By Michael Bos
NEW YORK, New York: In September, attention will turn to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and pundits will have their say about the significance of this tragic event. The one thing on which all Americans will agree is that this was the day that transformed our understanding of Islam.
Before 9/11, many Americans were blissfully ignorant about Islam. After 9/11, everyone had something to say about it. Unfortunately, much of it was based on half-truths and unsubstantiated claims that cast Islam’s past, present and future as one of violence. This has left us with the great need and challenge of reshaping our public understanding of Islam in America.
This work will require much more than the dissemination of accurate and fair information. Sadly, many people tend to consume or believe only that information which confirms their existing beliefs or opinions. So while information is an important and necessary part of the solution, this makes it incredibly difficult to change unfair characterizations through the spread of information alone, and it represents a potential impasse in effecting change.
However, two emerging trends highlight other factors that are key for real change. The first trend is represented in the growing number of evangelical Christian leaders who are committed to a rapprochement with Muslims. Just a cursory review of the number of evangelical Christian responses to “A Common Word” (www.acommonword.com), a letter written by a number of high profile Muslim leaders that outlines common principles in the Muslim and Christian scriptures, evidences this. This is remarkable because not long ago it seemed as if evangelistic ambitions, for which this group was known, were equated with maligning the faith of others. Further, it would have been extremely difficult to find anyone from these ranks who would publicly support interfaith cooperation.
How did such entrenched positions change? It was not necessarily because people had better information about Islam, though this is important. People have overcome biases and changed opinions because of their relationships with Muslims. It is through the face of another, not facts about them, that we are forced to re-examine our positions. As the number of people who find themselves in relationships with Muslims increases, so will the fairness and respect with which they treat their faith.
Though I wholeheartedly want to see this trend continue, I do not think it will effect large-scale change in our public understanding of Islam. The notion that “everyone needs a Muslim friend” is important but, like information, interaction with Muslims does not represent the whole solution either.
I think there is a more important trend that has been overlooked: the increase of religious illiteracy. The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) documented in the United States that while the majority of youth is open to religion, they demonstrate little understanding of their faith traditions. America’s ignorance about all things religious is increasing, and few religious leaders are celebrating this news.
However, there is a positive side to this development. American youth now have vast social networks that include people of other faiths, and with this has come a more positive attitude towards other religions. This represents a tremendous opportunity to reshape our public understanding of Islam. Rather than trying to counter strongly held opinions — which I noted earlier is very difficult to do — we could look to our youth as a model, who are able to approach religion in general and Islam in particular with less bias and more openness.
As I consider what the next ten years will hold in our rapprochement with Islam, I think the answer largely depends on where our youth will get their information. Make no mistake about it, someone will teach them.
This should be a call to action to ensure that they have access to information that is grounded in reality. And in doing so we will need to rethink how we inform people about Islam. Our youth have been exposed to disparate components of Islam and will not accept only broad generalizations and a bottom line message that Islam is a religion of peace — please be clear that I am not countering this as the religion’s ideal.
Youth want to know how to fit such elements as Islam and gender equality, political Islam, and the challenge of militant understandings into a more coherent and complete understanding of Islam. The opportunity of educating our youth brings with it the task of finding ways to give a more nuanced understanding of Islam without making it overly daunting.
Our youth are ready.
The question is, are we?
Michael S. Bos is Senior Minister of West End Collegiate Church in New York City, and teaches Islam at the Collegiate School. Previously, Bos was Director of Al Amana Centre, a study centre for Muslim-Christian relations in the Sultanate of Oman. This article is part of a series marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11 written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).