President Obama, visiting Indonesia, noted that the world's largest Muslim country is a model of tolerance and moderation. But here at home, controversies over the so-called ground zero mosque and the Florida pastor who threatened to burn the Quran have spurred a new exchange of recriminations: Muslims tolerate extremism; non-Muslims suffer from Islamophobia.
American Muslims are uniquely positioned to lead an honest conversation and bridge the growing divide – if they will accept the challenge. Tarnishing all Muslims as terrorists is unjust and counterproductive – but so is accusing sincerely concerned Americans of doing that.
Non-Muslims may not fully grasp the theological and political distinctions between Islam and Islamism, but they legitimately ask their Muslim fellow citizens just what the connection is between Islam and those who murder in its name.
Peaceful, law-abiding citizens
Non-Muslim Americans know that most Muslims in this country live the same peaceful, law-abiding lives, enjoy the same rights, and deserve the same respect as other citizens.
But all Americans – Muslims included – deserve candor, lest we become, in Attorney General Eric Holder's misapplied term, "a nation of cowards."
"[Americans] hear the hatred spewed by groups mistakenly called Islamic fundamentalists. In fact ... they are religious totalitarians, in a long line of extremists of various faiths who seek power by intimidation, violence, and thuggery."
Nevertheless, the king worried about a growing Western perception grounded in fact – that while most Muslims are not terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims. There is reason to worry: If only 1/10th of 1 percent of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists, that is 1.6 million killers acting in Allah's name.
The other 99.9 percent face a real challenge in delegitimizing these would-be holy warriors. How have moderate Muslims met that challenge so far?
Since 9/11, Muslim leaders have made several statements condemning terrorism. But there's been little follow-through. They spend more time pointing out alleged Islamophobia than working to undermine violent jihadists.
To be sure, Muslims have been at pains to describe the terrorists as a fringe element that has "hijacked" Islam. And the US government has agreed, repeatedly accusing Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist groups of "perverting" a peaceful and tolerant religion. Yet Muslim extremists have come from diverse national, cultural, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. So non-Muslims may be forgiven for asking: Is there something in Islam that makes it more susceptible to extremist interpretation than other religions?
A war on terrorists, not Muslims
Some Islamic leaders argue that suicide bombers and terrorists have deviated from the Quran and are not Muslims. It is not for non-Muslims to decide who is a genuine Muslim, so another question compels an answer from responsible Muslims: If those who attack us are not Muslims, why is a war on terrorists viewed, even by many moderate Muslims, as "a war against Islam"?
Why are the terrorists called inauthentic Muslims when they kill in the name of Islam, but seen as persecuted Muslims when we respond? How have we become not the victims of terrorism but rather its enabler, and, according to the imam proposing the disputed Islamic center near ground zero, an "accessory" to their crimes?
That cognitive dissonance breeds suspicion among non-Muslims that too many Muslims are, in President Bush's words, not "with us" but "with the terrorists." And it awards Osama bin Laden and his followers a double victory that facilitates their goal of creating a war between civilizations.
The anti-Muslim charge is particularly hurtful given the sacrifices Americans have made to protect Muslims under siege from non-Muslims or other Muslims – in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Are too many American Muslims in an identity crisis? Do they identify more with "bad Muslims" than with "good infidels?"
Don't give Al Qaeda legitimacy
Moderate Muslims need to ask themselves whether their conditional words and their eloquent silence have inadvertently provided moral or rhetorical support to the terrorists. To say we condemn the violence but we have to consider the US policies that lead to such terrible behavior is to give Al Qaeda all the legitimacy it needs.
It is not Christians, Jews, or other non-Muslims who are waging war against moderate Islam – it is the same radical Muslims who carry out violent jihad against the West. That makes moderate Muslims and non-Muslims natural and necessary allies in this existential struggle for tolerance and freedom. Unflinching honesty is our friend.
Joseph A. Bosco, a national security consultant, worked on Muslim outreach and strategic communications in the office of the secretary of Defense in various assignments from 2002 to 2010 and served on several interagency committees on US-Muslim relations.