Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Thoughts on Tolerance

My school is a diverse place, with students whose families represent faiths far and wide, including Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and probably a few other faiths I've forgotten. The students are comfortable in their diversity in ways that always impress me.

By and large the young men and women debating the issues in my class discuss questions of race and religion in ways underlined by a fundamental ethic of tolerance. Some of them are first or second-generation Americans; many are students who speak one language at school and another at home.  They are proud to be Americans, and they certainly understand the importance of historic American liberties.  In my history and government classes, they read their copy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and I encourage them to take comfort from the notion that their culture and beliefs are respected and protected by our nation.

Current politics are a cornerstone of my government classes and the issues of the day always receive a dissection in my classroom.  It is with some regret that I approach a school year as our nation is immersed in a debate about the Cordoba Initiative's proposal to build a Muslim cultural institute and mosque in Lower Manhattan.

My concern isn't with the folks at Cordoba, which is led by Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, a man who has repeatedly condemned Al Qaeda and terrorism and is committed to a peaceful dialogue.  My frustration is with the dubious public discussion that has emerged.  Republican critics such as Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Rudy Giuliani are far too eager to engage in demagoguery than they are willing to actually lead.  Witness the firestorm of ignorant condemnation of the building of the cultural center in lower Manhattan.  The willingness of the professional right's naysayers to paint American Muslims with the broad brush of intolerance isn't just fool-hardy.  It's dangerous and offensive.

More to the point, it violates the very cornerstone of our founding and our Constitution.  We are a nation with a proud historic tradition of religious tolerance and diversity. As a distinguishing characteristic it may be the most important thing that we demonstrated to the world: that people of different faiths can live together in peace and cooperation.  To take such a history for granted and to condemn other faiths in the name of our so-called "Christian" nation is to abandon all that we have ever stood for.  I want to hand my students the world that they deserve: one of fundamental tolerance.  The mean-spirited invective against the cultural center is making that awfully difficult.

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