by ANDRE VLTCHEK
I am scared.
As I am writing this essay, the Eid-ul-Fitr is approaching; festivities that will mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan are about to start. Some 20 percent of the world population, which is Muslim, is now cooking, doing last-minute wrapping of the gifts, getting ready to forgive the loved ones, its neighbors, and to disburse the charities.
For many it is just a routine, an obligation. But for some, perhaps for the majority of Muslims that I know, it is one important and beautiful event, an opportunity to become better and more caring people.
I don’t believe. I have no religion and in many of my books and reports I have been arguing that all religions, particularly those practiced in the West, brought tremendous grief and suffering to the people inhabiting our planet.
But I have many Muslim friends. Among Muslims are people that I care for immensely. I am close to Muslim people who live in Indonesia, Golf region, Sub-Continent, Africa, Malaysia and elsewhere. I had been a friend of Abdurrahman Wahid, former Indonesian progressive President and the leader of the largest Muslim organization in the world – NU (Nahdlatul Ulama). I regularly discuss Islam with Muslim clerics in Aceh and with Shia believers in Iran and India.
I have enormous respect for Muslim culture – for its great poetry, its scientific achievements of the past, medicine, the architecture and social structures, including their concepts for the first ‘social’ hospitals in the world.
But now, just one day before Eid-up-Fitr, I feel scared. Is it because suddenly I feel that the tall walls are separating us all and the doors that were otherwise wide opened to me are suddenly closing?
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I worked in around 140 countries of the world, I lived on all continents that this planet has. I speak many languages. But more and more often I realize how difficult, almost impossible, is the true and honest dialogue between different cultures and different faiths.
Officially we are told the opposite. ‘Political correctness’ makes us say ‘right things’ about each other. We are all supposed to be one happy family now. We say we are having a dialogue even when we sit in the opposite corners. True, most of us do not swear at each other in public. We don’t insult others to the face. But do we really know each other? Do we understand each other? Do we go out of our ways to learn?
I am one of those ‘sad’ atheists and non-believers. I am not happy, not proud of the fact that I do not have faith. I wish I would have, but my brain was trained to be rational and my analytical thinking, philosophy that I studied, experiences from the war zones that I had as a war correspondent; they push me away from any form of devotion. I see, I record, analyze and then fight for better world. There is no time, no space in my life for rituals. Or that is what I repeat to myself. Then why do I feel such sadness and envy on the days like this; just a few hours before Eid-ul-Fitr?
* * *
Then there is of course that deep frustration from not being included. Even if I do not have faith, I am sympathetic; I am educated and fluent enough in the rituals to be able to share at least the table with those who believe.
But there is exclusivity and one ends up either inside or outside, depending on whether he or she accepted belief.
Which leaves people like me, internationalists who severed all their original cultural ties and gave up their national identity for the struggle for better world, somewhere in the cold. Or more precisely – it leaves us in front of some tightly closed gate. Fighting against Western imperialism and against its cultural dictatorship does not guarantee that one would be invited and be given at least some temporary ‘cultural or spiritual asylum’ by those he or she is fighting for.
And I am not the only one who feels that way. A Byelorussian filmmaker who is helping to coordinate my visit to former USSR recently wrote in her email:
“Ah how many bright and dear Muslim friends I have… but I don’t believe it’s possible to come any closer to each other than to some point with a religious person. No chance to reach real mutual understanding and intimacy. Whose emotional emptiness and limitedness is there to blame? Not sure, not sure…”
All this explains sadness that is burdening my heart. But it is not explaining the fear.
* * *
My fear is actually very rational. It is based on many years of observation and on analyzing what I managed to observe and record.
I am afraid that people of our planet are now walking towards the different corners. Not all of them, but the majority. The trust had been broken. Hurts, mental injuries are too deep. Western neo-colonialism has been too savage, too brutal, on all continents: in Africa, Oceania, Asia and until recently in Latin America. But some of the most terrible claws of imperialism had been pointed towards the Muslim world. There, the West usually used religion for its own gains, dividing Shia and Sunni Muslims, literally training and bribing religious cadres into fighting against Soviet Union or against progressive and non-aligned ideals in the countries like Indonesia before 1965.
It is almost as if much of political Islam had been kidnapped and corrupted by Western interests.
It has been long, debilitating and humiliating process, and for majority of the Muslims it was very difficult to fight back, to defend themselves. For decades since the end of the WWII, entire nations like Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Palestine and Somalia to name just a few, had been thrown to terrible meat grinders, they were forced to bleed in agony.
Almost every Muslim country, from Sudan, Libya to Mali, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or Iraq had been manipulated or directly invaded or simply destroyed. The worst grade of dictators has been created, cultivated and then supported. The West was determined to rule over the Muslim lands, as it was determined to rule over the whole world.
In a way, Muslim countries never gained true independence after centuries of colonial rule. And if they did, they were beaten once again to even worse submission.
It is very hard to imagine that trust could bloom in such environment.
* * *
Emotions are one thing, but knowledge is quite another. Many Muslims may guard their feelings and their ‘territory’ when interacting with infidels (one could hardly blame them, given the ancient as well as recent history of the world), but it is the West, the ruling culture, that shows limitless spite towards the Islamic cultural universe, making Muslim even more defensive and protective of that little that has been left to them.
Even in the most remote and ‘uneducated’ parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, even on many far-away islands of Indonesian archipelago, people are well aware of at least some essentials, some basics on which the Western culture is constructed.
But how much the West knows about Islam – about its ideals, its code of justice, its culture and arts, its taboos and goals? Is Muslim universe that encompasses almost one quarter of the world’s population treated as equal partner by the Empire and its junior partners?
How many ‘educated’ people in the West even bothered to read Qur’an? We all know it is pathetically low percentage, although I don’t know anybody in the West who would not have some ‘theory’ or strong opinion (and mostly absolutely ignorant) on the subject!
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