Learn­ing to ac­cept new opin­ions.

GQ (Australia) - - INSIDE -

It’s hard to learn new tricks. Es­pe­cially when it comes to things we should be learn­ing about. I was re­cently asked to host a Q&A for an au­di­ence of a few thou­sand in Mel­bourne. The star at­trac­tion was Sam Har­ris: a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, au­thor and TED Talker ex­traor­di­naire. He re­ceived in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion for an ex­change he had on tele­vi­sion with Ben Af­fleck, in which he re­ferred to Is­lam as “the mother lode of bad ideas”. Af­fleck re­sponded that this was a racist sen­ti­ment, earn­ing ap­plause and Twit­ter’s un­bri­dled sup­port. In the past, Har­ris has ar­gued that while not all ide­olo­gies are equal, they should all be up for de­bate. But this was lost amid the harsh­ness of his word se­lec­tion and Af­fleck’s ova­tion. The other guest at the talk was a man named Maa­jid Nawaz. His bi­og­ra­phy plots some seem­ingly dis­parate points – once a mem­ber of the fun­da­men­tal­ist group Hizb ut-tahrir, he was im­pris­oned in Egypt, em­braced by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, emerged as a re­former es­pous­ing sec­u­lar Is­lam, ran for elec­tion to the UK Par­lia­ment with the Lib­eral Democrats and now drives an or­gan­i­sa­tion that suc­cess­fully re­ha­bil­i­tates rad­i­calised youth. Also a great talker of TED, he’s sug­gested that democ­racy needs the kind of grass-roots, dig­i­tal sup­port that more ex­treme ideas en­joy. With­out it, says Nawaz, fun­da­men­tal­ism will con­tinue to take root. Among other top­ics I was to Q, and they were to A, in­cluded the na­ture of pub­lic dis­course, Is­lam and whether a fear of ap­pear­ing big­oted is pre­vent­ing an hon­est dis­cus­sion of ter­ror­ism. Given the es­teemed per­son­nel at the talk, you may won­der why I was in­vited. Well, I was asked, above all else, to keep things light and en­ter­tain­ing. Hav­ing worked in the field of light en­ter­tain­ment for some time, I felt qual­i­fied. But my rea­son for par­tic­i­pat­ing in the con­ver­sa­tion was some­thing else. I wanted to have my mind changed. When I watched the Har­ris/af­fleck brouhaha, I’d felt in­clined to agree with Af­fleck. And if not him, then maybe his ap­plause. Things like the point­less Se­nate in­quiry into Halal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, to me, smack of ba­sic xeno­pho­bia. And it’s in no rea­son­able per­son’s in­ter­est to throw their lot in with the Re­claim Aus­tralia mob. Yet there are few more press­ing is­sues in the world than the rise of mil­i­tant ex­trem­ism, and I feared that if my opin­ions spent their time chas­ing ap­plause, I may never hear some­thing more im­por­tant. To my sur­prise, when the event was an­nounced, I be­came con­tro­ver­sial. There was a back­lash to me ac­cept­ing the gig, with sug­ges­tions I shouldn’t be in­volved. Ap­par­ently, to sit down with the guests was to en­dorse and even par­tic­i­pate in Is­lam­o­pho­bia. Con­versely, I was also a ter­ror­ist sym­pa­thiser for merely talk­ing to Mr Nawaz. And fi­nally, just for good mea­sure, I was ac­cused of in­tol­er­ance of all re­li­gious peo­ple be­cause Mr Har­ris is an out­spo­ken athe­ist and friends with Richard Dawkins. I won­der if they were trolled for as­so­ci­at­ing with a light en­ter­tainer. When it comes to ter­ror­ism, al­most ev­ery­one would agree that the sta­tus quo is un­ac­cept­able. Yet if no­body is will­ing to even lis­ten to any­one else, let alone ad­just their po­si­tions based on what they may learn from oth­ers, then im­prove­ment is a log­i­cal im­pos­si­bil­ity. None­the­less, we hear the same non­sense from our politi­cians about na­tional se­cu­rity and the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of com­mu­nity lead­ers, mix­ing in the ether with ac­cu­sa­tions, ag­gres­sions, dec­la­ra­tions and tubthump­ing of those just talk­ing to win. Re­mark­ably, Har­ris and Nawaz had been some­what in­tractable rhetor­i­cal ad­ver­saries them­selves. Yet they be­gan a di­a­logue about each other’s po­si­tion, which be­came a book, and which be­came our Q&A. Har­ris had started to at least en­ter­tain the thought that a sec­u­lar Is­lam was pos­si­ble, and Nawaz had em­braced the rig­or­ous in­tel­lec­tual prob­ing that an athe­ist neu­ro­sci­en­tist could bring to his own faith. And by the end of our time to­gether on stage, my mind had been changed – to the ex­tent that my be­liefs had be­come more flex­i­ble. To achieve any­thing like the mul­ti­cul­tural, sec­u­lar, pro­gres­sive so­ci­ety that I, and many oth­ers, de­sire, ortho­dox frame­works like Is­lam have to ac­com­mo­date in­quiry and ex­am­i­na­tion. But that in­quiry and ex­am­i­na­tion must be fear­less and open-minded about what it may dis­cover. And all par­ties have to be will­ing to learn things that may make them un­com­fort­able. They may even have to be­come com­fort­able with learn­ing that they’re wrong. n


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