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By Tom Krattenmaker

Source–USA Today

A strong work ethic, devotion to God and family, conservative views on abortion and sexuality — on these scores and more, the newcomers would appear to be right in stride with the traditional-values folk in Anytown, USA.

In view of the Christian gospel followed by most of the established residents, you might assume they’d extend a hand of hospitality. You certainly wouldn’t expect them to resist the newcomers’ worship centers, would you? Or squander an opportunity to enlist potential allies in the fight against the country’s inexorable drift toward coarseness and secularism?

These perfectly logical thoughts might run through your mind until you learned that the newcomers in question often have Middle Eastern-sounding names, wear beards or head scarves, and take their spiritual cues from the Quran. And then you’d know that the situation was bound to play out on a whole different frequency. At flashpoints from Temecula, Calif., to Gainesville, Fla., to New York, N.Y., and all along the low road in between, mongers of fear and haters of the “other” are sounding the alarm about Islam with a new level of intensity. To hear it from conservative spokesman Newt Gingrich and those of a similar persuasion, the Muslims between our shores are bent on taking over the country and imposing their “un-American” values.

This demonizing and demagoguery is beneath us. My plea to those tempted to fall for the beware-of-all-Muslims hype: Get to know someone before you decide to fear and hate him.

Theologically conservative

Through my own participation in interfaith activities, and as I’ve followed the recent turmoil around Islam in America, I’ve become increasingly struck by a peculiar dynamic: The non-Muslims one finds at interfaith and Muslim community activities, and speaking up for Muslims in politics and the news media, are most often liberals. Juxtaposed with that is the fact that most of the anti-Muslim rhetoric comes from the conservative side of the tracks. It’s enough to trick you into assuming that followers of Islam in this country are in lock step with progressives. But as the pollster John Zogby wrote last month in Forbes, American Muslims trend conservative on social and religious issues, with majorities of U.S. Muslims — much like conservative Protestants — favoring school vouchers, stronger laws against terrorism, and laws making it harder to get an abortion.

It leads you to wonder just what the leading Islamophobes actually know about their supposed enemies when they call their religion “evil” and perpetrate hostile acts such as these:

•Anti-Muslim protesters brought dogs (which Muslim teaching prohibits at places of worship) to the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley in July in a deliberate bid to intimidate and insult.

•Arsonists torched construction equipment last month at a mosque building site in Murfreesboro, outside Nashville — this following claims by the chief anti-mosque organizer that the project was a plot by “radical Islamic extremists” to challenge Christianity in the heart of the Bible Belt.

•A small church in Gainesville provoked international outrage with hugely publicized plans — eventually canceled — for a Quran-burning event on the 9/11 anniversary.

Amped up by the furor around the proposed Park51 project in Manhattan, the ominous tune has played out against a drumbeat of anti-Muslim propaganda across talk radio and the Internet, among other places — rhetoric that would have you believe that Islam is inherently opposed to American ideals. Bryan Fischer, director of issues analysis for the American Family Association, has gone so far as to demand a halt to the construction of mosques in the USA. “Each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government,” Fischer claims. “Each one is a potential jihadist recruitment and training center.”

The sad truth is that we human beings, for all our clever technology and supposed progress, are still dupes for the age-old instinct to fear the “other.” It’s understandable that Americans, especially those who haven’t had the chance for personal interaction with Muslims, might harbor wariness. The wounds from the horrific events of 9/11 are far from healed. And, to state the sadly obvious, nearly all the terrorism in the nine years since has been committed under the banner of Islam (a grossly distorted version of it, more precisely).

But it’s wrong that the chief demonizers, and those in their sway, are choosing to see in Muslim Americans not their commitment to God, work and family — not how much they share in common with them — but only their hijabs, their different word for the Almighty, and the relatively minute portion of their global community that spews hate and commits violence. It’s gratifying in recent weeks to see American religious leaders from across the theological spectrum making these points and standing shoulder to shoulder with our embattled Muslim fellow citizens.

In the midst of all the heat and fury of late summer, those with their ears to the ground could hear deeper positive rumblings. While the demagogues were busy with the Muslims, the Mormon Church— itself the object of more than its share of misunderstanding and ostracizing — announced a new online outreach campaign. The goal? That more and more Americans get to ” know a Mormon.” Focus groups and opinion surveys, the Utah-based church said, reveal that most Americans cling to false and negative impressions of Mormons until they get to know one.

Take a minute to learn

The same goes for Muslims. If you’re fortunate enough to have Muslim neighbors or co-workers, you’ve probably come to see that they have as much in common with suicide bombers as your friend at church has in common with the supposed Christians who bombed the Atlanta Olympics and murdered an abortion doctor at his church. If you’re one of the many who has formed a view of Muslims primarily from the news media or the rhetoric of anti-Muslim propagandists, take a minute to learn something about the world’s second-largest religion. It’s telling that the Florida pastor behind the vastly overpublicized plan to torch Qurans admits to never reading the text that he declared to be “of the devil.”

If American history has taught us anything by this point, more than two-and-a-quarter centuries in, it’s that there will always be a next new group at the gates. “It’s tough to live through this,” says Eboo Patel, a Muslim American who is founder and leader of the Interfaith Youth Core and a regular contributor to USA TODAY. “But what we are watching is Islam becoming an American religion.”

We know how this story is supposed to end. So can we please just skip the part that will embarrass us later?

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. His book Onward Christian Athletes was published last fall.

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