How to Collaborate with People You Disagree with — and Win Them Over
The current state of social/political debate and discourse leaves a lot to be desired. Here's how to build a successful, respectful dialogue that can serve an actual purpose.
Maajid Usman Nawaz is a British activist, author, columnist and politician. He was the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for London's Hampstead and Kilburn constituency in the 2015 General Election. He is also the co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank that seeks to challenge the narratives of Islamist extremists.
Nawaz is a former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. This association led to his arrest in Egypt in December 2001, where he remained imprisoned until 2006. Reading books on human rights and interacting with Amnesty International, which adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, resulted in a change of heart. This led Nawaz to leave Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2007, renounce his Islamist past and call for a "Secular Islam."
After his turnaround, Nawaz co-founded Quilliam with former radical Islamists, including Ed Husain. He documented his life story in his Amazon bestselling autobiography Radical (2012). Since then, he has risen to become a prominent critic of Islamism in the United Kingdom. He is a regular op-ed contributor, debater and public commenter, and has spoken from various international platforms including the TED conference. He presented his views on radicalisation in front of US Senate Committee and UK Home Affairs Committee in their respective inquiries on the roots of radical extremism.
Nawaz is proficient in three languages: English, Urdu and Arabic. He is a weekly columnist for The Daily Beast, and had his writings published in various international newspapers including New York Times, The Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Mail and Wall Street Journal. He has made appearances on programmes including, but not limited to, Larry King Live, BBC Hard Talk, Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes, Newsnight and Real Time with Bill Maher. He has delivered lectures at LSE and University of Liverpool, and has given talks at UK Defence Academy and Marshall Center for Security Studies.
In June 2014, Nawaz became an honorary associate of the National Secular Society which was founded in 1866. His second book Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015), co-authored with American neuroscientist Sam Harris, was published in October 2015.
Maajid Nawaz: Sam Harris and myself, Maajid Nawaz, we had a dialogue. Sam Harris is the leading atheist Islam critic, if you like, in the United States, and probably in the world, at the moment. I on the other hand have spent 13 years on the, you know, you couldn’t get more different. I’ve spent 13 years on the leadership of an Islamist organization that seeks to impose a version of Islam over society and erect a caliphate, establish a caliphate and spread it across the world. I was in prison for my membership of this organization in Egypt. I served four years in Egypt and returned to the UK and left the group. But that’s — I joined at 16 and left at the age of 28. So I spent most of my teenage years and youth for the Islamist cause. And so you can see Sam and I came at this debate from opposite ends. And we engaged in a dialogue about Islam and the future of tolerance. You know I’ve been on a journey. I’m now, to make it very clear, somebody who considers myself a small "L" liberal Democrat. I’m somebody who’s secular who advocates for the universality of human rights. But to get to where I’ve got to, while remaining a Muslim, has been a long journey.
There are two processes to a successful dialogue. And one is an emotional process and the other is an intellectual process. Emotionally, the only reason I think I was able to do this is because it happened to me. Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience while I was in prison and I was able to emotionally connect with somebody that I had considered my enemy. I considered human rights organizations and generally non-Muslims as the enemy of my people, who I believed were Muslims. And I was seeking to establish a caliphate. So because I went through this process in my own self I think I was able to kind of then put myself in the mind of how to achieve this with somebody else as well. What I think it must begin with is — I call it, in my autobiography, I call it the rehumanization process. You know, when you have gone through a bit of a delegitimization of somebody else’s perspective, there needs to be a rehumanization of that person as a holistic human being that has a valid experience, whether or not you agree with them. And that requires, as I said, two things and the first is an emotional connection.
The emotional connection allows you to have a conversation based on trust. A few things need to happen for an emotional connection to occur. You’ve face-to-face met with the person. You perhaps have dined with them or you’ve spoken to them and you’ve got to know them in a way that humanizes them essentially. It brings out their characteristics beyond the disagreement and the dispute. You know Sam Harris told me he works out listening to Sufi Qawwali music. Sufi Qawwali music is the form of Sufi mystical music that in Pakistan is very popular. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a late great master of this music and the man works in the gym to Sufi mystical music. So to get to know somebody’s interests beyond the dispute itself helps on a human level to see them as a holistic human being first and foremost that has every bit as a right to be recognized as your own perspective does. So that connection needs to be there on an emotional level. Then is the tricky part which is that once that connection is there, you engage in a conversation.
I never want to be able to sympathize with that perspective. I want to eventually get to a point where I challenge that and change their view of that to say, "It’s never okay to cut someone’s hand off from now until forever. It’s never okay to stone a woman or a man to death for adultery from now until forever." These things are, even in some ideal utopia that you think you want to create called a caliphate, it’s never going to be okay with me. How do we have that conversation in a delicate way, whereas I said the first thing is not to succumb to Stockholm syndrome. And this is why because there are things that are genuinely unpalatable that the person may believe. So maintaining that moral courage, recognizing your own moral compass to say no, these things are wrong — no matter how nice this person is and how civilized they are — these things are wrong. Let me now engage in a conversation with them. But I think if all of those other conditions are there, it’s a lot easier to have that conversation without being disrespectful on a one-on-one level.
The current state of social/political debate and discourse leaves a lot to be desired. In this Big Think Edge preview, Islamic reform activist Maajid Nawaz describes how to build a successful, respectful dialogue that can serve an actual purpose and spur progress. Nawaz is the co-author (with neuroscientist Sam Harris) of a new book called Islam and the Future of Tolerance.
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