Rallying for the American pluralist spirit

The 2016 presidential campaign has left many Americans shaken to their very core

Patrick Burnett November 01, 2016
The writer is a graduate of the American University School of International Service in Washington, DC and is programme coordinator for Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, who holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University

The 2016 presidential campaign has left many Americans shaken to their very core. More than half of Americans have reported this election being, at minimum, “a somewhat significant source of stress.” Young Muslims children have even suffered nightmares about one of the candidates taking them and their families away. Clearly, the US is experiencing a dark, challenging phase of history, with our pluralist core facing existential threats the likes of which have not been seen in generations. It is amidst these great trials and tribulations though that we as American pluralists must fight harder than ever for the vision of the Founding Fathers.

Channelling this fighting spirit, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University (AU) in Washington, DC, in conjunction with his partners at the ‘Spread Hummus not Hate’ tour, convened a peace rally featuring a multitude of speakers and entertainers on the Quad of American University on October 20, with the goal of inspiring all Americans to fight vigorously for our neighbours of all faiths and stand up against the ear-piercing voices of hatred and bigotry. And while the rally may not have drawn the numbers of a Trump or Clinton rally, its statements about America today may be just as impactful.

The third-annual ‘Spread Hummus not Hate’ tour, organised by Walter Ruby of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and Andra Baylus of the Greater Washington Muslim-Jewish Forum, brought together leading members of the Muslim and Jewish communities of Greater Washington in an effort to bridge the divide that has emerged between these two communities. Visiting synagogues, mosques, universities and public parks all around Washington, DC, the ‘Spread Hummus not Hate’ tour spread its hopeful message far and wide.

While every stop on the tour made a lasting impact on all engaged, Ahmed’s rally at American University, which I had the privilege of emceeing, became the marquis event of the tour. The rally, combining the tour’s passionate efforts to restore the frayed relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities with an all-American celebration of our diverse religious traditions, became a beckoning call for all who wish to transcend this dark moment in American history.

Ahmed opened the programme with a call to action for all faiths and cultures to stand up for one another. He remarked, “Today [the prejudice] is against Muslims, but tomorrow it could be anti-Semitism or against African-Americans or even Christians and others.” He called it the slippery slope. Ahmed also emphasised to this American audience the need to understand Islam and stop perceiving it as a violent faith. He educated the non-Muslims in the audience that ‘Bismillah’ declares God to be ‘Rahman’ and ‘Rahim’, or merciful and compassionate, and that the Prophet Muhammed famously stated that the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr. Ahmed recounted too the words of Rumi in emphasising the importance of building bridges among faiths in Islam — “I go into the Muslim mosque/And the Jewish synagogue/And the Christian church/And I see one altar.”

Immediately following Ahmed’s remarks came moment exceptional in today’s environment: a public azaan and reading of the Fatiha on the Quaid of a mainstream American campus. Despite the Islamophobia raging across America, here was a senior leader in a top Washington, DC area mosque in his full prayer robes standing on a stage publicly giving the azaan and Fatiha, with a leading Muslim figure in a hijab translating alongside him for the non-Muslims in the audience. A mere 20 minutes later, the same man, Mohamed El-Idrissi of Dar al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, VA, appeared once again on stage to sing “Tala’ al Badru ‘Alayna.” As a non-Muslim, I am deeply inspired by such moments, as they reveal how, despite the heightened tensions towards American Muslims in recent years, there remains a vigour within the American Muslim community to stand up and continue educating their fellow Americans about themselves and their faith.

The rally also lived up to its goal of bridging the gap between the Jewish and Muslim communities. Whether through the joint speech of two AU student leaders in a Jewish prayer shawl and hijab respectively calling for each community to stand up for the other, or through the joint prayer for peace in the Middle East and beyond led by AU Jewish Chaplain Jason Benkendorf and AU Muslim Chaplain Imam Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, one could not walk away from this rally feeling hopeless about the ability for us to bridge the divides that separate so many of our faith communities today.

Perhaps, most inspiring though was the energy with which students in the audience took to heart the cause of bridge-building. Following the rally, students rushed to join speakers and performers in signing the Religious Freedom Pledge, a document which pledges signatories to “uphold and defend the freedom of conscience and religion of all individuals by rejecting and speaking out, without reservation, against bigotry, discrimination, harassment and violence based on religion or belief.” Students who were instrumental in the organisation of the rally reflected as well the strong feelings of hope and inspiration within the audience. Katelyn Lamson, a senior in the AU School of International Service, remarked “Indeed, it has been a particularly tumultuous year in politics with copious amounts of divisive rhetoric, so it was wonderful to see people set aside their differences for a few hours to stand together against hate. I hope the spirit of the rally will continue.” Anna Brosius, a junior in the AU School of International Service, reflected, “It was a historic moment for the university and the student groups involved, and I hope it will encourage further [bridge-building] activity on campus.”

As I watched the audience and the programme that sunny Thursday afternoon work to counter the divisive, angry rhetoric that has characterised America throughout 2016, I could not help but think of the angel upon the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, which, on a tablet inscribed “Religious Freedom, 1786”, spells out the names Allah, God, Jehovah and Brahma. This statue, one of the ultimate symbols of American pluralism, is a wellspring of inspiration that now, more than ever, must be taken to heart and reflected throughout our great nation. The spirit of that angel was shining bright on the campus of American University and in our Nation’s Capital last week, and thanks to this rally, who is to say that spirit cannot spread its wings throughout America once again.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2016.

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