Within minutes of learning that last November's Fort Hood shooter had an Arab name and an Islamic background, commentators at the major media outlets were engaging in wild speculation that the killer's motive was "jihad" and that the murders fell into the category of political terrorism. For many Americans, these reflexive conclusions also confirmed what they'd decided long ago: that Muslims want to do them harm. Although it is more appropriate to try and understand perpetrators of terrorism by their political (rather than religious) identifications and grievances, the tenacity with which interchangeability of the concepts of Islam and terrorism holds on - and is perpetuated in mainstream discourse - is doing damage to the idea that the United States and its people represent the most open, tolerant society the world has to offer.
Awhile back, I attended a conference at Boulder's Naropa University on "Human and Women's Rights in Islam," at which we discussed the most persistent stereotypes about Islam and Muslims held by Westerners generally - and Americans particularly - that demand closer examination. Individually, these misconceptions are the source of grave misunderstandings between individuals. Collectively, they form the basis of a worldview so distorted that it drives some of its proponents to openly and brazenly call for the use of violence against their fellow citizens, including, in the most stunning cases, the president himself (who, although not Muslim, is regularly and pejoratively cast as such by his detractors.)
Let's just be frank. The demonization of Islam as a religion and of its adherents as individuals has reached the level of hysteria within the United States. Although the fear of Muslims is usually cloaked in condescension or indignation, the source of this most recent version of bigotry is transparent and utterly predictable. There must be a nameless, faceless, sinister "other" upon whom we can hang our deepest anxieties and frustrations as a people. This kind of paranoia is not unique, but as its perpetrators on right-wing radio, FOX "News" and the far-right blogosphere can attest, it still works like a charm.
I would offer to Americans that if you've come to believe that it's Islam that's the source of our problems, you might as well pack it up and go home because the terrorists have already won.