Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reciprocity in all spheres


Some people in the media characterized the Pope as politically na├»ve, or worse, a divisive incompetent. Is he? Now that we have some distance between Muslim outrage and Benedict’s recent conciliatory moves, it’s probably a good time to look at the blowup a little more closely.

My own views are that Pope Benedict made a bold and calculated move to speak the truth to further the need for dialogue among Christians and Muslims, to awaken western nations from their stupor, and on that score he succeeded. Of course it remains to be seen how it will advance peace and goodwill.

The angry display by some Muslim protestors, the call for the Pope to be killed, the outbreaks of violence (a nun was gunned down – isolated act it was said - and some churches torched), etc proved exactly what the Pontiff was talking about: violence is irrational and should never be condoned by Islam or Christianity. Where there is violence, the onus to denounce it in the strongest possible language must come from authorities within the group perpetuating it – deliberately or unthinkingly – Christian or Muslim. Otherwise they prove once again that denial is not just a river in Egypt.

The Pope met envoys from 22 countries at his summer residence and a speech quoting his predecessor Pope John Paul II who spoke to young people at Casablanca in Morocco, "Respect and dialogue require reciprocity in all spheres, especially in that which concerns basic freedoms, more particularly religious freedom. They favour peace and agreement between peoples" (Pope Benedict's full message here)

George Friedman in his article Faith, Reason and Politics: Parsing the Pope's Remarks also suggests that the Pope's speech took the bull by its horn with 'superb misdirection':
“In fact, there is a logic here: If the Muslims reject Benedict's statement, they have to acknowledge the rationalist aspects of Islam. The burden is on the Ummah to lift the religion out of the hands of radicals and extremist scholars by demonstrating that Muslims can adhere to reason.

From an intellectual and political standpoint, therefore, Benedict's statement was an elegant move. He has strengthened his political base and perhaps legitimized a stronger response to anti-Catholic rhetoric in the Muslim world. And he has done it with superb misdirection. His options are open: He now can move away from the statement and let nature take its course, repudiate it and challenge Muslim leaders to do the same with regard to anti-Catholic statements or extend and expand the criticism of Islam that was implicit in the dialogue.” (Full article here)
So what next? In a New York Times report conservative Catholic and former Italian culture minister had this to say of the Pontiff: "I think this is just the beginning. I am sure Benedict XVI has many surprises in store for us. He is not afraid."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Reason and irrationality

I thought the Pope’s speech was an excellent defense of the place of reason and rationality in human inquiry. His observation regarding modern concepts of reason drawn from a synthesis of Platonism and empiricism and the danger they pose was however not new although it was timely and necessary. Addressed to academics at a German university he sought a rapproachment between scientific reason and theological inquiry, saying the breath of reason is not inimical to faith, especially the Christian faith. Of course there will always be a tension. Pure reason alone has its bounds; while faith transcends reason, paradoxically it should not be empty of reasonableness. The triune God of the Bible is after all, logos - word and reason. While Christians maintain that the trinity defies human reasoning, it is conceptually and theologically reasonable.

Anyway, Kantian philosophy aside, shifting the weight of one against the other (or reason vs revelation), or by insisting on a merely mathematical definition of scientificity, is not only questionable and inadequate, it would be a dangerous sell-out, a diminution of humanity. According to Pope Benedict it is,
… man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science” and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter.

This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.
However what also interested me was Pope Benedict XVI’s reading of Reformation history. Oddly enough he referred to confrontation with scholastic theology, but sidestepped the Reformers’ larger opposition to the medieval Church’s doctrinal perspectives on righteousness and salvation, and its institutional corruption. To my understanding that was the fundamental spur of the Reformation. Here's what the Pope said:
Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word.
I know he was merely making a reference to one aspect of the Reformation, but was it really a question of philosophical systems that kicked off Luther’s protest, I wonder? The 5 solas – Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria – underscore the principles and emphases behind the Reformation. Thanks to Luther, Calvin, et al, we are all the richer for it.

{Protestantism & Reformation (Links to Catholic Encyclopedia)}

On another note, I wonder if anyone noticed the irony in the current gathering Muslim protest at the Pope’s speech. Irony of ironies. In a message that appeals to rationality and reasonable faith, a large swathe of the Muslim world is taking 14th century quotes out of context and in typical fashion acting irrationally. By the looks of it, it’s taking on the storm of the Danish cartoons brouhaha. Even Pak Lah has joined the fray, expressing outrage while calling for retractions and apologies. Here we go again. God help us all!

Pope Benedict has always been known to be a careful academic with a deeper understanding of Islam than his predecessor. The Telegraph reports that the Pope does recognise the radical difference between the Islamic understanding of God and that of the Christians. In fact the online paper points to what the Pope wrote in 1996, that a multi-faith society "is not consistent with Islam's inner nature" because of the comprehensive thrust of the Quran.

But I do think the Pope did take a dig at Islam, possibly at the character of Allah, indirectly inquiring if Islam (going by Ibn Hazm’s logic) postulates a God who is both rational and good. Now, the question is: did the Pope make a blunder? Should the Pope apologize? Is there a need for it? Again, should reason abdicate in the face of irrationality? Was 911 an American conspiracy?

Monday, September 11, 2006

We're all Lina Joy

Kota Bharu MP Zaid Ibrahim’s address at a human Malaysian Human Rights Day 2006 organised by Suhakam in KL challenged Muslim paranoia:
"Somebody in Parliament said that if we don’t have rules (regarding apostasy), they would all become apostates. That’s stupidity! Do we not give our religion more respect and recognition?

"Do we not shame ourselves by making such statements that we have no confidence in the intrinsic worth of our religion?” he said, pointing out that Islam has been around for centuries."
Now aren’t these words a welcome change? The UMNO MP who is also a lawyer told Muslims that all Lina wanted was her IC changed, that there was no need to say that Islam was under attack:
"What’s the problem? She’s not Muslim anymore. God will punish her surely. Do we play god’s role now? How do you know god won’t forgive her?"
On the other hand I found Carpenter’s advice to Lina (see letter previously posted below) rather off-putting. In particular, characterizing the Lina Joy issue as a battle between the cause of right and the forces of might isn’t helpful at all. Even if the present circumstances appear to be a contest between right and might, is there any merit in capitulating to might, and to simply cut and run?

I thought the letter’s wishes of "Godspeed" sounded false (I hope I am wrong), as if the writer was hastily waving Lina off. You know, there's this threat of violence and we simply can't have it. Hmm. So much better for you (and us all) if you would just uproot and move abroad. Sure brings to mind Thoreau’s words, taken from another context but just as equally and frighteningly relevant dilemma:

“There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man; but it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it.”

Striking, the feeble countenance of a patron of virtue.

I just saw that wonderful movie adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird again. It’s the story of an upright small-town lawyer tasked with defending a black man in the racially segregated 1930s, and that wasn’t the done thing then. As Atticus Finch explained to her daughter Scout, standing by the wrongly accused Tom Robinson mattered for a number of reasons, but primarily because "…if I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem (Scout’s brother) not to do something again."

I think what we need to stress and insist is this: if something is worth living for, it is also worth giving your life for. In the current constitutional impasse, this is something only Lina can answer, but it is also a principle that all people of goodwill must surely agree with.

The recent forced conversion of two TV newsman provides a lesson in contrast. Fox News journalists Steve Centanni and his cameraman Olaf Whig were released on Aug 27 shortly after they worked out a deal with their captors that entailed a forced public conversion to Islam and an anti-US diatribe (videos here). To date, we hear no repudiation from Mullahs and moderates about gross violation of the journos’ rights.

Lots of people thought that was a clever move for it looked as if their Jihadi captors had been outsmarted. I don’t think so. While I sympathise with their harrowing experience (who knows how I would react if I were in their shoes?) it merely confirmed the Islamic terrorists propaganda that the West could never win this war because the West no longer possesses anything worth dying for. If one’s cause or faith does not offer enough meaning worth fighting and dying for, then the war is already lost. (Mark Steyn's brilliant essay underscores the current defeatist mood).

What does it say about our government when we glibly admit its impotence in the face of the ‘force of might’? Even the UK offered Salman Rushdie protection when he went into hiding from the Ayatollah's fatwa, but alas, no such thing is forthcoming from our own government, it appears. I am loath to acknowledge the distinct possibility that the government will yield to thuggery and intimidation. And even if it is less costly and easier to quit, I believe it is better to stand and resist – if only to send a message that we want to be counted. Yet that which is valuable always comes with a cost. It is the same old difficult choice between the easy thing to do and the right thing to do.

In the meantime, I believe people of faith should pray. Prayer, too, is costly. I also believe we should give our prayer legs, and do all we can that is within our means in the defense of Lina’s constitutional right to choose her own religion. And because Lina has embraced the Christian faith, this is all the more reason for the Malaysian Church to stand with her and say, we are ALL Lina Joy. Nevertheless, as Christians the means we adopt ought not to mirror the antagonism and arrogance common in public protest. My own view is similar to the Gandhian approach of non-violent protest, also shared by Martin Luther King. We do what we can, and as in all things, leave all in God's good hand come what may.

BTW, Lina’s quandary raised an interesting thought. Her opponents say her apostasy questions the issue of race as a Malay is constitutionally defined as a Muslim (Article 160:2). Present laws conspire to separate Malaysians into racial categories of Malay, Indian, Chinese, and the ambiguous “lain-lain” (others). If it is true that she has renounced Islam, technically she would not be Malay. If she cannot be allowed to be Malay, then by transcending her racial identity she is perhaps more Malaysian than us all.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Letter to Lina

Did anyone of you read this mail to Malaysiakini dated Sept 4? Written by someone who calls himself/herself The Carpenter and addressed to Lina Joy, it begins with a sympathetic commendation of Lina’s “beliefs” and her struggle for religious freedom. Perhaps it’s just me, but there’s a patronizing whiff in the writer’s advice which I find discomforting. I’m posting it here so I can comment on it later.
Dear Lina,

Firstly, let me commend you on your courage in facing what must be tremendous pressure to be true to your beliefs to struggle for your religious freedom. I cannot even begin to imagine the stress and anxiety you and your partner must have gone through over the last 8-10 years.

Unfortunately, the hearing of your appeal comes at the most sensitive time for the government of the day. Not only does it face a guaranteed backlash from its grassroot supporters should you win (which I think is unlikely for the same reason), it is also facing its severest test in standing up to the internal division that may result from the former PM's challenge to the present leadership. I do not expect the government to do the right thing in your case for this reason: It cannot afford to. It will do what it needs to survive the present crisis.

There is also the cost of reprisal to non-Muslim communities that will arise, not through any fault of theirs, but simply because some of your former co-religionists who feel insecure and threatened by any change in the status quo are hinting at possible violence. This is most unfortunate and grave as it goes to show that half a century of after independence, there are still many in this group who do not believe that religion is an individual's choice and strictly between her and her God.

They believe they can usurp God's place on the throne of judgement and pass judgement on their fellow human being even after the Prophet (pbuh) clearly stated "There shall be no compunction in religion".

Back to the present. For you to succeed in your petition, it is not only necessary for the judicial system to be unbiased (very difficult to believe after 1988 and especially in today's environment of religious hysteria), it is also necessary for the democratic institutions and most importantly its polity to be mature in their approach to such issues. I have seen no evidence to substantiate these pre-requisites.

In fact, all the indicators point in the opposite direction i.e. backlash to the point of death threats being circulated on certain lawyers, yourself and your beloved. We are no more mature today then half a century ago. I would argue we are even less mature due to the politicisation of religion. The ruling coalition under the former PM capitulated to PAS and religious extremism. These religious bigots have managed to set the political agenda for our nation. Today our nation pays the price for it. We have become enslaved by religious hysteria.

While the cause of right is on your side, the cause of might is on theirs. We must choose struggles we can win and avoid those we have no hope of winning today. Sometimes it is better to live today to continue the struggle for another day when conditions have changed.

So if marrying your beloved is your main goal, leave this nation for better shores elsewhere. There are many options out there. I would not be surprised if some countries offer you and your beloved asylum given the religious persecution you have been subjected to at home. There is no shame in choosing this option. Even the prophets of yesteryear had to flee the madness of the mob, at times, in order to see God more clearly.
If staying in your country of birth is more important then stay but be prepared not to officially marry your beloved.

I wish you Godspeed in the choices ahead of you. May you find the freedom and joy you seek.