I was at a Muslim friend's house for Iftar, a meal that breaks the daily fast that Muslims observe during the holy month of Ramadan. My friend and his family like to share this tradition with non-Muslims, to promote interfaith understanding. As we departed he jokingly said that next year I should bring some bigoted friends so that they would see for themselves that Muslims are not hatching terrorists plots to take over the world. I delight that he can joke about the public perception of Muslims in America, and yet how sad it is that on a holy day, he must be conscious of the bad feelings some people have for people who share his faith.
With the passage of time, many Americans who became inflamed against Muslims after the September 11 attack have calmed down. They have listened to and read articles by informed people and have learned that a single criminal act does not define an entire religion. Even though there aren't very many Muslims in America, some people have also gotten to know a bit about Islam through personal contact in the past few years, and their fears have disappeared. Still, there are a few self-proclaimed experts, jumping in front of whatever cameras they can find, who continue to incite suspicion of all Muslims. These hate-mongers don't represent America any more than a few bombers represent Islam. But oddly, they manage to get an audience.
A short while ago, the news from England showed people burning buildings and looting stores. Simultaneously, people in the Middle East continued to rebel against dictatorial regimes, and Israel and its neighbor continue to shoot at each other. Political violence in the world is frightening, but people seem to find it tolerable as long as it is thousands of miles away. The prospect of this kind of violence showing up on our own streets is scary, so it makes sense that people who want to frighten Americans would focus on foreign violence and try to convince us that it will be brought here by people whose religion is popular elsewhere.
Why are some people trying to frighten us in this way? They would say that they are patriots, alerting us to a threat. But they must know by now that the threat is not real. Why do they persist? I'm sure that some of them are just in it for the money they make as speakers and authors. But some of these fear-mongers have support from people and institutions. What do the people behind the spokespeople gain from the hatred and the fear? And why have they chosen hatred and fear as their tools? There are other ways to influence people.
I don't have the answers to these questions. To simply say that the haters are evil doesn't really tell us much. To say that they are simply mistaken or fools is no more enlightening. To see conspiracies where they cannot be proved is not useful. But how revealing it is that the response of my friend, and so many in his community, is to laugh at the intolerance, to open their doors to people of all beliefs, and to quietly affirm their faith in the future and in Allah.