My Muslim friends are some of the best people I know. I don’t normally think about their religion because no one has made a coherent argument as to why I should care. But when there are spikes of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country, I am reminded of the Islamophobia they deal with every day.

For some, I think the guidance, strength, and peace that Islam provides make them better people. For others, Islam is not a major part of their lives, just like Christianity is not a major part of my life. It doesn’t matter though. What matters is that they are fantastic people.

After the bombs went off in Boston, my Palestinian-American friend on the other side of the world took less than three hours to check in on me: “Hi you. Thinking about you and yours a lot today.” The salt on my cheeks was fresh when I read her email and finally breathed deeply.

She had already seen on Facebook that my family was safe. I was fortunate. Given the anguish I felt in those brief moments when I thought my father might be… I can’t imagine what others are going through. As soon as I confirmed that he had not reached the finish line, I felt a moment of utter helplessness; I didn’t know who to check on next. Any number of friends could have been at the finish line, watching or running. I didn’t know where to begin. That is when the tears came. That is when my humanity was laid bare.

Nura checked in with me every single day for two weeks, offering compassion, understanding, humor, and love. When I was unsure about whether or not to fly home for the weekend, she convinced me. When I felt despair about humanity, she offered words of comfort and the insight that comes from experiencing the same thing, time and again. She is Muslim.

A few years ago, my Pakistani-American friend and I were sharing our life stories. I commented that her hardships seemed greater than mine, but she cut me off. With the gentle poetry of a peace-loving Californian, she said, “Nah, dude, pain is pain.” I’ve kept that with me ever since. She is Muslim.

Weeks later, I saw the frustration in Sabah’s eyes after what was clearly not the first “random search” she had ever experienced. I tried to comfort her, saying that throughout our history Americans have persecuted nearly every group imaginable at one point or another. Despite our failings, American society is still among the most tolerant and accepting on the planet. I told her that it would pass. I’ll never forget the dejected look on her face when she asked me, “When?”

I don’t normally refer to these friends with the modifiers Pakistani and Palestinian. To me, they are simply American, human. They are but two of many Muslim friends that are as varied as any cross-section of humanity. I can’t imagine life without them. Their love, wisdom, and companionship have enriched me as a person.

I know that it is painful and infuriating when demented people kill innocents with bombs and guns, claiming to represent Islam. But stigmatizing Muslims is not going to make us safer. Muslims are not the problem. Extremists are the problem. Intolerant, hateful, violent people are the problem. They can be found in all different colors and creeds. I wish there were an easier way to identify them other than by observing their behavior and hearing their opinions, but there simply is not. By blaming a whole group for the actions of a few deviants, we are part of the problem.

I am drawn to those who are kind, interesting, accepting, and curious. I like people who make me laugh and smile, who bring me comfort and joy. These qualities transcend labels such as white, Ethiopian, Asian, Russian, European, atheist, lesbian, Latino, Jewish, Uzbek, straight, transgendered, handicapped, Uighur, Muslim, asexual, Nepali, black, Ecuadorian, Inuit, Nigerian, gay, Sikh; Persian, Egyptian, Arabian, Christian, Eskimo… I think you get the point. The notion of caring about such things strikes me as a waste of my valuable time.

Intolerance is an illness in human society. It is a parasite that eats away at our ability to grow to our full potential. It destroys prosperity by arbitrarily repressing the ideas and talents of those who do not belong to one group or another. It leads to social alienation, bitterness, and hatred. It hurts people.

I happen to be a straight, white male of Protestant Christian heritage. These attributes still confer privilege upon me in American society, but I don’t want it. I want respect and appreciation because I have earned them through my life and works. I want everyone to be afforded this same chance. If we eliminate in groups and out groups from society, our quality of life will increase dramatically. The only in group that matters is “human.”

So many problems in the world need our attention. As long as we waste our time and energy agonizing over our differences of background and personal preference, many of them will go unresolved.