Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Rule They Want Us to Live By

“Might makes right; the rich can do whatever they want and it somehow helps the poor.”

I heard this description of the social philosophy people around the world are being asked to accept during a public radio interview by one of The Yes Men, a group of pranksters for social justice. I’ve never heard it said better. The Yes Men got into the news recently when they impersonated Dow Chemical officials and publicly accepted responsibility and promised compensation for the Bhopal environmental disaster. (Dow has acquired Union Carbide, the company responsible.) The same group had previously impersonated WTO officials, telling media that the WTO would be dissolved and replaced with a new agency that would value human considerations above economic ones.

While I don’t entirely agree with their methods, I can see their predicament. They were initially contacted by media because their satirical Dow and WTO websites were taken seriously. They couldn’t make up policies that were exploitive and ridiculous enough to be recognized as humor; everyone just thought it was business as usual.

Sometimes when people resort to illegitimate means (like lying) to defend themselves or fight back against an overwhelming power structure, it’s simply because the legitimate means don’t work. When corporate and neocolonial power present a bland, smooth face that says, “I’m sorry your people are dying / starving / unemployed / suffering, but there’s really nothing I can do,” it helps provide a rationale for behaviors like un-Islamic targeting of civilians and Qur’anically forbidden suicide bombings.

As a thirty-year Muslim convert named Vincent Cornell pointed out in another recent radio interview, it’s Islamically impossible to choose to become a martyr (shahid). Cornell gave the example of a World War II fighter running into an enemy foxhole to save his companions as a case of legitimate martyrdom; such a man did what the immediate circumstances called for; he didn’t get up one morning and say, “I’m going to go do this.”

Islamic law forbids the wartime targeting of civilians. It also mandates that the enemy must be fought face to face, and forbids the use of fire as a weapon. Taken together, the last two strictures would pretty well eliminate modern warfare (which would be fine with me!). But this leaves the problem of exactly how people with relatively little power are supposed to stand up for themselves against overwhelming imperial systems. Gandhi’s “non-violent non-cooperation” method is a possibility, but sometimes you can die before anybody notices you’re not cooperating, especially if you’re poor.

Just in case anyone thinks all the suffering is in the ‘Third World,’ check out these excerpts from Marian Wright Edelman’s article in Muslim Journal, “Is There Room in America’s Inn for Ray?” (a “round-faced boy of 10 who seldom smiles”, probably because he and his disabled mother were evicted and living in a homeless shelter after some time spent sleeping “by the freeway in the bushes.”)

“When he is asked about his hopes for the future, Ray says he would like to stay in one place and have a friend to play with. He ends his response by saying, “If I ever get there.” . . . . “ ‘Like I say,’ Ray says in a flat voice. “Tomorrow may never come.’ ”

Edelman goes on to tell us that, “Ray is just one of the 13 million poor children in America. A majority of them live in working families. Every year about one million of them experience homelessness like Ray. Millions of other families are forced to put their children’s welfare at risk by foregoing food, health care, child care and other basic necessities in order to pay rent.”

“The national minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, $858.33 a month and $10,300 a year for a family of four. The national average fair market rent is $735 a month. This is 86 percent of a minimum wage worker’s earnings.” The continuing decline in low-rent housing and actual and threatened cutbacks in Section 8 housing also contribute to the problem.

Again, how are the poor supposed to make their voices heard, when no one in power seems to care? I guess they’re just supposed to die politely and not make a fuss. The obvious solution is organizing and political action, but a lot of people organized their hearts out last election and we still have George Bush. And the poorer and more stressed and resource-poor you are, the less time and energy you have for political action. Check out Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; if you’re hungry and homeless, you’re not worrying about writing your congressman.

I guess this is my theme for this decade: Neither of the apparent alternatives is acceptable. The alternatives seem to be a) remain politely within the system while the super-rich cart away every last scrap of sustenance that makes life livable, down to privatizing drinking water and probably the air if they could figure out how to do it, or b) resort to immoral and unacceptable behavior: lying like the Yes Men, targeting civilians like the terrorists, or stealing and dealing to survive, as some of the poor sometimes do. I repeat, neither of these options is acceptable.

In his imaginative novel, The Screwtape Letters, Christian writer C.S. Lewis writes—this is from memory, but it’s darned close—, “The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is there that we see its results, but it is conceived, (proposed, approved, minuted) by men with smooth faces and clean fingernails who do not need to raise their voice.”

I see those men, and feel them, and hear their voices. They cannot be allowed to rule the world.

3 comment(s):

  • I've never heard that the use of fire was prohibited in warfare, at least I've never seen it interpreted quite the way you do here. I have always been under the impression that what was forbidden was the burning of property--and,of course, people.

    If that is a popular interpretation it is very interesting in light of the fact that one of the huge advantages that the near-east khilafa had (and what likely won the crusades and held off Catholics from taking Granada for over 100 years) over Europeans was the use of explosives:primitive grendades,canons etc. Europeans eventually adapted these technologies and improved on them and we all know how the story went from there.

    At any rate this was a very interesting piece. Warfare must have some rules, but I am not willing to tell anyone struggling for dignity and their human rights that they can't use deceit or violence --though not civilian targetting-- in order to achieve their means. Deceit is and always has been a part of warfare its nasty business, but so is the oppression that spawns it.

    By Blogger blagdiblah, at 1/02/2005 06:34:00 PM  

  • "...it helps provide a rationale for behaviors like un-Islamic targeting of civilians..."

    I am more than happy to subscribe to this view. Sadly, it isn't as cut and dried as this. In modern societies the manufacture and production of weapons, such as bombs, is carried out by "civilians". "Civilians" will supply the armed forces with many of its basic needs such as food and water. We appear to be in a moral quandary with this one.

    "...and Qur’anically forbidden suicide bombings."

    There are a wide variety of views on this -- from conservatives to reformists to modernists.

    Take the following example: If a soldier, during war time, drives a truck full of explosives into the enemy army barracks, is this "suicide"? Does "suicide" relate to _intent_ or _act_? Or both? You might struggle to justify this as "suicide", given that "suicide" is actually comitted as an act of despair and losing hope in the mercy of God (which is why suicide is considered so sinful).

    "Suicide bombings", per se, are not "forbidden" by the Qur'an. If you wish to support this particuar view, then you ought to have said something along the lines of 'the spirit of Qur'anic teachings would prohibit the use of suicide bombings'. This would allow the reader to ascertain that you have distinguished between your own understanding of the Qur'an and the Qur'an itself, i.e. we could appreciate you have made a 'scholarly' deduction. Otherwise, why are you any different from some others who point to some verse about 'slaying idolators wherever you find them' to justify their views?

    As much as we are all dismayed by the ad hoc and sloppy scholarship and abuse of source materials by extremists at one end, those who promote moderation and "progressive" ideals ought not to be given into similar lazy scholarship either.

    salaam 'alaykum

    By Blogger thabet, at 1/03/2005 06:17:00 AM  

  • Waleikum as-salaam, Ninhajaba and Thabet. Basically you're right and I was wrong, but I'd like to add a couple of things.

    Ninhajaba, it's been my understanding that fire was prohibited as a weapon of war in Islam, but the interpretation is my own, and it may well be a strange one. However, fire *does* burn property and people when it's used as a weapon, whether the bomb that causes it is carried in a war plane, on a truck or on somebody's belt.

    I agree with you--I also would not tell anyone (the khalifat or the Muslims of Spain or modern freedom fighters) that they can't use deceipt or violence when struggling for their dignity, human rights or survival. We have a right to defend ourselves.

    Thabet, you're right that who is and is not a civilian isn't cut and dried now, if indeed it ever was.

    And this--"...and Qur’anically forbidden suicide bombings,"--well, I just flat shouldn't have said it unless I was prepared to take the time and trouble to research and back it up. You're right that this was sloppy scholarship, and I'm embarrassed. I was going on things I have heard from various Islamic scholars, including Professor Vincent Cornell, whose rationale I cited in the next paragraph. So I should have said "Islamically" instead of "Qur'anically"--and perhaps added, "in my opinion". I also think your reasoning about what is or isn't a suicide is interesting and valid.

    Thanks for the reminder that even though a blog can be a casual format, it's always vital to be careful when talking about what 'Islam says'.

    By Blogger Karima, at 1/03/2005 03:40:00 PM  

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