Eboo Patel, a Muslim who is actively involved in interfaith work, is confronted quite frequently with bigotry against his faith. I sometimes am amazed at the patience he exhibits as he fights to overcome various negative stereotypes. Case in point--in his blog at the Newsweek/Washington Post On Faith web site, he responds to a query that compares Islam to Nazism. Among other things, he writes:
It is easy to stereotype religion based on the ones who manage to get a lot of the attention. Yet it seems to me that most of the people who are trying to live out their faith are ordinary, decent human beings who quietly go about their lives in the best way they can. They pray, they go to their place of worship, they earn a living, they raise children. They are not the ones who capture the headlines.
The data shows that ordinary Muslims emphatically do not support Muslim extremists. As Fareed Zakaria writes in his recent Newsweek column, a 2007 ABC/BBC poll in Afghanistan found support for the jihadists to be about 1 percent. In Pakistan’s North-West frontier, a region supposedly friendly to bin Laden and his cohorts, his support ran at about 4% in January 2008.
Muslim extremists target ordinary Muslims, too, and often first. Who was subjugated under the Taliban (the closest thing to the Nazis in the Muslim world) in Afghanistan? Muslims. Who is being murdered by extremist groups in Iraq? Muslims.
Are Muslims speaking up? Of course they are. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have signed the Not in the Name of Islam petition, which states: “We, the undersigned Muslims, wish to state clearly that those who commit acts of terror, murder and cruelty in the name of Islam are not only destroying innocent lives, but are also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent. No injustice done to Muslims can ever justify the massacre of innocent people, and no act of terror will ever serve the cause of Islam.”
The most important Muslim scholars in American and across the world have not only denounced terrorism and fundamentalism, but written scholarly papers articulating how highly the Muslim tradition values peace and pluralism. Check out Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Place of Tolerance in Islam and Umar Abd-Allah’s Mercy, The Stamp of Creation.
In their important new book Who Speaks for Islam?, my friends Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito call this the "silenced majority". Based on the largest and most comprehensive study of Muslims ever undertaken, their findings include that Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustifiable.
In other words, we Muslims want people to know that we hate Muslim fanatics as much as non-Muslims do, and we are shocked and hurt that so many people either aren’t listening or don’t believe us.
I sometimes tell audiences of non-Muslims that if there was a Muslim extremist in the room with one bullet in his gun, and you and I were up against the wall, chances are that he would shoot me first. I am doubly hateful to him. Not only do I not follow his radical way of life, I put a different idea of what it means to be Muslim out in the world.
That is not to say that I don't think that religion should have a deeper significance for the world at large than just one's own, personal, individual lives. But I do think that it is easy to take the worst that people do in the name of religion and ignore the fact that this is not, for large numbers of people of faith, what their religion is about. Religion is about meaning, about purpose, about defining an overall framework for existence.
I have noted that the most militant opponents of religion are quick to say that when people do evil in the name of religion, it is religion per se that is to blame; but when people do good in the name of religion, somehow the religion has nothing to do with it.
If God, as Tillich would put it, is another way of describing our Ultimate Concern, then the ways we try to make a difference reflect that Concern. Sometimes, things go horribly wrong, and people translate that Concern into evil--bigotry, oppression, violence, all done in the name of religion. But the solution to that problem is not to eliminate the Concern--because our concerns never go away--but instead to channel our concerns in ways that reflect to the best that the human condition can offer, to fulfill our potential in the best way possible.