As an American Muslim, I believe we have to confront the so-called "Muslim Problem" head-on and start a civilized discussion on this world-shaking controversy, with an eye toward what I see as a concrete, three-pronged solution.
I wish it truly were as simple as 1-2-3, but if the following three steps actually could be achieved, I think it would tilt us toward widespread peace and perhaps even save us from World War III. Those steps are (1) the U.S. and other governments stop interfering in the Middle East, (2) Muslims openly condemn violent extremism, and (3) democracy takes root in the Middle East.
All are daunting tasks, to be sure, and each step is more challenging than the previous. But two recent news stories led me to this conclusion. First, I heard Republication presidential candidate Donald Trump call for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration. Then I read CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria's reaction in the Washington Post, where he wrote, "I am Muslim, but Trump's views appalled me because I am an American."
The truth lies somewhere in between Trump and Zakaria.
Americans have good reason to be worried about Muslim extremism at home, but categorically branding all Muslims as a threat to the U.S. is wrong and potentially a violation of civil rights. This doesn't mean we should ignore the risks. We need to talk about it -- not just concerned Americans, but also good Muslims everywhere.
When a gunman goes on a killing spree or a bomb explodes in public, simultaneously millions of bombs explode in the hearts and minds of Muslims throughout America and the world. They hold their collective breath, hoping the perpetrators don't turn out to be Muslim. A cloud of fear hovers over the conscience of every Muslim.
After Syed Farook and his wife killed 14 innocent civilians and wounded 22 more in San Bernardino, California, I called home and told my wife not to wear her head scarf when going in public. I feared she could become a victim of retaliation by someone inflamed with anti-Muslim sentiment.
The image of Islam has become that of a militant, backward, ancient religion as the world watches beheadings, kidnappings, stoning of women, rapes and acts of unmitigated violence committed by Muslims. The world has become fearful of Islam.
As a result, Muslims and non-Muslims see each other in a twisted carnival mirror, fearing each other's distorted image. Is this the true Islam, or some sick byproduct of the Middle East's failed states?
Islam has been around for more than a thousand years. In my native Afghanistan, Muslims and non-Muslims lived in harmony for centuries. However, religion has been always leveraged to achieve political aims.
The separation of church and state is a relatively new and predominantly American idea. Theocratic governments date back to Constantine the Great in 306 A.D., and even to this day, the monarch Queen Elizabeth holds the title of "Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England."
Let me explain how U.S. interference in the Middle East has gone awry. In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the early '80s, I spent some time in Peshawar, Pakistan, and witnessed the pipeline of money from the U.S. and its allies. It flowed into the hands of the Afghan resistance: mujahedeen who were lionized by the U.S. and others as "freedom fighters" because they would bleed their cold war adversary, the former Soviet Union.
Followers of the more moderate Afghan resistance were allowed to migrate to U.S. and European countries. The most radical Islamists, like the Hezb-e-Islamic Party headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, reportedly were funded by the CIA. After the Soviet withdrawal in the early '90s, these freedom fighters, proud of their victory (Osama bin Laden among them), believed that if they could defeat the invincible Red Army, they could fight any superpower.
Today, religion is the only organizing force that fills the political gap created by the collapse of Middle East states. Many people in this region have been ruled by colonial powers for most of their adult lives, deprived of the right to elect their own leaders. The colonial axiom of "divide and conquer" carved out new countries and fragmented others.
The Kurds lost their country and are still fighting to regain it. In Iraq, a Sunni minority ruled a Shiite majority. In Syria, a Shiite Alawi minority disfranchised the Sunni majority, stoking religious, regional and tribal rivalries that erupted into civil war.
Despots like Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Bashar-al-Assad owed their power to the support of foreigners. They ruled by violence and barred their people from exercising their rights. Without any mechanism for a peaceful transfer of power, the removal or death of tyrants led to the collapse of whole systems, creating gaps for religion to fill.
The rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi has led each to arm their extremist proxies, such as Hamas, ISIS and Al Qaeda, all jostling for influence in the region.
Unfortunately, the U.S. government still has a distorted view of Middle East politics and conflict.
"In Syria, we backed ... in some cases some of the wrong people, and not in the right part of the Free Syrian Army," Gen. Tom McInerney told Fox News. "I've always maintained ... that we were backing the wrong types. Some of those weapons from Benghazi ended up in the hands of ISIS. So we helped build ISIS."
If the U.S. wants to mitigate the risk, it should refrain from taking sides or even arming the "moderates," because almost every terrorist starts as a "freedom fighter." As Gen. McInerney suggests, the best intentions of the U.S. can morph into an uncontrollable fire which will engulf the region.
At home, we should not become complacent or ignore the threat. We have to be vigilant, while avoiding confrontation or hostility toward American Muslims who love America as much as you do. Marginalizing Muslims is un-American and will play into the hands of extremists.
I suggest the best approach to shield the U.S. from the flames of the Middle East conflict is to keep an eye on those mosques and communities that advocate violence or incite anti-American views. Charge them with crimes and/or deport them if possible.
But if you have hired a Muslim real estate broker, go ahead and close the deal. If you are the patient of a Muslim doctor, keep your appointment. If your taxi driver is named Mohammad or Abdul, don't jump out of the car. Fear only what is reasonable to fear, and don't give extremists an extra excuse to hate us.
But if you fail to report extremists, you are an accomplice and should be held accountable. And to Mr. Trump: don't turn away the good Muslims, just find a way to identify and deport the bad ones.
I know -- easier said than done. And so it is with my three-step solution. But I believe each step will lead to the next. (1) If the U.S. and other governments stop interfering in the Middle East, (2) and Muslims openly condemn violent extremism, then (3) Middle East nations can slowly transform from post-totalitarianism to democratization and self-determination.