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When Violence Begets Violence and Tolerance Is Forgotten

Basier Aziz

An unavoidable truth about humans is that about half of us are below average in one way or another. No matter how you cut it down, no matter which aspect you look at — intelligence, wisdom, patience — it’s half of us that perform below the median. It’s just a fact of life.

Earlier last week, an examination of the American public has lent further credence to this idea, unfortunately for the rest of us. John Zogby’s Zogby International, a polling company, released a survey that asked 13,456 likely voters whether they support unilateral military action against Iran. Just about half — 47% — concurred.

Sadly, it seems that after half a decade of the West’s exerting pressure on the East through this so-called clash of civilizations, most recently through the “War on Terror”, few Americans have come to understand the root of the Muslim world’s frustrations and what steps could lead to a healthier relationship between it and the United States. Indeed, the Muslim world could be criticized as well for its shortcomings.

Given that we are here and not there, however, perhaps we would be well served to get our own house in order first. That Americans are quick to favor military solutions to their problems is troublesome, considering the eight trillion dollar deficit, an aching healthcare system, an overseas campaign of occupation, and scores of baby-boomers ready to cash in their social security checks. In this context, for Americans to approve of a war with Iran’s Islamic Republic beckons us to examine why we see the Muslim East as a threat worthy of attacking.

The perception of this threat can be most clearly seen in the response to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were printed in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Many Muslims have protested the negative depiction of Muhammad as a terrorist, going so far as to burn foreign embassies of countries wherein the caricatures were reprinted, and the response in the papers here was nothing short of inane. Most news outlets made a point of mentioning that the depiction of holy figures of Islam is forbidden, as though this were the thrust behind the anger we witnessed erupt from Morocco to Bosnia to Indonesia. This is incorrect.

What matters more is the negative context surrounding the depiction rather than the depiction itself. In fact, illustrations of Muhammad, even within even the Muslim world itself, have elicited mild to negligible reactions throughout much of Islamic history. It is in a context of the West’s systematically assaulting the Muslim world for over two centuries though, that people find inciteful depictions particularly offensive. It is as if the cartoonists were saying, “It’s not enough that we occupy you, that we humiliate you, that we preclude an easy route to self-determination for you — we need to attack you culturally as well.” At least that is what the Muslims hear, even if the artists play it off as an expression of freedom.

One could also read what Muslims were saying through the hundreds of online photos taken, for example, by the Associated Press during the rallies. Although protestors highlighted the Danish flag as worthy of contempt and burned effigies of Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen, many too scorned America and Bush, and the presumed Zionist underpinnings of the oppression inflicted on Muslim lands.

And therein lies our inherent difference: we Americans tolerate; anti-Semitic, anti-Christian Muslims simply hate. Right? Yet again, incorrect. Perhaps the Prophet Muhammad exemplified Muslim tolerance best. In an oral tradition recorded by the classical scholar Bukhari, the prophet’s companion Jabir ibn Abdullah narrated: “A funeral procession passed in front of us and the Prophet stood up and we too stood up. We said, ‘Apostle of God! This is the funeral procession of a Jew.’ He said, ‘Whenever you see a funeral procession, you should rise.’”

The Prophet Muhammad respected Christians, too, such as the delegation of clergymen that visited him from a city near Yemen. He invited them to pray inside the mosque, and they continued with a polite exchange afterwards.

In the modern era, one can see similar tolerance even in the words of Ruhollah Khomeini, the Muslim revolutionary and authority who proclaimed America a Satan par excellence. When prompted to distinguish between Zionists and Jews, he responded, “the Muslims will do nothing to the Jews for they are a nation like other nations; they will carry on with their lives and they will not suffer dispossession.”

The point here is not to assess whether or not Muslims are showing tolerance. Muslims have both the capacity and responsibility to show tolerance to non-aggressive groups in the world. Despite this, however, in the States we are failing to capitalize on this inclination towards healthy relations, and often use our premature judgments about Muslim intransigence and anger to approve of international aggression whimsically.

Given that Iran is the world’s third leading exporter of oil and controls the Strait of Hormuz (through which a quarter of the world’s oil moves daily), it is unlikely that the White House will engage in a war with Iran anytime soon. It does not help the situation, however, when half of us are quick to respond belligerently to perceived threats, despite how far we have to go in understanding the Muslim world and the real threat that it poses to us. Yes, about half of us are below average in assessing a lot out there. That doesn’t mean, though, that we cannot raise that average and do our part to be a little better informed, a little more patient, and a little more inclined to mutual understanding.

Basier Aziz is a member of the Class of 2006.