Preemptive Ideological Strike

Saturday

YESTERDAY I was on a lunch break with a new hire at work. I've been working with him for three days, and we had good rapport (this is an important point to remember). We had a mutual feeling of liking and respect. He is a good man. We were on a break and he was talking about religion. We're getting to know each other. He told me he reads widely on many religions. So naturally I asked him, "What do you know about Islam?"

"Not much," he said. "I'd really like to know more."

Boy, what an opening, huh?
"Well you're in luck," I said with a grin, "because I know a lot about it."

I had been hoping for a perfect opportunity like this. He'd already told me he was politically "progressive," and we hadn't broached the topic of Islam yet, but I knew it would happen eventually. And I had been thinking it would be better to talk about it casually — before we were disagreeing on something specific. And since I already had good rapport with him, I thought now would be a great time.

I began like this: "I started reading about Islam right after 9-11."

"A lot of people did," he said supportively, "I remember Korans were selling well."

"Yeah, I wanted to know what the story was. So many things were being said about Islam; you know, that it was all about peace, but then you had terrorists quoting the Koran, and I didn't know what to think about it all. I eventually read the Koran cover to cover, and that was no easy task, let me tell you. That was one of the most boring books I had ever read."

He looked at me like maybe I was joking.

"I'm serious, man. It was so repetitive and didn't really say much. Or at least it didn't at first. But the last fourth of the book got really interesting. It changed totally. Do you know how the Koran was written?"

"No."

"Mohammad got these revelations from an angel named Gabriel. He was living in Mecca at the time, and there were a lot of religions in Mecca, including Judaism and Christianity, so he picked up a lot of their ideas. Anyway, the Koran is just a collection of Mohammad's revelations. That's all that's in there. The whole thing was dictated by Mohammad. Once in awhile, for the rest of his life, he received revelations from Gabriel.

"But his revelations changed at some point. See, at first Mohammad was just one guy among many in a very religiously tolerant place, and he preached tolerance and non-violence. Most of his revelations were about what hell was like and what paradise was like, and how if you don't believe in Allah and if you don't believe Mohammad was the prophet, you were going to hell.

"After 13 years, he gained 150 converts. But Mohammad was always criticizing the other religions of Mecca, and the Meccans resented it, and eventually made his life pretty unpleasant there, so he moved to Medina, where he had some followers, and they set Mohammad up as a kind of leader of their gang."

He looked at me kind of skeptically so I said, "And this history I'm telling you is from Islamic sources, not writings by people who don't like Islam. Anyway, so the Muslims started raiding caravans going to Mecca, since the Meccans were his enemies now, and the enemy of Islam. Mohammad and his believers would raid the caravans, kill the people, and take their stuff. Well, sometimes they would capture some of the people alive and hold them for ransom.

"All of a sudden, Mohammad started getting a lot more people interested in joining Islam."

My workmate smiled at this. He could grasp that there is a certain kind of person who would want to get in on the booty from these raids.

"Yeah, it was a pretty good gig," I said. "They started accumulating some wealth. And Mohammad's little group of followers was growing into an army. Eventually they took over the city of Medina.

"Around this time is when the revelations changed," I said ominously.

"What do you mean?" he asked. He was definitely interested now. We were not arguing. Not at all. The feeling of contention was completely absent in this conversation. He wanted to know about Islam, and I was telling him what I found out. I didn't talk to him like a conservative lecturing a liberal, but like a person who found the whole thing surprising and interesting and wants to share it.

I kept going: "Well, the revelations started becoming less tolerant and more violent. That's what I mean about the last part of the Koran getting interesting. I mean interesting in the sense that it got rid of the confusion I had to begin with."

"Like you, I have also read a lot about different religions. Especially Buddhism and Christianity. And before I learned anything about Islam, I thought most religions were pretty much the same, at least as far as basic principles go."

He was nodding his head.

"You know what I mean? I thought religions were always started by a wise, kind person who gathers people around him because they can see he is wise. And he spends his life helping people, and then his followers build a religion based on his teachings.

"So when I was reading the Koran, I almost couldn't believe what I was reading. This was totally different than any religion I had ever heard of. Mohammad led the raids on the caravans? He killed people?! The founder of the religion was doing these things? I was blown away.

"At one point, Mohammad personally oversaw the beheading of 800 men. He tortured a rabbi to find out where a particular group of Jews had hidden their gold. I mean, can you imagine Buddha or Jesus doing that? I couldn't believe it! Mohammad actually ordered the assassination of people who criticized Islam."


Lights were going on in my workmate's head. He said, "That's like that guy who wrote 'Satanic Verses.'"

"Right! They're just following Mohammad's example. In fact, it says in the Koran that Mohammad is a model for human behavior and followers should try to be like Mohammad."

Then I anticipated what I know from experience people will think of: That other religious books have violence in them and we shouldn't pick on Islam. So I said, "But you know how the Bible has lots of different kinds of writings? Some are violent and some are peaceful, right?"

"Yeah," he said, nodding like he was just thinking the same thing.

"And if you have contradictions in the Bible, it's not really a big deal because it was written over such a long time by so many people. Well, that's not the case with the Koran. It actually says in the Koran itself what to do with its own contradictions.

"It really had to deal with this issue, because if you think about it, there is Mohammad preaching tolerance and non-violence, and his believers know those teachings already, and then the revelations change pretty dramatically. It was very noticeable to everyone. So Allah says in the Koran in one of the revelations that if something I say contradicts something I've said earlier, the newer stuff overwrites the older stuff."

He grasped right away what that meant. "So the more violent parts cancel out the peaceful parts?"

"Yes, exactly. Isn't that mind-blowing? I mean, what a shock. But you know, ever since I read the Koran, I'm no longer confused by the news. I used to wonder what the hell is wrong with the Middle East. Why can't they seem to work out their differences and just get along? Now I realize that the Muslims really
can't. They can't work things out with the Jews and still remain Muslim! And other stuff, like hijackings and kidnappings and suicide bombers, started to seem not so bewildering any more."

I had just given my workmate a lot to think about. So I said, "Well, we probably ought to get back to work." And as we were on our way back, I changed the topic of conversation to something else. I didn't want to "sell past the close" and I didn't want to appear to be a fanatic. I decided right then that I will not to bring up the subject again with him. I will maintain rapport with him, and just let him digest.

I feel pretty confident he will ask me a question about Islam at some future time.

I didn't think at the time making a "pre-emptive strike." I was just having an interesting conversation. But the more I thought about it afterwards, the more profitable this approach appeared to me. If we could have these kinds of conversations before we are in an argument, we could establish our position as the one who knows about this topic, and establish their position as a curious student. And we could bypass the whole political argument. We could prevent ourselves from stubbornly digging into our trenches on this issue (where no minds can be changed).

We'd have more influence, in other words. I feel confident he will never listen to any information about Islam the same way again.

The approach would probably only work on people who don't already know that you know something about Islam
people you haven't already had conversations with about it. You could just casually ask, when the opportunity presented itself (and when your rapport was strong, and when you were alone so it could be a private, one-on-one conversation), "What do you know about Islam?" or "Do you know much about Islam?" You could even ask it with a tone of voice that implies you don't know anything and are hoping the other person does.

Your chances are really good that they won't know anything. And that creates a wonderful opportunity.

3 comments:

Everett 3:30 AM  

Very Nice post and even one who is intolerant of Islam could read and understand. That would be me! I have read the King james bible through from cover to cover a few times while on deployment, but am still an agnostic at heart. Have looked at Buddhism, Hebrew, and a couple other religions and still believe they were founded by a few to control the many! Like the BORG!
But I liked your approach to this guy and if the occasion arises i will try it the same way as to my knee jerk approach. Great post!

Citizen Warrior 3:14 AM  

Someone emailed us and said:

I shall keep this excellent article and learn it well so that the next time I meet with...I will hopefully be ready. Thanks.

Just one point though, from what I have read, mo did not write down anything for posterity i.e, things were written in the sand and in ways where there are no records and I heard that the koran was written over 250 years after his death.

Citizen Warrior 3:17 AM  

Thank you. Excellent.

Yes, you are right. Mohammad did not write anything. He dictated it. Or more accurately, he recited it and others memorized his recitations.

In conversations, especially with people who know absolutely nothing about Islam, I sometimes shorten and tighten my message to make it more interesting to listen to, which would make it technically less accurate to someone who knew a lot about it.

It was close enough for this conversation.

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