On the ride home, I discovered that my neighborhood had changed a lot in a few months. Since I was last home during Christmas break, the presidential election had heated up, and apparently so had emotions in my town. Giant signs hung from businesses, trees, front porches, and car bumpers promising to “Make America Great Again.” As I visited family over the week, the topic of conversation immediately jumped to Brussels. A few of my extended family members (not all, but regrettably a higher number than I would care to admit) focused on how awful not only the attacks were, but also that “all those people” were in Europe to begin with. I was repeatedly told that they all can’t be trusted, they all want to kill us, and they all should go back where they came from. A few of my uncles gave their opinions of what should be done with those people, and all I could do was wince. I went home feeling conflicted. I know my family–they are good people with genuinely good intentions. And yet, they were spewing hateful speech without abandon. What was going on?
I came to the conclusion that these feelings were from a place of fear for their country and their future. I then realized that in allowing fear to manifest and take hold of their emotions, the extremists who they were so adamantly against had already won. My family had allowed violent acts of extremists, inflammatory rhetoric of presidential candidates, and sensationalization from the media to create a caricature of a religion and its followers. But, to some extent, I don’t blame them. My hometown is predominantly white and Christian. Most of my family members have never met a Muslim, and thus have no knowledge of what the actual practice of Islam looks like. If anything positive can be said about my brief trip home, it further validated the importance of engaging in interreligious dialogue and taking the time to get to know what someone actually stands for before labeling him as “the other.” In learning about Islam and Muslim values, I’m sure my family would find many more similarities than differences and see the situation in a different light.
This is not just a problem plaguing my hometown, but the Western world in general. On Sunday morning when we woke up to news of a similar tragic bombing in Lahore, Pakistan, there was hardly a response. The media covered it briefly then returned to following the manhunt for the men involved in the terror plot in Brussels. No one changed their profile picture on Facebook to the Pakistani flag, and my friends and family did not text me saying how horrible the attack was. This is not a result of the bombing happening to fall on a Western holiday either: over the past month, there have been two major bombings in Ankara, Turkey and loss of life in attacks in parts of Africa as well. By categorizing non-Westerners as “the other,” we run a very serious risk of letting fear dehumanize a group of people who share the same goals and aspirations as our society: a peaceful, just world. In letting fear and the boisterous opinions of a few divide us, extremist ideology is winning. We must not succumb to fear if we ever want to truly defeat extremism.