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Familiarity fosters understanding

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/5/2013 (1422 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

MY 17-year-old son was baptized last Sunday. It was an amazing experience for him, and for me, his father.

Since our church practises adult baptism, it was a way for him to show he wanted to be a follower of Jesus, to identify with the worldwide church and publicly commit to living a faithful Christian life.

You could say that he is devoted to his faith -- that he is devout. And yet, unlike Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who also were repeatedly described in the media as devout, nobody expects my son to blow anything up.

Why is that? Is it because he is a Christian, and not a Muslim?

That would appear to be the case. When adherents of Christianity are described as devout, it would seem to suggest someone who is kind, faithful and service-oriented -- acting out of their faith to help orphans, refugees or the homeless.

But when Muslims are described as devout, it is often used as shorthand for becoming radicalized and violent.

As one oft-quoted media report put it: "The Chechen immigrant brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon were devout Muslims who appeared to become more radicalized in recent months -- posting Islamic jihad videos on social-media sites and following the preachings of a firebrand cleric."

At least one American imam is on the record denouncing that idea. "A person who is devoted does not kill innocent people," said Talal Eid of the Boston Islamic Institute, questioning media accounts describing Tamerlan as a devout Muslim.

So, what would a devout Muslim look like, anyway? From what I have observed from my Muslim friends, it would mean praying, studying the Qur'an, practising charity, living a moral life, observing holy days, attending services at the mosque, abstaining from alcohol, working hard, contributing to the community and avoiding violence, among other things.

Or, to put it another way, the kind of people you'd welcome as neighbours.

In fact, says Muslim playwright and essayist Wjahat Ali, being devout makes American Muslims more engaged in their communities and less inclined towards radicalism.

"Muslims who are more devout are more civically, politically and culturally engaged" than those who aren't, he said in an interview, adding that this is surprising to many since it "doesn't fit the mainstream narrative" about Muslims.

His comments are backed up by a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center. It found 60 per cent of American Muslims see no conflict in being a devout Muslim and living in modern society -- the same ratio of American Christians who say the same thing.

But non-Muslim Americans have a very different perception; according to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute, 47 per cent of Americans say they believe Muslim and American values are "incompatible."

The same holds true for terrorism and extremism. Eighty-one per cent of American Muslims say suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are never justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. But a CBS/New York Times poll found that one in three Americans think Muslim Americans are more sympathetic to terrorists than other Americans.

Attitudes are similar in Canada. A 2009 Angus Reid Strategies poll found that only 10 per cent of those surveyed thought Christianity teaches violence, compared to 45 per cent who said they believe Islam does.

Meanwhile, 72 per cent of those surveyed said they have a "generally favourable opinion" of Christianity; only 28 per cent felt the same way towards Islam.

For Muslims, this means they have a tough road to travel when it comes to public perception -- something made all the harder whenever someone who identifies with Islam commits or plans an act of violence, like in Boston, or more recently with the alleged planned attack here in Canada.

Compare this to what happened following the killings in Newton, Aurora, Phoenix and Milwaukee, when gunmen killed dozens in schools, shopping malls, theatres and a Sikh Gurdwara. All of the killers were presumably from the Christian tradition, but nobody questioned whether their faith led them to shoot people, or whether a church had somehow let them down.

It's different for Muslims, as Ali notes. Members of that group "are asked to investigate, defend, explain, self-police and apologize for our own identity and communities to absolve ourselves of guilt by association," whenever an act of terror occurs.

"In front of a nameless, faceless hostile judge and jury, we are interrogated to prove beyond an unreasonable, irrational doubt that we are indeed loyal, patriotic, America-holic, justifiably outraged and remorseful for acts of violence we did not commit -- all 1.5 billion of us," he added.

A final thought: The same Angus Reid survey checked to see if those who had Muslims friends viewed that faith more positively. Of those who said they don't have any Muslim friends, only 18 per cent have a positive opinion of Islam. Among those who said they do have Muslim friends, that figure is 44 per cent.

That figure is still way too low. Maybe if we knew each other better, the idea of being devout would take on a completely different -- and less frightening -- meaning.

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