07/02/2011 11:04 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2011

America's Sacred Ground

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. A footnote in someone else's story over there, they would author their own destiny here. But Winthrop didn't expect the soil here to contain special sacraments. The blessing was in what they would build.

I've thought about Winthrop a lot, in light of the controversies ranging from Cordoba House to the movement to ban Sharia. I've thought about the discussion about Ground Zero being sacred ground.

I believe Ground Zero is sacred. I believe every inch of America is sacred. I believe, in an era where more and more people are convinced that different faiths are fated to fight, 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.

America ushered in a very new idea -- a place where people from the four corners of the earth gather to build a nation -- a nation that allows its citizens to participate in its progress, to play a part in its possibility.

Even in the early days, America was (comparatively speaking) a diverse nation. And today, diaspora groups of just about every religious conflict on the planet reside here, often cheek by jowl. They play football together in high school, study together for exams on college campuses, program together at Google. It's one of the most remarkable 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? 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. And they will be invited -- and expected -- to contribute to the common good of their country.

Take the 573 Catholic hospitals in the United States, which treat over 85 million patients a year. And the 231 Catholic colleges and universities and the seven thousand Catholic elementary and high schools, which educate over 2 million students a year, a third of whom are racial and ethnic minorities and a significant percentage non-Catholic.

Without the concrete contributions of Catholics, countless kids would not get educated, countless addicts would not get clean, countless hungry people would not get fed. A similar story can be told of other 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 Quran, 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 Sharia. Muslims are commanded to secure these for ourselves, and for others.

For centuries, Muslims have contributed to their brothers and sisters in America. Muhammad Ali is 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 today's hottest albums.

As a new generation inspired by Muslim ethics and 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.

On this Fourth of July, as we reflect on the mercy that is America and the contributions of all its citizens, let us take a moment to remember Abdoul-Kareem Traore, who came from the Ivory Coast 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.

As Hadidjatou Karamoko Traore rushed to leave for her English class on September 11, 2001, she got a phone call from her husband's brother. Had Abdoul-Kareem gone to work that day? He had.

She could not understand what was happening. Relatives had to translate the horror unfolding. She kept calling his phone. It kept ringing and ringing. The children started asking. "He's coming," she told them.

He never came. And they never found his body.

"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 Abdoul-Kareem's death, the family makes a pilgrimage to the hole where the buildings once were, where his 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.

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.

(Adapted from remarks at the Aspen Institute's America the Inclusive Event on March 30, 2011.)