Three dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties, three very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences, three per­spec­tives on courage. Dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tions it emerged that courage can mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent people.

What struck me most about speak­ing to Man­al al-Sharif is how per­son­al, per­haps how inti­mate our per­cep­tions of courage tend to be. Hav­ing defied the cus­toms of a coun­try known for its bru­tal pun­ish­ments and braved poten­tial­ly dis­as­trous con­se­quences, her own def­i­n­i­tion of courage was strict­ly inter­nal. She had changed who she was her­self, chal­lenged the beliefs she had held dear, the beliefs of her fam­i­ly and her com­mu­ni­ty and dis­cov­ered a whole new world of argu­ment and pos­si­bil­i­ties. That, to her mind, was far more coura­geous than dri­ving a car against the instruc­tions of the gov­ern­ment, than arrest and imprisonment.


There are, how­ev­er, also peo­ple who believe that it is right to act on their hatred of oth­ers, that it is glo­ri­ous to die on the bat­tle­field – and to kill. Is there any­thing that divides their opin­ions from those who believe that we must be coura­geous in build­ing peace, in open­ing up and main­tain­ing dia­logue, in respect­ing oth­ers even if we dis­agree with them in the most fun­da­men­tal way?

What then is courage? Is it valu­able in itself? Can a sui­cide bomber be coura­geous? Can a ter­ror­ist? And would he seem coura­geous if we saw him as a resis­tance fight­er dying for a great cause we our­selves espouse? This ambiva­lence was borne out by the young Pales­tin­ian-Syr­i­an pianist Aeham Ahmad, who con­front­ed us with the neces­si­ty of coura­geous choic­es in sit­u­a­tions of exis­ten­tial dan­ger – and with their dou­ble-edged con­se­quences. Hav­ing risked his own life to play in the ruins, he was aware that his pos­si­bly reck­less actions might have deprived his wife of a hus­band and his sons of a father. Once, he told, a lit­tle girl lis­tened to him play­ing and was shot dead by a sniper in front of him. This expe­ri­ence con­tin­ues to haunt him.


Aeham Ahmad also shone a light on the com­pla­cen­cy of rich and peace­ful soci­eties in deal­ing not only with con­ve­nient hero­ines and heroes, but also with the sit­u­a­tions that cre­ate them. He spoke about the Ger­man mind, trans­form­ing his desparate sto­ry into a poet­ic act of hero­ism in which he did not rec­og­nize him­self. It was obvi­ous that he was uncom­fort­able at the thought of his sto­ry being com­mod­i­fied for the ben­e­fit of peo­ple in the coun­try which had accept­ed him.

Film­mak­er Ste­fan Ruzow­itzky echoed these con­cerns. He is fas­ci­nat­ed by the psy­cho­log­i­cal aspects of courage ver­sus con­for­mi­ty, as he explained. Were sol­diers who chose to par­tic­i­pate in mass mur­der just to gain their respect of their peers inher­ent­ly vio­lent crim­i­nals or were they sim­ply every­day peo­ple who need­ed to con­form, even if the norm they want­ed to con­form to was inhuman?

Con­for­mi­ty clear­ly occu­pies an impor­tant space in any func­tion­ing soci­ety, Ste­fan Ruzow­itzky ana­lyzed, but at the same time, no soci­ety could ever advance with­out those who devi­ate from the beat­en track to try to find new path­ways. How is it pos­si­ble to fos­ter such a courage? Part of the answer must lie in sto­ry­telling, he says. Sto­ries give us frame­works for our actions, even our emo­tions. They are the medi­um dra­ma­tiz­ing the prin­ci­ples and val­ues which will or will not be enact­ed in a moment of need.


What makes courage valu­able to soci­ety, then, is not over­com­ing fear itself, but over­com­ing it for rea­sons reflect­ing the val­ues of a soci­ety, or a com­mu­ni­ty. The young sol­diers who went to their deaths in World War I did so coura­geous­ly and con­vinced that they were right, that theirs was the only moral course of action.

As lib­er­al democ­ra­cies are com­ing under threat from those who pur­sue alter­na­tive mod­els of gov­er­nance and dif­fer­ent ways of look­ing at human­i­ty we must cel­e­brate the courage of stand­ing up to these forces, but we must also exam­ine which prin­ci­ples are guid­ing our actions, and what they may lead to. Man­al al-Sharif reminds us of this cru­cial dis­tinc­tion, and of the impor­tance of tol­er­ance, of open­ness to change, and of stand­ing up for the idea of an open society.

Aeham Ahmad intro­duced a sur­pris­ing thought. As a musi­cian, the con­cept of impro­vi­sa­tion is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant for him. Impro­vi­sa­tion is only suc­cess­ful if instant deci­sions are based on a sol­id tech­nique and on expe­ri­ence. The stronger the tech­nique, the more a musi­cian can afford to trust the moment, to be free.

Courage and risk-tak­ing need prac­tice, need to build on a reper­toire of expe­ri­ence. While it is easy to roman­ti­cize the coura­geous acts of oth­ers, it is always dif­fi­cult to iden­ti­fy and to enact the need to be coura­geous at any giv­en moment. Aeham Ahmad’s idea of impro­vi­sa­tion, 80 % tech­nique and 20 % free­dom, may not be applic­a­ble only to musi­cians. Per­haps courage needs to be practiced.

Is it pos­si­ble to prac­tice courage in soci­eties which reward con­for­mi­ty? How can we learn to trust the voice of our moral instincts if we are at the same time encour­aged to con­struct our iden­ti­ties accord­ing to con­sumer deci­sions and our belong­ing to com­mer­cial tribes?

Once again, we were faced with the ques­tion which val­ues under­pin our actions. Courage makes us over­come fear and con­for­mi­ty in order to act accord­ing to our prin­ci­ples or aspi­ra­tions. These prin­ci­ples ulti­mate­ly deter­mine whether courage can be a force for good.