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Islam Struggles for Understanding, Place in U.S. Religious Mosaic

August 24, 2010 at 6:06 PM EDT
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The debate on whether to build a mosque near Ground Zero has become a touchy subject for many and raised questions over U.S. views on Islam. Gwen Ifill gets three perspectives from the Rev. Welton Gaddy of The Interfaith Alliance, professor Abdullahi An-na'im, and Cynthia Mahmood of the University of Notre Dame.

GWEN IFILL: We dive a little more deeply into this now with three people who study these tensions. Reverend Welton Gaddy is the president of the Interfaith Alliance, a nonpartisan group that works on issues of religious freedom. He pastors Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Cynthia Mahmood is a senior fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Her work focuses on religious militants. And Abdullahi An-Na’im is a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta. He is a scholar of Islam and human rights.

Mr. An-Na’im, I want to ask you first about what you just heard. We have heard about this lack of tolerance, this prejudice. Which is it? And how real is it?

ABDULLAHI AN-NA’IM, law professor, Emory University: I don’t think that it is real for the majority of Americans. In my experience traveling around the world, I do not find Americans to be more hostile to Islam or Muslims than other parts of the world. And I think the question of how many Americans prescribe to you and where it comes from is interesting to see that, closer to 9/11, there was a more favorable view than now later from that time. And, therefore, the question is how much this is fed by the media and the hysteria that certainly quarters are whipping up on this issue.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Gaddy, you just heard what those folks around the country told our reporters. What did you take from that?

REV. WELTON GADDY, president, Interfaith Alliance: You know, Gwen, I was thinking about, if you had asked that question prior to 9/11, many of those people probably would have said, I don’t know. I don’t know that many Muslims. I’m not aware of their presence in the United States.

And that would be because Muslims have been in this nation a long, long time, from almost the beginning, and people didn’t pay extra attention to them because they were good American citizens, and they did the same things that other American citizens do out of other religions. So, the — the professor is right.

Something has happened. And I don’t think it’s the media myself. I think it’s a politicization of this situation. And Americans who once respected the Muslim community are now frightened, because political leaders have made political hay out of fear.

GWEN IFILL: Cynthia Mahmood, do you think — do you agree that something has happened? And, if you do, what is it?

CYNTHIA MAHMOOD, senior fellow, University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies: Yes, I think the most interesting part of what these two gentlemen have just said is the change in — in perceptions from — from 9/11 to five years ago, and then up until now. The Muslims in America represent a huge array of national backgrounds, from Western China, through South Asia, to the Middle East, to Northern Africa. They represent an array of racial backgrounds, of linguistic backgrounds. As it happens, we have tied them into one category right now. And that is the category of their religion, Islam.

At other points in time, perhaps national origin or race would have been a more cogent category. But this is the salient category right now. And I think that, since 9/11, Americans have come to know something about Islam, which they haven’t before. And I think we have rationally come to understand that al-Qaida doesn’t represent all of Islam. But we don’t recognize viscerally the true diversity in that large group of Americans. And we often talk of Americans and Muslims as if those Muslims are not Americans. But most of them — most of them, in fact — are.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you…


GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you a question about that?


GWEN IFILL: Is this something we have never seen before, when it comes to this religious disconnect? Is it something which is unique to Islam, or is it something we have seen before?

CYNTHIA MAHMOOD: Well, you know, I think perhaps you could look to the history of immigrant groups generally coming to this country. And, at first, people who are already here and well-settled have not understood them, have been intolerant toward them. And it’s taken a long time in the case of all kinds of immigrants, whether they be Catholics from Eastern Europe or Ireland, the Chinese who came to the West Coast and faced all kinds of both — both legislative and social misperceptions and discriminations.

And, in this case, the emigration of Muslims to this country and the settlement of Muslims in this country have been accompanied, of course, by terrorist acts and global violence as we have never seen.

And I think one of the most dangerous things has been the political maneuvering by some in the media and some politicians to try to, in fact, raise a hysteria around the extremist acts of some Muslims. And, in fact, the Islamic Society of North America has had a huge meeting, for example, in Washington, D.C., one year after 9/11. It was 5,000 Muslims from all around the world came to talk about Islam, peace and justice.

It wasn’t covered by any of the media.


CYNTHIA MAHMOOD: The BBC was the only one.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask…

CYNTHIA MAHMOOD: And so this is a pattern that goes on and on. And Americans are not seeing — they’re not educated to see that side, which does represent the bulk of Muslims.

GWEN IFILL: Let me direct this to Mr. An-Na’im.

I wonder about that, because one of things you were saying is that this is — some of this is a misunderstanding, but I also wonder, whether when you see the people who have been arrested or accused in these very widely publicized cases, where it was the shoe bomber or the Fort Hood gunman or the people on 9/ 11, whether that has added to this feeling of insecurity among so many Americans?

ABDULLAHI AN-NA’IM: No, obviously, it may have added to this feeling. The question is, is that a justified apprehension?

I think one point I would like raise is the historical and global perspective. Islam has been around for 1,500 years, and it’s a world religion. I don’t think that it is reasonable to contrast a world religion with a national group like Americans, for example.And many Americans, as Cynthia Mahmood said, who are Muslims, myself, as an American Muslim, an African-American Muslim, I fully identify with being American and being Muslim. So, one point is the historical depths of the global Muslim civilization and experience.

Second is the diversity of the population and the numbers. Muslims and — are one-quarter of the world population today. So, one in every four persons is a Muslim. There are more than 40 countries where Muslims are the predominant majority of the population.

Now, is what is being said about Islam and Muslims true about Islam and Muslims historically or is it something that came up over the last five, 10 years?

GWEN IFILL: The answer?

ABDULLAHI AN-NA’IM: It is true about Muslims globally? To me, it is not — it is not true about historical Islam and it is not true about global contemporary Islam.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Gaddy…


GWEN IFILL: Yes, please, go ahead.

REV. WELTON GADDY: May I weigh in here a second? I think two things. In terms of all Muslims being measured by the acts of terrorism that we have seen by people claiming to be Muslims, it leaves a very wrong perception in people’s minds.

GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by claiming?

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry. What do you mean by claiming?

REV. WELTON GADDY: Because I think that some of the terror that we have seen has come from political goals baptized in Muslim garb or cloaked in Muslim garb. What you do is, you try then to measure a whole religion by people who have violated the very basic precepts of that religion. For example, and let me — and, here, the religion dimension does come in. And I think this is one of the factors that’s different.

If — one of the people on the video clip that you showed said that Islam is trying to take over the world. Well, so is Christianity trying to take over the world, and always has been. The — the difference is now, in our nation, that we had a presupposition that we would never have to be worried about the no-establishment clause to the Constitution, because most people were Christians.

Now we are encountering people of a faith that is very sincere and a faith that likes to talk about what its faith is about. And, frankly, when you add the political analysis and fear-mongering to the popular stories about terrorism that are projected by people violating Islam, then you see people scared that this religion, which is not all of that familiar to American people, is trying to do something in the United States that will change our character and ruin our nation. And nothing could be further from the truth.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you all three one question.

GWEN IFILL: I would like all of you to respond to this, because I have been wondering this myself.

Is what we’re seeing, this debate we’re seeing now, any different or more lethal than what we have seen — we’re all old enough to remember the debate about Catholicism when John Kennedy ran for president or the debates about anti-Semitism which perk up from time — pop up from time to time. Is what we’re seeing now — and I will start with you, Cynthia Mahmood — more difficult, more dangerous than the kind of debates we have seen before?

CYNTHIA MAHMOOD: I think the better — the better parallel is to the red scare of the ’50s, to the McCarthy era, because that is how Islam in America is often talked about, as if it is a spreading menace, perhaps a virus, that could undermine our entire civilization.

In fact, some of the talk even has spread to our president, that, somehow, perhaps he is secretly a Muslim. We have to investigate. We have to find out. There have to be commissions. We — every mosque that is built, every community center has to be checked out for the funding, for this, for that.

And, of course, to a degree, that’s true, but not to the emotional level to which it’s been brought. And I think that, as one who has studied war and violence during the whole of my professional life, this can spark a very lethal downward spiral, when we cannot view the cultural and religious other in any terms other than as the enemy. That’s the beginning of…

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask…

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Mr. An-Na’im that as well.

ABDULLAHI AN-NA’IM: I don’t think that it is different from previous cycles of controversial religious communities. In that respect, I think this is healthy, because like — you know, fear is very human and fear of the unknown is very human. And it’s also human and humane to overcome our fear by knowing the other. And we have seen it with Catholics, with Jews, with Mormons.

And I think Cynthia’s point about the red scare is also accurate. But the point for me is the process of debate and how that process of debate is a way of building a national consensus around fundamental principles that we all agree to live by.

And I see of building a national consensus around from the principle that we all agree to live by. I see this current debate as part of that historical American phenomenon of debating issues, including today this stem cell research controversy. That is how we get to know, we get to understand, and, ultimately, we get to agree on what to do.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Gaddy.

REV. WELTON GADDY: Gwen, I believe it is more lethal. It’s not more lethal in relation to Jews globally, because we know about the deaths there. But I think it’s more lethal in the United States itself, because there are still visions of 9/11 in everyone’s mind. And the assumption is that these people who are different, if you don’t know them, if you don’t know their religion, are just like those people who want to do us in.

And, so, we’re seeing, even in a debate over property, tempers and attitudes reach disproportionate levels, to the point that people are willing to do violence even…

GWEN IFILL: All right.

REV. WELTON GADDY: … about something that ought to be resolved by conversation.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Welton Gaddy, Cynthia Mahmood, and Abdullahi An-Na’im, thank you all very much.