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.
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.
In fact, it’s perhaps prescient that this was about the imaginary kingdom from Aladdin, because that was one of my favorite films growing up. And I remember the first song of the narrator really well. They sang, “Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!”
Right from the youngest ages, little children are learning that the people of this Muslim world are barbaric, violent people. Nobody has done more research about this than Professor Jack Shaheen. He reviewed close to one thousand films produced over the course of over a hundred years through Hollywood and found only twelve that depicted Muslims or Arabs in a positive light.
In fact, he reached the conclusion that if there were a male Muslim or Arab character in a film, there would be a 95% chance that he would be depicted as violent, greedy or dishonest — 95%!
People like Samuel Huntington have described our current world situation as a “Clash of Civilizations.” More nuanced thinkers, who realize and understand other parts of the world better, realize that what we’re really facing is a “Clash of Ignorance.”
How do we confront the Clash of Ignorance? Well, here’s an idea that I think is worth spreading. I sit on the governing board of the Madrasa Early Childhood Program in East Africa, which reaches out to the most impoverished regions of this place, to children who have no access to schooling.
Some 30 years ago, leaders along the coastal Muslim communities of this region approached His Highness the Aga Khan, whose grandfather had established the first multiracial schools in the entire region, to ask if he could help them with educating the youngest children in these disadvantaged communities. In the time since then, they have developed an innovative curriculum that has been highlighted on CNN and the BBC, which teaches all the subjects one would normally expect, but in addition, a fundamental part of the curriculum that my children, that you see in this picture, learn from the youngest ages is that they must be exposed to the pluralism of the world. They must learn about the linguistic groups, the ethnic groups, the variety of tribes and religions that share their villages, their towns, their country and our world. In other words, these little children grow up with a “cosmopolitan ethic.”
Now, as many of you may recall, the beginning of 2008, Kenya was faced with terrible violence. As post-electoral violence broke out across the country, there was terrible carnage as the supporters of the president Mwai Kibaki battled against the supporters of his opponent. Kikuyu tribe, Luo tribe, Kalenjin tribe were killing one another. Thousands of people were murdered; hundreds of thousands were displaced. All seventy-five of our schools in Kenya were closed down. We were frantic. Our schools were located in the poorest areas of the country, the areas most likely to be affected by this violence.
When our board next had its meeting, I immediately requested that a report be prepared to tell us, “What has happened to our children?”
“What has happened to our teachers?”
“Are the parents who volunteer at our schools okay?”
“Are our communities okay?”
“How many have died?”
When the report came back, we were stunned at what we read. Not a single school in our communities had been impacted by the violence. Not one.
And I’m convinced that it is because, for the last thirty years, these children have been growing up learning about their neighbors, learning about the tribes, and the languages, and the songs, and the dances of everyone in their surroundings, and in the world around them. They have been immunized against the virus of hatred and dehumanization that demagogues often try to spread.