Practical Philosophy

The Spirituality of Softening

The only religions I find worth anything are those that soften people. This is a thing I’d felt for a while, and something I’m sure someone else has put into words before, but when it finally occurred to me it was something of a revelation.

The Christianities I’ve seen in America that turn me off so strongly: they’re aggressive, control-oriented, and strike off into the world to do battle against enemies. But I do, sometimes, encounter a different and much more appealing version of Christianity. This one has baked deep inside of it a sense of wonder, of uncertainty, and of deep humility for the grace of God.

One of the reasons that so many Westerners struggle to respect Islam as a religion is that they don’t see the humble men and women who go to the mosque weekly, pray five times a day, and read the Koran to learn about the forgiveness of God and how to be His humble servant. Instead the Muslims they see most, if not the only ones they’ve ever concieved of, are the strident and confrontational Wahabi-influenced (mostly) men that are likely to become terrorists.

Similarly, though inversely, Buddhism in America (and “the West” generally) is seen as an almost exclusively soft, humble, and inwardly-focused religion. But, where it is the majority religion, it inevitably also has a non-zero number of people who practice, in its name, an aggressive style.

This hardness or softness, it has taken me years to realize, is not simply a result of the religion itself. Rather, it comes from the context in which it is practiced. More martial people will want, and practice their religion with, a more aggressive style. More passive people will tend to bring forth a religion’s humility and caring.

Softness in a spiritual pursuit matters to me because the world has no shortage of aggressive certainty. People are sure that their self, sports team, city, idea, country, religion, or way of life is way better than the others. And they will plead their case with anything from a loud cheer to murder.

Surely, there’s something of a luxury and privilege in the ability to value softness over a more directly survial-enhancing martial style. Some aren’t so lucky to be able to feel safe without joining a violent tribe. But for those of us with the privilege, softening ourselves, and interacting with the world from a place of gentleness, is a prime way to be of service. That’s why I so value spiritual and religious traditions that put their emphasis there.

Softness is kind, generous, and humble. It offers before it asks, and it rarely demands anything. Those traits describe the role I most seek to play in the world. And the fellow-travelers whose religions I find most easy to honor.

american society, politics, world

Of Teddy Bears and Ignorance

By now you’ve probably heard something about a teddy bear in the news. But it seems to me that the way people understood the story had a lot to do with where they heard about it. So in the tradition of this piece, I’ve created two very different interpretations pared down from different news sources.

First we have, edited from Andrew Heavens’s story of last Friday, what I like to call “Crazy Muslims At it Again”:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Hundreds of Sudanese Muslims, waving green Islamic flags, took to the streets of Khartoum on Friday demanding death for the British teacher convicted of insulting Islam after her class named a teddy bear Mohammad.

“No one lives who insults the Prophet,” the protesters chanted, a day after school teacher Gillian Gibbons, 54, was sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation from Sudan.

At least 1,000 protesters shook their fists or waved banners or ceremonial swords and chanted religious and nationalist slogans after leaving Muslim Friday prayers. Banners called for “punishment” for Gibbons, and some protesters burned newspapers that contained pictures of the teacher.

Several hundred protesters made a brief stop at the closed but heavily guarded Unity High School, where Gibbons worked, but did not attempt to go inside. The school was guarded by five truckloads of police in riot gear.

The protesters marched from there to the British embassy where several hundred surrounded the ambassador’s residence, chanting religious slogans. There were no reports of violence.

Gibbons was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs because the class toy had been given the same name as the Muslim Prophet Mohammad.

Under Sudan’s penal code, she could have faced 40 lashes, a fine or up to a year in jail. But Gibbons was convicted only of insulting religion.

This is how most people I’ve heard talking about the story see it. This is terribly unfortunate because even Heavens’s piece contains some insight into the role the Darfur crisis may have had in the actions of the government in Khartoum and the loyalist protesters.

The second version of the story is stolen from The Economist’s coverage, and I’ll (verbosely) call it “West Misunderstands Khartoum’s Feeble Attempt to Exploit Religious Row”:

FOR anyone who is labouring to improve Christian-Muslim relations, or stop civilisations clashing, it is a painful setback: a well-intentioned Western woman who has volunteered her services as a teacher in a land stricken by conflict and poverty, only to find herself denounced by a local colleague and incarcerated in horrible conditions.

Gillian Gibbons, a 54-year-old teacher from Liverpool, was sentenced on Thursday November 29th to 15 days in prison for “insulting religion”, after allowing her pupils at a school in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

When the story broke in the British press this week, it was widely reported that she might face up to 40 lashes, or six months in jail, if she were found guilty on all three of the charges laid against her. The incident happened in September and caused no protest among parents at the time. At one point the affair seemed to be spinning out of control as groups of angry men gathered outside the police station where she was held.

For Muslims in Britain and other democracies, the story was a deeply depressing one: so many of its features, including the fact that it happened in the run-up to Christmas, seemed almost calculated to resonate with British tabloid readers, who may not know much about Sudan or Islam (or any other faith) but have strong feelings about teddies, tiny tots and motherly teachers.

In more elevated western circles, it is becoming commoner to hear the view that Islam itself (rather than any extremist interpretations of the faith) is posing a challenge to western values that must be resisted. And if that view becomes more respectable, so too does a defensive Muslim reaction, which is often tinged with geopolitical grievance.

To observers who know Sudan, the whole affair seems to have become entangled with the broader stand-off between the government in Khartoum and the Western countries, including Britain, that have pushed for the United Nations to intervene in the appalling humanitarian crisis in Darfur. All diplomatic exchanges between the Sudanese government and Western ones, whether they concern refugees or teddy bears, take place against that background.

The Economist’s admirable piece goes on to discuss the role of capital punishment in Islam–worth reading if you’re interested. I should also point to another responsible (if almost as tardy as my own) perspective on this event form Anne Applebaum’s “The absurd Sudanese teddy bear controversy” at Slate.

What the difference between the two stories above makes clear is the painfully high cost the world pays for ignorance. The gap between seeing the “teddy bear row” as another example of Muslims doing crazy anti-Western things and seeing it as a desperate attempt by Khartoum to get as much leverage as it can to prevent outside intervention in Darfur is a big one.

Those who read the story the first way go away more convinced than ever about the massive threat posed to Britain or America by what many like to call “Islamofacism.” Those who read it the second way are essentially aware that the event, though ugly, is a product of the wishes of a fearful government and a few loyal supporters–nothing more.

I do think reporter for the major news agencies–Reuters, AFP, the AP–could do a much better job moderating the coverage of events like this, since their articles are read by the vast majority of laypeople. But I think it would be both unfair and short-sighted to castigate them for their occasional failings.

Mostly, I just wish that everyone–myself included–were more willing to withhold judgments on the things we don’t understand. And the complex geopolitics of Sudan and the diversity of Muslims are two things I certainly don’t understand. Perhaps hoping we can accept before judging is a lost cause, but I’m pretty sure lost causes are the only ones worth hoping for.


How John McCain Would Lose the “War on Terror”

McCain angryJohn McCain was on Charlie Rose this Monday (video here). On the program, he cogently explained what, if implemented, would surely be one of the best ways to lose the so-called “War on Terror.”

What McCain said was not so bad as the “all Muslims are evil” statements Americans still hear. His statement was rather moderate by that comparison.

What troubled me was a bad comparison he drew, and I’m not talking about the Iraq-is-Vietnam meme that has recently become popular with the right. Rather, McCain made the rather odd assertion that we have to create something akin to Radio Free Europe, only using new technology, in order to communicate with what is commonly called the “Arab street.”

He offered that, as we did during the Cold War, the United States needs to make sure that we spread “hope and optimism” to people behind some poor analogy’s “iron curtain.” But then he went on, saying:

We have got to describe to them why our values are superior, why their’s [are] evil, and why this is a titanic struggle, and one that they can’t join on the side of evil.

Hearing this, my jaw dropped. I wondered if this was really the man that many independents had wanted in 2000, the so-called “sensible Republican candidate.” His statement is absurd. It represents thinking that would easily worsen the causes of terrorism.

The first problem with McCain’s statement is that it draws on a terrible analogy. By and large, the audience for Radio Free Europe was comprised of those convinced that their authoritarian government was wrong. They took the democratic message of the program to heart because they had been raised to believe in it.

However, ‘radicalizable’ Muslims (those who could become terrorists) do not generally believe in American or even democratic values. They may not know them, but it’s unlikely they would be swayed by hearing them on the radio, or reading them on internet. If such an organization, in the model of Radio Free Europe, set about proselytizing for “American” value, it would likely make it easier, not harder, for al-Queda to recruit alienated Arabs.

Secondly, McCain’s statement divides the world into only two types of ideologies, presumably the Muslims and the rest. Is McCain unaware that this is precisely what the terrorists use to sway the impressionable? That they convince young kids that the United States, with the rest of the non-Arab world, is waging systematic and ideological war against Islam? Did he miss that memo?

Further, his word are rife with cultural paternalism chauvanism that is at best short-sighted. What is not needed here is the belief that American values are the best values, or even that they are exceptionally good values, but to show the “Arab street” that civil interactions and diplomacy can and do win you willing cooperation from the outside world.

The Hoover Institution (yes, it’s a conservative think tank) recently published a piece in the bi-monthly Policy Review that helps explain what is needed to prevent the alienation and fear-mongering that leads many Islamic youths to terrorism.

In “Strong Society, Weak State” (an article far better and more expansive than this summary), Lawrence Chickering and P. Edward Haley discuss the need for the US government to bolster local civil-society organizations (CSOs, which promote basic freedoms and democracy) as a strategic initiative. In summary, the authors write:

In this paper, we argue that in dealing with weak states [like those across the Middle East], foreign-policymakers must expand their intellectual horizons and attempt to influence societies and cultures. This means formulating two separate policies, one for states and one for societies — with conventional foreign policy addressing the objective interests of states and the other addressing the largely subjective challenges of societies and cultures.

Chickering and Haley’s proposal for the forward movement in the “War on Terror,” which they rightly point out is more of accurately ‘policy and police actions for sustained security’ (admittedly less catchy), requires more than the use of force. It also requires local efforts to foster democratic values (which are not inherently American values). They make clear that this cannot be overtly tied to the United States, but must be done by local CSOs run by local citizen. And if this succeeds, it and only it can delegitimize radical clerics and political parties like Hamas and Hezbolluh.

What Mr. McCain is ignoring is this crucial element. America’s proselytizing the Arab world and the Islamic citizenry is not the solution to our problems; in fact, it is the cause of the problem of Islamic terrorism.

What is needed is a long-term policy effort to delegitimize government sponsors of terror, while acknowledging the cultural traditions and governments that many terrorists see themselves as defending.

We do need to foster civil society, as McCain endeavored to suggest, but we cannot do it in the way he suggested. We must allow this to occur slowly, and locally. And though the US can offer funding to organizations, it cannot openly flout it’s cash and it’s values. To do so would only create more terrorists, not less.

In the ongoing “War on Terror,”America must be strategic and humble, not brash and bold as Mr. McCain seems to desire.