Among Muslims in the United States, fundamentalism is almost non-existent, and in worldwide Islam it is a minority. Even among fundamentalist Muslims, the terrorists are a minuscule minority.
Terrorists differ radically from mainline Islamic teaching about war and violence, which is very similar to mainline Christian teaching about "just war." That theory holds that Christians may, under certain carefully circumscribed circumstances, fight an ethical war. Often, World War II is considered an example of a just war because it was a defensive war against evil attackers.
According to the Qur'an, war is justified for two reasons: self-defense, and to right a wrong. Christian pacifists, drawing their inspiration from Jesus' teaching about non-violent resistance ("turning the other cheek,")would disagree with both Islam and the dominant voice of Christianity. There is not a truly pacifist stream within Islam. But the mainstream Muslim voice about war and violence is no different from the mainstream Christian voice.
Even the notion of jihad--"holy war"--has primarily a spiritual meaning, not a violent or military meaning. For Muhammad, the principal meaning of jihad was the interior battle between good and evil.
Islam is a remarkably wonderful religion. I say this as a committed Christian. It is primarily about practice, not belief. There is important insight in this: anyone can believe all the right things and be utterly untransformed. But practice will change you. At the heart of Muslim practice are the five pillars, or foundations, of Islam.
The first is the affirmation, "There is no god but God," a message that not only Muslims, but all people, need to hear in our time of many gods, including the gods of affluence, achievement, and appearance. The second pillar is the practice of "set prayers" five times a day: at sunrise, noon, halfway between noon and sunset, sunset, and at bedtime. The five prayers add up to about 40 minutes a day. I have often wondered: if we Christians prayed 40 minutes a day, how would our lives be transformed?
The third pillar is charity. Observant Muslims are to give 2 1/2 percent per year of their net worth to the poor. Though this sounds like less than the biblical tithe, it is actually more. The biblical tithe is on income, whereas the Muslim percentage is on total assets. Moreover, the 2 1/2 percent is not meant to support the mosque and the clergy, but is to go directly to the poor.
The fourth pillar is the fast of Ramadan. For one month a year, from sunrise to sunset, observant Muslims do not eat or drink (not even water). The purpose is twofold: to teach self-discipline, and to raise consciousness about what it is like to be hungry and thirsty.
The fifth and final pillar is pilgrimage to Mecca. Ideally, every Muslim is to make this pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime. Pilgrimage is also practiced by Christians, though not as commonly. Pilgrimage is about journeying to a sacred place, with one's heart and intention pointed toward the sacred. For Muslims, the climax of the pilgrimage to Mecca involves all of the pilgrims, from diverse nations and races, dressed identically in white robes, thereby obliterating the distinctions that conventionally separate people.
Granted, assuming that the terrorists were Muslim, they were motivated by an ideology that used Islam as its basis. Within their ideology, the West (and especially the United States) is identified as "the Great Satan." Their identification of their opponents with demonic forces reminds us of what Christians have also sometimes done. Whenever "the other" is identified as "the infidel" or "the antichrist," the possibility of violence increases dramatically. But it is a vision of Islam sharply different from what virtually all Muslims affirm. The terrorist ideology reflects the essence of Islam as much (and as little) as the Aryan Christian Nation, the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazism reflect the essence of Christianity.
Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all claim to be descended from Abraham, and are known as the Abrahamic religions. As in many families, the conflict is intense. But the time has come for reconciliation. Defending the innocent requires no less.