Hate is a growth industry, said John Esposito, a religion professor at Georgetown University and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.
From 2008 to 2011, philanthropic foundations gave $119 million to the likes of Jihad Watch and other anti-Islam groups and websites, Esposito told an overflow crowd at the Pugh Hall Ocora at the University of Florida Thursday night.
That kind of extremism does not help the current global crisis or promote understanding between the West and the Muslim and Arab world, he said.
Esposito was keynote speaker for a two-day conference held by the newly minted Global Islamic Studies Center at UF. Throughout his hour-long speech, he drew the distinction between mainstream religious groups and the outlying extremists who advocate and commit acts of violence.
"My school of thought, or the school of thought I follow, is we need to distinguish between mainstream political and social movements that can participate in and contest elections and run schools," Esposito said.
The Islamic Studies Center was co-founded by Terje Ostebo, an assistant professor for UF's Center for African Studies and the Department of Religion.
Ostebo has been leading the effort to establish the center for over a year, working with faculty from the departments of religion, political science, history, anthropology, and languages, literatures and cultures, as well as the Center for African Studies.
Ostebo said the center is a valuable addition to UF and will help produce objective, informed citizens.
"We are living in troubling times and urgently need to learn more about the Muslim world," Ostebo said.
Esposito, a highly regarded Islamic scholar, began studying at a time when there were few other scholars interested in Muslim studies, and fewer Americans interested in the Arab world.
But the events of the Iranian Revolution, and the subsequent American hostage crisis, changed all that. Suddenly, Esposito had book deals and was getting articles published. Presidents sought his advice on Middle East affairs.
"The Iranian Revolution was the lens through which Americans encountered Islam, the shouts of 'Death to America'," Esposito said.
And then 9/11 happened, when Osama Bin Laden unleashed his attacks on U.S. soil. "This put into place something we grappled with for decades now, what President Bush called the global war on terrorism," Esposito said.
Now the world is in the grips of terror caused by the Islamic State, a mobile militant terrorist organization killing Christians, Jews and Muslims in the name of Allah. Esposito said people here in the U.S. should not lose sight of the fact that Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with 1.6 billion members, and that the acts of the Islamic State are the acts of extremists.
"The failure to distinguish between the faith and values of a religion and the hijacking of that religion by a terrorist minority has had a significant impact in the growth of prejudice and violence," Esposito said.
That bias is played out in the social media, he said.
The outcome is that most Americans don't understand Muslims or know much about them, he said. They don't realize that Islam shares common values of love of God and neighbor with Christianity and Judaism, or that they share the same patriarch, Abraham.
Muslims in the U.S. come from 68 countries, Esposito said. That doesn't include the African Americans who are native to this country and Muslim. They are the second highest religious group after Jews in seeking higher education degrees, Esposito said. "They are socially, politically and religiously integrated," he said.
Most countries are becoming more diverse, more multi-ethnic and more multi-religious than ever, he said. More the reason to make an effort to understand, and to show respect, he said.
"It is important in our world for all faiths to have a more inclusive approach," Esposito said.
"When any faith has an exclusionist approach, you have militants who take advantage of that, who say 'If this is God's plan, we have to implement it and implement it now'."
Militants, he said, become abortion clinic bombers, radical fundamentalists who engage in violence and say they are following God's plan.
"There should be zero tolerance for extremism," he said.