Published in Chicago Tribune, December 18, 2005 .

I confess I was somewhat surprised by the controversy over the White House Christmas card. It wished "best wishes for a holiday season of hope and happiness" to the recipients and not "Merry Christmas," causing some conservative Christian supporters of President Bush to feel betrayed.

"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights told The Washington Post.

Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com, was irate. "Bush claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," Farah told a Washington Post reporter. "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."

And in a classic apples to oranges comparison Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., said, "It bothers me that the White House card leaves off any reference to Jesus while we've got Ramadan celebrations in the White House." Wildmon fails to appreciate that the First Family does not send out Ramadan cards and that Christmas is, indeed, celebrated at the White House.

To me the choice of the innocuous "happy holiday season" instead of "Merry Christmas" is a small victory for pluralism. It is not political correctness, but a sign of sensitivity to the fact that many of the approximately 1.4 million recipients of the card are people of other faiths and traditions.

Many could be celebrating other holidays such as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Eid during this season. For some, this season has no religious significance whatsoever. For others the omnipresent symbolism of Christmas is a period of stress that reminds them of their "otherness" in a society where Christianity is the dominant faith. It is prudent and healthy for the state to keep its distance from the church and recognize the diversity among its citizens in all it does, including sending out greeting cards.

I have always marveled at the diverse multicultural, multireligious and pluralistic nature of U.S. society. Anyone who visits my workplace, a hospital in Oak Lawn, would be impressed by the diversity of people who work at and use the facility. There are caregivers and patients of every imaginable faith and tradition, displaying a great variety of religious symbols.

On one day, I saw a handful of Muslim women wearing the hijab, or head scarf; two Hindus wearing a red bindi on their foreheads; a handful of associates wearing the yarmulke, and many others were wearing crosses of different shapes and sizes. They were all working alongside each other and others who chose not to display their religion--or lack of religion--in a perfectly harmonious manner.

The contrast between the U.S. and other societies appears even more dramatic when I hear reports of hijab-wearing women in Turkey not being able to go to college and sometimes being denied medical care until they remove the head covering, or when I read about Muslim students being forced to take off their hijab at public schools in France. The intolerance Turkey and France practice is in the name of preserving secularism. I wonder why they cannot learn from the U.S. and realize that pluralism actually strengthens a nation.

But I also worry that our nation is changing and that pluralism in our society is being eroded by the rise of the Christian Right in the political domain. If its influence on politics continues to gain strength, the U.S. may join the ranks of nations such as Australia, where mobs are rioting against a small minority of Lebanese Muslims, and Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims may not practice their faith openly.

For followers of minority faiths, one of the more endearing qualities of the U.S. is the freedom to believe and pursue your faith to the fullest. It is this personal space to practice the sacred that is itself one of the more sacred of U.S. rights. Let us hope that our government continues to keep its nose out of its citizens' faiths--or lack thereof--and that the courts continue to be steadfast in protecting these freedoms. Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of the Chicago-based Muslim-American think tank The International Strategy and Policy Institute and a member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune


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