Q. As a white Anglo protestant, how can I understand why so many people are drawn to the radical parts of Islam, or is this the 'real' mainstream viewpoint coming to bear? I live in the Midwest and have met several Muslim families - parents from my children's soccer teams - that seem to share in the horror of the bombings, beheadings, etc.

I must admit I know little about Islam but it seems that when Muhammad when to Medina to avoid persecution, he made alliances with the other tribal leaders from other religions. There seemed to be peace and joint cooperation in everyone surviving and pursuing each tribe’s beliefs.

Is it just the work of radicals that is driving this global confrontation? (Christians have had their issues also - Waco / Jonestown), so is it a few charismatic leaders advancing their viewpoints or is the driving force of Islam to convert everyone to become Muslim? Or destroy them?

Why the dissent between the Sunni and Shias, if they are both from the same faith?

The few families I know are respectful, practice their religious beliefs, and seem to be over achievers. I am trying to understand why the conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims?

Why haven't moderate Muslims who find the suicide bombings appalling spoken out? Is it fear of reprisal? Could you suggest some links or books that would help me better understand these issues? Thanks in advance for your time.

A. Keep in mind that there are 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide and it is the fastest growing religion in the world. If Islamic teachings are as radical as the media portrays, that would not be the case. Radicalism is not endemic to Islam, every religion has its fair share. Not so long ago, sectarian violence and slaughter within Christianity would make today's Sunni/Shia schism pale by comparison.

As you noted, the Muslims whom you interact with share the same horror at suicide bombings and are also concerned about their fellow human beings. The media is having a field day right now with Muslims and Islam. Sooner or later, it will be someone else's turn (unfortunately), probably the Chinese. Throughout our history, there always has to be fear of a "bad guy" (the Vietnamese, Japanese, Germans, Italians, Africans, Irish, native Americans, etc.)

Many Muslims (including organizations like CAIR) do speak out against the insane violence in our world today but it is seldom publicized as it does not make for captivating news - dirt sells much better.

Karen Armstrong, a former nun and world renowned scholar on various religions, has dealt with this subject in detail. We recommend the following books:

1) Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World

2) Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet

3) Islam: A Short History

4) Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time

You may also refer to the writings of John Esposito, Founding Director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Carl Ernst also has some good books on this subject, so does Louay Safi and Abdulhamid Abusulayman.

Posted January 21, 2007