The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have understandably shaken the Western world to its core. The death toll is harrowing and the potential for more violence is terrifying.
The West has been attacked, and it wants to strike back. The terrorists ended over 100 precious lives and sent a strong message filled with fiery hate. It is only natural that we want to send an equally strong message back, an insistence that we will not stand idly by as our people are slaughtered and our values attacked.
But why then does much of the Western response make me feel sick? Why do I fear that the attacks have succeeded in bringing out the worst of us? I think it is because I am noticing a worrying trend. We are flirting with the dangerous idea that to protect ourselves and exact revenge, we must necessarily abandon any notion of compassion.
Sometimes, we think that who we are and what we do doesn’t matter to the world.
We’ve heard that if we don’t learn from history, we’re condemned to repeat it. I’d prefer to learn.
In light of recent events, I’d like to share a story of the power of one person’s peace in the ancient world that is still impacting us now.
Listening to this story, we can always remember, peace is a choice. What will we chose today?
On September 11, 2008 I spent six hours touring and learning about the San Patrignano drug rehabilitation community located in Rimini, Italy. I spent the week before in Lausanne, Switzerland providing training on conflict management for women from over 50 different countries who primarily work for their country’s Olympic Committees. My friend Marina Canatacuzino, a journalist who createdThe Forgiveness Project, suggested I visit San Patrignano, which is relatively close to Switzerland.
San Patrignano is considered one of the world’s finest drug rehabilitation programs, and after visiting it I can easily understand why. I believe San Patrignano is a model for building peace and is an example of an effective restorative justice and solution-focused response to conflict and dealing with serious social problems.
The Middle East has had problems for what seems like an eternity now. Ever since I was born they’ve had problems that they, nor the world as a whole, can fix. The people there have to go everyday with the worry of “will I be killed today?”
European countries made room for immigrants when immigration from the Middle East first started to happen a few months ago, but then decided that they couldn’t take in any more people. There were, and still are thousands of people fleeing their home countries trying to get to safety, but they are being turned away from the golden land of opportunities that they gave up everything for.
How could these countries do this? From my perspective, I can see how overcrowding becomes a problem and there aren’t enough resources to go around. I understand that even these well established first world countries can’t care for a sudden rush of millions of additional people.
The rural Southwest feels vast and empty. Driving from Los Angeles to New Mexico, my wife Susan and I saw sweeping landscapes of alluvial fans and sheer cliffs, and mesas that stretched as far as we could see. Just the idea that people carved out a way of life on these lands left us in awe of our ancestors and, before them — centuries before them, millennia even — the first people who lived here.
People still live on this arid earthscape. They populate the small towns along the railroad tracks. They dwell in pueblos at the tops of mesas. They survive tucked into corners of cliff sides and in the bottomlands of rivers. Driving through such rugged beauty made us aware of the power of nature and the relative powerlessness of human beings in that kind of environment.
“Religion” is typically considered as a “belief system” or a “structure of beliefs and practices concerning the divine.” It’s a recent development in the meaning of the word, and it would have been foreign to, say, Aquinas, for whom religion was a virtue.
A virtue is the perfection of a power of the soul, or, in modern parlance, an excellenceof the human person. We see a height of humanity in courageous actions, a greatness we are all capable of. We admire courage, not as something for just this or that person, but as something every human being can and ought to aspire to. Virtue, then, is not the addition of some pleasing quality, slapped on like a sticker on the surface of this or that person. Virtue is the perfection of those powers and capacities every person really does have, our indwelling capacities for courage, patience, justice — and religion.
Islam, the West, and our (shared?) responsibilities
Talal Asad (b. 1932) is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Asad’s work has played a major role in the study of Islam as far as including Muslim self-understandings of what Islam is and what it means to be Muslim. In this interview, Asad discusses Eurocentric notions of “humanity” and “civilization,” growing Islamophobia in Europe and America, and the violence committed with impunity by Western states — particularly the U.S. — previously and today.