The idea that Islam, and by extension Muslims, are inherently violent and irrational has become commonplace in our culture.
This misperception, with deep origins in the historical rivalry between Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East, was intensified by the Arab-Israeli conflict and a slew of bigoted Hollywood movies, and gained a solid foothold in the minds of many Americans after 9/11.
Since 9/11, right-wing evangelical preachers such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and commentators such as Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes, have spared no effort to spread fear and hatred of Islam and the growing American Muslim community.
This defamation probably has its greatest parallel in the anti-Semitic ideas that took hold in American culture between the First and Second World Wars. The charges directed against the American Jewish community – now eerily echoed by anti-Muslim rhetoric – smeared a religious minority as dangerous and subversive aliens. The Father Coughlins and Henry Fords of that era, and ours, found the political space to promote prejudice yet remain “respectable.” Certainly the 19 hijackers responsible for the carnage of 9/11 saw themselves as Muslims. But so, of course, did about 300 of their victims. And it is true that the United States faces a threat from al-Qaeda and like-minded organizations.
But so, of course, does the entire Arab and Islamic world, in which almost all governments and most people are committed to the war against al-Qaeda, and which is home to most of the victims of such fanaticism.
Some point to the glories of Muslim Spain, the notable tolerance and multiculturalism of the Ottoman Empire, or the relative peacefulness of the Islamic world over the past millennium compared to Christian Europe to make the case that Islam is essentially an agent of peace.
The more complex truth is that the Islamic world, at present and historically, is composed of a vast constellation of human beliefs, experiences and endeavors, a dizzying multiplicity, not a monolith. Like all great civilizations and cultures, those of the Islamic world have produced more than enough of the good to demand the highest respect, and enough of the bad to prohibit any complacency or chauvinism on the part of Muslims.
More than 1.3 billion people are Muslims, constituting about one fifth of humanity. Hence, the entire range of human experience and orientation can be readily found among them.
The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe said simply that “Africa is people.” So is the Islamic world. Not better or worse, villain or victim, but simply people. Violence, extremism and intolerance are universal human failings. They certainly are not particular to any culture or faith.