Why do men like President Assad of Syria prefer to rule over rubble than surrender power? Arrogance in politics is compounded of ignorance, willful blindness, and fantasies of invincibility. And when entire societies prostrate themselves before such arrogant rulers, what comes to mind are the controversial Freudian notion of a collective “death-wish” and the Biblical language of the “demonic”.
Perceptive observers of the human condition, like the Jewish political thinker Hannah Arendt, have reminded us that evil at its most radical happens not in acts of blatant, monstrous savagery, from which most of us may easily distance ourselves, but in the mundane banality of ordinary acts of routine de-humanization. No tyrant can last for long without a vast army of people, often decent and conventionally “moral”, who passively follow orders. They don’t have to be all soldiers, policemen and civil servants/bureaucrats. The Nazi regime from which Arendt fled was served by brilliant scientists, doctors and engineers who had anaesthetized themselves to the suffering around them and contributed, often as willing agents, to that suffering and never asking the questions: “whose interests are promoted by my work?”, and “who is bearing the costs of my work?” These are questions that all people in liberal democracies, too, should be pondering; but few, alas, do.
Christian parents and educationists can best serve the kingdom of God by teaching children, from an early age, the responsibility of disobedience. Of learning to say “No” and of questioning what they see and hear, not least in the pulpits of many Christian churches.
I am encouraged that signs of such responsible disobedience are beginning to emerge in the Christian community of my own country. Monday was the 65th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s national independence, and the Anglican church observed it with a 3-hour service in the cathedral in Colombo, not of thanksgiving but of public lament for the state of the nation and especially the collapse of proper governance (see my last post). It was attended by hundreds from other Christian denominations as well as non-Christian observers, all of us dressed in white (the traditional colour of mourning).
What weapons can the Church wield against oligarchic despotisms, apart from prayer, symbolic acts of protest and courageously saying “No”? Central are the word of the Cross and the simple signs of water, bread and wine, tokens of an alternative identity and supreme loyalty (if understood and practised properly).
And, of course, martyrdom.
A few days ago, I attended a fascinating lecture in a theological college in Singapore on the “Lost World of Genesis One” by a visiting American professor of Old Testament, John Walton. His central argument was that the opening chapter of the Bible is not about “material /physical origins” as much as “functional origins”: i.e. the ordering of a sacred space in which the God of the cosmos dwells. The literary genre appropriate to the chapter is that of ancient “Temple texts”. (Thus the framework of a six-day week because many official temple inaugurations took place over a week). The climax of the chapter is the “rest” of God, when God surveys the place of his habitation and comes to make his throne in it.
I have written and preached on this chapter many times; and I found Walton’s approach deeply respectful of the integrity of the text and sensitive to the thought-world of the first Israelite readers and their neighbours in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan. I am persuaded by his interpretation of the divine “rest” by analogy with other texts such as Ps.132:8,14 and Is.66:1. The literal opposite of “rest”, after all, is “unrest”, not work. God’s “rest’ in creation signifies his sovereignty over the forces of natural chaos and social upheaval that always threaten to overwhelm God’s people. Seeing the material world as the Temple of God, with human beings (women as well as men) as both his image in the Temple and his priests engaged in service to the Temple, is religiously revolutionary and politically liberating.
But how does one believe in the sovereignty of such a God in a world that seems so godforsaken? When evil seems enthroned in places such as the nations mentioned above, and rich nations wreak havoc with the earth and its nonhuman creatures, how do the People of God witness to the “rest” of divine rule?
Much of twentieth-century theology, especially following the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has learned to interpret divine sovereignty in terms of the “trinitarian history” of a God who suffers with and for his creation without ceasing to be God. Our tears are but a drop in the ocean of God’s own tears. Easter is not only a reversal of Good Friday, but also its vindication. The risen Christ still bears his wounds, and his reign is the reign of a vulnerable, suffering love in which he calls his people to participate. The arrogant power-fantasies of Herods and Caesars are undermined not by force of arms but by the faithful testimony of men and women, in word and deed, to a way of life grounded in a different understanding of being human.
Several countries in the last century moved from being “tinpot dictatorships” to flourishing democracies. Sri Lanka has plummeted, since its independence in 1948, from a flourishing democracy to the status of a “tinpot dictatorship” today.
Last friday saw the sealing of the final nail in the coffin of the rule of law and constitutional democracy in Sri Lanka. Politicians of the ruling regime voted to impeach the Chief Justice, in total disregard of the judicial decision by the country’s two highest courts- the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal - that the entire process was seriously flawed and unconstitutional. We thus have a legislature that has lost all legitimacy, having shredded the Constitution that it was elected and sworn to uphold.
Regular followers of this Blog will be familiar with the rapidly deteriorating political and human rights situation in Sri Lanka in recent years. I began this Blog three years ago, and my first post (“The Gods of War”) lamented the terrible carnage that was being inflicted by both sides in the final months of the war. There was much euphoria when the 30-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009, and great hopes were entertained of national reconciliation, an end to militarism and the recovery of the economy. However, those of us who knew the nature of the ruling regime, and watched with dismay the chauvinist jingoism that attended the President’s boast that he had won “the war on terror”, had no such hopes. Predictably, what we feared has unfolded- the obstinate refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of the army, and the legitimate grievances that led to the war in the first place; the repression of the media and the manipulation of electoral politics; the appointment of the President’s family members and cronies to key positions in government and the economy; and the systematic elimination of dissent and the continuation of militarisation under the pretext of preventing terrorism from rising again.
Predictable it may have been; but not the speed at which it has all happened. What is most shocking is the way not only business leaders but highly educated academics and other professional men and women meekly capitulated and acquiesced in the nepotism, corruption and outright deceit that has become a regular feature of public life in Sri Lanka today. Whether through bribery, intimidation, or sheer apathy, people have chosen to remain silent and passively follow orders. It reflects badly on the nation’s educational system, let alone religious institutions- of which Sri Lankans have always boasted.
What has become stark is the division today between men and women in public life who are governed by a moral sensibility and those opportunists who are driven only by self-gain. This division is more fundamental than differences on policy or of political affiliation. The President’s loyal members of parliament are all either gangsters or otherwise intelligent men who have sacrificed their moral scruples for the intoxications of power or the material benefits that flow from being close to power.
I am happy to report that the 3 committed Christians in parliament (only 3 out of 225 members) have not compromised their moral integrity in discharging their political responsibilities. On the contrary, they have been the most well-informed, articulate and outspoken critics of the ruling regime. As a result they attract venomous abuse in the state media. Two of them are personal friends, and I am full of admiration for their moral courage.
Moral courage is not what comes to mind when one thinks of the Chief Justice. It is another political irony that, having been widely perceived as a “stooge” of the President, she should now become the nation’s principal political martyr! When a couple of recent Supreme Court rulings went against the President’s party, she became the target of a scurrilous media campaign and false charges of corruption were leveled against her.
We can only hope that more “stooges” will eventually rebel. The famous words of the Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoeller, in the context of the Nazi tyranny, echo throughout history:
“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me-
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”
Speaking out is not easy in the face of political thuggery and restraints on the media. Also, as a young law student from the University of Colombo wrote to me yesterday: “An unfortunate thing about most political analysis today is that it makes the problems we face seem so huge that even those who want to change things, feel nothing is possible. I was wondering what sort of suggestions one might give people about how to use our individual spheres to help change society. Conversations on these issues with those we meet is one thing. Being informed, knowing our history is another. challenging minor injustices is another. But are there any other ideas you have on this? And, do you know if there is literature on this? I am sure social activists have struggled with, and written about, how individuals can make a difference for the good, in the small spheres of influence they have. Any thoughts?”
How should I answer him? We are eager to learn from those who have lived under similar political regimes and have seen justice and freedom restored, even in part.
The Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka was jointly awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine. Five years ago, Yamanaka and his colleagues at Kyoto University showed how induced pluripotent stem cells could be derived from adult cells and potentially substituted, in research and therapy, for embryonic stem cells.
What the Nobel committee (in its citation and press release) and the major TV channels and newspapers ignored, however, was the fact that Yamanaka moved away from research on embryos on moral grounds, and not merely technical reasons. (See http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/11/science/11prof.html?_r=0 )
It was not too long ago when “hype” about how embryonic stem-cell research would revolutionize medical treatments was rife in the global media. Politicians like Gordon Brown and Barack Obama were adamant that those who opposed such research on moral and religious grounds were obstacles to “progress”. Today those voices seem to have fallen silent. Even when the Vatican and other Christian leaders were encouraging work like what Yamanaka eventually undertook, the media attention was all on the promise of embryonic cells (after all, we have to do something with the thousands of frozen embryos languishing in fertility clinics, don’t we?)
The season of Advent in the Christian calendar brings multiple challenges to our taken-for-granted ways of seeing. Here is a God who catches us by surprise, breaking into peoples’ lives in unexpected and unsettling ways. This is a God who embraces embryonic life, identifies with the weak and vulnerable, and chooses to work through flawed women and men for the redemption of the world. There is also a challenge to fundamentalists: pagan Magi behave like God’ s servants, while the ruler of the Jews behaves like a pagan tyrant.
Not least is the challenge to journalists and the scores of “expert” commentators who are invited by anchormen and chat show hosts to pronounce on global events. Where would the cameras and TV crews have been focused on that first Christmas? Outside Herod’s palace, probably, certainly not in Bethlehem. But Judaea was too much of a political backwater, anyway, for the Roman media to bother.
Most histories of most countries focus on the actions of monarchs, warriors and industrialists. Howard Zinn is uncommon among historians in telling his nation’s story (the United States, in his case) from the perspective of the little people: blacks, poor whites, women, native Indians, common labourers.
“When I taught American history, I ignored the canon of the traditional textbooks, in which the heroic figures were mostly presidents, generals, and industrialists. In those texts, wars were treated as problems in military strategy and not in morality; Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were treated as heroes in the march of democracy, with not a word from the objects of their violence. I suggested that we approach Columbus and Jackson from the perspective of their victims, that we look at the magnificent feat of the transcontinental railroad from the viewpoint of the Irish and Chinese labourers who, in building it, died by the thousands.” (Howard Zinn, Failure to Quit, 1993)
As for Herod’s murderous rage which left many childless mothers in Bethlehem, only one evangelist records it (with no voluminous commentary) and links it to an ancient lament from an earlier time of national suffering. And a friend’s Christmas newsletter reminds me that Mary’s son was also born with a “death warrant” around his neck. She was warned that a sword would slash through her own heart. Would Mary have accepted her vocation if she had known the consequences for the other mothers of Bethlehem? Nowhere do the biblical writers seek to explain such events. Clearly God is not a Cosmic Utilitarian. There is great evil abroad in the world and most nativity plays sanitize away this dreadful reality. (The most repugnant aspect of Christmas for me is the sentimentalism, not the commercialism).
God has not promised to explain to us every terrible thing that happens. Every attempt to “explain evil” only trivializes it, reduces the horror and irrationality of it. And the trivialization of evil is what is characteristic of the narratives of secular modernity, whether Kantian, Utilitarian, Marxist or Freudian. In the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams, they leave us “linguistically bereaved”, lacking a vocabulary to make sense of our deepest motivations, let alone the deeply threatening elements in our social and cosmic environment. There are aspects of human behaviour that we cannot make sense of, aspects of our selves – and our collective humanity- that cannot be caught in rational schemes.
But parents continue to bring children into this dark world. They assume that existence is fundamentally good, despite the silence of the heavens. And the God Christians trust in is a God who bears the wounds of his world.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that Advent heralds is the revolutionary and “this-worldly” nature of the “salvation” that God promises. Mary exults thus in “God my Saviour”:
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 51-53)
Note that the verbs in her song are in what is sometimes called the prophetic aorist tense. So certain is God’s coming reign of justice, that it is spoken of as already having been established.
For whom is judgment Good News? Definitely not for those who profit from the present world order.
On the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, it is worth reflecting again on the question: whose history do we read?
Towards the end of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson presented to the US Congress an ambitious scheme for a new international order based on democratic government, the right of small nations to self-determination, the reduction of armaments, and free trade. Even as the US was suppressing liberty in central America and the Philippines (which they had annexed in 1898), Wilson was proudly declaring that “we are chosen, and permanently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”
Wilson’s rousing rhetoric, leading up to the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris, was seized upon by anti-colonial nationalist leaders from Egypt to China. Despite some glaring faults, Pankaj Mishra’s latest book From the Ruins of Empire deftly portrays the hypocrisies and brutalities of colonial rule and the responses of subjugated Asian and North African intellectuals. Mishra chronicles how their hopes were dashed when Wilson (who was, for a brief moment, the most admired politician all over the world) caved in to cynical imperialists such as the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Clemenceau of France. Britain and France had dispatched hundreds of thousands of artisans and soldiers from all over their colonial empires to their battlefields in Europe, with vague promises of self-rule if victorious. After the war, both nations promptly forgot their promises.
Mishra tells us how racist slurs and jokes by Western powers marred the discussions about the constitution of the proposed League of Nations, with many Asian and African nations barred representation at the conference. Even the Japanese, an Asian imperial power on par with the Europeans, and who arrived in Paris seeking an end to trade restriction on Japanese imports in French Indochina and an end to discrimination against Japanese immigrants in California, were humiliated by being given a seat at the far end of the table, next to Ecuador and Guatemala.
The British manipulated Wilson, who was an Anglophile himself and surrounded by advisers drawn mainly from the east-coast WASP elites. They persuaded him to support British rule in Egypt, and informed him that even poets like Rabindranath Tagore were dangerous firebrands!
Among the people disillusioned by Wilson was a young Vietnamese man living in Paris, Ho Chi Minh, then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc. He was a poor menial worker in Paris when Wilson arrived with his bold plans for a new international order of self-governing states. He rented a morning suit and sought a personal audience with Wilson, “carefully quoting from the United States Declaration of Independence in his petition”. He was allowed nowhere near Wilson, or any other Western leader.
Like so many other anti-colonial thinkers and activists, Ho was then attracted by Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet which asserted that the US was no less an imperial power than Britain, France or Japan, greedy for resources, territory and markets, and that it was the inherent instability of the global capitalist system that had caused the Great War.
1919 was a crucial year for many nations struggling to be freed from colonialism. Ho Chi Minh joined the French Communist Party in 1921. “It was patriotism, not Communism”, he later recalled, “which had prompted me to believe in Lenin.”
In India, the 29-year-old Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of how the “Wilsonian moment” had passed, and “for ourselves it is again the distant hope that must inspire us, not the immediate breathless looking for deliverance.” A 25-year-old Chinese journalist by the name of Mao Zedong lamented, “So much for national self-determination, I think it’s really shameless!” He wrote to his friends in France to say that he was through with all other ideas save “the Russian Revolution” which was the only way to liberate China. Two years later, the Chinese Communist Party was birthed in Shanghai. Mao later recalled: “The whole of the Chinese revolutionary movement found it origin in the action of young students and intellectuals who had been awakened.”
We know how Germany took its revenge on Britain and France two decades later, having been utterly humiliated at the Paris conference of 1919 and excluded from the League of Nations. And Ho Chi Minh not only drove the French out of Indo-China but inflicted on the United States the most humiliating military defeat in its history. Over 50,000 Americans lost their lives, not to mention numberless Vietnamese and Laotians, because of Wilson’s decision to ignore the humble petition of a Vietnamese migrant worker.
One of the unofficial Chinese representatives to Paris, Liang Qichao, wrote back home that “China’s only crime” had been “her weakness and her belief in international justice after the war. If, driven, to desperation she attempts something hopeless, those who have helped to decide her fate cannot escape a part of the responsibility.”
If the next generation of Maos, Hos, Osamas and Castros are being formed today in Gaza, the West Bank, North-West Pakistan, the Congo, or northern Sri Lanka, who bears responsibility?
And whose stories will be told in the global media in 2019, when the world “remembers” 1919?
I am sorry for my American friends. They deserve a better choice when it come to electing their president. And, given that this is the most powerful political position in the world, we non-Americans feel cheated too.
But, as I pointed out in my last post, an electoral system appropriated by the super-rich is not likely to deliver the best candidates for public office. While waging wars in the name of “promoting democracy” abroad, the US is increasingly shackled by a political system that is converging towards that of many Third World countries. (Voter turn-out is usually much higher in the latter, though).
Neither Obama nor Romney offer anything that addresses the problems that global society faces, or even the American public. But the latter should not forget that, in the eight years preceding Obama’s presidency, government greatly expanded its reach into individuals’ lives, constitutional safeguards against executive power were shredded, the deficit ballooned, the economy was wrecked, corporate reform shelved, and American soldiers sent abroad to fight two unpopular wars. There is thus a huge gulf between Republican principles and the Republican track record. That is why I said that anybody who votes for Romney/Ryan has taken leave of reality.
But, more tragic than U.S politics is the sorry state of those sections of the American Church that proclaim themselves “Bible-believing”. Wealth not only corrupts politics, it dulls vision and kills prophetic speech. It turns the Church into a cultural ghetto. It has no voice in the public square, except for the shrill voices within it that regularly denounce abortion and homosexuality. One shudders at the call by Franklin Graham (son of Billy) for a new “moral majority” that will only elect politicians who promote “the sanctity of marriage” and “protection for God’s beloved nation, Israel.” (Decision magazine) Such pious nonsense is exported to the rest of the world by Americans who do not care to learn from the global Church. Vociferous “Bible-believing” Americans like Graham have simply lost the (Biblical) plot.
Since Rheinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., no Christian public intellectual has emerged in the US. Yes, there are outstanding Christian theologians and philosophers; but most of them seem to talk only among themselves. Younger Christian scholars in major secular universities are too busy securing an elusive tenure to stick their necks out and expose the public myths that sanction injustice. And by the time they get tenure, they have nothing substantial to say.
The late William Stuntz, a law professor at Harvard, was an exception. Just before his death last year he published a masterly work detailing the collapse of the American criminal justice system, a work that is unlikely to be read in any white-dominated Christian college or seminary. (There is a plethora of Christian colleges and Bible seminaries in the U.S- probably more than the rest of the world combined. Outsiders marvel at what effective brainwashing techniques they use to turn out so many ill-informed and chauvinistic alumni).
A typical refrain from the subculture that is misleadingly called “evangelical” in the US is that to be “pro-life” means always voting Republican. The politically naive vote for Republican candidates in the hope that they will repeal the abortion law. They are constantly fooled. They voted for Reagan in 1980, and Reagan cynically used them and let them down. Indeed his divisive economic policies forced more women into poverty and increased abortions and children born out of wedlock. On the foreign policy front, he armed and trained death squads all over the Americas, and brutal dictators all over the Middle East and Asia. No “pro-life” evangelical church leader ever raised his voice against these policies. If “pro-life” is taken to mean that American foetuses are more valuable in the eyes of God that Palestinian babies or Iranian and Pakistani children dying because of American governmental actions, then that is not the God of the Bible.
Unlike many evangelical church leaders who are blatantly and cynically one-sided in their “pro-life” rhetoric, the US Catholic Bishops Conference tends to be much wiser and more comprehensive in their ethical stances. Roman Catholics also run many adoption agencies and counselling centres in poor neighbourhoods, thus offering mothers an alternative to abortion, something that the vociferous evangelicals seem not to do.
Then there are those who attack Obama for having “divided America”. They cannot have read much of American history. When was the US ever united? Obviously no black will make such a comment. Nor will anybody who lived through the 1960s as an adult, or the 1980s under Reagan. Bush’s controversial “war on terror”, with its shredding of constitutional safeguards for Americans with Arab names, seems to have faded from memory. And the substance of my post was about the Great Divide between the 1 per cent and the rest of the US, a divide that one cannot blame on Obama.
Isn’t the moral outrage of the rich a wonder to behold? In the Republican lexicon, when governments take from the poor it is “efficiency”, but when they take from the rich it is “theft”! Those poor, persecuted billionaires.
What the US needs for its cultural renewal and political transformation is not more single-issue crusaders; but, rather, for more “Bible-believing” Christians to become “Bible-reading” and “Bible-obeying” Christians instead. Or, better still, for them to leave their Bibles, read their “secular prophets”- the Chomskys, Stiglitzes, Ehrenreichs, bell hookses- and then return to their Bibles. They will be surprised by what they will discover there.
[No new Blog posts in November as I am on a speaking tour in Western Europe]
“It’s the Economy, Stupid” was Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign slogan in 1992.
Economics began as the science of political economy, but now most conventional economists regard the economy as a quasi-autonomous area of human interactions, shaped by trade and technology far more than politics. How refreshing, then, to discover two recent books by Nobel Prize-winning economists- Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz- who emphasize the role that politics has played in bringing the American economy to where it is today. (In the interests of transparency, let me say that I have not read either book, only browsed them in bookstores and read some reviews.)
We all know that the biggest transformation in the American economy since the 1980s has been the stagnation of the middle classes and the dramatic rise of the “1%”- the “super-rich” to which men like Mitt Romney belong. In the five years to 2007, the top 1% seized more than 65% of the gain in US national income. In 2010, their share was a staggering 93%. This did not create greater prosperity for all; on the contrary, much of this gain was “rent-seeking behaviour”, taking wealth from others rather than creating new wealth. In the last three decades, while the bottom 90% have seen their wages growing by 15%, the top 1% have seen wage increases of 150%.
When Republicans talk of wanting “limited government”, what they really want is a government that subsidizes the rich, that panders to big business rather than helps meet the basic needs of the majority. Those who use the language of self-reliance and equal opportunity are usually parasites themselves, feeding off inherited fortunes or the labour and sacrifices of others. In 2008, insurance giant AIG was bailed out to the tune of $150 billion by US taxpayers- more than the total spent on welfare to the poor in the entire period 1990 to 2006.
Stiglitz, among many others, has documented the way the US government regularly subsidizes economic activity that has real costs for both American and global society—whether by failing to require companies to pay a tax on their carbon emissions or allowing billionaire hedge fund managers to pay taxes at rates far lower than those affecting middle-class families.
Government-subsidized agribusiness giants wreak havoc on American farmlands. They also contribute massively to rural poverty in other parts of the world. The spectacular profits of the U.S energy industry rely heavily on what economists call “negative externalities”: costs that the rest of society pays for (e.g. climate change, environmental degradation) but which do not appear on the accounts ledgers of the corporations that are responsible for those costs. Similarly, the aggressive trading that goes on in Wall Street creates huge risks for the economy as a whole. Yet, without effective regulation, the people who bear the costs are the struggling millions who are thrown out of their jobs or their homes or both.
Putting a stop to these and other forms of rent-seeking behaviour would thus promote both efficiency and greater equality. Both Stiglitz and Krugman are passionate about the need for political reform. They lament the growing isolation of America’s economic and political elite from the struggles of ordinary Americans. A majority of Americans have consistently told pollsters that creating jobs is a much higher priority than tackling the deficit. And when asked how deficits might be reduced, the public strongly endorses increasing taxes on the wealthy and cutting defence spending. But these opinions cut no ice in Washington.
Democracy in the US is now largely a sham. The US Supreme Court has interpreted the US Constitution in a way that removes all restrictions on campaign spending. What this amounts to is that rich American individuals and corporations can buy presidents and congressmen. The support of a billionaire now counts vastly more than that of an ordinary citizen, making a mockery of the principle of “one man, one vote”.
Moreover, as the Princeton political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter has pointed out, “Both major US parties routinely use their power when they win to redraw electoral districts’ lines to favour themselves and hurt their opponents. And, in some states, the Republican Party is openly trying to impede voting by requiring citizens to show official photo identification, which can be difficult and expensive to obtain. These requirements are a new version of the poll tax, which Democrats in the American South used for years to disenfranchise African-American voters.”
I have criticised Obama often enough in this Blog for his use of extra-judicial executions, unpiloted drones (imagine the response of the U.S citizenry to daily terror inflicted by Iranian or Pakistani drones on their towns), and the failure to close down Guantanamo Bay and prosecute all those responsible for sanctioning torture in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, on the domestic front, he deserves some sympathy. He has had to battle racial prejudice and religious phobias. To get the Affordable Care Act through Congress, he has had to confront well-financed defenders of the status quo, and compromise with major industries like pharmaceuticals and insurance.
But, given his failings, how any sane person can vote for Romney/Ryan simply baffles me! One belongs to the class of tax-dodging parasites. The other proclaims himself to be an unashamed devotee of Ayn Rand’s militantly atheist creed of glorified selfishness and ruthless greed. And they both have absolutely no understanding of the world beyond the U.S. One cannot imagine deeper depths of moral bankruptcy and intellectual sterility to which the Republican Party can sink.
Stupidity breeds stupidity. That’s the only lesson one can draw from yet another exhibition of scurrilous anti-Islamic propaganda (in the US and later in France), followed by mob hysteria and the shedding of innocent blood in Libya and Egypt. Who takes the trouble to watch such trash? And are not those who broadcast it to the Arab world, whether they be “Muslim”, “Christian” or “secularist” rabble-rousers, also culpable for the ensuing murders?
Violence is fueled by ignorance. And ignorance about “human rights’ as much as ignorance about Islam (not to mention Christianity) is rife in the Western mass media. Fundamentalist secularists, paradoxically joined by some American fundamentalist preachers, can only see the issue as one of “freedom of speech”. In a pluralist society people have the right to make movies and print cartoons which other people may find offensive. No subject should be taboo.
But the most difficult decisions we make are not about right and wrong, but choosing between competing rights. Error has its right of expression, but every person, including the dead, has the right not to be misrepresented or vilified. Laws against libel and slander recognize this in every civilized society. And publicly insulting those who cannot answer us back (especially the dead, children, the mentally disabled, and those in other societies) is the hallmark of the coward. Those who replace debate with insults are every bit as fanatical as those who resort to violence instead of counter-argument.
The language of “tolerance” is selectively applied in the US and Europe today. Anti-Islamic rhetoric is tolerated, but not anti-Gay rhetoric, for example. Indeed, anybody even expressing a personal opinion that he or she believes that homosexual acts are expressions of a disordered sexuality are hounded out of a job or refused an opportunity to express their views in the media an even in academic fora. As for anybody who expresses mockery at blacks or women, there is no way he can run for public office. The media outrage will be deafening. Why, then this self-righteous hypocrisy when it come to hate speech against Muslims or Christians? (Jews in the US, being the benefactors of many universities and owners of media cannot, of course, be touched)
Furthermore, one can enjoy a right and yet choose not to exercise it. Wise newspaper editors do this all the time. Some article, cartoon or photograph may not be in the public interest, or run counter to the paper’s own views, or fan the flames of social conflict by exposing a particularly vulnerable community to derision and contempt. And that is the position many Muslims find themselves in, especially in the US and parts of Western Europe, after Sept 11 2001.
At the height of the controversy about the Danish cartoons a few years ago, a Danish woman theologian, Lissi Rasmussen, wrote: “The fact that almost on a daily basis the media portray one-sided, negative stories about immigrants in general and Muslims in particular (reproduced by politicians and by public opinion), affects the Muslim minorities who feel unwanted, insecure and unconfident. This may lead to detachment also among well-educated, second-generation immigrants and become an excuse for avoiding responsibility. It has resulted in an ingrained mistrust of the media and political processes, a lack of interest to integrate into the Danish society and taken away the energy to reflect critically and contextually on Islam.”
So, stupidity breeds stupidity, and fanaticism breed rival fanaticisms. No doubt the Internet cannot be controlled and it is better for governments not to try. But responsible service providers seek to protect their customers from unsolicited mail, aggressive advertising and computer hackers. The best way to combat lies is by speaking the truth. The best way to promote respect for others is by practising it ourselves. Governments can provide incentives for better inter-religious instruction in schools rather than clamping down on all such instruction in the name of a mythical “neutrality”. Responsible TV broadcasters and newspaper editors can invite the ablest spokespeople from religious communities to express their tradition’s perspectives on public issues, rather than focusing all the time on the “lunatic fringe’ that all such communities (including rabid atheists) have.
Ignorance about the history of Islam is rife in American church circles. I meet university students, even professors, who are amazed when I share with them how much Western universities owe to the madrasas and teaching techniques of early Muslim scholars in what (from an Eurocentric angle) is termed the Near East. Or how much Western classical literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, owes to Islamic poetry and piety. When the conversation turns to American support for anti-democratic Middle Eastern tyrants, including Saddam Hussein, Mubarak and Assad, and the many Muslims who have died promoting democracy in their nations, that’s when their eyes glaze over. What are American seminaries doing about broadening the education of future pastors?
So too with misguided Christian attempts to “reclaim Europe”. Montgomery Watt, the renowned Islamics scholar, noted in 1972: “Because Europe was reacting against Islam, it belittled the influence of the Saracens and exaggerated its dependence on its Greek and Roman heritage. So today the important task for our Western Europeans, as we move into the era of the one world, is to correct this false emphasis and to acknowledge fully our debt to the Arab and Islamic world.” One can respectfully criticize Islam without belittling its contributions to Western civilization.