We Need to Learn From Our Mistakes

We Need to Learn From Our Mistakes

Shaykh Jihad H. Brown ~ 06 Nov 2010 ~ The National, Abu Dhabi

An elderly scholar in the research library of an elite European university joined me at my table in the tearoom recently. During the course of our conversation he confided in me that Islam appears rather illogical to him. His choice of words caught me a bit by surprise; a significant portion of my own theological training was in logic.

When I asked him to elaborate, he said it just doesn’t make sense, what with all the terrorism and extremism. Before that moment, I really thought we were about to have an intellectual discussion about divine causality and determinism or something.

I responded that Christianity was equally enigmatic for me, what with the Inquisition, killing people because they don’t believe the exact same way and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, inspired by God to cut off people’s lips and ears. Even Robert McNamara, who before becoming US defence secretary during the Vietnam War helped plan the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which decimated 150,000 civilians, was a church-going Christian. I added that there are evangelical congregations that support illegal invasion and wreaking havoc on foreign populations as God’s work; not to mention western missionary groups arming and supporting secessionist movements throughout the Third World and inciting religious strife in East Asian countries. My interlocutor had enough; the conversation became more reasonable, more logical.

These people, we agreed, are no more representative of the Christianity of Christ than radical extremists who would harm civilians are of the Islam of 1.57 billion Muslims in the world.

Man is frail and imperfect. The Quran says: “Man has been created weak.” Mistakes will be made. But the best men are those who acknowledge the mistakes, seek forgiveness, give forgiveness and move on. Learning from mistakes helps to ensure that they will not happen again.

But creating elaborate explanations for why things took place, for example, the decimation of 150,000 people on two separate mornings, does not empower us to learn from the mistakes of the past, or to ensure that it never happens again. Were there not children in those two cities? Were there not women? How is this justified? Not just this particular example, but any other event of mass intolerance or illegal killing.

Our collective habit of fact-avoidance prevents a more enlightened, more peaceful future. And the tension and confliction of what actually transpired remains in the hearts of the witnesses. It brews there as long as the wider world avoids the facts, and continues to prefer made-for-prime time mythologies. It makes healing impossible and healing is always what is needed.

There have been successful models of acknowledgment, learning and healing. Truth and reconciliation programmes, the Holocaust consciousness campaign, have all helped to ensure that “never again” will such things happen on our watch.

Crimes that injure whole populations are wounds to the body of humanity. But fact-avoidance is the infection. It may be, that quite often, extremist violence is the very pus produced by a wound. If we continue to neglect wounds, they are sure to fester.

It’s about leadership, which is about responsibility and accountability. It’s just got to start.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. Learning can’t happen when we continue to construct elaborate mythologies around our collective consciousness.