Growing Up in a World of Misunderstandings

By Heyfa Khenissi


MARYLAND ~ I turned 18 this year, and I realized how chaotic the world has become. On some days, I feel like rational voices are becoming rarer. The Muslim world is developing an increasingly negative perception of Europe and the United States because of a series of conflicts in the Middle East and certain cultural misunderstandings. At the same time, Europe and the United States are developing a worsening view of Islam because of terrorist attacks, anti-Semitism and cultural squabbles. The immigration issue in Europe is also making things worse, especially since it is making the far-right popular. Is there any way that one can reverse these negative trends?

In a globalised world, information is transmitted instantly, and people from different parts of the world can become aware of something relatively quickly. I think this is why the Muhammad caricatures had such a profound impact and sparked so much anger in many parts of the world. Thus, social and religious differences make themselves felt more easily than before. After each incident, one would hope that people would react better to future incidents and do something constructive. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem we are learning much from each new incident.

As a liberal American Muslim (I am an American citizen with Tunisian parents), I am concerned about the future, especially since I want to believe I will be free to explore different parts of the world in my career. Every time my religion is exploited for political gain, I cringe. I call for tolerance and calm, and I feel like writing is the only way I can reach out to people. I don’t have any prejudice towards others, and I would like to open up to the world. I was lucky enough to live in an environment that encouraged respect towards others, and I would like to learn more about other cultures. I have had the honor of meeting wonderful people of various backgrounds in my lifetime. For instance, one of my friends is Jewish, and I have a friend who is a Christian. I have wonderful conversations with them and every day, I learn more about their beliefs. It is a great experience, and in the process, more knowledge is gained. At the same time, I present myself as a liberal Muslim who wants to build bridges and share my interpretation of Islam.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made an interesting comment in October, acknowledging that the behavior of certain Muslims gave the world a negative impression of Islam. He even asked whether it was “time for a new religious discourse that teaches people the correct things in their religion … and promotes the values of tolerance against those of extremism and radicalism.” It does seem that a significant number of people in the Western world have the impression that Muslims are dogmatic and hysterical individuals. It’s good for leaders in the Arab world to step in and try to distance their societies from the negative images people have of Islam.

Religion can give meaning to people, but it can also be abused by some individuals. Many religions have suffered from periods of extremism, but human interpretation of religion tends to fluctuate. Not all of the adherents of a belief have the same interpretation at any given time. For instance, during the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church and other Christians interpreted their faith a particular way – to include papal calls for the Crusades – some Christian sects, such as the Lollards, strongly opposed them. Generalizations must be avoided at all costs, and not all the practitioners of a religious belief should be blamed for the actions of a few. Today Islam as such is neither as extreme or conservative as Christianity was in the Middle Ages, but a few fanatics have given it that appearance. Religion still deserves a place in this world, even though extremists have always abused religion in the name of politics.

However, I do see some hope. More and more Muslims are reaching out to the West to help Westerners have a better understanding of Islam. Even in conservative Dubai, the government has proposed offering religious tours to tourists in order to promote a more positive, accurate image of Islam. In Europe also, people have proposed events to promote tolerance and understanding. In June 2006, there was a conference in Vienna, where people examined the real causes of intolerance towards Muslims and the misconceptions about Islam that are prevalent today.

Hopefully, these initiatives can encourage seeing past stereotypes.

The ideal way of breaking down stereotypes is by meeting people with backgrounds and beliefs different from ours. Furthermore, when governments encourage moderation and express their desire to confront extremism across the board and in all its forms, a climate of openness can be achieved as well. If a country’s leaders can show the way, perhaps the people they represent can be encouraged to do the same.


Heyfa Khenissi is a freshman at the University of Maryland.

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