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John Nichols: Mark Pocan and Samba Baldeh send a State of the Union message

Jan 12, 2016
In The News

The Cap Times

By John Nichols

 Members of Congress get a chance each year to invite a guest to the State of the Union address, and Congressman Mark Pocan used his invitation to make a vital point about religious pluralism.

 The Wisconsin Democrat’s invitee to Tuesday’s joint session of Congress is Madison Ald. Samba Baldeh, whose record of personal and political accomplishment would surely merit the recognition.

 But Pocan and Baldeh were focused on the alder’s religious faith, and its place in the great mosaic of American belief.

 Baldeh is an immigrant from the west African nation of Gambia, where roughly 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Along with Christian, Jewish and Muslim members of Congress, Pocan decided this year to highlight respect for religious diversity in general and for American followers of Islam in particular by inviting a prominent Muslim to hear President Obama deliver his final State of the Union address.

 “The anti-Muslim rhetoric by leading political figures in this country is alarming,” explained Pocan. “By bringing Alder Baldeh to the State of the Union I want to send a message to the Muslim community that this bigotry and fear mongering will not be tolerated. America has always remained a land of opportunity and hope for people of every faith and ethnicity. It is vital to remind ourselves of these core values, especially when some politicians try to spread hate in the name of votes.”

 In extending the invitation, Pocan highlighted the City Council member’s “dedication to improving our city” as the second Gambian-born elected official in the United States, as a software engineer and entrepreneur, as a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County and the AIDS Network, as an active member of 100 Black Men of Madison, and as a leader of the local Senegambia Association and the African Association. Pocan said of Baldeh: “I am honored to bring him as my guest to this year’s State of the Union address.”

Baldeh was honored as well.

“As a Muslim man and a local elected official, I see firsthand the impact of anti-Muslim political rhetoric and debate on my community,” said the representative of Madison’s northeast-side neighborhoods.

 Reflecting that “the recent rise in anti-Muslim sentiment around the country is troubling and affects real people’s lives every day,” Baldeh said, “It drives me, as I know it does Representative Pocan, to be an advocate for those fleeing persecution and to protect the rights and freedoms of our country.”

Anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric has been all too common in recent months, as Republican politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have abandoned historic respect for religious pluralism. They are proposing to disregard historic American values by employing religious tests in order to determine who can enter the United States — and in order to determine how members of religious minorities are treated.

 Inviting Muslim Americans to join the audience at the State of the Union address is not enough to undo all the damage that has been done by Trump and Cruz — and by the Republican politicians who emulate them. But the welcoming of Muslims to the Capitol in Washington does provide a reminder that, from the time of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, America’s wisest leaders have respected religious diversity. And that wise contemporary leaders, like President Obama and Congressman Pocan, still do.