The following is an address that I gave at Bryant University in Rhode Island back in 2013. Rereading it this morning, it seemed appropriate to share it in light of our current circumstances.
As someone trained in the academic study of religion, I could speak about the intersection of faith and citizenship in a very academic fashion. I could talk about the creation of the modern nation-state, the processes of secularization in modern Europe, the imposition of European colonial rule in Africa and Asia, and other historical forces which have determined the realities of our lives in the present. I could talk about the dwindling authority of the Catholic church, the rise of political fundamentalisms that infect many religious traditions, the dynamics of political parties seeking power, and many other things which scholars of religion, political science, public policy, sociology, and other disciplines dedicate their careers to understanding. All of this work, mostly done within our universities, is valuable, for the collective human attempt to understand the world in which we live is part of the enterprise of civilization. But a library full of books means nothing without human hearts ready to imbibe that knowledge and act upon it.
The Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim traditions have produced many books. So too have the secular discourses emerging primarily from Europe and North America in the last few centuries. But we, as human beings, naturally gravitate to living examples of courage and resilience, wisdom and caring, love and compassion. We crave to know other human beings who make justice more than an abstract concept, but a real possibility in the here-and-now. We yearn to meet people who will stand with us in times of personal crisis, and help us find a way out. And it is here where the rubber meets the road, and where we must walk the walk. For either we are those people ourselves, or we should be striving to become like them, or we should be supporting them in their hard work.
Different people might imagine different inspiring examples: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, The Prophet Muhammad, The Prophet Jesus, The Prophet Moses, Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta, St. Francis of Assisi, or whoever else might come to mind – your own mother or father perhaps, your grandfather, your local pastor, a close friend. Every one of us has an image in our heads of the highest states possible for human existence. And one of the most sacred duties of a government is to foster the conditions in which each and every one of us can dream that dream as widely as possible, and undertake our journeys in search of making those dreams a reality.
As a teenager, all of the aforementioned examples inspired me, and told me with words and deeds that I could be better than I was. That I could let go of selfishness, that perhaps God was real, that a single human life could make a profound difference in the lives of billions of other human beings, and that everything beautiful and profound on this small Earth was not a meaningless accident meant to fade away into nothingness at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy.
Eventually, the example of Muhammad, born in the city of Makkah in the year 570 of the Christian calendar, came to rule my heart and mind as the greatest example of human perfection. His was a life that should be the envy of both the sacred and secular discourses of Western civilization – perfect balance between Heaven and earth. Put simply, he is the most successful human being who ever lived. More people have memorized the book that he brought, the Qur’an, than any other book in the history of human civilization. Billions of times every day, people pray for God to bless him and his family, using the Arabic words, “Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammad wa Al Muhammad.” He is the main reason that one of the official languages of the UN is Arabic, spoken by over 200 million people as their native tongue, and perhaps another billion as a second language. He founded one of the most enduring political entities in human history, which bridged East and West and fostered globalization before the English language even existed, let alone coined an anachronistic term like “globalization.” His descendants, traced through his daughter, include many men and women of scholarship and spirituality unlike any others I have met on this earth. And for Muslims, he is the last Messenger of God to humanity, the example to be followed until the end of time. He is the great intercessor, who will be granted the right to intercede for his followers when they stand before God on Judgement Day. He is the one who shows us that being with God also means being in the world. And he is the one who helps us begin to understand that Mercy and Justice are fundamental attributes of God, just as they are interwoven in the nature of this worldly life.
This is my personal faith, based on my reading of human history. And the greatest thing my citizenship has ever given me was the ability to discover this based on my own unique conscience and conviction, through study, reflection, and ultimately an intensity of prayer which defines who I am. Not once in my spiritual journey have American government officials told me that this cannot be my faith. Sure, I have been taken in the back at airports – they wanted to check a little deeper as to why I had stamps from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Pakistan in my passport. But on the flip side, women and men in Rhode Island who spend day and night trying to keep our communities safe have given me and other Muslim religious leaders their personal cell numbers, just in case we ever find ourselves the target of unjustified government suspicion.
In this respect, citizenship is a gift to be cherished, for it means that we are free to be who we are called to be. This gift has not come to me because I am better than anyone else, or I deserve it more than any other human soul on this Earth – it is only because the United States is where God has placed me in the course of human history. But with gifts from our Creator and Sustainer comes the necessity of gratitude. Gratitude that moves beyond words, becomes actions, and ends in the manifestation of authentic humility, by God’s grace. Gratitude that remembers the desperate need of so many here in this country, and so many beyond these borders.
We are all interconnected, and if you do not believe it, then go the International Institute of Rhode Island, and meet the newly arriving refugees. Go to speak with the Orthodox priest in Pawtucket, and learn of how the conflict in Syria is affecting his community. Go meet with the congregants of the mosque in North Smithfield, one of Rhode Island’s 6 mosques, and hear heartbreaking stories of what their relatives in Pakistan are currently undergoing. And go to the West End of Providence and Olneyville, and see for yourself the way that the land of the free and the home of the brave is also the land of the broken souls and the home of people without anyone to care for them.
As a born and bred American who loves his country, I am still not quite sure what it is about the United States that makes so much good possible, but also so much neglect. What is it about the American experience that allows us to turn with such callous hearts towards those who have undergone trials and sufferings that would break us? It may seem trite, but my insights so far come from an ad I saw on an airplane, which read “to the victor goes everything.” From reality shows to professional sports to the behavior of American military and diplomats, the message is drilled home day in and day out that victory is the only thing that matters. That if you become a member of the American or global elite, you have worth, but if you live your life as a janitor or working in Walmart, somehow you are inherently a loser. That life is about the quest to be on top – on top of a corporation, on top of a government, on top of your enemies, on top of everyone else, because I just don’t want to be the one on the bottom anymore. I want to be the one on top. I want to be the one calling the shots.
This is a sickness of the human heart, and as far as I know, all of the major religious traditions agree on this point. And it is a sickness that infects American culture from the bottom to the top. This sickness destroys us, even as we think it is empowering us. From the Islamic viewpoint, this is because, as the Qur’an states, “fa lillahi al-‘izzatu jami’a (all power and honor belongs to God alone).” When we try to rival God, we are in fact doing nothing but oppressing our own souls, or as one says in Arabic, “dhalimun li nafsihi.” Anytime we exercise power over ourselves or other human beings or over the natural world, we are running the risk of becoming an unjust oppressor. And the more power we have, the greater the risk. And so the person of faith takes the blessing of citizenship, which is a particular form of power, as a weighty responsibility to be just. To be just in our families. To be just in our dealings with others. To be just in our professional lives. To be just in our relations with those in other countries. To be just in our relationship with matters of ultimate concern.
The promise that America had on the world stage at the end of World War II, that made people from all over the world turn to this country, was because we seemed like a country that was more just than most. And the thing that has ruined that trust more than anything else has been our failure to live up to our own ideals, at home and abroad. But what is amazing about this country is that the story is not over. We are still capable of collective repentance for past injustices, and moving forward with an intention to rectify our situation on the basis of justice. We have yet to give up on the best version of our collective self, the one that we talk about in speeches but so often fail to emulate in our personal lives. The one that was embodied in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which was a continuation of the prophetic words of President Lincoln when he said, at the twilight of the Civil War, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” The America where you can be Pakistani, Moroccan, a white guy or the descendants of former slaves, and still find a world of possibility. One where a woman doesn’t have to flaunt her body to survive or get ahead, but is also free from the belittling and disempowering patriarchy which masquerades as “protecting women.” One where you might be desperately poor, but do not have to worry about whether or not you will get all that you need to be in the best of health. One where the defense budget is no longer equal to approximately the next 20 other countries’ defense budgets combined. One where we heed the words of one of our greatest presidents, Dwight Eisenhower, who said in 1953, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
On the streets of Providence, people are afraid of hunger. They are afraid of cold. They are afraid of getting sick and not knowing where to go. At Brown University, people are afraid of depression. They are afraid of sadness. They are afraid of living in a world without meaning. And these needs can be met, but only if we abandon what we thought we knew about how the “real world” works, and instead give ourselves, as much as we can each day, to the highest vision of what we think a citizen can be, to being human beings in the fullest sense of what that means to each of us. To giving up our quest to be the one on top, and instead dedicating our lives to “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” come what may of apparent victory or defeat. For as God says in the Qur’an, “inna Allaha yuhibb al-muqsitin (Truly, God loves those who are just).” And if we have God’s Love, then we need nothing else for all eternity.