I tried to forgive those who fear Islam

You probably call them racists. They don’t have a word for themselves. It’s a fact that I met them when I looked for people who disagreed with Waleed Ali’s call to #SendForgivenessViral.

The first people to disagree with what Waleed had to say were people who felt hurt by racists, who felt that their anger was justified, who felt that he was betraying them. I suggested to some of them that they might have misunderstood what he was saying — I interpreted his speech as a call for people to set aside hateful methods, not to set aside their feelings. We agreed to disagree pretty quickly, those people are not the point of this essay (but it’s important to acknowledge that they exist).

The juicy bit is when I got talking to people who say we should ban Islam and/or Muslim immigration into Australia. I tried to treat them with respect while openly acknowledging that I don’t agree with that position at all. The people I spoke to were pretty good at doing the same for me. (There were one or two people who seemed a bit like trolls, more on that later.)

In some cases, we quickly and amicably assessed that ‘conversation is pointless’ — one person argued that ‘everybody has a common-sense understanding of what “Freedom” means.’ I disagreed with him: I think that ‘common sense’ is a set of unconscious biases and habits, if it really were ‘common’ then people wouldn’t be complaining about the lack of it all the time. But the conversation was being had over Twitter, and so what I said was “I don’t believe in common sense.”

I realise a better tweet would have been “I think common sense is a fiction.” If I stay on Twitter, I’m going to get much better at producing soundbites. (The previous sentence previously had a superfluous ‘that’, five characters once you press space!)

There are three conversations that I found really interesting.

One was satisfying in its own right. We fired tweets at each other for hours, and arrived at a clear understanding for where each of us stood. We agreed that we were both fine people, who wanted to address the problem of violence. The question was whether or not Islam is a force for evil in the world.

His position (if I understood correctly) is quite logical: there are passages in the Quran that promote violence. Given that people have quoted those passages when committing acts of violence, the Quran (and therefore Islam) promotes violence. Therefore, to the extent that you restrict Islam, you have done something useful to reduce violence.

My position is something that I still haven’t distilled to such elegance, but this is a start: Humans are biologically engineered to respond to angry feelings with violence. In a large society, there are powerful sanctions against violence, so people seek a justification for it. Taking away a justification (such as Islam) is pointless because there are so many potential justifications to choose from. There are so few justifications for murder in Australian society that Julian Knight said “I wanted to kill people.” While his honesty is commendable (in a trainwreck kind of way), it didn’t prevent the Hoddle Street massacre.

I gained a lot from engaging with someone who was successful at engaging with me, and who helped me to clarify my thoughts.

The second conversation took place in parallel, and this person also invested hours in trying to understand me, and in helping me to see what they have seen. However, we reached an impasse. I had a feeling about my position that I couldn’t articulate. He seemed convinced that if I studied the same evidence, I would draw the same conclusions. Both of us got frustrated and wanted to quit. Eventually, we arrived at a somewhat uncomfortable (but hopefully respectful) silence.

Before I get to the third conversation, let’s talk about trolls. I saw people who looked like trolls to me; I was also accused of trolling. People said to me “I think you’re being deliberately stupid.” I didn’t say that, but I thought it a few times. During that second conversation, I was asked a question that made me want to give up. So I said, “I can’t find a way to engage constructively with that question.”

I received a hurt response, “Maybe you should take this topic seriously.”

My reply, “I take it very seriously, which is why I won’t answer a question I don’t understand.”

So that person spent half an hour helping me to understand the question. It turns out I disagreed with an unstated premise for the question; once I knew what the premise was, I said so. We then tried a different path towards building a bridge of understanding between us.

So the point of that second conversation is that it taught me something really valuable. I’ve said for a long time that “Two smart people can try really hard to understand each other and they can still fail.” I believe that statement a lot more comfortably now.

By the end of all that, I was tired of the conversation. But just because the people who have been talking for hours and hours are tired, doesn’t mean that someone else won’t turn up and reply to something from halfway through. (This was, after all, on Twitter.)

So conversation 3 was with someone who seemed to agree with the anti-Islam logic presented above, and I wasn’t really in the mood to keep going seriously. I tried to close down the conversation with a witty jibe. They responded by taking me seriously, acknowledging that I had a point, and by reiterating that they also had a point. I felt obligated to start taking them seriously.

My view on Islam is fundamentally formed by the Moslems that I have known and seen. The person I respected most during my 20s was Mohammed Iqbal, a person who was extremely wise when dealing with people; he was a brilliant technical expert, and he very gently helped me see how my arrogance was hurting me. He also practiced his religion, and I have vivid memories of having halal kebabs with him when we were working at 3am.

When I see a woman in a distinctive head-dress, she’s almost always being extremely nice, perhaps excessively so. They seem to respond to a society that fears them by avoiding doing anything provocative. Occasionally, I’ve seen younger women with bright patterns on their heads, unashamedly having a great time chatting about… I have no idea what, I was just glad to see that they were happy.

I summarized that in a tweet (as you do), and received a reply: “Great, let’s base immigration policy on your anecdotal experience.”

They’d seen through my earlier sarcasm to see the truth underneath it, I figured I owed them the same. My argument boils down to “Islam is not dangerous in Australian society because Australian society is a strong, peaceful society.” If I was right, then the truth would be on my side. I suggested that we should check the crime statistics to see if Islam or Muslim migrants had an impact on crime levels.

The Australian Institute of Criminology website was less helpful than I had hoped. There was nothing directly addressing the question, and several links which looked relevant were out of date and broken. Not be deterred, I discovered that you can get crime statistics by postcode, and compare them to statewide averages. So I found out where a prominent NSW mosque is, put in the postcode, and prayed hard.

I’d like to think that I’d be honest enough to post what I found, even if it was inconsistent with my theory. I guess we’ll never know: http://myboot.com.au/2195/Lakemba/crime.aspx

I tried to forgive those who express a desire to restrict Islam in Australia (maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s a rational assessment based on what they know — that’s not the point here). In the end, I understood them a little better, I understood myself a little better, I learned that Godwin’s Law also applies to the Crusades, and I found some potentially persuasive evidence to support my case.

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Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals. nargall@gmail.com

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