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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

June 18, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 52




Pat Morrison Talk to me, not about me

Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

Last month I attended a Midwest conference of more than 1,000 U.S. Muslims, hosted here in the Kansas City area. Participants from a five-state area attended presentations and workshops from "Shared Values among Faith Communities," with speakers from Islam, Christianity and Judaism, to the role of Muslim youth in American political life.

Particularly in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, moderate, peace-loving Muslims are realizing the importance of making their voice heard in the public square, of presenting the authentic face of their religion to America -- a religion of family values, prayerfulness and tolerance they know they must not permit to be hijacked by violent extremists.

Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, gave one of the presentations I found most interesting. She pointed to a troubling new phenomenon in America, what she described as "Islamic fundamentalists outside Islam": non-Muslims who have a new-found penchant for interpreting to the American public what the Islamic holy book "really means."

Such persons, she said, are taking to the airways and print to announce with unfounded "expertise" that "the Quran says such and such" (Islam is violent, urges "holy war," encourages killing, considers Jews and Christians "infidels" to be persecuted and even exterminated, etc., etc.). "It's a little bit presumptuous," she commented to such self-appointed experts outside the religion, "for you to interpret our scriptures and what the Quran really means."

Mattson struck a chord. As I reflected on her remarks, I thought how unfair it is when I take it upon myself to interpret (with my predetermined data) "the other" -- whether an individual, a religion or an ethnic group. It's unhelpful both to me and to my neighbor when I talk about them rather than to them.

American Muslims in 2003 are experiencing much of what American Jews went through in the United States in 1893 and American Catholics in 1903. As these arcane and misunderstood religions struggled to take their rightful place on a largely WASP landscape, stereotypes and prejudices were spawned, many of which were passed down, even if unwittingly, across generations of Americans.

None of the three religions was immune from the stinging falsehoods, the senseless accusations or the hateful behavior that came in their wake: Catholics are cannibals who pledge allegiance to the pope and not the country. Jews are inveterate cheaters who deserve contempt for killing Christ. Muslims are thieves and liars whose religion encourages killing people.

All of that could have been avoided, I thought somewhat naively, if we had taken the time to talk to one another before jumping to conclusions, if we had bothered to learn what we have in common rather than what separates us.

The experts tell us that healthy relationships begin with healthy, open communications. That applies to marriages, work settings, communities, public service, and friendships. It applies to religions.

The lesson U.S. Muslims heard and passed on in Kansas City is one for all of us: Don't interpret me, learn from me. Don't talk about me, talk to me.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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