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Against the backdrop of leafy quadrangles, to the sounds of British birdsong in a rainy English Spring, I have been thinking about religion, belief and morality. Over the past two weeks here in Cambridge, I have enjoyed the company of some of the most animated minds focusing on the nexus of science and religion today. Along with nine others, I am part of the 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship, a program conceived by the late Sir John Templeton to help journalists engage in public discourse on the most challenging interfaces of our time while fostering inter-faith dialogue.
One of the most dazzling speakers to address us was Professor Noah Efron of Bar Ilan University who flew in from Tel Aviv to speak to us about Science and Judaism. In a pivotal moment, he made a critically important observation, one that stayed with me long after his electrifying talk had ended.
Later that week, at the end of long days of class, as I watched the reports of the Flotilla approaching Gaza, I remembered his astute observation about the tropism, the intense and heated near-animosity often found at the interface between science and religion, an energy by which one often defines the other. The intensity of attachment to either pole is surprisingly powerful and, as so often is the case, the dialogue which results, isn't (as Professor Efron teaches) really 'dialogue' , rather it is the noise made when two crashing conflicts meet. Professor Efron showed how such dynamics are rarely truly about ideas in their pure form, but rather about tangled emotions we tie up in the process.
This got me thinking.
The same qualities of an innate, reflexive and Pavlovian tropism exist between much of the Muslim experience and any manifestation of Judaism, most acutely the rift between 'the Muslim' and 'the Israeli'. This 'tropism' has been classically exhibited in the events surrounding the recent and intensely upsetting Flotilla incidents.
Much of the news coverage here in Britain has focused on the reality that Gaza has indeed remained under naval blockade and effectively under siege, deprived of many critical resources which would otherwise facilitate its rebuilding. Indeed while Israel permits the entry of significant amounts of aid, food, medicines, the details remain unclear in countless press reports, a deliberate oversight, in my opinion.
However, unfailingly, in every rendition, the May 31st Flotilla bearing humanitarian aid has been universally cast as a force for moral good, a symbolic 'liberator', as a response to a forgotten need. A colossal gesture of providing massive cargo bearing millions of dollars of aid is indeed philanthropic. But there is more to this than that.
From the first moments, I was flummoxed as to why these ships were suddenly arriving at this time, even though the blockade is over 3 years old. More intriguing was to consider why private interests in Turkey were underwriting this astonishingly expensive effort when their elected government has been an ally of Israel for years, even to the extent of engaging in regular naval exercises with the Israeli Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
For a long time, the portrayal of Israelis has been universally monolithic: oppressive, brutal, inhuman and heartless. The parallels between Israeli and Jew; military engagement with national identity; state policy with individual responsibility are conveniently blurred into one homogeneous, maligned, dislikeable edifice. Evidently we, the viewers, the invisible media auteurs, have lost all powers of nuance and discernment. In every report, Israeli brutality, whether on the ship, or in Gaza has been emphasized, both implicitly and explicitly.
At no point have I heard a sane discussion on the complex reasons why a blockade was in place or indeed why Egypt had for years cooperated in maintaining the blockade through the closure of Rafah. Rafah remained firmly shut throughout the entirety of Operation Cast Lead, immutably so, even in the face of pleas from the Arab world. Egypt's collusion in Operation Cast Lead was an acutely felt betrayal which resonated globally.
I was in Riyadh in those first days of what would become known as Operation Cast Lead, watching the episode unfurl from within the region. Within the first week, Saudi Arabia had gathered massive humanitarian aid at the behest of apical leadership. Despite the military incursion on Gaza, passage of aid was categorically and absolutely obstructed. It wasn't the Israelis refusing access to regional Arab aid - no the deniers of the Saudi appeals were not Jews, they were Muslims. It was Muslim-majority Egypt which refused to allow Saudi Arabia access to an open border even to deliver medical aid and supplies. Quite uncomfortable for Muslims to think about, wouldn't you agree?
And was Egyptian denial due to fear of Israeli retaliation? Perhaps - indeed that is a convenient construct, which does likely contain kernels of reality. However, more significant, the borders remained closed because, simply put, Egypt doesn't want to face a mass migration of Gazans.
These and other such details are irritating distractions, messy deviations, from a chiseled, binary portrayal which both the media, its bipolar audience and master media manipulators seek to display when we think about Israel and Palestine, Muslim and Jew. As world media becomes ever more comfortable with the portrayal of Israel as monolithic villain devoid of conscience, anti-Israeli criticism begins to ascend in volume, and commentary further deteriorates. This is a frightening descent and should concern all of us, irrespective of one's politics, faith or relationships.
At one stage, a spokesperson for Hamas appeared on the BBC citing that Gazans have no need for aid, adding "we do not need to fill our bellies". Well, the world thinks otherwise. In his astonishing defiance revealed by a casual, throwaway comment, the spokesperson revealed the prime goal of the Flotilla's mission, as he perceived it: to run the gauntlet against the blockade, not to alleviate material needs of his suffering electorate. The Flotilla was a bald and blatant political move designed to humiliate and provoke.
His remarks reveal the extent to which Palestinians are now objectified political pawns, rather than a people. While we are comfortable with the longstanding objectification of Palestinians by Israelis as the 'other' in the form of a security threat (after all Israel must balance a constant struggle to determine the needs of a terrorized Israeli citizenship over the needs of an exploding ever-younger ever impoverished, increasingly radicalized Gaza population) we fail to encounter our own sinister objectification of the Palestinians which we accomplish so effectively all by ourselves. This objectification is not only held by their revolving, corrupt leadership, but also by an objectifying Muslim world. We the Muslims need the Palestinians to remain locked in their plight so that they might continue to serve as the Ummah's scotoma (a blindspot) which literally prevents us from seeing our own more immediate distresses, distresses which might demand our attention and perhaps even require societal interventions . We would be lost, disarmed, and stunned without an external locus for our rage which is so piercingly trained on Gaza and the West Bank, so piercing in fact that Darfur barely warrants a sidelong glance.
Does this exonerate Israel? No. Does this implicate Muslims? You bet.
Let me continue the self-flagellation.
During this same period of Flotilla Face-Offs with the IDF, Pakistan, my nation of matrilineal and patrimonial heritage has witnessed the extraordinary massacre of 120 moderate, pacifist Muslims, followers of the Ahmadiyyah movement that subscribes to peaceful, pluralistic Islam. Specifically, they embrace non-violence, condemning violent jihad. They were massacred, in cold blood, in worship, by fellow citizens, fellow Pakistanis, fellow Muslims. Most of the murdered were elderly, and male. Hundreds more were injured, some of whom are still dying this week. Emergency services did not arrive for over two hours. Pakistani police stood back, apparently allowing the carnage to occur, supposedly too afraid to engage. Awaiting special operations commandos to intervene, in their uncertainty, perhaps their tacit tolerance, Pakistani police became silent accomplices to the massacre. Many of the pacifist Muslim worshipers died of uncomplicated hemorrhagic shock within mere minutes of advanced medical care.
Where has been the subsequent national and international outrage at the death of these Muslims? Where is the Muslim world now? Where are the Muslims calling for War Crimes to be investigated within the inert and increasingly fractious Pakistani 'leadership'? We, the Muslims find ourselves suddenly voiceless, tongue tied, jaded and unmoved, yet somehow Gaza stokes our bald fury.
So, against this deafening silence, when six passengers on the ship were regrettably killed during a confrontation with the Israeli Defense Force, this bloodshed became sufficient to call for investigations of war crimes by an elected government in charge of their military at work enforcing a public, long standing naval blockade, one which has been tacitly accepted in the region, irrespective of the ethics of this blockade. It wasn't just a member of the IDF, who was thrown overboard in the on board skirmish it would seem, it was morality.
Like most things in life, morality unfortunately is a little more complex than some would have you believe. Presently, morality is sinking into oblivion deep into the Eastern Mediterranean and all that remains is some soggy, discarded flotsam bobbing up and down in a magnifying pandemonium of hysterical, biased tropism.
It is increasingly clear Israel is judged by very different measures and with decreasing objectivity by every actor independent of Israel. Israel herself cannot be objective because she is entrenched in a terrible dilemma. A Hamas that cares not to fill the bellies of those starving in Gaza is also the same agency spending millions of dollars on televised indoctrination designed to manipulate young, plastic minds. See for yourself: go to Palestinian Media Watch. Children, in the prime ages of 5-7 are critically vulnerable to developing attachment figure-like relationships to God. At precisely these ages, they are bombarded with "Hamas Box Office" productions: aspirational propaganda extolling the virtues of suicide bombing as vengeance. Through his work at Palestinian Media Watch, Itamar Marcus has revealed just how institutionalized terror has become in the territories. Work by Dr. Pehr Granqvist and colleagues at the University of Stockholm in Sweden has shown it is precisely at this time and stage of child development at which belief systems are most influenced, and concrete immutable beliefs can be established. Useful, therefore to introduce young minds to the concepts of self-destruction which are quickly embedded, and absorbed and nurtured. Who is decrying the morality of this manipulation? Who is the war criminal now?
Israeli concerns about opening Gaza, while still being unable to determine whether arms, bombs and other tools of terrorism, including the now-ubiquitous would be suicide bomber could enter, is a serious and valid concern, one which does not earn a sound-byte of discussion. Contrary, therefore, to popular reports, an Israeli life carries less international capital, it seems, than we may once have believed. As one Jewish friend of mine here in New York City put it to me in his own inimitably blunt way: "Jewish blood is cheap" but not, I argue, quite as cheap as that of a Pakistani Muslim pacifist in Lahore.
Yes, Muslims should be worried if Hamas is now able to obtain uninspected aid from Syria, Libya, Iran or anywhere else if the naval blockade is lifted because Hamas and their like are a means to an end answerable only unto themselves. They have no more regard for the plight of the Palestinians than the Egyptians or other silent partners in Palestinian isolation and dispossession. We are falling into the dangerous territory of over-simplification.
Dr. Jose Liht as part of Dr. Fraser Watt's team of researchers examining de-radicalization here at Cambridge University, has carefully studied the language of rhetoric in times leading up to conflict. A key feature of rhetoric leading the way to conflict is its simplification, its increasing polarization and over-simplification of 'the other'. The departure of nuance is a harbinger to calamity, which tends to take all of us down en masse. The data on such rhetorical analysis is confident and established. Even when military attacks have been surprise events, retrospective evaluations of transcripts reveal this same two-dimensional distillation that dangerously promotes 'otherness', out-group definitions, the beginnings of alienation and the end of mutual empathy.
By minimizing Israeli concerns, by uniformly portraying not only a nation, but an entire culture, whether one thinks of 'the Jew' or 'the Israeli' or the 'Bani Israeel' we are feeding into the lethal rhetoric of a frightening war. This is a reality that applies to every Muslim who subscribes to antisemitism, that resurgent, 20th Century disease of modern 'Muslim-hood'. In making sweeping simplifications, we ourselves (whomever we are) become as monstrous as the opponent we have thus sought to portray. Such base generalizations are the foundation, the bedrock for atrocities, as Professor Kathleen Taylor, author of Cruelty, explains in her work on morality and neuroscience at the University of Oxford.
We, the Jews and the Muslims, weren't always like this. One has only to watch Robert Satloff's incredibly sensitive documentary, 'Among the Righteous', detailing the collaboration of North African Muslims in sheltering North African Jews during World War Two to realize the world can be different, and it seems, indeed once was. This was an age when we were so much more than our tropisms. How did we come from this place and time of sheltering fellow People of the Book from the Shoah to becoming firm subscribers of Holocaust denial within the space of a two short generations?
In our quest for the delectable crispness of binary portrayal, we become ever more detached from applying our own holier-than-thou morality on our opponent. While we dehumanize and decry the immoral IDF officer, the cruel Israeli superpower, the heartless Jewish state, we, 'the other', maintain our own moral compass intact in assessing our own contributions to ongoing tropism. Hence, Hamas, and its violent and truly cannibalistic approaches (fueling a culture which literally consumes its own children in the service of its ideology) becomes a resistance of valor and indeed apparently one above moral question.
This is a bastardization of humanity and morality. Who are we to judge the Israelis and their policies, when the wider Muslim world tolerates a total departure of the most basic Islamic values: living a meaningful life in this world, sanctity of life above all other rights, subscription to ideologies meaningfully exchanged through suicide bombing into spiritual and material currency, fundamentally abandoning the protection and nurturing of society's weakest: the child. Conveniently, for our collective moral Muslim superiority, our moral compass is off line when considering ourselves. We do not reflect. We lack introspection. Indeed our own, increasingly grotesque reflection is too awful for ourselves to behold, because within it we recognize our complicity in immorality.
For me, there is no dilemma when considering the Flotilla incident. How many miles away from Israeli waters the boat was is irrelevant. Its announced intention was clear. Its refusal to dock at Ashdod underlined the symbolism and not the literalism with which the Flotilla envisioned itself. The intention was clearly to bring about forcible political change, irrespective of regional and international costs. It was not about feeding the hungry or clothing the poor.
The deeper motive for this acute-onset philanthropy is unclear but I sense is unlikely to be based on altruist imperatives but rather instead founded on a bed rock of atavistic hates which are now surfacing in the guise of morality and ethics. These goals are likely to be self-serving of shadowy puppet-masters. All the while, a nuanced interpretation of Israel's very real security dilemmas are overlooked and effectively erased, suffocated and marginalized. The upshot? Israel is left without recourse but to seek a more entrenched military and security solution and the world is left even more polarized and brittle than before. And no, it is not ALL Israel's fault. We, the Muslims, have each been complicit in this dance, complicit for decades.
When we assess circumstances involving Israeli-Palestinians conflict we are unable to be objective. As Tom Friedman likes to say, when approaching this issue all of us tend to go slightly insane. But its worth noting, when approaching every circumstance, our brain has no direct access to life, but must see it through our own in-built 'Kantian veil' rather than experience true reality. I am no exception to this distortion.
In this instance however, of Israel and the flotilla, that veil operates through what has become increasingly, collectively socially-acceptable and widely endorsed antisemitism which even erupted into the astonishing comments of Helen Thomas who suggested "all Jews return" to wherever they had come from.
As a daughter of parents who were both dispossessed of their childhood homes in India after The Partition, I take special affront. Her statements viewed merely from the vantage of a humanist, I find to be one of the most frightening developments in the hysteria unleashed by the Flotilla events. If it is acceptable to express a desire for a race, a group, a culture to 'return' (and incidentally demanding they return to the same places where the race almost met with its own literal extinction) we have arrived at a new moral level of depravity because, in that case, no one's place, not mine, not yours, can then be thought of as safe. That Jews, furthermore, are even assigned a 'collective race' merely underlines the depth of antisemitism with which these special People of the Book have had to contend with over millennia. It is hard for those of us who are not Jewish to truly grasp, to understand this profound, visceral legacy of anguish.
Just as I believe it is not just or moral to herd all Gazans permanently devoid of access to basic aid, national identity and other essential freedoms, so too I do not believe in the morality of a uniformly bipolar portrayal of Israel's very real and very dire concerns.
When will we understand that Israel's security problem is everyone's security problem, that a threatened Jew is a threatened Muslim, that suicide bombers can come to a neighborhood near you, that there is no morality in the destruction of life and that these problems are so big they require all of us to engage together and collaborate, not polarize around primal tropisms and alienate? When will that be? When?
I find I keep returning to the same sense of poignancy and despair. Comparing ourselves today to the beauty, solidarity and nobility of Arab Muslim-Jewish relations in the North Africa of World War Two, I can be certain of only one thing: like morality, the Righteous among us checked out, long, long ago. There's no escaping it, they will not be returning.
We are home alone, left to attend the appetites of our primal 'moralities' and, like narcissistic voyeurs, relish our myopic, brutally lurid, binary view.
Qanta Ahmed is author of "Land of Invisible Women: A
Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom." She is currently an
assistant professor of medicine at the Medical University of South
Carolina in Charleston.
This article appeared June 20, 2010 in the Huffington Post
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