||Muslims and Pluralism: Past, Present and Future
Pluralism is neither a faith nor a religion. It has no scripture or prophet, no idols or temples. Rather, it is a mindset that recognizes and celebrates diversity. It is common sense that people coming from diverse backgrounds, life experiences, histories, and cultures will have different beliefs, ideologies, and practices. Pluralism, the recognition of this reality, is a sacred tradition that provides space for all people to practice what is sacred to them. This high mark of civilization was attained in the past by many Muslim societies; in modern times, American and Canadian societies have been its torchbearers. Recently, however, the practice and even the very concept of pluralism have come under strain.
Pluralism, which is often called "multiculturalism," characterizes those societies in which "members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization" (Webster online dictionary). The concept of religious pluralism, however, can be quite uncomfortable because it is based on the premise that there may be more than one path to ultimate reality. Huston Smith (1991) uses the analogy of light streaming in through a stained glass window; the rays of light break into many differing rich hues and colors, but the original source is the same. The antithesis of pluralism is sometimes called "particularism," the belief that one's own faith is the exclusive domicile of all truth. Although particularism could not be correct, pluralism raises an important question: If one accepts the presence of comparable truth in multiple faiths, is one's own version of truth not diminished?
Syed Mohiuddin Ahmed (2003) wondered if such a situation introduces an element of ambiguity into one's own beliefs. But if we reject the possibility that other traditions have truth in them, does this not suggest narrow-mindedness on our part? Fortunately for Muslims, the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace is upon him; make it easier to understand the theory and practice of religious pluralism.
Religious Pluralism in the Qur'an
The Qur'an states on more than one occasion that if the "People of the Book," namely, Jews, Christians, and Sabeans (a group whose identity is obscured by history) lived by the tenets of their religion, they would have their just reward: "Verily those who believe and those who are Jews, Christians, and Sabeans; whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does that which is right shall have their reward with their Lord. Fear shall not come upon them, and neither shall they grieve" (2:62).
In other verses, the Qur'an proclaims that ethnic and religious diversity is part of the divine intent: "O humanity, God has created you male and female and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other. Verily the most honored among you is he [she] who is the most righteous" (49:13) and "If your Lord had willed, He would have made humanity into a single nation. But the differences will continue among them even then" (11:118).
This last verse is clearly the most intriguing. Most classical exegetes interpret this and similar verses as referring to an individual's freedom to choose between good and evil. However, the phrase "if your Lord had willed, He would have made humanity into a single nation" may be interpreted as a recognition of the fact that pluralism is part of the human condition. Verses in the Qur'an and other scriptures are open to many differing, yet intrinsically coherent, interpretations that are influenced by the context of the times in which they are studied and the exegete's background. Modern scholars like Khaled M Abou El Fadl (2001) and Syed Hashim Ali (1998) would read these verses as a sanction for pluralism.
Additionally, the Qur'an insists that righteousness should be the pre-eminent criterion that distinguishes people from each other: "To each of you God has prescribed a law (shir'atun) and a way (minhaj). If God had willed, He would have made you a single people. But God's purpose is to test you in what He has given each of you. So strive in the pursuit of virtue. And know that you will all return to God and will resolve all matters in which you disagree" (5:48).
To add clarity to this concept, the Qur'an categorically rejects the notion that only a select few who follow a particular faith are eligible for redemption: "And they say: 'None shall enter Paradise unless he [she] be a Jew or a Christian.' Those are their (vain) desires. Say: 'Produce your proof if you are truthful'" (2:111) and "(Both) the Jews and the Christians say: 'We are sons [daughters] of God and His beloved.' Say: 'Why then does He punish you for your sins? Nay, you are but human beings. Of the human beings He has created, He forgives whom He pleases and punishes whom He pleases. To God belongs the dominion of the heavens and Earth, and all that is between. Unto Him is the final goal (of all)" (5:18).
The Constitution (Covenant) of Madinah: An Early Pluralistic Model
Yathrib, later known as Madinah, was Arabia's second largest town. Its population consisted mainly of two large Arab tribes, the Aws and the Khazraj, and three smaller Jewish tribes who lived in and around the city. All of their political fortunes waxed and waned; sometimes they were allies, but usually they were mutually hostile. The Arabs had been weakened by internecine warfare, and thus the Jews were the ascendant group.
During the Hajj pilgrimage, which is a pre-Islamic ritual transformed entirely by Islam, Prophet Muhammad would go to the various tribal members visiting Makkah to convey the revelation he had received, which was based on monotheism and righteous conduct. The name "Islam" was as yet unknown, and many of the rituals had not been formalized. These visits brought him in touch with the Aws and the Khazraj who, due to their contact with Judaism, were conversant with the concept of monotheism. Additionally, since the Jewish tribes held messianic expectations, the concept of prophethood was also familiar to these Arabs. The Madinan Arabs, impressed by the Prophet's personality and message, thought that he might be the much-awaited Messiah talked about by the city's Jews and may have wanted him to be part of their group. Additionally, in the tradition of the times, they viewed him as a wise outsider who had no vested interest in their local dispute, as well as a man of impeccable reputation of honesty, and thus the ideal mediator and administrator of their strife-torn town. They invited him to reside among them to administer the town. He accepted their invitation shortly thereafter.
Upon his arrival, Muhammad set about bringing all of the parties together to sign a covenant, arguably the first of its kind in history that would set standards for pluralism, tolerance, and cooperation between the various religious and ethnic communities. This document, popularly known as "The Constitution (covenant) of Madinah" (622 CE), set out many of the principles essential for the peaceful functioning of a diverse society: all religious, ethnic, and tribal groups had equal protection, rights, and dignity. In addition, they would live according to their own beliefs and judge themselves by their own laws. This pluralistic model of governance presupposed equality among groups, rather than one elite group merely tolerating another inferior group.
Prophet Muhammad's inspiration for this model was surely the Qur'an, which makes it incumbent upon Muslims to accept and respect all of the previous messengers without distinction and to honor their communities: "The Apostle believes in what had been revealed to him from his Lord, as do people of faith. Each one of them believes in God, His angels, His books, and His messengers. We make no distinction between any of the messengers" (2:285) and "Say: 'We believe in God and that which has been sent down to us and that which was send down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and his progeny, and that which was given to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we are resigned" (2:136).
The Constitution proclaimed Madinah to be a sanctuary for all signatories, who were then expected to be loyal to each other and to join together to resist outside aggression. The phrase "loyalty is a protection against treachery" appears several times in its text. This document served as the prototype for setting up a pluralistic state in a multi-religious society. Ironically the modern state of Saudi Arabia has made little attempt to emulate it. For example, non-Muslims cannot become citizens, or even perform public worship, and indigenous Shi'a and Sufis find little space in the public square to practice their brand of Islam. Religious pluralism does not occur only among different faiths, but within each particular faith as well.
Eventually, this constitution was replaced by one based on the Shari'ah, which included many of the same protections for minorities. It is important to understand that this document was replaced not because of any intrinsic conceptual weakness. In fact, historical data ties its ultimate failure to the Jewish tribes' opportunistic miscalculations during the Ahzab and Khandaq battles as well as the local tribes' reluctance to buy into its pluralistic precepts (Wright 2009).
The Prophet's Quest to Find Common Ground
Physician, family member
Prophet Muhammad naturally invited others to join Islam. If they rejected this invitation, he would ask them to come together with the Muslims based on the shared principle of one God. He was persistent in his quest to find common ground between faiths: "Say [O Muhammad], 'O People of the Book, come now to a fair principle common to both of us, that we do not worship aught but God, that we do not associate aught with Him, and we do not take one another as lords besides God.' But if they turn away, then say 'Bear witness that we submit to God only'" (3:64).
The Prophet included this verse in his letter to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. His argument was that all prophets had received essentially the same eternal revelation; one message, many messengers. Islam is a continuation of prior messages as well as an attempt to correct any errors that had crept in over time. Nevertheless, there was enough common ground in the unity of God and righteous living on which all people could unite. In a historical sense, such an assertion was spectacularly different from the norm of those times: complete rejection of the other and harsh treatment for those belonging to other faiths. The Qur'an mentions one such incident in the pre-Islamic past: "Cursed be the Fellows of the Trench who fed the fire with fury, sat by it and witnessed the burning of the believers whom they threw therein. They executed the believers only because the latter believed in God, the Almighty, the Praiseworthy" (85:5-9). (Muhammad Asad in "The Message of the Qur'an" references the many historical and legendary events this verse might be alluding to and concludes it might be read as a parable of the recurring phenomenon of the persecution of the faithful.)
Relations with Christians
In the early period of Muslim rule, relations between Christians and Muslims were particularly cordial because the Christian king of neighboring Abyssinia (Ethiopia) had treated a group of Muslim refugees fairly.
Predictably, Prophet Muhammad and his followers encountered persecution when he started preaching monotheism in a polytheistic and idolatrous society. When this maltreatment turned into torture and even murder, the Prophet advised some Muslims to seek refuge in Christian Abyssinia, where, he said, "a Christian king rules without injustice, a land of truthfulness–until God leads us to a way out of our difficulty" (Guillame 1982). A group of Makkans pursued the refugees and sought their repatriation. After hearing both sides, the king reportedly drew a line on the floor and said to the Muslims, "Between your religion and ours there is really no more difference than this line." He allowed them and a future group refuges to stay until they finally moved to Madinah after the Prophet's own migration to that town.
When Jerusalem came under Muslim rule, initially under Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (637) and later under the highly admired warrior and statesman Salahuddin (Saladin; 1187), contracts were signed with the local Christian groups to allow for personal safety as well as the protection of their places of worship. Christian communities survived and even thrived in many Arab countries and the Balkans. Coerced conversion to Islam was a taboo in these societies.
The relations soured greatly after the Crusades. The contrast between how the Muslim and the Christian rulers treated the city's religious minorities could not be greater. In the words of Ruby Wright: "...the zealots committed the equivalent of modern-day ethnic cleansing, murdering Jews and warring against Muslims en route to Palestine. In 1099 when they reached Jerusalem, blood flowed freely. The Crusaders burned a synagogue into which thousands of Jews had fled and stormed a mosque slaughtering thousands of Muslims" (Wright 1996). Interestingly, the term "infidel" was first used by the Crusaders to describe Muslims – and this at a time when Muslims would refer to Christians with unfailing grace as "People of the Book."
Relations with Jews
Under Muslim rule, extant Jewish communities were invited to resettle in Jerusalem. Jews thrived religiously, intellectually, and culturally in Muslim Spain. "By the end of the tenth century," notes Albert Hourani, "possibly a majority of the people of Andalus (Southern Spain) were Muslims, but side by side with them there lived those who did not convert, Christians and a considerable Jewish population of craftsmen and traders. The different groups were held together by the tolerance of the Umayyads towards Jews and Christians and also by the Arabic language, which had become that of the majority of Jews and Christians as well as the Muslims by the eleventh century. Toleration, a common language and a long tradition of liberal rule all helped to create a distinctive Andalusian consciousness and society. Its Islamic religious culture developed on rather different lines from those of the eastern countries and its Jewish culture too became independent of that of Iraq, the main center of Jewish religious life" (Hourani 1992).
Jews in Spain came to use Arabic for philosophy, science, and poetry, although Hebrew continued to be used for liturgical and religious purposes. Until early modern times, the main centers of Jewish population and culture lay in Muslim-ruled countries. Musa ibn Maymun (Maimonides 1135-1205), the preeminent Jewish scholar and philosopher of medieval Judaism, lived there during the "golden period of Jewish culture in Spain." After the defeat of the ruling Almoravids by the Almohads and subsequent persecution of the minorities, Maimonides found refuge in Cairo under the Ayyubids, where he served as the court physician of Salahuddin and his son. His life provides an important insight into the Muslim-Jewish relations of that time.
The Christian conquest (Reconquesta) led to the destruction of its Muslim and Jewish communities. Jews scattered over many parts of Europe, including Istanbul and other Ottoman cities. They were influential as provincial governors, moneylenders and bankers of the central government, and tax managers.
The recent souring of Muslim-Jewish relations is mostly the result of Israel's establishment (1948), the subsequent dislocation of the Palestinians, and the ensuing resentment. The stereotyping of Palestinians, who are mostly Muslim but also Christian and secular, partly to manufacture consent for continued American support for Israel, has led to continuing hostility. But this historical aberration could potentially dissipate if the Palestinians were allowed to live with dignity in their own state; a "Two-State" solution endorsed recently (May 2011) by President Obama.
Other Scriptures, Faiths, and Traditions
The concept of the continuity of the divine message extends to all humanity, not just the People of the Book. The Qur'an refers to God as Rabb al-`Alamin, the nourisher and sustainer of the universe. Similarly, the Prophet is considered a mercy for all mankind, Rahmat al-`Alamin, and not just for the Muslims or the People of the Book. In addition, the Qur'an proclaims: "And We have certainly sent messengers before you; of some We have told you and of others We have told you nothing" (40:78); "We have not sent any messenger to any people except one born to their language so that he could explain to them in a clear manner" (14:4); and "There have been no people among whom a Warner has not passed" (35:24).
The Prophet accepted Zoroastrians as People of the Book although their book is not mentioned in the Qur'an. The well known scholar Syed Sulaiman Nadvi stated in his biography of the Prophet Muammad, quoting other scholars: "According to the teachings of the Prophet, it is necessary to believe that in countries such as China, Iran or India, there appeared prophets before the advent of Prophet Muhammad . No Muslim can really deny to the people in these lands, the truth of the faiths ascribed to the figures venerated by them. It is not only possible but probable that Vedic Rishis of old and Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Mahavira of India, Zaratushtara of Persia and Confucius of China may have been the messengers the Qur'an is referring to" (Nomani)
Pluralism in Past Muslim Societies
When Jerusalem submitted to the Muslim armies Umar, like a modern-day tourist, visited the holy places accompanied by the Christian patriarch. While in the Church of Resurrection, Umar realized that it was time for a Muslim prayer. The patriarch suggested that he pray in the church; however he declined to do so, noting that his followers might afterwards claim it as a mosque. The outdoor spot at which he prayed is now a tiny mosque dedicated to him. He later issued an edict that in part said:
"I grant them security of lives, their possessions, and their children, their churches, their crosses, and all that appertains to them in their integrity; and to lands and to all, of their religion. Their churches therein shall not be impoverished, nor destroyed, nor injured from among them; neither their endowments nor their dignity; and not a thing of their property; neither shall the inhabitants be exposed to violence in following their religion; nor shall one of them be injured." (Maher Abu-Munshar)
The protection of minorities as laid out in this edict, was the norm in Muslim past societies. Mutual respect for others was the norm. Wallahu Alam, Allah knows best, was commonly used to end any argument on difference in belief. Even Bernard Lewis grudgingly admits: "Islam was the first to create a multi-racial, multi-cultural, inter-continental civilization and to borrow, adapt and incorporate significant elements from remoter civilizations of Asia" (Lewis 1997). There were exceptions to this exemplary practice, such as the decision taken by Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453, to convert the Hagia Sophia church into a mosque.
Pluralism in current Muslim societies: a hardening of attitudes
Among modern Muslim-majority states, such as Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Egypt, multi-culturalism and a large degree of religious and cultural pluralism is commonplace. There are, however, two very notable exceptions: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Religious pluralism and the tolerance of heterodox groups within these societies is hard to find. The most egregious expression of intolerance is their use of the "religious police" (officially called, Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) to enforce the state's theological views under the seemingly innocuous intent of establishing good and preventing evil (amr bi al-ma`ruf wa nahi `an al-munkar). Some form of this edict to establish a just society exists in all traditions. But accomplishing this task by coercion rather than persuasion is inherently unjust, counterproductive, irreconcilable with both human nature and the Qur'anic edict that "there is no compulsion in matters of faith" (2:256, 10:99, and 18:29).
The pluralism that exists in many Muslim societies has failed to register with western thought leaders. An oft-repeated platitude is that Muslims are an intolerant bunch because the Qur'an itself is intolerant. Among the conclusions of a Rand Corporation study done in 1995 and echoed by many, including Samuel Huntington in his "Clash of Civilizations" hypothesis, are that "Islam as a faith is great, but its vocal champions are primarily militants, fundamentalists and those prone to violence ... They are anti-modernity, anti-pluralism and anti-democracy" and that "Islam has yet to prove its claim of tolerance towards others. It cannot be trusted with state power at this moment" (Graham Fuller and Ian O. Lesser 1995).
Unfortunately, there appears to be hardening of attitudes in Muslim societies against Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims. For example, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Indonesian Christians have never faced greater discrimination than now.
It is human nature that people may show high-mindedness in victory and small-mindedness in defeat. Most Muslim countries have been free from western colonial rule for quite a while; however, their own rulers oppress them. The West, which supports many of these authoritarian rulers, only compounds the problem by it selective support of democracy. US officials would often stop in Egypt to seek the help of its authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak in establishing democracy in Iraq. As its loud criticism of anti-democratic practices is muted when it comes to its allies, like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the people's ensuing resentment is predictable. Double standards in the age of Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook are not sustainable. The largely non-violent and grassroots revolution now spreading across the Arab world (2011 Arab Spring) is resulting in a paradigm change in attitudes, and may inspire other oppressed.
Pluralism under Challenge in the West
(The term "West," like the term "Middle East," is in itself inaccurate and broad. I am using it to describe the practices of largely secular and Christian nations in Europe and North America that hold the balance of power in the world.)
Pluralism in American society is a relatively new phenomenon. Over a hundred years ago when the Parliament of World Religions was held in Chicago, the lone Muslim participant was Alexander Russel Webb, the first American convert/revert to Islam. The lone Hindu delegate, Swami Vivekananda, had to travel from India, and a number of other faiths and traditions were absent. Now there are literally scores of faiths and denominations in every large city. But their acceptance by the majority is uneven. Islam is the subject of uncommonly mean stereotyping. Offenders include prominent religious leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, such neo-conservative political leaders as Newt Gingrich, Fox media, various Tea Party leaders, and many others. The American analysis of history, as well as current geopolitics, suffers from a largely Euro-centric bias.
The stereotyping of Muslims in Europe is even worse. Muslim minorities in Germany and other European countries, for example, are blamed for the failure of the West's "noble effort" to make multiculturalism work. This analysis is marked by a singular lack of introspection. In her comments on multiculturalism and its failure (October 2010, Potsdam speech), Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed Germany's 4 million people of Turkish origin for not integrating. She failed to mention that until the year 2000 they were denied citizenship and even now citizenship is an onerous process. Without realizing it she was talking about assimilation, a one-way flow of culture, and not accommodation, a two-way flow of customs and behavioral characteristics. Prime Minister David Cameron opined (February 2011) that Britain was not being firm enough with its truant Muslim and mostly South Asian minorities, which had led to radicalization. This profoundly nonsensical theory would have had no value if he were not the prime minister.
In other parts of the Europe, especially in those countries like Spain, Portugal and France with weak economies and high unemployment rates, immigrants are blamed for taking jobs away from the indigenous population. This suggests that if there were no immigrants the problems would miraculously disappear. This flies in the face of objective data, which shows that immigrants create wealth and increase demand for housing and services, which creates jobs; in many instances, they accept the jobs that locals reject. It is simple and plain xenophobia that with changing demographics is surely going to worsen. Still others blame high birth rates. In the United States the Hispanic population is increasing more to continued immigration but is blamed for high birth rates; in continental Europe it is the Muslim Arabs or North Africans, and in Britain it is the Muslim South Asians.
Stereotyping Undermines Pluralism
Stereotyping, which is often the result of ignorance, misconception, and the resultant negative images, leads to reductionism, prejudice, bias, and even racism. By January 2001 stereotyping of Islam and Muslims had reached such levels that the Stockholm International Forum on Combating Intolerance officially recognized Islamophobia as a form of intolerance alongside xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The British Runnymede Trust defines it as the "dread or hatred of Islam and therefore, to the fear and dislike of all Muslims" (1997) Islamophobia also refers to the practice of discriminating against Muslims by excluding them from the nation's economic, social, and public life. It includes the perception that Islam has no values in common with other cultures, is inferior to the West, and is a violent political ideology rather than a religion.
Stereotyping shows up in the use of the word "terror." Robert Fisk summed it up in a glorious rant recently: "Islamic Terror, Turkish terror, Hamas terror, Islamic Jihad terror, Hezbollah terror, Activist terror, War on Terror, Palestinian terror, Muslim terror, Iranian terror, Syrian terror" the use of the term goes on ad infinitum. He goes on to say "The lexicon is this: terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. You're getting it aren't you? Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. I have it written down here 60 times, but you know the rest. We are in love with the word, we are seduced by it, fixated by it, attacked by it, assaulted by it, raped by it, and committed to it. It is love and sadism and death in one double vowel word. The opening of every television symphony, the primetime theme song, the headline of every page. A punctuation mark in our journalism, a semicolon, a comma, our most powerful full stop- terror terror terror terror terror. Each repetition justifies its predecessor, it is self perpetuating, each terror giving birth to a new baby terror. In the arms of father terror, a terror attack followed by a terror alert followed by the prison of terror in which we all of course live and yet further terror, terror terror terror terror, terror most of all its about the terror of power and the power of terror. Power and terror have become interchangeable, and we journalists have let this happen." (2010)
The Qur'an tells Muslims not to stereotype others (but they do it anyway.)
"O you who have attained to faith! No men shall deride [other] men: it may well be that those [whom they deride] are better than themselves; and no women [shall deride other] women: it may well be that those [whom they deride] are better than themselves. And neither shall you defame one another, nor insult one another by [opprobrious] epithets: evil is all imputation of iniquity after [one has attained to] faith; and they who [become guilty thereof and] do not repent – it is they, they who are evildoers!" (49:11)
The injunction against stereotyping extends to denigrating the idols or deities of other faiths and traditions:
Revile not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus have We made alluring to each people its own doings. In the end will they return to their Lord, and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did. (6:108)
In spite of these edicts and Prophet Muhammad's example, however, Muslims stereotype others with abandon. One who stereotypes has forfeited the right to complain when he/she becomes the subject of stereotyping.
The reasons for stereotyping Islam and Muslims are many and complex: historical prejudice, Christian Zionism, changing immigration profiles, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 9/11, and the use of suicide bombing by Muslim militants. Perhaps the West needs an external ideological enemy to keep its military-industrial-media complex going. The self-censoring practices of the American media, which keeps an eye on popularity ratings, and possibly the wishes of its owners, has made things far worse for Muslims. Even a cursory survey of the media in other countries, (Britain and India) reveals that this tendency to self censor ship is much less prevalent. There is no sign that Barack Obama or any other American leader has the appetite or political courage to tackle Islamophobia as Kofi Anan did during his tenure as secretary general of the United Nations.
Sometimes tolerance is mistaken for pluralism. There is an inherent arrogance in this construct of tolerating the other; a relationship of superior and inferior, of arrogance mentioned in the Qur'an as the cause of Satan's downfall.
Pluralism Is Essential for Keeping a Society Civil
I have been uncommonly fortunate. I practice a type of Islam that recognizes pluralism as part of the human condition; grew up in Hyderabad (India), which has a strong tradition of pluralism; and now live in the United States, another uniquely multicultural nation. Until the mid-1940s Hyderabad was ruled by the Nizams, who made pluralism a cornerstone of their governing ideology. "Hindus and Muslims are like my two eyes" the Nizam reportedly said often and added, "how can I favor one eye over the other?" This ideology resulted in a culture of uncommon brilliance and texture, which is reflected in the fusion of cuisine, architecture (e.g., Osmania University's main structure has one floor with Hindu-style arches and the other with Muslim-style arches in perfect architectural harmony), dress, music, and even in the habit of greeting each other with "Adab Arz Hai" (I offer my respects to you) as opposed to more faith-centered greetings like as-salaam 'alaykum or namaste. The interaction between people of all faiths was cordial and on an equal footing. Few felt like outsiders.
The acceptance of "the other" that is at the core of being American is the legacy of how this nation was formed. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, in his "Letters from an American Farmer" written in the late 18th century, describes this phenomenon of nascent pluralism, which he calls "hybridization": "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men..." He also describes the American individual as being a product of diverse religious ideals. "The foolish vanity, or rather the fury of making Proselytes, is unknown here; they have no time, the seasons call for all their attention, and thus in a few years, this mixed neighborhood will exhibit a strange religious medley, that will be neither pure Catholicism nor pure Calvinism," he writes with extraordinary prescience (De Crevecoeur 2005).
In the United States, especially in my medical profession and Advocate Hope Children's hospital, my place of work, pluralism and the culture of respect it generates are actively inculcated. But this is an exception. This ethnic, cultural, and religious medley that makes this country such a glorious hybrid is at risk. Recent elections have seen fundamentalist Christianity propelled to the front and center of our nation's polity. Many see the United States as a Christian nation. The Constitution, crafted so carefully by the Founding Fathers as a testimonial to pluralism, is being eroded. It is correct to presume that both Crevecoeur and the Founding Fathers would be startled by the Christian Right's zealotry.
Despite the cacophony of the Right's assault upon multiculturalism, it is not dead; however, it is in peril. Pluralism is just as essential for the majority population's moral health as it is for the protection of minorities. Pluralism is a cure for stereotyping, racism, and violence, one that enriches society. It allows all members of a state to feel they have a stake in the nation. It gives people hope. We can all play a role and take the lead in promoting pluralism, for it is essential for the functioning of civil society and is the mark of high civilization.
For their part, Muslims have to look back to their glorious past and recapture it. We still see it on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and the bazaars of Istanbul and Cairo. It is seen in the attitudes of the Muslims of many different persuasions whom I have met; some conservative, some Sufi, and some modernist who are steadfastly non-judgmental.
If the follower of a faith is able to say "I believe my faith to be the true faith, but I do not judge you and your faith; it is God alone who knows best," then there is humility and a higher level of spirituality for which we can strive.
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