INFORMATION PREVAILING OVER PREJUDICE
If the outpourings of the right-wing chicken-littles of the tabloid press and talkback radio are to be believed, there is a problem with multiculturalism. The sky is about to fall down, thanks to the Muslim "fifth-column" (and Leftist allies) whose refusal to form some ultra-conservative cargo cult with George Bush as its War God poses such a sinister threat to Western society.
Attacking the "failed experiment" of multiculturalism, these self-professed advocates of the common man have claimed that September 11 was some kind of wake-up call to an impending social implosion of sorts.
Such a position demands to be challenged. Firstly, to what extent do the sentiments articulated by the mono culturalist Right represent the sentiments of the common man? Secondly, was multiculturalism damaged by September 11?
It is difficult to objectively triage the patient of Western multiculturalism, but one measure is how muslim/non-muslim relations were affected by September 11.
It would not have been unreasonable to expect that the United States would have become a tough market for multiculturalists to peddle their pluralistic wares after September 11. If there was any country on earth where antagonism against its Muslim minority would have been, whilst not justifiable, understandable, it would be the USA.
Yet, immediately after September 11, a CNN/Time poll found that 65% of respondents reported feeling no different than before towards Arab Americans.
According to a detailed November study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 59% of Americans had a favorable view, compared to 45% in March 2000. The percentage of those with an unfavorable view dropped from 40% four days after the hijackings to 17% in November. By way of contrast, the same study found only 42% view atheists favorable, whilst 49% have a negative view.
Despite the widespread denomination of Muslims, most American's didn't buy it. A Harris Interactive poll on September 27, found 76% of Americans didn't believe that Muslims sympathized with the terrorists. A March 2002 poll by CNN and USA Today found 50% of Americans believed Islam doesn't encourage violence more than any other religion. 12% said it encouraged violence less.
Whilst such figures are not ideal, the marked and surprising improvement post-September 11 suggests that something positive happened.
The most profound change was the sudden and unprecedented access that the world got to information about Islam. A February poll by CBS showed that more than half of the public said they now know more about the faith. In December 37% of Americans said they were more interested in Islam than they were before the attacks, with only 5% saying they were less interested.
Throughout the West, the trend was for people to actively seek out information, rather than just passively consume it via the media. The Islamic Information Services Network of Australia reported a massive increase in demand for copies of the Koran, running out in the first few weeks following September 11. Enter most large bookstore after September 11, and one couldn't help but notice special displays of Islamic books and the increased range and quantity. On Amazon.com, prior to September 11, none of the top 1,000 religion books dealt with Islam. By October, four of the top 10 titles in religion dealt in part, or entirely with the faith. An American Life study into internet use following September 11, found 23% of internet users had searched for information about Islam.
The link between the improved attitudes and increased access to information is clear.
A March, 2002 Pew study showed that almost three-quarters of people who say they are somewhat knowledgeable about the Islamic faith, view Muslims favorably. For those who have little or no knowledge barely half view them favorably. Those who said they know at least something about Islam are more than twice as likely to see Islam as having a lot in common with their own religious beliefs.
These studies show that multicultural societies have not failed or been damaged, but rather have emerged stronger from the trials of September 11 and the events that followed it.
The key to social cohesion in multicultural communities is knowledge of each other's culture and religion. For Muslims, this presents us with the challenge of taking the message of Islam to the non-Muslims - a task which in many communities we have been conspicuous failures at. Yet, the events of September 11 have shown that there is a clear and inextricable link between da'wah and our safety and survival as a minority.
For the people of the West, the message is one of reassurance and hope. Provided people can understand each other, there is no need for societies to walk a cultural death march towards a dingy monoculture. Why go down that road? A healthy society is enriched and enlargened by the so-called "social contradictions" that are a part of cultural diversity. Surely, it's no coincidence that those societies that have authentically embraced cultural diversity have best withstood culturally based barrages of fear.
For both Muslim and non-Muslims, the lesson is clear: Information will always prevail over prejudice.
Amir Butler is the executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC).