Do you get Putin (and Russia)?

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I’m licking my chops at the chance to make some commentary about Russia, given that there are rifts rife between the US and Russia these days.  Andrew Weiss at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently stated that Russia has been exceptionally good lately at surprising the international community, and pulling everyone’s attention into its’ orbit.  Amid all this attention there is a sense, even in President Obama, that Russia doesn’t deserve all the press coverage and intrigue, given that it’s a relatively weak and inconsequential country trying hard to strengthen its’ position on the world stage.  

But as a friend said once:  don’t underestimate the Russians.  Russia is now in the headlines, and it’s not only because they are trying hard to get attention, but because they are doing things around the world that bear significant consequences on all of us.

As a person who has delved into Russian studies and spent a year in that country (2010) on a Fulbright grant, there are some insights I’d like to share for those looking to understand what’s going on with Russia.  Here is a general outline of some good points to remember as you’re absorbing all the news about Russia these days.

Put Russia into historical context.  It’s been a world player representing its’ own civilizational sphere of significance for centuries now, and whatever the banner, Soviet communism or Orthodox Christianity, Russia has viewed itself, and has been, a civilizational force to be reckoned with, producing several noteworthy contributions to, among other things, classics of world literature and music (think Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky)

If you’re an ardent fan of Western democracy (as am I), appreciate how some of your biases towards non-democratic governance may not get at the full picture of what actual benefits there are in systems you don’t intuitively favor by disposition.  Monarchy, for example, has been the longest reigning form of governance throughout history, and to simply dismiss it as backward or a historical relic of the past doesn’t do justice to what it actually offers.  Speaking on behalf of monarchy’s historical and broad hold on humanity, the historian SW Spellman says that the “imposition of rule by one speaks to a deep human need, a desire for permanence and meaning in a world of unpredictability and danger”.  

I have to check my own biases when I automatically criticize some of the actions of leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin in Russia.  Turkey and Russia broadly represent historical civilizations (Muslim and Orthodox Christian) that have been quite distinct and at times at odds with other civilizations, notably the West.  Within their histories they have had leaders who explored and embraced some kind of Westernization (think Ataturk and Peter the Great), and have had great tussles back and forth about adopting foreign ways at the expense of preserving their own heritages (think the Slavophile vs. West debates in 19th century Russia).  

Broadly speaking, although Turkey since 1924 has been politically more democratic than Russia perhaps at any time, Russians (especially in cities) have a much more sophisticated understanding of the West than Turks, and incorporate more Western influences into their lives.  My former students in Ekaterinburg (politics majors) all had excellent proficiency in English, and were also fairly strong in another language, either Eastern or Western, like Arabic and French.  Many young Russians in the city were either fans or creators of arts cultures both high and low brow.  And Russians are some of the most well educated people I’ve met anywhere in the world.  

Sometimes when we focus on the political side regarding the lack of democratic norms (like free and fair elections) in places like Russia, we lose sight with how much the leaders of these countries are well acquainted with the fact that the West has been flourishing for so long because of its’ own distinct set of civilizational features.  A leader like Vladimir Putin knows this, and knows that many of his well educated and cosmopolitan citizens (like my former students) enjoy the fact that the West and Russia have shared so much throughout the centuries.  He knows that part of his legitimacy rests on ensuring that he doesn’t alienate too many Russians (even though plenty have been alienated).  If he wants to project and establish Russian civilization as a viable and superior model than that of the West, he knows he’s got to keep many historical Western influences intact.  Perhaps because he hasn’t been doing well on this front, he is giving so much support to the more authoritarian forces now sweeping the hearts and minds of Europeans once again.  It further legitimates the idea that Russia is on to something after all with its’ more conservative and nationalistic spirit.

 

First days Jan: revitalization plan!

2017 here we come!  I decided tonight to make a revitalization plan for the first few days of the new year:  hope to intersperse some of the practices of this plan throughout my days here on planet earth, for 2017 and for life while I’ve got it.

My plan is solidly fortified in wisdom for the ages, and before sketching it out, a shout out is in order to Dale at the Ancient Wisdom Project, the young man who, like many of us, sees a lot of modern wisdom as lacking the integral, holistic, and comprehensive offerings that humanity’s well established religious traditions contain.

After finishing the Navy, Dale began to search for meaning and purpose, dabbling for some time in various self-help and psychology books, before realizing they inadequately served his needs.  His project documents how he practiced several well-known religious traditions for 30 days each, trying the best he could to follow their prescriptive practices for a better life.  He’s done a good job to get at the depth of what these religions offer; at least I can say that of his 30 day Islamic exploration, which so far is the only one I’ve read with full attention.  

My plan draws on Islam and mindfulness with breathing, especially as I learned it a decade ago in Thailand, at an absolutely wonderful mediation retreat called Suan Mokkh, (Garden of Liberation).

So the first thing to say is that 2017 will begin as I continue on working at my job, and it’s part of the plan to do well in this part of my day.  We get a break from teaching classes for a few weeks, and I’m thrilled to say that I’ll be getting paid during the break to read short stories, as I’ll be teaching and later heading a reading course.

Now on to the more mind-body-spirit part of the plan:  I call it a revitalization plan because I seek to revitalize and commit more to what I’ve already been practicing for years now, but sometimes have slacked on and neglected.  

The only firm routine of the plan revolves around the five daily Islamic prayers, which I will find myself doing solo or with the congregation.  Of course this is an Islamic obligation, so it’s nothing new for me in the plan; but lately I haven’t been as disciplined and centered and congregational as I should be about the praying, so hopefully pushing myself to do so in January will set me off on the right path for the rest of my life.  Along with this goes Qur’anic studies:  both recitation in Arabic and studying English translation and scholarly interpretation.

Praying and studying Qur’an have particular benefits in the wee hours of the morning. Prophet Mohammad advised Muslims to pray in the middle of the night, a special prayer called Tahajud.  This time of night can be especially tranquil, a chance for deep prayer, reflection, and clarity.  At the Thai monastery it was lights out at 9 and we were out of our concrete beds by 4 in the morning.  Clearly the early morning has a treasure trove of spiritual nourishment for those willing to rise and shine that early.  Which leads me to the point that there is one part of modern life that is a real drag:  getting late to bed.  I know that people feel most free and relaxed after the sun goes down.  I know many people these days get out of work later, so the parties and meaningful social activities start later in the night.  But pay heed to the ancient wisdom here folks, there are grand fulfillments to be found when you start your day in a spiritual way before sunrise, and enjoy getting a chance to see the sunrise.     

That’s the plan, centered on Islam and mediation, steadying on at my job, and having extra time for family and community.  Of course it will be great to also enjoy some books, music, and movies; Carry on swimming, jogging, lifting; Get in some dancing; mystical poetry; a leisurely stroll; a good laugh with wife, son, cats, and friends.  

 

 

 

Getting at the Islamic way of life: work, community, spirit

Here I am, in the masjid at Sultan Qaboos University on a Thursday, at 1:00 in the afternoon, wanting to share how I spent the last couple hours, as a way to elucidate how an Islamic society is meant to offer a balance between the world of society and the needs of our spirits, minds, and bodies.

I made my way to this masjid from my office at around noon.  I had been in the office from about 9:00, but had also done a good spell of reading and writing at home earlier that morning for a couple of hours, so by the time 11:30 came along there came that sort of slight and impending foggy ache in my head, the one which makes its’ way towards me on account of a few factors; like being sustained in a stationary position for a while, concentrating on tasks related to teaching, with the impeding hunger that makes its’ way as a result.  A few chatty and professional interactions with colleagues opened up my senses and offered a pleasant break from the desk work.

By 11:30 I packed my things and headed out, not having a particular destination, but knowing that an intent to walk, in the pleasant weather and with a bit of meditative breathing added in, would be the perfect cure for the slight fog and ache in my head.  I was headed toward the direction of home: should I go straight home and have some lunch, or stop by the botanical garden for a short meditation session first?  (I know, how much of a decisional ordeal for a first worlder like me)  Instead I made my way to the masjid and decided to pray, given that the call to prayer had just commenced as I approached the masjid.  I washed myself and entered the masjid.  Only a couple of people were there.  The call to prayer happens around noon but the congregational prayer doesn’t start until 12:45.  It was just passed noon when I prayed on my own in this quiet and serene space.  I finished with plenty of time to go before the congregational prayer and more of those simple yet curiously agonizing life choices appeared:  do I stay a while and join the congregation, or head home now that I’ve gotten the benefits of praying and spending some time in this sacred space of refuge?  I decided to stay, attempting to follow the path of my breath as a way to further clear my mind and gain inner peace.  As people started to trickle into the masjid I thought how wonderful it is that others have the same needs as me.  The morning’s work may have also tired them out, or maybe they had acted in poor taste to a colleague, or perhaps they had an acute sense of how petty we can get in our daily strivings.  The race to get ahead can appear to us at moments to be quite silly, and compromising of our ideal ethical ways to behave.  Add onto this man’s general existential anguish and anxiety, and it only becomes clearer why the age old wisdom of a religion like Islam is viewed as a prized jewel among its’ adherents.

I got the chance this afternoon to gain peace of mind, spiritual nourishment, social bonding centered on goodwill and joy.  And can you imagine:  Muslims are given an opportunity to do this five times a day, on their own or in congregation.

I’m thankful to be living in a society that takes its’ religion so seriously.  A society that gives plentiful refuge from the mad rush of the world to accumulate more wealth and junk; a world that too often rewards those who get ahead at the expense of better decency.

Differences: co-existing with them versus shedding them off

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A popular bumper sticker depicts an assemblage of religious icons like the Christian cross, Jewish star, and Muslim crescent.  The sticker encourages us to co-exist peacefully rather than antagonistically.  This is a different message than the one in John Lennon’s song Imagine, which asks us to imagine a world in which humans don’t feel the need to sort themselves out into various groups in the first place.  There would be no religions or nations in Lennon’s ideal world.  As beautiful as this ideal may sound, I find the ideal in the “co-exist” bumper sticker offering a more realistic goal to aspire to.

A major theme of surah Baqara in the The Qur’an is about the relationship between Muslims, Jews, and Christians.  It represents a commentary on the potential for cooperation and conflict among civilizations.  Part 62 of the surah clearly evokes the idea of the three groups co-existing peacefully, by saying “those who believe in the Qur’an, and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians…shall have their reward with their Lord”.  But then part 89 is an admonishment for those who reject the latest revelation of the Qur’an: “And when there comes to them a book from God, confirming what is with them-although from of old they had prayed for victory against those without faith-when there comes to them that which they should have recognized, they refuse to believe in it but the curse of God is on those without faith”.  

If we take the word of the scholar interpreting this copy of the Qur’an (Abdullah Yusuf Ali), we learn that criticisms like this one were directed at the Jews and Christians.  The Jews, Ali says, cling to strongly onto their exclusivist doctrines, which is why they rejected the Qur’an.  “If the Muslims of Madinah ever entertained the hope that the Jews in their city would welcome Muhammad as a prophet, they were mistaken” says Ali.  In another commentary Ali states that the Jews were jealous of Muhammad.  Supposedly when the Muslim community began to grow stronger the Jews pretended to be of them, but “tried to keep back any knowledge of their own scriptures, lest they should be beaten by their own arguments”.

There are obviously multiple ways to take in these messages of the Qur’an.  Some readers (especially those more secular) may view all this as a pointless and exhausting exercise of trying to prove why one group is better than the other.  For all the wisdom that scriptures like the Qur’an purports to have, it may seem as though it pushes forth petty divisiveness and stokes flames of conflict between groups.  Of course, for some devout Muslims or Jews these messages are all the more reason to feel assured that their religion is superior to the others, and probably contributes to furthering the animosity that each group has for the other.

Although I’m tempted to get on Lennon’s bandwagon and urge all groups to set aside all their feuds and differences, it seems our efforts at reconciliation and peaceful co-existence between groups has to take into account that a certain degree of group distinction and rivalry is a part of human life.  Perhaps we (especially those of us with more pacifist inclinations) have to acknowledge some rudimentary insights from psychology and history about human aggression and rivalry.

Here’s a relevant excerpt from Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We?:  

To define themselves, people need an other.  Do they need an enemy?  Some people clearly do. “Oh, how wonderful it is to hate”, said Josef Goebbels.  “Oh, what a relief to fight, to fight enemies who defend themselves, enemies who are awake,” said Andre Malraux. These are extreme articulations of a generally more subdued but widespread human need, as acknowledged by two of the twentieth century’s greatest minds.  Writing to Sigmund Freud in 1933, Albert Einstein argued that every attempt to eliminate war had “ended in a lamentable breakdown…man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction.”  Freud agreed: people are like animals, he wrote back, they solve problems through the use of force. Humans, Freud argued, have only two types of instincts, “those which seek to preserve and unite…and those which seek to destroy and kill.”  Both are essential and they operate in conjunction with each other.  Hence, there is no use in trying to get rid of men’s aggressive inclinations.

Patriotism not nationalism

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The United States has been exceptionally adept at creating a society in which advancement is contingent on the merit and work ethic of the individual, regardless of factors still important in many parts of the world:  factors like ethnic background, ancestry, and religion.  This is an achievement to cherish because the race between humans to get ahead can get quite ugly.  America enables people to get ahead in a fairly peaceful manner, something much of the world struggles to do.

Donald Trump often has a nasty bite to him, but when people live in times of exceptional hardship, and feel very insecure, they are not only prone to behave worse themselves, but also prone to look to leaders who appear to have the kind of grit that’s required to make it in a tough world.  We live in a world of difference and conflict, where people readily engage in battles to outperform and defeat each other in competitive environments.  Donald Trump has appealed to so many Americans because, in their eyes, he’s a symbol of a successful man who has made it big.

A contingent of Trump supporters feel like they are losing in life’s competitive atmosphere, because they think that the rules of the game are unfair and increasingly biased against them, whether because jobs are being outsourced overseas, or the jobs at home are being taken by illegals crossing the border.  Many of Trump’s supporters are white, having a sense of ownership and entitlement regarding the idea that this land is primarily their land.

Progressives in the US obviously struggled long and hard to make non-whites gain the privileges and rights that whites have had from the onset of the republic.  But progress throughout our history has always been accompanied by backlash, and worries that more inclusivity would make the competitive arena of life more difficult than it already is.  It’s thus understandable that in any country, groups who comprise the dominant ethnic group, whose settling and establishment of the country have defined the mainstream culture, cite their affiliation with this group to get more favor and privilege.

Will America become more like other parts of the world, in which traditionally dominant ethnic groups go to far lengths to advance their interests at the expense of others?

Even though America has become an increasingly civilized and just society, universal human inclinations towards ethnocentrism and nationalism still lurk in our society as they do everywhere else; as a result, many Americans support Trump to lead them to more secure and prosperous times in the particularly unstable and harsh waters of contemporary life.

The US has endured as a relatively stable and cohesive society throughout its’ existence, except for the devastation that was wrought upon our land by the Civil War.  Although I can’t fathom how another full-scale conflict like that can happen again, we need to take heed of when particularly volatile forms of nationalism may start to take a turn for the worse.

 

Implicit and Explicit Bias

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It was one of those moments when my Arab-Muslim students in the Sultanate of Oman sought validation from me that the world need not fear Muslims.  During a class discussion I made a sarcastic comment that I ought to shave my beard prior to my next visit to the US, so that I could avoid looking like one of those shady Muslim characters, the ones Americans frequently see on the front pages of newspapers and news broadcasts on TV.  One of my students wondered if I needed to worry about going bearded to the US, because it seemed to her that beards have become fashionable in recent years.

People tend to form instantaneous impressions of each other from that first glance of a face, which plays a part in the composite first impressions we have of each other based on various factors.  A bond or affinity towards someone, or closer to the opposite, an apprehension or dislike of them, may take on its’ subtle influence as we set our eyes on each other’s faces.

This pesky human tendency goes against the ethical imperative that we should not judge each other by our covers; instead, our ethics should guide us towards putting a check on this tendency. Humans seem to need perpetual reminding to do so, regardless of how far a particular society has made progress towards making this ethic a strong part of their moral fabric.  In the US we’re taught to put a check on making generalizations that may veer too much towards making false assumptions about people.  We’re told that despite what our faces are like, we should see ourselves as one and the same, citizens of the same country sharing the same culture and identity.  This noble ideal is inculcated in us through several means: for example, passing through a good liberal arts education.

But the struggle to live up to this ideal carries on, with varying degrees of success.  During one of this season’s presidential debates Hillary Clinton said that all Americans have “implicit bias”, and that we must guard ourselves against it so that we don’t stoke the flames of hatred and divisiveness.  Clinton later proclaimed that America is “great because it is good”, which in my estimate relates to the fact that one of our exceptional attributes is that we take our aspiration for a truly pluralistic and just society seriously, which is evidenced by the progress we’ve made on expanding the field of rights and liberty for more of our citizens, and indeed, for people around the world.

Putting a check on our implicit biases is a challenging task in and of itself, with the continual renewal of self-reflection and self-criticism that it involves.  This is an especially critical task as we have been witnessing a growing tide of nativist and xenophobic politics in the very countries that have been world leaders in multicultural and democratic practices.  We must ensure that we don’t enable explicit bias to be encouraged and accepted in our public discourse and political aspirations.

Notes on appearances and tradition

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Heading out of work the other day I observed a small group of Pakistani colleagues as they made their way to pray.  Momentarily afterwards I began to reflect about the power and significance of appearances in human life, which I will elaborate on in today’s post.  These Pakistanis sport a look that brings pleasure and comfort to the many fellow Muslims who inhabit Oman:  long beards extending well below their chin, and white Islamic caps on their heads, makes for a look well suited to the environs here.

It was their beards and caps that made a special impression on me that day.  This group of men walking in stride together exuded at that moment solidarity and strength, which of course is garnered most powerfully from the inward and the spiritual, in their commitment to be devout Muslims, but also based on their felt need to be in unison for their outward appearance to the world.  I recalled days in high school when I thought that punk rock styles were something I wanted to emulate.  Mohawks, ripped jeans, leather jackets, and combat boots:  saying to the world that they could care less about conventional norms and etiquette.  These bands of similarly decked out individuals, punks, muslims, whoever, sends forth the message all for one and one for all, let’s stand together and stand together strong.  

The appearance we assemble together in the morning before heading out on the scene of life has all sorts of subtle and stark ways in which impressions are made and people are influenced.  Some cultures do quite well in continuing to collectively wear the traditional clothing of their heritage and ancestors.  Perseverance may also be a part of the picture.  Perhaps they view keeping their traditions are essential as a response to a feeling that the world and its’ globalization threatens to water down who they are.  This is the case not only nationally or locally, but when particular trans-national forces enable people to feel a sense of belonging with each other.  For example, although fashions differ among Omanis and Pakistanis, when each group lays its’ eyes upon the other and sees traces of adherence to Islamic tastes and rules, nods of approval and delight may arise as a feeling of brotherhood is facilitated.

All of this fascinates me in that I see the importance that unified appearances have on group formation and solidarity, yet there has to be times when it’s better for us to cool off on our judgments of each other based on appearances.  Of course some of this is completely out of our hands:  no one is asked what color skin they want to be born with.  And although some cultures have many ways by which to inculcate the idea that we have to critically reflect on our biases, even punk rockers, who rebel against collectivized mindsets and looks, end up looking more or less alike to one another.

To a certain extent there lies an underlying element of simply being human in life, in the sense that we’re comforted and sometimes delighted to see that other people, especially outside of our culture, choose willingly to adopt something from our set of beliefs, lifestyle, and fashion.  

The key is how to balance the ethic of celebrating diversity and everyone’s right to uphold a particular tradition (or follow another one), while also giving due consideration to the importance appearances and heritages have for people’s identities and group solidarities.