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Why America Needs More Muslims

The absurd controversy over the proposed Islamic center in New York shows that many Americans need to meet some Muslims.

There is already a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center -- it’s been there since 1985. Men and women pray together at Masjid al-Farah ; its services are led by a woman, Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi. The New York Times described it as “among the most progressive [mosques] in the city” and “a quintessentially New York combination of immigrants and native New Yorkers, traditionalists and spiritual seekers."  

While a small number of Muslims embrace an idealized view of a “pure” Islam that prevailed in the seventh century, most of the world’s Muslims are, to varying degrees, like “cafeteria Catholics” -- adhering to some teachings and ignoring others. On one extreme end of that spectrum are the followers of Osama bin Laden and his fellow travelers. On the other extreme are the people behind Park 51 (formerly known as Cordoba House), an Islamic community center that will feature art spaces, a theater, a gym and pool, and a mosque, or prayer space. The Park 51 people are as different from bin Laden's crowd as a Christian extremist who blows up an abortion clinic is distinct from a good Unitarian. That’s what makes the contrived outrage over the project especially crazy.

Masjid al-Farah represents the open, tolerant face of modern Islam. This is the brand of Islam represented by the Cordoba Initiative, the organization behind Park 51; the site was chosen, according to the organizers, “for exactly what happened here on 9/11 and what America stands for.” They added that the project “is a victory of American tolerance over hatred.”

If not for virulent bigotry -- bigotry based on a profound ignorance of Islam and the Muslim world -- the whole thing would be a non-story, an eye-wateringly dull local zoning issue. The ignorance fueling this outpouring of hatred can only thrive because most Americans -- other than those who live in Dearborn, Michigan, parts of New York and New Jersey or Southern California -- have never met a Muslim, or wouldn't know it if they had. 

There are fewer Muslims in the United States than there are Buddhists -- they represent only 0.6 percent of the population. Research into how the public views another vilified minority -- immigrants -- tells us that a little firsthand experience with the "Other” goes a long way toward dispelling the cloud of falsehoods that cynical demagogues use to prey on people’s fears and anxieties about that which is foreign. According to a Pew survey, citizens who live in areas with high concentrations of immigrants hold far more favorable views of their contribution to American society than do people who live in areas where there aren’t many who were born elsewhere. It's not a matter of demographics or politics; the authors concluded that “exposure to and experience with immigrants results in a better impression of them.”

Absent personal interactions with adherents of another faith, many people have nothing to go on but media-driven stereotypes. Hollywood invariably depicts Muslims as either violent extremists with AK-47s chattering in their hands, or sex-crazed provincial oil-billionaires throwing wads of cash around while lusting after white women. According to a recent Quinnipac poll, 55 percent of New Yorkers believe that Islam is a peaceful religion and 22 percent think it encourages violence, but among those who personally know a Muslim, the numbers shift 18 points, to 68-17.

Depending on what statistics you prefer, there are between 1.3 and 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, and like Christians, Jews, Hindus and members of all other faiths, the overwhelming majority are simply living their lives and trying to raise their kids right, and they harbor no violent ambitions. Anyone who has counted Muslims among their friends knows -- or should know -- that the United States was attacked not by Muslims, but by violent fundamentalists. Violent fundamentalists are a grave danger, but they aren’t unique to any single religion.