Most people couldn’t differentiate a Sunni Muslim from a Shiite Muslim to save their life. So how is it that Sunnis and Shiites, all over the world, are killing each other by the thousands? What’s their beef? And what could be so terribly different and threatening about these two groups of related human beings that individuals on both sides of the rift are willing to blow themselves up (along with hundreds of others) to prove a point? And it’s not by any stretch of the imagination just these two adversaries that behave so. They are simply examples of a crisis from all over the globe that is on everybody’s mind these days.
The problem statement above is simplistic. But the answer to this dilemma is far from straightforward. This type of internecine violence has been going on since man first crawled out of a cave and perceived that the man crawling out of the cave across from him was a threat. The threat was, and still is to this day, nothing more than a perception, however, the human survival instinct seems to trump all other rational thought. It’s a perception because if placed in a police lineup who among us could distinguish, just by sight, a farmer from Northern Ireland from a farmer from the South. Or who could set apart two naked men bathing in the same river from rival African tribes. Or for that matter, without a uniform, how could a tradesman from Atlanta be distinguished from a tradesman from Boston in 1861.
In The Merchant of Venice William Shakespeare when attempting to affirm the commonality of all mankind wrote, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?” That’s the part of the quote most of us remember from high school. But there was one more important sentence in that soliloquy and here’s where the rub comes in: “And if you wrong us shall we not seek revenge?” This was a conversation between Shylock, a Jew, and Salarino, a Christian, but it could just as easily have been a conversation between Russians and Ukrainians, North Koreans and South Koreans, or Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. The point is, under the skin, there is no significant difference between all homo sapiens. Heart, lungs, kidney, liver, spleen – all the same.
There seems to be two fundamental things, however, that set human beings apart. The first is learned labels. When newborn, a white baby and a black baby lying together in a bassinet get along just fine. In fact, it’s great fun to watch their expressions as, at the earliest age, they smile in the most bewildered delight at the sight of an object lying by their side that is amazingly just like them. It seems to really tickle their fancy. And how endearing is it when a couple of two-year-olds meet and intuitively just start playing together, like they were fast friends. It is not until one or both of them are given a label that the problems start. A parent unwittingly, or perhaps intentionally, tells their young child, “Be careful, he’s not like us.” The child is at first befuddled, fore just yesterday this other little human being was his loyal companion. But as the labelling persists, the young child starts to first grow uncomfortable with his friend, then suspicious, and ultimately downright threatened. The interactions between the same two children become unalterably changed simply because each has been labelled as different. Pre-labelling, each was innocently happy with his or her little buddy; post-labelling, they are apprehensive of the very same person. And out of labelling comes first stereotyping and then prejudice and then profiling. The inequality of pay between men and women today has its genesis in the labelling of women as inferior workers to men hundreds of years ago. Labels stick and labels harm. And they do so for a long, long time.
The second thing that sets humans apart is festering injuries based on man-made ideology. In the United States, the Hatfield and McCoy feud is synonymous with bad blood. It started in 1863 when the Hatfield’s, living on the West Virginia side of the Tug Fork River, joined the Union army and the McCoy’s, living on the Kentucky side of the river, joined the Confederate army. Two farming families, living a mile apart, became deadly enemies for twenty-eight years because of ideology and labels.
What is an ideology? It’s a body of ideas, opinions, and beliefs reflecting the social, economic, and political aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture. Important to us, sure; but still it’s ideas, opinions, and beliefs – intangible, man-made stuff floating around in people’s heads. They’re mental constructs, they’re not made up of flesh and bone and a beating heart, where under the skin the competing ideologies are not even discernable. And where do these opinions and beliefs come from? To a large part, they are due to labels; labels which act to differentiate one person or group of people from another. Labels say beware: he’s Chinese (he’s shifty), he’s a Jew (he’s greedy), he’s Mexican (he’s lazy), he’s Irish (he drinks too much), he’s Sunni (he doesn’t believe that the Prophet Muhammad’s successor has to be from Muhammad’s bloodline). In Congress, entrusted to get things done for the good of all the American people, the labels that cause gridlock and stand in the way of improving our country are Republican and Democrat, Conservative and Liberal. Can you imagine if there was no red or blue, if there was no discernable label on each politician, how productive and constructive their conversations with each other might be?
Today, on the world stage, how many conflicts have their roots in brooding ideological injuries that are generations old? The 1400 year-old schism between Islam’s two largest sects is not over religious doctrine (both believe that Muhammad was a messenger from Allah, both read the Quran, both pray together in Mecca), it is over political leadership.
The point is, regardless of the ideological differences that may appear to divide us, we should instead focus on our commonalities, our shared humanity, and rejoice in it, take comfort from it, rather than focusing on some wrong-doing, some ideological insult that may have happened generations ago and has no real bearing on present day reality. When we see ourselves as just alternate versions of the same model, like the aforementioned babies, we will certainly learn to play more harmoniously with each other in the shared sandbox we all call earth.