Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: The Flight of the Intellectuals

One of the most amazing transformations of our time is that a large block of important intellectuals, who still think of themselves as liberals, are supporting some monstrous reactionaries. This phenomenon was taken up by Jonah Goldberg in his Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (Doubleday, 2007). He made a case for noting that whether they consider themselves leftist or rightist, these groups all descend from the same source: the French Revolution. They all believe in revolution, scapegoats to blame for everything, foot-soldiers ready to die for the cause, and ultimately an utopian philosophy that their particular revolution will provide a paradise on earth.

There has been little difference between Communist, Nazi, and Anarchist values--and today we are seeing this same revolutionary ideology in Militant Islam. Shouldn’t this be apparent to the western world’s intellectuals?

The problem seems to be that many of us still adhere to the notion that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. In such a case, if the predominant liberal view is that the United States is a capitalist bully and so is Israel, then they would have to believe that the Palestinians and even some Arab “philosophers” should have their support. It does not seem to matter that these Palestinians and Militant Muslims detest everything that we value: democracy, equality of men and women, and tolerance of differences.

Paul Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, (Melville House, 2010) takes up this issue—but never really gets to it until the last chapter, where he states his case with passion (and unassailable logic). The rest of the book is about one person and the cult he represents—Professor Tariq Ramadan, who professes to be an Islamic moderate, but who is most certainly not, yet has been lionized by liberal academics who should know better.

Tariq Ramadan is a philosophy professor who has become an international spokesman for how Islam can and should be practiced in the West—in countries that are not Muslim-majority. He is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the fascist-influenced Muslim Brotherhood, the ancestor of today’s Hamas and Hezbollah—and Al Qaeda. Ramadan had the good fortune to be born and educated in Switzerland, but for him, family loyalty and passionate belief in this particularly modern form of Islam trumps everything else. This modern version of Islam is not western, but is ultimately totalitarian, a cult working toward having a global Muslim dictatorship. Its most modern element is the use of western means of propaganda and the technologies of violence and destruction.

Berman seems to be talking almost exclusively to European intellectuals in this book—which overwhelms the reader with detailed accounts of whom they are and how they differ over Tariq Ramadan. But after wading through this academic accounting, I could see a complete case on why Tariq Ramadan is not a “moderate” Muslim and how shameful it was that he was not only supported, whereas a real heroine, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is attacked by those who should be her supporters.

Intellectuals almost uniformly supported novelist Salman Rushdie when a price was put on his head by the Ayatollah Khomeini 25 years ago for writing a book that “insulted” Islam. Now they support the likes of Tariq Ramadan and attack Ayann Hirsi Ali. Where has their intellectual courage gone?

How do these two Muslim authors and public intellectuals, Ramadan and Hirsi Ali, differ? Ramadan, who sounds like such a reasonable liberal man, got caught when in a debate with then Foreign Minister Nocolas Sarkozy a few years ago, Sarkozy asked him how he thought modern Islam should deal with stoning women for adultery. Ramadan, although protesting his personal distaste for stoning, suggested only that Muslims put a “moratorium” on it. Can we conclude that he would like to halt it for now—but if the Muslims decide to reinstate it in the future, that would be up to them?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has experienced Islam as a Muslim woman and she reasonably decided to abandon it as hopeless. Those who think that in doing so, she has not only “insulted” Islam, but has lost any ability to influence it from “inside.” These critics obviously do not know how many young Muslim women are reading her books and who envy her for saying what they think. Nor do they consider that her foundation (AHA Foundation) is a primary actor in informing and protecting American and European Muslim women from the abuse that comes from their cultures.

Berman sums up in his final chapter the real flaw in today’s intellectual stream: believing that somehow people who are poor or ignorant are really “noble savages” deserving of their praise. This love of the underdog is strengthened by their guilt about and hatred for Europe’s imperialist past, so that indeed, the enemy of their enemy (militant Islam) turns out to be their friend.

Finally, what kind of world is it that those who are critical of Muslim culture (think of Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali), must live surrounded by body guards or be moved from one safe-house to another for years on end? This should evoke the ire of western liberals, not just western conservatives, but it does not. Too many intellectual liberals believe that their duty is to protect Muslims from intolerance and attack all critics as right-wing Islamophobes. It is indeed a flight of intellectuals to the dark side.

By Laina Farhat-Holzman

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Zen: Bridging Ordinary and Religious Life

The original ideas of Buddhism were presented in a book called the Dhammapada. An Indian sage, Bodhidharma, brought Buddhism from India to China in 527 AD. From the intermingling of Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism, Zen was born. During the 12th century A.D., it was introduced into Japan where it was incorporated into the Japanese culture and became a way of life. At present, it has developed into a prominent world-wide tradition.

The word “Zen” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Dhyana,” which means meditation. The Indian Buddhists brought this meditative art to China where it was called cha’ana. This magnificent Indian-Chinese meditative blend when reached Japan, it became Zen.

Zen is a unique spiritual tradition. It defies our usual definitions. It is not a philosophy because it does not seek to understand reality through the strict use of logic and reasoning. Rather, it is the most direct action that centers on experiencing reality here and now.

Moreover, Zen is not a religion because it does not believe in the concept of a god, Holy Scriptures, rituals and afterlife. Instead, it emphasizes the most immediate action to experience one’s spiritual self residing at the core of one’s being. Zen is a pure action that sees, hears, smells, touches, tastes and feels ordinary reality in an extraordinary way thus making the ordinary life as the spiritual life.

Zen is not the usual kind of meditation of deliberately concentrating the mind on an object. In contrast, Zen has no systematic orientation of the mind towards anything in particular. It uses no mantras, or chants or images of any kind. To get away from any intentional directedness of the mind, a Zen master might shock the student by a loud sound of clapping hands or hitting on the chest or responding with an irrelevant answer or a haiku or a puzzle (Koan).

Zen is unique because it makes no distinction between the ordinary and religious life. It tries to bridge the gap by living the ordinary life as meditation in action. The core of Zen is to live the ordinary moment with such intense attentiveness that it becomes an extraordinary moment.

For Zen, this intensity of living must permeate every day activities of cooking, cleaning, washing, eating, drinking, gardening, teaching, serving tea, watching the sunrise, or even indulging in sword fighting. When ordinary life becomes meditation in action, our spirituality is displayed in every action.

For Zen, through conditioning, our society habituates us to “pass the buck” of enlightenment from one’s own efforts to that of our parents, teachers, gurus or prophets. However, Zen is simple and direct in its insistence that “only you are capable of awakening because only you are capable of falling asleep.”

In Zen, there is nothing comparable to the Jewish idea of deliverance through the Messiah or the Christian redemption through Jesus or the Hindu salvation through Krishna’s Avatar. Like the founders of religions, who achieved enlightenment through their own efforts, Zen insists that one must embrace reality directly without the intervention of others even when they are the likes of the Buddha or Jesus. Enlightenment is possible only through one’s own labors. One must leave behind all teachings and teachers. Thus the metaphoric declaration: “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Similar to the founders of religions, who saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched the truth through their own unique existential beings, Zen asks students to discard the societal conditioning and be reborn. In the words of a Zen master, no “resurrection is possible without crucifixion.” In order to experience the rebirth of truth, one must be ready to crucify one’s societal self that keeps one tied to the teachings and teachers.

For Zen, our ordinary mind is the culprit that is stopping us from enlightenment. It is cluttered with cultural conditioning originating from our respective social, political, educational, economic and religious institutions. Since our minds are choked with the values of our culture, we are estranged from experiencing the original source of our being, which is “joy unalloyed.”

To break the mind’s prison and unleash this natural delight of being alive, we need to set ourselves free! To experience this sudden awakening (Satori), Zen masters shock the students by giving them an unsolvable puzzle (Koan). When an intellectual search to a clue to solving the puzzle seems futile, the intellect realizes its limitations. By exhausting the intellect, the Koan frees one from the prison of one’s mind thus making possible awakening. During the moment of illumination, the world is not changed but the way one sees it is altered. Awakening lies in “the ordinary self doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way.” Thus one’s spirit experiences delight in everything that one does because the gap between the ordinary and the religious life is abridged.

By Ashok Malhotra