I've lost one friend to an airplane hijacking: a Muslim man.

I interviewed one 9/11 widow the week after the attack on the twin towers: a Muslim woman. Her husband, a waiter killed in the attack, was Muslim, too.

One of my coolest friends in middle school - one of the most popular with the boys - was a Muslim girl.

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Each of these people was multidimensional: They worked, they grieved, they partied, they cherished their families and communities, and they gave back to society. They had hearts that beat and souls that ached and they rejected violence toward anyone.

So when I hear Ben Carson say that he couldn't accept a Muslim president, and Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz say we should only accept Christian but not Muslim refugees, and Donald Trump refuse to rebuke a provocateur who says "We have a problem in this country - it's called Muslims," I ask myself what country we're living in.

How could people seeking the U.S. presidency be so bigoted and short-sighted?

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Yes, we were attacked by Islamic extremists. But Muslims were among their victims, too. Many religions have an extremist subset, whether they're using the name of Hinduism, Judaism or Islam to further their chauvinistic objectives. But those elements don't represent everyone of the faith - just as the Christians who cite their faith in refusing to serve gay people, as the law requires, don't speak for all Christians.

Whether they're candidates or commentators, people who resort to Muslim-baiting do it because it serves their interests. So Americans are fed a steady diet of it to the point where they're unable to separate Muslims from any questionable tenets of their religion. Conservative TV host Bill O'Reilly, asked about Carson, said the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and questioned how a non-Christian would fit in. Carson modified his position to say he'd accept a Muslim president who didn't accept Sharia law.

Why would anyone who wanted to live under Sharia law choose America for their home? As an African-American, Carson should understand how dangerous such stereotypes can be. So should Bill Maher on the left, who was born to a Jewish mother and champions atheism while perpetuating biases against Islam and other religions.

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In response to a column about Ahmed Mohamed, a Texas Muslim boy detained by police and suspended from school for bringing in a homemade clock, I've been called various things, including a race-baiter and a "POS" (figure it out). "Ongoing bias, my butt" declared one writer in response to my chronicling of other post 9/11 overreactions against people merely assumed to be Muslim. "Crock of baloney," said another.

But if those writers were trying to show there's no bias against Muslims, they did a poor job of hiding their own. A few offered the "We're so good to them even though they don't deserve it" argument: "Americans have been so unbelievably open and free of across-the-board prejudice against Muslims, even in the face of the 9-11 attacks, and subsequent Islamic terror attacks throughout the world," wrote Michael Croy. "We watch our citizens cruelly beheaded with dull knives and without anesthetic on television and still live in peace side by side with Muslims." Others responded with the "If they're not treated right, it's their fault" argument: "Do you think just once Muslims could exercise a little empathy toward others and that this might go a long way in improving relations with the rest of the country?" asked Russell Falconer.

And "How about Muslims start criticizing the intolerant Muslim bigots within their own ranks instead of feigning outrage at the folks who dare point out the obvious," suggested Nomen Nascio.

"He should be thankful he lives in America and not a Muslim nation," wrote Phil McCracken of Ahmed. "Pulling such an idiotic stunt resulted in a harmless detention, not a public stoning, beheading, decapitation, etc." Personally, I think a kid bringing a clock he made to school would have been praised in any country.

People suggested Ahmed brought the clock to be intentionally provocative, then claimed injustice when authorities responded, and derived unwarranted benefits by being invited to the White House. Several columnists indicted "the left" for seeing discrimination where it doesn't exist, which gave the New York Post's Kyle Smith a segue to criticize President Barack Obama. "The left-led push to turn a man who was, as of 2004, an obscure state senator with no particular accomplishments into the president four years later was centrally and crucially about race," he wrote in a piece - about Ahmed.

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Joseph Farah, writing for conservative website World Net Daily criticized Obama for not reaching out to "the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of school children who have variously been punished for drawing pictures of guns, bringing toy guns to school, kissing other students, wearing T-shirts that defend the Second Amendment." But did they build something? Demagogues are using Muslims to discredit the president, play to evangelical Christian bases or to serve some other agenda. Evidently none has actually known a Muslim well enough to know how false their gross generalizations are. Or worse, they have, yet do it anyway - leaving Americans more divided and fearful.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.