An FBI report released last week painted a troubling picture of the state of American pluralism in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks: Hate crimes against Muslims and people who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent surged in 2001.
The dramatic increase - the number of reported cases was 17 times more than in the previous year - seemed to confirm fears of Muslim leaders that the harm done to Americans in the name of Islam will in turn harm the faith's growing number of adherents. Our patriotism is suspect, they cried. Our religion is misunderstood!
Who can blame them? No one wants to be tarred with the sins of a fanatical few. It should go without saying that any hate crime is one crime too many. Any increase is to be deplored. Any Muslim leader who doesn't hyperventilate in public about these trends probably isn't doing his job.
But to look at the headlines and see only backlash and intolerance is to do a great disservice to the remarkably open-minded and tolerant way that most Americans have reacted to the attacks and the continued worldwide campaign of terror launched by some in the name of Islam.
There's an odd, only-in-America paradox here: We make our society look good by publicizing the things that make us look bad.
That the FBI tracks hate crimes at all, and broadcasts the findings, is itself a healthy realization that hatred and stupidity still exist and can never be tolerated, even in minuscule amounts. And given the size and complexity of the United States, the numbers are minuscule.
Do the math: Anti-Islamic incidents grew from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2001. This in a country with somewhere around 3 to 4 million Muslims (The numbers are in dispute because the U.S. Census doesn't track religion and most mosques don't require membership.) Even with the increase, Muslims still lag far behind blacks, Jews and gays as targets of idiocy.
Yet Islam is, by some estimates, the fastest-growing religion in the country. Almost half of the Muslims here are converts. Why would so many freely choose to follow a different way of life unless it was not only tolerated but also accepted?
Americans, it seems, are doing an ever-more-sophisticated job of distinguishing between homegrown adherents to a religion and the twisted faithful from other societies. Surveys by the Pew Research Center found that the image of Muslim-Americans actually improved after the 9-11 attacks and has slipped only a few percentage points since. President Bush's swift, unequivocal statements praising peaceful Islam helped to tamp down tensions. Whether a war with Iraq would do the same is an open question.
The truth is, some Muslims are finding more acceptance in America than other places. Alan Wolfe, director of the Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, witnessed this firsthand earlier this year when he sponsored 13 Muslim scholars from the Middle East and South Asia to help them learn about religious diversity, American-style.
At one point, Hassan Hathout, director of outreach for the Islamic Center of Southern California and a physician originally from Kuwait, told the group that one is freer to be a Muslim in the United States than in many of the societies from which Muslim immigrants arrive.
At another point, the group witnessed a conversion ceremony in an Orange County mosque - something a visiting woman from Tanzania had never seen before. She was asked: Was that because conversion is not celebrated in a nation already half-Muslim? No, she replied: "It is because, at home, I am not allowed into the mosque."
It may be that the flourishing of Islam in America will offer a moderating, modernizing antidote to the dangerous growth of radical Islam elsewhere.
"The Islamic world today is being held prisoner, not by Western but by Islamic captors who are fighting to keep closed a world that a badly outnumbered few are trying to open," Salman Rushdie wrote last week.
Consider this surprising story of hate crime, as recounted by Franklin Foer in a recent issue of the New Republic. Shortly after 9-11, the Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl began receiving anonymous phone calls and death threats. His car windows were smashed. Odd vehicles lingered outside his relatively isolated home.
Abou El Fadl had dared to say that the 9-11 terrorist attacks reflected a crisis at the core of Islam, which he believes has lost touch with the thoughtful, pluralistic, introspective faith of the past. "The chances are," he told Foer, "that I would be appreciated by a rabbi interested in interfaith discussions far more than I will be by a leader of a Muslim organization."
I don't know if the Council on American-Islamic Relations has decried the treatment of Abou El Fadl, but it has condemned other hate crimes against Muslims and expressed concern about the FBI report. And yet its e-mail service also noted several other features of Muslim life in America last week: a joint Muslim-Christian effort to feed the homeless in Washington. A Muslim man running for state office in northwest Indiana, of all places.
That's the answer to intolerance from outside a religion - and from within.
- Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is jeisnerphillynews.com.