Stories International: Peaceful Islam?

cute peaceful muslim girls

Peace out, homegirls.

Update: As of Dec 15, 2012, this photo is the #1 search result for ‘peaceful islam’ on Google images. It appears in front of intensely violent photos and political cartoons: two smiling little girls in pink veils, throwing up peace signs. Right on.

There are many sides to any story, issue, religion, or hot-button event. How do we know which side is true, which one to believe? In the U.S. at-large, there’s a tendency to push forward examples of violent Islam over peaceful ones. If you’ve got a strong stomach–really, people, this is not for the faint of heart–try searching Google for images of ‘peaceful Islam.’ Surprised by pages upon pages of intensely violent imagery? Yea, me too. Except the search results today actually had some examples of non-violent Islam, as compared to earlier this summer when there were none. Still, the overarching idea I get from these photos is one of radical, violent Islam. Huh, interesting, Google. Might want to check your algorithm, and your definition of ‘peace’…

In response to an offensive video depicting the Prophet Mohammed, demonstrators in 20 countries across North Africa and the Middle East attacked U.S., British, and German embassies. Western media outlets have been all over these stories, perhaps trying tp prove the inherent danger of Islam. These violent reactions are clearly not accidents or flukes, nor are they simply a reaction to a single video. As the New York Times put it, the “broadening of the protests appeared to reflect a pent-up resentment of Western powers in general, and defied pleas for restraint from world leaders, including the new Islamist president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi.”

My Facebook newsfeed, however, has told another version of the story. Besides the violent attacks, I’ve seen multiple postings about peaceful protestors, people all over the world speaking up for an end to hateful messaging and policy. There’s the La Akrah tumblr (which means ‘I do not hate’ in Arabic), photos of Libyans mourning Chris Stevens, an article questioning The Innocence of White People, and this article contrasting Newsweek’s inflammatory cover with pictures of everyday Muslims fulfilling their right to pursue happiness. (Oh wait, that inalienable right is just for Christian Americans? Sorry, my bad.) It’s been a great example of why I love social media: because, rather than be subject to the Mighty Editorial Agenda of national media executives, we as users get to determine our own media influences.

On the whole, people tend to accept information supporting their pre-existing perception of the world. I know I’ve been sharing images and stories about peaceful Islam despite the fact that four Americans died after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya. I can’t deny that some Muslims engage in violent activity to defend their religion. But I also can’t deny that Christians and Jews engage in violent activity to defend their religion (i.e. abortion clinic bombings and the systematic militarization of Israel’s youth). I just don’t think any good can come from persistently dehumanizing a whole segment of the world population, regardless of their religion, nationality, or ethnicity. The more we drown ourselves in exclusively supportive ideas, the harder it is to relate to those who disagree with us. I mean, who really benefits when regular people start negating nuance, stop communicating with our opponents, and become increasingly biased toward what we already want to believe? Extremists of all stripes, that’s who.

Social media is absolutely incredible because it can unite people across geographic borders and allow for generous self-expression. It’s the closest we’ve gotten to teleportation. On the flip side, our ‘likes’ feed into what we want to see and continually reinforce comfortable ideas.

Right now, I have no grand conclusions to offer on this violent, self-perpetuating clash of civilizations. Instead, I’m leaving it open-ended. But as Facebook continues to shape individual political consciousness, I wonder–and I hope you will, too–if we will start to see more intensely isolated social identities, or if these new media technologies will foster greater appreciation of the story on the other side. I’m personally hoping for the latter, even if Google seems to be confused as to the definition of ‘peace.’

Image from Association for Citizenship Teaching.