Admitting its time to learn more

Written by William Campbell

Photo courtesy of Interfaith Youth Core (www.ifyc.org)

I remember when I realized I needed to learn more about Islam.

Senior year of college I stumbled upon a movie called Osama. This was just three years after 9/11, and the name Osama Bin Laden was common place. Thinking it was a movie about him, I decided to rent it to inform myself more about the war. Instead what I discovered was a movie about a young girl (9-12) in Afghanistan who had to cross dress as a boy to avoid being married off to a leader of the Taliban. Perhaps its needless to say, but that synopsis might show that this movie was anything but simple and straightforward.  It’s odd to think that a movie dealing with complexities of religious extremism, gender, and sexual violence would crack the door open for my own awareness about Islam in general, but we don’t usually get to choose what opens our eyes. It wasn’t as if I saw the world as simplistic before, but that movie helped me realize there was a lot more complexity.

And part of that complexity was the realization that it was Muslims who were also victims of violence by an extremist group.

After watching that movie, I knew I had to show it to others. Not only that, but I knew other people needed to learn that what they might think about Muslims isn’t true. At the time, I was the president of a Christian club on campus. Somehow I convinced the rest of my group that we should do an event that was a film screening of this movie. Word got out, and an old roommate who was connected with the interfaith council on campus said that they could co-sponsor. In fact, this could become a educational session about women and Islam.

Before I knew it, we had an event on our hands with over a hundred people in attendance, most of whom I had never seen before in my life. After screening the film, people were in tears (it’s a pretty heart breaking ending). Then a few female students who identified as Muslim led the entire gathering in a discussion about the myths and stereotypes of Islam, gender, the Taliban, and head coverings. This was possibly one of the first times that people in the room had learned that a head scarf wasn’t a sign of being oppressed.

So why do I share this story?

It feels embarrassing that it took me so long to understand anything more about the world’s second largest religion than that they simply existed. All I really knew at the time was that there were terrorists who called themselves Muslim and that they committed those acts on 9/11 in the name of God.

This post isn’t for those who see themselves fighting the resistance. This post is for you who may have voted differently from me, but there is something in you that is feeling unsettled right now. You can’t quite put your finger on it. You may or may not be the type of person who understands why so many are upset over the travel ban, but you can try to understand why others are upset.

It is embarrassing to admit that we don’t know something. Ever since 9/11, we have been in a crisis of encountering difference. Many in America never had to think about anybody of a different religious background from themselves other than how they could argue with them about why Jesus is the best. The conversations I have often had with Christians (particularly evangelical Christians) is a fear that seeking out knowledge about another belief would be akin to sowing seeds of doubt. It would be giving credence to that other belief system.

I want to acknowledge your concern. I am not here to judge you. But I do want to push you.

When we encounter difference, it is naturally chaotic and confusing. But we have a choice. We can either choose to see the other with suspicion and fear, or…. we can be curious and empathetic.

As someone who grew up in the countryside, I’m no stranger to what it’s like to live in a pretty homogenous community. Often, people mock you for your lack of “culture” and close mindedness. Hell, I’m guilty of making those criticisms too. I do not blame you for not having a way of knowing more, but you can seek out more information. Don’t let other peoples’ mockery become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Be better than the criticism that you’re just close-minded.

How would you feel if all that someone knew about your beliefs was what they were told by people who want to critique it? If all you know about Islam is ISIS and that there are Sunnis and Shias, I can guarantee you, it’s not enough. If you want to understand why people are protesting the travel ban, try to understand more about Muslims from their own lived experience.

Becoming more informed is not the same thing as letting go of your beliefs. If your faith is so weak that looking at information about another religion would cause you to stray, then that’s a different matter all together. Having a benevolent set of beliefs that wants to learn about other traditions is not the same as having a weak set of beliefs. You can be both benevolent and strong in your beliefs. The more I have engaged and learned appreciative knowledge about other traditions, the more I respect and honor my own beliefs and traditions.

Tips on educating yourself:

  1. Look online with sites that show respect: When you go online to find out more information, go somewhere that is committed to a respectful representation. There are people I know who will say that it’s better to get information from those who are “telling the truth” about another religion by pointing out how dangerous it is. When I ran college ministry, people would give me blatantly islamaphobic literature to guard myself and my students against the rise of Islam. I get it, actually. When you know that what you believe is true, and you believe that to “really show love” to others is to provide them with the truth, this can seem legitimate. I will just say again, “How would you feel if someone came to you and said that whatever you say about your faith is wrong because they know the real truth?” One very helpful site to look into is the Pluralism Project.
  2. Get permission to ask questions…but then ask: Ask first before peppering someone of a different religion with questions. If you happen to know someone who is different from you religiously, ask them first before you inquire more about their background. Some people are not comfortable talking about their beliefs, but you would be surprised. Most people like talking about what they believe if the other person is genuinely curious and coming from a place of learning. Key point there – genuinely curious and coming from a place of learning. It will always put people on the defensive if you’re asking leading questions that imply why they might be in the wrong.
  3. Set up a dinner party: An alum of IFYC is running an initiative called the 100 days/100 dinners campaign. Out of recognition that we have lost the ability to truly see each other, they are challenging people to have dinners that talk about things that matter, particularly our differences. Coming together around meals is a powerful and ancient tradition. This is a simple thing that can lead to a meaningful conversation and potential new friendship.
  4. Read real peoples’ stories: Nothing beats understanding someone’s beliefs from their own perspective. Faith is something that is a lived experience, not just a set of beliefs that people ascribe to. In order to not put the burden on a coworker or neighbor to inform you, look up actual stories. Inter is a publication set up just for this.

Remember – one of the most subversive and powerful things you can do is to actually educate yourself. In a time when people are often unclear about what to do, this is one simple (but not simplistic) way to act. You may still vote differently from me, but please, become more informed so that your votes are out of compassion, love, curiosity, and respect – not out of suspicion, fear, confusion, paranoia, and even hate.

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