My Speech at Islam Awareness Week 2010 – From awareness through engagement to partnership

From Awareness through Engagement to Partnership:
Cultivating Positive Emotions for a Healthy Society

Dave Moskovitz – Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation (Temple Sinai)
Speech to Islam Awareness Week launch at Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington, NZ
2 August 2010

Distinguished Guests, members of the FIANZ council, Ladies and Gentlemen – Shalom Aleichem, thank you for inviting me to speak again this year in the Masjid at Islam Awareness Week 2010 on the topic Cultivating Positive Emotions for a Healthy Society.

The theme is apt, and I love the metaphor of cultivating emotions, as if they were a crop being prepared for harvest. Often we go through life forgetting that each interaction we have with others forms part of a programme of cultivating relationships, and that ultimately we reap what we sow in terms of the relationships we build. As it is written in the books of Job (4:8), “As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it”, and Hosea (10:12), “Sow for yourselves righteousness [and] reap the fruit of unfailing love”.

In contemporary society we are often led to believe by popular culture that our emotions are responses to events outside our control, but we also know through many psychological studies that we can have a positive effect on our own emotions. Interestingly, studies have shown that religious people are twice as likely to report being “very happy” than their irreligious counterparts. So you could say that even scientists agree that religion is a good thing if you’re looking for happiness.

But today, I’d like to talk about some specific ways we Muslims, Christians and Jews can cultivate the positive emotions we would so much like to characterise our lives, and public perception of our religions, and more specifically, the interaction between our religions as well as interactions between adherents of our religions.

For me, if we would like people to have positive emotions about our religions, we must seek a greater state of empathy between ourselves and others. Empathy means identifying with and understanding another person’s situation, feelings, and motives. Without empathy, we are necessarily prejudiced in our outlook; without really knowing someone else and their situation, we are stuck resorting to stereotypes and third-party accounts to try to figure out what makes them tick.

I believe there are three specific steps we can take to develop this empathy: awareness, engagement, and partnership.

The first step is “awareness”, understanding the other person’s context; their whakapapa, their history, their belief system, what’s important to them. I applaud Islam Awareness Week for being an important door-opener both for Muslims and Non-Muslims to find out more about each other and take the first step toward developing deeper relationships.

The second step, “engagement”, is to connect directly as people, to build person-to-person relationships. In the engagement step, we can begin to understand the other’s self-image, challenges, struggles, aspirations, and vision for the future for themselves, their whanau, their community, and the world. Once one starts engaging, you learn a lot more about the richness of experience of the other, warts and all, and we do have warts. None of us are perfect, we all have strong points and weak points, and any direct relationship or friendship which cultivates positive emotions needs to take into account both the positive and the negative.

We can only do this on the basis of honesty, transparency, and mutual respect, which must be based on trust. I am not aware of any shortcuts for developing trust between people; trust is something that is earned, rather than something that is given. There are no quick fixes, and it can take years or even decades for people to interact with each other to the point where they can know that they are safe sharing information, and can rely on each other for support. In some cases this involves acknowledging and overcoming the past, both individually and collectively. We learn to respect others, even if we disagree with some of their fundamental assumptions about the world. It can be hard work, emotionally draining, and downright risky. But the reward for being able to punch through the stereotypes and have a glimpse of the true inner soul of another person is very much worth the effort, and even necessary if we want to create a society where we can live together as partners. And the empathy that enables us to view the world through another’s eyes gives us unimaginable insight into our own fundamental beliefs, our views of each other, our communities, society, and even God.

Confidence is a critically important ingredient in this kind of engagement. If we are not confident about our own identity, our own beliefs, and our own security we become worried about our own identity, beliefs, and security being overtaken or even attacked by those with whom we are engaging. It’s up to us and our communities to encourage, develop, and build up our own confidence before we embark on a programme of engagement with others. It’s really hard to cultivate positive emotions without underlying confidence.

The third step to deep empathy – partnership – is to envision and create a shared future, where we work together as partners, helping each other to thrive. Like a well-functioning marriage, we put the needs of others equal to our own, respecting and valuing our differences, and treat each other with generosity, understanding, and even love. We know each others’ limitations, sore points, quirks, drivers, goals, affinities and strengths. Our own objectives for our wider society become entwined, and we work together on them side-by-side for the common good. I mentioned earlier that religious people tend to be happier than irreligious people, but I am also pleased to report that married people tend to be happier than singles. I believe that the common element between these phenomena is that working together for shared goals, and celebrating the achievement of those goals together, is an excellent way to increase happiness.

I’d also like to say that whether or not we cooperate in partnership, our futures are nevertheless entwined. The choice is ours as to whether we explore how we can work together enjoyably and cooperatively, or expend our scarce resources on fighting each other. That choice seems clear to me.

So this is why I believe that empathy is the key to going forward in our relationship, and that developing that empathy can be achieved through three steps: awareness, engagement, and partnership. It would be really cool if Islam Awareness Week were to evolve into Islam Engagement Week, and eventually to Islam Partnership Week. However, at that stage it’s an ongoing process and not something that only happens one week every year.

The road ahead however is likely to be bumpy, and entails a significant amount of risk. There are a number of groups, the haters, to whom partnership is not a desirable outcome, and to whom divisiveness is far more valuable than cohesion.

So how do we deal with the haters? We all know them, they exist within our own communities, as well as externally in wider society. The haters believe that if we get to know each other, cooperate and even partner with each other, our own core values somehow become polluted, and we run the risk of being taken over by “the other”. The haters have no place in a pluralistic society such as 21st Century New Zealand, and indeed if the world is going to survive into the 22nd Century, we need to work together to either bring them into the age of empathy and partnership, or disempower them and make them irrelevant.

To disempower the haters, we can stand together with each other, both in our own communities and together as people who believe in a pluralistic future, and drown out their message of hate with our own message of cooperation. When one group seeks to deligitimise another, or suggests that violence is an appropriate method to bring about specific goals, together we can stand up to those haters in our own communities and say “No”. If enough of us do this within our own groups, and often enough, we will have an impact, one person at a time, one issue at a time. It’s worth noting that this is far more effective when we do this within our own groups, as to tell another group how to behave is generally considered to be interfering and divisive.

We cannot pretend to understand God’s will, but our religions all teach us that life is sacred, and that we should avoid violence, anger and strife. The book of Proverbs tells us, “A man shall eat good by the fruit of his mouth, but the soul of the treacherous shall eat violence” (13:12), “Make no friendship with a man that is given to anger; and with a wrathful man thou shalt not go” (22:24) and “It is an honour for a man to keep aloof from strife; but every fool will be quarreling” (20:3)

The media are often distinctly unhelpful, because their business model is based on selling stories, and people are much more excited by violence, anger and strife than they are by peace, cooperation, and friendliness. Watching news reports, you would think that the world is becoming ever more violent. In his delightful 2007 essay “A History of Violence”, Steven Pinker shows how violence has been in steady decline in society over the last several centuries, and proposes four theories about why this might be so. Whatever the underlying cause, you can bet that good footage of a bombing will always trump a snapshot former enemies shaking hands. The lesson for us is that the personal relationships that we forge – one relationship at a time – will carry much more weight than media reports. One day the haters will wake up to find that people would cooperate with each other to build a better society, rather than blast each other into the stone age. To paraphrase Nietzsche, with no-one to listen to their sensationalism, the traditional media will be dead, replaced by direct relationships between people and the sources they trust.

Using empathy as a tool to work from awareness, through engagement, to partnership, we can begin to emulate those aspects of God which we hold most admire. Just take the first five of the 99 attributes of God: Ar-Rahman – the Compassionate; Ar-Rahim – the Merciful; Al-Malik – the Ruler; Al-Quddus – the Holy; As-Salam – the Peaceful. I’d like to point out that all of these Arabic words are cognates with their Hebrew equivalents; they are essentially the same words, and represent qualities in God that Jews hold equally dear. We all seek to emulate these attributes, which are completely aligned with empathy and partnership.

So now that we are building awareness during Islam Awareness Week, let us resolve to start work toward the next phase – engagement, so that we can ultimately move on to partnership. Muslims, Christians and Jews have much fertile ground with which to cultivate positive relationships. A small number of us have been quietly breaking the soil, and we are now ready to be joined by many others who are ready to work alongside us. Join us in sharing our rich traditions with each other with confident respect, and learning more about each other so that we can work together in partnership for our common good.

Thank you.