In all groups, there are hierarchies. Some men and women sit at the top of the table. Others do all the practical work; they bring food when asked, or even without being asked. They clean up afterwards, and they keep books and papers in order. When certain men – or women – speak, the others become quiet; they just listen, nod and look thoughtful. Sometimes, they ask questions, but not difficult questions, because they want the speaker to feel good and in control.
In other situations, we don’t bow our heads in admiration, neither literally nor figuratively. We may directly or indirectly express our disagreement or shake our heads, indicating that we know better ourselves or are outraged at what is being said.
Sometimes, we look like we are listening . We may nod our heads politely from time to time. In actual fact though, we may not listen at all. We may hear, but not listen.
This is what I want to discuss in today’s article, because this has become so common nowadays. We hear what someone says, but we don’t try to listen or understand on the speaker’s terms. We may not even be interested in what he or she has to say. We simply switch into our objection mode, ignoring whatever new points the speaker offers, and we quickly decide that we know more and better ourselves. But we should also know that listening doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing.
We can talk about ‘closed minds,’ intellectual arrogance, being lazy towards new concepts, thoughts and theories. Yet, we don’t change our behavior, usually because we don’t know how wrong and unfortunate our own behavior is for ourselves.
Our educational institutions, with their specialists in pedagogy and learning psychology, usually focus more on the teaching aspects, or the ‘speaking aspects’ instead of the learning aspects or ‘listening aspects.’ Some of it is general to people anywhere on the globe, while other parts of it may belong to certain, more static cultures and traditions, with less dynamic and more open characteristics. I believe we have quite a bit of the latter in Pakistan, but luckily less amongst the young than the middle-aged and old.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a few meetings where Bashy Quraishy was the speaker. He is a prominent Pakistani-Danish, born in Sialkot seventy years ago. He left at twenty years of age and has since lived in Denmark and travelled to many other European countries and beyond. His mission and trademark is to speak about and create understanding for Islam and Muslims in Europe, and for the value of all people irrespective of creed or colour. He works for everyone to realize the importance of respecting others – and themselves. But he also wants people to question their values and hold beliefs that are relevant to our time. Instead of only criticizing the way Pakistan is treated in the foreign media, perhaps we must also ask if there is something to it. When asked about his own identity, Quraishy simply said that he hoped people would say that he is a decent human being.
Quraishy is the chairman of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) and he is currently visiting Pakistan for a few weeks, busy giving lectures and attending meetings, talking about how well many Pakistanis have done in Denmark and appreciating too, that it isn’t always easy for foreigners to integrate in other lands. He was optimistic about the closer inclusion of immigrants, Muslims, and others in the coming decades.
Quraishy was the keynote speaker at a large evening meeting on Saturday. However, the organizers must have been worried about what the liberal and untraditional Pakistani-Danish would say, wearing an artist’s cap and a colourful scarf. They must have thought he would overwhelm them with his critique and modern views. Hence, they had invited a number of opponents who never addressed the topic, which was to discuss how good Muslims Pakistanis are. Instead, they gave general speeches about the religion, with standard interpretations of Islam. Quraishy had pointed out several areas where we all, Muslim or not, need to do better, but the speakers were rather righteous and seemingly confident in their own views.
Therefore, the meeting turned out to be a typical example of a gathering where nobody listened to the others’ views. The views of the keynote speaker weren’t even examined. None went into dialogue or debate. Sometimes, they acknowledged politely that the keynote speaker had good intentions and had good human qualities. But shouldn’t everyone there have listened to the keynote speaker – and all other speakers – and tried to understand the message? That was what I did. I listened to them all, even those who spoke far outside of the topic. I got many indirect messages and learned new things. Yet, the main lesson I drew was simply that nobody wanted to change their thinking and behaviour; they felt quite comfortable the way they were.
Reflecting further after the meeting, I began to realize that the meeting was not all that different from so many of the other meetings I attend; just a bit more crude and controlled. And since the topic was religion and ethics, it closed many listeners’ minds almost at the outset. Nobody wanted to question own habits, practices and beliefs.
All this made me think of a term used by a radical Norwegian theologian, Dr. Helge Hognestad, coined a generation ago: ‘the Church created reality’ (and we could exchange church for mosque). Hognestad said that we use terms and concepts without much thought about what they mean. They may make sense to those inside the group, but hardly make sense to those who are on the outside. Insiders too, often use the terms, read the parables and dogma, exchange views, and so on, using the language of tradition. Religion then, is mainly a ritual.
Often, when we attend meetings and seminars, we hear what the speakers say, but we don’t listen. We may listen attentively if the speaker says something we are curious about, something that is en vogue, or something we already agree with. And maybe we would all listen very carefully indeed if somebody gave a recipe for how to become rich fast.
In the end, I recalled that Jesus too told his disciples that often people just heard God’s word, and didn’t listen to it. So yes, it is an age-old phenomenon. Yet, should we not have the confidence and courage to listen to others, to think for ourselves and then do what is right?
We should listen to keynote speakers, senior mullahs, men and women sitting at the top of the table, but we should also listen to all the others before we draw our own conclusions. Then we will truly learn and have been honest to ourselves and the speakers in the process. At the next meeting I attend, I will remind myself of the following: let us not only hear what the others say; let us listen also, with an open mind.

 The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.