Events such as the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt that left four Americans dead make Hasan Jalisi's work more difficult.
As president of the Maryland Muslim Council, the Baltimore County surgeon works with Christian, Jewish and other leaders to promote interfaith understanding.
But he says the attacks Tuesday on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the embassy in Cairo — apparently in response to the online trailer for a low-budget film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad — put the focus, once again, on the wrong people.
"On one side, when there are people who are insulting Islam or the prophet, it makes it easy for the small minority ... who on our side say 'Everyone hates Muslims,' " Jalisi said Wednesday. "They use this as an excuse of saying that America is against Muslims and the whole world is against us.
"And then on the flip side, when you react to it — for example, if we had reacted in Maryland against the burning of the Quran in Florida — it helps those people who are doing it. … If you react to these people who are just looking for airtime, you just make them more important than they really need to be."
Muslim leaders in Maryland joined their counterparts nationwide Wednesday in condemning the attacks. Killed in Benghazi were Ambassador John Christopher Stevens, who owned a home in Chevy Chase, and three others.
"We condemn the disgraceful killings of the American diplomats in Libya in the strongest terms possible," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Wednesday in Washington. "We also condemn the attack on our nation's diplomatic facilities in Libya and Egypt. The actions of the attackers are totally inexcusable and un-Islamic."
"As American Muslims, there is no question that we categorically condemn any acts of violence and hate speech against anyone," said Maqbool Patel, president of the Islamic Society of Baltimore. "It is against the fundamental teaching of the religion of Islam."
Jalisi says Islamic tradition specifically opposes attacks on ambassadors. Although emissaries Muhammad sent to foreign nations were beheaded, he said, he refused to take revenge when those nations sent emissaries to him.
"When people are doing it, they are not doing it in the name of Islam," he said. "They may have other reasons. But Islam doesn't teach that. If you kill the ambassadors, how will you ever negotiate?"
The demonstrations in Benghazi and Cairo, where protesters scaled an embassy wall and replaced U.S. flags with black banners representing Islam, recalled similarly violent reactions in the Muslim world to the 2005 publication of cartoons of Muhammad by a Danish newspaper and the burning of Qurans this year on a NATO base in Afghanistan.
"But you will notice that in America, Muslims have a different way of dealing with things," Jalisi said. "None of the religious leaders issued any fatwas against this guy who was burning Qurans in Florida. Nobody came out in the streets, and we didn't shout at the top of our lungs.
"Our behavior — and it's the way educated people should behave — is people have a right to their own opinion."
So when Florida pastor Terry Jones threatened in 2010 to burn copies of the Quran, Jalisi said, the Maryland Muslim Council ignored him.
"It's not that I approve or condone the kind of propaganda against the Muslims or Islam which some people have made a business out of," he said. "But we took the position that, you know, let him do it. It's a very small church. If we respond to him, it gives him more airtime."
To his friends, he said, he suggested that they send Jones more copies of the Quran: "I mean, if he feels happy that way, let him do it.
"So that's where we were coming from, and that's what I think in this situation. If they thought it was a bad movie, make a good movie out of it. Burning or killing doesn't solve anything. It only affects the image of Islam."
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