Former Ambassador Calls for Tolerance, Understanding of Islam
Decades of experience teach diplomat that Muslims and Christians are more alike than many realize.
With diplomatic experience dating back more than 25 years to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, former ambassador David Newton told a group of Ashburn residents this week that fear of Muslims stems from a lack of understanding of a religion many Americans associate with the terrorist actions of a few adherents.
“There is a fear against Islam because we’ve been enemies for so long. There is a need to understand the underlying basis of this religion,” Newton stressed. “We are much more the same than we are different.”
Newton presented a positive view of Islam, explaining that extremists and violent terrorist activities in no way reflect the vast majority of Muslims’ beliefs.
Newton met with the residents of Ashby Ponds retirement community Monday, June 20, to discuss Islam and his experiences with the political climate in the Middle East. Newton’s expertise is in U.S.-Arab relations, public diplomacy, U.S. foreign policy, regional security, political, social and economic reform, as well as media and conflict resolution.
During the hour-long presentation, Newton outlined the fundamentals of Islam by reading from a book written by American Sufi imam, author and activist, Fiesal Abdul Raul and by providing his own personal narratives from living in the Middle East. A handout was given to guests to assist in accurately understanding both new and unfamiliar Islamic terms.
After detailing the history of Islam and explaining how it reached its current fervor in the Middle East, Newton highlighted the similarities between Islam and Christianity. According to Newton, Islam is a simple and basic religion that – aside from certain extremist locations, such as Saudi Arabia – is fundamentally similar to Christianity.
“The Islamic religion outlines that it is a violation to kill innocent people similarly to the Christian faith,” he said. “The ethical content of Islam is much like the Ten Commandments; it is wrong to kill, steal and etcetera.”
A point that Newton stressed was that the term jihad does not inherently have violent connotations. It simply means “a struggle” and can be thought of similar to the word crusade in Christianity. There are two types of jihad. The first, which is the more common, is the individual struggle against greater temptation in the world. The lesser form of jihad is when it is used to defend the community against outside dangers, which is the form that Islamic extremists often use to justify violent terrorist attacks against the United States.
“This certainly isn’t the feeling of the average Muslim,” Newton said. “The average Muslim does not want to go out and kill us by any means and they were horrified by what happened to us on 9/11.”
Understanding Islam was the theme of the presentation, but Newton acknowledged that there are extreme problems in the Muslim world that are leading to an increase in violent activities by Islamic fundamentalists.
“There is a sense of grievance in the Muslim world against the West and there are many internal problems in the Muslim world that have fostered extremists,” he said He outlined issues in Saudi Arabia – such as propaganda in textbooks and the lack of religious freedom – to provide examples of these problems.
Based on Newton’s experience, all is not lost between the East and West. In order to find some sort of balance, he recommends education and understanding from both sides.
To conclude his point, Newton quoted Fiesal Abdul Raul: “The best place in the world to be a Muslim is the United States because the U.S. values are the closest to Islam in regard to the rights to the individual and tolerance.”
Newton’s lengthy career includes U.S. ambassador to Iraq (1984-88) and Yemen (1994-97), Special envoy for public diplomacy to the Middle East during the February-March 1998 Iraq crisis, State Department Director for Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and Near East, the director of Radio Free Iraq (1998-2004) and numerous other positions with the US Foreign Service during a 36-year career, including Deputy Chief of Mission in Yemen and Syria and Political Counselor in Saudi Arabia.