When I grew up in Brooklyn, Islam and Muslims were invisible to me. When the department chair in graduate school suggested I take a course in Islam in the late 1960s, I thought “Why should I do that; how would I ever get a job?”
Today, Islam and Middle East often dominate the headlines. American Muslims are an integral part of the American mosaic: Islam is now the third largest and fastest growing religion in America.
At the turn of the century, given the explosion of information on Islam and its growing presence in the American public square (Islamic centers, Muslim social and educational organizations, and the greater numbers of Muslims in our schools and universities, and professions), I was writing a new book, The Future of Islam: Muslims in the 21 st Century. But, all of this changed on September 11, 2001 with the devastating national tragedy that took the lives of so many innocent Americans, including American Muslims. Instead, I wrote Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam as well as What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam in order to respond to a series of never-ending questions: “Why do they hate us?,” “ What are the causes of Muslim extremism and terrorism?,” “Is Islam a violent religion?”
In the aftermath of September 11, President George Walker Bush emphasized that America was waging a war against global terrorism, not against Islam. However, the continued acts of a terrorist minority, coupled with statements by preachers of hate (Muslim and Christian) as well as anti-Muslim talk show hosts and political commentators have obscured our understanding of the second largest of the world’s religions and of the mainstream Muslim majority. The result is reflected in a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll which found substantial minorities of Americans admitting to negative feelings or prejudice against Muslims and favor heightened security measures with Muslims to help prevent terrorism. 44% say Muslims are too extreme in their religious beliefs. Nearly one quarter of Americans, 22%, say they would not want a Muslim as a neighbor; fewer than half believe U.S. Muslims are loyal to the United States.
Today, while many Americans see a war against global terrorism, many in the Muslim world see a war against Islam and Muslims. How do Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia view America? Is there a blind hatred of our way of life? A recent Gallup World Poll indicates the opposite. Muslims in 10 countries polled (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia) said that what they most admired about America, after technology and scientific advancement, was its value system, hard work, liberty, freedom of choice, rule of law, fair political systems and gender equality. Overwhelming majorities in every Muslim country polled support freedom of speech and majorities in virtually every country also felt women should have the same legal rights as men.
What do Muslims believe would improve relations with the West? Respondents’ most frequent replies were "demonstrate more understanding and respect for Islam"; help with "economic development/jobs"; and "stop interfering in our affairs." Most did not believe that the US was serious about promoting real self-determination and democracy in the region. The conclusion? Anti-western feelings result from our policies and actions, not from our way of life, culture or religion.
Five years after 9/11, both growing anti-Americanism in the Muslim world and Islamophobia, discrimination against or hostility towards Islam or Muslims in our multireligious and multicultural West, are growing threats. Muslims and non-Muslims alike have all been victims of global terrorism. Both must be part of the solution rather the problem. Both must hold political leaders accountable for failed policies and combat their preachers and theologies of hate: militant religious and political leaders, ideologues, and media commentators who engage in mutual demonization. If America is to play a role in building a new Middle East, a new debate in America must take place to recapture those principles and values that made America great and which many Muslims have admired.
John L. Esposito is University Professor of Religion & International Affairs at Georgetown University, co-author with Dalia Mogahed of Can You Hear Me Now? Listening to the Voices of One Billion Muslims (forthcoming).