By Tariq Ramadan
Sunday, September 12, 2010; B01
Just a short time ago, Europe seemed to be the part of the West where fears of Islam were most evident, with its bitter controversies over headscarf bans or the construction of mosques in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Yet in recent weeks, America's relationship with Islam appears to have changed. The battle over a planned Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York and the proposed burning of the Koran by a Florida pastor have revealed similar worries, and journalists and intellectuals (including, ironically, European ones) have been quick to describe the rise of Islamophobia in America.
Polls show that nearly half of Americans have unfavorable views of Islam, and the fear of this faith in America is undeniable. But is it as simple as xenophobia and racism? I do not believe so. Natural and understandable concerns can be transformed into active rejection and open racism when political discourse and media coverage fan the flames for ideological, religious or economic interests. That is what is happening in America today.
The great majority of Americans do not know much about Islam but nonetheless fear it as violent, expansionist and alien to their society. The problem to overcome is not hatred, but ignorance. The challenge for Muslims in America is to respect the fears of ordinary people while resisting the exploitation of those fears by political parties, lobbies and sectors of the media. To meet this challenge, Muslims must reassess their own involvement, behavior and contributions in American society.
Negative perceptions of Islam are hardly new in the West -- they date back to the medieval age, not to Sept. 11, 2001. In the late 20th century, they were overtly revealed through crises such as the Iranian revolution and the Salman Rushdie affair, which suggested that Islam threatened Western security interests as well as core values such as freedom of expression. More recently, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (as well as in Bali, Madrid and London) as well as the Danish cartoon fiasco only appeared to confirm to many in the West that Islam is an enemy, forever estranged from them. The wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict feed the same fears.
New domestic realities in Europe and America also deepen these negative feelings. The increased visibility of Muslims -- through clothes, mosques, even skin color -- shows that Western societies are changing, and such change is often frightening. Homogeneous identities, whether real or imagined, are becoming blurred as Americans and Europeans wonder about the future of their nations and cultures.
The Muslim presence is also often conflated with larger debates over immigration. The United States' future is bleak without immigrants to help sustain the economy, but there is a deep cultural and psychological resistance to this inescapable reality. This affects not only Latinos, but also Muslims who already are and will increasingly become part of American society.
If we add to these factors the general instability associated with war and with the economic downturn, we get a picture of an identity crisis of sorts in America, and of how a nation of immigrants founded on freedom of expression and religion can now be torn by doubt, mistrust and fear. Little wonder that the presence of Muslims is generating alarm and almost outright rejection.
American Muslims must understand the sources of this fear and must behave accordingly. Whatever the tainted atmosphere today, the United States is not inherently anti-Islam in a religious sense or anti-Muslim in a racial sense. It is time for Muslims not to be on the defensive, to stop apologizing for being Muslims and to be more assertive about their values, duties, rights and contributions to the society in which they live. This is not a time for intellectual, social, political, economic or cultural isolation.
The new Muslim Americans (mainly coming from the Middle East or Asia) should learn more from the historical experience of African Americans, both Muslims and non-Muslims. Once enslaved and denigrated in the United States, they are now involved in all the mainstream American debates and activities, whether education, justice, politics, culture, arts or sports. Their struggle is far from over, but they show the way forward for American Muslims. With more active involvement, Muslims can get a deeper sense of what it means to be American, to feel more confident, to communicate and interact with their fellow citizens. Life is not only about rights to be claimed but also about collective sensibilities to be felt. It is possible to protect one's rights while at the same time acknowledging and understanding the concerns of others.
This leads us into the major debate of the moment for Islam in America. No doubt, it is the legitimate right of Muslims to build a community center near Ground Zero. Yet, I believe it is not a wise decision, considering the collective sensitivities in American society. This is a moment to go beyond rights and reach for the common good: To build it elsewhere, if possible, would be a sensible and symbolic move. Doing so does not mean we must accept the false premise that Islam is responsible for 9/11, and it does not mean sacrificing one's rights to the populist, neoconservative and religious fundamentalist voices that seek to transform the issue into a new clash of civilizations.
All Americans -- be they Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists or agnostics -- who are determined to promote a just and pluralistic society should resist today's irrational fears. And as I watch not only the battle in New York but also the reaction to the Rev. Terry Jones's threat to burn the Koran in Florida on the Sept. 11 anniversary, I feel optimistic. We have seen Jewish and Christian representatives, as well as intellectuals and artists from across the political and religious spectrum, express support for the Islamic center because it would help bridge religions and citizens. These voices, in their diversity, represent both an evolution and an affirmation of America, and they must be heard and valued. The overwhelming condemnation of "Burn a Koran Day" might have been motivated partly by its potential consequences for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (as Gen. David Petraeus warned about), but it is clear that many Americans think such a disrespectful act would cross an unacceptable line. Once again, we heard a diversity of voices calling for respect and dignity.
American society, including Muslims, faces a choice: It can be driven by mistrust, fundamentalism and populism, or it can rely on constructive religious and civic organizations working for a better common future. The Muslim struggle for respect, justice and understanding has just started in the United States, and Muslims won't win it on their own. Fortunately, the country is full of formal and informal alliances of people of good will promoting pluralism and ready to support them. This work is not easy, and it will take much time, determination and courage. But whatever controversies may rage in New York, Florida or elsewhere, we should trust the enduring, positive forces at work in American society.
Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at St. Antony's College at Oxford University, is the author of "The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism." His most recent Outlook essay, "Why I'm banned in the USA," appeared in October 2006.