Justice and Society Program
Justice and Society Program
America’s Sacred Ground
America’s Sacred Ground
By Eboo Patel, Founder and President, Interfaith Youth Core
Aspen Institute, America the Inclusive Event
March 30, 2011
In 1630, John Winthrop sailed across the Atlantic Ocean seeking sacred ground. Hounded in England, the Puritans would be free to worship as they wished in the New World. Subject to the whims of Kings in Europe, they could govern themselves in what would come to be called America. A footnote in someone else’s story over there, they could be authors of their own destiny over here.
Winthrop did not expect the soil on this side to contain special sacraments. The land would not magically reach up and sanctify his compatriots. The blessing was in what they would build.
In a sermon on the ship, Winthrop prepared his people: “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn, labor and suffer together … for we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill, the eyes of all the people upon us.”
I’ve thought about John Winthrop a lot these last few months, in light of the controversies ranging from Cordoba House to the King Hearings to the movement to ban Shariah. I’ve thought about the discussion about Ground Zero being sacred ground - what that means, how far it extends, who it encircles, who it excludes. Polls show that those who regard Ground Zero as sacred oppose the idea of Muslims building an interfaith center there. Those who support Cordoba House have taken to calling the site just another city block. The framing puzzles me.
I believe Ground Zero is sacred. I believe every inch of America is sacred. I believe it is a sacred duty to shape a society where people from all nations and tribes can come to know one another. I believe America is humanity’s best chance in history to realize that. I believe that is an achievement worthy of the efforts of every American, and the eyes of all. I believe, in an era where more and more people are convinced that those of different faiths are fated to fight, our model in America is nothing short of a mercy upon all the worlds. And I believe that even though the headlines these days scream “Muslim,” the heart of the matter is really about America.
In What it Means to be an American, Michael Walzer points out that political theorists since the Greeks believed that participatory politics – democracy – could only exist in ethnically or religiously homogenous nations. “One religious communion, it was argued, made one political community … One people made one state.” (55) The section ends with this line: “Pluralism in the strong sense – One state, many peoples – is possible only under tyrannical regimes.” (57)
The next section begins with this: “Except in the United States.”
America ushered in a very new idea - a place where people from the four corners of the earth gather together to build a nation. Barack Obama spoke of it in his inaugural: “Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”
We are a nation that allows its citizens to participate in its progress, to play a part in its possibility, to carve a place in its promise.
It was an ethic that our first President, George Washington, embraced as well: “The bosom of America is open to receive … the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”
America’s poets knew this. Herman Melville wrote: “You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. On this Western Hemisphere, all tribes and people are forming into one federal whole.” (Schlesinger, 30)
Walt Whitman wrote:
Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens, …
I hear the Arab muezzin calling from the top of the mosque,
I hear the Christian priests at the altars of their churches, …
I hear the Hebrew reading his records and psalms, …
I hear the Hindoo teaching his favorite pupil …
When Woody Guthrie sang “This Land is Your Land,” playing a guitar that had the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” scrawled across it, he meant every inch of this country, and every one of its people.
Even in the early days, America was (comparatively speaking) a diverse nation. By 1776, there were thriving communities of Congregationalists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Quakers and Catholics in the colonies. There were even a handful of Jewish synagogues, and a notable percentage of the slaves from Africa were Muslim. Today, some scholars say we are the most religiously diverse society in human history.
But diversity in and of itself is neither new nor necessarily good. Baghdad is diverse. At certain points in recent years its various communities have fought a religious civil war. Similar things can be said of Belfast, Bombay and the Balkans. Diaspora groups of just about every religious conflict on the planet reside here in the United States, often cheek by jowl. They play football together in high school, study together for Calculus exams on college campuses, program together at Google, stand in line next to one another at Starbucks. It’s one of the most remarkable and unacknowledged achievements of our nation, and one of the most fragile.
How a society engages its diversity is one of the most important questions of the 21st century. Are some groups free or favored and others not? Are the different communities at each other’s throats? Do a small number do the work that carries the rest?
“How are we,” asks Michael Walzer, “to embrace our differences and maintain a common life.” It was a challenge that our Founders understood well. For James Madison, securing freedom was first and foremost, a realization that arose while observing America’s early diversity. He wrote: “Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects, which pervades America and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is a variety of sects, there cannot be any one to oppress and persecute the rest.”
In 1790, Madison’s Founding Brother, George Washington, received a letter from Moses Sexius, of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Sexius was worried about the fate of Jews in the new nation. Would they be harassed and hated as they had been for so many centuries in Europe?
President Washington replied to his countryman:
“the Government of the United States … 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 every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Those lines contain, still, the best definition of American religious pluralism. In America, people will have their identities respected, their freedoms protected and their safety secured. They will be encouraged to cultivate good relationships with fellow Americans from other backgrounds, no matter the tensions and conflicts in the lands from which they came. And they will be invited – and expected – to contribute to the common good of their country. Respect, relationship and commitment to the common good – those are the three pillars of pluralism in a diverse democracy. The alternative is what we see on the evening news.
Washington came to his views through both principle and practical experience. As the leader of the Continental Army, the first truly national institution, Washington recognized he was going to need the contributions of all willing groups in America. The rampant anti-Catholic bigotry at that time was disrespectful to Catholic identity, a divisive force within the Continental Army and a threat to the success of the American Revolution. Washington banned insults to Catholics like burning effigies of the Pope, told his officers to make sure Catholics were welcomed and scolded those who disobeyed with words like: “At such a juncture, and in such circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused.” (Waldman, Founding Faith)
It was the same in Washington’s private life. When seeking a carpenter and a bricklayer for his Mount Vernon estate, he remarked: “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.” What mattered is what they could build.
Washington, it is well known, owned slaves. It is the great contradiction in the vision of our Founding Fathers. Remarkably, it was those slaves, and their children and grandchildren, the people that Plymouth Rock landed on, who are most responsible for the continuity of the American project, whose work and words responded to America’s original sin with a magnanimous blessing. They insisted America was not a lie, but a broken promise – a broken promise that successive generations were called to fix.
James Baldwin, who said: “I am not a ward of America, I am one of the first Americans to arrive on these shores.”
Langston Hughes, who wrote:
O yes, I say it plain
America never was America to me
And yet I swear this oath
America will be
And most importantly, Martin Luther King Jr who amidst the death threats, jail cells, fire bombings and police truncheons of racism continued to speak of his “abiding faith in America” and “audacious faith in the future of mankind,” linking nation and world in ways reminiscent of Winthrop. (Martin Luther King Jr’s Nobel Acceptance Speech)
King insisted on America, sermonized our nation as “essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled … a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers.”
He sought the “alike liberty” that George Washington promised Moses Sexius, and reminded America that our founding belief, from the days of Winthrop, was that a free people would bless the land by what they built. For evidence, just look at what African-Americans had done while still in chains:
“From the poverty-stricken areas of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marian Anderson rose up to be the world’s greatest contralto … From humble, crippling circumstances, George Washington Carver rose up and carved for himself an imperishable niche in the annals of science. There was … Joe Louis with his educated fists, Jesse Owens with his fleet and dashing feet, Jackie Robinson with his powerful bat and calm spirit.”
When King spoke of rights for his community, he also spoke of contributions. His message was clear: it is not for ourselves alone that we seek our freedoms, it is so that we may cultivate our talents more fully, offer our gifts more freely to our nation.
We have long faced movements that have sought to deny, divide and exclude. In the 1850s, the Know-Nothing party elected dozens of members to the United States Congress, and held large numbers of seats in State legislatures. Abraham Lincoln noted at the time: “Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’” (Schlesinger, 36).
Formally, the Know-Nothings were titled “the American Party.” The irony is not only in how they sought to deny respect, freedom and safety to an American community, but in how they hoped to exclude the contributions of that community to American society in the name of patriotism.
There are 573 Catholic hospitals in the United States, treating collectively over 85 million patients a year. There are 231 Catholic colleges and universities, and nearly seven thousand Catholic elementary and high schools, educating over 2 million students a year. A third of those students are racial and ethnic minorities, and a significant percentage are non-Catholic. Catholic social service agencies aid over 8.5 million people per year. Rarely, if ever, do any of these institutions turn non-Catholics away. It is simply not how they understand their Catholic faith.
If it wasn’t for these hospitals, colleges, schools - countless kids would not get educated, countless addicts would not get clean, countless hungry people would not get fed, countless sick folks would not get healthy, countless refugees would not get settled, in the rain, many more homeless people would get drenched. American civil society would be simply unimaginable without the very concrete contributions of Catholics. A similar story can be told of American communities, from Jews to African-Americans, Latinos to gays and lesbians.
In his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance address, Martin Luther King Jr described himself as a “trustee.” It is a word that resonates with every Muslim in America. In Sura Two of the Holy Qur’an, we are told that we were created with the breath of God and appointed His trustee, His steward on His blessed creation. We are enjoined to advance the right to the protection of: life, family, dignity, education, religion and property. These sound remarkably like the privileges enumerated in America’s Founding Documents. In the Islamic tradition, they are known as the six fundamentals of Shariah. Muslims are commanded to secure these for ourselves, and for others. As the famous Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad goes, “No one of you truly believes until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself.”
For centuries, Muslims have contributed to their brothers and sisters in America. An American Muslim, Muhammad Ali, is one of our nation’s favorite sons, and one of our most celebrated sports icons. Fazlur Rahman Khan, helped design the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building in Chicago. Lupe Fiasco has one of the smartest and hottest-selling albums on iTunes. As our community grows in size and confidence, as a new generation inspired by Muslim ethics and familiar with American ways comes of age, we seek to make more institutional contributions. It is a requirement of both faith and nation.
Cordoba House was one such effort. It was never meant to be a private space for Muslims, but a public space for community gathering – which is one of the reasons that the local board in Lower Manhattan voted overwhelmingly in its favor. Like Catholic Universities, Jewish philanthropies, African-American civil rights organizations, this was a community finding inspiration in its particular heritage and expressing that in an institution that served the broader public. In the furor over Cordoba House, it wasn’t just Muslims that lost a place to pray, it was a neighborhood that lost a swimming pool, a theater and an art gallery. Some might say, it was a nation who, for a moment, forgot its bearings and lost its way.
A few years ago, I saw Colin Powell at an event in Washington DC. I thanked him for his historic appearance on Meet the Press during the election of 2008, when he reprimanded the forces whispering that Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim and declared America a nation where all 7-year old citizens, including ones who prayer in Arabic, could dream of being President.
“Those were risky words - what made you say them?”
“I was remembering the Muslims I served with,” was his simple reply.
Remembering is a sacred act. Naming is a sacred act. As we reflect on the mercy that is the American project, on the blessings we bestow upon this land by what we build, let us take a moment to remember Abdoul-Kareem Traore, who came from the Ivory Coast to America seeking sacred ground. Every morning, he woke early to say his prayers, left for his first job delivering newspapers before his wife and kids opened their eyes, continued on to his second job as a cook at Windows on the World. He made rent an apartment in Parkchester, the Bronx, and was eyeing a home in Hunts Point.
As Hadidjatou Karamoko Traore rushed to leave for her English class on the morning of September 11, 2001, she got a phone call from her husband’s brother. Had Abdoul-Kareem gone to work that day? He had. Turn on the television, he told her.
She could not understand what was happening. Relatives had to come to translate the horror unfolding on tv. She kept calling his phone. It kept ringing and ringing. The children started asking. “He’s coming,” she told them, “he’s coming.”
He never came.
They did not find his body. Souleymane, Abdoul-Kareem’s three year old son, would not sleep on sheets that were anything but pure, perfect white, did not have the language to say why, perhaps he was imagining where his father had gone.
“I like to go down there and pray and see the place and remember,” said Mrs. Traore. “When I go there, I feel closer to him. And him to me. I pray for him, too.”
On the anniversary of his death, the family makes a pilgrimage to the hole where the buildings once were, where the blood of the world was spilled, where Abdoul-Kareem’s bones are mixed and buried with the bones of three thousand of his compatriots, on the lower tip of the island that many people consider a city on a hill.
There are others who visit that day. Others praying, and weeping, and remembering.
The Traore family prays in Arabic, to the one God whom Muslims insist is the all-Merciful, even during moments that are unfathomable, in a country they are proud to call home, blessing by their loss and their presence a place that everyone agrees is sacred ground.
Eboo Patel is the Founder and President of IFYC: Interfaith Youth Core, co-sponsor of "America the Inclusive: Building Robust Community and Interfaith Parternships" with the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program.