Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Danger of 'dialogue' when it's used to make deceit

The danger of ‘dialogue’ when it’s used to mask deceit

Tala al Ramahi (Published June 10, 2009 | The National)

A few days ago, I received an automated e-mail from Amazon, recommending a handful of books based on my previous purchases. Infidel, by Ayan Hirsi Ali, was the first book on their list. I sniggered and contemplated sending them a suggestion of my own: your recommendation system needs more than just a tweak.

Ali, a controversial Somali author, is one of the many “intellectuals” who became increasingly popular in the United States after September 11. Given the ample time I spent in America during that period, I had the “opportunity” to actually attend some of their speaking engagements.

There was Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian-American who renounced her Muslim faith for “America, Israel and the War on Terror”. She described her upbringing as one ingrained with anti-Semitism, violent resistance against Jews and Christians, and claimed she was enlightened when she became acquainted with members of Hadassa, a Jewish group promoting religious dialogue who greeted her with a simple “shalom”. She had not found such peacefulness in her previous faith, she claimed.

She made sweeping generalisations that moderate Muslims who denounced violence were rare, and that those who did were actually “not really Muslim”. She claimed to reject jihad (a term she used to mean violence) as part of her new message of peace, and yet staunchly advocated intolerance toward members of an entire faith. Despite leaving her lecture bitter at such expressions of ignorance, I was nevertheless content that most could or would learn to see through her deceit masked as “dissent”. But for a certain readership, her themes have had legs. Two years later, she published her book, Now they Call me Infidel: Why I renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on Terror, now a bestseller in the United States, and as of yesterday received 4.5 out of five stars averaging its reception among 70 readers on Amazon.

Then there was Walid Shoebat, a Palestinian-American and self proclaimed “ex-terrorist” who has been “reformed” after converting to Evangelical Christianity. I was, like many others, intrigued by the publicity flyers that littered my campus: three male faces covered by the black and white Palestinian kaffiyeh. “Three Ex-Terrorists Turned Peace Activists” announced a red headline splashed across a black flyer.

Shoebat and his two other speaking partners delivered similar screeds to those of Darwish. Shoebat’s title for his first book, Why I left Jihad was also unimaginatively similar to the title of Darwish’s book. His next publication had a catchier title: Why We Want to Kill You and it received five full stars from readers on Amazon.

Many others like Shoebat have made a career out of their disingenuous message, preaching an intolerant agenda under the guise of promoting peace. Their titles are similar, and so is the spiel: renounce your faith after an extremist past and become a “reformed” advocate for the US and Israel. Sex sells, they say, but so does Jihad, apparently.

These authors have capitalised on American agony and vulnerability after September 11th, making themselves a healthy profit. After the devastating attacks, Americans desperately wanted answers: Why do they hate us? Why did they do this? Who are Muslims anyway? This disingenuous message filled a vacuum in American culture at the time, with a dearth of books and voices responding to these inquiries.

These authors were happy to indulge in telling or, in fact, misinforming them: Yes they hate you; It’s because you are free; Muslims are unlike others who practice alternative faiths because they love violence, hate America and are intolerant to other views and religions. Others fabricated pitiful pasts to better market themselves.

These authorities became self appointed spokespeople for “Muslim dissent”, even when their rhetoric was punctuated with bigotry, lacked nuance and an understanding of the complex world around them.

Their word choice was not unlike those that they decried. Words like infidel, jihad, hate, kill Jews and Christians peppered their language under the pretence of combating misogyny, anti-semitism and violence. Ironically, they often argued against interfaith dialogue as “nonsense” and moderate Muslims as “irrelevant”.

Religious pluralism and dialogue are more important now more than ever. But these are not their champions. There is nothing brave nor admirable about promoting bigotry and exploiting American vulnerability. If anything, these individuals have maintained the past patterns of thought that they claim to have left behind.

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