A lot of people have asked me about being in Afghanistan amidst all the protests about the Innocence of Muslims film, but it's taken me a while to write this post. Not just because most Google services were blocked here for almost a week (YouTube is still blocked), but because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say.
Sometimes I think that being a debater has turned me into someone without strong opinions, because I've taught myself so thoroughly to see both sides of an arguments. I can understand why the filmmaker produced it; his freedom of speech allows it, and that must be upheld. I can understand why the protestors reacted with such force; Islam has great respect for its prophet, and they want to defend him. I can understand why so many Eastern countries called for an apology from the United States, I can understand why that request seemed so foreign to many Westerners, and I can understand the fundamental difference that separates freedom of expression between these two cultures.
Beyond all that, however, there are two things I believe very strongly in: tolerance and hope.
Tolerance is not as scary an idea as we think. The differences between whites and blacks in the United States probably once seemed all-encompassing and insurmountable, but now? We have a black president, and for many of us, color really doesn't matter. Why should religion be any different? If I call my god 'God' and you call yours 'Allah,' does that really make one of us less than the other? And in two religions that scorn righteousness, how have we convinced ourselves that judging others makes us more faithful?
Hating one another solves nothing. The reaction to the film and the violence that followed have unfortunately added fuel to the filmmaker's fire and more justification to his arguments. How can we promote tolerance and understanding, how can we teach people that those of other faiths and other cultures are equally deserving of respect and equally desiring peace, when both sides act like this? I read Facebook posts saying that we should bomb them all. This, four days after somber 9/11 ceremonies declared that we will never forget. I read about the protests, about how US, British, German, and other embassies; American restaurants; and international schools are being targeted, when they had NO affiliation with the film. This, when my Muslim friends say that theirs is a religion of peace. No wonder we all accuse one another of hypocrisy.
Imagine, instead, if we tried accepting one another, tried setting aside our hatred and our prejudices and our stereotypes and learned to see one another as people. If we could talk through our differences, accept that not everyone will share our views but that's okay...what a different place the world would be.
Finding hope helps me remember to be tolerant. Those moments when I see humanity in others, when I see a little schoolgirl in black clothing and white chadar, standing on the side of a busy Kabul street, whose smile looks just like my sister's. It's true, what they told us in elementary school; we all smile in the same language.
Here in Afghanistan, I see hope basically every day, because that's what my job is about. I teach debate to college students, the generation that was born with the Taliban regime and matured during Afghanistan's rocky new beginnings. If anyone has the right to be bitter and angry and violent, it's them. Yet, instead of bitterness, they show maturity. Instead of anger, wisdom. Instead of violence, integrity. They've lived through horrors beyond my imagining, but instead of dwelling on the negative, they engage in practice debates about how freedom of expression leads to economic development and try to re-debate the whole thing once it's finished.
Practically every day, I hear a student say something 'quotable.' In the last two weeks, I've talked with at least ten students who dream of going abroad to get a Master's degree but who talk passionately about wanting to come back to Afghanistan to be teacher/be a doctor/run debate programs/work for the government/everything under the sun. My boss talks about our nonprofit like it's his baby, and in the last week, two of last year's debaters have approached me to ask for my help writing grant proposals for debate tournaments they want to host. We have discussions about the benefits of debate, and without any prompting from me, my students jump straight to listening, speaking, and thinking.
For me, one of the biggest signs of hope was during this tumultuous time of protests and upheaval. There are many in Afghanistan who were upset, and their freedom of speech guarantees them the right to express it, just as the filmmaker's freedom of expression guaranteed him the right to make that film. There were protests across Afghanistan, but in a time when protests are turning violent and people are being killed, Afghanistan has remained relatively calm. Day after day, protestors have gathered outside mosques, on streets, at universities, and aired their grievances, shared their frustration. And day after day, those protests have gone no further. Only once did they provoke any level of violence, when protestors began burning tires, and that didn't last long.
Some of the students I am training for a debate tournament next month are currently leading a protest. Not in response to the film, but because their university changed its name to that of a controversial political figure, and the students aren't happy. Every day, they march in front of the school and down the streets, but never have they let it escalate. Their perseverance has paid off; they have a meeting with President Karzai on Saturday. They grinned as they told me the news in class the other day, and I celebrated with them. Not because I particularly care what the university's name is, but because that is exactly why I'm here and those are exactly the qualities that this generation needs to cultivate. Passion tempered with reason. Righteous indignation with logic.
If you take anything from this post, let it be this: violence and hatred only breed more violence and hatred. Hating one another is not going to accomplish anything. Storming embassies and attacking innocents are not an appropriate response, but neither is shouting prejudicial remarks at American citizens who just happen to be Muslim. Tolerance starts inside each of us. For me, it starts with hope. It starts when I see my students from last summer teaching the lessons I taught them and doing so with more passion than I could ever know. A very small minority of the world's population orchestrated all of the violence and hatred over the past two weeks. If all the rest of us promise to stand against that violence and that hatred, to replace it with tolerance and hope, to create change at the individual level...imagine what a difference we could make.