Beyond race consciousness to God

by Prof. Parvez Ahmed and Sen. Larry Shaw

Special to the Times-Union

We are the products of, in the words of Sen. Barack Obama, "the decency and generosity of the American people."

One of us, Larry Shaw, is the son of slaves who rose to become one of the highest elected state officials and the other, Parvez Ahmed, an immigrant who came to America seeking higher education but stayed for its values. Like Obama, only in America is our story possible. And we are not alone.

Despite our successes we have been at the receiving end of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, hysteria regarding the "other" in America.

A systematic distortion of facts has painted all members of our faith and ethnic groups as either "violent" or "angry." Individual indiscretions have been conflated with group ideology.

The recent controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons once again exposes the fragile state of race relations in America.

Such propensity to stereotype the "other" led former presidential candidate Gov. Bill Richardson to express concerns about how the debate over immigration has unnecessarily demonized the Hispanic people.

Through our many challenges, we stand on the fundamental idea so eloquently expressed in our holy book, the Quran: "O mankind! We (God) created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous amongst of you."

There exists in us a voice that urges us to accentuate our differences, often inducing an air of superiority. But also within us there is another voice, one that understands the universal truth - that all men (and women) are created equal and endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Spanish-born Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) noted that one of the ultimate aims of human soul is to pursue happiness. Happiness comes not from the mere accumulation of wealth, power and material comforts. Happiness comes from the pursuit of moral virtues. What can be more virtuous than eradicating race consciousness - a scourge that afflicts so many and remains the root cause of so many conflicts.

Obama has set the tone for the next generation of work on improving race relations. All of us will need to be more circumspect and less accusatory. Rather than recount grievances, we need to reckon the limitless possibilities our future holds. And we need to contend with our own prejudices.
If Sunday at 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour in America, then Friday afternoon, the time for Muslim congregational prayer, happens to be one of the most integrated.

However, pockets of our congregations remain stubbornly black, Arab or Southeast Asian. Many of our kitchen table conversations display biases that will make us cringe if such invectives were directed toward us.

We need to shed our bitterness and join hands to build an America where in the words of poet Langston Hughes, "O, let my land be a land where Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath. But opportunity is real, and life is free. Equality is in the air we breathe."

Until we can come to the table of brotherhood with a standard of justice that reflects equality for all regardless of faith, gender and class, our humanity will never shine forth.

During his 1964 pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Malcolm X movingly expressed how God consciousness can transcend race consciousness: "Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors. ... I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color."

This we believe.

Parvez Ahmed is chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and associate professor at the University of North Florida. Sen. Larry Shaw is a U.S. Democratic member of the North Carolina General Assembly.