On the whole I tend to use this website to talk about projects I’m involved in, but occasionally I will stray ‘off topic’ and write an article about something I feel passionate or excited about. This post doesn’t really fit the ‘excited’ or ‘passionate’ categories, but I do believe it is important.
As I write, the media is in a swirling frenzy (when are they not, you might ask?) about the actions of Isis: Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In recent weeks Isis has made bold and sweeping moves to take over sections of war-torn and embattled Syria and Iraq, with the ambition to set up a ‘caliphate’ or Islamic State. (Islamic states, or those subject to Shari’a law already exist in certain areas of Nigeria, Indonesia and most Arabic countries but the media seems to portray this as a ‘new’ thing). Their move for territory and to establish themselves has been swift and terrifying: systematically targeting non-muslims and threatening them to convert to Islam, pay extra tax if they choose to stay in the area or simply to flee. Many have chosen the latter, including Muslims themselves. Some of Isis methods have been designed to shock and intimidate, including recording the beheading of foreign nationals.
It’s very easy to see what Isis are doing: to watch clips on the TV and to start to believe that every Muslim is capable of such wanton violence. The news outlets and newspaper corporations want nothing more than to sensationalise and horrify in their effort to drive up sales and viewer figures. I don’t believe there is an ‘impartial’ view in the media these days, which makes it very hard to form any kind of objective view.
Some years ago I used to work for a human rights organisation called Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). They campaigned on behalf of those persecuted for their faith, both Christians and those from other religions. The ‘other religions’ part is important, but I’ll come back to that later. What I learnt is that a lot of things happen ‘in the name of religion’, that don’t always reflect the heart of that belief system. I also learnt that religious persecution is not the sole territory of some sections of the Islamic faith; many different people from different faith groups have been targeted by people of other faith groups over the years and in different parts of the world. In the end, its more often to do with power and control, than it is to do with faith and belief.
And so we watch from a distance as the news shows us carefully selected clips on repeat, designed to reinforce (but not explicitly state, because that would inciteful and against the law) the view that ‘these terrorists’, ‘these foreigners’ are coming into our country, imposing their laws and views on us and threatening our way of life. And it doesn’t matter if someone from the British Muslim Council is trotted out to make a reassuring statement to the contrary – the sheer volume of negative press would drown out the sanest voice.
And then I start to see an increasing frequency of news stories and links in my Facebook feed from people I know and trust, who seem to be saying that the only option from here is to get aggressive; to defend our homeland and our way of life from the ‘infidel’ and the ‘invader.’ I read that these people are going ‘teach my kids to hate all muslims’ and that they’re going to ‘take my kids out of school if they try and teach them any of that muslim crap’. The fact that most of the world religions have been taught in schools since the 1980s doesn’t seem to register here: its the fear. The fear of being threatened, the fear of violence, the fear of retribution from a group of people who hate us simply because we’re different to them.
But here’s the thing: if we teach our kids to ‘hate all muslims’ how is that any different from what we believe they’re doing to us? If we teach our children to hate people who are different to us, are we not doing exactly what we accuse extremists of doing? Children aren’t born hating. Adults teach them how to do that. And history reminds us time and time again that hatred simply fuels more hatred. It’s a simple and horrible truth that with the right persuasion, it’s not too hard to move from fear to anger, from anger to hatred and then ultimately to violence (and no, I’m not quoting Star Wars here). Fear changes us. Hatred changes us. Violence changes us. And the further you go along that line, the harder it is to come back.
It’s easy to hate from a distance. To generalise, assume and make those unknown, distant, stereotyped people into a cartoon ogre which we can mock and deride and launch our vitriol at from a safe distance. But to do so to someone’s face requires something different altogether. It requires conviction and that conviction is often fuelled by fear and anger and belief that what you’re doing is somehow ‘different’ from the actions taken by the person or people that you’ve decided to target.
Last night I was watching an episode of Bones – its a show where a forensic anthropologist and an FBI agent build a team to help solve murder cases. The episode I watched last night was called ‘The Patriot in Purgatory’ and told the story of a homeless man whose remains hadn’t yet been identified. The team of interns were set the task of working out who the man was and how he died. It turned out that the victim was a veteran from Desert Storm who suffered PTSD and had become homeless. He was in the vicinity of the Pentagon when it was hit by a plane on 9/11 and went into the building to rescue people who were trapped. He later died from the injuries incurred from his heroic actions.
One of the interns was a practising Muslim, who regularly went to prayer. One of the younger members of the team wrongly assumed that his colleague would be uncomfortable working on the case because of the circumstances of the veteran’s death. I was struck by the clarity and passion of his reply:
“This was not the work of religion, it was arrogance, it was hypocrisy, it was hate. Those horrible men who hijacked those planes hijacked my religion that day too. They insulted my God. So no, this isn’t too difficult. It’s a privilege to be able to serve this victim, to be able to show him care and love that was so absent that day.” Vasiri
Later on in the episode, each intern recalls where they were when they heard the news of 9/11 and Vasiri commented: “I was at morning prayers… I didn’t believe that day. I didn’t believe in anything.”
My point is that distance makes it far too easy for us to judge and blame and accuse people of attitudes and beliefs without really knowing the truth of how they feel. It’s easy to hate from a distance, without a real person in front of you. Yes, some Muslims may hold extreme views. But then so do some Christians. And Hindus. And Sikhs. And those who claim to hold no faith or belief system. We are all capable of dreadful things and though many of us don’t act upon on our hatred or anger in violent ways, to declare ourselves beyond reproach is hypocritical at best. The character of Vasiri gives voice to many Muslims who were devastated by the events of 9/11 and continue to feel the repercussions of it, even though they were not involved or even supported the actions taken.
And as it was intended: the violence begets more violence. The terrorists fuel more terror and instead of reacting with love we react with war. Don’t misunderstand me: these conflicts are complicated and I understand that military action is needed sometimes to arrest the tide of violence and persecution. But that decision is not without cost or consequence.
My time with CSW reminded me of something important: that if I want to be respected, and to have my faith respected, then I need to show the same respect to others. If I want to live in a tolerant society, I need to show tolerance to others – even and most especially if I don’t agree with them. Tolerance does not mean being a doormat, far from it. It means sharing a space with other human beings and acknowledging together that we don’t agree on everything, but we choose to try and find a way to live together as peacefully as we can and not impose our views on others. Tolerance is not easy; it’s costly and requires work to maintain it. But without it, we would almost certainly sink into a dictatorship where anyone who expressed an opposing view would be considered ‘intolerant’ and thus against the society of which they were a part. Dissenting voices are usually silenced. That’s not the kind of place I want my family to grow up in, so, although it’s hard, I’m going to stick with respect and tolerance. It’s got to be better that hatred and fear.