Chicago, United States – Reverend Jesse Jackson stood with hundreds of American Muslims at a suburban Chicago mosque on Friday, to protest against suggestions made by some politicians that they should carry special government-issued identification cards. The demonstrators also made the case that the US should not compromise on its moral standards by refusing to accept Syrian refugees.
Jackson compared efforts to prevent Syrian refugees from entering the US to the hysteria that prevented thousands of Jews from finding safe haven in the US when fleeing Nazism at the start of World War II.
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The Baptist minister and civil rights activist urged Americans not to treat Muslims and Syrian refugees the same way many Americans had treated Jews in the run-up to the war.
“In 1930 to 1939, the Jews were trying to escape the haunted house of Hitler,” said Jackson, who was with Martin Luther King when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
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“They came on a ship called the St Louis, and they were turned away, thought to be communists, sent back to die in the concentration camps. We shouldn’t do that again. We should know better,” he told those gathered there.
“We should be better. We should not do that to anybody. We should have learned our lesson on returning refugees.”
Jackson spoke following the Friday Khutbah prayers attended by more than 500 Muslim men and women at the golden domed Orland Park Prayer Center mosque. The mosque lies 32km southwest of Chicago, the city where Jackson founded the Rainbow/PUSH civil rights coalition.
The UNHCR reports that there are more than four million Syrian refugees. The majority have migrated to neighbouring countries in the Middle East: there are 2,181,293 Syrian refugees in Turkey; 244,765 in Iraq; 633,644 in Jordan; 127,681 in Egypt; 1,075,637 in Lebanon; and 26,772 in North Africa.
Only about 2,000 have been accepted into the US, with just 131 in Illinois according to the US state department. President Barack Obama has proposed increasing that to 10,000 by next year. Recent surveys, however, show that most Americans, 53 percent, oppose allowing Syrian refugees to enter the country.
The debate has taken on a racial aspect as presidential candidates, mostly Republican, have proposed a wide range of restrictions, including requiring Muslim immigrants to carry special IDs and to increase monitoring of mosques. Thirty US governors have said that they will pass laws to prevent refugees from Syria from settling in their states.
During his sermon, Dr Abdel Elsiddig, the Orland Mosque imam, said it was “un-American” to require Muslims to carry special IDs, register their whereabouts and to “close mosques”. But he said he would be proud to carry a “Muslim ID”.
Jackson, who sat through the imam’s 40-minute sermon and prayers, said he agreed. He added that rising anti-Muslim and anti-Arab anger in the US, following the attacks in Paris on November 13, was being driven by “politics” and “demagoguery”.
“It is un-American. It is immoral. It is wrong,” Jackson told Al Jazeera English.
“One should not stereotype people or their religion with violence. We did not stereotype Christianity with the [Ku Klux] Klan. Between 1880 and 1940, 4,250 blacks were lynched, most outside of the churches on Sundays. Looked on by townspeople and advertised in the press. We did not stereotype Christianity on the basis of that madness. We must not stereotype religion based upon the acts of terrible people.”
Jackson reminded American Christians that Jesus was a refugee too when he fled persecution and lived in Egypt before returning to Nazareth and then Jerusalem where he was crucified 2,000 years ago.
Jackson said that although governments and individuals must do all they can to prevent “crazed individuals” from massacring people in public places, the battle is undermined when they allow city streets to be flooded with weapons. And he compared the violence in Paris, Beirut and the Sinai to the violence taking place on the streets of Chicago.
“Locking out refugees is not the answer to this crisis. We should not give in to fear. Painfully, we lost a week ago, 43 people in Lebanon, 200 Russians on a plane in Egypt, 129 in Paris,” Jackson said.
“And, 400 in Chicago. More died in Chicago in the last year than Egypt, or Beirut, or France. All of us are God’s children. All human beings matter.”
Imam Elsiddig told Al Jazeera English that he was encouraged by Jackson’s remarks “and his humanity”.
Speaking to Muslim worshippers at the mosque before Jackson spoke, Imam Elsiddig said that thatthe Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) “does not represent” Islam. He denounced the use of violence, saying: “We don’t know who [ISIL] is … don’t let the devil distract you from your priorities. Take care of your children. Take care of your families. Take care of your community.”
Jackson echoed the imam’s words, adding, “We cannot allow [ISIL] to undermine our morality, our constitution. We must stand with that which is right and which is just.”
Muslims at the event said they were encouraged by the expression of support from Jackson.
“I feel better knowing that there are people like Reverend Jackson here in America who believe in justice, equality and will fight not just for their religion but for religious freedom for all,” said one man who only gave his name as Ahmed.