Some of my best friends are Muslims. They make up an extended family of more than a dozen men, women, children and grandchildren in a Washington suburb. The parents were born in Sierra Leone, which also makes them African-Americans. They came to America when they were in their 20s, three decades ago. They pray at a local mosque.
The husband once told me his religion allowed him to have four wives, but he smiled sheepishly, and said: "I wouldn't think of it. I have trouble enough with one." (A lot of Christian and Jewish husbands understand.)
A daughter, born in the nation's capital, graduated from college and joined the U.S. Army. Another daughter won a full-tuition scholarship to one of Washington's most prestigious private high schools. A son is a wide receiver for his public-school team and dreams of playing on Sunday afternoons in the NFL. The grandchildren wear jeans from Target, shirts from the Old Navy and shoes from Payless. They put a familiar face on Islam. They love America and know Americans who love them. That's how it should be.
But lots of Americans know Islam only by the deeds of wicked Muslims: the sniper in Washington, the terrorists of Sept. 11, the bombers of Bali, the suicide bombers in Israel, the human torpedoes of the USS Cole. Increasing numbers of Americans don't have high opinions of the Muslim religion. We're only human.
In a new ABC/Beliefnet poll, the percentage of Americans having an unfavorable view of Islam jumped from 24 percent in January to 33 percent today. The poll was taken just before John Allen Muhammad was arrested as one of the two Beltway snipers. His name and his religion are likely to turn more Americans against Islam.
It's not difficult to see how this could happen, but it shows how little we know about the different shadings of Islam, and generalized suspicion lacks critical distinctions. If more Muslim leaders in this country talked about the ways the Islamist terrorists distort true Islam we might get a more faithful view of Islam, but few Muslims speak up. Analysts for ABC rationalize why most Muslims in this country remain silent.
"American Muslims live in constant fear that antagonism would turn to harassment or violence against them," say Steven Waldman and Deborah Caldwell. "And indeed, since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been numerous instances of violence against American Muslims, so a defensive posture is not at all surprising."
Such reasoning stands logic on its head. What better way to fight intolerance than to criticize those terrorists who hijack the religion to serve their own bloody purposes, if that is indeed what they are doing.
Some Muslims, fortunately, understand this. A group of Muslim social scientists met at American University in Washington this week to talk about the problem, and heard a harsh verdict from two of their own. "We have to develop a culture of human rights and civil rights," said Muqtedar Khan, chairman of international studies at Adrian College in Michigan. "Which means we have to speak out on violations in the Muslim world."
Zahid Bukhari, a professor at Georgetown University, agreed. "We should address our own issues honestly and frankly. Muslims in this part of the world are best positioned to check these situations."
Any religion or political movement, however worthy, can spawn followers who go off the deep end for misguided belief. The civil rights movement spawned the Black Panthers and Vietnam war protest birthed the Weathermen. Both groups murdered cops and killed innocents. Mainstream blacks and antiwar protesters spoke up against strategies of murder and the radicals were kept on the margins of the movements.
But the Islamists of the world have a large microphone in the Middle East, financed by wealthy governments that wish us no good, and the cells and fellow travelers in the West are infected with their venom. Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, recruited John Allen Muhammad for his Million Man March, and when Farrakhan went to Baghdad last summer he described the U.S. Congress as a "lynch mob" and President Bush as a "leader of a lynch mob," all because they understand the need to do something about Saddam Hussein. "The Muslim American people are praying to the almighty God to grant victory to Iraq," he said.
Hindsight is always cheap, and Muslims shouldn't be stereotyped any more than Christians or Jews. Muslims in Buffalo, in fact, drew attention to suspected al-Qaida terrorists in their midst, leading to arrests. When John Allen Muhammad was captured and charged with murder, my Muslim friends were shocked, hurt and dismayed. "Ours is a religion of peace," they said. "How could he be a Muslim?" That's a question the Muslims in America, as well as the Middle East, must answer.