I'm writing from Toronto, where last night I gave a plenary address on Muslim-Jewish cooperation to the Biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism. Backstage after the address, my friend Rabbi David Saperstein gave me a grim look and said, "The shooter had a Muslim name."
He called his wife who works for NPR, and his face got more grim as I heard him say:
"Are you sure he was a Muslim? Are you sure he was a Muslim?"
He hung up the phone and turned to me. "This is our worst nightmare."
Rabbi Saperstein knows there will be a thousand voices broadcasting the news that a Muslim opened fire at Fort Hood in Texas yesterday - the implication being, of course, that this act represents Islam. He knows how distorting that perception is for Muslims, and how dangerous that distortion is for America.
Last night, I told the two thousand Jews in the audience at the Biennial about my friendships with Jews throughout my life. I told them about the Muslim theology of interfaith cooperation, from the story of God giving Adam the knowledge of the world's diversity, to the Sura which says that God made people in different nations and tribes so we could come to know one another, to how Prophet Muhammad was sent to earth to be a mercy upon all the worlds.
I spoke of how the central theme of the 21st century will be the faith line, and the vital importance of getting the definition of the faith line right - that it does not separate Jews from Muslims, or Christians from Hindus. It separates those who believe in pluralism from extremists.
You won't see my speech on the evening news, though I believe that it was a far more accurate reflection of the tradition of Islam than the story that you saw looped on every channel, and headlined in print this morning.
Muslim groups jumped to condemn last night's actions. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) sent out a releaseimmediately after the shooting, stating "Islam holds the human soul in high esteem, and considers the attack against innocent human beings a grave sin. ADAMS states clearly that those who commit acts murder and cruelty in the name of Islam are not only destroying innocent lives, but are also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent." The Islamic society of North America (ISNA), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)expressed similar statements.
Of course these condemnations are important. What is even more important is to state clearly what Islam stands for. In Islam, as in other faiths, it is said that to take a single life is like taking all life. In Islam, mercy is a deeply cherished value - the most senior Muslim scholar in the West says it is actually the central value of the tradition.
As Rabbi Saperstein - and you and I - know, there are a thousand voices saying a Muslim committed this heinous act.
But a Muslim did not do this. Killers do not deserve the honor of a religious label. The man who killed a group of brave American soldiers deserves one name and one name only: murderer.