Feb 22, 2013

Moral equivalence - Exterior manifestations vs. Undercurrents

Anti-corruption movements for political reform and social justice seem to have one thing in common - seeking a better moral leadership for things like "justice" and re-directing the national sense of purpose. Various ideologies are moving into this space, each vending its version of justice and purpose, its iconic personalities, its enemies, its solutions. Some of these are presented as purely political-economic ideologies, some as religious, some as social ethics. But the question of what is moral is really interesting, and ultimately focuses on a personal exemplar: historical, epic, mythological - or more honestly its usually some mixture of all three, no matter which culture one examines.

In this regard, how does one adjudicate what is a superior morality? The personal exemplars of morality from different civilizational contexts are all complex personalities. Some of the exterior actions and words attributed to the same persona strike me as seductive and others repugnant, some as inspired and others fantasia, some as sterling boldness and other as fork-tongued cunning. Only if I can find a way to appreciate the subtleties, can I create a valid purva-paksha (comparative counter-proposal) to think about it "objectively" - or at least according to a supra-subjective scale of truth. I feel a need for this, because public discourse is swamped with the usual wishy-washy politically correct "no criticizing religion" discourse in India (or the West). Too many times the people who moderate the national discourse pass off a false moral equivalence by a practiced sleight of hand.

I was watching a religious debate between Robert Spencer and Nadir Ahmed, on "Does Islam teach violence?". Here's an excerpted part dealing with "rape":

While the two sides competed on selective statements, neither presented a logical argument about moral undercurrents, context, and actions itself. Admittedly, Spencer came out on top because of the sheer weight of evidence of legalized slavery, rape and violence that forms the self-vaunted track record of Islamist political history as well as present day news. But like most apologists, Nadir Ahmed points out that this is all an aberration from the pure example set by the core of Islam - the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) - in whose persona Islam's legal permissions unite with his personal integrity. So statistical record aside, it is worth looking closely at this apologia - because it means that if the core is morally pure and yet complex, then Islamism can re-invent itself, keep evolving and come to the forefront of proposing the most sound moral and yet practical solutions to society's material, social and spiritual problems.

First I have a consideration about permissiveness and restraint as advised by moral authority, especially religious moral authority: Even though slavery, rape and violence was practiced by the Prophet's own companions with the Prophet's personal sanction in the aftermath of wars, yet these can be rationalized as the inevitable concomitant of all war. As it is, war is a cauldron of human insanity, of tooth and claw, of reaction more than conscious action. Some reactions may be noble, but oftentimes not. No one can deny that excesses of violence during wartime occur in all civilizations. But does this imply a moral equivalence between excesses committed by, say, jihadis in the name of a religious ideology versus, say, an Anders Breivik?

A valid question here is whether the role of religious sanction is to buttress the "rationalizations" of these excesses (which are themselves a product of a process of insanity), or to warn against it, or to treat its aftermath. Religious sanction for acts of insanity can remove all natural vestiges of guilt that may hold the human back, or force him to think of alternatives. This is a tricky question, because false guilt can be a killer in times of insanity (such as war) and is considered a sin in most religions. But there is something to be said for real conscience, too. Does religious sanction mitigate the effects of the excesses of human insanity? Or does it merely help dissipate the surface effects after actually encouraging its widespread perpetration? I must throw up my hands on this one, because this consideration must again defer to the subjective details of Present Time context.

Secondly, Nadir Ahmed focuses his defensive argument against "rape in Islam" repeatedly on one single exemplary episode: This is the Hadith (narrations from the personal life of the Prophet) of Safiyyah, where the Prophet meets Safiyyah bint Huyayy and takes her as a wife. Some context: Safiyyah at the time was a 17 year old Jewish girl captured from the Banu Nadir tribe just after the Battle of Khaybar. In Islamic law, female captives of war are legitimate slaves ("right hand possessions"). Safiyyah was the only surviving member of the Banu Nadir tribe's ruling family. Safiyyah and another woman, Reyhanah, were brought as an offering to the Prophet by a few devoted companions. Reyhanah shrieked and cried, and the Prophet said, "Take this she-devil away from me!". Presumably, she may have become the slave-girl or perhaps the wife of another. But Safiyyah remained silent in the Prophet's presence, and that was taken as a sign of acceptance. She submitted to Islam and to its Prophet, considered by all those around her as the most desirable husband in all of Creation. The Prophet consummated his marriage to Safiyyah shortly thereafter, but in her marriage she never bore him any children. Later in life, Safiyyah was often taunted for her Jewish origins by the other wives of the Prophet. Some debated whether she had the status of a wife or a slave-girl, but it was agreed that she was a legitimate wife. Doubts about her sincerity in accepting Islam and suspicions that she would avenge the death of her family are recurring themes in the Sirah Rasul Allah (earliest biography of Muhammad). 

Nadir Ahmed points out that in this episode, the Prophet has demonstrated by his own personality that he avoids rape, prefers marriage to slavery, and prefers non-violence to force, even in the immediate aftermath of a battle. He could have had his way with the other woman brought with Safiyyah, but his innate nature could not find a screaming, unwilling woman a desirable partner, or even a slave. 

The message of the apologia is that the Prophet Muhammad did not delight in forced conquest, but was pleased only by voluntary acceptance and submission. This is evidence of a certain kind of nobility of character, a humbling and awe-inspiring restraint - in the aftermath of a successful abduction and in the wake of a shocking victory in battle. The Prophet is restrained and dignified when he looms over another.

One cannot find fault with this logical argument - unless one chooses to be irreverent to the stature of the Prophet of God, which now looks like a rather nervous, foolish and vain position considering the definitive overwhelm of historical circumstance - in Safiyyah's case and all cases of war, terror or general chaos in past and present times. Death itself is an inevitability for everyone, in whatever form it comes. Either one can be humble and 'realistic' about it, and find peace in submission - and the ecstasy that will come from it, sooner or later. Or one can be irreverent. These are the only two choices, it seems, in terms of affective states and their cognitive modes.

There is something fascinating about this logic, and its context of operation is like a seductive vortex. In that vortex there is to be had, both, a kind of passion and a peace, a vigor and a resignation, a succumbing and a release. An offer of security in surrender.

There is something metaphysical about it. Is it the anticipation of a Divine opening and further exploration, or is it the definitive Titanic thud of a closure of the past? Does it raise its servants into freedom and independence? Or does it keep its slaves in the pleasure of perpetual co-dependence? What kind of entity is the priesthood - brAhmaNa or dasyu? That would tell me what kind of dAsa the devotee is. 

Such considerations floated across as I turned Nadir Ahmed's persistent, hammering argument, his devotion and his reverence over in my heart and mind. I was also reminded of something anyone who has been immersed in Hindu culture to any extent cannot help recall: 

In the epic Ramayana, we have one examplar in the great King Ravana of Lanka. The glories of his admirable qualities are described at length in the Ramayana. He was Brahmana, and a man of superior wisdom and distinguished mystical realization. He had created a Stairway to Heaven, an elevationist meme abounding in Islamic Gnosticism, too, and which has as its product a salvationist meme for the mass of grateful devotees.  His self-mortifying devotions and austerities were intense and often moving, a rendezvous at suicide cliff, sometimes  a brilliantly macabre sado-masochistic ecstasy. And yet he was just, humble and pleasing in so many ways! A man of talent, passion, wisdom, and a deep sense of his own unfulfilled destiny, he had pleased the Lord Shiva and achieved many revelations and benedictions. 

His ambition burgeoned, and with it a beautiful nation, of wealth, justice, power projection, and numerous ardent citizen devotees. A courageous warrior, from whom his roving lieutenants borrowed their boldness in war. In fact, just such a set of his bold lieutenants had been engaging in tactically brilliant bouts of surprise warfare against the Rishis and tribes of Bharatavarsha, including the young self-exiled scion of a ruling family of Ayodhya, Rama. They ambushed the pagans wherever they found them, raided them, defiled their heretic sacred spaces as it deserved to be defiled, and generally wrought the wrath of Ravana's God upon these tribes. 

In the aftermath of a few such skirmishes, Ravana abducts Sita herself, the chaste wife of the pagan king Rama, and takes her back to Lanka. There, she finds herself in miserably pleasant environs - the Ashoka Vatika, the Grove of No Sorrow. Surrounded by palatial gardens, Ravana's co-wives and concubines tell her of the glories of their husband and master - the most eligible husband in the three worlds, as a matter of fact, and taunt her for her unyielding and patently unreasonable stubbornness. 

His Majesty the King Ravana would periodically come visiting, to give her the opportunity to submit to his love, but Sita struggled to maintain her chastity, sometimes even suggesting that her husband Rama would come to her rescue. As irrelevant, irreverent and insulting as this was, Ravana maintained his dignity. He would not force himself on her, but preferred that she submit willingly. Only later - after a surprise visit by one Hanuman (who intruded covertly but departed with some disturbing fanfare), an agent of Rama - did Ravana include an ultimatum to Sita. But clearly, taken in the proper context, he procured her in an act of war and deception, but would not possess her against her will. 

Of course one could say that Sita's free will was being tested by the change in her environmental context - physical abduction as well as the constant suggestions of those that surrounded her. While Ravana did alter the context that was operative on Sita's free will, one cannot accuse him of running roughshod over it. It was beneath his present dignity and power. Ravana gave her that opportunity to give herself to him willingly, even as he loomed over her. 

Perhaps an unfavorable view of Ravana's treatment of Sita would be that while the exterior manifestation of Ravana's behavior seemed noble and reasonable, there was always in his life the undercurrent of a dominance-slave mentality at best and total nullification at worst that wrought circumstances around him.

Context determines the Value of any action. But in adjudicating the moral value of an action, even more important than the exterior Context is the personal Karmic Undercurrent that creates that context in the first place. Often I find myself acting out against my own dogmas in the clutch of circumstances that I know I have played a part in creating: a case of "My Kar-ma ran over my Dog-ma", no doubt. A self-fulfilling end-times prophecy is another classic case. That perspicacity would also be needed in calling out a false moral equivalence between one act and another from different persons, cultures, times and places. 

I still don't know if there is any moral equivalence between Nadir Ahmed's logic of Muhammad's (pbuh) proposition to Safiyyah and the Ramayana's logic of Ravana's proposition to Sita, or whether there is a moral equivalence between acts of violence or seduction by Islamists and those of Christians, Marxists, or the newly emerging "Hindutva terror" as highlighted by Rahul Gandhi and Home Minister Shinde. Its a tricky question and has many subtle, contextual issues.

But it did occur to me that in India, the ethos of Dharma is illuminated and energized by the sun of its Mythos. Conscientious discrimination (viveka) cannot but bask in its reflected glory.

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