Assuming the Best of Our Muslim Neighbors

The following conclusion to Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism is republished here with gratitude to the book’s author, Todd Green—a nationally recognized expert on Islamophobia who served as a Franklin Fellow at the U.S. State Department, where he analyzed and assessed the impact of anti-Muslim prejudice.

Book cover


Just two miles from the Gettysburg Battlefield, the site of one of the most significant battles in the American Civil War, another battle erupted in the spring of 2017 on the campus of Gettysburg College. The student chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) had invited the anti-Muslim hate speaker Robert Spencer to deliver a talk on campus on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism.

Spencer was known for writing offensive and hostile books on Islam, including The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion and The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran. His antics earned him a preeminent spot on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s anti-Muslim extremist list. In 2013, Britain’s home secretary, later prime minister, Theresa May, banned Spencer from entering the UK due to his record of hate speech. Spencer also had a track record of attracting some unsavory followers. Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered seventy-seven people in Norway in July 2011, cited Spencer’s views on Islam 162 times in his online manifesto as justification for his own hatred of Muslims and immigrants.

Concerned students, staff, and faculty raised alarm bells. Spencer, they noted, promoted beliefs about Muslims antithetical to the college’s mission of affirming the dignity and worth of all people. Providing Spencer with a platform for hate speech signaled to Muslims in the community that the college was willing to negotiate their dignity. YAF countered that Spencer represented much-needed diversity on the topic of Islam and that the college should uphold its commitments to freedom of speech at all costs.

College administrators, including the president, listened carefully to both sides, but in the end, they greenlighted the invitation on the grounds of freedom of speech. In an effort to provide an alternative perspective in anticipation of Spencer’s visit, Gettysburg’s Religious Studies Department and Peace and Justice Studies Program invited me to campus to give a public lecture on “professional Islamophobia”—the manufacturing of anti-Muslim hatred for professional and financial gain. Included in the lecture was a critique of Spencer’s infamous career as a maligner of Muslims and the money he’s received in doing it.

What’s memorable about my time at Gettysburg, beyond the extraordinary hospitality I experienced from the college community, was what happened after my lecture. For the first time in my career, I received a security escort back to my hotel. The escort was no doubt prompted by the intensity of the campus debates surrounding Spencer’s visit and some of the media attention the controversy was receiving. It was also perhaps a safety measure adopted in light of other controversies on college campuses earlier in the year that turned violent.

I’ve delivered plenty of public lectures where security or police officers were present. But I’ve never had to ride back to my hotel with a security escort. This seemed like a real low point in my career, even if the precautions were necessary. It spoke volumes about the enormous difficulties of engaging in a calm, measured conversation about Islam in the public arena. It also pointed to the real power people like Spencer have acquired to disrupt communities and to stir up tensions and hostilities toward Muslims and their allies.

We are at a crossroads when it comes to how we engage with our Muslim neighbors. We can continue to allow the likes of Spencer to dictate the terms of how we discuss Muslims on our campuses and in our communities. This inevitably means we will remain stuck in a defensive posture, expending our time and energy trying to prove whether or not Muslims are prone to violence and terrorism. Or we can reject this poisonous mindset and embrace a new paradigm, one that recalibrates our attitudes and fosters positive curiosity and respect toward Muslim communities.

Krister Stendahl, who was a New Testament scholar, a dean at Harvard Divinity School, and a Lutheran bishop in the Church of Sweden, developed such a paradigm. His paradigm contains three rules of interfaith understanding that hold much promise for fostering healthy relationships with people from religious traditions different than our own. First, let people of other religions define themselves. Don’t allow their enemies to do it for them. Second, compare like with like. Don’t compare the positive qualities of our religion with the negative qualities in other religions. Finally, develop “holy envy.” Find that which is beautiful and moving within the religion of the other.

I will adopt and adapt Stendahl’s three rules for interfaith understanding as a framework for engaging Muslim communities. I have used Stendahl’s three rules in my public scholarship and even in my work at the State Department. Many of the audiences I work with, religious and secular, find them quite helpful. They offer a great first step for those who want to cultivate genuine friendships and relationships with Muslims but don’t know how to start. They promote an understanding of Muslims that assumes the best of them.

These rules are more difficult to follow than they appear. That’s because they will not work unless we allow Muslims to become our teachers and our windows into the world of Islam. The political and media establishments have taught us to view Muslims as objects of suspicion, not as sources of wisdom or insight. This means many of us harbor implicit biases against Muslims. These biases will not disappear easily, or without effort. But the more we allow these rules to guide us when reaching out to Muslim communities, the more progress we will make in building interfaith bridges that will endure the test of time.

Let People of Other Religions Define Themselves

The first rule is always to allow people of other religious traditions to define what their religion means to them. I often paraphrase the rule this way: learn from a religion’s practitioners, not from its enemies.

It’s easy to take for granted our ability to define what our own religion means to us when we are in the majority. I grew up a Presbyterian and served as a Presbyterian minister. Not once did I ever have to worry about an anti-Presbyterian network co-opting the Presbyterian narrative for nefarious purposes or attempting to define my Presbyterian faith for me. I imagine this is true for most Christians living in the West.

Not so for Muslims. The professional Islamophobia network doesn’t want Muslims to tell their own stories. People like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Frank Gaffney go out of their way to be seen as Islam experts and to wrest control of Islam’s narrative from Muslims. There’s too much at stake for them financially and politically to allow Muslim Americans (or Muslims anywhere) to define themselves.

I mentioned in chapter 4 how the conspiracy theories promulgated by this network about a Muslim Brotherhood infiltration into the highest levels of the US government have gained traction in Washington. But I have also witnessed the network’s growing influence amongst the general population. It’s not uncommon for someone to attend one of my public lectures and either invoke stereotypes or employ tactics popularized by this industry. In some instances, this takes the form of some guy (it’s almost always a guy) standing up during the Q&A to try to discredit everything I’ve just said about Islamophobia. The man in question opens up the Qur’an (which conveniently he has brought with him) and quotes aloud the so-called “sword verse” as proof of Islam’s violence: “Wherever you encounter idolaters, kill them” (Q. 9:5). He then closes the Qur’an and, with a smug smile, tells everyone there’s no such thing as Islamophobia, that Muslims follow an intolerant, hateful religion that requires them to persecute and murder infidels. How does he know? He’s read their book! And within its pages, he’s found the incriminating evidence. In his mind, this makes him an expert. It’s the kind of reasoning and argumentation that comes right out of the professional Islamophobia network’s playbook.

I used to lose my patience when stuff like this happened, complete with a not-so-subtle eye roll upon hearing some random guy quote the Qur’an at me in a game of “Gotcha!” But I have learned to see these episodes as opportunities to pose more substantive questions to the audience: Who gets to speak for a religious tradition—its practitioners or its enemies? How do we read the sacred texts of another religious community? In the case of Islam, do we read the Qur’an with the intent of reinforcing our own biases against Muslims? Or do we approach the Qur’an with deep humility and with a sincere effort to understand how Muslims themselves read and interpret it?

If the situation were reversed, I suspect Christians would want to be given the benefit of the doubt about how they read and interpret the Bible. Imagine if I walked into a church, climbed into the pulpit, opened it to the New Testament, and read aloud to the congregation this verse from Ephesians: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (6:5). Imagine if I then closed the book and proclaimed with absolute authority: “Gotcha! You believe in enslaving human beings! I know because I read it in your book!” My hunch is that the congregation would respond with something like: “Whoa, Todd, slow down. That’s not how we understand that passage.”

If I want to understand how Christians interpret this text on slavery, or any other passage, I shouldn’t ask their critics or people of other religions. I should ask Christians. I should read the Bible with and alongside my Christian neighbors. What I will learn along the way is that Christians read the Bible in many different ways, and that Christians look to many different biblical texts beyond a single verse in Ephesians for meaning and inspiration.

All of this applies to Muslims as well. If I want to understand how Muslims interpret the sword verse or any other passage from the Qur’an, I should ask them. I should read the Qur’an with and alongside my Muslim neighbors and try to see Islam’s most sacred text through their eyes. As with Christians, what I will discover is that Muslims read their scriptures in diverse ways and look to a whole host of passages beyond the sword verse for guidance in their lives of faith.

None of this is an effort to dismiss outside perspectives on Islam or to silence criticisms of Muslim communities out of hand. If critical conversations follow, so be it, so long as these conversations move past stereotypes and reflect a sincere effort on our part to allow Muslims to define themselves.

Compare Like with Like

The second rule is never to take the worst examples in another religion and compare them to the best examples in ours. Again, this is easier said than done. Stendahl once remarked that most of us are narcissistic when it comes to our own religion. We think of it at its best while only noticing the flaws and failures of other religions.

The temptation to look to our best and compare it to their worst is particularly strong when it comes to examples of peace and violence. Christianity, we might argue, has nonviolent peacemakers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, or humanitarian organizations such as the Salvation Army. Islam, on the other hand, gives us terrorists such as Osama bin Laden or ruthless organizations such as ISIS.

I encounter these types of comparisons quite frequently, but they are patently unfair and unethical. They reflect deliberate attempts to cast Islam in the worst light possible while presenting Christianity in the best light possible. In doing so, they shield us from the truth. Both religions have their share of villains and scoundrels, of injustices and mass atrocities. Both also have their share of heroes and role models, of social justice and peacemaking movements. If our goal is to be fair and honest in our efforts to understand Islam, we must compare apples to apples, like with like.

If Christians want to know whether Islam has its own Martin Luther King, the answer is not to whip out a Who’s Who list of Muslim extremists and terrorists but to identify and lift up examples of Muslims who are engaged in nonviolent peacemaking and social justice work. Granted, many of us may not know who these figures are off the top of our heads, but that’s why we must do our homework and educate ourselves about the extraordinary women and men whose contributions to peace and the common good arise not in spite of Islam but because of it.

For those readers who don’t even know where to start on this homework assignment, here’s some help. We can begin with Muslims who are recent Nobel Peace Prize winners. Muhammad Yunus, an economist from Bangladesh, won the prize in 2006 for developing a system of financial lending to the poor, and particularly poor women, known as microfinancing. The system was eventually institutionalized when Yunus created the Grameen Bank. Yunus argued the bank reflected the true spirit of Islamic finance since Islam held a deep concern for the exploitation of the poor for financial profit. The Grameen Bank avoided such exploitation because poor borrowers owned the bank and thus loaned money to themselves.

Tawakkol Karman, a journalist and the cofounder of Women Journalists without Chains, won the prize in 2011 for her efforts before and during the Arab Spring to promote democracy and women’s rights in her native Yemen. She was the first Arab woman to win the prize. Karman opened her acceptance speech in Oslo with the basmala, the phrase that begins almost every surah, or chapter, in the Qur’an: “In the name of God the Compassionate the Merciful!” She went on to cite the Qur’an as justification for her efforts to create a more peaceful Yemen and Middle East, including the verse: “O ye who believe, enter ye into the peace, once and all” (Q. 2:208).1

At thirty-two, Karman was the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize—that is, until seventeen-year-old Malala Yousafzai won the prize three years later. Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen in her native Pakistan in 2012, was awarded the prize for the work that made her a Taliban target—fighting for the right of girls to receive an education. Like Karman, she began her speech with the basmala and went on to note the ways Islam has inspired her work for peace and education. This includes the Prophet Muhammad’s injunction not to harm others, the Qur’anic prohibition against murder, and the first command given by God to Muhammad, the command to read (iqra).2

Plenty of Muslim peacemakers beyond Nobel Peace Prize winners are finding inspiration in Islam to promote justice and the common good. This includes individuals like Sakena Yacoobi, who founded the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) in 1995, around the same time that the Taliban was coming to power. Under Yacoobi’s leadership, AIL created dozens of underground home schools for girls and women and has continued to establish schools and health clinics after the Taliban’s fall. Yacoobi appeals to Islam’s teachings on social justice and its commands to protect the poor and marginalized as inspiration for her work. Her educational approach relies specifically on the Qur’an. She teaches women to study the Qur’an analytically and helps them understand Qur’anic principles on gender equality.

A Muslim peacemaker who has been a significant influence in my own interfaith work is Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) in Chicago and the author of the foreword to this book. Patel believes religions should be viewed not as barriers for separating people but as bridges for connecting people. Much of his work has focused on interfaith cooperation on college and university campuses, but his influence extends well beyond higher education.

Patel’s work is driven by his experience as an American Muslim and the challenges of navigating the United States’ diverse religious landscape. It’s also driven by his conviction that Islam at its core promotes compassion through taqwa. Patel translates this Qur’anic term as “God consciousness” or “inner torch,” describing it as “the writing of God on our souls” that orients us to do what is right and to engage others with mercy.3

Patel, Yunus, Karman, Yousafzai, and Yacoobi are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more Muslims throughout the world who engage in acts of mercy and compassion, who labor for peace and promote social justice, and who do so because of the inspiration they find within Islam. We will not often see their stories on CNN or the BBC or read about them in the New York Times, but their work is just as important and vital for peacemaking. All of these individuals represent the best of Islam. And it’s the best of Islam that deserves much more of our attention as we foster friendships with and respect for our Muslim neighbors.

Develop “Holy Envy”

The final rule is to cultivate a sense of “holy envy” toward other religions. The idea is to discover some element within them that evokes beauty or a sense of awe. Stendahl first articulated this rule in the context of responding to the controversial Mormon practice of baptizing the dead. Mormons believe vicarious baptisms of the deceased enable those who were not Mormons during their lifetime an opportunity to gain salvation even in death.

While the ritual attracts controversy among non-Mormons, particularly in instances in which Holocaust victims such as Anne Frank have been baptized posthumously, Stendahl is held in great esteem among Mormons for admiring the underlying spirit of the practice. “We Lutherans do nothing for our dead,” Stendahl once lamented. Mormons, however, engage in rituals that keep them connected to their deceased ancestors and forbears. “It’s a beautiful thing,” Stendahl said. “I could think of myself as taking part in such an act, extending the blessings that have come to me in and through Jesus Christ. That’s a beautiful way of letting the eternal mix into the temporal—which, in a way, is what Christianity is about.”4

We can look to two former US presidents to help us understand what “holy envy” of Islam might look like. During a 2002 Eid al-Fitr dinner at the White House, President Bush expressed admiration for how the practice of fasting during Ramadan inspires Muslims “to refocus their minds and faith and redirect their hearts to charity.” Fasting propels Muslims beyond their own immediate needs to show mercy and compassion to the poor.5 In 2007, Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof the Islamic call to prayer is “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset.”6 Both Bush and Obama are Christians, and yet both find within Islam something that is beautiful or otherwise deeply compelling.

I have come to develop a deep appreciation for many aspects of Islam, but if I had to name one thing that inspires the most “holy envy” for me, it’s the practice of five daily prayers. This was not always the case. When I first embarked on interfaith outreach to Muslims, I confess I did not hold this practice in such high esteem. I imagine my Protestant background had something to do with it, but I could not help but think of the practice as a burdensome list of “things to do.” I even assumed most Muslims felt the same way, that they found the daily prayers cumbersome but were too afraid to say so out loud.

After years of developing friendships with Muslims and observing them at prayer on various occasions, I’ve changed my tune considerably. I now have deep admiration for the daily prayers. Part of this admiration pertains to their embodied nature. Protestant Christianity has a tendency to encourage disembodied relationships with the divine, to perpetuate a form of worship and adoration that takes place primarily in our heads. Muslims invest their whole bodies in prayer as they prostrate themselves and touch their head to the ground in submission to their Creator. It’s a powerful reminder that the entire body, and not just that part of our body above the neck, is a spiritual conduit connecting us to the divine.

What I also admire is how the frequency of the prayers results in an infusion of the sacred into the secular. The most ordinary of days do not pass without Muslims regularly pausing to “plug in” to the ground of their being and recharge their spiritual batteries. The prayers provide a sacred ordering to daily life that is all too often missing from my own, particularly since I come from a tradition that typically relegates worship to a specific morning one day per week and makes other prayer “optional.”

“Holy envy” is not a ploy to appropriate elements of Islam, or any other religion for that matter, and make them our own. This is not an exercise in spiritual plagiarism. But it is an opportunity to find beauty in Islam, and through this beauty, to develop an appreciative knowledge of Islam that opens the door to deeper dialogue and more meaningful relationships with our Muslim neighbors.

I began this book by raising a moral question in light of the rampant Islamophobia afflicting Western nations: How do we tell truths about our Muslim neighbors? Much of this book sheds light on our failures to uphold that ancient commandment not to bear false witness. Particularly on the topics of violence and terrorism, the temptation to implicate all Muslims and all of Islam in light of the atrocious acts committed by al-Qaeda or ISIS is difficult to resist. In the process, we perpetuate lies not only about Muslims but about ourselves and our own relationship to violence.

What I love about Stendahl’s rules of interfaith understanding is that they put us on the right track when it comes to our moral commitments toward Muslims. All three rules encourage, even require, that we engage Muslims honestly and with respect for how they understand their own religion. The rules also embody the Golden Rule by inspiring us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

Taken together, the rules constitute a solid foundation for interfaith etiquette that enables us to assume the best of our Muslim neighbors. They also encourage us to develop a genuine curiosity about Islam as it is understood and experienced by Muslims and to move beyond a mere repetition of caricatures and stereotypes that so often circulate among politicians and in the media. They require us to assume the role of students, with Muslims as our teachers and guides when it comes to understanding Islam as a lived religion.

With greater interfaith understanding comes greater empathy. That’s something we need now more than ever. If our pluralistic societies have any hope of surviving, let alone thriving, in such divisive times, we will need a revolution of empathy. In the case of our Muslim neighbors, we will need to imagine ourselves in their shoes when it comes to the violence carried out in the name of Islam by extremists, to try and understand their frustrations when they are presumed guilty due to the crimes of others. More broadly, we will need to take more time to learn how Muslims read and interpret their own texts, live out their own traditions, and tell their own stories.

Only then will we know what it means to tell truths about Muslims. Only then will we be able to love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves. Only then will we have the capacity to tap into the riches and wisdom that Muslims offer as we collectively work for a more peaceful, prosperous world.


1. Tawakkol Karman, “Nobel Lecture,” December 10, 2011, PDF, The English translation of Q. 2:208 is the one used in Karman’s original speech.

2. Malala Yousafzai, “Nobel Lecture,” December 10, 2014, PDF,

3. Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon, 2010), 111; Eboo Patel, “Standing Your Sacred Ground,” 2013 Ware Lecture, Unitarian Universalist Association,

4. Daniel Peterson, “Defending the Faith: A Lutheran Bishop’s Perspective on Mormon Baptism for the Dead,” Deseret News, February 22, 2012,

5. George W. Bush, “Remarks by the President on Eid Al-Fitr,” White House Archives, December 5, 2002,

6. Nicholas Kristof, “Obama: Man of the World,” New York Times, March 6, 2007,