Islam is not the enemy

Sunday, August 20, 2006

When I argued in my last column that demonizing Islam threatened religious freedom, I assumed the vast majority of Americans would agree.

I may have assumed wrong.

According to a USA TODAY/Gallup poll released last week, 39% of respondents believe that American Muslims aren’t loyal to the United States. A third believes American Muslims are sympathetic to al-Qaida and 22% don’t want Muslims as neighbors. This despite the fact that millions of Muslims in America are hardworking, civic-minded, taxpaying citizens — some of whom are fighting and dying as members of the U.S. armed services even as I write these words.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the latest headlines are about the arrest of 24 British Muslim suspects in an alleged plot to blow up planes bound for the U.S. That so many young Muslims are seduced by extremism is not only a grave danger to the West, but it is also a challenge of enormous proportions for the Muslim world.

More Americans than I imagined, it appears, are so frustrated, fearful and angry about the terrorist threat that they’re no longer willing to sort out what is and isn’t authentic Islam. For growing numbers of people in this country, the “war on terrorism” is now seen as a “war on Islam.” This characterization of the war is exactly what al-Qaida has worked for years to achieve in its battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide.

Arguments against conflating Islam and terrorism fall on deaf ears. “Islam is no more a religion than Nazism,” writes one of my readers. “Islam is Satan’s work,” writes another.

In an ironic twist of logic, the same readers who condemn the murder of innocents by al-Qaida seek to justify attacks on all Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism. The president, argues one reader, should declare Islam a “political ideology, no longer to enjoy those freedoms we give a religion.”

As for those Middle Eastern nations that “wish to live in the 12th century,” he adds, “we will open that door for them thru the use of nuclear technology… It is time to show those religious fanatics just how peaceful life can be through the melting feeling you get from a nuclear explosion.”

If the polls are any guide (and my inbox any measure), this antipathy toward Islam is widespread and growing. Not surprisingly, sentiments like these have a profound effect on daily life for many American Muslims. According to a new study by Yale psychologist Mona Amer, Arab-Americans suffer significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression than other Americans; Amer links the problem to harassment and discrimination.

Gallup does offer a glimmer of hope: Americans who know a Muslim have a more favorable opinion of Muslims in general. For example, only 10% of those who know a Muslim would not like one as a neighbor vs. 31% of those who don’t know a Muslim.

This suggests that education may hold the key. The more people know about Islam and Muslims, the less likely they are to demonize the religion. A recent study of a required world religions course in Modesto, Calif., public schools concludes that teaching students about religions (including Islam) leads to greater support for the religious freedom of all faiths.

Some of my readers, however, claim to have studied Islam and still find it “a violent religion” or a “death cult,” to quote two correspondents. A few sent passages from the Quran to prove their point, much like those who pluck biblical passages out of context to support one side of an argument in the culture wars.

A more complete and scholarly exposure to Islam would dispel the myth that it’s an inherently violent faith and expose why al-Qaida and its fellow travelers are un-Islamic. To cite one example: The word “jihad” (literally “striving”) has been widely used in the press to describe the actions of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Although the meaning and application of the term has been much debated in Islamic history, it’s generally agreed that its primary meaning is a striving in the path of God to improve oneself and society. What al-Qaida advocates, Muslim scholarship tells us, is not jihad, because it is unjust, sinful warfare contrary to Islamic law.

The challenge is to convince our public schools that learning more about Islam and other religions is not only an important part of a good education — it’s also necessary if we hope to live together as citizens of one nation.

In the meantime, here are steps every American can take: Become acquainted with your Muslim neighbors and co-workers. Visit a local mosque or Islamic center. Learn firsthand what Muslims in America actually believe and practice. The more we know, the safer American Muslims will feel — and the better off our nation will be.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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