Using Ambiguity to Reduce Ignorance


Have you seen the MEMRI video, posted by Honor Diaries, of a Saudi sheik talking about the virgins of paradise? I posted it on my personal Facebook page with the comment, "Don't you enjoy learning about other cultures?"

I have used ambiguous statements like this before and found them very effective. Some of my friends and family don't quite know how I mean it when I say things like that. Several of my Facebook friends have told me they sometimes can't figure out what side of an issue I'm on. But with people who are very resistant to basic information about Islam, this kind of ambiguity is very effective.

Lots of my Facebook friends watched the video because they were curious. Even my mom watched it. I mix in all kinds of stuff in my Facebook posts. And then I throw something Islam-related in there once in awhile, and even people who might normally avoid looking at that sort of thing read it or watch it because I am not in their face, self-righteously shoving this horrible reality down their throats. They don't see me as an alien, out-of-touch crazy man spouting hate speech.

Several of the people I work with are friends of mine on Facebook, and today at work, I said to one of them, "Did you see that post on my Facebook page today? The sheik talking about paradise?"

"Yeah, I did," he said, shaking his head.

"Crazy, right?" I said this to join him in his world. In the past he's been reluctant to consider the possibility that basic, mainstream Islamic teachings are violent and intolerant. But he has slowly come around to a better understanding of the painful and disturbing facts about Islamic doctrine. Then I said, "I recognized some of what he said from the Koran, but the rest of it must be in the Hadith, which I haven't read." He already knew I've read the Koran. I said this because I wanted to make sure he understood that these were not merely the mad ravings of a sheik, but the tenets of basic Islamic doctrine, faithfully expressed.

Then I said, "It's amazing that this stuff is televised." He nodded. "That was a video by MEMRI," I said. "which stands for 'Middle East Media Research Institute.' That's all they do: They take programs that air on TV in the Muslim world and translate them into English. You see the most amazing stuff on there."

Another guy had walked in on this conversation, and he asked, "Like what other kind of stuff?"

I said, "Like a video I saw today showing a Palestinian cleric giving a Friday 'sermon' while waving a knife around, and telling the listeners in the mosque (and on TV!) how to stab Israelis." (See that video here).

I talk about many things at work, but every once in a while, when a good opportunity presents itself, I try to inject a little solid information about Islam. I want people to understand that there is a well-established written doctrine, and it is aggressive, intolerant, and violent, and when they see Muslims acting this way, they are not seeing insane "extremists," taking Islam's peaceful teachings out of context; they are seeing faithful believers following of the true teachings of Islam.

But to get this message across with any degree of success, I have learned from bitter experience that it has to be done with some ingenuity and flexibility. And one of the methods that really helps is to use ambiguity. The question I added to the MEMRI video on my Facebook page is a good example: "Don't you enjoy learning about other cultures?"

That can be taken at least two ways: I might mean it as sarcasm. Or I might mean it sincerely. It is certainly interesting to learn about other cultures.

As we've written before, one good reason (among many) to learn more about Islam — a reason that a multiculturalist would surely subscribe to — is that it is enlightening to learn about other cultures and to avoid being ill-educated, unworldly, or one-sided about your own culture. So my comment especially motivated those kinds of people, and those are the very people who are not being reached with this information, and who are most in need of a new understanding of Islam.

Using ambiguity this way is a no-lose situation. Those who are already acquainted with Islam will not change their minds, and if it makes the rest of them curious enough to watch the video, they will be closer to waking up to the problem of Islam.

In this way, ambiguity can help you get past peoples' defenses.

In the conversation above, after I said I had read some of that stuff in the Koran, I said, "The Koran seemed so blatant in its lavish descriptions of Paradise and its scary descriptions of hell. It was so obviously self-serving, I'm surprised anyone bought it. L. Ron Hubbard had a better shtick!"

Let me explain why I added that last comment. First of all, L. Ron Hubbard is the creator of Scientology, and I have already talked to my workmate several times about Scientology, and he and I are in agreement that Scientology is a religion with dangerous policies and bizarre beliefs. But as we've advocated here many times, you can use Scientology to make it clear that criticizing religions is a perfectly fine thing to do. Whenever you criticize Scientology, you will never get any flak, unless the person you're talking to is a Scientologist. Nobody ever argues with you or tries to defend Scientology. So by adding this comment, I changed the feel of our conversation from an Islam-bashing session to a civilized discussion of the merits of different religious creeds.

Hopefully we're all getting better at having these conversations about Islam. I encourage you to share what works here: Talk About Islam Among Non-Muslims. Let's help each other improve our success rate.



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