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Islam Is Not the Enemy

America Abroad

Last spring, on the first day of Government 1800: "Globalization and its Discontents," I listened intently as The New York Times' Foreign Affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman expounded upon the dangers of the "globalization of technology." He warned of the "super-empowered angry men," such as the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center, who had capitalized on the proliferation of technology to orchestrate the devastating bombing. "Now, you don't just have AOL-America Online, but you also have JOL-Jihad Online!" The class erupted with laughter.

The Qur'an--Islam's holist book--talks about Jihad, which can be translated as "holy war." The term refers to the kinds of wars that took place between Muslims and Christians during the Crusades.

It is not surprising that a class full of mostly non-Muslims was familiar with the Qur'anic term. After all, Americans are taught about Islam in high school. They are taught that Muslims pray in a funny way and that the Muslim mission is Jihad. Of course, this leaves a lot of gaps--gaps that the American media eagerly fills in.

Last week, the American media filled in the gaps with stories about Chechen separatists hijacking a passenger airplane, militants carrying on a guerrilla war in Indonesia's Molucca islands, and the Taleban destroying ancient Buddhist statues--all in the name of Islam.

It should not be necessary to remind America that when the Taleban destroyed the statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, they invoked an interpretation of the Qur'an that is insulting to Muslims and contrary to the fundamental tenets of Islam, which preaches tolerance for other religions: Let there be no compulsion in religion (2:256), Whoever wills, let him believe; and whoever does not will, let him disbelieve (18:29).

It should not be necessary to remind America that these beliefs were not only written in the Qur'an, but Muslims also practiced them. The most powerful Muslim empires to have existed--the Arab dynasties, Mughal India and the Ottoman empire--all allowed minority religions to flourish. Non-Muslims living in the Arab dynasties even reserved the right to be tried under their own religious laws--a feature not duplicated in any other system.

It should not be necessary to remind America of these religious truths and historical facts because we are all supposed to know that there is a difference between "most Muslims" and "Islamic extremists." The problem is that you would never know the former existed by reading American newspapers.

In fairness to the responsible journalists, some writers try to make the distinction between "Islam" and "Islamic fundamentalism." But their efforts are futile because Americans understand so little about Islam and because the media coverage of Islam is characteristically negative. Stories abound about the ruthlessness of the Taleban, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, and the oppression of women in Muslim nations. As long as the front pages of our newspapers run such stories, the mere association of terrorists with Islam--the mere usage of the terms Islamic fundamentalist or Islamic extremist--threatens to further exacerbate the cleavage between Muslims and the West.

But there is no intent to associate "Muslims" with "Muslim fundamentalists." After all, we use the term "fundamentalist" or "extremist" not just with Muslims, but also other religions: we often refer to religious cults as "Christian fundamentalists."

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