A friend of mine shared a video of a Muslim political journalist debunking Western conceptions on his religion. I think it was a valuable talk which requires further discussion. I learned something from him, and I would like to extend my thoughts to the public.
The world is a complicated place. Every person is equally complex in subjective ways. Each was raised differently, their parents from different backgrounds, and the ancestors before them even more so. Discarding dental records and fingerprints, each person is still unique on hundreds of frequencies.
Now for a fun little exercise. During the first lecture of the most difficult and most rewarding class I took in college (International Terrorism), the professor had the 30 of us think of some of our “points of social references.” For example, I am a son, a friend, a student, a cousin, a brother, a sailor, a writer, an American, and a Taiwanese. I urge you readers to do the same before you read on.
The purpose of that exercise was to help us realize that, due to layers beneath layers of complexity within each person, we place individuals into various categories to help us understand them more. These categories, when conceived with absolute precision, aggregate into who you know as the Andy Cheng; the Billy Joe; the Jenny Dee. Congratulations, you now wholly understand three people! There’s only 7 billion people left to go – don’t forget that you only need to extract ∞ labels per person in the meantime, and that each label has to be completely accurate.
That is, of course, an impossible task. Therefore, we instinctively trust the judgment of ourselves and of our peers, family members, and the various communities we identify with. Thus forms the in-group: people whom we share certain similarities in terms of cultural, religious, interests, ethnic, and/or other ties. The process of labeling others saves incredible amounts of time. No longer is there a need to spend hours upon hours, years upon years aggregating details of a person. Simply referring to his or her social points of reference produces an instantaneous profile of what the person may be like.
And that’s where the problems begin. You see, the world is not merely black and white. For example, asking me whether I enjoy the outdoors or indoors more yields an unconventionally long answer. In short, I enjoy being outdoors sometimes, indoors on others. The conditions are contingent on my mood, time of day, who I’m with, who I want to be with, the weather, my energy levels, and my plans for the rest of the day. Even a Likert scale, or a 7-point scale, or even a 100-point scale cannot accurately quantify that answer.
The process of molding dozens of points of social references actualizes into a new group which spews all those traits. Some of them are known as religious groups, so let’s apply this people-categorizing phenomenon to religious affiliation. Many Protestant Christians I know, for example, radiate a sense of moral worth, abide by certain codes of conduct, eschew evil wrongdoings, and celebrate their faith in the same traditional ways of their predecessors. Many will have identified themselves as characters of such and try to share that way of life with others – the life they understand and identify with the most. I think that is a fabulous way to live, and I’m glad to know such great people.
On the other hand, I have friends who display the same traits who do not identify themselves as Christians, but rather as Buddhists, Taoists, Muslim, Mormons, atheists, and agnostics. They’re all good and accomplished people, despite coming from different backgrounds. Likewise, I have encountered people from each aforementioned group who have behaved in opposite manners.
Social points of reference are important in helping us understand the complex world we live in, but it becomes dangerous when those labels have been inaccurately conceived. For example, much of the West today is experiencing Islamophobia. There are reports and articles of Muslims executing global Jihad to destroy democracy and freedom, that all Muslims are mujahideen, and that the West must defend themselves against such monsters – these types of beliefs resurfaced and reinforced after the Boston bombings.
Excuse my lack of theological proficiency, but I do take the word of Muslim colleagues, friends, and people of influence when they vocalize that their religion is about love rather than war and destruction. I do see that fundamental Islamists are, similar to fundamental Christians, a minority in the larger religion and do not enable select outliers to dictate my belief on a whole group of people. Even though people are bound to groups and affiliations, remember that it is due to the intrinsic needs to classify people as such to make things easier on ourselves; to help us understand the world around us.
The world is not black and white. It’s more than Fifty Shades of Grey, numbering closer to the millions. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of, for I have an inherent thirst to understand everything but often cannot fathom how complex people, groups, things, or faiths are. I often jump to conclusions without having an educated opinion, and I become just as intolerant and irrational as the very people I mock. I am reminded by good people to look at others not by their various social points of reference or in-groups they identify themselves with, but as subjective individuals with a unique past and present. I am encouraged to educate myself on subjects in which I possess a weak schema, so that I could make well-informed opinions.