Monday, January 20, 2014

The Perennial Philosophy (Sophia Perennis)




When I came to Islam, I had come out of a period of searching that caused me to recognize a certain universal pattern to reality. This was particularly true after a near-fatal car accident in 2009, when I found that my consciousness had changed. I began to realize that for all of my life my vision had been narrowed. I had become insular in faith and life. Yet, how was I to proceed down a deeper spiritual path, and what road was I to take? I wanted something bigger, and at first that seemed to involve picking and choosing from different ideologies/faiths/philosophies. I didn't immediately understand that I was skimming an exoteric surface. This was not taking me any deeper, but was simply showing me the outward appearance of different manifestations of the ONE or the Absolute. After much searching, my commitment was to Islam, and as I often tell people when I'm asked about my conversion process, there are many factors which led to the decision, and had my life path been different, I might have easily adopted a different faith without falling out of step with the universal or ultimate "being". I realize this at my deepest level while being no less committed to the Islamic path. Yet I also know that to go deeper I needed to be on a specific path - one that had its roots in a universal reality that transcends all of the patterns and "progress" we see in human societies and existence.

My goal when committing to a particular faith path was/is awareness, knowledge, love and unity with the underlying divinity, the reality, the ONE, Allah, God, Being, whatever name we choose to call it. I believe that all of us are at base concerned with some sort of ultimate reality, whether we claim spirituality or not, and that ultimately we are searching for the same essence, whatever symbols, linguistic terminology or philosophies we use to describe it. For in the end, we all want authenticity, we want to know the true nature of things.

This also resonates with what has become known as the "Sophia Perennis" or Perennial Philosophy. There is nothing new about this "Philosophy" and I hesitate to even give it a label, but for purposes of commenting on the ideas contained, it is necessary to do so. This Philosophy, is not concerned so much with what humanity can accomplish, but what it is meant or created to accomplish. It is described as:  "both absolute Truth and
Frithjof Schuon
infinite Presence. As absolute Truth it is the perennial wisdom (sophia perennis) that stands as the transcendent source of all the intrinsically orthodox religions of humankind." It is concerned with underlying truth - a truth that has been obscured by modernity in an overwhelming emphasis on the exoteric, down to the way that religion itself is manifested. Yet the perennial philosophy does not discard religion (or as it describes it "tradition"). In fact, the need for this new articulation of something that has never left us is - as Frithjof Schuon describes it - because of the "totalitarian rationalism" of modernity, post-modernity.

It is not a reactive philosophy, in the sense that the reactivity of the various fundamentalist strains - particularly as seen in certain quarters of the Abrahamic faiths - are reactive to modernity by becoming more insular and violently protective of exoteric notions of faith. This protection is lacking of the esoteric. The Perennial idea seeks to expand our vision by allowing us to realize that there is a universal truth expressed by one Creator. This Creator manifests itself in different exoteric ways throughout history in this lower world, the world of forms. Diversity is a part of the universal plan. Diversity in fact points to the true idea of unity, which is a unity of foundation if you will, or better a unity of a higher foundation. As we progress through levels of consciousness we realize how illusory are the forms through which we perceive our world. These forms though, serve as symbols pointing to the ultimate and can also serve as a delineation between those things that lead to the ultimate and what can pull us away from that ultimate into the illusory world of forms or the world of the ego. More simply expressed, these symbols serve as a guide to right and wrong, good and bad in this lower form of consciousness where forms assume a dualistic manifestation. So, precisely for that reason, there is truth in traditional forms, and the traditional forms in faith - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., cannot be discarded. These faiths have survived throughout the centuries because they are of the nature of divine revelation. They are self-contained systems of living that share a universal truth.

The Sophia Perennis expresses the idea that a focus on forms in the modern world is to the detriment of the underlying symbolic truth of these revealed faiths. Yet there is a yearning in the modern world for this truth. We all look for purpose in life, and we all want to achieve a higher state of being, despite the language we might use to describe what "higher" means. From the equality of humanity expressed through the ideas of Socialism, to the attainment of success of the individual in Capitalism, we can see it in the world of economics and politics. There is equally a desire to return to a "purer" form of life, before "agrarian civilization" that we can find expressed in the ideas of Jared Diamond and others. What is lacking in this modern world is the esoteric. We are back to the totalitarian rationalism that Frithjof Schuon speaks of. The exoteric dominates our lives, and it is precisely this fact that is at the base of the argument which the Sophia Perennis makes against the idea of evolution as the nature of the universe. While it is true that humanity is making progression in the exoteric world through outward "innovation" in technology, it is at the expense of the esoteric, and in this sense there is a DE-evolution in humanity. We have lost the sense of who we are - of our humanity. This is exemplified in the way religions practice and clash in our world just as much as it is in the lack of the idea of the transcendent altogether.

The reason that there is conflict in our world is because form by nature will delimit parts of the universal archetype. Yet we live in this world, so we cannot escape form. Traditional faiths allow us to get past the form to the higher reality, and we cannot break these revealed forms. They are the sole route to truth in this world. Therefore, it cannot be stated enough how important it is to respect the revealed forms. As a Muslim who believes in an underlying unity, I must still practice my Islam. This is the key to Perennialism. It is not a new idea in that it proposes a new faith. Again, Sophia Perennis is not some system which brings a new faith, religion or tradition. It is more of an articulation of reality. It is pointing out more than ever why it is important to follow a revealed path. Yet it also equally emphasizes that there is a deeper understanding to a particular revealed path, and with this understanding comes a tension due - again - to the world of forms.

The tension can be seen here in that while practicing my Islam, I also acknowledge that this might not be the path for everyone, and that there is truth in other paths. I respect my Christian heritage and family knowing that it also comes from the same truth as Islam. The Qur'an itself teaches this, telling Muslims that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has come as the Seal of the Prophets and Islam has come as the culmination of all rightly guided faiths. Realizing and being able to hold this tension is key to the reduction of conflict through religion, and is key to the very fundamentals of the religion itself - virtue, love, humility, respect, etc...

There are three metaphysical truths which the Sophia Perennis expresses as doctrine, way and method. It describes doctrine as discernment of the truth from illusion. The way is a life "addressed to the soul" for conforming itself to the nature of the Real. The method is the technique that one uses to concentrate and focus on the real as one's ultimate life goal. When dealing with an Absolute that is bigger than any of us can conceive, there will be different manifestations of the Real in our world. We cannot follow all of these manifestations. Yet we can attain to the true reality while still realizing and respecting that there are other equally valid ways of attaining to that reality.

Reference

Lings, M. (2007). The underlying religion: an introduction to the perennial philosophy. Bloomington: World Wisdom.





Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Whistleblowing and Moral Responsibility: A Call To Action

"When The People lead, the leaders will follow" said Norman Solomon as he wrapped up an op-ed on the Edward Snowden NSA/CIA whistle-blowing controversy this week (Solomon, 2013).  Perhaps it's a bit optimistic to think America is at a tipping point in the state of its national awareness, or perhaps its cynical to believe it's not.  Regardless, whether or not Americans are more aware or accept the truth of what is being exposed about NSA/CIA domestic and international spying,  the question remains what will the American people do about it?

Edward Snowden
All over the world for the past two plus years, we've seen peoples movements against neo-liberalist and authoritarian power structures taking shape and producing results.  Those in the Middle East, in Asia, in Latin America, and in Europe are realizing the power of unity in standing firm against established orders.  The idea of peoples control (whether or not one calls it democracy) is - to this author - what freedom truly means.  For what good are Constitutional freedoms if governments shut them down the minute they aren't favorable to power structures?  And in that sense how is America any different than those who we point the finger at through our exceptionalist national mindset?  Does not the reactions of our leaders have a lot to say about what our government is doing in our name? 

Dick Cheney has called NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a "spy for China" (Williams, 2013).  House Speaker John Boehner called  him a "traitor" (Solomon, 2013).  Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein said his actions amounted to "treason" (Solomon, 2013).  The Western mainstream media is more concerned about his personal life, his girlfriend and his desire for fame than it is about the truth of what he has to say.  This same pattern has been seen in the past with Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.  Character assassination is an effective Orwellian tactic to distract us from critical thinking and asking the right questions.  

The fact is this:  Edward Snowden has exposed domestic and international spying through cell phone records, internet monitoring and other means by the United States government.  We all know that the technology exists to do so.  This is not just international spying - which is bad enough - this is domestic  as well.  This means all of us.  Now, whether we chose to believe that, and use our critical thinking abilities to analyze what that means in relation to our Constitution is up to us.  Further, it is not enough simply to think about it.  If we believe that our government is spying on us, will we wait for all of our freedoms to erode or will we take a stand like others are already doing around the world?   

The neo-liberalism of the United States government and the military power we possess is critical to consider in all this.   For we, the citizens of the United States, are the only ones who can hold our government to account.  Our actions not only affect us, they affect those who are suffering from the meddling of our CIA, from our aggressive, illegal and unnecessary wars, and from the international aid we provide to so many corrupt authoritarian governments around the world, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Chris Hedges said it best in a very bold piece recently published on Truthdig:   "Rebel...It is time to build radical mass movements that defy all formal centers of power and make concessions to none. It is time to employ the harsh language of open rebellion and class warfare. It is time to march to the beat of our own drum. The law historically has been a very imperfect tool for justice, as African-Americans know, but now it is exclusively the handmaiden of our corporate oppressors; now it is a mechanism of injustice. It was our corporate overlords who launched this war. Not us. Revolt will see us branded as criminals. Revolt will push us into the shadows. And yet, if we do not revolt we can no longer use the word “hope.” " (Hedges, 2013).

America is very quickly losing whatever democracy and Constitutional freedoms it might have had.  Internet and other monitoring control should anger those who are open to freedom of speech and freedom of dissent.  What is truth?  Where does it come from?  From power or from those everyday people who are bold enough to risk everything for the sake of exposing injustice?  Edward Snowden's girlfriend, Bradley Manning's sexual orientation and the rape allegations (only that - allegations) against Julian Assange should have no affect on what they have to say.  Examine the message - if there is truth there, then there is responsibility as well.  It is intellectual laziness and criminal shirking of our moral duty as citizens to rationalize the message away through details that do not affect the truth of the injustices being committed in our name.

References
Hedges, C. (2013, May 19). Rise up or die. Retrieved June 2013, from Truthidg.com: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/rise_up_or_die_20130519/

Solomon, N. (2013, June 13). Clarity from edward snowden and murky response from progressive leaders in congress. Retrieved June 2013, from CommonDreams.org: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/06/13

Williams, M. (2013, June 16). Edward snowden is a 'traitor' and possible spy for china – dick cheney. Retrieved June 2013, from Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/16/nsa-whistleblower-edward-snowden-traitor-cheney

Sunday, May 19, 2013

My 12 Hour Detention At The Hands Of The Israeli Defense Forces


I am a 38 year old white Caucasian United States natural born citizen and Muslim.  The details that follow explain my treatment at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces upon attempting to enter the West Bank of the occupied territories and East Jerusalem in May of 2013.  I was detained for 12 hours and subjected to mental and physical torture and harassment before being deported back to Jordan and banned from Palestine/Israel for life.  I had never previously been to Palestine, have no criminal record in any country, and have had no previous restrictions from the United States or Israel. 

I was about to enter (so I thought) the West Bank through the Jordanian border.  I recently graduated with my MA in Conflict Transformation/Peacebuilding/Psychosocial Trauma.  I have been trained to recognize the signs of mental torture and trauma.

I was asked the following questions by at least 7 interrogators.  Oftentimes, there was more than one present:

When I first stepped off the bus that took me to the entry terminal, the questions began:  What is the purpose of  your visit?  Who are you staying with?  Why do you want to visit the West Bank and not go into Israel?  Do you work with your hosts in Palestine?  What do you do for a living?  Why are you not working now?  How did you meet these hosts?  Wait, you just said through your "career" and now you say through "your university".  How do you know people in Palestine?  Why do you not know people in Israel?  Why are you traveling alone?  I answered as little as possible throughout the process.

At this point, I entered the main terminal area.  I was pulled aside for a security check.  There I was taken into a curtained room and harassed.  I was told to remove my pants, I was felt in and around my buttocks, my crouch, and had hands inserted around my genitals.  My legs attracted a great deal of attention because I have had a knee replacement and a metal plate in my foot resulting from a near-fatal car accident.  I was inspected this way a total of three different times, with at least two, often three guards in the room.  By this time, it was around 10:30 am. 

The second set of questions came from a young early 20's looking woman:  Why are you here?  How much money do you have?  What do you intend to do In the West Bank and East Jerusalem?  Who are you staying with?  How do you know this person?  Are you working?  Why are you not working?  When did you graduate from university?  Again, why are you unemployed? (I had been a student until the end of April)  Why are you traveling to the Middle East?  Why don't go you back to the United States and get on welfare?  There is no excuse for your being unemployed.   In what field of concentration did you receive your MA? Again, there is no excuse for your being unemployed.  You choose to travel as an unemployed person?  Who does that?  Everyone travels employed.  Why aren't you?  Don't you feel  worthless being unemployed?  You have an MA, you should be able to find a job.  Go find work.

The third set of questions came from a mid to late 20's looking woman.  These questions were very similar to the previous set, only she asked me more details about what I was carrying with me.   
Next set of instructions:  Wait please for a few minutes.  The place where I was told to wait was directly in front of a table where bags are searched in full view of guards and those entering.  My computer bag was turned upside down and dumped out.   A very large IDF soldier saw my Qur'an and asked me if I was Muslim.  I didn't know what to say.  I'm a Sufi, and I'm pluralistic.  I have respect for both Israel and Palestine as far as the people.  The people are my love, my passion.  My religion isn't as simple as what I've read and studied about the IDF's view of "Muslim".  My religion is based on love and many paths to God.  I was also asked why I had mortgage business cards in my bag.  Hadn't I told them I had been a radio personality (they asked)?  Yes, but I had a mortgage license when I was investing in real estate in Las Vegas.  Again, the young lady:  Why don't you go back to the U.S. and do that?   My question:  What does that have to do with entering Israel? 

 Finally - it might have been an hour - they decided it was ok - for the moment.  If you have never experienced something like this, your most personal items thrown out disrespectfully in full view of everyone, well, it feels like you're standing naked in public.  It's humiliating and de-humanizing.  That was the first form of mental torture.  And the day was yet to begin. 

Next, I was told that I could re-pack my bag that "everything was fine" along with a curt "sorry".  A guard was standing impatiently while I re-packed everything waiting to escort me to another area.  He said "it will be a few minutes".  It had been an hour and a half at this point since I entered the "security check", so it was now around 11 am. 

I was then told to wait in a seating area until the larger bags were searched.  This consumed another two hours, while they went through my books and clothes.  I had no books promoting violence or activism. 
I was then told to sit again - I asked if there was a problem.  "No, there is no problem, everything is fine, security check".  This was one of the many lies I was told.  I then sat for another two hours before anything happened.  In my opinion, all of this had its purpose.  I.e. They wanted me to mentally become nervous and/or angry for when the next interrogation was to begin - we had studied this in university, and I had heard about this form of mental torture from my previous work with torture survivors.

The next interrogation was intense, and in my opinion, intended to break me.  This time it was a late 20's - early 30's looking woman who conducted the interrogation.  Here's where things began to really intensify.  At this point, it was around 3 in the afternoon.  She began the series of questions as before, asking me all the above mentioned questions about my family, about my employment status, etc...  She then proceeded to ask me what I thought about Israel.  I told her I wanted peace for the Holy Land, for all who live there.  She asked me what I believed spiritually.  Again, I knew that Muslim to them is not Muslim to me.  I was unsure of how to answer.  My spirituality is complex.  I told her that I was primarily drawn to Sufi studies, but studied and had respect for all religions.  I was asked my parents names, where they lived, what they did for a living, how much money I had, why did I not want to go directly to Israel instead of the West Bank/East Jerusalem, and why I was traveling alone.  She wanted my parents social security numbers as well as mine.  I refused to give them.  She wanted all of my phone numbers, my address in the United States, my email addresses and passwords, and wanted to look at some confirmation emails of my hosts in Palestine.  Then there was more verbal abuse about my being unemployed, and I was told to wait a few minutes for immigration, "it won't take long". 

The attempt to break me continued.  4 - 7pm passed, with no word from anyone.  I watched everyone except me come and go.  I was alone with my thoughts only.  I saw many Muslims with Kufis and traditional Muslim dress enter with no problems.  I myself was wearing only a t-shirt and jeans.  I began to get sleepy.  I asked guards numerous times as to the situation of my status.  It was a "security check" was all I was told.  I laid down on the floor with my computer bag as a pillow and fell asleep.  Around 7 pm I was awakened by another interrogator.  He asked me a few more questions, and said "it won't be long".  I waited another hour and a half.  Finally, I found someone and demanded that they bring me to someone who could give me an answer.  "Wait a minute", I was  told. 

45 more minutes passed.  I asked again, and insisted, becoming quite agitated at this point with the person I asked.   I told them I had been mentally and physically harassed, assaulted and humiliated.  They went to look for someone, and a woman came out who didn't speak much English.  She simply said to grab my bag and follow her.  I saw we were heading the opposite way - back to the exit door and the buses.  I said "Where are we going?"  She said I cannot enter Israel.  I said, may I please have my other bags?  She asked me where they were.  I told her:  You people took them, don't you know where they are?  We went to get my bags.  I demanded to see the immigration official who made the decision.  They told me they didn't know who that was.  I said of course you do.  Someone does.  Find him or her.  Now.  She said "I'm sorry, I don't know".  Well, then find someone that does know.  Someone has to know.  She found the man.  He came out and asked what was the problem?  I asked him what was the problem?  Why was I not being allowed to enter?  He said "security reasons".  I said that's not an answer.  If I'm being deported, tell me why.  He became angry and said "security".   He told me to leave.  I went inside the immigration office and demanded from others an answer.  "Security reasons" again.  I said fine and left. 

I walked outside with all of my bags to wait for the bus back to Jordan.  A guard insisted to hold my passport until I boarded the bus.  He had also been one of my interrogators and was holding an automatic weapon.  I told him that under no uncertain terms would he hold my passport.  NO, I told him, You will not have a chance to keep me here any longer. 

I waited for the bus - not long.  It was 9:30 pm at this point.  I boarded the bus and later looked at my passport to notice that I'd been banned for life from Palestine/Israel. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Shahadah (My Commitment To God and Islam)




This is my public statement of the Shahadah. I would be honored if you would bear witness to it.

There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.

I have now been a Muslim since February 13, 2013. My desire was to have my Muslim brothers and sisters bear witness to this before I stated it in a public fashion. I realize that this will come as a shock and will be hard for many of you to accept. I have kept this to my myself for many reasons, just as there are many reasons I have come to this choice. It is the benefit of hindsight that allows us to see with clarity the path that we've been on our entire lives. For me, I have been studying Islam more or less (at times) intensely since 2006, when I began my first reading of the Qur'an. In my quietest moments - which have been many, many hours over the past few years, I have felt a force pulling me in this direction.

Since 2006, many life events have set me on this path. These events began with my disillusionment over a radio entertainment career in Las Vegas and St. Louis, where I also suffered a divorce at the beginning of 2009. I went through a phase where I was ideologically lost, yet seeking and diving into various forms of spirituality and ideology. I then experienced the death of my ex-wife (she died in 2011) and a near fatal car accident in 2009. The latter incident is the primary "rift in time" that set me on a new course. I experienced a mystical presence of the divine in that car that can only be the presence of God. Since that time, I have felt compelled to not touch one recreational substance, nor have I been promiscuous. The sexual decision in particular was not intentional - per se - it was simply what I "felt" was right as I was trying to get my life back on track. The decision to avoid alcohol and other drugs was a definite decision, but I have had no trouble staying on that path. I know that The Divine Energy/God/Allah has been the reason why. As I look back now, these past four years since the accident have been leading me directly on this path - the straight and true way.


Due to the incident in the car - where I felt ultimate peace and that my life was in control of something larger than myself, despite my severe injuries, I lost my fear of death. Ever since my stance and passion for issues of justice and equality have only intensified. My ex-wife's death is another reason why. If my purpose, meaning, activism, life course, simple accident, or any other reason should lead me to an "early" death, then so be it. I have clarity of mind in regards to justice, and where I believe God is guiding me. This is only in a general fashion though, and this is a key statement. I realize what I don't realize. This is that the mystery that has been the key factor in my coming to Islam is also the mystery that is necessary to keep me on the path. I am not stating that I know, I am saying that I feel direction, and I pray that I never lose that key mystical element.

I desire to embark on the Sufi path and tradition. I would welcome advice and guidance in that regard. I am a contemplative by nature, and it is many hours of solitude, prayer, reading and thinking over a number of years that has been a major part of the process leading me to Islam. I have read works and criticisms of Rumi, Hafiz, Ghazali, three different (English) translations of the Qur'an and numerous works of English-speaking Muslim scholars - primarily Sufi in nature. I also have a passion to learn Arabic. I want to read the Qur'an as it was delivered in its original form to the Prophet. This will be an ongoing process of course, but any advice on good methods, institutions or instructional material as to how to do so are welcome too.

Christ the teacher is still a very powerful presence to me as I was raised Christian. I left that religion in my early 20's (I'm 38 now), and have claimed no one religion until now. I never lost an element of belief in something bigger than myself, and that mystery of what we call God; said another way: the absence of anthropomorphism, particularly emphasized (from my limited experience) in the Sufi tradition. These thoughts have served as a key draw from the depths of my essence to Islam. In addition, much (though certainly not all) of the Christianity of the West has become too closely associated with the religion of empire. I realize that every religion has its problem areas, I've spent hours contemplating this. Yet, I still feel that Islam is the one universal religion that truly brings all races, ethnicities, classes, and nations together. God has been my guide in this area. God is energy to me. God is love, and God is ineffable.

I still believe there are many paths to the truth. I believe that those who follow universal principles that we can clearly see as pointing to God - no matter what faith one might claim (or not claim) are going with the grain of the universal. That energy is love. To make this perfectly clear then in regards to my beliefs in Islam: I am not and will not be extremist or an extreme fundamentalist in Islam. That side of Islam is ugly and frankly, repulsive to me. I am a peaceful man. I do not believe in coercion. I believe in all the freedoms which we should have in the United States, but that are quickly disappearing. I practice nonviolence to the extent that I am able, yet I am not an absolutist. I believe that God does not ask those of us who are not experiencing oppression to dictate to those who are oppressed the means by which they throw off their oppression. I borrow from the Christian Black Liberation Theology in this regard.

That is enough for now. Of course all of our paths and knowledge are ever expanding and always open to revision as our life direction guides us. I am overjoyed though at this decision, and I have never felt more sure of anything in my life. Again, I am aware that this will be difficult for many of you to accept and if you cannot accept it, know that I still extend my love to you and that I understand. My social justice views and my political/social/civil views have not changed. These have been developing right alongside my spirituality, many times in fact because of my spirituality, and I do not feel that there is any need to change them. The divine energy I believe in is based on love first and foremost, and I will not conform to anyone's interpretation of doctrine that doesn't hold love as the ultimate.

I thank you for reading, know that I extend my love, and that there is a metaphysical supreme energy that cannot be explained through rationality or our limited human abilities to perceive the universe. This is my statement and commitment to that energy - which we in Islam refer to as Allah. Blessings to you and your family.

Tim

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Awakening: A Reflection On Restorative Justice, Religion and Racism



Introduction To An Awakening 

The path of my spiritual progression over the past few years has coincided quite closely with my overall awareness in what we in the West would normally consider more "intellectual" and "sociopolitical" areas. It is notable that we so often take special care to delineate the differences between the categories. The truth is that increased awareness corresponds quite closely with a clarity that illuminates the true interconnectedness of all facets of the universe. This is not a new idea, yet many are coming to the realization for the first time, and in that sense it seems particularly progressive. Rupert Ross (2006) is just one of many who have looked at ancient religious traditions - in his case among the aboriginal First Nations peoples of North America - and determined that the interconnectedness of the universe is not only expressed in their beliefs, but in their language, and in the way they experience community. With a language void of nouns, it is impossible to apply labels to people such as "criminal" or "black" that have had historical traumatic meanings for human beings in the United States. Rather, a noun-less language allows for descriptions of bad or "criminal" actions as a sign of being out of balance with the universe - and further allows for greater equality in viewing "other" human beings.

My own spiritual path has progressed along a study of Islam that has actually been going on for many years
now. I have been slowly studying the Qur'an and reading scholarly interpretations of the religion for quite some time. But recently I have become more vocal about these studies as I've become particularly inspired by Sufi mysticism and its meaning for making sense of events that have occurred in my own life - such as a 

definite experience of something bigger than myself when I first awoke after a near-fatal car accident in 2009. I have no doubt that there was divinity in that experience, as it has changed me in drastic ways regarding my purpose and worldview - which is now people focused versus career advancement - as well as my ability to live a disciplined, clean and sober life. What this means for me personally as far as religious commitment (to any faith) is another question. I don't feel advanced enough in my awareness, and further, the level of clarity that I believe has been granted by divinity has given me the sense that I need to use the resources at my disposal to take in more of where my heart is in relation to the religion of Islam - and specifically Sufi mysticism. Yet what draws me to Sufi mysticism - perhaps even the primary attraction for me - is its ability to focus on equality, justice, the true condition of the heart, and the pluralism it recognizes and honors in all who seek towards ultimate truth.  This is a much more accurate vision of the heart (metaphorically and literally) of Islam that is sorely needed in light of the blatant Islamophobia that is present in modern day American society.    Mysticism is a form of metaphysical awareness that seeks to unite rather than divide, that looks for common ground with other forms of spiritual higher awareness, and that discards any conception of a human vision of what the term "God" or "divinity" even means. That last point has been key for me, as I know there is something bigger than myself - even if now I only view it as the simple but profound energy of love - that I can see everyone relating to in some respect, and this includes atheists.

Restorative Justice As A Universal Principle 

I present this backdrop for a reason as I intend to show how the concept of Restorative Justice - which is one that seeks to restore or unify broken relationships out of past wrongs - so closely connects to an overall vision of love as well as any religion/ideology/basic belief that expresses love as the ultimate awareness. This semester - my final in the classroom for my MA studies in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University - I've had the privilege of studying under the man who many refer to as "The Grandfather of Restorative Justice", Howard Zehr. 

Zehr's focus has been on the criminal justice system, which is very much broken in the United States and the world writ large, and how a concept of restoration of broken relationships rather than punishment is much more in tune with the universal love that we can all sense in our lives if we allow ourselves. This restoration is not an easy process, and it must be grounded in an advanced awareness to be facilitated properly as well as implemented in the larger society. This is where my studies of Islam and Sufism have brought greater clarity to the concept of Restorative Justice, in that Islam promotes awareness of right relation to divinity. 


Restorative Justice and Racism in America 

I am especially interested in Restorative Justice as it relates to racial divisions that are still very much alive in the United States. Zehr's focus on criminal justice is perhaps appropriate as a point of departure when discussing the historical treatment of Black Americans. Zehr himself has attempted to reach across the divide by enrolling in Morehouse College and becoming the first white graduate in 1965. He did so (as I understand it) for a couple of reasons, one of which was to support the Civil Rights Movement . Secondly, I believe he intended to show solidarity and a desire to right the broken societal relations in America that have existed for hundreds of years in the dehumanization of an entire segment of our population. The Civil Rights movement was certainly a part of this attempt at restoration, but it was only one step in the process, and this is very important to understand, and is also something that I believe is lost on most Americans today.

The attempts at breaking and replacing oppressive racist structures in American society did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, nor did it end with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Yet, for all practical purposes, it would appear that way to any observer of our country over the past five decades. After those two figures were murdered, we suddenly seemed to have advanced to a "colorblind" society in our discourse, and any attempts at further restoration of broken national relations between groups and classes of people - particularly whites and blacks - was pushed aside and deemed irrelevant in a "post-racial" Western world.

Of course nothing could be further from the truth, and one only needs to look at the prison system demographics, the War on Drugs, and the continued existence of gentrification, denial of equal opportunities in jobs and education and inner-city ghettoes to see that our systemic structures are still very much in place. They may in fact be stronger than before the Civil Rights legislation as they are now taboo to discuss, yet more complex and subtle in their manifestations. Attempting to zero in on one part of the structure of modern-day racism makes it difficult to describe the factors surrounding that particular structure as purely racist. For example, while it is true that black people are prosecuted at a much higher rate for drug offenses than whites (despite equal if not more use of drugs by whites), it is hard to pin down where the specific fault lies (Alexander, 2012). Is it with the judge's sentence? The police officer who used racial profiling to arrest the black drug offender? Or the increased patrolling of black neighborhoods by policemen? All are certainly contributing factors, but are very difficult to prove in isolated observation. It is only the view of the whole that gives us a sense of clarity as to what's going on.

Malcolm, Martin, Islam, Christianity, Justice, Love and Revolution 

Malcolm X was a man who recognized all this, even before the War on Drugs, and called this American racism exactly what it was - the product of a nation built on lies (X, 1965). Malcolm - along with black society as a whole - recognized that a nation that claimed to be based on freedom of not only peoples but markets, yet had a foundation of slave labor as the reason for its vast wealth, was one that was living with a dissonance or tension in the national consciousness. Many had seen this of course - particularly blacks - but Malcolm was the first to articulate it in not only an eloquent fashion, but one that was to the point and easily understandable by the masses. In fact, it was all too understandable for whites, and Malcolm derived much of his passion for justice and equality from his religion, which of course was Islam (X, 1965).
  
Islam not only represented the moral integrity in Malcolm's life, but it also provided a framework from which to formulate and articulate the necessary steps that would need to happen for America to restore itself in right relationship to the black community (Cone, 1990). He called for the destruction of the white way of life, and in this sense has echoed Black Liberation Theologians such as James Cone (1970). This destruction was not meant to kill whites existentially, but to kill whiteness as an oppressive condition in our society. Granted, Malcolm believed that solidarity and unity must first happen within the black community, but this was only so the oppressed could be as one in their understanding. This understanding was an awareness of what needed to take place to restore their full dignity as human beings in a racist society (X, 1965). After the unity of the black community, as reflected in Malcolm's later years, then anyone with a vision of a unified, equal, restored society could participate in the struggle. For the revolutionary struggle against racism and oppression is a world-wide battle, not one that is limited to one race. By virtue of the revolutionary ideal of restoring right relations between divided or hierarchical classifications of human beings, the true revolutionary resonates with the universal ideals of love, equality, justice, and in this case, restorative justice.

Malcolm understood this, and further understood that his religion of Islam emphasized this same vision of justice and equality. The true spirit of revolution against oppression recognizes this as well. This is one of the main reasons that Islam was so attractive to Malcolm, as the Western Christianity that he knew (and that I know as well) had been co-opted by white power structures for increased subjugation and even justification of oppressing an entire race of people. Further, this racist view of Christianity has expanded to foreign dominance of nations deemed inferior to our own in our vast grasp for resources - a fact recognized by both Malcolm X and notably MLK at the end of his life (King, 1992).

 In this sense, that religion must be destroyed (Cone, 1970). This is not saying that Christianity as a whole needs to be destroyed, as so many misinterpret this statement, but only that the version of Christianity that has developed out of a racist society built on a foundation of lies, enslavement, murder, imperialist expansion and illegal wars, and their often religious justifications, and the continued idea of a "chosen people" needs to be destroyed for racism to be destroyed as well.

Jesus, Mohammed, and all the great prophets, figures of divinity and teachers of ancient love traditions, religions and philosophies recognized this. A society built on lies will be corrupt throughout its entire structure. Certainly there is much good in America, but that good will always be tainted with the dissonance of racism, until these past wrongs are restored to proper relationship. What this means empirically might involve a movement of a revolutionary nature, but at the very least it must begin with America being honest with itself once and for all. The principles of the universal truth of love demand this. The great religious traditions demand this. Restorative Justice in its philosophical and existential reality demands this. Our own Constitution demands this.

Further, it is important to understand that this revolutionary re-structuring of American society will have to run quite deep. I'm not calling for violence, lest anyone misinterpret me. I consider myself a practitioner of nonviolence, but at the same time am not an absolutist in that respect. World conditions in the present day have shown me that nonviolence does not work in all situations. What I am calling for is a total restructuring of our society to rid this scourge of racism that has never gone away, but has only become stronger and more entrenched the longer we refuse to deal with the lies and the longer we refuse to own our past. This re-structuring will involve American Christianity writ large, as well as a re-structuring of our political and economic system. The latter is perhaps irrevocably corrupted and in need of a complete overhaul or overthrow and/or collapse. As for American Christianity, there are elements of the church that are already leading the revolutionary struggle, and it is possible to look at this sector of society from more of a reformist position as the religion itself is built on a foundation of universal truth.

But Capitalism by nature dehumanizes certain elements of society (by naming winners and losers), and it is arguably out of Capitalism that slavery and racism came to be in the first place (Shawki, 2006). Cheap labor was needed, and it was easier to make indentured servitude a part of our Capitalist society if those who were/are indentured are viewed as not quite human. Therefore, political structures - particularly in America - that were built on this foundation of racism cannot stand. This is not only true from a revolutionary perspective, but also from a perspective of true metaphysical justice and love. What is built on lies will eventually fall. What this looks like in reality, I cannot say. America is a powerfully established nation and world presence. Yet, the cracks are forming in our economic base. It might involve an economic collapse and the prior organization of positive change agents ready to step in and restore justice and equality in the wake of this collapse for racism to be eliminated, and imperial expansion and murder to stop.

Concluding Comments 

All of this shows us that Restorative Justice on the national level is incredibly complex, and will involve a great deal of pain in the proper implementation and steps required to restore relationships between races and classes. Nevertheless, it is something that I believe is inevitably necessary for our very survival as a nation and as human beings. The religious faith of both Malcolm X and MLK gave them a point of departure for their own struggles for justice both personally and as leaders of their people, and it is starting to do the same for me. Spirituality is something that should be constantly evolving in a person if it is legitimate and true. My own evolution in this respect is ongoing, as is the corresponding truth and reality of Restorative Justice in my own life. Yet both have given me a better understanding and clarity of the world around me, as well as my relation and responsibility to that world, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

References

Alexander, M. (2012). The new jim crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
Cone, J. (1990). A black theology of liberation: twentieth anniversary edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Cone, J. (1990). Martin, malcolm and america: a dream or a nightmare. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Jr., M. L. (1992). I have a dream: writings & speeches that changed the world. New York: HarperCollins.
Ross, R. (2006). Returning to the teachings: exploring aboriginal justice. Toronto: Penguin Canada.
Shawki, A. (2006). Black liberation and socialism. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
X, M. (1965). Malcolm x speaks. New York: Grove Press.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nonviolent Foreign Revolution and the American Role: Self-Identity and Awareness

When I was reading through the book Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America, I found myself wondering what my role was as a Northern/Western peacebuilder in relation to the oppressed areas of the Southern Hemisphere and Third World nations in general. I believe we often tend to think of our purpose for nonviolent social movements to be in helping those oppressed - and perhaps rightfully so. But for me, this often leads to thinking about those "less developed" countries and peoples such as the ones I read about in the book, the extraordinary movements that they helped initiate, and what I can do to "help" - and this can easily lead to a somewhat patronizing mentality. As soon as I began to critically think about what kind of action I would take, I immediately became conscious of the limits of my identity. I had to question what that identity has done to shape the way I think, and I knew I must challenge the inherent assumptions that come with that identity.

For as much as I've desired over the past number of years - both in thought and action - to escape the restrictions of "society" (and by that I mean Western society with all its faults in the materialistic/consumerist/Capitalist sense), the fact remains that the nature of my identity has been shaped by being an American. The way I speak, the way I think, the things with which I'm familiar, and most importantly, the way I am viewed by others throughout the world, cannot help but be permeated with a Western influence and the exceptionalist way of thought that is inherent to American society. This fact carries with it a great responsibility, but it is a very particular kind of responsibility. I believe this is extremely important for all of us in the West to understand: we cannot rush into situations of oppression in Third World countries and practice the most nonviolent methods of battle alongside the oppressed while ignoring the position our identity places us in relation to local indigenous/native populations.

We must remember that our position as Americans is a part of our identity. It has placed us in a peculiar place. On the one hand, we have the ability to sit and reflectively think through strategies, methods and our level of conscientization - such as I am doing right now by putting these words to paper - in an environment that has filled us with knowledge, information and the mental tools for advancing and bettering ourselves and others. On the other hand, that ability to become educated has not come without a price. From the easily accessible food we eat to keep at our peak mental ability, to the funds we are able to receive for education, to the resources for basic subsistence that we are able to obtain with relatively little effort in relation to those our nation exploits, it is on the backs of others that we have arrived at these luxuries. These two sides have given us what I term as responsibility with limitations.

What I mean by this is that we have the responsibility to make things better for those in the world around us, but we must be extremely cognizant of the techniques we incorporate in doing so and incorporate the values of empathy and equanimity. As with any situation of conflict, we must first start with an analysis, and in nonviolent situations, this analysis has the critical element of self. There must be an analysis both of the external situation, but most importantly, we must have a deep self-knowledge and respect combined with a deep understanding of how we are viewed by others who will be participating in the struggle.


Lisa Schirch (2004) has identified the first stage of analysis in peacebuilding as understanding the local context. Local can also include national depending on how foreign one is to a particular environment. I am thinking of the example given by Gerald Schlabach (1991) when he discussed a trip to the Philippines and his encounter with a group of guerilla revolutionaries that turned confrontational. Schlabach's mistake was to not have done the proper work of self-identity analysis before discussing the issue of nonviolence with these violent guerillas. If there was any doubt about his identity as it was perceived by the Filipino revolutionaries, that was settled after they put him in his place as one of those Americans "...who come and ask us why we are violent..." when those Americans have "...barged in and stole our country from us..." (1991, p. 254). In this situation, Schlabach's lack of self-identity awareness and analysis of the local context caused him to be blind to the fact that he carried the entire foreign policy of the United States as a part of his identity.

There is an arrogance that we carry - conscious or not - simply from virtue of our being American. It is something that cannot be escaped other than through time and the process of "becoming one with...". The very title of the book Relentless Persistence bears witness to this fact. Nonviolence is a long, arduous demanding process that requires great prior preparation. If we as outsiders want to become a part of a particular foreign struggle with which we feel called to participate, then we'd better understand that it will require time for us to be in a position to identify with that struggle. We must first become one with the people before we can become one with the struggle. Father Domingo Barbe (1991) would likely agree with the idea that this form of identification was first accomplished by God through Christ who became one with His creation by appearing in human form, and paying the ultimate sacrifice and price of the oppressed by giving up His life in the cause for justice and redemption. Although I do not claim Christianity, I agree with this conception of justice, as it runs with the grain of love and truth.
The true nonviolent revolutionary spirit is no different. There may not be a place for us in certain nonviolent struggles other than for us to do what we can at home in order to change the kinds of conditions that have led to the struggle in the first place. Some foreign struggles are so spontaneous, and have arisen out of such a place of desperation, that we do not have time to properly identify with the local population in order to become immediately involved and present in the form of truly understanding and being able to become one with the people.

If we want to be nonviolent revolutionaries in a foreign context, my personal belief is that we must first have a deep understanding and participation in the struggle as it exists in our own country. We are all interconnected, and the decisions we make affect not only our neighbors, but ultimately the world at large. This is true for every member of the human race. The Third World revolutionary also elevates the general condition of humanity by continuing and uniting with the love force that is a part of all true and just revolutions - and this is not something that American hubris is even remotely equipped to fulfill "for" somebody else. Once we have done all we can to understand the role the United States has played in foreign policy as it relates to a particular country and/or people, and we have made clear through conscientization (theory and praxis) our responsibility for this policy, then we can look to foreign contexts and identification.

It is only then that we can begin foreign nonviolent action by becoming one with the people. This can only happen with time, and it is not glamorous work. It is likely the impatience of modern civilization that is partly responsible for bringing about the "quick solution" of violent intervention in the first place. There are no quick solutions for long-term nonviolence. It must be a lifestyle, and in a foreign context, this means living among the people. We must love the people and become one with their way of life in order to stand alongside them in struggle. This will likely mean that we enter their context when no immediate struggle is occurring. The struggle cannot be our focus, it must be love of the people. For without this kind of love, nonviolence loses its deep truth, and the coming struggle will be empty of the foundation required for its sustainability.


References
Barbe, D. (1991). The spiritual basis of nonviolence. In P. McManus; G. Schlabach, Relentless persistence: nonviolent action in latin america (pp. 268-281). Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

McManus, P., & Schlabach, G. (1991). Relentless persistence: nonviolent action in latin america. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Schirch, L. (2004). The little book of strategic peacebuilding: a vision and framework for peace with justice. Intercourse: Good Books.

Schlabach, G. (1991). Epilogue: more than one task - north american nonviolence and latin american liberations struggle. In P. McManus; G. Schlabach, Relentless persistence: nonviolent action in latin america (pp. 252-265). Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Conscientization

To be white in America means that I don't know what it's truly like to have thoughts like the one I saw posted by my Cape Verdean-American friend Mery concerning the Colorado shootings this past Friday: "I was just praying that the suspect wasn't black." On a slightly more macro scale, to be an American of any color means that we don't have to experience in the existential present of our daily lives the virtual slave labor that goes into creating the cheap and abundant products that we feel we couldn't live without. Both situations are indicative of existential conditions that are deficient of conscientization.

Paulo Freire's idea of conscientization is roughly the awareness of our condition in life as that condition is informed by social myth. To eliminate the myth and arrive at the true nature of our being requires the processes of critical reflection and action in non-dualistic application (Freire, 1970). In the case of the Colorado shooting, it was Mery's post that spoke to the ever-present violence of racism that permeates the social fabric of American life. She went on to protest the unequal media coverage of events such as this, in that the suspect - being white - was looked at as an example of potential mental illness, or possible prior victimization, but not as fundamentally flawed due to race, religion or ideology. In other words, there was no racism or bigotry in the media's examination of his psyche. He wasn't Muslim, he wasn't black and he wasn't a communist or otherwise overtly "anti-American", so he didn't play into any of the dominant societal identity myths of who the enemy "is".

For me, the attempt at greater conscientization of this particular incident requires stepping back even further and taking in as much of the absurdity of a violence driven society as possible. The irrationality of the nation that continues to insist on war despite all evidence of its inefficiency, wastefulness and disregard for the sanctity of life is seen in how we treat those who kill. The suspect in Colorado is labeled a criminal (and perhaps rightfully so), but what about the President who authorizes the drone strike that kills innocent villagers in Afghanistan? Is it absurd to live in a society that claims to be free - to respect the dignity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - yet justifies the killing of wars?
Thich Nhat Hanh says that we must "perceive our political and economic systems correctly in order to see what is going wrong" (2012, p.245). In the comparison above, this means that I must evaluate why life is considered sacred in one situation, and disposable in another. Where did the error occur in the narrative of civilization that taught us that killing to solve international or intra-national disputes is acceptable while the killing of an isolated madman is not? Why aren't both unacceptable? Some of course would respond that it is in the base nature of humanity to react violently in order to maintain self-preservation. William James (2012) might even agree with that and say that we must find other outlets for the traits we carry. Hanh would say that what we are dealing with is a powerful energy that can be used for either good or bad. In either case, it is implicit that we as humans carry the potential to make a choice and redefine our lives, our social myths, our civilization and achieve greater conscientization as rational, thinking, intelligent evolving beings.
                
Jessie Wallace Hughan (2012) has shown us that - theoretically - a nation committed to complete disarmament and pacifism is possible, and not only possible but could and would win a war against a violent enemy. Yet the degree of commitment required makes her vision seem utopian in anything resembling modern day society. Complete ideological adherence makes many "isms" seem possible, including Communism, but the real world and real life get in the way of these ideologies. So how do we change the narrative of civilization and work at eliminating or re-directing the energy that is used in violent action? Is it even possible? What does "success" in this area look like? Is it necessary to change the entire planet, or do the actions of individuals matter?

These questions have been at the very foundation of my search for meaning over the past number of years. They are also closely connected with my search for the existence of the divine. I have come to the conclusion that there is an inescapable energy of love or a particular force, a direction in the universe. In this sense, my thought parallels Hanh. I believe that every human is capable of aligning themselves with this force - which is ultimately the natural direction or way of things - and that it takes conscientization to be able to see this force or way. Hanh would give conscientization the name of non-dualism, and conscientization is very much a form of becoming - of uniting - with one's very nature, which is shared by all others. To unite with the particular direction of nonviolence, exemplified, enacted and consistent with the practices of love is to identify ourselves with our true nature, or the highest form of mental, physical and spiritual evolution - conscientization - that we can achieve. Once internalized, this belief is at the center of my own mental and physical self-preservation, for without knowledge of my true nature, life is meaningless.

It wasn't easy for me to arrive at this level of my own conscientization. It took a near-death experience in the form of a car accident to shake me awake and to truly begin the process. Previously, I had accepted much of the terms of my life from external sources, and had not done my own reflection nor had I lived my life consistent with the principles corresponding to a knowledge of the universal energy of nonviolence and love. Like Gary L. Francione (2012), I have extended the respect for life to animals as well. If we are to practice nonviolence, we must be universal in its application, and any being that can suffer pain must be treated with the utmost dignity. Yet I'm still at a philosophical block with thinkers like Francione in where the biological line of "animal" as distinct from "plant" or non-feeling life should be placed.

This brings us back to my friend Mery and her struggle combating racism in a society that still has a long way to go to achieve conscientization in that area. She and I had a discussion about the topic, and she mentioned how she has been an advocate her entire life - through teaching and leading community workshops - against issues of race. I broached the issue of large scale social change with her as in: what will it take to achieve large scale differences in the way we view race, or the way we view guns, violence, war and defense budgets? Of course we were at an impasse, we weren't going to save the world in a Facebook discussion. But I believe her point of advocacy is key in how we live nonviolent lives. Freire would also seem to agree as would VeneKlassen and Miller (2010). Advocacy is one way in which we can directly apply the principles of nonviolence to the world around us. We can choose to keep the energy of love alive in our own lives through extending it as much as possible to the world as it exists in our immediate reach.

I agree with Mery that our lives are all interdependent, and advocating for those who suffer, and against suffering in general is advocating for that human dignity that we all deserve. It shows respect for others, but it just as much shows respect for our own being in recognizing that being in others. This is what has given me hope and meaning in my own life. I know that there is a purpose for my being here, yet at the same time I know that I can shape that purpose and make it what I want it to be. Therefore I choose nonviolence, and I choose to do what I alone can do, and by choosing to do so, I aim for the understanding that Hanh refers to and the conscientization of Freire. 

References

Francione, G. L. (2012). Nonviolence and animal rights. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 326-331). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Hanh, T. N. (2012). Feelings and perceptions. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 243-246). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Hughan, J. W. (2012). Pacifism and invasion. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 219-232). Long Grove: Waveland Press.

James, W. (2012). The moral equivalent of war. In R. L. Holmes, & B. L. Gan, Nonviolence in theory and practice third edition (pp. 176-185). 2012: Waveland Press.

VeneKlasen, L., & Miller, V. (2010). New weave power people politics: the action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Sterling: Stylus Publishing.