24 March 2006

No one expects the Inquisition…

Many of you have probably already heard about the trial of Abdul Rahman. For those of you who haven’t, his trial was for a potentially capital offense in an Islamic country.

What was the offense, you ask? Murder, terrorism, rape, maybe even treason? No, his offense, for which he faced a possible death penalty, is that he is a former Muslim who has converted to Christianity.

Outrageous, you say? Indeed. So surely this occurred in some Islamic country that is anathema to America, someplace like Iran, or maybe Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule?

Well, no, not exactly. This was an Afghan trial. Or, more correctly, it is an Afghan trial. That is to say, this didn’t happen during the Taliban’s rule; it’s happening right now.

Wait a minute, you say. Didn’t we liberate Afghanistan? Didn’t we drive out the Taliban and their attendant religious nutcases? Doesn’t Afghanistan have a democratically elected government now?

Yes, yes, and yes. But, the judiciary is still controlled primarily by conservative religious clerics, under the power-sharing arrangement mandated by the Afghan constitution. And apparently, although I’m no expert in Shariah (Islamic law), the religious courts in Afghanistan have jurisdiction over this type of “offense”.

To be sure, many moderate Muslims (in Afghanistan and around the world) find this trial to be abhorrent. Even those who recognize the “crime” of apostasy, or leaving Islam for another religion, do not consider it to be a capital offense. Unfortunately for Mr. Rahman, however, those moderate Muslims are not running the show in the religious courts of Kabul.

But at least Mr. Rahman can take comfort from the fact that there are thousands of American troops in Afghanistan, and obviously there’s no way we would allow someone to be executed for their religious beliefs in a country that we militarily occupy, right? Again, not exactly. On Wednesday, President Bush called on Afghan officials to "honor the universal principle of freedom." And on Thursday, Secretary of State Rice called the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, to discuss the matter "in the strongest possible terms," according to a State Department spokesman. Meanwhile, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, has noted that "clearly violates the universal freedoms that democracies around the world hold dear." Mr. McClellan followed that with the forcefully worded assertion, "And we are watching it very closely,"

Watching it closely? Discussing in the strongest possible terms? I haven’t heard any strong terms used publicly yet. It’s time for President Bush to use some really strong language. How about this: “If your government tries to execute someone for being a Christian, after we sent our young men and women in uniform over there to give their lives to free your country from the grips of the religious oppression of the Taliban, after we’ve pumped billions of dollars into your country to try to restore some sense of order and stability, then we’re going to use those thousands of troops we have on the ground to march right into your prison and grab this guy and bring him to a country where he can exercise his religious freedom. To hell with your precious national sovereignty. You wouldn’t have any national sovereignty if we hadn’t given it to you. Oh, and if we happen to blow up a whole bunch of things along the way, including every one of your religious courthouses, well, that’s just inevitable collateral damage.”

OK, so maybe that’s not really what I think ought to happen in a perfect world. But hey, this world isn’t perfect yet, and besides, it felt nice and cathartic to type all that.

This whole incident highlights the ongoing “clash of civilizations” that is the subject of incessant debate. As Tom Friedman wrote in a recent column, discussing the problems inherent in our efforts to “modernize” the Arab-Muslim world:

The real problem was recently spelled out by an Arab-American psychiatrist, Dr. Wafa Sultan, in a stunning interview with Al Jazeera. Speaking about the Arab-Muslim world, Dr. Sultan said: "The clash we are witnessing ... is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."

The Jazeera host then asked: "I understand from your words that what is happening today is a clash between the culture of the West, and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims?"

Dr. Sultan: "Yes, that is what I mean."

Dr. Sultan voiced truths that many Muslims know: their civilization is, in many places, in turmoil, falling further and further behind the world in science, education, industry and innovation, while falling deeper and deeper into the grip of crackpot clerics, tin-pot dictators, violent mobs and madmen like bin Laden and Saddam.

Is there hope for the modernization of this section of the world, hope that universal human rights will actually be respected and implemented in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia? Of course there is. Will simply slapping on a patch of “democratically elected government” fix the problem? Of course not. The problem isn’t merely with the political structures. The problem lies in the religious and cultural pulses of these countries.

And lest I forget: Is it helpful for America to tell other countries that they should reform themselves, respect universal human rights, and not allow religious courts to interpret and apply the law, while at the same time our political leaders ignore universal human rights and continue to push for the ever-increasing influence of fundamentalist religious voices in our own society? No, I didn’t think so.

14 March 2006

Reflection v. Immediacy

I’ve found myself less and less interested in daily news of late. Not that the news isn’t important – just that I don’t care what happened precisely today, as opposed to yesterday or last week or whatever. I do often still get my daily news fix, although that’s usually from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. I haven’t even been paying much attention to my state’s current legislative session, other than to occasionally note some of the more egregiously regressive measures being proposed by its GOP majority. (It could be worse – I could live in South Dakota, which just passed a near total ban on all abortion procedures.)

As far as the political side of my blogging goes, this is a problem I seem to have in terms of fitting in with the “blogosphere”, the now-common term for the world of online blogs. Much of the commentary that’s out there is based on the 24-hour news cycle, immediate reactions, and staying one step ahead of whatever’s breaking news at that particular moment. Frankly, I just don’t care what’s breaking at this particular moment. In fact, I think that the 24-hour news cycle whips up a frenzy around truly meaningless stories, thus obscuring the meaningful ones. Thousand of refugees are dying daily in Darfur, but we can’t be bothered to cover that story, because there’s some upper-middle-class white teenager lost somewhere. The entire campaign finance system in this country is completely at odds with the public interest, but we can’t examine that in depth because we found a Congressman who might have played golf for free.

I’m even finding it less enjoyable to spend time reading good newspapers, at least the front sections thereof. When I pick up my Sunday NY Times, the first section I head for isn’t the daily news, but the Week in Review. Even that sometimes seems a bit too focused on the immediate, so then I’ll pick up the Sunday Magazine section, with longer-form pieces on a single topic. It just seems more important these days to get some sort of perspective on daily events and be able to fit them into a greater context. This is a skill that seems dangerously lacking in most of our elected officials of either party.

As a quick example of how historical perspective might add to our understanding of world events, most discussions in this country about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 focus on the moniker “9/11”, thinking that maybe this was an assault intended to invoke widespread panic and a sense of emergency with concomitant references to the common emergency phone number, 911. Not often does one hear of the Battle of Vienna, which took place on September 11, 1683, where the Habsburg and Polish armies defeated the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Empire, turning them away from the very gates of Vienna. Historians often consider this to be the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the European Christian forces and those of the Ottoman Empire.

My real point is this: Knowledge without understanding is not very useful. Or put another way, as did George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our society is so focused on the what, who, when, and where that we often forget to ask why. Americans think that our 230-year history, with perhaps half a century of being the leading nation-state in the world, means that we’ll always be the leading nation-state. Our Chinese rivals look at us and laugh, calling upon their history that’s at least ten times as long as ours, figuring that they can afford to be patient and surpass us gradually, if not this century, then perhaps the next one. For that matter, we homo sapiens sapiens think that our relatively brief span of being the dominant terrestrial creature means we’re the pinnacle of all creation, forgetting that we are but a blip in the multi-billion-year history of this planet, let alone the larger history of all of creation.

I didn’t start this out intending to sound quite so depressing, so let me try a different tack. I’d like to think that the history of violence in our species doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll always be that way. If we look at our nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, one of those species (chimps) has evolved to be a rather nasty and violent species, while the other (bonobos) is much more attuned to social interaction and caretaking and altruism. Maybe we’ve reached the point as a species where it’s time to take more conscious charge of our evolution, and choose which path we desire to evolve along. Maybe it’s not genetically impossible for us to cognitively choose to be more like the bonobos and less like the chimps. Now, just because I’d like to think this doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe it’s neither true nor false just yet (does that sound enough like Schrödinger’s cat?); maybe it won’t be either until we as a species reach some final tipping point to ultimately push us in one direction or another. Where is that tipping point? I don’t know, but it doesn’t make sense for us to assume that it’s millions of years away. What does make sense is for us to find a way above the day-to-day preoccupations that weigh so many of us down, and take the time to gain a little more perspective on our journeys, individual and collective.

02 March 2006

Lenten reflections

I received my law school alumni magazine in the mail a couple of days ago (yes, I’m a lawyer, but as I like to say, not in the pejorative sense of the term), and was flipping through the listings in the back where the vast accomplishments of people you went to school with are touted. I ran across this one guy from my class who had just made partner at a big-shot NYC law firm. I thought yeah, I sort of remember him, but I didn’t take much notice of it. Then I flipped back further to indulge my morbid thoughts and checked out the “In Memoriam” section. Yep, you guessed it – that brand new NYC partner was dead. A bit of online research revealed that he had a heart attack.

In case you’re not familiar with New York law firms, here’s a typical workweek for an associate: Start a little late, say around 8:30 or 9:00. Work through lunch. Send out for dinner. Have the firm call you a car to take you home, leaving the office around 9:00 or 10:00 at night. Go home to a tiny apartment in the city, or to a nicer house an hour away. Repeat, six days a week, sometimes seven. Put in 60 to 70 billable hours a week at a minimum if you want to be assured of moving up the partnership track (meaning that you actually have to work 80 hours or more a week). Make really big bucks, but have little or no time to spend them, let alone time to spend with your family. Claw your way up to the corner office, and then fall over dead of a heart attack at your desk.

Sound a bit too stereotypical, or perhaps a bit hyperbolic? In the case of my former classmate, unfortunately, it wasn’t. Now I don’t know what this guy was like – reports I read said that he was a fine fellow with good friends and the like. What I do know, simply by virtue of the partnership he attained, is that he had to give up a whole lot of other experiences in his life to get there, things like time, and a lack of stress.

There’s an old saying – no one lies on his or her deathbed thinking “Damn, I wish I had spent more time at the office”. The teachings of many great spiritual leaders warn of the dangers of trusting in material security. They all mostly parallel the words of one of my favorite contemporary popular philosophers, J. Buffett:

Disregard confession
Stop trying to make impressions
On your corporate climb
It might come as quite a shock
But you can’t really own that rock
It’s just a waste of time

In the Christian calendar, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which occurred yesterday. Everyone’s familiar with Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, so named because historically it was a time to eat up before the Lenten discipline of fasting. Lent runs until Easter, and the forty days of Lent (they don’t add up, because Sundays don’t count in the forty days; they’re traditionally “feast days”) are to be marked by prayer and fasting, in keeping with the forty days that Jesus was said to have spent in the desert fasting near the beginning of his ministry.

For Christians, Lent is a time of reflection, of contemplation of one’s mortality, of the ephemeral nature of life, a time to reckon and reconcile one’s values and priorities with the way one is actually living. Lent is also traditionally a time where believers “give up” something – in the past, this meant actual total fasts, or fasting one or two days a week. This evolved into a Catholic practice of not eating red meat on Fridays – thus the ubiquity of fish sandwich specials at every single fast food restaurant in South Bend, Indiana during Lent. Other Christians use the time to give up a bad habit – smoking, drinking, cussing, etc. Among the observant, the choice of Lenten sacrifice is often a popular topic of conversation.

But this practice doesn’t have to be limited to Christian believers. I invite each of you this season to consider a personal sacrifice that will improve your spiritual journey. Don’t necessarily think of Lent as “giving up” something either – perhaps what you could “give up” is twenty minutes every morning to meditate. But, if you’re looking for something else as a discipline, may I be so bold as to suggest some things to give up that will improve your spiritual (and physical, for that matter) health? How about giving up your corporate climb, your clawing to the top floor corner office? Give up your commute that requires you to drive two hours a day in execrable traffic and figure out a more sane way of making a living. Give up the notion that material security will bring you happiness, or even security. Give up the quest to buy that bigger house, or that Canyonero SUV. Give up the standards of modern American society that define success in ways that are really whacked. Instead, measure your success in life by the amount of kindness you show to other creatures, human and otherwise. Measure success by the number of dogs and cats you pet, or the aromas and tastes you enjoy, or the sunsets on the beach you experience. Measure success by the laughter and tears you share with family and friends. And give up those things that keep you from achieving that kind of success.

Be at peace.