Compassion to See Beyond Your Religion PDF Print E-mail
Written by Clarissa Eads   


Karen Armstrong’s article written in September of 2010 confronts the issue of hatred and intolerance towards Muslims after the 9/11 attacks. She writes, “In the United States, we have witnessed an upsurge of anti-Muslim feeling that violates the core values of that nation.” She points out that such religious intolerance threatens society as a whole, “If we want to preserve our humanity, we must make the compassionate voice of religion and morality a vibrant and dynamic force in our polarized world. We can no longer afford the barbarism of hatred, contempt and disgust.”




Personally, reading the article felt like an invitation to examine any anti-Muslim beliefs or fears that I might be harboring within myself. It is an interesting experience to be confronted with your own biases and stereotypes. Throughout most of my adult life I’ve thought of myself as an open minded individual, one who didn’t judge another on appearances. I thought of myself as a person who accepted and celebrated cultural differences and as one who respected various religious beliefs regardless of my own views. But I’m more aware now that I’ve harbored unexamined negative assumptions that have affected the way I’ve treated people. There was one instance in particular that I remember with amusement now but and demonstrates this beautifully.  

In 2006 and 2007 I studied abroad in East Africa. I spent about eight months in Kenya and after a few months back in the US returned to Tanzania for another six months living mostly in Dar es Salaam. While there, I met many Muslims who came from families that practiced Islam for generations; long before any Christians showed up. Most coastal regions in both East and West Africa are predominantly Muslim because Arab traders came down along the coast. They bought, sold and converted before Europeans knew of the large landmass to the South. These Arabs weren't angels. Many of the things they bought were human bodies to be sold into bondage up North. But Islam has been around, thriving for a long time in Africa in one form or another. I also met many Indians in Tanzania, many of whom were Muslim. This was a legacy of the British colonizers who brought over boatfuls to build railroads, mine and farm for them when the local tribes proved to be unwilling and hostile.

        It begins in search of a light bulb. I found a hardware store about ten minutes from my house in the Tanzanian equivalent to the strip mall. All of the store owners were Indian. Entering this store I was confronted with what looked to me like an Al'Qaeda terrorist in casual business attire. A long beard decorated a thin face and was topped with large protuberant eyes. Large deep shadows under the eyes gave his face a haunted look and his mouth seemed to droop down at the corners in permanent sadness or disappointment. He wore a turban. I visibly halted at the door. We were the only people in this small store and I couldn't help but feel a thrill of fear and fascination. Muslim men in Tanzania don't usually wear beards like that; the black Africans, as a whole, don't produce a whole lot of facial hair and the Indians I met just didn't have them. The turban though not common was not unusual for the men in the area, and it was worn by men from many different religions. It seemed to me at the time to add to this picture of terrorist I was creating in my mind. I was, I'll admit, scared of this man. Seriously, I felt that maybe I could call the Embassy and tell them I found the Al'Queda Tanzanian contact; they could call off the search. And though I knew that I wasn't being logical, there was no reason for my fear, I couldn't shake it. Simply judging by this man's appearance (hammered into my head by American media), I was quivering in my boots (technically sandals).

We exchanged the customary greetings and he asked me my name. It has been a habit of mine to assume a local name when visiting a country so that I can break the ice and make people smile. In Tanzania I had to choose two names based on religion. One name was Christian and one name was Muslim. Naturally I gave this imagined terrorist my Islamic name.

"Asha," I said and asked my own question, "Have you lived in Dar es Salaam your whole life?" Maybe I could get him to admit that he was from Saudi or the hilly regions of Afghanistan.

"Yes," he replied, "Where are you from?" Should I tell him that I was American? He might take out a homemade bottle bomb and kill me right then and there...I decided to risk it.

When I told him that I was from the USA he became very animated and happy. He explained that he had a brother living there and that he himself had visited last year. I couldn't help but wonder if his brother was part of a suicide squad infiltrating American society. When he said that he'd been to the US for a conference I couldn't help but wonder if he was scouting out ideal sites for potential destruction. I am completely serious. These things really crossed my mind simply because he was a Muslim with a long beard and. Nothing in our interaction led me to believe that this man was a terrorist. My fear was based solely on his appearance. We had had a very educated conversation. This man knew English very well and he even helped me with my Kiswahili. He spoke warmly of his family and wished me good luck in my endeavors to study. He was polite and helpful and went out of his way to get me the best light bulb for my needs. Yet I was freaked out by a turban, protuberant eyes and facial hair.

I left the store, light bulb in hand, shaking my head at my folly and wondering at this newly discovered side to myself. I was befriending Muslims on a daily basis, assuming an Islamic name, preaching tolerance and understanding, yet I couldn't get over my irrational, instinctual fear of this man. I vowed to return and further eradicate irrational prejudice but I never did. I never saw that man again but he certainly provided a lot more for me than the light bulb that I purchased from him. I’ve learned how hidden my assumptions were and how my beliefs about open mindedness and acceptance didn’t always mirror by my feelings.

This story is mostly cute but the danger that Karen Armstrong points out in her article is real. A more compassionate look at each individual is essential to the evolution of society. Blaming any group indiscriminately based on the actions of some individuals was the impetus behind the 9/11 attacks in the first place. I’ll conclude with Karen’s statement, “We have to learn to make a place for the other in our minds and hearts; any ideology that inspires hatred, exclusion and division is failing the test of our time. Hatred breeds more hatred, violence more violence. It is time to break this vicious cycle.”

Comments (1)Add Comment
written by Penelope, April 02, 2011
What an enlightening story! I love the way you fearlessly examined your beliefs! Beautiful!

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