Wherever there is diversity, there has to be differences. Each of us is an individual with a unique mixture of convictions, so there are as many thoughts, emotions, and goals as there are people in this world.
Consequently, it’s unfair to expect others to be copies of ourselves, with identical hearts and minds. Unrealistic expectations of uniformity result in condemning diversity as a source of conflict, while overlooking its precious value as a source of enrichment.
In such a negative mindset, being “different” becomes synonymous with being “harmful”, which is a serious barrier to effective communication.
The Quran offers a golden rule for people of different backgrounds to communicate, using diversity for enlightenment rather than conflict:
[ O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). ] (49:13).
From a communication perspective, in order for people to genuinely “know” one another they need to start contact with each other on a positive note without pre-conceived hostilities.
They need to resist the tendency to make collective, hasty judgments of others based on generalized negative ideas.
This is called stereotyping. For example, assuming that all Spaniards are bull-fighters or that all Italians are opera singers. When we do that, not only are we unjust to others, but we’re also unjust to ourselves by blocking a precious source of learning through making assumptions, treating them as indisputable facts, refusing to see past them, and then taking decisions accordingly.
This is exactly what happens when some believe that all Muslims are terrorists, and others believe that all Westerners are heathens! Neither assumption is true.
As the Danish cartoons crisis raged in 2006, I wondered what Prophet Muhammad would do in a conflict situation? Based on his noble concepts of communication and conflict resolution, and on the Quranic verse above, I started a creative cross-cultural communication project called “Don’t Hate, Educate!”
Did you ever wonder what people fight about? Generally, conflicting convictions result from difference in age, gender, religion, education, culture, and so on, as well as difference in status and territorial rights.
The Prophet Muhammad faced very challenging communication situations filled with all those reasons for conflict. To begin with, he faced an extremely diverse audience who were often negative, so he had to combat hostility and suspicion insistently while remaining positive rather than defensive.
Moreover, he didn’t choose the timing; he often found himself in very pressuring confrontational situations, which forced him to migrate to other people’s territory and start a new community there with minimal resources.
Yet, in the face of all this adversity, he successfully changed deep-rooted negative convictions, and actually managed to weave a beautiful tapestry out of people who were so conflicting that they were constantly at war with each other. How can we benefit from his success today?
Judging From First Impressions
His strategy was to prevent conflict from occurring rather than wait for it to happen then start “fire fighting”.
To do that, he gently and continuously educated about equality, tolerance and anger-management to downplay the exaggerated importance of status and territory versus equality and freedom.
He warned against the destructive effects of negative emotions, and promoted a calm rationale instead. He established the Islamic concept of freedom of expression by encouraging his companions to speak up if they thought someone was making a hasty emotional reaction, no one -including himself- was above being advised.
In fact, he praised wise advice to a fellow man in a critical situation as a great virtue, regardless of rank and status, as long as it’s done respectfully. At the same time, he strongly condemned verbal abuse and public mockery of others as a grave sin.
When a confrontation occurred, he kept his calm in dealing with it using these same principles, even when he was personally and publicly attacked:
One day a Jew came to the mosque to demand repayment for some money Prophet Muhammad owed him, but he did so harshly and in public. Umar ibn Al-Khattab , one of the Prophet’s companions, was angry at the Jew who insulted the Prophet and Umar menacingly drew his sword from its scabbard. But Prophet Muhammad calmed Umar saying: “I and he deserve better treatment, teach him to demand his money in a better way and advise me to repay it in a refined manner.” (Ibn Hibban)
Following the resolution of a conflict, he never lingered on the negative feelings and never made generalized judgments based on single incidents. Instead, he focused on the lessons learnt and the new opportunities resulting from solving the problem. How many times do we allow one negative incident to pollute our thoughts about others forever?
The Repatriation Syndrome
Modern psychology tells us that a person trying to adapt to a new environment suffers some intense symptoms including depression, loneliness, loss of sleep and appetite, and ultimately, inability to relate to others.
The problem is intensified if the original inhabitants treat the newcomers as “invaders to their territory” both literally and figuratively when it comes to accepting their new ideas and adapting to a new way of life.
Today, the integration of immigrants is a major problem in the West. Perhaps things may improve if this is seen as a communication situation that should be handled as an opportunity rather than a threat. Particularly if the immigrants hadn’t forcefully occupied someone’s land, but merely accepted an invitation to join a new home. In such a situation, both guest and host are responsible for facilitating a healthy interaction and using it as a learning experience for both sides.
Prophet Muhammad faced a similar situation after leaving his home in Makkah to migrate to Madinah upon the invitation of its citizens. When he got there, some of his Companions — from the immigrants — were so homesick that they got physically ill.
The unity of society was at risk and needed an urgent solution, so he skillfully turned the painful longing into energy of hope through a set of social rules designed to forge solid bonds between citizens and immigrants. Perhaps we need to explore those precious lessons today.
Overcoming Status Barriers
Money, power, possessions, and physical beauty are the plagues of our materialistic world today. Because of them conflict occurs.
When we compare ourselves to glossy images on billboards and fail to acquire those exaggerated “status symbols” we start consciously envying and hating those who have them, and we even hate ourselves as unworthy failures. Such psychologically troubled individuals are not fit for healthy communication.
In contrast, Islam stresses equality, and teaches that preference is only based on good qualities in the heart, which only God can see.
Consequently we have no means and no rights to judge or evaluate ourselves, let alone others. So, we must deal justly and equally with all people and in all situation.
This golden rule is reflected in the behavior of the Prophet who taught that a smile is charity, even to strangers, and always used a person’s favorite name to address him, even with enemies.
He sat anywhere in a gathering not in the center, he didn’t select a status title, and refused that people stand up for him. He always allowed personal direct contact for both friends and foes. He used to clear a place opposite him for the guest and never pulled away from the conversation first, even when it got aggressive.
Someone once pulled the Prophet’s cloak forcefully to get his attention, but the Prophet didn’t respond with equal force, he merely ordered him firmly to let go, and the man did out of the sheer authority of the order.
He respected even the youngest or poorest until each one thought himself the most favored:
The Prophet was offered water, and he drank from it. On his right side there was a boy and on his left side were some old men. He asked the boy “Do you mind if I offer the water to them?: The boy said “O Allah’s Prophet! By Allah! I will not give up my right to drink for anyone (because I am sitting on the right side). The Prophet handed the water to the boy. (Al-Bukhari)
The situation is a bit of a dilemma, who should get the water — as a status symbol — a young boy or old men? The Prophet solved the problem through equality regardless of age or status.
Today we notice an increased rudeness and lack of tact in social relationships, particularly towards strangers. People often do what is best for themselves instead of doing what is right. All good communication starts with truly respecting the other by treating them politely and equally.
If we genuinely seek to know others, we must educate, allow ourselves to be educated, and stop the destructive hate.