less than impressive when it comes to moderate Americans taking a stand against our own extremists. It isn’t really as painful as it looks and should be viewed as an act of patriotism, something the individual citizen can do as part of the nation’s war effort.
Our failure to communicate with one another can lead only to the sort of frenzied embrace of isolationism and marginalization we’ve witnessed of late. And though interfaith ministries often meet for these purposes, their message does not reach deeply enough into the secular community to have much effect.
Thus, I had hoped the president might call on Americans to do their part and issue a call to specific action. As I imagined it, he would have said something like: “I’m calling on all America’s mayors, of towns and cities large and small, to join the war on terrorism by hosting a public forum in your community bringing Muslims and non-Muslims together for conversation.
“The operating principle should be that communication is key to understanding and that understanding is central to peaceful coexistence and a better future. The objective is to allow people to speak freely (in an orderly fashion) about their thoughts, fears, hopes and ideas.”
Something like that.
There are already several models available for replication. The “Welcome Table” created by the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation has been extremely successful in healing the wounds of the civil rights era. If blacks and whites can pull this off in places such as South Carolina and Mississippi, then surely Muslims, Christians, blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians can do it in Detroit or Los Angeles.
The Village Square, begun several years ago in Tallahassee, and now in a few other cities, brings citizens together to a bipartisan, formal debate on issues crucial to the community. The square also holds “speed-dating” occasions to connect citizens and elected leaders.
These approaches may seem like tiny pebbles tossed into a sea of distrust and fear, but they’ve proved effective often enough that they’re worth a try. Even pebbles cause ripples, and words have a way of spreading.