By Shoaib Muhammad Sultan, former secretary general of Islamic Council, Norway, presented at the Dag Hammarskjöld Programme, Conference 11.09.2011
To See the Humanity in the Other
To see the humanity in the other, we need to know the opposite, the dehumanizing of the other. We dont need to go back in history to see this dehumanization, we can observe it today.
One of the biggest shocks with regard to this I got after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on USA. It was at a political meeting a few weeks after, and I was at that meeting with some friends who argued for different theories about the reasoning behind the attack. A very central Norwegian politician at the time became very upset, and scolded my friend for trying to "understand these people”. “We dont need to understand them”,he said “because we dont support their evil ideologies anyway”.
I reacted strongly: how can you fight ideas if you dont see reasoning behind? To me the answer was simple. You need to understand. You need to understand someone to prevent someone from doing something, or to change someone … However: you dont need to understand someone to kill them.
I did not understand it back then, but it was a dehumanization campaign to NOT see the humanity in the other.
I saw the opposite during the cartoon crisis with the caricatures of the Muslim prophet printed first in the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten and then in the small Norwegian newspaper Magazinet. In a heated debate with Muslims feeling under attack and driven back to the edge, a friend of mine from USA sent me an article from a Jewish chronicle. The name, “The respect of a cousin” struck me as odd. But reading that article I found myself weeping, and in a very dark hour I found the light which helped me through those tough times.
The article just stated some facts. The author Edward Miller, like the Muslims all around the world, saw the caricatures not as a issue of freedom of expression, but something that hurt people deep in their heart. He condemned the violence which erupted in some Muslim countries, we all did, but he managed to also see the hurt this inflicted on many Muslims. That was unusual for many Muslims.
As Miller stated “Perhaps it’s a question of respect, not freedom. Freedom of expression theoretically protects the right of a non-Jew to desecrate a Torah scroll. Yet we would all view freedom of expression as a hollow defense to such a vile act.”
He also wrote about how he as a Jewish American wrote a column in a Muslim American newspaper, and refuted the in some circles commonly held belief that Muslims dont take critisism. But, like he said, it was done with some respect for “the Other”, which made it tolerable for those that were critisized.
His solution as a bit more respect. I'll let him speak: “ The pages of this Jewish newspaper present a place for a small start by showing Muslims right here that even though we too have the freedom to say anything we like, we choose to convey respect to our Muslim cousins. Printing something positive about Muhammad best does this.”
Thereafter he narrated a hadith, a saying about the prophet, where he and some followers were sitting and talking as some people walked by. They foound out it was a funeral procession. The Prophet stood up, and asked his followers to do the same and to show respect. Some of them protested, saying the dead was a Jew (Muslims and Jews had some tensions between them at that time). His answer was simple. “Rise!”, some traditions add a rhetorical question: “Was he not a human?”
So simple, so beautiful and so true.
Narrating this story Miller continued: “When you give respect you get it. When you take criticism, you earn the right to give it. Perhaps this article will be republished in Muslim newspapers, compete with its critical comments about the pain we feel in the face of anti-Jewish cartoons and worse in Muslim media. Muslim readers may come to understand that an article by a Jew, in a Jewish newspaper, was one of respect, telling its audience: “We know that the one mocked in newspapers in Europe is the one who had the humanity to tell his companions to rise for the funeral procession of a Jew.”
Indeed. And it was reprinted, and shared like anything. The interesting part is, however, that the Jewish chronicle does not archive its articles, or it did not at that time (This was in 2006, they have archives online from 2007) but the article is today available from a number of Muslim news sites. So Millers words are reaching Muslims. The question is: are they reaching the rest of the world? I certainly do hope so. That article has been one of the most inspiring one I have read.
We see the same thing and the same challenge in front of us with the anti Islamic movement after the 22/7. Do we attack them all labelling them as terrorist, or do we work with them to weed out the people advocating actions of violence and do we keep a dialogue open with them, even when we strongly disagree with their views?
An American Jew gave me the answer, and I hope for the sake of all of us, that this becomes the direction we choose as a society, because the war-on-terror has shown us where the opposite direction leads us!