We must educate ourselves about Islam

October 23, 2001|By Ann Egerton

SINCE SEPT. 11, church attendance is up, shopping and dining out is down, a new show on Broadway, The Spitfire Grill, is winning attention to its hokey, rural charm, and My Fair Lady is back.

Obviously, these shows were planned way before this fall, but I'm betting that they will be hits. Hip and harsh are out, gentle and sentimental are in.

The television show The West Wing showed a special post-Sept. 11 program that spouted preachy, anti-terrorist propaganda, much like many movies in the early 1940s spouted preachy, anti-fascist propaganda. Some airlines have hired jugglers and comic impressionists to entertain us while we stand in long airport lines. So we're resuming our lives, with some adjustments.

This is all very nice, but while we look to spiritual and retro symbols for comfort and sanity, we had also better look to serious instruction for comprehension. In reading about Islam and trying to understand different points of view in the Middle East, I realize how very provincial and insular I am.

Pictures of the people of Afghanistan make them look like characters out of a Cecil B. DeMille movie. I half expect Charlton Heston or Jeff Chandler to swoop in and save the day. No such luck.

Media explanations about the relationships of Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries among themselves and to each other and to Europe and the United States are fiendishly complicated. Yet we as citizens of the most powerful nation in the world had better know about those histories.

Rudyard Kipling's 19th century philosophy, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," doesn't work anymore, if it ever did. Like it or not, we must learn to think globally, not just in business but in international relations. Never has education been so important. Muslims, from Indonesia to Bosnia to Baltimore, can no longer be regarded with mere curiosity.

We must learn more about Islam, how Muslims differ from Jews and Christians and how we are all alike. We must also try to learn how religious history in the Middle East is entwined with the geography and political history there.

It's time to do our homework. That's a vital responsibility of living in a democracy, especially one whose citizens have been viciously attacked and killed.

Ann Egerton is a free-lance writer who lives in Baltimore.

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