LONGMONT, Co., 05/12/2011 — America is exceptional, in significant part, because we open the doors of opportunity to people from all walks of life. No matter the pigment of one’s skin, the nature of one’s faith or the land of one’s origin this is a country where you may pursue your dreams and fulfill your potential.
It is part of America’s history that we knock down the barriers of discrimination. We have prospered as a nation because of our tolerance and acceptance of newcomers.
It also is part of our history that tolerance, let alone acceptance of minority groups, seldom comes easily. Our history is blotched with far too many examples of discrimination, segregation and exclusion. As a nation, we have had to overcome slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, internment camps and our own versions of apartheid.
The American experience for many, perhaps most, immigrant groups began with persecution. Organized efforts were made to exclude each group of newcomers – whether Irish, Italian, Latino, Jewish or Catholic – from the American dream.
The fearful side of human nature begets discrimination. All societies are afraid of the outsider. We erect barriers that make it difficult for newcomers to join our communities. Even in a country that prides itself on tolerance, the process of acceptance can be ugly.
We overcome our fears with the help of public leaders who have the rare gift to see through hate and focus on our nation’s potential. These leaders have the ability to endure personal ridicule, or worse, and still maintain their optimism that the future will be better.
At the moment when these leaders first step forward and call on Americans to be their better selves they are often labeled radicals and menaces to society. As time passes, we recognize them as the true leaders they are.
We are celebrating the bravery of such leaders this year with 50th anniversary commemorations of Freedom Riders who helped bring an end to segregation.
Our children and grandchildren learn about the these struggles in history books and ask, “How could such injustices have persisted for so long?”
This is the arc of American progress that, unfortunately, plays itself out again and again. Indeed, this familiar American saga is replaying itself in Tennessee.
The Tennessee legislature is considering bills that target immigrants and Muslims – including U.S. Citizens. Senate Bill 1028, in its original form, equates Muslims’ religious practices with criminal activity while Senate Bill 1670 would restrict the movements of legal refugees.
The bills’ supporters claim the legislation will promote the safety and the general welfare of Tennessee communities. The rhetoric is not so benign.
It would be easy to understand if Muslims in Tennessee feel angry or disillusioned. Many Muslims (or their families) came to America to escape persecution only to experience it here. Instead, Muslims in Tennessee are energized. Public leaders within the Muslim community, like so many American leaders who came before them, are rising to the occasion.
Remziya Suleyman is one of these leaders. A native of Kurdistan, whose family endured persecution in Iraq, Ms. Suleyman views the turmoil in Tennessee as a “blessing in disguise.”
“The Muslim community in Tennessee is awakening for the first time,” she told me last week. “We’ve been energized because Tennessee is our home. This is where we raise our children, where we have our businesses. We are Americans and this is our home.”
Ms. Suleyman reports that more than 500 Muslims have participated in rallies. Hundreds are writing letters and scores are meeting with their legislators.
“My proudest moments are when we are able to sit down with legislators who didn’t even know they had Muslim constituents. We’ve been able to educate them about Muslims in Tennessee. It’s been very positive,” Ms. Suleyman explained.
It is not surprising that Ms. Suleyman draws her inspiration from the civil rights leaders of the past. “I look at the hard work, the obstacles and the sacrifice of those who worked for women’s rights and civil rights. If not for those struggles, I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “Their struggles are why I have a sense of optimism.”
It’s not always easy for Ms. Suleyman or her colleagues. There is price one pays when a person chooses to be a leader in the public arena. “I know, every day, as a Muslim, as a woman, and as an immigrant, people will look at me differently. When I go out wearing my hijab I know there will be stares and comments.”
Faith, community, and the future are what help Ms. Suleyman through the difficult days. Ms. Suleyman believes there are more difficult days to come. “I think it will be tough for a while but we’ll get to a better place,” she remarked.
“I look at the positive changes,” she continued. “This experience is unifying our community. We are learning about each other. We have the support of the interfaith community. Tennesseans from all walks of life are saying [these bills] detract from the reputation of our state.”
But, it is the future more than the present that motivates Ms. Suleyman. She says that when she needs to recharge her batteries, “I look at my nieces. I don’t want them to go through what I’ve gone through.” She doesn’t think her nieces will. “I think we’ll look back on the racist rhetoric and these actions [by legislators] and say, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’”
That is the story of American progress.
* * *
John Creighton writes on community life and public leadership at johncr8on.com. He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook. Read more of John’s work in Dispatches From The Heartland at the Communities at the Washington Times.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.