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America’s Legacy of Tolerance

Norway Attacks Highlight Need to Recognize Why Diversity Is Important

SOURCE: AP/Seth Wenig

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, center, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and local religious leaders voice their support for a proposed mosque near Ground Zero at a news conference on Governors Island in New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty in the background on August 3, 2010.

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When the manifesto of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man recently charged with killing at least 76 people in an Oslo bombing and a shooting rampage at a summer camp for young political activists, was released to the public, one thing was strikingly clear: He looked to a number of Islamophobic Americans as his role models and referenced their ideas in his grand strategy to save Europe from Muslim colonization. In addition to basing his vitriol on a deep misunderstanding of the historic battles between Christians and Muslims from the 12th to 14th centuries, Breivik selectively drew from some of the most intolerant and fearful voices in a changing America while ignoring stronger American voices that celebrate diversity as a principle at the heart of our foundation and one of our nation’s greatest competitive advantages.

Breivik apparently referenced a number of right-wing anti-Muslim activists such as Frank Gaffney, Pamella Geller, and Brigitte Gabriel, who orchestrated the “Ground Zero Mosque” hysteria last year. But while Breivik’s frightful worldview was shaped by the fear-mongering of these individuals who claimed to be protecting American values—while ironically contesting religious freedom—we must not forget that progressive voices ultimately prevailed in the Ground Zero debate.

A number of individuals and groups championed tolerance and successfully argued that diversity is one of our nation’s greatest strengths:

  • President Barack Obama: Last August the president underlined the necessity for people from diverse backgrounds to respect one another while supporting the Islamic center and mosque near New York’s Ground Zero: “It is a testament to the wisdom of our founders that America remains deeply religious—a nation where the ability of peoples of different faiths to coexist peacefully and with mutual respect for one another stands in contrast to the religious conflict that persists around the globe.” The president stipulated that Muslims were well within their rights to build a place of worship at this private site and made clear that America was distinct for its tolerance, not prejudice.
  • Mayor Michael Bloomberg: In a now often-quoted speech on Governors Island last August, the mayor of New York City staunchly—and emotionally—defended the construction of the mosque and community center near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Bloomberg invoked religious freedom as one of America’s most important values and stressed that this meant tolerance for people of all faiths in a country that was built and sustained by immigrants. Opposing the idea that Muslims should be treated differently than anyone else, he emphasized, “Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. … Muslims are as much a part of our City and our country as the people of any faith and they are as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as any other group.”
  • New York Neighbors for American Values: The grassroots coalition made up of more than 130 organizations and thousands of individuals from New York represented the diverse voices that came together to “promote and defend the constitutional rights of religious freedom, diversity and equality.” This coalition also included 9/11 families, taking the wind out of the sails of critics who argued that the proposed Islamic center was an insult to those who lost loved ones in the attacks. Susan Lerner, the executive director of the New York office of the watchdog group Common Cause and one of the founders of the coalition, said the group came together to support the center because "This is not just about Muslims; this is about who we are as Americans. … there will always be people who are offended standing next to people who are different from others."

These voices also pointed out that the mosque had been in the neighborhood for decades without complaint and that the center was fulfilling quintessential American ideals of community and civic engagement by building a structure that would be open to people of all faiths. The plans for the center are moving forward now, and these are the voices of reason that prevailed. Each of these resounding endorsements for religious freedom argue that the American identity necessarily relies on embracing people from diverse backgrounds and that there is no single race, ethnicity, or religion more American than another.

The calamity in Oslo was an attack on young people who seemed to believe in these same ideals of tolerance and wanted to be part of a political leadership that represented similar values. One way to honor the young lives lost is to amplify voices of tolerance that make America a stronger nation over the hostile, anti-Muslim voices that divide us. As our country becomes more diverse through demographic change, we will have to choose between listening to the fearful among us who seek to tear us apart or the inspiring voices who explain why we’re greater than the sum of our parts.

Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.

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