Like many people, I knew nothing about Islam before 9/11. In fact, I was so ignorant I thought Muslims worshiped Mohammed like Christians worship Jesus. Every once in a while I thought it might be a good idea to learn more about Islam, but I always put it off because it didn’t seem like it had much to do with my world. I didn’t even know any Muslims! What did they have to do with me?
I’ve noticed that people have one of two attitudes about Islam: they either demonize it or they’re curious about it. Since the events of 9/11, I don’t think there are any non-Muslims who don’t think about Islam in one of those two ways. Even though I was shocked and upset by 9/11, I didn’t automatically assume that all Muslims were terrorists. But at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about Islam that would lead any of its adherents to do such a thing in its name.
I’ve never felt comfortable making blanket statements about people or concepts. I always assume that there’s more below the surface of any prejudice. When I met my husband on the Internet, I didn’t know at first that he was German. When he finally told me where he was from, I was dismayed because I’d been raised to view Germany negatively for what it did during WWII. How was I going to be able to have conversations with him without bringing that up? And how was I supposed to react to him personally after finding out that he came from the country that perpetrated the horrors of the Holocaust?
After getting to know my future husband and his family, I found out that they were just as conflicted about Germany’s history as I was. They love their country, but they know it has a lot to live down as far as the world is concerned. When I went back to school at the age of 51 to earn my Bachelor’s degree, one of the first classes I took was on the Holocaust. It wasn’t an easy class to take, but I felt that I needed to so that I could understand where Germans were coming from. How did they deal with the things that were done in their name? How did they live their lives knowing that some people blamed and even hated them for what their countrymen did to the Jews?
I gradually came to realize that every country has its dark secrets. The U.S. was hardly blameless. What about our enslavement of blacks and annihilation of the Native Americans? Americans lynched African-Americans and put the Japanese in concentration camps. We’ve given every immigrant group that’s come to the U.S. a hard time. We, too, have been guilty of anti-Semitism (we limited their access to our country even after we knew what Hitler was doing to them).
And now, after 9/11, we treat Muslims as if they are all terrorists. We call Islam a religion of violence and Mohammed a war-monger. The kinds of things that are said and written about Muslims would never be tolerated if Jews or African-Americans were the subjects.
And the worst of it is, we make up our minds about Islam when we don’t know a thing about it or know a single Muslim.
How is this different from deciding that we know all about a person and his or her worth just from our first impression, or worse, from what others have told us? Shouldn’t we be held responsible for how informed we are, and whether or not we considered that person with an open mind?
We certainly don’t like it when others believe gossip about us, or decide they don’t like us after just meeting us. So why do we insist on treating others that way? Are Muslims fair game because they seem so foreign? Well, how can they seem otherwise when we refuse to get to know anything about them?
There were a lot of threads that led me to convert to Islam, but the two key ones were education and familiarity. I started to read about Islam and Muslims, I took courses in Islamic history and I got to know actual Muslims on a day-to-day basis. Even if I hadn’t converted, I would have learned that Muslims, like Germans or any other group that we vilify, are actually just like you and me. Yes, there are extremists, but extremists pop up in any religion, nationality, political party, ethnic group or cause.
It would be as ludicrous to judge all Germans by Hitler, Catholics by the Inquisition or Americans by slavery as it would be to judge you by your Uncle Harry (or whomever). We are each made as individuals by Allah and He alone knows our hearts. If I could take the trouble to learn enough about Muslims so that I could respect and admire them, then surely you can take the time to learn something about others before you make up your mind about them.
You just might find out that you’re so busy getting to know them, you no longer feel the need to judge them.