Stereotyping is not unique to Muslims. It is a natural human instinct when a group of people targets another because of either fear of the unknown or the need to feel superior. Examples are the image of Jews in literature as greedy, rich and unpatriotic; Northern Americans' portrayal of Southerners as less productive and slow; and the lazy, drunken Irish in English jokes.
Sept. 11, 2001, was the beginning of a new chapter in the old relationship between the Judeo-Christian Western tradition and the East, where a substantial number of the population is Muslim. The fact that the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were not only Muslims but also presented themselves as defenders of Islam made the previously unsubstantiated fear of Muslims a sudden reality.
The reaction to the new reality was understandably severe. Ordinary people in some cases attacked -- either physically or by some other means -- those whom they perceived to be Muslims. But the more alarming phenomenon was the change in the focus of the stereotyping from the people to the religion itself.
Today, you do not need to be Internet savvy to find hundreds of Web sites, as well as books and radio and TV programs, questioning the validity of the religion and debating the evil nature of all that is sacred to Muslims.
Throughout the past five years, many so-called experts have used Quranic text to prove that Islam is built on violence and that the only solution is to face this emerging danger head-on by pre-emptive strikes so a specific version of democracy (American) can be enforced on the people of the Middle East to provide security to the rest of humankind.
Throughout the same period, I debated whether I should explain that Islam is not the problem. One in five humans is Muslim. A small fraction of them have grudges against the West and are using Islam to promote their agenda.
I wanted to explain that scripture taken out of context, translated incorrectly or misinterpreted could prove anything. This applies to all religions. But in the end, I decided not to defend Islam.
World War I produced some 37 million casualties; World War II contributed about 62 million victims. The most horrific act of genocide in modern history is the Holocaust. The scandal of pedophilia rocked the Catholic Church.
All these events took place within the past 100 years. Believers of the Christian faith participated in all these events.
Did we ever debate whether Christianity is an evil religion? We did not, and we should not.
Leaders and ordinary people have used religions throughout history to promote political ideologies.
When we concentrate on the religion instead of the root cause of the ideology, we let the fire grow. We play into the hands of extremists. Usually, by the time we identify the real reason for the violence, it is too late.
This is why I refuse to defend Islam. But I welcome the debate on how to fight extremism.
I believe the first step is to identify the real target, the leadership of these movements. But we cannot win through military strikes.
We have to defeat their ideology of hatred through policy changes that reflect an American commitment to peace and justice. We need a policy that presents America as sincerely respecting the people and their religion. If we implement such changes, we will stop new recruits, and Muslims will hunt the extremists.
We need to understand grievances and address the cause and effect before it is too late.