Source: The Muslim Sunrise is the oldest Muslim publication of North America. Its winter volume explores unity and diversity in our global village: Winter-2016
By Mazher Ahmad, who is a strategic business advisor to Fortune 500 companies, and is actively involved in public affairs and social justice volunteer work. Mazher holds an MBA from the University of Chicago, and a BA from University of Pennsylvania
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (1)
The United States of America is a nation founded on the fundamental principle that all men are created equal and at the core of its Constitution, as stated in the First Amendment (quoted above), resides the powerful concept that all people possess the freedom to exercise their religion. This basic tenant of American law has been the cornerstone of the world’s leading democracy for the past 240 years and, as such, has established the core essence of a nation aspiring to balance diversity in a unified way. As we study American history a little closer, we realize that along with the right to practice religion freely, there also exists a darker parallel wrong by those who have attempted to suppress these religious freedoms. Although a system still in progress, where there is room for continued improvement, the American experiment is by far the most advanced among nations across the world and holds within it the potential for even further greatness.
The history of the United States has been built, for the most part, on communities leaving their homeland for the promise of a life of greater freedom, often to be met by strong resistance from local religious institutions. Kenneth C. Davis, in his insightful article, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance” outlines a multitude of examples that highlight this phenomenon.
Davis states, “In the storybook version most of us learned in school, the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayfower in search of religious freedom in 1620. The Puritans soon followed, for the same reason. Ever since these religious dissidents arrived at their shining ‘city upon a hill,’ as their governor John Winthrop called it, millions from around the world have done the same, coming to an America where they found a welcome melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her own faith. The problem is that this tidy narrative is an American myth. The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing, and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either paper over, or shunt to the side. And much of the recent conversation about America’s ideal of religious freedom has paid lip service to this comforting tableau.”(2)
This insight is a profound view into the pattern that has emerged over American history of seekers of religious freedom being greeted by those who seek to keep them at bay. Davis goes on to provide example after example, including the frst known encounter between European settlers in the future United States in 1564, where French Protestant Huguenots who established a colony at Fort Caroline, Florida (near current day Jacksonville) were massacred by the Spanish for spreading their Lutheran teachings.
He describes a variety of similar trends over the years, including:
In the 1600s, during the Puritan era in New England, many Catholics were banished and even hanged for their beliefs, considered heretical to the core religious institutions of power. Revolution were based on the tensions when King law “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” This work later went on to Congress, and led to the firm establishment of the separation of Church and State, an accomplishment many of the founding fathers took great pride in.
However, even with this incredible accomplishment of creating a functioning secular state, American history continued to fall into the trap of internal religious dissent. Kenneth Davis further expounds that the cycle of religious intolerance continued:
In Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, anti-Catholic sentiment, combined with the country’s anti-immigrant mood, fueled the Bible Riots of 1844, in which houses were torched, two Catholic churches were destroyed and at least 20 people were killed. At about the same time, Joseph Smith founded a new American religion—and soon met with the wrath of the mainstream Protestant majority. In 1832, a mob tarred and feathered him, marking the beginning of a long battle between Christian America and Smith’s Mormonism.(3)
As America moved into the 20th century, as recently as the 1960s, Davis rightfully identifies the challenges that President John F. Kennedy faced in convincing American voters that he would not be pressured in his politics by his Catholic faith’s loyalty to the Papacy. And in the 2008 Presidential election, Barack Obama was questioned about his potential ties to Islam; in 2012, Mitt Romney had to ease voters’ concerns about his loyalty to the Church of Latter Day Saints.
As we consider this past history of both an openness to religious diversity and its associated challenges with ongoing religious oppression, we must do so in the context of the broader global environment. It is important to consider that, when compared to other nations as a force of unity amongst diversity, America still far exceeds the vast majority of countries in terms of religious tolerance. Consider the current situation in Muslim nations such as Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, where religious minorities are not just challenged by majority sects, but are subject to systematic and legal oppression that prevents them from engaging in any hope of religious equality. Even modern western nations, like France, where the American ideals of Liberty and Equality were founded, struggle with balancing their own religious identity with those coming from Muslim countries challenging their way of life. Looking ahead, when considering how the United States of America can continue to push through its current political climate of religious intolerance, particularly towards Muslims, there are a few critical remedies that leaders and citizens alike can consider. For example, the power of Interfaith Dialogue provides people from different religions a framework to learn about the commonalities in each other’s faiths, and begins to have them walk a mile in their counterpart’s shoes. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), was at the forefront of these discussions, encouraging all of his followers to hold such meetings. Today, over one hundred years later, in cities across the USA, the Community holds its Religious Founder’s Day meetings, where mutual religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence are central topics of discourse. Coupled with periodicals such as the ‘Review of Religions’, great strides have been made in deepening an understanding of all faiths.
In addition, remedies must also start with educating American youth on religious differences. As an American born Ahmadi Muslim, I was fortunate over my formative years, to attend a predominantly Jewish middle school in suburban Baltimore, and thereafter, to spend four years being educated by Jesuit priests at a Catholic high school. During this time, my parents encouraged me to challenge my beliefs and assumptions, to push my thinking as well as the ideas of those around me, and by doing so, I gained a deeper sense of appreciation for the beauties and commonalities that our faiths held in common. Today, both of my children have attended Jewish faith-based schools and are learning that, to be an Ahmadi Muslim, they are required to understand, accept and appreciate the Prophets and holy teachings of other great monotheistic religions. This uniquely American experience is a profound example of how this nation has provided a deep sense of unity amongst its citizens, both in spite of and because of, the great diversity from which it is comprised.
In conclusion, this concept of unity in religious diversity within the United States of America is again best captured by Kenneth Davis as he aptly shares an excerpt from the nation’s first President, George Washington, who in 1790 addressed Jewish members of the Touro Synagogue, America’s oldest synagogue, located in Newport, Rhode Island:
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. …For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety underhis own vine and fg tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.(4)
1 The United States Constitution, First Amendment.
2, 3, 4 Source: Kenneth Davis, America’s True History of Religious Tolerance,