OVERCOMING DISTORTED PERCEPTIONS - By Javeed Akhter
  Published June 21, 2006. in "Chicago Tribune".
 

A longtime friend told me that she recently had to defend Muslims at a family gathering. One of her relatives was very upset with Muslim-Americans. "They have never condemned Osama bin Laden" he said.

My friend said that she knew many Muslims, including me and my family, and knew that we abhorred and condemned violence.

There is a perception that Muslims are mute on the question of terrorism and violence. You hear it on radio and TV, though people who actually know Muslims tend to disagree. A recent Pew Trust survey found that those who have Muslims as friends or co-workers had a more positive attitude toward them. The survey also found that people have a more negative view of the religion of Islam than of Muslim people; an example of the "I love my postman but hate the Postal Service syndrome."

The problem is, Muslims make up 1.5 to 2 percent of the U.S. population and are concentrated in urban centers and work in a handful of professions. There are great swaths of the country that have no personal interaction with us.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 , were condemned by most every Muslim organization in the U.S. , as well as by Islamic scholars of all stripes, traditional and modernist. After Sept. 11, Muslims in large numbers donated blood and held prayer meetings in mosques. There were rallies in many U.S. cities to condemn violence and terror.

Yet the perception persists that Muslims have been quiet.

The public's connection of violence with Islam is fed by many factors. The loudest voices among Muslims are bin Laden and his cronies. Although their interpretation of jihad is a radical departure from the orthodox understanding of the term, they cloak their violence in that religious idiom.

The war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan generate their own anti-Islam rhetoric amid a barrage of violent images.

"The term `Islamic and Muslim terrorism' has been repeated enough times in relation to violent incidents that, naturally, anyone would reflexively associate them with Muslims," writes religious scholar Karen Armstrong. The word is used almost exclusively in relation to Muslims, yet it is rarely linked to other groups with a religious connection, such as the Irish Republican Army.

At a Human Rights Watch film festival held in Chicago , I attended a screening of the movie "Omagh." In the movie, the perpetrators are called IRA terrorists, Real IRA and sometimes Republicans for short. Although the Irish conflict is as based in religion as any conflict, the IRA members are rarely if ever linked to the faith they profess.

During the war in Bosnia , the architects of ethnic cleansing were identified as Serbians, and not Christian terrorists, even though the Serbians said they were fighting a religious war, acting to preserve Christian Europe from Muslim incursion.

The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka practice Hinduism and are responsible for a longstanding campaign of suicide bombings against their Buddhist adversaries, including the bus bomb that killed more than 60 civilians on June 15. The fact that they practice Hinduism is not even known to most people.

uslims do condemn violence, but changing the broad perception that we do not is difficult. When left unchallenged, perceptions tend to acquire a life of their own. They become as concrete as reality itself.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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