A new set of ads by Pamela Geller show the Twin Towers in flames next to a passage from the Quran warning that "fear that shall strike the hearts of unbelievers." Many see the message as Islamophobic and intended to provoke fear about Islam in America. But what if it was possible, in the season of Christmas, to see the appearance of the ads not as a thorn in the side but as a gift and a chance to learn? Here are some possible teachings to receive:
1. The ads can deepen our understanding about conflict.
We already know that conflicts have victims and aggressors. What we may less easily remember is that in order for the conflict to continue, the parties swap roles. Side A is a victim to Side B, Side A retaliates, and Side B now becomes a victim. In addition, parties in a conflict create a story about their own victimization, and these stories are circulated and absorbed into culture and community. Violent extremists see themselves as victims of the United States, and argue that they must defend themselves. As shown in the Geller ad, they justify their stance by invoking Muslim sacred texts on jihad. Re-circulating this violent extremist narrative through her new ads, Geller inadvertently boosts their message and potency. An additional sad outcome of her misstep is the likely re-traumatizing of every day New Yorkers who see the towers in flames.
2. Geller reminds us that 9/11 happened to America, a country of liberty and rights that people around the world have long admired and continue to do so.
The attacks on 9/11 were contrary to our understanding about how America is seen in the world. By displaying the anti-American narrative, the ads reinforce the idea that America is hated and a victim -- an image that helps neither our international standing nor our collective sense of strength.
3. Geller's ad calls on us to revive a public discourse about balancing freedom, responsibility and the collective good.
Freedom of speech is a foundational principle for Americans, and a value for millions around the world. Yet freedom and responsibility are different sides of the same coin, and it is only a responsible exercise of speech that can diminish the power of the violent extremist message. We can find ways to demonstrate that individual freedom need not compromise collective well-being and the public good. That we can exercise free speech, free assembly, free belief, with the full recognition and awareness that each of us is not truly independent; rather, we live in a collective web of humanity. Our interconnectedness means that the repercussions of my choice, any choice, as independent as it may be, will be experienced by many. To exercise freedom responsibly, we can ask how choices and exercise of freedom impact the lives of others within our country who, just like us, seek to live freely and democratically. Does our exercise of freedom promote liberation from chaos or does it produce a cacophony where citizens of a democracy can barely hear one another? As we purposefully strive for an artful balance of freedom and collective good, we are more likely to regain and maintain the respect that we as a nation definitely deserve.
Each of us can decide whether we will feed conflict or feed peace. American Muslims will remember that it was Prophet Muhammad who, before revelation started and while the Kaaba was undergoing reconstruction, forged a creative way for Quraish elders to collectively place the black stone into the eastern wall. When tribal leaders were on the verge of a serious rift over who would have the honor of replacing the stone, he proposed that each one hold onto a big cloth that held the rock. As they lifted the sheet up high, he shared the labor and placed the rock into the wall. As Americans, we can play the role of bridge-builder, innovator, bringing together parties in conflict -- to listen to the pain and grief that are embedded in stories currently in circulation. We can nurture an inner patience, presence and a grace that will ease ourselves and others towards a broader vista.
Follow Sarah Sayeed, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sarahsayeednyc