I caught Fareed Zakaria on Charlie Rose Tuesday night.
CHARLIE ROSE: Your parents are Muslim?
FAREED ZAKARIA: Yes, and I was brought up that way. I am just not a particularly religious person. I think I sealed my fate when I became the wine critic for "Slate" magazine.
CHARLIE ROSE: That will do it.
I found that exchange pretty funny, but also illuminating, given that Zakaria could be considered one of the most famous Muslims in America, and by his own account, he's a MINO: Muslim in Name Only.
Even then, Zakaria has been a vocal supporter of The Mosque. He's written on the topic in Newsweek -- "Build the Ground Zero Mosque" -- and to buttress his words, even returned an award to the (anti-mosque) Anti-Defamation League.
But understandably, Zakaria supports this not as a practicing Muslim, but as a secular American. More from his talk about the mosque with Charlie Rose:
...the gut reaction I think we all have is, you know, there is a sense of unease, there is a sense is that the right thing, there is a sense that maybe this is going to provoke a reaction among people. And you can see the reaction. The polling is I think 60, 65 percent opposed.
But American democracy is not just about mob rule, it is not just about the tyranny of the majority. It is about fundamental rights that we believe in. That is what the Bill of Rights was about. The Bill of Rights is an anti-democratic document. It says no matter what the majority thinks, these rights are sacrosanct and the first of those rights, the first amendment is freedom of religion.
It's hard to say what impact Zakaria would have on the debate, but his very presence points to a larger problem that faces the Muslim community: When it comes to these polarizing issues, there are few American Muslims who can command a national stage, and have intellectual credibility outside their community or activist circles.
Who are the most famous Muslims in America?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Muhammad Ali? Cat Stevens? I only found out Dave Chapelle was Muslim the other day. But of course, he walked off his stage, and the rest are relatively absent from public discussions. More to the point, they are all black or white; none of them resemble the foreign-born Muslims that grab the headlines in this country: the extremists, or the imams who speak with exotic accents.
The issue here, I believe, is that Americans have few options when it comes to the Muslim American experience, few well-known, widely accepted people who can act as barometers, or help the country simply by saying, "I know that imam -- he's fine."
I was once at a journalist's event at which Zakaria spoke. At the time, he was a regular guest on George Stephanopoulos' Sunday morning talk show, but by his own account, viewership plummeted whenever he was on. This wasn't meant to be funny so much as an indicator of America's discomfort, still, with foreign-born commentators.
Much of this is inevitable. Muslims have only been coming here in large numbers for the last couple decades, from South Asia and the Middle East and elsewhere, and it takes time for any immigrant community to transcend material success -- as business people, or doctors or engineers -- and start making a name for themselves in the popular culture (think Aasif Mandvi, of "The Daily Show," or Aziz Ansari). Eventually, some of those successful, accent-free celebrities will act as reference points for the country, people who can define Muslim society more effectively than any Islamophobes or radicals.
Until then, Americans will have to rely on people like Fareed Zakaria, lapsed, wine-drinking Muslim that he is.