This post was inspired by a particular exchange with a friend online, but is intended for every one of my friends who is tempted to respond to the violence in Paris by blocking all Syrian refugees from coming to the US, screening immigrants by religion, or painting all Muslims with the same brush.
We recently had a spirited exchange online about Syrian refugees and Islam. It started with me seeing a few anti-Muslim posts you shared. Then I shared this video with you and the conversation really got started:
I suspect the following exchange mirrors many that have taken place over the last few days.
You brought up some quotes from the Quran that incite violence. I pointed out that the Bible has similar verses, and a mutual friend of ours chimed in with some of these Bible quotes. We went back and forth. You questioned whether the refugees fleeing violence in Syria are really in need, using photo memes of what are apparently healthy-looking male refugees. Do these memes accurately represent the situation? Do a Google image search for “Syrian refugees” and you’ll find your answer. Include the words “boat”, “drown”, or “boy” and you’ll really have your heart broken.
You’ve only known me for a few years, so you don’t know much about the time I spent in the Muslim world in 2009 and 2011.
In 2009 I traveled to northwest India on a study abroad program with Principia College. We each designed our own ethnographic research project, and I chose to study Hindu-Muslim relations. India, the world’s largest democracy, is a Hindu-majority country, but also houses the world’s second largest Muslim population, approximately tying Pakistan and trailing only Indonesia. I got to interview many different people as I assembled a representative sample of Indians young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban, educated and uneducated, Brahmin and lower class, female and male, Hindu and Muslim. Two people stood out.
Siraj was a thirty-year-old family man who hosted me and another American student for a short homestay. He was a Muslim living in Udaipur, a predominantly Hindu city. He was tremendously kind, warm, and talkative. We sat on his rooftop at night and he would philosophize in English about Gandhi, peace, love, his dreams for his children, and his hopes for India.
Kamil was a Muslim that a group of us met in the middle of the bustle of the Delhi train station. He was an impressive, inspiring, spiritual man who deeply affected all of us after just a short conversation. And he had no legs. Our encounter with him inspired the most thoughtful of my blog posts from that trip: Dignity On Two Arms.
In 2011 I got my second experience in Muslim society. I spent three months in Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan, and traveled through a range of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities. I was fed by Muslim cave-dwellers in the deserts of the West Bank, housed by Israeli Jews in several kibbutz (intentional communities), and educated in non-violent activism by Palestinian Christian leaders.
Together these experiences make it impossible for me to judge and condemn an entire religion of over 1 billion people because of the violence of a few.
Though I think some of what you’re sharing is misinformation and/or hateful propaganda, I don’t blame you for sharing it. I just wanted to explain the life experience I’m coming from. I also think I understand, at least in part, where you’re coming from.
I know when you come home at the end of a long day, you’re physically exhausted and emotionally drained, you’ve been dealing with other people’s problems, and you don’t have time to become an expert in both foreign policy and religion. The world is a vast, overwhelming place (for me, too), and your life is stressful enough as it is. For the few minutes you spend on the internet in the evening, you just want to enjoy a video of a puppy cuddling with a lion cub, a nice landscape scenery shot taken by an old high school buddy, and maybe a post with a minion in it. You want to laugh and be inspired. You want a diversion from the craziness of daily life. We probably all feel this way sometimes.
However, I also know that you’re a person, like me, with a full range of emotions, and sometimes the emotional outlet you need is not just a cat video but a channel for your more aggressive feelings. Sometimes you’re angry and BuzzFeed just isn’t enough to brighten your day. This is where the Islamophobic messages come in. They satisfy that little part of you that wants to feel outrage. It seems that most of us experience moments when it’s comforting to find an evil in the world and indulge in pure, uncomplicated anger. There are plenty of people, acts, and even countries worthy of outrage, after all. But in these meme-ified moments, complexity and compassion go by the wayside, and that’s where we go wrong.
The way I see it, when you indulge in a simplistic message of hate, you’re being taken advantage of. Maybe by someone with a political agenda. Maybe by someone else who needs an emotional outlet. Maybe by someone trying to generate clicks and impressions for their “news” blog. They’re playing on your fatigue and your emotion and encouraging you to react in a simple, thoughtless way.
The need to express emotion
+ information overload
= inadvertent bigotry.
Don’t be taken advantage of. You can’t be blamed for the hateful messages, cherry-picked facts, circumstantial evidence, and photo-memes that fire up so many passionate Facebookers. You can’t really be blamed for believing it, either. It’s a problem much bigger than you and me. But you are at fault if you close your eyes and ears and resist reason and new information. Or if you refuse to let compassion into your outlook.
Your friend Adrian