OPINION: Engage with the ‘other’ to break down stereotypes and superstitions

OPINION: Engage with the ‘other’ to break down stereotypes and superstitions

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner Senior Rabbi, Movement for Reform Judaism

Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner
Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner

Something isn’t right and we can’t ignore it. There’s a contentious, dangerous and painful conversation we can’t avoid. Medieval-style beheadings and murder in the name of God catapult us into recognising that values we cherish are hollow for others.

The extremists are few in number, but they have murdered thousands of Muslims, Yazidis and Christians. Shockingly, it’s claimed 2,000 of them are British, young men and women who have travelled to Syria to inflict wanton suffering on innocents. Even a Jewish woman is reported to have joined Islamic State – the mind boggles.

We know the vast majority of British Muslims oppose completely this barbaric organisation. They recognise its theology represents a perversion of the peaceful way of life that Islam can and should be. Yet when it comes to extremism, noise and number can be inversely proportionate.

ISIS recruits represent a tiny fraction of Muslims, but they indoctrinate other young men and women to abandon their families and futures in Britain to follow a radical, destructive ideology. It would be too easy to ring-fence the cause and effect of extremism to any one religious group.

Muslim communities are not alone in being affected by the toxicity of radicalisation. Following the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas, the public debate we normally cherish became polarised and severe, with the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents on record.

A recent survey placed Britain as one of the world’s least anti-Semitic countries – but we know where hateful hashtags and swastikas on synagogues can lead. Like a thread in Britain’s rich tapestry of beliefs and backgrounds, each minority’s existence affects the whole fabric.

As long as some British people murder in the name of God and religious minorities like Muslims and Jews are vulnerable to extremism, everyone’s freedom is at risk. Faith is locked into intimate and crucial conversation with Britain and the conversation is far from over.

Tackling intolerance that enables extremism to flourish by reaffirming values of ‘diversity’, ‘coexistence’ and ‘tolerance’ is too passive for our watershed moment. Puncturing extremist ideas demands action. It demands engaging with the ‘other’ – addressing, discussing and challenging our differences.

This is hard. It is far easier to ignore our differences or respectfully ‘agree to disagree’, but we play this game at our own peril. By not engaging, we let bad and theologically confused ideas go unchallenged. Bad ideas can quickly become dangerous ideas when they are isolated from criticism. In the example of the most vulnerable British Muslims, we know exactly what happens next. Every time we stumble upon difference, we reach a moment where the robust fabric of Britishness can start to unravel.

We can avoid the discussion. We can even respond violently – ‘your views are barbaric and abhorrent’. However, when we opt against discussion, we let people develop their own dangerous conclusions. The alternative is that we relish moments of spiritual and intellectual friction.

Through discussion, we challenge superstition and stereotypes, and prevent the seeds of extremism growing. By insisting on debate, we unsettle insular theology that leads people to kill ‘in the name of God’. The Book of Proverbs insists on critical engagement: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

As we discuss and debate, so we influence each other and expose theologically flawed extreme ideas for what they are. The Hebrew language offers a beautiful way of thinking about the moments where we encounter difference. The Hebrew for tolerance, savlanut, is related closely to the word for patience, solvanut.

Both words stem from the same linguistic root, sevel, meaning pain, suffering and shouldering a burden. The relationship between tolerance, patience and pain shows that grappling with difference is not easy, especially if our disagreements seem insoluble. Engaging with the ‘other’ is a frustrating and difficult process, but it is also the only way to achieve a stronger tolerance and coexistence. We are at a pivotal moment.

If we shy away from tackling difference, leave certain religious narratives unattended and unchallenged, we open the door for extremist groups to trump sense with their own interpretation. We must engage proactively with the ‘other’ to break down stereotypes, superstitions and bad theology.

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