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Archive for the ‘Philosophy & Religion’ Category

While the Illinois legislature could have been doing other things like, I don’t know, BALANCING THE BUDGET, two weeks ago it passed a law mandating a moment of silence in all public schools. As a person who has been in the trenches of the public school system, I can say unequivocally that silence can be a good thing. That’s why I, and most teachers I know, start off the day with just that – a brief period in the morning when students have some quiet time to do independent work (often called “Bell work”). For example, I gave my students a grammar exercise (written on the board) and a math review sheet. This gave me time to take attendance and to collect homework and lunch money. It was a time to focus, to center and to prepare for the day. This “moment of silence” lasted about ten or fifteen minutes, and at any time, any student who so wished could use a moment of this time to reflect, to mentally focus, or to pray.

Similarly, at lunch time, I dismissed students to get their lunches (we ate in the classroom) based on the noise level in the room. Hungry students are quiet students, if that is what the teacher requires. Same thing for dismissal at the end of the day. Students who want to go home are quiet students, if that is the expectation. My point is that students usually have several “moments of silence” built into their school day, not because is it legally mandated, but because teachers recognize the importance of establishing certain times that are calm, quiet and focused. For religious families who wish that their children take a moment to pray silently during the day, all they have to do is ask their children, or the teacher if they say they don’t know, if there are any such times during the day when this would be possible. Teachers, by the nature of their profession, need to be accommodating.

Over the course of the past two weeks, the op-ed pages have been chock-filled with opinions on the issue. The assumption, of course, is that this “moment of silence” is code-speak for “mandated prayer.” When I was in grammar school in the early eighties, my school instituted a moment of silence. After the principal made the announcements for the day, she presided via intercom over “sixty seconds of silence,” and a little beep let us know it was over. Ever the inquisitive one, I asked my fourth grade teacher what it was all about (she just loved me, by the way). She said, “So you can pray.” Then she caught herself and added, “or whatever.” Because, you know, she apparently remembered that our Constitution has this little detail about prohibiting the establishment of religion.

When I heard about the new law (vetoed by Governor Blagojevich and overruled), I just rolled my eyes and figured, well, there are bigger issues out there to get all worked up about. Like global warming, pollution, crime, poverty, immigration, terrorism and a few minor skirmishes in the Middle East. But yesterday I stared open-mouthed at an article in the Chicago Tribune that cited the official title of this bill: the “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.” Come again? There is no assuming about it. This is about mandating prayer. It does not say “Silent Reflection OR Student Prayer.” It does in the body of the act, but not in the title. Notice also that the “reflection” part comes first in the title. Pretty sneaky, eh? It’s first about reflection and then about prayer. Yeah, sure. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

For someone who wavers between agnosticism and a sense that there must be some kind of universal intelligence, I have mixed feelings about the role that organized religion has played in our history. OK, some of those feelings aren’t so mixed. But I’m absolutely opposed to anybody telling me or my children, “you have to be silent right now to pray. Or whatever.” This is death by a thousand cuts to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Like Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the “or whatever” is just a politically correct add-on. That’s why I was relieved to find that I’m not the only one who feels this way. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, in response to a suit brought to him by an Arlington Heights parent, decided that the law is “too vague and ‘likely unconstitutional.'” I hope this isn’t the first such ruling. I’m going to go have myself a moment of silence to thank God for people who care about one of our most fundamental freedoms. Or whatever.

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Something has been nagging me ever since Condoleeza Rice categorized the recent violence between Hezbollah and Israel as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” I like the language of the analogy, but it set me thinking. We are seeing changes in the Middle East, for sure, and the Middle East in a hundred years will most likely be a greatly changed region. My question is, how will it be different? It seems like the Middle East is approaching some kind of tipping point, but which way will it go? In the last episode of the first season of Deadwood, Al Swearengen muses that “announcing your plans is a good way to hear god laugh,” and I think the same could be said for making predictions. However, what we can do is take another look at things and reevaluate where we are, and be willing to change course based on a deeper understanding of the issue.

The other day I was watching the News Hour, and the discussion was about Bush’s statement that “failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to U.S. security.” My first question to Bush would have been to ask him to define “failed states,” so as to clarify any ambiguity. Does he mean “failed democratic states,” or “states that have descended into anarchy,” or “states that are ruled by terrorists,” or “states in the throes of civil war”? It seems to me that the level, nature and cause of the failure would be an important factor in assessing threat to the United States.

One of the guests, Ralph Peters (retired Army lieutenant colonel and author of the book, “Never Quit the Fight”) had this to say:

…I draw on the definition of failed states…as far as Iraq goes, it hasn’t failed yet. We need to remember that. The odds may only be 50-50. But if it does fail, the president’s assumption that it’s a direct threat to us may not prove right. A failed Iraq with Sunni and Shia going at each other may be al-Qaida’s Vietnam.

You know what, failed states, and certainly in the Middle East as well as elsewhere, tend to concentrate on their internal problems. They don’t generate terrorists. The terrorists that attacked us on 9/11 and elsewhere came from stable states, I would argue other kinds of failed states in the Middle East.

The danger in a failed state, as Afghanistan was briefly, is it throws up a radical movement that provides a safe haven for terrorism which then directly threatens the United States. But if Iraq comes apart, they’re going to be preoccupied with their own problems for a long time.

…we are without doubt witnessing something without precedent, the crash of a once great, still proud civilization, that of Middle Eastern Islam. And the problem is that the Middle East is not competitive in any sphere…[a]nd it’s a problem of humiliation and jealousy, but it is homegrown. Again, you know, we made mistakes in the Middle East. We made a bad problem somewhat worse.

…it’s the classic heart-breaking problem I encounter in the Middle East, where last week I was in Israel sitting down with senior Israelis. And the senior Israelis were looking at what was going wrong and criticizing themselves, their own system, “How do we make this right?”

I also sat down with a group and Saeb Erakat, who’s about as good as the Palestinians get. Erakat immediately went into, “It’s all Israeli’s fault. It’s all the United States’ fault.” And, you know, the plumbing doesn’t work, so it’s [the] CIA and Mossad.

The other guest during this discussion was Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. While he pointed to foreign occupation and meddling in the Middle East as large determining factors in the region, he nonetheless acknowledged that the Middle East had some serious preexisting problems:

But it’s true. Before the United States was involved, there were deep, profound problems in the Middle East. One of the things I talk about in this book, one of those problems was external intervention.

This is the most strategically important region in the world. This is a region which, since the British discovered oil in Iran in 1901, has most of the world’s oil reserves. The degree to which it has become a penetrated system — Britain, Russia, later on the Soviet Union, France, Italy, Germany, and now the United States — are a large part of the problem in that region.

To say that there’s no indigenous problem would be false. Of course there are profound indigenous problems. I wouldn’t put it in the kind of stereotypical terms that Colonel Peters has. Of course there are.

I started to feel like I was onto something big – here we have two people with fairly different perspectives agreeing that there were big, even fundamental, problems within Middle Eastern civilization, independent of foreign “penetration.” This is a starting point, a premise, that clearly others have thought of long before me. To me, things start making a whole lot more sense when I frame related events with the idea that Middle Eastern, or more specifically, Arab, civilization is unraveling, and in fact has been for hundreds of years.

Lieutenant Colonel James G. Lacey, in his article, “The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization,” notes that,

on the Arab League’s website there is a paper that details all of the contributions made by Arab civilization. It is a long and impressive list, which unfortunately marks 1406 as the last year a significant contribution was made. That makes next year the 600th anniversary of the beginning of a prolonged stagnation, which began a dive into the abyss with the end of the Ottoman Empire. Final collapse has been staved off only by the cash coming in from a sea of oil and because of a few bright spots of modernity that have resisted the general failure.

Lacey goes on to outline the general condition of the Arab world, getting his statistics from the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report and the OECD, and it is very grim. Only 1.6% of Arabs, for example, have Internet access, 60 million people, mostly women, are illiterate, and GDP (after adjusting for inflation) is declining. Based on population trends, Lacey asserts that,

Things are indeed bad in the Arab world and will get much worse.

This statement should not be read as mere opinion. While predictions of the future are usually fraught with peril, those based on demographics are, barring some unforeseen plague or truly catastrophic war, uncannily accurate. Using even the most optimistic assumption—that fertility rates drop by fifty percent in a generation—the respected Population Resource Center, based in Princeton, New Jersey, expects Arab populations to grow from 280 million to almost 460 million by 2020 and to over 600 million a generation later. On the face of it the Arab world is staring political and economic disaster in the face. Arab governments and institutions are already failing to meet basic human needs in many Arab countries. It is hard to imagine how they will cope with the stress of such a massive population increase.

When you have a population explosion like this, you get what Lacey calls a “youth bulge,” or a large percentage of young people making up the population. We know, also, that acts of terrorism are largely executed by youth who are fueled by Islamism’s warped ideology and economies that cannot offer stable, fulfilling employment. Lacey explains that, “In socially and politically repressive societies, found throughout the Middle East, there are very few outlets for pent-up frustrations except for violence or immersion into religion—a combustible mixture.”

Taking this premise to an applicable conclusion, one that we can use to help stabilize the world while this collapse plays itself out, Lacey argues that,

By accepting that we are facing the collapse of Arab civilization we can, for the first time, create a grand strategic concept for success. We no longer have to engage in a war against terrorism, which is a method of fighting and not an enemy. Additionally, we now have a strategic explanation for what is going on that does not make Islam the culprit. Hence we do not have to fight a religious war to win.

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Are we smart enough to win the “War on Terror”? Has the very term, “War on Terror,” set us up for failure before we even embarked? It seems to me that eradicating Islamism’s guerrilla and terrorist tactics will only be possible if we come to better understand human development, on both an individual and global scale.

Can you negotiate with a two year old in the throes of a hysterical tantrum over not being allowed a third piece of candy? Does this two year old understand that too much sugar is bad for his teeth? Do you even bother explaining this fact to him? Well, you might try, but probably to little effect. If you are the parent, and your child is having his fit at, say, the mall, what do you do to stop it? Do you reason with a screaming two year old, or do you outsmart him, distract him, or ignore him until he realizes he hasn’t got a taker? Can you sweet talk him into thinking there are better things than candy? More importantly, when your two year old becomes a three, four and five year old, does he continue to have tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants, or does he eventually grow out of it? Is it because you, wise parent, have done something extraordinary to permanently alter his behavior, or would his behavior evolve naturally in a healthy social context, as he became better able to communicate his needs and wants?

I tend to view people as going through certain stages, both as individuals and as parts of larger societies. If a society is made up of mostly two year olds, well, we could probably imagine what that would look and sound like. Even if that society contained a few infants, some teenagers, some young and middle aged adults and some elders, it would still be a society dominated by two year olds.

As with an individual’s development, I believe that nearly all societies contain people at various stages on the human spectrum of potential, and that environmental factors serve to both limit and promote progress. Just as a human being goes through stages along the path to maturity, so does a society. First you (or your society) are focused solely on your physiological needs: food, shelter and some measure of emotional comfort (think of infants and very early man). Then you realize you are part of a larger world, and you begin to learn through trial and error your culture’s mores and how to communicate your needs in that context. Next you become more self-centered, focusing on your own wants, often referring to a god or gods to justify yourself. Then you learn the importance of governance, and of sacrificing yourself for the good of the community, followed by an awareness of the importance of not only pursuing your own goals, but also doing what you can for the wider community. Next you realize that you are part of a holistic system, which includes everything on earth, and while you still strive to achieve your own goals, you do it in a way that is in harmony with all life. There is no way of knowing how far we can go beyond this, but the possibilities are only limited to our ultimate, currently unknowable cognitive potential.

Of course, in this context, not every human being or society will realize its full potential. This is where we return to the issue of terrorism. Without a society to support it, it would not exist. Terrorism, in my opinion, clearly thrives in an environment where the culture is at the level where one sacrifices oneself not for the good of community, but in the context of justifying one’s actions in reference to a god, in pursuit of an aim that does not necessarily benefit the wider community (but convinces it that it does). It will take a critical mass of people within this culture to evolve to the next level, one that recognizes that one’s actions can only be justified if they benefit one’s society (and hopefully eventually evolves to a more holistic view, but one careful step at a time).

Where is the majority of America on this path? I believe we are actually regressing, responding to fundamentalism with fundamentalism. We need to move in a better, more holisitic direction, one that recognizes and works on the premise of systemic health, both environmentally and socially. While we cannot currently reason with terrorists and their networks, I do think that we can at least attempt to mitigate the circumstances that help them flourish.

We cannot forcefully impose our will on others and expect them to comply, no matter how fervently parents, executives, legislators and diplomats may hope otherwise. Terrorists will not stop terrorizing until the people who produce and support them feel that their needs are being met, until they learn to process information critically, and until they have reached a level of development that transcends their current understanding of the world. Before people can contemplate higher issues of equality, humane justice and democracy, they must have a certain level of basic comfort, security and education. We cannot achieve a successful and stable democratic revolution from without. Lasting change, by nature, comes from within.

I don’t have a cure for terrorism, but I believe our current actions only provide the proverbial aspirin tablet to a cancer patient. We can keep on slappin’ ’em with the flyswatter, but, like flies and other profoundly successful procreators, we can’t with our current methods get at their source without devastating and extreme measures. We need to outsmart and out-humanize them. They need their people to hate us in order for their engines to continue to run. I believe it is better to use honey in terms of attempting to soften and hopefully, eventually, reverse this hatred. We need to value and use reason, logic and knowledge of human and cultural development especially when dealing with people who are unable to do the same. We need to take the higher, more enlightened path, using our brains rather than our guns.

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I live a few blocks from a major city street. On this street is a Middle Eastern grocery, a “Muslim Community Center,” an “Islamic Reading Room,” and a couple of other businesses that cater to the Muslim community. When I’m walking along this particular street, I ususally make an attempt (usually not acknowledged or returned) at eye contact and a smile to the women (I think it’s “improper” to do this with Muslim men, or improper for them…). Am I subconsciously trying to say, “Hi! I like Muslim people!”? I don’t know. I smile at little old Catholic ladies, too.

But the other day, after working myself into panicked dismay about what is going on specifically in Israel and Lebanon, and the entire Middle East more generally, I found myself cringing a bit on my walk past the community center, keeping my eyes low and quickening my pace. Strangely for this place and time, a woman walking toward me from the opposite direction flashed a big smile (or was it a grin?), while looking me in the eye (or was it a piercing stare?). It was sort of like she was still thinking about a funny joke somebody told her. Was she doing the same thing that I do – consciously or not? Was she just naturally a friendly person among a street full indifferent people? Or did I detect something a little menacing in her expression? Was she thinking, “just you wait!”? Was I just being paranoid? Either way, I felt a bit unnerved. I hate living in a world where I can’t tell these kinds of things about the people that I live among.

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Middle Eastern culture – the music, the carpets, the food, the art and architecture. I’ve always wondered about the people, about why there has been so much conflict in their places of origin. It is heartbreaking to see the continual degradation of a once magnificent culture into a living hell. I spend a lot of time looking back, trying to figure out the origin of this mess. In a recent email to a friend, I wrote this:

[I actually think that] traditions and cultural wealth have been eroded because of Islam. There is a hadith that basically says, “If your wife gives you trouble, try to get along with her, but if all else fails, it’s ok to slap her around.” Of course there are also troubling things like that in the Bible, as well. I do think, though, that Islam is a particularly difficult religion in terms of accordance with human rights. Mohammad became a campaigner, while Jesus, I don’t think, ever would have wanted his message spread in a military way (although, of course, it ultimately was, just not by him). Mohammad also, after Fatima died, married a bunch of daughters of various leaders, in an effort to consolidate power – a humble prophet he was not. I see a similarity between Islam and the South American origin myth about humans falling to earth as drops of blood from an injured warrior-god. The people (I forget their name) were, no surprise here, very warlike. When your prophet is a warrior, well…

Then, more recently, I wrote this:

What do you think of all the madness in Israel and Lebanon? I’ve dug out my old Islamic history books (“The Venture of Islam” in 3 volumes by Marshall Hodgson) to try to understand the history behind all of this. So far, I’m in the 18th century, where the West has become an increasingly powerful economic, military and political force, and “Islamdom” has made a bunch of strategic internal and external mistakes, underestimating and misunderstanding the West, while at the same time giving up more and more economic control. I like the question the author poses: can Islam be both modern and nonwestern? I have a feeling that this might be a really important idea.

Here is my friend’s response:

What do I think about Israel/Lebanon? Well, last night on the news a reporter was in an underground parking garage somewhere in southern Lebanon which is serving as a temporary shelter for displaced people. And he was talking to a girl no more than eight or nine years old, asking her what she thought of the current situation. She said, “They are killing us! They are killing children! We need to kill their children as well!” And she said it with that kind of crazed, maniacal vehemence that most people from that region seem to display, spit flying from her mouth and her eyes hard and cold as ice, and I thought, “Good grief! She’s eight years old!” So basically, I just think it seems hopeless, a vicious cycle destined to repeat itself over and over. Because the only lasting solution is to change people from the inside out, the way they see the world, the way they see themselves. And that ain’t happening. Any type of truce or ceasefire would be a very temporary solution and would be like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. The problem that everyone has addressed but no one seems to have the foggiest idea what to do about is the fact that Syria and Iran are such an integral part of the problem…

I thought about this response quite a bit. She didn’t address the history, didn’t seem to worry obsessively about what caused these people to view human life in a very nonhuman way. She pointed to an indoctrinated child.

Even previous to this email exchange, in this particular case, I’ve been rethinking my usual “give peace a chance” and “there’s a root cause behind this that must be fixed” and “peace is work” mentality. How can there be peace in this situation? Right here, right now, how can there be? How can Israel put down its arms right now, when Hezbollah has been so emboldened? How can there be peace when Iran and Syria lurk in the shadows, paying Hezbollah to do their dirty work?

And that brings me to this, coming from one of the more doveish people around: I’m tired of it. It’s been going on all my life. There is no political or religious cause, no matter how wronged you believe you have been, that justifies the defilement of humanity. This must be stopped, for the sake of everyone, even if the price we pay is more dear than we can now imagine. I want the next generation in this country and around the world to feel more hopeful than the current one does today, to be able to smile at strangers with confidence and ease. Someday I hope to see news footage of a little girl, in a burka or not, smiling at the camera and expressing genuine, unmitigated joy.

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