09/13/2012 02:37 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

Who Will Define Islam?

In Libya, a Muslim mob has killed the U.S. ambassador and three other American diplomats in Benghazi. In Cairo, a horde of Islamic extremists breached the walls of the American embassy compound, where they tore down the American flag, replacing it with an Islamic one. The attacks came in response to news of an American-made Internet-based film that disrespects the Prophet Muhammad in some fairly serious and offensive ways.

It's a tragic mess that threatens to destabilize the fragile peace in post-Arab-Spring North Africa, and it leaves to the American public the critically important task of choosing who will define Islam for us.

There is no shortage of voices in the marketplace of public opinion who will offer up ideas about Islam. The loudest voices will be the professional dispensers of Islamophobia, whose opinions are funneled into the mainstream by Fox News and other right-wing media outlets. Among the anti-Islam elite are writers like Richard Spencer (who, in response to the recent mob violence in Libya and Egypt quoted Ayn Rand's aphorism: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man"), and Pamela Gellar (who incorrectly reported that Libya has declared war on the United States). These writers employ inflammatory rhetoric, their grasp of facts can be tenuous, and their work was held in high esteem by Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing Norwegian extremist who murdered 68 people -- many of them teenagers -- in the name of keeping Europe free of Islam. Nonetheless, their analysis continues to inform what many Americans think about Islam.

Less well-known are the makers and promoters of "The Innocence of Muslims," the film whose forthcoming release apparently sparked the violence in Libya and Egypt. Sam Bacile, the California-based real estate developer who wrote and directed the film (which, by they way is so bad it makes Ed Wood look like Frank Capra), and who may or may not be an actual person, self-identifies as an Israeli Jew, and claims the film's production was financed by Jewish donors. The film may (or may not) also have some connection to Egyptian-American Coptic Christians. About the only thing we know for sure is that the film is being endorsed by Terry Jones, the Quran-burning pastor from Florida.

So a group of radical Muslims attacks American embassies in North Africa because a coalition of apparently radical (but perhaps fictitious) Jews and Copts makes an offensive movie about Islam that is being promoted by at least one nut-job of a radical Christian pastor. Now we have to decide: Will we let the radical fringe of three faiths define Islam for us? The stakes are high. The fearful disinformation being disseminated can lead to warfare abroad and to the limitation of civil rights at home.

There are alternatives to the fear mongers and the religious radicals. We could, for example, find out what mainstream Muslim leaders around the world are saying about the violence in Libya and Egypt. We can listen to the calmer voices in our own faith traditions. Such research takes time and effort, but it can pay off.

I spent two and a half years researching and writing a book ("The Search for Truth About Islam: A Pastor Separates Fact From Fiction") that explores Western misconceptions of Islam. I met with and interviewed some of North America's foremost Islamic scholars and activists. As a result, I can, with confidence, assert that Islam is not the religion portrayed by the professional Islamophobes; nor is its message understood by anyone who made "The Innocence of Muslims," promoted the film or responded to the film with violence.

Islam is an ancient religious movement with a wide embrace. Its adherents have a complex and diverse set of beliefs. An overwhelming majority of Muslims reject violence in the name of God. Like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Islam cannot be defined by a couple of angry mobs or by external critique that relies on inflammatory rhetoric.

We need an American public who refuses to accept the misinformation provided by the purveyors of Islamophobia or to be misled by the radical Muslims, Jews and Christians who are only too happy to confirm our worst fears about Islam. And we need a media who refuses to pass on disinformation. We need leaders who will not be moved by ignorance-fueled frenzies of paranoia.

We need good information about Islam so that we will understand Muslims and so that we will not be swept up into a cycle of violence, fear and hate. The peace of our world depends upon it.