The power of the American story — E Pluribus Unum. The idea that out of many nations, sects and ethnicities, a community, united and strengthened by its very diversity, can still emerge as one. And as we approach a grim milestone, the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it's worthwhile to reflect on what Muslim Americans can do to continue to forward this idea that sees us through.
The two of us, a husband and wife who work in interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural communication, remember the morning when news broke about the first plane. We prepared ourselves to hear of Muslims being falsely blamed, as occurred following the Oklahoma City bombing. But as that terrible morning unfolded it became clear that 19 Arab men were to blame – claiming to act in the name of Islam. Worry gave way to shock and concern for our country. And as news of a backlash against Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslim) began, we feared for the safety of our families and Muslim friends.
But across the country, many good people reached out to the Muslim community to stand in solidarity. Women of different faith communities wore headscarves for a day when Muslim women who wore headscarves were targeted and harassed; faith leaders condemned vandalism against mosques; and President George W Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington, DC.
In some ways, those first months after 9/11 were reassuring for many Muslim Americans. The outpouring of support continued to remind us that our loyalty to this country was not doubted.
But two wars and 12 years later, there seems to be greater tolerance for anti-Muslim speech in the public square. The tone has become harsher, and many Muslims have felt increasingly on the defensive. Muslim Americans have responded in many positive ways to these challenges, including enthusiastically embracing the spirit of inclusion and diversity, evidenced at last month's Islamic Society of North American 50th anniversary conference, bringing together a cross-section of the Muslim American community, one of the most diverse in the world.
This year's conference sought greater inclusiveness by addressing topics like respect for the elderly, full inclusion of the disabled, and discussion about LGBT Muslims. Panels included Christian and Jewish clergy and part of its main plenary session was devoted to bridging the Sunni-Shi'a divide.
It's a start, but we can all do even more in the coming weeks.
First, it is important not to blame the actions of a few fringe groups or individuals on an entire community or population. This has been the plea Muslims have been making since 9/11. And this is also true for Muslims who sometimes focus too much on the most strident anti-Muslim voices.
Second, assume goodwill. Even some of the most hurtful words or actions are unintended, often coming from naïve offenders who don't mean to offend. Engaging people in a positive spirit turns, in the words of one prominent Muslim, "walls into tables."
Third, share your personal story. Arguments and facts are always met with counter arguments and other facts. When it comes to understanding and acceptance, the only thing that matters is a mutual recognition of everyone's humanity. It was the humanity of Martin Luther King's speech – another 50 year anniversary celebrated last month – that made it so persuasive. Take time to learn or think about another person's story. When given the opportunity, share yours.
Fourth, find a common cause. Sometimes the best way to come together is not face-to-face, but shoulder-to-shoulder. Put aside the issues that divide you. Stop the arguing — even stop all the dialoguing that sometimes yields nothing but more talk — and find common causes and shared interests that you can work on together. Nothing builds community faster than when people of different backgrounds find a shared goal to strive for.
Living in a pluralistic nation is a work in progress. Last month's fifty year anniversaries show we are on the right track. And today, as Muslim Americans, we can do much to forward that spirit of diversity and inclusion that breathes life into the American story.
*Lobna Ismail is an internationally-known diversity and intercultural trainer for Connecting Cultures. Alex Kronemer is a documentary film producer and co-founder of United Productions Foundation. They are married, have three children and live in Washington, DC. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).