The State Of The Union Guests Make An Important Point About American Unity

On Tuesday evening, President Obama will make his final State of the Union address, and immigrants and refugees have been invited to attend in an effort to encourage unity among Americans to reject the exclusive policies suggested by a number of Republican politicians in recent months. First Lady Michelle Obama has invited a Syrian refugee, among others, to watch the speech from her private viewing box, and two Democrats are leading an even broader initiative to welcome Muslim Americans into the audience.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in history to be elected to Congress, authored a letter addressed to Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike, requesting that they bring Muslim guests to the SOTU. CNN reported on the contents of the letter, which read:

Predictably, the vile comments castigating the entire Muslim population of the world, including American Muslims, have translated into a shameful and dangerous rise of attacks on individuals and vandalism of religious institutions. This rhetoric and these actions are simply un-American. They undermine our values and weaken our ability to be a force for good around the world.

The measure, if followed, will represent the most visible stance taken by the American government against the Islamophobia that has been tragically normalized by candidates like Donald Trump. Politico reported on the remainder of the emailed letter, which elaborates on Trump's anti-Muslim remarks:

Over the past few weeks we have seen a shocking and alarming rise in hateful rhetoric against one particular minority population in our nation ... Leading political figures have made offensive and outrageous suggestions that we should create a national registry of all people of one particular faith and that we should prevent any person of that faith from even entering this great country.
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In an interview with The Hill, Ellison said that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have stood together in rejecting the alienation of the Muslims. He mentioned Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, in particular, to show that the White House's acceptance of all Americans is not a partisan issue among the establishment parties:

[Ryan] spoke out well against Trump’s proposal and this is an opportunity to really drive the point home that there are no Americans who are suspect just based on their religious identity, that all Americans are welcome in the people’s house.

However, Ryan will not be among those lawmakers inviting Muslim Americans. Instead, he will be focusing on guests who have fought poverty. But according to CNN, 20 lawmakers have already agreed to abide by the request. The Hill published an incomplete list, which includes Reps. Ami Bera and Judy Chu (California), Suzanne Bonamici (Oregon), Grace Meng (New York), Dan Kildee (Michigan), Mike Quigley (Illinois), and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona).

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Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota is also part of the group. He has invited Abdirahman Kahin, a Minnesota store-owner and member of the local Muslim community. The decision is significant because Minnesota in particular has a large Somali population, which has allegedly been subject to ISIS recruitment efforts. Minneapolis is one of the major cities working with the government to fight violent extremism. In February, Obama made a statement about the importance of viewing the Muslim community as its biggest ally in implementing counter-extremism measures:

[W]e have to recognize that our best partners in all these efforts, the best people to help protect individuals from falling victim to extremist ideologies are their own communities, their own family members. We have to be honest with ourselves. Terrorist groups like al-Qaida and [the Islamic State group] deliberately target their propaganda in the hopes of reaching and brainwashing young Muslims, especially those who may be disillusioned or wrestling with their identity ...
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Dr. Mohammed Qureshi will also be attending the speech with Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney. He and his family experienced Islamophobic violence firsthand after their community's mosque was shot up following the November attacks in Paris. Additionally, Michelle Obama will be hosting Syrian refugee Refaai Hamo, who fled to Turkey and then Detroit after his wife and daughter were killed by a bomb. He will sit in the audience as a reminder of the fact that Syrians are fleeing extreme danger which has resulted in the deaths of their loved ones — something with which every citizen hopefully will be able to sympathize.

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The life experience of each guest is intended to reflect the positive outcomes of Obama's policies. In November 2015, he promised to accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees into the States over the following year. According to Business Insider, fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees had been accepted to resettle in the U.S. up to that point. Although the decision has been criticized both as too lenient and not accepting enough, it symbolizes a rejection of baseless fear among the American people.

But most importantly, audiences must learn to refrain from judging guests based on their religion or culture. Instead, the amalgam of attendees at Obama's final State of the Union should inspire a non-discriminatory vision of Americans, who should be protected equally under the Constitution, which ensures freedom of religion, among other liberties.