Every November for the last nine years, the University Museum at Texas Southern University, an hbcu (historically black colleges and universities), holds an International Tea, during which four countries are highlighted through food, decor and cultural entertainment. It is our small way of introducing students and members of the public to countries very different to America.
Having lived in twelve countries I firmly believe it is only with exposure to different cultures, no matter how limited the level, do we gain an empathy for them. A quote attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, though disputed by Islamist scholars, reads “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled.” Whoever said it, the axiom should be digested by Texas governor, Greg Abbot. He, once again, is challenging the Federal Government, saying the great state of Texas will not accept Syrian refugees, and neither should the US as a whole. So far nineteen governors, most of them Republican, are singing the same song believing the resettlement of Syrian refugees will, in Governor Abbot’s words pose “an unacceptable peril” to the US.
Their narrow-minded and ignorant stance leads one to believe terrorism in ‘a foreign’ form has made its mark. In their minds the terrorists responsible for the horrific events in Paris were reportedly Syrian, ergo all Syrians refugees are terrorists. As President Obama stated in the G-20 summit, “It is very important that we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.” America, and yes even Texas, has over the years welcomed many refugees, whether Jews, Buddhists, Christians or Muslims, all escaping persecution of some kind within their own countries. Perhaps it would behoove these governors to consider the terrorists living among us – those unhinged, gun-toting individuals with no particular religious affiliation, terrorizing schools and college campuses, made possible by the lax control of gun ownership. Allowing anyone who wishes to instill terror, whether foreign or not, to gain control of our minds and emotions allows them to win.
If we allow fear of travel, fear of cultures unknown to us, to pervade our lives we will become a small and bigoted country no matter it’s geographic size, and those few wishing to terrorise the world into one particular view will have won. We are many people with many views, and all are relevant. It is just how we express them that is important. Jeb Bush’s words describing the Paris attacks as, “an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization,” would seem ill-advised and extreme. These madmen wanted to sow panic, and they did for a while, but people will not be subjugated to terror, and terrorism will not destroy any modern civilization. That has been proven time and time again.
We cannot live in a vacuum, devoid of all risk, safe from all eventualities, and we must foster curiosity about different cultures, customs and countries in our children, so they grow up with an understanding, an empathy and lack of prejudice for others. Another American president, JFK, suggested, “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.” That is what events like the University Museum at TSU’s International Tea, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, encourage.
We must continue to travel, to learn, to be open to different cultures; we cannot let extremism in any form rule our lives, whether through brutality or misinformed edicts. Perhaps though the strongest words came from a Frenchman whose wife was murdered in the Bataclan attacks in Paris on Friday, and whose seventeen-month old son will grow up motherless. Antoine Leiris said, “I will not grant you the gift of my hatred.”