I am an American professor teaching this year at Al-Akhawayn University in Morocco and, like everyone, am horrified by the stories of escalating terror that cross our screens daily. I am also disturbed to see that as the violence escalates, the rhetoric on Islam is becoming louder and uglier. In trying to outdo Republican candidate Ben Carson who has expressed fear of having a Muslim president, Donald Trump has promised to close mosques if elected. Ayaan Hirsi Ali headlined her recent Foreign Policy piece: "Islam is a Religion of Violence." Bill Maher wants to urge liberals to wake up about Islam after Paris attacks. Such generalizations feed into fears that most Muslims are terrorists or soon-to-be terrorists. Are they referring to all 1.57 billion people who live from Indonesia to Senegal, Kazakhstan and the U.S.? Such rhetoric is both dangerous and ignorant.
I live and teach in a predominantly Muslim country as a non-Muslim. This is a deeply religious country, as I am reminded from the moment I wake up before sunrise when I hear the call to prayer. When I take my daily walk in the morning, I greet one of the street cleaners, who stops what he is doing and showers me with God's blessings in Arabic. My officemate welcomes me in the morning with a warm smile and kisses on both cheeks, as is the custom here. I spent my Sunday in Ouad Ifrane with friends visiting a collective of women weavers. One of them invited us, who were practically strangers, impromptu into her home for mint tea and served us a table full of pastries and homemade goodies. She told us about her life, work and children in her lively Moroccan Arabic. When my 27-year-old godson unexpectedly died in the U.S. and I was heartbroken, my Moroccan Arabic teacher sent me a beautiful message saying he was praying for my godson's family that God would help them get through these sad times. Every Friday, I look forward to shopping at our local marché (semi-indoor market) and seeing the smile on the face of my favorite salesperson, a young man named Munir.
Of course, I am aware as a social scientist that a few vignettes about some nice people in the Middle Atlas region of rural Morocco do not tell us much about the brutal war ISIS is waging. But perhaps it can tell us something about why many of my friends and colleagues from Somalia, northern Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Lebanon and other troubled lands don't understand why the thousands of deaths in their countries from terrorist attacks do not elicit the same responses that we see in the global North by leaders and citizens alike.
At the same time, my Muslim friends here, in the U.S. and elsewhere now, feel they have to defend their religion because of the lunacy of some who use religion to justify their madness. They feel they must twitter, blog and post Facebook commentary, attesting that these attacks were not in their name as Muslims. One of our students at Al Akhwayn made such a post on YouTube to express his deepest condolences to the French people, but also to explain that the terrorist actions had nothing in common with the Islam he and most Muslims live and believe.
Every life has importance, and if we believe that, we need to be more global in our empathy. We need to distinguish between the vast majority of Muslims for whom Islam is a religion of peace and love, and the small but visible minority who use it for terrorist ends. Already for over ten years between 1991 and 2002, Algerians waged a bloody war with hundreds of thousands of deaths against fundamentalist terrorists with little recognition from the world. More recently, Syrians have died in the hundreds of thousands, in part as a result of the treachery of ISIS, as it is known in this part of the world. We also need to recognize the responsibility the powers in the North share in fostering this madness. There is enough blame to go around. But what we need more than anything now is a recognition of the humanity of all. Fear is the enemy of us all, while love and compassion, as I have seen through my Muslim friends in Morocco, is what creates the bonds to dissolve fear.
Aili Mari Tripp is a Visiting Fulbright Professor at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, for the academic year 2015-2016. She is also a Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.