Our media seems saturated with stories of terrorism. But it is not just terrorism, rather “Islamist Terrorism” and the editorial and political impact of this on our refugee program or on our immigration program, or even, in the extreme, on whether to respond by creating incarceration camps for all Muslims in this country. In the face of such powerful media and political forces, it’s tough to figure out what’s true and what’s false. Beyond that, it’s tough to know how to respond.
I have some practical suggestions that I believe will help us all in these difficult times. These are six steps that don’t require any particular belief or affiliation, either political or religious, but which, I believe, reflect simple, common sense, and which allow us each to find our own truth and to respond in an authentic manner that we will find emotionally satisfying. And I believe that if even a small percentage of the population could consistently find a way to step out of the media circus and listen to what their hearts really want to tell them, we could make a powerful and positive impact on the world.
So here are the six steps:
Step One: Stay Calm
This first step is about not getting caught up in our immediate emotional response. the emotional response that whatever media stimulation we are responding to is trying to elicit. I have recently had conversations on two separate #NewBusinessMindset podcasts with Bob Lancer and Nigel Dessau about thinking with our heads and act from our hearts, and I do believe this is the right approach.
But it is important to be clear what this means, and how to apply it in this situation.
When we are in a climate of fear, particularly one which is being constantly stirred up for the personal gain of our politicians and the financial gain of our media, an immediate response to the stimulus put out there is responding neither with our heads nor our hearts. Rather it is being drawn into the primitive realms of the limbic system, of the pre-cognitive self-defense systems. It is retreating into what is often called the “reptile brain”. And it is allowing ourselves to be manipulated by our politicians, our media, and by the terrorists themselves…and none of their agendas are aligned with our best interests! As we know from ordinary, everyday situations, reacting in this way often does more harm than good. So the first step is to break this natural, instinctive and fear-based response.
This step is about slowing down and taking a couple of breaths. It’s about creating the space to be be rational about what is actually happening.
In the United States the number of deaths caused by all forms of terrorism has been considerably less than 100 per year for every year since 2001. That number compares with over 30,000 deaths on US soil by firearms over the same period (Here is a recent news article on this by CNN) and over 30,000 per year killed on our roads. Over that 15-year period, over 400,000 people have been killed by guns and less than 4,000 by terrorism – less than 1%! There is a great deal of terrorism in the world today, but the vast, vast majority occurs in five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. In the entirety of the rest of the world, despite a huge surge in terrorism in 2014, the total number of deaths is approximately 5,000. (Here is an article with some more details.)
The bottom line is that terrorism in general, and Islamist terrorism in particular, while grotesque and barbaric, is not something that should keep you up at night.
Now that we are calm and have a somewhat objective perspective, we can move to the second step:
Step Two: Be Safe
After pausing for a breath and a short period of reflection, you should certainly take time to address basic safety for you and your loved ones. Each of us has to figure out what this means for us. My own read is that the facts suggest you should focus on protecting yourself and your family from domestic gun incidents (both those caused by violence and those by accident), we should be very careful on our roads, and we should avoid, wherever possible, traveling to the five terrorist hot-spots in the world. Whatever your response, though, it should be rational, based on a balanced view of the evidence available, and not governed by irrational and unbalanced fear. And it should accept that there is not and never will be such a thing as perfect safety. There will always be the risk of being hit by lightening, of an airplane crash, of an unexpected fall. We can do our best and give ourselves reasonable protection, and this requires focusing most of our attention on the most likely risks.
Once we are settled and have taken steps to feel safe, we are in a place where we can think about moving forward. So onward:
Step Three: Take Stock
Once you feel calm and established in relative safety, you can start to engage in serious thought. You are in a position to move through the virtuous cycle of iterative reflection and action. This should surely allow the recognition that the risk to your safety of terrorism is minor and not one worthy of investing your emotional energy into. Further, you will see that giving your attention to terrorism in the media and political landscape is to give terrorism the very publicity and prominence it seeks to do its work; it is to allow it to assume the disproportionate profile and visibility that it seeks; it is to concede that the terrorist has one, and to them precisely what they need to strengthen and grow their vile acts.
A part of taking stock will also bring your attention to the fact that there are almost 3 million Muslims in the USA today and to wonder why, if even a meaningful proportion of them wanted to bring our country to its knees, they have not made a lot more noise and caused a lot more harm than we see. Reflection will surely reveal that the vast majority of domestic Muslims must be peaceful and can have no active engagement in any acts of civil disorder, let alone terrorism! Beyond that, if 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide wanted to end civilization as we know it, surely they could have done a better job of accomplishing this by now!
At this point, having reflected and gained a broader perspective, I’d ask you to let curiosity creep in. There are 3 million Muslims in this country, and the statistics of violence suggest that the vast majority of them are peaceful: what do they think of being caught up in our media turmoil, of having their lives disrupted, often horribly, by the political winds and by vigilantes?
And if you start wondering this, even a little, then step four is pretty obvious:
Step Four: Get to know a Muslim
If you allow yourself to become curious, the next step is surely to meet a Muslim, to talk to them, to get to know them.
This doesn’t mean walking up to a swarthy stranger who speaks a foreign language and is carrying an AK-47. It doesn’t mean inviting someone whose appearance terrifies you into your home to meet your family.
The reality is there are probably Muslims in your neighborhood, your community, your office, who are homeowners and parents, whose kids go to your kids school, who are members of the PTA and move in the same business circles as you. Ask around. Say, “I’d like to meet a Muslim. Do you know someone you could introduce me to?” Odds are a family member, a friend, or a friend or leader in your faith community or business knows a Muslim and would be delighted to introduce you. If they don’t, I do, and I will help you find a way to meet that feels safe. The many, many Muslims I know would all be delighted to receive such an introduction, would love to meet and talk, and would welcome an opportunity to make this experience easy for you and ensure you feel safe. They are none of them interested in proselytizing or preaching, have no interest in converting you, and will not ask about let alone judge you on your own faith. If you need help with this step, please, please let me know and I will make it happen for you!
Meet a Muslim as an ordinary human being. Sit down and talk to them about their life story, their family, their children; ask about their hopes for their children’s future, their dreams of a better life. As you get to know them it will become more comfortable and you will start to talk of world affairs. When the conversation moves to terrorism or ISIS, you will find that this person reviles terrorism and the monsters who perpetrate it as much as you do; you will find that they hold the terrorists to be non-Muslims; and you will find that despite the adversities which they, as Muslims, face in America today, they still love this country and its liberties and are proud to call it home.
When you eventually talk about faith, you will learn that the religious book of Muslims, the Qur’an, has a chapter about Mary; that it features Jesus prominently and in exalted terms as a great prophet; and that it similarly recognizes the prophets of the Old Testaments as the prophets of the Muslim faith. You will find that Islam preaches love and humility and compassion and generosity in the same manner that Christianity and Buddhism and Judaism do.
Step Five: Move Beyond Your Comfort Zone
Step Four is hard. Notwithstanding the suggestions on how to approach meeting a Muslim, on ways to make it feel safe, for many of you this will be a huge step outside your comfort zone. But it is only by getting outside your comfort zone that you have the opportunity to grow. I promise that there are a lot of people out there, myself included, who want to help you make this step and want to make it as easy and safe as you would like. Just ask for help, and it will come. And if you want to take some baby steps leading up to it, you can do that too. It’s all about coming to the personal realization that people who have different skin color, wear different clothes, come from a different culture, or follow a different religion can also be ordinary people with hopes and fears, lovers and parents and children. It’s about coming to the intimate, visceral realization that while our circumstances can set up boundaries, we are not so different really.
And once you have made this step and realized its profound joys, you can keep going. By getting to know those who are not like us, we have the opportunity to more deeply get to know ourselves. So once you have made that first step to get to know a Muslim, I’d suggest two different opportunities:
- the first is to get to know them better, to become friends. Talk about family history and your humanity and find that you are really alike. And then go beyond that and explore the details of their tradition, culture, and faith and find richness and beauty in the unfamiliar. And then come back and see through the mirror of their eyes the richness and beauty that you have taken for granted in your own life;
- the second is to carry your new openness, your new willingness to engage with those not like you, into other environments. when you check out at the grocery store, look the cashier in the eyes and talk to them. When you are in a public place, talk to the person next to you. Catch the train or the bus and talk to someone. You’ll find people – real people – everywhere where once you only saw shadows or your own judgments.
The ultimate step is perhaps the hardest, not because it is inherently difficult, but because it requires practice and maturity and a lot of introspection and patience. It is one with which even Sufi saints and Dalai Lamas and Popes occasionally struggle:
Step Six: Don’t Get Into A Fight With Those Whose Views Differ From Yours
Once your eyes are opened, it is tempting to see yourself as the newly enlightened and to believe you hold the truth. It is tempting to want to bring peace and love and understanding by the force of your own new-found wisdom. It is tempting to articulate your views of peace and harmony and what others should do loudly, to campaign and protest visibly.
But I suggest that the path forward is altogether different.
The fuel of terrorism and hate is argument and divisiveness. A proven way to inflame fear is to oppose. You cannot persuade someone who isn’t really interested in listening, and trying to do so will be counterproductive.
The real enemy of terrorism is love and compassion. The real medicine for fear is offering space to listen. Arguing does not change hearts: it hardens them. To change hearts you must love them. You must listen – really listen – to them. It is easy to love your friends, but sometimes it is hard to listen to them and try to understand where their opinions come from. And it is harder yet to love your enemies.
But it can be done.
The trick is to realize that people who have different views from you are not your enemies just because they see things differently. Likely they want the same as you: a better life, a brighter future for their kids, a safer and healthier world. They are just suffering human beings like you, and their views, like yours, come from their experience and their conditioning. Offering them the space to be themselves is
In this way you can even find space to simultaneously listen to both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Or to put a layer of prejudice aside, to listen to their supporters. Just try to listen without judgment, and to hear their hopes and fears, their struggles, the basic humanity and fallibility of judgment and error that they share with you.