Dyab Abou Jahjah
I just returned from teaching two workshops to fifth and sixth year high school students from a Francophone school in Brussels. It is an institute of technology and most of the students are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. The school had asked me to talk to these young people because the faculty had been struggling to find common ground with them regarding the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the bigger questions such as freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The tension has been palpable, a teacher told me, and from a teaching point of view we don’t know how to deal with this. We are trying to approach it from a different angle by adding your voice and that of others.
I had two groups each for an hour and a half. I used a pedagogical approach based on two principles: do not provide answers but instead ask questions as a group and this in an attempt to anchor universal values in our own cultural and religious traditions. I brought my magical box of pedagogical tricks, which enables people to talk about any subject that seems sensitive without them realizing that’s what they are doing and from there have that awareness grow naturally during the process.
At the very beginning a couple of the young guys were acting skeptical and were very vocal about it particularly when the attack on Charlie Hebdo was discussed. They called out the double standards not only when it comes to our freedoms but also when it comes to violence in the world. I recognize these sentiments all too well and I acknowledge them however I was there to arm them against groupthink, against the colonial discourse that considers their culture and religion to be backward, against racism but mostly against despair. Extremists seek to exploit this despair in order to recruit. Their despair can also be used by other kinds of extremists to trigger a response with the specific purpose to further stigmatize these young people.
I wasn’t going to talk to them about the superiority of Western civilization and its values. Instead I told them in what ways this civilization is problematic and in what areas it lacks. I told them that every civilization, culture and religion has its dark shadows but that in essence we all share the same values. Together we explored how we could extract values such as liberté, égalité, fraternité from Islamic morals and theology. We talked about how out of that same European culture the Holocaust as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born. We talked soccer and we joked around.
After the workshop I didn’t want to leave and neither did they. We continued to linger. The young guy who had been acting difficult in the beginning came over and shook my hand. He told me this had been an eye-opener for him. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than to hear someone, who has been struggling with their feelings and their environment, say this. Towards the end they started asking me more philosophical questions. They asked me about the essence of concepts such as good and evil, about barbarism and civilization – why is one form of violence considered barbarism and why is Hiroshima civilization?
Some of my answers seemed to be shocking some of the teachers. A municipal education inspector gave me a weird look. She probably thought I was radicalizing these young people. She thought right. I was raising awareness about injustice and about the dynamics of oppression and the abuse of power. I was telling them about the need to mobilize, about commitment and the values of resistance and solidarity. Indeed, I wasn’t promoting the status quo but rather a form of alternative radicalization. I was pointing in the direction away from the status quo with its toxic, castrated middle-of-the-road talk where impotence takes root and frustrations grow, which causes the establishment to stumble from failure to fiasco. I wanted to stay far way from that status quo that, in this day and age, is the equivalent of suicide. There is no room for these young people in that status quo and they know it. It is precisely for this reason radicalization is needed and, as a matter of fact, it is their only option. The only way to counter harmful forms of radicalization is to promote the positive ones. That’s why they listened.
* This column was published at "de Standaard" in Dutch on 14 february 2015. (translated by Orianna P.)