By Shabina S. Khatri
I’ve been journeying a lot lately, both literally and figuratively. Via car, plane, co-workers, books, movies and even music, I’ve been wandering in and out of other people’s lives. It’s an exhilarating experience to leave one’s own thoughts and world behind and learn something new, but it’s also frightening. Maybe that’s why we don’t do it enough.
Many of us get frustrated when our religion or cultures or lifestyles are painted with a broad brush. It’s easy to chalk up unfair portrayals to prejudice and blind hatred. It would be more astute, however, to identify ignorance as the cause behind stereotypes swirling around our community. Yet, during my recent travails, I couldn’t help but wonder, how ignorant are we? What do we know of other cultures and faiths and practices? How much have we learned about the preferences espoused by those who don’t live in our self-contained bubbles?
Ignorance is a two-way street, no? Perhaps more people would understand us if we made an attempt to understand them. An easy enough concept to grasp, but one I’ve found is much harder in practice than theory. While visiting New York, for example, my friends and I sat across from an exhausted-looking black woman on the subway. She eyed the white American convert among us and began sharing with us her thoughts on the problems with white people.
The easy thing to do would have been to do things her way – take the actions of one or a handful of people as indicative of a whole race, and base our judgments of that race on those actions. But not all black people disdain all white people, so taking the easy way would only have perpetuated the problem. So while listening to her talk, I mentally tried to picture her life – her experiences with white people, the trials she’s endured, what it must have been like to be in the same room as Malcolm X while he talks about race relations in the United States. Trying to understand why she felt angry with Malcolm when he began advocating racial harmony instead of only black pride.
It helped to empathize with her, because it made it harder to dismiss her as a human being –one I was admittedly not inclined to agree with, but someone who deserved my respect and the dignity of an open ear nevertheless. It made me wonder, what would happen if more of us took the time to understand and talk to each other, rather than jump to conclusions and talk at each other? Wouldn’t that be wonderful dawah?
While on the job as a reporter, I often get all kinds of stares, remarks and questions about my faith. But what would be more productive – acting offended and huffy when a stranger comments on my lack of an accent, or pleasantly asking him why he assumed I had any accent at all? To react without anger or offense would require me to pause and imagine myself in the stranger’s shoes. Did he grow up in a town that lacked diversity? Has he ever met a Muslim, or only seen them portrayed on TV? Is he asking me a question out of malice, or genuine curiosity? To accomplish anything in such discourses, I would have to know my audience, and to do that I would have to have empathy.
That requires humility, because we would have to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around us, that other realities exist. But the scariest part is that empathy has a darker side. It comes with conditions and caveats, the biggest one being: It makes you care. And once you care, it’s much harder to jump to conclusions, to turn away, or turn off, or do nothing when injustice prevails.
Take the quagmire in Iraq, for example. Many people have dismissed the Iraqi people as uncivilized heathens who simply don’t want peace. This, of course, is ridiculous. It also explains why we can’t solve the problems there – we don’t understand them. And we don’t understand them because we’re either too lazy or too scared to try.
How many of us, really, have tried to picture what Iraqis went through when the lights went out and the bombs started raining liquid fire? Or if Iraq is too far away, how many of us have tried to imagine being in New Orleans when Katrina struck and homes and families were drowned and children died of dehydration or heatstroke or simple unadultered despair? It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it?
Must we move even closer to home? Perhaps try to imagine a homeless family, shivering outside on the streets we traverse every day, because after dad lost his job he couldn’t make the mortgage payments or meet rent and so his wife and children were kicked unmercifully to the curb. Or perhaps mercifully, by a landlord who also needs to pay the bills so he can feed his family.
Where is society and where are the Muslims now?
Taking turns being offended by the latest newspaper article or TV show or magazine expose on our communities? Snubbing our neighbors in favor of biryani potlucks at the masjid? Forgoing involvement in our children’s schools for fear of rubbing elbows with those funny-smelling Amreekans who have no sense of family or decency or style?
It’s silly to hate people because they seem to hate us. How will the cycle ever end if everyone perpetuates it? I guess all I’m pleading for is a little understanding, a moment of sanity, even when chaos breaks out and succumbing to the madness seems so much more attractive.
Before retorting to our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends; before jumping to conclusions about the bus driver, the cab driver, the waitress, the cashier; before dismissing the protestors, the naysayers, the advocates, the zealots; just listen for a while. It may be frightening, but we could learn something.
And who knows, maybe so will they.