This month I returned to Washington DC to attend a gender workshop at the American Political Science Association (excellent learning session!). The trip provided an opportunity for me to assess developments in the American political landscape. My next two blogs will focus on my observations.

I was particularly dismayed by the increased anti-Muslim sentiment in America. This was manifested over overwhelming opposition to the construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York (over 70% in recent American opinion polls) and Dove World’s threat to burn the Quran in a form of religious extortion to pressure the imam in New York to relent. These events occurred over the holy weekend of Eid Mubarak. These manifestations of misplaced anger against a religious community are deeply troubling and go against the grains of what America stands for – tolerance and religious freedom. They are a shameful face of America – afraid, racist and ignorant. They are not my America, as I am part of the 30% of the country who believe that it is the right of the community center to be built and every religion should be respected and the common values of humanity respected.

Calling a spade a spade, however, does not explain what is going on. As I reached out to Muslim friends over the Eid weekend, I reflected on why the trend in America since 9-11 and under the Obama administration has become increasing intolerant and Islamphobic.

First of all, American opinion polls in America show that the same people who are likely to be anti-Muslim are anti-Semitic and generally lack exposure to other religions. Despite greater acknowledgment of the important of Islam globally, as it remains the fastest global religion, there remains a serious gap in understanding the religion. Few appreciate its diversity and understand the commonalities among Islam and other faiths. Personally, I have long admired elements associated with justice and peace in the Muslim faith, as well as the embrace of the search for knowledge and respect for family. There is a deficit in understanding. Now more than ever, Americans – who are arguably among the most isolated and uninformed about developments in the Muslim world – are suffering from the gap in understanding. I took away the need to work harder to promote understanding.

Second, America’s religious leadership is abdicating its role in educating the public. In fact, when religious leaders such as the pastor of Dove World promote hate and misunderstanding, they are contradicting the very principles they are supposed to represent. There must be a reason beyond a lack of understanding for their actions. Ironically and sadly, it is obvious to me that many Americans continue to feel that they are under attack. In order for the fear to be addressed, steps need to be taken to reinforce a sense of security among all groups in America. This task lies with the political leadership, not the religious leadership. The events over the last few weeks reinforced to me the failure of the Obama administration to promote religious understanding and security among Americans across faiths.

Finally, the bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims need to be strengthened. All sides are hurt and defensive, many with good reason. They are choosing to stay on their own sides of the river, to not connect. The need to engage, to embrace each other in our common humanity is more pressing than ever. As I think about the divisions in the US or elsewhere, I am reminded of the need to reach out to those of other faiths or experiences. I firmly believe that small connections can work to rebuild the fabric of divisions if one takes action and does not just stand by and watch.