It’s easy to hate someone one doesn’t know. It’s easy to fear someone whom one has been told is a frightening “other.”
But the converse is also true. It’s impossible to hate someone one has come to know as a friend. And it’s very difficult to fear someone whose story one has heard.
Since Sept. 11, I have made it a goal of my religion and violence course and my introduction to religion class to confront the danger of Islamophobia. I have done this because there is so much hatred and fear of Islam being circulated precisely by those who could not pass a basic test on the beliefs of that religion.
My goal is not for my students to embrace Islam, but rather for them to understand how 1.4 billion people in the world find Islam a worthy path to a meaningful life. To expect students to do this, I know that certain questions must be raised and answered in my classes.
One question is this: who was it who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11? The answer to that demands that a person learn the difference between a Muslim and an Islamist, the difference between Islam and Islamism. Al-Qaeda, ISIL, Boko Haram and Al-Nusra are all versions of Islamism.
Those who attacked our country on Sept. 11 were Islamists. Islamism is a radical understanding of Islam that encourages violence against their group’s perceived enemies. Islamists believe God approves of their attacks on innocent people who don’t agree with them.
These are not the tenets of Islam, and this is not the belief of the great majority of Muslims in the world. An Islamist is a Muslim in the same way that a Klansman considers himself or herself a Christian. Both are perversions of the religions they claim to embrace.
What both tires me and concerns me is the voices of so-called Christian leaders who do not bother to distinguish between Muslims and Islamists. By ignoring this distinction, they stir up hatred and fear of our Muslim brothers and sisters, which, by the way, is exactly what radical Islamists want Americans to do.
When we post slanderous signs about Islam on a freeway or leave messages on the phones of Muslims that they are not wanted here, we do ISIL’s bidding. ISIL wants Muslims living in the West to believe that they will never be welcomed here and, to be safe, they must return to Muslim countries.
Another question that must be raised by anyone who seriously wants to understand Islam is this: is Islam opposed to democracy? The easiest path to answer this question is asking another question: Why not ask an American Muslim?
The result of such a conversation is unsurprising — Muslims who have emigrated to the West have done so because they enjoy the freedoms (including freedom of religion) that western societies guarantee. They have come to our country or wish to come to our country for the same reason my immigrant ancestors came.
Raising the important questions about Islam and seeking truthful answers led me during the past five years to write “Countering Religious Extremism: The Healing Power of Spiritual Friendships” (New City Press). The book chronicles the experiences other Christians and I have had in entering spiritual friendships with Muslims.
Celebrated in the book is a group of Muslims and Christians who, during the past 20 years, have been meeting together almost weekly for lunch at a Jewish deli in Indianapolis. They gather to encourage one another to do the will of God on a daily basis. In the process, they have come to love each other.
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