Smithfield: Opinion

We fear what we do not understand

In 1962, I was a 21-year-old university student heading for Ajloun, Jordan, where I would spend my summer serving as a Baptist Student Union summer missionary. I would also be the first student to serve in this Middle Eastern nation. I was both excited and frightened.

The language, the customs, the people, the religion of Islam were all foreign to me. It was my first venture outside the United States and to a place I had only read about in books and magazines. I was about to become a duck out of water.

It did not take long after my arrival for culture shock to set in. Toilets flushed differently, doors opened differently, men did not shake the hands of the women or sit in the same room at gatherings, and all that chatter in Arabic was driving me insane. I began to find everything about this place upsetting and foreign to the world I had left behind.

I began to compare, judge, dislike and see this culture as vastly inferior. In retrospect, this was fear and ignorance.

“What we do not understand, we fear. What we fear, we judge as evil. What we judge as evil, we attempt to control. What we cannot control … we attack.” Author unknown.

Apparently, as human beings, there is an awful lot we do not understand, and in far too many cases, in an age of access to information, we choose to remain ignorant. Unfortunately, the solution requires work. It also requires self-examination.

In many years of working with university students, I always sought to provide them with opportunities to get out of their comfort zones, where I believe learning and self-examination most effectively occur. Here I could lead them to where they felt culture shock, where they could learn to not fear what they did not fully understand.

Tuvok, a character in “Star Trek: Voyager,” said, “We often fear what we do not understand; our best defense is knowledge.”

Shortly after the horrible day of 9/11, an article in Psychology Today addressed the issue of the rate of abuse of Muslims in the United States. The article stated: “…despite our better nature, it seems fear of foreigners or other strange-seeming people comes out when we are under stress. That fear, known as xenophobia, seems almost hardwired into the human psyche.”

Islamophobia and xenophobia remain prominent tools of politicians and even some Christian leaders who use fear of the different, the unknown, the perceived evil to bolster their own self-serving status or goals. The darkness of ignorance is extolled over “… you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

What is your first thought as to the meaning of the Arabic word “jihad”? Let me guess, a holy war against the Christian world and the Western world. Wrong.

Maybe you’ve been watching too much corporate-controlled U.S. television news, listening to too many self-serving politicians and watching too many television evangelists rather than seeking out the truth. This requires work, which includes research and self-examination.

In the Koran and within Islam, jihad means to struggle for a life worthy of the faith. Do not we Christians strive for “jihad”? There will always be those extremists like the KKK and ISIS who will distort a faith for their own purposes of power and control, and fear is their tool, not light and knowledge.

I’ve been encouraging Christian clergy in Johnston County to become acquainted with the Muslims in our community by visiting the small storefront mosque in Smithfield. It appears I am encouraging them to go the gates of Hades for a conversation with Satan.

The darkness of fear brings about a tragic silence that leads to such atrocities as we have witnessed in Syria. Silence kills. Ignorance is deadly. Pride and arrogance are their brothers.

Marie Curie said it best: “Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.”

The writer lives in Princeton. Reach him at