The Early Years 1/2


I began to get more specifically involved with the issue of Islam and Muslims in the world, and particularly in the West, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before that and for many years—since the age of eighteen—I had traveled extensively in the Third World, from South America to India and through many countries on the African continent. I had been raised in a family in which the call and meaning of faith were allied to the defense of human dignity and justice. Even though my commitment was not in the name of Islam, it had always been valued by my mother and father: fighting against poverty in the South, promoting education (for women in particular), protecting street children, visiting favelas and supporting social projects, fighting against corruption and dictators, and demanding more humane and more equitable trade were all just causes that they recognized and approved.

I had been a teacher, then a very young dean in a Geneva high school, and I had launched solidarity awareness operations in primary and secondary schools. A practicing believer in my private life, I respected professional discretion in my public position: I never put forward my religious affiliation. This was as it should be. Both the school system and the media praised the “exemplary work” performed in mobilizing the young for solidarity in Third World countries as well as in the West, for we had also launched awareness operations targeting extreme poverty among the underprivileged in industrialized societies and the aged: I had been elected one of the Geneva personalities of the year in 1990. As a teacher, I had written three books with my students to confront them with life, the environment, and the challenges of society: a collective work about the elderly and memory (The Split Hourglass), another about margin-alization and academic failure (In Red, in the Margin), and a third about diversity (A Common Point, Difference). The city of Geneva had funded the projects and they had met a particu-larly warm and important reception. The point was to place the learning process at the heart of the city and use the teaching of French and literature as a means to communicate with women and men facing social problems or simply differences. Those years taught me a lot about listening, patience, nonjudgment, and empathy. Earlier on, one of my former students had died of a drug overdose. I have never really forgotten him. I was his teacher, he taught me. He died when I was sure he had stopped using drugs. I understood that nothing is ever finally achieved and that our frailties remain . . . behind the masks of strength. Strength indeed lies in accepting one’s frailties and not in persuading oneself that one has “overcome” them. But “over-coming” them may simply consist in accepting them. Thierry, my student with “difficult affection,”1 taught me those aspects of the educational relationship. It was not easy. One day, in the conflict, he also taught me empathy and critical distance. His sister had called me because he had hit his mother. Her upper lip had got stuck between her teeth. When I reached the hospital I was angry, I could not imagine such behavior: hitting one’s mother! When I walked into the waiting room, his sister rushed to me and explained that violence had been their language at home and that I had to understand: both of them had seen their father beat their mother and had experienced violence in their daily lives. “Violence was our means of communication!” she whispered to me. Suddenly I “understood” the probable causes of his attitude. I understood without accepting or justifying. To understand is not to justify: empathy makes this distinction possible and, through understanding, intelligence can help us adopt a critical stance that allows us to look for solutions. I was young and my student had thrown those truths to my face. He made me grow up. I have never forgotten those teachings, his lessons.

That solidarity commitment, in Geneva, Brazil, India, Senegal, or Burkina Faso, led to many rich experiences. Such personalities as the Dalai Lama, Dom Helder Camara, the Abbé Pierre, Pierre Dufresne, or Sankara of course impressed me and I owe them a lot. But even more important were the nameless: the silent brave, resisting in the dark. They taught me so much, away from media and public attention. On one occasion, I had invited a Colombian social worker to our school as part of our solidarity meetings during the lunch hour. He was to speak about the problems of injustice, poverty, and crisis in his country. I sat at the back and listened. During the first half of his talk, he spoke about traditional Colombian dances, complete with music and illustrations.

I looked on and told myself that he had misunderstood what I expected of him. Suddenly he stopped and explained to the students: I wanted to tell you about Colombian music and traditional dances so that you should know that as well as having problems, we Colombians have an identity, a dignity, traditions, and a culture, and that we laugh, and smile, and live. In thirty minutes he had taught me an unexpected lesson: never reduce the other to my perception, to his problems, his poverty, or his crises. He had taught me a lesson about the pedagogy of solidarity. I had been mistaken. After that I launched a movement in Geneva schools, calling for a true “pedagogy of solidarity.” One should begin with the being, the smile, the dignity, the culture that fashions the person before reducing him to a sum of needs which “I” support. Those thirty minutes of my life radically changed my outlook on others and on life. The twists and turns of that commit-ment taught me so much about life, wounds, hopes, and frail-ties: the power of knowledge, the strength of emotion, the necessity of patience, the need to listen. I have tried daily to forget nothing.


  1. That is so beautiful. It demonstrates the immense importance of both unconditional love and of personal humility.
    It is also yet another instance which illustrates how God’s plan for each of us – for our journey through life, seeking Him and seeking to know ourselves – is so very intricate, and yet leads each of us surely to our destination.


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