politics

A crisis of faith
Added: Monday, 25 January 2010

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So this friend of a friend’s arrives from Iran. It’s his first time out of the country and from the moment he arrives he’s blown away by everything that is different to what he had imagined. First of all, he mentions the beauty and cleanliness of what is an incredible infrastructure. We call and book a hotel in advance and he wonders how it is possible for us to do this without having big-shot connections in the town we’re visiting. We visit the town and he comments again on the incredible beauty. We go to an art exhibition and it takes him half an hour to get over the fact that Black people are artists too. We go to the bank to draw money and he’s stunned that banks are privatized and that they give you credit! How on earth would they trust that you’d ever pay them back? And how on earth do you trust them with what’s yours?

In fact, the whole issue of honesty and trust is a huge revelation for him. He can’t believe we get through a day without bribing anyone or without being jipped. But the issue he comes back to again and again is how amazing our infrastructure is. The roads, the public places, the buildings. Everything is clean and nice. And people throw their garbage in the designated containers (most of the time).

So we’re sitting and enjoying our pasta in one of these marvelous places when the waiter brings the bill. Our friend looks at it and realizes there’s an item called “tax”.

“You’re not really going to pay that, are you?” he laughs? ….

Yes. This man had never made the connection between paying taxes and getting quality of life in return. Because in the society he lives in, nobody trusts anybody for anything – least of all the government.

It’s a complicated society, this Iranian society. People are marching for change, but it better be well thought out and carefully planned. Because democracy without a level of trust - or rather “faith” - in the system and in others will turn out dismal. And we in the “West” know all too well what it means to have a crisis of faith in politics. Because some of us will read all the above and say: you can’t trust banks, and people don’t throw their garbage in the bins; I paid a bribe to a cop just yesterday and to get the best hotel rooms you do need connections…!

But it’s all relative, isn’t it? Seeing our society through his eyes made me appreciate what we do have and the fact that we can voice our concerns and demand transparency. Doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it’s the best thing we’ve experienced so far. For more thoughts on how we could “improve” the democratic notion, please watch our latest little film, Beyond King of the Mountain. I think that the ideas expressed are as exciting for the Iranians as they are for us or Haitians…!!!

Haiti, Iran and what’s in between
Added: Monday, 25 January 2010

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It’s amazing to see the world responding to what is going on in Haiti. Even if you’re a cynic, you have to admit that this kind of reaction is unprecedented in the history of humankind. Never before have we been this exposed to the most personal and immediate stories from people on the other side of the world. We “feel” for perfect strangers more tangibly than ever before. Some of my friends based in the United States are flying to Haiti to lend a hand. Others in places like Bahrain are raising money and say that the city mosques are continuously singing prayers for the wounded and affected. Yes in many ways these are the end-times. But those who “perish” are not those who are dying. What perishes in this fire is our old way of thinking and “humanity's stubborn clinging to old patterns of behavior”. Love is the pillar of our salvation and unity is the arch that will shelter us. I see a tremendous shift in the right direction in these days of hardship.

In all of this heart-wrenching chaos a friend of mine, for whom Haiti occupies a special place in his heart, is frustrated with how major news networks report of “looting” in Haiti. He says it’s just wrong for “Western” media to report on people’s desperation in that way, when the West has spent a life-time looting Haiti. From a place of compassion and emotion for the individual circumstances of people I completely agree with him. It really feels insensitive and out of place to use those terms. From a place of “principle” perhaps, it raises another interesting question – independent of the given circumstance:

How do our principles and deepest convictions pan out in times of adversity? Do we always try and live by our convictions or only when things are relatively balanced? Because in my mind, it’s precisely when the going gets rough that our principles matter the most. If you’re never exposed to another, highly attractive and intelligent woman, you’re probably going to be faithful to your wife. If you’ve always got enough food on the table, chances are, you’re not going to break into someone’s house, put a gun to their head and ask them for their cash. People who commit “transgressions” are always under some kind of pressure. It can be survival, it can be lust, it can be greed, it can be desperation. My point is: our principles are what carry us through the rough times, not the good. They are what matter most when everything else falls apart. Wouldn’t you say?

Even if we employ compassion and understanding in individual circumstances, shouldn’t we strive to hold our principles dear on a collective and societal level - as a compass that directs our course?

The subject is very close to my heart, because while people are sending money and prayers and flying in to help the people of Haiti, there are things we need to do on a day to day basis, that can change the world on a profound level. Let us not think that giving money and sending a check, but then living our lives the way we’ve always done will do any good. Change needs to happen regardless of whether there is an earthquake or not. And the question of having principles, values and laws as the foundation of any functioning society or institution is one of the most relevant ones to ask ourselves as we try and build a new world.

***

The trial of the 7 Baha’i leaders in Iran has begun. Baha’is have been subjected to human rights violations for over a century. Even though their government does not respect them or their rights (or the rights of their own citizens); even though their government will bend its own rules and ignore international conventions, to which it is a signatory, Iranian Baha’is choose to obey the law of their country as a matter of principle.

What do you think about principles and their relationship to our lives?

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28 December 2009

Beyond King of the Mountain

Watch Beyond King of the Mountain on its own dedicated site.

Synopsis
Beyond our culture of contest lies a different kind of democracy: gentle, just and... inevitable.

Beyond King of the Mountain is a documentary short about the evolution and future of democratic governance.

Featuring Gordon Brown, Nelson Mandela and interviews with: Iraj Abedian, Nick Binedell, Gregory Dahl, Adam Habib, Michael Karlberg and Xolela Mangcu.

For more information, to buy the DVD, to watch it or to download the study guide visit beyond.doubletake.tv



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Truth, hope and unity
Added: Saturday, 21 November 2009

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Two rival political candidates were scheduled to speak at the county fair on the same program. Mulla Nasrudin was chosen to introduce them. He arose and said, "I want to present to you a man who, above anyone, has the welfare of each and everyone of you at heart. More than anyone I know, he is devoted to our great and glorious nation." Then he turned to the candidates and asked, "WHICH OF YOU FELLOWS WANTS TO TALK FIRST?"

Humor is an amazing thing. It can make a very specific and profound point in no time at all. How often have I discussed the inadequacy of our current political paradigm, pointing out that our adversarial systems artificially bolster ordinary mortals into saints only to drag them back down and blame them for all the things we don’t want to take collective responsibility for? And then a simple joke like this speaks a hundred volumes.

Humor helps. It opens your mind and heart and allows you to breath and gain hope. I’ve heard that in Iran at the moment people are attending humor classes to release the stress and desperation they have been feeling due to the increased tension since the presidential elections. I’m not sure how these classes are panning out, but it reminds of the power that humor and comedy have in cleansing our soul of the burdens we lay on it.

In Kamal Tabrizi’s “The Lizard” (2003), a convict escapes hospital by putting on the clothes of a cleric he shares the room with. Because he is a thief, his language and manner are ordinary and raw. He uses examples from his life as a criminal to teach his congregation spiritual lessons and ends up attracting a whole host of lost sheep back into the fold simply because he is honest and compassionate. So although on one level the film is a critique of the current theocratic regime, it doesn’t make fun of any specific cleric nor necessarily of clergy in general. The film clearly offers an example of how clerics could and should be.

That to me is very valuable, because I think there is a fine line in humor. If used to alienate or demonize people it is as poisonous as the societal ills it is trying to counter. But when humor is employed in a non-offensive way, when it is not in breach of preserving “unity”, it can be a healing medicine. The intention, I think, is the key. And although we can’t set guidelines as to when humor is in good taste or bad the heart can always discern the intention.

Mulla Nasrudin, of course, knew all about intention! He had been calling on his girlfriend for over a year. One evening the girl's father stopped him as he was leaving and asked, "Look here, young man, you have been seeing my daughter for a year now, and I would like to know whether your intentions are honorable or dishonorable?" Nasrudin's face lit up. "DO YOU MEAN TO SAY, SIR," he said, "THAT I HAVE A CHOICE?"

You strike a rock
Added: Friday, 21 August 2009

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The phrase "You strike a woman you strike a rock", has come to represent the strength of women in South Africa. On August 9th in 1956, when the apartheid regime legislated that all persons of African descent must carry special passes around with them, women petitioned against this law by marching to the union buildings in the country's capital, Pretoria. They stood outside the buildings in silence, many of them carrying their own children or those of the white family's they worked for. They then began singing Wathint'Abafazi Wathint'imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.)

There is something graceful and noble about the pictures one sees of the time. Although it was a march or a protest, it was done with the dignity and poise that we mostly see from women. When women protest, they don't hurl rocks and they don't burn icons. They demand your respect by giving you respect. This is a quality that our society does not nurture. We live in a world that is constantly nurturing and feeding our lower or baser nature. We may learn the theory of virtues and principles, but in our societal realities, we are constantly encouraged to bend our principles and beliefs in order to achieve goals. You need only watch an episode of RUNNING IN HEELS to witness a typical professional environment that is outwardly female, but loaded with the same "male" outlook which believes that in order to excel, you have to make others look bad, stab them in the back and hold them back from progressing.

The idea of protest is in itself problematic. It's a feature of our current order and a "necessary evil", as long as our societal paradigm is based on fundamental disunity. Its aim is to make a statement, raise awareness and create leverage against those who abuse power. But the problem starts with our understanding of power. We think of it in terms of control; the control of resources. And therefore we think of (and manifest) power as potentially abusive. So by default we need to leverage that power through counter-power and that's how we get social protest or opposition. But really protest buys into the same black and white notion of right and wrong, winners and losers as it claims to defy and it limits the diverse and complex nature of reality. It also means that those with the most sticks and stones will have their way. After all a simple strike can become a threatening situation. Your are essentially threatening and pressuring a person/party into a specific action. How is this really different from the nature of the oppression you're trying to undo?

I believe that if there were more of a female voice in the way the world works, we would see a transformation in the entire paradigm that our world operates on. Women have a much more inclusive view of things. They naturally see themselves and the world as an organic entity. Women are the heart of any family, village and society.

Our role far exceeds that of marching and protesting (even if it is peacefully). We have the ability to nurture other ways of transforming society. If we raise and foster families and societies that put justice, unity and cooperation in the forefront of their agenda, we won't find ourselves in a situation where ruthless oppression – the likes of which we see in many nations right now - must be confronted with another, perhaps socially more acceptable form of oppression.

*

Women's day is a day to celebrate and explore the true and unique potential of women around the world. We have come a long way. Let's not be satisfied and let's keep walking. I know that the idiom of the woman as a rock refers to our strength. We are strong and determined as a rock. Steadfast as rock. And that is beautiful and right. But let's also look at the smoothness and softness of a rock that is slapped by the waves and toned to perfection. What can that tenderness teach us (and teach MEN) about life and existence?

The mathematics of love
Added: Wednesday, 22 July 2009

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"Till Death Do Not Do Us Part" - That was the title of a little talk I gave the other night at a local university. We gathered in an informal venue at one of the residences and I opened with the question:

"Do you believe that once we work on and solve the issues we have in our relationships with one another, we can reach a state of unity?"

Most people thought about their girlfriends, boyfriends or spouses and said "Sure, once you solve the issues. But that's the challenge. Solving the issues...!"

I left it at that and then embarked on one of my infamous excursions into the (often unconscious) values and assumptions underlying our relationships whether they be interpersonal, institutional, political, sociological or ecological. Humanity does, after all, have a relationship with nature too – albeit a terrible one.

My deliberations concluded with the general proposition that, in a world that has literally become interdependent and one, we need to change the values and assumptions underlying our relationships and societal structures – and go from premising them on self-interest to learning how to premise them on mutualism, for lack of a better word in brevity.

And so we came back to my initial question:

"Do you believe that once we work on and solve the issues we have in our relationships with one another, we can reach a state of unity?" or:

"Do you believe that once we work on and solve the issues we have in our societies or in the world at large (such as poverty, inequality, exploitation, violence, crime etc), we can reach a state of unity and peace?"

Though hesitant this time round, most people gave me a half-hearted nod. They knew that what we had talk about probably suggested a different answer, but they didn't know what that would be, so I whipped out one of my favorite quotes of all times:

"The wellbeing of mankind, its peace and security are both unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established."

And the consequence of this statement is that we won't ever solve our issues, whether they be in our inter-personal relationships with each other (as couples, siblings, children, parents or friends) or in our bigger relationships with one another (as communities, nations or interest-groups) until we create unity. It flips the entire equation around. We will be ailing until we tackle the underlying disease, which is lack of unity.

And we spent the last 10 minutes or more, as I now invite you to do with me, reflecting on just what this could mean in practice. What does it mean to build unity in a relationship and to solve our issues from the point of departure? What does it mean to be an institution, not two different people? What does it mean to be a rich, diversely made-up institution or entity and not a series of individuals with conflicting needs and wants? ...and finally - when will we get over our 'selves' and spend our days thinking less about 'me' and more about 'us'?

I bet you didn't think of Pho
Added: Wednesday, 15 July 2009

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Every word has a specific meaning to each one of us. For one person the word 'freedom' means security and community and for another it means breaking norms and societal restrictions. For some 'religion' is a dirty word and for others it is the essence of all things good. When I hear the word "Vietnam" I think of "Apocalypse Now", war veterans in old age homes and bloodshed. It will take a few more decades before "Vietnam" is washed of its connotations.

Words signify concepts that are somewhat different from person to person and particularly different from culture to culture. That's because every concept has a specific set of values underlying it. For example, in what we broadly call "the West", the concept of "love" is often romantic. Movies, soap-operas and novels suggest that for every person there is that one special someone out there. The young couple falls in love and wants to be together. They don't really investigate each other's characters or care if they have compatible personalities. Rather, they are swept off their feet and defy all odds. They rise up against their disapproving parents, society and any other obstacles in their path.

As a result, when we talk about love while sitting on the Champs-Elysees, sipping Espresso, the values underlying our concept of love will be very different to someone sitting in Karachi, at the local fabric shop. In much of the Middle East, the concept of "love" might have somewhat of a different connotation. Love is seen, perhaps, as a far more practical bond between two people who are building a life with each other. Money and education play a role, the consent from both sets of parents plays a role, and certainly, the lovers do not defy, but rather want to be an integral part of the society in which they live.

And while love is love no matter where in the world you are, there is always a different set of values and assumptions informing our understanding of it. Politics is another word that means different things to different people. While the word "democracy" often has a positive connotation, the term "politics" doesn't necessarily. With democracy, people think of "freedom, brotherhood and equality". With politics they think of "manipulation, self interest and competition". This is interesting, bearing in mind that politics in the West is, after all, primarily experienced through democracy.

I think that's because democracy is an "idea" or "ideal", which many people support. The reality of democracy on the other hand and its day-to-day workings are often thought of in terms of "politics", which conjures up images of "manipulation, dishonesty and cheating"! In our heads then, we seem to resolve the paradox nature of democracy by using different words to describe the "idea(l)" of democracy on the one hand and it's practical every day application on the other.

But in its original sense, democracy means nothing more than "rule by the people for the people". The "how" of it all, is left open. In today's world, democratic governance comes in many forms. But it seems to have developed an adversarial character where power is achieved and managed through competition. This might have to do with the fact that 400 years ago, when our current democratic models were being formed, philosophers and thinkers, like Thomas Hobbes, proposed that man's nature was that of a war of all against all and that people were naturally brutish. Our world was very different from the way it is today. Societies, their realities and economies were far more isolated than they are now.

Perhaps it was the somewhat disjointed reality of our world that made us assume competition would be the best way to organize our various different interests and affairs. And so our culture perpetuates this notion that for some to win and get ahead others have to lose. But in recent decades, we are experiencing some fundamental challenges with this application of the democratic notion. Our world has changed from the way it was when Thomas Hobbes was around. Nations, interest groups and people have gone from having relatively isolated realities to being very interdependent. Our lives have become tightly intermingled and the woman in the fabric store Karachi is directly affected by the couple sipping Espresso on the Champs-Elysees.

Maybe all of this has to do with why Baha'is are said to shy away from politics, something they are criticized for all the time. In a world that is ailing, people ask themselves how this community of 6 million can seemingly stand on the sidelines and not engage? The recent events in Iran are only one example where Baha'is were scrutinized for not marching, rallying or expressing their opinion in political terms. But it's not that Baha'is are not political – quite the contrary. It's the underlying assumptions, the notions, the values that our current political landscape is based on that we believe is not sustainable. So long as "politics" is based on a set of dog-eat-dog values that might have held true half a century ago, we're not political. Instead, Baha'is are trying to encourage others to join them in performing a system upgrade of sorts on "politics". Because – like any science – societal concepts need to evolve and embrace assumptions and values that speak to the needs of the age in which we live! If seen in that way, Baha'is are in the forefront POLITICAL! I'm just curious to see which word transforms first, "Vietnam" or "politics"...

Only as beautiful as you see me
Added: Thursday, 16 April 2009

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Austria is not Australia, Persian is not Arabic and Palestinians are also semites. Did you know? These things matter to some degree of course, but then do they really? Is my culture a skin color? A custom? A language? All of those? None of those? What about the anomalies in our cultures? The albinos? Or those who don't perform the customs; or those that don't speak their language? While there are many things I don't know about how culture is defined and why it's used to make some people feel better than others, there are some things I do know.

Culture is really only alive and truly beautiful in the context of diversity. I went to an intercultural, interracial, interreligious wedding last week and I sat and watched the bride perform the usual Persian cake cutting custom that I've seen so many times at Persian weddings. And most of my life I've found this custom to be silly and embarrassing. This time it was fun and special. And the reason, I found, was that because of the various cultures that framed the wedding, it stood out and went from being ordinary (in an all-Persian setting) to being extra-ordinary! Same for the African dances that followed.

There is something about diversity that makes us each special and beautiful. I've always felt this. In mono-cultural settings I always feel like a fish out of water. In multi-cultural settings I feel so at home! And the simplest metaphor is the garden metaphor. If every flower in a garden is red, it's no longer special. When each flower has its own unique color, shape and scent, each one stands out and mesmerizes. And oh how beautiful when two different flowers give birth to a whole new kind...

And who gets the bed
Added: Saturday, 11 October 2008

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In my last v-blog I described a family reunion at my in-laws' house and mentioned that in the end it doesn't matter whether you slept on the floor or on the bed because our time together is so limited. A few people found that a little challenging. Because it seems that so much of our earthly existence seems to revolve around just that – moving up from the floor to the bed; making it big, growing financially, having comfort. And yes, of course it's easy for the relatively well off to say "wealth doesn't matter" when they're not the ones turning around every penny. But what I was trying to express with that statement was the relativity of things in our life. And it depends on your outlook. If you believe that life and 'meaning' begins and ends here on this physical earth, then it will naturally be more important to you to achieve material comfort or luxury than someone who sees this as a very temporary station along a journey that is everlasting.

My view is that if you take our little family reunion as a metaphor for our time here on this earth, bearing in mind that there is something that comes thereafter, then your priorities tend to start shifting. And you realize that it's not so hard to sacrifice things for other people because it gives you pleasure to see them comfortable and happy. If we truly saw each other as one human family, cells of one organism, we wouldn't feel jealousy or competitiveness, we'd look out for the wellbeing of the other in more selfless ways.

But I think that we're paralyzed when it comes to looking at the world in that way. Not only do we not see each other as one family (Donald Trump doesn't give a toot about me, why should I consider him my brother?), we also accept the status quo as though we'd reached the end of human evolution!

Cover image I was speaking to Michael Karlberg the other day, author of 'Beyond the Culture of Contest' and he said that we seem to be suffering from a sort of inertia and paralysis of the mind when it comes to viewing our world. We look at what's underneath our societal structures: namely a win/lose, adversarial culture of contest that favors some and not others and we accept this as a necessary evil. In our democratic systems, for example, we simply accept the consequences of our adversarial culture, such as the subordination of governance to market forces, the oversimplification of complex issues, short-term planning horizons and a loyalty that is limited to constituencies and that can't possibly meet the needs of a world that has become so interdependent that it demands collective solutions to ecological and economic challenges. And we say it's naïve to think that we could change our paradigms and move towards mutualism and diversity with a more decentralized notion of power – at the very least until we've solved the problems and inequalities that the world faces.

But it's those very systems and paradigms we keep subscribing to that are keeping us sick! And the world won't heal or become more 'equal' until we change our very assumptions about our human nature and relationships. So it's actually naïve to think that playing the game the way we always have will heal anything. It's naïve to think that peoples' needs must first be met before we attempt to change the system, because it's the very prevalent order that is keeping those needs from being met. And it's naïve to think change is not possible, because that would be proposing that we've come to the end of human and societal evolution. That we've reached the end of history. Who can tell us we've reached the end of history? Perhaps it's the end of the world as we know it – but it sure is also the beginning of a new world as we've not known it and it's our responsibility to quit the old game and try alternatives.

What we think we have
Added: Saturday, 16 August 2008

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watch original V-Blog in German

After I did my German v-blog about Mastering the Human Instrument on Youtube, where I likened our diversity to the notes of a piano that can be played uniquely and beautifully but in harmony rather than cacophony, I got an interesting comment. The comment said something like this:

"So what – now we need a dictator or even a God to play us? Because the piano won't play itself! No thank you. I'd rather exercise my freedom to sound as I please".

Juicy!

Although I'd like to visualize the symphony being conducted by a loving musician rather than a hostile 'dictator', he raises an interesting question. Is it better to sound like a symphony and be 'confined' by the limits of the music or is it better to sound like aimless noise, yet be able to decide when and how we sound? Because we do, after all, need a common denominator, a 'set of notes' in order to have unity in diversity.
Which brings me to the theme of the day: freedom! The glorious thing we so celebrate in the West. It is what's set us apart from those horrible places, where they have censorship and oppression. But what is real freedom?

Many Youtubers, for example, believe that they can post any nastiness they please under my videos and they seem to interpret this as 'freedom'. They have nothing to say about the content of my videoblogs, because I'm happy to publish comments that disagree with me. Instead, they just list profanities with no aim or purpose. These comments I do not necessarily publish. Censorship? Maybe. But if the freedom of these people begins to jeopardize my freedom, it's my right to do so, I think.

This theme is obviously related to my blog about 'sovereignty': What is the meaning of freedom (or sovereignty) when that freedom jeopardizes other people's freedoms?

If you really deepen on the theme of freedom, you find that borders and limits are a huge part of freedom. Those who think they are truly free because they can say anything they want the way they want to, or can do as they please with others, soon find, that they have actually enslaved themselves. They are enslaved by their egos. True freedom lies in being free from self and passion.

If any politician in this world exercises his freedom and that freedom robs the freedom of his own people or that of the people of other nation's, then what is the meaning of his freedom?

Coming back to the comment, although I have a problem with the totalitarian view of a dictator that my viewer expresses, I agree with him that we need a common denominator. We need to know when to sound and when to be silent. We need to know where our limits are in order that everyone can celebrate their freedom. We need to free ourselves from our "selves" and give ourselves to the music that is 'us'...

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