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Who’s Reinforcing Negative Stereotypes?

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As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, many Muslims throughout the world are terribly upset by comments made by the pope during a recent speech. While speaking to a group of university professors in his native Germany, the pope cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as “evil and inhuman.” He has since offered a less-than-complete apology, saying that he is deeply sorry for the reaction his words have caused. “At this time I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims,” he said on Sunday. “I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect.” Of course apologizing for a reaction is no real apology, but we’ll leave that aside for a moment.

I found it interesting that the Vatican released a statement shortly after the speech in which Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the pope’s position on Islam is unmistakably in line with Vatican teaching that the church “esteems Muslims, who adore the only God.” To equate Allah with the God of the Bible is absolutely absurd for they bear only the slightest resemblance. Christianity and Islam are as different as any two religions could be.

Regardless, Muslims around the world are protesting. Here in Canada a news outlet spoke to Adnan Husain, professor of history of Islam and interfaith relations at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Husain said he’s concerned about the ramifications of the pontiff’s comments, which he said reinforce widespread and incorrect stereotypes about Islam. “I am very concerned about how this reinforces stereotypes, but particularly, how it sharpens a sense of religious conflict and cultural clash during these times when there is a stated war on terrorism taking place.”

Now I don’t often attempt to do P.R. for the Muslim world, but I can’t help but feel that Muslims could help destroy those “widespread and incorrect stereotypes about Islam” by reacting to this situation with calm. They could react peacefully, calling for dialogue and charity. In short, they could react in the way most Christians do when God is slighted and blasphemed. They could react with righteous indignation rather than burning anger. And yet, here is what the press reports:

“Palestinians used guns, firebombs and lighter fluid to attack four Christian churches in the West Bank town of Nablus. Gunmen opened fire on a fifth church in Gaza.”

“In India, angry Muslims clashed with police during a protest in Kashmir. More than 20 were arrested.”

“In the town of Tulkarem, a 170-year-old stone church built 170 years ago was torched before dawn and its interior was destroyed, local Christian officials said. In the village of Tubas, a small church was attacked with firebombs and partially burned, Christians said. Neither church is Catholic, the officials said.”

“An Iraqi insurgent group threatened the Vatican with a suicide attack over the Pope’s remarks on Islam, said a statement posted Saturday on the Web. “We swear to God to send you people who adore death as much as you adore life,” said the message posted in the name of the Mujahedeen Army on a website frequently used by militant groups. The message’s authenticity could not be independently verified. The statement was addressed to “you dog of Rome” and threatened to “shake your thrones and break your crosses in your home.”

This is just a sampling of what the press is offering. There are also plenty of pictures of burning churches, and angry, screaming Muslims holding placards denouncing the pope. To be fair there are several other organizations that have accepted the pope’s apology and no longer display such outrage. But the violence continues as do the threats and the anger.

The point is, if you want to undo stereotypes the best way of doing so is not to blame a person who supposedly reinforces a negative stereotype, but in reacting in a way that different than the stereotype. The stereotype of Muslims tells us that they would react to the pope’s words with anger, violence and calls for blood. Sure enough, many Muslims reacted with anger, violence and calls for blood. So who is reinforcing the negative stereotype?

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