“Dar Amrika, Mussulman-ha hast?” the driver of our car to Dushanbe, Tajikistan asked me a few weeks ago. “Are there Muslims in America?”

“Yes,” I told him confidently. “Some of my friends are Muslim. Some of my friends are Jewish … my own family background is Christian, but it’s no problem; we are all friends.”

An oversimplification, maybe. I’d been out of the U.S. since the end of May, purposely setting my e-mail on auto-response and falling way out of touch with the news cycle. There’s no Internet in the mountainous areas of Tajikistan, and only patchy electricity, although computer cafés in the cities are full of small boys playing video games and listening to American or Russian pop at full volume.

I came home two days before the start of class to discover that I’d been wrong. While I’d been talking up America’s tolerance to taxi drivers on the other side of the world, a Bangladeshi taxi driver in New York was stabbed in the face for being Muslim.

I read about the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy — furor over a project which, as many have pointed out, is actually a community center, and not at Ground Zero. And, as if there wasn’t already enough smoke hanging over the day of 9/11, a Florida pastor announced his plan to burn the Quran.

This surprised me. I’ve gotten more cynical about what I expect from America’s homegrown extremists, but I didn’t expect the national discourse to become so very ugly, so very un-American. What, or who, are scare tactics supposed to make us afraid of? What is the point, even, of being afraid?

While I wandered around Tajikistan doing research for my senior thesis, I hardly stayed a night in a hotel. Friends, friends-of-friends and perfect strangers put me up in their homes and fed me, “as it was the Muslim thing to do” — using the term the way some people in the States say an act of charity is “Christian” behavior.

At one house, my friend Anna Kellar ’12 and I gave away postcards of the Maine coast, autumn in New England and the Boston skyline. Our hostess chose to keep one of a waterfall on rocks — “because it looks the most like Tajikistan,” she said, smiling. “I didn’t know America looked like this, too!”

Before we leap to conclusions about Islam and Muslim countries, Americans need a little more perspective.

In Tajikistan’s southern city of Kulob, my friend and I explored a half-abandoned Soviet-era amusement park with a tarnished statue of Lenin by the front gate. I sat in a kiddie car at the amusement park, my hands on the small hand grips, measuring up the human scale of things. Without forgetting the cruelties perpetrated by the Soviets, I was overcome with relief that we hadn’t gotten into a nuclear war with them.

The Berlin Wall fell the year I was born, and I can talk about the Cold War now without being pilloried as a Commie. But can I talk about Islam and the “War on Terror” so freely? In 20 years, will we look back at this rhetoric of clashing cultures and wonder what it was all about?

It’s worth restating that not all Americans responded to the Sept. 11 attacks with hatred. Two women from my hometown in Massachusetts lost their husbands on the hijacked planes. Instead of calling for revenge, they founded “Beyond the 11th,” an organization to help Afghan widows. Last Wednesday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called them “Healers of 9/11.” In this political climate, the grace of symbolic actions like theirs becomes even more important.

I stand by what I told my friends and hosts in Tajikistan — that in America, we base our society on values of tolerance, liberty and equality. We have to keep fighting for these values at home as well as abroad.

Mari Oye is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.