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Commentary: Post 9/11 misperceptions linger

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 15, 2008 - As we reflected on the tragedy of 9/11, my mind shifted to the psychological aftermath of hypervigilence and misperceptions. The reality is that in a number of ways we "went after" those who looked like our perpetrators long before the Bush Doctrine. Muslims and people of Arab descent were targets of hate crimes, satire, comedic insult, distorted media images and the like.

It seemed reminiscent of the climate, which I can only imagine, that preceded the Japanese internment camps. Assumptions were made based on the color of a person's skin, and, in this case, the professing of a certain religion. Never mind that on Sept. 10 these individuals were considered our neighbors and fellow Americans. Muslims and Arab Americans became "them" - no longer "us" - post 9/11.

Although seven years have passed, I'm not sure our perception of Muslims has changed. One way we can expand our knowledge, and subsequently our perception, of Muslims is to learn about the culture. It is indeed a culture, a way of life, much more than a religion the way Americans conceptualize it.

I recently attended a Ramadan service led by the Muslim Students' Association on my campus. Ramadan, the ninth month, is a month of fasting and realignment. It includes the most holy night of the year and is filled with fellowship. Students shared the meaning of Ramadan and their experiences growing up and at college.

During this service, I was struck by the parallel between Ramadan and Lent. Both seasons have an element of sacrifice - through fasting - meant to strengthen your relationship with a higher power. One hopes that by this practice the person will be renewed in faith. Both periods of time involve recognizing the less fortunate and connecting with others in the faith community. They culminate in a festive celebration. Of course, they have differences. Ramadan is considered a holy time because it was during this time that the Qur'an was revealed. Lent represents Jesus' time in the desert prior to Easter.

You might ask, "So what?" You might even call me sacrilegious for making comparisons. I raise the issue to say that it has become so commonplace to perceive Muslims as "the other" that surprised me when this connection popped into my head. Although some media outlets tell real-life stories of Muslims, the most common portrayal is not meant to help us see ourselves as similar. This reality is unfortunate, because, as I said earlier, Muslims are Americans. The questioning of this fact was only heightened after 9/11.

Getting back to my story: This personal account forced me to realize I had been keeping my distance from Islam. I have lived in a Muslim country, had numerous Muslim friends, yet I had let the distorted images of Islam cloud my ability to connect with the humanity of the religion. This prior knowledge did not make me immune to the distortions.

The need to keep this distance serves our purpose as a country. To be at war, we need to see the "enemy" as the "other," "them" "different from us." It's easier that way.

Psychologically, we are less willing to wage atrocities on our neighbors or those we feel are similar. Yet it's all a tangled mess, because we are not at war with Islam or Muslims in general.

I share this personal example to say that we need to be careful about what messages we are taking in. This process can happen unconsciously, but through awareness and self-reflection you will see it rear its ugly head in your thoughts and actions. Psychology suggests that we think about "us" differently than we think about "them." Once we've drawn those lines, we continue to see evidence to support the distinction.

The roles of "us" and "them" change with time, but I would argue that we're still feeling the aftermath of 9/11 in relation to our misperceptions of Islam.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.  

Kira Hudson Banks

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