When it comes to having an informed conversation about Islam and Muslims communities, whether here in the United States or abroad, it appears that we have a long way to go.
Over and over again, says Georgetown University professor of Islamic Studies John Esposito, we are prone to define Islam (the faith) and Muslims (its practitioners) by the deeds of extremists who claim a religious mantle for their aberrant behavior.
"Part of the problem, we just don't seem to learn, is that there's a kind of exceptionalism we apply when we hear a word like Muslim. When we deal with other parts of the world…we sort out when an event occurs whether religion or extremism is at the heart of it" says Esposito, citing the situation in Northern Ireland as an example.
Though residents of Northern Ireland may primarily be identified as members of Christian denominations, he says, participants aren't solely judged on the basis of a broad faith affiliation. "People aren't saying, oh those followers of Jesus, they really like to blow things up."
Author of 45 books, Esposito is founding Director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service (raised Roman Catholic, he spent a decade in a monastery and spent 20 years teaching religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross). For many years, he stood almost alone in interpreting the Muslim world to media, the public and numerous scholars in the United States.
As he points out in a fact-based explainer, "The Many Faces of Islam," it is not only the world's second-largest religion around the world and in Europe and the third-largest in the United States. Most of the world's Muslims aren't Arab, but Asian and African.
Sunni Muslims are in the majority, representing about 85 percent of the population, with three major branches of Shiites accounting for the other 15 percent.
As in Christianity and Judaism, Muslims communities reflect diverse theological and legal schools of thought. Muslim governments also run the gamut, from democracies to authoritarian states, ranging from self-termed Islamic states and secular ones.
One doesn't have to look far to see that, when it comes to understanding the world's second largest religion, as Esposito (an extraordinarily energetic man often in demand on network news, CNN, the BBC and other media outlets) suggests, it's sometimes difficult even to know where to start.
A smattering of examples may illuminate some of the difficulties facing scholars and the media.
All but 16 states have considered (though some laws have been struck down or vetoed) banning the consideration of foreign law in United States Courts. Sometimes these measures specifically target Sharia law.
Pew Research Center polling from last year found that when it comes to religious groups, while Christians and Jews are regarded with warmth, Muslims and atheists are viewed coldly.
In a survey conducted by Alex Theodoridis for the Cooperative Congressional Election Study last year, 54 percent of Republicans, 26 percent of independents, and 10 percent of Democrats said that, "deep down" President Obama (who has spoken often about his Christian faith) had Muslim beliefs.
And that's not to include the ceaseless cascade of bad news from the abroad, including Islamic State beheadings, chaos in countries like Libya and social movements in repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia (a prominent U.S. ally).
In 2001, says Esposito, the Swiss-based Media Tenor monitored coverage of the Muslim world in stories in European and United States outlets and found that 2 percent of them were devoted to coverage of militants, while 15 percent was spent on explaining context. In 2012, coverage of extremism surged to 25 percent. Stories written about the mainstream Muslim world, however, remained the same.
"More than four out of ten Americans admit that they have prejudice toward Muslims, some forty-three percent, and that's twice the feelings of prejudice than that toward Christians and Jews," said Esposito in his 2013 address to the American Academy of Religion (he's worked extensively with the Gallup organization).
"Thirty-three percent of Americans disclose that they believe that Muslim Americans are more sympathetic to terrorists. Sixty percent of those polled have negative feelings about Muslims. Significant numbers, something like 40 percent, believe in things like special IDs for Muslims."
"I've been in the profession for 30 or 40 years. Why do I get asked the same questions about Islam?" he asks. "We must have an incredible learning curve here" he says, adding that terrorists who use religion to legitimize their actions also make his work of interpretation and understanding more difficult.
In his 2013 address, Esposito presented an alternative picture – that of the American Muslim who actually emerges in polling data. "In terms of education in religious communities, they are second to American Jews in terms of education… 40 percent have college degrees versus 29 percent of Americans over all. Muslim women are statistically as educated as Muslim men with college and post-graduate degrees. They span the socioeconomic spectrum: doctors, lawyers, you name it, all the way to cab drivers, NGO leaders, and so on. Thirty-one percent are full-time students, compared with 10 percent in the general population. There is an incredible youth bulge; 59 percent of adult Muslims are between the ages of 18 and 39."
Social media, rather than mainstream media, has been a bigger factor than mainstream journalism in shaping popular views of Muslims, Esposito said. "You see an exponential growth in websites that are anti-Muslim, and anti-Islam. They aren't objectively or empirically critical, but people who have a problem with Islam as a religion" he says, noting that Islamaphobic (often also anti-immigrant) sites have attracted large amounts of underwriting money – and readers.
Though it's been in the works for more than a year at the center which Esposito founded, Georgetown's "Pluralism, Diversity & Islamaphobia Project" which officially launches this spring, is an attempt to address the sources and roots of anti-Muslim bias through research, polling, commentaries, and a savvy touch with social media.
Asked whether there are signs of hope in this often-bleak landscape, Esposito said "you can see bade news, but there's a lot of good news. We have hard data; we don't just have to listen to talking heads."
Not only is there much more information available to the public than when he began his work in the 1970's, but today's media coverage includes a broader perspective, one that often includes mainstream Muslim communities.
One of the most effective ways to change hearts and minds he suggests is the change that occurs when one neighbor engages another. "When you engage neighbors of different faiths, you are more likely to be open when someone comes along and says, 'oh, those Muslims."
Though progress has been made in combating misinformation and ignorance, "it's still an uphill battle" he says.