Imam Yahya Hendi, of Georgetown University fame, came to speak to some of us conflict management students and faculty. His pursuit is inter-religious dialogue (mainly Islam, Christianity and Judaism) and he was very eloquent in his speech and perhaps somewhat singular in his experience.
Most of what he said, though, was the same old ‘peace la la’. He did strike on one point that I think gets lost most of the time; a point, that if only we could really work to understand it, feel it – than maybe things could change…
Hendi gave two scenarios to explain the difference between vulnerability and acceptance.
1. The sorry story of Saudi Arabian Shiites: Vulnerability -> Violence
Shiites are a small minority in Saudi Arabia, and Sunnis proclaim them dangerous and violent as a sect. However, being a minority, the Shiites are poorer, living in the periphery and acquiring less power, let alone opportunities to grow wealthy and sustain themselves properly. This makes them vulnerable, and vulnerability breeds misperception, unrest and ultimately violence. Sound familiar? It’s the same with the Palestinians, the Arabs living in France and so many others.
2. The rise of Muslim Americans: Acceptance -> Success
Muslim Americans started out like most other groups of immigrants, but are growing wealth and success for themselves, gaining in American society. They live peacefully and contently amongst their non-Muslim American neighbors. This is what happens when their existence in the country is accepted, and they are given the same opportunities to succeed as anyone else, assuming they work hard and play by the rules. The Muslim American community serves in the army and works in the government. They are neither vulnerable nor violent.
Societies get violent when they have no where else to turn; when they feel down low with no way up. If only we could all master what Hendi calls compassionate listening – actually hearing the other’s experiences – then so much of the miscommunication and lack of understanding would cease; or maybe it wouldn’t. But at least we’d actually hear what is going on, instead of blocking it out and going to the battlefield already deaf and blind.