Last week, a community meeting was held in Spotsylvania County, Va., to discuss plans by a group of Muslims who want to relocate and expand an Islamic center where they have been worshipping for 15 years.
What should have been a routine matter of zoning turned ugly when two men in the audience began hurling insults.
“Every Muslim is a terrorist,” one of the men yelled. He added, “Nobody, nobody, nobody wants your evil cult. I will do everything in my power to make sure this does not happen because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists.”
Tensions escalated to a point where a sheriff’s deputy called off the meeting and told everyone to go home.
This incident isn’t isolated. In Rhode Island, a state legislator sent an email to a constituent expressing support for the idea of containing Syrian refugees in special camps. In Sedgwick County, Kan., a commissioner at a public meeting presented a slideshow of men named Mohammed who have committed crimes and ranted about Islam.
Reading about these things filled me with a great sense of despair.
For more than 20 years, I’ve had the honor of meeting with visitors from a number of Muslims nations (or countries that have substantial Muslim populations) as part of a project sponsored by the U.S. State Department. I’ve met with delegations from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, former Soviet republics, Iraq, African nations and, on one memorable occasion, Iran. (Although the United States and Iran have strained diplomatic relations, educational and cultural exchanges continue.)
I don’t claim that this makes me an expert on Islam, but these experiences have reinforced an obvious fact: All Muslims are not the same. They don’t think monolithically. The Muslims I have met from Saudi Arabia, with their flowing robes, don’t look or sound like the delegations I’ve hosted from Indonesia. They don’t believe the same things either.
I’ve met Muslim women who dressed like the office workers you see on the streets of New York City or Washington, D.C., and I’ve met some who wore hijabs. I’ve talked with Muslims who were convinced that their version of Islam is the only correct one and favored aligning it with government. I’ve had discussions with others who called for secular states and freedom for all religions.
My point is that when you hear someone begin a sentence with a phrase like “All Muslims,” “Islam says” or even “Muslims believe,” stop and think. The statement that will flow from that isn’t likely to be accurate. Muslims account for 1.6 billion people in the world. It’s absurd to think that in a body that large all would believe the same thing. The 2.2 billion Christians in the world certainly don’t.
It’s also important to remember that fanatical strains of fundamentalism that seek to merge with the power of the state and oppress others exist in virtually all faiths. Over the weekend, I watched a documentary called “The World Before Her,” by Indian director Nisha Pahuja, which focused on two young women in India – one who was competing in a beauty pageant and another who joined a paramilitary camp sponsored by violent Hindu nationalists.
The contrast between the two women was jarring. Scenes of the rather vacuous pageant were interspersed with images of girls as young as 15 at the paramilitary camp calmly explaining how they would be happy to kill Muslims. (Hindu nationalists have, in fact, been killing Muslims in India for years. The Muslims strike back, and so the cycle of death goes on.)
The documentary included scenes of girls at the camp listening to lectures by extreme nationalist leaders. I was struck by how similar the rhetoric is to what I have heard at Religious Right gatherings.
The girls were told the following: Their once-great nation is at risk because its religion is under attack by modernization. The country risks God’s disfavor. Men should lead, and women should fill traditional roles. Homosexuality is a great evil. Other faiths are not pleasing to God, and thus the rights of their followers need not be respected.
Of course, Hindu nationalists discuss these concepts within the context of their theology. But if you strip away some of the specifically sectarian language, the core message preached by Hindu nationalists, Christian fundamentalists and Muslim extremists is disturbingly similar.
I want to be clear: Fundamentalism is not inherently a violent belief system. Fundamentalist Christians in American can often come across as anti-science busybodies who are obsessed with the sex lives of other people, but few have endorsed violence. It’s only when the most fanatical elements of these ideologies manage to merge with the apparatus of a willing government that oppression, violence and terror tend to result.
A religion’s extreme factions may push for this arrangement, but that doesn’t mean every adherent agrees. Indeed, many followers of a faith often disagree strongly with an extreme interpretation wedded to government power and flee it – as we are seeing now as thousands of Muslims seek to escape the death grip of ISIS.
During times like this, when many people are experiencing great unease and fear, our challenge is to refrain from giving into crude stereotypes and gross over-generalizations. When we demonize an entire class of people, when we make assumptions about what they must believe or, even worse, when we call for taking away another group’s rights as a way to somehow protect ourselves, we hand the terrorists another win because we abandon our own values. We become insular, suspicious and open to embracing disturbing proposals (detention camps, special I.D. cards, the closure of houses of worship) straight out of modern-day police states. In short, we start behaving like the forces we are trying to defeat.
Of course, there are always people (unfortunately, some politicians are chief among them) and groups that will seek to exploit our fears for their own ends, such as to gain public office or to raise money. Such individuals speak loudly but not convincingly; they appeal to our people’s basest fears, not their highest aspirations.
In light of recent events, no one can doubt that evil does exist in the world and that religious extremism and terror are real. Yes, some people have indeed taken ancient religious texts and converted them into instruction manuals for murder, terror and nihilism.
Those forces can be defeated – but only by a country that, even during the darkest hours, lifts up its core freedoms of religious liberty, the right of conscience, self-determination and simple human decency as a bright beacon for all to see.