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Connecting Cultures

Visiting Scholar Aims to Teach Tolerance, Break Stereotypes

10/15/2004 1:56:48 PM


The following story appeared in the Tuesday, October 12, 2004 edition of The News & Advance, Lynchburg, Virginia, and is reprinted with permission.

By Margaret Goerig
The News & Advance

When Ramadan starts this Friday, Deddy Mulyana will join his fellow Islamic followers across the globe and begin the month-long fast that is part of this Muslim holiday. Until it ends on Nov. 13, Mulyana may not consume anything, not even water, between sunrise and sunset.

"I know that people think it's crazy," he says. "I know."

Like the taste of salt or sugar, he says, you have to try it to discover if you like it. In other words, understanding can breed tolerance.

That's a philosophy Mulyana employs elsewhere in his daily life, particularly his work. As a communication sciences professor at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, Indonesia, he teaches his graduate and undergraduate students how cultures affect the way people communicate with one another, particularly in person.

Misunderstandings can unintentionally crop up, Mulyana says, when someone is not familiar with the way one culture regards something such as body language. In Greece, for example, the American sign for A-OK is an invitation to bed, he says, and in Indonesia, to make eye contact is considered rude.

"But in your culture, it is impolite if you look down and if you don't look at me," he says. "We always judge other people's behaviors from our own perspective, because we have been raised in our own culture."

Basically, whatever seems abnormal, awkward, insane or crazy, he says, is automatically not the right way. It's a problem Mulyana faces as a practicing Muslim in a growing anti-Muslim world; and it is why Mulyana is here, as a temporary citizen of Central Virginia and scholar at Randolph-Macon Woman's College.

For the next month, through the Fulbright-sponsored program, "Direct Access to the Muslim World," Mulyana will try to bring to the area a new understanding of his commonly-misunderstood culture by giving lectures at various classes and faculty seminars, as well as at area high schools, rotary clubs and churches. At 3 p.m. Oct. 24, the public is invited to hear him speak in the Jack Lounge of the Smith Memorial Building about the Indonesian press in comparison with the American press.

A husband and a father of two teenage children, Mulyana says he travels outside Java often. This is his third time in the States and one of his many trips around the world.

In all of his travels, he says he has noticed a change in the public attitude toward Muslims. When he was studying in Melboune, Australia, in 1991, he says he remembers protests against people of his faith in relation to the Gulf War, but since Sept. 11, he says it has gotten much worse.

The Washington Post confirmed that last week, when it ran the results of a poll from the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. One in four Americans holds a negative stereotype of Muslims, it said, and almost one-third respond with a negative image when they hear the word "Muslim."

It is human nature to have such stereotypes, says Mulyana.

"People everywhere, even scholars, they tend to make generalizations to the whole population," he says. "It is one of the natural characteristics of human beings to categorize and make things simple even though, in the reality, the fact is not that simple."

While he says he hopes programs like this at R-MWC will help neutralize those negative images, he is cautiously optimistic.

"I think in my perspective," says Mulyana, "the aim is too idealistic in the sense that it is rather impossible to overcome misunderstandings that have spread out all over the United States."

Because nothing, he adds, will be as effective as one-on-one meetings with people.

Thomas Brister, a visiting professor in the Sweet Briar College department of government and inter

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