A Clash of Ignorance
Fear and ignorance impede the boundaries of tolerance and compassion among nations, allowing the forces of violence and retaliation to direct the way of thought for many men and women across the globe. In terms of cultural differences between the East and the West, there are misunderstandings on both sides that lead to altercations. These alterations are often rooted in a fundamental confusion, and essentially based on unawareness and the unwillingness to learn and understand. Conflicts no longer stem from civilizations, but rather, from ignorance.
On September 12th, 2012, the world witnessed the rupture of two cultures due to a 14-minute trailer produced in Southern California. The trailer mocked crucial figures and ideas of Islam and was demeaning towards the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, many Muslims saw the video as a personal attack on their identity and spirituality.
In retaliation to the trailer, strong demonstrations against the film were held in many predominantly Muslim countries including Afghanistan, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Libya. Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that “extremist elements” joined in what she calls a demonstration that began “spontaneously” in response to another demonstration in Cairo and lead to violence. Four American diplomats, including Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed when the US consulate in Libya was attacked based on planned retaliations that did not involve the trailer. Due to globalization in recent decades, this violence had a domino effect on various aspects of society, the impact of which can be witnessed worldwide.
The demonstrations of violence in predominantly Islamic states shocked the global community. Many could not comprehend what motivated individuals to resort to such violent tactics, including killing American officers stationed within the affected countries. To act on fear of sabotaging the Islamic identity, many Muslim groups projected their rage on the nearest American scapegoat. To the public audience, one can quickly form a hasty generalization of a small Muslim population over the global Muslim community.
It is easy to make presumptions and generalizations about communities and faiths based on a limited, and sometimes false, understanding of the matter at hand. Understandably, to attack the American embassy and judge the entire American population based on the actions of a few is unjust.
There is a cancer of extremism in the East and the West and a creed of ignorance that can be seen on both ends. Although views can sometimes be lopsided, it is important to consider the fact that we are all one global community and we should remain united.
Marie Helmy, a sophomore at Pomona College, who identifies with the Coptic Christian community, believes that an attack on the Islamic faith is an attack on the Coptic Christian faith as well.
“My understanding was that the producer was thought to be a Coptic Christian from Riverside, California. If so, he is not a representative of the majority,” Helmy said. “[Copticism] is a huge community in my life and I don’t want the world to feel animosity towards all Coptics for one person’s mistake. People shouldn’t feel singled out because of the errors of one person.”
Coptic Christians are the largest Christian group in Egypt. Traditionally, there has been a great deal of tension between Coptic Christians and Muslims, particularly in Cairo and Alexandria. However, relations have improved, and the communities are making significant progress towards a more reconciled understanding. They are truly fostering mutual tolerance and seeking to understand each others’ faiths. On the contrary, Helmy expresses her concern that the trailer has resurfaced old problems, and the reconciled relationship has now “deteriorated and returned to square one.”
“Both ends were attacked. It was putting a front on a group of people that demean the value of religious tolerance,” Helmy said. “It is a stereotype of threat. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy where we accuse each other.”
Reaching a mutual understanding
Just as Helmy stated, both sides have been attacked as a result of mutual ignorance. Therefore, how can we build an understanding of our differences and similarities? As a global community, the universal perspective on the importance of respect and fostering understanding for all religions needs to change. Religion defines people, and it is a vital part of their identities.
There are undeniably two sides to this argument. It is easy to see how the entire Coptic community was isolated by this YouTube video, and how Muslims were made to feel victimized. If one takes a minute to assess the situation and consider the forces at hand, it becomes clear that everyone is in the same situation; everyone is human, acting on emotions and sometimes acting violently.
Helmy passionately advocates for the importance of building bridges of understanding and empathy between people of the world, and highlighting and celebrating everyone’s beliefs.
“Don’t construct your perceptions on your own understanding and obtrude it on others. Dig down. Empathy goes a long way,” said Helmy “We need to be building bridges, act on your words, not superficially. Walk the talk.”
Taking time to build
Professor Heather Ferguson, Assistant Professor of History at CMC who specializes in the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire, has carefully analyzed the trailer and the satirical hashtags of “Muslim Rage”. She is currently teaching a class on the history of early Islam and the formation of Muslim societies in the late antique and medieval Middle East. First seen on Newsweek’s cover about the US embassy attack in Benghazi, Twitter used the hashtag #muslimrage sparking comical responses.
“As the hashtags of “Muslim Rage” circulated American media and discussion over ads on MTA buses recycled conversations about the difference between hate speech and the freedom of speech, we [Ferguson and her class] were evaluating how to build a nuanced understanding of Prophethood. We asked questions such as: what is the relationship between political pragmatism and spiritual transformation and between acts of warfare and an ecumenical message of egalitarianism?” Professor Ferguson said illuminating a historical context to today’s events towards Islamic society.
However, the teaching of her class and the responses to the events circulating in the Muslim world highlights an important illumination that “tolerance and cultural understanding take time,” as Professor Ferguson articulates.
“It takes time to learn about something that is slightly foreign to one’s own experience. It takes time to set down preconceptions and judgments and pay attention to someone else’s narrative. And taking that time is a stance of respect; it reflects a willingness to grant just an extra moment, without a twitter feed or a Youtube video, to reviewing complex historical developments and the ways in which the past remains a touchstone for the present,” Professor Ferguson said. “Unfortunately, we don’t often take that time and as a result, events both at home and abroad are easily transformed into brief summaries of 120 characters. In my opinion, 120 characters are not enough for the origin story of Islam. Neither is 14 minutes. But clips and hashtags now constitute knowledge and as a result perpetuate what is already known (i.e. the biases, judgments, stereotypes, and presumptions that dominate relations between self and other).”
Everywhere, the human soul stands between a hemisphere of light and darkness, on the confines of the two everlasting empires of ignorance and understanding. The West has bared the loss of a human life that aspired to implement plans of action that would encourage positive social change for the people of Libya. Likewise, the East’s dignity was shattered over their rampant reaction to a 14-minute attack on their Abrahamic faith. Every hardship and every temptation to violence and retaliation is a challenge of the spirit, and asks the human soul to raise itself above misconceptions and hatred. Actions of ignorance, such as the Western-made trailer and Eastern attacks on the U.S. embassy, are bound to self-destruct.
Can we rise above it?
We may be unique in our traditions, but we are united in our capabilities and in our intrinsic human motivations. We can choose to separate ourselves along lines of religion, culture and tradition or we can unite ourselves by practicing tolerance, awareness and respect. We, as citizens of the world, need to invest in the individual. We need to cultivate an awareness and tolerance for the differences that make communities unique. To engage in conscious diplomatic discourse enables us to affirm the existence of our differences and similarities and relinquish the misunderstandings we hold against one another.