I’ll admit it: I’m thin-skinned about the kinds of slurs and innuendo about Muslims that have accompanied Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Years of being subjected to them while I covered the Bosnian war did that. . . .

I’ll admit something else: my own feelings about Islam have veered back and forth in recent years. Most of us were ignorant when the planes-turned-missiles struck. We’ve been searching for bearings: even the word “jihad” is variously described as a holy war against the infidel and an inner struggle for higher spiritual attainment.

When, in 2005, I talked to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian-born Dutch author, in a meeting in The Hague that had to be organized like an undercover operation because of threats to her life from Islamic radicals, I was struck by her words:

“Islam is not a religion of peace, or only of peace with other Muslims. We should acknowledge that it’s a very violent religion, instead of pretending, like Bush, that this violence is not true Islam.”

Certainly, the threat to her made in its name was violent. Certainly, the Koran is a long way from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Certainly, there are Koranic verses that Al Qaeda and other extremists have been able to use in attempts to sanctify their murderous acts. Certainly Islam, politically expressed, has often proved irreconcilable with modern notions of pluralism, democracy and women’s rights.

But a “very violent religion?” No. From Beirut to Baghdad to Cairo to here in Istanbul, I have often felt the wonders of hospitality and generosity and wisdom that seem to well from Islam.

At Obama’s old school in Jakarta earlier this year, an establishment scurrilously described as a madrassa” in all the innuendo, a gentle principal showed me the large mosque and small Christian prayer room. He then invoked the words emblazoned on the coat of arms of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country: “Unity in diversity.”

That’s what I saw among the kids at the school, 85 percent of whom are Muslim, and the rest Christian. That’s also what America’s supposed to be about, not religious slurring and stereotyping.

Yet, because he’s named Barack Hussein Obama, and because his Kenyan grandfather was a Muslim, and because his commitment to Israel has been questioned, and because the U.S. Rorschach test is Muslim-menace mired, he’s had to tread carefully.

As Andrea Elliott chronicled in an important article in The Times, Obama has visited churches and synagogues, but no mosque. He had to apologize after two Muslim women wearing head scarves were barred from appearing behind him at a recent rally in Detroit.

Obama should visit a mosque. He has repeatedly shown his courage during this campaign; Americans have responded to his intellectual honesty. One of the important things about him is the knowledge his Kenyan and Indonesian experiences have given him of Islam as lived, rather than Islam as turned into monstrous specter.

This enables him to break the monolithic, alienating view of a great world religion that is as multifaceted as Judaism or Christianity. (MORE)


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