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.

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