I consider myself to be an open person. I love diversity. I have an adopted son who looks very different than me. People from other cultures are intriguing and I have found all my interactions with them to be beautiful and engaging.
That said, I did not expect to be sharing a meal with a former Muslim extremist who had terrorist ties. Life has a way of surprising you.
Just some brief background here. I don't talk much about the fact that I am co-owner of a company that works in leadership development. But every year, my colleagues and I attend a leadership forum where people share creative ideas about how they are implementing different leadership practices in the corporate, private, educational, government, and non-profit sectors.
At a conference, I sat in on a session that was led by Hanif Qadir, said former Muslim extremist. He told a bit of his story to start off the session. He is a Muslim, born and raised in London. Shortly after the war in Afghanistan began, he was recruited by a radical Muslim extremist group to come to Pakistan and Afghanistan and join in the fight against the enemy- namely, Americans.
Along with many others, he was upset about all of the killing of innocent people (new statistics that I researched personally show that 116,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan alone) - he wanted to help stop it. On the streets of London he was approached by someone who abused his empathy towards his people who were dying and convinced him the only way to help was to go to the Middle East and join in the fight. They twisted the words and context of the Koran, using his deep faith in Islam to persuade him that what they were doing was the only way. It wasn't until later that a Muslim in Afghanistan urged him to see how the radical group he was working with was only causing more death and violence. Indeed, his compassion for people's pain had been played upon and used to radicalize him and his faith. He wanted out. He was bold enough to go to the extremists and tell them he wanted to leave and refused further participation. In all reality they should have killed him, but he somehow managed to talk his way out and went back to London.
It was then that he realized what danger the Muslim youth on the streets of London were in. Upon his return to England, Hanif and his brothers put all their resources and energy into reaching out to the vulnerable Muslim youth in London. Many of them were being approached and told the same things that he had been told - that violence was the only way. They were being radicalized. With a Muslim population of well over 2 million people in London, Hanif realized what was at stake if the wrong people got a hold of the Muslim youth - many of whom were already involved in gang violence. Hanif and his brothers founded The Active Change Foundation, a youth center, where they host discussions and workshops that encourage the kids to think for themselves and be able to identify radicalization tactics and see another way. He started a youth leadership program, which gets kids off the streets and focuses on developing them in positive ways so that they can be voices for peace and change. He is viewed by government officials as a leading counter-terrorism expert, as he has the unique advantage of knowing the tactics extremist groups employ.
The work he does is dangerous. There are many Muslims who don't support what he is doing. He receives much hostility from within his own community. His family has been attacked and threatened to the point that when Hanif goes out of town, a police officer comes and stays with his family to protect them. And yet, he believes enough in the importance of his work to press on despite this. So, that's a little background on Hanif. Fast forward to dinner.
One evening we had a dinner event that everyone from the conference attended. I was sitting with my coworkers when I looked over in the corner of the room and noticed Hanif and Samuil (the 16 year-old he had brought with him who is a part of the leadership program) sitting at the end of a large table by themselves. So I left my coworkers and walked over to their table, asking if I could join them. They warmly said yes. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous. After all, what does a white, Christian woman say to a male, former Muslim Extremist?
We just talked - turns out we are both human beings. He told me more about his work and the challenges that he faces. He talked about their successes. He talked about his family and his faith. We talked about how our past shapes our future course. We had much the same conversation that you or I would have had if we had sat down together over a meal.
I learned that we shared similar passions. Both of us care about the younger generations. Both of us want to ensure they grow up empowered to make good choices, which will ultimately help them change the world. Both of our hearts are compassionate towards those who suffer. Both of us are energized when unlikely sources unite to make a difference together.
I learned that I was holding views of Muslims in general that were wrong, as much as I didn't want to think I was. There is fear in the unknown, and, truth be told, I haven't known many Muslims. In America especially, the media shapes our opinions of Muslims - and not for the better. We are subtly and not so subtly taught to think that most Muslims are violent extremists and that is simply not true.
I learned that there is power in humility. I told them that I was a Christian and that I realized many, American Christians especially, have been perpetuating hate and judgment towards Muslims. I told them that I didn't think Jesus was proud of that at all and that I believe He wants us all to have love for each other.
I learned that we've both experienced and propagated the worst of our respective religions. He pursued violence as the only way and I pursued judgment, which in the end is a form of violence itself. Just like him, I have had people twist and take out of context the words of the God I love until, in the end, He looked nothing like who He really was. I was sucked in and acted accordingly. While the damage Hanif inflicted may have had a physically violent bent, the damage I inflicted on people was hate and rejection.
I learned that until we set our fear and our differences aside, nothing will ever change in this world. We have more in common with each other than we ever imagined. The fact that I could find more similar shared experiences and feelings with a former Muslim extremist than I could differences is proof of that. It took courage on both our parts. It took courage for Hanif to be drilled by Homeland Security on his way into the US to speak to us about the power of caring for others. It took courage for him to stand before a room full of Americans committed to leading well, not knowing what they might be thinking about the things he was sharing. And it took courage for me to walk across the room and spend an hour or so in conversation with someone I never dreamed I'd spend one second with. We listened and heard each other.
I'm left with the thought that the world would be a different place if we all displayed more courage and humility... if we let down our walls that make us feel so secure and at times, superior. What would the world look like if black and white, Muslim and Christian, Democrat and Republican, could just let our guards down and see each other for who God has made us to be? What would it look like to approach our differences with humility, rather than pride? I think we'd find deep friendships and meaningful interactions with our fellow human beings who are different than us. Too often we allow our differences to define us. Perhaps it's time we allow our commonalities to have a turn.
Amy Savage- Mother, Wife, Company President, Lover of People