Sunday, April 16, 2006

Trying to work through the bad stuff

When a fine former colleague and mentor was killed by a suicide bomber in Qatar last year, the muslims on our faculty didn't know where to put themselves - they grieved, felt responsible, defensive, confused - didn't want to admit even to themselves that a muslim had done this because it is so contrary to what they believe in. And non-muslim staff didn't know what to say or how to say it. No-one in that staffroom had anything to do with that attack, no-one agreed with it, or blamed or suspected anyone else but such is the insidious power of terrorism to sow these terrible subversive small gaps and silences that threaten communities.

And yet this bomber failed. Terrorism failed – as it always does in the end, though at what cost. We didn’t turn on each other. We shared our grief with students who mourned their former teacher. We celebrated his life as we mourned its ending. We comforted one another. We’re still all together, still international and multi-cultural. In Doha, so many Qataris turned out in the streets to reject the actions and justification of that bomber. A year later, Doha has just hosted a conference for international schools like ours, which bring people of all races together for a good academic education, and a broader experience of life and friendship. A good man is senselessly dead, his wife a widow dealing daily with unbearable loss, but terrorism failed.

I feared for my son and my sister-in-law who routinely used the London Tube and bus routes that were attacked last July. I was so sad for the dead, the injured and the bereaved, and for the family, friends and neighbours of the bombers, who were also victims – like us. We saw the power of terrorism to undermine communities by destroying trust – except that here too that power was illusory- at worst, short-lived, except that people are dead – gone too soon. Others remember and mourn. Neighbours tried to be compassionate. Community groups held together. Londoners were brave and stoic, got back on the buses and Tubes. Terrorism blights and haunts, but it always fails in the end.

Foreign teachers from the local international school were killed in the first Bali bombings - ordinary people doing socially responsible work and sharing cultures. Another bombing. More grief and fear. We saw the cynical application of death and fear to make people stay home and give up their efforts to understand and accept other people’s ways – except that the school remains open for education, the Balinese continue to welcome foreigners, and foreigners continue to visit and work in Bali. Terrorism fails.

The Amman bombings happened just before our trip to Jordan. Bombing your own people? Slaughtering generations at a wedding? Jordanians turned out in their thousands to condemn and mourn. The families publicly repudiated those involved. The pain was immense - just as in Madrid and New York.
And Baghdad, and Basra, and Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Britain in the 70s.
Germany in the 80s.
Terrorism fails.

So no, while I wish people could see the ordinary humanity of people here, and appreciate that their culture has so much in it that is good, I'm not dewy-eyed about the way things are, or the people responsible for these and other rightly named atrocities - whatever their culture, beliefs or grand purpose

But terrorism, it seems to me, is a double-edged weapon. The terrorist eats his own children, poisons the well, destroys his and his fellow man’s path to the future, because what future can there be without peace, what peace without trust, what trust without dialogue and compromise – between everyone concerned? To promote and use terror to achieve one's ends is unnatural and ungodly, regardless of creed or flag. All those foolish, misguided young people so dedicated to their cause, so physically and mentally strong, so selfless that they would give up everything for their faith, country and culture – what is gained by sending such people to their death? Should they not be encouraged to serve, build, teach, nurture, invent, forgive, restore, marry, make babies, look to the future?

But of course, that only works if they believe that they have a future as things stand; that there will be a home to raise a family in, work to pay for it, education and healthcare, a life worth living. For all the rhetoric of the militants, this is as much about economics and quality of life as about religion. Fulfilled people with contented families and a satisfactory way of life among good neighbours rarely feel compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice.

On the other hand, people who have been denied – or are persuaded that they have been denied - education, dignity or hope in this life, along with the rest of their generation, and their parents’ generation, why would these people believe in a future? Add surging testosterone, a charismatic and ruthless manipulator, and at last, a sense of purpose, the imagined admiration of their friends and little brothers, the promise of eternal rewards, and the ultimate adrenaline rush. Away we go.

In March 2004, The Religious Policeman linked to this speech by George Carey, former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, who was part of an ecumenical group attempting to find common ground between the world’s major religions, and identify the root causes of our current difficulties, in the earnest and urgent desire to do something about them. He said at the outset,

"I am not... an expert on Islam............. [but] I have spent a great deal of time with some of the most important names in Islam – Dr Tantawi, Hassan al-Turabi, King Hussein, Prince Hassan, King Abdullah, Professor Akbar Ahmed and many other Muslim leaders and scholars – seeking to build bridges of understanding between two great faiths. In retirement I continue to engage in dialogue through the Alexander Declaration Process which attempts to bring Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders together in Israel and Palestine..........
(There are huge gaps between all of these quotes, so please go to the original speech and form your own opinion.)
............wherever we look, Islam seems to be embroiled in conflict with other faiths and other cultures.

..............Whether religious or nominal, it is important to recognise that the vast majority of Muslims, like Christians, are honourable and good people who hate violence and are distressed to note that they are lumped together with evil and misguided people. We should never seek to demonise them or their faith. But a fight for the soul of Islam is going on.

...................... The politicisation of young Saudi Muslims was completed in our own day when the impotence of Muslim countries was compared with what they regard the decadence of the West with its materialistic power."

As a westerner living in the middle east at that time, and utterly bewildered by the swirl of global events and rhetoric, I found Lord Carey's speech honest, thought-provoking and concise (a quality I admire….) I would recommend it to everyone, at least as a basis for discussion.

I’m a gardener, in my small way, though currently defeated by mealy bugs (sob!) and the garden can be a powerful metaphor. If I’ve got strangling weeds, mould, parasites or whatever, uprooting or spraying is a brutal and effective short-term solution, but in another month, the problem’s likely to resurface, and with greater resistance. To get my garden to flourish over decades (a proper garden!) I must look to the health of the soil and a proper balance of sun, shade and moisture; take care not to overcrowd, but companion-plant complementary plants to attract pollinating insects, deter parasites, etc. etc. (OK, you see where I’m going with this! Just read the speech, willya?)

I’ve no agenda here. I’m just trying to work things through and either find a way to live with all this, or be part of something positive. History teaches that there are no permanent solutions to human conflict. Time passes, power shifts, and as one civilisation gets lazy and decadent, there’s another on the ascendant. We’re not much good at peace, at sharing, and given how difficult we sometimes find it just to live with ourselves, international relations certainly ain’t gonna be no walk in the park, baby.

(Don't believe me? OK: serious pit-stop. Have you ever done something you’re really ashamed of? How irresistible is the path of least resistance? Have you ever – in the words of my childhood catechism - sinned by thought, word, deed or omission? No-one does guilt like a Roman Catholic, except perhaps an ex-Roman Catholic…….. Check out that pit! OK back to international relations and the rise and fall of civilisations.)

History teaches, but are we willing to learn? Also –and this is always interesting - who writes the history, and what are they trying to prove? All I know is that the human race is going through one of its periodic convulsions of rage and violence, and each one brings us a little closer to bringing on the four horsemen.

(Quick exit for Terry Pratchett, the king of the outrageous sideways reference….. tumtitum… just talk amongst yourselves….. ah yes! TP, in association with Neil Gaiman, brings you ‘Good Omens’ being the nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch’ with an interesting cast of characters (p.13) including the Apocalyptic Horsepersons DEATH, War, Famine and Pollution. Thank you gentlemen.)

So, Death, War, Famine and – in the original – Pestilence, a wonderfully sonorous word for Plague. But we can do Pollution too, can’t we darlings? Ah the wonders of human ingenuity! Four biblical forces of annihilation are not enough: we have to come up with another one. Hurray for us! Well, come on then P2, after all, if we are indeed heading for the big A just as fast as our nuclear horsepower can get us there, the more the merrier!

We don't seem to learn, do we?

What to do? Where to start? What do you think?

I think I should probably lie down. This is what happens when I have a week off and two- oh dear no, it was three, no wonder! - three cups of filter coffee.

But I shall tack on something I was thinking about earlier, upload this, and then I’d better start thinking about tomorrow, and the return to the day job.

So, in my personal tribute to Blue Peter (obscure BBC TV reference from childhood), here is one I prepared earlier!

(Actually Habibi thinks that might have been Grahame Thingy, the Galloping Gourmet. Blue Peter was interesting craft projects involving cornflake packets, wire coathangers and sticky-back plastic, and my laptop is not quite at that stage, not yet, anyway.)

Right – Let’s change continent for the amateur historio-socio-econo-anthroposologist’s analysis of the Third World and the legacy of colonialism. I thank you!

(Good grief! You’re still here?! Excellent! I look forward to your feedback. )

There are economic reasons for the current mess, policies of ruthless self-interest. First World countries have long-established power bases, practices and relationships. However 'cut-throat' the competition, no throats are actually cut anymore because there is a shared understanding, however imperfect, of national psyches, values and priorities, the acceptance that we can do business - after all, we tried war twice in the 20th Century, and dammit - nobody won!

Third World countries aren't in the club. It could be argued that it is the legacy of colonialism as practised by the club members that there is a gap so huge that the terms First World and Third World exist. Africa. The Middle East. Areas of vast mineral and fuel resources. And political unrest. Corruption. Social unrest. War. Disease. Drought and desertification. Poverty. Starvation.

Am I being alarmist here, or is it all getting worse? (Does anyone hear hoofbeats?) If it’s all getting worse, despite the efforts of people much more educated, knowledgeable and responsible than me, what can I do? Or you? I only wonder because we seem to be in a life or death situation, largely of our own making, and I was brought up to clear up my own mess (not that I want anyone to look at the kitchen or bedroom right now.)

Here's a question: if Big Guy kidnaps Little Guy (a prosperous farmer and family man with lots of people working for him) takes him down a dark alley and removes his kidney (because Big Guy's cousin wants it) what is your response to Big Guy telling Little Guy to stop lying around and get on with his life - while introducing rules that reserve key resources for Big guys - oh - and sneering at the physical limitations and innate inferiority of Little guys stupid enough to allow the removal of their essential organs. ?

Hey! That was fun!

OK. Here's another one.

If Big Guy and his Big Buddies carry on like this for, say fifty years, while Little Guy gets weaker, and thinner, and picks up infections, and suffers organ failure and has a quality of existence so poor that one has to wonder why the poor so-and-so doesn't just lie down and die, and meanwhile Little Guy's wife, children and grandchildren starve and lose their home because of Little Guy's incapacity, and the non-availability of resources to people of their stature; and his employees also starve and lose their homes, and start fighting amongst themselves, or taking whatever gets them through the day (Jim Beam, say, or Prozac) is there a possibility - here's the question - that their kids and grandkids might start to feel a little resentful of Big Guy and the Big Buddies, and, lacking the resources to help themselves, decide to go after Big Guy, and his Big Buddies, and make them sorry?

Last questions: And if they do,

1) Whose fault is that?
2) Short of annihilating all the Little Guys (hmm.... now there's an option) what does Big Guy need to do to make things right? Gosh, it's a good job he's got all his Big Buddies to help him think that one through. Perhaps the Big Grandkids should help clear up after Big Grandad…. before everyone is sorry.

You have thirty seconds to complete this paper, as time is running............ Oops


nzm said...

After reading that, weakly she says, "Habibi is right, it was Graham Kerr - the Galloping Gourmet."

I think that I have to lie down now and digest all that before returning to make a semi-intelligible comment. :-)

Seriously great post.

nzm said...

To promote and use terror to achieve one's ends is unnatural and ungodly, regardless of creed or flag.

Tell that to Bush and every other leader who uses it to justify what they do.

Love this statement and totally agree with it, and everything that you've written here.

Terrorism fails. It fails as you've said amongst communities that bond closer together after experiencing an act of terrorism.

It certainly failed the Americans about 6 months AFTER 9/11.

I was in the US when 9/11 happened. What was experienced was an immense bonding of the American people - and at the VERY heart of it, was genuine pain and sadness for the loss of life that occurred during that time.

In the period after that, the events around 9/11 were used as justification for invading Afghanistan and Iraq, threatening Syria, and invoking fear, mistrust, and anti-muslim sentiment into a largely uneducated and ill-informed American public who prefer to believe what their TV media tells them rather than to investigate the facts for themselves.

We saw the result of this during the DP World saga.

You're right - terrorism fails among the educated, the better informed, the survivors of attacks, and those with something to live for.

But while there's still a large pool of uneducated, desperate people who think that they have no future, terrorism still has a breeding ground.