06/13/2011 02:50 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2011

One Reason Americans Think Muslims Want to Stone Them

Last month, Sarah Palin made a joint appearance in Denver with retired Gen. William Boykin, who believes Islam shouldn't be given the same First Amendment protections as other religions.

Palin came and went, and most major local media didn't mention Boykin's anti-Islamic views, which would surely have been reported if Boykin had made similar attacks on Christianity or Judaism.

It's the kind of omission you might try to forget about and move on, even though it's classic religious bigotry.

But I listen to a lot of talk radio, and ideas like Boykin's ooze out all the time.

I know if I were a Muslim, I'd be scared. As a matter of fact, I'm not a Muslim, and I'm scared.

On right-wing radio, the argument reflects what Boykin writes in a Colorado Christian University essay, that the "Koran is unequivocal in its directive to Muslims to establish a global Islamic state... with Sharia as the only law of the land."

Sharia, Boykin argues, echoing what you hear on talk radio, "demands death for those who renounce Islam" as well as "marital rape, female genital mutilation, and severing of hands and feet."

This leads people like Denver Post columnist John Andrews to ask, "Can a good Muslim be a good American? ... the answer is not so simple."

So I interviewed an expert on Islam to offer a countervailing view.

"The Taliban takes one bit of the Sharia, the harsh and literal interpretation, and leaves out the most important part, the compassion," Akbar Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and author of Journey into America, told me. "In Islam, god in the Koran has 99 attributes, 99 names, and the two names that god uses all the time to define himself, and we use to define god, are compassion and mercy. So god's justice reflects god's compassion and mercy, which the Taliban overlook in their interpretation."

Ahmed said that some literalists, like the Taliban, interpret sharia exactly as written in the Koran, but the vast majority of Muslims believe sharia should not be interpreted literally.

He cited the example of stoning to death, which he says was inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, like other brutal laws in the sharia.

"Do Christians go around stoning adulterers and so on?" he asked. "They don't. They don't use the literal interpretation of the Bible for their law."

Some Muslim groups, like the Taliban, do rely on the literal interpretation, he says, but this is mostly "tribal."

"If you look around the Muslim world, you will see that there is no question of stoning in countries that are on the path to modernity, countries like Malaysia, Egypt, or Indonesia, even Pakistan and Bangladesh. By and large, you will not get people advocating the stoning of women or the chopping off of hands. You will not get that.

"If you took a vote in the vast majority of the Muslim world, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, and they have a population of 90 to 98 percent Muslim, and if you took a vote on the sharia, they would overwhelmingly turn it down," he said.

He told me journalists aren't reporting enough about sharia, so the hate-filled and inaccurate statements of talk-show hosts and right-wing extremists like Boykin are defining the term, unfairly, for Americans.

"If journalists take this on, you will see others jumping up and saying it's time to call a halt to this," he said. "It's not being American at all, in terms of the religious pluralism that is at the heart of the American character."