A few years ago I did a cable television interview on the youth bulge in majority-Muslim countries. It's a huge group, I told the anchor, and they have the potential to make a really positive contribution to the world.
The images played on the screen during my interview were of young people doing training exercises at a terrorist camp -- images in total contradiction to my message. I was livid. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then everything I was saying was totally drowned out. When I brought it up with one of the staff he just shrugged and said it was likely just the B-roll most readily available.
That's when it hit me. This isn't just a problem with the type of B-roll cable television has handy, this is a problem with the B-roll most readily available in our minds. The images that come up in too many people's heads when they hear the terms "Muslim" or "Muslim youth" or "the Muslim world" is of suicide bombers or planes flying into the World Trade Center.
Eighteen days in Egypt changed all that. The movement didn't just overthrow a dictator, it gave the world a whole new psychological movie of the contributions of Muslim citizens to their nation. Protesters braving tear gas and police truncheons chanting 'peacefully, peacefully' as they marched through the streets into Tahrir Square. People holding up Quran's next to crosses, chanting "Muslim, Christian we are all Egyptian."
Makeshift medical clinics where doctors and nurses volunteered their time to bandage protesters wounded by thugs many said were sent by Mubarak's regime. The interview with the young Google executive Wael Ghonim, just coming out of a week and a half where he was blindfolded and held in solitary confinement, saying that he was not done yet, that he was willing to die for his country (who was not reminded of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" when they saw that?)
I used to ask students when I lectured at colleges to tell me something that they admire about Islam or Muslims. I stopped doing it. The silence would last so long, it embarrassed both them and me.
There are very real consequences when entire populations are represented in the public imagination by their worst elements. Without a doubt, one of the reasons for the vociferous opposition to mosques in communities across America is some people think the suicide bomber from the evening news is coming to Friday prayers next to their grocery store. When they hear "Muslim" they think "Osama bin Laden."
Well, no more.
9/11 is no longer the date that defines Islam for the world. January 25 gets that honor now.
(This piece was originally posted on the Washington Post Faith Divide.)