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Saturday, February 2, 2013 - Page updated at 05:30 p.m.

Suspicion, ignorance taint religious freedom for U.S. Muslims

By Aziz Junejo
Special to The Seattle Times

Faith & Values

Our nation is still perceived around the world as a beacon and sanctuary for religious freedom, but I’ve begun to wonder if we are becoming a nation that’s more religious, nonreligious or possibly anti-religion.

In October, the Pew Research Center released a study called “ ‘Nones’ on the Rise” that says one-fifth of American adults — some 46 million people — now have no religious affiliation, a trend that has been on the rise for years.

Whether we freely practice a faith, do not align with any particular religion or don’t believe in anything at all, the choices are ours to make as Americans. But we should never act with religious intolerance.

During my childhood in Seattle in the 1960s, intolerance was still expressed toward Catholics and Jews. While some anti-Catholic sentiment and anti-Semitism still exist today, those faiths are now widely accepted.

American Muslims yearn for that as well, wanting the Abrahamic values and humanity we share with other faiths to also be recognized and valued. But sadly, we continue to be viewed with suspicion and treated with intolerance.

I am not sure why some media outlets unnecessarily mention Islam or Muslim when describing an alleged perpetrator of a crime or conspiracy, while a suspect’s Christian or Jewish background is rarely mentioned.

In reports about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, who fatally shot 20 children and six adults on Dec. 14, religious affiliation was not brought up. Neither was it an issue in stories about the man who opened fire at an Oregon mall a few days earlier, shooting three people. But had either man been Muslim, it almost surely would have become part of the story.

Tragically, my fellow American Muslims — normal, law-abiding and peaceful citizens — get pulled into this kind of negative stereotyping.

Our places of worship have become targets of hate. Last fall an Ohio arsonist wearing camouflage set fire to the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, then tried to defend his actions by saying he had gotten all “riled up” watching Fox News and drinking dozens of beers in the hours before committing the crime.

He had never met a Muslim, and it was out of that ignorance that he declared: “Most Muslims are terrorists and don’t believe in Jesus Christ.” The reality is that Islam opposes terrorism, and Muslims worldwide love Jesus, considering him a messenger of God.

I believe the general lack of understanding that many Americans have regarding Islam adds to today’s negative portrayal of a faith that is peaceful in its teachings and principles.

It’s time for civic discourse around the true nature of Islam. By discovering its truth, rather than accepting the misperceptions, we will create a more peaceful and equitable society.

As Americans, we have a moral responsibility to stand up for religious freedom and to make room for the American Muslim identity to develop as other faiths have done.

If we do not, we will fall short of upholding one of our country’s fundamental values.

Aziz Junejo is host of “Focus on Islam,” a weekly cable-television show, and a frequent speaker on Islam. Readers may send feedback to faithcolumns@seattletimes.com.


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