Religious scholar Stephen Prothero rightly observes that “Most Europeans and North Americans…see Islam through a veil hung over their eyes centuries ago by Christian Crusaders intent on denouncing Islam as a religion of violence, its founder, Muhammad, as a man of the sword, and its holy book, the Quran, as a text of wrath.” Confirming this statement, a major survey conducted by The Pew Forum in 2007 reveals that when Americans think of Muslims, they frequently connect them with words like “fanatic”, “violent”, “terrorism”, and “strict.” My own personal experience also confirms this unfortunate fact in our society, which has seemed to grow increasingly Islamophobic since 9/11. Recent controversies in the United States over Islam have continued to reveal an intensifying fear: the national debate over plans for a mosque in New York, the fearful public comments about Muslims made by Juan Williams and Bill O’Reilly, and Oklahoma’s recent attempt to ban Sharia law. Similar fears are also rampant in Europe, as a growing Muslim population seems to many Europeans to point towards an Islamic takeover of European society. Because I continually find myself in conversation with people who are literally terrified of Muslims in the same way I once was as a young conservative Christian, I am committed to promoting religious intelligence and tolerance under the conviction that Islamophobia is largely rooted in ignorance and confusion.
It was not until I studied Islam in college that I began to see beyond the popular portrayals of Muslims in the media. Although I do not think Islam can be simply described as a “religion of peace”, I do believe that most Muslims in the world today are genuinely peaceful with strong commitments to justice. As such, my main goal for this essay is to highlight some of the beliefs, practices, and history of Islam as they relate to most Muslim’s commitments to justice and religious tolerance today. I will initially approach this through reflections on my own personal experiences as they relate to these issues. It is mainly because I can relate to those who are fearful of Islam that I feel a responsibility to help them see the larger truth of this religion as it exists in the present context.
In some ways, this final essay on Islam in a post-9/11 world is my most important of the semester. In part, this is because my entire undergraduate education was fueled by the tragic events of September 11th, 2001 – which also led me to study religion as a graduate student at CST. It was during my first semester in college that Islamic terrorists flew two planes into the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, changing the conversation about religion in America – and around the world – forever. Recalling the disturbing and immediate impact of these events, Diana Eck writes, “Within hours, an unprecedented rash of xenophobic incidents began – from low-level harassment, ethnic slurs, broken windows, and threatening calls to arson, beatings and murders.” Because I was in a philosophy course at the time, I was able to wrestle with the events of 9/11 in an academic environment and have my false assumptions about Muslims sufficiently challenged.