Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Disputes/Dialogues’ Category

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the US Congress. His performance, while not worthy of an Academy Award, does seem to deserve whatever is the topmost prize in the world of political chicanery.

Watching the speech on C-SPAN, I experienced a wide range of feelings, including (in no particular order) surprise, amusement, pity, distress, rage, disappointment, hopelessness, and exasperation. Most importantly, I felt a sense of clarity and understanding that bordered on enlightenment. I felt inspired, almost compelled, to say something meaningful in response to that speech.

Not being a political analyst, I will attempt to approach Netanyahu’s speech as I would any other piece of literature. Most people understand that poetic and religious texts do not disclose their full significance if they are taken superficially or literally; I would like to suggest that this insight is applicable to political texts as well, but for different reasons. As George Orwell taught us, political language is intended to conceal rather than reveal. When it comes to interpreting persuasive texts, such as political speeches or advertisements, a little hermeneutic of suspicion can go a long way in exposing what the text is seeking to hide. My hope in this venture is that such deconstructive activity will at least be a cathartic experience, even if it doesn’t accomplish anything else.

One more point. In his lengthy treatise titled “Rhetoric,” Aristotle had said that the art of persuasion relies on three main elements: ethos, pathos, and logos. Even a basic understanding of these elements can make us perceptive interpreters of political messages as well as commercial advertisements. Ethos deals with presenting one’s character to the audience for the purpose of establishing one’s credibility. Pathos deals with influencing the audience by appealing to their emotions. Finally, logos has to do with constructing arguments through cogent reasoning. All three elements are present in Netanyahu’s speech, though we are likely to find a greater emphasis on pathos than logos.

Let’s turn to our text.

Netanyahu began his speech by establishing himself as an old and trusted acquaintance. He spoke with the confident assurance of a man who knows that everyone in his audience is already, and whole-heartedly, on his side. The persona he adopted was meant to convey warmth and friendliness. Notice how quickly he took care of the ethos part of his speech.

Mr. Vice President, do you remember the time that we were the new kids in town? (Laughter, applause.) And I do see a lot of old friends here, and I see a lot of new friends of Israel here as well — Democrats and Republicans alike. (Applause.)

Later in his speech Netanyahu will use the word “nostalgia” and say that he “came to Washington 30 years ago as a young diplomat.” References like these are typically intended to establish one’s credentials, to show one’s inside connections, or to convey the sense that one is not really a stranger. Notice how Netanyahu places himself and the Vice President in the same category by using a typical American expression “the new kids in town.” More broadly, this use of the pronoun “we” should be appreciated as a rhetorical device to reinforce the tacit understanding between the speaker and his audience that both of them are on the same side of the fence. As Netanyahu will later elaborate, “our side” has certain unique characteristics that distinguish it sharply from “their side.”

Netanyahu’s reference to “Democrats and Republicans alike” is quite significant. As he will suggest once again in his speech, Democrats and Republicans hardly ever agree on anything; yet, these bitter ideological and political rivals are completely united in being “friends of Israel.” Throughout the speech, he will assume and emphasize a connection between certain values (democracy, freedom, and peace) and a specific policy (support for Israel) that transcends petty divisions. It is this connection that will eventually emerge as the defining feature of “our side.”

Moving on.

Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel. (Applause.)

In the first four sentences, Netanyahu has already used the word “friend” four times. This is obviously one of the keywords in our text, since the speaker uses it so often. The word “friend” appears a total of nine times in Tuesday’s speech; it is meant to evoke feelings of mutual goodwill between the speaker and the audience, but without giving any impression of blatant manipulation.

Notice that Netanyahu prefers the word “friend” (which has a warm glow of affection, informality, and congeniality) over words that may reveal the economic and political motives behind the US-Israel relationship: words like patron and client, business partners, or strategic allies. Of course, Netanyahu will be somewhat reluctant to use language that actually corresponds with reality: words like abettor, accessory, accomplice, co-conspirator, partner in crime, etc.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the following four denotations for the word “friend”: (a) one attached to another by affection or esteem: acquaintance; (b) one that is not hostile: one that is of the same nation, party, or group; (c) one that favors or support something; and (d) a favored champion. The first definition (a) is the most widely understood meaning of the word, but it applies to the relationship between two individuals, rather than two nations. Regarding the second meaning (b), while the United States is not hostile to Israel, most other nations of the world can also legitimately claim that status. This leaves us with the last two meanings, (c) and (d). We may conclude, then, that Netanyahu is employing “friend” in the sense of a supporter and a champion.

Consider now the connotations of the word “friend,” with particular reference to its third and fourth meanings. When we hear or see the word “friends” — as in “Friends of the Chicago Public Library” or “Friends of the Dolphins” — we assume that the persons being referred to are sincerely championing a policy or supporting a cause, on the basis of nothing but their own values. We make this assumption mainly because of the subconscious influence coming from the positive connotations surrounding the word “friend.”  In a rhetorical situation where the word “friend” is repeatedly mentioned, these positive feelings may be expected to keep at bay any doubts or suspicions that we may otherwise entertain.  In effect, our attention is diverted away from any consideration of ulterior or mundane motives, vested interests, or less-than-noble aims. We do not think that the support in question may have been given in exchange for money, privileges, and other advantages, nor do we think that deception, coercion, and threats, either explicit or implicit, may have encouraged certain persons to act in a “friendly” manner.

Referring back to Aristotle, it is easy to notice that Netanyahu’s repeated use of the word “friend” falls in the category of pathos. This can be seen rather clearly in the sentence quoted above: “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no above better friend than Israel.” Notice that this sentence is completely free of any rational argument; no evidence is needed, and none is given. What purpose does this sentence fulfill? It doesn’t convey any information; it doesn’t offer any promises; it doesn’t ask the audience to do anything. It is uttered, rather, for its sentimental value. The sentence is poetic because of its symmetrical construction, and this is precisely what makes its emotional appeal so effective.  It sets the mood and defines the context in the speaker’s favor. It’s classic pathos.

If we remain conscious of how the connotations of certain words and the internal rhythms of certain sentences influence our feelings, then we may be able to see much more in a political message than merely its shiny surface. As a typical politician, Netanyahu uses the word “friend” in order to obscure, rather than reveal, the true nature of the relationship in question. He uses this word to portray the self-serving relationship between a few key players in the Israeli and American centers of power as if it were a sincere and affectionate relationship between the ordinary people of these countries. Perhaps most importantly, this rhetorical strategy serves to mask the tremendous diversity of American and Israeli opinions by projecting an illusion of consensus and unanimity.

Read Full Post »

By now everyone has heard about Israeli military response to the Freedom Flotilla that was brining humanitarian aid to the besieged people of Gaza.  While the Israeli actions are being condemned all over the world, let’s look closely, and somewhat objectively, at the Israeli government’s official position. In doing so, I am interested in finding out not what is false in the official position, which is easy enough to detect, but what is right in it.  I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to take a consistently wrong position, to lie all the time.  Even in the worst forms of falsehood, there is usually a kernel of truth somewhere, and it is always instructive to locate and examine that kernel of truth.  The following quotes are from the online version of The Jerusalem Post (June 1, 2010).

Israeli Defense Minister believes that the responsibility for the deaths does not fall on the Israeli Defense Forces.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a press conference on Monday that while he was sorry for lives lost, the organizers of the Gaza-bound protest flotilla were solely responsible for the outcome of the fatal IDF raid earlier in the day.

An Israeli military chief agrees.

IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said Monday that the violence aboard the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships of the Gaza-bound protest flotilla, was instigated by those aboard the ships and that soldiers who opened fire were defending themselves.  Ashkenazi noted that the Mavi Marmara, the only ship on which violence took place, was different than the other five ships of the flotilla. He said that five ships carried humanitarians and peace activists but the Mavi Marmara was sponsored by the extremist organization the IHH and those aboard acted in “extreme violence.”

Another military leader makes the same point.

Israeli Navy commander Vice-Admiral Eliezer Marom said Monday that IDF soldiers that raided Mavi Marmara acted with “perseverance and bravery.”  Marom said that the soldiers lives were in danger and that they fired their weapons in self defense.  He added that given the situation, many more than ten people could have been killed if the soldiers had not acted with the proper sensitivity.

The basic position that emerges from all these statements is that Israeli actions were justified because they were based on the principle of “self-defense.”  Each of the above quotes makes exactly the same point, though each emphasizes a slightly different aspect of the situation or uses a slightly different set of words.  I am inclined to think that Israeli government’s spokespeople are, in fact, fully convinced that the deaths and injuries were justified in view of the fact that, like any other nation, Israel has a right to defend herself.  I am also inclined to think that this belief is sincerely held, with no intention of deceiving or misleading anyone.  As such, it can’t be a lie; a particular false statement is a lie only when the speaker is consciously aware of its falsehood.  Since the spokespeople for the Israeli government actually believe that their government and its military acted only out of self-defense, their official position must be seen as an honest expression of truth–as they see it.

Incidentally, this is not a new position.  If we go by official positions, it is clear that at no point in her history did Israel ever act out of malevolent or aggressive motives.  The state of Israel was even created in defense of the Jewish people who were facing the threat of annihilation in much of Europe.  Official positions, it seems, are self-serving by definition.  Hence, whenever Israel used deadly force, it did so only because others left her with no other choice.  And because self-defense is an inalienable right of every community, Israel cannot be blamed, charged with a crime, or made to pay reparations for any harm that may come about as a result of any military action it may take.  In the present case as well as in all previous cases, Israel stands innocent according to its own official position.  Unlike her enemies, Israel never resorts to the use of force except in self-defense.  This seems to be the default position which is held a priori by the spokespeople for the Israeli government.  As such, it constitutes a belief that cannot be challenged by facts, but facts have to conform themselves to this belief.

The appeal to self-defense is natural and expected; this is partly because the charter of the United Nations recognizes self-defense as the only legitimate reason for using deadly force without the approval of the Security Council.  Article 51 of the charter recognizes the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” in case of “an armed attack.”  This means that regardless of the actual motives behind an act of organized violence, the accused party has no recourse but to claim self-defense.  Any other official position would constitute a public relations disaster.  The only alternative to claiming self-defense, of course, is to admit one’s wrongdoing and guilt–but this is not a real option in politics.  The idea of self-defense, however, cuts both ways.  In any given conflict, both sides can and do claim that they were acting in nothing but self-defense.  Since truth in these matters is rarely investigated and/or established in an impartial manner, it’s usually the side with greater public relations skills whose version enters into conventional wisdom.  In the process, the concept of self-defense is made to stretch so far and in so many directions that it becomes practically unrecognizable.  When it is abused like this, the very idea of self-defense loses its meaning and usefulness, having become one more tool in the hands of the powerful.

But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find another level of truth hidden underneath the official position.  What does this emphasis on “self-defense” say about the community that constantly appeals to it?  First, that community is obviously very concerned about maintaining the integrity of the “self,” so concerned, in fact, that it wants to live even at the cost of denying the right of life to “others.”  The desire for self-preservation and survival is one of the most fundamental of biological instincts; it becomes problematic, however, whenever a “self” decides that it cannot guarantee its own survival except by reducing, restricting, harming, enslaving, or eliminating the “others.”  The basic fear that animates such a strategy is the result of a scarcity mentality, the idea that there is “not enough” for everyone to enjoy.  In this scenario, the “self” is only able to remember its own needs and is unable to see the needs of the “others.”  In fact, it creates an artificial separation between “us” and “them,” forgetting that humankind is an interdependent ecology in which everyone’s needs ought to be the concern of everyone else.  In the case of Israel, this creates the further illusion that Jewish and Palestinian needs are mutually exclusive.

Second, that community obviously feels very unsafe and insecure, so much so that it can even perceive unarmed ships in international waters as representing a mortal threat.  This is a tricky issue, because there may be a good reason to feel concerned about one’s safety.  The line between reality and fantasy, however, is easy to cross.  One can inflate a small possibility of harm into an enormous threat simply by focusing one’s attention on it for a very long period.  Paranoia is a psychological phenomenon, but it can have consequences in the objective world as well.   If I see everyone as my enemy, I would act suspiciously towards them; I would even launch pre-emptive attacks just to make sure that no one is capable of causing me any harm.  By acting as if everyone is my enemy, I am likely to turn potential friends into adversaries and mere rivals into mortal enemies.  I would also miss–or deliberately reject–all possibilities and offers of reconciliation that may come my way.  Furthermore, it is relatively easy to start believing in one’s own propaganda or diplomatic rhetoric, so much so that I may start seeing myself as a little kid surrounded by giant bullies, forgetting the uncomfortable reality that I am the only bully in the neighborhood.

Third, that community seems to have a relatively narrow understanding of the concept of “self.”  The act of defining a “self” necessarily involves drawing a conceptual boundary that excludes a variable number of persons.  Every time I draw such a boundary, I circumscribe a “self” in one way or another–a family, a tribe, a race, a nation–while also excluding everyone else.  A “self” can be construed very narrowly, such as a tribe or race, or very broadly, such as the entire humanity, the entire biosphere, or the entire cosmos.  Depending on how narrowly or broadly I define the “self,” my actions would result in different levels of harm to the excluded “others” every time I engage in “self-defense.”  As my viewpoint matures, I may be able to increasingly extend my conceptual boundary of “self” and, accordingly, cause the zone of exclusion to shrink.  If I reach a very high level of maturity, I may finally see everyone as simultaneously distinct as well as constituting a single and uninterrupted “self,” with no one left to be designated as the “other.”  Short of that, I would be willing to sacrifice any and all “others” for the sake of preserving and protecting the “self.”  The narrower my understanding of “us,” the wider will be the zone of “them” who can potentially become dispensable.

Continue digging, and you’ll discover a still deeper truth.  The peculiar nature of the Israeli political and military establishment–including the brutal repression of Palestinians–constitutes a very interesting case of what is called a Domination System.  When the Israeli spokespeople say that their government and its military has only acted in self-defense, they reveal a far greater truth than they consciously recognize.  To appreciate that truth, all we need to do is understand the true meaning of “self” in their usage of “self-defense.”  What is this “self” whose defense requires so much violence?  It’s definitely not the Jewish people; it’s not even the state of Israel.  The “self” in question is none other than the Domination System and its structural violence.

By definition, a Domination System hurts everyone; in this case, the victims include both Israelis and Palestinians.  Even when it appears that one side has the upper hand, a Domination System never allows anyone to benefit in the long run.  It only produces losers; there are no winners in this game.  Furthermore, a Domination System is maintained only by large-scale violence or threat of violence.  It also tends to elicit violent reactions from its victims, which the Domination System then seeks to suppress with even more violence; it does so, obviously, to defend itself.

What kind of threat did the Freedom Flottila represented?  It was unarmed and carrying humanitarian aid.  As such, it did not represent a threat to anyone’s life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness.  The self-defense allowed by the UN charter did not apply in this case, since there was no risk of “an armed attack.”  However, it is obvious that the ships carrying humanitarian aid did represent a threat to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza.  In other words, the Freedom Flottila represented a threat to the Domination System that maintains the brutal and unjust blockade.  The military assault on these ships, then, could not have been aimed at defending the Israeli people, or even the sovereignty of Israel; it could only have been aimed at defending the Domination System that is punishing the people of Gaza for electing the “wrong” political party several years ago.  There was nothing surprising here; that’s exactly how Domination Systems defend themselves.

Read the statements quoted above once again, and look for the specific features of a Domination System.  Recall, for instance, that a Domination System instills the sense that people lack the freedom to choose and are therefore not responsible for their actions.  In patriarchy, which is a form of Domination System, a man would say that he shouldn’t be held responsible for beating his wife, since “she made me do it.”  This is also a frequent defense put forward by rapists, i.e., “she was asking for it.”  Such a refusal to take responsibility is an inherent part of any Domination System.  In the case of the assault on the Freedom Flotilla, it has been claimed that the heavily armed and combat-ready Israeli commandos who invaded the ship had no choice but to open fire–they were forced to do all these killings against their will because the unarmed aid workers and peace activists were using “extreme violence” against these helpless soldiers.  The responsibility for the deaths and injuries falls on those who organized this initiative for delivering humanitarian aid; the soldiers, on the other hand, only acted with “proper sensitivity.”

The rhetoric itself reveals that what is being defended here is not a community of human beings; rather, it is an impersonal structure of oppression and violence, a Domination System.

Read Full Post »

A brand new controversy is blazing on the “Islam versus West” front.  Many people on both sides are busily throwing fuel into the fire, trying to keep the flames of this sizzling dispute going as high and as long as possible.  If you have not been keeping up with this story, check out Wikipedia’s entry here.  Details are uncertain and identifying the characters is irrelevant.  The phenomenon, however, is real enough to be observable.

Given this background, I would like to explore the following questions:  Why is it that some individuals can find nothing better to do than draw caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)?  Why is it that some Muslims can find nothing better to do than get the world’s attention focused upon what they consider blasphemy?

I would also like to examine some related issues:  Why would some people deliberately act in ways that they know would trigger unpleasant reactions in others?  Why would some people react in unpleasant ways when they know that these reactions are precisely what their tormentors are trying to elicit?

And while we are at it, let’s also figure out why Muslims have no sense of humor and what makes them so easily offended by harmless jokes.  What’s the big deal, anyway, with making light-hearted fun of some guy who lived fourteen hundred years ago?  In a time when every community’s holy people have been repeatedly depicted in a variety of ways, why should Muslims remain exempt?

Or, alternatively, why is it that the oppressive and hypocritical West is trying to destroy Islam by desecrating what is most dear to Muslims?

Since these are all why questions dealing with the esoteric subject of intents and motives, I must reveal in advance my view of human nature.  Let’s start with three working assumptions: first, human motivations are ultimately rooted in universal human needs; second, there is potentially an indefinite number of ways  in which human beings can try to fulfill their needs; and third, some strategies for meeting human needs are more effective than others, while several may be entirely useless or even counterproductive.

Leaving the task of unpacking these assumptions for another day, I will now proceed with the topic at hand.

Those who initiated and organized the campaign, and those who enthusiastically contributed their drawings, were obviously trying to meet one or more of their needs, but which ones?  Perhaps they were trying to meet their need for artistic expression.  This need, however, could have been met much more satisfactorily through any of the virtually infinite number of other subject matters, several of which may have been more suitable for their artistic talents.  So why did they choose this particular subject, knowing perfectly well that it will trigger unpleasant reactions?

Perhaps they were trying to meet their need for making a positive contribution; if so, they may have believed that Muslims were too uptight about pictorial representations of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and so they decided to break the taboo once and for all in order to get these over-stressed Muslims to chill out.  The strategy they used, however, did not help them achieve their purpose.  Instead of chilling out, a large number of Muslims reacted to this public breaking of the taboo by turning even more hostile–more suspicious, angry, cynical.

Or perhaps the campaign really was a protest against the tendency of certain Muslims to issue death threats and/or carry out violence against those who depict their Prophet in ways that they would judge to be less than appropriate.  If so, then perhaps these individuals were genuinely feeling unsafe and insecure, in which case they were only trying to fulfill their needs for safety and security.  Their strategy, then, was based on the idea that the threat of extremist violence could be eliminated by raising the number of possible targets to a ridiculous height.

At least in theory, the idea seems quite risky to me.  It is true that if millions of people were to participate in the campaign, Muslim extremists cannot possibly threaten or kill all of them (assuming, of course, that all Muslims are not extremists).  And yet, the possibility remains that these extremists will threaten or kill at least some of these “artists,” or–if they were to feel sufficiently irritated–perhaps a great many of them.  A strategy like this, I suspect, would hardly bring safety and security to those seeking freedom of artistic expression; quite the opposite.

But there is one more possibility.  Perhaps these individuals were suffering from some kind of intolerable pain, and the unconscious purpose of their campaign was to overcome their own pain by making sure that they would seriously hurt other people.  The need to reduce or overcome one’s suffering is genuine enough, but the futility of this strategy is also equally obvious.  Hurting others does not diminish one’s own pain but only makes it many times worse; it also escalates and accelerates the cycle of mutual hurting.

As of today, I am inclined to believe that the last explanation is closest to the truth.  Initially some individuals may have been motivated by a passionate desire to defend the First Amendment rights, but they obviously lost control when this semi-serious and half-baked suggestion caught the attention and ignited the imagination of certain reckless characters.  The phenomenon then took a life of its own, as so often happens in the volatile realm of cyberspace.  It then became a world-wide channel that was used by an increasing number of individuals to express their respective sufferings; unfortunately, most of them expressed their pain in the most unhealthy manner possible, i.e., by deliberately hurting “others.”

And the Muslim reaction?  While there have been a few sane voices here and there, the most strident ones dominated the airwaves . . .  reinforcing the stereotype of the “Muslim Mind” as irrational, medieval, fanatic, ready to murder at the slightest provocation.

Like the cartooning campaign itself, the Muslim reaction is most likely a tragic expression of pain.  Taken in isolation, the extent and intensity of the Muslim rage may appear to be out of proportion to the supposed insult.  What is rarely appreciated in the United States, however, is that sarcasms and other forms of ironic humor that are deliberately designed to humiliate and hurt Muslims on account of their well-known religious sensibilities are by no means a laughing matter, for they add insult to injury.   The insult may be slight, but the fact that it happens on top of a long series of injuries makes it a highly sensitive and potentially explosive matter.

There is widespread grief among Muslims that remains unrecognized in the Western world, grief that has been caused by the experience of political subjugation at the hands of European colonialism–not only political subjugation but also social disintegration, economic deprivation, cultural collapse, institutional destruction, and intellectual mutilation.  In the postcolonial period, the memory of this violence and the resulting sense of undeserved loss still lingers in the Muslim psyche; the pain of this wound is frequently exacerbated by neocolonialism’s thinly disguised attempts to continue the exploitation initiated by classical colonialism.

Since the end of the Second World War, and even more so after the end of the Cold War, the United States has been rising not only as a self-proclaimed benevolent leader but also as the inheritor of all the darkness perpetrated by the former European empires.  In the background of the US hegemony in world politics, trade, and culture–most of which is neither earned by fair means nor employed for just causes–a demeaning series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) could hardly have been received as a harmless joke.

A single straw does not break the camel’s back.  It is a single straw added on top of an intolerable burden that cracks its spine.

For those unfamiliar with the history of European violence in the Old World, perhaps a reference to the history of the New World would be helpful.  Consider this:  Why is it that many older Hollywood movies about Cowboys and Indians are now considered offensive?  The nature of their offensiveness cannot be understood merely by watching these movies.  To appreciate why they are so objectionable, we must watch these movies in relation to the history of the destruction of American Indians at the hands of European invaders and settlers.  The films in question are not repulsive in themselves; they are repulsive because they add insult to injury.  Had there been no injury in the first place, these movies would have offended no one.

Let us look more closely at the Muslim reaction.  Our angry reaction to the perceived desecration of the image of our beloved Prophet may be understandable, but did it constitute an effective strategy?

I am inclined to believe that those who were angrily protesting in Muslim countries across the globe were suffering from intolerable pain, and, as such, they were trying to reduce or overcome their suffering through these protests.  Questions still remain.  What was the nature of their pain?  What kind of strategies did they use to meet their needs?

Perhaps they were feeling powerless to control their own destiny, and decided that this was as good an issue as any to experience some empowerment.  They chose a poor strategy, if this was indeed their goal, for it was one that disrupted normal life and business, distracted them from more immediate and practical problems, and allowed their leaders to gain political advantage by making a public display of piety.

Or perhaps they were feeling unhappy because their need for fairness was not being met.  They may have thought it was unfair that the Western ideal of free speech was frequently used in a selective manner–that it was invoked to protect all varieties of speech that may be hurtful to Muslims but was never invoked in defense of their own right to freely express their viewpoint.  Whether or not this strategy of public uproar and angry protest would help them achieve their goal of establishing fairness remains to be seen, though this is unlikely to happen.  The unfairness in question has roots in the massive asymmetry of power and economic advantage that defines the present global reality–a reality that does not respond to sporadic and explosive displays of resentment.  If anything, such displays of resentment only accentuates a win/lose mentality and, as a result, tends to elicit identical reactions from the “other” side; just as violence breeds violence, resentment only produces more resentment.

Or perhaps they were not trying to change anything; perhaps they were feeling upset at their relative weakness and disadvantage, and were only trying to vent some of their anger so that they could feel better.  This, again, was an ineffective strategy, for anger does not dissipate by its uncontrolled expression, nor does such an expression help remove the underlying causes of this unpleasant feeling.  These demonstrations only increased the total amount of anger, frustration, and hate in the atmosphere of the planet.

It seems that neither side was able to get any degree of analgesic relief from this entire sordid affair.  Part of the reason was a lack of willingness, or ability, to grasp the deeper issue.

As the famous historian of religion Mircea Eliade has taught us, the reality of the “Sacred” must be taken into account if we are to appreciate the nature and intensity of religious sentiments.  The ability to experience the Sacred–as distinct from the mundane, the ordinary, and the profane–is the very essence of human religiosity.  The Sacred, while mysteriously hidden and beyond human reach, can nevertheless manifest itself in any part of the experienced reality.  A place, a time, a person, a book . . . virtually anything can be a locus for the manifestation of the Sacred.  For example, Mt. Sinai and the Temple Mount are sacred places for the Jewish people and Easter is a sacred time for Christians.  Eliade argued that the “modern man” (by which he meant the secular viewpoint of Western modernity) has become incapable of experiencing the Sacred; this is a new and unfortunate development in human history, for the entire period of human existence prior to the advent of modernity shows unmistakable evidence that all human cultures everywhere did recognize the Sacred as such.  The everyday lives of those who recognize the reality of the Sacred necessarily revolve around specific manifestations of the Sacred, also known as “hierophanies.”  And yet, this profound truth makes little sense to the “modern man.”  From a modern, secular viewpoint, the Temple Mount is no different from any other piece of real estate, Mt. Sinai is no different from any other hill in the desert, and Good Friday is no different from any other day of the year.  According to Eliade, the “modern man” is tragically incapable of appreciating, let alone personally experiencing, the power and glory of a particular hierophany.  This ability, of course, is natural and native to the “religious man.”

Two of the most important manifestations of the Sacred for Muslims are (1) the Islamic Scripture, or the Holy Qur’an; and (2) the Arabian prophet named Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).  When we approach either the Qur’an or the Prophet, we ought to remind ourselves that we are approaching a glorious hierophany that has had a tremendous impact on the course of human history.  We ought to exercise supreme caution and extraordinary care as we move closer to these manifestations of the Sacred.  For Muslims, it is obvious that the holiness, power, and significance of this particular book and this particular person can never be matched by anything else in the entire cosmos.  For non-Muslims, if they hope to understand and appreciate the faith of world’s 1.5 billion people, it is highly advisable to take the Muslim perspective with utmost seriousness and respect, even if–or, rather, especially if–it makes little or no sense to them.  They may take the Muslim perspective seriously, not because there is any legal or moral requirement that Muslims must remain exempt from offensive humor, for there is none, but because they may want to develop real and authentic connections with the adherents of a monotheistic tradition constituting no less than one-fifth of humanity.

As for Muslims, what would be our best strategy in the face of deliberate attempts at the desecration of what we hold most sacred?

First, we must win the inner struggle before we can carry out any outer struggle successfully.  More specifically, we must win back our inner freedom, so that, whenever we are provoked or attacked, we do not react automatically in pre-conditioned ways but are actually able to choose our response.  Being offended, for instance, is not an event but a choice.  If we develop inner freedom, we may choose not to be offended.

Second, we must establish channels of communication with a wide range of other communities with whom we share this planet.  More specifically, we must have ongoing exchange of ideas with open-minded individuals and organizations in the Western world, so that, whenever a moment of crisis occurs, we do not have to take to the streets but are able to get our point across in a more civil manner.

Third, we must do everything possible to get over the win/lose mentality.  More specifically, we must recognize that all human beings have the same needs as we do, and that understanding the viewpoints of “others” is at least as important as getting them to understand ours.

Fourth, we must communicate our grievances in a manner that has the greatest possibility of resonating with “others.”  Instead of demanding special treatment or exemptions, we must defend the right of all religious communities to be free from insulting and humiliating speech.  In this respect, it is obvious that we have to clean up our own house first.

Fifth, we must learn to disregard the behavior of immature individuals; so that, instead of arguing with the ignorant and focusing on their worst deeds, we may choose to direct our attentions elsewhere, towards more virtuous and beautiful pursuits.  Controversies like these thrive on public attention; Muslims can choose to withhold their attention from unpleasant things, thereby allowing them to wither away into oblivion.  As the Qur’an teaches, the best response to people who act in childish and provocative ways is to simply peace out:
وَإِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ الْجَاهِلُونَ قَالُوا سَلَامًا

My final thought on this subject is as follows.

Muslims should remember that cartoons and caricatures are nothing more than attempts at representing some aspect of reality.  Representations do not perfectly mirror particular aspects of objective reality as much as they reveal the inner lives of the individuals who produce the representations.  Artists can only show us what they themselves are able to see; and, as is well-known, we do not see things as they really are but we see things–to a very large extent–as we are.  This means that disrespectful portrayals of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) convey very little about his real personality or his actual teachings; they do say a lot about the sad inner lives of the “artists” who draw such portrayals.

While this understanding may give us some consolation, it can also open the doors for a grim and critical analysis of our own lives and deeds.  All that some immature individuals can accomplish is produce a few transient and ultimately inconsequential images; in the larger scheme of things these images will count for nothing substantial.  Muslims, on the other hand, are in a much more serious predicament simply by virtue of claiming adherence and loyalty to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).  Through our actions and inactions, it is we who most powerfully represent the Prophet to the judgment of history.  We are his heirs and the self-appointed defenders of his honor; as such, our lives and deeds are the only substantial clues that the world is going to use for making judgments on the Prophet’s personality and teachings.  The world has every right to look at our characters and behaviors, and wonder as to what kind of seed would have produced such fruits?  We are–for the most part–representing our Prophet in ways that are less than honorific; unlike the creators of disrespectful cartoons, however, we do so while claiming to be his most loyal followers.

We have seen the culprit, and it is us.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »