This week I received a friend request on Facebook by someone whose profile picture scared me. My choice to explore it further, rather than delete, block and quickly try to forget it, turned into one of the most fascinating conversations of my life, that now thousands around the world are involved in after just 48 hours. Thank you Rehan Allahwala from Pakistan for igniting this.
There is so much I want to say and share but if I don't start somewhere, I just won't. And this is too important of a topic to get lost among a relatively petty list of other things to do on my desk. So I'm diving in. And I hope many of you will join me in this swelling conversation online. Because if not now, when?
Every day people's lives are at stake in the world. And when we wonder what we can possibly do to impact that, well there are clearly more answers than we realize at our fingertips. And opportunities, literally every minute, to make an impact. Whoever we are. Wherever we may be.
When I saw this photo of a Pakistani soldier appear in my friend request list I froze. The soldier was dressed in a bright green uniform with the symbol of a flag on his shoulder. His head was wrapped, mouth was covered, and eyes masked by dark glasses. The only skin showing revealed a bit of his nose, a muscular forearm, and a second hand, clutching a giant automatic weapon. And he wanted to be Facebook friends with me.
When I showed it to a few friends in Los Angeles, where I live, they too winced. Many commented in fear. Others waived it away too overwhelmed even to address the fears it evoked.
I didn't deny, but let the request sit ominously in my inbox. I eventually looked at his page and saw that he was involved with youth organizations like I am. Other posts contained beautiful quotes about life, love, even how important it was for us to put our cell phones down when we're together so we can relish more time enjoying each other's company. I was truly confused.
A few days later, my friend Rehan Allahwala was visiting from Pakistan. We'd started following each other online about eight years ago, discovering a mutual admiration for each other's work and values. He then he recognized me at a conference in Dubai (the Global Entrepreneur Summit) and we instantly became real life friends. What transpired from there changed the way I look at women covered by a veil in the Middle East forever. But that's another story you can see here.
Back to the freedom fighter friending me on Facebook. I showed this picture to Rehan to ask his advice, since he's from Pakistan, and he responded very matter-of-factly, "Just ask him" about it. "Oh no! I cannot." I was overcome by anxiety over the concept of opening my life up in any way to this man I knew nothing about but feared so deeply. Then Rehan said, "Watch. Allow me." He proceeded to take out his mobile phone and message the man. (Notice this one action alone changed my terminology in describing him. At first, he was a fighter, maybe even a terrorist. Now he was a man. A human being with a Facebook page being messaged by someone I know).
Rehan then went a step further and posted the photo on his own wall with the question "What does this profile picture say about this person?" Such a neutral question. I was amazed at his effortless objectivity.
It's probably now worth mentioning that Rehan has over 700k followers online. And this little experiment isn't trivial or a fluke. He's actually on quest to build bridges between people in Pakistan and the rest of the world.
I watched him reach out to this daunting stranger online, frozen by what might come back as a response--especially my association with this post in any way. Here is the post so you can see it for yourself. And I hope you do because this conversation has ironically ignited a powerful one in the spirit of peace.
Rehan and I continued our conversation over Japanese Boba tea, while his family was just down the road visiting Disneyland. In just a few minutes the comments (and likes) started to pile up over the post of the scary soldier.
Again, Rehan's post:
"When you see this photo on profile photo and you are not from Pakistan, what do you feel about this person?"
Some comments were lighthearted:
"Perhaps a Green Hornet game night?"
"That green is terrible camouflage in the desert."
"Real life superhero. Ecowarrior. Green Ninja. The desert dust makes sense for the sunglasses. AK does not look good though as it can also suggest a member of a militia rather than an organized military."
Rehan jumped in again. "Would you like to be his Facebook friend?"
"Scares me, because guns are for killing and I do not believe in that."
"He could be a soldier or show patriotism."
"He is a soldier doing whatever his country asks of him."
"We are proud of it. What do you think?"
"Looks too much like a Jihadi. Although easy to recognize that he [might] not be one, because it's the Pakistani flag."
"So cool, that is what I feel."
"Wary, but open-minded."
The more I sat back and watched the less tense I became and more intrigued. Curious. Open.
There are hundreds more comments you can see for yourself online. And I hope you do take a look, because this is something live you'll probably never see anywhere else.
This comment was the real turning point for me.
"Sometimes the soldiers need to cover their faces because of the heat around or sand. What's the big deal of covering face? Don't the people in the dessert cover their face because of the sand storm?"
Bam! No gun went off. Just a light. For me--and clearly for thousands of others now following and contributing to this conversation as it unfolds online. And this dialogue--it is so powerful. Because we're talking about it. Not fighting. We're even laughing. Making jokes. Sharing our fears. Allowing ourselves a little vulnerability at a distance, and thus, coming together.
In a sense, we've disarmed this iconic soldier with words.
Fast-forward 48 hours and the post has generated over 6,878 likes, 649 shares and 179 comments as of 6:30pm PST on Tuesday. (Another 200 likes since I've started typing this article.)
I finally posted online my own thoughts at the urging of Rehan to join the conversation.
"I'm so sorry for staying so quiet so long here. And I'm so grateful for all of the messages and comments that have come from this. It is difficult for me to admit this to you all now, but in the spirit of bridging our misconceptions about each other, I must confess this photo really scared me.
When people hide their faces, it is easy to assume they don't want to be recognized. When they wrap themselves in flags, they show clear pride and the intention to protect their country and people. When they proudly hold up guns, they show their willingness to fight and do what is necessary to uphold their values. At the end of the day we all want to protect our mutual values. But when I see this, as many Americans may, I instantly feel fear. I worry this anger is directed at us, for what we believe in. Even though I wish no harm to others, ever, any soldier dressed like this would evoke fear in me, for my life, for the life of others anywhere.
All of your comments have shown me there's so much more to this photo. By accepting my own fears, but staying open to listen and learn from your own perceptions, I have come to see that so many of you see this as a sense of national pride, protection for your people, your values. Not necessarily as a sign of hatred. But please see there's a very fine line there. Those who wield guns in the world and engage in fighting, let alone celebrate it, scare those of us who do not. We can all talk of peace, but at the end of the day, the best way to achieve that is to talk, communicate, seek to understand one another, and yes, face our fears head on. Just like this. I'm nervous to press send on this because the topic is so sensitive and easy to misinterpret -- so please everyone, even the man in this photo -- take these comments of mine with love, as an outstretched hand, as a gesture of peace. And I thank all of you for sharing your thoughts and perspectives. It certainly has enabled me to expand mine."
And to my new "friends" across the world, I want to share my own thoughts -- a perspective on this very type of imagery that I believe might scare many others upon first contact -- and instantly evoke fear and the closing of any other possible lines of communication. Instead I want to explore this topic more and keep talking, because more powerful than any gun is our will as human beings to collaborate and find solutions to all that keeps us apart.
There are few things Americans cherish more than freedom. Something we believe is the "inalienable right" of everyone.
When people present a threat to that. Question it. Even threaten it. We get scared. Angry. Even fight for our right to be who we are.
It's interesting to consider the essence of what drives us to fight is really what makes us so alike. We all want the freedom to live according to our values. In peace. To work. Earn a living. Support our families. Enjoy a certain quality of life.
Where we run into trouble is when we decide we must try to convert others to our beliefs--and we chose to do that through preaching, dictating, by coercion, or worse by violence and force.
Why should any of us have any of us have the right to do so?
That said, we have such a beautiful opportunity -- if we approach each other's differences with openness, curiosity, and mutual respect -- to learn and grow so much together. And in the process bring so much more peace to the world.
If our individual values are compelling, perhaps others will start to see, maybe even adopt willingly, if not simply understand, appreciate and accept that there are some things that we may not see eye to eye on. But they need not drive us so far as to fight. Let's instead admit to our fears. Seek answers to our questions. Allow ourselves to be vulnerable and reach across lines that separate us. Treat each other with warmth and respect when we do. Support one another's quests to learn and discover different ways of life, cultures, religions, and genuinely actually engage with other people. Most of the time, we find far more in common than we do differences. But then those differences become points of fascination, intrigue, and fodder for more fascinating conversations. Not to mention, potential friendships and tighter bonds.
How wonderful an opportunity we all have with one another. And how much more exciting is that than the alternative?
Live in fear and ignorance of one another and tempt anger to turn to war? Or confront our differences, misunderstandings and concerns openly, reach out, grab each other's hands in friendship and start talking, learning, loving?
To me the choice is clear.
What do you think?
Oh and what about the scary soldier? Turns out it was just a cool picture someone found online and Photoshopped bright green to look like a superhero protecting Pakistan. The green flag and imagery of the crescent moon and star evokes a strong sense of pride and nationalism among its people. The request actually came from a kind-hearted, funny, well educated, ambitious 19-year old engineering student, who genuinely was reaching out to me in friendship. Now I look forward to clicking that "accept" button that I originally feared. Wow, do I have a story to tell him!