In 1995 inter-faith pioneer Professor. Syed Hasan Askari (1932-2008) delivers his speech on “Spiritual Humanism” in Hyderabad, India, which would be the last time he visited the city from which he began his career in the 1950s. In his own words he talks about his spiritual journey in three stages: Religious Diversity, Discourse on Soul & Spiritual Humanism as an alternative approach.
It is with great pleasure Spiritual Human presents the above speech. Transcript of the speech available here
Musa Askari reflects: How to make Peace? How to be at Peace? How to arrive at Peace? Is Peace the absence of otherness? Inner Peace.
The following is the Introduction to a remarkable book by the late Syed Hasan Askari entitled “Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision”, published 1991. It is a journey of self-discovery, inner path, a spiritual quest within & through an inter-religious dimension inspired by a vision to revive the classical discourse on Soul. This blog is dedicated to the universal, spiritual humanist vision of Prof. Syed Hasan Askari & contains various reflections from this book which is presented in seven chapters. Each chapter is known as a “Mirror”, there are Seven Mirrors.
Introduction narrated by Musa Askari
“You are now entering upon a path. As you continue your journey, you will come face to face with one mirror after another. The path and the mirrors are all inside you.
The images you see in each mirror are at times images of a discourse, at other times of one or another symbol. Sometimes a vision will open up before you. Sometimes a voice will be heard. All of it is an initiation into your own reality.
There are several straight discourses. Then there are stories. Both the discourses and the stories constitute one fabric. They intersect and interpret one another.
At times you may find certain things partly or even completely unintelligible, or vague and abstract. When you will return to them, they will gradually become transparent. You will experience an unbroken sense of inner perception even where you notice that the mirrors are veiled. You are a guest. There is an air of hospitality as you move from vision to vision.
It is now both your and my journey into the realm of the Soul. I request you to be cautious for the territory we now enter is totally different from our ordinary world. We shall be changing the habits of our thought and putting on new garments. You will notice the change in atmosphere as soon as you stand before the first mirror.
The journey begins in the name of Plotinus. We were invited by him a long time ago to make this ascent. The words, Alone to Alone, are his, and they sum up his entire call.
It was a couple of years ago one night while going through The Enneads that I had the experience of seeing in a flash all the implications of the Discourse on Soul for human thought and civilization for centuries to come. I felt within myself a convergence of the thought of Plotinus and that of my theistic faith nurtured by a consistent inter-religious perspective. The present work grew quite spontaneously out of that intuition over the last two years (1989 – 1991), and after much thought I place it into your hands both in trembling and trust, and in hope that it may ignite in your soul the same longing and in your mind a fresh zeal to rethink your conceptions about humanity, world, and God.” Syed Hasan Askari
For stories & reflections from the book Alone to Alone please click on the following titles available on this blog:
The Lord of the Humming Bird, I am that Tree, The Limit is the Threshold, The Seven Steps, Self Remembering, God is on Both the side, The Are Only Four Communities, The Feet of our Lady, Four Breaths, If You Find Me, Towards Unity, Rebirth Through My Son, Baba Nizamuddin, The Grand Canyon, The Snow The Cloud & The River, Prayer For My Parents, Seven Mirrors.
By Hasan Askari (Towards A Spiritual Humanism).
By joining both the hands in greeting the other, we greet in all our totality. In our wholeness of being, with our conscious and unconscious minds having become one mind, with our outer and inner realities having risen into one reality. When we greet the universe or a child, we say that our Soul is One Soul, that our God is One. Then we have abolished otherness we have abolished fear, we have all come home in each other. Then we know who we are, who is in us and in whom we are.
Robert Randolph, appointed 2007, MIT’s first Chaplain to the Institute. He works with a Board of Chaplains from various religious traditions fostering inter-faith dialogue. You can read more about Chaplain Randolph’s thoughts and reflections through his blog.
Sincere thanks to Robert Randolph for agreeing to this interview.
SPIRITUAL HUMAN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT RANDOLPH
Musa Askari: I found myself generally agreeing when you wrote (from your September 18th 2013 blog entry) : “The phrases “blind faith” and “honest doubt” have become the most common of currency. Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but one does not hear of “blind doubt” or of “honest faith.” Yet the fashion of thought which gives priority to doubt over faith in the whole adventure of knowing is absurd.”
In my interview with Professor Gregory Barker I wrote as part of a preamble to a question, “Without the test of “self-doubt” we may regress into absolute entrenchment and become dogmatic (sacred or secular dogmaticism) through and through. Our faith (sacred or secular ideals) may be incomplete without the critical tool of “doubt” where self-critique precedes engagement with the other. It is not an easy task.”
On an individual and intra-personal spiritual level I wonder if you agree there are times when it is necessary in giving priority to “self-doubt” being worked through and can it be considered a spiritual as well a rational exercise? Ploughing furrows, as it were, on the surface of our being from which may spring new shoots of self-understanding and avenues of enquiry. To what extent has “doubt” played a part in your “adventure of knowing”?
Robert Randolph: You ask about doubt and self-doubt and it seems to me that doubt is a constant partner in the search for meaning. Jesus when challenged by “doubting” Thomas did not tell him that doubt was inappropriate, he simply offered evidence/experience that would answer his questions and he said to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? (Jn. 20:29)
Those who follow Christ today have not seen yet they believe. I am a Christian. I have come to God through the Christian Church and because I was born into a Christian family. The church and family were less a source of answers to questions but rather a context for conversation and experience related to the questions that came up. We bring our doubts to the church and the community contributes to the process of understanding.
When you live among young adults, doubt is ever present and those with the least doubt are often those who find themselves in the deepest difficulty as things unfold. In any given week it is hard to tell who believes what and things change from week to week.
Coming at the issue from another perspective, I would be hard pressed to argue for loving deity given the nature and substance of the tragedy that literally exploded around MIT in April, i.e. the Marathon Bombing. People here knew the eight year old boy who died; others knew the foreign student studying at Boston University. How do we integrate such horrific experiences? How could those who did this be so close and yet so far from us?
We now know why it happened, who did what and the story gives context. But questions remain and the outpouring of care, the debate about the punishment of the surviving perpetrator all are part of the process of meaning making. As time passes the suggestion that love triumphs makes more sense. The story of Jesus gives us a lens through which to seek understanding.
It is significant to me that Jesus experienced doubt. When he was dying it is reported that he quoted the Psalms asking why God had forsaken him. All of us have times of deep doubt and I take it to be a necessary part of the human experience.
Musa Askari: The following a quote from my late father’s article, “From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism“. Professor Hasan Askari, a pioneer in inter-faith dialogue, writes,”Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”
Given the broad religious mix of the MIT community, supported by “17 chaplains representing traditions on campus”, how has the Addir Interfaith Program http://studentlife.mit.edu/content/addir-interfaith-program helped to foster religious enquiry? Also I am deeply interested if it has helped participants recognise the “other” as being spiritually significant to oneself? In other words, without the “other” there is no diversity and without diversity we are all the poorer in expressions of beauty, splendour, transcendence and mystery.
Robert Randolph: The Addir Fellows is a critical program. Given the workload at MIT it is easy to fall into a pattern that isolates individuals. The Addir Fellows program is based on a group of students covenanting together to learn about the stranger, i.e. to learn in more than a superficial way about people they do not know.
Often in Christianity the confrontation with the other is motivated by the desire to attract individuals to the Christian faith. “Go and make disciples” is a charge to Christians. Islam in like fashion has a dimension of proselyting. There is no compulsion in either case to use force but the intent is to attract those who are vulnerable to the particular faith. Judaism alone has no impulse to make converts, but Jews remains wary of cultural conversion and the threat posed by inter-marriage. These forces make relationships hard to cultivate because of the fear of unuttered agendas.
When agendas are denounced, then relationships can grow and the claims of different religious traditions can be offered and heard in community on their own terms. The university is a place where ideas can be talked about and measured against one another. It has been my experience that over a lifetime people will often learn from others if they are not doing so under threat or duress. Individuals find much, for example in Buddhism that is valuable and they do not have to be Buddhists to benefit. More importantly, when one recognizes the value of the other tradition, it is hard to vilify those who follow the tradition. More simply, when one knows someone as an individual rather than as symbol, tensions ease and the world becomes smaller and less frightening.
Over the years the Addir Fellows has existed individuals have become more open to the world and that can result in a greater desire to know about the traditions that shape the lives of others. Addir offers that opportunity and while I do not think knowing the “other” is an end in itself, it is a step in the process of self-integration.
Musa Askari: I note you describe MIT as “a very religious community” and you “define religion fairly broadly.” As Hasan Askari wrote in relation to inter-faith understanding: “When two spiritual cultures meet, a hermeneutic challenge is born. The fate of each one of those cultures depends upon how one interprets the other’s symbolic language.”(Solomon’s Ring). Perhaps a similar challenge also exists in the interaction between humanism and religion/spirituality. On one level the challenge is irreconcilable. On the literal interpretation level of religious scripture, where one can say the challenge is over as per our great strides in scientific endeavour.
However, would you agree on the symbolic level we may yet see the door to greater understanding left ajar? And whilst engagement within the campus community is important, in terms of wider inter-faith life long relations, to what extent is there substantial engagement/dialogue between secular humanists and faith based humanists and how does this manifest itself?
Robert Randolph: The question contrasts “faith based humanists” and “secular humanists” and when you do that I am reminded of the roles I fill when I officiate at public ceremonies, e.g. offering an invocation or benediction at a public function or officiating at a wedding or a funeral. People ask about why I officiate in circumstances where God is not mentioned and my response is that I do not reveal all that I hold to be true in every role that I fill.
For example, clergy serve the state when they officiate at weddings. They serve a family when they participate in a memorial service or funeral. The role of the chaplain is therefore in the service of others. Some think of these services as opportunities to promote theological notions; they are not. They are opportunities to be present.
The appropriate role is to care for those engaged in the transitional moments celebrated in weddings and memorial services. I offer my support and encouragement. When there is a religious tradition that is part of the equation that is incorporated in the service, but otherwise my role is to support the couple by making their wedding vows congruent with their highest ambitions for their marriage. For those needing comfort in memorial services, the task of the chaplain is to make sure their loss is shared and what can be carried away from the celebration is borne together. And always the door is open to further conversation. That is the work of the university chaplain and for some it will appear to be little different from humanism. But over time and in varied circumstances, nuances will be seen and they are not necessarily oppositional.
Musa Askari: I was deeply struck by the following from your article, “The Boston Tragedy : After the Nonsense“, where you quote from your invocation, “We cultivate the strength to go on, Drawing solace from one another and the traditions that offer meaning in our lives. And we shout into the darkness.”
The following from my article of July 2012, “Weapons Without Boundaries : a spiritual-humanist response to terrorism“, “As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely.”
Perhaps we are never more spiritually challenged innerly than when dealing with grief and terrible heartache. Between witnessing the tears of another and the embrace of consolation it may appear no time at all, a few seconds. Yet, innerly between the consoled and consoler so much has been communicated and understood. It is a dialogue without words, a speechless speech. As tangible and intangible as wind blowing through the trees silently. To hold it is hopeless, it holds us and there is hope, one hopes. The swaying of branches a reflection of hearts cradled through the compassion of a fellow human being. It is the rising to the surface the best attributes of humanity out of the worst of circumstances. It is that which outlives the trauma and points the way, perhaps out of the darkness to which you so powerfully refer.
On an individual, religious-spiritual level, what have been the challenges following the tragic events in Boston earlier this year? Also grateful if you would talk more about what it means to “shout in the darkness”?
Robert Randolph: Here I think we have come full circle, i.e. back to where we began. Again you ask a perceptive question. The challenge is always to be completely present to those who have been hurt and are hurting in the aftermath of tragedy. We may respond in anger, we may channel judgment but at the end of the day we are present to offer comfort and hope. We can overcome barbarism and the gift we offer is love. We are reminded to love our enemies, to offer our other cheek for anger and our coat for warmth to those who are angry and to those in need. These are counter intuitive expressions of love.
When I write about shouting into the darkness, I am speaking for those who believe there is no meaning beyond what we see, feel and touch. They too have voices, but I honor them even as I believe we are heard when we cry out. There it is again, doubt! Ever present, ever near, it is our constant companion.
by Musa Askari
originally published in InterReligious Insight – July 2012
If we are going to address ourselves to the issue of terrorism let us state the obvious and most important at the outset: the threat of nuclear weapons. The weapon announced its arrival to the world by unleashing its horror over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stayed within our collective consciousness during the cold war and now, due to the one-sided debate on group terrorism, faded into the background. But it remains nonetheless real. It is impossible to comprehend fully the potential horror of such a weapon unleashing terror across the planet faster than any virus mutating across national boundaries.
The weapon and its fallout, like a virus, ignore national boundaries, recognising neither friend nor foe, neither oppressor nor oppressed. It is does not discriminate. It is non-ideological. The hypnotic pull of the weapon is in the illusion of power it offers those in possession of it. Furthermore, the hypnosis is so far reaching we remain reluctant to be rid of it. The ultimate paradox is that we are protecting ourselves by sustaining a weapon which holds within its capability the destruction of its creator, humanity itself.
A call from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto can be understood as a call to humanity to wake up from the spell of collective hypnosis:
“We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man (sic), whose continued existence is in doubt.”
The threat to humanity’s continued existence from weapons of mass destruction, stated by Russell-Einstein, is the canopy of “terror” under which humanity has been conducting its affairs for the last seventy years or so. It is a threat that has become embedded in our consciousness to such an extent that it assumes fantastical and mythical proportions. As Hasan Askari puts it: “After all, what is a myth? A myth is a public dream. What is a dream? A dream is a private myth.” It is a dream one remembers dreaming but cannot recall the details fully upon awaking.
More immediate and urgent than ecological concerns, if not on a par with them, humanity needs to be free from the terror of all weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological. To fulfil this extra-ordinary call, heeding the warning of Russell-Einstein, we need an equally extra-ordinary response of freeing ourselves from the grip of collective hypnosis. Unless we give up the old habit that by violence one can defeat violence we may not be able to save any innocent child’s life, born or unborn, now or years from now.
The nuclear weapon has no loyalty to either democratic or totalitarian nations. Is it not utterly shocking that the human intellect which unlocked the science to create such a weapon has resulted, through its proliferation, in creating a situation where the weapon can now destroy its creator? If this is not hypnosis then what is hypnosis? This is the unconscious terror under which we live and dare not look in the face: to behave in such ways where we believe we have freedom of choice when in reality our choices are governed by hypnosis.
To refer to Einstein once more: “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” We may now add: humanity does indeed play dice. What dangerous game of chance is it where the bet being waged is the continued existence of humanity? Whether one describes oneself as spiritual or a secular humanist, what is the value of that spirituality and humanism when such a weapon exists and we do not address ourselves to it? On this greatest of questions for human survival we require a combined, wholehearted, sustained spiritual-humanist response. When we talk of terrorism should it not be a minimum requirement to talk about the greatest threat humanity faces?
The real achievement of collective hypnosis is in its being hidden from our consciousness; by denying its own existence it continues to exist. At least a stage hypnotist asks for consent from an audience and removes the hypnosis at the end of the act. Collective hypnosis, on the other hand, neither asks for permission nor considers removing its influence. Let me cite again Hasan Askari:
“When I spoke in India after the atomic bombs were dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I said then (1950) that the ideology was dead, the weapon had surpassed it all. A quarter million people were destroyed in a couple of minutes. Man had acted against his own survival. Oppenheimer, the architect of the first nuclear device, while watching the mushroom cloud, had shouted that he had become the destroyer of the world. He then spoke on behalf of those governments of the world who could go on producing more and more deadly weapons, thinking that these weapons would give security and peace to the nations of the world. The irony is that the very ideological division in whose context the weapon was invented had vanished. But the weapon remains. The knowledge that produced it remains. Its potential users are all there. All these years I have waited for that idea that will surpass the weapon of mass destruction and the philosophy and the technology that produced it and that dark psyche which may use it. Hence, whichever ideology claims to meet the challenges of the world at this critical hour must call upon all mankind to rise to abolish weapons of mass destruction and abolish war altogether and every violent means to achieve any national or ideological ends. We then require a total commitment to honour and uphold each individual life. We have limitless resources within our soul to repel evil by the good, repel violence with non-violent means knowing that the truth has its own might to defend and protect itself.”
On one level the general debate seems fundamentally flawed, reduced to questions of power and control. On the one hand, it lends itself easily to rightly denouncing acts of violence carried out by interest groups, while on the other hand it is inconsistent in that equal attention is not paid to similar, if not worse, acts of aggression and violence linked to conflicts past and present by those in political power. A life lost is a life lost despite the ideology that inspires the act of violence. A life lost from either a suicide attack or a guided missile launched from thousands of feet is a precious life. At both ends of the spectrum of violence there is a person, family, neighbourhood, a child, hopes and aspirations. Thus any discussion of terrorism which does not look at the greater issue, loss of human life from any form of violence, is bound to fail due to its one-sided character, and this in turn perpetuates illusions, self- righteousness and collective hypnosis.
SPIRITUAL CRITIQUE REQUIRED
A noticeable omission, so it appears to me, in the general news media is we are yet to be presented with some meaningful insight into the thinking of individuals, charged with or suspected of allegedly trying to commit horrific acts of violence. There is much news and information on movement between countries, occupations, academic backgrounds, other general details and so forth. One may track, locate and stop those who are committed to doing something deadly serious. However, beyond this physical security-led approach an attempt to present a spiritual critique becomes relevant when we come to religiously inspired group terrorism.
We may never know the inner psychological make up of each individual case. What we do know is that so-called religiously inspired terrorists, of whatever collective religion and political persuasion, present themselves as people of faith and that opens up the possibility of a spiritual response which both secular and faith-based humanists should be able to make together. Humanists cannot afford to wait on the sidelines and not participate in a joint spiritual-humanist critique of terror acts. A rationalist critique only of organised religion from humanists will not do. The time to revisit that is later.
We require a spiritual-humanist response addressed to the individual committed to acts of violence. The focus of our attention in any response must have at its heart the individual who would carry out a devastatingly merciless act of violence. If that means humanists and religious people need to go down the path of inquiring about spirituality together, so be it. It is in the individual where the hypnosis of terror takes hold, as it tempts individuals (and consequently nations) to respond to violent acts of terror with ever more violence, believing that “terror” has a physical locality – that if it is defeated by physical means in one place it will be defeated in every place. Let us admit that once and for all such an approach is absurd. We should have listened more attentively to those who were advocating an alternative to ever more violent responses to terrorism.
It is a trap we have fallen into it and tragically so many individual lives have been lost – individuals who make up a neighbourhood, city and country going about their daily lives. Whether it was Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Vietnam or Cambodia, Sri Lanka or Palestine, Chile or apartheid South Africa, Afghanistan or Iraq – a suicide attack by a Kamikaze pilot or a bomb exploding in some busy street – who can deny that in every instance the loss of individual lives is tragic beyond measure?
It is individuals related by family or friendship who are left to suffer tremendous sorrow and heartache. They cope in their own way, with immense courage, to somehow carry the grief of their loss. As individuals we suffer, as individuals we grieve, as individuals we hope to rise again above the waterline of trauma and re-gather the shattered pieces of our lives, never forgetting to honour those who have been taken from us prematurely. Should we notice the grief and hear the testimony of mourners we are humbled. Should we hear one story of heartache surely we must also recognise and pay tribute to all such stories across the world, regardless of circumstance, political grievance, national and religious boundaries.
Why are we not permitted to hear, in her own traumatised voice, in her own language, the pleas of a mother in Afghanistan cradling her new born child who was alive only moments ago and now is no more? Why do our news media, for example, seem to insist in having an intermediary to that grief by placing their reporter on the television screen between the victim and ourselves? Who other could do justice to that grief but the grief-stricken themselves?
I am reminded of the 2011 January 25th protests in Egypt where a man turns to the camera with his mouth bloodied saying: “Here is blood, there is terrorism”. Behind him on that night in Cairo we see crowds rushing for safety at the advance of security forces while the sound of gunshots can be heard. It is frightening watching it and one can only wonder what it must be like to have been there. What shall we say of any purpose behind violent acts of aggression by terrorist groups or states?
By “purpose” I imply something greater, universal, a goal to which every member of the human race can feel akin. A purpose which recognises that humanity’s past, present and future is both secular and sacred. Such a purpose excludes all forms of violence. A purpose which is a conscious self-thinking act by humanity. This to me is a purpose worth striving for in all peace. This to me is for the “common good”. What could be more common between each and every human being than “life” itself? What further good between us could there be than to honour the life of each and every self? Why should we not take a new direction and outdo one another in ever more greater acts of kindness, compassion and generosity upholding the common good, the principle of life?
With regard to so-called religiously inspired terror acts I would suggest that what is required is the shattering of religious self-righteousness. If one believes in a merciful and compassionate God, the Lord of “heaven and earth”, then is the mercy and compassion which characterises that Lordship to be understood as limited to a particular religion, region or piece of land, or is it not properly to be understood as universally transcending all divisions which we have created between us? We may need to take into account not only how a person perceives themselves socio-religiously but also “spiritually” – through what I would term “spiritual self-perception”.
By considering individual spiritual self-perception, asking questions about it, by altering the direction of our inquiry, we may yet steer a course away from a troubling development – a development which is another trap of collective hypnosis – that is, identifying the whole terrorist motivation of a small group of religiously motivated individuals with all of the followers of that religion worldwide. By doing so we do an injustice and miss the individual altogether, amplifying the effects of the physical horror, converting it into a general social suspicion of a faith body. Spiritual self-perception is a means to avoid all such developments, keeping our focus on the individual, thereby saving us from demonizing the other.
The ultimate responsibility for an act of terror cannot lie anywhere else but with the individual who commits it. Not a community, not a collective identity but simply and clearly the individual in sharp focus. An individual is more than a representational mix of collective identities. Let us not fall in to the trap laid by collective hypnosis of collective recrimination, isolating communities from each other.
The act has an actor. The script and stage may be controlled and set by others in power (groups/states). However, we cannot deny that the actor, as an individual, still has a choice to play the part or not. The sniper hiding in the rubble and the suicide bomber, both as individuals, have a choice to withdraw from the act. The choice, if it comes at all, may come very late, perhaps only moments before the act, or build up within the conscience of the individual. It is there, within the individual, that the sharp edge of terror, entering the world in a physical form, is born. It is to that moment of individuality that a narrative of spiritual self-perception attempts to speak to. How shall we speak to that individual?
Let us “speak” to that mind-set not just socially, morally, legally but also spiritually. Let us “ask” that individual to see others as individuals and think again.
It would be a mistake in my view, when preserving life is the prime motive, to neglect the question, “what is the individual spiritual self-perception foundation of any religiously motivated act of violence?” There should be no substantive objection to the word “spiritual” when we are attempting to use it in terms of preventing life from being taken prematurely. The value of the word is not whether a secularist agrees with the concept of spirituality or not. The value is in the potential for presenting a critique to religiously inspired terror – a critique which both secular and faith-based humanists should be able to make independently or together.
Why should there be any objection to the word “spiritual”? Why should we not together bring to bear the whole of human experience (secular, religious, scientific, mystical and spiritual) on problems? As one could say to any religious extremist, “do you worship your religion as a god or do you worship God?”, so one could ask a secular humanist who objects to the word spiritual, “which is more important; your world view or saving Life?” We cannot afford the luxury of conflict between secular, religious and spiritual outlooks when trying to pursue all peaceful avenues for preserving life.
The individuality of the individual, however submerged and drowned out by collective identities, still remains; perhaps latent but not absent. Otherwise how can one seek to explain the phenomenon of those who were once terrorists but speak now against the dogma they once believed, unless they had come to assert some form of individuality? That trace of individuality can also be noticed when we learn of soldiers who are or have been conscientious objectors and refuse to serve any longer. Quoting Hasan Askari, “unless one becomes a universal being one remains below humanity.”
In the arena of universal individuality we may have a chance to appeal to those more valued principles shared by much of everyday humanity. Rebel against that foisted identity and come out of that collective hypnosis which sees violent reprisals as the only effective means. The focus of this reflection is on honouring the most universal of things, individual human life and the common good. For that principle of life to be universal it must sit outside, over and above, all ideology and collective identity.
Outwardly, to “love thy neighbour” may be understood as to love that other who bears no resemblance to one’s collective identity of nationality, creed, language, race or religion. However, before the outer comes the inner. Before a thought there comes the thinker of that thought, the individual. Therefore, on the inner plane, there is another “neighbour” who both secular and faith-based humanists could have no disagreement about. It is a neighbour we take for granted far too often. Only when it has moved from its proximity to ourselves do we notice its absence. We abuse it, terrorise and torture it. We pay lip service to it and do not value it universally. It is all about us, it is all within us. Without this neighbour even our negligence of it is not possible. We raise countless tributes to it openly, only to betray it in secret. We honour it at one moment and in one place, at the same moment in a different place we dishonour. Through it all, throughout millennia, throughout all the wars humanity has conducted it has remained by our side. It has remained our constant companion even when we did not give it due recognition.
Who is this “neighbour” which has every right to seek justice for every injustice? It is simply and wonderfully, Life! From the sunrise of humanity to its sunset, each day, each night it is Life that is our nearest and dearest, our true next of kin. It is a kinship that bonds us to each and every human being on the planet. What a wondrous kinship it is indeed where it breathes through all outer kinships, through all divisions, through all diversity; it is the unity that binds us to each other. It is the Life of Humanity. As my late father used to say, “just reflect on the word Life!” I ask anyone contemplating any act of terror toward their fellow human beings to reflect on the word Life!
To repeat: as individuals we are more than any personal or collective identity; we are more than a nationality, creed, race or ethnicity, religion, caste or sect. May I suggest as humanists we cling to our identities lightly but not tightly: that such identities may inform our thinking but it is not essentially who we are. Spiritually, I would suggest we cling to such identities lightly with the hope that eventually we may let go of them so that what remains is the undivided individual. One un-differentiated self.
Nameless, we are born from our mother’s womb, unique and mysterious. In an attempt to identify that mystery, we are named. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is a moving experience when the names of those who have died are read aloud at remembrance gatherings throughout the world. How many names are forgotten? How many children have perished in acts of violence? Let us pay tribute to that mystery of life universally so that when we remember the innocent victims of one attack in one place we remember all such victims in all places, from people living under oppression to those in so-called free societies.
When we claim our individuality do we really mean it? Or do we think of ourselves as individual representations of a collective identity. That individual representation can become, under the spell of collective hypnosis, very easy to ridicule and dehumanise. We have seen it in the past, we are seeing it now. When one stops “seeing” the other as an individual another kind of birth mentally has taken place: the birth of the oppressor.
Where pride in collective identities, in extreme cases, takes on an exclusive one-sided face there we are entering a hypnosis which, in preservation of that identity, can readily ignore the injustices inflicted upon others. A self conscious good takes hold. In preserving any collective life by oppressive means, psychological and physical, it begs the question: where is the individual when gripped by collective hypnosis? Quoting Hasan Askari again:
“Jung was critical of world events, and he put forward the notion of the collective consciousness or the collective hypnosis created by religion, race, culture and language. In that sense, I believe that what Freud calls illusion, what Marx calls the opium of the masses, what Durkheim calls collective representation, and what Jung calls collective hypnosis, all sum up the phenomenon of collective history restricted to one particular formulation.”
In recent times one of the most powerful symbols of individual non-violent responses to terror has been the image of “The Tank Man” from Tiananmen Square; a lone citizen making an unarmed stand against the march of tanks. The footage is deeply moving. A lone man standing in the middle of a boulevard, straight, still and defiant. No weapon, just his individuality. Outwardly on one side there is the “Tank Man”, alone. On the other side there is a line of tanks, a symbol of state military power. Inwardly, what in my opinion is also spiritual, the “Tank Man” has a far greater number standing behind him and beside him. They are invisible to the naked eye. They are to be found in every age and culture and in every place where people live under oppression and terror. They are the “individuals”.
We should recall there were two “Tank Men” that day. One standing before the tank and the other hidden from view driving the lead tank. What transpired between those two individuals staring at each other on that afternoon we will never know. What was he saying? Who was he? It is a mystery. At least this image is known. What of the unreported and ignored lives of those equally brave individuals standing up peacefully to terror and oppression all across the world? We saw them and we heard them during 2011 in what has become known as the Arab Spring. They continue their struggle.
The recognition of suffering and grief in order to be a true recognition must, as a consequence, involve the recognition of suffering and grief of all people everywhere. The people concerned cannot look the other way. One can only imagine what immense heartache they undergo and even after such imagining and empathy there is still perhaps an abysmal gulf between our imagination and their reality. A spiritual-humanist response to all forms of terrorism starts not in the world out there but instead within the heart and mind of each individual. To quote Hasan Askari:
“In my view, there should be a two-fold response to idealistic and ideological developments which result in self-complacency or collective hypnosis. First is a sociological response which helps people or the communities involved in knowing why a particular idealism / ideological formulation is becoming relevant to people at one time in history. The sociological critique would liberate us from a collective hypnosis and lead us into an objective self-understanding.”
“The second corrective is, in my view, a psychological critique that this one-sidedness has far reaching consequences for the human personality because here its humanity will be deformed, will be partialised, will be fragmented. In order to create a synthesis of the sociological and the psychological critiques we have to enshrine in our understanding and in our reflection another category, not just of attitude, but also the very characteristic of the truth we are seeking, namely openness, or willingness to listen to the other in his or her otherness.”
A Spiritual-Humanist response to all forms of terror, as well as being a questioning of power, oppression, violence and war, is also a journey to seek the truth of our inter-connections as individuals. It will be a multi-faceted journey with many co-travellers: secular and faith based humanists being co-present recognising one another, bearing co-witness for the mutual goal of preserving and valuing LIFE in all its diverse and wondrous manifestations. The best among them being the Life of a child who expects the world to save it from the worst of what humanity has done in the past and who hopes for a different future.
Finally, concluding these, admittedly broad, reflections let me re-state the greatest threat to human survival: the nuclear weapon, which, in my view, is a crime against every single living individual human being. As we worry rightly about handing over to future generations the problems of ecological disaster, let us not also hand over to a future humanity an inheritance which includes the terror of weapons of mass destruction. The taking of any life anywhere, regardless of who comes to know about it, through any form of terror act, is a crime against the whole “single cell” of humanity. A humanity richly diverse is a wonder and mystery – secular and religious, material and spiritual, physical and meta-physical. As Hasan Askari put it, humanity “stands for a hidden, universal unity across all physical and racial boundaries.”
Article VI – NPT Treaty “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
“Film-maker Antony Thomas has won recognition and acclaim throughout the world for his powerful and thought-provoking programmes. Born in Calcutta, Thomas was taken to South Africa when he was six years old. He moved to England in 1967, where he has written, directed and produced 40 major documentaries and dramas. He is also author of a highly-acclaimed biography Rhodes, the Race for Africa. Thomas’s films have taken the top prizes at numerous documentary festivals, including the most prestigious — the US Emmy Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, the British Academy Award and the Grierson Award for best British Documentary. Two of his documentaries, Twins – The Divided Self and Man and Animal won fourteen international awards between them.
Thomas has succeeded in creating programmes with a strong message that are also highly popular. The opening programme of his 1998 series on obesity, Fat, won three awards from the British Medical Association and was also one of the ten most popular programmes of the week in the UK, with an audience of 9.5 million. When his drama Death of a Princess was originally shown in the United States, it earned one of the highest ratings in the history of PBS, while his 2004 programmes on the Ancient Greek Olympics were sold to 83 countries.
In 2007, his documentary, The Tank Man, was invited for special screenings at the US AGM of Amnesty International and the United States Congress.
His recent work includes a two-hour documentary on The Qur’an (co-produced by Channel 4 and National Geographic) which premiered in the UK on July 14th 2008, and has subsequently been seen in 32 counties; How do you know God exists? which premiered in the UK on August 16th 2009 and For Neda, a documentary special for HBO, which tells story of Neda Agha Soltan…” (For more on the work of Antony Thomas please visit his website http://www.antonythomas.co.uk/ )
Sincere thanks to Antony Thomas for agreeing to this interview.
Musa Askari: As a documentary film-maker you have talked about having “no idea where the beginning, middle and end of the programme is”. I would like to inquire however about another “beginning”. A beginning of questions formulated through your reflections. Questions which perhaps first attract you to a project as like standing at the circumference of a dimly outlined circle with new questions coming to light during the spontaneity of filming as you traverse various radii toward the centre or heart of the piece.
Whenever you undertake a project would it be fair to say it is generally governed by a set of key questions? Also could you please talk a little about how such initial questions of inquiry are arrived at and to what extent you rely upon your instinct and intuition for guidance through the project?
Antony Thomas: Yes. It is fair to say that my work is governed by a set of questions – in some cases a single question. “How do you know that God exists?” “What does the Qur’an actually say?” – to mention two of my more recent films.
What matters most to me is research in depth. “Instinct and intuition” may help to guide one to the right people and the most relevant source material, but the principle aim is to discover as many perspectives as you can on the subject you have decided to tackle, and that has to take place before any filming starts.
Musa Askari: I would like ask about your inner “experience” on the craft of editing. You have talked about there being a period of reflection before the actual editing commences. That “something very strange happens” and eventually the “whole thing seems to fall in to place”. This I find fascinating and grateful if you could share some insights on the experience of “something strange” and the recognition of things falling in to place.
Antony Thomas: We need to distinguish between the two types of programme I’ve been involved on – pure documentary and docudrama. In the case of the latter, one is following a script. It’s an inflexible form; the beginning, middle and end are known before you start filming.
I would never approach “pure documentary” in the same way, because of the danger that one might (consciously or unconsciously) manipulate what is happening in front of the camera so that it fits into the preordained plan. The decision to film a particular scene or to interview a particular individual should be based on the conviction that they are relevant to the story you are telling, but there are times when the whole experience turns out to be very different from what was anticipated, and one must always be true to that.
After the filming is over, I generally spend a couple of weeks looking through all the material that we’ve shot, and it’s quite extraordinary how clearly the structure starts to emerge – and, of course, it’s a structure based on the truth and not on some pre-ordained plan.
Musa Askari: “Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work.” Plotinus (The Enneads: 1.6.9)
Plotinus, the father of Neo-Platonism, the mystic-philosopher whose work is soul through and soul, is talking about sculpting as a reference to inner self mastery, a spiritual endeavour. There is on the one hand a sculptor seeking to bring forth a material expression of beauty, and on the other hand a documentary film-maker, in my view, also seeking beauty, perhaps a beauty non-material, not of marble, stone or wood. But rather beauty to be found through heartfelt testimonies of people interviewed, of ideas expressed. In other words a quest for “truth” at the heart of the issue being investigated is a beautiful quest. That “truth” in essence is beautiful but also enlightening, liberating and awakening.
As a principle would you agree that sculptor and film-maker have a common bond in the pursuit of “Beauty”? And in general to what extent would you consider editing akin to the art of sculpting?
Antony Thomas: I have to be very frank about this. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a sculptor, or seen a sculptor at work, so I’m not really equipped to answer that question.
Musa Askari: Through your work on “Death of a Princess” (1980), “The Tank Man” (2006) and most recently “For Neda” (2010) these appear to be, apart from the social and political context, powerful representations of individual lives. In your opening sequence to “The Tank Man” for example we are presented with images on the vastness of Tiananmen Square and you comment about “treeless spaces” and “monumental buildings“. As we survey these images of the square your narration talks about, “the insignificance of the individual before the might of the state.”
Could you please talk a little on what you find compelling about individual lives which are caught up within great currents of society and state?
Antony Thomas: As you know, most of my documentaries have strong political or religious themes, but I am not the slightest bit interested in theory and dogma. What matters to me are the practical outcomes. I want to the viewer to feel what it’s really like to be living under this or that system. I don’t want to be up there on podium listening to the Head of State or the Pope, I want to be down on the ground floor of ordinary human experience.
The reviews that make me happiest are those that suggest that this method is working, like this one, in response to a documentary I made in Egypt some time ago: “I have seen many documentaries telling me what it was like to be in Egypt, yet this was the first one to spell out, both beautifully and brutally, what it felt like to be an Egyptian.”
Musa Askari: I find the liberating power of the individual no better expressed in your work than in “The Tank Man”. A lone man standing in the middle of a boulevard, straight, still and defiant. No weapon, just his individuality. It is seems remarkable to me with so much violence having taken place already, so many individual un-armed lives already brutalised the night before on June 4th 1989, why the driver of the lead tank halted at all. What transpired between those two as they stared at each other we may never know. As we witness the bravery of one man standing before the lead tank, an image which has become an icon of freedom, we are also witnessing the actions of another man who is hidden from view. Namely, the driver of the lead tank. Enfolded within the machinery of military power, represented by a tank, the individual is not only insignificant (recalling your quote earlier) but also absent. Yet here in this event, in this image, the individual is unmasked for all to see in the clear light of a noon sun confronting symbolically a state power and in doing so invites the driver of the lead tank, for a few minutes, to become an individual also.
Would you agree perhaps there were two “Tank Men” that day in Tiananmen Square? And I would be grateful for your thoughts on when you first saw the footage of this anonymous individual making a brave and selfless stand.
Antony Thomas: Yes. I certainly remember the powerful emotions I felt when I first saw that image of a young man, standing in front of that column of tanks, and I completely agree with the point you make. There were two heroes that day – one unseen inside the lead tank, and one standing in the road with his back to us. I’m afraid it’s likely that both of them shared the same fate.
Musa Askari: I note your interest in religion, through works such as “Thy Kingdom Come” (1987), “The Quran” (2008) and more recently “How Do You Know That God Exists?” (2009), and present the following quotes from my late father whose work and reputation I understand you are familiar with.
“The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable. Hence, there should be room between the religions for mutual critique and complementarity. In turn, this should generate a religious need for religious plurality and diversity.” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/January2004/Jan04Askari.html )
“It was Brumana consultation in 1972 in Beirut the biggest Christian – Muslim consultation of the century, that in my paper I made it absolutely clear that perhaps, perhaps we need more than one religion. How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice?” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: speech on Spiritual Humanism, 1995 https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/speech-hasan-askari-spiritual-humanism/ )
Through your work, research and study of religion could you please talk about your observations when an exclusive one-sided approach to religious witness is taken at the expense of the universal and inclusive? And to what extent do you think the direction of inter-religious dialogue has changed or stayed the same since your interest in religion and inter-faith began?
Antony Thomas: I agree with every word that you have quoted from your father’s writings. The tension and violence, not only between people of different faiths, but between co-religionists is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.
I know many wonderful people who are trying to reach out across these divisions, but in spite of all their efforts, it seems to me that the problem is more serious now that at any other time in my life.