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On Muslims, Gays and Tolerance In America

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No one is happier to wave goodbye to 2010 than American Muslims. Favorability ratings for our faith actually declined this year. Leading public figures compared Muslims to Nazis, swift-boated one of our most respected religious leaders and basically suggested we were planning a hostile takeover of America.

But there was a silver lining to this year of religious bigotry. Every time the forces of intolerance made a move to marginalize Muslims, the forces of inclusion in America rose up to defend us. In the process, Muslims learned that we have some pretty unlikely allies.

There were prominent Evangelical preachers like Jim Wallis, who helped organize a Christian response to Terry Jones' threatened Quran burning, and Bob Roberts, who Tweeted a series called "What I Love About Muslims" to his followers. There were prominent Jewish figures like Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who made an impassioned call for a canopy of religious tolerance that extends over every geographic area of New York City and includes all its diverse communities.

As the founder and president of an interfaith organization, I've had the chance to witness the forces of inclusion up close. Much of the attention of our staff and board -- people who come from five faiths and include a number of nonreligious folks as well -- has been focused on speaking out for their Muslim neighbors.

One young intern at Interfaith Youth Core stands out to me. He's a student at DePaul University with a bright smile and a snappy wardrobe. We gave him the task of tracking media relating to the Cordoba House situation in New York City and the public discourse around Muslims. He spent hours every day reading the hundreds of articles and blog posts on the slings and arrows suffered by Muslims, compiling regular reports on the trends, highlights and points of concern.

Recently, he wrote an article of his own. It was about Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his sexual encounter with a man was streamed live. Nick wrote that he understood Clementi because, as a gay man, he had planned his own suicide many times. He described it in detail: the note he would write, the pills he would swallow, the look on his grandmother's face when she found his body. And he called out one group in particular for causing his distress: religious people.

It occurred to me that Muslims weren't the only people who had experienced bigotry in 2010. Yes, we faced an especially ugly strain of intolerance, but nothing like what gay men had suffered -- torture in the Bronx, bullying so severe it led to multiple suicides.

It amazed me that a member of that group was spending his time sticking up for Muslims.

Why would Nick volunteer for an organization advocating tolerance for religious people? For Nick, the reason was simple. If he wanted his community to be free and safe in America, he had to work for an America where everybody was free and safe.

I've done a lot of public speaking this past year, from Evangelical churches to Jewish conferences to campuses across the country, talking about the importance of people standing up for Muslims in this time of Islamophobia. Nick's story made me wonder: Would we Muslims stand up for him?

Many people have observed that suffering intolerance seems to be a rite of passage in America. Jews, Mormons, Catholics, blacks, Latinos, gays -- lots of groups have known the fire of bigotry. It's part of becoming American.

Well, right now, Muslims are in the fire. But I don't think getting burned is the most important step in a group's American journey. Communities achieve their American identity not so much by knowing the fire themselves, but by refusing to let others get burned.

And we -- collectively -- achieve America when we put the fire of prejudice out for everybody, for good.

This piece originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune

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