Creating They

Kelly Crow '04

The sidewalks of Nicollet Avenue teem on this crisp fall day.  It's lunchtime, so I'm watching business executives flee their offices to mix briefly with the students, workers, hippies, bus drivers, and vagrants who usually populate the pavement.  Women cradling cell phones click along smartly in their stilettos while ties worn by important looking men blow over their shoulders in the breeze.  I see color, intensity, motion, and most of all diversity. 

Since beginning law school six weeks ago in downtown Minneapolis, I've taken to spending my lunch break at this window-side table in Barnes and Noble.  I put my tired mind at ease for a few moments, abandon all thoughts of "elements of law," and delight in a feast of people-watching.  I now take for granted the plurality of this urban population.  Sometimes, in my idealistic moods, the stream of varied people flowing past lulls me into believing that we human beings are finally starting to embrace our differences.  But at other times I'm pulled rudely back to reality.

Recently I found myself engaged in a discussion with law school classmates about the war in Iraq.  Arm-chair politicians, we employed our still-young argumentative skills as we sat in the lounge area of our school.  During the debate one classmate asserted of Muslims, "They just hate us, and they hate everything about America.  It's in their religion to hate us, and they're following their religion when they strap bombs to themselves and blow us up.  How can we try to reason with that?"

I felt my insides twist in frustration not only at my classmate's words but also at the clear prevalence of his ideas.  While many had joined me in earlier arguments against the war, no one said a word in response to his view.  Apparently my comrades either took the claim for granted or they didn't know any better, despite their clear knowledge of the many political elements of the war.   The most telling moment of the exchange, however, took place when I tried to explain my view that the statement represented gross oversimplifications and assumptions.  Rather than listen to my arguments attentively as he previously had, my classmate simply rolled his eyes, said "Whatever," and turned to a tangential topic.  No one else said a word.  Unwilling to let the issue go, I interrupted to try expanding my argument.  But later, reflecting on this incident, I knew it indicated that a powerful force works to establish a negative perception of Islam in American public consciousness, so much so that even the suggestion of an alternative way of thinking generates indignation.             

The pattern was one I had seen before.  As a senior at St. Ben's last year, I decided to explore what lies behind the pervasive villianization of Islam in American public consciousness.   Researching for a thesis done in the Theology and English Departments, I explored two primary bodies of knowledge.  First, I researched the spiritual tradition of Islam from, as much as possible, a Muslim perspective.  It came as little surprise that the religion practiced by over one billion people worldwide varied greatly from the media's condensed descriptions of "Islamic terrorists" or "Islamic extremists."  Suffice it to say that, like Christianity or Judaism, both of them faith traditions which most Americans find more familiar, Islam has a rich, complex spiritual tradition and an equally rich, complex body of faithful.  Its believers include those who abuse the religion, who claim its ultimate truth and superiority in the world, and who under it commit heinous acts in the name of God.  Yet, with no intention of defending those who commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam, to consider these people as representative of Islam seems shortsighted.  Even minimal reflection produces numerous examples of atrocities committed in the name of Christianity; yet few Americans consider these people or their acts as representative of the Christian faith tradition.  Why the double standard?  This, in part, I set out to discover.

 

 

 

 

 

Islam has a rich, complex spiritual tradition and an equally rich, complex body of faithful.

 

The second facet of my research was to unearth the dialogues and texts which seemed so persuasively to have convinced media consumers that "Islam hates America."  In light of the many sources speaking negatively of Islam, I chose to focus my discussion on the imagery texts of Time's magazine covers.  In truth, Time did all the work for me with its consistent and prolific examples of oversimplified portrayals of Islamic culture, faith, and people.  Wielding my rudimentary critical theory skills and, luckily, helped by my expert English professors (Thanks again, Dr. Opitz and Dr. Mitra!), I explored the ways Time imagery serves as a powerful text influencing American consciousness.

Although my research focused on just this one media source working to mythologize Islam, many more exist.  If Americans were to become more conscious consumers of their media sources, my research would not disturb me so deeply.  But time and again I find myself trying to defend Islam based on what I learned last year. Meanwhile, media sources go on reporting the distorted concept of Islam that America has consumed.  Islam, however, should not need anyone's defense.  Even a slight nuance in reporting would show that terrorism springs from extremism, not from the heart of a faith tradition one billion strong.  Unfortunately, this simple point continues to escape the rhetoric of media and thus the consciousness of most Americans.           

As I sat in front of the window, the noon hour passed by and the human traffic on Nicollet Avenue dispersed.  Yet in the time that I was here no fewer than sixteen women wearing Islamic head coverings passed me by, and these were only the few I noticed and remembered to count.  Islam surrounds us, and it is growing.  Should Americans continue to respond with ignorance and fear, should we continue to absorb and digest the messages of mass media, we will necessarily confront the growing Muslim population with anxiety and dislike.

Yet how easily we can avoid such fear.  How easily we can embrace the plurality that surrounds us.  Each day we all have opportunities to choose stubbornness or flexibility, ignorance or an open mind, anxiety or curiosity, conflict or compromise, combat or compassion, fear or hope, and, in the deepest sense, hate or love.  Each day we make these choices, in big and little ways, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly through small acts like holding a door or smiling at a stranger.  Together such choices color our world.  But how different our world might look, even from the perspective of the media, if a commitment to love acted as the driving force behind this nation's collective choices.  How differently we might then view a different culture, a different faith tradition, or a different world-view.  We could learn to celebrate rather than to persecute the unknown. 

Some might consider these ideas naïve, the ramblings of one blinded by the gleam of idealism gone mad.  For my part, I consider that gleam an under-appreciated ray of hope for a better America and a better world.