By John Esposito and Sheila B. Lalwani
Religion News Service
(RNS) Tolerance is one of the hallmarks of democracy, particularly American democracy. In recent months we've witnessed numerous examples of misunderstandings, intolerance and ignorance. The ugliness has challenged our views on religious freedom and harmed interfaith relations.
Perhaps now is a good moment to pause and come together; the days ahead seem custom-made for it.
Saturday--the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks--also marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and prayer. Fasting during Ramadan is designed to teach Muslims about patience, humility and spirituality. Muslims are taught to seek forgiveness for past sins and pray for guidance and assistance in resisting the evils of daily life. It is also a time for self-restraint and positive work.
Suspicion, anger, and hostility toward the Muslim community in America surfaced recently around a proposal to build an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York. The net effect seemed to chastise the millions of Muslim Americans, as if they bore a collective guilt, for being insufficiently sorry for the acts of the 9/11 hijackers.
A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life detected a real and lingering tendency to see Islam and Muslims through the lens of extremism. The study found that the public's view of Islam has worsened since 2005; 30 percent have a favorable view and 38 percent don't. Last year, a Gallup Poll found that 53 percent of Americans view Islam in an unfavorable light.
The debates in New York prompted a disturbing wave of violence against Muslims around the U.S., particularly in California, Kentucky, Texas, Florida, Wisconsin and New York. At the Madera Islamic Center in California's Central Valley, vandals smashed a mosque's window and left signs that read, "Wake up America the enemy is here" and "No temple for the god of terrorism."
Others, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, compared Muslim Americans who want to build the Islamic center in New York to Nazis wanting to erect a sign next to Washington's Holocaust museum.
Most Christians find the rhetoric of Terry Jones, the pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., who had planned to burn Qurans on the 9/11 anniversary both self-serving and destructive to interfaith and international relations.
Such speech and actions undermine relations and embarrass well-intended people who are searching for religious unity and harmony in America.
Just a decade ago, many Americans were mostly unfamiliar with Islam or the American Muslim community. Even fewer knew much about Hinduism, Sikhism or Jainism. To be sure, ignorance and misperceptions still exist, but more troubling is a wave of increasing Islamophobia that underscores the need to continue to educate ourselves about Islam and American religious diversity.
While the debate about the New York Islamic center will eventually pass, what should stay with us is our belief in a pluralistic and tolerant America, even if it's sometimes hard to see. We must always strive to set a place at the table for everyone. Hate mongering won't help, but tolerance based on mutual understanding and respect will.
In other words, let's restart the conversation. We've never needed it more than we do now.
(John L. Esposito is the author of "The Future of Islam" and is the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Sheila B. Lalwani is a research fellow at the center.)