THE BLOG
05/28/2013 05:37 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

How Can Interfaith Work Again?

Since 9/11, two interesting effects have taken place in America. In response to growing anti-Muslim sentiment, a consortium of interfaith groups have ramped up their efforts to connect diverse religious communities. But at the same time, anti-Muslim sentiment has continued to increase.

In "No God but God," Reza Aslan concludes, "After the attacks of 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment is at an all time-high ... far higher than it was in the immediate aftermath of the tragic day in 2001."

Data proves Aslan's claim. A 2010 Gallup poll indicated that Muslims in America are the most likely religious group to have experienced discrimination. A Pew Research report revealed that 70 percent of Americans believe that Islam has little or nothing in common with their own religion -- up from 59 percent in 2005.

Given the prevailing trends, one is forced to ask the question: Have interfaith efforts failed?

The answer is no. Interfaith, especially when done an individualized level, can do wonders for mutual understanding and tolerance between diverse groups.

Instead, two opposing effects are at work: the interfaith effect, which increases mutual understanding, and the backlash effect, which increases anti-Muslim sentiment.

Each time a backlash occurs -- after the Boston Marathon tragedy or the slaying of Drummer Lee Rigby -- the gains made by interfaith leaders and organizations are lost. In fact, the magnitude of the backlash effect is larger than the interfaith effect -- this explains why anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise despite the efforts of so many.

How can the interfaith community limit the backlash effect? It's a matter of rhetoric.

Muslim leaders need to understand that in the public's eyes, an attack by an extremist is linked to the entire Muslim community. An ideologically inspired attack is far different from an attack by the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, or Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter.

Leaders need to stand up and find a way to separate the two effects: the works of interfaith organizations should not be affected by outlandish attacks by a small minority.

Rhetoric is vital in setting a public tone.

In response to the Boston Marathon tragedy, Muslim leaders followed a typical framework.

"As a Muslim American community, we should not be held accountable for the acts of any individual," said Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America.

"Every faith has within it heretical elements, and unfortunately some young people will listen to those elements," said Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman Corey Saylor.

Both Imam Magid and Mr. Saylor took inherently defensive stances: American Muslims cannot be associated with these attacks and terrorists do not represent Islam well.

Muslim leaders need to go on the offensive. They need to disassociate with any extremist groups through powerful public stances.

They need to say, "Extremists are not part of our community. They do not reflect any notion of Islam. They are not Muslim."

Many Muslims in my community already think this. But takfir -- publicly denouncing someone as a disbeliever -- is something that Islamic jurisprudence takes very seriously.

It is time that the Muslim community settles this debate. Much like the Baptist community has disassociated with the Westboro Baptist Church -- clearly the latter does not represent the former -- the American Muslim community needs to do the same with its fringe groups.

If extremists can self-identify as Muslims, the American Muslim community must be able to identify who belongs and who doesn't.

This is the first step in counteracting the backlash effect and thereby allowing the interfaith community to continue to change hearts and minds. If American Muslims want extremists to be treated as unlinked outliers, our leaders must be willing to say exactly that.