Monday, September 17, 2012

As the World Burns

Ethics, Libyan style.
The Dalai Lama issued a statement on Facebook last Thursday acknowledging that “the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate.  This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.  This is not a new view for His Holiness.  He has written a couple of books on the subject of non-religious ethics, one just last year.

I am re-reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil in preparation for future posts in my Nietzsche blog.  Nietzsche, of course, was no great fan of organized religion himself, though his critique of religion is from a different perspective than what the Dalai Lama posted.  Still, there is some common ground between some passages of Nietzsche and the Dalai Lama’s Facebook post.
One thread running through all of Nietzsche’s work is how to attain “higher culture.”  Nietzsche firmly believes that world religion, with special emphasis on Christianity, is a major stumbling block to humanity “overcoming” itself and realizing its full spiritual potential.

Though not specifically tied to events, I saw the comments by the Dalai Lama and my reading of Nietzsche as juxtaposed against the murder of Chris Stevens, American Ambassador to Libya, which happened on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on America.  The full story is still unclear, but there are reports of torture inflicted by elements of the angry mob upon Stevens before his death.
There were, in fact, four murdered in the Libyan attack which was praised by al-Qaeda.  The whole of the Muslim world is in a furor over an inept and amateurish video critical of the Prophet Muhammad.  The video was made by some nut in California.  But, we have freedom of speech in this country.  So, nuts are free to express themselves as long as they are not, by American standards, obscene.

The sweeping reaction of what appears to be a significant, radicalized minority in the Muslim world to a video that most Americans find stupid to begin with reflects how little the Muslim world understands us.  It also reflects how shallow and one-dimensional these radicalized Muslims are.  Secretary Hillary Clinton is handling thus situation very well, even as violence continues to spread today.  Her statement that such acts "should shock the conscience" of people of every faith, rang alongside the Dali Lama post.  Faith itself seems to be ethically inadequate or is only adequate if it can be shocked by actions motivated by other perspectives of faith.
Any religion or culture where rampant violence and torturous killings are routine whenever events in the world upset the balance of that religion or culture, those people are of an inferior culture.  They manifest behavior that is obviously primitive, immature, and wrong.  To elevate a poorly made video attack on Islam's Muhammad to the point of murder and burning buildings across the globe reveals a sensitivity and a use of the concept of what is "holy" that is truly ridiculous and inexcusable.

The cultural infrastructure that justifies this type of behavior is criminal and without legitimacy in the eyes of humanity as a whole.  Rationally and spiritually, we are evolved past such behavior and these people are stragglers through the debris of time holding on to habits that pre-date Muhammad.
Nietzsche’s project toward a higher culture is clearly not exhibited by those who murdered Ambassador Stevens.  Clinton’s declaration that the conscience of every faith should be shocked is on target in its critique of this manifestation of extremist Islamic faith.  The Dali Lama’s concern that ethical behavior can no longer be grounded in religion is a subtle cultural protest against the unethical religious justification of the jihadist tradition.

But, before the United States gets too self-righteous in its indignation we should pause and reflect upon the indiscretions of our own soldiers in Afghanistan, which include burning the Koran; upon the baseless, wasteful, and overly aggressive invasion of Iraq which killed many thousands of innocent Muslims; the intrusion, rightly or wrongly, of Pakistani sovereignty by the United States with drone attacks.  This behavior by our country inflames the Islamic world, even though the basis for most of it lies with the September 11 attacks which were, in turn, motivated predominantly against the liberal traditions of what I would label as a comparatively higher culture.  The US did none of these things in the name of religion.
American and western culture certainly has not reached the heights proclaimed by Nietzsche’s harsh and stark critique.  Higher culture as Nietzsche intended the term is based upon individual discipline, devotion to the artistic pursuits, and spirituality that transcends the master-slave morality that organized religion has wrought.

With a greater emphasis on compassion, but with no less commitment, the Dalai Lama does not wrestle with the traditional western dialectic of higher-lower, superior-inferior, dominant-submissive, or master-slave.  Instead, he merely points out that the guidance for ethics, as a basis for governing society and for legal behavior, can no longer be trusted (as it has for centuries) to religious faith.  The interesting thing is that the Dalai Lama is talking about secular behavior side-by-side with spiritual growth.  To this extent he and Nietzsche have some common ground.
But, there is little doubt in my mind that the Dalai Lama’s post was motivated by events in the Muslim world.  If the spirituality of a society does not sufficiently restrain that society from acts of violence due to the religious tastes of the culture, then we obviously need to start addressing ethical behavior in a way that transcends religion altogether. 

This is a hopeful message even though it is unlikely to have much impact upon Islam as a whole.  This is because Islam is more akin to an ideology than it is a religion.  The religious aspect of Islam is not the basis for its ethics.  The ideology that represses women, advocates an eye for an eye, and glorifies (at least among the jihadist minority) retribution over compassion.  In the case of Ambassador Stevens, this man who had nothing to do with the idiot who made the video regarding Muhammad, Islamic culture somehow produced a shared responsibility by Stevens that justified his murder.  What sick people these are.
As Slate so expertly points out, this is a new world baby.  In the internet reality all religions will be mocked.  All religions will be subject to continued satire and outright misrepresentation.  If every Christian or Jew reacted to the immense amount of information available on the internet offending their religious sensibilities then the whole world would be burning and murders against the “infidels” of whatever faith you want to mention would leave stacks of bodies piled to the sky.

The message by Secretary Clinton is that the United States is a friend to Libya and that this friendship will not be another casualty of Islamic violence.  The message of Ambassador Stevens, before his death, was that our work in Libya is necessary to bring democracy to a nation that has only known tyranny.  Our official response is rightly to rededicate our efforts to the region.
But, for me, the more appropriate message is that the immaturity of radicalized Islamic ideology has no place in the world today.  The Dalai Lama is right to attempt to uncouple religion from ethics.  But, that decoupling requires a level of rational and spiritual sophistication that few have on this planet.  Though he is courageous to point the way, I doubt if many are ready to follow him there because, as Nietzsche knew too well, part of being “human, all too human” is to cling to religion to the point of ending the world for all “non-believers” who deserve nothing but ridicule and death for their unforgivable sins.

Very Late Note:  Three weeks later the narrative of this event has gradually shifted.  It seems that the murder of Ambassador Stevens was not a spontaneous reaction to the Youtube video.  Instead, it is now being called "a terrorist attack".  Obviously, this has become a major campaign issue for the Romney campObama looks weak here but, to her credit, Secretary Clinton took full responsibility.  The story continues to unfold as investigations continue.

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