Alienation of hearts and minds has the potential to strengthen the monster of violence we all despise.
Disturbing stories of violent acts committed by seemingly intelligent and stable individuals grace the media from time to time. Whether adhering to an all too common nihilistic ideology, holding personal grievances against former employers or disturbed by workplace harassment, these acts constantly challenge our perception of the world around us. A majority of people – whatever their religion, cultural background or affiliation – would probably never fully comprehend the motivation behind violent acts because these are consistently inconsistent with the basic values that form the fabric of civilized societies.
As communities big and small struggle to make sense of it, comments posted in blogs and newspaper websites give one a fair idea of the anger and calls for retaliation that acts of violence provoke, while at the same time there is much to appreciate in the saner voices urging for reason to prevail. Mainstream Muslims in the post 9/11 US are increasingly bewildered why they get so easily grouped together with the 'bad guys', the moment some untoward incident happens, in societies they have inhabited and contributed productively to for decades. In homogenous societies, it is perhaps relatively easy to draw a line between right and wrong and distance oneself form the less favoured position, but heterogeneous societies can come with a unique problem when ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, so to speak, of any ethnic, religious or cultural group might find themselves labeled as one. Unfortunately, this also forms the basis for another form of what is now popularly known as 'collateral': the alienation of hearts and minds.
This alienation is something to be feared because when resentment against the individual who has committed a brutal act extends to envelop a whole community, not only does it incite hatred and threaten social cohesion, but it also has the potential to isolate the very people who can make a difference, as they grow increasingly tired of explaining themselves for the actions of those they have nothing to do with. While the generally accepted position for peoples of other Faiths inhabiting countries around the world regarding terrorism remains ‘innocent until proven guilty’, for Muslims it has become the opposite. Even though no other religious community is called on to accept responsibility for individual murderers within their fold, Muslims around the world are expected to do just that. That’s a heavy burden to carry; one that is starting to take its toll.
Since the tragedy of 9/11, there has been so much collateral in physical, emotional and psychological terms that the world may never go back to how we knew it. Tragedies have a way of bringing people together through the common experience of learning to piece together a shattered existence. Yet, 9/11 and its subsequent events have divided the world so sharply on religious lines that there seems to be no turning back unless a conscious effort to reverse the trend is undertaken through active engagement at every level.
This spirit of tolerance and engagement is not hard to find. It resides within us, and without. I – a Muslim living in the diverse society I now inhabit – have seen it and felt it, and there is no reason why it can’t be extended to and from others like me. I find it apparent in the welcoming smiles of the lovely women of my book club and the constant support of considerate friends who know and respect me for who I am rather than fit me into a stereotype; it is hiding in the thoughtful quotes selected by the librarian who talks to me about deeper truths of life, promoting a selfless existence; it shines through the little acts of care my colleagues at work show when they step in ever so quickly if they see me headed for a cultural faux pas my newness leaves me vulnerable to; it reaches out to me through the people who make an extra effort to learn to pronounce my name just right and share their thoughts on concepts of compassion and mercy, and it envelops me in its warmth when I stand with dedicated people so focused on seeing the vision of interfaith harmony materialize – this spirit of tolerance is indeed alive and well in the hearts of Americans of all Faiths and affiliations that I come across every day.
Is that an overly simplistic view? Am I missing something? Not really, for I have also experienced the unpleasantness of being seen as an extension of the bad news that comes from my part of the world so consistently these days – I have come across those who retreat as soon as they learn the name of my home country and those who, despite having some meaningful contact with me for over a year, have now chosen to walk away – still, I want to believe that the wonderful people around me are representative of the majority and may the few, who struggle with their fears and take refuge in generalizations, find their peace before it is too late to make amends.
History teaches us that the actions of a few have so often ruined the lives of many. But then, a few others have made all the difference. The cycle of violence and mistrust does not have to go on if we refuse to give in to our fears. It is hard, but ‘doable’ – as my American friends would say. All we have to do is make the right choice. Not tomorrow, but now. Choose to reach out. Choose to resolve. And choose to reunite. All it takes is an open mind, and a belief – yes, we can.
A version of this article was published in the ICNE Newsletter, March 26, 2010.