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Long before September 11, Americans writing from a variety of perspectives were saying that we needed to learn more about Islam, both as a world religion and as the faith of a growing number of Americans. Francis Cardinal George, for example, said that the most significant challenge for the Church in the twenty-first century would be dialogue with Islam, based on mutual respect without eliding differences. More recently, Diana Eck, in her book A New Religious America (touched on in an earlier column; we'll return to it again), emphasized the impact of Muslims on the American religious landscape.

Still, until a month ago, learning more about Islam was a low priority for all too many Americans. Since the attack, that has changed. PBS has re-broadcast its series, Islam: Empire of Faith. Newspapers, magazines, and TV news programs have been scrambling to provide some context for the attack and the larger movement it represents. Even Oprah has gotten into the act.

Well and good. The impulse to learn, to understand, is welcome, but the quality of the information has been very uneven, and it often comes with a distorting spin. This is the first in a series of columns intended to contribute (on a very modest scale) to this ongoing project. Other subjects will be taken up in this space, but Islam will be a recurring theme for some time.

Much of the recent talk has referred to historical antagonism between Islam and the West, and specifically between Islam and Christianity. Often the suggestion is made that we can't understand current attitudes in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world without this historical background. For example, Salim Muwakkil, whose column in the Chicago Tribune I regularly read with interest, observed ...

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