Tragic events like the recent shootings targeting Muslims during Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand, often make us stop and think…what is the world coming to? But of course, such tragic violent events happen often, much more often than we can absorb, and other ongoing violence takes place on a daily basis, under the radar because it has been normalized… because the suffering of people in Palestine for example is the status quo and not as newsworthy.
We should not be surprised, given the amount of hatred and “othering” that we hear all the time. There are so many discourses that dehumanize the “other” and are allowed to speak loudly under the guise of freedom of speech… and of course social media makes all of this easier because individual citizens are not accountable in the way media giants are (even if the agendas of media giants are questionable… the social media giants allow content to stay and be perpetuated as long as it keeps people glued to their platforms, right? Zeynep Tufecki and Safiyya Noble have written and spoken well on this topic).
A white (non-supremacist) friend asked me recently about the lens I take when dealing with such things, and what people like him could do.
I want to step back and say something important here.
First, when a terrorist claims to kill innocent people in the name of Islam, I do not feel that person represents me. I feel anguish and grief for the victims and I feel anger at the criminal. But that criminal does not represent me. I do not feel the need to apologize for them. There is a level of “what’s it got to do with me?” on a micro scale. On another scale, though, as an educator, I feel responsible for generally nurturing a more empathetic and socially just world, in cultivating those values in my students, and in being an academic that helps forge relationships with people around the world. In also trying to critically understand what leads to this violence, starting from the roots of the story and not just the ending, the tragic event itself.
I have long said that I believe that the best way to overcome “othering” is a practice of getting to know the different “other” up close, in order to see them as human beings, with the similarities and differences. Often, in order to promote harmony, people want to focus on what we all share as human beings. And that is absolutely important. But we also need to not ignore our differences, and how they can help us understand each other better and empathize with each other more. To see the complex power at play in such events, the role of media but also social constructions of “them” and “us”, and historic events that lead to current day conflicts. The roles of Western countries in creating fertile environments for radicalization of Muslim youth, alongside the role of religious institutions. The role of politicians and religious institutions In promoting white supremacy. The place of colonial history and neocolonial and corporate interests in maintaining these attitudes and making such violence more mainstream than it should ever be.
In the Quran (49:13), there is a verse that precisely points out that we are all created human, and the same, and yet we are different nations and tribes, but we are encouraged to then get to know one another:
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other)” (Yusuf Ali interpretation)
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” (Sahih International interpretation)
(The Quran, when translated, has many different interpretations, so I offer two that fit my purpose and uses less gendered language, but you can find more in this corpus).
This concept in Islam is similar to Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, briefly described as:
….under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members. If one has the opportunity to communicate with others, they are able to understand and appreciate different points of views involving their way of life. As a result of new appreciation and understanding, prejudice should diminish. Issues of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are commonly occurring issues between rival groups
This is something I just learned about today, even though I’ve been studying intercultural learning for years now (don’t ask) and taking part in several intercultural virtual dialogue communities like Soliya and Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange (EVE) (in fact, just today, I learned of the Contact Hypothesis from an EVE board meeting invite). Thinking about it, much of my social media interaction on Twitter and Virtually Connecting is exactly this.
The fact that many of my Western friends reached out to me when these events happened show me two things.
A. Digital citizenship exists. My relationship with these people, my contact with them, makes us more human to each other and makes our reaction to such violence more personal and empathetic. In the same way, I grieved during the shooting of a gay club (Pulse) more because I have a gay friend who lives in Florida and contacted him immediately when it happened.
B. My Western friends may not have many Muslim friends in their f2f at the level of closeness I have with them online. And this is both good and bad. It’s good that I can be that person for them, but sad that they don’t have that opportunity f2f.
It is important for me to remind myself how it felt to be a religious minority (lived in Norwich, England, on Christchurch road, so I have a particular affinity with that name, and even though I felt safe, I felt very very “other” when I wore a headscarf and not a wool cap). It is also very important to remind myself, as i did my students yesterday, that in Egypt , the religious minorities are Christians and have faced violence and terrorism in their place of worship during religious celebrations like Christmas time. And this matters. The intersectionality and context. In my country I am safe when I practice my religion. I empathize with the Muslims who died in New Zealand both as Muslim who used to live as a religious minority in a Christian country and as Muslim in a Muslim majority country where extremists threaten other religious minorities.
So what do we do? As educators, as citizens, as parents, I believe strongly in promoting empathy, resisting “othering” and promoting a contextual, historical and intersectional understanding of social justice, and this can be an approach to digital citizenship, as I wrote a few years ago. And we need to “know the other” and keep expanding and deepening those ties and bridges.