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U.S. can ill afford the perception that we are at war with Islam

By Parvez Ahmed

08:02 AM CDT on Thursday, July 5, 2007

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center concluded that American Muslims are "decidedly American in their outlook, values and attitudes." Yet despite such mainstream attitudes, American Muslims remain the subject of profound misunderstandings and deep mistrust. An August 2006 Gallup poll found that four in 10 Americans admit feeling prejudice toward Muslims. Nearly one in four expressed unwillingness to live next to Muslim neighbors.

FILE 2001/Staff photo

FILE 2001/Staff photo

A woman prays at the end of a service at Dallas Masjid of al Islam, where she heard a Muslim military chaplain deliver a lecture on the war.

This irrational fear, or Islamophobia, leads to discrimination against Muslims, the exclusion of Muslims from the sociopolitical process, guilt by association and even hate crimes. In 2006, American Muslims reported more than 2,000 incidents of alleged discrimination and more than 150 hate-crime incidents to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Since the 9/11 attacks, acts of discrimination and hate crimes have annually averaged double-digit growth rates.

In recent years, Islamophobia has gained currency in part because of a thesis advanced by Samuel Huntington and eagerly embraced by neo-conservatives that presents the inevitability of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West. This thesis makes simple and fatalistic assumptions that the West and Islam are monolithic and culturally exclusive.

In his book Lost History, Michael Morgan makes a powerful case that, far from being culturally exclusive, Islamic civilization "seeded the European Renaissance and enabled many aspects of the modern West and global civilization. It is a history that by the beginning of the 21st century had been forgotten, ignored, misunderstood, suppressed or even rewritten."

This rewritten history has allowed those already predisposed to suspicion of Islam to create a climate of extreme prejudice, distrust and fear of Muslims. They fail to recognize that Islam is not monolithic. Muslims throughout their more than 1,400-year history have often successfully adapted to new realities, or else they and their faith could not have flourished in so many regions of the world spanning so many varied cultures. Islam shares common values with other major faiths, favors peacemaking over violence and unequivocally rejects killing innocent people, even in warfare.

Profound misunderstandings about Islam allow dismissal of any criticism by Muslims of American policy as reactionary and irrational. In the absence of American Muslim voices in policymaking circles, Islamophobia is becoming institutionalized, leading to tacit acceptance of discrimination against and profiling of Muslims.

In addition, American Muslims worry about the broader social impact of Islamophobia. Muslim youths grow up learning that plurality, equality and freedom constitute core American values. However, when they see that such ideas do not apply to their own empowerment, they are likely to become disillusioned and alienated.

A recent study sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs argues that a well-integrated and empowered Muslim population would better serve the United States as it navigates critical policy challenges involving Muslims both here and abroad.

The report ends with practical solutions calling for expanded partnerships between American Muslims and law enforcement, development of American Muslim leadership network to work with youths, building stronger American Muslim institutions, and working with coalitions on common concerns like immigration and health care.

Testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Steven Kull, editor of, said: "Muslims share the worldwide view that the U.S. does not live up to its own ideals of international law and democracy. ... There now seems to be a perception that the U.S. has entered into a war against Islam itself. ... Eight in 10 believe that the U.S. seeks to weaken and divide the Islamic world."

As a nation, we can ill afford the perception that we are at war with a faith practiced by more than a billion people accounting for more than a fifth of humanity today.

I take guidance from a Quranic verse: "O mankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know [not despise] each other." Promoting mutual understanding, not remaining entrenched in divisive worldviews, ought to guide our conscience. Ignoring it only perils the progression of our American civilization.

Parvez Ahmed is the chairman of the board for the Council on American Islamic Relations. He is also an associate professor at the University of North Florida. His e-mail address is




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