It is no secret that despite the softening of rhetoric against Muslim terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001, the so-called West and the so-called Muslim world remain locked in an eternal battle over non-negotiable values that represent the foundation of both so-called civilizations — at least this is what many are led to believe.
I am not one of them.
While I cannot claim to be an expert on Islam or Muslims, I can claim to have more exposure to both than the average Westerner who holds to the aforementioned paradigm. Those who know me well know that I was raised Christian in a middle-class household in the suburbs of Maryland. I was in high school (chemistry class to be exact) when the planes hit the Twin Towers. At that time I had no clue who Osama bin Laden was, no political context in which to place the attacks, and no understanding of the tenets of Islam. Subsequently, I believed that Muslims were misguided and generally more dangerous than Jews and Christians, and I have mostly my former church and the news media to thank for these misconceptions.
This started to change one day when I made the mistake of presenting flawed arguments against Islam to some older and wiser high school friends who ended the debate by presenting me with the Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions, a gesture I took as an insult initially but nonetheless went on to read the chapter on Islam and keep the book on my shelf to this day as a reminder. This was the first step of my re-education, and I am grateful for it.
I am not grateful because there is a “right” way to view Islam and its adherents but because in almost all cases having an informed opinion is more beneficial than having a preliminary or prejudicial one in both the practical and psychological sense. If I maintained the opinion I had in early 2003 (I still regret I was not part of the initial wave of anti-war protests that were the largest in human history), I would never have organized beside American Muslims in opposition to the war against Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which were my coming-of-age struggles as a peace and social justice activist; I would have missed out on dating no fewer than three beautiful and intelligent Muslim women, none of whom conformed to any kind of sophomoric stereotype; and I certainly would not have spent nearly ten months in predominately Muslim countries, including eight months as a student in Turkey, where I received not only a Master’s degree but also the warmest hospitality imaginable. Most importantly, many friends I hold dear today would not be friends but strangers — or worse.
“But that’s your life,” you might say. It is indeed my life and my path, and I don’t suggest that it should be the path of anyone else. However, think of how many Muslims like those who so ruthlessly murdered journalists in France never challenged their own prejudices and stereotypes of Westerners. Think of those in the United States who still think President Obama is an Arab, or a Muslim, or a socialist, or all three (not to mention the implication that these are negative identifiers). It is not just about the lives that are lost due to these falsehoods and misconceptions, it is also about the millions of missed opportunities for dialogue, friendship, and cultural exchange — opportunities that if I had not had the privilege to enjoy, I would have become a far different person as a result.
Based on my experience, Muslims are no more violent or intolerant than the average American. To speak of poll data showing otherwise is to ignore well known flaws in such data, which depend heavily on how the questions are framed and when they are asked, and to forget how hopelessly ignorant Americans appear if an outsider based his or her view on polling. This is my rebuttal to Bill Maher’s oft-repeated case against Islam.
On the subject of double standards, while there is no Christian equivalent of the Islamic State (IS), even though it is far more of a political organization than a religious one, and there have not been any highly publicized cases of murder committed against non-Christians for mocking Jesus (for example), instances of Islamic terrorism continue to be confined to and defined by a partial and politicized narrative. In the case of the IS, it is assumed by Westerners that IS aggression is the result of religious fanaticism whereas Western aggression in response is rational and more humane. It is as if Muslim militants are beyond reason and compassion and Western armies are beyond extremist ideology or the promotion of it to further a political agenda. I submit to you that the reality is far more complicated — just as it is far too simplistic to ascribe Muslim attacks on Western satirists to a disdain for free speech and liberal values.
On the subject of Charlie Hebdo, I continue to be baffled by the refusal of the opponents of political correctness to accept the legitimate double standard that the downtrodden should be spared from public ridicule while the powerful should be freely eviscerated. This is partly how progressive change occurs. To attack the powerless is to side with the forces of reaction — which should never be conflated with bolstering free speech and other liberal values given that even the most retrograde societies mobilize all media at their disposal to keep marginalized communities in their place. Charlie Hebdo is no bastion of liberalism and enlightenment for alienating the Muslim minority in France for the last 15 years. This is not to say that anyone at that magazine should have been murdered or harmed in any way, however, and it is beyond repugnant that they were.
If you take nothing away from this plea for critical thinking and rapprochement, remember that the same values invoked to accuse Muslims of despotism and intolerance without qualification lead me to argue otherwise. My detractors may say that I am one of the politically correct who continue to repress the hard truth about Muslims and Islam, but I say to them that they lack commitment to the very liberalism they claim to so courageously defend by offending those they do not fully understand. A truly enlightened Westerner would spend some time talking, eating, studying, working, and, yes, canoodling with Muslims before forming an opinion on the whole 1.6 billion of them.