In end-of-the-year phone calls from friends near and far, many express despair at the state of the world. I fully understand why, but I don’t accept their despair. In fact I can make a strong argument against it. Because what has changed is not so much the world itself, but our awareness of it.
A single click on the screen you’re looking at right now will bring you to visceral images from thousands of miles away. A Syrian boy’s body washed up on the shore of a Greek island. A young woman beaten to death and set on fire in Afghanistan after a malicious rumor that she had burned a Quran (which leads me to ask “and even if she had…?”). Crazed Israeli settlers celebrating a wedding by cheering the arson murder of a Palestinian baby. A white cop shooting a fleeing black man in the back. We focus on such images, and ask what the world has come to.
We forget where it has come from.
When Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature came out a few years ago, I bristled at the pseudo-religious sentimentality of the title. (Okay, I still do.) But the book has stayed with me, along with its subtitle: “why violence has declined.” Yes, you read that right.
Pinker is no cock-eyed optimist: he’s an empiricist, and he spends close to 700 pages proving his point with data . “We can see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war,” he writes, “or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.”
Now, it’s true “the standards of history” are pretty low, and that as Pinker himself notes, to make such a case in a century that began with 9/11, Darfur, and Iraq could well be seen as hallucinatory, even obscene. But it’s also true that despite what we see on the news, more people live more safely than ever before.
The difference is that now we know about violence. News spreads almost instantaneously. Cellphones are everywhere. Images are captured in real time, and seen in real time. And it’s only human to focus on these images.
So how do we deal with so much knowledge? How do we go about our lives with this awareness?
Outrage, shock, and even despair all seem to me healthy reactions. Because they are reactions, and not so long ago, there were none. White cops once shot unarmed black men as a matter of routine. Refugees have drowned and starved in far greater numbers in the past. Women were once set on fire in Massachusetts as well as in Afghanistan. And massacres were by the thousands, even without the aid of guns. But all of this was hidden from immediate consciousness. Such events once passed for the most part unnoticed, unreported, unremarked upon until far later.
And more important, we didn’t see the violence. We didn’t have the evidence of our eyes. Now we do, and it encourages me that we are shocked. That we are outraged. That we do condemn. That we do care.
Evil can no longer take place under the cloak of silence. We hear it, and we see it. And we speak up against it. We are all witnesses now. And as witnesses, we will step forward.
And yes, despite the evidence of our eyes, this is progress.
The cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo leaves me speechless, in a good way. And in tears too. (And yes, it is indeed deeply Islamic in spirit.)
I am going to wage peace upon everyone who disagrees with me. It will be an aggressive, offensive and hostile strike that will continue until I inflict the final death blow to misunderstandings and conflict. I will gather all my available resources & weapons for this assault. I will never surrender until the foes of harmony surrender. I declare war on war. I will inflict peace on everyone and occupy your fear with understanding. You will suffer under my brutal campaign of tranquility. The enemy will endure the horrors of justice, tolerance, compassion and freedom. I will indoctrinate the aggressors with acceptance until the resistance is futile. I will show no mercy for hate. If you are not with me you are against warmth, love and little furry baby animals.
This brief manifesto was posted on Facebook earlier today by Palestinian-American stand-up comedian Aron Kader, followed by this update:
My war against war begins tomorrow. I will be on CNN tomorrow on the Brooke Baldwin program to talk about the murder of my cousin Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the police beating of Tariq Abu Khdeir. Also my plea for ceasefire in Gaza and how you will never convince me we cannot have peace.
To say I’m an instant fan doesn’t begin to cover it. Finally, a war I can support!
It’s rare that a commencement address makes news. This annual speech given by one notable or another to the graduating class of an American college or high school is usually in the blandly uplifting vein (you-young-people-are-a-whole-new-future, our-hopes-are-in-you, as-you-go-out-into-this-great-wide-world blah blah blah). Students fidget and check their phones, parents nod and beam proudly, and everyone comes away satisfied that a ritual has been duly observed. So when Roosevelt High School in Seattle asked writer David Guterson to give their commencement speech this past June, they apparently expected more of the same.
They didn’t get it.
What they got was what anyone who has read Guterson would hope for. His best-known novel is probably his first, Snow Falling on Cedars, but my favorites are Our Lady Of The Forest and The Other. These are all hauntingly beautiful and deeply serious works of art, books that go deep into the terms on which we exist both on this earth and in this society.
The terms of our existence? In a commencement speech? A call to engage honestly and fiercely with the whole question of happiness? And with the reality of — gasp! — death? Some parents heckled and booed, and tried to cut the speech short. Later, they complained that it was “gloomy” and “negative.” Too real, it seems.
Interestingly — and far more to the point — students did not heckle or boo. They listened. Many with gratitude. Because here was someone actually talking directly to them, to where they were at. Knute Berger, the editor of Crosscut, thought the same, posting a “defense of David Guterson.” But read the speech for yourself, and see what you think:
Thank you. And thank you to the organizers of this event for giving me the opportunity to speak. I don’t take it lightly. Life’s short, and we don’t often have the chance to share what we think and feel is most important. This, for me, is exactly that chance, and I don’t want to waste it by talking to you casually. Right now, I have 15 minutes, and after that I will leave this podium, and it might be the case that never again will I have the microphone at a ceremony like this one, where it’s perfectly acceptable for me to offer up my take on things–where it’s even expected that I’ll offer my take on things. That take on things, most of the time, remains private, which is how it should be. You have your own–everyone here has their own vision of life. But right now I’ve been invited to share mine, and I’d like to do that with everyone here–not just with the graduating seniors but with their parents and siblings, their friends and relatives, their teachers, the administrators on hand tonight, to anyone in reach who cares to listen.
And what I want to talk about, as specifically and straightforwardly as possible, is happiness–happiness as something elusive on the one hand, and central to our concerns as human beings on the other. At every moment of our waking lives, we’re either in pursuit of happiness or enjoying its presence. When we feel unhappy, we want to change that, and when we feel happy, we want that to continue. At this very moment you are somewhere on the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness. If you are bored or uncomfortable, if your unhappiness takes those forms, you want things to change in the direction of less boredom and more comfort–in other words, in the direction of more happiness. If you’re enjoying this moment and finding it entirely pleasant, you don’t need things to change. Life, quite relentlessly, is of this nature, and all of us pass it, from moment to moment, either addressing our unhappiness or enjoying our happiness. All of us get considerable amounts of both, no matter what we do, but some people get more of one or the other, and I submit to you that you yourself have much to say about the amount of each in your life. In fact, no one, and nothing, has more to say about it than you.
I have an absolutely clear memory of being 18 and graduating from Roosevelt High School. I remember that many things made me feel happy, and that I pursued those things with vigor, but I also remember that I dreaded adulthood, and even more, old age and death, and that no matter what I was doing, no matter how good were the good times, somewhere at the bottom–underneath the music and the friends, the late nights and the fun–somewhere at the bottom there was always an awareness that this wasn’t going to last forever, and that I would have to get old like everyone else, which might not be so fun, and that one day, I would die, which wouldn’t be fun, either. Sometimes I would go for long periods without thinking about this, but then it would come to me again, the reality of my aging and death, an awareness of this while I was having so much fun, and the way I dealt with it was by telling myself that old age and death were way off in the future, that I had a lot of time, that I would deal with it later. Or I denied it. I told myself that, somehow, my own aging and death weren’t possible. I remember thinking, in 1974, that the year 2016, when I would turn 60, would somehow never come, that it just couldn’t happen, something would change before that date, and yet now it’s just 3 years away.
Is all of this familiar? Or was I just an inordinately morbid 18 year old? I think the literature I taught when I was a high school English teacher is pretty clear on this, because distress about mortality is there, pervasively, in the poems, plays, novels, and stories human beings have produced–they tell us in no uncertain terms that death is a big problem for a lot of us, and that the reality of our own death makes it very, very hard for us to feel 100% happy 100% of the time, which is how we would like to feel, and how we wish life was. In fact, we’re bothered by the fact that this universe we didn’t invent or choose to live in has to be like this. Why couldn’t it be otherwise? Why isn’t reality better than it is? If there’s a God, how come He or She includes death in His or Her Creation–not to mention suffering and pain, and suffering and pain of such intensity and persistence that it seems impossible that there is indeed a Creator who is all powerful and all good? Because if the Creator of the universe is all powerful and all good, why do bad things not just happen but happen to everybody? And why is it that the ultimate bad thing, our annihilation as individuals, also happens to everybody? What kind of a God creates such a reality? Not one who is all powerful and all good, as far as we, in our limited, human way, construe those terms. Which turns a lot of us into unbelievers, quite naturally. But then what? Now what? We find ourselves afraid of the universe, because it is either the work of a God who seems inexplicable at best and malicious at worst or a place completely indifferent to us, when all we want, as I said before, is to be happy. Why does that have to be so complicated, this happiness we seek? Why does the universe seem to be a place where happiness isn’t possible? We don’t have answers. And so, from day to day we just stumble on through life, aware that it is, in its very nature, unsatisfactory, and experiencing, privately, a sense of dissatisfaction with it, and mostly at a loss regarding what to do about it. In this profoundly confused way, our lives pass, and then they end.
If you are troubled by all of this, and would rather not be asked to think about it right now, well, welcome to the human race. On the other hand, be glad, because if you’re troubled right now, than at least at this moment you’re no longer kidding yourself. For just this moment you aren’t saying to yourself, “I’ll deal with it later; right now, things are good.” Instead of kidding yourself that way, you’re looking directly at the central problem life presents, which can’t be addressed as long as you’re fleeing from it. So if you’re distressed right now by all of this talk about death and God and the universe, be glad that you’re able to feel this distress, because without it, you’d have no hope for happiness. Your distress, your dissatisfaction, is the starting place, and the earlier you acknowledge and accept it, the better. In fact, this early start is critical, because if you wait, you will only continue on the path of deepening your strategies of avoidance, and that will make it harder. So start now, if you are 18 or 80. Start today.
What do I mean by strategies of avoidance? That’s a plural–strategies of avoidance–so let me start by describing just one, a common one in our place and time. This strategy hinges on willful distraction. We wake up, remember who we are, remember where we are, recall that life is not entirely satisfactory, and then we turn on our various hand-held devices to see what is going on in the world and who is communicating with us, and when those plentiful sources of distraction are temporarily exhausted we listen to music, and when the music doesn’t entirely satisfy we play a game on our hand-held devices while listening to different music, or we read while we eat, or while going to the bathroom, or while riding on the bus, and again we have the sensation that something is wrong, that things are not entirely satisfactory, we lack 100% happiness, and so we text somebody, or look at pictures of people on Facebook, or remember that there is something we would like to buy that could use a little research, and then, when the bus stops, a person sexually attractive to us gets on and sits down, and we look up and distract ourselves from the basic problem of life by admiring them for a while, some of us getting carried away with all kinds of thoughts about that person that have nothing to do with who they are in actuality, and after a while that fades, too, and we go on to the next thing, which might be, before we look down again at the screen of our hand-held device, a visual sweep across the landscape of our fellow bus riders while indulging in a stream of critical thoughts about them, that the person there is ugly, or that the person there is obviously an idiot because if he wasn’t he wouldn’t wear what he is wearing or carry the kind of backpack he is carrying, at which point the bus is passed in the adjacent lane by a car and you turn your attention to that, you peer out the window into the car because there are 4 fellow students in it on their way to school and one of them is somebody you don’t like very much, a cheater and a jerk, and then it’s time to look at your hand-held device again, and now an hour has passed since you woke up and only once or twice, in small, unasked for lulls, were you undistracted enough to know what you were actually doing or thinking and to exercise some control over it. For years and years you’ve done this until it has become, simply, the way your brain works. The neural pathways of judgment and impatience and boredom and dissatisfaction have become deep grooves, until this manner of experiencing the world and life seems to be the only possible way. But it is, in fact, not the only way. It is instead something you have learned to do, something that with time has become so familiar to you that you may be as unaware of it as you are of your own breathing.
Many of you, young and old, are recreational marijuana users. But regarding you graduates: statistics show that about half of people your age use marijuana more than 100 times per year. In our part of the United States the rate is even higher, and in schools like Roosevelt, with a large upper middle class demographic, the rate is higher still. I say this because I think recreational marijuana use is related to the point I’m making. You become dissatisfied with the ordinary, common, familiar, and normal processes of your own mind and use marijuana in order to get away from them. You smoke, and after that your mind works differently, and it is like a respite or vacation from your ordinary mind, an interlude in which you experience the world and life and your own mind in a more satisfying way. But then, eventually, the trip is over, and you come back to your ordinary way of thinking and to the normal world, which is so boring and unsatisfactory that you feel an urge to get high again, all the while knowing that this marijuana smoking is a crutch, a little vacation or a holiday, but not really the answer to the problem of life–really, in the end, just another distraction. Some people do this with alcohol, or by taking literal vacations to places like Hawaii or Mexico, or by combining all 3, marijuana, alcohol, and a sunny beach, or by engaging in recreational activities like skiing or kayaking–all of it with a view toward experiencing life in a way more satisfying than it normally feels, and all of it undertaken with the sinking feeling that even these activities don’t really solve the problem. They’re also just distractions, like everything else, brief respites from dissatisfaction, and they don’t address the fact that by and large we are not at peace, not satisfied, and not happy.
I mentioned earlier that young people sometimes deal with this problem by having as much fun as they can now while telling themselves that distressing existential dilemmas can come later. I want to warn you that this is a recipe for disaster. The fun you are having now turns out to be not so much a temporary stay against life and death, or a delaying tactic, but a response to life and death that gradually and relentlessly tightens its grip on you, and becomes a habit, even an addiction. I also want to warn you about something else–that the society you find yourself in isn’t going to help you. It isn’t designed to help you. It isn’t a society with a spiritual or philosophical basis designed to assist you in your aspiration toward happiness. It is, in fact, designed to do the opposite. First, it teaches you that you are the most important thing in the world, and does it so well and thoroughly that you don’t even notice. This is there in the the so-called “Enlightenment” philosophy that is the underpinning of modern Western life and in our political principles and political documents–that the individual, with his or her personal goals, hopes, dreams, and aspirations, is primary and foremost. From these philosophical and political roots, the primacy of the individual has grown and spread to subsume nearly everything, and that, in the end, has not brought us happiness, because the you that matters so much every second of every day is in fact mortal and even ephemeral, and you know this, and isn’t it sad, even tragic, to know that in the end all of your hopes, dreams, and aspirations don’t amount to much, that they take you nowhere, and that this constant obsession with them is really just another form of unhappiness. To put this another way, if my life is first and foremost about me, I will never be happy.
We have another big problem when it comes to happiness in our society. While each of us is relentlessly busy chasing after his or her personal hopes and dreams, our very sophisticated modern economy is busily exploiting the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities elicited by this state of affairs. It is an economy that motors along on your dissatisfaction, that steams ahead only if it can convince you that something is missing in your life. It knows that you are insecure about your appearance, for example, and in advertising it does everything it can to make you feel even worse about it, because if you feel worse about it, you will buy expensive clothing or pay a doctor to change your face. So in our society, not only do you have to be unhappy on that existential level that is just part and parcel of being human, you also have to be unhappy in ways designed for you by others, and if you are a woman or gay or a person of color, your society will make it even harder for you by tilting the playing field so you have to walk uphill, and by confounding your inner life in ways white men don’t have to face. Add to this your natural anxiety about the future–your distress about what it means that we are developing smart drones and melting the polar ice cap–and happiness begins to feel, for a lot of us, impossible. So impossible that the rate of mental illness in America, of depression in particular, is higher that it has ever been. The world might seem full of possibility, and it is that way, but it is also a place where you can very quickly find yourself among the living dead–a being without the means for happiness.
Here is something you can do about it–or something you can do to get started. Take whatever handheld device you own out of your pocket or bag and set the alarm for 2 hours for now. When it makes whatever noise you have selected for it to make, ask yourself how often during the last 2 hours you were actually in charge of your thoughts. How often was your mind just rolling along like a pack of drunken monkeys, doing whatever it wants without you having anything to say about it? How often was it busy being bored, dissatisfied, critical of others, self-absorbed, insecure, self-hating, anxious, and/or afraid? How often were you genuinely happy? And exactly at the moment your alarm makes its noise, where was your mind and what was it doing? Because in the end your mind is the one thing you have going for you when it comes to happiness. A deliberate mind, a mind that works consciously–choosing, at every turn, what you are saying, what you are doing, and what you are thinking–this is very, very hard to achieve, which is why you should start now. Cultivate those states of mind that actually produce happiness and cast out those that don’t. After a while you will find that you care much less about your own hopes and dreams and a lot more about other people. You will move in the direction of self-less-ness, which is a good thing, because if there is no self, who is it that has to die some day? There will be no one there to die. There will be no self. Die now, so you won’t have to do it later. Stop thinking about yourself every second of every day, which only produces boredom, dissatisfaction, fear, dread, anxiety, and hopelessness. Put yourself away and begin to find freedom. And you can find this freedom, which we might also call happiness. Your life can open toward greater happiness and greater freedom, and it is entirely up to you to make that happen. Because in the end you have the power to do it no matter what the universe seems to be like and no matter the challenges of our place and time. You really are in charge of your own happiness. Which is, I think, both exhilarating and terrifying. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could do it for you? It’s such a daunting and important task, really the central task of life. But I urge you to work, on your own, or with the right mentors, or preferably, in both ways, as honestly and fiercely as you can on this matter of your own happiness. Don’t settle for the answers all around you that are not really answers. Don’t settle for a life of quiet desperation. And most of all, don’t settle for unhappiness. I want to tell you that happiness is possible, and that you don’t have to be despairing and afraid. But it’s up to you, to each of you, to seek out the wisdom that happiness requires. Not learning but wisdom, which is something else altogether. I wish you a long life, the better to find and deepen that wisdom. And I wish you happiness.
If you haven’t already heard of Mehdi Hasan, he’s the political editor of Huffington Post UK, the former political editor of The New Statesman, and stunningly eloquent. Plus he thinks even faster than he speaks. Here he is carrying the day at the Oxford Union in the debate on whether Islam is a peaceful religion (to my mind a false premise from the start, since no religion is either “a religion of peace” or “a religion of war” unless the majority of its followers make it so — and yes, I include atheism in this):
Newly back in Seattle after an amazing couple of weeks, I’m jet-lagged, news-lagged, and above all, TED-lagged.
Eleven days ago, I was onstage at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh. The talk — on Muhammad, doubt, and the travesty of fundamentalism — may be released on TED.com as early as this coming week, but meanwhile, in the tease category, here’s a still shot:
I hereby declare a new addition to the DSM-IV manual of psychiatric disorders: post-TED syndrome, which poses the patient with the problem of how to get her feet (let alone her head) firmly back to earth after a week of non-stop talk and ideas and excitement and superb company? (Plus some great music and dancing too).
Seven days ago, I took the back-to-earth idea literally. If you had been in possession of a pair of good binoculars, you would have found me roaming the wilds of Romney Marsh in Sussex, totally wind- and rain-blown, along with thousands of sheep and the most bullish lambs I’ve ever seen — sturdy little bruisers, each with a very distinctive vocal point to make about my presence. (On the menu that evening in nearby Rye: “Romney Marsh lamb.” My response: “Noooooo….!”)
Forward a bit, and four days ago I was doing my roaming in London, meeting my brilliant UK publishers over grappa in a club so private it has no name (British release of The First Muslim is set for November 7), doing tai-chi early mornings by the lavender field in Vauxhall Park (triple espresso at the ready), communing with the Rothkos at the Tate Modern, zipping along the Thames in water taxis, and downing elderberry lemonade and tahini-drizzled eggplant at Ottolenghi’s in Islington (his cookbook Plenty has the best recipe I’ve ever found for socca).
So today, back in my houseboat in pacific Seattle, my head is reeling from it all, and I have a new way of posing the post-TED problem: how do you get your feet back to earth when you live on a raft that floats on forty feet of water?
This video got a big grin from me. I suspect it’ll do the same for everyone who’s often asked “where are you from?” because it’s a perfect debunking of the assumptions and condescension lurking behind that question:
So since it looks like I’ll be traveling quite a bit in the foreseeable future, I thought it might be an idea to register with Homeland Security’s trusted-traveler program and thus avoid the hassle and long lines at airport security. Which is how come I turned up yesterday at SeaTac’s US Customs and Border Protection office for my interview.
I did kind of wonder how it might go in light of the fact that The First Muslim has just been published. What would Homeland Security make of this? Should I even mention it? Were they likely to make a biographer of Muhammad a trusted traveler, or would stereotype win the day so that the subject alone would set off alarms in the bureaucratic mind? There was only one way to find out.
The interview didn’t start off on quite the right note.
“Sorry to hear about Margaret Thatcher’s passing,” said the Customs and Borders officer when I told him that I had a British passport as well as an American one.
“I can’t say I am,” I replied before I could bite my tongue. “Not least because my father was a doctor in the National Health Service, which she did her best to dismantle.”
“Sorry,” he said, “I shouldn’t make assumptions.”
And with that he had my interest. I hadn’t expected that apology.
“You’re a writer?” he said. “What do you write about?”
“Religion and politics.” And with that I had his interest.
“Big subject!” he said.
“Which you could say is why we’re here in this office right now,” I replied.
We both smiled kind of ruefully.
He pulled up the US customs record of my travels. “So you focus on the Middle East?”
“Of course. It’s where all three of the major monotheisms began, and it’s where religion and politics are most intricately intertwined.”
“Isn’t that so,” he said. “In fact that’s what I studied.” Turns out he’d majored in Middle East history — specifically the 1920s to the 1940s. “The Brits seem to have had a lot to do with creating today’s Middle East.”
“With a little help from the French, true,” I said. “They have a lot to answer for. As do we, especially since we went marching into Iraq with no idea of what was really happening there…” Oh god, what was I saying to an official of the US government?
Yet he was nodding, though whether in agreement or in acknowledgment of my hopelessly liberal point of view wasn’t clear until he said: “We all need to know much more history.”
And that was my cue. I reached into my pocket and handed him my card — the one with the cover of The First Muslim on the front. “This might help some,” I said.
He studied it a moment, and then: “Interesting! Thank you. I have to read this.”
The next thing I knew he was taking my photograph and my fingerprints (on a neat little machine glowing with green light), explaining the intricacies of how to use my newly approved trusted-traveler status, and giving me his card.
As I picked up a coffee before wandering out of the airport, it occurred to me to ask why I was surprised at how relaxed and sensible the interview had been.
Partly, I think, we’re so used to inane encounters with low-level TSA contract employees in the security lines that it’s easy to forget that there actually are intelligent people higher up the line.
Partly, as an immigrant to the US, my experience years ago of dealing with another branch of what is now Homeland Security, namely the Immigration and Naturalization Service, had been downright Kafkaesque. (In fact I’d have said that the INS officials I encountered then had deliberately out-Kafkaed Kafka, except that I knew they’d never even heard of him.)
And partly too, of course, there’s the Orwellian Big Brother aspect of Homeland Security — the awareness that one way or another, we are all, however innocent, under surveillance.
That may be one more thing the Brits, among others, have to answer for.
Let me say this upfront: I’m lousy at interfaith gatherings. They tend to have an oddly stilted feel. There’s something of Tarzan and Jane about them: “Me Jew, you Muslim, we friends.” Far better, I’ve long thought, to get together on a small scale, over the dinner table. Cook together, break bread together, drink together, and allow the conversation to develop without that weirdly over-determined self-consciousness.
That’s part of what so impressed me in the response of New Zealanders Khayreyah Amani Wahaab and her husband Jason Kennedy to an Islamophobic rant (Muslims shouldn’t be allowed on airplanes, etc) by Richard Prosser, a New Zealand member of parliament: as I reported here, they invited him to dinner.
And he came to dinner. Here’s Khayreyah’s post on it last night on her Facebook page:
Mr Richard Prosser has just left our house after having a lovely dinner of home-cooked tandoori chicken, salad and roti with raitha. He was very realistic about owning the words he said, but was very clear that whilst he is never going to apologize to terrorists, he is very apologetic and contrite about the hurt and whatever damage he has caused the rest of the Muslim community. He understands, accepts and recognises that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorist types and have the same fears, values and aspirations that he does.
We both agreed that aviation security is a wider issue that does need to be addressed [Kahyreyrah has a degree in aviation management — LH], as well as that of Muslims having a louder voice in condemning extremists and their actions. Jason and I both thanked him in the end, since if it wasn’t for his brash words written in a news column, then we would not have identified these needs, that ultimately will benefit the entirety of New Zealand. All three of us are willing to forge a way forward for Muslims in New Zealand in order to make it a happier, safer place, and leading the world in Islamic – Western relations.
Richard did say, interestingly, that of all the mail, comments etc he received from people following the article, our letter by far made him feel worse than all the others. He finds himself to be a person who can deal with anger and resentment being directed towards him but felt out of place dealing with outreach born of love and a desire for understanding. Ultimately both sides agreed that we need to see each other as a whole and not just what the media had chosen to portray, that we cannot expect fair judgement if only one facet of ourselves are exposed to said judgement. We ended the night with a short TedX video of Lesley Hazleton’s talk about being a tourist in the Quran and we promised to have future interactions with a view to improving NZ as a whole. — with Jason Kennedy
Glad to have played a small supporting role.
When things seemed to be getting ever worse in the Middle East — as they always seemed to, and still do — we’d look at each other and say, wistfully, “There’s always New Zealand.” New Zealand, for us, was the image of peacefulness, where nothing ugly ever happened. We didn’t enquire too closely.
But of course even New Zealand has its bigots. Like Richard Prosser, a Member of Parliament from the right-wing New Zealand First party, who two days ago published an ugly Islamophobic rant suggesting, among other things, that Muslims be banned from air travel.
So an Auckland Muslim sat down and wrote an open letter in response, and today it appeared in The New Zealand Herald. I”m running it in full here because I’m bowled over by the wisdom and grace of it, and because it gets better and better as it goes on:
Dear Mr Prosser,
Unbeknown to myself, I am your enemy.
I consider this strange as I have never met you and harbour no ill will toward you. I am certain that if I walked past you on the street your suspicions would not be raised. If you were a customer in my shop I am certain you would not suspect that I pose your family any risk. For you see, I am Muslim, I am 30, and I am also white. Throw in the fact that I am an American expatriate – accent and all – and I possess quite the subterfuge. After all, I could sit next to you on a flight, our arms negotiating the armrest for space, and you would think nothing of it. And yet if between us the subject of religion arose, my reply would disable you with fear.
Or so your column would lead me to believe.
I am writing an open letter to you out of sympathy, respect, and the desire for understanding. I do not write this so publicly in order to give your opinions greater status than they deserve. Instead, I hope to circumvent your vitriol from tainting the views of other people who, through lack of personal experience with the Muslim community, may be susceptible to your very limited and ignorant view of our religion and families.I will start by, ironically, providing you with some defence. It is absolutely your right to speak your mind freely with whatever opinions you so wish. That is one of the great liberties of this nation.
But let me be clear: speaking your mind is your right as a private citizen. As a Member of Parliament, you are a public servant, and your public opinions need to be more carefully delivered. You must be aware that the words of MPs are granted greater political legitimacy than those of private citizens.
It is frightening when someone with so much power to sway the opinions of others is so cavalier in his delivery. We entrust MPs to make defensible, rational, and sympathetic judgments in pursuit of the common good. Counter to this, your words seek to generate divisiveness by fostering an indefensible ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.
Do you actually believe Muslims are so different to you that we should be trusted less than any other human being? Wherefore this presumption that those who commit terrible crimes in the name of Islam are actually considered heroes or true Muslims by the rest of us? Are we really so homologous to you? Woe to the Sikh or Hindu who you might accidentally recognise for a Muslim in your eagerness to incite fear, all the while I, the unrecognisable white Muslim, sits next to you.
For you see, if the subject of religion is never broached between us, you will feel safer the entire trip knowing you sit next to a safe and reliable Pakeha. Let me assure you, I want that plane to land safely just as much as you do. I have family and friends who I want to be around for a good long time, and so do they.
The only reason I can think that you would harbour such ill-sentiment is that you have very little first-hand experience with Muslims. I can relate. I was not born into a Muslim family. However, with age I came to recognise my beliefs were congruent with Islam. That seemed a bit of a scary prospect, as I am sure you can appreciate that there is a great deal of Islamophobia in the United States, as well.
Once I actually met some Kiwi Muslims, I quickly realised my presumptions were entirely inaccurate. Muslim culture is not some monolithic fiction. Muslims are just like the majority of Kiwis: we love our summer barbecues, we avidly follow the All Blacks’ domination of rugby, we wear jandals, we buy fish n’ chips down the road. You see, Muslims come from all different backgrounds. I was born in the US and descend from Irish stock. My wife was born in Fiji, and her Indian ancestors were relocated during the British slave trade. Many Kiwi Muslims are from India, the Middle East, east Africa, Indonesia, and Malaysia. We have all come here to share in what it means to be Kiwi. Between us we have a similar pathway to God, but we also respect that every non-Muslim is on their own pathway to God.
Your family and my family, we are each equally Kiwi, despite the fact that we may worship differently. We are equal to you in many other ways: my wife and I both happily pay the highest tax rate, our business creates revenue and employment for many New Zealanders, and our education benefits the New Zealand economy. We are even socially and politically active (gasp!).
If you think supporting terror is somehow intrinsic to Islam, or is somehow an inevitability of our religion, ask anyone in the Muslim community here: no one supports any act of violence or terror against any other living being, human or animal. That is what we call haram in Islam, which means “forbidden by God”. We have no support for terrorists who do such horrible things, and we cannot understand how they can call themselves Muslims. Their actions are entirely incompatible with Islam.
In order to establish better communication on this issue, my wife and I would like to invite you to dinner at our place the next time you are in Auckland. We would like to hear your story, and we would like to share ours. I believe that if you would grant us the pleasure of your company, it will give you a much more enlightened perspective on Muslims and Islam in general. I will leave my contact details with the editor if you wish to make good on our offer.
Update: Prosser has accepted the invitation to dinner. I’m sorely tempted to start a contest for suggestions as to what will be on the menu, but that wouldn’t do justice to the spirit of Jason Kennedy and Khayreyah Wahaab. Talk about the better angels of our nature…!
I wish I could say that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s anti-Semitism surprised me half as much as it seemed to surprise The New York Times. (“Egyptians should nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred” for Jews and Zionists, Morsi declared in a videotaped speech three years ago. “They have been fanning the flames of civil strife wherever they were throughout history. They are hostile by nature.”)
But the rampant use of anti-Semitic imagery in political rhetoric both in Egypt and in other Muslim countries (“apes,” “pigs,” “bloodsuckers,” said Morsi) is hardly news. It comes right out of the convoluted paranoia of The Protocols of the Elders of the Zion, which far too many Egyptians still take for fact instead of the fictional fake it was long ago proved to be. What concerns me is how it seeps into even the best-intentioned minds, in far less obvious but nonetheless insidious ways.
Consider, for instance, an exchange like this one, which I seem to have had a number of times over the past several years:
— “What do the Jews think they’re doing in Gaza?”
— “The Jews? All Jews? Which Jews?”
— “The Israelis, of course.”
— “Which Israelis?”
— “Well, the Israeli government.”
— “So why do you not say ‘the Israeli government’ instead of ‘the Jews’?”
This is what you might call the low-level shadow of anti-Semitism. My interlocutors (I love/hate that word) would never dream of using Morsi’s inflammatory language of hatred. They’re liberal and moderate American Muslims (some are believing mosque-goers, others self-described agnostics or atheists). And yet even they are not always immune to that conflation of politics and ethnicity, of Israeli policy and Jewishness.
Each time such an exchange occurs, there’s a pause in the conversation — a moment of discomfort as my interlocutor (that word again!) realizes what I’m responding to. And then comes a nod of acknowledgement, one that takes considerable courage, since none of us appreciate being called to account. Call it a small moment of sanity.
I recognize this because it’s mirrored in Israel, where talk of “the Arabs” — a generalization as bad as “the Jews” — veers more and more not just into outright racism, but into a kind of gleeful pride in that racism, as shown in David Remnick’s long piece on “Israel’s new religious right” in the current New Yorker.
Israeli politicians have taken to presenting themselves as defenders of “the Jewish people,” regularly using “Jew” as a synonym for “Israeli,” even though — or because — over 20% of Israeli citizens are Muslim or Christian Arabs. They do this deliberately, of course, just as the Morsi-type anti-Semitic rhetoric is deliberate. The emotional resonance of “Jew” is deeper and far older than that of “Israeli,” and thus far more useful as a carrier of both covert and overt pride and prejudice.
As a Jew I find this political claim to represent me both insulting and obnoxious. Like an increasing number of American Jews, I’m appalled by the policies of the Netanyahu government (let alone those of its predecessors), and at the development of what has clearly become an apartheid regime. I deeply resent being lumped together with the Netanyahus of this world — and I equally deeply resent the attempt by the Netanyahus of this world to lump themselves in with me and define my Jewishness. How dare they? And how dare Morsi?
I’d ask “have they no shame?” but the answer is obvious.
Amour is not an easy film, and it’s certainly not for anyone who’s afraid of ageing, let alone anyone nurturing fantasies of immortality. Written and directed by the hard-edged Michael Haneke, it’s about a loving, companiable couple in their early eighties, played by two veterans of the French new wave: Emmanuelle Riva (Alain Resnais’ classic Hiroshima Mon Amour) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman). And it’s about what happens when she has a stroke — a relatively minor one — and then another, devastating one…
I saw it at a small private screening, and thought it beautiful — quietly courageous, uncommonly real, and truly loving in a way that goes so far beyond Hollywood stereotypes as to make them hollow caricatures of humanity. So I was quite dismayed when others there called it depressing. It was too long, they said. It made them uncomfortable. It dwelled too much on the small details of life. It took far too long it took to arrive at its inevitable denouement.
All these things were part of what made me admire the movie so. And why I went home convinced that it would win no awards.
What a delight to be so very wrong! Though I didn’t yet know it, Amour had already won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and was now being talked about as the front-runner for the best foreign-film Oscar (thus the private screening copy) — talk that ramped up this past weekend when it won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for best picture of 2012. The Oscars might actually redeem themselves this year.
But what’s stuck with me ever since I saw the movie — and the reason I’ll see it again — is one seemingly simple detail in the couple’s everyday life:
Whenever one does something for the other, even something as minor as putting a cup of coffee on the table or taking the empty cup to the sink, the other says “Merci.”
That’s it — a simple thank you. Said not automatically, but not with great stress either. Said quietly, but appreciatively. “You mean it was polite,” someone said. But no, that was not at all what I meant. This was far more than mere politeness (I grew up in England, so I know how shallow politeness can be): this was courteous. Real courtesy: an acknowledgment of the other’s existence — of the small kindnesses and fond accommodations that make up the couple’s daily life together. It was, in a beautiful phrase I heard over the dinner table just last night, part of “the rhythm of connection.”
The word is said, in its quiet, companiable way, many times before the second stroke deprives the wife of speech. So it hovers in the air, unsaid, when she can no longer speak. In the end, when her husband finally brings himself to do what he knows she wants him to do, I found myself saying thank you for her.
I don’t want to act the spoiler, so I won’t spell it out for you. Enough to say that yes, death can be a courtesy all its own. And as it happened, I thought “Yes, that’s real love.”
I stood. I paced. I sat down and immediately hopped up again. I fiddled with rubber bands until they broke. I tried to follow six or seven websites at the same time — when I wasn’t staring at the two big screens set up at Town Hall Seattle. Every now and then I’d sneak out for a smoke, only to stub it out after a few pulls because I had to rush back in again to check what was happening.
I tried to reassure myself by putting my faith in Nate Silver, the meta-analyst who’d repeatedly said to pay no attention to the pundits and who’d calmly analyzed the data and predicted an Obama victory of over 300 electoral votes. I mean, I do have faith in Nate Silver, but hey, what kind of faith is it that never gets tested?
The signs were encouraging: on the state level, bigots and rape-defenders and all-out idiots being defeated, and good, intelligent people winning. But that popular vote was still so close, and Florida kept changing from pink to baby blue and back to pink again, and I wanted to march up on the stage with a dark-blue marker and simply color it in…
So when the magic mark of 270 electoral votes came up far earlier than anyone expected, yes I cheered and whooped and hugged and high-fived both friends and total strangers, but what I felt more than anything else was relief. Sanity had prevailed — narrowly, but clearly. And decency had prevailed.
There was no cluster-fuck in Florida. The right-wing attempt to suppress the vote failed, with people waiting for hours to cast their ballots (“we have to fix that,” said the president, and he might look to Washington state, with its all mail-in ballot system, for the fix). And I confess it was a pleasure to switch occasionally to Fox News and see the somber faces.
Big money failed, and several billionaires were left holding a bad investment in Romney/Ryan. Marriage equality passed in Maine and Maryland, and is ahead here in Washington state — the first time a majority of voters have endorsed it, as opposed to its being decided on by legislators. Ditto with legalization of marijuana in two states, giving the lie to the so-called “war on drugs.”
Just two decades ago, all of this would have been unthinkable. A black president being elected to a second term? Laughable. Gay marriage? Absurd. Legal pot? Gimme a break…
So yes, we do move forward. In fits and starts. Three steps forward, two and a half steps back. We fight off insanity, and redefine sanity: not Obama’s dream rhetoric of “a perfect union,” but the real, down-to-earth and difficult work of balancing pragmatism and idealism.
No elation today, then, not here: just a huge sense of relief. And a renewed faith in the idea that one way or another, whatever the odds, sanity can prevail.
There I was, agnostic Jewish me, eager as a teen music fan to meet an Episcopal bishop at Town Hall Seattle on Monday night, to shake his hand and thank him for his courage.
Then Hurricane Sandy intervened. The bishop’s flight was canceled, so I went home and read his new book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage.
Which is how come I can now tell you that if you can read this book and not fall in love with Bishop Gene Robinson, head of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, then there is something seriously amiss with the state of your soul, let alone your heart and your mind.
Robinson was married – to a woman – for 15 years. Now he’s married again – to a man. This second marriage has lasted 25 years, and has led to multiple death threats against him, forcing him at times to wear a bullet-proof vest in public. It’s also created an absurd rift within the Episcopal church. And it’s brought out the big guns in his support. There are only two blurbs on the back of this beautifully lucid book, but both are from Nobel Peace Laureates: one from a guy called Obama, and the other from a guy called Tutu.
Robinson directly addresses ten FAQs on marriage equality, among them: “Why should you care about gay marriage if you’re straight?”
His answer, and mine: “It’s the civil rights issue of our time.” Why did white activists put themselves in the line of fire in the 1960s? They weren’t black; they could always have claimed that it wasn’t “their” battle. Except of course it was. As Emma Lazarus put it – she of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” – “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Besides, if you think gay rights don’t affect your straight life, you’re living in as alternative a universe as Mitt Romney. As Robinson points out, “Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims, and fundamentalist Christians are just as likely to raise a gay son or daughter as any other mother or father.”
Think about that: Wherever you are as you read this, and no matter what you think about same-sex marriage, chances are that at least one person close to you – someone you know and love and wish everything good for — is gay. So what do you wish for that person if you call the love they feel for someone else an abomination? The only abomination involved here is in calling love an abomination.
Still think “This isn’t my fight” because you’re not gay? Robinson has this to say:
No it isn’t. Unless you care about the kind of society we have. Unless you want the society of which you are a part to be a just one. Unless you believe that a free society, not to mention a godly religion, should fight injustice wherever it is found… Unless you care about our children. Unless fairness matters to you. Unless violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people concerns you. Unless ‘liberty and justice for all’ is something you believe applies to all citizens.
Are you in love with him yet?