What I learned from challenging Islamophobic language in public
At a debate between the candidates for Massachusetts attorney general in October, the discussion turned to President Trump’s attempts to ban entry to the United States for travelers from several Muslim-majority nations. In a heated moment, one of the candidates criticized his opponent for leading a lawsuit against the ban, exclaiming, “She would leave us at the mercy of these savages!”
As a Muslim and as an American, I felt my temperature rise several degrees. I was comforted by the audience booing his language but astonished that neither his opponent nor the hosts condemned his word choice. Afterward, I thought of approaching the candidate but came up with a dozen reasons not to: I was too angry; he should be the one reaching out; nothing I say will change his mind. Every excuse imaginable, I concocted in the span of two minutes.
Then I thought ahead to the coming spring, when I will be co-teaching a class on conflict resolution at my alma mater, Providence College. I imagined challenging my students to do what I was about to dismiss. How could I stand before them speaking of reaching out across divides precisely like this one, when I had walked away from the opportunity?
How could I speak of reaching out across divides precisely like this one, when I had walked away from the opportunity?
So I approached the candidate and introduced myself, still heated and ready to verbally pounce. But instead, I calmly said: “I noticed that you referred to people in the Middle East as savages. I was wondering why you used that particular term.”
He considered my words before responding: “I was just using the Trump administration’s terminology and their policy for referring to specific people in ISIS and al-Qaeda. You’re right, that was a harsh word. I should have said ‘dangerous’ instead.”
“I appreciate you recognizing that,” I responded. “But what I’m concerned about is the use of the word ‘savages’ or even ‘dangerous’ to categorize an entire group of people.”
His face conveyed a wave of realization. “You’re right. Thank you for bringing that to my attention.”
I thanked him for his openness and humility. It is not easy for many of us to admit our wrongdoings, particularly when doing so may prompt others to call us ignorant or prejudiced.
It is not easy for many of us to admit our wrongdoings, particularly when doing so may prompt others to call us ignorant or prejudiced.
Some of my progressive friends have argued that the responsibility for the elimination of dehumanizing language should not be placed upon the targets but should rest with the perpetrators. While I empathize with their position, it shifts attention away from what we could do and toward what others should do, and we have no control over that. As my Jewish mentor and fellow mediator often notes, what matters most is what we do with our own feet.
Words like “savages” and “dangerous” are used to perpetuate acts of terrorism, like the attack on our Jewish brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh, in which a terrorist invaded a synagogue during a Shabbat service and screamed, “All Jews must die!” before killing 11 people. It is our responsibility to each other and to our democracy to challenge and eliminate such dehumanizing rhetoric. I attempt to do this by voicing the impact these words have had on me or on others and pointing out the violence that can result when we use this language to describe certain groups of people. I have found this approach to be far more effective than firing off an arsenal of accusations or speaking from the standpoint of “I’m a better person than you because I don’t behave or speak this way”—something that is far too common in our polarized times.
The phrasing of my concern at the political debate was rooted in my conflict resolution education and career. Had I approached the candidate in a fit of rage or with a slew of indictments for being Islamophobic or anti-immigrant or racist, or had I spoken from a standpoint of moral superiority, his response likely would have been to turn up the defenses and the barriers, and our conversation would have looked very different.
Anyone’s concerns when confronted with such rhetoric are understandable. What I am troubled by is how so many of us will so quickly cut off anyone whose language or viewpoints anger and trouble us, whether a friend or a stranger, because we see that person as irredeemable or hopeless. Sometimes we assume that approaching such matters in a civil way undercuts the legitimacy of our concerns.
But much of the work of conflict resolution entails acting with a cool head to understand and ultimately address the fears and concerns fueling dehumanizing language, without ever excusing or justifying hateful language or acts of violence. Addressing harmful rhetoric in this way will help us all take a preventative approach against acts of terrorism.
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