Saturday, December 18, 2010

Embracing Plurality

NOTE : This post was written during the height of the ground zero mosque controversy.

Proponents of Park51 are at pains to expla­­in that the people planning the mosque are very different from those who attacked the world trade center. Once the difference is acknowledged, it should no longer irk the sensitivities of those who suffered from the attack, they hope.

In a previous Op-Ed in the New York Times, William Darlymple describes how Islam, like Christianity has many sects. He also writes:

"Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors.

Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith."

That the majority of Americans are able to discern the many forms of Christianity, but are blind to those of Islam, must not be dismissed as bigotry. Nor must it be taken as evidence of hypocrisy, or taken to the extreme conclusion that they are not truly secular. Why then, are Americans not able to see these parallels? The reason is likely far less sinister.

It comes down to the way the brain works. It is with experience with members of a category, that we are able to identify differences. Bird lovers readily distinguish ravens and crows while the novice sees them all as black birds. Car experts will identify two models of a car in no more than a glimpse. When we attempt spot-the-differences puzzles, it is not until we look at the pictures long enough, not until our brains have extracted enough information that the differences become apparent; sometimes embarrassingly obvious. Parents of identical twins are often asked if they get confused and almost always the answer is no. Such an ability is not born out of love or a special parental bond. It is simply that constant exposure to these kids has allowed the brain to sample the visual information repeatedly. Parents develop a sophisticated perceptual ability to identify their twins- one that is sensitive to nuance and subtle differences. With experience, we become acutely aware of deeper levels of categorization and are able to identify individuals of a broad category.

Known as the other-race effect, psychologists have long documented the finding that we’re consistently better at distinguishing those of our own race than those of others. With the other-race-effect too, the more the interaction with people from another race, the less similar other-race members will appear. Categorizing people according to the somewhat more abstract basis of religious identity may very well happen the same way. The majority of Americans may be unable to distinguish Muslims of different sects for the simple reason that they are less likely to have mingled with enough people from a minority population and are therefore na├»ve to the differences among various Muslim ideologies. Minorities of all nations suffer from the same problems in attitude. They’re seen and treated similarly. It should therefore not be surprising that many Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of Park51.

The Taliban and the extremists they support are under the same influence of neural processes. They too lump all of the West in one huge category and label them as evil. The Taliban regime’s vehement insistence on insularity only makes it harder for them to understand Western heterogeneity, and has further justified their passions for terrorism.

Then what are Americans (or anyone) to do?

Thankfully , it is one thing to treat people from an unfamiliar religion as the same because we’re not able to tell them apart. It is another matter, entirely , to pretend that the diversity is non-existent. It is this difference in conscious treatment that should set apart great American Leaders from the Taliban Leaders .

In their lifetimes, most Americans aren't going to be able to live in the several Muslim countries, mingle with people from various sects , to learn to tell them apart. But it does not take much effort to endorse that differences exist even if they are not instinctively sensitized to them.

William Dalrymple, in his Op-Ed succeeds in explaining that the ideology of the Sufi sect of the Cordoba Initiative is in fact at odds with that of the Wahhabi sect of the Talibam. It is a difference one should be mindful of. It can be argued again that not all people of the Sufi sect are similar and not all people of the Wahhabi sect are similar. That too, is well worth taking note of .

Maybe battles are best fought between two individuals instead of groups of stereotypes. Borders, labeling, classification and identity after all sprung from a need for convenience; not for settling matters of life and death. To fall prey to the appeals of broad labels, to treat everyone as a particle of a homogenous moiety is the tactic of the shrewd politician. To cultivate an appreciation for differences is to embrace a layered, fine-grained plurality and is the stamp of a responsible leader.