It did not take long for this weekend's uplifting news from Oslo, Norway, where a group of Muslims formed a symbolic ring of protection around a synagogue, to take on a tinge of controversy. Media reports revealed that one of the organizers, Ali Chishti, had previously made anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks in a 2009 speech.
But Chishti's past remarks — which he has expressly disavowed — don't undermine the message of the peace ring at all. Rather, his evolution from an angry younger man who embraced discriminatory, radical ideas to a more mature adult who has repudiated those views as wrong and "outrageous" makes the symbolism of the demonstration all the more powerful.
An organizer of the pro-Jewish solidarity demonstration once made an anti-Semitic speech
The peace ring was initially a straightforward story of co-existence and tolerance, of Muslims demonstrating support for Jews and a commitment to stopping anti-Semitic violence, with their own bodies if need be. The previous week's attack on a Copenhagen synagogue had deepened fears of violence in European Jewish communities, and Oslo's Muslims wanted to show solidarity with Norwegian Jews, and to publicly reject Islamist anti-Semitism. Over a thousand people reportedly locked arms around the Oslo synagogue on Saturday to send that message; and a local Jewish leader called it a message of hope for the world. A similar demonstration is planned in Stockholm.
But when it was revealed that Chishti, an organizer, had previously blamed Jews for the September 11 attacks, it was treated as having tainted or "marred" the peace ring and its symbolism.
In a 2009 speech, Chishti blamed Jews for the September 11 attacks and implied that they had been behind the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008 as well. His speech was entitled "why I hate Jews and gays," and while Chishti claims not to have chosen that title, he apparently did accept it. There is no contesting the hateful, anti-Semitic nature of the speech.
But Chishti himself has rejected the speech and the ideas it contained. He now calls those views "outrageous" and says that in the years since he gave that speech, he has developed a more nuanced relationship with Islam. Now, just six years after making his anti-Semitic speech, he is spending a Saturday night guarding an Oslo synagogue.
In other words, Chishti has done exactly what one would hope someone with radical and harmful views would do: he reconsidered them, came to the conclusion that they are wrong, and then reached out to the community he had hurt and tried to make amends.
Chishti's experience sends a powerful message of hope
Chishti's experience is a powerful reminder that radicalization is not a one-way path, and that extremist groups like ISIS are not the only model of Islam that can attract the Muslim youth of Europe.
In another time, that message might have been a banal foregone conclusion. But today, amid controversy over whether Muslims can or should assimilate into European communities, and whether they pose a threat to the safety of Europe's Jews in particular, it is an important, even controversial, message of hope.
That matters, because the possibility of progressions like Chishti's is a subject of political controversy in Europe right now. Many groups that oppose Muslim immigration do so by arguing that Muslims cannot or will not integrate into European culture, and that they are prone to dangerous radicalism. Conversely, Muslim communities have grown concerned about the appeal of groups like ISIS to young European Muslims, especially those who feel angry or alienated.
Chishti himself, and the protest that he organized, are counter-examples to those narratives. And this matters. If Western society's goal is one of tolerance and co-existence, it's important to recognize and honor Norwegian Muslims who have never said an anti-Semitic word and who gathered in support of Norwegian Jews at the Oslo synagogue. But it's also important to recognize that co-existence can sometimes be more complicated than that, and that people who reject their own intolerance are just as important as those who reject it in others.