Since September 11th and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq there has been an enormous surge of interest in the Muslim world from America. The ordinary American knowing nothing of this ancient culture will pick up bits and pieces from various sources including academic books, hateful right wing talk radio, American soldiers experiences or extreme propaganda dispensed by the Bush administration. These tidbits of information start to form an overall image of Islam of which a minority stress the majority moderate side of Islam, yet this is drowned out by the extremist fringe which is more reported on by the media as it generates sales.
As I have often written about in my prior posts, it is impossible to try to understand something as complicated as a thousand year old culture by reading a book written by a Westerner. It would not be unlike a Japanese person learning about cowboys from a book written by a Sumo wrestler who once rode a horse in Arizona. Something as complex and profound as an entirely different culture can only be understood when one has lived in it for quite a few years, speaks the language and participates in daily society.
Even if a very descriptive book was put out by the best scholar from within Islamic society carefully explained the culture in a way that Westerners could understand, it would still only offer a tiny glimpse like a frog experiencing the sky from the bottom of a narrow well.
I myself know very little about this enormous culture but I did have the good fortune to get my first taste while living in Spain in the historical city of Toledo. For those who do not know this ancient city, it was first established by the Romans and was the capital of various kingdoms. The Muslims took control of it in 711AD and made a great stride in humanity by being one of the first religious conquerors who did not persecute differing faiths. Instead, Toledo is well known for being one of the only places in the world where Jews, Muslims and Christians were actually able to live peacefully together. The Muslims still had control over the other two and Jews and Christians did not exactly have the same privileges as Muslims but this was a great advancement especially for the time.
Further, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the cities of Cordoba and Granada which remain a testament to the grandeur of Muslim society in that age. Their achievements in mathematics , science and medicine really pushed a rather backwards and superstitious western culture into the era of scientific and logical inquiry.
Given this early education, I am quite saddened when as an American I know that the first thought that enters an American mind when they hear the world “Islam” is that of a terrorist.
Again, as I have often written about, to truly understand another culture is a monumental task that even among the highly educated and elite is a difficult thing to do. Even though we now use the world “Global” in so many varied instances, most of them are trite when considering most of the world is stuck in a very tribal mindset. The first idea that appears when another culture is mentioned is roughly “Those people over there. People unlike me. The Others.”
Instead, I wish more people would think like the following and to get my point across will use a simple example. Ohio and Michigan think of each other in “Us. vs. Them” mentality especially in sports. The first thing that enters my head when I think Michigan is the colors Blue and Gold and of a group that Ohio must always beat or stay ahead of. This is quite silly but it is true. However, it would be much better that I realize Michigan is our neighbor, a part of the larger group that is our Nation and we are all actually brothers.
Now taking this silly example and applying it to a serious topic, those that are educated in history realize that Judaism, Islam and Christianity are all different branches of the same tree. Yet, for 2000 years even highly educated people have not been able to reconcile this fact. It almost seems farcical that extremely intelligent religious leaders and saints have put out immensely thought out, logical and intelligent papers and books highlighting exactly why their own brand of faith is correct and the others are wrong. To the skeptical person, the core reasons of such papers seem akin to something like “Well, the magic bunny is not the savior of everything as he was not the offspring of the alchemist leprechaun.” “Actually the savior is this mysterious stone with the eye painted on it and my magic stone trumps your magic bunny.”
It might seem awful to write something so seemingly blasphemous but this is exactly what religious arguments start to sound like when one has read too many books and especially when people start to kill or hate others based on religion.
In fact, when one gets into these tiny details which highlight the differences between religion especially such things as the funny hats each of them wear it seems like a vast and tragic joke.
I often imagine what would happen should the creator of everything appear today and observe what has transpired in terms of religious belief over thousands of years there may be two reactions. The first and more comforting version is that the being would be extremely saddened to see how his creation could make up something as complex as current religious institutions that have been warring ever since their invention. He would be so disappointed that the main tenants and simple ideas such as taking care of each other and enjoying this wonderful planet have become so twisted into gigantic institutions and made up rituals.
The other scenario is that this being does not even see a difference between these terms of “good and evil.” Things are simply the way they are and a different between good and bad simply do not exist. Therefore, even if someone was brutally murdered which in turn creates a cycle of sadness for the children and then disrupts the life of their descendants is neither good nor bad. Instead, once these people die and are on the other side it would seem as life was like that of a video game and any experience of life will always be a plus as it helped the soul grow . Of course this is a thought that I do not think any religious tradition espouses and is simply a thought.
I do have a hard time thinking the latter example as true and actually think that the human emotion is so strong it must make an impression somewhere, somehow in the cosmos and is being recorded. I do believe that helping others and being happy is very important not only for the individual but this energy somehow improves the overall environment and universe. I also subscribe to this idea of “attraction” which has been in many best selling novels in that positive thinking, actions create further positive thinking, actions, events and these things will actually manifest themselves.
Yet, when one tries to incorporate this energy into a systematic institution such as religion things can go vary wrong and the basic concepts from which these institution sprung become corrupted.
Now that we have started out on a very concrete topic and have veered into the subjective and intangible it is hard to try and climb back out of this theological black hole and to the subject of culture. I am quite sure that those who are able to think clearly about the central ideas of religion such as peace and love will vary easily be able to overcome the cultural differences. The reason is that they do not think of the other culture as inherently different but rather those in it as brothers and sisters who also wish to enjoy this beautiful planet we all inhabit.
It is almost as though the pure, loving ideas are being spoken very clearly and even received into the consciousness of the congregations yet true understanding is drowned out by the thumping techno beat of tribalism and “the others are different.” We hear these words of peace and love in religion but their meanings
are never truly comprehended as the institutions speaking them are enshrouded and built upon emphasizing the differences.
I can imagine a very learned and intelligent religious scholar reading this and treating me as a primary school student who dares venture into something so complex. Like a kinder-gardener describing a masterpiece to Michelangelo. Michelangelo would laugh at the youngster who knows nothing of paints, oils, lighting, depth and so on. Yet what Michelangelo fails to see is that the painting is that of a wretched corps hanging from a noose which the youth can clearly understand and detests. Yet what Michelangelo sees is the incredible artistry of the depiction.
What we perceive of other cultures and beliefs will always be constructed from the various tidbits of information we receive. Many times the information will conflict and we will simply make a choice of which to believe and filter out contrary views based upon our current environment and corresponding belief system. But one will never be able to understand unless it is actually experienced.
Most Americans will associate Islam with suicide bombers and simply think “that is what that culture does,” and not give it any deeper thought than that. Even those that are in charge of our national security and are paid to research this will most likely miss the point. The USA will spend so much time figuring out ways to prevent this from happening yet never understand clearly the “why?” For those that do understand they must experience the dreadful hopelessness and despair that the bombers do. No human is born with the desire to strap a bomb to themselves and kill others. A suicide is a suicide anywhere and is practiced by those who are under extreme duress or have bad wiring which if not inherited, was created from being in an unhealthy environment or state of mind. I imagine those spooks and security experts that do fully understand this also become quite depressed as the conditions that create these desperate situations are very complex such as that of the current situation in Palestine. It would seem that even though it is understood, there are too many forces at play and seemingly no way out which is quite depressing indeed.
It is futile to turn to religion in situations like this as it is an extreme case of us vs them mentality. Again the central tenant of religion to “take care of one another” is lost as religion has it’s own individual interests and hopes for gain.
Or one could look at Iraq and when dissected how many individuals actually wish good for the Iraqi population. I would imagine a majority of Americans actually do but unfortunately it is the institutions which corrupt this honest and sincere hope. For the Christian institution, it might come with the requirement that the Muslims there convert to Christianity (such as Christian Koreans going over there to convert). For the Bush Administration it comes with the requirement of thousands of barrels of oil per day and a military base. The USA actually has a better record of supporting dictators than spreading democracy but as long as Bush repeats the words “Democracy and Freedom” loud and long enough it is very difficult psychologically to resist believing these words.
With all these complications and distractions, how is it possible that the individual will be able to think clearly about another culture. How will it be possible to actually believe that they are actually brothers and sisters? The majority of religions might pay lip service to this but it is rare to find a congregation that actually and truly believes it.
All of these ideas are the downside of learning and living abroad. The traveler has always been thought of as sophisticated because of the different points of view gained and the sophisticated debate in which they can engage. In fact, travelers often become more confused and instead of getting closer to the truth, it becomes much farther away. And when they hear such one sided debate and bias from otherwise intelligent people and these ideas spread to the general population, it becomes very depressing and there is a sense of being alone. There is so much lip service paid to “having an open mind” but actually having one is a very difficult thing to achieve. Same can be said with this term “Global.” Just because you can see the ocean and even throw a ball into it does not mean one has actually swam in it.
And with that said, I return to the world of sound bites such as “surges, boots on the ground, hearts and minds, democracy, freedom.” Actually it would not be surprising if I could actually use all these words, string them together with various verbs, adjectives and subjective phrases and convince more than a few people I know what’s going on. “They gotta have FREEDOM, and to do so we gotta get A SURGE, BOOTS ON THE GROUND, AMERICA, can only help, HEARTS AND MINDS need to be LIBERATED, cause DEMOCRACY is the FREEDOM to SECURE the Iraqis from TERRORISTS.” With that I’ve summed up the arguments of most Republican commentators in one sentence.
Understanding a different culture is difficult enough without such distractions, propaganda and spin.