Amid a surging fear of Muslims -- Islamophobia -- in our nation, it is time for all of us to improve our understanding of Islam and our relationships with Muslims -- if not because it is right to do this morally, then because it is in our best interests nationally.
The fact is that we live in a world alongside one and a half billion Muslims, and regardless of the desire of some on the fringes of society, our Muslim neighbors are not going anywhere. A failure to understand this population and its religion is bad enough. Choosing to intentionally demonize those who follow this religion and provoke the anger of the Muslim people qualifies not just as insensibility but insanity.
General David Petraeus, the current commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, seems to be the type of person who would have a good sense of how the Muslim world perceives the rising level of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States. Just as importantly, he would see the impact of that rhetoric on the men and women serving in the U.S. military abroad.
Here is a solid chunk of reality. In an unprecedented move last year, General Petraeus asked the American people not to participate in or support burnings of the Quran and anti-Muslim rhetoric because of the potentially harmful impact of such behavior on our military personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And, there is more. The United States has committed a tremendous amount of resources to Afghanistan, not just money, but the lives of our sons and daughters. So, why, in the name of all that is reasonable, would U.S. citizens spew antagonizing suspicion and anger at the very people on whom our government is expending our most precious resource in an effort to form a partnership of peace? Are we hoping that our vitriol somehow will be miraculously transformed into a message regarding a desire for essential collaboration, cooperation, mutual respect, and understanding? With Pakistani attitudes toward the United States at an all-time low, our denunciations are intensifying a growing hatred toward us. Is that in our best interest?
We are not the only people in the world with an interest in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other governments with non-American agendas are biding their time to see how the U.S. continues to respond to Islamic-oriented countries. China, for example, sees in Pakistan the possibility of a delivery system that could bring vast new sources of energy to its people. Why are we positioning ourselves as hateful people who want our Muslim neighbors to find allies other than us?
Whatever your scriptures of authority may be, if you have any at all, the U.S. Constitution calls for all American citizens to recognize the dignity and worth of all people and summons us to live as civil peacemakers in this world. No exemptions exist for Muslims. Patriotically applying the priorities of our Constitution to the present situation could enable us to see the remarkable opportunity that we have to increase the spread of democracy and to forge alliances that can make the world a better place in which to live.
We now know that the warning from General Petraeus was rooted in a reality that we can ignore only at the peril of exposing our troops to more hatred and endangering lives. When last autumn's threats by a few Americans to burn a Quran segued into this past spring's burning of the holy book of Islam by those same people, we watched in horror as a riot of response broke out in Afghanistan and eight United Nations workers were killed along with at least four others. What was the helpful point of that action? What was the promise of Christianity purveyed by such behavior?
Actions always have consequences as do spoken words, but they do not always have to be negative. As we approach the tenth anniversary of September 11, we will do well to ask what actions we can take here at home -- individually and collectively -- that will have a positive impact on those around us and those on the other side of the world.
The two of us have made the choice to move beyond talking about each other or talking with each other to instead engage each other in a manner that can change in us -- and hopefully in others also -- perceptions, nurture mutual understanding as well as respect, and return us to an appreciation of religious diversity. Respecting the religious freedoms of others, even those with whom we disagree, does not require anyone to set aside their own faith. Both our respective faith traditions and our common citizenship compel us to find ways to live together with peace, justice, and goodwill.
Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is the President of Interfaith Alliance and an organizer of the upcoming "Faith Shared: Uniting in Prayer and Understanding." Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and author of "Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam."
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