Sun-Times: We have little to fear but ignorance

Fear is the emotion underlying everything. A primary instinct we share with animals — I pad outside to retrieve the morning newspapers and catch a bunny unaware. He freezes, tracking me  anxiously, then rockets away, his little heart hammering. I pick up the  papers, smiling, because of course I mean him no harm.

For a bunny, there is no downside to automatically fleeing humans — much unnecessary leaping, perhaps. It is a survival mechanism, but so is my not being afraid of what doesn’t pose a threat, the skill that allowed humans to slowly develop beyond isolated tribes, to work together and build this complex world of wonder we now enjoy. There are no wonders of the rabbit world besides underground burrows. But that’s it.

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My wife and I attended the 6th annual fund-raising dinner earlier this month for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group dedicated to thwarting the baseless fear that so rattled my rabbit friend. “I’m going to wear the long dress I wear to Hassidic weddings,” my wife said beforehand, without irony. I said that sounded like a good idea.

Some 1,500 guests attended the CAIR dinner, at the Drury Lane in Oak Brook. An older gentleman named Feteh Riyal — a muezzin — gave the call to prayer, eyes closed, hands pressed flat against the sides of his face, emitting long, plaintive tones I had never heard before. They were haunting, beautiful. The keynote speaker was Professor Tariq Ramadan, who had been banned from the United States for six years under George W. Bush’s security state.

I brought along a tape recorder “in case he said anything incendiary.” But the speech centered on the moral duties of a Muslim to be an active part of the community and do good works. That didn’t seem like news.

To me, the most noteworthy moment came before the doors were opened. A hundred people were waiting — men in suits, women in headscarves. Three couples walked up — college boys in dark suits and their dates in tiny black dresses. The girls looked almost naked among the colorful veils and modest leggings.

“I knew Islam was a big tent,” I whispered to my wife. “But I didn’t think it was THAT big a tent.”

Turns out the college couples were there for a Sigma Chi dance in the next ballroom. It’s funny how the power of a majority works, because the Sigma Chi couples were suddenly the ones out of place, swimming against the cultural mainstream, and for the first time I grasped the perspective of women who dress in the modest Islamic manner and maintain that it is themselves who are the liberated ones.

But that was subtle and not something I felt obligated to pass along to you. The next day, I began reading my e-mail, as I always do. But now the usual garbage seemed different, worse.

• •

The e-mail was headed “Muslim Belief” and began, “This is a true story and the author, Rick Mathes, is a well-known leader in prison ministry.”

It describes how Mathes attended a training session at a state prison. A Muslim cleric outlines his beliefs, and Mathes challenges him. Isn’t it true that “most Imams and clerics of Islam have declared a Holy war against the infidels of the world”?

The imam admits it is.

“Let me make sure I have this straight,” Mathes continues. “All followers of Allah have been commanded to kill everyone who is not of your faith so they can have a place in heaven. Is that correct?”

“He sheepishly replied, ‘Yes.’ ”

The story stank of fabrication, and a check of the debunking sign Snopes.com shows it’s pure falsity — the only true part is that Mathes wrote it.

It’s a lie. No such exchange took place. Yet the story has been circulating widely on the Internet for seven years.

• •

Tariq Ramadan spoke for 45 minutes and said, basically, that being a good Muslim means living in harmony with your neighbors and in doing good.

“Spread peace,” he said. “You are a people of peace. People of peace are going to face rejection and war, but this is not our objective. Our objective is peace. Any Muslim who tells you [that] you cannot love your neighbor, you have to say, ‘You need to have a better understanding of Islam.’ We are people who are spreading around a dignified way of life. . . . You are at home in this country. This is your home. The American people are your people. And anyone in a mosque who speaks of Americans as ‘them’ and not ‘us’ is the starting point of a problem.”

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Why do Westerners succumb to anti-Muslim fear? It’s a natural reflex — certainly what terrorists expect when they claim their acts are in the name of Islam. They want to drive a wedge between the cultures, lest a harmonious blending undercut their extremism and deprive them of the enemy they crave. It’s a partnership, the terrorists and the fear-mongers, working in harmony and tacit agreement.

Actually, fear isn’t the underlying instinct. Ignorance is. Fear is often ignorance in action. Rabbits are not smart animals, and so quick reflexes pass for philosophy. We humans are supposed to be brighter than that. I only wish you could have gone to the CAIR dinner with me and seen — no offense — the parade of unremarkable American normality that I saw; pleasant, concerned, decent people sharing a meal, albeit with a few more veils and skullcaps than are considered usual here at the moment. It will become much more common, and if that frightens you, you are being startled for no reason.