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Transforming Our Differences

The Power of an Open Mind 

Transforming Our Differences 

by Tahil Sharma 

This past year felt like a constant uphill battle. I never realized the degree to which my friends, colleagues, and I would be fighting to keep justice and equity afloat in a world that seems to be increasingly sinking into darkness. Political bandwagoning, natural and manmade disasters, bigotry and xenophobia, the widening wealth gap, and gender inequality are just a few terms in a long list of tragedies we continue to face. Some of us have the privilege of not experiencing many of these circumstances, while others live in constant fear for themselves and their loved ones. One can only turn a blind eye to injustice for so long.

As an interfaith activist, I cannot underscore enough the importance of engaging and educating one another, especially those with whom we disagree. In our efforts to feed hungry minds, hearts, and stomachs for a growing number of people, we cannot ignore polarity and its effect on us all. One of the primary roots of this polarity is the complexity of communication, the biases that get in the way of relaying factual information, and the speed at which content can be created and shared.

Photo:  NASPA

Photo: NASPA

I worked on a webinar a few weeks ago with my friend Dr. Sable Manson, who developed #DigitalFaith. Put simply, this refers to people’s renewed urge to explore and discuss topics of religion, spirituality, and philosophy through platforms such as social media, digital forums, and other forms of online content. Discussions on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit can be the laboratory for improving society; after all, it was the activists of the world that went to these sites to start conversations that led movements like the Arab Spring and the Women’s March. Unfortunately, though, conversation often gets sidelined by our desire to be right.

Digital engagement as well as one-on-one interaction both have great potential for generating understanding. When partisanship and divisiveness take over dialogue, sending it plunging into chaos, it’s up to us as interfaith leaders, activists, educators, and the like to steer it back toward compassion and justice. This is not an overnight task; it requires engaging a level of difference that makes us uncomfortable and maximizes our ability to be patient with others.

For me, discomfort is not the ability to engage difference, but rather an opportunity to help me understand the contextual circumstances and information sources that shape another person’s worldview. This is a level of discomfort I cannot find in “kumbaya” moments or in ignoring the differences that make people unique. I believe there cannot be peace in the world without such discomfort; the kind of discomfort that makes us step out of tunnel-views and look at a bigger picture. I cannot find ease in simply praying for the sick, the poor, and the downtrought when I know I have the power to heal them, to feed them, and to equalize them as siblings in destiny. Take, for instance, the counter-protest I attended last summer. 

Photo:  Twitter

Photo: Twitter

On a June morning I drove to a gathering place in San Bernardino about a block away from the Inland Regional Center – site of a 2015 terrorist attack. Act for America now had organized an “anti-Sharia” protest. Signs depicting derogatory messages and equating Islam as un-American could be spotted among a display of American flags, signs supporting the Trump presidency, and crosses. I stood on the opposing side next to groups holding signs for their respective groups and signs that read anti-fascist slogans and blatant statements against Trump, the KKK, and neo-Nazis.

My role at the counter-protest was to protect people; when necessary, I joined others to form a human chain to prevent verbal and physical altercations between protesters. Numerous shouting matches took place along with physical violence when anti-Sharia protesters left their protest areas to pick fights on the counter-protest side. Masked protesters brought German shepherds towards us in an attempt to heighten emotions.

For the Sake of a Pet

Amidst the chaos, an exchange took place that revealed the need for simplicity and patience. It all started with a cute dog. An elderly woman with an adorable canine walked across the street to our side with the intention to “troll” us by dancing to the beats and sounds of her chants. Out of my need for some mental ease and a greater need to pet something cute, I walked up to her politely and asked if I could pet her dog. With some hesitance, she agreed.

Noticing the dog’s fear, the counter-protest organizer Crystal asked for other protesters to give the dog some space so its nerves could be eased. I told the woman that her dog understood love and kindness better than we as humans. The elderly woman, to my surprise, responded by saying “Well to be fair, they don’t think about that much because they have such small brains.”

We talked for 45 minutes on a variety of topics. At one point, she began explaining her reason for coming to the protest. Her “research” of Islam and Muslims after the September 11 attacks led her to believe that, while not all Muslims are bad, their system of Sharia is creeping into American politics by Muslims who wish to harm the country.

I responded by explaining that “Sharia law” is not a monolithic set of rules. Rather Sharia is a guideline for scriptural interpretation. It can be practiced in a variety of ways depending on the school of Islam. Further, I reiterated how Muslims here are also proud Americans, not all Muslims follow Sharia Law in the same way, and that the actions of the few do not represent the views of an entire community.

She proceeded to question my identity, my faith, my legality and my parents’ legality, leading to a statement that taxed my patience: “So all of you are immigrants then.”

“My dad is a Green Card holder. My mother is a naturalized American citizen. And I’m a born American citizen, just like you are.”

“I’m seventh generation American. My family has been in America for much longer.”

My tongue held back some sharp words: “Tell that to the Natives.”

Photo:  Twitter

Photo: Twitter

In our continuing exchange, she questioned why our side was against the intentions of their march and why we were being harsh toward the President. I suggested that we are all against dehumanization and harming innocent people. But there is a clear difference between protesting against a system that one “perceives” as being inhumane and dehumanizing an entire religion and its adherents. When she balked at this, I asked her to look through our eyes at her side of the protest, at signs that read: “Islamic is un-American,” “#GoatLivesMatter,” “Rapefugees Not Welcome.”.

Turning to her I said: “Look, ma’am. I understand that we are dealing with a lot of chaos here. I know people are trying to pick fights across the board. But please understand that our struggle for justice is the same. If I can work to prevent violence and promote understanding among my communities, you can at least do the same.”

She paused in reflection and then responded with two words I never expected given our heated exchange: “You’re right.”

Her mind had been opened. Dehumanizing Muslims, refugees, and other innocent communities was not what she had come here for. “I think I need to go back and talk some sense into people there. Thank you and God bless you.” And she walked back across the street.

Tools for Peacemaking

You may be experiencing the same confusion I felt when our conversation ended. How in the world did we end on such a positive and a productive note? When I look back at this exchange, I remember the things that made my discomfort a transformative experience:

  • Active listening: During heated conversations and “debates,” the need to disprove others and develop exceptions for absolutist positions frequently arises, but this only leads to further polarization. We must remind ourselves of the virtue of active listening. Consciously listening to another person’s point of view, considering it in context, allowing time for reflection, and encouraging them to be introspective, help ease tension because they give an open platform for the person to express their perspectives. At least one person is listening, uninterrupted, and willing to learn.
  • “Sourcing” their point of view: At a time when we’ve elevated conversation on “fake news,” it’s essential to determine where a person’s views are coming from. The lady I spoke to told me her knowledge of Islam and Muslims was based on Internet searches. Lack of framework or connection with real people creates a dangerous situation where a person’s conscience is led in the direction of whatever viewpoint they happen to privy to – good or bad.
  • Kindness and patience complement assertiveness: No one suggested that engaging differences would be easy or simple. When we are engaging with opposition, each antithesis is a test of our integrity. Can we withstand differences and practice the compassion we preach with someone who we have little in common with? Can we go even further and help them do the same?
Photo: “We Are One” by Jignasa Jadwani,  Embracing Our Differences

Photo: “We Are One” by Jignasa Jadwani, Embracing Our Differences

The power of interfaith cooperation is founded on meeting difference with open arms. If we had not learned to engage difference in this way, our movement would not be as far as it is today. We are not sacrificing our convictions or truths when we meet folks whose views clash with our own with an open mind. Their differences can transform the way we see the world. Their opposition can heighten our ability to see more objectively and contextually. Fear of the “other” becomes a transformative gateway to a more resilient heart. And our tendency to dehumanize becomes the pathway that leads others to their overdue redemption in the world.