“There is everything right with being an American Muslim”

It is customary for Muslims to begin by invoking the name of the all merciful and compassionate Creator of the heavens and the Earth, and all that is between them, the God of Abraham, the God of Ishmael and Isaac, the God of Moses and Aaron, the God of Jesus and Mother Mary, and the God of Muhammad. Peace and blessings be upon all of these noble prophets and messengers.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen and thank you.

I am honored to be here today, at this distinguished organization, and I thank Richard Haass and the Council on Foreign Relations for the opportunity to speak to you.

We come together at a time of great crisis and danger. What began as a dispute over a community center in Lower Manhattan has grown into a much larger controversy about the relationship between my beloved religion and my beloved country—between Islam and America.

The events of the past few weeks have saddened me to my core.

I regret that some have misunderstood our intentions. I am distressed that in this heated political season, some have exploited this issue for their own agendas. And I am disappointed that so many of the arguments have been based on misinformation and harmful stereotypes.

At the same time, I know this is not the entire story, but only the beginning. We have many chapters ahead of us, and already there is much to be thankful for.

I am grateful to Mayor Bloomberg and to so many others who have spoken out in favor of our project. Their positive responses have filled my heart and I thank you all.

To our President, Barak Obama—

Mr. President, I thank you for your support, and for speaking out so forcefully and repeatedly on behalf of religious tolerance and the values that make this county great.

And I am deeply grateful for your robust efforts to make peace in the Middle East a priority in your first term.

And for all those who have voiced their sincerely held objections to our plans with civility, with respect, and with open minds and hearts, I am also grateful. You affirm my belief in the decency and the morality of the American people.

I do recognize that among the critics are some who lost their loved ones on 9/11. To all of them, I offer my heartfelt sympathy and prayers for their departed souls. Every year we mark the anniversary with great sadness but also with greater resolve to fight against the radical philosophies that are used to justify these acts.

My goal here is twofold: 

First, to reach out to my brothers and sisters of different faiths in America to explain and to share my love of Islam.

And second, to reach out to my Muslim brothers and sisters in nations all over the world to explain and share my love for America. It is a mission anchored in my own experience.

Let me begin by telling you my story. I came to America by boat when I was only 17 years old. We sailed into New York harbor on a cold day in December 1965.

I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time—that beacon of freedom rising majestically in the harbor. I remember admiring her strength and beauty. I had no idea what life would be like in America, but I was eager to find out.

I was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents. My father was a religious scholar who studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, an Islamic institution of great distinction and learning.  My father was sent to this country with his wife and five children to head a growing Muslim community.

He was active in what used to be called “the ecumenical movement”—promoting understanding between different religions. Today we call it “interfaith dialogue.”

The 1960s was a turbulent decade in America. As s an undergraduate at Columbia University, I witnessed first hand how the Vietnam War was tearing the country apart. There were riots and Civil Rights marches and protest movements. At Columbia, I was smack in the middle of it all.

The religious character of America also surprised me. Coming from a country where the majority was Muslim, I found this society remarkably non-religious. In the 1960s, religion was considered by many to be passé. I remember the cover of Time Magazine that asked: Is God Dead?

All this was shocking and extraordinary, and I thought to myself: Wow, this place is really different.

I got my bachelor’s in physics at Columbia, I married and raised my children here. I had a number of occupations—a high school teacher, a salesman of industrial products, and as a struggling writer.

I am a typical New Yorker …  I am an American.

In 1979, I became a naturalized citizen. I believe in the values of the U.S. Constitution and know these sacred rights have been secured with the blood of brave American soldiers.  My own niece serves in the U.S. Army.

I am also a student of history, and I know this country was founded by individuals who left their countries of origin because they were unhappy with their government and with the restrictions imposed on religious life and liberties. They wanted something better.

Participatory government. Freedom of speech. The separation of church and state. These were among my first lessons in American civic life.

In America, we PROTECT different expressions of faith. We assemble in our various houses of worship to pray, to chant, to sing, to recite scripture, or simply to come together and draw strength as a community.

When we are in our houses of worship and in our homes, we can pray however we like. But when we go out in our communities, we participate in  shared ideas and values.

That choice—to be religious or not—has forced me to think about who I am and what I truly want to be. And it has given me a profound appreciation for the country that PROVIDES those freedoms.

In that sense, you could say I found my faith in this country. For me, Islam and America are organically bound together.

This is not my story alone. The American way of life has helped many Muslims make a conscious decision to embrace their faith. That choice is precious. And that is why America is precious.

I know that the country that at first had seemed so unreligious in fact has a profoundly spiritual base and a religious purpose.

The Founding Fathers of this nation were men of faith. Within the governing documents they created—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they affirmed their most sacred spiritual values. These documents are legal expressions of a religious ideal that is rooted in the three faiths practiced by the the People of the Book—Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Since 1983, I have served as Imam—or prayer leader—of a mosque in Tribeca. It is in the same neighborhood as the World Trade Center 12 blocks away. The Twin Towers were the anchors of our neighborhood and part of our daily lives.

Our congregants come from all over the world and from every walk of life.

On September 11, a number of them tragically lost their lives. Our community grieved alongside our neighbors, and together we helped rebuild Lower Manhattan.

I am a devout Muslim. I pray five times a day and I observe the rituals required by my faith. And I am a proud American citizen. I vote in elections. I pay taxes. I pledge allegiance to the flag. And I’m a Giants fan.

Both this country and the teachings of my faith have nourished me in essential ways. Both make up my core identity as a human being.

But ladies and gentlemen, this is not just MY story—it is the American immigrant story. It is your story and that of your parents, and your grandparents.

As President Obama made clear in his remarks in Cairo, American Muslims have enriched this country throughout its history.

Since the 1800’s, American history has been intertwined with the history of Muslims. Many thousands of African Muslims were brought here as slaves, and this became their home. In the 1950s and the 1960s, they took up the cause of freedom in the Civil Rights movement and we witnessed the reemergence of Islam in the African American community.

Their struggle is central to the narrative of Islam in America.

From them.. to the Sudanese in Minnesota … to the Syrians and Lebanese in North Dakota … to the Egyptians and North Africans in Astoria, Queens—THEY are Americans.

WE are Americans.

It’s not about THEM—it’s about US.

When we fast, pray, donate to charities, and observe the Commandments, we exemplify the highest ideals of the Founding Fathers and the highest ideals of our faith traditions.

As immigrants, we participate in the historical process of absorbing American culture, from one generation to the next. But the challenge of fitting in is often made more difficult by rejection.

Other groups and faiths have found themselves the targets of prejudice—that includes Jews and Catholics, Irish and Italians, blacks and Hispanics.  In time, each group has overcome those challenges and our core values have been reaffirmed. Now it is OUR turn.

Let me now address the subject of extremism. Every religion in the world has extremists. Sadly, Islam is among them. ALL FAITHS have among their members people who distort and twist the core values for their own agendas. They advocate positions that we in this room and that decent people all over the world find totally absolutely abhorrent.

LET THERE BE NO MISTAKE: Islam categorically rejects the killing of innocent people. Terrorists VIOLATE the sanctity of human life and corrupt the meaning of our faith.

In no way do they represent our religion. We must not let them define us.

Radical extremists would have us subscribe to the theory of a worldwide battle between Muslims and non-Muslims. That is false. The battlefront today is not between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is between moderates of all the faith traditions and extremists of all the faith traditions.

We must not let the extremists—whatever their faith or political persuasion—hijack our media. That only fuels more extremism. It is a dangerous, destructive cycle. And we must break it by creating a coalition of moderates from all the faith traditions to combat the extremists.

When irresponsible individuals or the media equate Muslims with anti-Americanism, or extremism, and when they say that Islamic values are fundamentally violent or domineering, all of are obliged to refute it. And refute it loudly.

For 35 years, I’ve been explaining the faith of Islam at schools and universities, churches and synagogues, and in mosques. And in recent years I’ve traveled abroad, explaining the values and institutions of America to people of other nationalities.

Skeptics will ask, why spend time in dialogue? What good can talking do? And I acknowledge, it’s hard work.

Genuine understanding can only happen when there is honesty, sincerity of motive, and an open heart. When issues are politicized, or used as fodder for commentators on the right or the left, we just add fuel on the flames of misunderstanding.

The need to clear up the many misconceptions about Islam and America is greater now than ever. These last few weeks have shown us the hurtful and destructive power of extremist acts and language.

That is why I REMIND you that the story is not over yet. That is why what happens right here, right now, in this city, matters more than ever.

How we confront our problems and reconcile our differences is resonating around the world.

I have recently returned from a trip abroad, on a mission by the State Department. I went to Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. It was my fourth trip representing the U.S. government and the American people.

On two occasions I was asked to go on this mission by the Bush administration, and twice I represented the Obama administration.

I’m bi-partisan.

These trips are important because people all around the world admire our values and our institutions. As an American and as a Muslim I believe I can make a meaningful contribution by serving as a messenger, by explaining what life is like here in the United States, and by helping clear up misperceptions.

In recent days, some people have asked, is there really a need for an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan? Is it worth this firestorm? The answer is YES.

Because this center will be a place for all faiths to come together in mutual respect. It will bring honor to the city of New York, to American Muslim across the country, and to Americans everywhere. The world will be watching what we do there.

And so I offer you my pledge: We will live up to our ideals.

That is also why eight years ago I established a multi-faith organization called the Cordoba Initiative, named for the time in Cordoba, Spain when Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in the most tolerant and enlightened society on Earth. The goal of the Cordoba Initiative is to repair the damage done to Muslim-American relations in recent years.

Inspiring the project are the two commandments at the heart of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim faiths:  To love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our might. And to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Let us REJECT those who would use this crisis and the memory of 9/11 to achieve their own ends. Let us especially not EXPLOIT the memories of the victims of that tragedy, or the suffering of their families and friends. Let us CONDEMN the use of holy texts or religious symbols for political or financial gain, or for fame.

Let us AFFIRM that the values of Islam coexist in harmony with tolerant, peace-loving nations everywhere.

I call upon each of you to think of what YOU CAN DO to make a difference.

• To the HEADS OF GOVERNMENT, some of whom have already reached out to me, make the spirit of Cordoba multi-national. Let us share it with the world.

• To the POLITICIANS among us, reject those who would sell America’s soul for short-term gains in public opinion.

• To the MEDIA, remember that while the campaign against terrorism is fought with troops and armaments, the campaign against radical ideologies is about winning hearts and minds. You can fuel the radicals, or your can limit their airtime.

• To the BUSINESS COMMUNITY, recognize that in supporting moderation there really is profit and prosperity.

• To my FELLOW FAITH LEADERS, let us continue the extraordinary dialogue that has emerged from this crisis.

• To my FELLOW AMERICANS, Muslims and non-Muslims, reach out to each other in your communities. Open your homes and extend your hearts in the spirit of friendship and goodwill.

In closing, I want to remind you of an incident from the presidential campaign in 2008 involving Colin Powell—a man I deeply respect.

He’s been at the center of many ferocious debates about the Middle East, and about race and religion, and he has taken positions that have alienated both the left and the right in this country.

In October 2008, General Powell talked about seeing a photo essay on American troops serving abroad. One picture was of a mother grieving in Arlington National Cemetery.

She had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And you could see the writing on the headstone. It gave his awards—the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star. It showed that he died in Iraq. He was just twenty years old.

And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a cross. It didn’t have a Star of David. It had the crescent and the star of Islam.

His name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan, and HE WAS AN AMERICAN. He was from New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he was old enough to serve his country. And he gave his life.

The photo came out around the time that a controversy had broken out over President Obama’s faith—an issue that STILL has not gone away.

“He’s a Christian,” Powell said, speaking about President Obama. “He has always been a Christian. But the really right question to ask is, “SO WHAT if he were a Muslim? Is there something WRONG with being a Muslim in this country?”

Our answer as a nation, then and now, is NO, there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim in America.

There is everything RIGHT with being an American Muslim.

I pray to the Amighty God, Creator of us all.

Oh God, bless all those who are committed to work for peace on Earth, for as You have said, blessed are the peacemakers.

Thank you.

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