The attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon might be the best thing that's ever happened to Islam in America.

This may seem like a strange thing to say, given that we're witnessing a grotesque backlash against American Muslims. But in the long run we may view this as a positive turning point for Muslims in America.

Help define an American Islam

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American Jihad
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First, Americans are now learning about the religion. Bookstores report big increases in sales of the Qur'an and books about Islam. Oprah Winfrey devoted a show to Islam 101, and Beliefnet has gotten huge interest in its Islam mini-courses.

Some Americans are merely curious, but many are also feeling a moral obligation to learn. We know that our current view of Islam--is that the religion that promotes terrorism?--isn't quite right. But that's about all we do know. Normally, our civic ignorance doesn't have horrendous consequences; if we don't know the capital of Montana, no lives will be lost. Now, ignorance of Islam could lead to mistreatment of fellow Americans or ill-conceived foreign policy.

Another historic milestone: The President of the United States has repeatedly, vocally, and persuasively embraced Islam, making clear this isn't a war against the religion. To some extent this may be geopolitical tactics--he wants to prevent certain Islamic countries from turning against us. But whatever the reason, it is extraordinary that this evangelical Christian has embraced as a "great religion" a faith that many of his own supporters have viewed as destining millions of souls to hell.

And perhaps most importantly, the attacks are going to push American and other western Muslims to define and cultivate a unique western form of Islam. When President Bush said the terrorists had hijacked Islam, he was partly right. But it goes farther than that. Many American Muslims privately feel that many Middle Eastern Muslims have so infused their faith with anti-Americanism, tolerance of terrorism, or other customs (like subjugation of women), that it is polluting Islam.

Even before Sept. 11, American Muslims were growing their own style of Islam (just as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus did when they immigrated). The new form is deeply rooted in the Qur'an, but features a more prominent role for women, an emphasis on democracy, and less hostility to the United States. This evolution has been happening here in part because many Muslims are now second generation and because about a third of U.S. Muslims are African-American with no particular allegiance to the Middle East.

Western Muslims are in a very difficult position. They want to remain loyal to their countries of origin at the same time that they defend the core values of their faith.

But the terrorist attacks have forced their hands. The events will probably accelerate a positive process that was occurring anyway. Though it hardly seems like it now, twenty years from today we may very well view this as the moment when Islam became a mainstream American religion.

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