I had the pleasure recently to be invited to the premier of the IMAX documentary “Arabia” at the Virginia Science Museum in Richmond. It was a fascinating film – simple and sincere – that narrates the journey of young Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
The high point of the film was a crucial question: How do you look back at your glorious past and pave a way for a new future at the same time?
Muslims around the world have been complaining for years that Western media coverage of Islam has closely associated them and their faith with militancy, violence and anti-Western sentiment.
In fact, media coverage has relied heavily on a simple framework: You either are defending Muslims, their history and their present situation, or you are speaking of “West versus Islam” or the civilized versus the uncivilized (Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory). The problem, however, is that these approaches rely on a binary way of thinking that puts the West on one side and Islam on the other. The media seems largely obsessed with this binary approach.
“Arabia” is a good first step to challenge such a narrow view of the world. It provides a constructive tension that challenges your deep and hidden misconceptions and lazy bias about Islam and Muslims.
“Arabia” provides you with a space for understanding the productive side of encounters between people of different cultural and religious backgrounds. In a society characterized by increasing complexity of social interactions, information cannot be seen simply as black and white. After all, civilizations are not static; they have always been dynamic.
The Quran, the holy book of Islam, talks about civilizations and nations “changing” hands throughout the movement of history; civilizations “learn” from previous ones and transmit to the next ones. There is a tradition of knowledge transfer, fueled by a divine mandate to seek knowledge.
But the binary approach is flawed and does not allow for healthy exploration of the complex challenges faced by a multicultural society and a global world.
“Arabia” challenges the premise that people are basically trapped in a fixed context of continuous clash between cultures and societies. It offers hope as we move into a new decade. It calls for a continued exploration of cultural or religious experiences based on an honest and genuine dialogue. It offers more hope than other media portrayals for encounters between people of different cultures and faiths.
Indeed, people of different cultures and faiths are naturally strangers to each other. For the possibility of recognizing and respecting each other to occur, a courageous step should be taken through which we must move toward the other and allow the unusual and strange to become internalized. The Quran advises humanity to continuously engage in “civilizational” exchange and calls upon nations and societies to “know” each other, where one’s uniqueness is acknowledged and differences are accepted.
“Arabia” is a call to the media, and to people in general, to give more space for analysis and information sharing based on dialogue-centric approaches. In America’s multicultural and diverse society, it would help us move forward with more confidence, more hope.
M. Imad Damaj is the president of Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs.
Learn more about the documentary at http://www.arabia-film.com/.
M. Imad Damaj lives in Richmond, Virginia. He is the founder of the Virginia Muslim Coalition For Public Affairs and serves on the board of directors for The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.