When Islamists Change Their Mind

Cartoons today, Egypt tomorrow?

Recently a Catholic friend of mine revealed that he is considering going Episcopalian because, as a married man in his 30s, he is sensing a spiritual and vocational call to the priesthood. His feeling is: the Catholic Church—Pope Francis’ leadership notwithstanding—will not be changing its mind anytime soon on the marital status of its priests. Also, he rather likes his wife and children.

In other news, I like my wife and children. Yet my wife has long maintained a principled aversion to American football, especially as it concerns the initial sporting aspirations of our two boys (ages 11 and 7), who, it also must be said, love baseball. But, this summer, not unlike the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, my wife has entered an unexpected and tentative period of glasnost—our oldest son is trying football on for size. Like democracy, I suppose, time will tell.

For me, these disparate interpersonal happenings have served to bring to mind that age-old human tradition: changing one’s mind.

Which, of course, brings us to Egypt—where a cauldron of immense political complexity boils, where Islamists are unlikely to ever change their mind, and about which the U.S. government is considering changing its mind as it re-evaluates the relationship. But while the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in Egypt are probably incapable of being dissuaded—the scapegoat becoming the Christian community—an Islamist leader in Denmark has, it seems, happily changed his mind.

As the largest religious minority in the land of happiness, the number of Muslims in Denmark varies—depending on who’s estimating—between 4 and 6% of the total population. However, if you’re a Muslim in Denmark and the conversation turns toward, say, the cartoons controversy several years ago or the finally-resolving bitter saga regarding the financing, building, and opening of a mosque in northwest Copenhagen, happiness must surely ebb and flow like the North Sea.

Back in 2006, the Lebanese-born Ahmed Akkari had galvanized a Muslim-majority world rallying cry over the depiction of Muhammad in editorial cartoons, in 2005, in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. In turn, this instigation prompted some of the faithful to demonstrate violently and to make death threats in the artists’ direction. Now, Akkari sounds the tune of an intra-religious conversion.

In a story in The Associated Press, he says: “At that time, I was so fascinated with this logical force in the Islamic mindset that I could not see the greater picture. I was convinced it was a fight for my faith, Islam.” He is referring to the combustible intersection of Islamic religious sensitivities and the political-cultural value of freedom of speech in a modern pluralist society.

Interestingly enough, he goes on to suggest the critical role of doubt within his faith, including his personal interaction with Islamist leaders in his home country, of whom he remarks: “I was shocked. I realized what an oppressive mentality they have.” Additionally, he muses, a change of scenery—Greenland!—contributed much to his altered intellectual and religious orientation. So convinced he was wrong in thought and action, Akkari recently apologized to the Danish cartoonist who found himself in the center of the brouhaha.

I believe the quiet story of Ahmed Akkari performing his about-face is very instructive on many fronts, which may or may not affect the political trajectory of Egypt. After all, cartoons are not nearly the same thing as violence.

First, with implications for a deeper understanding in Christian-Muslim relations as well as Islam-West relations, we must conclude that not all Islamists are cut from the same cloth. Many Americans may genuinely believe (below the surface) and unflinchingly accept (above the surface) that not all Muslims—in the U.S. and elsewhere—are cut from the same cloth. But here is a step still further: Once Islamist, not always Islamist. Akkari proves this sociological possibility.

Second, the element of surprise can be a beautiful foil to our usual inter-religious expectations. Expectations work hard to harden us; they condition us, in fact. Such is their inevitable nature, especially with religious community reinforcement. However, isn’t it lovely—especially for those of us jaded if not cynical folks—when surprise wins from time to time? With Akkari, chalk one up for surprise.

Third, to prevail counter-culturally in whatever dominant cultural system we found ourselves is often a profound journey of personal courage. I can’t begin to imagine Akkari’s journey toward transformation, but I can respect it from afar. According to Akkari, who is still a devout Muslim, his particular dissonance with the Islamist way began in 2007. Six years later, here he is, stepping out with his convictions and ready to face and embrace what will be a predictable religious-cultural backlash from the system he is countering.

Fourth, sure, there may be a single, dramatic ingredient that begets a magnanimous mind-change; but perhaps, more often than not, a mixture of select ingredients proves the catalyst.  As Akkari mentioned, it was his trip to Lebanon plus his two-year hiatus in Greenland plus his time and space “to read and write and think.” His was a change occasioned by an openness to see his religious community for what it is, to be placed in self-directed exile for a season, and, I assume, to read and write and think more broadly than he had before.

Finally, never underestimate the personal or social power of making an apology—of asking for forgiveness from another. (Not in the way of Ryan Braun or Anthony Weiner.) It is a morally impressive thing that Akkari sought to make amends with the Danish cartoonist whose life had been/still is severely threatened because of Akkari’s previous rhetoric and behavior. Yes, we get fooled by apparent sincerity or selfish sincerity every day. On the other hand, you don’t see this every day: an Islamist changing his or her mind.

In other news, my son’s football team has gone to full pads—which is making my wife want to change her mind, again.

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