4 July 2011
Muslim for a Month
By Gwynne Dyer
Gandhi, born a Hindu, once said: “I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” Most people will never achieve such enlightenment (or spout such pious tripe, if you are of a less reverent turn of mind). But such thinking certainly creates an opening for innovative programmes like “Muslim for a Month.”
No, really. There is an organisation that invites people of other religions or none to come to Istanbul and live as Muslims for a month. Well, not a month, exactly: the 9-day “Explorations” programme costs $900 and the 21-day “Ruminations” programme costs $1890.
“We like to think that “Muslim for a Month” facilitates more understanding of a religion which gets a lot of bad press,” explained Ben Bowler, who lives in Thailand and runs similar “religious immersion tours” in Buddhism for the same organisation. “There’s a huge difference in the public perception of Buddhism, for example, and Islam – Islam is thorny, while Buddhism is warm and fuzzy.”
People who think Buddhism is warm and fuzzy would probably benefit from Bowler’s “Monk for a Month” programme in Thailand. People who think that Islam is a religion of hatred and terrorism would likewise benefit from the “Muslim for a Month” programme. Indeed, if all that’s going on here is a simple download of information and perspective, you could argue that every religion should be doing it.
Much of the human race lives in places where two or more major religions co-exist – Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand; Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India; Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews in South Africa. Not to mention countries where up to half the population are non-believers (like Britain and Korea). A crash course in your neighbours’ religious beliefs ought to be part of the school curriculum. In some places, it already is.
But there is still something disturbing about the very idea of religious tourism. Immersing yourself in the prayers and rituals of a religion EVEN THOUGH YOU THINK ITS GOD IS FALSE smacks of condescension at best, blasphemy at worst. And although a sense of politeness prevents most people from saying it loudly in public, religious people generally believe that the gods of all religions but their own are indeed false.
Non-believers go even further. As Richard Dawkins, the world’s leading advocate of atheism, once put it: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that people have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” Fine. That’s a perfectly respectable position to hold. But if that’s what you think, then pretending to pray to Allah as a “cultural experience” is downright disrespectful.
The people who are organising “Muslim for a Month” have the best of intentions. The Blood Foundation is a Thailand-based enterprise whose goal is “to promote the ideal of the sister/brotherhood of all humanity. We operate cultural exchange programs that build bridges of understanding between diverse peoples through the means of shared, authentic experience.”
According to the Blood Foundation, the “Muslim for a Month” programme aims “to foster a spirit of good will and increased mutual understanding between Muslims and the west. It is not the purpose of the program to bring converts to the Islamic faith but rather to strive towards a greater sense of unity among people.”
I believe that that is truly their goal. I also very much like the Sufi tradition of Islam, one of the most attractive forms of religious expression that I have ever encountered, and it is the Sufis who are providing the facilities and the teachers for the “Muslim for a Month” programme in Turkey. But it still doesn’t feel right.
Here’s the thing. Almost all of the “modern” religions that have arisen in the past 2,500 years (and Judaism, which is much older) have sacred texts that are held by the believers to be divinely revealed truth. They are not negotiable or mutually compatible, like the old pagan beliefs were. To believe in any of the modern gods requires the faithful to reject all the others as false.
If Muslim beliefs are right, then Christian beliefs are wrong, and vice versa. If the Sikhs are right, then the Baha’i are wrong, and vice versa. If the Buddhists are right, then the Jews are wrong, and so on ad nauseam.
Why stop there? If the Mormons are right, then all the other Christians are horribly, catastrophically wrong. If any of the other Christian sects (or any of the non-Christian faiths) is right, then Mormon beliefs are downright ridiculous. If the Shia are right, then the Sunnis are wrong, and vice versa. So in a world where something like 90 percent of the population is still religious (though much less in the developed countries), what is one to do?
We minimise conflict by simply not talking about the huge, irreconcilable differences in our religious convictions. (The non-religious play the same game: they rarely challenge the beliefs of the believers either.) It’s not an attractive behaviour, and it doesn’t always avert conflict, but most of the time it works. On most of the planet, we are no longer at each other’s throats about religion.
The world does not need “Muslim (or Sikh, or Christian) for a Month.” Let sleeping dogs lie.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“According…people”; and “Why…do?”)
27 June 2011
Mortality and Politics
By Gwynne Dyer
“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” growled Charles de Gaulle, but French history would have been very different if he had died in 1940 (no Free French government, probably a Communist take-over attempt when France was liberated in 1944) or even in 1960 (no quick exit from Algeria, no Fifth Republic). There are a few people whose absence would really make a difference.
Two such people seem to be hovering on the brink of death at the moment, though we have no trustworthy medical information about either one. In each case, their death could open the way to civil war. One is Thailand’s King Bhumibol; the other is Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.
Bhumibol, now 83 years old, has been the king of Thailand since he was 21, and although he is a constitutional monarch his influence is all-pervasive. It has, on the whole, been exercised in ways that promoted Thai independence, calmed domestic political quarrels, and supported the emergence of democracy. He has been the still centre at the heart of the storm for many decades, and he is revered by most Thais.
King Bhumibol has spent most of the past two years in hospital, and few Thais expect him to live much longer (although this is never discussed in public). When he goes, the crown will probably pass to somebody who takes sides in the ongoing battle between “red-shirts” and “yellow-shirts” that has divided Thailand, and has already caused many deaths, over the past few years.
There is an election due in Thailand on 3 July. Opinion polls suggest that, as before, a majority of Thais will vote for the party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Some ninety red-shirts, the mostly poor and rural supporters of Thaksin, were massacred by the army in a confrontation in central Bangkok last year, and the army may try yet again to reject a pro-Thaksin election outcome.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was once close to Thaksin and probably still secretly supports him, but he is a playboy who is neither loved nor respected by the public. His mother, Queen Sikirit, sympathises with the yellow-shirts, and is rumoured to be angling for the army’s support to make her regent when her (estranged) husband Bhumibol dies, rather than letting the crown prince have the throne.
If the two royals were to align themselves publicly with the opposing sides in a struggle for the throne after Bhumibol dies, they would substantially raise the probability that Thailand could stumble into a full-scale civil war.
Whereas if Bhumibol can hang on for another year the dispute may be settled at the ballot boxes, with the army grudgingly accepting a restoration of the normal democratic order. He may not be utterly indispensable, but he is pretty important for Thailand right now.
And then there is Hugo Chavez. He is not exactly the “dictator” of Venezuela, as US propaganda often calls him (he has been elected a number of times in free elections), but certainly he is a “strongman” in the classic Latin American style. He comes from the army, he once led an attempted coup, and he is a full-time demagogue. The only difference is that he is a strongman of the left. And he may be dying.
The official story is that Chavez was in Cuba on 9 June, in a private meeting with Fidel Castro, when he suddenly fell ill. Cuban doctors were called in, and immediately operated on him for a “pelvic abcess.” But he is still in hospital in Havana two weeks later, virtually incommunicado.
Chavez is an inveterate user of Twitter, but he has only tweeted once in all that time, to announce that his mother, his favourite daughter and his ex-wife had flown to Cuba to see him. He also reportedly telephoned a meeting of his ruling party’s senior leaders on Monday, but that may not be true. Venezuelans are speculating that his illness may be fatal, and the people close to Chavez are struggling to re-assure his supporters.
If Chavez does recover, he might lose the 2012 presidential election anyway. He will have been in power for fourteen years by then, and the mere passage of time has seriously eroded his power base. He has improved the lives of the poor, but a government with an oil income of bazillions of dollars that cannot even produce enough electricity to keep the lights on is bound to lose popularity.
Should Chavez die now, however, there might not even be a 2012 election. His elder brother Adán, the governor of the state of Barinas, reminded everybody that although the socialist government won power through the ballot box, “we cannot forget, as authentic revolutionaries, other methods of fighting.” And the army, whose senior ranks have been stuffed with Chavez loyalists, might well back a “revolutionary” seizure of power.
On the whole, then, it would be better if Chavez survived and came back to Venezuela, only to lose the election honestly next year. Like King Bhumibol, he is the indispensable man for the next little while. After that, if all goes well, he can die whenever he wants.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Bhumibol…Thais”; and “Chavez…supporters”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
14 January 2011
Vietnam: What Was It All About?
By Gwynne Dyer
Communist Party congresses are generally tedious events, and the eleventh congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (12-17 January) is no exception. The changes in personnel at the top are decided by the elite inner circle of the Party long before the congress opens, and the rhetoric is in the same wooden language that Communists always use.
The nation must “renew the growth model and restructure the economy to speed up industrialisation and modernisation with fast and sustainable development,” outgoing Party leader Nong Duc Manh told the congress on its opening day. “The strategy is to strive towards 2020 so that our country will basically become an industrialised nation.” Well, that’s a novel approach, isn’t it?
The talk is all about fighting inflation and corruption (there’s quite a lot of both those things in Vietnam), while maintaining a high economic growth rate (6.8 percent last year). Ordinary people are struggling to maintain their standard of living (although they are far better off than they were twenty or forty years ago), and resent being bossed around by the Communist elite – but they feel helpless to do anything about it.
In other words, it’s not all that different from the situation in, say, Thailand, just a little to the west, apart from the fact that the economic elite in Vietnam are Communist Party members and their businessman cronies.
Thailand is technically a democracy, but if you are a rural “red shirt” in Thailand your views on those in power will be little different from those that many Vietnamese peasants privately hold about the Communist Party. It’s a more traditional elite in Thailand, but it clings to power just as tightly, and rewards itself even more lavishly.
So what was it all about, then? Why was there a 15-year war in Vietnam (1960-75) that killed 58,000 American soldiers, and between one and three million Vietnamese? The US government insisted at the time that it was about stopping Communist expansionism in Vietnam before it swept through all of South-East Asia. The Communists, who controlled North Vietnam, said it was only about reuniting the country. Who was right?
In retrospect, it’s clear that the Communists were telling the truth. They won the war in Vietnam despite all the efforts of the United States, but the “domino effect” in the rest of South-East Asia never happened. In fact, the Vietnamese Communists never even tried to knock the dominoes over.
Apart from invading Cambodia in 1978 to drive the Khmer Rouge, a much nastier group of Communists, from power, Communist-ruled Vietnam has never sent troops abroad or interfered in the internal affairs of other countries in the region. After a decade all the Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia, and even there Hanoi has virtually no influence today.
As for some vast Communist plot to overrun South-East Asia, it was never more than a fantasy. Indeed, within four years of uniting Vietnam, the Communist regime in Hanoi was at war with Communist China over a border dispute. In a perfect world, most people would probably prefer to spare their country the burden of a generation of Communist rule, but Vietnam is not a disaster, and it is no threat to anyone else.
So, once again, what was the war about? How did three American presidents allow themselves to be misled into fighting such a pointless, unwinnable war? Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were all intelligent men, and Eisenhower also had much experience at the highest level of military and diplomatic decision-making.
To varying degrees, they all fell for a strategic vision of the world that was mere fantasy, driven by ideology. Or rather, in Eisenhower’s case and to some extent also in Kennedy’s, they found it politically impossible to resist the demands of those who did live fully within that fantasy. So American foreign policy had little connection with reality for several decades, and a lot of people died.
The point is that this sort of thing happens all the time. The “war on terror” now is functionally almost indistinguishable from the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s and 1960s, although the actual wars involve much lower levels of casualties. For Vietnam in 1960, read Iraq in 2003 – or, perhaps, Iran the day after tomorrow.
It doesn’t only happen to Americans, of course. The various British invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century were driven by the conviction that the rapacious Russians wanted to seize Britain’s Indian empire, although the thought hadn’t even occurred to the Russians. Germans spent the decade before the First World War worried that they were being “encircled” by the other great powers.
But these delusions mainly afflict the great powers, because weaker countries cannot afford such expensive follies. They have to deal with reality as it is – which is why the Vietnamese Communists, for example, never dreamed of trying to spread their faith across the rest of the region. They were and are pragmatic people with purely local ambitions, so the resolutions of the 11th Party Congress are of little interest to anybody else.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“The nation..it”; and “As for…else”)
If using after 17 January, change the verbs in the first paragraph to the past tense.
18 May 2010
Thailand: A Close Call
By Gwynne Dyer
“The government does not want to negotiate, so I think many more people will die,” said “redshirt” leader Sean Boonpracong in Bangkok on Monday. “This will end as our Tienanmen Square.” Mercifully, it didn’t.
The danger was real enough. If the army had used all the force it had available in trying to clear the thousands of protesters out of central Bangkok, which they had occupied since mid-March, there would have been a massacre. And if hundreds of poor peasants (for that’s what most of them were) had been killed by the army, then it would have been trapped in power permanently.
If you commit a massacre, you HAVE to stay in power. Relinquish it, and in a year or two you will be facing a court charged with heinous crimes. So Thai democracy was at stake in Bangkok this week in a most fundamental way. Fortunately, the army used much less force than it might have when it cleared the area on Wednesday (only six people killed), and the protest leaders avoided further bloodshed by surrendering.
One is tempted to say that this demonstrates the basic common sense of Thais, except that we have just had such vivid demonstrations of unreason from the very same people.
Two weeks ago Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had agreed to the protesters’ key demand: new elections this year. Instead of closing the deal, the protesters insisted that Abhisit also order the arrest of his deputy prime minister for having ordered an earlier attack on their encampment in which about 24 people were killed.
Abhisit refused, of course – and then cancelled his offer of elections this year as well. That is why another forty people were killed in the past two weeks, and why democracy in Thailand ended up in real danger. The obstinacy of both sides needlessly prolonged a confrontation that might have ended in much blood. It was more by good luck than by good judgment that the Thais got through this phase of the crisis without mass killing.
But there was a lot of killing: sixty-odd dead over a period of weeks, almost all of them protesters shot by the army, is certainly not a success story. The Thais went right to the brink of civil war over the past two months, and the crisis is not over. Abhisit has withdrawn his promise of elections this year, and shows no sign of reinstating it.
The “redshirts” who feel cheated by the political manipulations that put Abhisit in power have retreated from central Bangkok, but they are still very angry and they certainly predominate in northern and north-eastern Thailand, the country’s rural heartland. They could seize control of much of it tomorrow, if they chose to do so.
The roots of this crisis are in the military coup of 2006, when the Thai army overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, an ex-policeman who became a telecommunications billionaire, was not an ideal prime minister: his “war on drugs” involved thousands of illegal killings of dealers and addicts, and his response to unrest in the Muslim-majority far south was clumsy and brutal. But he endeared himself to Thailand’s poor.
Thailand has been a democracy since 1992, but Thaksin was the first politician to appeal directly to the interests of the rural poor rather than just bribing their local village headmen to deliver their votes. He promised them debt relief, cheap loans, better health care, and he delivered – but that was not how the urban elite wanted their tax money spent.
A “yellowshirt” movement seized control of the streets of Bangkok, seeking Thaksin’s removal and demanding curbs on the voting rights of peasants because most rural people were too ignorant to make wise choices. After months of confrontation in the streets, the army took control in 2006, ejecting Thaksin from office – but it was not unequivocally on the side of the “yellowshirts” either.
The soldiers allowed a new election in late 2007 – and Thaksin’s supporters won again, of course. His opponents used the courts to dismiss two prime ministers drawn from the pro-Thaksin party for “conflict of interest” (in one case because the prime minister appeared on a television cooking show), and ultimately simply had the whole party banned and its members ejected from parliament.
The rump of the parliament, cleansed of most representatives of the rural poor, then voted in the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. The “redshirts” started their occupation of central Bangkok two months ago in order to obtain his resignation and a fresh election. They have not changed their demands, nor is there any good reason why they should.
The basic issue in dispute here is whether Thailand is really a democracy or not. If it is, then one way or another the “redshirts” must get their way, for they represent a clear majority of Thais, and they were cheated of the government they chose. But there is no obvious way to get from here to there.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“If…surrendering”; and “But there…reinstating it”)