About a week ago I came across a YouTube video that an acquaintance of mine shared on his Facebook to a surprising amount of praise. The video — entitled “Incredible American Soldier Plays ‘Star Spangled Banner’” — deeply disturbed me.
The short video depicts an American G.I. playing the national anthem with an electric guitar on top of a building in Afghanistan during salat — the mandatory prayer that is one of the five pillars of Islam. Incredible indeed. This is the problem with nationalism. As soon as we begin to believe that we are better than or worthy of greater respect than other peoples, we subject ourselves to seeing the world with an “us versus them” mentality. It is precisely this type of rhetoric that has led to inordinate suffering, exploitation and death.
This may seem dramatic, but it is. We cannot underestimate the aggregate power of our collective worldviews. If we do not have the nuance, and quite frankly the common sense, to distinguish between Muslim terrorist organizations and non-violent Muslims, we find ourselves slipping into the rhetoric of outright war. Using the “Star Spangled Banner” as a weapon of cultural imperialism (on top of our other imperialist endeavors) is a travesty. Not only does it disrespect the Afghan Muslims whose sacred prayer was interrupted, but it also embarrasses Americans and slanders the national anthem.
To some extent I recognize that my audience here at Fordham already knows better, but I will spell this out anyway. Islam is a religious tradition that is practiced by multiple cultures and ethnicities, in multiple languages and on multiple continents. Muslim people are not a singularity.
The country with the largest Muslim population in the world is Indonesia, where more than 700 languages are spoken. Afghanistan is in Central Asia, not the “Middle East” — a term so flawed it makes my blood boil — and the majority of Afghans speak either Pashto or Dari, languages closely related to Farsi. Farsi is the language spoken in Iran. All of these languages are Indo-European languages in the Indo-Iranian branch, meaning that they are more closely related to English than they are to Arabic, an Afro-Asiatic language from the Semitic branch.
Furthermore, not every native Arabic speaker is ethnically Arab, just like not all native English speakers are ethnically Anglo-Saxon. For instance, the official language of Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, but Egyptians are neither ethnically Arab nor is Egypt geographically on the Arabian Peninsula. All of this information is easily accessible on the internet. It only takes the will to educate yourself to avoid conflating Islam, Arabs, Arabic etcetera into a singularity; and it only takes a little common sense to avoid immediately associating Muslims with acts of political terror.
It is precisely the ease with which we can dispel the astounding amount of ignorance about Islam, which so many of us flaunt, that makes episodes like this soldier’s disrespect so upsetting. I do not mean to say that one can learn everything about a 1400-year-old religious tradition or the various cultures and with which it interacts with a simple web search, but I think a few minutes of clicking around on Wikipedia would do a lot of people a lot of good.
We need to have nuanced, sensitive discussions about Islam in this country. We need to begin engaging issues of terrorism and violence as global citizens and avoid inflammatory rhetoric and hawkish sentiments. We need to avoid bothering people and understand ourselves as members of a global community. And we need to dedicate ourselves to upholding the integrity of every human being.
“We,” whatever such an ambiguous and assumptive pronoun may mean, are not better than “them” and it is high time we start recognizing that.
Patrick Maroun, FCRH ’15, is a theology and political science major from Norwood, Massachusetts.