AWAR FAKHRY EZZI

There is an ancient Chinese fable about a frog, which lived at the bottom of a well. The frog was so happy in his well because it had everything he needed including an opening to see the sky from. One day, the frog glimpsed a turtle from the Eastern Sea at the edge of the well and tried to encourage her to come down and stay with him. The turtle tried to come down, but the well was too narrow to fit her, which made her go back up. The turtle then started telling the frog about the beauty of the sea and how deep and wide it was. This idea was unfathomable for the frog and he was left speechless.

This fable, which dates back to around 300 B.C.E., describes people who have a narrow vision of the world and are ignorant of other people’s way of life. Considering the circumstances when this fable was told, having a limited understanding of different ways of life could have been justified because at that time, it was very difficult for people to know about other people’s cultures and religions, for example, due to difficulty in long distance traveling. What is ironic though is that it still applies just as much today as it did about 2300 years ago, but in a world where people choose to build their own walls and isolate themselves from a world connected through transportation systems and advanced technology.

People’s way of life is greatly influenced by their culture, beliefs and values. Religious traditions interrelate with these factors in various degrees according to the society’s religiosity, which in turn influences people’s way of life as well. For most Muslims, religion dominates all aspects of their life and some of them see the world through their narrow interpretation of Islam. Those Muslims develop a condescending attitude toward “other’s” way of life and reject any ideas that do not fit their assumption of the “right path.” In this case, the “other” includes non-Muslims, fellow citizens and even Muslims, who do not follow the same sect or the same school of Islam. This has led to estrangement between Muslims in their communities, and to clashes between Muslims and people from different religious backgrounds, especially in the West. Therefore, learning about the “other” could increase community cohesion and enable us to communicate effectively and peacefully with people around the world.

Our attitude toward learning about the “other” is also very important. Respect and empathy are important elements in order to promote genuine understanding and tolerance. Learning, on the other hand, for the sake of pinpointing where others have “missed” and to prove the “correctness” of our way of life defeats the purpose and drifts us farther apart. This does not contradict people’s deep faith in the “truthfulness” of their belief or satisfaction of their way of life, but rather to realise that there are other religious traditions and cultures, which are equally valuable to those who belong to them.

Trying to look at ourselves from an outsider’s perspective would make it easier for us to empathise and respect them. Horace Miner beautifully demonstrated this point in his anthropological article in 1956, in which he talks about the body ritual of the “Nacirema” tribe. He describes the most exotic and peculiar customs of this tribe, which after pondering, one would realise that he is talking about his culture and customs in the way it could be perceived by the “other.” The title itself, “Nacirema”, if read backward would become “American”, which was cleverly done to mislead the reader and prove his point.

Unfortunately, we do not need to make much effort into considering how the “other” perceives us because after 9/11, the Western media and public opinion revealed how many “outsiders” see Muslims. Regardless of how much effort we put into correcting their misunderstandings and preconceptions, little can change unless we learn about them with an open mind; acknowledging our similarities and respecting our differences in order to be able to ask them to do the same.

Learning about different ways of life through reading and personal interaction does not merely help us learn about others, but also learn about ourselves. Paul Ricour, the French philosopher and theologian, said, “We find our own deepest understanding through relations and dialogue with others.”

This is the case because when we discuss our different ways of lives with others with an open mind, we start reflecting on what we have learned, which helps us gain insights about our own way of life and beliefs as well as about others’.

In 2007, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah made a historical visit to the Vatican City being the first Saudi king to meet with the Pope Benedict XVI. In June 2008, King Abdullah requested an interfaith dialogue, which people from around the world attended to discuss the issue. This was a positive gesture that would help in promoting understanding and tolerance.

According to a saying, “Seek knowledge even as far as China.” Nowadays, even if we cannot leave our homes, we can study, read, and even interact with others through our computers and smartphones. Differences between other people’s way of life and ours do not make them futile or not worthy of knowing about. Because of our arrogance or insecurity of our commitment to our own faith, we have become like the frog at the bottom of the well — unaware of the vastness of the earth and satisfied to look at what we assume to be the whole sky. As the walls of our well are collapsing, knowledge of all aspects of other people’s ways of life is what we need to empower us to develop and to live peacefully in a global community.

– Arab News