Selma Is Now: Inclusion and Marginalization on the Bridge of Democracy

Thursday, March 12, 2015 - 5:47 am

Selma Is Now: Inclusion and Marginalization on the Bridge of Democracy

Standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, President Barack Obama reminded us that the march to Selma is not yet over.

Selma is now. Selma is now, and we — all of us — are on the bridge.

We are now beaten down, now turned back, and now march on ahead. The story of America is that of Selma: of a courageous, bold, non-linear march towards recognition and acquiring rights that we should have had all along.

We remember fondly that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. But it doesn’t bend on its own. Time is morally neutral. Things only get better when people put their bodies and souls on the line. There is no dignity gained without blood. The blood of John Lewis and his cracked skull, of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo, paid for Selma.

Selma applies to the inclusion of rights of all peoples. I want to examine the situation of Muslims on the metaphorical Selma of America, of the perhaps inevitable but certainly not finished march towards inclusion in the American public space.

President Barack Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis during a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Selma is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images.)

Selma, America, Ferguson, the borders, the marginalized, the excluded. These are political problems, civic problems, economic problems, no doubt. As a person of faith, they also represent an unambiguous moral and spiritual crisis as well. It affects all of us. None of us can be free until all of us are free.

God is to be found among humanity. In particular, God is to be found among the suffering and the brokenhearted. Yes, God is everywhere and nowhere, present in all and beyond all — and yet there is a “favoritism” that God has towards the long-suffering, those who are marginalized and oppressed for no fault of their own.

It’s for that reason that we track those people on the margins. There are many margins in today’s America: the poor, the undocumented, the sexually marginalized, Muslims, African-Americans…

It hurts me more when I see that message of exclusion coming from religious leaders. It perhaps shouldn’t matter where it is coming from, but it somehow does. Religion is neither positive nor negative, but simply an amplifier of all that is in our hearts. The beautiful becomes more beautiful; the vile becomes viler when it carries the authoritative force of religion.

I want religion to be a force of unity, a force for good, a force for justice. I want us to heed the call of God through Muhammad telling us that God is with the brokenhearted; I want to hear the voice of God in the Bible saying that the Divine is with the stranger, the widow, the marginalized, the weak, the poor, the orphan, the needy.

Loved ones speak during a vigil at the University of North Carolina following the murders of three Muslim students on February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Police investigating the murders said they were studying whether the fatal shootings were religiously motivated, as calls mounted for the killings to be treated as a hate crime. (Brendan Smialowski / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

None of us have a monopoly on suffering. No one community is solely marginalized. Indeed, the different modalities of justice and injustice are linked to one another. That’s why a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Thinking about where we stand on today’s bridge to Selma, I want to shed some light on some of the marginalization of one of the communities that I call home, the Muslim community.

I’ll begin with the way that some leaders of the faith community have led to the further marginalization of this community. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, has been in the news about his comments regarding Islam for a while. After 9/11, he called Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.” More recently, he was in the news again about his comments regarding the (since rescinded) Duke University plan to accommodate Muslims by having the call to prayer issued from the Duke Chapel. In those comments, Graham associated the Duke Muslim community with ISIS and Boko Haram.

This past week, Graham was in the news again. In an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, Graham asserted that radical Muslims had “infiltrated” the White House and were advising President Obama. Bill O’Reilly — himself no bastion of progressive pluralism — asked Graham to name these infiltrators. Graham, taken back at being asked to substantiate his baseless assertion, fumbled for words and suggested he would get back to the Fox News host. Of course he never has.

Graham’s discourse is far from alone these days. Time and time again, we see voices that call for marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from public discourse.

In the last week Hillary Clinton has been in the news about her usage of private email during her term as secretary of state. The Washington Post ran a story resurrecting the myth of the Muslim Brotherhood having a stranglehold on her through the service of Clinton’s faithful staff member Huma Abedin. The National Review ran a similar guilt by association story on Huma Abedin.

Nor are presidential candidates immune. Herman Cain, who at one point was leading the field of Republican nominees in 2012, was asked if he would be open to appointing a Muslim to his eventual cabinet. His response? “No, I will not.” I wonder if we would be similarly silent if a presidential candidate had talked about excluding women or African Americans from his cabinet. Why should our response about Muslims be any different?

A leading Islamophobe, Daniel Pipes, actually stated that “the presence, and increased stature, and affluence, and enfranchisement of American Muslims” represents “true dangers” for American Jews. Let us pay attention to the language used by Pipes: “enfranchisement.” Enfranchisement of Muslims is presented as a danger. So what is the alternative? Disenfranchisement?

Nor are these stories limited to the United States. We see a similar attack on the political and civic participation of Muslims in Europe. One recent example was the personal attacks on a leading British Muslim figure, Muddassar Ahmed. The attack piece, written by an Andrew Gilligan, accuses Muslims of something called “entryism”; he defines the term as such: “When a political party or institution is infiltrated by groups with a radically different agenda.“ Muddassar Ahmed defended himself by talking about engagement as a key strategy in the maturity of a community.

So what’s going on here?

Can Muslims play in the political arena? Can they be full participants in the civic process of building the beloved community?

Ponder the options. If Muslims choose the path of civic withdrawal, it leads to isolationism, alienation, and eventually separation. If Muslims engage the system from within — as every other group has done — they are accused of entryism and infiltration.

Zainab Chaudry joins other supporters from The Council on American-Islamic Relations during a news conference outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the court heard oral arguments in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch on February 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. Samantha Elauf of Tulsa, Oklahoma, filed a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saying Abercrombie & Fitch violated discrimination laws in 2008 by declining to hire her because she wore a head scarf, a symbol of her Muslim faith. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images.)

What is worse, these accusations remind one of the not-too-distant past when anti-Semitic attacks were part of our public discourse, where being “suspected” of being Jewish was part of the process of politically portraying someone as an outsider. In another era, we saw President Kennedy having to prove that his own loyalty was not to the Pope, but to America.

On second thought, it wasn’t even that long ago. It was the 2006 senatorial elections that saw George Allen snap back at the moderator’s question about his own maternal Jewish heritage as “making aspersions.” It was the 2008 election that Colin Powell had to come to the defense of candidate Obama when Republicans (and Hillary Clinton) were “accusing” Obama of being a Muslim.

Democracy is an ongoing exercise in inclusion. Our own democratic experiment began with a noble ideal, betrayed. It limited citizenship to adult white (wealthier) males. It grew with time to include African Americans, then made it all but impossible for them to actually vote through a bigoted system of poll taxes, literacy tests, “grandfather” clauses, and voucher systems. In Dallas Country, Alabama, only 130 out of 15,115 eligible African-American voters were registered to vote. Our democratic experiment eventually grew to include women.

For the longest time our official government policy was to allow citizenship at a rate that preserved the (white) make-up of America. Our democratic experiment used to exclude people from Asian-barred zones, then removed that restriction in 1965 by making it possible for Asians and Africans to move to the U.S. provided they were highly skilled. We still disenfranchise those caught up in the criminal justice system — disproportionally black and brown bodies. We still make it hard for Latino immigrants to become citizens. And now, the crown jewel of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act, has been gutted of its enforceability (guaranteed through the 5th section).

With Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders looking on, President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act in the Capitol Rotunda on August 6, 1965. (Yoichi R. Okamoto / U.S. National Archives.)

No, the march on the Selma of democracy is not always going forward. Today, we are betraying the blood shed by John Lewis, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Viola Liuzzo.

Yes, Selma is now.

As a person of faith, I know that I cannot be free until we are all free. I know that unless we all cross the bridge in Selma, none of us can cross it.

Yes, it matters to me that Muslims be allowed to be full and meaningful participants in the public arena. But I know that our participation is linked to everyone else’s full participation. I cannot be who I ought to be until we all be who we ought to be.

We are all on the bridge to Selma, defiantly staring the forces of exclusion in the eye. These exclusion forces are not divine, not eternal, not right, and not just. We know that no lie can live forever.

Someday, with the grace of God, we will all cross the bridge, hand in hand. We will honor the blood of John, Jimmie, Viola, Deah, Yusor, and Razan, and countless others whose suffering is our constant companion on the bridge of democracy.

And then we’ll sing Glory.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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