#THOUGHTS

Between Gladness and Sadness

dhaka black flagIt is a strange sensation to be watching the Canada Day festivities celebrating reconciliation between the citizens of the country in which I was born while at the same time monitoring a continuous message feed from my family in Dhaka about gunmen shooting up the café near our family home. It is a feeling of being torn apart between gladness and sadness, between joy and terror, between a world at ease and a world in turmoil.

Similar to Canada, Bangladesh is a country that is unique among its peers. It’s a place of diversity, where there are more young than old, where both political parties are led by women, and where an entrepreneurial spirit gives life to the pulse of its highly engaged civic heartbeat.

With its lush landscape, intellectual history, and active citizenry, Bangladesh is a country that, like Canada, could be a beacon for pluralism and equality, values that US President Obama said at Parliament Hill were universal, not local.

But, it is precisely the obsession with the local, and the unwillingness to know one another that is tearing our world apart. Clearly, we have a long way to go towards that inclusive, pluralistic world conjured by the speeches at Parliament Hill on June 29.

Pluralism is not accidental. It is the product of the process of learning about each other. We cannot be afraid of people who are different from ourselves, whether in colour, economy, or geography. The tribalism that once safeguarded our Neolithic ancestors from predators has no place in our world of converging civilisations. Now, coming to know the other is not only an inescapable inevitability, it is, as we are becoming more and more painfully aware, essential for our survival.

To distance ourselves is to doom ourselves.

In his speech, President Obama argued that we must defend that vision all around the world. It’s time we do that. It’s time to march along the Bosphorus as we did the Champs-Elysees. It’s time to fly the green flag with the red circle as we did the rainbow stripes. It’s time to stand for the unity of humankind. It’s time to work to make countries like Bangladesh more like countries like Canada. If we leave them by the wayside of our collective human journey because they look different or have less, then we condemn ourselves to feast on the fruits of our selfishness.

Our inaction makes us complicit.

The world we have built is inextricably connected. The fact that people can feel both jubilation and fear at precisely the same moment because of things happening at opposite ends of the earth is proof of that.

To paraphrase another Prime Minister Trudeau speaking on the occasion of the visit of another American president: being neighbours is a state of mind.

It’s time to choose to be neighbours, regardless of our geography.

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#THOUGHTS

The Bigotry of the Uninformed — The #BillMaher / #BenAffleck Debate

To anyone who has ever taken an intro course in Islam, Bill Maher sounds like a fanatic who promotes violence in the name of bigotry.

In his now-infamous conversation with actor Ben Affleck, among others, Bill Maher makes the mistake of the uninformed – he confuses religion with culture, and faith with politics.

To argue that it’s “just a fact” that “Islam at this moment is the motherlode of bad ideas” is not only simplistic, but also as incendiary as making sweeping statements about any group of people, a fact that would be clearly demonstrated by jeers if he were to replace the word “Islam” with “Jews” or “blacks” or “gays”.

The real motherlode of bad ideas is the geopolitical issues transpiring in the Middle East. The problem is that these political and economic issues are presented by the media through the lens of Islam.

But, the Muslim world of today is shaped more by post-colonial economics and petrodollar politics than by Islamic ethics or doctrines. In a landscape marred by a lack of money and education, political actors have been able to use the language of religion to stir up violence.

This has more to do with the culture of the region than the religion of Islam.

Case in point is Bill Maher’s incorrect statements about Islamic viewpoints on gender and apostasy. That he speaks so strongly about something about which he knows so little makes him less a sophisticated observer and more a demagogue, whipping people up with polarizing rhetoric, like a jihadist preying on the poor and uneducated to further his political agenda.

To say that Islam is a font of illiberalism truly misses the mark. Because – and here’s where Bill Maher’s lack of knowledge becomes stunningly clear – the Muslim world inspired John Locke’s vision for the liberal society.

For Locke, the 17th-century father of liberalism, the Muslim empires were the example for a tolerant and just society, because Christians and Muslims lived side-by-side, while Britain was full of Christian-on-Christian crime.

The Muslim societies of history were known by their contemporaries as places of pluralism, where people of different religions worked together on an unquenchable quest for knowledge, whatever the source.

Exemplary here is the establishment of the world’s first university in 10th-century Cairo, or the way in which the philosophical study and translation of Greek texts in Baghdad laid the foundation for the Renaissance hundreds of years later.

Just as exemplary is the way in which Spain under Muslim rule glittered during Europe’s dark ages. For centuries, in that “place of three religions and one bedroom,” Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived and worked together to create the most advanced society in Europe.

This is a past that is not too distant to be remembered. The most pernicious problem for us today is that we allow the uninformed to be our opinion-makers. It is our responsibility, in a liberal society, to make a shield from wisdom against bigotry.

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#POP, #THOUGHTS, Fashion

The #Happy Era

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Maisie Williams – Arya Stark on ‘Game of Thrones’ – said it most succinctly on MTV’s ‘Teens React’ video for ‘Saved by the Bell’’s 25th anniversary. While wearing an oversized baseball shirt over a tie-dye-esque top, an excessive number of bracelets of various colours and materials, and capping the look with a backwards cap, she declared: “We’re kind of coming back to this fashion now. Everyone is like wearing this stuff again.”

Teens, at least, seem to have moved into an alt-normcore version of ‘90s retro fashion. Unburdened by the angst of their yuppie-aged compatriots – who tend to go for the drably inconspicuous art-student/middle-aged-tourist look – these young alt-thinkers have adopted the bright patterns, colours, and accessories of ‘90s fashion.

They’re coming of age in an age that’s tired of being tired. Exhausted by the effort of trying to be cool, think different, and act smart, young people – and, arguably, society in general – is embracing the freedom of exuberance. Emblematic here is the general ardour and excitement following Pharrell’s #Happy movement, where thousands of people all over the world danced like no one was watching to make their own versions of his astonishingly popular song of the same name.

The #Happy Era is an age in which the natural exuberance of young people finds unfiltered expression through ever-increasing social media outlets, giving them a disproportionate influence in defining the hallmarks of our zeitgeist.

Though, sometimes this is displayed as an excessive concern for all manner of things light-hearted and self-centred, such as cats, pranks, dancing, slang, clothes, luxury goods, vacation pics, pithy quotations, self-portraits, &c.

In ages past, young people were told to sit down and shut up when they got too enthusiastic or curious. But, their inherent enthusiasm and curiosity have now found an outlet behind the backs of adults, who, for the most part, are unaware of this phantom world their children inhabit, which, due to its speedy growth, is having an actual effect on the physical world.

This is not to say that young people today are wholly different from their predecessors. Youth has always been marked by un-jaded joy. Rather, the difference is that more young people live in societies wealthy enough to provide them with the freedom to indulge that joy, and the ability to voice their thoughts. They have now an audible voice, which seems to say that they are aware of the manipulations of a consumerist culture that tells them what to buy and how to look, they are aware of a media that forces upon them biased viewpoints, and they are tired of being told what to be and what to think.

The point here is that the exuberance of young people has become a driver of the times, because, for the first time ever, they have powerful outlets to express themselves. Most interestingly, that exuberance has not been limited to trivial or self-centred expressions like borderline abusive feline obsessions or a psychologically damaging absorption with their own faces. Rather, they have been able to use social media to galvanise their exuberance for real social and political change.

The #Happy Era is one in which, for the first time, the voice of young people is so loud that it cannot be silenced and set in a corner. The democratising effect of social media has been so powerful that it has allowed the exuberance of youth to cause change on a scale that is remarkable in human history.

Perhaps, then, the current popularity of bright clothes and bright music is a well-earned celebration – the uniform of the victorious revolutionaries. Perhaps we are about to see again TV shows that take place in the bright, halcyon world of ‘Saved by the Bell’, where, as one kid watching the MTV video while wearing a neon shirt and backwards baseball cap put it: ‘these guys are just like, happy … happy kids.’

Perhaps it’s time we embraced the power of #Happy. Maybe we even deserve it.

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The past has a ripple effect on the present. Unless we know who we were, we cannot know who we are.

Aamer Rahman, an Australian-Bangladeshi comedian, sheds an ingeniously skewed perspective on the value of history in his ‘Reverse Racism’ bit that now has over a million YouTube hits. By flipping the history of colonialism, he brings to light many of the power dynamics we take for granted in today’s society.

He speeds through the highlights of colonialism, arguing that the only way he could be a ‘reverse racist’ is if he went back in time and convinced the leaders of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Central America to occupy Europe and steal their resources (and set up a trans-Asian slave trade).

His irony-laden history lesson gets even more poignant when he suggests that those leaders ‘set up systems that privilege black and brown people at every conceivable social, political, and economic opportunity, so white people would never have any hope of real self-determination.’ And, ‘just for kicks, subject white people to coloured people’s standards of beauty.’

Rahman’s alternate Bizarro World holds up a mirror to our own accepted notions of how things ought to be. The supremacy of the West over the last few centuries was by no means a foregone conclusion. It came on the heels of Europe’s very Dark Ages, a term that is itself loaded with the conception that nothing of any worth transpired during that period. Truth is, while continental Europe was in its Dark Ages, Asia was at a cultural apogee and the Middle East was a global hub for new knowledge.

The fact that we don’t learn this in school is no accident. It is reflective of Rahman’s ‘systems of privilege’ that modern Western history deliberately includes no mention of the scientific, philosophical, and cultural heritage it owes to the Middle East and Asia.

For almost half a millennium – from the 15th to 18th centuries – while most Europeans were living in gutter-ridden mud streets, the Ottoman Empire was a beacon of shining sophistication, and Indian maharajas lived lives so lavish that their individual wealth would have surpassed that of whole countries on the Continent. But, it was a Chinese invention that would change the fate of the West – and the rest – for with the introduction of Chinese gunpowder to the Continent, Europe was able to lay siege to the entire world.

In a way, colonialism has been more of a European obsession than that of other continents, who chose the paths of isolation, in the case of China, or of inclusion, in the case of the Ottomans.

Nevertheless, the point here is that even a simple understanding of the contours of history can radically change our perspective on our world. Why is European Renaissance art considered a global standard today when Chinese art has the world’s richest heritage? Why is English the lingua franca today when Arabic was the language of learning in Europe until 500 years ago?

What we are today is a result of what happened yesterday. Questioning why things are is the only way to understand who we are. Rahman’s comedic bit subversively questions the ruling power dynamics of today’s society, and silently asks the right question: ‘why do things have to be the way they are?’

The unspoken answer, of course, is: ‘they don’t have to be.’

#POP, #THOUGHTS

New York the Great #ThrillingCities

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It’s a tale of two cities. It’s a place where gangs of casually-clad joggers commandeer public space outside Central Park to bend their legs into abnormal positions, while fashion-forward celebrities lounge over restrictively-priced delicacies in the Trump Tower restaurant across the street.

The prohibitiveness to living well in New York is overlooked by its residents, who pay an exorbitant cost to live in an average manner. This is perhaps why the city’s authorities go to great lengths to ensure that there are an endless variety of free distractions of the highest quality. The result being that the people complain less about the dirt and the danger, and extol in ecstatic tones the unparalleled greatness of the city’s offerings and opportunities.

There is no doubt that the city is dangerous and dirty. To this day, there are large parts of Manhattan – what many consider the greatest island on Earth – in which one cannot walk with surety of one’s safety. In even the tourist-heavy areas, garbage is strewn on the streets, upon which are placed at regular intervals human beings of exemplary degradation, left to rot both physically and mentally.

To say that it is better now than it was before is a denial of the great city’s responsibility to its disenfranchised. To say that the griminess of the subway is charming is to ignore the heady stench of crime that remains a hallmark of the city, which seems to spend a great deal of effort enticing people to look up at its pretty marvels rather than down at its dirty truths.

To live in New York is to pay for the privilege of being trodden upon. There are very few cities in which you can pay as much to live as poorly. There is, however, nowhere else that you will be as happy to do so.

That is because New York is a crucible for passion. Everyone you are likely to meet is continually on-the-go, excited about life and its prospects. They are all engaged in atypical endeavours that could only exist in a place like New York, where all things imagined come to life.

New York is the fertile soil that births dreams. It has never lost its New World character, whose two essential aphorisms are: ‘everything is possible,’ and ‘only the strong survive.’

But, that first aphorism – ‘everything is possible’ – is only valid in conjunction with the second: ‘only the strong survive.’ It is true that New York offers the opportunity to be anything, but the price is high, and most do not survive the fire of the forge. Even so, New York can be that smouldering forge in which every man hammers out his own future, fashioned by his own hands, without the restrictions of tradition or establishment.

New York’s traditional foes, London and Moscow, represented to the freedom-loving city the vestiges of those old shackles. The ideology of Moscow, a city with a whiff of decrepitude in the air, was a place where the restrictions of established political structures would forbid a man from gaining the resources needed to forge his own destiny. The social strictures of aristocratic London, a city that is fascinated with the perpetual relevance of its own majesty, would never allow a man to gain more respect than his name allowed, no matter how much wealth he accrued.

Born a mishmash, a place without culture or cultivation, New York was a place where enterprising farmers came to seek their fortunes, escaping an aristocratic Europe where they could never fulfil their upwardly mobile aspirations. In this democratising New World, where everyone was worth only as much as their merit proved, those farmers became industrial magnates within a generation, proving that this was a place where it was the strength of your will that made you, not your name.

That idyllic history retains its grasp on the minds of people today, formulating for them the propelling thought: I can make something of myself here. And perhaps they can. But, the great promise of New York is a fleck of light – something you can’t grasp. The city is the living metaphor of the consumerist dream, populated by too many people who believe that simply being in the orbit of the great city will make their dreams come true.

A place unburdened by history or culture, New York remains, in the popular imagination, a place where one can be what one chooses. For those who are consumed with the need to disrupt norms that restrict their destinies, there is no other place to actualise their visions. It is a place for people who are not willing to do what they’re told. It is a place for people who, for one reason or another, cannot stomach being normal.

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#THOUGHTS, Islam, Religion, Television

The Muslim Thirst for Global Knowledge

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The reawakening to science that took place in Europe hundreds of years later was kindled by a flame that had been long tended by Islamic scholars and scientists.
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos (Fox)

The Muslim societies of history were known by their contemporaries as places of pluralism, where people of different religions worked together on an unquenchable quest for knowledge, whatever the source. Intellect was prized above all things, as it was seen as the means to understand God and Creation. The Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation was a command to ‘Read!’ and investigate the depths of the mind, since God teaches humankind ‘by the Pen’ (Q. 96:1-5).

This command was the first revelation of the Qur’an, and it expressed a love for knowledge that was to become the pivot around which all the great Muslim cities flourished. That ardour for intellect was not hindered by any prejudice of race or creed. Knowledge was to be gained from everywhere, and people of all faiths lived and worked side-by-side, inspired by an interpretation of the Qur’an that said ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (Q. 2:256), and that all the world’s diverse humans should ‘come to know one another’ (Q. 49:13).

Spanning time and place, this pluralism of the mind was characteristic of mediaeval Muslim societies like Abbasid Baghdad, Fatimid Egypt, Umayyad Spain, Ottoman Turkey, and Mughal India. Known for their acceptance of diversity and promotion of inter-group cooperation, these societies were composed of different groups with their own philosophies, like an orchestra of different instruments blending harmoniously to create a symphony.

That was the music echoing from the walls of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, which, by the 9th-century, was the world’s biggest library. A community of global scholars, the House of Wisdom was an unrivaled centre for the study of subjects as varied as astronomy, medicine, zoology, and cartography.

Famously, its translations of Greek texts re-introduced Greek knowledge to Europe and spurred the European Renaissance some 500 years later. Al-Khwarizmi – from whose work we get the words ‘algebra’ and ‘algorithm’ – introduced to future generations the Indian decimal system and its groundbreaking number ‘0’. It was here where scholars like the 10th-century ‘father of optics’ Ibn al-Haytham helped establish the modern scientific method through observable experiments whose revolutionary results reverberate through time to form the bedrock of modern science.

Under the Fatimids, Egypt was to become the heart of Islam’s cultural, intellectual, and scientific life. The world’s first university, al-Azhar, founded in 10th-century Fatimid Cairo, was a haven for scholars from all over the world – regardless of religious persuasion – to collaborate and debate the latest advancements in all fields of human endeavour.

In Cairo, the city founded by this Shi‘i dynasty in 969 CE, was employed a vast administrative service run by Christian and Jewish viziers, Coptic and Jewish officers, and an army staffed by Sunni Turkish as well as Christian commanders. Here, Jews and Christians enjoyed a religious freedom that reflected the modernist tendency of promotion.

Muslim Spain – known as Andalus – was a place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived cooperatively, in a time of Jewish persecution in Europe. In Andalus – the place of ‘three religions and one bedroom’ – people of different faiths interacted freely to create a society that prized the pursuit of knowledge, which both symbolised and actualised for them the freedom of the human soul.

For the 10th-century nun Hroswitha, Muslim Spain was ‘the ornament of the world.’ For her European contemporaries, Andalus was the beacon of civilisation on the continent. It was a place where streets were lamp-lit for miles, where a system of aqueducts and sewers staved off the Plague, and where Averroes and Maimonides produced brilliant philosophical and scientific works that were to become standard texts in European universities for centuries.

It is that strength of the human intellect that the Qur’an aimed to harness. Its vision for humanity was of an ethical community of diverse and different individuals striving to ennoble both themselves and society through the expansion of the mind to all the world’s diverse corners.

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#POP, #THOUGHTS, Consumerism, Religion, Television

True Detective / True Religion

truedickTrue Detective is the modern story of the hero’s journey. It is the allegory of one man’s disenchantment with the cosmic powers that seemed to take away his control over his life and destiny. It’s the story of how, after a lifetime of inner struggle, Rust Cohle finally enters the labyrinth of his mind to face and defeat his own demonic Moby Dick, the great whale, the monstrous Yellow King.

He sees, in his mind’s eye, the grand unity of his life and of every life, and he articulates it in a way that has been done for centuries – as a cosmic shadow-play of light and darkness dancing on the fringes of our consciousness. ‘Looking out those windows every night just thinking,’ he tells his friend, ‘it’s just one story. The oldest – light versus dark.’

At the end of his battle for control of his life, he realises that that was never really the object of his struggle, and that the course of his life was always his to chart. He gets up and walks away from the powerlessness of his past, taking control of his life, making his destiny his decision.

This is our oldest story. This is the allegory of life that each of us plays out on our journeys, on our own quests for that simple realisation that we are the creators of our worlds, that we are the masters of our destinies. This is the simple/profound teaching that we’ve been trying to teach ourselves since we first tapped into our own consciousnesses and articulated the myths that made our earliest religions.

But, if this is old truth, why should a man like Rust – a seeker of truth – have had to endure his mental anguish without the knowledge/faith that he was on the same journey that every human has ever been, and that its conclusion would be in the realisation of his own power? Embittered by his isolation, Rust was a man marginalised because of a neurological system that should have been recognised as genius, but whose ideas were dismissed as rancorous by a society still burdened by superstition.

It seems unfair. The answers are there, but we aren’t taught them. Rust knew there was more to his mind, but he’d been taught to ignore his metaphysical power because it was encased in the shell of dogmatic religion. He was never taught that there was a deeper kernel beyond the dogmatic.

But that’s the bequest of a society that cast out its existential allegories because of its distaste for the corruptions of priests five hundred years ago. It’s the bequest of a society that didn’t realise the value of its spiritual inheritance – the teaching that the cosmic power resides within us, that we are the makers of our own worlds, and that we are the true masters of the universe.

This is the true religion that we were never taught. This was the misfortune that Rust lived with every night when he looked up at the night’s darkness and saw himself alone. Until he came to the edge of death and his mind allowed itself a peek into the power it had been taught to ignore. Then, in that epiphanic moment, when his definitions faded and subject disappeared into object, he felt that ‘beneath that darkness there was another kind – it was deeper – warm, like a substance.’ In that eternal moment, he could feel his father’s peace, he could feel his daughter and her love – ‘even more than before … Nothing but that love.’

And that is the bequest of true religion – to look up at the night sky and see hope in the cosmic play, to see the darkness as simply the shadow of our own great, grand light.

Posted by the Dhaka Tribune at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2014/mar/29/true-detectivetrue-religion

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