Two weeks ago many prominent Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders held what they called an emergency summit in Washington, D.C. to address the interreligious tensions in the United States. The group released a statement denouncing anti-Muslim bigotry and urging respect for this country’s tradition of religious liberty. R. Scott Appleby, professor of history and director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, was interviewed on PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly about the current situation.
While anti-minority sentiment in American history is nothing new, he’s sees something different in what’s going on now. “First of all, stories like this are immediate. They are broadcast right away, and we quickly hear not only the story itself but the echo of the story, what other people are saying about it. It takes on a life of its own. The second quality is the pervasiveness. It’s everywhere, that is to say, a story that has this kind of charge to it, by that I mean anti-Islamic feeling of whatever type, can be broadcast in a way and the media covers everything in such a way that someone who really doesn’t have a great standing or any expertise or knowledge but who wants to stir the pot, wants to get some attention wherever they may be from, can attract attention by pushing the envelope, doing something outrageous, and the cycle begins again. Another story, immediate echo, and we’re in the middle of a controversy.
“One thing that’s similar to other periods in our nation’s history of nativism, of attacks against people perceived as foreign, whether they are from another nation or another religion, what’s in common is we’re in an economic crisis. These episodes flare up when Americans are feeling displaced or threatened that their economic well-being and even their citizenship is somehow called into question by a threatening minority. And, of course, Islam in America is a tiny, tiny minority. Why pick on Islam? Because for nine years, almost a decade, the popular mentality is we’re in some kind of war with Islam, which of course is a distorted reading that’s not sufficiently shouted down by the right people. We are not in a war with Islam. We are in a conflict with a tiny minority of radicals who are denounced by the majority of Muslim leaders and Muslims around the world.
“There’s nothing about Islam itself that makes Islam stand apart from other religions. All the major world religions have texts and traditions that can be twisted, that can be interpreted to condone violence, including Christianity. Islam is not better or worse in that regard, that is, in what the sources of Islam say about violence. There are verses in the Quran and in the Hadith of the Prophet, the traditions of the Prophet, that can be read in either direction. Islam itself as a religion is in a different context today in the United States than Christianity or Hinduism in India, and so there are a lot of factors that make parts of the Islamic world and parts of the reaction in this country more vehement, more charged, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with the religion itself.
“The assumption [is] that Islam is inherently, that in its very nature Islam is violent, evil, that it’s a religion that produces murderers, liars, thieves, unpatriotic, etc. I’m a Catholic. The same thing was said about Catholics, and there are some parts of Catholic history, by the way, that can be interpreted as being anti-democratic and anti-American. The popes denounced religious freedom in the 19th century. So there are parts of a tradition, whether it’s Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, that can be lifted up, twisted, and used as a cudgel, as a weapon, against people you don’t like because you are fearing them for a variety of reasons, and that’s what’s happened to Islam today.”
On a related issue, here's Appleby commenting on President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo address to the Muslim world: