Friday, February 5, 2010

Help -- We Are the Target!


[The situation described below is real and recent. The name of the meeting has been changed out of cautiousness. ]

Dear George Lakey,
Please advise us! Friends at Rivertown Meeting have scheduled a 10-week course on Islam, to be taught by an Islamic scholar. We advertised it to the public, hoping it would create openings for better understanding in our community. About 70 have people signed up. But now we are targeted by a “tea party” group that is recruiting to get a large group of demonstrators outside our meeting house as well as people to come inside and confront the teacher.

We asked the yearly meeting to help organize a “Friendly presence” group of trained peacekeepers to help us manage the situation, but we found out they don’t do that anymore.

What do you suggest?

Clerk of peace and concerns committee, Rivertown Meeting


Dear Friend,

One way to look at disruption is to see it as an opportunity. That was pretty much the attitude of early Friends, who seemed to think that if there wasn't turbulence around what they were doing, they must not be doing something of consequence. It was also the attitude of Martin Luther King and his colleagues. So congratulations!

If you and other Rivertown Friends do manage to view this as an opportunity, you'll see a lot of positive possibilities. One that see even from this distance is to shift the dialogue about Islam from a small bubble of the already-convinced ("the choir," as we used to say in church when the preacher was "preaching to the choir"), to a dialogue that influences far more citizens of the area including those who initially wouldn't choose to be in the choir.

One way that the disrupters may be doing you a favor is that they are a fringe who are acting out what is really the mainstream feeling: "We don't really want to learn more about Islam."

This is similar to the favor the KKK did in the deep South by acting out the mainstream white attitudes toward black people, and thereby raising the question for those mainstream white people: are we really as unwilling to re-consider our racism as the KKK folks are?

The politics of our country can't really shift regarding Islamophobia until there is much, much more attention paid to it, and the Tea Party people are apparently willing to give that gift to the body politic. Just as the nonviolent civil rights movement turned the KKK's acting out to their advantage, by responding nonviolently and assertively, so also Friends can thank the Tea Party folks for opening up attention to these issues in a vital and exciting way that can move the Rivertown-area people who have been avoiding the set of issues involved.

The important thing is not to imagine that this is all about you, or all about the Tea Party people, or the combination of you two parties.

Naturally it is partly about you (the opportunity you get to strengthen yourselves spiritually and build your capacity for courage, for example), and it is partly about the Tea Party people (the opportunity for them to express themselves as fairly marginalized people in the broader society). But sometimes the biggest opportunity is for the Rivertown-area people more in the middle of the spectrum, the people who perhaps would rather not confront the realities either of what Friends assert or what the right wing asserts, but just duck the whole thing if they can.

In other words, as you map out your strategy it pays to bear in mind a picture of the Rivertown-area population as a spectrum. You are on one extreme of the spectrum. On the other extreme are the Tea Party folks. 90% or more of the people of the area are ranged in a spectrum between the extremes, but to differing degrees leaning toward you or leaning toward the right, with some folks (maybe most) in the middle, on the fence.

Our job strategically in working for change and transformation is always to influence, if we can, the various parts of this spectrum. Usually the challenge is to get various parts of the spectrum enaged in our issue.

Thanks to the Tea Party folks, this should be much easier this time.

A nice thing about the Friendly Presence as I experienced it was that it didn't intimidate the extremists, so they could still act out enough to generate drama and stimulate forces for change. The Friendly Presence built a supportive container, but didn't shut down the extremists.

It was in the best tradition of early Friends, who often called themselves "Friends of Truth." (It's the truth about our society that will set us free, not pretending that our society is about politeness and civility.)

So -- well done in becoming a target, and good luck in making the most of it!

George Lakey