Fulwider 9-22-2012

Guest Column: Sharing information without understanding can be deadly

Fulwider, Bryan(Orlando Sentinel, September 22, 2012)

By Bryan Fulwider

We call it the Information Age. And in one sense, it is. Words and pictures can be transmitted to the entire world in seconds. And that’s on a slow day.

Our technology is impressive. But it has limits. For one thing, information and understanding aren’t the same thing. Information can be transmitted readily. Understanding is much harder to acquire. And information without understanding can be deadly.

Only days ago, millions of Muslims in some two dozen countries around the globe saw a trailer for a movie that made their blood boil. The movie mocked what to them is sacred. And in their social, political and religious contexts — unlike in the United States — profaning what’s sacred is more than just a sacrilege; it can be a crime.

Some of those offended by what they saw on the Internet responded with more than mere anger. Not only did they destroy property, they became vigilantes, murdering people solely on the basis of their national identities — people who had nothing to do with the offending movie. In fact, they killed the Americans who, in all of Libya, probably best understood and most cared about the Muslim perspective.

As images of out-of-control mobs flashed onto TV screens back in the United States, American viewers judged the mobs’ actions to be indefensible by any standard of morality, be it religious or secular. But what many Americans didn’t realize is that a great array of Muslims — both as individuals and as organizations — were likewise strongly denouncing the violence.

The movie, offensive as it was, in no way justified the mob’s response. As the Universal Muslim Association of America said in a press release: “No legitimate goal can ever be accomplished by harming innocent people, and no such behavior can ever be tolerated by the Holy Religion of Islam.”

The challenge for both overseas Muslims and non-Muslim Americans is to understand the complicated dynamics of this tragic saga.

Overseas Muslims, most of whom have limited understanding of the philosophy upon which the U.S. legal system is based, simply can’t comprehend such an unbending commitment to freedom of speech that a handful of radical Christians would be allowed to revile a religion that’s sacred to nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

Americans typically have a different viewpoint. We recognize that freedom of speech has its downside. And it can be badly misused. But we feel the positives of free speech far outweigh the negatives. Nothing could be more foreign to many overseas Muslims.

Now to keep things in perspective, let me remind my fellow Christians (and Jews) that our own holy writings are strident concerning disrespect for the sacred. When an ancient Hebrew reached out merely to steady the ark of the covenant … Bam! … Struck dead! By God, no less!

That’s how our Bible describes it. Only the priests were supposed to touch the ark. And I could cite a long list of biblical stories in which humans themselves responded violently to real or perceived spiritual disrespect.

As a born-and-bred American, I understand and support our freedom-of-speech perspective. And as one who has been involved in interfaith dialogue for some three decades, I understand and respect Muslims’ concern for the sacred. I also understand the chagrin mainstream Muslims feel when radicalized elements within the faith foment actions that (as my long-time friend Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida puts it) are “not representative of Islam, and do not represent the vast majority of Muslims.”

I want neither government officials nor religious clerics telling me what I can and can’t say. But we all need to remember that with freedom comes responsibility. I like the Rotary Club’s Four-Way Test: “Of the things we think, say or do: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?’

Had those principles been followed, there would have been no violence and murder. In fact, there would have been no movie.

The Rev. Bryan Fulwider is a fellow at the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College and president of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.