Hamid Zafar and “cancelling”

Last Thursday, major Swedish newspaper “Dagens Nyheter” revealed that Mr Hamid Zafar – a celebrated principal, and expert advisor to Sweden’s second-largest political party – had written anti-Semitic (and some anti-immigrant/homophobic) comments under pseudonyms on Twitter and other forums between 2011-2015. Soon thereafter, he lost his job and all other positions he’d gotten thanks to his work with integrating youth immigrants into Swedish society as a principal Sjumilaskolan. Mr Zafar has been “cancelled”. Under what circumstances do we choose to forgive? Should there always be a path for redemption? If so, how does that look? And what is the best way to combat bigotry and extremist views?

First of all, let me note that I am in no way defending Mr Zafar’s comments from 2011-2015. The point of this text is to analyse the nature of this type of social punishment and its consequences.

What makes this case interesting in particular is the fact that Mr Zafar was celebrated by virtually all segments of Swedish society before the revelation that he, in the past, has written anti-Semitic comments, under psedonym online. He was even pronounced “Swede of the year” by the newspaper Fokus. He was also an independent expert on integration of immigrants into Swedish society for Sweden’s second largest political party, invited to partake in Sweden’s most popular TV show and has been called “a leading figure on education and integration issues in Sweden” (my translation). It is fair to assume that he has helped a lot of students and provided useful insights to the contemporary discussion on education and integration.

Now, I’ll assume that he no longer holds the anti-Semitic beliefs he once did. The interesting question is, then: Can we forgive someone who, in the past, has voiced despicable beliefs?

Surely, you wouldn’t say “no” to forgiveness? That would mean that anyone who’s ever said something racist or been part of, say, Nordfront (neo-nazi/nativist organisation in Sweden) can never be allowed to enter mainstream society again. It also runs against the very idea that people can make mistakes. It is simply ridiculous to expect any person to “get it right” from the very start (assuming there is such a thing as a “right opinion”). I’ve been wrong about plenty of things and I am sure I hold many beliefs I, and my contemporaries, won’t consider reasonable in 20 years.

So if we agree that we, as a society, should allow for certain mistakes to be forgiven then how do we decide when that happens?

I think a good starting point is to look at whether Mr Zafar still believes these things. He said himself that he does not and it seems like no such comments have been found post-2015. Is 5 years enough time?

Apparently, it is not. But yet, everyone involved with Mr Zafar has dropped him. Why do they do so? Because they’re afraid of “guilt by association” and they let their fear of further social punishment trump all the (presumably) competence in the fields of education and integration that Mr Zafar may bring to the table.

I think that 5 years without anti-Semitic comments is enough indication that he is no longer holding these beliefs, along with his own denunciation of them. I also believe that 5 years is enough time for forgiveness.

More importantly, however, I believe that the benefits of allowing him to keep working on education and integration issues far outweigh the harms of his anti-Semitic comments made 5 to 9 years ago. The harm of the anti-Semitic comments has already been incurred but the potential good that Mr Zafar could bring about has not yet been realized. He may have insulted and hurt many people through these comments but it is all but a drop in an ocean of anti-Semitism. In contrast to that, his potential positive impact on the lives of migrant students and Swedish integration policy is immense. (However, I must the caveat that I have not actually researched what he’s done or said on education and integration, i.e. I’m assuming he has said some reasonable things given the praise he’s received in the past.)

However, let me be clear about one thing: if he still held these beliefs today, then immediately “cancelling” him across the board is justified in my opinion. For me, the question right now is whether or not we can reasonably assume that he doesn’t hold these anti-Semitic and other despicable views today. The reason I defended him in the previous paragraph is that, given the evidence available to me at the moment, it seems like he has renounced his former beliefs. Based on what I know, there is no evidence from the past 5 years that would suggest that he still hold strongly anti-Semitic beliefs. However, this also means that I will gladly amend my view on this if evidence suggesting otherwise comes up or if someone can explain to me why he still, most likely, holds these beliefs despite the lack of recent comments indicating it.

Let’s talk about how to best combat bigotry and extremism

As a person who doesn’t want Jews to suffer from bigoted beliefs about Jews ruling the world (and so on), I believe that we should think really hard and carefully about what is the best means to that end. Currently, there are plenty of people who hold anti-Semitic beliefs in Sweden and around the world. How will they react when they hear that Mr Zafar was “cancelled”? Will they stop believing in the Jewish conspiracies?

I don’t believe they will. They’ll just be less likely to discuss their views in public. Less likely to post anonymously on Twitter and instead turn to, perhaps, more extreme forums. That just means that there is more isolation of extremist views. If they do discuss their view, it’ll be in echo-chambers, surrounded by others holding the same views. This is certainly not desirable if you care about combating extremism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or xenophobia.

What you want, presumably, is the chance to change someone’s mind. I think this rarely happens on an online forum. More realistically, it happens in the cafeteria, at work or in school when you engage with your peers and co-workers. So we want people to voice their beliefs, no matter what they are, because that is how those beliefs may change.

For this to happen we must not be too quick to punish someone who’s voiced an idea but rather seek to engage in productive conversation with him. To show that it is okay to disagree and to ask is to ask open-ended but important questions such as: “how do you know that?” or “Can you elaborate on that?” when you are faced with uncomfortable statements (broadly defined). I believe that you can still be friends with, and perhaps even love, someone with despicable beliefs that you do not agree with (I’ll be writing a post on Daryl Davis – a black jazz musician who joined the KKK, became friends with them and has convinced more than 200 of them to leave the KKK since joining).

Life is difficult as it is already so I don’t think we should make it harder by dehumanizing and isolating those who seem to have gone astray. As a mother to a son who turned to extremism and later took part in a terrorist attack once said: the antidote to extremism is love, not isolation.

P.S. I am, as always, happy to change my view on this very difficult topic so please do write your thought in the comment section below!

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