Tuesday, October 19, 2010

the dream of negligence

17-18 October 2010, Copenhagen, Denmark

We cannot alone lift ourselves spiritually.
We must be awakened from the dream of negligence
by one who is already awake.
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr)

Last year when I was here in Copenhagen--the entire time I was here--it was heavily overcast and drizzly and cold every single day for a week. As I was leaving the tax driver told me, "You should come back in the summer. Copenhagen is beautiful in the sunshine!" He was right. As we landed this morning I could tell right away out the ariplane window that it was going to be a gorgeous day, and thus far it has been. After I arrived about 7AM local time, Agente and I sat in the airport and had a little snack 'til I got my land legs, talking about the trip ahead.

Agnete works for Danmission, specifically in dialogue, not just inter-religious, but inter-cultural and inter-racial, both in the Mideast and in India. We met in India some years back when she brought a group of folks from Denmark to Tiruvanamalai, and I was one of the people who engaged with them, both some music and some teaching. Based on that, Agnete invited me to come here last year for more of the same for the local Danmission folks, during which trip she also began planning on taking me with her to the Mideast to do some of the same there as well. We were orginally planning on going to Pakistan, Lebanon and Israel--which seems awfully ambitious to me now--and to do so with her friend the young imam Naveed Baig, who I met here last year as well. But as happens, plans changed and in the end she was able to set up events with their "partners" in Lebanon and Syria, and imam Naveed couldn't come. Tomorrow we fly off together for Lebanon where in two days time another small group of people from here in Denmark who belong to an interfaith group called IKON will meet us.

In a wonderful coincidence, John Pennington, my musical collaborator of many years, is also going to be in Lebanon at the same time. He and an acquaintance of his that works for the US Embassy have been trying to organize something in Lebanon for a few years now and it just worked out that way. John will mainly be doing classical music, guest soloist with the Beirut Symphony and some other recitals--quite an intense schedule, in fact--but he will also be able to play at least two concerts with me, one already two nights from now. My brother-in-law Steve and a friend of his named Ace are also going to be joining us. That is not mere fortuitous accident however. The three of us have talked for a few years now about making a pilgrimage to the Mideast together. Ace in a Muslim originally from Lebanon. He and I have met on a number of occasions and have had good conversations about his faith and my work.

Some of us went to hear the Dalai Lama speak up in San Jose last week (a wonderful teaching, by the way), and afterward there was an inter-religious panel with nearly a dozen well-known speakers. The first honored guest, though, was Huston Smith, who spoke about two things. First of all, prefacing his remarks by saying how much he loved China, having grown up their as the son of missionary parents, Huston vehemently decried China's policy toward Tibet. Like His Holiness himself, he too thinks that Tibet should be granted the opportunity to preserve it's cultural autonomy even if and while acquiescing to ultimate political rule by China. And the second issue he brought up was Islam. Noting with pleasure that there was also a Muslim on the panel (in this day and age how could it be otherwise?) he said, "Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the world." I keep saying that dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists thus far has been pretty easy for me, since so many of my friends practice one form or another of one or the other. But Islam in this day and age is of a different order. Lives are at stake, as is the future of civilization as we know it.

Misunderstood? Yes, I think many people I talk to simply don't even know the facts about Islam, either the history or the practical aspects of the religion. But even more deadly is the perhaps culpable ignorance involved in separating the essence of the religion from its cultural abberations. No doubt this is a tedious process, one I am not equipped to speak of at length, though I can at least recognize the problem. The same issue applies to some extent in separating the Jewish religion from the Jewish people, Hinduism from Indian culture, and maybe even Christianity from Western Europeanism. In other words: what comes from the religion and what's cultural? Case in point: last week Roman Catholics celebrated the minor feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The priest at Mass that morning informed the congregation that the original name of the feast was Our Lady of Victory, named thus because the pope had urged the faithful to pray the rosary to win the war against the invading Muslims, which, he added, made that feast particularly relevant in our day and age. I found that to be an inflammatory (and therefore dangerous) thing to say in public in a conservative town in a conservative parish in this day and age. I went home and checked, and on the official Catholic website it said that the victory was over the invading Turks. When pressed on this point later, the priest said, "But they were all Muslims." Isn't that akin to saying that the Christians were responsible for the concentration camps? And are we looking for victory over Muslim invaders?

One of the books I brought along with me for this trip is one that Agnete recommended called "On Identity" by the French Lebanese scholar Amin Maalouf. It is an enquiry into the concept of identity--personal, religious, ethnic, national--and its inherent dangers. He hopes to lay out what kind of shift in thinking will be necessary in this millennium. And he explained my problem with the above mentioned situation. He thinks that too much emphasis has been laid on the influence of religion on people, and not enough on the influence of people, and their cultures, on religion. What he specifically objects to is the habit that people have gotten into of "classifying everything that happens in a Muslim country as related to Islam." I know this is the Franklin Graham, Newt Gingrich line of thinking as well. But please don't believe them. They're wrong. "There are many other factors that are much more relevant," Dr. Maalouf writes. Algeria and its relationship to France was the issue at the time he wrote this book, but you could say Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran today when he states that, "You could read a dozen large tomes on the history of Islam from its very beginning and you still wouldn't understand what is going on in Algeria [or Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iran]. But read 30 pages on colinialism and decolonisation and then you'll understand quite a lot." He's not a Muslim, by the way. And the same applies to Lebanon and Syria, where I am heading now. The more I have read about these regions as I was preparing for this trip, the less I understood, but I do know that the influence of the British, the French and the League of Nations, and the repercussions of their actions in "dividing and conquering" this region are still felt, perhaps in a similar way to the 1947 division of India and Pakistan.

This is already over my head, mind you. My job is to try to get to know the essence of the religion in a new way. And that is done more by relationships and encounters than anywhere. Agnete and her friend Leif, the head pastor of Helligandskirken (Holy Ghost Church) who hosted two events when I was here last year, kept me busy and awake yesterday afternoon, on a beautiful boat tour of the canals of Copenhagen, tea and then dinner at an Indian restaurant. There we were joined by another Pakistani Muslim friend of Agnete's named Adam. If the chilly breezes on the boat and the extremely spicy Indian food didn't keep me awake, my conversation with Adam did. We discussed, of all things, monasticism (specifically why there was none in Islam), its relation to Sufism, the influence of Syrian monasticism on the Muhammad, celibacy and chastity, asceticism in general. And that was just the first fifteen minutes or so. (For some reason, we ended up talking about the cult movie "Harold and Maude.") Toward the end of the meal our friend Suheil who had hosted us last year at his Moroccan restaurant also appeared. I feel so fortunate to make these acquantances and share heart to heart from out of our experience rather than out of abstract theory.

After a pretty good night's sleep at the Danmission guesthouse, an early morning taxi back to the airport and breakfast in Frankfurt, I'm typing this on a Lufthansa flight bound for Lebanon.