What Do You Do with Captured Terrorists?

An unrepentant terrorist’s wife in a prison camp in Syria who wants to go back to live in London?   This is the riddle of Shamima Begum, the UK citizen who at 15 was groomed to be part of the Caliphate so with two girlfriends took off for Syria.  There she willingly married a jihadist and had two children. The Caliphate has disappeared now, she and her Dutch husband is a prisoner, her two children are dead of malnutrition, and she’s about to give birth to another child. She wants to return to the UK for her baby’s sake, but apparently shows no remorse for taking up the cause of ISIS.  Should the UK let her back in?  Is she fit to be a mother?  Is she going to keep on supporting ISIS, maybe set off a bomb or two in Victoria Station? This is someone who said life was “normal” in Raqqa, who claims she shrugged off seeing the heads of those who were decapitated tossed into rubbish bins.

Sentiments around her repatriation range from “let her rot in hell there in Syria” to “let’s think of a way to save her brainwashed soul and that of her child.”

Here’s what we should say to her:

You have been seeking the sacred in life, and were told by people you trusted that it can be found in a new society where everyone will live according to the wisdom delivered to us ages ago through a Divine agency. 

You and they have misjudged the Divine. 

We are surrounded by experiences that can bring us a sense of the Divine, of the Sacred, of God—whatever word you give It is always inadequate, but we know It when we experience It because the gauge is something every human being has within them: compassion. Even tragic experiences like witnessing the death of a friend or facing your own demise can bring us this sense of awe, of a transcendence  that defies description as compassion for the suffering of others overwhelms us or their compassion washes over us in our hours of trial.   

But without compassion death becomes the vehicle for the darker forces that still lurk beneath the veneer of civilization.  The savagery of our animal natures can erupt at any moment, and if reinforced by those preaching a gospel of hate, claiming a vengeful god told them the secrets of the universe or wrote it in a book thousands of years ago and the secret is to mercilessly enslave some of the unbelievers and cut the throats of others—well then, they have been blinded by a desire for power over others rather than compassion for them.  They pervert the Sacrament of Death.

The road to God is through compassion. 

The world now has its hands full of thousands of radicalized (read: delusional and dangerous) men and women, together with their offspring who will also fall under the spell of this doctrine unless something is done about it.  What that something will be has yet to be determined, but if there is any hope for a better world, the need to teach that the Divine begins with our humanity to others is the key.


The Thirty-Years War and the War in Afghanistan

For those of you who slept through World History in high school, listen up now: there was no war more brutal and dehumanizing than the 30-Years War that ravaged Central Europe in the early 17thcentury. The number of deaths, the displaced persons, the burned villages, the mayhem, chaos, cruelty–foreign armies pillaging and raping their way across the countryside—the stories surpass the horrors of any modern war.

Why did they fight?  Religion. The Emperor of Austria, raised by Jesuits, couldn’t bear the idea that so many of his subjects had rejected the Catholic Church and become Protestant. He gathered his armies and sent them out to bring the True Religion back, even though it meant destroying much of his empire. The Protestants, knowing that theirs was the True Religion, fought back furiously and both sides were equally un-Christian—it would be more accurate to say inhuman.

Is there anyone today, from the smallest child to the Pope himself, who looks back on that time and thinks that particular war was justified?   Of course not.  We shake our heads in disbelief and ask ourselves how could anyone professing to be a follower of Jesus Christ turn “love thy enemies” into “Onward Christian soldiers”?   The blindness of the participants is shocking to our modern sensibilities.

And yet that’s exactly what is happening once again in Afghanistan and in the Middle East.  Soldiers have been killing each other for decades, civilians have been slaughtered and raped, entire towns destroyed, and all for what?  So that Islam, the “true religion”, may reign supreme, with the Taliban or ISIS or Al Qaeda calling the shots on what the practices of that religion are.   To be honest, the Western World could most likely live with whatever practices these guys came up with if they would just stay in their homelands.  Let them treat their women however they want, we’d say, and let them pray in their mosques, if it were not for the threat those groups pose to our security.   They are determined to launch terror attacks on us, largely because of the United States’ support for Israel vs. the Palestinians, and even if they promised in a peace conference that they would leave us alone, who would believe them?  The road out of this morass is not yet clear.

But if anything is written in the stars, it is that one day our descendants will look back on this era and once again shake their heads in disbelief at how blind people were: “Our forefathers were sure they had found the true religion and must convince everyone of that at gunpoint.  Madness!  We now know there is no true religion other than that based on the sanctity of our humanity and all of its sacraments.”


God Misconceived: Three Real-Life Examples

Imagine this happening where you live:

X kills her two sons ages 6 and 8, smashing their heads with a rock. She explains that God came to her to say the world was ending and she needed to “get her house in order”.

Y attacks a neighboring village with a group of like-minded men. They round up the women they find and force them to return with them. They tell the women that God wants them to be married and they are kept as sexual slaves by their captors.

Z and a group of his friends go into a neighboring village and steal the harvest of the farmers there. They burn the farm buildings and the neighbor’s child dies in the blaze.   Z justifies it all by saying the land belongs to him because God gave it to him and the people who live there have to be driven out.

What is the difference between these examples? In the third, Z could also provide some writings from long ago that in his mind prove what God’s will is. But really, aren’t they the same in the end?  How would any of us react to a neighbor announcing that God wanted any of these things? A call to the nearest police station would result, which is precisely what happened to X, a Christian Texas woman who was judged insane. But if she is insane, why not Y and Z as well? As you’ve probably guessed, Y is an Islamist adherent of Boko Haram or  IS, and Z is a Jewish settler in the West Bank, all doing God’s work.

Why would an unbiased reader condemn all three of these behaviors?    It’s because most of us have a concept of the Good or the Divine Will or Right and Wrong–call it what you like– that rules out killing, stealing, rape.  We don’t need to appeal to God for authority  or look in a sacred text, we know in our hearts what is wrong.   Any outsider would call X, Y and Z delusional, even with the Old Testament as exhibit A.   Did God really dictate the boundaries of that real estate deal in the Middle East way back when? How do we know? If the answer is “we know in our hearts”  that’s what X said as she murdered her own children.   If the answer is “we know because that’s what we’ve been taught” we’re closer to a  way to prevent these sorts of tragedies: better curriculum, better teaching. Start with compassion, not real estate. Start with the here and now and real-live human beings.

Beware the Politician Who Talks to God

Urgent message to my fellow New Hampshirites who are puzzling over who to vote for in next week’s primary:

Please don’t vote for Ted Cruz.

I know, I know, he’s got a lot of what you’re looking for in a president: he’s arrogant, he tells bad jokes, he can make his voice do all those weird things when he gives a speech—that quiver, that whisper, that calculated pause that reminds you so much of the televangialist about to pick your pocket.

But whatever appeal he has for you, consider this: the New York Times reported that Cruz believes a president should spend every morning on his knees in prayer, asking for guidance from God.   Now that may sound good, but in reality, it’s hard to know when God is talking to you, and when you’re talking to yourself. The last president who so openly made a point about praying on his knees to God was William McKinley in 1899.   Back then there were many in the United States who were proud of the fact that we, unlike the Europeans, had never wanted an empire.  Yes, it would have been nice to remind them of all the land we took from the Native-Americans and the Mexicans, but at least we were not trying to colonize Asia and Africa. Then along came the Spanish-American War, and the question of the Philippines. We had defeated the Spanish with the help of the Filipino freedom fighters, but then what? The Filipinos wanted independence, but McKinley got a message from God:

I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly…

In other words, God told McKinley to double-cross the Filipino rebels.  For Christ’s sake.  The results were a three-year war–the USA against the rightful leaders of the Philippines–25,000 dead fighters, an unknown number of civilian deaths, brutal massacres, diseases, ….the usual horror stories.

God also forgot to clue McKinley in that the Filipinos were already Christians—7 million out of 7.6 million people.   OK, OK, …so they were all Catholics, so maybe what God meant was that He wanted McKinley to get out there and turn them into good evangelical Protestants, like….hey! like Ted Cruz!

Cruz wants to carpet bomb ISIS–is that what God told him?  Why not just use a nuclear weapon? The sky’s the limit when you clear your mind of the facts in order to chat with the Creator.

So let’s ask for a little less God in our president, a little more reason, and a lot more integrity.

If you liked this, try “God’s Plan” or “How to Ruin the World

The Massacres of Innocents

Jakarta, San Bernadino, Paris, Boston, Mumbai, Baghdad, Baghdad, Baghdad….this is just the beginning of a list that will go on and on into the future as it becomes clearer and clearer where the world is going. A combination of easy access to guns and bomb-making instructions, worldwide media attention, and young men overloaded with a desire to fight have made all of us targets in what will perhaps be known as World War III. Unlike the other two world wars, this won’t be fought just with standing armies, navies, and airforces. It will be fought by individuals and small groups anywhere in the world who get excited by angry leaders anywhere in the world, leaders who grab their attention and make blowing yourself up with as many bystanders as possible sound like a good thing to do. Young males programmed by natural selection to fight find themselves living in what a Belgian official on the BBC today called “a mental ghetto” where they constantly hear the need to kill the infidel, kill the apostate, kill the oppressors, the bullies, the Other.   In these ghettos there is a very little debate or serious reflection or reason–it’s all about a Cause, Glory, and Death.

We have to face the facts.   There is no way to stop this unless we were to un-create the internet where any hothead in a distant country can spew hate and teach someone to build a bomb.  It’s not going to stop until we shut down the social media sites where young people are seduced into joining the Holy War,  or until we stop arms trafficking, or censor the media so the attacks do not get so much play and convince others that similar massacres are excellent ways to further their Cause. None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

The other facts to face were made clear in a Zogby survey that showed that, yes, a vast majority of Muslims in every country found extremist movements like IS and Al Qaeda were a “total perversion of Islam,” but unfortunately in every country there is a group who thinks the methods of IS are in accord with the teachings of Islam. That number is 15% in the Palestinian sectors, 13% in Jordan, and 10% in Saudi Arabia. What that means is that in Saudi Arabia alone there are 2.8 million people who would seem to support the wars, massacres, torture, executions, kidnappings, and rapes that we’ve seen of late.

There has been no end to the young men and sometimes women streaming to Syria to join the fight, shoulder-to-shoulder with IS. So where will it all end? Prepare we are in for another Hundred Years War, a war of attrition where dozens of innocents are killed every so often, more and more bombs are dropped in Syria and Iraq, and more and more draconian laws are put in place at home to try to stem the tide of attacks.

The only hope of changing any of this in the long run is to do what the Charter for Compassion is doing, and what the idea of Universal Sacraments is all about: find some common ground that everyone of every faith or no faith can agree is part of what it means to be human.   Teach young people that death is a sacred part of life, and that killing someone is not an avenue to God, but a plunge into the Dark Side. To counteract the power of a holy book is a tough job, but it’s being done—remember the vast majority of Muslims do NOT find IS’s methods acceptable.  They have rejected the jihadists’ death-worship.

Every country should enact laws, if they have not already done so, that to teach the slaughter of innocents, to persuade someone to become a suicide bomber is the foulest crime against humanity.  Freedom of Speech should not extend into that dark realm.   Rallying around the sanctity of human life is just a starting point to arrive at other universals that can bring us all together in a world that is coming apart at the seams.

Corruption Creates Extremists

ISIS will not be defeated militarily. This is according to Rami G. Khouri, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and at the American University of Beirut. In an opinion piece last month for Al Jazeera he warned us not to rely on guns and bombs to solve the problem ISIS poses. The question we should be asking is, what is driving recruits to join them?   Pay attention, we need to get inside their heads if we’re ever going to figure this out.

Let me summarize his reasons and regroup them:

A.  1. They are tired of Arab regimes’ brutal and corrupt rule

2.  They want to live in a society that practices true Islamic law, emphasizing justice, security, and equality under the law (now absent from Arab countries)

3. They want to live among like-minded people amid a wholesome family life.

4. They want simple material needs: clean water, food, health care, jobs

B.        5.  They want to find meaning in life or escape personal problems, loneliness.

6. They want adventure like young people everywhere.

C.       7.  Sunnis feel like victims in the face of Shia and Western forces.

8. They want to avenge past grievances like Israel’s humiliation of Arabs, and foreign attacks on Arabs,

D.       9. They want to expand the Caliphate, necessary for the apocalypse and return of the Messiah-figure, the Mehdi (or Mahdi), who will usher in peace and justice

Let me talk about Group A first and broaden the discussion beyond ISIS.   The answer to these grievances lies in good government. So many countries in the Arab world, and in the developing world are suffering under corrupt leaders. Transparency International .just published its report People and Corruption:Africa Survey 2015 in which they found 85 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are paying bribes annually, sometimes just to get basic services. In their corruption index of 175 countries, there at the bottom are the Muslim countries of Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria. How will this ever change?   One way is through the George Washington approach.   They need some powerful, honest leaders who will take the bull of corruption  by the horns and wrestle it to the ground.

The election of John Magufuli in Tanzania may point the way out of this problem. Since his election in October, Magufuli is targeting corruption and also cutting the budget wherever he can.   He is nicknamed “the Bulldozer” and has a no-nonsense approach to projects. He was out cleaning the streets of Dar es Salaam this week along with thousands of volunteers across the country—a regular guy as opposed to a Fuehrer or demagogue. What struck me as an excellent move was his cancellation of the usual, costly inauguration celebration in the face of a cholera epidemic. He has inspired a hashtag #whatWouldMagdufiliDo where citizens can send in their money-saving ideas. What a change from dictators of the past like the CAR’s Bokassa, or the Congo’s Mobutu who always seemed to be laying the groundwork for their apotheosis.

So, down with personality cults! Up with honesty and the Greater Good!  The West has to support this idea as much as it can, and it was gratifying to see Joe Biden doing just that in Kiev this week, though discouraging to see a fistfight break out in Parliament a few days after he left.   There is work to be done.  If you’re looking for a place to park any year-end donations, consider Transparency International which is on the front lines of this fight against corruption.

Next time, B,C, and the problematic D.

ISIS and the Phoney War (Drôle de Guerre)

In the wake of the gunfire in Paris, President Hollande made the dramatic statement: “We are at war!” But why did he need to say it? Why didn’t France realize that before? French planes had been dropping bombs on ISIS targets in Iraq since September 2014. ISIS knew then they were at war with France, why didn’t France get it ? Why did they need to be told now that a war had begun, when their planes had been killing people in the Middle East for over a year?  And not just France, that goes for the United States too.  Do we realize we’re at war?

After Hitler invaded Poland in Sept. 1939, France declared war on Germany as all the world knows. But almost nothing happened at that time: there was very little fighting between French and German soldiers–a few dogfights in the air, but basically nothing. Life went on as before in the UK and in France. It didn’t feel like there was really a war, despite the fact that Poland had just been kicked to pieces. Historians call this the “phoney war” or the “Sitzkreg”, but the French term is better, the “drôle de guerre”—the “funny war”—funny, as in “peculiar”. Maybe the “weird war” would be even better.

It strikes me that this is what’s been going on up to now. We’ve been in a weird situation where this terrible war was going on in the Middle East, and French, American, and other airforces were bombing an enemy that is in so many ways worse than the Nazis, but we didn’t feel like we’re at war, really. We’ve just been going about our business. We’re not engaged in the real world enough.  Maybe we’re buried too deeply in the virtual world, I don’t know, but for whatever reason this Weird War has been taking place over there somewhere and we haven’t wanted to believe that we are part of it.  9/11 was 14 years ago.  That should be enough time to put it all behind us, shouldn’t it?  That’s what we wanted to believe.  That is, until the Russian plane went down and Paris came under fire.

Who knows what the future holds, but it seems fairly certain that once you give young men a Cause, they will run with it, even to the gates of hell, which is looming up in the middle distance. Jihad, as they understand it, is their Cause, and they’re not about to let it go. We can do a lot more bombing, we can probably take back a lot of the territory ISIS holds, but the foot soldiers of ISIS who escape will be out there plotting, and since, apparently, in this weird war taking the life of any individual counts big in their crazy calculus, no one and nothing is safe anywhere in the world for the foreseeable future.   We’ve gotten used to the idea that an earthquake can level a town, or a hurricane can wipe out a city.  Now we have to get used to this.

But if we want to do our best to stop what’s happening and bring this Terror Era to a close, we have to start thinking outside of the box. Assad is not going to go. Give him part of Syria. Give the rest to his opponents—all except those who have committed war crimes. But while we’re at it, we have to partition the Ukraine, we have to partition South Sudan, we have to partition Palestine. We have to give the West Bank to the Palestinians and face up to the zealots in the Jewish settlements.   Maybe with the example of ISIS in front of them, both sides of that conflict will open their eyes and see where this unending, uncompromising enmity leads and get down to the business of making peace.

ISIS, Rape, and the Bible

Newsflash: The army of attackers rushed on the defenders of the Middle Eastern villages without thought to their own safety. They knew God was on their side and the result was inevitable. Those protecting their homes were cut down, and when there was no one left to oppose them, the attackers rounded up the women and children and killed them without mercy.

Does this sound like a report of an ISIS attack in Iraq or Syria? It’s a description of the army of Moses invading the Promised Land found in the Bible, in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Now if you are a firm believer in what is written in the Bible, or the Torah if you prefer that designation, you would say that it’s clear God WAS on the side of Moses, because He did in fact deliver the non-believers into his hands. God wanted that battle to be won by Moses, and insisted that those women and children be put to death. Further, when people of faith wrestle with the question of God ordering genocide in the Bible,  they often end up with the old “God works in mysterious ways” answer: God knows the future and we can’t hope to understand Him, but have to trust that He knows what’s best. Here’s a link to that kind of argument.

Whew! So Moses had to kill all those innocent people because if any of them lived, they might corrupt the children of Israel, luring them away from the Lord. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, where “evil” would not be understood as cutting the throats of children, but allowing a competing religion to exist that might cause the Hebrews to drift away from the True Path.

I hope the reader possesses enough discernment to realize that this is precisely the argument that ISIS is using to enslave or exterminate its opponents.   The most depressing piece of reporting of the century showed up on the front page of the New York Times Friday, in a description of the institutionalized rape of the Yazidis and other non-Muslims by the ISIS fighters because God insists it is their duty. They have it down, chapter and verse, why it is pleasing to God to bind 12 year-old girls and rape them repeatedly.  God also told them to create a slave market for captured women.  In case we’ve forgotten, this is 2015.

Apparently it does not occur to the apologists for Moses or for ISIS that what we’re reading in the scriptures is not what God wanted, but what whoever wrote these things down wanted.  They are justifying their acts ex post facto by claiming a direct communiqué from God.  Because, really, how does anyone know that God dictated these scriptures?   Because our parents believed it, and their parents before them.  Because that’s what our teachers told us.  But the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures are often contradictory, so they can’t all be true. How do we choose the right thing?

Through being human. Through reading your heart. Through reason.   If there is no pang of horror at the rape of a girl, you have lost your humanity and gone over to the dark side.   If there is no hint of compassion for the victims of wars, both ancient and modern, then you have not learned to read your heart.   And if you cannot tell the difference between what traditions have imposed and what is truly right and wrong, you have not learned to use your reason.

The sense is growing that we are in one of those periods when history is shifting under our feet. The number of people in the world is growing too fast, our communications abilities are rapidly shrinking the world at the same time, but we’re not educating our fellow men and women in how to live together in peace at a pace to keep up with these forces.   So many humans, not enough humanity.  Educators, get busy.