Harvard Divinity School, January 29, 2015
Remarks offered by Jeff Seul, Chair of the Peace Appeal Foundation
If we focus narrowly on the perspectives and actions of the Charlie Hebdo attackers and their victims on the magazine’s staff, there are few contemporary situations that seem more polarized and intractable.
Restricting our field of vision in this way, one may well be inclined to characterize our current situation as a hopeless clash of civilizations. As Nicholas Kristof of the NYT pointed out in a recent editorial, some in the West now see “Islam as inherently extremist,” and some Muslims he has interviewed around the world see the U.S. (and, no doubt, France and other Western, or Western influenced, countries) as “an oppressive state controlled by Zionists and determined to crush Islam.”
Polarized perspectives like these share certain characteristics. They are partial narratives with foregone conclusions. They are partial in two senses of that word: they exclude information and perspectives that won’t fit neatly into the narrative, and they sift and interpret the remaining information and perspectives in biased ways. These neat little stories lead to seemingly inevitable conclusions, often justifying extreme, coercive, even violent, action.
Civilizations, cultures, identity groups – whatever we may call them, and whatever their contestable contours may be – are never monolithic and static. They are internally diverse and dynamic, and the polarized narratives tend to lose their coherence and sense of inevitability as we both widen our field of vision and sharpen our focus within it.
As we open up to the true messiness of our current situation, resisting overly neat little narratives, I believe we will begin to see practical possibilities for shifting the dynamic over time; ways to begin making a seemingly intractable situation tractable.
As I’ve listened to and read many diverse voices over the past couple of weeks – religious and secular, Muslim and non-Muslim, French and non-French, liberal and moderate and conservative – I’ve realized the messiness of my own perspectives on the situation. I’ve found myself wanting to affirm many perspectives, even when they seem to diverge, when the voices sound a bit cacophonous together.
I say “no” to the violence – to the killing – of course. There is too much killing, and not only in Paris, and not only in the name of militant forms of Islam.
But I say “yes” to free speech, and “yes” to exercising that right responsibly, and even “yes” to possible curtailment of the free-speech norm in some cases. And “yes” to possible reappraisal of contemporary Islamic norms regarding blasphemy, as some Muslims intellectuals have urged.
“Yes” to not holding the vast number of moderate Muslims responsible for the actions of the relatively very small (but substantial and demonstrably potent and apparently growing) percentage of Muslims who are violently militant, and “yes” to encouraging even more reflective speech and action from moderate Muslims in response to militant forms of Islam.
“Yes” to police and military protection, and “yes” to concerns about living in a police state and exacerbating tensions and perpetuating violence through dominant Western states’ excessive show of force to extend and safeguard their interests.
One way to open up to the true messiness of our situation and to begin to learn and discover practical options for shifting the current dynamic is dialogue within and between communities. There have been many calls for dialogue following from the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls has acknowledged that he intended to spark a vigorous debate this week by saying that a “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” exists within France.
Federica Mogherini, the EU Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, said this week that “[w]e need . . . a dialogue” to face the issue of terrorism, which she does not see as an issue between the West writ large and Islam writ large.
When asked what he thought of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, mused that the world would be a nicer place if everyone respected everyone else’s opinion. He added, “Unless we learn to respect one another, it will be very difficult in a world of different views and different cultures and civilizations. We won’t be able to engage in a serious dialogue . . .”.
But calls to dialogue generally are just that. Little is offered in terms of the who and what and how and why of these proposed dialogues. And fledgling efforts at dialogue too often are ill conceived, and so fizzle or fall short. When they do occur, they often occur exclusively through highly formalized and constrained legal, political and diplomatic mechanisms.
The organization of which I’m a part, the Peace Appeal Foundation, helps stakeholders in conflicts create and sustain their own broadly inclusive peace and national dialogue processes. We think a lot about how authentic, constructive, and ultimately action-oriented conversations can begin and be sustained in highly complex, charged, usually violent situations.
I’d like to offer a thought or two about some of the qualities dialogues about our current situation must have in order to produce change over the long-run. I’ll focus on three qualities of genuine dialogue that seem especially germane to the events and controversies we’re considering tonight.
The first quality I’ll emphasize is need for honest, analytical attention to the dialogue context, including history.
The second quality is the spirit in which people must meet.
Finally, on the substance – on the principles and policies and practices at stake in any genuine dialogue – I’d emphasize the need for openness to compromise, even some compromise of principles we hold most dear when that’s required to serve other principles we hold dear, or principles others hold dear.