I'd be willing to bet that if you're not a Muslim, your first thoughts were about terrorism.
No, I'm not accusing you of thinking all Muslims are terrorists. And no, I don't think we all associate all Muslims with terrorism, supporting the war, hating the western world, etc.
But we have a major problem when it comes to understanding who they are and what they really believe in. Every day we hear news stories that basically say the same thing over and over again. A message that is flawed and one-sided.
Have any of you ever heard a news story that mentions what the core beliefs of Islam actually are? What things are written in the Qu'aran? I'm not talking about religion class when you were a child (although I remember "learning" about Islam and the other major world religions during school and promptly forgetting everything when I graduated).
Why am I writing about this?
Flashback to Friday afternoon...
"I'm so glad the week's over! Can't wait to go home and relax with my family!"
"Same here. We're going out for dinner tonight - it's our anniversary."
"Sounds like fun - any idea where you're going?"
"Nope, I think we'll just hop on a bus and ride around for a bit, and wander around Covent Garden."
"Nice. I'll be watching a movie with my hubby and playing with my daughter."
Idle conversation between colleagues. I sat in her car, watching the buildings go by. People everywhere, starting out for the pubs (it was Friday after all), running to the grocery stores to grab dinner, making their way home after a long week at work. Leaning back in the seat, I try not to make comparisons to another friend.
"Just because they are both Muslims who wear headscarfs does not mean they have to be similar people", I think to myself.
Both of these women are friendly, open-minded, fantastic teachers who really care about their students and work hard to do the right thing every day. They never have a mean word to say about anybody, and often apologize for things they don't need to apologize for.
I have no idea how we got onto the topic of Islam, Christianity, and The War.
For a moment, she looked like she was going to cry. For one moment, I saw the pain all of this was causing her. Then her anger took over.
"I can't believe how STUPID all of this is!"
"What do you mean?"
"Okay, every Muslim is taught that the Qu'aran is sacred because the Prophet Muhammed wrote it after it was told to him by God. And he couldn't read or write. Now people are killing other people because of their interpretations of the words on that book."
"Oh, like jihad?"
"That's the WORST PART! Jihad is supposed to be a holy war. The Qu'aran says that we should never fight if we can talk things out instead and that we should NEVER harm women or children or innocent people during jihad."
"And now there are men using it as a justification to kill people they don't agree with, employ extreme laws that the media can't help reporting about and now everybody thinks Islam is this crazy, overly strict religion that justifies blowing up buildings and murdering innocents!"
I looked over at her, driving through the London traffic, frustration and anger painted on her face. A car pulled up beside us with a teenage driver, who gave her a dirty look before driving away.
"I hate people like that. People who give you a dirty look for no reason at all".
Now I'm wondering to myself, "Are there just a lot of rude people in this area, or are they giving her dirty looks because she is clearly a Muslim?" This was not something I was going to bring up in the car, but after witnessing the random mean looks and pointed stares my old friend in Canada endured, I couldn't help but wondering just how progressive the western world actually is.
She started talking again.
"The problem is, most people don't even realize that these terrorists are breaking the basic laws of Islam in the name of Islam. It's completely wrong, and those people who don't agree with them are kidnapped, murdered, beheaded, or ignored by the ones coming to help them. Nobody hears about the beauty of our faith anymore - we aren't even supposed to hurt insects if we can help it. But all they hear all day long is the bombings and hate."
"Maybe it's up to people like you to tell us. I hope that doesn't sound trite, but somebody needs to tell about this..."
"Yes, but who am I to do that? It's just me. What can I do?"
We'd pulled over to the side of the road so I could safely jump out near the train station. I wished we had more time to talk about this.
"Thanks for the ride - I really appreciate it! Hope you have a fantastic weekend."
"You too - see you Monday."
I watched her edge back into the row of cars and disappear down the road.
It's Sunday morning and our conversation is still stuck in my head. She really believes that she doesn't have the capability to tell people that the media has got it all wrong. She thinks people won't believe her - that this message will be too little, too late.
I hope it's not.
My outlook on this war (and Islam) has changed. I read the newspapers and stories on msnbc.com; the ones about people fleeing Iraq and suffering under this awful situation. People hating Americans because they blame them for starting this whole thing - this anger spiraling and twisting until they side with the terrorists who aren't in fact fighting for Islam at all, but their own purpose. I see a war that has three sides to it: the terrorists, the western world, and the Muslims caught in the middle, who do not endorse this violence because their religion forbids it.
"How much can one person do?"
The only answer I could come up with was to write about this in my blog, in hopes that the words I heard on Friday will be spread to at least a few other people. If people like me (who didn't know about this before) tell other people that Islam is NOT about what these terrorists are claiming it's about, then maybe things will improve.
It is the Americans' fault? If they hadn't fought back, would the terrorists have had to target fellow Muslims who don't share their extremist beliefs? Would the war have become a civil one instead of an international disaster? I really don't know. Is it the media's fault for failing to tell us that these terrorists have got it all wrong? I do think a finger can be pointed in their direction. It's their responsibility to tell the masses about things like this, because the only way the world is going to find our way out of this kind of war is to understand the point of view of the people on "the other side".
Maybe we'll realize that most of them aren't on the other side at all...