From chapter 1, "Ground Zero"
A few months after 9/11, my father went to a banquet hosted by a Muslim activist organization. Somber prayers were offered for the victims of the attacks, and appropriate anger was directed at the terrorists. One of the hosts gave a passionate address about the coming threat to Muslims in America: how our rights were about to be trampled by the government in the name of security. The response, he told the fired-up crowd, should be a Muslim civil rights movement.
The chief guest at the dinner was the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Perhaps the Muslim speaker felt as if he was paying homage to the movement Jackson had helped lead. If so, what happened next must have come as something of a shock. Jackson opened his speech by saying there is no such thing as Muslim civil rights.
There is a well-honed sense of victimhood in some segments of the American Muslim community. You can see it in the e-mail newsletters of certain Muslim organizations. Every other story is an incident of a Muslim being wronged. Some Muslims have become expert in stringing such stories together, collecting them into a grand narrative of Muslim suffering stretching from Gaza to Green Bay. During the Ground Zero Mosque episode, I half-expected to see such newsletters linking the prejudice faced by American Muslims to the oppression of Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Chechens. Instead, something very different happened. American Muslims contextualized the Cordoba House events not in the narrative of global Muslim suffering, but in the arc of American minority groups that have experienced discrimination. The talk was not about Palestinians and Iraqis over there, it was about blacks and Jews right here. Muslims began studying the American experience from the perspective of minorities that had been marginalized. They expected to find parallels to their own suffering. What they did not expect was a lesson in what it means to be American.
America has not been a promise to all its people. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,” Malcolm X said. “Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Whatever the faiths of the workmen who came to Mount Vernon, they laid their bricks next to Washington’s slaves. We are a nation whose creed speaks of welcoming all communities and whose practice has too often crushed them. But, to borrow from Maya Angelou, the dust was determined to rise, and generous enough to carry the rest of us with. People who knew the whip of the slave master in Alabama, the business end of the police baton on the South Side of Chicago, people who could easily have called our nation a lie, chose instead to believe America was a broken promise, and gave their bodies and their blood to fix it. As Langston Hughes wrote, even though “America never was America to me,” he was still committed to making the promise of this nation real, declaring one line later in his poem, “America will be.”
That night at the Muslim activist banquet, Jesse Jackson wanted to make sure his audience left with a full understanding of the meaning of the civil rights movement. The marches, the sit-ins, the braving of fire hoses and attack dogs, had not been about safeguarding the rights of one community. The purpose was to expand and secure a framework that protected all communities. “We weren’t fighting for black civil rights,” Jackson told his audience. “We were fighting for your civil rights. You have a choice right now: you can talk about an America where your people don’t get sent to the back of the bus, or you can talk about an America where no one gets sent to the back of the bus.”
I could sense the emotion in my dad’s voice when he called to tell me about the event. He paused for a long time, collecting his thoughts, and then said, “We owe our presence in this country to that movement.”
It was a movement not for the African American Dream but, in the words of Jesse Jackson’s mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., for “the American Dream, the dream of men of all races, creeds, national backgrounds, living together as brothers.” It was not only a movement that helped pass legislation dismantling racist policies in the domestic realm but also a movement whose spirit changed immigration laws as well, ushering in the Immigration Act of 1965, legislation that allowed people like those gathered at that Muslim banquet to come to America. King had a vision of a nation where all communities participated in the privilege and responsibility of pluralism, a vision that included religious identity as readily as race: “One of the first things we notice about this dream is an amazing universalism. It does not say some men, it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men which includes black men. It doesn’t say all Protestants, but it says all men which includes Catholics. It doesn’t say all Gentiles, it says all men which includes Jews.”
Registering your story in the narrative of American discrimination offers opportunities for commiseration, but more importantly, it gives your community a dramatically expanded set of responsibilities. You quickly learn that other American communities used their moments of suffering to work for a nation where no one suffers. You quickly realize that other people’s struggles have secured your rights. It begins to dawn on you that you have a responsibility to use the moment when the spotlight shines on you to secure the rights of others. “Whoever degrades another degrades me,” wrote Walt Whitman.19 That is the heart of the American spirit.