My Tweets

May 272013

I sometimes wish I had more facility in expressing direct, succinct and acceptable feelings about events such as the recent attempted public decapitation of a young man on a suburban street, and his death from the injuries inflicted on him.  Or perhaps I don’t wish. I get no comfort from the glib statements of politicians, statements that close down any discussion of how such things come about, and what might we do?  So when I heard about this on the news my mind swirled, and is still a swirl of thoughts and feelings, many of them conflicting and confusing.

Words include “waste”, “despair”, “youth”, “hope”, “mercy”, “pain”, “blood”, “delusion” and these have associated images and emotional correlates. These all occur against a kind of deep groaning sense of “Here I/we go again……….”, which echoes with personal recollections of murderous thoughts I’ve had, and reckless acts of folly I’ve committed over a lifetime.

In the midst of all this, I found myself in Southend mosque on Friday, just after the beginning of Friday mid-day prayers. I had only formed the idea of visiting the mosque on the journey there in my car, and I wasn’t entirely sure why I was going. I have a tendency to impulsivity: it’s a double-edged thing, sometimes the impulse – examined after the event – seems to have sprung from an honourable motive, sometimes not. Even as I arrived I hadn’t worked it out, but the impulse was strong enough to carry me over the threshold and to the back of the hall where about 50 men and boys were already performing their act of common worship.

I sat with bare feet on a chair listening to the soaring voice of the imam, and the sound of moving bodies as the congregation moved in unison to stand, and to kneel. I kept my head bowed until the ceremony ended. A single coherent thought came to me: “What am I doing here?”.

The worship over, men began to leave the mosque. Some looked as if they had other urgent business to attend, maybe they were going back to work. Other tarried to chat in small groups, laughing and patting each others’ arms as men do. Now I watched with interest. Several men greeted me with nods and eye contact as they left. Two reached out warm hands to press mine, no words were exchanged. Those I heard talking were speaking a language I couldn’t recognise.

Eventually the room emptied, and the young imam came over to me. We introduced ourselves and I told him I had visited on an impulse and without prior arrangement. I heard myself saying that I had come as an act of human solidarity with the Muslim congregation at a time of sensitivity following the murder of the young man in Woolwich. He nodded but made no comment. Later he showed me round the mosque, a converted Methodist chapel. He said that security was an issue, and that he needed to to be sure that the doors were locked against hostile intruders.

We spoke about interfaith matters. I am chair of the local forum of faiths, and we’re developing a partnership arrangement with the local Borough on hate crime, which is increasing but remains stubbornly under-reported. Near-at-home experience indicates that people who experience acts of micro-aggression ( e.g. being ignored in shops by salespeople, being scowled at or sworn at or subject to hostile gestures on public transport) don’t regard that as crime or themselves as the victims of crime, although the cumulative effect is very damaging. The police are aware of this deficit, and are acting on the knowledge. The Government has published a hate-crime strategy to help mitigate it.  We have adopted it and hope to take it forward with the support of local faith communities.

The media outcry and extended hyperbole about “Islamic fundamentalism” and “home-grown terrorists” is inflaming the hate-crime situation, although freedom of speech is essential.   Local Muslims are fearful and some are restricting their public appearances.  I’d value the ideas and opinions of fellow secular Buddhists on the matter, and perhaps some discussion of how the middle way philosophy can inform our action, if we decide to act.

I mentioned the question that came into consciousness during a period of attentive silence: “What am I doing here?”  This question often comes to me in meditation.  It challenges me to authenticity, and I find myself looking for justifications, but also I find myself setting justifications aside, so that a deeper questioning can proceed, turning over the tilth of mind so that – perhaps – something worthwhile will take root in consciousness and bear late fruit……

  4 Responses to “Woolwich and its aftermath”

  1. Hi Peter,
    Thanks very much for this warm and sincere piece of writing. I have had similar feelings in mosques. I used to lead groups of students to visit them and most recently visited one in Istanbul when on holiday in Turkey. Mosques strike me as a very odd mixture of open and closed elements: there is the openness to the community and the challenging practice of prayer, at the same time as the rigid attachment to text and the rigid notions about gender. But perhaps this mixture is inherently no odder than the different mixtures of open and closed attitudes one finds in churches or in Buddhist institutions.

    Obviously on an everyday level, visits like yours are important, as is every other effort to engage with and understand Muslims as individuals. Yet I think there is also a philosophical question behind this. You ask how Middle Way Philosophy can inform our actions, and centrally that seems to mean starting with an avoidance of the assumptions either that Islam is absolutely wrong or bad in itself, or on the other hand that the choice between Islam and other religions is a neutral one of ‘mere personal choice’. Islam does seem, on the whole, rather more dominated by rigid metaphysics than either Christianity or Buddhism, but it is important to distinguish that metaphysics from the Muslim tradition as a whole. The Middle Way exists in Muslim tradition just as it does in every other, even if it gets less emphasis, and it’s liable to be much easier for Muslims to find the Middle Way in Islam than anywhere else.

    As to where to find the Middle Way in Islam, I only have some preliminary ideas. Here are the couple of paragraphs I wrote on this is one of my books (Middle Way Philosophy 1):
    “In Islam, … there is a tension between the ideal of the divine and the reality of the human, with a rigorous attempt to bring the whole of society into line with an ideal (for example with prayer five times daily) balanced by legal principles that make some allowances for human limitations, such as the principle that hardship should not be unnecessarily inflicted (As it says in the Qur’an Sura 185, “Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship”).

    In Islam, too, the principle of shirk, sometimes translated as idolatry, offers a basis for criticism of metaphysics. Shirk means the association of things that are not God with God, and derives in turn from tawhid, the prime principle of Islam, that ‘there is no God but God’, i.e. we should not confuse other things with God, or reduce the transcendent to the worldly . Applied consistently, this should mean that all attempts to attribute the perfection of God or the authority of his will to human utterances are, in a sense, blasphemous. By claiming to know about God, let alone claiming to know revelation, we make an important mistake. Instead, if we recognise the limitations of our humanity and seek God incrementally through addressing conditions, we might actually encounter the meaning of God as it relates to human experience. Shirk could certainly be interpreted in a way that prohibits metaphysics by respecting the unknowability of the transcendent. However, just as Buddhists need to face up to an inconsistency between the Middle Way and their metaphysical doctrines such as karma, so do Muslims need to face up to the inconsistency between Shirk and the belief that the Qur’an is revelatory.”

    The second paragraph points to the really positive thing I find (inconsistently) in Islam: a fierce respect for the limitations of human understanding – a recognition that we are not God and cannot have a perfect view. That seems to me in fact much more helpful and realistic than the traditional Buddhist belief that a Buddha can have a perfect view. In both cases what we need to guard against is the assumption that we can somehow have the benefit of a perfect, God’s eye view by proxy, just by referring to either God or the Buddha, and not taking into account all the interpretation we are doing along the way even if it were true that such perfect views exist. The most striking and repugnant quality required by anyone ready to slaughter others in the name of religion is absolute certainty. It is that certainty that is the problem – not the religious context or the tradition or the beliefs involved.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Thank you for this thoughtful and moving post. Following events such as this I find myself looking for examples of unity to ease my sense of despair and thankfully these are more common than the media would often have us believe. Having said that there are those that exploit horrific events, such as that which we have seen at Woolwich, to further and reinforce their own prejudicial agendas and of course people will turn to these groups out of frustration and fear. Any division carries a heavy risk of furthering the apparent causes of ‘extremist’ groups on either side.

    As I write this I am reminded of the disturbing events that have been occurring in Burma recently, where Buddhist monks have been attacking Muslims, and it seems that to ‘be Buddhist’ is no guarantee against extreme, divisive, prejudice and violent action. It is not just Muslims who carry out horrific acts of violence and it is not just white British right-wing activists that promote discrimination and violence against Muslim communities.

    I do not feel qualified to comment on how a Secular Buddhist organisation should respond but I think that it important for anybody to condemn violent and hate fuelled acts, who ever carries them out, but it is also important to remember that these acts (and thoughts) are carried out (and held) by human beings, whether they be Muslim radicals or right wing extremists. Not everybody that is concerned with the presence (and actions) of the British forces in Afghanistan is a killer and not everybody that has concerns about the use of Sharia courts or the Burka is going to attack Muslims or burn down Mosques. On a personal level I can get frustrated and angry when I am confronted with extreme views and should maybe try to extend some level of understanding instead. If people feel ignored they are more likely to turn to more sinister organisations.

    Cynically, I don’t believe that issues such as these will ever be eradicated but anything we can do to lessen the rate that they occur and the impact that they have on society is worth perusing.

    Peter, I commend you on writing such an elegant post, I have really struggled to express myself here.


  3. Hi Peter

    I was also moved by this wonderful, heartfelt post of yours. I often feel helpless when such events come along. Regarding what to do. I don’t really know. From my experience, what doesn’t seem to do any harm, is to engage people in conversation, really listen to what they are saying and more to the point, try to tune into what they are feeling. If there are entrenched positions involved, to question them, and try and unpack what lies behind them in either the people I’m talking with or with myself but also to acknowledge those more hidden raw feelings (eg often behind hatred lies fear). Above all to try and look for solutions where to some degree everyone’s needs could eventually be met.
    This could well be pie in the sky, but I’m reminded of an earlier conversation I had with Nina Pope in one of her posts where she wrote:

    “I definitely agree that its fruitful to listen to what others have to say even if we don’t agree with it – I remember reading some research re anti-racist work in Basildon (I think) where time was taken to visit and listen to the people involved – and to understand their point of view – and that this had proved very successful in undermining support for the BNP in the elections at that time.”

    There was an article this morning in the Guardian by Terry Eagleton which I found provided some really useful points for discussion. The main thrust of the article is that for many people if there is an attempt to explain or understand the reasons why something happened, this comes dangerously close to excusing it.


  4. Hi Peter
    I, too, was moved by your post, and strongly feel that what you did was valuable and important. You might be interested in listening to this piece (BBC Radio 4, World Tonight 28.5.13 at about 36’20” on what happened recently at York Mosque, where people responded to an EDL demonstration at its gates by talking to the protestors, who then came into the Mosque for tea and biscuits, in proper Yorkshire fashion.

    How should we respond? As individuals, by doing just what you did – by being the human beings seeking understanding and solidarity in a world in which the shouty and why-oh-why driven media try to make the running; by trying to hanging on to our equanimity, and our ability to act out of love, when many people find this even more difficult than we do.