Here's a tragic story that sets off alarm bells about the future of our life together as U.S. citizens. Earlier in March, two American Muslims were brutally assaulted outside a mosque in Sparks, Nev. One of the victims is in critical condition after being struck several times in the head with a baseball bat. Although robbery was involved, Islamic groups believe the men were primarily targeted because they are Muslims.
Such a belief is understandable because, sadly, this isn't an isolated incident. The rapid growth of Islam in the United States in recent years has been accompanied by an escalation of hate and prejudice directed toward Muslims. From arson attacks on mosques to discrimination in the workplace, anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be growing across the nation. What's behind all this? Ignorance and fear. Many Americans know little or nothing about Islam, and what they do know is shaped by media stereotypes that make "Muslim" synonymous with "terrorist."
So embedded is this distorted image of Islam that American Muslims must constantly strive to correct it.
A few years ago, I participated in a ceremony at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia where Muslim leaders gathered to celebrate the U.S. commitment to religious liberty.
Facing the news media while standing before that great symbol of freedom, the first Muslim to speak felt constrained to say: "First, let me assure you that we are not terrorists. We are Americans."
It's a sad day in America when Muslim citizens feel the need to explain that they aren't here to destroy the nation they love.
Of course, there are terrorists in the Middle East and elsewhere who act in the name of Islam (just as there are "freedom fighters" in Northern Ireland, Serbia, India, Sri Lanka and other places who kill in the name of their respective faiths). But for the vast majority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, these acts of violence have nothing to do with authentic Islam.
The negative Hollywood image of Muslims is bad enough. But when religious leaders reinforce stereotypes, they contribute to a climate of hostility and prejudice. A case in point: Earlier this month, Jerry Falwell was widely quoted as saying: "The Moslem faith teaches hate." He went on to argue against allowing Islamic groups to apply for government funds under charitable-choice programs.
"When persons are clearly bigoted towards other persons in the human family, they should be disqualified from funds. For that reason, Islam should be out the door before they knock."
Anyone familiar with the American Muslim community could have explained to Falwell that his characterization of Islam is false and unfair. The Qur'an teaches compassion, not hate. And one of the pillars of the faith is "zakat," or almsgiving.
Although schools are beginning to teach more about Islam, most Americans have little accurate information about Muslims. That probably means we will see more outbreaks of prejudice and hate as Islam grows in size and influence.
It's worth remembering that something very similar occurred in the 19th century with the great influx of Catholic immigrants to the United States. Many Protestant Americans saw Catholicism as a menace, agreeing with John Adams that "a free government and the Roman Catholic religion can never exist together in any nation or country."
Attempts were made to limit immigration from Catholic nations and to deny citizenship to Catholics. Laws were passed to keep papist influences out of public schools. This era was marked by social discrimination and, on occasion, riots and violence directed at Catholics.
But today, in spite of lingering anti-Catholic prejudice in some quarters, few Americans question the patriotism or loyalty of Catholic citizens. Roman Catholics make up one-fourth of our population, and their church is in the mainstream of life.
In the next few decades, Muslims likely will experience the same pattern of acceptance and integration as Catholics, Mormons, Jews and others who have suffered periods of widespread discrimination in our history.
Perhaps this time we can work harder to cut short the cycle of prejudice and hate that precedes understanding and acceptance. We can start by learning something about the nearly 6 million Muslims in our midst and welcoming them as fellow Americans.