"Please Tell Your Friends..."

January 29, 2010

In summer 2008, eighteen Nigerian conflict resolution professionals, representing diverse ethnic and religious communities in their home country, came to Boston to participate in an intensive training program in conflict prevention, management, and resolution.  The Public Conversations Project was invited to provide a training on dialogue for the program, which was hosted by the Graduate Program in Dispute Resolution at UMass Boston. The educational and cultural exchange provided training to leaders who are committed to helping Nigeria overcome deep ethnic and religious divisions that have led to sporadic outbreaks of violence.

Vice President of Program Dave Joseph joined the UMass Boston team that traveled to Nigeria to evaluate the success of the cultural exchange program and deliver advanced training in designing and facilitating deeper interfaith dialogue. Here's an email that we, at Public Conversations Project, received several days ago:

I'm writing to pass along a favor that was requested of me from a young Nigerian man, whom I met for five minutes, Tuesday evening.

Aisha Musa is the Nigerian conflict resolution practitioner whose face graces the cover of one of the Public Conversations Project's brochures. She is a remarkably articulate, thoughtful traditional Muslim woman who is a huge fan of our approach to dialogue and our work in general. She's also demonstrated her own abilities to gracefully and skillfully address difficult issues in facilitating trainings and dialogues.

She was just married in June and I got a chance to meet her husband Tuesday evening over dinner with our Nigerian colleagues. We spoke for just a few minutes as the group was preparing to leave the restaurant at the end of a long evening. We talked a bit about his work for the Nigerian Export Import Bank, as well as about his wife's pregnancy and the upcoming birth of their first child.

As we walked out of the parking lot, he put his arm around me, lowered his voice, and asked if I would do him a favor.  "Please tell your friends and other Americans that Nigeria is not a terrorist country," he said.  "We are ashamed of what this Nigerian man has done, but he does not represent us.  We are very upset about what happened and concerned that Americans will view us as terrorists."

I was initially stunned, given the very limited nature of our relationship and how the request came out of the blue.  My response was to speak personally and let him know how frequently I've communicated my deep appreciation and respect for the Nigerians with whom I've come into contact.  Of how both Nigerian Christians and Muslims that I've gotten to know over the past year are people of faith committed to embodying their respect for God and for other people, regardless of differences.  We talked about stereotyping, generalizations, and the impact of media presentations of such events, which lend themselves to sensationalism.  I also mentioned that people among my family and friends understand that Abdul Mutallab no more represents the sentiments of the vast majority of Nigerians than Timothy McVeigh represents Americans.

And I promised him that I would honor his request.  So I pass along this story as a reminder of the importance of the work we do.  This small story, together with my conversations with mediators and peace builders from Jos, reminds me of how each of us plays a role in the ongoing process of tikkun olam—i.e. healing the world.

 

 

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