the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2002 March 17


Hundreds of Indians have now died in recent communal attacks. I say ‘Indians’, since ‘persons’ would be too general, and I am referring to persons in a specific part of the world; but beyond that the term ‘Indians’ is far too presumptuous. The hazy idea of “India” is part of the problem. Clearly the feelings exhibited, leading to gruesome mass murders, are not of fellowship.

Hindustan, the Indian cultural region, is best defined by reference to the two central elements of ancient Indian culture, Sanskrit and Hinduism. Hindustan would be the entire extent of the Sanskritic languages and modern Hinduism. That would encompass Dravidian Hindus, and Bangladeshi Muslims; it would incorporate not only most of the Indian state, but also much of Pakistan and Nepal, and all of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Of course, there are more restrictive cultural groupings, of persons with stronger common bonds, such as a single language. But all such considerations are fairly objective, codifiable by cultural anthropologists who can trace patterns on a map.

But there is a more personal concept of nationhood, based on the self-identification of individuals with a larger group, a sense of belonging, possibly dependent on common features such as language and religion, and race and history, but also to some extent defying anthropological explanation. Bharat, the Indian nation, is not even as large as the Indian state, excluding all of those whose attachment is to minority nations, like the Tamils. Nationality is largely in the mind. And psychology is an impossible science.

Muhammad is a rare figure in history, possibly unique. To the extent that the stories about him are true, he forged a nation from his own will. Before then, the Arabs existed as an ethnolinguistic group, but they were divided and scattered, not bearing the sense of identity that a modern nation exhibits. He began with a comprehensive religious reform, used that new religion to unite the Arab tribes, and eventually began the conquest of what has become the Arab world, a conquest that spread their culture and their new religion across North Africa and into Europe.

But the expansion of Islam was not pursued through conquest primarily. The early Muslim leaders, and Muhammad himself, were politicians, and astute ones ― but not always. One of their devices was syncretism, the rather-seductive idea among faith-makers that religions can expand by incorporating believers of other religions, generally by adopting elements of their faiths. Thus Moses and Jesus are Islamic prophets, and the Hebrew archangel Gabriel is the mediant author of the Qur’an. For a time Muhammad had his followers pray towards Jerusalem, in hopes that the sanctification of the city under Islam would cement the adherence of Jews and Christians to his new faith. One city, one god, one last prophet. When this failed, the Islamic faith was reoriented, literally, towards Mecca. But the caliphate maintained the project, and Muhammad was later said to have ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the location of the temple of Solomon and therefore the geographical center of Judaism on Earth. When the opportunity presented itself, the Muslims dropped a mosque down on the very spot, and decreed it Islam’s third holiest site. Whether the whole thing was cynical or earnest I do not know, but its result was disastrous, for of course it did not persuade the Jews to convert, had the contrary effect in fact, and we are left with Muslims, particularly Arabs, and most particularly Palestinian Arabs claiming land for religious reasons that was claimed for the same reasons by another group first. So they fight. Ultranationalist Ariel Sharon visits the Temple Mount, as an ultranationalist will by nature do, and the Palestinian Arabs, in supposed response, unleash another intifada. This proves only that groups generally, and the Palestinian Arabs specifically, cannot strategize; for the direct consequence of their intifada was the reactive election by the Jews of a nationalist government headed by ― one guess.

On the question of Palestine, generally I am more sympathetic to the Jews, knowing that the Shoah was merely the culmination of centuries of persecution. The Jews could not rely on anyone else to defend them; they resolved to defend themselves. They could not live under a tolerant majority; they resolved to be the majority themselves. And, it must be said, the Arabs in the last fifty years have done much to dissipate any sympathy. During the Ottoman Empire, they may have been a romantic oppressed people, but since that time their societies have produced little but military and feudal dictatorships, and have fought among themselves, and have fought with neighboring states including Israel, and have treated women, Jews, other minorities, and their own dissidents with harsh and even cruel force. Even the Palestinian Arabs have damaged their own sympathetic image, not only through repeated barbarous attacks on innocents, but also through their long-held insistence on the complete destruction of Israel.

And yet the Israelis have also harmed their own cause with their actions. They may rightly claim to be a democracy in a sea of dictatorship, but Israel is a colonial democracy, in the manner of the British and Roman empires. Only the full citizens get to decide how the state is governed. There are many subjects of the state who are not granted citizenship and those democratic rights; in Israel’s case this means, of course, the Palestinian Arabs. And Israel’s methods of dealing with its restless disenfranchised minority are a distressing simulacrum of war ― bombings, blockades, commando raids, and even assassination. The situation in the current uprising has finally brought about opposition within the military, with reservists, both soldiers and officers, refusing to serve in the occupied territories. Service in the army is mandatory for Israelis, so this is not the equivalent of unrest among career soldiers; but it does show the strain of this conflict on Israeli society.

Hinduism, meanwhile, has always been a uniquely tolerant and accommodating religion ― witness even today the genuine affection for the essentially-missionary work of Teresa of Calcutta. That tolerance is wearing off, though, and has led in this century to the formation of several Hindu revivalist organizations, one of which leads the central government of India. Hinduism flows through India like its great rivers, always present even if the foreground shows another story. But it has faded over the centuries, particularly to the favor of Islam, and at last the true believers awoke to vigilance for their hitherto-undefended faith, vigilance that led to the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. The story of Ayodhya is disputed, of course, but I have no trouble believing that the Muslims deliberately built a mosque on the site sacred to Hindus as the birthplace of Rama, with the intention of hastening the conversion of the Hindus. While the project of conversion has seen success, it has not achieved its objective, nor could have, using that method. Syncretism doesn’t work. If the Unitarians don’t make it work, no one will ― and no one will.

Arabic culture will always be central and in a leading role in Islam. The holy center of Islam is an Arab city. The sacred language of the Qur’an, and therefore of God himself, is Arabic. The Arabic script and many Arabic words and names have been adopted throughout the Islamic world. But the status of Islam as a proselytizing religion diminishes its national character. Muslims may read Arabic for religious purposes, but they chat in their local tongues. And there are other cultures, particularly Persian, that have contributed to common Islamic culture.

Considered within itself, the Arab nation is rather unified: there is geographical contiguity, linguistic unity (in a two-tier or “diglossia” system), and religious near-homogeneity. But the political situation is one of great complexity. Eighteen contiguous states are dominated by Sunni Arabs with a common formal language, and in every case the only significant minorities are also Arabs or also Muslims or both. This political array is bordered on the east, and in part on the north and south, by states also dominated by Muslims. It is in that context that the question of Palestine must be considered. The Palestinian Arabs claim a national right to the land, belonging to them, the Palestinian Arabs, even though many were born in exile; and this is ultimately no different from the Zionist movement that they so despise. The Jews remember a time when Palestine was theirs; they, too, were displaced, and they, too, believe in a national right to reclaim the land. Of course, by their own (unreliable but telling) history, the Jews were not aboriginal to Palestine. But they predated the Arabs, and the Arabs, they would point out, have eighteen states of their own, many of them completely to themselves, and several in the land of their origin, which was not Palestine. When it suits the Palestinian Arabs, they will claim to be Arabs, for this brings the national sympathies of all the Arab people in on their side. But they cannot argue for Palestine on that basis, for the Arabs have so much land already. So then the Palestinian Arabs must distinguish themselves, point out that they are indigenous to Palestine, and have no homeland of their own, having been displaced by the Zionist Jews. And they use religious claims as well.

Back in Hindustan, the dispensation of the disputed land at Ayodhya hinges on who got to it first, or perhaps who cares about it more; but clearly neither side will concede these points. Again, unfortunately, my natural sympathies lie against the Muslims, since for them it is one holy site among many and fairly low on the list, and its sacredness is almost certainly derivative of its original sacredness to the Hindus. And yet the whole thing is, as I have been driving at, bunk. I am not religious, and have little tolerance for the arguments thrown about by all sides.

The Arabs and the Jews and the Hindus have all, in their way, been great nations of history; and the Arabs in particular must be recognized for the power they are and have been. Though I may seem negative towards them and their religion, it is mostly negativity towards nations and religions; though an acknowledgement of the great achievements of Arab civilization in the past does not excuse the almost-universal failure of that civilization to dwell in the world of modern liberalism. But no matter. The Arabs have done good things. They have done much that was not good. So with the Jews and the Hindus.

The point of this tale of three cultures is to illustrate not so much my own intolerance, but the futility of treating with nations. Nations indeed are the agents of history; they, more than the celebrated “great men”, determine the flow of events. And individuals comprised by these nations have even less to do with history, seemingly. Oh, to be sure, nations are technically nothing more than the individuals within them. But the constant spirit of a nation that persists through the birth and death of individuals, through the complete replacement of the nation’s elements every few generations, does in some ways give it a life beyond individuals, for the individuals are taught the lessons of that spirit and give it continuity when they fail to break free from its teachings. So if we want to understand the past, we must study the nations.

But if we want to control the future, we must throw them down. This tyranny of nations is killing us, literally. Yes, blame the individuals who firebombed the train in India. They should be held personally responsible. But it is wrong to excuse the nations. To drag the nations into court for an atrocity is impossible. To blame a nation, and thus the innocent individuals within it, is politically incorrect. But it is necessary. Where did these extremists get their motivation? The innocent members of nations are not so innocent if they do not recognize their nations for what they are. They are hives. They are assemblies of drones acting with a collective will. Our fault is in trying to reform them, to mediate among them, to placate them. Never. We shouldn’t worry about which of them gets dibs on this or that piece of land, who got where first, who, for God’s sake, started it, like we are watching two teenagers fighting over a sweatshirt. Come to think of it, perhaps we are. For all of the ancientry of the three nations, do they not in fact behave like adolescents, like immature, confused beings struggling to make some sense of the world? Don’t all nations? And yet, we would not think of treating human adolescents as adults. We would not give them the same responsibility. We would not give them the same authority. We would certainly not allow them to make decisions for adults. When we allow that power to the nations, we are abrogating our own responsibility.

So is this slavery to the will of nations a transgression committed only by a few extremists in another part of the world? To believe so would be too convenient. Does the mighty will of nations only tell us to hate, and, when we do not hate, are we somehow free of its power? To believe so would be too dismissive. For like a true child, the will of nations is not possessed of hate. It merely wants to understand, but it does not. And when it does not understand, it acts out of fear and confusion. Perhaps it lashes out in violence. Perhaps it resigns itself to suffering. All of this may be sad. It may move us to pity. But of course, the will of nations is not a real child that we need pity. It is not a real child that we need nurture. If it presumes to dictate our actions, and we see in that presumption the act of a child, we cannot rebuke the child until we first cease to submit to its authority. And, miraculously, when we do, the nations become the less. By remaining within the nations, we augment the power of their will. If we remove ourselves entirely, the will of nations will immediately vanish. So perishes a child, perhaps; but anyone who has seen the death of a real child caused by the will of nations should have no trouble making the choice.


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