View Islam rationally: get to know our Muslim brothers and sisters: Daydreams

Posted by Rick Chrisman

Although Greg Mortensen, author of "Three Cups of Tea," should be held accountable for stretching the truth in his book, Mortensen remains an important model for the unique work that he did while in Afghanistan.

As Nicholas Kristoff wrote in a recent article, "he was right about the need for American outreach in the Muslim world. He was right that building schools tends to promote stability more than dropping bombs. He was right about the transformative power of education, especially girls' education. He was right about the need to listen to local people — yes, over cup after cup after cup of tea — rather than just issue instructions" (NY Times 4/20/11). Greg Mortensen took Muslims and Islam seriously, and he succeeded in getting many Americans (including the Pentagon!) to do so, too.

Unfortunately, not everybody has adopted Mortensen's positive spirit. Instead, a large part of our population is afflicted with "Islamophobia." Evidence from last year alone is enough to warrant saying so. People determinedly opposed the construction of a mosque "at Ground Zero," even though it was not a mosque and not at Ground Zero.

Brigitte Gabriel, a "self-appointed terrorism detector" who makes $178,000 a year by lecturing to big audiences, blames what she calls "Islamofascism" on the Qur'an. Glenn Beck of Fox News ranted all year about a worldwide Islamic conspiracy to reinstitute the ancient Caliphate, until he was finally banished by his boss, Rupert Murdoch.

New York Rep. Peter King held a controversial Congressional hearing in March to investigate American Muslim sympathies, confirming the widespread anti-Muslim prejudice in our society. The "Reverend" Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fl., having changed his mind about burning a Qur'an back in September, decided to "hold Islam accountable" by holding a "mock trial" of the holy book.

He pronounced the Qur'an "guilty" of five "crimes against humanity," which led to a protest in Afghanistan two weeks ago that resulted in the death of 12 non-combatants. But if the Qur'an is to blame for all the offenses committed by Muslims, shouldn't we also blame the Bible for David Koresh, Jim Jones and the "Rev." Terry Jones, too, for that matter?

Does any of this constitute a real problem? Yes. We have seen this sort of bigotry many times before in U.S. history: Massachusetts Puritans hanged Mary Dyer and three fellow Quakers on the Boston Common in 1660; the Mormons were driven out of New York and into Illinois where their leader, Joseph Smith, was murdered in 1830; Roman Catholic immigrants were persecuted in post-Civil War America.

Such poisonous intolerance doesn't disappear without effort. Although there have been no fatalities this year, there has been a lot of religious discrimination, harassment, threats and phony legislation (e.g. the law outlawing "Sharia" in Oklahoma, Missouri, North Carolina and other states).

We need to act better, not only for the sake of good human relations in our diverse country, but also so that there will be clear-sighted decision-making in Washington. Good policies do not grow in a climate of fear and intolerance, as we saw in the case of the Iraq War.

We have a part to play, too. We must live up to our image as an informed and compassionate citizenry. First, we need to defend American Muslims the way we would stand up for any other good neighbor. For example: Heartsong Church in Memphis put a "Welcome to the Neighborhood" sign on its lawn facing the construction site of a new mosque being built across the street.

Second, we need learn more about the Qur'an — it's a beautiful book that creates high expectations of a moral life and a just society. A good way to do so might have been to enroll in Professor Gregory Spinner's course on Islam next fall, but unfortunately, it's already full. You could, however, lobby the college to add more sections to the class and, while you're at it, suggest that we expand the Religion Department in general.

Third, students, get to know your Muslim peers at Skidmore better. Admittedly, it is hard to find and engage each other over religious matters. One option would be to join the (new) Islamic Awareness Club, led by Sofia Naqvi '14 under the auspices of Hayat.

Fourth, look next fall for Islam-related and other inter-faith programming of the (also new) Inter-Religious Council. Under its auspices, students are proposing a series on "War Today," featuring panel discussions about current religiously stoked hot-spots around the world.

Finally, good people, become curious about religion. And do so with genuinely sympathetic interest, not presumption or bias. There is much, much more to every religion than meets the eye.

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