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John L. Esposito Headshot
Sheila B. Lalwani Headshot

Time to Move On

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The ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks passed with ceremonies, commemorations and reflections on where we have come as a society since that terrible day. The conclusion is clear: The rebuilding work is incomplete.

There are conversations we still need to have.

The last several months witnessed debates concerning relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, mainly as a result of the proposal to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero. Talk radio hosts and media pundits made the national story that cast Muslims as insufficiently sorry for the acts of 19 hijackers and insensitive to the victims' families. Muslims were suspect after 9/11, but the recent debates beginning in New York City highlighted the gap of understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. The situation had reached a point where President Obama had to say at that U.S. is not at war with Islam. He went onto remind people that Muslims are our co-workers, neighbors and friends.

These relationships have almost been forgotten. Studies show that Americans view Muslims in a negative light. A new poll from Quinnipiac University found that 38% of American voters have a favorable opinion of Islam, while 40% have an unfavorable opinion. In that same study, 50% of voters say Islam is a peaceful religion, and 27% say Islam encourages violence to non-Muslims. The numbers are consistent with other studies. A Gallup Poll revealed that 57% of Americans when asked what they admired about Islam said "nothing" or "I don't know." A recent Washington Post poll revealed that a shocking 49% of Americans view Islam unfavorably.

The urge to view Islam through a prism of extremism remains strong and should be fought, since it is dangerous to confuse mainstream Muslims with extremists, who constitute a fraction of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. There is no need to oblige Muslims and Muslim Americans to feel a collective guilt or responsibility. Ministers have denounced Islam and warned that we headed for a Muslim takeover of America.

History shows that tough economic times strain relations, and these times do not appear to be the exception as we witness a wave of xenophobia targeting Mexican immigrants and Muslims and advocating anti-immigration laws. And yet, major Gallup and Pew polls show a majority of American Muslims are economically, educationally, socially and politically integrated. They are among the most successful and highly educated minorities in the U.S. It is time to address the gaps between our understanding of Muslims and Islam and leave behind the myths and stereotypes that frame the view that many Americans hold of Islam and Muslims.

As we have done in the past and still continue to do in combating racism and anti-Semitism, it is important to systematically address the dangers of Islamophobia. This means that there should be a coordinated effort by political, religious, educational and media leaders to address this issue and by both sides of the Park 51 debate to come together. The need to do so is urgent if we are to protect pluralism in America.

These are good starting points for a fresh conversation with fact in mind. We may have differences, but we share a common humanity -- regardless of what you may hear.

John L. Esposito, the author of "The Future of Islam," is University Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sheila B. Lalwani is a research fellow at the center.