Earlier this year, one of my favorite students in a creative writing class told me that she thought she could empathize with any kind of character: an abusive father, a drug addict, a serial killer. Then this student paused for a moment, reflected, and said, "Except a Muslim. I don't think I could identify with a Muslim, because they represent everything I hate. Our experiences are completely alien to each other."
I was shocked. This was not an angry student, a stupid student, or an uncompassionate student. This student was a conservative Christian, as are many students in Texas colleges and universities; perhaps that explains something but not everything.
"Do you know any Muslims?" I asked gently, when I found my voice.
My student looked at me as though I had asked about serial killers.
I told one of my good friends about this incident, and my friend was also appalled, although then my friend too paused for a moment before saying, "Maybe your student was upset about the imposition of sharia law."
Again, I sat in silence for a moment.
"I think that threat is a little overblown," I told my friend, who likewise is not angry or stupid or uncompassionate, but is in fact one of the smartest and most humane people I know, a loving parent, a Christian.
And also, I would venture to say, someone who doesn't know a single Muslim.
And although I know a few, and am dear friends with one, my British publicist, I realized that one of my formal tasks for this coming year had to be learning more about Islam. Because, truth to tell, I am also ignorant about this faith tradition, and I cannot speak responsibly and from an informed position about it until I do.
Because we don't know much about Islam except through its most fanatical-and often heretical-followers, many Americans now regard Islam as our new World Enemy. TIME reported last fall, in a cover story on Islamophobia, the comments of speakers in a public debate before a planning commission in Wisconsin considering a permit for a new mosque:
Islam is a religion of hate, they say. Muslims are out to wipe out Christianity. There are 20 jihadi training camps hidden across rural America, busy even now producing the next wave of terrorists. Muslims murder their children. Christian kids have enough problems with drugs, alcohol and pornography and should not have to worry about Islam too. "I don't want it in my backyard," says one. Another says, "I just think it's not America."
Just as Nazis and Japanese militarists in the '40s were the fanged monsters we could reasonably hate, and Communists in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, Islam has become the 'Them' by which many of us define our 'Us.' We imagine that Muslims are unlike us, as my student did, or that here in America and across Western Civilization they are promoting an extremist agenda, as my friend did.
And yet the truth is that Muslim Americans love America, and are here not to spread their faith or impose Sharia (as though that would be an easy task, or Sharia a codified system of laws), but for the reasons people have always come to America: to live with dignity, to worship freely, to pursue their dreams. A recent poll of American religious groups shows that despite ten years of fear of and discrimination against them after 9/11, 93 percent of Muslim Americans describe themselves as loyal to America and hopeful about its future. Pollster Dalia Mogahed summarizes the results of the poll thusly: "[Muslim Americans] embrace American values and democratic principles, but aren't sure if the rest of America embraces them."
Muslim Americans work in American communities, they pay American taxes, they buy in American stores, and they die in American wars. Many of you will remember Colin Powell's mention of a young Muslim soldier, Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, who felt it was his duty to fight for America after 9/11, or the haunting image in The New Yorker of Kareem's mother mourning next to his crescent-topped gravestone. There are Islamic patriots who believe in the American dream as much as any American Christian, Jew, or Pagan.
And yet, as Karen Armstrong reminds us in her wonderful short history, Islam, our attitudes about the faith here in the West continue to be conditioned by the prejudices of the Crusaders, who first turned Islam into the inhuman Other. According to these medieval myths, Islam is "the enemy of decent civilization," and intent on ruling the world-and putting it all under Islamic domination. Christian leaders of the Middle Ages, preaching Crusade and warfare against the infidel, described Islam as "an inherently violent and intolerant faith," and this myth, Armstrong says, remains one of the dominant ideas about Islam in the West (152-53).
My own sense-even as I am just at the beginning of my quest to learn about Islam-is that it is always a mistake to generalize about a faith based on the most extreme members of it, and when all you know about is the most extreme version, you don't actually know much. I am offended when people assume-and they do-that because I identify myself as a Christian I must hate gays, be a hypocrite, or be determined to push my faith on everyone else, through legislation if necessary. I would be appalled if someone thought I was a Christian Dominionist like, say, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann, since I believe Christian dominion over the world is absolutely counter to the message of Jesus, who renounced political power. It's heresy of the worst sort, and I don't use the word lightly.
"Don't judge me by those Christians," is my plea as a progressive Christian, and judging Muslim Americans as violent or anti-American because we were attacked by violent Muslim heretics ten years ago is just as wrong. As Armstrong points out,
The vast majority of Muslims recoiled in horror from this September  Apocalypse, and pointed out that such an atrocity contravenes the most sacred tenets of Islam. The Quran condemns all aggressive warfare and teaches that the only just war is a war of self-defense . . . . Islamic law forbids Muslims to declare war against a country in which Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely, and strongly prohibits the killing of innocent civilians. The fear and rage that lies at the heart of all fundamentalist vision nearly always tends to distort the tradition that fundamentalists are trying to defend. (159-60)
The past few weeks, I've encouraged readers to step outside their echo chambers and learn something new-to read things, listen to things, watch things that help shape a more balanced view of the world. To read our sacred texts in a way that isn't simply about business as usual. And as we approach the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, that remains an essential need.
If all you know about Islam is what you've heard from others, if all you understand about the Quran is what someone outside the tradition says it means, if you haven't taken the trouble to get to know even a single Muslim before hating all of them, then you've got no right to talk.
And you've certainly got no right to hate.
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