If you want to escape the pervasive ignorance about Islam in the western world, No god but God by Reza Aslan is a must!
Aslan's credentials set him apart as an authoritative source on Islam and other religions. His knowledge is complemented by a writing style that is more characteristic of a novel than a historic analysis of theologies. This is a story of real people in history who struggled with a pagan and idolatrous world that worshiped many gods. No god but God traces the evolution of Islam from its origins as one of the major monotheistic religions of the world (a monotheistic perspective that shares many stories, prophets, and martyrs with Judaism and Christianity) to the splintered perspectives that are the source of so much conflict in the contemporary world.
Aslan helps us see that Muslims are very diverse in their perspectives and that most are moderate, committed, and seek the same things that Jews, Christians, and other religious groups seek. Islam's prophet, Muhammad, created a tolerant and peaceful existence for these three groups in Medina and he would never have tolerated the schisms that now exist.
One of the primary reasons that Islam struggles with splinter groups is that no successor was named when Muhammad died in the middle of the 7th century. This resulted in almost immediate competition for the leadership of Islam, a contest that spawned Shi'ah, Sunni, Sufi, Kharijite, Wahhabi, and other sects of Islam. They all trace their beliefs to Muhammad but the beliefs about what one should do as a Muslim vary considerably. Aslan's final thesis is that how these groups work out their differing views is essentially the same process that occurred during the Crusades and later in the Protestant Reformation. While there are Muslims who would take offense at this proposal, how likely would it have been for Crusaders or Reformation figures to have seen their wars and struggles as evolution toward a differentiated but shared faith?
The differences that exacerbate Islam's emergence include 1) colonial occupations throughout the regions where Islam is now a force, 2) modern competition for oil/gas and other resources in these lands, and 3) media that have created a transparent and real time world. These dynamics have denied Islam the opportunity to work out its theology and practice without the intervention of nations with vested interests. And, because there is so much ignorance about the various forms of Islam, the U.S.A. and other nations have all too often supported sects of Islam about which they had very little, if any, accurate knowledge. The strangest of the western allies was the Taliban who were recruited and armed by the CIA in the insurrection against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Islam struggles today but this struggle is internal rather than external. Islam is not waging a war on democracy and the more the west behaves as if it is, the more power extremist Islam has in its competition with moderate Islam. Anti-Muslim sentiment and slogans only galvanize those who use this opposition to recruit more Muslims to fundamentalism.
If you're interested in watching a couple of videos that reflect Aslan's views, you could try the recent CNN interview related to Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University or view his analysis of the "cosmic conflict" that he believes undermines the efforts to establish dialogue between the west and the emerging Muslim world of 1.5 billion people. His point is that the rhetoric of the "war on terror" has only enhanced the position of Islamic extremists as it has given them material with which to weave the tapestry of grievance of anti-imperialism. What the western world does not understand is that the seeds of Al Qaeda were planted during British colonial rule and have been fueled by the economic imperialism of the U.S.A. as it has drawn oil and gas from the Middle East. Unfortunately, ignorance and intolerance has given Al Qaeda a ready agenda to use in recruiting its followers.