By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 26, 2007 – Dialogue and understanding among members of diverse faiths are vital to overcoming religious extremism, the Pentagon's second-in-command said here yesterday. Speaking with Muslim community leaders and military servicemembers, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England stressed that a regular exchange of views among Americans of all backgrounds is necessary to overcome "a huge amount of misunderstanding" in the United States regarding the Muslim faith and U.S. intentions abroad.
"People tend to relate Muslim communities with Iraq and Afghanistan," England said. "Of course, that's not the case. These are great (Muslim) Americans and Canadians and people around the world who are people of great faith just as all other people of great faith."
The secretary addressed his comments to Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America. The umbrella group describes itself as the largest Muslim organization in North America.
The ISNA provides "a unifying platform for the diversity of Muslims in Canada and the United States," Mattson explained. "We try to bring in Muslims from all different backgrounds to come together to discuss our common concerns, to learn about each other and to grow as a community."
Mattson described her role as "a profound responsibility to be able to, on the one hand, serve my community - the Muslim community - and then serve society at large, because we're a part of American society; we're part of the greater interfaith community."
The diversity she spoke of was reflected in the backgrounds of the secretary's guests. In a reception room overlooking Arlington National Cemetery, England told the small group of Muslim, Catholic and Jewish military chaplains, ISNA representatives, Muslim servicemembers and his own staff how important he deems the military's relationship with the Muslim community.
"We need to understand that almost all people of the Muslim faith, except for the extremists, are valuable members of our society and societies around the world," England said. "It's important for people to understand that perspective so that together we can defeat extremism. I think that's what's very important about this relationship."
The secretary characterized the United States as a successful example of people from different religions and backgrounds coexisting in peace. He said it is the responsibility of leaders across the board to ensure that idea is understood first within the United States, and then demonstrated around the globe.
"My view is that is a hugely important message for the world, because in a lot of places in the world people tend to divide based on their backgrounds, their religions, their experiences," England said. "That's not the case in the United States. We use that as a unifying force, and that is a strong message to the world."
Recognizing that deployed U.S. forces often serve as the main face of the United States abroad, the Marines have established an outreach and recruiting program for Muslim communities within the United States. The program is a mechanism for increasing the diversity of the force in order to better display the backgrounds and skills of the U.S. population to foreign audiences.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jamal Baadani, national director of the Marine Corps' Middle East Cultural Outreach Program, attended the meeting with England as one of the most active proponents of diversity in the force. A member of Baadani's staff said their program worked with Marine recruiters to teach them sensitivity to Muslim issues and culture in an effort to build bridges between the military and U.S. Muslim communities.
Mattson called such outreach efforts by the military and groups like her own encouraging signs of progress.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done, but there's still many hopeful signs for positive engagement," she said.
"American Muslims also want to contribute, and certainly in the last few years since the terrible tragedy of Sept. 11, Muslim Americans have been serving in greater numbers in government out of that sense of responsibility to bring in whatever resources our community can have to secure the nation and the community for everyone," Mattson said.
She rejected those who interpret Islam as a "way to justify terrorism and extremism," calling the majority of Muslims "victims" of the extremist minority.
"We are more interested than anyone in trying to present an accurate and positive image of Islam and practice of Islam," Mattson said. "So we're the best partners to do that."
England welcomed the call for further cooperation.
"Take the time to get in touch with us," the secretary encouraged Muslims who feel misunderstood or frustrated by U.S. policies and actions. "I'd like to foster the relationship. I think it's important for the nation."
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)
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