It’s only been a few hours into the news, but for once I am going to jump in and comment. This time it has just gone too far.
A man claiming to be Muslim attacks three other men in the street in Woolwich with a machete, kills one and seriously wounds the other two, and then comes to someone filming the event (accidentally, I assume) and explains, the machete still in his bloodied hands, that he (and his accomplice) did this as payback for Muslims killed in Muslim countries, and that citizens of the UK will never be safe until those Muslims cease to be killed by UK forces. The victim seems to have been wearing a ‘Help for Heroes’ T-shirt, an organisation that supports veteran soldiers.
This is something out of a horror film, not out of a holy book.
I have recently written an extensive article for a friend’s website detailed precisely why violence against civilians is absolutely forbidden in any circumstances by Islam, but it will be three weeks before that article goes online.
I didn’t want to write before about the Boston attacks as I have still been reeling from those, in utter shock and incomprehension, and in sympathy for the families who had lost their loved ones to mindless murder. I am also afraid for everyone who might be marked out by far-right neo-Nazi Muslim-haters who have already attacked a mosque in Essex in retribution. Egged on by phony political parties like the EDF, pathetic excuses for racism and xenophobia, there will also be another reaction to every action. It seems like the cycle of hatred and revenge just never ends.
Anyway, very briefly, this is what my article says:
1) The term ‘civilian’ in Arabic is ‘man la yuqatil’, i.e. ‘he or she who is not/cannot be killed.’ That alone should be enough to indicate that it just shouldn’t ever happen.
2) Conflict can ONLY be carried out in a legally valid war, between one nation-state that has openly declared war on another. A splinter group, small militia, or any other band of psychos masquerading as ideologues do not have the authority to declare war or anyone, and therefore can never be legitimately involved in combat. This means that by Islamic law, the Woolwich killer is a murderer and should be tried as one.
3) Even in a legally valid war, a civilian can only resort to lethal violence in the extreme case that a man’s country is invaded suddenly, without having had a chance to prepare for the attack, their army has been totally overwhelmed, the enemy is literally knocking on their door, and he will still be killed and his wife raped if he surrenders. This is, needless to say, and inordinately rare situation.
5) Anyone living in any country that is not their country of origin, if they are living there with a valid visa, has effectively entered into a pact with that nation and is obliged to live by their laws. As the Qur’an says, “Allah’s earth is vast”; i.e., if you are not happy with the laws in the country you live in, go somewhere else. The Prophetic example of Hijra, or migration, to escape persecution, is so important to Muslims that it defines the birth of our own calendar.
6) The principles of futuwwa, or spiritual chivalry, are such that even in a valid war, combat must be between people who are both armed, no treachery must take place, or bodies mutilated; fruit trees must not be cut down, or wells poisoned, or crops ruined, or any other act that will prevent the enemy’s civilians from maintaining their livelihood. Pleas for mercy must be listened to. Killing must never be done out of anger. While the Qur’an allows for the continuation of the Mosaic Law of ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’, this phrase is always followed by ‘But forgiveness is better for you.’ Forgiveness is always the preferred course of action, and the overall sense you get from the laws regarding warfare is that the minimum harm should be done in order to effect the maximum amount of peace.
Apart from all the legal technicalities, which are amply known to any Muslim teacher worth his salt, there is this sinking, curdling, brooding feeling that attacks like this engender among Muslims (and, in this case, among Blacks too). It’s this: no matter how much we might despise acts like this, reject the hateful ideology that accompanies them, and wish that there might be change, none of us have ever really spent any time with one of these nut-jobs. How can we hope to access the sourse of this bile, or encourage it to take a more peaceful tack, without venturing into very shaky territory ourselves? We shrink away from people like this – so how can they be helped to change their minds?
It gives an unsettling, hopeless feeling that we must barricade ourselves inside our faiths, our homes, our cultures. All of which will only lead to more of the same. Each side only seems to be retaliating against the other. No-one knows when the original offence took place, or by whom. The British division of the Middle East? Did it go back even further than that? Are these resentments that have rumbling way back into the era of the slave trade, African colonialism, the Raj? Are we still hunting the past for reasons to blame someone other than ourselves for our current problems?
It also makes it even more difficult to have the opinion that European and American forces should indeed pull out of Afghanistan, for instance, lest we find ourselves on the same ‘side’ as the thugs.
My heart goes out to Woolwich right now. And if anyone has any suggestions on how to cut this cycle of revenge short, the world is listening…
I’ve recently started a course led by two friends about medicinal herbs and plants. We study anatomy, drink teas, meditate and listen to trees. That might sound like a holiday (and it is pleasurable enough to make it seem so). But the truth is that it’s changing my life.
Yesterday’s focus was on the heart and lungs. After a huge download on the anatomy of these organs and the way they work, the subtler aspects of the heart were discussed – in a way I had never heard before. The word ‘heart’ has become a signifier for all that is mawkish and silly in our society. Spanish songs aren’t complete without a few corazones, but in English, just mentioning the word, especially with ‘my’ before it, usually triggers a wave of cynical responses even before the sentence is complete.
And yet the subtle action of the heart is quite tangible and even documentable. Western science was only discovered in the 1980s that the heart is also an endocrinal gland: it produces and secretes hormones and neurotransmitters, particularly noradrenaline and dopamine, as well as oxytocin – the love hormone or bonding hormone, released in large quantities at orgasm, when in love, and during and after a natural labour.
Even more fascinating is the electromagnetic function of the heart. There are known to be 40,000 neurones in the heart; together with the intestines it forms one of the largest ‘brains’ in the body, after the brain itself. The heart of a foetus actually begins beating before the brain is sufficiently developed to send it the message to do so; one of the first functions of the brain in the womb is to regulate the heartbeat.
The heart sends messages to the brain by many means, hormonal, chemical, electrical and so on, not just about blood pressure but also about our feelings, sadness, joy, love, pain.
There is an electromagnetic field generated by any organ with neuronal activity. This is what women with flowers in their hair and crystals in their pockets (just check out my prejudices!) might call an aura. Every living entity has one of these fields. With greater awareness of what is happening in this field, it can be expanded to overlap with the field surrounding another living entity, whether it be a person or animal or plant. This is when communication takes place. The words are after-effects.
One of the ways to effect this greater awareness is through the breathing practice pranayama, while visualising the air coming in and out of the heart. This is really powerful. Suddenly it seems that the heart has a mouth and can breathe and therefore talk. It is a living entity its own right.
To complete this sense of expansion and warmth, it is necessary only to remember a time when you felt very thankful, and a time when you felt great love and tenderness. It is like watching a plant grow rapidly before your eyes and open its petals, like in a David Attenborough documentary on your own being.
This pool of warmth and tenderness, when it notices another pool that is in pain, immediately rushes to make contact with it. There’s no sense of ‘ooh look at me, all compassionate like’. The heart pools are compassion in action, without the brain to stick price tags on it.
All of this is probably making a lot of sense to you, dear readers. Everyone who has ever been in love or created a work of art or lost a dear friend or family member knows there is a capacity for feeling in the heart that cannot compare to the cold, tickety calculations happening in the brain – no matter how useful these might also be.
But whether you decide to keep the seat of your sense of being up there among the mechanisms of thought and analysis, or down here in the centre of your body, makes a huge difference to the way you approach the world.
Remaining in the head enables us to make justifications for behaviour that destroys other people’s worlds or harms the environment. There is always seemingly good reason. Remaining in the heart, however, makes it impossible to witness any suffering without wanting to do something to alleviate it – especially when the cause of the suffering is ourselves.
This is where we come back to these split opinions about the heart.
I get a strong sense that there are two ‘Wests’: the corporate West, and the human West. The corporate West has no heart. It exists entirely in the sphere of analysis and justification. We can make more money doing something a particular way, and thus make life easier and more comfortable and apparently happier doing it, so we can justify the suffering of sweatshop labourers, child miners, displaced indigenous peoples, and invaded oil-rich countries, or the plunder and poisoning of natural resources in order to do it.
Then there is the human West. (That’s you, and me.) If we were to see this suffering first-hand, there’s no way we would accept it. Our hearts would break. Yet the distance between us and them, combined with the primping effect of the corporate West, make the justifications seem worthwhile. Of course you’d say yes to a gadget or product that made your life easier, prettier, nicer-smelling, or more comfortable, if you didn’t know what kind of chaos its production entailed.
The problem is that swaddling our hearts against the horror of what our actions as a society end up doing to the rest of the world is also suffocating. It feels unnatural not to witness any pain or discomfort. When the aged or disabled are sent to care homes, we forget they exist and expect everyone to be young and fit and gorgeous. When beggars are rounded up by police and moved on, we forget what poverty looks like. When doctors can reassure you that disease is not the end of the world, we forget that any one of us could die at any moment, forgetting also to treat every drop of life as a gift. All of this allows us to get on with our lives more comfortably, and yet our hearts are being numbed in the process.
To react to this slow, icy death, we come up with all sorts of hairbrained methods to reactivate our hearts. We go in for wildy passionate, toxic love affairs that end up hurting us. We flirt with danger in the form of tobacco, drugs, alcohol. We jump out of airplanes with backpacks and goggles on. Anything to make us feel alive again, to feel that leap in our chests, the thud of adrenaline or the buzz of dopamine.
And then love itself is marketed in so many ways. Films posit love as the ultimate trophy, the happy ending that won’t dissolve into acrimony a few years later. Love as a commodity is mawkish and icky. The internet is rife with photos of kittens, in baskets, with bows on, looking perplexedly at the camera in sailor suits…in the absence of an orphaned child living in a train station, the most extraordinarily silly things pass as heart-rending.
There is an ultimate sense to things. Sometimes it takes age or experience or distance covered to have any perspective on them, but there is a sense there, overall. Even disease could be seen as an expression of our underlying need to know what death is in order to be able to get back to the present moment, to get back to the centre of our being, to feel the jolt of life pumping away inside our bodies and remember to appreciate it instead of getting swamped with worry and the frantic accumulation of things.
Am I just getting old?
If getting old means seeing the small in the large and the large in the small, then perhaps I won’t mind the discomforts.
This is a difficult subject to leap right into a blog post and write about, because there is no definite point in time when this phenomenon began. It is not tied to current affairs in particular, or to a book being published, or an event in my personal life – and yet it is there, painting the scenery, blocking out the movements, playing the soundtrack for all of these.
It is slowly becoming clear to me that there are two forces, perhaps two among many, underlying our decisions. If I am lying in bed, groggily listening to the birds tweeting (in the way that people used to think of when they heard the word), and trying to calculate exactly what shade of sunrise the sky must be, and therefore how urgent it is for me to get out of bed when I’ve only slept 6 hours, there are two opposing impulses at work:
There is my desire to go back to sleep, which is tussling – very subtly – with my deep need to see the sun as it glides into view above the mountains, to hear the dawn chorus and the orchestra of morning life, to feel the thud of my heart – yes, it is still in there – as the Scots pines on the opposite slope of the valley turn from green to gold. (I could add in all the things I wish I had the discipline to do as well, like half an hour of yoga, a bit of meditation, a little light levitation before a breakfast of carrot sticks and a strawberry smoothie, but as the list grows longer I get less likely to fulfil it.)
More frequent is wanting to achieve a sh*tload of stuff in as little time as possible, which is in tension with my profound wish to get some perspective on all this rushing about, to step back and observe the little whirlwinds of activity that I whip up, while being as quiet and patient as a mountain myself. Desire impels me to notch up trophies, or scars; to have been someone, rather than to be what I am, prior to and beyond any kind of category.
This tension often makes my relationship with my kids slightly fraught. They understand Need very well. Babies smile when they enjoy something, but cry when they need it. There is no ratiocination to get in the way, or experiences to be compared, or theories to muddy this clarity. It is a totally straightforward expression of what is needed, and once the need has been achieved, the previous stress is completely forgotten.
An eye-opening example of this is the Tantrum. Holy shamoley. Once your kid is old enough to have desires, and not just needs, the whines and whimpers and tears and screams are converted into a force of nature powerful enough to shatter windows. He doesn’t really need to play ten more minutes with that toy train, when it’s really very late and he needs to go to sleep. He wants to play, dammit. And he’s going to show you what the argument between desire and need that is going on inside you all the time actually looks like when you take off the well-bred adult exterior.
See, we haven’t got Desire and Need equally fulfilled and playing a nice violin duet together in the background of our beings. They are pulling each other’s hair out, kicking shins and biting arms, squabbling over a doll that looks alarmingly like you.
Let’s imagine a woman with so many interests and strings to her bow and, very likely, education that the world appears as an infinite hallway of doors, all of which are tantalisingly open, and yet the sight of so many of them at once makes her run up and down this hallway in a panic, sticking her head in one door before being called by another. Behind one door she might see herself writing a book. Another might be doing a master’s degree. Another might be setting up a charity, another an enterprise, another a local seed bank, or time share organisation, or recycling network. Do you see how the hallway is beginning to spiral out into the distance? Every one of those door represents a Desire, and each one is clamouring for the woman’s attention.
Now, let’s throw a couple of kids into the picture. (Onto a bouncy castle so they don’t get hurt.) These children, while being in every way the apples of her eye, are also the very embodiment of Need. From the moment they are born to the moment they move back home aged 33 and start demolishing the contents of her fridge, they will be needing her to do things for them. Feed. Burp. Change nappy. Coo over them. Tickle them. Get outside for some fresh air. Administer healthy foods. Nurse them when they are sick. Observe their development and seek advise from experts. Find them things to play with. Find them friends to play with. Teach them to read. Teach them why it is wrong to throw a rock at a dog. Teach them how to deal with unpleasant people in life. Do you see how the hallway is also spiralling out into infinity, in the opposite direction?
But after reading this great article by blogger and mother of two Kim Siegal, aka Mama Mzungu, about how Kenyan women seem so calm when it comes to children having tantrums, it is occurring to me how simple the mothering equation is – on paper, at least. You recognise the needs of whoever is around you, including yourself as one of them, but prioritising the needs of anyone who is, for whatever reason, unable to fulfil those needs themselves. You can always eat/sleep/do that master’s degree/read that novel later.
I read recently in a book about Seneca Native American medicine that Seneca women wore their hair in braids to represent the way in which we are all interlinked with everybody else, and with the animal world, the plant world, the elements, the land, and the spiritual world. Every section is equally important.
This shift of perspective is not as easy as it sounds in practice. But it is surely the best decision we could ever make..
The more I look at my decisions in terms of what’s needed – in a broad sense – and what it is I desire, I am more likely to attend to my kids’ needs without groaning, more likely to get up early and listen to the birds celebrating the dawn, more likely to eat well instead of munching on crap, more likely to listen to a friend’s call for help without listening to my own desire to be a heroine in helping her.
A new view is opening out, similarly endless, but this time there are no doors from behind which possibilities caw. Instead it is a vast, open panorama in which family, friends, strangers, animals, plants, appear as they are: glorious beings, all of them equally worthy of life, and all of them, to some degree, in need.
My role becomes clearer. The clamour of the doors is transformed into the chatter of rooks on a telephone wire. When faced with the decision between reading just one more article online, and paying some proper attention to a loved one tugging at my sleeve, now I can see the polite battle happening between the forces pulling me either way. I know the places each one takes me. And I know which one my heart needs to live in.
(But still, another hour in bed wouldn’t hurt.)
If there is a single person on the cyber-planet not yet bored to the back teeth with the Femen and Anti-Femen protests, I have a few small wee things to say.
1) There are serious problems facing women in many Muslim countries.
2) There are serious problems facing women in many countries, full stop.
3) There is no legal basis for stoning adulterers in Islam, for banning women from driving, for accusing pregnant single women of fornication (see why here), for a man beating his wife (you read right – read Laleh Bakhtiar’s excellent explanation why), and for a whole host of evils inflicted on women in the name of patriarchy in Islam’s clothing.
4) There is no death penalty by lapidation in Tunisia, and there were no executions at all in the last two years. Tunisia is a very Western-leaning nation among the Arab nations; the President once prepared on state television eating during Ramadan, and encouraging people not to fast. The threats against Amina (the Tunisian Femen protester who published a topless photo of herself online) are empty.
5) Boobies are wonderfully handy things. They make milk for babies. Breastfeeding is seen as a perfectly normal, necessary, nurturing act in Muslim countries, and is accepted everywhere. Men just look away.
6) Breastfeeding in most Western countries is considered as one of those things hippie women with hairy armpits do in public places, and may result in you being asked to leave a restaurant. (This may not purely be for prejudicial reasons. I know someone whose baby popped off the nipple one time and she accidentally squirted a waiter in the eye.)
7) Seeing punky white girls with the words ‘F*** YOUR MORALS’ and ‘RELIGION KILLS’ scrawled across their tits does not exactly make most Muslim women warm to their cause, even if it is, in theory, in their favour. (Incidentally, the biggest mass murderers of the 20th century, Hitler and Stalin, were atheists. Communism trampled on the human rights of millions of people in the Soviet Bloc, China and elsewhere, and it was aggressively anti-religion. There are, shocking as it sounds, many politically-motivated killings that occur all over the world for such charming causes as landgrabs, resource appropriation, torturing purported terrorists and so on. The ‘Enlightened’ West doesn’t exactly have the cleanest bill itself.)
8) In the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s). many women went around bare-breasted. This did not – amazingly! – result in mass orgies in the streets in which lust-fuelled Arab men tore their thowbs off and ravished them. The men just had to learn to lower their gaze. If Muslim men applied this deeply-cherished Islamic principle properly, they wouldn’t even SEE a woman’s naked breasts, thus obviating any idea of her being immoral, whoreish, publicity seeking…or whatever.
9) It is true that there are harsh (hudud) punishments in Islamic law. However, if you read the small print, which is actually very large print but only appears to be small to myopic Saudi patriarchs and hysterical journalists, the chances of being able to apply these hudud punishments are effectively impossible. In order for a man to catch his wife cheating, for example, he would not only have to catch her in bed with another man. He would have to witness the act of copulation with his bare eyes, and he would need to have three male witnesses to the exact same act, all of whom must have such spotless records of morality and character themselves that if they have ever been seen to hit a donkey, their testimony in court must be thrown out. Even a women who becomes pregnant after not seeing her husband for two years is protected by the (clearly unscientific) concept of the ‘Sleeping Foetus’. The Qur’an furthermore states that “…No-one shall bear any prejudice against a woman because of her child” (2:233). In fact, to make an unsuccessful accusation of adultery carries a penalty only slightly less than that for adultery itself (eighty lashes). (Yes I know, lashes, bad. But still an improvement on stoning. I’m guessing the hope was that 1400 years later things would have continued to improve…boy did they guess wrong!) Technically, if the restrictions on hudud laws were put into practice, any kind of corporal or capital punishment in a Muslim country would have to be effected after a confession – and even then it would be rare. The Prophet was known to have asked the family and friends of a man confessing to adultery if he was mad, or drunk, and then he repeatedly asked him if he was sure he didn’t just touch her. (The tradition of stoning for adultery was banned by Shariah law in the lifetime of Muhammad, to his very great relief.)
10) The Prophetic example is one that cannot be condensed to a soundbite. While in his time there were certainly very ancient methods of dealing with social disorder which in our times nobody would stand for, the overall example he gave was one of compassion, forgiveness, humility, kindness, generosity, good humour, embodying beauty, and modesty (in its widest sense; he famously said “Modesty is a garment”, which to me says that the attitude itself is a protection, regardless of what is worn). If he were around today, viewing the other options we have on hand to deal with crime and disorder, I have absolutely no doubt that he would ban hudud punishments. Some Muslim countries are coming to this realisation, very slowly. We are obligated to campaign for its progress. These are vitally important causes, and yet poor research and knee-jerk reactions mean we’re getting mired in debates that only distract us from the real issues. Channel that anger right andwe might see some real victories.
So, if you have not already fallen asleep at the mere mention of the F word, those are my two bits. With the sexualisation of commerce and the commercialisation of sex in the Western world, frankly, I am bored to the point of numbness by the sight of a strange woman’s breasts. It seems like more of the same, be it Beyoncé’s bouncing bazongas or Femen’s anarchistic antics. Boobs are, to me, one of the greatest wonders of the world, but it’s not because of how other people see them, particularly not people all set to Instagram them. It might come as a shock to us, Internet-inured as we are, but really, the most beautiful things in life are not out there on the street, or on your iPhone, easily available and free to download. They are more subtle, and hidden, and precious than anything your media-invaded imagination can come up with.
There is a whole other dimension to this, which is how it actually feels to wear a hijab, which Femen don’t seem to be very interested in. But that will have to be a post for another day.
A poem, a pinprick.
Out of the swamp of information
sloshing across the primitive earth
creeps a single-celled being
bright with newness
shiny as an unscratched lens
and it observes impassively
meditating on the waves
of binary blips rising
and crashing in an ice white foam
gazing at all this
Out of the crusts
of people-shaped shells
creep silvery pearls
and to their clear bright eye
the world looms in and
peers back at itself
with hearts enlarged
and leaps away
at so clear a view
of its own grace.
Out of the scatterings
of luminous seeds
across the blue-black
soil of night
one swells to bursting
high on helium
now everything is spinning
don’t you feel it
It has cracked open
gone from dead
to gasping green
A poem, a pinprick.
Out comes a ruby drop
in which the code for life
catches the light
Cast out from lamps
of tinkering minds
shadow beings with leathery hides
are shuffling round, pressing buttocks
against unsuspecting skulls.
Green pearly feathers tickle
horns catch on chandeliers and
large-flippered beasts get stuck
in revolving doors.
Fresh-escaped from the cage of our ribs
a menagerie of unvoiced thoughts
have come to crowd polite events
kitchen rota discussions
bad dates at Pizza Hut
– weddings border on stampedes –
or at mother-in-law high teas
shopping trolley skirmishes
the headmaster’s office
or gym class with
that pompous girl with perfect teeth
whose smug, corrected grin you cannot bear.
So bears emerge to scrape the chairs
and blow their noses, wheezing
in the jostling hairy void your
prim diplomacy creates.
Five tonnes of pink-feathered guilt,
a beaked embarrassment, some
huff and ruffle and frill
between us, clear as day to those
who won’t give in to nerves
and look away.
“Hello, meet Germaine here, he’s
my knowledge of your infidelity
“How very strange! This is Bonnie,
she’s my thought of you being a
jumped-up petty criminal
taste in kipper ties
expressed in fur and claw.
So soft, but gracious!
The fleas are big as mice.”
Sometimes I see a man
surrounded by a murder of crows
dark thoughts wheel round
enclose the pillow of light
constricted in his heart.
Or it might be a woman
with a circus of monkeys
hanging from her fragile twigs
snatching lollipops and
tugging her left and right
and all she’ll say is “Christ!
I’m feeling nervous.”
So thoughts leap out into
palpable blockages in our paths.
Amid this jungle I think
I’ll swim with swarms of
honeybees, flock with Monarchs
in buddleia thirst
or find a cloud
to pass the time wrapped in
and give the crowd the slip.