Interfaith panel discusses public discourse, civilly

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Discussing how to restore civility in public discourse are, from left, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, Dorit Price-Levine, Kendra Oates and moderator Bruce Turnbull. Photo by Josh Marks
Discussing how to restore civility in public discourse are, from left, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, Dorit Price-Levine, Kendra Oates and moderator Bruce Turnbull.
Photo by Josh Marks

In a presidential primary season marked by shoutfests at candidate debates and violence at campaign rallies, an interfaith panel last week discussed ways to restore civility to public discourse.

Simeon M. Kriesberg, president of American Jewish Committee Washington, described “dark clouds” that have “cast a shadow across America in the form of a coarseness and uncivility in our public discourse that has few parallels in living memory.”


The discussion, held at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, was sponsored by AJC.

Panelist Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of outreach at Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, said that extremism is at the root of the increasing incivility in public discourse, an intolerance of other points of view personified by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

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“When you see the embrace of [Trump by the] Ku Klux Klan and then some reticence to distance yourself from it, it indicates that there is a kind of extremism that’s at the bottom of this incivility,” Abdul-Malik said, referring to Trump’s failure to denounce the support of former Klan leader David Duke.

Trump’s bullying tactics will not stop at blacks, Hispanics and Muslims, he said. “Believe me, I don’t think Trump has spared us from women or the handicapped. I’m pretty sure that Jews and Polish and Irish or whoever is next on his hit list.”


Dorit Price-Levine, program manager for Resetting the Table, a national initiative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that many sociologists and observers have noted that American politics is the most polarized it’s been since the Civil War. The majority of Americans self-segregate, adding to the polarization, she said, and used the example of a neighborhood coffee shop to illustrate her point.

“It’s unlikely that in the coffee shop you are in, there are going to be people who are operating under different assumptions or life experiences or political opinions than from those that you share,” Price-Levine said. “That means that our capacity to connect to people from different experiences or holding different assumptions, our capacity to understand them is being weakened. We simply are losing the ability to speak across differences in constructive ways. We don’t have those tools. So there are costs to that that we see.”

Price-Levine offered this suggestion for starting to heal some of the divisions in the nation:

“Invite someone out for coffee who you know you have a sneaking suspicion has a different point of view from you on a particular social or political issue,” she said. “Ask them questions about it. Dare to share your own opinions in a respectful way.”

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