Sunday, March 27, 2011

Islamic Liberation Theology?

This passage from an article in the Monthly Review by Qalandar Bux Memon suggests that liberation theology may not just be confined to Catholic Latin America. The article is called "Blood on the Path of Love: The Striking Workers of Faisalabad Pakistan," which you can read in its entirety here.
Bawa Lalif Ansari is famous among workers for his oratory and in particular for leading an energizing tarana [a call and response between leader and crowd.]. He is an entertainer and pedagogue, who hosts most of the workers’ rallies for LQM [Labour Quami Movement]. Bawa is of short and slim stature, with long black hair carefully combed backwards and a small and trim jet-black beard—a look that made more sense to me as our conversation developed.
“I used to be part of Lashkar-e-Taiba. I joined them when I was young.” LeT is a militant Islamist organization, suspected of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It is banned in Pakistan but continues to operate openly in many areas. Sipah-e-Sahaba, another extremist organization, he tells me, was founded in the Jhang area, which neighbors Faisalabad, and is where he has been working with the LQM. He explains,
They have a strong grip on the people and tell the poor to direct their frustration against the Shi’as. The local feudals and zamindars, who are extremely rich, are generally Shi’a, while the common bounded laborer is Sunni. The hate manifested over years of exploitation can easily be directed by these originations against all Shi’as. But many Shi’a are also laborers and workers, as are Christians. I came across Mian Qayyum and the LQM and their analysis made more sense. The religious parties wanted me to merely seethe with rage but didn’t tell me how my material situation was going to change. What good does it do me to hate someone for being a Shi’a or a Sunni or a Christian? They too are poor people trying to work and feed their children. What good does it do a worker to fight a worker. I didn’t agree with this.
Bawa believes in Islam, but for him, it is a radical philosophy of liberation [my emphasis]. A few hours later, at a workers’ gathering he said, “God is sovereign and god asks us to fight for justice. The bosses are nothing; we will not bow to them, these pharaohs. What we work we should be paid fairly for.” Lashkar’s loss has been the Labour Quami Movement’s gain.
Religion, with its concern for the poor and disadvantaged, is a natural ally of Marxism. Surely Catholics aren't the only ones that have made the link.

Update (April 12, 2011): It turns out I was right; there is Islamic liberation theology out there! Dr. Ali Ashgar Engineer, a Pakistani Islamic scholar, has a book, available online, with just that title.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Where Liberals and Conservatives Are Born

Liberal vs. Conservative in Abstract

For the past couple months I've been applying for various summer internships and other research opportunities. With applications on my mind, I've had a lot of time to think about how we allocate scarce opportunities.

Obviously, any allocation scheme has to have some criteria for picking candidates. Do we focus only on the applicant's recent work, or do we weight all of it equally? Do we focus on tests/scores/proven results, or do we look for potential?

Once we come up with certain criteria/weights for considering the application, then we automatically favor certain applicants and disfavor others. Some people will have a natural ability in the chosen criteria, so their application will be favored; meanwhile, other applicants will have natural abilities in other aspects, which they will likely to consider also important and relevant, but they will be disfavored. (To put this in concrete terms: colleges favor strong extracurriculars in the undergraduate admissions process, which advantages extroverts and suck-ups, and disadvantages introverts.)

So it doesn't seem possible to come up with a system which doesn't disfavor anyone. Someone has to lose out—and when they do, it's likely that they'll feel that the process was unfair, that they were structurally disadvantaged. But when things go well for them, then they're likely to think the system works just fine, and that they deserve the rewards they get in some way.

I say that because that because that's been my own experience. In and through this application game, I've found my attitude towards the process shifting between these two extremes, depending on whether things worked in my favor or not. When I get the opportunities I apply for, then I see myself as the deserving recipient of it. But when I lose, and especially when I lose consistently, then I start to feel maligned and cheated. I start to think the whole selection process is arbitrary and meaningless, and the person who got selected as just lucky.

I have a hunch that this thought process is both natural and widespread. For one, it matches very well with the discourse that divides liberals and conservatives. On an issue like poverty, for example, conservatives will likely say that the poor can escape poverty if they just work harder; many conservatives have rags to riches stories (i.e. the system worked for them); and they likely feel deserving of their place in the social order. Liberals, meanwhile, will argue that certain people, no matter how hard they try, cannot better their position, and point to structural disadvantages of race, class, and gender. We're accustomed to thinking of these differences as purely ideological, but I think the source of these contentions is that people have a natural tendency to think their personal experience accounts for the way the whole world works. (Including myself, since, after all, I'm arguing this post based on my own experiences. What else do we have to go off of?)

If this is correct, what's remarkable about the story I've told is that it's impossible for a liberal/conservative split not to exist. It seems to be a product of the very act of choosing an allocation scheme, which inevitably favors some qualities and disfavors others. Obviously, the full story is more complicated than this (e.g. Asians, though they do well, tend to vote liberal), but it's a starting point, I think, for a potentially rich understanding of politics.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Logic of Spiritual Life

[Last month I wrote a couple posts trying to couch religion in reason—but this article by Swami Chinmayananda, called The Logic of Spiritual Life, I think does it better. Swami Chinmayananda is probably the greatest influence on my life, and the reason why I still think religion is worthwhile.]

Religion is not a bundle of superstitions to be fumigated at regular intervals with incense and candle sticks. Carefully analyzed, it is a definite science of life, giving a complete technique of practical living. By faithfully adhering to its precepts and following its practical suggestions, we can make ourselves happier and this world a better place to live in.

As the Equipment, so the Experience

Life is a series of experiences. The experiencer comes in contact with the world of objects and ekes out for himself pleasure or pain, joy or sorrow and failure or success. His reactions are dependent upon the quality and texture of his mind-intellectual equipment. There is an infinite variety in the texture and composition of the equipment and one gains the particular vision envisaged by it. Thus, the world provides different and distinct visions according to the individual who projects them.

Analysing a few examples, we find that to scientist, the world appears to be a field of magnificent phenomena—discovered and undiscovered—of great power and potentialities; to a peasant in a remote village, the same world is insignificant with nothing spectacular about it. Again, to a poet, the world is a manifestation of nature in luxurious and extravagant beauty, and he sees in it everywhere an expression of divinity. The same world is viewed by a pessimist as an inferno of misfortunes and tragedies. Hence, the objects remaining the same, the experiences differ from person to person, and their reactions will also differ, depending upon the constitution of their equipment.

The world, therefore, has no precise and clear-cut definition. The pattern changes as in a kaleidoscope, according to the individual vision. As for instance, a man wearing blue glasses see the world blue; upon changing them to green, he sees the world green. Realising this truth, the religious masters advised people to reform and reconstruct their inner instruments of experience so that the world can be interpreted by them in its true perspective.

Politician, Economist, and Scientist

Man, in his innocence, continues to believe in development and beautification of the external world more than in the rehabilitation of his inner personality. This has given rise to three types of workers who have been sincerely serving mankind, making this world a better place to live in. They are the economists, the politicians, ad the scientists.

The economists provide more wealth and material prosperity for people. The politicians deal with the people and improve the pattern of mutual and co-operative living. The scientists harness and tame nature for man to enjoy it. The economists, the politicians, and the scientists have achieved wonderful things in our own time, for our own happiness and for the happiness of the society.

People Still Unhappy

Now, if we were to meet these prophets of our age one by one, each would admit privately that his had been a waste of noble energies! Not that their plans, ideas and discoveries were in themselves glorious mistakes. The political visions and programmes are well based upon historical experiences of the past. The economic schemes and plans are indeed the fruits of great study and deep ponderings. The scientists, no doubt, have been very creative; they have wrest ed out of Nature many of her splendid secrets. But, they all cry, "We strive, but somehow we find we cannot bring blessings to the society, because the society in its present state is incapable of receiving the blessings we shower on them."

How does society become unfit for blessings? Why is it that people are still miserable in spite of such mighty intellects constantly working to make them happy? We will have to enquire a little more deeply to discover where exactly lies the seed of this ruinous disease.

People in today's society live ever in a state of tension, in a state of withering discord among themselves, each shattered within himself. Ever agitated and restless in their minds, ever unsatisfied with what is available in society and ever striving to cut the throats of one another, all of them always feel, in spite of all that they have, a sense of insecurity in life. Each one tries to build a wall of safety for himself with money, possessions, power, strength and social laws. Why this sad plight? Is there no escape, no remedy? Should life be ever a groping in the dark, a wasteland of strife with no reward of peace and true joy? Should there not be a full contentment of love and unreserved affection?

Where is the flaw?

When we analyse this question as true critics of life, not as pessimists judging society as doomed, but standing apartment as intelligent and kind critics, lovingly analysing life, we have to ask the question, "Where exactly is the flaw?" Vedanta, or the philosophy of India, roars, "Try not to understand the world as a separate entity, but try to understand it in relation with you. Since you alone are the object available for complete study, you can observe and fully investigate 'you-in-the-world'. Thus understand the world through you, rather than objectively looking at the world, ignoring yourself." This is quite right, as life is possible only when a person is in relationship with the world.

Let us for a moment consider what exactly the politician, the economist, and the scientist achieve for the world. Politicians order my relationship with the people around me; the economists regulate my relationship with the wealth in the country; and the scientists command my relationship with the phenomena that constitute the world about me. Thus, everywhere I am being educated on how to relate myself with the world, so that I may come to life harmoniously with the community around me.

World and Me

There are naturally two factors here—the world and me. The happenings around me and the nature of the world that lies about me are at present not directly under my control, but in case I can reorganise myself within myself and by myself, I may then gain a glorious and healthy harmony with the world in which I happen to live now. The scientists the economists and the politicians can only tell us the correct relationship with which we must live in the society with social wealth an phenomenal energies. But in all patters of relationships, we have to be healthy and intelligent in order to maintain the right relationship. If man is not rightly educated, however much the politicians, the scientists, and the economist must strive to bless the society, the society can never be blessed. It is thus clear that I am the one who keeps an intelligent relationship with the world around. If I don't keep an intelligent relationship with the world outside, I become a nuisance to the society. A lunatic does not know how to maintain a proper relationship with others; he makes himself unhappy and he makes everybody around him also unhappy.

Tune up the Personality

Therefore, the main emphasis of religion and philosophy is on the individual, to make him competent to face his environment. The spiritual scientists—the subjective scientists—strive to tune up and strengthen the personality of man, so that he may be competent in himself to face his own challenges in life.

When man comes in contact with the environment, then there arises in him his experience of joys and sorrows. The external environment keeps changing continually. It is, no doubt, to some extent controlled, regulated and improved upon by the material scientists, politicians and economists. But however conducive the political arrangement may be, whether it be socialistic or communistic, whether it be  capitalistic or democratic, in any condition of poverty or riches, it is you and I who have to face life individually. No economist or politician can take away from us our sorrows and tragedies. Happiness or unhappiness depends upon our interpretation of the world in which we are living. They may try to improve the world, they may try to adjust it beautifully, but after all, it is we who have to face our own challenges, not anyone else.

In this business of living, religion and philosophy say that each individual is compelled until death to face his own challenges. You may say that all of us belong to one society or one country, we are one race, and so on. Yet each person reacts differently to the same environment. Even in your own homes, as a father you have to face certain things yourself; you cannot share many of your problems even with your own wife; your wife has her own problems which she cannot share with you; your little baby lying between you two has its own private problems. If I am ill, the society may provide a beautiful hospital and the best of doctors to attend on me. All my friends may come and cheer me up. Still, I have to face my pain myself; no one else can do it for me.

Self-Improvement is Essential

How to improve the inner health of a person so that he becomes competent to meet his own challenges—this is the problem that philosophy tries to tackle; towards the same end, religion also tries to provide a field in which each can train himself to grow in knowledge and inner strength. As a technique of self-improvement, religion and philosophy provide certain exercises by which each individual's view of life becomes more ideal. When his view becomes thus elevated, his behaviour in the world also becomes correspondingly nobler.

Philosophy is never tired of repeating that life is an orchestra; it is not solo play. Each individual must, through education and self-effort, improve his own behaviour. No doubt, he must have his own goals in life, set by himself; at the same time, he must also learn to live harmoniously with others, bringing about an orchestration in his social behaviour. This orchestration has not been achieved to a great extent in the world so far, in spite of sincere efforts.

Master of Ceremonies

The politician who is talking aloud is certainly sincere. The industrialist who is trying his best to increase production is also sincere. The trade union leaders are also a sincere lot. Each one is sincere, but since each one is singing his won song, together it becomes a noisy clamour of disturbing discordant notes, rather than a harmonious melody of beauty. Therefore, there must be a Master of Ceremonies and he must serve as a conductor, and if the conductor conducts properly, all of them can fall into a synchronised harmony. He must order and regulate each individual's play, and thus generate the dynamism of togetherness, the beauty of togetherness. For this, each must sink his arrogance and implicitly follow the signs of the conductor.

Today, there is no harmony in life, nor is there synchronisation in its activities. This is because people do not have a synchronising ideal to look up to and act, regulating their own activities for the blessing of all. This synchronisation comes into our life when we provide ourselves with an inspiring ideal. The ideal in religion is Godhood; in philosophy it is called Self-realization. As long as this ideal is not discovered and accepted, each member will tug and pull and try to work only to fulfill his own little selfish desires. Naturally, all our programmes, even at their best, prove to be nothing but calamitous follies and stupendous failures.

Subjective Evolution

Therefore, to increase our happiness in life our religion demands the sublimation of our ego, sublimation of the individuality, the sense of the little ego, by lifting our vision to a higher standpoint.

This idea of bringing harmony in society through subjective evolution is not generally recognized by the materialists, who essentially follow the objective scientists. Objective scientists believe that the world creates man and causes his happiness. No doubt, external environments are necessary for political stability, material developments, scientific growth, and social justice in the world, but human happiness does not depend merely upon all these. If that were so, for anyone living in a palatial building, resting on its comfortable furniture in a costly and luxurious environment, there will never be any tears. Alas, nowadays it is in such places that you find maximum sorrow and tears. If the environment alone governments man's happiness, then there should not be any laughter or smile in our slums, and we know that this is not the case. So it is clear that a comfortable external situation alone is not sufficient. Man must learn to live in harmony with and enjoy the external circumstances.