We’re one year away from the 58th US Presidential election, set for Tuesday 8th November, 2016. It is also the month for traditional Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States. It is the month in which we honor our veterans and keep the hope alive that our Armed Forces have not fought in vain – and more importantly will not fight in vain. And then came the Paris attacks – and it makes us wonder what the future holds? What there is to be thankful for? And whether our leadership or collective discourse is set in the right direction?
There are some who say that we shouldn’t give our opinions publically. That being politically correct and leaving everyone unruffled is the best course. I cannot think of a single thing more dangerous than silent acquiescence in the face of terror. Every time in history that a silent majority has watched as acts of barbarity were perpetrated, but did nothing – the emboldened, hardened few who got away with it were led to further and greater acts of barbarity. We are not writing in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia or for that matter in some country currently governed by despots. We cannot later claim that our voices had to be silent or that we had no choice. So, here goes!
There is a clash underway, but one that is not new – and it demands the long arm of history to lend it some perspective. It is not about culture, or economic dissatisfaction or any of the ‘politically correct’ excuses or definitions afforded to it. It is about religion. Clearly, any time we go to war over whose God is better we will utterly fail at everything. It is surprising that we don’t outgrow this ‘nursery’ sentiment, because it’s similar to the school yard skirmish when comparing whose Dad is better. When Islam first came on the scene, many of its converts came over from a diminishing and corrupted Zoroastrianism. By then Zoroastrianism had lost its true intent and the religion had stalled in the petty trivialities of manmade control and oppression. Like all religions, this was the fate of Judaism as well, if we believe that Christ came to reform His Father’s house. Similarly, with Christianity its true intent was completely lost by 1095 when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at Clermont. Promised the reward of heaven and redemption from all sin, a large swathe of European society – certainly not the best or brightest – facing hard economic times and increasingly lawless and unruly, abandoned their villages and left for the Holy Land, arriving and taking back Jerusalem in a surprise blood bath in 1099. By the time of the scandalous Fourth Crusade in 1204, the illiterate mob didn’t even bother getting to Jerusalem, but contented themselves by sacking Constantinople and the port of Zara – perhaps the most civilized, and certainly the richest Christian cities in Europe.
The Muslims of that period –though warring among themselves for control over Jerusalem – were, in comparison to this crusader rabble, moderately intellectual with enquiring scientific minds –their learning acquired in vast chunks from the defunct glory of the Persian empire. This is an important point to remember, because it shows to where the current trend of Islam has regressed, and perhaps there is a glimmer of hope that intellect over barbarity might yet prevail. The late Dr. Steven Runciman, our authority on The Crusades, was very clear in pointing this out. Five hundred years ago, the Holy Inquisition was putting people to death in barbarically inventive ways, for not agreeing with its religiously justified manmade control, trivial agendas and brutal oppression.
Fast forward to Islam, a religion in the same place today that Christianity was in 1095 or in 1550. Despite living in a world replete with modern advances, amenities and thinking, Islam too has its latter-day versions of very misguided, very powerful clerics who exhort the populace of the Middle East – or their counterparts already in the West – to retake land and power by the sword for a grand Caliphate yet to come. They too have their heinous inquisitional tribunals with absolute textualism sentencing people to death. Promised the reward of heaven and redemption from all sin, these chaps – also not the best or brightest – have abandoned their villages and engaged in surprise bloodbaths, all for the sake of ‘whose God is better’ – and also as easy to motivate as their crusading forebears because of hard economic times and increasing lawlessness. If your ideology allows the destruction of world treasures like Palmyra, the statues of Buddha at Bamian or 12th century mosques in your own faith, then one hopes that it is not the work of the best or brightest. Whilst drawing parallels on the insidious nature of any religious warfare, I’m not making any excuses for the current spate of reprehensible behavior in the name of Islam. This threat must be met with the full resolve of all civilized nations. The time for half measures and political correctness is also over. The French President’s invocation of Article 5 of the NATO charter is not misplaced and something worth pointing out in the context of the preamble to the whole treaty – here below.
The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.
They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.
They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defense and for the preservation of peace and security. They therefore agree to this North Atlantic Treaty.
If any of the 28 charter countries or the additional 22 countries signing onto efforts for peace, or anyone else for that matter, can still read the intent of these words and consider them important, then the conditions of this treaty are more pressing now than ever. The silent majority, whether in the Muslim world or not, must not remain silent anymore. We are coming to a tipping point, where I imagine it will be necessary for Islam to prove itself as a religion of peace, or refrain from hollowly saying that it is, until insane and bloody attacks in its name have stopped. All the dialogue and conversation must now come loud and clear, shouted from the roof tops, particularly by Muslim men and women of good will. The abyss of political correctness that clouds this whole topic is preventing its serious redress and we’re running out of time.
We recognize that enlightened society is one that has equalized its religious books within the context of modern scientific discovery and the enquiring rationale of humanism. Christianity has come the distance from the 1550’s and realized that enforcing absolutely everything in, let’s say, the writings of St. Paul, much less Leviticus, is impractical and unrealistic. The current form of Islam is many hundreds of years behind the age of enlightenment with no evidence of coming the distance any time soon. I prescribe the Jeffersonian view of religious privacy, as cited from his response to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut who feared that their religious lives and practices would be impinged by an alien majority, in this case the Methodists of Danbury, Connecticut.
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship,…”
Since serious and devout faith in any religion is always a private affair, perhaps preserving one’s religious customs should be done privately as well, within the scope of the law. The moment religion of any kind is presented publically – no matter how tolerant people pretend to be – it incites automatic divergence with all the other religions that are not aligned to it. If the Catholic-Protestant wars of the 16th century or the current Shia-Sunni conflicts of today are any indication, the discomfort doesn’t have to extend to another religion. It can corrupt and bloody one’s neighbors just the same.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, or in the wake of similar timed attacks that hit Mumbai exactly seven years ago this month in 2008 – which I witnessed firsthand, or in the acts of terrorism that we may all have to endure in the future, what should we be doing? Whereas the current situation might demand some force as part of its swift closure it cannot be the long term solution. If free thinking, scientific enquiry and humanism are key, isn’t the solution to this fairly simple? Education! Education! Education! Wouldn’t it be better to build schools and fine centers of learning for 500 million dollars, than to rearm and reequip weaponry for 500 billion? Wouldn’t it be better to teach a whole generation about their potential, rather than waging war with them until they feel their best potential is in armed conflict? Wouldn’t it be better to educate and feed a whole population so that it could itself drift away from the madrassahs and religious fanaticism that currently educate and feed it. A door to a world of enlightenment requires enlightened methods and enlightened choices that must take us away from the knee jerk recourse to armed conflict. Armed conflict may be convenient when we want to rouse the electorate or peddle fear to actually make people vote. This blatant political manipulation is already on the rise in the US before next year’s choices are made. Armed conflict might even make us feel good, but it is not the medicine that will make us well.
When the printing press gave Martin Luther his ‘leg up’, Europe was ready for the change, and within 150 years society had bridged the gap between the Inquisition and thought processes that eventually led to the American Constitution. What is our modern day, printing press ‘eureka’ moment’? Perhaps it’s the unfettered opportunity afforded by a global internet. Will we have to wait 150 years? At the pace our modern world conducts the free trade of ideas I doubt it would take more than a few months, if access was not only allowed but encouraged, if not mandated. All countries that ban the internet in various forms, must realize that they are publically admitting to a failure of governance, a failure of strong ideas and a failure of opportunity couched in fear of losing their oppressive positions of power. I warrant that countries on this list are the current incubators of terrorist activity. Imagine the grand opportunity of global intellect given to all people, as a structured part of education on a scale never seen before, not by force but by their own choosing. Yes, the internet has on occasion been abused, by rampaging ideologies that incite warfare and terror, but limiting its access is rather like limiting entry to the whole library because it contains one shelf of material that is disagreeable. If there is strategic geo-political chess to be played, then it must be this – and not the acquisition of yet more territory that will allow us to continue with fossil fuels.
As a nation, our reliance on fossil fuels and our reliance on military spending to boost our economy puts mechanized warfare into our DNA. It is true that the US patrols the world and intervenes militarily on humanitarian grounds more than any other nation is prepared to do. However, 100 military excursions of varying size since 1980 – including Iraq I and Iraq II; and having run out of nation states to legally combat that are sufficiently distant and sufficiently different; might lead one to believe that a permanent ‘War on Terror’ is a useful convenience. With no definable characteristics it would be the perfect pretext to permanent instability, a useful and convenient pathology to modern politics and economics. Technology has also made it possible for us to do terrible things. Drone strikes, intentionally operated by very young men deliberately recruited from the online ‘gaming’ community have desensitized indiscriminate death. Whilst giving the impression of surgical restraint, this warfare – no less bloody – has been relegated to a matter of pixels on a distant video screen. We will need to grapple with the traumas connected with it, which are yet unspecified. This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials. When confronted with evil or retaliating to its worst elements we must strive to remain within the boundaries of international law that we first helped to set up. And then again, what choice might we have? What recourse might there be when confronted with a pseudo-religious fanaticism that is sweeping many nations with an ‘end times’ apocalyptic vision? A nihilistic philosophy against human life on earth and the fuel for fringe elements that seek to make it come to pass.
One thing seems certain. Whether we believe the essence of all our revealed religions, – or if we just listen closely enough to the ‘still small voice’ of our innate conscience – we can only defeat the power of evil with the power of good. In fitting defiance, world leaders will meet in Paris in a few days to discuss real solutions for the ravages of climate change. The attacks will not deflect from the fact that we are all juggling several high priority items that affect our existence on the planet. Our attention span must be adult and not driven by 5 second soundbites concocted by 5 second thinkers. As we approach a whole year of presidential politics and give thanks for all our blessings and honour our veterans, the discourse that keeps us free might be the discourse we are free to speak. I am a firm believer in American Exceptionalism, based on the rights and freedom that our unique and visionary Constitution affords us – and the legacy we might leave if we unfailingly defend that Constitution. Our exceptionalism has not, unfortunately, been evident in our track record. Our exceptionalism is evident only because, if allowed to, we think freely, we are fair, we are generous, we have an unfailing sense of decency, we are not intimidated by difficulties and because of these attributes, we will prevail.