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Dispelling misconceptions about Islam and its adherents

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | NOVEMBER 15, 2010 7:20 AM

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As a country that once denied women the right to vote and enslaved millions of African Americans, we have come a long way toward achieving cultural and political equality. But why does our ostensibly advanced society continue to warp perceptions of and marginalize Muslims and the Islamic faith? Are we not promulgating our own culture of extremism?

This anti-Islam enmity only fuels further prejudice, profiling, and hate crimes.

In light of this pervasive misinformed bigotry, we were happy to learn of tonight's "Islamophobia" panel event, hosted by the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights and the UI Muslim Student Association. (The open discussion will be held at 7 p.m. in the Main Library's Shambaugh Auditorium.) While the United States hasn't seen the same degree of vitriolic anti-Muslim bigotry as, say, Western Europe, it remains far too common. We applaud organizers and speakers for stepping up to address this paramount issue and encourage people to attend this important event.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is high, as evidenced by a recent Pew poll. The August survey found that just 30 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Islam. (Thirty-eight percent said they had an unfavorable opinion, while 32 percent said they didn't know.) A majority of respondents also objected to the building of an Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero.

Misconceptions about Islam is abound. Three common ones: It's a violent religion, it's predominately Arab, and it's inherently anti-woman.

In addressing the first concern, a deeper look reveals that all religions have been — or still are — guilty of some level of terrorism and warfare (despite declarations of peace). Mark Juergensmeyer, the author of Terror in the Mind of God and a professor of international studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, suggests that any group ultimately waging a "cosmic war" against non-adherents is concerned more by the dissemination of their beliefs than the acceptability of their practices. However, this accounts only for a marginal, fringe element of any religion.

Violence and extremism aren't inherent to — or restricted to — Islam. Many of its monotheistic brethren have been marked by violence, both in the past and present. But not all Christians participated in the Crusades, nor are all Jews right-wing settlers who violently expel Palestinians from their homes. And only a fraction of the world's estimated 1.57 billion Muslims have committed terrorist acts.

The notion that Muslims are predominately Arab, while less pernicious, is also incorrect. The combined number of Muslims in India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia is roughly 509 million. Though most Shia adherents live in Middle Eastern countries, the number of Sunni Muslims is far higher and more dispersed. Nigeria alone has 78 million Muslims. Here in America, some 2.5 million people practice the faith, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Finally, the roles of the two sexes in Islam is often used to malign the religion. But it's difficult to argue Islam is inherently patriarchal after examining the life of its prophet. "Islam teaches that men and women are equal before God. It grants women divinely sanctioned inheritance, property, social, and marriage rights," according to the PBS documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. Muhammad's revolutionary views on the role and status of women contributed to greater sex equality.

But issues of this breadth cannot be done justice in one editorial. Going directly to knowledgeable sources and adherents of Islam is far superior to a brief summation of misconceptions about Muslims. So far, kowtowing to outraged pundits and fear has only created a nationwide aversion to asking the important questions about Islam. Hopefully, "Islamophobia" will contribute to greater understanding of this often vilified religion.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it "Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools." Mutual respect and thoughtful understanding would go a long way toward realizing that goal.


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