Members of Congress get a chance each year to invite a guest to attend the State of the Union address, and a number of US House members are using their invitations to make a vital point about religious pluralism.
In so doing, they are focusing attention on what is likely to be a vital part of President Obama’s message.
Obama has spoken a great deal in recent months about the importance of what the White House refers to as “our traditions of religious inclusion, freedom and cooperation among those with different beliefs”—and he is expected to make the point again during Tuesday night’s address.
Among those cheering him on will be Samba Baldeh, a City Council member from Madison, Wisconsin.
An immigrant from the West African nation of The Gambia, where roughly 90 percent of the population is Muslim, Baldeh was invited to the joint session of Congress by Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin.
“As a Muslim man and a local elected official, I see firsthand the impact of anti-Muslim political rhetoric and debate on my community,” says Baldeh, reflecting that “the recent rise in anti-Muslim sentiment around the country is troubling and affects real people’s lives every day.” “It drives me, as I know it does Representative Pocan, to be an advocate for those fleeing persecution and to protect the rights and freedoms of our country.”
Along with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim members of Congress, Pocan decided this year to highlight respect for religious diversity in general and for American followers of Islam in particular by inviting prominent Muslims to hear President Obama deliver his final State of the Union address.
“The anti-Muslim rhetoric by leading political figures in this country is alarming,” explained Pocan. “By bringing Alder Baldeh to the State of the Union I want to send a message to the Muslim community that this bigotry and fear mongering will not be tolerated. America has always remained a land of opportunity and hope for people of every faith and ethnicity. It is vital to remind ourselves of these core values, especially when some politicians try to spread hate in the name of votes.”
Among the roughly 20 members of the House and Senate who are inviting Muslims to the State of the Union address are Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, the first Muslim American elected to Congress, and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Floridian who chairs the Democratic National Committee chairwoman.
In addition, the Obama administration has invited Refaai Hamo, a Muslim refugee who recently arrived from Syria. Hamo, whose wife and daughter were killed in a missile attack, will sit with first lady Michelle Obama Tuesday night. So, too, will Naveed Shah, a Muslim-American veteran who served in Iraq.
“This is a way to say: Not on our watch,” says Ellison, whose guest will be his, Elijah, a US Army medic who is one of many Muslims serving
“We’re not going to sit here and let people spout hateful stuff about any group,” adds the congressman.
Ellison and Wasserman Schultz sent a letter to colleagues, urging them to “stand against hate” by inviting Muslims to Tuesday’s speech.
“Predictably, the vile comments castigating the entire Muslim population of the world, including American Muslims, have translated into a shameful and dangerous rise of attacks on individuals and vandalism of religious institutions,” they wrote. “This rhetoric and these actions are simply un-American. They undermine our values and weaken our ability to be a force for good around the world.”
Anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric has been all too common in recent months, as Republican politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have abandoned historic respect for religious pluralism. They are proposing to disregard the historic America values by employing religious tests in order to determine who can enter the United States—and in order to determine members of religious minorities are treated.
Inviting Muslim Americans to join the audience at the State of the Union address is not enough to undo all the damage that has been done by Trump and Cruz—and by the Republican politicians who emulate them. But the welcoming of Muslims to the Capitol in Washington does provide a reminder that, from the time of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, America’s wisest leaders have respected religious pluralism. And that wise contemporary leaders, like President Obama and enlightened members of Congress such as Pocan, Ellison and Wasserman Schultz, still do.