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New Social Compact

Why opposing Religion via a Politico-Secular Discourse is a Blunder

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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The current stratagem, quite popular in the West, of opposing intolerant social norms as practiced by some Muslim communities vis a vis women, gays, human rights and freedom in general (be it of speech, or political, or artistic); that is to say, opposing certain religiously condoned intolerances and orthodoxies with a libertarian “enlightened” secular discourse (which usually advocates the liquidation of religion per se, at best tolerating a mere vapid cafeteria-style sort of “spirituality”) is an inadequate, clever by half, solution to the problem at hand.

It makes those who feel that their faith is under attack all the more determined to defend it zealously. In Islam they call that kind of extreme defense Jihad and it has been carried in one form or another for centuries now.

What usually happens is that the table adroitly gets turned around and the “enlightened” “progressive” secularist alleging human rights violations that need to be abolished ends up accused of intolerance, of trying to impose his particular brand of intolerance, i.e., his extreme secularism and enlightenment, on believers. It all turns into a vicious circle. This is particularly true in those modern societies where religion has been abandoned as just another myth or lie, long superseded by modernity progressive positivistic science. The best example of that is the EU. Not to be modern is to be medieval, obscurantist, retrograde, undesirables who cannot be accommodated in a modern progressive society based on the tenets of the Enlightenment, a la Voltaire.

This strategy usually misfires and ends up producing more animosity and intolerance with accusations of zealotry and extremism on both sides of the fence. There is however a much better approach and it is that advocated by the influential philosopher Jurgen Habermas in his essay “A post-secular Europe” and that of the Ugandan born Canadian Muslim Irshad Manji, author of two best-selling influential books: The Trouble with Islam Today (translated into 30 languages), and How to Reconcile Faith and Freedom.

She has received an honorary degree in the history of ideas from the University of British Columbia, and a governor general medal as a top humanities graduate; initiated the TV project Moral Courage with Professor Cornell West becoming a critic of mainstream Islam, and participated in the TV series America at a Crossroads titled “Faith without Fear.” Moreover, she has addressed numerous audiences at the UN and at Amnesty International.

At NYU Wagner, Irshad teaches a course titled “Moral Courage and Your Purpose.” Among the professional skills that students can expect to learn: articulating how you want to serve your society, identifying your core values, turning your values into action, knowing when to step up or step back, and staying motivated to deliver on your vision.

Let’s take a brief look at her thinking as regards the reforming of Islam. In the first place she points out that she is in no way advocating the abolishing of Islam but its reform, or better, its re-interpretation. The words of the Koran are not to be abolished or rewritten, but what is written gets re-interpreted as it was meant to be all along. What does that mean? That the Torah, the Bible and the Koran need to be interpreted by the mere fact that they contain symbolical language: poetry, parables and stories that need to be constantly interpreted in the light of the existential events of human history in order for them to have any meaningful application for our existential situation. In other words, she is far from advocating a throwing away of the baby (faith) with the dirty water (the corruption within a religion) as many secular humanists end up doing when they suggest that religion does not properly belong in the public agora and ought to be muzzled and relegated, with other myths, to the dustbin of history.

Manji arrived at this conclusion when she began comparing various religious beliefs after being expelled from the Moslem religious school she was attending as a teenager eight hours a week, for simply asking too many questions. She found her faith anew by leaving her faith for a while and freely researching other faiths. For example she discovered that the image many misguided Muslims, Jews and Christians have of God was that of a stern law-giver bent on enforcing the law with a vengeance. That is not her interpretation of who this being really is as per holy scriptures. Far from being malicious and brutish, in the image of litigious man, he/she seems to her to be benevolent and merciful. Manji writes that since this God created all there is, or had a plan for all creatures when he created, not excluding Lesbians and Gays, it remains to be explained how he can then act against the logic of his own creation.

Of course the atheist has no problem here: he rejects the existence of God to begin with, but then he logically falls into the trap of declaring that the universe created itself with a ready made evolutionary plan so precise that a millionth of second too early or too late would have obviated its existence; or that the universe is eternal which in effect means he has made the Universe God and he in it is a little god, which sounds like idolatry and narcissism. Plenty of food for thought.

To recapitulate, there is an intriguing paradox at work here: the above discourse exposes the hypocrisy of Scandinavian progressive anti-nationalistic, liberal societies so proud of their progressive liberalism but that are now slowly beginning to tolerate Islamophobia and Xenophobia. Perhaps it would be a much wiser strategy on their part to identify the intolerances and abuses of human rights found in religions such as Islam and Christianity and Judaism, that is to say, not in the religions per se but in their misinterpretations, and advocate their reform rather than their obliteration. One can wager that most reasonable Muslims would be willing to listen to the voice of a reasoned discourse that does not begin with the premise that religion is off the table to be substituted with a vapid cafeteria style spirituality disrespectful of particular religious traditions. Irshad Manji offers us a great example on how this can be accomplished.

In conclusion, as that wise man in Palestine who started a new religion in the Middle East which then came to Rome and Athens and ended up becoming perhaps the best component of Europe’s cultural identity after the fall of the Roman Empire, used to quip: “let those who have ears, let them hear.”

Author’s note: this essay has already appeared, in a slightly modified form in Ovi magazine.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Nairobi summit: Women’s empowerment a ‘game changer’ for sustainable development

MD Staff

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UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, addresses the 25th Anniversary of the ICPD in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: UNFPA

The global goal of a sustainable future for all cannot be achieved until women, girls and young people gain control over their own bodies and lives, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told world leaders meeting in Nairobi on Tuesday.

The Kenyan capital is hosting a three-day summit to mark 25 years since the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

The conference, held in Cairo, produced a Programme of Action which recognized that reproductive health, women’s empowerment and gender equality are critical to sustainable development.

Ms. Mohammed said it must be carried forward: “Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment and upholding women’s rights is a game changer – for poverty-reduction, inclusive growth, democratic governance, peace and justice,” she said.

“The Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved until women, girls and young people are able to control their bodies and their lives, and live free of violence. The power to choose the number, timing and spacing of children is a human right that can bolster economic and social development.”

SDGs deadline approaching 

For Ms. Mohammed, the Nairobi Summit is also an opportunity to mobilize political and financial momentum towards realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by world leaders in 2015. 

Next year will see the start of a Decade of Action ahead of the 2030 deadline. 

“We must continue to work  even harder towards preventable maternal and child mortality, achieving the unmet need for family planning, and eliminating violence and harmful practices against women and girls everywhere, not least in humanitarian and fragile settings,” the UN deputy chief told the gathering. 

As too many are still being left behind, Ms. Mohammed called for action. 

“Hundreds of millions of women and girls are still waiting for the promise to be kept. They have been waiting long enough,” she said. 

“It’s time for urgent and transformative change as we enter the decade of action to 2030. 

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New Social Compact

Joker &the Pathology of Violence

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image: Warner Bros

JOKER, director Todd Phillips and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on an infamous comic book villain, will hit the big screen this weekend.  It has garnered prestigious awards (such as the Golden Lion), laudatory critic reviews & is expected to attract hordes of eager moviegoers.  However, JOKER has also inspired ominous think-pieces from publications such as The Atlantic and Vox.  Additionally, the US military and the NYPD have expressed concern that the film could inspire violence.

These detractors of JOKER are arguing that the film glorifies “incel violence” and is thus likely to inspire acts as incel violence.  This logic has been used ad nauseam to condemn everything from comic books, to video games, to martial arts, to Marilyn Manson to hip-hop.  No credible study has proven that art that portrays violence causes real-world violence.  Some people may point out that extreme outliers, like white-supremacist music, could cause violence.  However, it would be more logical to argue the opposite: people who compose and listen to white-supremacist music were already enmeshed in a violent ideology.  Likewise, genocidal propaganda tends not to focus on explicitly glorifying violence for violence’s sake, but in portraying groups of people as sub-human (Tutsis being compared to roaches, Jews being portrayed as greedy and treasonous, etc.).  It’s thus a process of long, gradated inculcation.  As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels realized, there’s no reverse-Ludovico Technique that can magically turn people into killing machines by quickly showing them a two-hour film.

Now, it is true that a few violent criminals have cited works of art as inspiration for their actions.  This is statistically inevitable, but insignificant.  There are bound to be a few outliers who have bizarre interpretations on art, just as there are a few people who have been inspired to commit acts of terrorism based on personal interpretations of religion or politics.  It’s no more logical to suggest that we ban violent video games or art because of mass shootings than to suggest we ban Buddhism because of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or that we should ban Irish patriotism because of the IRA.  Furthermore, some violent lunatics have been inspired by works of art, such as John Lennon’s killer citing Catcher in the Rye, that aren’t even violent in nature.  Clearly, the people who commit mass killings are incredibly unhinged individuals who are in a violent frame of mind, regardless of what media they consume.  Likewise, 99.99% of people who play FPS games or who watch slasher flicks aren’t going to go on a shooting rampage or create a torture dungeon in their basement.

To return things to JOKER itself, the film in no way “glorifies” violence.  For starters, half of the violence is inflicted on the main character (the “incel hero”); there are two scenes where The Joker gets jumped mercilessly and a third scene where he gets sucker-punched in the face.  The violent acts that The Joker himself commits are portrayed in a very gruesome manner (in one scene with The Joker and a neighbor of his, the violence isn’t even shown, but is merely implied).  When The Joker bashes someone’s head in or shoots someone point-blank, there are no crass jokes, inspirational music or voiceovers quoting The Art of War. The plotline doesn’t imply any justification for the killings.  When someone gets killed in the film, audience-goers don’t hoot and holler like they would in a screening of a zombie film or a Nazi-revenge flick like Inglorious Basterds.  Rather, there is an awkward pall of silence in the theater at the nihilistic spectacle.

JOKER makes it very clear that the title character’s violence is motivated by nothing but his utter insanity.  The Joker descends into a killing machine after being released from an asylum and after he stops taking seven different psych meds (which weren’t helping him much, anyway).  When being interviewed, he admits that he isn’t compelled by any ideology whatsoever.  Rather, The Joker literally views the act of killing as a joke. 

Nor does The Joker gain any tangible reward for his violence; he gets fired from his job, arrested, hit by an ambulance and committed to an asylum as a direct result of his actions. Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets a thrill from the media coverage that his killings elicit (and a standing ovation from fellow thugs in the film’s penultimate scene), but that not’s a real reward, but rather a feeling that many real-life killers in fact get when they are portrayed in the news.  For instance, the as-yet unidentified Zodiac Killer literally played games with Bay Area news outlets, sending them letters that boasted about his kills, contained cryptic puzzles and threatened to blow up a school bus if he didn’t receive even more media attention.  Many other serial killers who were apprehended were found to have hoarded newspaper clippings that documented their crimes.  Similarly, coverage of a mass shooting often inspires “copycat mass shootings”.  The takeaway from this is that the media should be careful about inadvertently turning stories about mass shootings and terror attacks into personal biographies of the killer.  When covering these kinds of attacks, some news outlets, like The Young Turks and The David Pakman Show, deliberately choose to blur the killers’ faces and avoid naming them, so as not to give the killers the attention that they wanted to garner and to avoid inspiring other violently-deranged individuals who crave attention.

The fact that JOKER doesn’t merely portray the villain as an Evil-Incarnate caricature doesn’t mean that it is therefore glorifying violence.  The audience is meant to sympathize with The Joker when he get jumped without warning or when he talks about the crippling depression that he has felt for literally his entire life.  There are scenes showing The Joker comforting his mother and entertaining sick children.  The mere fact that The Joker is portrayed as a full human being, good traits and bad traits, doesn’t mean the film is justifying how he releases his violent rage.  No human is evil 100% of the time: there is no villain who tortures hamsters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It is only by studying the causes of violent criminals’ various motivations that we can ever hope to ebb the tide of violence.  Most violent criminals have suffered from childhood abuse, childhood poverty, a missing parental figure, bullying and/or mental illness (The Joker had to deal with all five of these traumas).  By empathizing with these plights, we can create programs (drug treatment programs, stamping out bullying in school, removing children from abusive households, etc.) that can reduce violent crime.

It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that history’s most evil people had humanity or that societal norms (like persecuting people, tolerating child abuse or underfunding mental illness and addiction treatment programs) can fuel violence.  It’s evident that Todd Phillips, through his direction and screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix, through his tortured portrayal of The Joker, meant to give us a glimpse into the mind of a demented killer, not so we can sympathize with the protagonist’s brutal violence, but so we can sympathize with the myriad factors that drove the protagonist to criminal insanity.  The nearly uniform media portrayals of mentally-ill individuals as Pure Evil only serves to misinform the public and to scare those suffering from mental disorders from seeking help.  Hopefully, the discussions being generated by JOKER will encourage people to learn more about complex diseases like schizophrenia and to be more proactive in reaching out to loved ones who are displaying signs of mental anguish.

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New Social Compact

Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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