It has been awhile since I knew exactly where my passport was at all times and how many frequent flier miles I had. Neither is needed at this stage in my life, but I know the passport is around somewhere and is coming up for renewal.
As far as top life experiences go, living abroad is in my top three (behind becoming a parent and tied with being in a monogamous relationship with my best friend for almost twenty years). For a good chunk of the 1990’s I immersed myself in Japanese culture, and in Tanzania lived a life worthy of National Geographic pages. The years I spent in Japan and the year in Tanzania provided me with a lifetime of lessons that I’m still working through.
One of those lessons is that people aren’t the same everywhere. It may seem obvious, but it was a constant source of friction whenever I talked about my experiences there. My elderly mother for instance always thought that the Japanese were like the people of St. Louis – just with a different complexion and palate. Whenever I talked to her about the real Japanese that I lived among, she had nothing in her experience to relate it to and would inevitably change the subject.
It wasn’t just her. It happened all the time with friends, co-workers, and other family members. The only people that I could talk to about my experiences were other travelers; people who had experienced the same thing. We could then swap stories about Kyoto and Kathmandu, or Kobe and Kosice without noticing each other’s eyes glazing over.
Part of the boredom I subjected friends and relatives to was due simply to my poor story telling skills; but some of it was do to the lack of a common frame of reference. The Japanese are a unique people, and I love them for it. They are nothing like the movies make them out to be, nor are they just like us. They are Japanese, with two thousand years of history shaping everything they do – from what they eat to how they move. Even now years later I can tell the difference between a Japanese and other Asians at a distance because they hold themselves and move differently.
The Japanese don’t think like Americans. In fact, few people do. The closest non-Westerners I met that reminded me of Americans are members of the Chagga tribe in northeaster Tanzania. The Chagga are a direct and friendly people with an eye for business and profit. They make up most of the government in Tanzania and a large portion of the economy that isn’t run by ethnic Indians. Their handshakes are firm, and their self-confidence borders on the arrogance one often hears Europeans complaining about in Americans. I remember arguing with the Japanese about buying foreign products. The Japanese simply wouldn’t because the foreign products lacked a certain “Japanese-ness.” No matter what the price, how cutesy the ads were, the Japanese wouldn’t buy foreign goods because they weren’t Japanese made and as a result lacked that undefinable quality.
The converse was also true. The Japanese didn’t get religion at all. They looked at the wars in the Middle East and the fighting in Ireland with bewilderment. To them the idea of abiding by a single faith didn’t make sense. The Japanese claimed that they were born Shinto, married Christian and died Buddhist because they participated in rituals that had roots in all three religions. But there is more to belonging to a religion than going through the motions of a particular ritual, but the Japanese didn’t get that.
What the Japanese didn’t understand was that being Japanese was their religion; they just didn’t call it that. A religion dictates how you act, how you dress, who you marry, and Japanese society did just that. Once I learned this myself and explained it to my Japanese friends, their understanding of religion’s role in the world became clearer.
In America Islam is a relatively new religion. People don’t understand it – a fact made harder by the demand that one must learn Arabic to practice it. While Muslims have been emigrating to the United States since its founding, it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that oil money flowing to the Saudis allowed them to build mosques and proselytize. So until very recently most Americans hadn’t seen a mosque in their neighborhood or lived with Muslim immigrants. The Syrians, Lebanese and other Arabs from the Middle East that arrived in their communities during the 20th century were mostly Christians, so their exposure to Muslims was pretty much limited to the news media.
Our instinct as Americans is to see Islam as just another religion, protecting Muslims with the same Constitutional rights as Methodists, Buddhists, or Catholics. The problem is that Islam isn’t the same as these religions; it is a unique religion that unites politics with religion in a way that hasn’t been seen in the West for over 500 years.
Islam has a terrible history of coexisting with other religions, and its tenets reflect that. Conversion to another faith is punishable by death. The only law is God’s law – so a secular society cannot coexist in an Islamic one – as Turkey is learning. (Yes I know that some branches of Shi’a Islam preach separation between Islam and state, but it’s not First Amendment separation that Americans think). In lands where other faiths exist, Islam must be supreme, and believers of these faiths can live as long as they are taxed and recognize the supremacy of Islam in the societal affairs (Dhimmi status).
This is not to say that Islam is all bad. There are sects that are more liberal and respectful of non-believers than others (the Ismaili sect leaps to mind), and like Obama I too found the calls to prayer sublime in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. But the Ismailis and related sects are a tiny portion of the Ummah, and the sect that has gained the most ground in Europe and the United States is the Wahhabi sect – the most radical and intolerant within Islam.
But Americans are beginning to recognize that Islam is different – that it’s not Buddhists with burkas, or Pentecostals with prayer rugs. They remember 9-11, and each suicide bombing or slaughter of aid workers by men acting in the name of Islam adds to the suspicion. The silence of Muslims and worse, the justification of these acts in some Muslim quarters, is making Americans take note. The fact that condemnations of terror are rarely unequivocal and are nearly always followed with “but…” and a statement that undoes the condemnation that preceded it doesn’t help. Americans want Islam to be as benign as other religions, but they are beginning to wonder if that’s even possible.
Yet American elites which should know more about Islam than the common people side with a religion that is intolerant of the very rights it champions among Christians: women, gays and artistic freedom. The ignorance shown by the mainstream media towards Islam makes one wonder if any of these “journalists” ever left New York City or San Francisco. Every attempt to equate a Muslim cleric with an American religious figure like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell merely emphasizes their ignorance of both faiths. The reviled Robertson and Falwell would actually be considered raging liberals compared to “moderate” Islamic clerics.
The mainstream media and the American Left have allied themselves with one of the most intolerant faiths around, yet they demand that Americans tolerate this intolerance and call those who don’t “Islamophobes”.
Those who question a religion that treats women as second-class citizens are not ignorant. Those who question the motives of a cleric who wants to build a Muslim temple on the site where Muslims murdered 3,000 Americans of all faiths in the name of Islam, and are aware that it fits the pattern of building mosques on conquered territory, aren’t stupid. Those who are repelled by a faith with an active legal code that kills homosexuals, should not be termed “bigots”.
UPDATE: Of course the great Charles Krauthammer realized we’re all NOT the same, writing in this piece 27 years ago:
If people everywhere, from Savannah to Sevastopol, share the same hopes and dreams and fears and love of children (and good food), they should get along. And if they don’t, then there must be some misunderstanding, some misperception, some problem of communication…It is the broken-telephone theory of international conflict, and it suggests a solution: repair service by the expert “facilitator,” the Harvard negotiations professor. Hence the vogue for peace academies, the mania for mediators, the belief that the world’s conundrums would yield to the right intermediary, the right presidential envoy, the right socialist international delegation.
“The wise man shows his wisdom in separation, in gradation, and his scale of creatures and of merits is as wide as nature,” writes Emerson. “The foolish have no range in their scale, but suppose every man is as every other man.” Ultimately to say that people all share the same hopes and fears, are all born and love and suffer and die alike, is to say very little. For it is after commonalities are accounted for that politics becomes necessary.
Thanks to Soccer Dad for this timeless gem.