What we choose to pay attention to.

I’m glad we were assigned this blog post this week.  But before I get to that, I’d like to talk about Rabban Bar Sauma.

Widely considered, by those who know his story, as the “Marco Polo of the East”, Sauma traveled on religious missions to Western Europe.  He was born to a wealthy Christian family in Zhongdu China where he became a Nestorian Monk. He attempted a trip to Jerusalem, but had to stay back in Baghdad due to fighting. The catholicos were the head of the Nestorian church, and they appointed him to go on a mission to the christian monarchs in Europe.

When he arrived, he realized that the pope, Honorius IV, had died.  He then travelled to Paris and hung with King Philip IV.  None were looking for an alliance with his church, so he went to Iran where he was appointed chaplain to Il-khan’s court.  He was well educated, so he kept an account of his observations which exist today.

The way history is presented to Americans is indubitably western-centric.  We focus on the ideologies and beliefs that we feel most closely align with our own.  And the reason I feel the need to talk about this in general terms is because of the terrorist attacks that have occurred in the past few days.  As you most definitely know, a terrorist attack has struck France and killed over 100 people.  What you may not have know, is that there was also an attack in Lebanon that killed 43 people.  It happened only a day before, and yet we’ve already decided that it’s not going to go down in our history books.  Broadcast media covered it for all of 3 minutes on some channels, and I’m saddened to think about how the Lebanese people feel when the world tells them, through inaction, that we care more about Parisian victims than Middle-eastern victims of the same terrorism.

I have read claims that the Syrian refugees, who are numerous in Lebanon, are the perpetrators of the attack in Paris. At what point, I ask myself, will we stop calling refugees terrorists? At what point will we give Lebanon the attention it deserves? What about the 102 killed in Turkey a month ago? What about Syria? What about Iraq? What about Nigeria? What about Afghanistan? And then I realize that terrorism has taken on a very narrow definition in the American dialogue: a brown person who inflicts damage on white people/western people. We have turned our perception of the Middle East into a dystopian environment where we feel little sympathy for the innocent victims who are attacked. I’d like to highlight that word–innocent. The individuals who were killed in Lebanon were just as unsuspecting, just as scared, and just as human.

Our detachment from the victims in the Middle East is contributing to our own extremism.  When we dehumanize anyone, committing heinous crimes against their people becomes much easier.  Islamic extremism isn’t motivated by Islam or religious belief, it is motivated by hatred, fear, and ignorance.  It is motivated by the same flaw in our human condition.  All too often, we care much less about the people who speak a different language, come from a different country of origin, or have a different skin tone from what we have.  We have to rise above this hatred and find ways to stand in solidarity with the people in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Until we can find the humanity in all of us, the epic stories of Rabban Bar Sauma will never get told.  Instead, we’ll only carry the fables of the Christopher Columbus of the world–the ones who decimated Native populations. We’ll remember the stories but forget the victims, especially if their skin is a different shade from our own.

Elie Fares, a doctor in Lebanon says the following on the matter: “When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag.”

Terrorism, by our definition, is narrow and frankly discriminatory. Let’s change that. I’m not particularly religious, but…
France, I pray for you.
Lebanon, I pray for you.
To Afghanistan, I pray for you.
To the victims of Boko Haram, I pray for you.
To Syria and Iraq and Yemen, I pray for you.
To the American people and the users of Facebook, I pray that we can provide our condolences without racism, hatred, and fear. Terrorism will only end when we can stand on the side of victims everywhere, regardless of religion.


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