Saturday, July 19, 2008
Are We Stereotyping Arabs and Muslims?
After recently reading and viewing a number of articles/videos on the Arab and Islamic world, I need to start venting some of the conflicts that arise in my thoughts and observations. This video (part 3 of 4 segments) helps demonstrate some of the conflicts over the issue of stereotyping and what we understand...or don’t... of what it means to be Arab and or Muslim.
An opinion piece showing up this week as an article in the Panama News by Nadal Sakr was a message to Arabs and Muslims about the upcoming elections in the USA. In this article the author strongly points out the stakes that American Arabs and Muslims have in the upcoming USA elections. The core idea is that with current American sentiments related to Muslims, they tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to their contributions to the United States of America and their voting power. Our media primarily focuses on Islamic "terrorists", and no where near as much time is spent on other factions within American Islam. Yet, the fact remains that 1 out of every 100 of your neighbors in the USA are of some form of Islamic faith.
While I liked the article, I was confronted with a lot of uncomfortable information when looking for background on the author, Sakr. He is primarily known as an activist with "March for Justice" which seems primarily devoted to defending Arabs and Palestinians from the Jewish "mob". Someday I will get to an organized blog on the Middle East though it seems to be a topic where no one can win and everyone loses. It seems to be conflict most easily summarized down to "one of us has to die...the Jew or the Arab...we cannot both live on the same planet in peace" (I realize that is an over-simplistic statement about the conflicts over there). Having grown up fundamentalist Christian in America, lots of Jewish friends (even an ex-wife who was Jewish)...it is probably hard for me to be totally objective. Yet, I realize that throughout history there have been atrocities on all sides of those various factions...and no one figuratively speaking is without "blood on their hands". Who is going to initiate real and sustained dialogue to end these conflicts once and for all? I don’t think the USA has been too successful...and our country has obviously not been very "neutral" when it comes to Middle East conflicts. We provide a majority of the weapons to BOTH sides of the hostilities, though obviously more weighted on behalf of Israel. Our young country's history has not been without its share of debauchery and evil actions. So...where is Jesus in all this?
Now, I have heard and observed all kinds of inflammatory comments regarding Muslims and Arabs in recent years. I also have been fortunate to become friends with a few here and there in my life. My main observation is that it is not easy to refrain from being swallowed up from one viewpoint or another in the passionate causes between being American, Jewish, Christian, Muslim...and all the religious and statist issues those labels bring up. I took two college courses on the Middle East...one from a Christian professor viewpoint and the other at Western Michigan University from an Arab teacher who I could not understand but one out of every 5 words he said in English. I read a couple good books through that class, but came out of it with not a very clear picture of what happened, why, and where are we. I also think I did not get a very good grade. This was also during the time when Iranians were rioting and writing on all the walls at Western Michigan about "down with the Shah", Death to the Shah, Shame on America,...all that free speech stuff was a bit confusing and unsettling. It wasn’t until many years later that I read a bit of background on the USA governments puppet government behind the Shah that I understood what those young students were all upset about. We basically set up the whole scenario for the backlash of fundamental Islam in Iran because of our lack of respect and understanding for that culture. Did we really think we could make nice democratic Christians out of those millions of Muslims?
Here in this small country of Panama we have large populations of both Jewish and Arab. In many cases they mix in the same restaurants, bars and social clubs while in other ways they each have their particular synagogues, mosques and private membership organizations. Some are partners in significant businesses and many of them compete against me at poker tables and tournaments where nationalities and religions are non-issues when it comes to the competition for money. I have many Jewish and Arab business connections, and a few of them I call friends. I also hope they see ME as something outside the shadow of just being a "gringo" or "American"...but the reality is I can never be 100% accepted or "one of them". All factions are heavy into the "bloodline" thing, which seems to rule over ideology.
Many of these Jewish and Arab friends have known what it means to be discriminated against and ridiculed for their race or religion. Many of them have lived in war torn Arab countries where Christian versus Muslim versus Jew is the common everyday friction of life. Yet, for many of them when they get to a neutral country like Panama, it is amazing how peacefully everyone gets along all of the sudden. Is it something in the water or the air over in those Middle Eastern deserts? I'm sure that underneath the surface we all experience the stereotyping of each other whether we are Jewish, Arab or American...but it seems that everyone here is not fighting the battle...though there is no doubt money and support goes to the various factions in the "homeland". But on all these sides, most people just want OUT of the conflict. That’s why they have come here...and they are thriving well for doing so and for the most part living in peace. It’s much safer here than in most mixed neighborhoods of large USA cities. Let’s hope it stays that way…or that understanding improves in America.
So why is it that in the Middle East, Europe and the USA this is not so? Why are we not integrating well in those first world countries, and what can be done about it? I am not naive enough to think that thousands of years of conflict between ideologies can be settled once and for all in a short time. I also realize that human nature with its long memory, its bitterness and subliminal hatred...is easily passed on generation to generation. The biases of cultures, religions and races are not easily overcome in a fortnight. Yet, as our world continues to shrink, expand in population, and use up much of it's natural resources...we had better get a handle on these issues quickly before we totally lose control and reason in overcoming these differences. If the world cannot talk, the world will fight. If the world cannot trade together, they will begin to fight for that which they cant buy. If the world cannot join forces successfully to fight the terrorists and extremists no matter which religion or race they come from, we will be continually divided and devoured country by country, ideology by ideology. And the USA cannot go it alone in this battle...economically or militarily.
In light of my life experiences thus far, I find myself bent more towards a "humanist" agenda when it comes to this type of topic. By humanist I am not meaning the movement or religion of humanism. I suppose that topic could launch a whole separate blog. But what I am meaning is...I think the world needs to start looking at humanitarianism as a core fundamental belief and philosophy. Instead of spending so much time trying to sort out issues of faith, political persuasions and cultural definitions, I think we need to be focusing on what it means to be human and how to treat ALL fellow humans. If the entire world was exposed to and convinced to focus on this...the differences between us and our past conflicts would begin to fade into obscurity. If we can grow as humans to the point where we don’t define ourselves by our race, religion, class or political persuasion...but by our attributes and traits as human beings...we might start getting somewhere towards world unification. We cannot hope to accomplish that by domination and conquering of religions. World history is rife with the failure of that agenda to solve anything long term.
We also can’t solve our differences in the battlefield. The battlefield means someone perceives themselves as the victor, and the other side the loser. Losers become the oppressed...who over time grow from their bitterness and disillusion to a point where they rise up to dominance over the previous victors. And that human cycle goes round and round again in the annals of time and history. We need to get off that merry-go-round of wrong thinking and begin to change things within ourselves...and those close around us. Change will not come from without. And I also have not seen too many positive results in this from religious persuasions. If anything, religion builds more walls than bridges to understanding and mutual acceptance. It becomes a form of inward focused bigotry, of blindly building up false reasoning and replacing reason with "hope". By hope I mean...HOPE it’s true, HOPE I'm right, HOPE God comes through and takes me out of all this despair. Only when we can love and come to peace with ourselves as humans can we really begin to love others. When we begin to respect ourselves, we can begin to respect others. This to me is the most core first step towards world revolution and change. Love and respect. Without these ingredients, the human race is doomed. Our conflicts will be never ending. Our religions will continue with an inward focus.
OK...so that became a mini tangent on this subject...but here is how it ties in. Embrace religious tolerance...including embracing those who don’t believe in anything. We have too easily allowed the extremists, fundamentalists and "Jihadists" to overcome our sense of rationality and good judgment. Most of the world thinks that most "Americans" have only a "bomb and obliterate" mentality about their enemies...both real and imaginary.
I think the war between cultures and ideologies could be fought more effectively with reason and dialogue...not the kind we see on CNN and FOX network soapbox programs seeing who can outshout whom. Not the pomp and circumstance we see at high government level protocols with heads of state mixing with dictators mixing with various "royalties" and their bland representatives. I'm thinking more along the lines of steady and continued discussions on trade and humanitarian concerns by the regular humans in each country and region. Maybe it’s time we let the businessmen get in there for negotiating real trade and sharing/licensing technologies. Let the religious leaders get together to discuss mutual religious freedoms and understanding of difference. Let the mothers of the world get together and discuss how they are going to protect and educate their children not to continue the insanity of war and isolationism. Let the Doctors and health professionals around the world work together to find the cures to all our diseases. Let all the farmers of the world meet together to share best practices in raising various crops and livestock to better feed the hungry in our world. Competition and free enterprise is all good...but at the end of the day we have to see the best reason for those values...to bring out the best in each of us. Instead of trying to keep each other down a peg or two...we should be striving to lift our brother UP to our level or experience. This type of humanity works for anyone of sound mind and judgment...whether they wear jeans and t-shirts, a robe and turban, or barely nothing at all in the jungles of Africa and South America. Humans are humans if you let them be. We need to quit the stereotyping...and look for the commonalities. They are there...