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 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.

So Sam and I began a dialogue because I felt, and Sam felt, that this debate had become too polarized, in part because some of the abuse hurled at us for challenging Islamist extremism.  We wanted to demonstrate that, actually if people have substantive conversations, they can make headway in this debate. If they simply talk to each other and listen to what each other is saying and respond to the actual substance of the conversation and not hurl insults and abuse, you know. It would have been very easy for me to call Sam a racist. It would have been very easy for me to call him a bigot. In fact that’s all everyone from my side of this conversation wanted me to do. And because I didn’t do that, it led to a backlash from my side of the conversation. So I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to have that conversation. I wanted to see if it was possible and I think we'll let the listeners and the viewers decide if they choose to read the book or listen to the audiobook whether indeed it’s something that did end up becoming a civil conversation. I like to think it was. 
The Emotional Process

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. 
The Intellectual Process

It’s important to try and seek common ground before seeking areas that you disagree with. So Sam and I — I knew already that Sam and I would find common ground in our respective desire to challenge Islamist extremism even if we disagreed on Islam the religion. I knew we both wanted to challenge Islamist extremists and we knew we could identify those by groups. We knew we both didn’t like ISIS. We knew we both didn’t like al-Qaeda, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood. These are groups we knew we wanted to intellectually challenge, without going into the definition of what Islam the faith was, I could isolate those at least from a group perspective and say, "Yes, these are our common adversaries." Another area where Sam and I knew that we could agree on was our critique of what I’ve called the regressive left. We knew that political correctness has gotten out of hand to a point where it was no longer, in polite society, it just wasn’t the right thing or the done thing to critique Islamist extremism and to name it Islamism.  

So, we knew we could bond on that too. On some of the mistakes that the regressive left made. The difficult part is so we’ve got the emotional connection and we’ve got the ideas that we bonded on and agreed with and the common ground that we found. The difficult part is on the disagreements. I think the trick here and this is the most delicate part. The trick here is to actually — empathy is crucial, is to understand where the person is coming from emotionally and intellectually. If they have a logical argument — you may disagree with the premise of the argument, but if it makes internal sense that needs to be acknowledged. You know when people in common parlance say I get where you’re coming from, that’s what they really mean.  They mean, "If I were you I can see your train of thought. I can see from the experiences you’ve had why you’ve made those logical connections to a point that’s arrived at that conclusion. The reason I disagree with it is because perhaps there was an assumption in the premise that was mistaken, which if I tweaked, your train of thought would go in a different direction." But it’s to recognize that there is an internal consistency in that train of thought. I think that’s important because what that does is it validates that that person is a rational thinker. You’re not saying you’re stupid. You’re recognizing, giving them the respect that I recognize you’re able to think and I’m not patronizing you. And that’s very important, because if somebody doesn’t feel respected, they’re not going to think you’re an honest interlocutor when conversing with them. So in the areas of disagreement — that’s why I say it’s tricky. We’ve got to be able to recognize an internal logic in someone’s argument. And we’ve got to emotionally empathize with that and intellectually identify that internal logic. And then, in expressing the disagreement, it’s crucial to know your own value set because here is the danger of the Stockholm syndrome.
In dialogue, you could end up because you’ve got — now you’ve got the emotional connection; you’ve got the common ground; and you’ve recognized an internal logic pattern to that person’s thought process. The danger is you just end up becoming friends and really don’t discuss the dispute. And that’s really delicate because you’re there to actually have a conversation about where you disagree so you want to get to that eventually. So here to avoid the danger of the Stockholm syndrome, what’s really needed is moral courage. It’s an understanding of look, you know, so let me give an example. I regularly talk to Islamists as well, right. So if I’m talking to an Islamist and I can say and it’s easy for me to say I know where you’re coming from. I believed these things for 13 years. I understand your anger. I understand your internal logic and your train of thought and everything. But what I don’t want to do is end up ignoring the fact that this person may believe that in one day in an idle caliphate, it’s okay to cut the hand of the thief off if the Sharia conditions for theft have been met in that situation.

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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