Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Oversimplification of Islam and Terror

I first learned about Islam some years before 11 September 2001. During my senior year of high school, a religion class was offered as an elective, and I took it. Prior to the events three years later, Islam was a curiosity only in the minds of many, an interest for only a minority of Americans and my classmates. I memorized enough to get a good grade on a test, then promptly forgot most of it.

I was taught the basics, including the fact that as an offshoot of Christianity, Islam held Jesus in high esteem as an enlightened teacher, but not as Divine. I found the premise interesting, to an extent, but my understanding, I must admit, was primarily an intellectual one. Islam's reliance upon an utterly foreign set of beliefs and rituals was isolating, which kept me from learning more. I doubt I am alone in this regard.

The complexities and character of a religion practiced mainly thousands of miles away prevents many Americans from understanding it in totality. This is why it's been so easily to slander and libel the faith, to reduce the complex to easy bullet point headings based on fear and mistrust. Predictably, since 11 September 2001, a cottage industry has grown up to oppose erroneous and xenophobic beliefs. As I survey the Facebook pages of multiple friends, I see women following the existing cultural norms, wearing clothes with their head and bodies fully garbed.

Islamic studies are an academic discipline and a trend very much in vogue. Young, usually white, middle class, highly educated progressives in record numbers have packed up and headed for the Holy Land or the Middle East. They seek to correct the vast amount of misinformation raging back home, aware of how easy it is to exploit the waves of trauma that began nearly fifteen years ago. This issue is much bigger than they are.

We live in an era of terrorism, the scourge of radical Islam. This terror is nothing new, really. A generation of schoolchildren were taught to be afraid of the threat of Communism and the Soviet Union. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, some Americans initially believed that the Russians were responsible. But, decades later, before we could get comfortable with the notion of being the world's foremost superpower, terrorism sprung up as our most formidable foe. I can't say for sure how long this period of time will last, but I do know that as it subsides, eventually something else will spring up in its place.

Easy sound-bytes and fear-mongering demagoguery is now our foremost concern. Because Islam is a complex religion, it's easy to use false facts to shade in the gaps in understanding and thus overemphasize the risk. Ours is a diverse planet. In the early part of the last century, Orientalism was in vogue, but its exploration of the Middle East was a romantic one, one more about novelty than true understanding. Now our superficial interest is transformed to a similar one of panic and fear.

I feel no compulsion to depart for a land very different than my own, regardless of my motives. That is my personal preference. Otherwise, I welcome an influx of Western interest in the region, even when it is only secured by a very small, privileged group with the economic means. For the foreseeable future, there will be much need for conflict resolution. As Americans, we have only begun to settle into the tenacity of terrorism and the combined effect upon our intellect and our psyche.    

The worst-case scenario has not been reached. Some defensive saber-rattling has been observed on both sides. Scaring people to death is a political tactic, whether it promises bombing or gutting Medicare. In that regard, we in the United States have much in common with our sworn enemy. We know how to make emotional appeals not rooted in fact, but which, on second case, might be true after all. We know how to manipulate and to cajole, though we usually don't strap bombs to ourselves and detonate them in crowded marketplaces. The first change begins with us.

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