THE BLOG
05/06/2013 10:37 am ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

Humanity Needs a Touch of Magical Interfaith Dialogue

I grew up in a Western, secularist, modernist educational system in Turkey. Then, when I was a young teacher fresh out of college, I was appointed by the Turkish government to teach literature in a religious school that was geared toward raising imams and religious lecturers for mosques. As I first encountered practicing Muslims, I was disappointed to see that many of my religious colleagues were unjust and intolerant. The environment was mostly hostile to a liberal young woman, and I felt the pressure of narrow-minded colleagues and superiors. It hurt. Yet, in the middle of this painful situation, in the same workplace, I met some amazingly intelligent, strong and resilient pious people who wholeheartedly supported me without any judgment. That was my first encounter with the power of unity in Islam.

After this experience, I moved to the U.S. The same Muslim identity that was judged as being insufficient in the religious school in İstanbul became increasingly central to my life in America. Particularly after 9/11, solely based on my Muslim identity, I encountered suspicious attitudes.
Between these two extremes one thing was common: I was treated with injustice. Experiencing intolerance from both sides of the camp made me aware of other people suffering from the same problems.

Actually, a decade after 9/11, I was optimistic that prejudice about Islam would fade, even though many others thought Islamophobia was a growing problem. However, unfortunately, it's become worse since the Tsarnaev brothers' vicious actions. Now, once again, after the Boston Marathon bombing, American Muslims walk on eggshells. We are uncomfortable; we are disturbed; we are concerned.

I'm not sure how many times I have been asked how I felt knowing that "Islam" was behind the bombing as far as many were concerned, since the bombers were Muslim.

If you want to know my answer, I felt exactly the same way I did before the suspects were identified: sad and devastated. I don't want to sound clichéd, but to me the Tsarnaev brothers weren't true Muslims; there is no space in Islam for terrorists, so the pair cannot represent me or Islam.

Thus, I don't feel apologetic for their act. Last August, Army veteran Wade Michael Page killed six people and then himself at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee. It is reported that he may have wrongly believed his victims to be Muslims. The attack was being treated as a hate crime and is considered by the FBI to be domestic terrorism. I cannot remember any Army members or Christians apologizing for him, just as they didn't for Timothy McVeigh in 1995. We haven't heard any explanations from young Christian and/or Jewish white males as to why individuals like Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner and James Holmes used assault rifles to terrorize innocent civilians.

Meanwhile, in rejoice-worthy progress, U.S. President Barack Obama last Tuesday indicated that the U.S. government is reviewing security procedures to guard against the self-radicalization of people inside the country.

According to the non-partisan think tank New America Foundation, from September 2011 to August 2012 there have been twice as many domestic terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists (eight) than by jihadists (four). Somehow, since 9/11, the word "terrorism" in the U.S. usually calls to mind links with al Qaeda, while white supremacists and other right-wing militants are often ignored by the public. I think right-wing extremists in the U.S. have been more likely to use violence when expressing their political or social ideas than those motivated by al Qaeda's ideology since 2001.

So, it's great news that Obama's staff is looking at ways to stop what the U.S. president refers to as "self-radical individuals" who are not part of a terrorist network but carry out an attack "because of whatever warped, twisted ideas they may have." However, I don't think it's enough for a long-lasting solution.

I strongly believe that interfaith dialogue and education are needed for a consistent process of social healing and harmony in the U.S., as well as around the world. Perhaps it never has been as important for interfaith commitment as it has become in the last decade. If we don't understand differences between religions and acknowledge similarities in them, we cannot truly embrace humanity.

"Interfaith dialogue is a must today, and the first step in establishing it is forgetting the past, ignoring polemical arguments and giving precedence to common points -- which far outnumber polemical ones," indicates Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2013.

Since faith is such a powerful part of so many people's lives, to get to know each other well enough we have to make a sincere effort in interfaith dialogue. We have to open our hearts to each other without any judgment or doubt. Then we should pray to God to enlarge our hearts to love each other, more and more.

This article was previously published in Today's Zaman.