I'VE BEEN practicing for a long time, trying to hone my ability to educate people one-on-one about Islam, and I'm pretty good at it. I rarely get into a "debate" or argument, and in fact, it's usually an enjoyable conversation. I've written down several of my conversations after they happened which you can read here, here, and here.
I've written a lot about how to talk to people about Islam, but I decided to try to think of all the things I take for granted about my approach that I haven't written about, and I ended up making the list below. These are personal rules or states of mind or ways of thinking about these conversations that I think really help them go well:
1. I try to only talk to someone about Islam when nobody else is around. I don't want to get into a public debate. When people talk in front of an audience, they are more likely to try to "win" or look good, and less likely to listen and learn. Being in a public situation tends to encourage people to take sides.
Perhaps more importantly, when someone makes a pronouncement to several people, they find it more difficult to change their mind later than when they make the same pronouncement to only one person.
All in all, you will be more likely to really inform someone one-on-one with no audience.
2. I try not to approach it as a debate at all. I am careful about the way I open a conversation. And careful about the way I speak, so it becomes clear that I know what I'm talking about, and that I know a lot more about the subject than the person I'm talking to, but not in a condescending way. I do not try to "dominate" the conversation except that I try to establish my authority by saying something simple like, "Have you read the Quran? No? Well, when I read it the first time, I was really surprised to find..."
3. I try to keep it interesting for the listener. I want them to find out something they are surprised at and interested in.
4. I don't try to rub their nose in it. I don't try to make them get how scary and horrible it all is. I realize because I've been learning about Islam for a long time, things that no longer shock me shock the hell out of others. I don't need to try to scare them. Even the mildest parts of this topic scare most people.
5. I try to keep it casual. "Hey, did you hear about what happened in France? They banned the burka. Yeah, and it was almost unanimous..." I try to prevent giving the impression I am on a campaign to stop the Islamization of the world. I'm just talking about interesting things I've learned lately. I just try to maintain a feel of easygoing conversation, and sometimes it becomes very engaging.
6. I deliberately stay relaxed, and try to "curb my enthusiasm." And I keep my sense of humor. This topic is intense enough without adding to it by being intense myself. I take deep breaths, I pause when I'm talking and ask them questions, and I don't give them the most shocking things until they are already fairly well-versed in the less shocking things.
7. I do not let it appear as if I want them to change their minds or that there is any kind of conflict between us. I find common ground. I try to speak about things I know they will care about, like the human rights angle or women's rights, or whatever.
8. I think in terms of small bits and long campaigns. Okay, I've written about this one before (here) but it's a good one and I didn't want to leave it off this list. It's important. I don't try to get the whole educational process done all in one conversation. I let it happen in small pieces over many months to give them a chance to absorb it and think about it, and hopefully ask me questions about it later. I plant seeds and expect the dawning realizations to happen over time rather than expecting enlightenment overnight.
I assume there will be many already-existing beliefs they hold that will need to change for them to understand more. Sometimes changing beliefs produces an internal struggle, and forcing more information into a struggling mind can make someone not want to talk to you any more. Plant the seeds and be patient.
9. I sympathize with their resistance and disbelief. I was there once, too, and I know, it's a shocker when it starts to really sink in. I remind myself of how I felt when I first started learning about Islam. It helps me empathize with my listener, and I think that helps the communication process.
10. I try to make it clear to my listener that we are on the same side of this issue. I know a lot more about it, but we are both non-Muslims. We're on the same team. I convey the feeling that we don't have all the answers and we're exploring this topic together. If the person brings up a good point or a counter argument, I will either say "that's interesting" and think about it and then come back later with more information, or I will say something like this: "I used to think the same way. But when I found out..." And lead them further into the topic with more information.
11. I reframe their objections like a salesman. Sales training manuals will often tell you to be glad when someone raises objections, because it means the person is interested. People who are not interested just make excuses and disappear. Someone who is arguing with you is often presenting arguments they think other people might bring up to see if you have a good answer for them — an answer that would satisfy other people. They do this because they are interested in believing you, but want to be sure.
So I don't feel put off by questions or arguments or "objections." I see it as a sign of interest and curiosity, and I try to answer the objection in a way that gives more information (rather than in a way that makes the other person feel wrong or stupid or anything negative). This perspective on objections helps prevent me from interacting in a confrontational way. It helps me avoid turning the conversation into some sort of contest or disagreement.
I also often refer to my own list of answers to objections for help.
12. When I have a difficult conversation and it really bothers me because I didn't have a good response, as soon as I can, I find a quiet place and write out what the other person said. I do it on my computer. Then I separate out each statement the person made and write out the answer I wish I had made at the time. I print it out and read it.
If my "failure" continues to bother me, over the next few days I may occasionally read it over and add to my answers and print up the new version. I look up facts if I am unsure about something. I write it all out until I feel I've made a really good answer.
If you do this, you will be better prepared for the next conversation. I welcome these difficult conversations, because I know I will use them like this. You should welcome the times when you're stumped and you don't know what to say. It can deepen your understanding and make you grow.
13. I try to never use the words "Islam" or "Muslim" by themselves. I always say "heterodox" or "orthodox" before every one. Most people know at least one Muslim person and cannot, out of the goodness of their heart — out of personal loyalty or just plain human empathy — think of that person as having bad intentions, and they know that not all Muslims are devout. So if you give blanket statements about Islam or Muslims, they reject your statements for perfectly sound reasons. Always use the descriptors.
I'm always learning and I hope you are too. If you would be so kind as to share your own insights about how to approach these conversations, we could all benefit from your hard-earned skill. I invite you to add your insights on our new comments page: Talk About Islam Among Non-Muslims, which, by the way, is already turning into a valuable resource, thanks to your welcome participation.