I wept this morning, the tears of a half-Pakistani American whose human brethren around the globe are once more catching fire and burning each other down. Caught between two worlds, I have always found myself speaking on behalf of a group I felt ill-equipped to represent. Whether it was an angry pack of Americans ready to relegate all Muslims to the category of violent extremists in the wake of terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011, or non-Americans who believed all citizens of the US were fat, ignorant, Islam-hating warmongers, everyone seemed poised to hate. At the centerpiece of these flaring accusations was the most frustrating element of all: misunderstanding.
How anyone can make the assumption that the actions of an individual or even a small group must be representative of the whole is beyond me. And yet, we do it every day. It's a simple logical error, but it seems to be so easy for us to appropriate an aspect of a person's identity, make it the defining characteristic, and declare that person prototypical of all people with that trait. A blind man steals candy from a baby, so all blind people steal. Wait, no, all men steal. Actually, let me correct myself: all men are baby-hating thugs. What? Although this example is far-fetched, it seems to take very in way of motivation to launch people in group-hating, maddened mobs foaming at the bit with an itch and a fury they themselves cannot place.
After college, I attended divinity school--not to become a priest, but because I knew that religion was often hijacked by factions seeking to further a political agenda. This would inevitably lead to a large number of people believing that the the religion--and all its believers--represented that agenda. I wanted to understand the factors that culminated in a perfect storm of aggressive action and offended reaction, with both sides missing crucial pieces of a staggeringly complex puzzle. One thing I learned from my studies of religion and violence in divinity school is that the global ping-pong of misrepresentation has, time and again, caused senseless strife. The Partition of India in 1947 led to one of the most egregious episodes of slaughter in human history. Neighbors turned on neighbors, loyalty dissolved into brutal madness, and lines of peace and friendship that had existed for longer than decades crumbled in one delirious moment. To this day, revenants of past butchery haunt me when I walk the streets of Lahore and remember what happened there more than half a century ago.
In the midst of raging violence, we wonder how long people have been waiting with some sick, suppressed mania for destruction before a moment's hysteria ignited the conflict. We think they must have harbored and nurtured their malice for years, quietly awaiting the signal to unleash their monstrous ire. Still, I think we are looking in the wrong direction. Much like the little man behind the curtain masquerading as the great Wizard of Oz, I sense opportunistic forces and powers orchestrating a latent malcontent among oftentimes disenfranchised people, operating just beyond sight, manipulating multitudes through stereotype and propaganda into a white-hot fervor of displaced wrath. This is not to say that any one of the participants in a mob has no free will; rather, it seems to me that someone knows which button to press to catapult people already on the edge, looking for a fight.
So where, pray tell, are the peacemakers? Where are the universally trusted authority figures who can set the record straight, who can put a stopper on unmitigated hatred?
Someone is delivering the wrong message. Someone is feeding vicious hyperbole and explosive falsehoods to hungry masses. Like a spark on the breath of a soft wind, the cruel rumor leaps from its fiery birthplace to a nest of dry tinder, and so the forest burns.
At this very moment in the Middle East and beyond, a rash of malicious anti-US sentiment engulfs the forest, unrelenting and unyielding. I beg religious leaders around the world to continue to come forward at this critical hour, to reach out to their adherents, to pour the cool waters of reason and kinship over these wild flames. Already, authority figures and interfaith organizations, humble groups of good-willed folk and government emissaries alike, are speaking out on behalf of amity and accord, staging peaceful demonstrations to spread the message of understanding and camaraderie to their inflamed neighbors. I pray that their words penetrate the minds of those who would seek to destroy before more of our global kindred succumb to deceit, to the fraudulent claims that one group of American filmmakers' hurtful, insulting, blasphemous, juvenile, and sadly uninformed expression mean that all Americans deserve aggressive retaliation. After all, it was the heinous generalization that those filmmakers adopted--based on the atrocious actions of a few--that led them to malign the many in the first place. We need to stop the cycle of misunderstanding, and we need to do it now.
In the United States, we are bound by political covenant to welcome a plurality of opinions to the public discourse. We respect and invite difference; it enriches our national tapestry, and it honors the principles laid out by our founding fathers 236 years ago. By virtue of this simple value for plurality, we must assume the responsibility of never believing that the actions or beliefs of a few automatically represent the actions or beliefs of the whole. This is not to say that we should celebrate incendiary, injurious gestures developed through unquestioning ignorance and intractable dogma. We should simply remember, before we leap headfirst into a canyon of false conclusions, that pluralities abound.
The media has focused largely on the escalating waves of protest and turbulence and far less on the voices of peace and support that have arisen alongside the the mayhem. We must exalt these voices on high, give them the global stage, and hope that their words can in time counter the uninformed, savage hysteria that has taken hold of people like a fever. The only way to put a stopper on this hateful, crazed bloodshed is to encourage thought before action, to question the stereotypes we are fed before we take the first bite.
I implore people around the world--officials and everyday citizens alike--not to remain cloistered off from the 'other.' It is this very separation that breeds ignorance, a rampant disease afflicting all levels of society. I beseech you to engage in dialogue with one another, to share in similarity and difference alike, and to remind one another that we are all siblings on this planet. When our brothers and sisters act out against one another, we should seek to understand what forces underlie those actions and attempt to ameliorate them, rather than reach to wound with weapons or words.