It was August of 2010. There was an intense controversy over Park 51 – a proposed Islamic Center right across from Ground Zero in New York City. Some people thought that an Islamic Center would denigrate the honor of the sacred place where almost 3,000 people were killed. At the same time, a pastor in Florida threatened to burn the Qur’an.
Mohamed Elsanousi from the Islamic Society of North America and I met in his office to decide how the religious community should respond to these challenges. We decided to convene a meeting of the heads of denominations, faith groups and religious organizations in Washington, D.C. in order to prepare a statement, and to have a press conference at the National Press Club.
Mohamed and I were optimistic but unsure if the heads of denominations would be able to meet. It was both short notice and a very controversial subject. More than 30 religious leaders attended the meeting. We were able to agree on a joint statement and issued it at a press conference that was covered by 38 media outlets around the world. CNN and C-SPAN both carried the press conference live.
Out of that meeting we formed “Shoulder to Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims; Upholding American Values.” An organization of 35 Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations was created.
Why was this meeting so well attended? I think there were several values at work. The first value was compassion. The Oxford Dictionaries defines compassion as the “sympathetic concern for the sufferings or misfortune of others.” This value is important to most religious bodies, and adherents are urged to demonstrate it. Compassion is a driving force for national bodies, regional bodies and congregations of denominations and faith groups as they carry out their mission efforts and other programs.
Compassion is often determinative to governments as they develop responses to current crises domestically and around the world.
The second value is the understanding that Muslims and other immigrants are a blessing, not a burden. They have brought to the United States skills, intelligence, hard work and a powerful commitment to this country. These values have served the U.S. very well. A smart and compassionate immigration program has made this country great.
Imagine our surprise when the Trump administration ordered an immigration and refugee ban on people coming from seven (later revised to six) Muslim-majority countries. That move was contrary to the two values that have driven U.S. immigration policy for two centuries.
I also worry about that ban in light of President Trump’s refusal to honor Ramadan with an Iftar dinner in the White House. The White House first held an Iftar dinner in 1805, when President Thomas Jefferson celebrated the Muslim holiday with Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States. Jefferson made a point of including Muslims within the American tradition of religious pluralism. “Neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion,” he said as he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777.
I am impressed that many nations of the world have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other nations. I admire Canada and Germany in particular for being so generous in accepting Muslims. They take seriously the mandate to be compassionate and the wisdom of accepting so many Muslims who bring so many assets into their countries.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court has removed the two lower courts' injunctions against the ban "with respect to foreign nationals who lack any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States," and agreed to hear the appeal of the Administration in the fall to two lower courts that had stayed the executive order. Immigrants from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen will be banned from the U.S. unless they have close family ties, or have accepted job offers in the U.S. or an invitation to lecture at or attend a U.S. university.
It is in our country’s self-interest to welcome immigrants. That policy has served the U.S. very well. It has been both right and smart to be driven by compassion and accept refugees and others who are looking to make an important contribution to this country. I pray that the Supreme Court puts an end to this ban once and for all.