12.11.18

Sen. Coons: “America is not an ethnicity or a faith or a geography. America is an idea.”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recently delivered the keynote address at the Muslim Advocates Annual Gala. In his remarks, Senator Coons explored the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead to advance civil rights for the American Muslim community.

“[T]he call of Muslim Advocates and the call of all of us, is to stop bigotry in its tracks. And the way we will do that is by confronting fear with hope and hate with love. And by finding a way to open our hearts even to those with whom we think we have nothing in common. Still holding out hope that somehow, we might find a path forward together. It's possible. It is possible,” said Senator Coons. “That even folks with whom I disagree on so many other issues can end up being allies in fighting for the rule of law, in fighting not just for tolerance, but for inclusion, and for the open-hearted, open-spirited America that we all know we are meant to belong to.” 

For a photo of Senator Coons’ remarks, please click here. For a photo of Senator Coons with Muslim Advocates Deputy Director Naheed Qureshi and President and Executive Director Farhana Khera, please click here

Excerpts from Senator Coons’ remarks, as delivered, are below:

“We're nearing the end of a wonderful dinner, a great celebration and a recognition of how much hard and good work there is to do ahead and what great things have been done so far in these past two years. My mother, when I was a child would often say to me; ‘Hard work that is worth doing is what helps give life meaning.’ Well, not long after President Trump was elected, I called my mother and said, ‘I think I have a lot of meaning.’

“If I could, to Farhana Khera, thank you so much for your leadership, for your capability, for your strength, for your calmness in the face of such bigotry and such force that represents the worst in the human spirit, and for standing up in such ways that show resolve, and grace, and faithfulness.”

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“You put it so well, my sister, it’s for our children. It’s to show them that America is not an ethnicity or a faith or a geography. America is an idea. America is virtually the only nation that was started not based on all of us being from one place or of one race or of one language or of one faith, but because all of us in some way or another came here in pursuit of a vision that all are endowed by their creator with rights, inalienable rights; to life to liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and embedded in very beginning of the top amendment of our U.S Constitution: the rights to free exercise of our faith, whichever faith we practice or no faith at all. Unlike the countries of Europe at the time, there was no test to stand for public office or to be treated better based on your background or faith, that blank slate, that open land, that chance to pray when and where and if you choose, was the promise that brought so many to this country. And Muslim Advocates makes that promise real by not accepting bigotry, by not allowing hate to stand, no matter whether it comes from a small town or a next-door neighbor, from something said in the news or something that comes from the White House itself, by standing and fighting you made real the promise of America. Thank you.” 

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“Let me tell you a quick story if I could. A story about my own faith journey and about how I came to understand what hospitality means, what it means to be welcoming to the stranger and the foreigner, either in our midst or those who come to us. You know, if we read through the Qur'an, the Torah, the Gospel, all have passages, more than I can quote, saying that we have a wonderful obligation ‘to render to the kindred their due rights, as also to those in want and to the traveler’ [in distress] to quote the Qur'an. Similar passages all throughout the Torah and the Gospel say that we have a special opportunity. We have a special blessing or mitzvah that we can do by being gracious, by being welcoming to those who are adrift, who are lost, and who are travelling. And at this time in our world, there are more refugees­-- there are more seeking a place of safety than at any time in the last seventy years, and we have an opportunity to show as a country who we are, and what we’re about, informed by the face that have driven so many here in the past. My first exposure to the tradition of hospitality of Islam, came when I was just 20 years old. I'd spent a semester as a student at the University of Nairobi, and I was heading to Europe to meet my college girlfriend, and my luggage and I, everything I had for six months, went to the airport in Nairobi, and we got on a plane, and in Cairo I got off, but my luggage did not. 

“So with just $50 in my pockets and one change of clothes, I found a public bus and went downtown and found a youth hostel for I think it was $2 a night, and being utterly unfamiliar with the traditions of Ramadan, as I checked in, the nice young man behind the counter said ‘Where's your luggage?’ I said, ‘I don’t have anything.’ He said, ‘You don’t have anything?’ I said, ‘Yes, I don’t have anything.’ He said, ‘Do you have enough money to sustain yourself?’ I said,‘Barely, you know I've got enough probably enough to eat for the next couple days, but you know, I’d really hoped to see Cairo.’ He said ‘Oh, this is wonderful.’ I'm thinking, ‘Ok, what’s wonderful about this? I don’t get this.’ He said, ‘You must come to my home tonight!’ I said, ‘Great!’ He said, ‘No, no, tonight is the first night of Ramadan!’ I said, ‘Oh good, ok. Wonderful.’ He said, ‘I’ll come back at sundown. Come with me.’ And that there began four nights that I will never forget of astonishing hospitality, seven course meals. I think I gained fifteen pounds! As I went from house to house to house from cousin to friend to neighbor. ‘Look! A lost American!’ It was such a blessing. And so for the rest of my life, as I think of travel to Egypt or to a Muslim country, I think of hospitality, of open arms, of graciousness, of an amazing sense of celebration as a fast is broken, at a time of great dedication and self-reflection that is followed by enormous family centered joy that also has room around the table for those who have lost their way or who are seeking solace or who are refugees. What a remarkable tradition.”

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“And so my own family when I was a child-- I’m a Presbyterian, a somewhat obscure sect of Christianity. Any Presbyterians in the house?  See we don’t ever go ‘woo,’ so... Are you Presbyterian? Are you sure? We’ve been nicknamed the frozen chosen because we tend to be really uptight and very WASPy. We are from a Calvinist sect of Christianity that really, really, really believes in good works, but they don’t ever talk about it. So we get busy building schools and hospitals and you know, helping. But we're extremely uncomfortable talking about you know, uh, God. We just don’t do much of that. Part of my friendship with Jeff Flake, the Senator from Arizona, grew out of our mutual fascination with each other because he's a Mormon. And so at exactly the same time I was going to Kenya, he was going to Zimbabwe on a Mormon mission which literally means going *ding dong* “Would you like to talk about Jesus?” As a Presbyterian not only had I never done that, I had never met anyone who had done that, and I found it fascinating that he did that, and he found it puzzling that I didn’t do that therein making for long conversation.

One of the ways that my parents when I was a child showed me not by talking but by doing was by gathering with a dozen other families in our immediate community and welcoming a refugee family from Vietnam. This was at the time when a flood of refugees from the fall of South Vietnam were looking for an opportunity to come the United States. And so my mother and a dozen other families got busy getting an apartment and clothes and a car and opportunities, and the Vienn family that came from South Vietnam had gone through remarkable deprivation in the course of the war and being in refugee camps had children just about the same age as my brothers and me and we all grew up together. And to see them become fully part of the American dream and to be successful and to be vibrant, made a lasting impression on me and I don't think I had grasped how deep an impression until 2016.”

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“My mother ever forceful and clear-eyed about what we were called to do, had read in the newspaper in Wilmington, Delaware that Delaware was one state that had not yet welcomed a single Syrian refugee, and she said, ‘This is a disgrace. What are you doing about it, Senator?’ And so we got on the phone the pastor of the church I had grown up in and Masjid Ibrahim and Jewish Family Services and a series of meetings came together and money was raised, and an apartment was secured, and a car was gotten, and an offer was extended to a wonderful young family that had fled Syria. They literally lived in the neighborhood hit by tear gas, by poison gas by murderous Bashar Al-Assad. They had met in a refugee camp halfway around the world, had married, and had a wonderful baby girl.  

“And I was so excited about the small but real way in which my home community and different communities of different faiths were demonstrating that love could still trump hate even in this era, even in our country. But at the same time, I'm preparing for this upcoming National Prayer Breakfast. The Prayer Breakfast was just four days after the president signed the travel ban, and this wonderful family Amin and Samira and Maha, their daughter, were literally just waiting for their plane and their tickets and ready to come. And so what was upsetting, alarming, concerning, offensive to so many, had a particular focus here. And I reflected on what I was supposed to do in this moment as I went to this Prayer Breakfast where a chaplain was to speak, where President Trump was to speak, and where I had been asked to speak immediately after him in the event there was some expected expression.”

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“As things move forward, because of the actions of Muslim Advocates, because of the actions of brave and determined advocates, because of the actions of members of Congress, there was a brief pause and that allowed this wonderful family from Syria to come to Delaware and to settle and to be welcomed with open arms by our community. But as you know, the litigation continued. The first time, the second time, no the third time, ultimately the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a reformulated travel ban which I still believe to be unconstitutional and a violation of what America in its founding ideals is all about. And rather than simply shaking my fist at the television or hoping, I joined with Erica’s help and support and some volunteers from the bar around the country in filing an amicus brief opposing the President’s travel ban. I worked with members of the Senate, members of the House, I think ultimately, we had 150 members of Congress who filed at the district court level, at the circuit court level, at the Supreme Court level through all the iterations saying that we too, will join with the Muslim Advocates in saying, ‘Mr. President this executive order is profoundly wrong.’ 

“Now, where we are today, I’m drafting legislation to introduce early in the next Congress that will say the only way to overturn this decision with which I so profoundly disagree, is to amend the Immigration and Naturalization Act of the United States to make it clear that the non-discrimination provisions apply not just to immigrant visas but to non-immigrant visas, to give it broader reach and meaningful teeth, and to say our immigration laws cannot again be used to discriminatory effect. Only by getting that introduced and passed and signed into law can we be certain that this President or any future president won’t repeat this behavior. And I look forward to your encouragement and support as we finalize and introduce that legislation early in the next Congress.

“I’m also working with Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut on the No Hate Act. As you’ve heard referred to by the Congresswoman and as we all sadly know, the percentage increase in hate crimes, and in particular hate crimes against certain religions and ethnicities, has been alarming. Ever since the first moments when then candidate and now President, Donald Trump, began speaking on the national stage. I’ll remind you he got his start in questioning President Obama’s legitimacy as an American and challenging his birth certificate, a profoundly racist and misguided effort to try and delegitimize and undermine the dully elected, American-born President of the United States, and he’s doubled down on that attitude, that approach, that worldview, ever since becoming the elected President of the United States and the consequences that it has here at home and around the world in terms of what he says, directly and indirectly, what by action and by inaction he encourages in terms of the most dark sides of human nature expressed here in the United States.

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“It goes right back to what I first heard in that hearing with Ted Cruz, where you stood up so bravely and said in order for us to be safer, the federal government must do its job and investigate and oppose extremist violence by white nationalists, by anti-Muslim groups, by organizations and groups motivated by bigotry and hate of all kinds. Because that’s where more suffering has come than in any other way in the last decade here in the United States, and by fighting hate and bigotry of all kinds, that’s how we show who we are as a people and as a nation. So, Farhana, I look forward to working with you and all of you with Muslim Advocates and with other folks who’ve come tonight from other civil rights organizations and throughout our community. I am excited for the opportunity to work together. Yes, to continue praying, to continue praying for someone who if not personally, certainly politically, is my enemy because we are called to humble ourselves and to ask for God’s intervention in history that we might still show that goodness is possible. As you heard in the remarks of the Congresswoman, as you heard in the opening remarks by Farhana, the call of Muslim Advocates and the call of all of us, is to stop bigotry in its tracks. And the way we will do that is by confronting fear with hope and hate with love. And by finding a way to open our hearts even to those with whom we think we have nothing in common. Still holding out hope that somehow, we might find a path forward together. It's possible. It is possible. 

“Senator Thom Tillis from North Carolina, a conservative Republican with whom I thought I had nothing in common when I met him when he was first elected. I looked at the things he had supported and sponsored in North Carolina and thought certainly this is a man with whom I will have little good work to do. He has been a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform. He has joined with me in co-chairing the Senate Human Rights Caucus, and he has been a tireless advocate for the legislation that would protect Special Counsel Mueller, his investigation, and future investigations of future presidents.

“We still can be surprised by ways in which folks we wouldn’t have expected it can be good. Jeff Flake, the first few years that Senator Flake was here, he and I had so little to talk about and so little in common except early in our lives time we had spent in Africa experiencing remarkable hospitality. But in recent weeks, he has stood up on the floor of the Senate and blocked nominations to courts of folks who are unqualified or who, by their values did not belong there, and he has stood against his entire caucus and demanded a vote on the Special Counsel bill. What's the point here? That even folks with whom I disagree on so many other issues, can end up being allies in fighting for the rule of law, in fighting not just for tolerance, but for inclusion, and for the open-hearted, open-spirited America that we all know we are meant to belong to.

“Let me in closing, just thank everyone who's been a part of evening . . . Frankly, to all of you for recognizing that the whole world needs and waits for America to regain our being America again. Not just an ethnicity or a geography or a history, but an idea, an idea born imperfectly, not yet fully grown into what it is meant to be, but capable of improving, capable of surprising, capable of reaffirming that in all of us, is some of the divine, and that all of us belong in a nation where we are free to worship, or not, as we choose. Thank you.”

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Press Contact

 Sean Coit at 202-224-5042 or Sean_Coit@coons.senate.gov