Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In... a... mon...astery?

This does not feel like the week for jeremiads on unconnected dots, or the President's laconic delivery of bad news. It seems as though only David Brooks has the class to leave those subjects to others. Well, admiring him though not necessarily always agreeing with him as I do, something else seemed to call for my attention. Note the presence of the word "call" in the previous sentence.

Applying to a Masters of Divinity program at a largely Methodist school--Duke--has led me to wonder about the reaction my experience as a postulant for a year in a Trappist monastery will receive. That year has had a disproportionate influence on my spiritual practice, though of course without an affinity for the contemplative life and tradition I would never have wound up there at all. How will someone with a year of Trappist formation fit in a Methodist environment--or any environment other than a Trappist monastery where, paradoxically, I did not feel I fit on one level even though on others I did?

I hope to avoid the "what were you running away from?" questions; resisting the temptation to ask the questioner what they run away from in their daily life might take superhuman discipline. Same goes for the social justice questions. Why does helping to care for one's brother monks not count as social justice; do we only perform good works if the people we help have a different skin color or a life sentence for murder or for running a Ponzi scheme?

Of all the Protestant denominations only Anglicanism, to my knowledge, continues to support the monastic life. The others have either never known monasticism, as with Methodism, or came into being at monasticism's expense, as with Lutheranism, itself founded by a former monk of the Order of St. Augustine, which managed to survive without him. This does not necessarily signal a fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. It simply speaks to the fact that the mystical voices either side of the Reformation divide speak different languages, with the occasional convergence--the Shakers for one--so occasional as to provide no real foothold for the one to recognize the other as treading the same path.

This works the other way, of course. I took a Reformation History class as an undergraduate. I wrote a good paper on Albrecht Duerer, Meister Eckhart and Heinrich Suso for that class, but otherwise loathed it, a response that cannot happen again. Martin Luther simply struck me as repulsive, and the other reformers even more so. Had I possessed the maturity to approach the issue honestly, I'd have admitted that Luther, like Augustine, touched lodes of self-disgust in myself that made both of them unbearable for me to read. I finished Augustine's Confessions for the first time about three years ago, shortly before entering the monastery, and then only by forced march.

Perhaps this gives me my bridge. We read the history of faith through the history of our own, hopefully not in an exercise of vendetta--Catholics seeing Episcopalians as descendants of a king and his confession that closed the monasteries and executed Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, or Sunnis seeing Shi'a as heretics, any Christian seeing Jews as the murderers of Christ, and Buddhists of competing traditions attacking each other on grounds alternately esoteric and jealous.

Monasticism, in other words, remains for Roman and Orthodox Catholics as a viable practice for contacting not only our relationship with the divine--Orthodox would put it in terms of becoming divine--but our history. Surely the Early Church, specifically the Desert Fathers, belong to all of us who go by the name of Christian? Luther spat at what those traditions had become, but need we lose their 4th and 5th c wisdom to a 16th c quarrel?

As I pointed out in one of my two required essays for Duke, I find it no accident that I've spent the last few months reading for my morning lectio divina (sacred reading) a book by a Spanish Franciscan mystic in a tradition of contemplative theory profoundly influenced by one of my early intellectual heroes, Desiderius Erasmus. Yes, the same Erasmus who waited in the view of some unforgivably long before attacking Luther, who basically ignored his clerical duties for most of his adult life, and whose works were placed on the Index of forbidden books within a generation of his death. What seems so profoundly Catholic, in other words, and in the country that perfected the Inquisition into an instrument of torture and execution, was so nearly not.

Our confessions have traveled different paths; it makes no sense to minimize that fact as a Jesuit church historian has tried to do. Give it up; we've come too far. If not, re-unification talks at the Vatican would have progressed much further than they have. It does make sense to point out, though, that we each have traditions that overlap; we simply tap into them differently or not at all. In that different tapping or refraining we need to recognize different ways of legitimately reaching back to or moving on from shared roots. If we can learn about community from Sufi gatherings, why we can we not learn about fellow Christians by understanding what survives of what we once shared and still do as heritage?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

peace on earth?

Peace: we all want it, some of us desperately. If somehow you have trouble imagining what such a desire looks like, consider the photos taken in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in Greg Mortenson's new book, Stones into Schools. Even the one with Angelina Jolie in her UNHCR role, her most important one. The problem with peace, of course, comes when we discuss how to achieve it. Which leads us to postulate number two.

Paradigms: we all invest in them, act according to them, see the world through their assumptions. As Shakespeare wrote of greatness, so with paradigms. We are born into some by inclination and gifts; some we achieve as the result of hard work and ambition, or even hard work and humility; and some we have thrust upon us by circumstance and the unmistakable evidence of reading and research--one hopes sufficiently wide while knowing full well otherwise. Cornel West likes to say that the problem with postmodernism is that there is so much to read.

On Christmas eve, the night of peace for Christians, this subject has particular aptness. Liberal/progressive orthodoxy--a timely notion--holds that we can only achieve peace through peaceful means. Thus spake Einstein, Gandhi and King, and who are any of us to gainsay that tradition? Greg Mortenson stands very firmly in that tradition. I have not read the new book yet; I received it as a Christmas present only this afternoon. I have read his argument for relying on regional shuras or councils, and heard him articulate his passionate belief in that approach in an interview with Rep. Mary Bono Decker. Paradigm one.

Paradigm two. We have just witnessed the remarkable occasion of a war president defending war as the path to peace while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Squirm. Or not? Of Americans in Afghanistan, though the ambassador has serious qualms, while the former journalist and now apparently full-time military advisor Sarah Chayes does not. This paradigm argues that military power alone can eliminate or marginalize those elements who through destabilizing policies and campaigns most threaten the development of conditions that bode well for peace.

Idealism vs. realism; dogma vs. pragmatism. The Mortensons of the world would not want to hear it put that way. Mortenson himself has accomplished so much through peaceful means and by his gentle demeanor, which wins so much support as a tonic to the bluster of political and military personas, with both of which he has become quite familiar. Mortenson has to answer one question. Yes, he has produced one paradigm shift, of helped, in that some elements of the Taliban now accept the education of women, a very significant change. What about the Hekmatyars and Mullah Omars and the rest of the Islamicist subculture that won't? Do you win them over in a shura? The history of the last twenty years and then some suggests not.

I considered declaring myself a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. World War II stopped me; its ugliness notwithstanding, its fundamental justice spoke very clearly to the at least occasional justice of war. I agreed with Joe Biden that we belonged in Bosnia when President Bush I didn't, and Bill Clinton that we belonged in Kosovo when we led a NATO interventino there. I disagreed, quietly, with all of my friends in graduate school, and I mean all of them, who opposed the first Gulf War. I don't care who your foreign friends are, if they're your friends for whatever distasteful reason and you've pledged, out of whatever ill-considered logic, to protect them and someone, even your lackey in the country next door who you badly misled about your likely response to his likely actions, invades them and they, for whatever lack of foresight on their part, lack the means to defend themselves, you defend them. Period.
Bush II was another story. We had no reason to invade Iraq. Period. I marched as I've never marched before or since against that war, the wrong war.

On September 11, 2001, I felt plunged into sadness, and saw a war looming before us unmistakably. I didn't want it, I didn't welcome it, I didn't lead any cheers in its favor. I simply didn't see how any president, even Al Gore, could have avoided such a war, and for that reason didn't oppose it. Eight years later, those who oppose Obama's escalation of the war forget something crucial. We took a powder on what we started in Afghanistan to invade Iraq. I would love to see Rumsfeld brought to trial, not so much or merely for war crimes in Iraq, as for treason for his incompetence in directing the war in Afghanistan. His incompetence in tying Gen. Franks' hands at Tora-Bora is obvious; treason because of the damage to the United States caused by his failure to the fight the fight that bore fighting in favor of one he made up whole cloth withe cowed collusion of the CIA and Colin Powell, inconceivably and just about unforgivably.

With all the complexities of Afghanistan--and Pakistan--including the likely fact that Osama bin Laden is across the border in Pakistan, President Obama has it right. One suspects he would like to say much in defense of this war that he cannot. He deserves this credit, as well: he sounds every bit the reluctant warrior, someone who would prefer not to drink from that particular cup, but must and therefore will. Peace, after all, is both a state and a process, something one lives and strives toward. The progressive paradigm would like to essentialize peace, but even in our daily lives we know better. Peace is a process. Mortenson would argue that you therefore give peaceful activity a chance; Obama would argue that the most peaceful thing you can do is dismember al Qaeda and reset the table in Afghanistan so the Mortensons can accomplish more. Reluctantly I fear he has the better argument; the one encouraging factor in all this is his own reluctance.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Qur'an Pass

Don't get out your atlas; it exists on no map. It speaks to to an existential divide that separates Westernized (more on that in a moment) secular society and the traditional Islamic world. Not all who have navigated that pass--Sarah Chayes and Greg Mortenson come immediately to mind, and others I have written about such as Jason Elliot and Rory Stewart--see the landscape on the other side in the same way. Though both Chayes and Mortenson have advised the U.S. military on how to deal with traditional society in Afghanistan, Mortenson finds President Obama's plan unnecessary. He would rely entirely on local shuras or councils of village headmen from a region. Chayes has long championed a vigorous military role, integrated with close contact with those same headmen and shuras.

It comes as no surprise that they arrive at their conclusions from very different perspectives. Mortenson owes his life to a headman in Baltistan in Pakistani Kashmir, and has built schools there and across northern Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan, especially for girls, ever since. No cooperation from headmen, no schools. Chayes has reported as a journalist, worked for an NGO, founded and run a cooperative, all predominantly in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, and--crucially--advised the military herself, which has led her now to Kabul. She has a complex understanding of a wide range of issues from the price of essential oils-grade rose petals relative to opium poppies, to how to bully warlords, even how to stop a Taliban raid with minimal personnel and limited firepower, the less likely to kill civilians. At a speech this year in Nebraska, which I just watched on youtube, she tells a story of an American battalion commander, a friend of hers and the father of a young family, who prayed with the family of children killed in a mortar attack he ordered when his forces requested it. After praying with him, the families of the dead children forgave him.

I find the most important element of that story not the battalion commander's demonstration to the villagers whose house his mortar rounds hit of the exact circumstances of his troops that night, or even the fact that when he realized he'd killed children he looked at the photos of his own kids on his desk, but that he prayed with them. I'd love to know what they prayed, or what the Afghans thought of how he prayed. Little of that likely mattered to them; it mattered that he prayed, that he knew how to pray, and that he humbled himself, battalion commander or no, to pray with them, thus eliminating the notion that either of them thought of the other as the enemy.

Jason Elliot gained a remarkable insight into the intersection of religion and politics in western Afghanistan when he spent a night with a group of Sufis at a major shrine outside Herat. He didn't so much pray with them as observe them in their remarkable rituals. He observed something just as remarkable; as the night wore on they received a steady influx of Taliban joining them very respectfully, after stacking their Kalashnikovs in the corner by the door. I know of no other journalist who has witnessed such a scene. Mortenson has prayed at mosques, and received correction on his miscues, but condemnation. Rory Stewart one might almost say prayed his way across central Afghanistan, though he certainly would not put it that way himself.

We in the west have no monopoly on secularism. The chants of Allah-u-Akbar stilled called from Tehran rooftops spring, for the most part, from political, not religious motivations; so believes an Iranian Facebook friend. The secularization of the Shah never entirely went away, and one suspects the same holds true for the formerly cosmopolitan city of Kabul.

As a former monastic postulant (the first step of the novitiate), one element of Islamic societies strikes me with particular force as these writers who have lived in it relate their experiences. An Islamic city, town, or village runs on a schedule very much like that of a Benedictine or even an Orthodox monastery, with collective prayer at set times of the day. A bell and a paging chime at a Benedictine or Trappist monastery, a bell alone at a Carthusian charterhouse (witness the movie Into Great Silence), a bell or a striking board at an Orthodox monastery such as those of nuns I visited in Romania, or a muezzin's call in the Islamic world, live or taped, amplified or no. All serve as summons to prayer.

Some monastic Christian orders--the Trappists, the Carthusians--tend to place their houses in the countryside. Benedictines do that, as well, but will also show up in or near cities. The less fully monastic orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans favor cities. In this they endorse the norm in Islamic society, the refusal to remove the practice of religion and religious community from society. Not that Islam sanctifies society, but it does insist on the visibility and audibility of the sacred within society. This does not Afghanistan or Iran or Pakistan nations of monks, but it does make nations of people ever aware of the presence of Islam, and not necessarily in a punitive mode. We live, in many parts of our country, almost embarrassed of such enmeshing of religion with daily life. We can conveniently hide behind the establishment clause here. There, we have to negotiate the Qur'an Pass.

A group of which I know ministers to Christians in Pakistan. I have very mixed feelings about this project. Pakistan does not tolerate non-Islamic faiths as does its neighbor India. We may find this abhorrent, and the Christians may indeed lead lives of terror. Surely helping them has merit. But the path to working with the Pakistanis or any other Islamic country does not consist in seeking out their oppressed minorities. It lies along the way of finding common cause, of demonstrating common commitment, among other things, to religious values, however different the values themselves. Crudely put, they think of us as heathen, infidels; we have to give the lie to some part of that misconception, as best we can, in terms they can understand, in those cases when "infidel" has more force than merely that of a label. Walking a fine line between aid and proselytizing does not seem best calculated to serve this aim.

My argument may sound more like Mortenson's, except that a soldier accomplished the feat of traversing the Qur'an Pass in Chayes' account, just as Mortenson himself has done it so often he need not do it anymore because of the acceptance he has gained and honors he has received. The Afghans need what security we can help provide; but it will help enormously if they can see that the security comes from men and women who can pray as well--even if if not quite as well--as shoot. Come to think of that errant mortar round, perhaps we can pray even better.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Codes of War

No, not encryption, but the coded language in which the principals discuss everything they do that pertains to war. The war in Afghanistan--itself a code for a conflict broader than the borders of that one country--offers a case in point, or rather a slew of them. The codes and the issues that occasion their use reveal something about the situation on the ground, and in many cases its greater seriousness than the White House and the Pentagon would like to admit--and they admit freely to its seriousness. Just not all of it.

Take one example. President Obama wants to see significant change in the attitudes of the Karzai government in Kabul. Secretary Gates reinforces that in a Senate hearing the day after the West Point speech by saying we will happily seek out partners in provincial governments if the Kabulis cannot deliver on the promises of Karzai's second inaugural address.

The code, though it will surprise nobody: the White House is having a hard time deciding whether Karzai's incompetence trumps his corruption, or the other way round. They want to encourage competent, upright, reliable provincial administrators to step up beyond the reach of recalcitrant Kabulis to rein in the provincials' cooperation. They have done it before, notably in the case of a governor of Kunar, during our Babylonian Captivity. Gates means to say that it will not happen again.

This problem goes deeper than what the President has said, and one presumes he knows it. If we call ourselves a melting pot of myriad peoples, the Afghans comprise a relatively small number of ethnic groups--four major ones and a few minor ones in border regions--"organized" to use far too strong a word by tribes, especially in the case of the Pashtuns. This organization, if you can call it that, explains the emergence of Hamid Karzai in the shura or council at Bonn that proposed a preliminary government after the overthrow of the Taliban, and his confirmation in the loya jirga or grand council that followed in Kabul. A Popolzai Pashtun, his father had led the Popolzai tribe, and the Popolzai have long had a prominent place or even pride of place in Pashtun affairs. He came in, one could say, as heir apparent on one very big assumption: that the Pashtuns had the best case for leading the country.

One of the great difficulties in governing Afghanistan lies in gaining inter-ethnic cooperation. Before the Taliban Kabul had a fairly cosmopolitan mix of ethnic groups. Herein lies the irony the underlies and undermines, along with bad behavior, Karzai's government. He rules as the head of a minority group, but the largest of the bunch. The Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks, along with a few Kyrgyz and others, out number the Pashtuns as a group, but see their strength not in alliances, which they make and break like the rules in a billiards game at Mark Twain's house, but in pursuing their own regional agendas. Hence the Pashtun ascendancies of the Taliban and Karzai.

Our main difficulty there will derive from the very fluidity with which they understand themselves. The Pashtuns along the Durand Line that delineates the border with Pakistan laugh at its legal standing. They do not so much move back and forth between the two countries as move within what they take as the natural range of Pashtun territory. Obama's language at West Point became very vague on the issue of our pursuit of al Qaeda into safe havens by appropriate means. I have spoken to at least one Special Operations veteran who, without quite saying so, seemed to want me to infer that he had served not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. Code again. No one will say so, but if the Taliban ignores the Durand Line, it behooves us to do the same thing. What exactly will the Pakistanis do in protest?

One final point along the same lines, which will include a final cavil cum observation. CNN's coverage after the President's address featured Mike Ware and Wolf Blitzer looking at, in effect, a war map of Afghanistan. Their graphic artist had placed the national flags of all the NATO countries to represent the deployment positions of their troops. Mike Ware, an experienced British war correspondent, observed that all the Stars and Stripes sat in the south and east, and all the other flags in the north. We, the Canadians and the Brits, he strongly and dramatically asserted, have taken on all the "hot spots" while our allies have it easy elsewhere.

Two points. This characterization may (more or less) accurately reflect the situation now, but historically some of the bloodiest fighting has taken and may yet take place in the north, particularly the notoriously impregnable Panjshir Valley and Nuristan, and the northwestern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. This occasions a second and much broader point. The most interesting writing on Afghanistan that I have seen has come from a diplomat and journalists, but not from war correspondents per se, or at least not writing as war correspondents. Rory Stewart, Ahmed Rashid, Christina Lamb, Sarah Chayes, Jason Elliot eschew bomb-chasing--though Jason Elliot describes a colleague's days as consisting of little else, and Rashid got caught in a firefight while lunching in a garden in Dushanbe, Tajikistan--in favor of understanding the cultural melange we call Afghanistan.

The really useful writers want to understand the cultural complexities as well as the little rebellions, such as the so-called "sewing circles" Christina Lamb writes about that kept girls' education alive under the Taliban in the culturally rich Persian border city of Herat. Bomb-chasers and embedded reporters have a difficult and very dangerous job. I admire their guts. They are not the code-breakers, however, not the ones who will help us understand what, who, where, and how we must fight. We will do well not to take too seriously their reports from the field, or standing in front of fields of flags in the CNN studio in New York--they simply cannot step back far enough to get appropriate perspective. Their reports constitute part of the code. The military wants them where they allow them for a reason. The story, the important story, will almost always happen somewhere else, underneath the radar of the bomb-chasers, in the places and involving the personnel the code seeks to conceal.

We must hope for a day when we need no longer speak of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia in code. Inshallah, God willing, we will get there. For the sake of Afghanistan, let us fervently hope that we do.