I JUST WATCHED the movie, Freedom Writers for the second time. It's a good movie and a true story. But this time I realized the movie illustrates something I continually hammer on: If you can't reach somebody, one possibility is to blame them for the failure of your message to penetrate. Another possibility is to look at yourself, look at the way you communicate, and try to find another way.
The first approach leaves you the victim of the mindset of other people. The second approach gives you power, gives you ability, and opens your mind to possibly finding or creating ways to get through.
Your ability to think up or learn new ways to do something is greatly facilitated by an open mind. In order to relieve the cognitive dissonance regarding why people seem to stubbornly refuse to understand even the most basic things about Islam, many of us in the counterjihad movement write them off. We've all done it. We explain our setbacks by blaming our listeners, and while that's a perfectly understandable response, that kind of explanation leaves us less capable of overcoming our obstacles.
You make it more possible to overcome the obstacles if you think differently about these setbacks. Think of it this way: You have obstacles to overcome and you need to find a way to become more creative. You need to find a way to get around the obstacles. And it's nobody's fault, there's no one to be angry with. This is just the way it is. All you need to focus on is finding a way to penetrate their ignorance. Find a way to get basic information about Islam into the minds of people who don't know yet.
It helps your own attitude to think of yourself as being in training. Your own motivation and the obstacles you're running into are combining to teach you what you need to learn to reach people, to connect with people, and to help them understand and become motivated to learn more, just like the teacher in Freedom Writers.
The teacher was fresh out of college, very idealistic, and her first job was at a school with forced integration. She was an English teacher and her ninth-grade students were basically the academic failures of the school, and mostly Hispanic, African-American, and Asian. They had been passed along in the school system for a long time, and they were almost entirely uneducated, mostly members of gangs who had been bussed in from another part of town, and they didn't care about education or graduating or anything else a teacher might need her students to care about (to motivate them to listen to her).
She was frustrated that they didn't care what she had to teach. They were openly hostile towards her. Does this sound familiar? Have you felt the same way? Do you sometimes feel people don't care what you have to teach and they're openly hostile to you?
The teacher went to get help from the administrators of the school, and they basically tell her, "don't beat your head against the wall, these kids are not going to learn, and the best you can do is to try to instill some kind of discipline." She talks to other teachers, and gets pretty much the same response.
They explained their failure to reach the students, their failure to get through, by blaming the students or blaming the students' circumstances, or their culture, or whatever. All these explanations tend to close the mind to finding a way to get through. It's an attempt to explain failure rather than an attempt to solve the problem.
Many of us are making the same mistake. We talk to our friends and family about Islam and meet resistance. Many of them react with anger and seem impervious to anything we have the say. They have preconceived notions about our message (or of the "kind of people" who communicate that sort of message).
This is what the students did in the movie. They looked at this young white teacher, and they felt no connection whatsoever with her. They knew for a fact she didn't understand what they were dealing with every day — the violence, the fear, the uncertainty, the pressure to conform to the rules that have already been set up within the gangs and within their neighborhoods, the pressures from their peers.
This young white teacher had no clue about how things worked. She didn't know the rules: If a student rejects their own racial group in their neighborhoods — if they are Hispanic but don't want to be involved in wars with the neighboring Koreans, for example — their own Hispanic neighbors and relatives will become hostile to them, and they'll have no way to protect themselves from the hostility they'll get from the Koreans either.
Those students had difficult choices to make. They've been put in a difficult environment, and they looked at this teacher who was trying to teach them things they had no interest in, and they saw no relevance to their lives. She couldn't reach them.
So instead of continuing to try reaching them using the same method and continually failing, or alternatively, giving up and blaming the students for her inability to reach them, she tried a third option: She tried a different way around the obstacles.
When what you're doing isn't working, try something else. It's usually a good policy.
So what does she do? She finds different ways of reaching them. For example, she tries to get some good books for them to read, but the school doesn't want to the academic failures of the school to use those books because the school administrators "know" the students will just destroy the books because they don't care about learning.
The teacher wanted to get her students interested in learning, but she couldn't get any books they'd be interested in reading, so she got a second job in order to buy books she thought would interest her students. It's not right, she shouldn't have to do this, but she didn't limit herself to "the way things ought to be." She thought outside the box.
She caught one of the students passing around a note in the classroom one day. But it wasn't really a note, it was a drawing of one of the students that exaggerated his racial features and made fun of him. The class had been passing it around and giggling.
The teacher got angry. She said this is how the Holocaust started. She remembered seeing a similar drawing in a museum that exaggerated Jewish racial features.
Then she found out most of them didn't know what the Holocaust was! And she realized this might be something that would interest them. She told them, "You think your gangs are tough? They don't even come close to what the Nazis did. That was a gang to reckon with!"
She convinced the school superintendent to give her permission to take her students on a field trip to a Holocaust memorial (the school administrators rejected the idea, but the superintendent gave her the go-ahead, which really angered the school administrators). But the teacher was right: The students were fascinated. After the field trip, she set up a dinner with her students and invited three people who were actual Holocaust survivors. The students talked with these survivors and asked them questions. They were interested, they were connecting, they were learning.
Then the teacher bought everybody in the class a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. They became even more fascinated. Intrigued. Interested in learning. And interested in listening to this teacher and what she had to say.
She thought creatively. She found a way to reach them.
This is what we must do. When we can't reach people, our attitude, our response should be, "What can I do differently that will allow me to reach this person? What different approach could I use that would penetrate? What approach could I use that would get this person interested in learning about Islam?"
After reading The Diary of Anne Frank, the students were in awe at the courage of the woman who risked her life to hide Anne Frank and her family for all that time. So the teacher suggested as one of their English assignments that everyone in the class write a letter to that woman.
The students said, "We should send our letters to the woman, if she's still alive." The teacher was just doing it for writing assignment and hadn't thought of actually sending the letters. But the students said, "Why not? In fact, why not invite her here so we can meet her?"
The teacher said, "I don't know how to reach her, I don't know if she can travel, she might be too old to travel," but the students were so excited by it, the teacher looked into it.
And she was able to find the woman who harbored Anne Frank and her family, and this woman was moved by the letters the students wrote, so she came to the United States, to Long Beach where the students went to school, and talked with them.
It changed their lives.
If you are committed to doing the one thing that needs to be done — that is, awakening your fellow non-Muslims to basic information about Islam — I invite you to suspend your already-existing explanations for why you can't get through to some people, and open your mind. Decide that you will find a way. Decide you will learn about persuasion. Decide you will seek new ideas about influencing people. Decide that you will overcome the obstacles. Decide to try new things besides what you have tried already that didn't work.
Sure, being more forceful is one option. Being more frustrated is another option. But neither of those work very well. What other ways can you try? How many different ways can you try? And when you find new ways I urge you, I plead with you, to share those ways with us. Go to Talk About Islam Among Non-Muslims and join the conversation. Give us your ideas. Give us your your new creative methods. Tell us what you tried and how it worked.
Let's share our ideas and experiences with each other and let's all get better at this.
Watch the movie Freedom Writers and get inspired to find new ways to reach people. Make the assumption that it can be done, and don't stop until you find a way.
Learn more about influencing your friends: