WASHINGTON (IPS) — In an age when suicide bombings and religious and ethnic riots comprise the bulk of the evening news, it seems as though compassion and compromise are more elusive than ever.
Buddha said that there are three poisons in this world: greed, anger, and ignorance. These poisons have the capacity to destroy individuals — and societies — unless they are checked by justice (the cure for greed), compassion (the cure for anger), and knowledge (the cure for ignorance).
Knowledge is perhaps the strongest — and most difficult to wield — weapon in the modern age. However, as vicious stereotypes increasingly replace truths and individuals are more likely to fear than to learn from others, it is the one of which society is in most need.
On Tuesday, the Muslim call to prayer could be heard from within the sanctuary of the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC. Inside, men in kipahs and women in hijab sat with their families learning about interfaith dialogue. The means of their education was a play entitled “Noor” by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University, former high commissioner of Pakistan, and one of the world’s foremost teachers of interfaith dialogue.
In Arabic, noor means light. In Islam, it is one of the 99 names for Allah. In Ahmed’s play, it is the name of an 18-year-old college girl abducted from the bazaar in Anytown, Middle East. In the aftermath of Noor’s disappearance, we meet her three brothers: Abdullah, a Sufi mystic who believes that prayer will bring Noor home; Ali, a modernist and a lawyer who believes that the surest way to bring Noor home safely is to go through the authorities; and Daoud, a disenchanted doctor who sees no way to bring Noor home except through violence.
These three brothers represent the three different, at times overlapping, at other times conflicting, branches of modern Islam. In the face of the encroaching West, each brother clings to his beliefs in hopes that it will deliver him.
“Islam is under siege,” the actor playing Daoud shouts from the stage. “It is time for every Muslim to stand up and say ‘no more’!”
Daoud’s sentiments are echoed across much of the Middle East, especially in areas such as Palestine and the failed states of Afghanistan and Iraq. In these cultures, known by some scholars as “panic cultures” because of the perpetual state of anxiety in which they exist due to a lack of confidence in the future, the West is seen as having brought all three of Buddha’s deadly poisons without any means of recourse.
With no means to combat what is seen as an invasion, an increasing number of individuals living in these desperate societies resort to violence. As Daoud shouts across the stage that the loss of his family’s honor to the “Crusaders” must be avenged, it is alarming to think that this is a reflection of some of the sentiments Ahmed has heard during his many trips to the Middle East.
Ali, the middle brother, clings to his ideas of fair institutions and a modernized society as he looks to government officials to solve his family’s woes. However, he soon realizes that the institutions in which he places his faith barely exist — corruption and the self-interest of officials stain the establishments founded to bring justice to the people. Ali discovers that his ideals are exactly that — ideals. Disillusioned, he finds himself in the position of a lonely David versus the Goliath of injustice brought by the foreign “liberators.”
Abdullah, the eldest brother, finds solace in his Sufi faith. He believes that, although the occupation of his state shows the negative side of the West, there are good people in the United States and Europe. He believes that everyone can find hope and comfort in prayer.
“This is an amazing story that deals with the very real conflict that I have seen throughout the Middle East,” says Frankie Martin, who recently spent a couple of months traveling through the Muslim world with Professor Ahmed. “Everyone feels the crisis, but everyone feels it in a different way. This humanizes the struggle being experienced in the Muslim world.”
And humanizing can lead to understanding. Daoud is not simply a crazed radical — he is a brother, a man, helpless to defend his sister, his family, and his way of life. Ali is not ignorant of the world. He is simply disillusioned that the establishments for which U.S. citizens and Muslims alike fought so hard have failed to protect even the most innocent of individuals: his sister. Abdullah is not a cloudy-headed mystic, but a man of faith who must cling to his beliefs or else lose them forever.
“It is the ordinary Muslim that prevents us from becoming a slave nation with his blood,” Daoud shouts from the stage of the synagogue sanctuary, in front of two oversized tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. Even though there are countless individuals across the Middle East who feel helpless and angry like Daoud, hopeless and disillusioned like Ali, and confused and anxious like Abdullah, this presentation of “Noor” is a step towards combating the poisons.
At the discussion panel immediately following the play, numerous notables from different religious communities — Muslim, Jewish, and Christian — sat in a semi-circle on stage to discuss the future of inter-faith dialogue.
“The Prophet Mohammad once said that the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr,” said Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig as he opened the discussion. “We have seen that tonight.”
Indeed, the ink of the scholar has planted the seed of knowledge — the strongest weapon against the poisons that threaten to ravage the modern world.
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