In Others’ Shoes

According to the polls, most Americans seem reasonably content with their lives.  They are both proud and relieved to live in what many of them proclaim to be “the greatest nation in the world,” although immigrants aside, most have never lived anywhere else.  They take it for granted that free-market capitalism is fundamental to true democracy, and that the rest of the world either knows that or should know it.  If they don’t, then we have a messianic mission to enlighten them.  This we want to do, insofar as possible, by peaceful means, although we don’t rule out pre-emptive violence if that seems expedient.  Our God-given task, as we see it, is to “spread democracy,” in the form we know and enjoy, to as many people across the globe as we can.  And we dismiss as socialist propaganda any notion that we are primarily interested in making the world safe(r) for American economic interests.

To a great many of the world’s people, especially in Africa and the Middle East, American foreign policy has nothing to do with values such as individual liberty and democratic reform.  Despite rhetoric from Washington, the effect of that policy from their point of view is to replace erstwhile colonialism with economic imperialism, all in the interests of insuring that U.S. citizens will have sufficient and affordable oil supplies, abundant export outlets (hence the drastically weakened dollar), and plenty of stuff “Made in China.”

After 9/11 it’s easy for us to condemn violent reactions against our policies and our lifestyle as “terrorism,” perpetrated by sick, misguided and deluded radicals who are simply looking for a scapegoat for the failings of their own societies.  It’s equally easy for us to dismiss their messages as the rantings of “Islamo-fascists,” people whose grievances are not worth considering because of the abhorrent tactics some of them use to advance their cause.  We do both them and ourselves a great disservice, though, when we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of “either-or” thinking, of seeing the world as white or black, good or bad, true or false.

This nuance-free approach to everything from foreign policy to interpersonal relationships is typical of alcoholic family systems, and it is dangerously dysfunctional.  It sets nation against nation and neighbor against neighbor.  And it plays a major role in escalating the tensions that presently threaten our wellbeing and that of the world we will leave to our children.

In spite of many well-meaning attempts to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and congeniality between Muslims and the rest of us, whether here or in Western Europe, the current mood is one of growing mistrust and hostility.  We know fairly well why we harbor these feelings: the terrible price military families have borne with the loss of sons and daughters in Iraq’s civil war and the chaos in Afghanistan, the threat of oil prices topping $100 per barrel because of collusion among OPEC members, the subordination of women in Islamic societies, as well as the soaring birthrate among Muslims living in Western democracies (“If they can’t beat us militarily, they’ll overwhelm us demographically,” we tell ourselves, then they’ll exploit the democratic process to vote in fundamentalist Islamic governments and Sharia law).  All this, of course, is intensified by dread of another massive terrorist attack within our nation’s borders.  The American Way of Life appears to many of us to be seriously endangered.

That way of life, however, is anathema to many people of good will throughout the world, including many Muslims.  They see the level of violence that mars our society, from political agendas to inner-city gang wars and murders committed in our children’s classrooms; they are appalled at the sexual exploitation perpetrated by everything from TV ads and Internet pornography to stand-up “comedy” and teen-age wardrobes; they are mystified by the way we tout cut-throat competition, consumerism and litigation as national virtues; they recoil from the religious hypocrisy of our secularized culture (“God bless America!” the candidates all feel compelled to say – “God is great!” has a much more genuine ring on Muslim lips); they are repelled by the increasing gulf that separates the lower and middle classes from the super-rich (the “one per cent!”) in Western countries, as they are by an economic system that leaves millions of adults without medical insurance and millions of children in poverty (however great the poverty level may be in their own societies); they are scandalized by the way we warehouse our sick in hospitals and our elderly in “retirement communities,” rather than caring for them in our homes and accompanying them to the end; and their heightened sense of history makes offenses of the past seem all the more acute in the present, and all the more inevitable for a future under continued Western domination.

Many Muslims see Western culture in general, and the American lifestyle in particular, as decadent and moribund, and they are convinced that its demise would vastly improve the condition and quality of life for multitudes of people throughout the world.  Then again, many others simply want to be left alone, to worship as they please, nurture their families, and live out their days in peace.

My purpose in raising the issue this way is not to pass judgment on either Western or Islamic society or on their respective values and styles of life.  It is simply to urge us to look at Muslims as we would want to be regarded ourselves: as children of God, who want to preserve their traditional values and be respected as persons, bearers of the divine Image.  We have good reason to be suspicious and even fearful in the face of Islamic aggression.  But so does the average Muslim, who suffers more than we do at the outrages of ethnic violence.  And given the legacy of colonialism and other forms of oppression endured over the last half century or more, that average Muslim has good reason to be suspicious and even fearful of us.

It’s never easy to place ourself in someone else’s shoes.  Nevertheless, there’s often a moral imperative to do so, and that imperative may never have been greater than it is today.  A helpful and moving way to begin doing so would be to view the 1965 film by Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers.

It recounts the events from 1957 until 1962 that led to Algeria’s independence from French colonialism.  It is a finely balanced and brilliant achievement that paints in graphic detail the suffering and struggle of a Muslim people under well-meaning if misguided Western occupation.  Its chief value is its ability to express personal feelings and attitudes that shaped the conflict on both sides, Algerian and French; and, as the Netflix blurb rightly states, its depiction of violence and conflict is “astonishingly relevant today.”

It is relevant not only because it depicts a crucial moment in the history of Muslim and Western conflict.  It also calls us beyond history and politics to an appreciation of human suffering and the longing for freedom: freedom to pray, to work and simply to be according to our own values, principles and dreams.  It calls us to place our feet in the shoes of other people, to see them on their own terms and to understand their motivations, needs and desires.  While we categorically reject the methods and objectives of Islamic fundamentalism and other radical movements, we can nevertheless accept and even embrace those Muslims among us who share our concern for faith, family, justice, stability and peace in a world sadly lacking in just those things.