I first met Aliya and Rehan Hasan as our then four-year-old daughters gorged themselves on cake at a mutual friend's birthday party. We swapped perspectives on kindergarten curriculum and summer camps. We quickly realized we had a lot in common, including a strong libertarian Republican ideology. We exchanged numbers to get the kids together for a future play date.
Perfectly nice people, I remember thinking. And very smart. She's a doctor and he's a lawyer. Their ethnicity or religion wasn't a topic of conversation, nor was my family's. As I write this today, however, all I can think about is both characteristics. As Muslims and ethnic Pakistanis, they are the enemy to some within our political party.
Rehan's title as chairman of Colorado's American Civil Liberties Union might prove controversial enough amongst social conservatives to ban him eternally from the GOP's inner-circles. Add Muslim to the mix and he's treated with a warm greeting typically reserved for the taxman.
It's unfortunate. As a co-founder of Muslims for America, Rehan believes in a strong America more than almost any other politico I've met. He voted for Bush twice and gave other courageous Muslims a platform for their condemnation of radical Islam. He recently helped organize an anti-terrorism rally at the state Capitol in Denver. He also speaks on occasion to Republican groups. One of the inevitable first questions he faces is this: Are you Muslim first or American first? It's a question a Christian speaker could answer either way. For Rehan and his family, however, any reference to God's law could quickly become a potential land mine.
Certainly, the Hasans aren't alone. In New York City, the city's community board recently voted to support a plan to build a mosque and cultural center a few blocks from where the World Trade Center's two towers once stood. "It's a seed of peace," board member Rob Townley said in defense of the plan. "We believe that this is a significant step in the Muslim community to counteract the hate and fanaticism in the minority of the community."
Opponents were not persuaded. "You're building over a Christian cemetery!" shouted one protester.
But is this true? After all, Muslims working in the World Trade Center were among those who lost their lives in the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. Ground Zero is ultimately an American cemetery.
I'd like to think I know a thing or two about terrorism. Nearly nine years after the attacks, the memory of that day burns fresh in my mind almost as much as what happened in its aftermath. Working in the U.S. Senate at the time, I watched in horror from my office window as smoke rose from the Pentagon. A few weeks later, however, I was even more scared as I was called into a private briefing where I was informed by a Navy official that I was one of several Senate staffers exposed to Anthrax through a letter sent to Sen. John Kerry's office.
As fate would have it, I had the unfortunate luck of working from an office directly below another where an intern innocently opened an envelope, after which its white powdery contents spilled onto the floor and into the building's ventilation system. Bad luck to say the least. Kind of like being a patriotic Muslim after 9-11.
Rehan's brother-in-law, Ali, experienced this first hand as he took his campaign for Colorado's state treasurer to Loveland for the Republican State Assembly late last month. He was cautiously optimistic he'd garner 30 percent of delegate votes. After all, he'd personally called nearly all 3,500 delegates across the state, with his campaign estimating that 40 percent pledged to support him at the assembly. By the end of convention day, however, he was forced to pack his bags after failing to meet the minimum threshold. He conceded with class, releasing a statement to the media, which included the following, " I am a man of my word - I respect the decision of our good activists and we end our campaign here. I love Colorado - I love our Party - and I love our activists. I look forward to helping our State Senate and House candidates win back Colorado in 2010."
Had Ali prevailed, he would have faced two other contenders in August, with both older and perceived as more experienced. It would have been a tough contest. While I endorsed one of Ali's opponents, Walker Stapleton, months ago, I would have been one of the first to defend Ali at the convention after a cadre of radical bigots managed to turn the biggest day in his political career into a hate fest.
According to several witnesses I spoke with, Ali's signs were defaced with "Terrorist" and other attacks. His supporters were shouted down, and ultimately, security was called in after his campaign manager feared for the safety of volunteers.
The source of outrage? Ali's religion of course.
While every political party inevitably endures outbursts from those on its fringes, the rants Ali's campaign faced are out of place in a Republican Party that at every step of the way proclaims its support for religious freedom. Most offensive, some of the slurs were heard by Ali's niece and nephew.
One delegate approached the campaign's information booth and asked, "Is Ali Christian or Muslim?" A volunteer replied "Muslim," to which another delegate responded, "I will never support a Muslim."
Other delegates proclaimed that Muslims can't be trusted. I also learned of a whisper campaign on the convention floor insinuating ties between Ali and terrorist groups, including banking institutions.
This is not my Republican Party. And ultimately, it does not express the views of the legions of tolerant, open-minded, and honorable people who make up my party. I've seen no evidence to suggest that either of Ali's potential primary opponents were behind the attacks. Nor do I believe they would be.
While 9-11 forced Americans to look at the world--and their place in it--in a whole new way, it should have also taught us a very important lesson that too many among us seem determined to ignore. The best way to fight radical Muslim terrorism is through cultivating Muslim leaders to counter fanaticism. By shutting the door to honorable, hard working people simply because of their ethnicity or religion, we're in some ways just as ignorant as the cultures who shroud women in burkas.
While it's true that some Muslims have terrorist ties, so do a lot of white guys. Including Bruce Ivins, the American government scientist tagged with mailing the Anthrax to the U.S. Senate that found its way into one of my life's worst momentary nightmares. He joins Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber whose trial took place in Denver just blocks from my current office, as well as Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who together ensured that we'll never send our kids to school again with the same sense of peace or safety we once took for granted. With the exception of McVeigh, who was executed in 2001, the three other men were all suicide bombers, taking their own lives after robbing others of theirs.
The world is a dangerous place. It is made more dangerous by ignorance. Encouraging assimilation of minority communities is the right thing to do--not only because it's the most moral choice, but also because it makes good public policy sense.