Religious dialogue must gain new ground

More moderates need to add to the discussion surrounding Islam in the United States.

by Jasper Johnson

Religious tolerance — or rather, the lack thereof — has been a common theme in the news over the past few weeks. A dozen instances come to mind of recent mainstream news stories that highlight either true, harmful anti-Muslim bigotry or dangerously misconstrued claims of “Islamophobia.”
Even in Minnesota, Columbia Heights High School students staged a walkout after a school board member made despicable anti-Muslim comments. The conclusion I have drawn from the event is that dialogue among everyone, including moderates, is absolutely critical. If moderates keep quiet, the most dangerous, extreme voices will dominate conversations.
The British activist and politician Maajid Nawaz, a man I personally look up to, took flak from both extremes when he engaged in discussion about Islam that centered on empowering reformist Muslims. A liberal, reformist Muslim himself, Nawaz was called a “porch monkey” by Murtaza Hussain, a writer at the Intercept and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera. Bigots have also condemned Nawaz for being Muslim in the first place. 
The satirical journal Charlie Hebdo was also critiqued for its recent cartoons, which depicted the refugee crisis. Some ignorant and un-ironic interpretations of the cartoons led people to believe that Charlie Hebdo mocked refugee deaths. In reality, the magazine was doing the total opposite: condemning Europe’s lack of support for refugees. 
Counter to what I’m advocating, intolerant organizations ranging from the relatively tame Council on American-Islamic Relations to Islamist groups take instances of bigotry and use them as ammunition to silence any real discussion about Islam. For example, CAIR pressured Brandeis University to withdraw honors from a feminist role model of mine, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, calling the ex-Muslim an “Islamophobe.”
My point in bringing up these news stories is to highlight the absurdity inherent to the lack of meaningful conversation among moderate voices. When we avoid talking about Islam, we create the “Voldemort Effect,” a term coined by Maajid Nawaz. In other words, when we refuse to discuss Islam as a cause of jihadism, we quell reformers in the Muslim community, and we also fuel anti-Muslim bigotry.
I’m simply advocating for religious dialogue. When moderates or reformers refuse to speak, we are only left with the most bigoted ends of the spectrum arguing. The drastic polarity makes moderates even less likely to speak up, for fear of allying themselves with an extreme stance. 
I believe a solid grasp of Islam is critical to understanding a large number of geopolitical events, from the refugee crisis to international feminism. Much like what we have observed over the past year or so with respect to racial dialogue in the United States, we also desperately need a surge of serious and open religious conversation among the American public.