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Veiled Muslim Women and Boozing Western Intellectuals
I am scared.
As I am writing this essay, the Eid-ul-Fitr is approaching; festivities that will mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan are about to start. Some 20 percent of the world population, which is Muslim, is now cooking, doing last-minute wrapping of the gifts, getting ready to forgive the loved ones, its neighbors, and to disburse the charities.
For many it is just a routine, an obligation. But for some, perhaps for the majority of Muslims that I know, it is one important and beautiful event, an opportunity to become better and more caring people.
I don’t believe. I have no religion and in many of my books and reports I have been arguing that all religions, particularly those practiced in the West, brought tremendous grief and suffering to the people inhabiting our planet.
But I have many Muslim friends. Among Muslims are people that I care for immensely. I am close to Muslim people who live in Indonesia, Golf region, Sub-Continent, Africa, Malaysia and elsewhere. I had been a friend of Abdurrahman Wahid, former Indonesian progressive President and the leader of the largest Muslim organization in the world – NU (Nahdlatul Ulama). I regularly discuss Islam with Muslim clerics in Aceh and with Shia believers in Iran and India.
I have enormous respect for Muslim culture – for its great poetry, its scientific achievements of the past, medicine, the architecture and social structures, including their concepts for the first ‘social’ hospitals in the world.
But now, just one day before Eid-up-Fitr, I feel scared. Is it because suddenly I feel that the tall walls are separating us all and the doors that were otherwise wide opened to me are suddenly closing?
* * *
I worked in around 140 countries of the world, I lived on all continents that this planet has. I speak many languages. But more and more often I realize how difficult, almost impossible, is the true and honest dialogue between different cultures and different faiths.
Officially we are told the opposite. ‘Political correctness’ makes us say ‘right things’ about each other. We are all supposed to be one happy family now. We say we are having a dialogue even when we sit in the opposite corners. True, most of us do not swear at each other in public. We don’t insult others to the face. But do we really know each other? Do we understand each other? Do we go out of our ways to learn?
I am one of those ‘sad’ atheists and non-believers. I am not happy, not proud of the fact that I do not have faith. I wish I would have, but my brain was trained to be rational and my analytical thinking, philosophy that I studied, experiences from the war zones that I had as a war correspondent; they push me away from any form of devotion. I see, I record, analyze and then fight for better world. There is no time, no space in my life for rituals. Or that is what I repeat to myself. Then why do I feel such sadness and envy on the days like this; just a few hours before Eid-ul-Fitr?
* * *
Then there is of course that deep frustration from not being included. Even if I do not have faith, I am sympathetic; I am educated and fluent enough in the rituals to be able to share at least the table with those who believe.
But there is exclusivity and one ends up either inside or outside, depending on whether he or she accepted belief.
Which leaves people like me, internationalists who severed all their original cultural ties and gave up their national identity for the struggle for better world, somewhere in the cold. Or more precisely – it leaves us in front of some tightly closed gate. Fighting against Western imperialism and against its cultural dictatorship does not guarantee that one would be invited and be given at least some temporary ‘cultural or spiritual asylum’ by those he or she is fighting for.
And I am not the only one who feels that way. A Byelorussian filmmaker who is helping to coordinate my visit to former USSR recently wrote in her email:
“Ah how many bright and dear Muslim friends I have… but I don’t believe it’s possible to come any closer to each other than to some point with a religious person. No chance to reach real mutual understanding and intimacy. Whose emotional emptiness and limitedness is there to blame? Not sure, not sure…”
All this explains sadness that is burdening my heart. But it is not explaining the fear.
* * *
My fear is actually very rational. It is based on many years of observation and on analyzing what I managed to observe and record.
I am afraid that people of our planet are now walking towards the different corners. Not all of them, but the majority. The trust had been broken. Hurts, mental injuries are too deep. Western neo-colonialism has been too savage, too brutal, on all continents: in Africa, Oceania, Asia and until recently in Latin America. But some of the most terrible claws of imperialism had been pointed towards the Muslim world. There, the West usually used religion for its own gains, dividing Shia and Sunni Muslims, literally training and bribing religious cadres into fighting against Soviet Union or against progressive and non-aligned ideals in the countries like Indonesia before 1965.
It is almost as if much of political Islam had been kidnapped and corrupted by Western interests.
It has been long, debilitating and humiliating process, and for majority of the Muslims it was very difficult to fight back, to defend themselves. For decades since the end of the WWII, entire nations like Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Palestine and Somalia to name just a few, had been thrown to terrible meat grinders, they were forced to bleed in agony.
Almost every Muslim country, from Sudan, Libya to Mali, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or Iraq had been manipulated or directly invaded or simply destroyed. The worst grade of dictators has been created, cultivated and then supported. The West was determined to rule over the Muslim lands, as it was determined to rule over the whole world.
In a way, Muslim countries never gained true independence after centuries of colonial rule. And if they did, they were beaten once again to even worse submission.
It is very hard to imagine that trust could bloom in such environment.
* * *
Emotions are one thing, but knowledge is quite another. Many Muslims may guard their feelings and their ‘territory’ when interacting with infidels (one could hardly blame them, given the ancient as well as recent history of the world), but it is the West, the ruling culture, that shows limitless spite towards the Islamic cultural universe, making Muslim even more defensive and protective of that little that has been left to them.
Even in the most remote and ‘uneducated’ parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, even on many far-away islands of Indonesian archipelago, people are well aware of at least some essentials, some basics on which the Western culture is constructed.
But how much the West knows about Islam – about its ideals, its code of justice, its culture and arts, its taboos and goals? Is Muslim universe that encompasses almost one quarter of the world’s population treated as equal partner by the Empire and its junior partners?
How many ‘educated’ people in the West even bothered to read Qur’an? We all know it is pathetically low percentage, although I don’t know anybody in the West who would not have some ‘theory’ or strong opinion (and mostly absolutely ignorant) on the subject!
* * *
The West developed powerful set of uncompromising stereotypes: there are two extremes on the scale of generally accepted measure of intellectualism: On one hand there is an image, a symbol, of totally deranged, submissive female with covered hair – a personification of oppression, stupidity and irrationality. A Muslim woman is submissive and pitiful and should be enlightened and ‘liberated’ at nearest appropriate opportunity.
At the other extreme is post-Existentialist intellectual, preferably from Paris, London or other Western metropolis. He (or she but most probably he) is without any doubt an atheist, wine drinking and determinately ‘liberal’ (whatever that means). His god is nothing less than ‘rational thinking’. He believes in nothing and sneers at God, but he also despises all revolutions, rebellions as well as Marxism and anything that smells of idealism. And he is fiercely individualistic.
Such prototype of intellectual was perfected and nurtured into the very symbol of the superiority of Western civilization. Of course he is at the right-side extreme on the imaginary scale. If a Muslim woman with her covered hair is somewhere near zero, he is scratching his back by the digits of number ten.
But is he so smart? Is he really bright? Is he kind; is he a humanist, a brave individual?
Is he challenging dogmas advanced by official Western propaganda? Is he brave enough to question his own right to’ superiority’? When he gets drunk and sings (and he gets drunk often); can we hear selection of world tunes or just his own jingles? When he struggles for something, is it for the world that is oppressed by his own culture or is he fighting mainly his own individualistic and egocentric goals?
What does our intellectual champion knows about the world outside his realm?
Most of my ‘intellectual’ friends in Paris or Madrid or even New York could hardly name one Muslim thinker, or one Middle Eastern poet.
Of course they are equally ignorant about all other parts of the world, except their own. While any Chinese or Japanese child can name at least some of the most outstanding composers and writers from Europe and United Sates, how many European adults, even with the advanced degrees can name one great Chinese or Japanese composer, Korean actor or Indonesian painter?
And what about the open-mindedness of our hero secular intellectual? What about the range of his choices? For most of Europeans and North American ‘thinkers’ it is almost unimaginable to question the superiority of [their own] multi-party political system (democracy is not measured by whether people really rule their countries, but by the number of political parties competing against each other). Also the “Free market” economic model that could be easily defined by the words ‘market fundamentalism’ allows no challenges – try to ridicule it and you will have corporate fatwa thrown on your head in no time – you will not be killed, just sidelined and possibly slowly starved to death.
And then, most of the Western intellectuals have one extreme, maybe the most extreme and fundamentalist believe on earth, which already murdered hundreds of millions of innocent men, women and children: it is belief that the West with its set of values and dogmas has some unquestionable mandate to rule over the world.
* * *
But let us go back to Muslims.
Before and during this Ramadan, I met several people from Indian Bohra Muslim sect, extremely educated and Orthodox branch of Shia Islam. I will not go to details here, as they are connected to my, until now unfinished, work as an investigative journalist.
One of them is an Indian neurosurgeon, brilliant and determined, known for ‘going where all others refuse to go’, for saving lives where there appears to be no hope left.
We exchanged many ‘notes’. To her, doing what she does is one great blessing, as she explained to me: “I get access to God’s greatest creation – human brain.”
In other exchange she expressed her frustration: “No matter what we do, we are not considered to be ‘intellectuals’, if we are religious, if we believe in God. Atheists do not take believers seriously. Only atheist could be considered true intellectual.”
Her statement made me think and it inspired this essay. Someone who operates on human brains should be taken very seriously. And if she does not have her voice in our world, I am naturally ready to lend her mine.
* * *
I always thought that one has to believe in something, in order to be able to live (not just to exist), in order to make positive difference in this world.
All great revolutions were conducted with passion and definitely with love – with unconditional love for the humanity. Country like USSR could not fight and defeat fascism (and save the world) without passion and belief in its sacred mission.
Cuba could not stand firm, to survive attacks and embargos by the mightiest bully in human history without determination, love and belief in its right path.
It often appears to me when I come to visit Europe or North America, when I travel to speak there or in order to launch my books or open films, that everything that used to be ‘sacred’ almost disappeared from the daily life there. Nobody is fighting for anything substantial, anymore. Almost nobody is fighting, full stop. There are almost no ideals left. Ideas had been discredited, dragged through dirt, spat on. People appear to be living by inertia while the plunder abroad conducted by their governments and companies continues.
Families are not having children anymore and men and women are too afraid to commit themselves to anything that would challenge their ‘freedom’. Old people are fading in retirement homes or are discovered weeks after dying in dismal loneliness.
Mention socialism, internationalism or (god forbid) Marxism, and you will be facing uninterrupted and vitriolic barrage of cynicism. Mention other countries that are choosing different path – China, Venezuela, Cuba, Iran – and badly informed but vicious choir will begin bombarding you with pre-fabricated dirt designed by mass media and propagandists to discredit any nation that is distinctive.
I feel unwell in the West, and increasingly so. I know no other part of the world with such uniformity of believes! And I do not like believes that took hold of the people there.
It is also becoming clear to me that believes that remained in the West have very little to do with love and so much with hate, and nihilism. That fact actually makes a rational sense: if not for hate and cruelty, how else would the minority be able to plunder and torture most of the world for so many centuries?
* * *
Some time ago I was sitting on the tall carpet in one of the mosques in Istanbul. It was quiet and comfortable there. I was not alone. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, in Turkey a mosque is not only a place of worship; it is comfortable, beautiful and welcoming public space.
I was sitting on the floor and thinking. Not far from me were several women, praying. They were devoted and it appeared to me – content.
I was not content at all. What I witnessed in the Middle East, what I felt after working there was very far from harmony. I also calculated that I have approximately twenty years, at most 25, of this madness of non-stop working, constant traveling, of this exciting fight for better world. I enjoy good fight; I love my work and my life. The idea that I will eventually turn to dust was depressing me.
Those ladies had much better future than me, or at least they believed so.
And then I realized something else. While I was sitting on the carpet, in my heavy head working on the concept for some article, recalling horrors of existence of so many people on this earth, those women praying just a few steps from me were in love. They loved fully, unconditionally, and selflessly. They loved their God.
Everything was suddenly very simple. I recalled couples at sunset in Nicaragua, whispering verses of great poets – verses engraved to the beautiful sculptures.
When one loves, it should be absolute, or what is the point otherwise? And when there is love, objectivity is meaningless; it is even insulting. We don’t measure size of the nose of a woman we love; we don’t check her teeth. We don’t run her IQ test, do we? All that is irrelevant, because she is perfect. And if somebody tells us that she is ugly or brainless or both, we punch his teeth. It is natural and it was since the beginning of human race – such behavior.
The only difference was that these women loved unconditionally the Highest being.
I knew I was cheating. I always wanted to be with those who believed, with those who loved, with those who could…
I knew that deep inside, I felt much better, much more comfortable and much safer in this little mosque than I would feel in the pub or at some atheist gathering…
Eventually I lifted up my heavy bag, full of cameras and wires, and I went away, I went to fight for better world on this planet.
But as I was passing through the door, in my mind I fully paraphrased the end of one of the iconic philosophical works by Albert Camus: “The Myth of Sisyphus”. After observing those devoted women for a while, I had to conclude that they were happy … while I was scared.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu . His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” and will be released by Pluto Publishing House in August 2012. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.
COMING IN SEPTEMBER
A Special Memorial Issue of CounterPunch
Featuring recollections of Alexander Cockburn from Jeffrey St. Clair, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Craig Roberts, Noam Chomsky, Mike Whitney, Doug Peacock, Perry Anderson, Becky Grant, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Neumann, Susannah Hecht, P. Sainath, Ben Tripp, Alison Weir, James Ridgeway, JoAnn Wypijewski, John Strausbaugh, Pierre Sprey, Carolyn Cooke, Conn Hallinan, James Wolcott, Laura Flanders, Ken Silverstein, Tariq Ali and many others …