In the aftermath of the atrocity committed in Paris I wrote a condolence letter to a friend there. He responded and mentioned other things but with no reference of my heartfelt sympathies. And, somehow, that seemed just right, like the sound of one hand clapping, like a fraught, existential, and blank idea balloon kept in the air of consciousness by our mutual understanding. It was appropriate, like a story about death ending in the middle of a sentence. Because there is nothing left to say and, of course, everything left to say.
I am a New Yorker who remembers the thudding sound of bodies hitting the pavement as victims who, a moment before, were going about their business or talking to their loved ones at home in the suburbs, now suddenly found themselves airborne to oblivion in escape from the merciless fire. A friend living near the two towers got on the roof of her loft building and saw people jumping from the towers, some of them holding hands and one, she noted, actually doing a swan dive, taking his last moment to express a gesture of defiant poetry against death. It makes sense in the current context to remember that there was great rejoicing about this in the Muslim neighborhoods of New Jersey. We New Yorkers have not forgotten that.
Our president, Barak Obama, said that the Paris murders were an « attack on all humanity », a comment made more poignant because Paris, in many ways, is the cultural capital of humanity. And it will continue to be that. Somehow, in an unpredictable irony, New York became a much better place after 9/11. People were friendlier, more outgoing. The sense of comradery that has always been a part of New York identity increased in the wake of the disaster. I am not sure if that warm feeling extended to Middle Easterners. I expect this « spirit de corps » phenomenon to occur in Paris too. Those who survive an atrocity are bonded by grief, anger, and a certain pride they discover in the courage to carry on.
Friday the 13th was a tipping point for the French and also for the rest of the free world. It is a different feeling now. We were angered and shocked by the Charlie Hebdo attack and by the murders in a kosher grocery but we also knew that the cartoonists, although within their right of free speech, so central to any democracy, were pushing the envelope, asking for trouble. And the Jews, well the Jews have always been ground zero for abuse and tragedy ; nothing new about that. But this new savagery had nothing to do with anything other than a warped sense of religiosity and a kind of nihilism that celebrates killing for its own sake.
What kind of a God could accept the killing of random innocents at a rock concert or sitting happily in cafes as a good thing ? What kind of people could believe their God would think that a good thing. How stupid, frankly, can a person like that be ? And they do it in the name of Islam. To say that they, the perpetrators, have nothing to do with true Islam is a denial based in ignorance. As someone who has spent a lifetime investigating religions and contemplating spiritual questions, I conclude, and so would anyone picking up the Koran, that there are fundamental problems with Islam that must be addressed. And those problems can only be addressed from inside Islam. A reformation of the religion must happen and it must be taken on by Islamic scholars and leaders whoever they are, another problem since they tend to be not present.
A friend made a point to me that bears repeating, that there is no central authority for Islam, that any freelance imam can create his own « holy » cult and not be accountable to anyone. In the organizational sense Islam is anarchy not religion. Add to that the almost incomprehensible hatred between Sunnis and Shia and it is a very nasty stew. Now is certainly the time for the reformers to stand up, stick their necks out, in the name of a religion of peace and equality, which, as a longtime resident of Muslim countries, Bangladesh and Indonesia, I know to be the guiding principles of most Muslim lives.
Non-Muslim people are mad. The sleeping giant is still lying on the ground but with both eyes open. I don’t think it is necessary to paint a picture of what may happen if our cave man instincts overrule our interest in kindness and generosity. It is an ugly picture. Now, unfortunately, it is going to be even more difficult for Muslims to be assimilated by the democratic societies into which they are pouring by the tens of thousands.
In America the attacks are a Godsend for the right wingers of the Republican party in the USA with an election year coming up. Until Friday the 13th they barely had a leg to stand on and now their message of revenge will find a very receptive audience. We have to agree, no matter what our political stance, that ISIS be annihilated completely, at least the fifty thousand fighters they have in action. The sympathizers and their twelfth century ideas will take a lot longer to subdue or change. The trick will be to hunt down ISIS by whatever means necessary and with no delay but at the same time to give the majority of decent Muslim people the chance to prove they can be partners in the diverse democratic societies into which they are moving. The burden of proof will be on them, a daunting but not impossible task.
Like many artists and writers I love Paris and lived there for a year way back in 1979. We have planned to spend three weeks there next September and don’t want to be dissuaded by fear. I am an expat living in Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world and the most tolerant, the subject of another essay in process. There are many reasons for Indonesia’s relative stability and peace but the core reason, so I understand at this point, is that the culture is more important than the religion. If culture means food, shelter, and the chance to take care of your family in peace, then that should be fundamental, the true fundamentalism. Everything else in the human community is secondary to that.
Surabaya, East Java
Friday the 13th of November, 2015
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