I remember the feeling of terror I experienced watching the September 11 attacks. I recall internalizing news coverage later in the week that included a video recording of people falling from the burning metal towers into the tranquil void of death. I will never forget those images nor the emotions I felt while viewing them. The press told us the attacks were enacted by terrorists hailing from Muslim-majority countries, and we began to culturally associate the idea of terrorism with the religion of Islam. We became fearful of Muslim people and wished to partition ourselves from them. We dehumanized them by supposing certain evil attributes to be inextricably associated with them. In doing so, we created a climate of intolerance that is damaging Muslim and non-Muslim people alike, for both groups must deal with the fear that has permeated public thought.
Let's step back for a moment and focus not on Muslim people in general but instead on an individual Muslim person. What are their beliefs? Do they wish to harm or to live in peaceful coexistence with fellow humans? Each person I've met who practices the faith of Islam has espoused the latter ideal. Upon reflection, this empirical evidence doesn't seem shocking: a Muslim person is just like you, having a family, friends and an internal will to stay healthy and strong as they pass through this world. Excited by the media hysteria that promoted a fear of Islamic beliefs, perhaps we forgot that a majority of those practicing Islam have similar values and life goals to many Americans. Instead, we chose to judge the people whose intentions we knew not.
It is unethical to assume the intentions of another person before first engaging in a concrete, interpersonal relationship with that person. Thus, our first priority when engaging another person of different faith or belief must be to build a strong personal relationship with him or her. This is not a task which law or government can aide: it is deeply personal. It takes a conscious decision to ignore prejudice in favor of forming a selfless relationship with another. However personal, these decisions will collectively inform the public view as it relates to countries from which these people have come. Perhaps we will promote a softer stance on refugees in need of shelter and those non-citizen residents who wish to travel freely. Perhaps we will think about reaching out to the person instead of gripping inward toward our own irrational fears.