Empowering civic activism toward a culture of peace.
by Matthew Albracht
I recently watched Zak Ebrahim’s moving Ted Talk entitled "I am the son of a terrorist. Here's how I chose peace." In it he reveals that his father was a prominent, convicted American terrorist who had plotted to bomb tunnels, bridges and even the UN headquarters. Zak grew up in what he referred to as a “bigoted household… raised to judge people on arbitrary measures like a person’s race or religion.” As he grew and evolved on his life’s journey, Zak shares how and why he chose a more loving path. Personally experiencing bullying and prejudices growing up, as well as having models who exposed him to higher-minded thinking, helped him better understand oppression and gave him a deeper sense of empathy.
One of the most moving moments in his story came when Zak finally got the courage to share with his mother that he was feeling his worldview and values were changing, shifting away from the bigotry and intolerance he’d grown up learning -- to which his mother wearily responded: “I’m tired of hating people.”
Zak’s courage to “come out” as a more loving person, and his mother’s response are a testament to what is needed greatly on the planet now, a love revolution of sorts.
When people ask Zak why he shares his story, at potential risk, he says, “I do it in the hopes that perhaps someone, someday who is compelled to use violence may hear my story and realize there is a better way, that although I had been subjected to the violent, intolerant ideology, that I did not become fanaticized. Instead I choose to use my experience to fight back against terrorism, against bigotry… I stand here as proof that violence isn’t inherent in ones religion or race, and the son does not have to follow the ways of his father. I am not my father.”
This is a beautiful expression and example of one of the most encouraging movements happening around the world right now – one that is moving beyond hatred or even just mere tolerance -- to one that is based in love, compassion and empathy. Two recent notable examples being the Jewish and Arab people around the world expressing their love for each other through the #JewsAndArabsRefuseToBeEnemies initiative as well as the Israel loves Iran, Palestine and others initiative.
In both initiatives, people around the globe are stating their love for one another publicly through the web and social media -- tackling head on the dominant “us-against-them” worldview that so heavily permeates much of mainstream thinking. People are literally laying claim to love for one another, upending the notion that we have to be enemies, or really that we are even all that separate to begin with.
It is encouraging that there are many initiatives and modalities emerging at almost every level of society, people and programs who are bringing psychologically healthy tools to bear on the challenges of conflict that we face, helping people better understand and love themselves and others. Tools for teaching people how to better understand and deal with conflict and differences, before it turns to violence – whether that violence is verbal, emotional or physical.
Organizations like Challenge Day, spotlighted by Oprah and the MTV docu-series “If You Really Knew Me”, bring practical tools for love and empathy to schools. They help kids quickly and powerfully see how connected they are and build skills to make love and empathy more of a cultural norm at schools – reducing bullying and violence.
Restorative Justice is a powerful and quickly growing model and movement, which offers healing-oriented methods as an alternative to current criminal justice approaches. These processes retain accountability while also creating conditions for conflict resolution to occur within, and leading up to, involvement in the criminal justice system.
There are many other tools and practices emerging, such as: Social and Emotional Learning and Life Skills in schools, which teach self awareness, empathy, impulse control, motivation and social skills; Conflict Resolution Education and Nonviolent Communications curriculum and practices in schools; programs in prisons that help inmates turn their lives around; parenting classes; mindfulness and mediation; and many others.
The most exciting news of all is that these kinds of programs and modalities are proven to work. The art and science of psychology and human relations have evolved tremendously in the past decades. Resources are out there to help expand our capacity for empathy and even love for one another. It’s time though that we bring these resources to scale. From the personal to the political, we must invest in these solutions; put our personal and collective time, attention, and resources towards them. Organizations like Peace Alliance and many others are leading the charge.
As more and more people around the world of all faiths, cultures and traditions, begin to share their stories of love and connection, as Zak so powerfully does, it will help encourage others to do so as well. It can and will be a wave that helps topple hatred, fear and oppression. For every person that turns to terrorism, or bullying, or violence of any kind, there are millions more who don’t feel the hate or prejudice as deeply, who can be encouraged and uplifted.
This new love-based movement can go far in changing our world for the better. This is the great work before us, and thankfully there are many great champions who are leading the way. Let’s follow course.