Transcript: Shafique Virani on The Clash of Ignorance at TEDxUTSC

Shafique Virani

Here is the full transcript of Professor Shafique Virani’s TEDx Talk: The Clash of Ignorance at TEDxUTSC.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Clash of Ignorance by Shafique Virani at TEDxUTSC

Dr. Shafique N. Virani – Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto

So I just flew in for the TED conference, and while I was waiting at the airport, I happened to see a family friend that I haven’t seen in ages. We call him Uncle Anwar and he’s the spitting image of Babar from the Canadian hit comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie. He loves wearing his traditional kurta-pajama, he sports a beard, and he has the most adorable Pakistani accent.

So he rushed up to me, gave me a big hug, and said, “How are you doing? What are you up to these days?”

So I told him that I’d become a Professor of Islamic Studies, and I kept myself pretty busy flying around and giving lectures to help people understand a little bit more about Islam, especially after 9/11.

He looked me right in the eye and said, “Don’t talk to me about 9/11. Everywhere I go, everybody looks at me as if I am responsible for 9/11. Me, responsible for 9/11? 7-Eleven maybe, but not 9/11”

As I told Uncle Anwar, I’ve been going around a lot and giving many talks, and one of them was at the National Press Club. At that time, the substance DHM was being talked about a lot. In fact, in Idaho, 86% of those who were surveyed wanted a ban on this substance.

I’d like to tell you a number of important facts about this substance, and then ask for your opinion. All of the facts that I’m going to tell you are actually things that have been published in peer-reviewed literature and have been verified by the best scientists at Harvard, MIT, the University of Toronto, and Oxford.

DHM is colorless, odorless and tasteless. Prolonged exposure to DHM’s solid form severely damages human body tissues. Symptoms of DHM ingestion include excessive sweating, urination, and possible feelings of bloating, nausea, vomiting and body electrolyte imbalance.

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DHM has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients. Accidental inhalation of DHM is the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide, with almost 400,000 fatalities annually, according to the World Health Organization. For those who’ll become dependent, DHM withdrawal means certain death.

Given this information, how many of you would allow DHM to be freely available? Almost nobody. You are in full agreement with the people at the National Press Club that I talked to.

Let me tell you little bit more about it. DHM is Di-Hydrogen Monoxide. It’s also known as Hydrogen Hydroxide. But most of us probably know it by its common name, which is water.

Every fact that I just told you was verifiable by the best scientists across the world. And yet, almost everyone in this audience was ready to limit our access to water.

When we are presented with only a certain subset of information, we are liable to make errors of judgment and wrong decisions. The story of DHM reveals a lot about the topic that I want to talk to you about, another type of DHM that is much more invidious than this one.

The first DHM is Di-Hydrogen Monoxide, but the second one is De-Humanizing Muslims.

Media Tenor, one of the leading world organizations for strategic media intelligence, reviewed close to one million items about Muslims in US and European media outlets. 98% of the stories were about Muslim militants. Only 2% of them were about the ordinary 1.5 billion Muslims, one quarter of our world’s population, with whom we share this planet. This is an exact parallel to the situation of the information I gave you about DHM.

When all of the information we have is about one extremely unusual subset, not only do we fail to address that subset, but we completely misunderstand the issue. We have conflated the actions of an infinitesimally small portion of Muslims in the world with 1.5 billion people across the globe.

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It’s similar to if we were to take the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, the cross burnings, and say, “This is representative of all of Christianity.” Unfortunately, this type of conflation has become increasingly common, as we can see in the message on the back of this pickup truck, which says, “Everything I ever needed to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”

I remember 9/11 really well. I had just been appointed to the faculty at Harvard University, and I was preparing for my first class. I remember that class. The students and I struggled to understand the terrible evil that we had just witnessed. What I found really encouraging was that all of them were very open-minded and willing to learn and to understand. They realized that throughout their years of schooling they had had almost no exposure to the Muslim world and, therefore, they wanted to understand. They wanted to see this world in its reality.

The contrast between the message on the back of this truck and these students reminds me of a passage that I came across in a book that I’m currently translating by a famous author with the name Nasiruddin Tusi, one of the most famous of Muslim scientists and philosophers from the Middle Ages. That passage says, “He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool. Avoid him. He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a seeker. Teach him. He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep. Awaken him. And he who knows and knows that he knows is wise. Follow him.”

One of the other reasons why 9/11 is etched into my memory, perhaps much more than many other people, can be told from this picture. This is my uncle, Salman Dhanani. He was an active volunteer in his community in New York, a real humanitarian who was always helping with activities in the developing world. He was the Vice President of a company called Aon Insurance, which had its offices on the 99th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

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On that fateful day, when those planes crashed into those buildings, he was responsible for evacuating his colleagues. He saved the lives of 80 of his fellows, and they escaped. But by the time they got out, it was too late for him. He was trapped. And today he lies buried under the rubble that was once the World Trade Center. He was 63.

This picture was taken just days before he died, when members of my family, my uncle Nizar, my aunt Mumtaz and my cousin Fatima went to visit him, and they took this picture outside of the United Nations. These are the ordinary Muslims that we never hear about.

The vacuum of knowledge that we have about one quarter of humanity in the Muslim world I think is really well revealed by a poll that was released, just last month, by one of the most respected polling firms in the United States, Public Policy Polling. They interviewed 1000 Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, and the results are something that I promise you I could not have made up if I tried. One quarter of Americans favor the bombing of Agrabah.

Now, for those of you who are unaware, Agrabah is the mythical kingdom from the Disney classic Aladdin. It boggles the mind that one quarter of people wanted to bomb an imaginary kingdom presumably because it’s maybe somewhere in the Middle East. But I think that is something a little bit telling, isn’t it? Because the image that we have of the ordinary people that live in that part of the world is rather imaginary, isn’t it? And it’s something that I think has developed over generations.

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