The Prophet Muhammad famously said, “Seek knowledge, even as far as China.” Thanks to Dr. Shafique Virani’s new TEDx talk, “The Clash of Ignorance,” those of us trying to grapple with the issue of Islamophobia need only go as far as YouTube.
Virani’s talk has been widely acclaimed and recognized in the TEDx community and is currently being promoted and incorporated in new academic and public policy initiatives. Leading academic institutions, such as Harvard’s Alwaleed Institute of Islamic Studies, have highlighted the talk on their websites and others have invited Dr. Virani, Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto, to share his message in public lectures.
Beyond academia, the talk has already begun to influence public policy, and Virani has met with members of the British House of Lords and Canadian Senate in this regard. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne wrote to Virani in appreciation of the talk, and connected its aims to the Canadian province’s newly established Anti-Racism Directorate. Melanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage, wrote, “I commend you for your efforts to combat Islamophobia in Canada by fostering a broader understanding of Islam. I wholeheartedly agree that building bridges between communities is crucial for combating negative stereotyping.”
Mark Seeley, the Director of Multiculturalism from the office of the Honourable Teresa Wat, British Columbia Minister, wrote to Virani, “We found your presentation to be both informative and humorous; a demanding task for such a difficult issue.” Dozens of other Members of Parliament, Senators and MLA’s have circulated the video and expressed their support and recognition of Virani’s talk.
Virani’s perspective is also receiving global recognition, as evidenced by the fact that the TEDx talk has already been translated into Bengali, Brazilian Portuguese, French, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Tajik, and Urdu, with translations into Chinese, Arabic, Gujarati, Serbian and Spanish in the works as well. The talk has been well received internationally, even being screened on the other side of the globe at schools in Kenya, such as the elite Braeburn School in Nairobi, and Jaffery Academy in Mombasa.
The current U.S. election cycle has only contributed to the growth and validation of Islamophobia, as certain political figures use ignorance and fear to rally support for their campaigns. We see it all over the news and Internet and no matter how much we know about Islam through study, travel, or personal experience, some people’s commitment to Islamophobic rhetoric seems too strong to pierce. Dr. Virani highlights an example of this in his talk when he displays the image of a truck with the words written on it “Everything I ever needed to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”
Would such sweeping expressions of hate for a religious community of 1.5 billion people exist if we knew more about them? If it were part of our standard education to be informed about the historical contributions of Muslims to scientific discoveries, advanced philosophical discourses, the arts and literature, would it be this easy to dismiss an entire civilization and hold it in contempt? As an undergraduate student I recall being shocked by the incredible poetry of Muslim figures! Why did it take until my fourth year of college to be exposed to brilliant poets like Rumi and Attar?
If we had more exposure to the numerous Muslims who work for the good of humankind, who give charity, who cure diseases, the ones who write love poems and play soccer, would we even consider letting September 11, 2001 speak authoritatively for what it means to be Muslim? Our ignorance is quite convenient for the media and political aspirants. It’s easy to de-humanize people when you know nothing about them.
As a PhD student in Islamic Studies, my fellow doctoral students and I exert great effort to learn languages and travel widely to new regions of the world so that we can understand the diversity of Islamic perspectives and realities. It baffles me that anyone could be satisfied with less knowledge rather than more. It stuns me that they could proudly display such ignorance when my vocation requires that I constantly seek more knowledge and information before even making the slightest claims to understanding.
What is the solution to this “Clash of Ignorance?” Virani advocates for the cultivation of a cosmopolitan ethic and cites several educational institutions that have adopted this perspective and used it to successfully combat divisive forces in society. While Islamophobia is a problem we will be grappling with for some time to come, acknowledging that it is rooted in ignorance is a major step forward. We can learn to be better informed, we can increase educational programming with a global perspective, and we can train ourselves to be more selective and critical with our sources of information.
Virani has started a movement to promote social harmony that is firmly rooted in knowledge and appeals to the goodness in humankind. If you hope for better understanding between the diverse people of our world and agree that knowledge is a powerful instrument for social unity, you will love his TEDx talk.
We must never be content with our assumptions and we cannot simply close our eyes in fear. The wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad rings as true now as ever – we must seek knowledge far and wide, and endlessly.