By John Renard, for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Online, 10/23/2007

Something remarkable in Muslim-Christian relations happened this month, yet few Americans are aware of it.

More than 130 Muslim religious scholars from more than 20 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia and North America sent an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI and to some two dozen other leaders of Orthodox and Protestant churches. Overwhelmingly conciliatory and non-polemical, the document (available at www.acommonword.com) lays out evidence from the Bible and Quran that all three Abrahamic faiths share a common focus on the “two great commandments”: love of God and love of one’s neighbor as oneself.

The letter is historic in many ways and marks the first anniversary of a letter seeking deeper understanding and reconciliation that was written by some three dozen Muslim scholars in the weeks following Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial address at the University of Regensburg. No direct response was forthcoming from the Vatican at that time, and press coverage virtually disregarded the Muslim voices then, too.

This month’s noteworthy development has received virtually no electronic media coverage and been consigned to back-page blurbs of major newspapers. Had it been a diatribe against Christianity and the leaders of the many churches, it almost certainly would have received banner coverage.

Why is it so difficult for us to hear Muslim voices for moderation and peace, and so easy to hear only voices calling for indiscriminate violence in the name of Islam? Print and electronic media coverage of events in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to be slanted toward spectacular violence apparently perpetrated by Muslims, infighting among Muslim politicians in the Middle East and South Asia, quests for suspected weapons of mass destruction and alleged pervasive plotting to undermine and overthrow Western civilization.

The increasing availability of cable TV programs and books that purport to offer the truth about Islam and Muslims reflect an American populace increasingly adamant in its suspicion of all things Islamic. This is hardly surprising, given that the purported truth — that Islam is inherently violent and bent on world domination and that no Muslim can be trusted — provides a clear, black-and-white, know-your-enemies narrative that’s frighteningly easy to sell.

Here’s the problem: That narrative is constructed, beginning to end, of pumped-up stereotypes, half-truths, ideological assumptions and outright bigotry. Supposed truth-tellers blithely toss around oversimplifications about a “clash of civilizations” and a “return of the Caliphate” as descriptors of a global state of unfolding religio-cultural conflict. Blended with various versions of Christian end-time scenarios, such expressions dovetail nicely with a growing perception that Islam and Muslims are the embodiment of the apocalyptic horrors foretold in biblical prophecies.

The problem is exacerbated by the widespread — but false — belief that Muslims have remained silent about the horrors visited on so many people here and abroad since Sept. 11, 2001. Many ask, “Where are the Muslim voices denouncing terrorism?” and “Why have Muslims, both here and abroad, given at least tacit approval to the grim work of suicide bombers?”

The straightforward, truthful answer to these questions is that Muslim religious leaders and ordinary citizens alike have energetically responded to these and other outrages, which have been the scourge of Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Hundreds of counter-fatwas (legal advisories issued by Muslim jurists) have been issued, explaining in unambiguous detail the Muslim abhorrence of all forms of suicide (whether rationalized as self-selected martyrdom or not), mass murder and the destruction of life and livelihood perpetrated against innocent people of every faith and culture.

Readers who would like to sample some of these pervasive yet un-reported Muslim reactions may visit www.theamericanmuslim.org (a St. Louis-based website).

Few Americans seem aware of all this activity, perhaps because it does not support the accepted narrative of Muslims as unredeemed and unredeemable perpetrators of violence.

Indeed, the remarkable new Muslim outreach to the leaders of Christian groups is being characterized by some who purport to tell the truth about Islam and Muslims as no more than a ruse, a smokescreen to cover their sinister designs. After all, how could followers of the nefarious Muhammad be capable of telling the truth or relenting in their mandate to conquer the world for their fascist faith?

It is regrettable that when it comes to being informed about Islam, most Americans hear only voices from the ideological extremes: non-Muslims espousing hatred and suspicion of Muslims, and Muslims distorting their tradition beyond the recognition of most of their co-religionists.

Willingness and ability to hear Muslim voices begins with the simple acknowledgment of our shared humanity. That openness can flourish only with the further affirmation that, like most other people, the vast majority of Muslims abhor all forms of violence and long for peace and justice.

John Renard is a professor of theological studies at St. Louis University.