Prejudice and religious ignorance
Mediaculture: Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faithby Gordon Houser
We all carry prejudices. We prejudge others, make assumptions about them, often out of ignorance about those people and what they may believe.
Mennonites are used to being misunderstood, both in negative and positive ways. How often do we hear others ask about horse and buggies or plain black clothing when they hear we are Mennonites?
On the other hand, some people laud Mennonites for being so committed to peace and justice, not realizing the great diversity in our ranks on those subjects.
Much of our media betrays great ignorance about religion—not just Mennonites but many religious groups. And if you spend much time on the blogosphere, you encounter great ignorance as people spout views that are at times hateful, certainly prejudiced and that show ignorance about the groups they are putting down in order to advance their own views.
One of the groups most commonly misunderstood are Muslims, whose numbers are growing rapidly in the United States. And worldwide Islam is the second largest religion.
Nevertheless, it is treated as monolithic and homogenous. As religion scholar Philip Jenkins writes, “Arguably, over the span of its development, Islam worldwide is quite as diverse as Christianity.”
One of the stereotypes about Islam is that it is Arab, yet, Jenkins writes, “Of the world’s eight largest Muslim countries, only one—Egypt—is Arab in language and culture, and it would not be too far off the mark to see Islam as a religion of South and Southeast Asia.”
A recent book, Woman, Man and God in Modern Islam by Theodore Friend (Eerdmans, 2012, $35), is an excellent source for getting to know modern Islam.
Friend, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an award-winning historian, traveled across Asia and the Middle East in order to understand firsthand the life situations of women in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. The book relates hundreds of encounters and conversations with people he met along the way.
Friend writes that the reader will find “respect for Islam conjoined with faith in women and in their creative and productive potential.”
Meanwhile the media regularly report bombings by Islamicists but ignore peaceful overtures by Muslims, such as “A Common Word” in 2007.
Ignorance of religion has enormous consequences, whether it’s a white supremacist killing Sikhs or U.S. soldiers burning copies of the Qur’an or the U.S. invasion of Iraq helping overturn half a century of women’s right to be treated as equal citizens in Iraq.
Religious ignorance extends beyond Islam. Every day some media reinforce views of religious groups that are simplistic and fail to build understanding.
One media source that helps counter this practice is Religion News Service. For example, the weekly report dated Sept. 5 included an article on Mormons okaying Coke and Pepsi, one on Seventh-day Adventists arguing about female clergy, a Q&A with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the “Ground Zero mosque,” one on Jews in New Orleans, a Q&A with David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, and one on the trial of Amish bishop Samuel Mullet Sr., whose followers forcibly cut the beards of Amish men.
There are many sources for learning about others and their beliefs before we make judgments about them. Jesus’ warning about judging others (Matthew 7:1) is pertinent.
Gordon Houser is associate editor of The Mennonite.
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