April 7, 2016: Muslims in America: The story I heard

Belmont Citizen-Herald: April 7, 2016

Much of what was said at the recent forum on “Muslims in America—Hearing Their Story” here in Belmont was not really about Muslims at all.

The Belmont Religious Council and Belmont Against Racism, amongst others, hosted the forum.  Concerned citizens packed the room at the Beth El Temple, accompanied by elected officials, representatives of the Belmont police, and members of Belmont’s faith-based community.

The evening was powerful.  In explaining why understanding Muslims is a “human rights” issue rather than a religious issue, Harvard professor of religions Ali Asani said that “every human being has multiple identities. Religion is one. Race is another. Gender is another.  But when you categorize a human being with multiple identities, and you see this human being through just one dimension, it’s dangerous.”  Asani strove to “alert us to the dangers of denying Muslims the multiplicities of their identities and viewing them uni-dimensionally, just through the lens of religion.”

When Asani made that comment, it wasn’t just one lightbulb that popped on in my head, lightbulbs were popping as though that statement was walking down the Red Carpet at the Oscars.   I could see that I’m not merely a lawyer and an economist in my professional life. I’m also a parent, a spouse, a neighbor and a host of other things. Each of these personae helps shape who I am. With more than a billion Muslims in the world today, therefore, to categorically assert that it is religion alone that defines them seems atrociously hollow.

Asani’s observation is one of the foundations of human rights movements throughout the United States and elsewhere.  One could easily substitute any number of words for “Muslim” in his comments, and they would carry equal power.  Given Belmont’s rapidly increasing diversity, we need to be wary of viewing (and treating) our community’s residents “one dimensionally,” whether that dimension is religion, race, gender, nationality, or something else.

One of those single-dimensions in Belmont involves the “new-comer” identity.  I’ve heard far too many people say, with a laugh but nonetheless also with an edge, that “I’m still new; I’ve only lived in Belmont 30 years.”  In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau tells us, the median year that a tenant moved into their Belmont home was 2008; the median year a homeowner moved in was 1998.  Belmont is constantly changing.

After listening to professor Asani, I see two particularly pernicious dangers in this year’s political environment.  The first danger is that people focus only on the “big” issues of hateful intolerance (e.g., immigration) that seem to drive much of today’s political activism.  The bigger danger, however, is that we focus attention exclusively on opposing the statements and actions that appall us.  One thing professor Asani was seeking to teach us, I believe, is that we must not only consciously act to oppose the hate, but we must also consciously act to embrace tolerance and understanding in its stead.  Being passively neutral is not an option.

One message I heard professor Asani say was that embracing diversity doesn’t “just happen.” It requires work. I heard him caution us that the work of recognizing and appreciating each person’s “multiplicities” is a way to live, not a task to complete. As it was the Irish yesterday, and the Muslims today, it will be someone else tomorrow. Asani talked about achieving a “diversity of spirit” through education and communication, tasks that never end.  And I heard him say, finally, that this work doesn’t happen through government policy; rather it happens at an individual level, by conscious personal choices.

We all have work to do.  Today is a good day to start.

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