A Failed Conversation, and a Failure of Empathy

A Failed Conversation, and a Failure of Empathy


While at university I often had disagreements with others about religion, politics, etc. It isn’t surprising to find diverse views on these things (especially at university), but occasionally I’d meet someone with views so out of touch with reason that conversation became pointless. The following describes one such occasion.


We at the AHS Society (see blog information) were keen to work with another charitable university group, being as our purposes aligned to some degree: we felt that religion at times tramples or permits the trampling of certain human rights, and the group would likely co-operate with us on awareness or fund-raising activities on the relevant issues. After some to-and-fro, the response came thus:

“Although you have said you do not want to discriminate against religions or the religious, your entire email has been one of discrimination. True both our societies abhor all these human rights violations, but fundamentally we are two very different groups.”

An entire email of discrimination? What could we have said? Much of what was written is frankly baffling. But most relates to a couple points of confusion I’ve found surprisingly common among educated people, namely that religion and culture are entirely distinct concepts (they’re not) and, somehow, that religions are rarely if ever authentically responsible for the behaviours of individuals or groups (they are).

The writer continued: “You pose some interesting points, though I do disagree with your point that religion is the sole cause for human rights abuses and [the charity] themselves do not agree with this stance. [The charity) is an organisation that promotes freedom of speech, thought and all basic human rights” – There are a great many assumptions in here regarding the opinions of the AHS Society. No one in their right mind would claim religion as the sole cause of human rights abuses, for example. But by virtue of the writer’s steadfast mental division of culture and religion, the only sense that they could make of our points on religion would be that we dismissed culture entirely, and approach our claims in a Sith-like, absolutist manner. It wouldn’t be hard, when one is simplistically dedicated to finding 100% cultural explanations to phenomena, to envision anyone naysaying your approach as simplistically proposing 100% religious ones instead.

However, it is possible that this was just a lazy strawman, an attempt to dismiss our points without needing to take us seriously. A pattern of this sort seemed to make itself apparent as the email continued: “Homophobia will exist regardless of belief in my own opinion. There are very many homophobic people I have encountered who are not religious by any standards. Whilst many religions are intolerant of homosexuals, this does not mean to say that religion is the sole cause of homophobia…”

Again, we did not claim that only religious people are homophobic. But other assumptions are of more concern in this section of the email. What exactly could be meant by “homophobia will exist regardless of belief”? What else could homophobia refer to, if not some belief in the apparent evils and degeneracy of homosexuality? Are there many homophobes that actually believe homosexuality to be harmless and entirely pleasant? What else could homophobia be, if not some set of conscious or unconscious beliefs? The idea that homophobia simply ‘is’, a cultural norm with no ideological framework, cannot stand up to scrutiny. And to outright dismiss the role that religion has played in this, from opposition to gay marriage to the outright criminalization of one’s sexuality in a plethora of nations, is to do a great disservice to those effected.

The worst section of the email comes closer to the end, and is disturbing for a variety of reasons: “FGM is not an Islamic or religious issue – it is an African problem… It is unlikely to find cases of FGM in other Islamic countries such as Malaysia and Turkey, showing that this is more of a cultural issue.”

The best response to this remains our original reply:

“Neither was it suggested that FGM is an issue in Islam alone. The idea of this being an African problem doesn’t hold in our opinion however, being as it afflicts 15-20% of Yemeni women and up to 8% of Iraqi women (http://www.data.unicef.org/corecode/uploads/document6/uploaded_pdfs/corecode/SOWC_2015_Summary_and_Tables_210.pdf . Table 9: Child Protection), and contrary to your assertion that “It is unlikely to find cases of FGM in other Islamic countries such as Malaysia” the practice is fairly widespread here too, being that “the Fatwa Committee of Malaysia’s National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs ruled in 2009 that female circumcision, was “obligatory for Muslims but if harmful must be avoided” (http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/a-tiny-cut-female-circumcision-in-south-east-asia/ ) and perhaps encompassing as much as 90% of the female population (same link), with many other countries seriously afflicted also (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prevalence_of_female_genital_mutilation_by_country#Indonesia ). Lastly, pointing to the most secular Muslim-majority country in the world (Turkey) and its lack of FGM does little to support your cultural issue assertion.”

Some additional information to consider: The prevalence of statistics on FGM in Africa exist by virtue of limited research in other regions (such research has rarely been permitted in Saudi, for example), not merely by virtue of the absence of FGM elsewhere. Not only are over 90% of Muslim women in both Indonesia – the most populous Muslim nation in the world – and Malaysia compelled to undergo FGM, but the primary reasoning for undergoing FGM according to poll data is consistently found to be religious obligation. And as though this were not made obvious enough, the practice itself only came to these nations with Islamic traders and missionaries, while groups of women will often undergo FGM en masse on particular date– Muhammad’s birthday. More widely, all four major Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence regard FGM as either preferred or mandatory. If this is not enough to cause someone to concede an at least partially religious cause or origin regarding FGM, the question then must be asked: what would cause a concession of this kind? If one cannot change one’s mind according to the evidence, one is an ideologue of the worst kind.

It was shocking to see a student representative of an international human rights charity so profoundly uninformed on such a serious issue, and all the more disappointing to see how comfortably they chastised from a position of ignorance. One should be open to admit their shortcomings on any subject, to make learning all the easier. And yet our response – sent in reply to clear demands that we “show credible evidence” – was greeted with the following: Nothing. A failure to concede any points, a failure to acknowledge any misunderstandings or mistakes. And a failure, moreover, to put the interests of the charity itself before personal pride. The conversation failed, and opportunities were missed.

There is one more detail in this dispute that causes personal anguish for me. It was known to me that the writer and I possessed a mutual friend, someone for whom the religion debate hit rather close to home. As an ex-Muslim woman, she had been forced to leave her home at a young age by virtue of being a disobedient apostate, and though she came to live only some minutes from her family, it had been many years since she had seen much of them. Without the support I had from my family during university I’ve no idea how I’d have coped, and yet the breadth and depth of her relationship with her father consisted of three or so texts a year: “Ramadan is approaching, I hope you fast”, “Ramadan is ended, I hope you fasted”, etc.

I was always overwhelmed by her ability to simply carry on in a way that I would have struggled with. But I was greatly underwhelmed by the apparent failure of her friend, the writer, to recognise the very real and very religious suffering she had endured. To have looked a friend in the eye and ignored their situation, to dismiss or reshape their experiences in order to simply fit a narrative – more, to know someone in this situation, and then shout down those concerned with religious discrimination as being discriminatory themselves – beggars belief. And if this is the calibre of the writer, perhaps it was for the best that our societies went their separate ways after all.

One thought on “A Failed Conversation, and a Failure of Empathy

  1. Just a random point about the FGM bit.

    1. Actually social acceptance is the most commonly stated advantage in national surveys in countries where FGM is concentrated. Religous requirement is commonly mentioned too.


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