Newsletter #204 — February 1, 2024
Part of the BI Israel/Hamas War Discussion
We have already published two comments on Ashok Panikkar's article Growing Strawberries on Coconut Trees, one written by Deborah Laufer and another one from Katja Rieger. In this post we are sharing Ashok's response to Katja, the other comments on Ashok's article, plus Ashok's additional responses.
SAVE THE NEW DATE!!! Also, for those who are interested in these ideas, we are going to be discussing them with Ashok in a live video chat, which has to be rescheduled for Sunday February 11, 2024 at 10:00 am Eastern time (GMT - 5). We invite all our readers to submit questions and to attend. More information, and the link, can be found here.
Ashok's Response to Katja:
(For context, Katja's earlier comments are also included, in italics)
Katja: While I am one of those optimists, I agree with many of your points like the idealistic but privileged youth, that in their idealism is ready to tear down a system that is unjust. They will be horribly surprised that the fair and equitable world they hope for can’t be as easily achieved by a system change as they fervently believe. And I totally agree, that we need to work on our western societies, not just on the polarization, but on making them work for everyone. Without role modeling, who are we to offer solutions?
Ashok: Thank you, Katja for taking the time to write this long response.
Here are a few thoughts: We have gotten used to the idea, in the past 70 plus years, that societies must work for everyone. This is a laudable aspiration, but a dangerous one to use as a yardstick for determining the success of societies or nations. The most successful societies and civilizations have also been, alas, extremely unequal. Social and political systems are excruciatingly complex, will constantly deteriorate, and will need to be repaired and readjusted from time to time. This process of deterioration and readjustment is organic, messy and often unsatisfactory. This is because all human systems are always in a state of flux—the economic, social, and technological environment as well as the stakeholders, their relative power and their relationships are all changing, all the time. This means that there will always be winners and losers. The idea of making sure no one will be left out is not just farfetched—trying to ensure it will weaken the system’s capacity to survive. Wholly egalitarian societies can be attempted only under totalitarian regimes, which take away individual agency and we are forced into pre-determined behaviors, speech and thought.
Katja: There are some of your "truths“ that I differ with or draw different conclusions, for example that yes, open societies may be unstable, but they don’t have to end in violence.
Ashok: I agree they don’t have to end in violence. The challenge is that destabilization causes political, economic and social upheaval which raises tensions and conflicts between stakeholders. These, when coupled with citizen impatience, can easily spill towards violence. The behavior and rhetoric of professional mediators and peacebuilders after the election of Trump or October 7th should disabuse us of the idea that teaching mediation (or meditation for that matter) will help reduce tensions in the population. It is my case that when political or social systems are destabilized, even democratic governments might need to call a pause to civic protest and resistance movements. To keep societies free and open, sometimes it might be necessary to shut down freedom temporarily, as is common in times of war. The challenge in doing that is ensuring that the state gives back the freedoms and rights after the crisis has passed. As I have said elsewhere, there is nothing easy about free and open societies—they are the most vulnerable and hardest to govern.
Katja: I am learning for myself that the fight for democracy and free and fair societies is one, that each and everyone of us needs to contribute to constantly. This is something we have forgotten in times of peace and prosperity, but something we can learn to do again.]
Ashok: I totally agree with you. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting we should not strive to maintain our open and free societies. Yes, peace and prosperity have made us complacent and lazy. Also, the experience of democratic societies has shown that except in times of war, most people are too preoccupied with the challenges of daily survival and routine that they have no energy or interest in maintaining the system. They outsource this to politicians, bureaucrats and activists. The problem is that, in a democracy, ‘the people’ have to take responsibility, outsourcing is for subjects of dictatorships and executives of corporations. The experience of Boeing which outsourced critical parts of its supply chain, with lethal results, holds vital lessons to citizens of democracies.
Katja: The "Islam versus secular (western?) society“ strikes me wrong as well. First of all, there are too many streams and interpretations of Islam to make such a statement. It almost implies as if there are no secular Muslim groups or more open all the way to mystical ones. Even in the Arab world alone there are so many variations. Many Palestinians are as secular as many Israelis. I could actually see them working well together, but for the question of land and statehood—and of course bitter history.
Perhaps I should explain how I reached this conclusion.
1. Life Experience: My family lived in the UAE and Kuwait for around 15 years, this gave me an opportunity to experience how these societies are uniformly capitalistic, but wholly illiberal and that they treated non-Muslims with barely concealed or open disdain.
2. Observation: I watched as the Muslim population in Kerala (26.56%), where I come from in India, went from moderate and even liberal values to aggressive orthodoxy in a span of merely 3-4 decades under the influence of Saudi Wahhabism.
3. Work Experience: From 2007 I have been actively working with Muslim groups in India and elsewhere on issues related to co-existence with their non-Muslim neighbors. These projects, most of which were multi-year, face-to-face dialogues, taught me that Muslims have limited latitude about what they can negotiate or compromise on. After the generous hospitality, shared food, hugging, and platitudes about brotherly love and universal values have been exhausted, the negotiations invariably grind to a halt as Muslim participants (more than their Christian and Hindu counterparts) refuse to meet the other’s interests in any meaningful way. The reason given was almost always the inflexibility of the scripture or values.
4. Personal Experience: I have been fortunate enough to have strong long friendships with Muslims. Even though our relationships have become strained after the attack on Salman Rushdie and October 7th, I still have much affection for them, for the warm and intelligent human beings that they are. To a person, despite their assumptions of tolerance and bonhomie, they have been incapable of taking a stand against their fellow Muslims on any issue. One of them even tried to talk with fellow Muslims about softening their political stance and told me: “Ashok, it is of no use. The moment I even suggest that we should be even remotely flexible, they shut me down or walk away.”
I agree, there are millions of moderate or secular Muslims and there are sects like the Sufis who are less orthodox. However, there are two realities that must be acknowledged if we are to protect Western and liberal civilizations: 1. That no Arab or Muslim majority nation allows freedom of speech to question, criticize, or satirize Islam, the Prophet or Koran. Muslims do not even allow this in nations where they are minorities. 2. Most Muslim nations use Sharia or some form of it in their legal framework. Some Muslim minority states also use Sharia for its Muslim citizens. Even once emphatically secular, Turkey is under pressure to move to an Islamic system.
I realize that the Harvard/ MIT (Program on Negotiation (PON) model of negotiation places enormous faith in the Interest based or mutual Gains approach to conflict resolution. For decades, I attempted to share my concerns (with Gurus of the field) that interest-based negotiation (land, water, money) works best in the contractual societies of the West. Collectivist and hierarchical societies are more inclined to privilege family, faith and tradition, while seeking vengeance for historical grievances.
The issue of statehood is an even more interesting one: Islamists believe in the idea of the Ummah (Islamic community of believers), a supranational union of believers. When they call for unity of the Ummah they are referring to Muslim solidarity cutting across all nation states. Many Islamists are opposed to the very idea of the nation state, considering it to be incompatible to Islam itself (Maududi 1992/1993). The Palestinian call for a state has also had a mixed history—true believers aspire for and work towards the establishment of a global Islamic Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire being the most recent successful example. From Yasser Arafat onwards, the PLO and the PLA have also rejected offers of statehood because it didn’t meet all their interests. It is my conviction (born out of my understanding of history) that even statehood will do nothing to solve this problem. This is a war to the end—either the Jews are driven out of the region, or the Palestinians are. Even if either was to happen, the region will not be at peace until we have a new global hegemon who can create peace through force.
Katja: I firmly believe there are more peaceful open-minded people whichever the religion than violent extremists. Why we allow those minority extremists to again and again stop any progress towards mutual understanding is something very frustrating.
Ashok: I am sure there are many peaceful people. However the question is not whether there are peaceful, open-minded people within a religion—the question is whether their voices can be heard—internally. It is commonplace for Christians, Hindus (until recently), and Jewish liberals to criticize their own faiths—to do so as a Muslim can be dangerous to your wellbeing. Until recently, the Obama and Biden administrations gave a seat at the high table to the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a right-wing agency that purported to represent the views of all Muslims and advised the US government on matters of security! US administrations sidelined other agencies like the more liberal American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). If liberal Muslims are side-lined even in Western nations, can you imagine how much harder it is for them to get a voice in Arab or Muslim states?
Katja:The challenge for me lies more in the question of power. People who derive their power from religion are not willing to give it up (they may believe or not, but it’s the power that decides them).
Ashok: Here I am with you, power is central to this (and every other) issue. The problem is this has always been the case — everyone leverages power. If you are rich, you leverage your wealth, if you are beautiful, you leverage your beauty, if you are intelligent, you leverage your intelligence, and if you are strong, you leverage your muscles. The same with religion, those who gain power from faith, will leverage it. This is natural, a law of the jungle, and cannot be changed, except through the use of force and by creating a totalitarian regime.
Katja: The other participants in this are those, who either experienced grave injustice like in a war, bombing etc. and/or those who have no hope/job/future beyond what those in power give them in exchange for, eg, terrorist attacks.
Ashok: Absolutely. Most affected people have no recourse. This is what happens in the jungle and was the motivation behind building the liberal world order— to protect civilians and the weak. But the Chinese, Russians and Arabs never bought into the notion of universal human rights and international conventions. They have persisted in attacking it since the Sixties. Some years ago, the UAE Foreign Minister pretty much admitted that these are irrelevant to his country. These nations (and their Western civil society allies) have demanded adherence to human rights conventions only when it suits them, and to score points against the West or Asian democracies like pre-Modi India. They remain conspicuously silent when human rights are abused in Islamic nations or when these nations attack their own neighbors (Yemen, Somalia, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia).
The big lesson for me in the last two decades is that, if we want our freedoms and rights to be preserved, we have to recognize the importance of force and wield it without apology when our liberal systems are under attack—domestically or externally.
Katja: And of course there are the followers who hear and believe the narrative, however most of them don’t act and could possibly be reached by another narrative as long as it’s accompanied by credible visible action.
Ashok: I used to believe in the potency of narratives and stories—but have realized that these are useless when the other side has the ability to shoot the storytellers and the listeners. This is the beauty of censorship, something that Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot and the many Arab dictators appreciated, but Western liberals haven’t.
Katja: I recently came across this quote and it makes eminent sense to me: “When a complex system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence in a sea of chaos have the capacity to shift the entire system to a higher order.” by Ilya Prigogine.
Ashok: It makes sense to me too. I would only add that when such complex systems lose their equilibrium, the shift to a higher order requires (a) an equally complex set of circumstances to fall into place and (b) immense energy to shift the momentum. This is difficult under most circumstances, but even more so when those who profit from the disequilibrium are willing to do anything to maintain it. It is easier to create chaos than order.
Katja: We can be those islands, seek out like-minded people, not give up and strive continuously for a more peaceful and more just society. I am an optimist, because we create the world as we see it. But you are right to remind us of reality, so we tackle the right problems and find the right solutions.
Ashok: I am optimistic about some things and negative about others. I would not have done this work for three decades if I had not been an optimist about creating a more humane and liberal world. At this point in 2024, I am negative about the prospects for a liberal, human rights driven world. But this in no way prevents me from continuing to do the work of planting the seeds for such a world. I personally believe that this work—raising the capacity to (a) engage in complex thinking, (b) engage with different perspectives and values, and (c) make vital compromises in the interest of coexistence—has intrinsic meaning for me. In fact, I have found that not expecting any success, not being optimistic, and not having (any reasonable) hope is very liberating. I can now do my work with complete and unfettered freedom.
Katja: Thank you for making me think.
Ashok: Thank you for engaging with me and for making me clarify my ideas.
Shirley Grant's Comments to Ashok
Such a bold and insightful article by Ashok Panikkar, and a brilliant analysis of the current state of the world.
As a family mediator and counsellor of many years, dealing daily with entrenched high conflict, I agree with Ashok that some conflicts will never be resolved without force, despite our wish that it be otherwise.
Experience has taught me to respect the limitations of my field of peacemaking. Enduring or even temporary agreement is not always possible. Both sides must have relatively equal power (or be legally assisted), must come to the negotiating table with goodwill, and a willingness to actively listen and consider the needs and concerns of the other party. Without this or when unmanageable risk to any party is identified, the mediation process is not suitable. In the Australian context, parties may then revert to our formal legal process, which has the power to impose a solution and enforce it.
However, once outside of the Western democratic bubble, we cannot make assumptions about resolution options. Not every nation or adversary wants to ‘play nice’. This is the point Ashok is trying to convey I think, if I have understood his message. The questions we must ask when conflict falls outside our purview are obvious. They would include;
- does an independent legal, enforceable process even exist there, with legitimate jurisdictional power to arbitrate the conflict situation we find ourselves in?
- will that process be just and fair?
- does the independent arbitrator, assuming there is one, believe that all mankind is equal and deserving of justice?
- even if all the foregoing is true, are its practitioners honest and competent?
- can we trust the arbitrator to act in the best interests of all?
- what checks and balances are in place to maintain and enforce the above principles?
We sometimes harbour concerns about our own systems, but we are foolish to assume similar democratic aims and objectives or even benevolence from other non-democratic cultures. Peace is not the default position for humanity as Ashok reminds us (although that may be news to some who have swallowed the Kool-Aid of indigenous paradise prior to the arrival of the evil colonisers). Western nations have developed morals by agreement (David Gauthier), reasoned co-operative standards, laws and constitutions encompassing mutual benefit and fairness, in stark contrast to authoritarian regimes.
Ashok suggests that this is a cultural war, fundamental Islam against the non-Muslim world. Of course, not all Muslims are extremists, however a growing number are becoming radicalized. Disillusionment with Western Christendom has also driven many to seek an alternative religious framework. So, who will provide the necessary arbitration, force, and sanction if the conflict continues to expand? The UN has failed to meet our (and their) utopian expectations for world peace. The West, though in principle peace-loving, may have to rise to the task of defending itself if necessary. Ashok reflects that the global Islamic community have not yet experienced an event leading to separation of church and state. Given that this seems to be the case, negotiating with this group is akin to negotiating with a religious cult, often rigid and dogmatic, unable to allow dissent, unable to compromise on their tightly held beliefs even to their own detriment. With diplomacy, we may respectfully implore them using the words of their own Holy book, but even then, we may evince only the tiniest compromise or deviation from the party line. This is not a group we can ignore.
Ashok also reminds us of the energy and cost of maintaining the current progressives’ dream of an open society. Violence may not always eventuate, and “islands of coherence amid the chaos” may emerge as argued by Katja Reiger (quoting Ilya Prigogine) but given the overwhelm that is currently happening in New York and has happened to Lebanon, taking in too many refugees (legal or illegal) from non-democratic areas may overwhelm and destroy democracy. Too many people in the boat and it will sink, simple math. Democracy is delicate and imperfect, but it is beautiful says Ashok and it is worth defending.
Observe closely how non-democratic cultures treat those who disagree with them, because ultimately, I believe we will all have to choose a side. No side will be perfect, but one may be safer than the other. The recent rise of antisemitism across the Western world, especially the more vocal examples since the brutal Hamas attack on October 7, 2023, has shocked us.
As Ashok urges, it is time to resolve our internal left-right differences and pull together if we are to be ready to face a united external enemy. It is time to fortify our borders and defences, and I would add “hold fast to that which is good” in our societies (1 Thess 5:21-28 KJV), and pray to the God of our fathers, where perhaps we will find wisdom and mercy to survive or make peace with our adversaries, agree to co-exist and avert disaster.
Parvathy B. on Ashok's Article
We are staring at a higgledy-piggledy world, a floundering human population, and the incertitude of political institutions. Reading Ashok Panikkar’s article gave me clarity about these difficult times. “Growing Strawberries on Coconut Trees” is comprehensive and engaging. The title, chosen with such care, has a powerful effect with its image. The notion of propagating two plants that have no connection with each other is irrational, and Panikkar masterfully drives it home in one stroke. The salience of Panikkar’s article is his east-meets-west background. His experiences and knowledge contribute to the wisdom of his solutions that need to be incorporated into peacebuilding efforts anywhere. I hope to read more from him in the future.
Anonymous response to Ashok's Article
Not just Hamas but also state of Israel does not desire peace.
Just mentioning one without the other is to me not an objective description of reality.
In fact, I hold Israel much more culpable. They are the ones who created Hamas to undermine Palestine authority and Netanyahu knows he will out of power if war ends. They ensured that Oslo accord which could have created a basis for peace is rendered infructuous through settler camps in West Bank.
So, let us be objective and call a spade a spade. I find that your comments endorsing Huntington etc betray a prejudiced mind and completely devoid of facts.
Ashok's response to Anonymous:
I genuinely appreciate your being comfortable enough to share your honest feelings about my article.
Firstly- I agree with you about a bunch of things- Israeli culpability, their creation of Hamas, Netanyahu not being a good faith actor, and the unconscionable settler actions in the West Bank.
The reason I don't dwell on these (egregious) facts is because I am trying to understand a larger issue- "What can this conflict tell us about the future of liberal democracies, and the fate of peacebuilding as a profession." I was not adjudicating this conflict, but was seeing this in the larger context of a world in turmoil- including the unravelling of India's secular democracy.
I have one question for you: Why do you disagree with Huntington's thesis- is it because it is wrong- or because you do not like what it implies?
Kaori Suzuki on Ashok's Article
Wow. It was definitely thought-provoking. A lot of what you mentioned made sense, though, unfortunately. I’ve been questioning if peace is even feasible in Ukraine or Hamas/Israel conflicts. I’ve been feeling uneasy with the idea that peace (by the Western term) is possible or even ideal in those areas. Meanwhile, I feel like there are more separations within the western world - political right and left, black/white, extreme feminism and opposition to it etc. Your article had much more complex and sophisticated ideas, of course, that I probably didn’t fully comprehend, but it made me go “ha, that’s right”. “Peace, justice, and prosperity have always been a privilege.” Totally agree. Thank you for sharing it!
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