Monday, February 28, 2011

Muslims Through Other Eyes

Recently, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University hosted a speaker talking about the role of women in Islam.  Many of my students went to hear Dr. Jim Shoopman talk about the difference between public perception in this country of Islam women and reality.  He said that, e pointed that, in the Arab world, the position of women varies from country to country.  In Saudi Arabia, for example, women cannot drive; in Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates, they can and do. They also hold many rights not available in other less-enlightened countries, including the right to own and run businesses. He also pointed out how many Americans hold preconceived notions about women and Islam that are difficult to change.

Shoopman could have been talking about a lot more than women and Islam.  False impressions invariably seem to dominate our thinking. 

Take the hubbub in November over President Obama’s recent children’s book, which identified a handful of famous Americans.  He included Sitting Bull, to the consternation of those who argued that the Lakota Indian chief helped massacre Gen. George Custer and his men in 1876. That’s true, of course, but completely ignores other facts.

1.  Sitting Bull was defending sacred Indian lands stolen by gold-hungry American settlers despite a legally binding agreement between the tribe and the government.  In fact, he was standing up for human rights, a noble cause in any situation.
2. Sitting Bull joined “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which toured this country and Europe just nine years after Custer’s Last Stand, a fact that apparently didn’t bother Cody or the thousands who turned out to see the entertainment.

3, Cody and Sitting Bull became friends.   In his autobiography, the famed Indian scout wrote, "Of all the Indians I encountered in my years on the Plains, the most resourceful and intelligent... were the Sioux.... The greatest of all the Sioux in my time, or any time for that matter, was that wonderful old fighting man, Sitting Bull."

Reality is never cut and dry.  George Washington was a patriotic American.  To the British, he was a traitor.  Robert E. Lee lost his family estate – now Arlington Cemetery – but he didn’t lose his reputation or go to jail for leading the Southern states in a rebellion against the U.S. Government.  Neither, for that matter, did Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who retained public affection in the South for decades after his great counterpart, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated.

Confederate battle flags today are not uncommon, often dressing up trucks owned by patriotic Americans who would never dream of attacking their own country.

The list is endless.  We all tend to see reality as black and white.  We can put a political party, a person, an event or an idea into a neat box.  We can careful homogenize everything.  It’s easier that way.  It’s also often wrong.

Take American history.  While studying for a doctorate in American Studies, I read about Andrew Jackson, the Indian fighter and general who went on to be president.  My high school history book talked about the Jacksonian Age and his impact on American life.  In college, I discovered that most Americans then didn’t know who the president was or cared.  Based on voting records, Jackson had virtually no effect on anyone.

Or famed lawman Wyatt Earp, who has been the subject of multiple books, movies and the like.  He was actually a saloon owner and gambler who did little of what he was renowned for.  A later newsman, Stuart Lake, created a fictional biography of him that has been the basis of the movies.

The idea here is not to demolish heroes.  Nor am I trying to prove that reality is a lot messier than people would like to believe.  I suspect most people are well aware of that.  Rather, I would like to suggest we always keep an open mind and look at as many of the facts as possible before making decisions. 

Maybe then, we can resolve our many problems without being hampered by preconceived and little understood solutions, whether we are talking about the Islamic world, wars, political differences, taxes or any other topic on a local, state, national or international level.

There are two sides to everything – sometimes even many more than that.

Bill Lazarus teaches writing and communication courses at international students attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  Recent books include Comparative Religion for Dummies (Wiley, 2009); The Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus (Halifax Press, 2010) and Noel, The Tradition and History of Christmas Carols (Halifax Press, 2010).  His books are available on Amazon or by going to his website,

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