Time for honest debate about Islam

What is the role of Islam in terrorism?
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Story highlights

  • Controversy has swirled around Duke University's call to prayer plan
  • Harris Zafar: Islam at the center of heated debate this year

Harris Zafar is national spokesperson and youth vice president for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, which describes itself as an international revival movement within Islam. He is also author of "Demystifying Islam: Tackling the Tough Questions." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Just a month into the year, and already the role of extremism in the Islamic faith has been at the center of heated debate. But while the attack on the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris garnered most of the international headlines, another argument has been simmering much closer to home -- one that all of us should be engaged in. Unfortunately, it's also one that many might be tempted to sweep under the rug.

Earlier this month, Duke University, in North Carolina, said it would allow the Muslim call to prayer to play via the chapel bell tower's speaker system for the weekly Friday prayer service. Unfortunately, what should have been seen as an inclusive gesture not only sparked controversy, but was met with outright hostility by critics, including some who tried to suggest the move was an attack on liberty and the call to prayer was somehow tied to terrorism.
Harris Zafar
Leading the charge toward this deliberate ignorance was the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of renowned evangelist Billy Graham. The younger Graham used the announcement as another opportunity to attack Islam. Reacting to Duke's decision on Facebook, he wrote: "As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn't submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism."
Of course, it is undeniable that some Muslims butcher others in the name of Islam. But there are also Christians who do the same in the name of Christ. And one need not even look as far back as the atrocities committed during the Crusades or the colonization of Africa, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. The Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, for example, specifically cites its Christian faith as inspiration for the group's terrorism. Or what about Anders Breivik, who in 2011 killed 77 people in Norway, after writing a 1,500-page manifesto citing Christian inspiration for his slaughter?
And it's not even simply a question of whether Islam or Christianity has inspired more brutality. Many might be surprised to learn that Buddhism, seen by many in the West as a particularly peaceful faith, has seen adherents terrorize Muslims. In Myanmar, the last couple of years have seen hundreds of Muslims killed, and many thousands more displaced, in attacks by extremist Buddhists and monks.
By Franklin Graham's logic on Islam, then, all adherents should be judged according to the very worst acts committed in the name of their faith. But it is interesting that it is Islam that seems to be singled out for the most venomous treatment.
Sadly, Graham is only one among a host of religious and social representatives who have for years been expending their energy on misleading those who look up to them for guidance. True, following the September 11 attacks, CNN quoted Graham as arguing that "it was a small group of people who are bent on the destruction of this country, those Islamic fundamentalists that need to be stopped. So I plead with people not to paint in a broad brush, so to speak, the people of the Middle East. They're wonderful people."
But the report goes on to note that he appeared to backtrack from this moderate view, adding that he was quoted just a month later as arguing: "The god of Islam is not the same God of the Christian or the Judeo-Christian faith. It is a different god, and I believe Islam is a very evil and a very wicked religion." He was also later quoted by CNN as suggesting "true Islam" means being able to "beat your wife" and "murder your children if they've committed adultery or something like that, which they do practice in these other countries."
All this suggests that Reverend Graham is either an ignorant man who knows next to nothing about a faith that he holds forth on as if an expert, or (even worse) he intentionally tries to mislead Christians into despising Islam and Muslims. Regardless of whether it is either of these factors, having spent half my life in the deep and concerted study of Islam, I know for certain that Reverend Graham's claims are without merit.
Still, if Reverend Graham truly believes he has truth on his side, then he should be willing to engage in a public debate on the question of extremism in Islam. And as someone who has faith in those who follow the Prophet Jesus, whom I love and adore, I would be happy to engage in such a dialogue and exchange of ideas.
Whether or not Reverend Graham agrees to this opportunity to dialogue, of course, remains to be seen.