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Before criticizing another religion, first look at the history of your own

A woman stands in front of me at the post office. I notice she is wearing a T-shirt with a "Mecca weather forecast" on the back. Similar in appearance to forecasts you find in many newspapers, each frame gives the temperature and a visual representing weather conditions for several consecutive days.

A drawing of a bombing's aftermath takes up the last frame. Under the fiery scene is written: "Partly Sunnis, Scattered Shiites." I wonder if wearing such a shirt qualifies as a hate crime. It is so easy to hate from a position of ignorance.

Most Americans neither know nor care that a succession feud after Muhammad's death led to the emergence of two major branches of Islam: Sunni and Shiite. Nor do they understand what fuels the horror in Iraq (or the rest of the Middle East, for that matter).

The media, often as unaware as the public, generally present Islam as a repressive, undemocratic religion unleashing hundreds of terrorists on an innocent West.

One of the recurring questions concerning the Quran is whether it encourages Muslims to violence against non-Muslims. It's an interesting question for many reasons, not the least of which is it is often asked by persons whose religious ancestors thought it their God-given obligation to wrest the "Holy Land" from the "infidels." Several centuries ago in Christian Europe, the infidels were the Muslims. Given the history of Christianity, which includes sterling moments such as the Children's Crusade and various inquisitions, not to mention the Old Testament's own violent passages, interpreting the Quran (like other writings responsible for institutionalized religions) is better left to scholars of theology.

While scriptural meaning can be elusive even to the most knowledgeable, most Westerners shudder at the idea of youngsters barely out of their childhood turning themselves into "martyrs" by strapping on explosives. We use these actions as evidence for our argument that Muslims are irrational and barbaric. Meanwhile, our own long-standing traditions of martyrdom go unacknowledged.

We can start with the Jews at Masada who, in the century before the birth of Jesus, chose to slit each other's throats--including children--rather than surrender to the Romans. Masada is now a national park and popular tourist attraction.

It's not unlike the Coliseum, where countless early Christians chose a gruesome martyrdom rather than accept the "pagan" gods of those notorious Romans. (Incidentally, in the interest of historical accuracy: Those Christians whose blood drenched the sands of the famous arena were members of a breakaway Jewish sect. It would take the collapse of the Roman Empire before the Roman Catholic Church fully established itself. It's called Roman for good reason. But I digress.)

While it seems these incidents of martyrdom are ancient, pre-Enlightenment vestiges of some lesser-evolved species, consider how we continue to sacrifice our young in ways not so very different from Muslim youth. We ask our children to sacrifice for an idea. We send them to do battle in a fabricated war.

Rather than continue to see the world in some Manichean struggle between good and evil, we would be better served if we dedicated ourselves to finding commonality, to uncovering those threads weaving across cultures and continents, across histories both written and unknown, and binding us in one human tapestry.

One way to do this, especially at this urgent moment in time, is to educate ourselves, to shed stereotypes of the Muslim world in favor of knowledge. This challenge means giving up our arrogance and replacing it with humility. It means being able to say we don't know everything, we are not always correct and, yes, we have not only made colossal mistakes in our past, but sometimes we have knowingly chosen the immoral and unethical over the honorable.

The journey from fear and hatred to understanding and respect can be arduous. But one good place to start is with an examination of Sufism. Or consider an introduction to the Bahá'í faith at Wikipedia. Both traditions demonstrate the breadth of Islam.

The Foundation for Inter-Cultural Dialogue, with branches in Phoenix and Tucson, was established several years ago by a group of Turkish Muslims living in Arizona. Their Web site credits Fethulah Gülen with promoting "service to humanity, through dialogue, education, and respect for all humanity, cultures, and faiths," for the organization's inspiration.

It's the kind of inspired message just made for T-shirts.

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