By Russell Simmons and Rabbi Marc Schneier
One of us got his start by promoting parties, selling a new genre of music out of a college dorm room; the other followed in the spiritual footsteps of his father and his father’s father. In our careers as a music entrepreneur and a spiritual leader, both of us have been fortunate and blessed – we’ve met, worked with and befriended musicians, poets and world leaders.
However, our greatest gift is that which binds us together as friends and colleagues: Our shared love and admiration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his teaching of compassion, understanding and acceptance of all of God’s children.
Growing up in very different parts of America with very different religious imperatives, we know quite personally what a struggle it can be to answer Dr. King’s call. But we’ve not only embraced this challenge, we relish it.
Dr. King forged an alliance with American Jewish leaders, a collaboration which brought about one of the most significant social and political changes in our nation’s history. As a team, we have worked tirelessly to help restore that black-Jewish alliance.
Dr. King understood that he was calling for difficult, even radical change. Better than most, he understood the patience and good will that would be required if American society was to move away from its internal divisions – and he called upon us to summon our better angels: “We must learn to live together as brothers,” he said, “or perish together as fools.”
Yet last year saw America again behaving with distressing bigotry toward a group of loyal Americans and people of faith.
The Muslim community is one of our most racially and ethnically diverse communities, including whites of European descent, blacks of African descent, as well as Arabs, Asians, Hispanics, immigrants and the native-born.
Like the rest of the country, Muslim Americans grieved on 9/11, and far too many are counted among those who mourn loved ones killed that day. Many have sent sons and daughters overseas in the years since, only to mourn their deaths in battles waged far from home.
Even while grieving their own dead, America’s Muslim leaders have consistently and categorically condemned terrorism and extremism and, acknowledging the fears of their neighbors, have taken bold steps to reach out to those around them.
But not all of us have greeted them as fellow members of our beloved community, or even as worthy citizens, but instead, shamefully, with bitterness and distrust.
Today, language has the power to be more important than ever before. With the rapid pace at which things are spread through television and the Internet, everything we say has a lasting impact. Verbal attacks only exasperate the problem. We cannot allow the ongoing use of hate speech and divisive rhetoric. Words have consequences.
Just last week, we were reminded words are not cheap, but that words can kill. In an atmosphere soaked in vitriol and diatribe, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the head while hosting a constituents event outside a Tucson grocery store. Six people died, and 13 others were wounded. While the motive of suspected gunman Jared Lee Loughner is unknown, some have blamed inflammatory political rhetoric for creating an environment that encourages violence. As Proverbs (18:21) reminds us, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.”
In this spirit, we must be cautious of the rampant demonization of the American Muslim community. What some would casually pass off as harmless rhetoric to fire up a crowd of protesters at the site of a planned mosque in New York, Tennessee or elsewhere can be interpreted by some as a call to violence. Who knows the potential consequences that could result from such finger-pointing and hate-mongering?
Dr. King knew the power of words, and he knew the power of love. If we as a society do not want to perish together as fools, we must consciously include Muslim Americans in our beloved community as the brothers and sisters they are.
Russell Simmons and Rabbi Marc Schneier are the chairman and president, respectively, of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization dedicated to fighting intolerance and promoting understanding between ethnic communities.