John L. Esposito and Sheila B. Lalwani
Religion has a dark side and, as we have bitterly experienced, religious extremists can be deadly. But, as Park 51 and recent congressional elections have demonstrated, no thanks to some politicians and bigots, religion can be also be exploited to feed division and hatred.
Politicians like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle grabbed headlines, using Islam and Muslims as convenient scapegoats. Gingrich, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this year, created a reality that doesn't exist by calling for a federal law barring U.S. courts from considering Islamic law as a replacement for U.S. law. Sharron Angle nearly topped him when she falsely suggested that Frankford, Tex., and Dearborn, Mich., were subject to a "Sharia" regime. Voters in Oklahoma and Louisiana were similarly concerned about the "creeping in" of Islamic law. Oklahoma State Question 755, which passed, asked voters where state courts should be forbidden from considering or using Sharia." In Louisiana, several bills were passed that ban international law from its courts. The bills do not mention Islamic law expressly, but the motivations to "protect" U.S. law in Louisiana were reportedly the same as in Oklahoma.
There is a significant problem with these bogus concerns and charges. No federal court would consider Islamic law or any religious law as a replacement for U.S. law. Further, mainstream Islam and Muslims, like mainstream citizens of other faiths, accept the U.S. legal system.
We herald our U.S. history of ethnic and religious diversity but often leave out the price paid by immigrants along the way. Forgotten are the struggles of Jews, ethnic Catholics, Japanese in World War II and many others against bigotry and discrimination before they were accepted. Today, Muslim Americans, despite the fact that major polls show they are economically, educationally and politically integrated continue to face powerful forces that wish to deny them their place as part of America's social tapestry. Major polls on public sentiments about Islam taken by Time Magazine and The New York Times in August reflect this forgetfulness: 33% disclose that they believe that Muslim Americans were more sympathetic to terrorists and, in general, 60% of those polled have negative feelings about Muslims. Other studies from Gallup, the Washington Post and the Pew Forum indicate similar findings.
It has become increasingly more difficult for Muslims to construct mosques and Islamic centers, which according to a report from the Pew Center on Public Life and Religion, municipalities and city councils have consistently blocked. So too, existing mosques are being subjected to protests and vandalism in Connecticut, New York, Wisconsin, Texas, California, and many other cities throughout the U.S.
In America, faith matters. In our country religion is important to the majority of our citizens and we are unique in the numbers of citizens representing such a variety of faiths. But in 21st century America, religion has too often become a source of division, an excuse for discrimination, bigotry and hate crimes. To meet the many challenges we face in this century, a fundamental transformation is critical in the way we "see" religion and religious rights in general and Islam in particular.
First, we must improve our religious literacy. Ironically, although studies show that religion is important to most of us, most Americans are more broadly religiously illiterate. While our vast public school systems should not "teach" religion, they need to "teach about" religions, in order to prepare future generations for life in our multi-religious society that is based on mutual understanding and respect.
Second, the mainstream news media, which has a huge impact on public opinion, must provide a more balanced and nuanced view on religion, global affairs and policy. Coverage of violence and terrorism by religious extremism is important in a world where it has become all too common, but just as critical is media coverage in the constructive and inspirational roles that religious faith plays in so many American lives.
Third, we also need to resist being exploited and divided by politicians who promote themselves through hate speech as an integral part of their campaigns. Intolerance is intolerance, and that's not what we stand for in America.
John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and author of the newly released book The Future of Islam (2010). Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Center.