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Rediscovering Islam's kindness

Every day there are more worries that a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West will last for decades. Many Pakistanis hate us even though we feed flood victims. Some Americans call the mosque near the Sept. 11 site an outpost of terrorism. Suicide bombers (don't they ever run out of these guys?) accuse Iraqi, Afghan and U.S. targets of apostasy and polytheism.

But I remember better times when no one found it remarkable that each culture found its own way to worship and to explain the mysteries of human life — love, conflict, jealousy, sharing and ultimately that terminal mystery of death.

What I learned as a correspondent in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, the West Bank, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries was that Islam is as decent as the people who practice it. Much like Christianity. And Islam's various forms are as different as Catholics, Baptists, Eastern Orthodox and Unitarians. A few examples follow.

I was hiking up Trich Mir, a huge mountain in northern Pakistan, several years back during Ramadan when the local porters I'd been following invited me to rest by a stream. Just in time. I was not accustomed to the altitude or the Ramadan fast. Then, one of the men opened a cardboard box and offered me a piece of cream cake he'd carried for miles.

"What about Ramadan?" I asked. "Oh, don't worry. We are Ismaili Muslims. We follow the Agha Khan. We believe in the inner Ramadan. Have some cake." I'd just discovered the most liberal branch of Islam.

Years earlier, in Istanbul's Blue Mosque, a man saw me watching with timid curiosity and dragged me in to join the prayers.

"But I'm not Muslim."

"Never mind. Allah is everywhere."

It was very refreshing — a time to meditate and think while doing yoga-type bows that stretch your back muscles. After that, I prayed in small towns across Turkey, meditating while making the required bows, opening my hands in a gesture of surrender and turning my head from side to side. After prayers, the men vied to invite me home for lunch.

In Iran, between college and grad school, I got sick and spent a week in a public hospital ward in Mashad with 20 other men. The kindness of the nurses, the doctors, the cleaning staff and the fellow patients is among life's sweetest memories. Then, while heading east to the Afghan border, our car broke down and a bearded man in a robe and turban used the sandpaper on a matchbox to sand the points and restart the car. Finally, late at night in a desert region with poorly marked roads between the villages, a man insisted we sleep the night in his mud-walled house. In the morning, I got up to see his whole family lying asleep outside on a mat so that we — the non-Muslim guests — could use his one-room house.

Of course not all encounters were so pleasant. A Tehran hotel refused to rent me a bed because I was not Muslim. A Peshawar college student told me not to tell people my real religion because "the police will not protect you from the mob." When I tried to pray in Jerusalem's al-Aksa Mosque, an angry Palestinian official stopped me, saying that only Muslims can pray there. And the fighters from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group in Afghanistan held me at gunpoint for a troubling hour as a suspected Zionist American spy until I found a letter of introduction from their Peshawar public affairs director.

In fact, people of good will are far more numerous around the world than those intent on killing anyone who disagrees with them. But we who believe in tolerance are often less well-organized and less fired up than the aggressive enforcers of absolutism. The average guy in Afghanistan or Serbia may have no problem with people from other faiths and cultures. But the average guy is not about to stand up to the Taliban, Milosevic, al-Qaida and Chechen fighters.

The founders of the United States established laws and enforcement mechanisms to protect the minorities from the majority. This is the secret truth of democracy that often flies in the face of traditional deference to power. Under this spreading protective tree of the law, all religions find the security and understanding to practice their faith peacefully and tolerate those of other faiths. But around the world, where laws are weak and extremists silence journalists and independent voices, it would be nice to find ways to turn back the clock to a time when being Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Hindu was simply a unique way of describing the universe and increasingly crowded planet we share.

One proposal I made in 2003 when serving as a U.S. government official was to hold in Istanbul a Summit of Tolerance with world leaders and education ministers from a half dozen Western nations such as Russia, France, England and the United States, along with a half dozen Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey and Egypt. The meeting would be held in the 1,700-year-old Hagia Sophia, which was a church, later a mosque and now is a museum at the crossroads of Western and Eastern cultures. The goal would be to agree on mutual tolerance of all religions.

To build tolerance, every country would pledge to teach a three-day curriculum for 12-year-old schoolchildren that would objectively teach the basics of every great world religion — Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism — and a final class would encompass "others" from American Indian to African Animism. The classes would include video interviews with 12-year-old children from each religion explaining their customs, practices and beliefs. The purpose is to show that each faith is just another way to worship. The classes would seek to demystify and de-demonize the people who belong to other religions. Senior theological, academic and communications experts would create each faith's class materials.

Islam and other religions agree that the world was intentionally created in all its diversity, like a field full of many different kinds of flowers. Each religion and culture contributes to the glory of the world and should compete in good works. In fact, the extremists who fight those of other faiths are putting themselves above the God that they believe created this diverse world.

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