11/30/2012 11:55 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

Our History of Religious Intolerance Must Come to an End

Although religious freedom is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, religious intolerance still exists in this country. Thanksgiving reminds us that the Pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution. But the Puritans did not welcome other religions into their colony. All through American history, most religions arriving on our shores have had to fight suspicion and intolerance.

Look at Catholic and Jewish Americans. They faced widespread discrimination and demands that the doors to America be closed to them. Even so, some anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic sentiment persists, but both communities are thriving today. Now it's Muslim Americans who grapple with persistent challenges to their loyalty as Americans.

Since 9/11, bias toward American Muslims has been fueled by fear of terrorism and ignorance about Islam as a religion and tradition. Well-funded individuals and groups fan this intolerance by spreading distortions and sowing distrust. They aim to exclude Muslims from American civic life.

Lost in all of this are the contributions Muslims have made, from our intellectual life to military service and -- more importantly -- the loyalty and support that America's 7 million Muslims have shown since 9/11 to help build and defend the United States.

This discrimination cannot go uncontested. As people of faith, we have a responsibility to embrace America's commitment to freedom of religion by counteracting this growing intolerance not just with talk, but with action.

At a recent gathering of religious scholars and leaders convened by Washington National Cathedral and the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, our aim was an honest understanding of how Muslims have been caricatured and marginalized since 9/11. We grasped the need to expand an interfaith outreach to Muslim organizations to help them counter these challenges.

A Pew Research poll reported that nearly four in 10 Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Islam, and an equal number link Islam with acts of violence. With such shocking religious illiteracy about Islam in our society, it's no small wonder that intolerance thrives.

What should be done?

First, we need to recover civic discourse. When a pastor burns a Quran, for instance, or anti-Muslim slogans appear in subway ads, we need to reject such actions as a failure to recognize the full humanity of our fellow-citizens -- an assertion that some people do not belong in the same way that "we" do.

But we cannot just react to incivility. We must engage audiences with real human stories out of the Muslim community; stories that stress our shared humanity and the role of Muslims in building our rich and diverse society.

We must act together through interfaith cooperation, especially with our young people, through organizations such as the Interfaith Youth Core that teaches a new generation how to come together and challenge the world. The Interfaith Alliance champions religious freedom while fighting extremism. Productions by BoomGen Studios highlight stories of interfaith cooperation in film and online media.

The religious rights of American Muslims are threatened every time anyone seeks to limit how Muslims participate in our society. Such limits contradict the religious imperative to work for social justice and provide all of God's creatures with the chance to grow and flourish as members of the community. We commit ourselves to honoring through word and deed the contribution of American Muslims. We also commit ourselves to work for justice because we believe justice is essential to create a more peaceful and equitable society.

The American Muslim identity has been forged within the same challenges that face all Americans: the need to belong and contribute to society as a whole while nurturing our own values of justice and acceptance. If we listen closely on Thanksgiving Day, we will hear so many Muslim-Americans giving thanks to God for the opportunity to live in America and practice Islam perhaps more freely than they did in their home countries.

We have a moral duty -- as both people of faith and Americans -- to take a stand for religious liberty and to make space for the Muslim-American identity to grow and prosper. Indeed, we will fail the guiding principles of this nation if we do not.

The Very Reverend Gary R. Hall is dean of Washington National Cathedral. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering is chair of the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative and author of Moving the Mountain.