(Washington, DC) - Many Muslims and undocumented immigrants in the United States face hostility, fear, and resentment. Whether expressed elegantly or with vitriol, in plain words or in code, there are daily expressions of intolerance and prejudice that condemn these and other minority groups, and seek to define "American" in narrow terms that belie the nation's multicultural history. Voices of intolerance that disparage difference and champion discrimination are heard, for example, in debates about the location of Islamic centers,[i] and about the best response to the millions who have lived and worked for decades in the US after arriving here illegally.[ii]
Such voices of intolerance undermine basic human rights principles. Respect for the human dignity of every person, regardless of race, religion, sex, national or social origin, sexual orientation, or other status, is the cornerstone of human rights. Indeed, equality is perhaps the most important principle inspiring and permeating the concept of human rights. The charter document of contemporary human rights, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirms that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all rights and freedoms without distinction of any kind. The equality of human beings and the concomitant right to be protected against discrimination have subsequently been affirmed in the core human rights treaties[iii] that codify the Universal Declaration and to which the United States is a party.
The principles of nondiscrimination and equality under the law affirmed by human rights have long inspired the United States and are embedded in its constitution and laws. Diversity permeates all aspects of American life. The national fabric has been woven by the Native Americans and immigrants from every continent who have brought their races, ethnicities, religions, cultures, and traditions to the country.
Yet alongside this multi-textured heritage has been a long history of discrimination, xenophobia, distrust, and intolerance. This has been reflected not only in individual private actions, but also in government institutions and laws that favored the majority over oppressed minority populations. The Constitution that proclaims the lofty ideal to "promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty" also permitted slavery, counting for representation only three-fifths of those not "free Persons."[iv]
Government officials, whether elected or appointed, have a particular responsibility under international law not to advocate or engage in discrimination. In recent years, though, elected officials and candidates for office have made statements equating Islam with terrorism.[v] Legislators in Oklahoma sought passage of a discriminatory "Save our State" amendment to the state constitution against Sharia (Islamic law),[vi] and the influential Texas State Board of Education enacted a resolution to limit the mere mention of Islam in world history books.[vii] Legislators from several states have described the immigration issue as one involving "illegal alien invaders"[viii] and criticized the 14th Amendment's guarantee of citizenship to all US-born children as producing "future terrorist"[ix] babies and "anchor babies,"[x] terms that dehumanize children. The DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as minors who attend college or serve in the US military was described by one member of Congress as a benefit that would put them "ahead of every American child who is not a minority."[xi]
Public officials, be they members of executive, legislative, or judicial branches at the federal, state, and local level, should act in accordance with US human rights obligations, including upholding, respecting, and protecting the rights to equality and non-discrimination. Prejudice and hostility toward different racial, ethnic, religious, or other groups should have no part in the exercise of their responsibilities.
E Pluribus Unum, the words on the national seal, mean "out of many, one." They do not mean "out of many, we reject some." Embracing diverse peoples on equal terms is not only a universal human rights goal, it is a national commitment. When US officials sanction or foment intolerance and discrimination they betray both.
[i] The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, "Controversies Over Mosques and Islamic Centers Across the U.S.," September 24, 2010, https://features.pewforum.org/muslim/assets/mosque-map-all-text-10-5.pdf, (accessed February 10, 2011).
[ii] Ted Robbins, "The Man Behind Arizona's Toughest Immigration Laws," National Public Radio, March 12, 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88125098, (accessed February 10, 2011).
[iii] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, articles 26, 27 (ratified by the United States on June 8, 1992); International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), adopted December 21, 1965, G.A. Res. 2106 (XX), annex, 20 UN GAOR Supp. (No. 14) at 47, UN Doc A/6014 (1966), 660 U.N.T.S. 195, entered into force January 4, 1969 (ratified by the United States on November 20, 1994).
[iv] US Constitution, article 1, section 2 (this provision was modified by the 14th Amendment (1868)).
[v] For examples, see campaign statement by Lou Ann Zelenick, a 2010 Congressional candidate in Tennessee, quoted in "Zelenik issues statement on proposed Islamic Center," Murfreesboro Post, June 24, 2010, http://www.murfreesboropost.com/zelenik-issues-statement-on-proposed-islamic-center-cms-23606 (accessed February 3, 2011); and statement by Illinois Representative Don Manzullo, who later apologized, quoted in Steve Bryant, "Illinois Rep. Apologizes for Calling Islam a ‘Savage Religion,'" NBC Chicago, November 18, 2010, http://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local-beat/don-manzullo-illinois-congressman-islam-savage-religion-70371487.html (accessed February 11, 2011).
[vi] James C. McKinley, Jr., "Oklahoma Surprise: Islam as an Election Issue," The New York Times, November 15, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/15/us/15oklahoma.html (accessed February 3, 2011).
[vii] Associated Press, "Mentions of Islam Unwelcome in Texas Textbooks," The New York Times, September 25, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/25/us/25brfs-TEXAS.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&ref=islam&adxnnlx=1296590426-W9s5/ez5Lv3udP7+smtqBA (accessed February 3, 2011).
[viii] Pennsylvania State Representative Daryl Metcalfe, "Invasion PA," http://www.repmetcalfe.com/Immigration.aspx (accessed February 3, 2011).
[ix] See statement by Texas Representative Louie Gohmert in the US House of Representatives, CSPAN, June 24, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dorCLFVpzyo&feature=player_embedded (accessed February 10, 2011).
[x] See statements by Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce and former Virginia Congressperson Virgil Goode, quoted in Nathan O'Neal, "'Anchor Baby' Phrase Has Controversial History," ABC News, July 3, 2010 http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/anchor-baby-phrase-controversial-history/story?id=11066543 (accessed February 10, 2011).
[xi] See statements by California Representative Dana Rohrabacher, quoted in Matt O'Brien, "House passes DREAM Act, bill faces tougher fight in Senate," The Mercury News, December 8, 2010, http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_16807997, and in interview on Radio America, December 9, 2010, http://feeds.radioamerica.org/loudwater/wnd_news/000004734_000_000000003.mp3 (accessed February 3, 2011).