A few days ago, I wrote a piece discussing the need to teach American students in secondary and post-secondary institutions the core tenets and practices of the world's great religions. I argued that such education would amass a generation of individuals capable of acknowledging and understanding their fellow men and women of different faiths, and this would in turn secure America's stride towards a nation that respects and embraces religious pluralism. The flurry of feedback was both enlightened and ignorant, and emblematic of why such instruction would prove to be a prudent measure in the 21st century. In particular, I focused on taking America's pulse of its own Muslim citizens and of that of the Islamic world, and pleaded for genuine engagement and substantive dialogue between the various peoples.
Against this backdrop, I was absolutely outraged that CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 invited Rev. Flip Benham, a Christian fundamentalist (and quite frankly, an individual on the extreme limits of sanity), to debate the building of Cordoba House -- the proposed cultural community center and Muslim place of worship near Ground Zero -- and religious freedom in America. What spewed from Rev. Benham's lips was nothing short of what al-Qaeda spews when speaking to its religious counterparts: gross misinterpretations of not only their own faith but also the faith of others. Not only did Rev. Benham hijack the discussion by repeatedly declaring that Islam a "lie from the pit of hell," but host Anderson Cooper, who tried to inject a bit of sanity into the discussion, ultimately capitulated by declaring the debate an "open dialogue." In my previous piece, I spoke of the media as architects of intolerance and division, and as you will see from this clip of the exchange I speak of from AC360, there is no denying the facts.
To be fair, the segment did include an individual named Bruce Feiler, a voice of reasonable and rational discussion. But in the end, and in just under seven minutes, Rev. Benham managed to deeply offend, disgrace and degrade the religion of Islam and all its 1.4 billion adherents -- many millions of whom live here in the United States, and of whom I am one. Not only are Rev. Benham's actions encouraging hatred and inciting violence against a religious minority here in America, but his words undermine the security and stability of the nation writ large. Al-Qaeda can and will use the opposition to building Cordoba House and extremists such as Rev. Benham to rally, recruit and regroup. In today's society, Rev. Benham, too, is a security threat to the United States and the world. Freedom of speech is incalculably precious and sacred, but there are laws and limits against hate speech, hate crimes, and inciting violence. If Americans are afraid of al-Qaeda, they should be equally afraid of Rev. Benham clawing at the very social and moral fabric of this truly pluralist society.
Muslims and non-Muslims alike must stand together against such extremism personified by Rev. Benham. An open mind and heart willing to learn the basic principles of Islam and other great faiths is the only key available to unlocking the world's intolerance.
Cross-posted with RahimKanani.com.
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