The recent political debacle over the video entitled “The Innocence of Muslims” has reinforced the fact that we live in the Age of the Spectacle. The things we pay attention to in this day and age, let alone what opinions and ideas we hold, are determined by the gaudiest show, the most flamboyant exhibit, regardless of its sustenance. Aside from catching our attention, spectacles ultimately end up molding our opinions. I think it’s a subliminal form of reflexive conditioning — we’re exposed to images by way of the media and by way of those who help spread those images, and after a while, all that we see portrayed about a certain group or idea becomes all that we know and all that we hold to be true about them when we reflect on them. In light of the outcries over “The Innocence of Muslims,” I’ve been thinking non-stop about my own personal social conditioning and about how Western society writ large has been primed to expect certain reactions from certain groups, namely, violent ones from Muslims in response to perceived blasphemes.
I have been forced to ask myself whether or not we have, as Americans, Westerners, and Global Citizens, committed a great sin in allowing stereotypes regarding the Islamic denomination to be perpetrated the world.
I ask this because here in Senegal, there haven’t been any riots. There haven’t been attacks. Masked men with torches and bricks haven’t marched against the embassy here or against anyone that looks like they could be American. The fact of the matter is, in Senegal AND in the vast majority of other predominantly Islamic nations in Africa and the Middle East, there hasn’t been any violent backlash towards the West, towards America, or towards anything else that annoys a populace but that can’t be assaulted without an excuse first. When I happen to encounter a Senegalese who’s aware of what’s happened and who knows what The Innocence of Muslims is (and that isn’t a given), they’re more likely to simply ask what my opinion is on the existence of the video and to tell me how sorry they are about the hostility in some parts of the world towards my nationality. Indeed, in Senegal, my Team Leader, Oumou, pointed out that “it may be surprising to us as foreigners that the Muslims here wouldn’t lose their minds when they learned of the video, but [to the Senegalese] it wasn’t surprising at all”.
What I’ve experienced here doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Muslim population. Not at all. And I didn’t expect it to, either. But I know that many times, Islam is portrayed on television, on the radio, and on the Internet back home in the U.S. as a violent, aggressively-expansive and narrow minded ideology when it really isn’t anything of the sort. An Algerian student I met on Ngor Island last weekend worded things pretty well- “most of your [sic] kind want to put fangs and horns on something that isn’t born with them.”
When I learned of the attacks on account of the video’s existence, a very specific line in the Qur’an popped into my head. The chapter containing the verse was revealed in ninth year of the Hijrah, and while it’s been many, MANY centuries since the words were put to paper, I think the verse is relevant even today:
“They prefer to be with thoseWho remain behind, and their heartsAre sealed so they understand not.”
We cry out in the Americas and in Europe and say that the Muslims are the ones who are behind, who are backwards, who are brutish and violent; as such, they physically assault those they claim are responsible when in reality, all they’re doing is buying into a generalization (all Americans hold the opinions in that video) and killing innocents. And yet, I don’t know whose hearts are sealed: ours, or theirs; I realize how many hundreds of millions regard Islam as violent and as black-and-white because of instances like this. Now, because of the actions of a few, the mindsets and lifestyles and opinions of millions are suddenly known by someone who watches the evening news in Maine, Dubuque, Milan, or London.
The nature of Islam is one that we have, because of media profiling, come to assume is volatile and close-minded by nature. Media bodies have ingrained that image in the minds of the West by highlighting the terrorist and glancing over the peaceful imam, the latter being the far more accurate image of the religion.
In a day and age where certain echelons profit from the masses seeing monsters where there are but kind and peaceful men, I can only sit here in Dakar and hope that others will see past the facade, past the Spectacle, and realize that the entirety of the world’s Muslim populace is not represented by the attacks. Our conditioning is not something we need to be victim to — we may be trained to see demons, but I have faith that we’re intelligent enough to see the angels behind those forced masquerades.