Friday, March 12, 2004

not a good week

Today is Friday, which is Religious Diversity Day at the Hairy Chasms (cf. sidebar schedule). Two things dominate the news right now: the horrific train bombings in Madrid (WashPost now requires subscription, but it's free), and the impeachment of South Korean President Noh Mu Hyon (try the Marmot, the Infidel, the Yangban's posts, and Jeff the Ruminator-- also, check out the latest Post article).

I'm not going to bother with the impeachment issue; everyone seems to have it well in hand (Polymath is positively cheering that Noh is taking it up the ass right now, though it may be too early to say goodbye). But since there are tentative signs that the Madrid bombings may have something to do with al Qaeda, I thought I'd do a brief exploration of this from the interreligious dialogue/religious pluralism angle.

There's more going on here than just religion, obviously. You can approach the terrorism question from any number of valid angles-- economic, political, technological/scientific, historical, psychological, and sociological, for example. In fact, it's hard to talk about this question without having recourse to several angles of attack. What do we see when we appraise the situation through the lens of religious pluralism?

From where I sit, the Muslim world as a whole is far, far from pluralist. Even the Muslim "center" is problematic. There's been a huge and lingering question about "moderate Islam," the so-called "silent majority" of Muslims who, we are told, decry the terrorist violence-- but seem to do so mostly in private or at largely unseen venues. The Muslim voice of outrage against the terrorists and the Islam they espouse has yet to be heard, clearly, at the (inter)national level. This fuels an awful suspicion, shared by many, that moderate Islam might not be as moderate as it looks. That, or the Muslim version of "moderation" is apples and oranges when compared to Christian or Buddhist moderation.

A fundamentalist, for me, is anyone who takes their religious doctrines and scriptures literally-- as a scientific skeptic, I use science as my guidepost for determining what "literally" means: to the extent that unverifiable claims are made about physical reality (e.g., "prayer healed my cancer," or "meditation makes you float" or "saints can teleport"), a person making such claims is being a literalist and therefore a fundamentalist. Having said this, I'll admit that there are degrees of fundamentalism, and the problem can't be viewed as black and white. Scholars note repeatedly that Christian fundamentalism in the United States rarely reaches the levels of violence seen in the Muslim world these days, so we have to make some distinctions there. But from a Buddhist perspective, the difference between angry Christian Bible-thumpers and Muhammad Atta is one of degree, not of kind (cf. my post critiquing Islam and monotheism on this point)-- both show the symptoms of upadana, attachment (in this case, the classic "attachment to name and form").

For those of us pluralists who are genuinely interested in interreligious dialogue, terrorists and others with extreme convictions pose a practical problem: whether and how to invite such people to dialogue. For a long time, the pluralist answer has been, in many cases, to write off the fundies as unworthy of sitting at the table. This attitude has come under fire for its arrogance-- and perhaps rightly so. A truly pluralist attitude has to be, paradoxically, open enough to admit even exclusivist perspectives. If religious liberals invite only fellow liberals to the table, isn't this a bit inbred?

But this is where things get murky. If we admit that there are degrees of fundamentalism, then a second practical problem faces the pluralist: how to choose among the fundies to invite to the table of dialogue. What's the metric? If a representative from a group of known murderers comes knocking at your door demanding to be heard, do you tell him to fuck off?

I'm not sure, in the end, how helpful the silent treatment is, but I'm also not sure that an undiscerning, blindly loving attitude toward "our enemies" is the best approach, either. This is one reason why I can never claim to be a pacifist. To the extent that pacifism is a yes/no question, where one is either an absolute pacifist or not, then by that standard, I'm no pacifist. I don't, however, believe that all solutions come at the point of a gun. Violence should always be a last resort.

While people like Steven Den Beste get huffy about "exploring underlying causes" of terrorism, I don't see what the problem is: shouldn't we be exploring causes? I agree with Den Beste that the primary causes currently lie more in the Muslim world than in our own, but once we reach that conclusion, what do we do? Sit back and enjoy our moral high ground? Obviously not: we have to engage. On one level, yes, this means military engagement. But if we operate only on that level, we won't be solving any issues anytime soon.

This is where people interested in interreligious dialogue come in. The current war (and don't fool yourselves: it is a war) has a very religious cast to it. The terms of the war were not of our choosing: I for one have been resisting the whole "clash of civilizations" meme as hard as I can, but it doesn't look like the terrorists will allow us to see matters any other way. While part of this war will involve military engagement, others among us have to do our part to be engaged religiously. I don't know what this means quite yet; I don't know what my own role in the big picture is. Maybe as I think out loud about it on this blog, something will come to me.

Luther said "Hier stehe ich," here I stand. My own stance, as a committed pluralist, is one that condemns the poisonous intolerance and fundamentalism of the terrorists. It also condemns the fundamentalism that seems to cling especially to people raised in monotheistic cultures. It means I affirm those aspects of Islam (and other religions) that embrace love, peace, and harmony, but reject those aspects that foster human brokenness, divisiveness, pettiness, and evil. Because I've been influenced by my studies in Asian spirituality, I also hold to the empirical notion that religions are as they are practiced. It isn't sufficient to attempt a factual claim like, "Islam is a religion of peace." I don't blame people for wanting to make this claim, though, because it does make deontological sense: Islam ought to be a religion of peace. The same applies to Buddhism in Sri Lanka: it ought to be a religion of peace. It applies to the Christianity of abortion clinic bombers in the US: it ought to be a religion of peace. It applies to the Hinduism of the anti-Muslim Hindus in India: it ought to be a religion of peace.

But not an absolutist peace. Not a notion of peace that becomes so idolized, so fetishized, that we lose our powers of discernment and prove unable to respond to the present moment, because we find ourselves so wrapped in an extreme ideal that we, too-- we pluralists or pacifists or whoever-- become, in our turn, fundamentalists.



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