In our courage to speak, we must also have the courage to listen

Hundreds of protesters  gathered in Times Square yesterday to protest against an upcoming hearing by New York’s Republican congressman Peter King on “the extent of radicalisation within the American Muslim community”. The protestors believe that the hearing will unfairly single out Muslims in general rather than focusing on extremists who constitute a small minority.

According to a BBC correspondent, “many believe the witnesses he has called to speak at the hearings do not represent mainstream Muslims”, an indication that the ‘silent majority’ are not, in fact, silent but are simply not being listened to.

If this is an accurate representation of the King hearings then we may be seeing a rerun of the McCarthy era, a dreadful period in American history where the United States persecuted Communists or those suspected to be Communists, led by the aggressive hearings initiated by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Some of the great names who were persecuted by the McCarthyites included the legendary comedian and silent film star Charlie Chaplin, the pioneering physicist David Bohm (a protégé of Einstein’s) and the much loved Jazz musician Artie Shaw. There was also the infamous 1947 Waldorf statement that blacklisted Communists or people with subversive views from being employed by the Hollywood film studios.

The McCarthy era is a shocking example of what happens when reactionary views become commonplace and begin to saturate a culture so deeply that one doesn’t even think twice when confronted with them. Do you think such a saturation hasn’t already happened in Britain? Think again and look at the Daily Express headline above and compare it with the cartoon propaganda poster below. Are the two a million miles apart? It’s precisely just such instances that prompted Baroness Warsi, a formidable Muslim Tory peer, to state that Islamophobia is now commonplace even amongst the country’s intelligentsia.

Two years ago we attempted to get to grips with Islamophobia and actively went out and listened to young Muslims in London. What we saw was ordinary, intelligent young people who felt isolated from mainstream society because many sectors of society have actively accepted the self-image of the murderers of the 9/11 and July 7th attacks, and projected these views to Muslims as a whole.

One of our participants neatly summed our findings when she said, “they’re not listening to real Muslims and what their views are all about”.

Listening not only allows us to understand and address the problems of the majority but, as terrorism specialists Scott Atran and Robert Axelrod – who have spent years talking with violent and non-violent extremists, with impressive results – write: “Sometimes this means listening to and talking with our enemies and probing gray areas for ways forward to figure out who is truly a mortal foe and who just might become a friend”, concluding that “It’s an uncomfortable truth, but direct interaction with terrorist groups is sometimes indispensable”.

The fatal mistake would be to alienate our friends and those who could be our friends by confusing them for enemies without listening to their thoughts and grievances. This was precisely what happened after the dreadful 9/11 attacks: Leading figures in the Muslim world such as Shekh Tantawi of Al-Azhar in Cairo – “the oldest institution of religious higher learning in Islam”, according to middle east specialist Fawaz Gerges – and the prominent cleric Shekh Qardawi strongly condemned Al Qaeda after 9/11. Both had large audiences and were strict in their debunking of Bin Laden and co.’s theological pretensions. Yet just a few years later these allies were issuing fatwas and declarations against the invading American forces in Iraq.

What brought about this sea change in views? Why were our friends and allies suddenly not so friendly? What happened to their efforts towards peace and understanding and their sympathy to OUR grievances? They were ignored. The degree of under-reporting was so widespread that New York Times star columnist Thomas Friedman to write in the pages of the world’s preeminent newspaper: “To this day – to this day – no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden”. Friedman’s article provoked a furious, brilliant blog post by University of Michigan Middle East historian Juan Cole whose efforts has been a vital antidote to the entire sorry situation.

To conclude with Atran and Axelrod, “even if it turns out that negotiation gets us nowhere with a particular group, talking and listening can help us to better understand why the group wants to fight us, so that we may better fight it”. Much is made about the courage to speak out against injustice and this is undoubtedly necessary for the survival of any society, but in our courage to speak we must not forget to have the courage to listen or we risk losing our friends and empowering our genuine enemies.

To learn more about our ‘Faith in the City’ campaign, please visit our website.

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