With resurgent headlines denouncing “Muslim terrorists,” I return to my own fear the first time I stepped into a room full of people in veils and headscarves.
I felt so far from home, and was shocked at what I learned as I began to glimpse the world behind the veil.
Behind the Veil
Who are these “others” wrapped in the mystery of the Arab Gulf?
I am far from an expert on the Arab world. I’m an American of Jewish descent, and it was only a few years ago that I actually got to know someone who wore a a veil. Today, I read with mounting rage and despair the reaction to Trump’s ban… because I see people, even people I know and respect, taking a small number of criminals and treating them as representatives of a huge, diverse population.
Yet, the first time I went to the Arab Gulf, I was afraid. I saw this room full of people in dishtash and abaya, and I didn’t know how they would react to me. They were “the other,” hidden, and therefore dangerous?
In 2005 I was Chairman of the first Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence Conference in the Middle East, a three-day program in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I started this article on the last day of the conference, and added to it today.
Stepping Into a World of “Others”
Preparing to go to the conference center, I am full of unease. I walk through the lobby strewn with rose petals, and feel surrounded by men in white dishtash and women in black abaya. I’ve worked with Arabs and Muslims before, but this is my first time in the Gulf, and I find myself curious at the sight of all this traditional garb — and worried.
Can I even communicate with “these people”? Will they judge me because of my background?
I move quickly through the hall and go back stage. At a conscious level, I am telling myself that I am worried about the conference logistics, that I am concerned the audience might not understand our work, that technical glitches might interfere with learning. But none of the technology is my responsibility, and I realize that I’m bothering the technicians as a way of hiding from all these strangers.
I realized I am afraid. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid that I will not be accepted, that I will be judged, that people will not listen – I often have fears like this at the beginning of a program. Here, it is stronger because, underneath, I am also afraid I will be hated or held in contempt as a Jew and an American.
Fear as an advisor, not as the boss
Unexamined, unrecognized, the fear is influencing me on an unconscious level – influencing me to hide away and to rationalize my behavior. Once I recognize that I am afraid, however, I can see what I am really doing and can make a choice. Especially in face of fear, it is difficult to make proactive choices.
Fortunately, in this work I have learned about a lever I can use to move myself past the fear: my sense of purpose.
I am deeply committed to co-creating an emotionally intelligent world, and I can’t do that hiding in the corner. Remembering my Noble Goal (“To inspire compassionate wisdom”) gives me the courage to act.
I begin walking around the lobby speaking with some of these strangers.
They do not turn away.
I walk to a cocktail table with three men in traditional Arab clothes. I learn they are from Saudi Arabia. One must have noticed my effort , or maybe my fear, because he says, “Thank you for coming up to us, I guess the conference starts now.” I hear his warmth and appreciation — he recognizes something kindred in me.
It takes the briefest moment of connection. Something sparked between us. A bridge begins.
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more,
do more and become more, you are a leader.
These fears are reinforced at many levels. For example, I happened to read an email from my grandmother today saying, “I wish you could stay home from all those dangerous places”. On a factual basis, the United Arab Emirates is one of the safest countries in the world. Diverse, cosmopolitan, accepting, and with hardly any crime (and, in case you’re wondering, they don’t have extreme or violent penalties for crimes). Yet, on an emotional level, many of us have such uncertainty, such fear of the unknown, about a place so different from home.
Can We Bridge the Gaps Between People?
The conference kick-off is smooth. Daniel Goleman is live via satellite – and I find myself wishing he could see this room full of white-robed and black-robed delegates. He speaks about how we can influence one another on an emotional level as leaders and humans, and it seems so apropos to my experience today.
On the second day of the conference, the sense of connection gets even stronger. In my workshop on Leading with EQ, I share how we apply our Six Seconds model to business, and also to our personal and family lives. The group clearly sees the value of these tools in leadership and life, and something happens beyond the content. We all interact with each other as people and talk; we share perspectives and feelings. From dialogue comes respect and tolerance, appreciation and acceptance.
On the final day in the closing session, the discussion turns to how emotional intelligence can help bridge the gaps between people – in organizations, relationships, communities, and nations. Many of the speakers and audience members have noticed, have felt, how we are no longer a group of unknown strangers.
Danah Zohar suggests that we commit to test the power of this kind of dialogue by developing an EQ/SQ conference with Palestinians and Israelis attending together.
Questions from Behind the Veil
Following her theme, I challenge the audience and myself to consider the action we can each take to move past our fears. We can only truly access the power of our emotional and spiritual selves if we each begin with ourselves.
I tell a bit of my experience that first day, and fear, and offer, “I would like to bring my children here…” I plan to say more, but I feel myself on the verge of tears, so I begin to call on someone else.
There is a table at the front reserved for women, all in traditional abaya and sheila (black gowns and veils). They’ve been nearly silent these three days, but now one calls out, “Why?”
I say, “Because I want them meet your children,”
She repeats even more assertively, “But why?”
I confess: “Because I grew up afraid of people who look like you. Because I don’t know you, and all I know are the stereotypes. Because I want them to meet your children so they grow up knowing Arabs as people, not as stereotypes. Because I do not want my two Jewish and American children to grow afraid just because they do not know.”
I was scared to be this honest, but given the previous days of dialogue, I felt compelled. The power of facing and voicing feelings, especially fears, is profound. Just expressing this fear I can feel the connection forming between us.
At the next break, three different men come speak to me: “When you come back to the Emirates,” each says, “I want you to come to my house so your children can play with my children.”
Since those days, I’ve had many colleagues who are Muslim, partners in our emotional intelligence community, and over and over and over I’ve seen a profound truth: the essence of a person isn’t wardrobe or religion. True courage, true faith, true wisdom come in all shapes colors and sizes.
Why Step Closer? The Neuroscience of Fear
Fear is a message: Something you care about is at risk. As stress rises, our brains automatically, unconscious, focus more on the potential threat. Politicians know this well — they stir up fear because when people are afraid, they are more reactive. When they are more reactive, they are less discerning, less careful, more easily manipulated.
As stress rises, we over-evaluate threats. Something mildly concerning becomes dangerous. Something concerning becomes alarming. It’s part of how our brains deal with rising stress:
Yet at the very same time, stress gives our brains a nudge to connect. We have a choice: Hide in the cave and build a wall… or step forward to build a bridge. Our brains push both choices, and it takes a little more time, a little more care, to make the decision that aligns with our deepest values.
Fear itself isn’t bad. And Yes. There are reasons for fear. Yes, there are terrorists or criminals who claim to be Muslim… just as there are terrorists and criminals who claim to be Christian. But there are millions of others who are not… billions of individuals who call ourselves people. Do not forget. Behind the veil is a person. Behind the scathing Facebook post is a person. Behind the blustering politician is a person. Yes, we are stressed. Yes there are problems. But we are not just those surface things.
Over and over in my travels, I’ve found that, beneath the infinite variety of human complexity, beneath the cultures and nations, beneath the religions and rivalries, beneath the differences, we are profoundly alike. I keep forgetting, and then I have these experiences to remind me. And, more and more, I am seeing that emotions are at the heart of this similarity. A universal language that both bonds us and liberates us – if we will only find the courage to learn it more deeply, and use it more carefully.
Let us reaffirm the shared human commitment: We can be afraid, but we will also be compassionate and courageous enough to step forward despite that fear. Inspired by that fear, to protect what we cherish most deeply.
Those who seek to divide us: We know your game. And we know something bigger:
We are people first, children of this one home, united by gossamer threads that we weave into a tapestry of strength.
Buddhist terrorist. Muslim terrorist. That wording is wrong. Any person who wants to indulge in violence is no longer a genuine Buddhist or genuine Muslim, because it is a Muslim teaching that once you are involved in bloodshed, actually you are no longer a genuine practitioner of Islam.