Thursday, September 29, 2005

On Longing to be Known

Of late, I discovered that a Sufi minister from Bangladesh offers sermons in Ballard, where I live, in an "interfaith" church. It has been very interesting to go to these, because in all honesty I had given up on religion, yet the images and parables from the Quran and Sufi mystics such as Rumi have had an affect on me that I did not expect. I had been, and still am, struggling with the place and role of religion in contemporary life, struggling with the ludicrous fascination of all 3 monotheistic religions with Armageddon and the ridiculous bloody showdown at the end of days, always expected any day now, which somehow is supposed to be the inevitable will of God. I had been struggling with a presumed God who is nothing else but a royal pain in the ass. This is not what is offered in these sermons I've been going to. In these, God is a breath inside the infinite space of our hearts, a flash of authenticity carried by each of us, a God that, to my surprise, is very effectively spoken about through Islamic parables and poetry, verses which I often do not recognize but, when I do, have a fresh and renewed life to them somehow.

I learned yesterday that there is a Hadith Qudsi where God says that he was "a treasure longing to be found", and thus he created the heavens and the earth and humanity because of this longing (an update here on Oct 6th-- I had said earlier that this was from the Quran. Not so). So, therefore, God created us because he had a longing, a yearning, for us to discover him. Wow, how beautifully put ... a much better alternative than the stupid notion of us being tested, of having to go through all sorts of trials and tribulations under the judging gaze of a "greater being" not unlike a vindictive teenager playing "the Sims".

Mind you, I am not at all interested in "rediscovering religion", but I think I am interested in finding out what Islam, the religion with which I was raised, had to offer, if anything (besides, of course, its serving, free of charge, as the new enemy in a global epic fantasy). Come to think of it, perhaps that is the role of Islam today, being cast that role in an important theatrical production that has to be played out (?)... hopefully until some better production comes along?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

I just read this amazing book (pictured above), "A Terrible Love of War", by James Hillman. He is one of my favorite authors, a depth psychologist with a wide breadth and a wonderful way of looking at things.
Anyway, the reason I mention this here is because I wanted to share a section from the book, which talked about the relationship of westerners and the Koran, which I thought was really brilliant. The text contains all these references, which I will not footnote in my little excerpt, but are available in the book.

From "A Terrible Love of War":

"A War of Words

Aesthetics is so absent from American considerations that the American engagement with Islam is misread in the light of America’s own religious and political devotions. “You can read through reams of expert writing on the modern Near East”, writes Edward Said in his landmark work Orientalism, “and never encounter a single reference to literature”120 Supposedly, the West is again on the ramparts defending Christian values as at Poitiers/Tours (732) , Lepanto (1571), and Vienna (1683) against an enemy that has made no progress for a thousand years because it s said to be stuck in narrow scholasticism and feudal tribalism without benefit of self-division, reformation, or tolerance. We scour the Koran for proof of Jihad, instead of grasping that the essence of the Koran is its language much as the essence of the King James Bible is its language, not the truth of its word so much as the majesty of its song.

One factor alone unifies the Arab world, and that is not simply its belief in the same one God as an abstract idea but the manner in which this revelation was presented by Mohammed: poetic expression. “The exaltation experienced by the Prophet … found expression in the very form of his discourses, the bold images and rhetorical diction which are full of rhythmic movement and are marked by genuine poetic feeling.” 121 “There can be no doubt but that the Arabic language is the most potent factor in both the creation and maintenance of this over-riding myth of Arab nation, Arab unity, Arab brotherhood.” 122 “The Arabs owed their awareness of constituting a people, in spite of tribal contradictions, principally to their most important common spiritual possession, their poetry.” 124 “Any explanation of the Arab mind must take into account the profound effect of language and literature on individuals and the whole Arab race.” “Poetry today, as it was written thirteen hundred years ago, is a part of everyday living….Arabic’s wealth of synonyms provide unrivalled possibilities…It has many innuendoes…phonetic beauty…rhythm and majesty” 125 “Arabic can only be compared to music.” 126 “Song language…became the mother of classical Arabic, which Islam made into a world language.” 127

My argument here makes no claim that the writers just quoted are objective and not racially prejudiced as Said believes, or that the Arabic mind is less bellicose because of its aesthetics. In fact the Arabic language in the mouths of populist preachers and in religious schools has suffered the cheapening of its imagery to better sell politics, and to buyers whose age and educational level is steadily declining. For instance, almost two-thirds of activists arrested by the Egyptian government in the 1970s had university degrees compared with only 30 percent in the 1990s. 128

I am not focusing on the influence of aesthetics on the Islamic mind, but upon the omission of this influence upon the American. What the United States sees of them only reinforces its convictions that the cultivation of their “song language” with its emotional reverberations and exaggerated rhetoric excites mobs to violence and individuals to terrible acts. The course guide (1975) for undergraduates at Columbia College, for instance, said “that every other word in the [Arabic] language had to do with violence, and that the Arab mind as ‘reflected’ in the language was unremittingly bombastic.” 129 Or, as the influential text by Shouby declares, “Arabic is characterized by vagueness of Thought…Over-assertion and Exaggeration.” 130

Although the art of language mollified the eighteenth century’s spirit of war, Americans feel safer in the land of literalism and plain-speak language of commerce and car repairs. The people of the United States prefer by far the almost unspeakable prose of its leaders, mocking the excesses not only of Islamic speech but of Castro, and earlier, Khrushchev, finding more homeland security in the flat tones of its Secretary where apathy takes comfort, anxiety allayed.

The advocacy of democracy on the listless tongues of American leaders cannot carry the heart of its hearers in Islamic lands. There, what is offered is heard in terms of the rhetoric in which it is presented. If bringing democracy kills off gorgeous speech and reduces inspiration to sociological facts and economic numbers, “democracy” strikes the poetic ear as simply crude, dumb, and ugly. The insult of ugliness may itself be a casus belli. The Greeks fought the barbarians – and who were the Barbarians? Those who did not speak Greek, a definition which has come down through the ages to be deposited in the dictionary as “the absence of cultivation in language.” Besides, since a fundamental tenet of Islam holds that all believers are ipso facto brothers, they could argue that democratic equality brings nothing essentially new. It is merely a legalistic formulation of what already exists within the heart, if not in government, ever since the Prophet’s original revelations.

The question which opened this book – how do we imagine and understand war? – becomes immediately practical once a war has begin. Then imagination focuses upon the enemy’s mind and culture, since the worst mistake, say the textbooks, is underestimating the enemy, in particular his intelligence. What if the imagination brought to this estimation has inferior instruments of assessment? One such inferior instrument of assessment is the very idea of foreign language study which biases itself in the schools set up during World War II and the Cold War, where language study is a “working tool of the engineer, the economist, the social scientist,…certainly not for reading literary texts.” 131 Yet, “to be a case officer,” said the eminent strategic analyst Edward Luttwak, “you have to be a poet. You need to romance and seduce.” 132 “Empathize with your enemy,” now advises the eighty-five-year-old mastermind of the Vietnam horror, Robert McNamara. 132

Since “the Arab mind” – to continue with this example – is enthralled by the culture of its language to which we are stone-deaf, because our ears pick up flowery poetry, lengthy harangues, exorbitant fantasy, ancient similes and aphorisms, innuendo and curses, as well as the sound of words, as essential ornamentation, has our side not been misled by our own ignorance?

If the United States wants war with Islam and cannot imagine war without winning it, then its war party would have to go back to the drawing boards, designing new ways of assessing intelligence. By sophisticating American intelligence the United States might find a new compatibility with the culture of the enemy, even to affecting the unnecessary assumption that Islam is the enemy. Were the deeper passion of Islam’s soul appreciated and spoken to with imagination there might be a better chance of affecting the minds and heart of the “enemy”, reaching their intelligence with a fresh respect. Isn’t the only definition of a victory that lasts just this winning of the mind and heart?"
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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The emperor is incompetent

The 3 pivotal events during this administration's tenure so far -- 9/11, the war in Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina / the flooding of New Orleans -- have shown that the one consistently reliable thread for the administration has been its incompetence. When 9/11 happened they said oh, we're not the incompetent ones, this breach happened because we inherited the legacy of the previous administration. In Iraq, they started an ill-conceived war that was improperly planned, improperly executed, and frought with such landmark "mistakes" as Abu Ghraib and the inability to predict, let alone defeat, a violent insurgency.

Post Katarina this administration is being blasted for the poor response and the third-world style incompetency of the federal government in dealing with the aftermath. Worse, they are being accused of racism on a grand scale. Everybody is either saying or thinking: "they would have been there sooner if the people suffering were white".

So now my question is: who elected these people? You got what you deserved.

In fact, there is something which this administration has been very effective at, besides warmongering, which is shooting the national debt into the stratosphere. I read the other day in the paper that each American carries a portion of the national debt equivalent to around $145,000 (not including personal debt) , combined with a national average savings rate of less than 1% of income.

I will say one thing: I thought Katrina would provide welcome relief for this administration from weeks of anti war protests and a slew of increasingly pathetic staged apologies and justifications for it by Mr. Bush, delivered to friendly crowds. I was wrong; they bungled it, they're on the defensive again.