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Meanwhile, written by Simon Jones. Islam, Muslim, Al-Qaeda, islamic extremists, Christian, Mohamed, Jesus

It seems to me that here in the West the general feeling toward Islam is one of suspicion. These days the popular new enemy of the state in many Hollywood movies seems to be an Islamic terrorist, and therein lies the problem: the word 'Islam' and 'terrorist' are so often seen together that to believe they are one and the same might almost be a forgivable mistake.

At the same time though, it might be fair to suggest that there are large areas of the Middle East that view Westerners with the same amount of suspicion. We might be referred to as 'infidels' despite the fact that the predominant religion in the West, Christianity, actually worships the very same God as that of Islam; the God of Abraham.

Maybe it's just a cultural difference that's been muddled up with religion and politics? When we look at their lives, their rules, and their traditions and it's hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes. By our values and understandings it's too easy for us to see the Middle East as somehow 'backward' and 'unenlightened.' I wonder then how our 'free' lives might appear to people living in Islamic states. I could imagine that from the outside looking in, we might seem like people who have lost ourselves in opulent self indulgence.

Surely it must be possible to bridge the gulf that separates our differing cultures? There are plenty of Muslims happily living normal lives here in the West and, to me at least, that is proof that as different as we might feel we are, we can still be neighbors.

I think much of the problem comes from an unwillingness, on both sides, to educate ourselves about one another. It's easier to build walls than bridges, but as much as those walls may keep us safe (or rather, keep us feeling safe) they also keep others out. Ignorance breeds arrogance, and an arrogant people make themselves a target by their behavior.

It struck me the other day that I don't really know anything about the Islamic faith. It's a shameful admission to make, but perhaps one that others can relate to, that when I think of the word 'Islam' or 'Muslim', on some level I almost certainly think of 'terrorist' too. But why is that? How did I come to make that horrible connection, and more importantly how do I 'unwire' that cerebral response?

Born in England I stood a far greater chance of finding Christianity than Islam, and truth be told I stood an even greater chance of finding MTV, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Nike, GAP, porn, or indeed anything other than God. Perhaps consumerism should somehow be recognized as the true religion of the West?

With that in mind I decided to address my ignorance of Islam instead of just relying on the spoon-fed 'facts' and images that the media presents to us. Maybe a trip to a mosque would be an idea? But again I find myself feeling a degree of trepidation at the prospect, though why I cannot tell you. Would I feel the same way about going to a church and speaking to a minister?

My first step will be to buy a Qur'an. I have a couple of Bibles, a random Hare Krishna hardback, and even a copy of the Book of Mormon that I took from a pretty Mormon girl who courted my eternal soul one summer. Adding a Qur'an to that little collection seems almost logical. I'm not looking to become a Muslim anymore than I was looking to become a Mormon, though this time around my intentions are somewhat purer.

In many ways it's a sense of nervousness that is prompting me to want to learn more about Islam and Islamic culture. As Muslim extremist voices grow louder I find myself becoming alarmed that their words seem to give an audience to conservative Christian fundamentalists who might otherwise have struggled to draw attention or credit. This in turn re-enforces the perception of a 'them and us' situation where each side writes the other off as evil. The fact that Christian fundamentalists do not don military fatigues and strap bombs to themselves doesn't make them any less dangerous, if you ask me.

I'm not going to pretend that having a Qur'an will make me understand Islam over night. Like any religious text I'm sure there are all kinds of different ways passages and verses could be interpreted. But by owning one I suppose I am trying to open my mind and address the socially conditioned misconception that Islam is potentially more harmful than any other religion.

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