Opinion

A head scarf is not just a scarf

The dispute in Turkey reminds us of the importance of allowing 'others' emotional depth.

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Just as a flag is not merely a swatch of material – stars, stripes, sickles – a scarf is no longer a piece of silk. Turkey is set to repeal its longstanding scarf ban in university settings – setting off a firestorm of controversy about class conflict, human rights, and the rise of Islam in a country fearful of religious influence.

Secular Turks, outraged that religious Muslim women may soon sport their head scarves in even elite urban schools, have resorted to demeaning their fellow citizens. As Turkish political philosophy professor, Atilla Yayla, told The New York Times, the secular Turks "don't encounter them [the religious Turks] as human beings.... They want them to evaporate, to disappear as fast as possible."

The developing story in Turkey of its heated head scarf dispute is an important reminder to us all. Conflict, especially internecine, grows dangerous when dehumanization begins.

It is one thing to disagree about the appropriateness of religious symbols in public places, to debate and be divided on the necessity of separation of church and state – or in this case, mosque and school – but it is another thing entirely to deny the humanity of a group of people.

We see the beginning of this process emerging in Turkey; dehumanization is so often incubated in callous language, in angry labeling, in base and unfair generalizations. We see the end of this process in the tragic examples of Rwanda, Bosnia, the Middle East, and even in the fates of America's hate-crime victims Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, among many others.

So what happens between the thoughtless beginning and the tragic end? What causes the leap from dehumanizing rhetoric to dehumanizing violence?

Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura offers an intriguing answer: It's when we strip away the hopes, emotions, and concerns of "others" – rendering them as subhuman, or mere objects of scorn. In our eyes, they become devoid of feelings and worth.

A staunchly secular Turk may disagree that Muslim women should have the right to wear their scarves in schools, but he will not make the jump to hatred and then on to violence if he can intuit her emotional experience – the comfort, affinity, and pride that she associates with that scarf.

If we want to avoid civil war, genocide, hate crimes, even plain old bigotry, we must strive to prevent dehumanization by taking on the responsibility of being emotionally aware and socially intelligent.

The good news is that we have many models of how this could look, thanks to the burgeoning field of emotional intelligence – first brought to the public's attention by Daniel Goleman's 1995 book of the same name. Emotional intelligence, defined by the capacity to identify and manage emotions within the self and in others, has rocked the way clinicians, educators, CEOs, and even politicians understand human relationships.

So much research and writing has been done on the benefits of imbuing social and emotional learning in our schools – led by pioneers such as Mr. Goleman, Robin Stern, Janet Patti, and Selena Sermeno. They have created a blueprint of how to raise more emotionally intelligent students – future citizens.

Significantly, studies show it is not just beneficial for the children themselves. For the safety of our communities and the security of pluralism in this increasingly globalized world it is vital we share this with our youth. Consider organizations like Seeds of Peace, the summer camp in Maine that serves as a humanizer for teenagers from different sides of conflicts in the Middle East.

If dehumanization is the scourge of our time, emotional awareness, it turns out, is the salve. How could a Kibaki supporter beat an Odinga supporter in Kenya if he knew the passions behind the political difference? How could an Israeli soldier or a Palestinian teenager cause harm to each other if they are aware of the deeply emotional motivations of the other to defend country, family, faith? How could a soldier rape a civilian girl, if he empathized with her fear, confusion, tenderness?

We will not, ultimately, be protected by laws or bombs. We will only be protected by the continued fight against dehumanization in all its myriad forms, and the renewed effort to focus on developing emotional awareness and empathy in our children and in ourselves. A flag is not just a flag. A scarf is not just a scarf. And a human heart, well it is most certainly not just an organ. It is our fiercest weapon against annihilation, and our most inspired ally toward creating a more peaceful world.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters" and a blogger at feministing.com.

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