by Christina Polston.
It was a day that began like any ordinary day. Days that change lives often start that way. My backpack was perched atop the mid-century orange sofa, no doubt purchased when the house itself was first built. I had a mile walk to the bus stop where the ancient yellow school bus would stagger up the winding mountain road to the high school overlooking bleak San Be rnardino County. I was moving leisurely around the livingroom of the tiny cabin. I had plenty of time. Above the couch was an enormous mirror that gave a 180 degree view of the living room.
As I stood to sling my trendy blue Jansport over my shoulders, I glanced at myself in that big mirror. But instead of looking into my own reflection, I was caught by the image reflected from the television. Until that moment I had only been partially aware of the tragedy that was playing out: a terrible accident in which a plane had crashed into a skyscraper in New York City. The building was one of a set, apparently quite well known, though I had never heard of them. They were called the “Twin Towers.” At that very moment, a second plane exploded as it crashed into the second building. I turned around so I could face the television fully, blinking stupidly. I was startled. This is live television…I just watched people die.aan
The thought resonated with me, but not strongly. A fourteen-year-old’s maturity level will only allow for so much understanding. “Terrorist attack,” the voice on the tv was shouting. A shaky camera showed a stampede of panicked pedestrians, running as fast and as far as they could from the collapsing building. A sky-high cloud of brown dust and rubble seemed to be chasing them. A terrorist attack? I was confused. What on earth was a terrorist, and why was it crashing planes into buildings?
Thirteen years later, remembering that day causes more pain. On that day, I was stripped of my childhood and the blissful ignorance that accompanied it. That day marked the beginning of a war that lasted over a decade, when we saw loved ones go to war and return shells of their former selves. Or worse, some never came back at all. I now know what it is to live in a country divided by anger, fear and blame. The liberals blame the conservatives, the conservatives blame the liberals. Everyone blames Islam.
In my lifetime, I can never remember a time when discrimination made sense to me. Perhaps it stems from childhood, when we were told that we’re all the same inside. I took that literally, but when I heard prejudice and stereotyping about any one group, I always just let it go.
When I began dating a man from Turkey, I didn’t give it a second thought when I learned that he had been raised Muslim. However, in the two years that I have known him, I have seen a shift in myself. Instead of letting the prejudiced comments regarding Muslims pass through me like ghosts, I’ve become very sensitive to them.
Prejudice now seems to be screaming at me from all forms of media. It’s on the news, in the conversations I eavesdrop on and worst of all, in the status updates of my family members’ Facebook pages. After traveling to Turkey (which is a predominantly Islamic nation) and growing to love my fiance’s family, who are practicing Muslims, I feel protective of them. I’m angry for them.
I recently read a story online about a debate between satirist Bill Maher and actor Ben Affleck in which they argued about Islam. My curiosity was piqued, so I sought out and watched the YouTube video, titled “Ben Affleck and Bill Maher Clash Over Criticizing Islam.” It turned out, as Charlotte Allen in a blog for latimes.com wrote, to be like a “hissing contest” between a mongoose and a cobra, the cobra being Maher.
Affleck sat on one side of a panel, flanked by two other men, who were there to debate Maher’s satirical criticism of liberal opinion regarding Islam. Maher argued that it is illogical for liberals get to get upset when the Muslim world is criticized, because liberal values like freedom of speech, religion, equality for women and minorities, are absent in the Muslim world.
“When you say in the Muslim world this is what’s lacking, then they get upset,” he said.
Affleck was incensed, calling Bill’s words things like “disgusting,” “gross” and “bigoted.” On Maher’s side of the panel was author Sam Harris.
“We have to criticize bad ideas…Islam is the motherload of all bad ideas,” Harris said.
Affleck could only respond with a frustrated “JESUS.”
Which was exactly what I was thinking. Personally, I saw this as a direct attack against Muslims and thoroughly ignorant. Islam is the motherload of all bad ideas? Islam is against all liberal principles? I couldn’t believe what he was saying, but I had to be sure. I decided to make it my personal mission to do what Maher and Harris did not, investigate the truth. First, I wanted to discover whether or not the average Muslim is truly against the liberal principles I hold so dear. Second, to find out if Maher and Harris’ thoughts on Islam were popular ones.
A brief internet search turned up what I expected, that prejudice against Muslim people and Islam itself is widespread among Americans. A recent study conducted by the Zogby poll showed that only 27% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Muslims. (Rueters.com). When searching for this information, I expected to see dismal numbers. But a number that low shocked me.
What disappointed me more was seeing that prejudice against Muslims is actually increasing. In 2010 the same poll showed that 35% of Americans had favorable views of Muslims. Even that number seems to be disappointingly low. What is causing such negativity towards this particular religious group and culture? Where could I find answers instead of just statistics?
Before I met my Turkish fiance, did I know anything about Islam? The answer is: not really. I wondered what the influence of such wholesale ignorance might be. Could there be a link between this lack of knowledge and the air of distrust towards Islam and Muslims? Another few minutes of research and I had some information that strongly suggested I was on to something.
The Pew Research center asked a group of Americans to rate their feelings for specific religious groups, Muslims were rated the most coldly. The average feeling towards Muslims was rated even more coldly than feelings towards atheists. However, the study showed that knowing someone from a particular faith made them more likely to rate that faith positively.
“Knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having relatively more positive views of that group,” according to Pewforum.org. “Those who say they know someone who is Jewish, for example, give Jews an average thermometer rating of 69, compared with a rating of 55 among those who say they do not know anyone who is Jewish…Similarly, Muslims get a neutral rating (49 on average) from those who know a Muslim, and a cooler rating (35) from those who do not know a Muslim.”
You can see how low the numbers rating Muslims are compared to those rating Jews, there is no question that there is strong prejudice against Muslims. Even those who reported personally knowing someone who is Muslim rated them more coldly than the coldest rating for Jews. Ironically, it has been less than a century since Jews faced the same kinds of persecution. My hope is that seeing reports like this shows Americans that they are repeating mistakes that were made not so long ago. We are supposed to be a nation of progress, we should be learning from the mistakes of our parents and grandparents, not repeating them.
I knew I would not fully understand the realm of the American feelings towards Islam without speaking to someone who had very different views. And I wanted to approach someone who could speak to me from place of spirituality. I knew that my older brother, Jon, would be the ideal person to have the discussion with. He, his wife, and their two children recently relocated to live in the south. They have clearly assigned roles based on their genders and are devoutly Christian. Initially, I was apprehensive about discussing this with him. I have no doubt that most girls look up to their older brothers, but it seems to me that my bond to Jon goes deeper that most would have with a sibling. Throughout our tumultuous childhood he had been a rock, a life raft for me to cling to. But our paths diverged in our adult years. He joined the Marines just days after graduating from high school and went to Iraq and Afghanistan in three separate deployments. He was no longer just his little sister’s hero.
Today, our politics and religions couldn’t be more different, which is why I have chosen to avoid exactly the kind of conversation I was now seeking. I worried that my feelings would be hurt or that he would insult me or my fiance in a tirade against all Muslims everywhere. But people are surprising if you give them the chance. After our conversation I realized that had I not shied away from having these kinds of talks with him, I would have known sooner that, though our religions couldn’t be more different, we had some common beliefs. He made clear that he thinks most Americans have a “pretty negative” view of Muslims. After all, most Americans get their information from the media and the media is showing “Christians being beheaded and or crucified in Iraq for not converting to Islam.”
He personally thinks that Muslims and Christians “pretty much want the same things” and even though he doesn’t agree with the practices of Islam, it doesn’t mean he thinks less of any particular Muslim. I was pleasantly surprised, but my confusion about the matter increased. How could all of these reports show that people exactly like him are prejudice against Muslims, when he has so many positive things to say? I realized I had generalized my own brother. I had assumed he would feel a certain way because statistics showed me he would. I could have been disappointed in myself, but instead I was glad that I had seized a learning opportunity and l had a more positive opinion of somebody because of it. That is exactly what I am asking Americans to do when they think negatively of Muslims.
I was eager to discuss the subject with someone who is Muslim. After the surprising discussion I had with my own brother, I thought it would be ideal to ask my fiance’s brother. Serhat has never lived outside of Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey. He considers himself Muslim. Because I have spent time with Serhat, I already knew that he did not believe women to be unequal or that anyone not practicing Islam should be killed. It took several days for him to reply to the message I had sent asking if he thought you could posses such principles while being Muslim. I grew anxious, wondering if I had somehow offended him. But he wrote back, telling me it had simply slipped his mind.
I asked him to write his response back to me in Turkish and that my fiance could translate it for me. Writing in English may have made it difficult for him to express himself fully. He said that in Istanbul everyone lives harmoniously with one another, Armenians, Jews and Muslims alike. I should mention that in the early twentieth century Armenians, Christians and Jews were expelled from Turkey, including from Istanbul. There is no doubt in my mind that genocide against Armenians occurred during the expulsion, but it is a still heavily debated topic in that region. Serhat did mention that in more rural areas of Turkey, especially in the east, women are unfortunately treated as second class citizens, and there is less religious freedom. But in the larger cities, not only are women held to the same esteem as men, despite Maher’s vehemently argued beliefs. In fact, Serhat says to be a good and true Muslim, these principles must be upheld.
As Affleck stated, Maher’s words were just a “gross generalization.” Yes, there are parts of the world that are predominantly Muslim and do not accept liberal principles. But there is no justification or evidence stating that these are the feelings of the majority of Muslims around the world. What Maher stated during that debate perpetuates prejudice. A poll published on Gallup.com shows that over half of Americans from various religious groups agree that most Americans are prejudiced against Muslim-Americans. Another poll conducted by the PEW Research center shows that 50% of Americans believe Islam promotes violence more than other religions. I don’t think there is a lot of evidence that supports that belief. What I have learned throughout my research is that a person’s culture is much more likely to impact their likelihood of committing violent acts, not their religion. A Muslim living in Istanbul or Los Angeles does not uphold the same cultural ideologies as a Muslim living in Syria. Any excuse a rebel or an extremist uses to shed the blood of another in the name of their religion is doing so through a manipulation of their holy text. The true teachings of all religions embody compassion, peace and equality. Which, as it so happens, are the same ideologies upheld in a liberal society.
I’m sitting on the couch in my living room, pen poised on paper. I am staring into the face of my beautiful fiance, the final interviewee of this project. He sits in his favorite leather easy chair, looking back at me. The chair has been destroyed over the past year, parts of the leather shredded from the cat’s constant clawing. The handle to lift the footrest has been chewed into splintery a nub by one of our three dogs. It is still his favorite chair. The pets were my idea, after accumulating each one he said it would be the last. But every time I bring home a homeless creature, his face softens and he helps me greet a new member of our family. He is not a jealous man, or over protective. He wants me to protect myself. Everything he has he has earned himself, and he has handed it all over to me. He asks only for my happiness in return.
When describing Muslims, Maher and Harris painted a picture of Monsters. But the man I love is not a monster and never could be. He believes the religion he was raised with promotes peace and universal love. He spent the first twenty two years of life practicing Islam in an Islamic country. It wasn’t until about fifteen years ago, when he came to the US, that he began to identify himself as agnostic. Now, he feels spiritual, but not particularly religious. He describes himself as “culturally Muslim” but staunchly liberal. When discussing what was said by Maher and Harris, he laughs a little, saying that trying to generalize Muslims in that way is ignorant and just plain stupid.
“It is cultural,” he says. “Some cultures are more advanced than others. You need to take each country individually.”
Trying to make sure I understood correctly, I suggested to him that comparing a Muslim raised in America to a Muslim raised in Iraq is nearly impossible. In which case I got an enthusiastic response of “Exactly!”