John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani on Safeguarding Muslim-West Relations

Analysis, posted 09.26.2010, from United States, in:

The attacks of 9/11 stunned the world and had a devastating effect on the families of victims and all American citizens. The symbolism and impact of the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers and at the Pentagon were political, economic, military, psychological and religious. For many 9/11 signalled the transformation of terrorism and terrorist groups that occurred sporadically and within national boundaries in previous decades into a global declaration of war by Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Subsequent attacks and threats across Europe as well as in the Muslim world confirmed that both the Muslim world and the West faced a global war on terrorism. However, rather than seeing both as victims, the "war against global terrorism" was framed as a clash of civilisations.

In subsequent years, continued terrorist attacks in Europe and America and the foreign policies of the Bush and Blair administrations raised two competing claims and questions: "Is there a war against global terrorism or a war against Islam and the Muslim world?"

The post-9/11 decade also saw two opposite movements: first, an extraordinary response by members of the international community to build or rebuild relations between Islam and Christianity, the Muslim world and the West; second, at the same time, the growth of Islamophobia. Among the more prominent projects were Iranian president Khatami and the UN's call for a dialogue of civilisations and later the creation of the UN Alliance of Civilizations; the World Economic Forum's convening of the C-100, a council of 100 global leaders; the Amman Message and the launch of "A Common Word between Us and You" in which global Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals reached out to the leaders of major Christian churches; and Prince Al-Walid Bin Talal's endowment of six centres, enabling the creation of two American studies centres at the American University in Cairo and American University in Beirut, and four centres at Harvard, Cambridge and Edinburgh universities, and the continued work of Georgetown University's Centre for Muslim Christian Understanding established in 1993 to build bridges between Islam and the West.

However, at the same time that many sought to build bridges based upon the recognition of common beliefs, values or interests, others -- "preachers of fear and hate" in the Muslim world and the West -- emphasised religious and cultural differences as the chief source of conflict and confrontation. Religious preachers, political leaders and media commentators engaged in a process of mutual demonisation.

The current controversy over the Islamic centre in New York, popularly called "The Ground Zero Mosque," reveals a deep-seated Islamophobia. As in Europe, Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, is rooted in hostility and intolerance towards religious and cultural beliefs and a religious or racial group. Anti- Muslim and anti-mosque slogans and protests erupted and spread across the country, expressing themselves most recently in the threat by an unknown and insignificant so- called Christian preacher to burn the Quran.

What are the lessons we have learned? All Americans have a right to disagree as well as agree, to debate or oppose Park 51, but not to compromise or deny the religious rights of American citizens.

Opposition to Park 51 has surfaced a vocal minority of bigots and racists, revealing a growing social cancer long overlooked or denied.

Islamophobia is a significant problem that has been fuelled in recent years by hate speech in the American public square. Rightwing media political commentators, hard line Christian Zionist ministers and some prominent American politicians in the lead- up to congressional and gubernatorial elections have exploited legitimate fears of terrorist attacks and conflated them with the religion of the mainstream majority of Muslims. As a result Islam, the vast majority of Muslims have been accused of a collective guilt that belongs solely to the terrorists who constitute a minute fraction of the world's Muslims.

Media that feed on conflict and explosive headlines have too often failed to provide a more balanced context that describes the reality of American Muslims who, like other Americans, are fully integrated economically, educationally, socially and increasingly politically.

Along with the bad news has been the good news. Americans, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, major religious leaders of all faiths, prominent scholars and political commentators and other citizens across the country have denounced those who would defame Islam and deny Muslims their full rights and freedoms as American citizens. They have spoken out forcefully and insisted on the protection of Muslim religious freedoms and rejected those who impose a collective guilt on American Muslims for the 9/11 attacks.

Park 51 has engaged the world in seeing and confronting the presence and dangers of Islamophobia. This must not be the end but a new beginning for improving Muslim-West relations. The new awareness in America of the term "Islamophobia" provides an opportunity to shine a spotlight on this problem and for policymakers, religious and educational leaders, and the media, to devise a multi-tiered strategy that addresses it. As major polls continue to show, fears, grievances and stereotypes continue to threaten Muslim- West relations. We all have a stake in marginalising preachers of hate. They are a minority that we in the majority, who have more in common than we have differences, can no longer afford to ignore or tolerate in building our shared future.

John Esposito is author of The Future of Islam and a founding director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU) at Georgetown University. Sheila Lalwani is a research fellow at CMCU.

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