Dignity and Peace in the Middle East

Digityinthemiddleeastsmall By John Hope Bryant
Special to the World Economic Forum

Leaders in the 21st century have to make a decision; light a candle, or curse the darkness.

I choose to light a candle, and I also believe that there is a genuine hope for a family reunion of sorts, between the Middle East and the West.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lit a candle, and used his intellect and charismatic leadership to spread love and bring people together, sparking the civil rights movement and the second American revolution; succeeding without firing a shot.

Mahatma Gandhi lit a candle, and used his intellect and charismatic leadership to spread love and bring a nation together, creating a new and democratic India.

Mother Theresa lit a candle, and used her intellect and charismatic leadership to spread love and to create hope for the poor of Calcutta.

Today, Ambassador Andrew Young, the senior aide to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement, one who helped craft the historic Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960’s, and one who today serves as the global spokesman for the organization I founded, Operation HOPE, and a mentor to me, continues to light a candle for the world in which we live.

Andrew Young lights that same candle today for Africa, helping the world see this vast and under-valued continent, and its people, as a resource and a future partner, and not as a problem. Andrew Young has extended dignity to and for Africa and, as a direct result, Operation HOPE has recently opened its first office on the African continent; teaching financial literacy, and a course in dignity, to 50,000 youth and women in mother South Africa.

But then you have others, who made a different choice;

Individuals such as Adolf Hitler, who cursed the darkness, and used his intellect and charismatic leadership to spread hate and fear, convincing a nation driven to insecurity after World War I and a failing economy, to blame 6% of the German population, the Jews, for all of its problems. Six million people were killed as a result of this evil idea.

Or Osama Bin Laden, who cursed the darkness, and used, and is still using, his intellect and charismatic leadership to spread hate and fear, preying on the poverty, indignity and lost hope of millions of Middle Eastern youth, convincing them that Western society is their real enemy. Young people, whose only sin is not that they were born purported terrorists, which they are not, but instead that they were born poor, frustrated and seemingly discarded (by the world). 

It was a group of intelligent and charismatic leaders of a grossly distorted Islamic faith that somehow convinced young people without direction, and yet an understandable personal frustration, that the forgiving and loving God of the Koran and the Bible is today somehow a new, converted promoter of violence and murder. Individuals that convinced the frustrated and seemingly hopeless that the Jesus cited with honor both in the Bible and the Koran is not their friend. The fact is, you cannot be a believer in Islam today and not believe in Jesus Christ.

And it is this fundamental belief — that we are all family, one family, both inspired and fearful of the same things — that caused me to want to light a candle for hope, and to travel to the Middle East on May 18, 2007, for the World Economic Forum Middle East meeting. It was there, together with friends and fellow Young Global Leaders, Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon Magnus of Norway, Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland, and a host of leaders from throughout the Middle East and Europe, that we gathered together to conduct Dignity Day, Jordan.

I must admit, initially I had my apprehensions about traveling to Jordan to have “the conversation” we have had successfully throughout the rest of the world.  A conversation focused on the essential, undeniable human dignity of each and every individual, and the value of our diversity of views, perspectives and faith.  It did not help that prior to traveling there I was encouraged not to speak of religion or faith. Luckily, I had more faith in the light reflected in the faces of the young people I was scheduled to speak with than the understandably cautious adults who have grown far too accustomed to and fearful of the darkness that has visited upon the region of late. 

As the official program for Dignity Day, Jordan opened to the lights and cameras of Jordanian television on that beautiful day, I found myself before a row of microphones, uttering these first words; “…within a few miles from this place, Jesus Christ was baptized. And less than 100 yards from that place, where Christ was baptized, the prophet Muhammad ascended into Heaven.”  I took a calculated risk to make an obvious point, and the diverse group of assembled young Middle Eastern men and women got it, instantly; either God simply has a sense of humor, or He was trying to tell us something, or maybe both. Message: we are all the same family.

As we headed into classrooms, and me into my own, I found myself quickly drawn into one of the most inspiring and heart warming “conversations” with bright young people in Jordan, the Middle East, that I have experienced in all my time conducting Dignity Day sessions, from Johannesburg, South Africa, to New Delhi, India, to Davos, Switzerland, to Istanbul, Turkey, to British Columbia, Canada, to Pennsylvania in the United States.

I was completely and utterly swept away by the eloquence and love of these young people from throughout Jordan. I was told that they would not speak to us, yet our session that day ran over precisely because we could not quite stop them — from speaking (their minds). And when I asked them why they were so open to me and to us, their response was simple; no one had ever asked them what they felt, or believed. No one ever actually asked them for their opinion. Dignity extended, and dignity received.

I remember one conversation in particular, as I dared describe the varied religions of the world, from Christianity, to Judaism, to Buddhism and Islam, as roadways and passageways up various sides of one mountain, yet all oddly destined for the same ultimate location; the mountaintop called God, or Allah, or whatever else one decides to call Him (my guess is God does not have a self-esteem problem. Call Him what you like).

When I asked the young people in my Jordanian classroom what this particular story meant, including young ladies in traditional Islamic dress, whose hands I could not shake, out of respect for their beliefs, once again I was inspired by their natural and mature response. They told me, speaking individually yet remarkably in one powerful voice, that “we were all one, ultimately serving one.” They also said that we should all learn to better respect the views of others, and that those views (of others) do not diminish, nor dishonor our own beliefs simply because they exist.

This priceless exchange reminded me of a favorite quote from my spiritual father, and a mentor to me, the Reverend Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray, now at the University of Southern California, who said “it’s not what people call you, it’s what you answer to that’s important, and never, ever answer out of your name.” I remember adding to this, “…to argue with a fool, proves there are two.”

Who could not be inspired by the obvious messages and the powerful testimony of these incredible young people, who have a legitimate claim on the 21st century leadership, and future vision, of Jordan and the Middle East. The silver lining of Dignity Day, Jordan is less obvious, but no less powerful and compelling, and hopeful. It is the story of a beautiful and brilliant Queen named Rania, from the Middle East, a compassionate Crown Prince of the people, named Haakon, and a brilliant, bearded philosopher named Pekka, both from Europe, and an overly hopeful and optimistic African-American “silver rights” leader from South Central, Los Angeles, named Hope, in the United States. The hope lies in their unlikely story, and how these diverse individuals, from all over the world, came together on this one day in May, finding unity in a message called dignity.  

In a time when no one seems to agree on most anything, from politics to race to religion, I am convinced that the one thing we can all still agree upon, the world over, is dignity.

Dignity Day, Jordan made clear to me that the future of the Middle East, and the West, is not in the hands of hardened, partisan politicians, nor religious predators, but its youth.

Young people, who know how to light a candle.DSC07566

6 Comments

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