Why can’t America have a leader as inclusive as Justin Trudeau?

Op-Ed written for Dallas Morning News

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitment to celebrating diversity is on display yet again. Earlier this week, he joined the Sikh community to celebrate one of its most significant occasions, Vaisakhi.

That Canada’s highest-ranking official elected to join the Sikhs in their celebration sends the message that minorities are welcome in Canada and, moreover, that they have as much claim to the national identity as anyone else. Trudeau’s leadership models how a nation can become stronger by bringing together diverse communities and making everyone feel included.

Americans can learn an important lesson from our neighbors to the north. Sharing our cultural and religious traditions with one another will strengthen our nation, not weaken it.

In America, we tend to shy away from discussing topics like religion and culture because we’re afraid of offending each other. As a result, we have remarkably low rates of cultural and religious literacy. As a professor who teaches religion in Texas, I am routinely struck by how little background knowledge my students have of world religions.

Given the critical roles that religion plays in our global, domestic and local contexts, our lack of cultural literacy is incredibly problematic.

At a GOP townhall forum recently, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump was asked how he would address anti-Muslim sentiment that affected various minority communities. The man who asked the question, retired police Lt. Brian Murphy,specifically referred to the white supremacist who massacred six Sikhs at a Wisconsin gurdwara in 2012. Murphy was shot 15 times while trying to protect the Sikhs.

Mr. Trump’s response to Lt. Murphy’s question clearly illustrated that he just doesn’t know who Sikhs are. Rather than addressing the question of violence affecting Sikhs, Mr. Trump pivoted to his talking points on the importance of ending radical extremism. See for yourself:

While we can all agree that we want to end extremist violence, we can also agree that his ignorance about the world’s fifth- largest religion, Sikhism, is deeply troubling. But this ignorance is not limited to a particular individual. Our entire nation is guilty of not knowing our neighbors. How can we treat our neighbors with respect if we don’t even know who they are?

It is time for our politicians to follow the example of such leaders as Justin Trudeau and stand publicly with marginalized communities. Doing so on occasions like Vaisakhi would show people that they are valued and accepted for who they are.

That elected officials show up in times of difficulty is also critically important. The fact that President Obama has yet to visit the Sikh community in Oak Creek since the 2012 massacre (or any Sikh place of worship, for that matter) sends the message to the entire nation that the Sikh-American community is not important enough to merit attention.

The Sikh community continues to be ravaged by discrimination and hate violence in modern America. By simply voicing support for Sikhs and their traditions, American politicians could make a meaningful intervention in the types of xenophobia that are tearing apart the fabric of our nation.

This is not just true in the case of Sikh Americans. It is also true for all minority communities. As our nation becomes increasingly diverse, we no longer have the option of ignoring each other. It’s time for us to embrace our neighbors and celebrate the diversity that has long been one of our greatest strengths. And it’s time we ask our political leadership to do the same.


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