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.

  •  Prime Minister Valls has drawn attention to part of the context and history in France that must help frame any genuine dialogue about free speech in that country and the violence against the staff of Charlie Hebdo.   The history extends back over 100 years to include the brutal French imperial regime in Algeria, from which a hugely disproportionate number of French Muslims come.  The context includes the poor social and economic status of North Africans, Muslim and non-Muslim, in France.  It includes the fact that, by some estimates, more than 50% of French prison inmates come from the roughly 7% of the population that is Muslim.
  • The context includes the history of the cartoon controversy in Denmark, and increasing xehophobia in Europe generally.  Some respected analysts reasonably consider the 12 cartoons portraying the Prophet that were published in a 2005 issue of Jyllands-Posten – which is no Charlie Hebdo, by the way, but Denmark’s most widely circulated and respected newspaper – not to have been a statement about free speech, but, instead, to have been part of a “provacative local anti-Muslim campaign sweeping Denmark,” as anthropologist Peter Hervik put it.  This is the lens through which many orthodox Muslims, most of whom are not engaging in or inciting acts of violence, view the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
  • As Steven Fish, a Berkeley political scientist, wrote Tuesday in the Washington Post’s blog, the context also includes the fact that “in the contemporary world, Christians won big.  And the frustration and humiliation that Muslims now feel as a result can help explain terrorism.”  Fish continues, “Christians drew the boundaries of the states in which most Muslims live.  Currently, people in Christian countries make up one-third of the world’s population, while holding two-thirds of its wealth and nine-tenths of its military might.”  Fish is bringing the empirical tools of social science to this discussion with real discipline and respectful, unbiased curiosity.  I highly recommend his 2013 book, Are Muslims Distinctive?  A Look at the Evidence.  In it he presents evidence that refutes many negative Western stereotypes of Muslims.  He shows, for instance, that Muslims generally are not violent people.  Non-Muslim countries average 7.5 murders per 100,000 per year, over three times the number in Muslim countries, whether or not those Muslim countries have authoritarian regimes.  “More Muslims, less homicide,” as he puts it.  Fish also shows that Muslims are not particularly inclined toward mass political violence, even though Muslims were responsible for about 60% of the approximately 200 terrorist bombings that occurred between 1994 and 2008.  Comparatively speaking, they do not particularly favor combining religious and political authority.  Yet Fish’s research also reveals other things that some may feel are less comfortable topics of conversation:  among Muslims generally, gender inequality is pronounced, homosexuality is less tolerated, and democratic governance is uncommon.  Research like this, alongside insights from more qualitative forms of inquiry, also helps describe the dialogue context.

The second quality is the spirit in which people must meet.

  •  All must be willing to meet others on their own terms, as they are.  Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo’s chief editor, told journalist Scott Sayare in 2005 that, “You’re not supposed to use religion for your sense of identity.”  “In principle, Arabs in France are not Muslims,” he said, asking, “How is it going to help these people to make them believe they’re Muslims?”  Well, I’m sorry:  this religious sense of identity is genuine, and there can be no real dialogue unless that’s acknowledged.  Biard’s perspective strikes me as a sort of extreme, ideological perversion of Western liberal values; the mirror image of the forms of narrow mindedness and intolerance and hegemonic aspiration within some small pockets of the Islamic community that he seems to see everywhere within the Islamic community.
  • Real dialogue is hard for everyone.  It will be hard for those Muslims who feel, as CBS correspondent Holly Williams said recently, “that what they hold sacred is more important than free speech.”  It requires genuine curiosity, about others, but also about what I take for granted, what I may or may not realize I’ve ceased to be genuinely curious about it.

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.

  •  Trade-offs are unavoidable in life, even when we pretend they’re not.  Even when they’re taboo, because our identities are bound tightly to certain traditions or values, including values like free speech.
  • As much as I consider myself a proponent of free speech, I do find myself deeply questioning the wisdom of extending absolute legal protection, backed by police force, to a specific type of speech to which so few members of the culture with which I identify care to pay attention and so many members of relatively poor, minority populations in those countries find so deeply offensive.
  • And, yes, taking up residence in another country that’s very different from the place one was born, or even just engaging in commerce and other types of exchange with foreigners, inevitably necessitates the development and practice of tolerance for others’ customs and values.

None of us has all the answers.  Constructive responses to the problems we all face only will emerge, over time, from dialogue within and among communities, as so many people are now acknowledging.  If they occur – and I hope they will – these dialogues must be structured and sustained very purposefully and skillfully.


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