Friday, September 21, 2012

Film, Fury, Freedom, & Fraternity. Reflections & conversation with Muslims

As an advocate for coexistence between people of diverse faiths, particularly with Muslims, I have been challenged this past week mainly by the reaction to the film. There was the violence in the streets of Sydney, deaths overseas and a short message on facebook last Thursday, by someone I will call “Khaled” that suggested in colourful language that ‘anyone who disrespects the prophet should be beheaded and forget about free speech’. I found that quite disturbing. Here are some of reflections about my conversations and experiences this week, the need for genuine openness in dialogue, including discussing the hurt caused by "the lousy film", the arguments about free speech and redoubling our commitment to coexistence and respect for all, and related themes in the Torah readings.

In a sermon on Saturday, I reflected on the facebook post. I admitted that I didn’t engage young ‘Khaled’ because I thought it would be a waste of time. His stance infuriated me. Here he was enjoying the benefits of free speech in expressing a view contrary to the dominant one, yet spitting in the face of free speech. This echoed the phrase “he will bless himself in his heart, saying, "I will have peace, ”Shalom Yih-yeh lee” even if I follow my heart's desires, to add the thirsty to the watered[i]". The speaker of this phrase thinks that he can enjoy the benefits of others’ virtues while trampling on those same virtues. Like two adjoining fields, one is watered often while the other is not given any water, the “dry” field will still gain from the water of the other field[ii].

While on Saturday I had no access to news[iii], by evening I became aware of the day’s events involving angry young Muslims demonstrating in Sydney, with a concerned message from a member of the Jewish community. I thought that perhaps I was wrong to assume there was no point in talking with ‘Khaled’. I decided to ask him what he really thinks. Logging on to Facebook, I noticed that his tone had changed; his posts[iv] on facebook have been urging calm.

I asked him about his earlier post about the beheading and free speech. He replied, “I was upset obviously. Freedom of speech is one thing but this (is) freedom of abuse (sic) which is what they're doing. I later put that other status up (about Islamic teachings urging restraint etc see Note ii below.) after I read into the prophet's ways and later changes my mind on this matter, but still outraged."

Free Speech
One of the difficulties here is the sincerity or people on either side of the debate about this film. There are many Muslims who are adamant that such insulting material should not be allowed to be shown, while there are many who believe passionately that free speech is such a sacred principle that it must override other considerations. It is a valid debate. I am leaning toward some restriction of gratuitous disparagement of the beliefs and cherished symbols of others. I think free speech is about people being free to criticise politicians not the freedom to ridicule. The cavalier gross offensiveness of the film at the centre of this hardly deserves protection by the guardians of freedom. I commented to Khaled that I think freedom of speech comes with responsibility. People say "they are just saying what they think", my response is, it would be ok if they actually think. Often what is justified under free speech is knee-jerk prejudice.

Ridicule as a tool in interfaith truth claims
On the other side of the argument, there is a legitimate question about the merit of giving government the power to proscribe robust and offensive debate between competing belief systems. Should the prophet Elijah have been prevented from offending the worshippers of Baal when he mocks their god: “Call with a loud voice, for he is a god. [Perhaps] he is chatting or he is on a chase or he is on a journey; perhaps he is sleeping and will awaken[v]”?

I told Khaled that “I shudder to think what kind of world we would live in if we did not have checks and balances of a free press, eg. my people's holy books were burned repeatedly over the centuries. There is a serious debate about how we can protect freedom of expression which is critical for a just society and also demand respect, tact and consideration for others' beliefs and values. We need to have both Free speech and interfaith respect. How these are balanced is contested”.

Comfort with discomfort
This grappling between competing principles relates to another interpretation of the phrase “"I will have peace, ”Shalom Yih-yeh lee”.  This refers to a person who can see the logic in some demands of our faith but not others. He/she reflects on the fact that “there are many commandments that mystify me and cause me constant struggle and heart-searching…I shall therefore only observe things that appeal to my reason and that my intellect can accept. In this way I shall have peace- and suffer not inner struggle[vi]”.  Yet, we are called on to grapple with perspective that makes us uncomfortable. For both champions of almost completely unrestricted free speech as well as those for whom the honour of the prophet is of utmost importance, there is a need to try to understand what the others are thinking.

Ironically, the demonstrators, while wrong in their violence and insensitive in some of their messages have helped me gain some understanding. When I felt outraged about their suggestions that those who disagree with them should be beheaded, I was essentially championing restriction of free speech. I was taking an essentially hypocritical stance that: Yes, people should be allowed to say anything they like, except things that really offend me, eg. expressing a view about beheading people who have offensive beliefs. Of course, the demonstrators can also be accused of hypocrisy “using offensive slogans and signs, while protesting against people's right to offend[vii]”.

Unwilling to hear?
Yesterday, I joined a team of bridge-building educators in a conversation with Muslim teenagers.  The boys were asked how they were feeling about the demonstrations, I think with an expectation that they would focus on the events of Saturday. Yet, in a quiet and dignified way, some expressed a deep anger and sadness about the film and the desecration of their Prophet. For them it was about the film. On reflection, I think I had a limited willingness to talk about the film and how it felt for young Muslims.  It seems to me that one barrier to understanding what is going on is this resistance to acknowledging how some Muslims feel about the film, preferring to focus exclusively on the demonstration or the real concerns about how the actions of a few people tarnished the image of all Muslims.

Repairing relationships in stages
Apart from Police matters, the first step after the violence on Saturday was to separate the violent few from the vast number of people being tarred with the same brush. Muslim leaders have been rightly concerned with the repercussions, as I write there is a threat of a violent counter demonstration being planned against Muslims in Melbourne tomorrow. The next step that some Muslim leaders are beginning to turn their attention to is the long term relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.

I draw some inspiration for this inter-communal work from some teachings about the relationship between the Jews and God. The Torah states:
My fury will rage against them on that day (because of their sins), and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?' And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities.[viii]
It is puzzling that God would still be hiding his face after the people have come to the realisation that something is wrong by saying “, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us”. Yet, this could be interpreted as a complaint about being a victim of God’s rejection or hostility from other communities, perhaps even unfairly, rather than acceptance of responsibility for the part people in our own community play in driving people apart[ix]. In both cases, between people and God and between communities there can be a focus on the consequences and symptoms of damaged relationship, rather than the causes at the core of the relationship itself [x]. It is to this great task that we must now turn. Each of us taking responsibility for what we can do to ensure we all learn to respect each other as neighbours, fellow citizens, and as siblings: the children of Adam and Eve.  

[i] Deuteronomy 29:18
[ii] Akedat Yitzchak, cited in Nehama Leibovitz, Studies in Devarim
[iii] as we don’t listen to the radio or use the computer etc. on the Sabbath
[iv] He wrote, "See I was angry, horrified, filled with rage like many of you out there with the film made against our beloved Prophet (pbuh). The anger was just fuelling the flame and confirming the theories of the non-Muslims, but then I came across this video this brother made... It filled my eyes with tears at the greatness of our Prophet, the kindness of our Prophet, the mercy of our Prophet...He told this story as follows, and my anger just melted away...
He (Muhammad) was a man of truth and a man of justice. A man of humility yet a man of toughness. A man of mercy... Just look at the city of Ta'if, he was pelted and stoned as he preached alone, heartbroken and alone, he had bruised bones and blood soaked shoes, yet he just moved on and prayed to his Lord, "Oh Lord! As long as you're pleased with me, it doesn't matter at all", until the angel Gabriel descended and said to the Prophet, "Give me one word! And I'll flip these homes" and listen to what the Prophet said, he said, "No! Just hold on... Despite everything they did to me, I'm gonna let it go, for the land may one day breed some sweet believing souls..."
[v] Kings I, 18:27
[vi] Haketav Vahakabbalah, cited in Nehama Leibovitz, Studies in Devarim
[viii] Deuteronomy 31:17&18
[ix] Ohr Hachayim,
[x] Ramban, he states, saying: “because God is not with me” is not a complete confession, it is (an initial) thought and regret… and recognition of guilt. See Nachshoni’s adaptation of this.

Friday, September 7, 2012

An Understanding Heart; Choice or gift?

Muslim and Jewish students form relationships at a
Together For Humanity run interschool program,
in Sydney Australia. Some prefer to sit with their
peers as can be seen by  the clusters of green and blue
school uniforms. They are gently coaxed to develop greater
comfort with each other, during an interschool cooking
activity at Our Big Kitchen this week. 

Yesterday I observed Jewish and Muslim children and young adults responding to each other with varying degrees of love.  There were young girls from two schools one Muslim the other Jewish, hugging each other good bye and boys engaged in cool and comfortable friendly chatting.  One boy seemed less sure about it all, saying he would miss the others, then adding; “or maybe not”. 

The young adults also ranged from open hearted sharing, moving reflection and good will to two much more guarded young men, who seemed to me (perhaps wrongly) to approach the whole thing with suspicion.  It set me thinking about the process of acquiring understanding.

A gift?
It seems to me that understanding is at least to some extent a gift from our parents, our experiences or even from God either in our essential nature, or some other act of grace.  This seems to be confirmed by this phrase from our reading this week about Moses’ speech to his people at the end of a 40 year trek through the desert and on the last day of his life. “Moses called all of Israel and said to them, "You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land; …the great signs and wonders (Miracles). Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear[i]”.

In ten years of bridge building work, I have learned that understanding cannot be created on demand, nor can it be rushed.  It needs to be given the chance to develop.  In the case of the Jews in the desert it is only after 40 years they can understand what happened with the gift of hindsight[ii].  Perhaps what is needed is a change of circumstances, such as the death of the charismatic Moses (on “this day”) for people to understand the full picture, in this case the more important factor which is the hand of God[iii].

The Choice & responsibility argument
If people are to be held responsible for their actions, it would be because we assume them to have the ability to make choices.  Commentaries, therefore, reinterpret the idea of “God not giving people the heart to know” in ways that shift the responsibility back to the people. One simply adds a question mark, so it is a rhetorical question rather than a statement, “Did God not give you a heart..?![iv] One suggests that God did not give the people a heart for the purpose of forgetting him, as they did, but rather for the purpose of choosing to know…[v]. Another argues that the intent here is about God’s role being limited to being the ultimate first cause of everything[vi], so the argument is that it could be said that God did not, in the end, provide them with a heart to understand but this was because of their own rebelliousness[vii] and their choice to test (rather than trust) God and to forget the miracles they had seen[viii]. 

A combination
Understanding certainly involves some effort on our part, yet much of what we achieve in our understanding of our fellow man or of God is a gift. One commentator expressed it as follows, “God favours man with understanding. But God will only bestow this gift on one who makes a genuine effort…[ix]” In one mystical tradition, through our good deeds we become worthy of being gifted with additional and loftier layers of our souls[x]. 
This combination is seen in one text that combines advice to avoid judging and disparaging people by understanding their faults as being “caused” by their difficult circumstances, yet also asserting that regardless of what situations people find themselves in, they are still responsible for their choices and behaviour[xi].
The Very Ugly Man
Rabbi Eliezer was once riding on a donkey on the coast, he was feeling really happy because he had studied a lot of Torah[xii].  Then he chanced upon a very ugly man, (not just in the physical sense but it was clear to the Rabbi that the man had an ugly character[xiii]).

The man greeted him, "Shalom, Rabbi!" Rabbi Eliezer did not return the greeting. Instead, he stared at the man and said, "Empty (headed) one! Are all the inhabitants of your town as ugly as you?"

The man replied: " Why don't you tell the craftsman who made me, “how ugly is the vessel you made?"
Because he realised that he had done wrong, Rabbi Eliezer went down from his donkey, prostrated himself and begged the man for forgiveness. .. [xiv]

Judgemental and Smug
I remember some years ago feeling quite judgmental and hostile toward a man who I thought had a serious deficit of understanding and capacity for empathy.   I realised that like Rabbi Eliezer, I objected not to his actions but his nature.  I realised that I was giving myself credit for my nature, which I believe is essentially a gift and blaming him for defects in his nature which essentially was not his own doing.   I learned to appreciate him for his strengths, while still not liking some of his less endearing attitudes.   Remarkably, after I accepted him for who he was, I noticed a gradual shift in some of his thinking and behaviour.

Understanding is both a gift and a choice.  On Let us not feel superior to those who have not yet reached the degree of understanding that we enjoy, only partly due to our own efforts.  Still, those of us who “understand” have an obligation and opportunities to try to provide opportunities for those not yet blessed with understanding hearts.

[i] Deuteronomy 29:1-3
[ii] Melechet Machshavet, cited in Leibovitz, N, Studies in Devarim, Elizer Library, Department For Torah education…the Joint Authority for Jewish, Zionist Education, Jerusalem, P.292
[iii] Meshech Chochma
[iv] Abarbanel
[v] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, in his translation he simply adds the words “for the purpose of forgetting him, as you did, but rather” , between “has not given you a heart”, and “to know”
[vi] Ibn Ezra
[vii] Seforno
[viii] Ibn Ezra
[ix] Malbin, cited and translated in Leibovitz
[x] This is my understanding of a central theme in the Ben Ish Chai’s writing
[xi] Tanya 30
[xii] There is an element of self-satisfaction here. See
[xiii] I was unable to find the source for this commentary at this time.
[xiv] Talmud, Taanit 20a &b