We all remember the traumatic attacks of 9/11. I remember feeling vulnerable, expecting the worst. For Muslim-Americans, there probably was a different fear. It was the fear that, no matter how moderate they might be, their fellow Americans might blame them for what a few radicals had done.
We know religious extremism can produce terrorists. There have been Jews and Hindus who have committed acts of terror. The Ku Klux Klan, Jim Jones, Eric Rudolph, Anders Breivik and the murderers of abortion providers all claimed Christianity among their motives. And extremist Muslims have engaged in terrorism in the name of Islam.
We don’t judge Christianity by its extremists because we personally know a lot of good sensible Christians. But if you don’t know any Muslims — and polls say most Americans admit they don’t — then you might tend to judge all Muslims by the negative reports you see on the news or the fictional Muslims who are portrayed as the bad guys on TV and in the movies.
A 2010 Gallup report found 43 percent of Americans admitted to being prejudiced against Muslims, while 85 percent of those polled said they knew little or nothing at all about Islam.
There was a news story after 9/11 when the airplanes began to fly again about a Sikh man who was taken off an airplane because he wore a turban. Most Americans don’t know the difference between Muslims and Sikhs.
How many Americans know that Islam, Judaism and Christianity share roots in the story of the patriarch Abraham? That Islam has a very high regard for Jesus, teaching he was a great prophet? That, similar to Judaism and Christianity, Islam teaches the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated? “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself,” the Hadith says.
Muslims and conservative Christians often express the very same values when it comes to issues such as alcohol, modesty, family and community.
Now consider the role of women in Islam. While we have never elected a woman to our highest political office, seven Muslim-majority nations have elected a woman president or prime minister: Turkey, Senegal, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Yes, women in Saudi Arabia still don’t have the right to drive cars. What does the Quran say about women driving automobiles? Nothing at all, of course. But we know the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Khadija, rode a camel. The ban on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia is cultural, not Islamic. Women drive in Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and other Islamic countries.
The Prophet Muhammad increased the rights of women, banning infanticide and giving them the right to inherit property and to testify in court, which they had not had in Arabia. He was not a modern feminist and did not give women equal rights, but he did increase their rights.
Muslims are monotheists who worship the same God as Christians and Jews. “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God; Arabic-speaking Christians — such as those who live in Bethlehem or Nazareth — and Jews call God “Allah.”
The great idea shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam — that God is one — implies all humans are equal, the children of one creation. The Quran teaches we are all descended from common parents, Adam and Eve, one human family, equal before God. And because we are equal, we have been given free will. The Quran teaches “there shall be no coercion in religion” because we have been created free to choose or reject God’s path.
Author and educator Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls for an Islamic Reformation. She urges Muslims to allow greater religious dissent, ensure Muhammad and the Quran are open to interpretation and criticism, put secular law ahead of Sharia law, put secular education ahead of religious indoctrination, respect the rights of women and abandon the call to violent jihad.
Those of us who are not Muslim must watch the debates within Islam from the outside. But we should realize not all Muslims think or believe alike. The differences between Muslims are as great as the differences between Christians.
Can we overcome our fears? Can we talk and listen respectfully between faith traditions? Can we be welcoming toward our Muslim neighbors here in Maine? I believe fear can be overcome by hope. Unless we are hopeful and respectful, the war will live on within us all.
The Rev. J. Mark Worth served Unitarian Universalist churches in Ellsworth from 1991-2006 and in Castine from 1991-2013. He currently serves the UU Church in Harvard, Massachusetts. He lives in Penobscot, Maine, and Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.