Civilizational Attitudes

  I recommend readers research postcolonial studies – and especially the book Orientalism – after reading this. I also apologize for the abhorrently academic tone of this article; I’ve lately been reading too much of the Arab ezine Jadaliyya.

The more I think about it the more I realize that the hardest thing I find to talk about with others in genuine, constructive conversation is Islam and South Asian culture. In a broader context, theistic religions in general, Islamic civilization, and my cultural background are intensely difficult to discuss and talk about with someone from the outside. I suspect most people that have some sort of biculturalness with two different worlds have similar sentiment. I try to put my tongue on the reason frequently, but I always fail. This article will hopefully be a more successful attempt.

I like to think that I’m quite articulate with my thoughts when it comes to writing. I can organize and strategically argue most ideas that I agree with, and although others may still disagree I can take solace in the belief that I’m right. But perhaps the ability to articulate comes with a presumption that the other side will see some truth in the argument if they’re thinking clearly, and that I wouldn’t have to explain and justify prefaces.

After all, I can’t remember the last time I engaged in a lengthy conversation with someone from an entirely different civilizational attitude. There is such a thing, but most people would deny it. I would like to give a lengthy rebut to those people, but such an argument is one of the terribly difficult things to argue. To engage in such a discussion about why there are civilizational attitudes with someone who only has one would require a conversation with virtually no preconceptions, little shared ground, and few relatable experiences. The idea of civilizational attitudes is a viewpoint that takes a book just to explain, much less argue to someone who doesn’t share the idea.

Having successfully failed to justify the idea of civilizational attitudes, allow me now to explain what that has to do with my own predicament. Being an American Muslim, I am Western – which comes with its cultures, values, and modes of thinking – but I also have a very authentic relationship and identity with Islam as a whole –its cultures, values, and modes of thinking. Most people and friends of mine that experience this two world phenomenon are often stuck in situations where their civilizations collide and they are left at ultimatums. I personally don’t get this often as both a South Asian Muslim and an American, but I think the element of this article is just as intense if not deeper.

When talking about Islam with non-Muslims and even some Muslims, I’m at a loss with words. How am I to justify an idea or a concept efficiently when it was evolved from 1400 years of thought that the other has no familiarity with? Too, how am I to explain something when the other has biases that didn’t emerge just in their lifetime, but have been going on perpetually for centuries if not millennia? The word “jihad” or “Sharia” or “Allah Akbar” strikes terror in the eyes and ears and minds of many Westerners in ways I could never understand, and to even come to some sort of explanation that not just clears away misconceptions and preconceptions but actually expresses the idea in an internal light demands putting away one’s entire body of cultures, values, and modes of thinking just to understand.

It is not easy, and arguably impossible. When I try to articulate, I get caught up in the idea that the other will not understand I cease to even try to make an explanation comprehensible. And then when I try to make an explanation comprehensible, I fail miserably since, well, the explanation requires a book if not more. It requires ripping apart not just all the misconceptions and preconceptions, but one’s entire Western body of cultures, values, and modes of thinking.

Likewise, people get weirded out when I talk about “the West” and ideas that are unique to it – basically half of what postcolonial studies is about. Most Westerners are foreign to even thinking about the West from the outside. People find it hard enough to understand the idea of intrusion, hegemony, imperialism, and the like. When I discuss those words, I’m not talking about the distancing idea of the American empire, but about our everyday expression of ideas. It really is true, for me and for many of those who have this bicivilizational experience, that a friend’s idea can be hegemonic in its outcome and intent. To say, for example, – good heartedly and well intentioned – that “I want to liberate women” or “I demand religious freedom” in countries and cultures distant from one’s own can very well be a telling sign of imperialistic attitudes that are only understood when looked at from the outside.

Words fail me even then to say what is so hegemonic about exterior liberation or foreign pressure to internally change. That such expressions are oppressive in their nature is about as difficult to explain as the topic at hand, religion.

When I try in any fashion of any sort to explain my own religious beliefs or practices and why I choose them, it becomes nearly impossible for the other to see them in any empathetic light unless the other is also deeply and devoutly theistic. Then, the body of cultures, values, and modes of thinking are already shared and no immense justification is necessary. But for all the other times, the ways of thinking are so alien to the other it becomes almost pointless to try and explain.

Try I must, however, and occasionally try I do. While it usually ends in what I would describe as a disaster, some sort of mutual understanding of the “otherness” arises, which isn’t all that bad since it is an understanding at some degree. Still yet, however, there is often an unacknowledgement of the idea that humans are at very fundamental levels different. That acknowledgement unfortunately requires having differences at fundamental levels, which is something only a few of us share. Which leads back to the very beginning of the problem – expressing the idea of fundamental civilizational differences requires having them. Like many things, the problem is tragically circular.

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In reading the Bhagavad Gita

I read the Bhagavad Gita a year ago – during a cold January. I read it every day from 8 to 8:30 in the morning and later when I had time- the only book I’ve ever read with vigorous routine. I read it sometimes half asleep, sometimes listening to music, sometimes with full attentiveness. What I found in the Gita was a long and repetitive and boring poem that somehow never lost my attention. There was something in its essence so captivating and other worldly. It is difficult to put into words – it’s not like I agreed with its messages (often in “contradiction”). But the discourse, the thoughts, the poetry kept me alert.

I’ve always  been fascinated by Hinduism, a religion so vast, diverse, and misunderstood. It’s not like I understand Hinduism, but it’s alien-ness in many ways gives it an attractive exotic-ness (Orientalism, anyone?). I swear the text gives an impression of cyclical infinity, of contentment, of ultimate liberation. It gives the hint of an entirely and so fundamentally different outlook to the world that begs for attention and keen interest. The discourses aren’t like those of Western scriptures or even Western epics. The dialogue is always on thought, on belief, on action, which is like belief, but different, but the same, but both, but neither.

The Gita lives in a world of seeming contradiction and juxtaposition – at one point it’s action, at the other it’s inaction. At one point it’s duty, at the other it’s independence. At one point it’s rational inquiry, at another it’s leaping in faith. But these seeming contradictions, these juxtapositions are never portrayed or interpreted by the reader as bad at all. It’s as if the Gita is begging you to live in contradiction and confusion and to love it. It reminds me of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, which seems to embrace ambivalence.  And maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad, maybe I’m unsure. The thought that you cannot know, perhaps, is the whole point.

But all the way through, the centrality of an inexplicable contentment runs. I don’t know what I mean in describing inexplicable contentment. There’s a sense I get in Arjuna and Krishna an apathy. An apathy of action, of feeling, of personality. But the Gita once again puts this in a good light. The reader never sees this apathy in a bad way – it’s blissful. It’s not selfish, it’s selfless. It’s not out of hate, it’s out of love. For what? For God? For duty? For love itself? Maybe there is no answer. The thought that you cannot know, perhaps, is the whole point.

Long story short, I’ll have to read it again sometime. The Gita loves not giving answers while seeming to give answers and changing them the next second. It loves to confuse you and throw you out and lure you in again. It has an almost magical quality to it, exploiting and manipulating its own seeming contradictions all for a blissful apathy all in the name of love for the sake of love. Or does it? And every time you throw it down in agony trying to figure out its message, you pick it right back up and try again, falling to its wonderful temptation…

(My reflections are by no means interpretations, as I refrained from pretending I can)

(A quote from Gita by J Oppenheimer, inventor of the Atomic Bomb)

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Secular Humanism: A Eurocentric Ideology (Response to a Critic)

This man is a genius. Almost as smart as me. Almost.

“What goes around comes around”, says Mickey Mouse and his Buddies

The Walt Disney Corporation has some sort of fetish over Karma and Yin Yang. Off the top of my head I can name you half a dozen TV shows that have Karma references (Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Suite Life on Deck,  Hannah Montana, Jessie, or the horrible Wizard one…). There are plenty that involve switching souls or reincarnation, with many in the same shows just mentioned. The same goes for Yin Yang, the Daoist concept frequently abused by corporate television warlords. Hell, Disney once had a Canadian show called Yin Yang Yo!, and in Lilo & Stitch they downgraded the concept of Yin Yang to alien pets(there is also Yang). Nickelodeon abused the same concept and diminished core Daoist beliefs to to spiritual fish (scroll to bottom) in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

So what’s the problem with this? Aside from the fact that Disney degrades some of the most widely held religious concepts in the world as ancient mythic folklore (the belief in divine justice, or “karma”, is in many faiths worldwide, including Christianity, in different ways), when’s the last time Jesus was mentioned in a Disney show? Another example of Disney’s orientalist religious fetish: the horrible indoctrinating trash-of-a-movie we call Aladdin that I wrote a disparaging review on has a scene where Jasmine’s dad shouts “Praise Allah!” after the Princess chose a suitor, and there’s a few other times when we hear the phrase “Allah forbid!” Now, the latter phrase isn’t even used by anyone (they took the phrase God forbid and translated it to what, make it funny?), but the first one is only used by people who want to “make fun of Muslims” or accuse “Muslims of being terrorists.” That is according to urban dictionary. There is no equivalent of that phrase in Arabic or in Islam, and I myself have only heard the phrase used by people ridiculing the Muslim faith. Now you can say what you want about your views on religion, but what the hell is it doing in a children’s movie? Do we really need to just pick out religions from a box and ridicule them since they’re from some “inferior” place of the world? We have a real problem of generalizing other cultures as the “other”. And to think they didn’t bother trying to pronounce Allah right – they might as well have used the English equivalent God – but then again that’s not as funny, is it?

I suppose it’s also not politically correct. You can mention and misinterpret Karma or Ying Yang or some indigenous folklore or the other all you want, but when it comes to Christianity it’s a big no-no. Why not bother anyone? They do enough damage when they call karma “mumbo jumbo” in front of hundreds of thousands of  children…including Hindu ones. Because somehow making fun of any culture or faith other than the majority Western ones is OK. Remember the time Disney told kids that white skin color is the original skin color? See #3 in the link.

I’d like to see Disney grow up. Now the big movement  of removing religious references from all children’s television is a load of hypocritical arrogant trash I’ll bash on any day, but going out of the way to insult and misinterpret religions and cultures is far worse. I’m tired of Disney and their television warlord equivalents (like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network) poking fun at inferior cultures with sharp stereotypes and shoddy research. The public has literally no idea that this happens (I’ve done plenty of research looking for people with my view – and I found nothing), and that’s because Disney stops short of poking fun at Western culture and religions for that very reason. This sort of inferio-fying Hinduism, Islam, and Chinese traditions is absolutely disgusting, and I am astonished that people tolerate it. I grew up on Disney and know people that do, and I fear for their future.

SEE TELEVISION’S MADNESS AND THE ILLUSION OF CHOICE.

Crisis of Islam

Bernard Lewis is an interesting Middle Eastern scholar who I will surely talk about more when I get into Orientalism. This book, Crisis of Islam, is about the utter chaos the Islamic World has experienced in the last century. The book explores the history of the Islamic World and the modern context it is now. The book discusses the various edge groups and their opponents in the modern world – from the Salafis to the hidden secularist liberals. This is an extraordinary read that is well worth, insightful, easy to understand, and scholarly.

Professor Lewis is quick to explain that Islam is not inherently linked to terrorism. He goes through the historical roots of terrorism and the history of violence in the Islamic World, and thoroughly demonstrates the lack of relationship between the two. Terrorism has “no antecedents in Islamic history, and no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition.” Nevertheless, the terrorist of the Muslim World justify themselves through their religion in an incredulous way. Dealing with the Middle East has thus become so difficult – that the fanatics believe wholeheartedly that they are correct, and that killing them is only good for them.

The crisis of the Islamic World and the rise of extremism can be attributed much to the decline in Islamic thinking, which occurred a little before colonialism  and after the fall of the Mongols as a reaction to the Renaissance (the public perception suddenly became that the roots of Islamic decline are because of too much thinking and too little dogma, and this led to only more decline). This was not helped by colonialism centuries later, which destroyed the academic institutions (theological, philosophical, and scientific) forever. In modern times, oil has both been crucial and destructive to the Arab world in particular. Lewis has a famous quote where he flips the common American quote: “No representation without taxation”. The oil rich gulf states have traditionally had almost no taxes on its citizens- the wealth of the nation was generated entirely by oil resources. Their was no need for a parliamentary system to develop a taxation system, and thus the monarchies established themselves permanently, and are only replaced if ever by ruthless tyrants.

His book after explaining what I have said so far in much more details concludes with a solution. The purpose of the text was not really to provide a solution, so it doesn’t focus too much on it, but his conclusion is that the only solution to the Middle East is non-secular democracy (secular preferably, but that is asking for too much too quick). America is a necessary component for reviving the Middle East (Lewis was a big advocate of the Iraq war…before it happened). I won’t comment on what I think about his conclusions, but I am content to say that his identifying of Middle Eastern and Islamic problems was excellent, and his analysis of their roots essential.

What the Mainstream is – and isn’t

The Google Dictionary defines mainstream as “the ideas, attitudes, or activities that are regarded as normal or conventional; the dominant trend in opinion, fashion, or the arts.” In conventional use, this definition of mainstream works, but we can get confused and use the term improperly.

The use of the word “mainstream” implies it to be in the middle. That’s the mental picture we get, anyway, and this middle requires two extreme ends. But that delivers the wrong impression: go out on the street and ask people if they like “extreme views”. Be they Tea Party or hard line Socialist, they’ll likely say no. This connotation of “extreme” is not helping anyone. What is extreme in America is commonplace in Europe. What is commonplace in Europe is liberal trash in Singapore. Extreme is bad, follow the majority! Follow the masses. So the saying goes.

Now let’s pretend we’re all in school…in the hood. Most of your classmates have smoked pot or sniffed crack, at least once or twice before. That’s mainstream for you. Extreme isn’t being a nerd or a suck up…it’s not smoking pot. Not doing something that the mainstream does suddenly makes you extreme – and that’s ok.

Back to reality. When we hear the media’s rambling of the mainstream, we must caution ourselves, especially when its from a region of the world other than our own. When we hear of the notorious “radical” Hugo Chavez, remember that Venezuela elected him. Many times. Peacefully. Fairly. The socialists of Venezuela are mainstream. Radicals are us, intruders who want to provide them with some sort of weird foreign capitalist concept.  When we scream and cry about the world being radical because they are different, we think we are mainstream. And we aren’t, not always. When the UN voted for Palestine to become a nonvoting member of the chamber- effectively a semi-nation (whatever the hell that means) – we were the radicals. Only 8 radical extremist countries voted no to the proposition, and we were one of those countries. And to say we are wrong because we are extreme is, well, wrong.

To call the mainstream as who agrees with us is flawed logic. To say that following the middle is the best idea is ludicrous. Our progression as a species could not have happened without radicals: from the left and the right. To turn people down because they have widely varying opinions from ours is stupid, a word I will use more and more as I write. Our media pampers our flawed logic in this regard. CNN wouldn’t dare interview a communist on live prime time television – only on mini editorials that you’ll never find on the front page. Let alone Fox. This is despite the hundreds of millions of communists out there, who have opinions we must think about. The danger of not doing so is losing sight of values another part of the world may have that we don’t. That leads to bigotry, hatred, and ignorance. We must learn to embrace differences and learn them where they are, lest we confuse our values for the world’s. “Learn, even unto China”, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad once said. There is no reason to not do so.

Aladdin

You would think that one of the world’s most respectable film companies, Walt Disney, so widely known that the American public entrusts the childhood of their children too, wouldn’t make movies full of racist trash. Not so, apparently

To start off, do Jasmine and Aladdin look Arab at all to you? They appear Caucasian – with brown skin. They have American accents, American (should I say it?) values. And what kind of Arab name is Jasmine, anyway? Meanwhile the bad guys, Jafar, for one, has an Arab name, Arab dress, and Arab looks. Exaggerated Arab looks to be certain, for the purpose of making him look more ugly. Just like the rest of the bad guys. Good guys look American. Bad guys look Arab. Americans are beautiful. Arabs are ugly.

But it gets worse. The original release of the movie had a song lyric: “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home” It was in reference to the Middle East, where in certain areas such as Saudi Arabia they have amputations as a form of criminal justice, something we’ll talk about later . Amidst controversy of getting politics involved in a children’s movie, they dubbed that over in the DVD release to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense/It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home”.

To add on to the calling the Middle East barbaric and to depicting Arabs as evil,  why is it that every women in the movie has to be wearing as scanty clothing as possible? The women in the movie are practically sex objects. And the scene where Aladdin steals some bread and hides in a room with a bunch of women? People have speculated that was a brothel. Whatever it was, the fact that we can even speculate that in a children’s movie is disgusting. Jasmine wears the same stuff the women in the brothel were wearing too, which doesn’t help much.

One last thing for this rant: how great are the “morals” of it, anyway? Now this movie might be an extreme case, but the simple insistence of Disney to tell children to disobey their parents and do what they want is ludicrous. To make that a sort of moral maxim in the minds of Disney’s audience is all for an agenda – to get children hooked on Disney products, Disney ideals, Disney television. To think that most good parents would want the television to tell their children to not obey their parents is flat out stupid. We have a serious problem in this world where those ideals are treated as universal on children’s television shows. Certainly, challenging the ideals of our parents can be good, but to ingrain the thought into the minds of children that they are more correct then their parents is utterly insane. Mere children cannot reason as we can. When they heard “Don’t obey your parents,” they don’t.