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Transcript: Shafique Virani on The Clash of Ignorance at TEDxUTSC

Sharing is Kindness in Action!

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Can you imagine if children across the world were to be taught like these children were taught? Would we be seeing the sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria that we’re seeing now? Would the racial problems in the United States be what they are? Would Islamophobia in the Western world exist in the way that we see it?

You know, our definition of an educated person in the West means that they should be able to tell us something about Sir Isaac Newton, about Mozart, about Napoleon. But we would be very hard-pressed to find many of even the most learned people in the West who know about the equivalent in the Muslim world. This is despite the fact that the very words “algebra” and “algorithm” come from Arabic; that some of the most iconic pieces of architecture in the world, such as the Taj Mahal, come from Muslim cultures; and that the “Canon of Medicine”, by Ibn Sina, was the standard textbook of medicine in Europe for hundreds of years.

We need to implement a global vision in our educational curriculum right from the youngest ages, so that children grow up understanding the world in which we live, the people that are part of our community.

At the entrance of the United Nations there is inscribed a Persian poem by Sa’di-yi Shirazi, a 13th-century Muslim poet, who writes, (Persian)

“The children of Adam are like the limbs of one another

For they were all created from a single soul.

When the winds of time afflict one limb with pain,

How can the other limbs remain at peace?

You who feel not the pain of others

How dare you call yourself a child of Adam?

How dare you call yourself a human being?”

That feeling that we are one human family has led to some of the most inspirational stories of courage in our recent past. In the last few months, as a result of terrorist attacks, some extremist elements in the West have turned against Muslims in their midst, who had nothing to do with these terrorist attacks. We have seen women pushed in front of oncoming buses, mosques burned down, and the head of a pig thrown into a children’s school.

But when these incidents started happening and Muslims were scared to go out into their communities, within four hours 150,000 tweets in Australia, with the hashtag “I’ll ride with you”, came out. “I’ll ride with you.” We’re with you. You’re part of our community. You have nothing to worry about.

Just weeks ago, al-Shabab militants attacked a bus on the way to Mandera on the border of Somalia and Kenya. They tried to take the Christians off of the bus to execute them in cold blood, but the Muslims on that bus refused to let their Christian brothers and sisters be massacred. They told the terrorists, “You will not take these Christians. If you want to kill them, you will kill all of us.” Those terrorists were so scared that they ran away.

If we are armed with knowledge about our neighbors, the people that make up our world, we will have the tools to stand up to anybody who hopes to dehumanize others, who hopes to divide us, because in the words of Sa’di-yi Shirazi, we are all the children of Adam, we are all one human family.

Thank you.

Sharing is Kindness in Action!