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Social Stories

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My son lives with anxiety. Although he is only six years old, he has a difficult time with new or unfamiliar situations. Being six, I have no idea what is actually going on in his head when, say, he is afraid of going to the park. Does he imagine various doomsday scenarios? Are there monsters in the park? Does he think the other kids will hate him? We have no idea. All we know is what he presents: fear of the park.

Social stories are one of the genius ideas we were given by his therapist (who is releasing him after just a few short months) the first night we met with her. Social stories are used prior to a new event in order to help an anxious person process through his or her emotions prior to doing something new.

For instance, I signed my son up for baseball this year. Prior to his first practice, I wrote a six page story about what baseball practice is like and what he will be doing. In it, I prepared him for the inevitable mistakes he will make, for listening to his coach, and for having fun (because baseball is supposed to be fun). He read it the day before his first practice. Instead of clinging to my wife or refusing to play, he dove right in with his new teammates in a new scenario because he had time to process his emotions prior to the moment.

Extremist groups, like ISIS, use terror to craft social stories. The latest attack in Manchester, UK four days prior to the start of Ramadan is just one example. The difference is, extremists don’t craft social stories that reduce anxiety or fear. Quite the opposite.

Cult leaders use the doctrines of purity in their social stories in order to isolate their followers from the greater society, often in communes. What starts off as a harmless attempt to free oneself of sinful culture often devolves into violence, either against oneself or others. It is difficult to find a story of a terrorist/extremist who doesn’t share the story of isolation from others.

ISIS uses terror in their social stories to isolate Muslims from the greater society. When a terrorist attack occurs, they are quick to shape the story around it, claiming to be fighting a religious war between Islam and Christianity. When the larger society reacts negatively towards Muslims, whether through retributive violence, passive aggressive attacks on mosques, or verbal abuse in the market, it serves the purpose of the terrorists who carried out the attacks. The more isolated Muslims feel, the more likely they are to believe the social story being crafted for them.

We need to craft new social stories if we want to be able to counter violent extremism.

Each year during Ramadan, Muslim communities throughout the West attempt to do the hard work of crafting a new social story for their communities. They create events, make food while fasting, and invite people to come in and see them for who they are: humans. All across the US there are Muslim communities opening their doors to outsiders to come and share a meal. It seems to me that, as time passes and the terror of violence continues to tell us a false and divisive story, we need to receive the invitation to come and see.

One of the challenges is overcoming our own fears and anxieties about Islam and Muslims. What if they try to convert me? What if they are secretly trying to kill us all? What if they are terrorist monsters and I never see my family again? It is reasonable with fears such as these to avoid interacting with Muslims. But, again, this time with emphasis: isolation from others leads to extreme ideas about others. We solve nothing by avoiding each other. We only exacerbate our problems, and play into the hands of extremists who feed on fear and division.

So let me craft a social story for you about what to expect when visiting a mosque to break fast this Ramadan:

When you go to the mosque, you might feel nervous about what you will experience.

This is normal.

When you go inside, someone will be waiting for you to guide you through what will happen the rest of the evening. The first thing you will do is take off your shoes.

Often, a well-learned member of the Muslim community will share some things about Islam to help you understand their religion more.

At sundown, someone will lead the adhan, or call to prayer. Here is what they are saying:

God is greater. God is greater. I testify that there is no god but God. I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God. Come to prayer. Come to prayer. Come to success. Come to success. God is greater. God is greater. I testify that there is no god but God.

At this time, you will be given a date to eat and a little water to drink. Islamic tradition says that this is the way Muhammad broke his fast.

Following this, the Muslims will pray. You can feel free to watch. They will move in unison as they go through the fourth of their five daily prayers.

After prayer, the party really gets going. There will be food and conversation and laughter, and hopefully, you’ll meet someone who transforms your thinking about Muslims. Hopefully you’ll be that someone for someone else too.

Now that you’ve read your social story, you’re ready to face your fears and attend an interfaith iftar in your community. If you want to find out where events are happening this Ramadan in your area, visit . There are over 100 opportunities in 28 states so far listed on the website to break fast with Muslims this Ramadan (which starts May 27). If you don’t see an event, contact the organizers (of which I am one) and see if they can help you out.

Don’t miss out on your opportunity to be a living social story that counters extremism through engagement across lines of religious and cultural difference this year!


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