Exchange Value

The exchange I’ve been part of for the past week is now over; all the people involved have gone back to their homes and I have a moment to reflect on what’s taken place. I’m tempted to put the most positive spin possible on such meetings and I do believe that much was accomplished (perhaps more than what we, as leaders of the exchange, are capable of observing); however, I’m discouraged by what is really going on.
I want things to be simple; most people seek straightforward answers to a given question. There is a barrage of information, tasks, decisions, and considerations we must deal with every day. To add levels of complexity just bogs down the process of living. This is a common human trait; it’s true of an executive working in Chicago and a street vendor in Cairo. Otherwise we, as a species, wouldn’t get much done; we’d sit about thinking about the origins of the sugar-cube in our tea and the global consequences of cane trade, etc. I would just like my tea sweet and not have to think about someone slaving away in a field.

But someone is slaving away in a field and I know about such things; life is not simple. Drat.

Religion is not simple and we cannot make it so. Religion on top of culture mixed with politics is an impenetrable conundrum. Yet we attempt to make judgements and decisions based on a simplistic understanding of them. An Irish-Catholic in the IRA with a left-leaning political view has little in common with a conservative Republican Southern Baptist in Alabama. An Indian Moslem living in the UK has little in common with a radical Arab Moslem somewhere on the back-streets of a city in Yemen. Their cultures, political views, and world outlook differ greatly. Why do we readily recognise the validity of the first example and not the second? To say that all of any group of people believe and act in a unified way is ridiculous; when, in human history, have people really done that? But, for the sake of simplicity, we are right on the edge of defining Islam and its adherents as a religion of violence and disruption. And, of course, the people within Islam who actually are violent and disruptive welcome the mixed definition; they don’t want to be sidelined. Perception makes reality and nobody realises that more clearly than a minority of people attempting to gain centre stage and control of the show.

Of course, the security agent at the airport can’t take time to sit down and make friends with everyone boarding a plane. Though five-thousand completely peaceful Arab men may pass through, five-thousand one could be a suicide bomber. But I am not a security agent at the airport; I can’t live my life mentally patting people down and going through their luggage. What a bleak future we prescribe if we have to live with the assumption that that every Moslem we see may be strapped with explosives. Maybe it’s naive, but I want to live my life assuming that most people are generally good and wish me no harm. I am always aware of my surroundings (I’ve travelled to some really dodgy places); but I’m talking about a general assumption concerning humanity. If we all begin to assume that the others aim for our destruction, we might as well give up. You can’t build a stable world on fear. It’s like building a city with no gates or a house with no doors or windows. Once it’s built, there is no way in or out.

I’m not suggesting we deny the reality of what is happening among radical violent people; but we have to rid ourselves of the underlying language that places blame on those who want to live peacefully. It is more constructive for our society if that Indian man in the UK gets together with the fellow from Alabama and sues for peace than for us all to go to our separate corners of race and religion where mistrust can spread freely. Once we label a religion negatively, it is much easier to use that label in lieu of another more specific one. For example, it sounds much more menacing if I say there are extremist Moslems in Chechnya; However, it sounds silly if I say, “Caucasian people in Chechnya fought fiercely with Russian troops today.” The Russians are fighting…white people? That’s too broad to specifically define who is fighting whom and what their beliefs and aims are; they are political separatists.

I know it’s a lot simpler to say Moslem Fascists; but life, religion, politics, sugar, and people are not simple.