America's religious liberty unites, not divides
BY SANJAY MESHRI
Saturday, September 15, 2012
9/15/12 at 3:23 AM
A religious leader took the stage at the recent Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., to lead the delegates in prayer.
Pretty routine, right? Yes, except in this case, the religious leader was Ishwar Singh, president of the Sikh Society of Central Florida, and the prayer he offered came from his Sikh faith.
On the surface, Singh's appearance seemed out of place. Bearded and wearing a turban, Singh's visage may have even startled some onlookers. After all, the RNC for decades has been strongly associated with white, conservative, evangelical Christians.
But if we move past the superficial oddness of it, Singh's appearance at the RNC actually makes perfect sense. That's because, in the United States, religious freedom is the foundation of everything we stand for. This core value transcends political parties and helps define what makes our nation great.
By inviting a Sikh leader to give the invocation at their most important event, Republicans sent an unmistakable message of religious understanding that is not only patriotic, but timely, given its nomination of a Mormon and a Catholic to lead its election-year ticket.
The message was clear: It's time to honor and respect religious liberty for all Americans, not just those who practice the traditionally dominant faiths.
Unfortunately, we've seen recently that this message is not getting through to fringe elements in our society. On Aug. 5, several Sikhs were killed in an apparent hate-motivated mass shooting in Oak Creek, Wis. No doubt that tragedy at least partially led to Singh's invitation to pray at the Republican National Convention.
Similar examples of suspected hate crimes can be found closer to home. The day after the Wisconsin killings, a mosque in Joplin, mysteriously burned to the ground. While officials still haven't declared the cause of the Missouri fire, it is widely known that the mosque had been the target of would-be arsonists in the past.
Then, less than one week later, vandals shot paint balls at the Grand Mosque in Oklahoma City. As with the Joplin incident, there is no official pronouncement of a hate crime associated with this vandalism. But those of us who are concerned with religious freedom and social justice strongly suspect that, unfortunately, it was indeed hate that motivated this crime.
The paintball damage was minor. But the act itself, an act of hatred, demonstrates that intolerance is alive and well in Oklahoma. That's why we, as people of all faiths and beliefs, should stand together in opposing religious persecution and violence. We must be unyielding and resolute in rejecting those who would divide us based on our personal faiths.
In an essay for CNN, Ishwar Singh wrote, "I hope that my presence on the national stage will play a small part in helping Sikhs - and people of all races, faiths and orientations - be seen as part of the great American family."
Whether that message was audible above the din of election-year politics is debatable. But clearly, Republican leaders made an important gesture that all Americans, regardless of party affiliation, can take pride in. One can only hope this kind of civility and acceptance continues to push religious intolerance further to the margins, until one day, it disappears altogether.
Sanjay Meshri is president of the board of directors of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice.
Sanjay Meshri: One can only hope this kind of civility and acceptance continues to push religious intolerance further to the margins