Not all those who wander are lost.

On ignorance, culture, and technology

I don’t usually write about current events, nor do I like to express my political and religious views outside of dinnertime conversations.  My writings are focused more on my experiences and observations as I dive into other cultures. That said I refuse to stand in silence as the Middle East erupts in anti-American riots and attacks US Embassies. I am disgusted by this anti-Muslim film and I’m incredibly saddened that it has prompted violence which will only add to the Western fear of Muslims and of Islam.

Look, the debate between free speech and incitement of imminent lawless action is nothing new. There are numerous U.S. Supreme Courts cases in which we’ve established limits to the extent of one’s ability to speak freely.  Fear, intolerance, and hatred of another person’s beliefs are also nothing new. We’ve seen the Inquisition, witch-hunts, the Holocaust, and the recent genocide in the Balkans. What is new is the ability of an individual to broadcast their views to all corners of the earth in a matter of seconds. The fact that a low-budget, poorly made and little known film in California can spark riots halfway across the world is unprecedented.

We are more connected now than ever before. Not just with friends on Facebook or to our families via Skype while we travel, but as a people across languages and nations, technology has brought us closer together. We have gained an incredible ability to share ideas and learn from one another; we also have the means to share our experiences with loved ones back home who don’t have the ability to travel themselves.  However, in an effort to become connected as one global people, we are losing our own individual cultures. The McDonaldization of the world means that any capital city in any country around the world feels less foreign. Rome feels more and more like Paris, New York, Beijing or Dubai every day.

Walking along the boardwalk in Split, Croatia, my boyfriend and I saw a group of elderly Croatian men and women sitting together, sharing wine, strumming a few mandolins and singing classic Croatian folk songs.  We sat and listened for the better part of an hour, taking in the beauty of their song.  Eugenio commented that Romans used to do that in Rome too, but it hasn’t been around for decades.  Sadly, it’s a dying tradition in Italy and likely in Croatia as well.  There are so many trades, crafts, songs, and traditions that will die with the passing away of a generation. And these customs are being replaced by a desire to have an iPhone in one hand and a Starbucks coffee in the other regardless of whether you’re in Istanbul, Singapore, or San Francisco.

The beauty of humanity is in our differences; they are to be celebrated, not feared. The Taj Mahal, Pyramids of Egypt, Coliseum, and Angkor Wat wouldn’t be as majestic if they were all built by the same hand in the same style.  And that’s what we’re risking here. By seeking the familiar and fearing the unknown, we’re turning into a homogenous, boring society.  And that is nothing short of tragic.

We have to try harder to go off the beaten path. We have to seek out uncomfortable conversations with those who don’t share our ideas. And we must do so with an open heart and an open mind, ready to accept our differences and respect each other.

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Sarajevo

I have encountered numerous American travelers who’ve told me of their fear of Muslims. A friend of mine even dared to say that it wasn’t his fault, that he didn’t know any better; he said the U.S. media was to blame for his fear. Anyone who knows me can imagine my outrage at that statement. It’s one thing to be ignorant and unaware of your ignorance. But if you’re ignorant, you acknowledge your ignorance, and then you proceed to blame the media for giving you a bias, then that’s just being lazy and stupid. It’s this laziness that is perpetuating the American fear of Muslims, and it makes me sick.

With regard to the film and subsequent riots across the Middle East, I have no immediate solution to offer.  Clearly the film was founded in hatred and was produced with the intent of inciting rage. It worked. Further, the film is protected by the first amendment, as are numerous other forms of distasteful and hateful ideas. It’s not the first video of its kind, it certainly won’t be the last, and we can’t expect or allow the government to censor every piece of information circulating the internet to determine whether or not it may spark riots.

On both sides, I believe it all comes down to ignorance. Ignorance on the part of the West for failing to study and appreciate the Muslim culture; for all the Muslims I’ve met, whether they were Egyptian, Moroccan, Bosnian, Turkish or American, have been the most generous and humble people on earth. Ignorance on the part of the Muslims for failing to study the principles on which America was founded; if they learned about the sacrifices made by our Founding Fathers in order to give us the gift of free speech, no matter what our beliefs may be, perhaps they could understand why this film is protected speech.

If the problem is ignorance, then the answer is education.  Don’t simply buy into what the mainstream media portrays.  Dig around a bit, do some fact checking of your own.  As Malcom X warned, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”  Whether it’s reading, watching, listening, or debating, we have a duty to seek information to destroy our own bias and prejudice.  Exercise that brilliant organ residing in your skull. Rather than devolve into a world of fear and hatred of all that is different, let us use the technology at our fingertips as a means to learn about one another so that we can love, preserve and appreciate those differences.

~Rant of a Wanderer, 9/18/2012

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