On his trip to Indonesia last week, President Obama took pains to reiterate the fact that America is at war with violent extremists who commit terrorist acts, not with the religion of Islam. It was a point that, to his credit, Mr. Obama's predecessor, former President George W. Bush, also frequently stressed. But coming from an American leader who had spent a good part of his childhood in Indonesia, whose 203 million adherents make it the most populous Muslim country in the world, Mr. Obama's words clearly had special significance.
What Mr. Obama diplomatically refrained from saying, however, is that far too many Americans still fail to make a distinction between those who commit terrorist acts and the religion in whose name they seek to justify their crimes.
The conflation of religion with terrorism in America has become so insidious that displays of bigotry and intolerance that would have been unthinkable a decade ago — from a Florida evangelist's threat to burn Qurans on Sept. 11, to the casual admission by a respected journalist that the mere sight of Muslim women in head scarves boarding an aircraft makes him nervous — have become almost commonplace. While Americans may know intellectually that the vast majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are not their enemies, emotionally too many of us react as if all Muslims were potential terrorists.
In a rapidly globalizing world in which religion's influence on international politics is growing among both Christians and Muslims, such attitudes are not only wrong-headed but counterproductive. Islam embraces a stunning diversity of ethnic groups, cultures, languages, nation-states and geographic regions, all with unique religious traditions and practices. Lumping them all together as potential Al-Qaeda sympathizers is self-defeating because seeing adversaries where there are none ignores the opportunity to strengthen ties with countries like Indonesia that share a common interest in opposing extremism.
It is worth remembering that the purpose of Mr. Obama's visit to Indonesia, India (which also has a sizeable Muslim population) and other Asian nations was to increase trade. And undercurrent of the mission is a strengthening of ties to nations who could offer a counterweight to the growing influence of China. In that context, removing the barrier that this conflict over religion has created is important beyond the question of our security from terrorism; it is also crucial to our ability to build economic and political ties throughout the world. We can't afford the false notion that we are at war with Islam, and Mr. Obama needs to do all he can to dispel it.