Wednesday, December 9, 2009

North-Atlantic Brussels

There's more to Brussels than what you see. It's the spider locus in a cosmic configuration.

In my hippie days, Brussels to me was a site of magical and mystical activities. I used to go there for meditation at the Zen dojo near Halle Gate or the Tibetan centre in the Capouillet Street, to particpate in the meetings of the neo-theosophical World Teacher Trust, to read and buy books in the esoteric bookshop Le Lotus in the borough of Elsene (more spiritual than its counterpart downtown, General Occult), or to attend the 1983 New Age fair "The world we choose". Kind of Kathmandu.

I read all about the heraldry of the city and the secret alchemical references in the names of and statues upon the buildings around the townhall square, including Manneken Pis, whom indeed you do see in Renaissance alchemical treatises. More secular but still colourful was the story of Everaard t'Serclaes, a patrician who in 1356 organized a citizens' guerrila action that chased the occupying garrison of the Earl of Flandres from the city and opened its gates to the troops of the legal ruler, the Duke of Brabant. He was murdered in 1388 by the bastard son of the Lord of Gaasbeek, and is depicted in his death throes on the outside wall of building De Sterre on the townhall square. If you caress his arm there, it guarantees a whole year of being lucky in love.

At some point, it dawned on me that Broekzele ("swamp-forest"), to use the original Dutch name of Brussels, is more than just a city. It is the capital of the Flemish region, which is not the old county of Flanders (now the western provinces East and West Flanders and the adjoining regions in France and the Netherlands) but the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium, including most of the old dukedom of Brabant and the region of Loon, now called Limburg. It is the capital of Belgium and the seat of the most important governing bodies of the European Union. And finally, it is the administrative seat of the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and consequently also the favourite place for anti-NATO demonstrations. On its central boulevard in the early 1980s, I and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators repeatedly marched against the installing of more nuclear weapons by Ronald Reagan. We shouted: "Belgium out of NATO, NATO out of Belgium!"

NATO was conceived as an alliance to defend freedom. To symbolize this lofty ideal, Brussels is historically very apt. In 1830, at the founding of Belgium, it pioneered the most liberal constitution of the age. Political refugees found freedom of speech there (recently whittled down by "hate speech" laws), most famously Victor Hugo and Karl Marx. Normally, the enemies of freedom, or at any rate of NATO and its intervention in Afghanistan, ought to treat Brussels as a favourite target for terrorist action. Yet, this has never happened so far. Today a NATO counterterrorism expert told me the hidden mechanisms behind the deceptive peace and quiet here, including the tacit understanding between the Belgian state and the terrorists that they will be left undisturbed if they merely use Belgian soil for preparing action elsewhere. This is top secret, so don't tell anyone. And if you really must (say, under torture), at least you don't have it from me.

But drop the mundane data now. Just think of this truly mystic insight: Brussels is the capital of North Atlantis. Gee, isn't that cosmic? Stop the search for Plato's Atlantis, it is right here.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Russia's Chinese future

Denial of unmistakable trends and of their crystal-clear predictions for the future are still de rigueur in European elite circles. This also seems to be the case in the one country to which European nationalists look up full of hope: the Russian Federation. Compared to Western Europe, immigration in Russia has a rather different character, but there as here, downplaying its foreseeable effects remains fashionable.

A few days back I attended a seminar on Russo-Chinese relations hosted by KU Leuven's think-tank for Global Governance. Professor Yana Leksyutina of St-Petersburg University presented interesting data on the trade equation between the two giants. Thus, we learned Russia's status as arms supplier is threatened by two developments: the looming end of the Western embargo against China that will bring other arms suppliers like France and Germany onto the Chinese market; and China's own increasing capability in advanced arms production.

In the energy sector, the traffic in oil and gas from Russia's Far East to China is characterized by a stark inequality: the raw material comes from Russia, but China keeps its high-tech processing entirely in its own hands and on its own side of the border. This means that Russia is to China what Africa is to Europe. Nothing in Prof. Leksyutina's diction indicated that she realized or deplored this humiliating condition for a once-proud European superpower. Has the nation that put the first man in space degenerated into a high-income but low-creativity mining estate, a kind of Congo or Saudi Arabia?

Of course, we all wanted to know about the most consequential trend of all, far more important than arms or oil: the demographic slide of the Russian people into dispersion and replacement if not extinction, at least in the historical non-Russian territories of the Far East. The beautiful blonde professor assured us, and possibly reassured herself, that nothing was going to happen. A very unlikely prediction.

The Russian population is shrinking. In the Far East, there is not only a birth deficit, but also considerable emigration to more westerly parts of Russia, or to the West. Admittedly, some of the Chinese imigrants move on westwards as well, but the main trend still is large-scale Chinese immigration, which continues unabated. In spite of China's draconian birth control policy, the world's most populous country sees its population increase by about ten million per year. It is happy enough to be rid of them.

From undoubtedly reliable documentary sources, Prof. Leksyutina knew that the Chinese state does not organize the emigration to Russia. No Chinese conspiracy there. Well, of course not, why should they? The People's Republic of China has generally observed diplomatic niceties and respected borders. Thus, it has respected British sovereignty over Hong Kong for 48 years, abiding by the agreed-upon date of 1997 for ending the concession. It has so far refrained from taking "the Republic of China on Taiwan", preferring to let trade and the Republic's pan-Chinese nationalism slowly effect an organic reintegration.

In the case of Chinese emigration to Russia, as well as to the West and to Africa, China's interests are best served by giving free rein to private initiative. Whenever a conflict arises between the interests of individual Chinese migrants and their host countries, the Chinese government gladly respects the wishes of the host country. Speaking from personal experience with Chinese immigrants in Belgium, I would say that Beijing's cooperation with Belgian authorities in cases of repatriation of unwanted immigrants is impeccable (much in contrast with some African and West-Asian countries). This puts it in good standing with host countries like Belgium, which in turn makes it easier for individual Chinese immigrants to enter and get accepted under one label or other. So, without offending anyone and without spending a budget or energy on it, China is very effectively facilitating the emigration of its citizens.

Moscow has taken some token measures, like requiring that every business in Russia be Russian-owned. This is a formality, allowing for legal constructions with Chinese ownership through Russian middle-men. At any rate, it makes no difference to the demographic evolution. Maybe Northeast Asia is better off under Chinese than under Russian control, I don't know, but either way there is no reason to expect dramatic events. To that extent, the Russian professor was right: there is no reason to fear a Chinese military conquest of the coveted resources-rich Russian Far East. The process will be gradual. One day, the Chinese will find themselves in a majority position in some provinces and elect ethnic-Chinese administrators. Technically they may remain separate from Beijing and united with Moscow, but for all practical purposes it will be a part of Greater China.

To be sure, history is full of surprises, and we should be wary of long-term predictions. On the other hand, demographics is one area where safe predictions are possible for the duration of a couple of generations. Yes, China's population growth seems bound for a standstill and maybe reversal within a few decades, but by then Russia's population will have imploded, if we may extrapolate from current evolutions. So, it is strange to see experts hurry to assure us that nothing is going to happen. I don't know just what is going to happen, but I am sure it won't be nothing.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The BJP and the Ayodhya demolition

On 6 December 1992, in the presence of BJP leader L.K. Advani, Hindu activists demolished the Babri Masjid, a mosque structure imposed on the site in forcible replacement of a Hindu temple during the era of Muslim occupation. Only days after the event, an investigative commission led by Justice M.S. Liberhan was mandated to inquire into the facts and causes of the demolition. Seventeen years and an astronomical budget later, the Liberhan report was first leaked to the press and then finally presented in the Lok Sabha. It is hopelessly shoddy and biased, but its malicious conclusion that the BJP leadership engineered the demolition, though false, is paradoxically quite fair and fitting.

The Liberhan Commission's reported finding that the Bharaitya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People's Party, usually described as Hindu Nationalist) leadership is guilty of the “criminal” demolition of the Babri Masjid, has provoked some protests and denials in BJP and pro-BJP circles. These implicitly assume that the demolition was indeed a crime, that Advani c.s. have to be absolved from it, and that the guilt must be shifted to Congressite Pirme Ministers Rajiv Gandhi (r.1984-89) and Narasimha Rao (r.1991-96). Meanwhile, Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharati, then second-rank BJP leaders, have owned up their responsibility, but they happen to be the leaders who ended up clashing with the BJP. Hindu activists loyal to the Rama temple cause will commend their steadfastness. They will also praise Rajiv Gandhi for starting the process of replacing the usurper Babri structure with a proper Rama temple; and Narasimha Rao for passively helping the demolition by his refusal to intervene. By contrast, the BJP leadership’s denial of responsibility will only earn it their contempt.

To be sure, a more orderly procedure to replace the mosque structure with proper temple architecture would have been preferable. Advani had a point in lamenting the breakdown of RSS discipline that made way for the demolition fervour. But even what actually took place was a lesser evil compared with the continuation of the Babri structure, at least in the real world. For one thing, it saved many lives. Just compare the riot toll in the years preceding the demolition with those in the subsequent years. After the Muslim revenge had run its course with the Mumbai bomb attacks of 12 March 1993 (which set the pattern for later terrorist actions in London, Madrid, Bali, Delhi etc., one of the international offshoots of the Ayodhya affair), all was relatively quiet on the Hindu-Muslim front until 2002. The demolition and its aftermath, shocking though they were, triggered a catharsis that sobered up the marching crowds, both Hindu and Muslim. Imagine what riots would have taken place had the Babri eyesore remained standing, a scandal to Hindus and a prop to Muslim hopes of taking it back. Indeed, the prospect of endless Ayodhya-related riots is probably the unstated reason (apart from putting the BJP on the defensive) why Narasimha Rao allowed the demolition to be completed.

As for the pre-planned nature of the demolition, it has always been obvious. This too the BJP should concede unequivocally. Members of the demolition vanguard have told me about their training and the equipment they had brought. They also mentioned the name of the mastermind of the whole operation; it was not Advani nor A.B. Vajpayee. Which brings us to the most startling fact of the demolition’s aftermath: the total refusal of the Indian media to investigate the details. Collectively, they spurned the scoop of the decade, viz. a cover picture with the caption: “Meet the mastermind of the Ayodhya demolition.” The reason is that they found it more expedient to blame Advani and barred themselves from publishing or indeed finding anything that might disturb this story-line.

Once the vanguard had started its operation on 6 December 1992, the rest of the crowd followed. For them at least, the demolition had indeed not been pre-planned. And this unprepared crowd included the unwilling Advani. He and most BJP leaders (if not all -- I cannot claim completeness for my data) clearly were not in on it, and the Liberhan report offers no proof for their involvement either, only some suppositions about what they “must” have known. Even so, they did bear a political responsibility. Today the BJP says that if Home Minister P. Chidambaram did not personally leak the Liberhan report, he remains politically responsible. That makes sense, but the same principle naturally applies to the BJP leaders’ responsibility for the demolition. They should have owned it up right then, and they can still do so now.

Justice M.S. Liberhan is unconvincing in his unfounded allotment of blame for the demolition's technical preparation to them. But it is petty-minded to make a fuss about this, because their political responsibility is so undeniable. Focusing on the technical whodunnit is politically incorrect in that it misrepresents the whole issue as conceived by the pro-temple movement. The crime is not that a usurper structure was demolished, but that the government (egged on by the English media, the CPM, the JNU historians and similar usual suspects) had been thwarting the restoration of a Hindu sacred site to its pilgrim constituency, the Hindus. The right policy would have been to acknowledge and act upon the self-evident principle that a Hindu sacred site should be in Hindu custody and adorned with Hindu architecture. Will the secularists insist on the imposition of a Rama temple on the Kaaba site in Mecca, or on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? Of course not, and for the same reason there should not be a mosque on a hill that for centuries has been the main site dedicated to Rama.

Some people were ready to act upon this simple and logical insight. When Rajiv Gandhi had the locks on the Babri Masjid opened, he clearly embarked on a policy of accommodating the Hindus in compensation for (and in proportion with) the plentiful Muslim “appeasement” by his own and previous governments. It was a typical instance of the Congress culture with its compromises and horse-trading. Nothing very noble, but with the virtue of pragmatism. That approach would normally have led to a deal, with the Ayodhya site for the Hindu lobby and some sweeteners for the Muslim lobby, of which package the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was an opener. Indeed not quite noble, but it would have saved a lot of lives and political energy. Today the Rama Janmabhumi temple would have become just one among many uneventful Hindu places of pilgrimage. Come to think of it, that option could still be tried by the present Congress government.

But in 1989-92, that option was thwarted by the offensive of Babri ultras, and by this I don’t mean the warriors for Islam but the conformistic intellectuals shrieking and howling that the contentious building was the last bastion of “secularism”, a matter of high principle, of life and death. Under their fierce calls for “hard secularism”, no administrator dared to reduce the controversy to its true and manageable proportions anymore. Not the Congress, not the various left-populist parties, and not the BJP either. They were all paralysed and consequently bought time all while taking sides against the weaker party, the pro-temple movement with its vacillating and politically incompetent leadership.

And this shows us another sense in which the BJP is politically responsible for the demolition and for its erratic implementation by an unguided crowd. They too took the side of the status-quo against the Hindu demands. The Hindutva rank and file defied its leaders because it felt cheated by them. After the 1991 elections, when the BJP rose to the rank of largest opposition party, the Ayodhya demand was ditched, first mentally, then gradually also in practice. The activists felt that the leaders didn't mean business, that they didn't dare to push for the logical next step, viz. physically replacing the mosque structure (already in use for Hindu worship) with temple architecture. It was clear that the leaders had no clue on how to go about it. As it later turned out, in 1998-2004, even with the mosque gone and the BJP in power, Advani c.s. didn't move a finger towards the construction of the temple. So the ordinary activists had rightly sensed the unwillingness of the leaders to take the movement forward. That is why they took the law into their own hands.

The leaders could have avoided this outcome by charting a political roadmap towards a negotiated temple construction and then staying the course. Instead they tried to give the issue a quiet burial all while still making some increasingly faint pro-temple noises in order to retain their vote-bank. For that hypocrisy, they ought to pay a price. The Liberhan findings are shoddy and biased, but the disgrace now suffered by the BJP leaders and worsened by their denials is well-deserved.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hindus and Jews, India and Israel

One of the most sensational papers at the American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal was Shana Sippy's on Hindu-Jewish religious rapprochement as a corollary of Indian-Israeli military cooperation. A promising alliance whose time has come, bypassing the power of its jaundiced critics in academe.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Narasimha Rao (r.1991-96) lost no time in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel (1992) and, more importantly, replacing the USSR with Israel as India's chief arms supplier. Between India and Israel, weapons have long replaced diamonds as the most important trade good.

Dr. Shana Sippy presented a commercial film shown by the Israeli arms dealers at trade fairs. Daringly crystal-clear. Indian girls were dancing in between upstanding missiles and singing: "I need protection, I need strength" etc. Then a stereotypical Israeli guy hops onto the stage, with a broad smile, gracefully receiving the compliments of the Indian girls: "Safety and protection, security and perfection" etc. The Israelis reportedly congratulate themselves at having "won the Kargil war for India" by sending India weapons tailored to the specific challenges of the Paki occupation of peak terrain.

Then she focused on joint Hindu-Jewish initiatives in the USA and internationally. She acknowledged the strength of this alliance, though clearly begrudging the Hindu community the benefits of any alliance. She tried to muster reasons why Jews should refrain from this alliance: these are not just Hindus but the "Hindu Right"; these are the people who have issued a history textbook praising Hitler (a canard, thoroughly analysed and refuted in the first chapter of my book *Return of the Swastika*); Hindus are idolaters; at least Jews should have demanded that Hindus guarantee the religious rights of the many thousands of Jews who visit India annually (are these rights threatened?!); as a minority, Jews should side with the minorities in India, etc. Her understanding was that the Jews purposely ignore a lot of troubling facts or take them in stride because this alliance is politically so useful to them. On the Hindu side, meanwhile, she saw (quite correctly) an absolute ignorance of specific Jewish agendas.

The joint Hindu-Jewish declaration, earlier this year in Jerusalemn, between Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi and some more worthies on both sides, was a natural target of her criticism. She lambasted some of the points the two sides had agreed on, obviously at the Hindu side's insistence:
* the much-maligned swastika is innocent (banal);
* the Aryan Invasion Theory is bunk (totally misplaced, and strange that the Jewish side bothered to agree, but perhaps a way of saying that the much-maligned term "Aryan" is innocent too);
* Hinduism is monotheistic too (questionable, an imposition by a particular faction within the Hindu spectrum);
* Hindu murtipuja is not "idolatry" per Halakhic definition;
* the opposition to the Christian mission, which according to SS is no longer an issue for the Jews (nearly true in Israel in so far as Christian denominations have agreed to stop conversion attempts among Jews, but unchangingly a concern elsewhere when intermarriage mostly means conversion to Christianity or Islam);
* the obviously anti-Islamic rejection of "terrorism".

An orthodox Jewish member of the audience remarked that the meeting would have been impossible without a preliminary agreement between the Rabbi and the Israeli Government. The Israelis are not uptight about separating religion and politics, so this is quite likely. Shana Sippy alleged that the Jerusalem meeting had been sponsored by Rajiv Malhotra, whom she mislabelled as a Hindutva man. After all those years of Hindutva-watching, most supposed experts haven't even noticed the sharp divisions in the spectrum of Hindu activism.

On the whole, though, I was quite impressed with Shana Sippy's presentation. No silly pieties, not too much holy/hollow indignation at Hindutva schemes, not as soporific as so much theological and sociological talks at such conferences, her finger really on the pulse of the Yahudi-Hindu-bhai-bhai scene, and most of all, a truly important and consequential topic.

I refrained from volunteering my own experiences with this alliance, e.g. when in 1993 a Mr. Tiwari of the Washington DC chapter of the VHP took me along on a vsit to the office of the American-Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the spider in the web of the fabled Jewish Lobby. We got an impressive demonstration in some of the AIPAC feats in influencing US Congress decisions. The idea was that Hindu activists would get some training there in the noble art of lobbying. (Not that I've seen them put their new skills to any use since then.)

During the discussion, I learned that this annual panel on "Hinduisms and Judaisms" was from the beginning mistrusted by the AAR, initially because it looked like a joint Hindu-Jewish platform against Christianity, now because it looks like a gang-up against Islam. There is no substance to this, every speaker went out of his way to placate Islam, absolve it of any role in terrorism, and to lambast "Islamophobia" both in India and in the West. Perhaps on Christianity some Jews have taken a firm stand, but certainly no one on the "Hindu" side. In the three years I have attended these sessions, I have never heard a Hindu-bron speaker or an Indologist take as his own any known pro-Hindu (i.c. anti-mission) positions. In this session too, Hindu assertiveness was only present as the whipping-boy.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

The output of the Mumbai film industry largely consists of superficial plots with light-hearted music and little contact with pressing social and political realities. By contrast, Danny Boyle's movie Slumdog Millionaire, set in Mumbai, is not that innocent.

When people from the so-called Third World complain about lingering colonial attitudes, I am inclined to yawn, knowing the self-hate and the guilt-trip of Europeans and Euro-Americans that have replaced their colonial-age pride. All these anti-colonial rants sound so anachronistic. But then I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire, about a young man who can answer the questions of a TV quiz thanks to his experiences as a slum kid.

About this Oscar-winning movie, the following points have been made on Hindu forums, and by Rajiv Malhotra at last week's Montréal DANAM conference, and partly also by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, the very author of the book on which the movie was based:

1) The poverty and neglect in Mumbai are a bit overdone in the movie. In the book, protagonist Jamal meets his heroine Latika not as a child thrown out into the rain then to live on the streets, but as a teenager living in an apartment, after having spent his childhood in a Catholic orphanage. Likewise, the cruelty is a bit overdone, as with the gory scene of a child blinded in order to make it more lucrative as a beggar. Flemish-born sister Jeanne Devos, founder of a trade-union for house personnel in Mumbai, commented that in her decades of work among the underclass there, she has heard stories of children thus mutilated, but has so far never come across an actual instance. Now that India is projecting a less miserable, more modern and confident image of itself, this movie revives the Mother-Teresa image of India as the ultimate in material and human misery and in heartless exploitation of fellow human beings. If you have seen the movie, you will have noticed that, as French India-watcher François Gautier puts it, "Slumdog literally defecates on India from the first frame".

2) The book's protagonist is a transreligious pan-Indian kid, Rama Mohammed Thomas (the commonest names for Hindus, Muslims c.q. Indian Christians), abandoned as an infant in a church by his mother, whose religion remains unknown. The movie turns him into a Muslim kid, Jamal, orphaned by a Hindu mob killing his mother in a pogrom in the name of Rama. The insertion of a quiz question about "the weapon with which the Hindu god Rama is depicted" (a total non-starter as quiz question in India, because everybody knows the answer: a bow) and Jamal's memory of seeing a boy with hate-filled eyes enacting Rama-with-bow at the start of the anti-Muslim pogrom, serve to give body to the mediatic fiction of India as a land where an overbearing Hindu majority terrorizes hapless fearful minorities.

The effect is to drive the nail deeper into the coffin of Hinduism's former reputation for tolerance and confirm its newly crafted image as hateful and a threat to non-Hindus. As François Gautier has observed: "Can there be a more blatant lie? Hinduism has given refuge throughout the ages to those who were persecuted at home: the Christians of Syria, the Parsis, Armenians, the Jews of Jerusalem, and today the Tibetans, allowing them all to practise their religion freely."

We may add that Hindus in Kerala also permitted Muslims to settle and to marry native girls, hence their name Mapilla-s or Moplahs, "sons-in-law". This hospitality was repaid with military conquest by other Muslims and with large-scale anti-Hindu pogroms in the 1920s by the Moplahs themselves. It made even Mahatma Gandhi say that Muslims are "bullies" while Hindus are "cowards"; but in the movie, the Muslims are poor hapless victims of Hindu bullying. That is how Western interests like to imagine India, among other reasons because it justifies their anti-India position in the Cold War (as during the Bangladesh war of 1971) and its support to Pakistan even now. It also allows them to take a pro-Muslim stand and to depict Muslims as victims rather than terrorists, which looks progressive in the West's internal multiculturalism debate. For the US, pro-Muslim positions in South Asia (like in the Balkans or in the question of Turkey's EU accession) serve to appease Muslim anger at the American support to Israel in the Palestinian question.

The anti-Hindu twists in the movie form the typical second phase of a propaganda/disinformation campaign. After the actual meessage is hammered in by specialists, i.c. India-watchers misreporting on India's religious conflict invariably shifting the blame to the Hindu side, it is fixated in popular consciousness by repeating it not as a news item but as a piece of received wisdom, common knowledge. This is done not through thematic channels (i.e. papers and reports on India's religious conflict) but through general channels moulding opinion indirectly, such as TV shows, women's magazines, tourist guidebooks and others related only tangentially to the theme. In the first phase there is still a risk of getting countered by better-informed and less partisan specialists; but in the second, propagandists can work on the masses ignorant of the specifics, i.c. the Western cinema audience whose knowledge of India's religio-politics is hazy at best.

3) Jamal is handed to the police for torture on the pretext that he must have cheated, for how else could a "slumdog" know all the answers? In the book, this is done by an American visiting India in connection with the legal rights to the quiz format. In the movie, it is done by the Indian quiz master, who comes across as a lurid incarnation of the well-to-do Indians' smug and callous mistreatment of their poorer fellow-countrymen. Likewise, the movie's American tourists in Agra are an incarnation of sanity and benevolence contrasting with the barbarity of the ambient Indian society. This is a throwback to colonial-age stereotypes about India as a backward society in dire need of benevolent Western intervention.

4) No surprise then that according to a mastermind of the Christian mission, Joseph D'Souza, the movie has caused a windfall in donations for the mission's work in India. Director Danny Boyle has declared that as a boy he had wanted to become a missionary, and that the same spirit still animates him.

5) Finally, a detail that may have escaped the notice of Western critics: successful as the English movie was in the West and among the anglicized Indian elite, its Hindi version has flopped. As Rajiv Malhotra has testified: when he and some friends wanted to see the movie in Delhi, the queue for the English version was very long, so they moved to the hall where the Hindi version was showing and there they could go in without waiting. This follows a pattern: Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and other Indian writers produce English novels for the Western and westernized-Indian audience, get the Man Booker prize and other Western awards, but leave the Indian public cold. This is not because Indians are xenophobic and averse to novelties. Thus, the Western TV quiz format Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire? has indeed caught on mightily among the Indian TV viewers in vernacular versions like Kaun Banega Krorpati? They use the foreign-borrowed format and turn it into a game of their own, filling it in with the native Indian genius. But novels like Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things or now the movie Slumdog Millionnaire are rightly mistrusted as products designed to curry favour with non- and anti-Indian audiences by disparaging India.

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Impressions from Montréal on Remembrance Day

Canada looks like one of the most secure parts of the world, a cornerstone that isn't swayed by the troubles rocking ordinary countries. I'm touching wood as I write this, for I really wish the country and its people(s) all the best after the good time I just had there. Here only a few impressions.

Except for the inside of some conference halls in Toronto and the Niagara Falls, I had never seen anything of Canada. Now I just got back home from a week in Montréal, where I attended the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion and of the Dharma Association of North America. This amazing megalopolis seems to combine the best of Europe and America. It is safe and relaxed and full of activity, and seems to be a rare counterargument against the now-widespread feeling that multiculturalism is a hopeless dead end. The numerous Haitian taxi-drivers and service personnel are the most visible face of Québec's policy of attracting immigrants from French-speaking countries. Which implies that as a citizen of Belgium and fluent in French, I could make a similar move: walk on water to Acadia!

The conference was a major affair, an intense concatenation of numerous parallel and successive sessions with thousands of scholars attending. Apart from the actual academic brainstorming, there were some entertaining talks by star intellectuals, esp. Tariq Ramadan (barred from last year's conference in Chicago when the US authorities denied him a visa) and Slavoj Zizek. The congress centre was in the Chinese neighbourhood and could be reached through underground routes from my hotel, which was located next to the Rue Sainte-Cathérine. The latter is referred to in a well-known pop song, Complainte pour Sainte-Cathérine by Kate & Anna McGarrigle: "Moi je me promène sous Sainte-Cathérine, j'profite de la chaleur du métro... quand il fait trente en d'sous d'zéro" ("I'm walking underneath Sainte-Cathérine, profiting from the underground's warmth... when it's 30 centigrade below zero"). No need for the underground, though: after a few freezing days, temperature jumped up to 18° and stayed there till after I left: the fabled Indian summer, "une saison qui n'existe que dans le nord de l'Amérique". So I got a quick introduction to all I need to know for bluffing my way through a Canada conversation.

It was easy enough for me to curry favour with the Québecois, standing out between all those Americans as the only one to address them in French. They especially liked my assurance that in Belgium, everyone supports their cause: the Walloons because they are French-speaking, the Flemish because they side with the underdog. I'm not sure, though, that Québecois visiting Brussels would side with the Flemish underdog.

The really touching discovery for me was how serious Canadians take Remembrance Day. From a week before, most of them wear poppies reminding of Flanders' Fields. The author of the WW1 poem In Flanders' fields, John McCrae, was indeed Canadian. By contrast, in the country where it all happened, and where the poppies still grow on Canadian soldiers' graves, row on row, interest is limited to strictly official ceremonies without popular resonance. For Anglo-Saxons, it is a day to commemorate sacrifice and victory, for us a day to contemplate the senseless pity of war. That is why the Yser Tower, the Flemish war monument in WW1 site Diksmuide, carries the caption No More War, a testimony to post-war pacifist zeal rather than to the war psychology of triumphalism c.q. vengeance.

Only the quaint minority of Belgian royalists try to make 11 November a victory celebration, but the fact is that the then Belgian king kept his army out of the great offensives, until 1918 merely standing guard behind the flooded Yser plain that prevented further German advances, then only releasing his forces for the final American-backed offensive (not to mention his secret attempt to reach a separate peace with the Kaiser). That's why Albert 1, our "king-soldier", was so popular with his soldiers: he didn't ask them to die for their country. By contrast, the Commonwealth, that was only dragged into the war because our king's cousin on the British throne wouldn't tolerate Germany's "rape of Belgium", intended to drive the Germans back, and in this endeavour sacrificed hundreds of thousands of soldiers' lives in futile offensives. Logical then that their commemoration of all those wasted heroes is far more serious than the artifical patriotic hoompapa of the Belgian royalists.

Nonetheless, for me it was a good time of the year to introduce myself as a Fleming, born and raised moreover in Leuven/Louvain. That was WW1's martyr town where the university library was destroyed by German fire, in Commonwealth propaganda the symbol of the destruction of civilization by the "furor Teutonicus". To Canadians, a Flemish visitor must look like those poppies invoked on Remembrance Day celebrations: a sign of life living on after the slaughter.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Fleming for EU president

The expected choice of Herman Van Rompuy as first-ever "EU president" would end his still-brief term as Belgian Prime Minister, a job he never wanted in the first place. It would also reward the Belgian state and the Flemish nation for their pioneering role in the story of Europe's unification.

Herman Van Rompuy, currently Prime Minister of Belgium, is rumoured to be the big EU countries' favourite choice as first-ever "EU president". He is known to be diplomatic, reasonable to the point of being pliable, to speak four languages fluently including French (a must for France, and an argument against Dutch candidate Jan-Peter Balkenende), and to be a leading member of Europe's leading political family, the Christian-Democrats. I would applaud his selection for the job.

With the capitalized "Van" (meaning "of", "from"), insiders will immediately recognize his name as Flemish: Frenchmen/Walloons would have "de" or "De", while Dutchmen would have the "van" with small v, which is disallowed in Belgium, on analogy of the similarly common prefix "de" ("the"), which if non-capitalized could be mistaken for the French nobility prefix "de". Unlike the numerous Walloons with Flemish names, indicating the post-Napoleonic Flemish ancestry that burdens one third of them, this one is a real Fleming. At least, he is from a Dutch-speaking family all while being Belgian, which is the definition of a Fleming, but his enthusiasm for the Flemish cause against Francophone dominance is lukewarm at best. In that respect, he is a real Belgian.

Flemish Christian-Democrats like him have always been inclined to compromise and half-heartedness, even proverbially so, and Herman even more than most. So, it would be quite misplaced to wave banners on account of anything achieved by or associated with him. But a moderate note of satisfaction would be appropriate on the hoped-for occasion of his promotion to the post of EU figurehead.

As a Fleming, I think it would be entirely right and just if a Fleming were to lead a long chain of future presidents of a glorious European Union. If George Washington's example is anything to go by, "Van Rompuy" may once outdo "Waterloo" as the best-known Flemish name. From its inception, the European Community, now Union, has never had more loyal supporters than us. We can also take credit for one of the EU's institutional multilinguism, one of its finest traits, though to outsiders one of its most incomprehensible (e.g. Kishore Mehboobani in a recent interview extolling the ASEAN's choice of English as its sole working language and lambasting the EU alternative). The story is as follows.

When the first six-nation European associations were founded in the fifties, a decision had to be made on their working language. Everybody expected it would be French, the official language of France, the dominant language of Belgium and also official language in Luxemburg. The Dutch in those days still still learned French in school, they couldn't think of a reason to object. Germany and Italy were so bruised from the war that they were in no position to take positions that might be considered nationalistic. There was no one left to object except the Flemish element in Belgium, a numerical majority but politically the underdog. When they proposed linguistic equality between the official languages of all the member states, no one could object to the holy principle of equality, so multilinguism carried the day.

As new members joined the Union, one after another their official languages gained the same status in the EU institutions. This led to an unwieldy translation bureaucracy, a small price to pay for upholding such a lofty principle. Jobs for the boys, om condition that they are bilingual in, say, Latvian-Maltese or Irish-Slovak. In practice, the use of the smaller languages is limited, but there is still a plurality French-German-English even for everyday working purposes. This fits the EU's guiding motto of "unity in diversity".

Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, we can now say that the French, or the Francophones, missed the opportunity of a lifetime when they gave in to the Flemish demand. Suppose they had insisted on having French as the sole EU official language. The Flemish would have ended up giving in, they always do, and French would have regained its waning importance with every institutional and territorial expansion of the EU. Even the UK would have accepted it; when it joined in 1973, British officials for the European institutions were handpicked for knowledge of French. In the 1990s, all the ambitious young people in Central Europe whose countries prepared for accession would have taken up studying French, the language of the new European empire. This in turn would have encouraged outsiders (say, Kishore Mehboobani) to study French once more. The imperial dream of Louis XIV and Napoleon would have been fulfilled after all, at least at the (to the French) all-important level of language.

But in the fifties, nobody foresaw that the little committees co-ordinating the coal and steel industries of six war-worn countries would expand to become the administration of a nearly continent-spanning superstate. So the Flemings could get away with their multilingual alternative for the EU's governance. Good for Europe.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Finding religion in Asdonk

Walking in silence on a winding road towards a site that was, just possibly, a sacred site in the distant past, so as to resacralize it. That's what I did last Saturday, in pleasant and wholesome company.

Asdonk is a hamlet on the northern rim of the municipality of Diest, in the borderland of the Flemish geographical regions of de Kempen (Taxandria), traditionally an area of sandy heath and forest, thinly populated and poor; and the rich agricultural Hageland, "Hedge land", named after the hedges that used to protect the grapevines during warmer centuries when Brabant had a pioneering wine industry. Ernest Claes, a local heimat writer who grew up in a house on the (then) wasteland between the nearby Kempen village of Averbode and the Hageland village of Zichem, described how he found himself influenced by two mentalities: "the merry Hagelander and the introspective Kempenaar". In that respect, Asdonk is on the side of the introspective type.

Asdonk is one place where the traditional heath/forest character of the region has been preserved. The name is traceable to the age of Charlemagne, 9th century, when a commander of military scouts was rewarded for his services with a fief including Asdonk. The "donk" in the name means a marshy depression in the landscape, a moor, and the islands rising up from it. The word is related to donker, German dunkel, "dark", and to dungeon. And effectively, the area is partly a low-lying wetland with islands and makeshift bridges, often haze-covered. Misty, mystical, mysterious... The component "as" is a longer story. Dutch has a word as (<ahs) meaning "axis", which doesn't seem related. There is a homographous word as (<asch) means "ashes", also unlikely though it would add over-emphatically to the site's connotation of darkness. Also, there was an old homophonous form as, now normally es (<asch), meaning the "ash" tree. Ash trees are not in evidence there in any exceptional quantity. At any rate, the spelling "as" indicates a recent coinage, quod non. We need an old form "as", and the one that comes to mind is the Roman name for the smallest weight/monetary unit. Relevance?

But what if it came from "ase", a pre-Christian Germanic term for "a god"? The suggestion is made by neo-Pagan mastermind Stefan Van den Eynde, if only playfully. Note that the ace in the deck of cards, Dutch "aas", is both the lowest (as 1) and the highest value in the series: lowest like the Roman "as", highest like the Germanic "ase". A modest indication for a link between Asdonk and the old gods is this. One of the old gods, Wodan/Odin, was imagined as presiding over the Wild Hunt, conducted by the Wild Horde, originally a band of young warriors living on the outskirts of society, who had a free run in their god's festive season, the dark second half of autumn. The children playing "trick or treat" during Halloween re-enact these hordesmen on their wild hunt. Now, in Asdonk there happens to be a lane called Jachtdreef, "Hunting Lane", yet the oldest records don't show it to be a location of actual hunting. Aha, wouldn't that be a clue to an Odinist tradition of the Wild Hunt at the site? No proof for that, but let's take heart as long as no one has disproven it either.

Blackness is written all over Asdonk, where one rivulet is called the Black Brook, another the Black Water, while the nearby river's name Demer seems to be related to Latin temere, Sanskrit tamas, all meaning "dark". Usually heathen sacred sites are on hilltops, such as the christianized ones nearby: the abbey of Averbode with its Mary Forest, and the Basilica of Scherpenheuvel, built around a sacred tree on a hill. What could be sacred about a moor?

One religious ceremony that our ancestors, including the much-venerated Druids, sometimes practised, was human sacrifice. This could be conducted by drowning the victim in a swamp. Indeed, the best-preserved human bodies from ancient Northwestern Europe are the peat-moor corpses, sacrificial victims found in swamps. Maybe some dredging in Asdonk could yield interesting remains. Then again, there may be nothing to this at all.

What I like about Stefaan's view of religion is that he doesn't try to revive corpses of gods, ancient beliefs which mostly are known only in distorted and incomplete form. He starts from reality, and from modern man. We have an inborn sense of the sacred as much as our ancestors did. We only need to remove the cobwebs that have covered this sensitivity in years of not paying attention.

Either way, the landscape has a powerful feel to it. Especially for Flemish city-dwellers who don't know of any location where you can get away from the sight of houses and the sound of automobiles. Last Saturday, the temperature was pleasant for an autumnal afternoon, greyish sky, windy with an occasional sizzle of raindrops but over-all just dry. In the outside world, it was the last day of daylight-saving time, the eve of the official winter time, which must have been the EU bureaucracy's way of adding to the seasonal atmosphere.

We started out on a two-hours' pilgrimage, the fifth that Stefaan has been conducting annually with the purpose of sacralizing or resacralizing this piece of space, charging it with human attunement to the cosmos. After all the philosophers' debates on the "disenchantment" of the world, could it be time to fill the world with spirit once more? We walked at a good pace, which towards the end made it hard for me to keep up, damaged creature that I am. However, the walk was punctured by six stops, where uplifting poems were read out. Otherwise we observed strict silence. That in itself is enough to turn a walk into a pilgrimage.

At one point, a narrow bridge without hand support across the Black Brook was designated the bridge to the world beyond. Like the dying on their final journey, we held a money coin (an as...) handy to pay the ferryman, and threw it in the water. Dying to be reborn, and all that.

When our guide announced we were going to cross yet another bridge, now to the deathless divine world, the one thing lying across the water that caught my eye was a storm-felled tree. Was that dying Tree of Life the bridge to the hall of the gods? Well, no, a bit further on a proper bridge was waiting, modern pilgrimages assure the pilgrim's comfort. On the island, on a hillock, we were awaited by Stefaan's wife Heidi, who had prepared a fire-pot. Everyone was invited to throw some herbs and resin into the fire, a more civilized sacrifice than the peat-moor corpses of yore.

There were, if I recall well, sixteen of us. Most were members of a neo-Pagan society on which I will write later this week. At the last station of the walk, its new chairman ritually opened the group's working year and gave a brief speech. Brief means two or three sentences, he's called Herman the Taciturn for a reason.

I was apprehensive there was going to be an invocation of some gods -- what else would you expect of Pagan revivalists? But no god or similar creature (oops, Creator) was mentioned. The universe is enough. It means something to us moderns, whereas the gods, of any pantheon, are comic characters to us, at best name-tags for the different cornerstones of the cosmos. Just as the old gods didn't need to be depicted, today they don't need to be named. Now that Christians rarely take God seriously anymore ("God, if You exist, save my soul, if I have one"), even the Pagans are doing without Him/them.

The old religion was not centred on gods or beliefs, but on practices. One traditional practice that we found easy and pleasant to uphold, is the collective drink. The horn was passed around and from it we all drank mead, which I discovered to be heart-warming.

Though I didn't notice it at the time, I was told later that the roots of the tree under which we congregated, had the shape of a horseshoe. No doubt the footprint of Wodan's race-horse Sleipnir. This reminds me that along the way we had also passed a crossing of five paths, which in mystic Brittany they call a "Druid's foot". More proof of a higher presence in the landscape, that. All in Asdonk.

If nothing else, the physical exertion and the forest's oxygen had certainly made the walk worth my while. And the friendship. I always associated silence with the Orient, yoga ashrams have "silent retreats"; but getting together with fellow-countrymen in silence creates a sense of communion as well, as a welcome side-effect. As for Asdonk's degree of sacredness, it must have increased somewhat that afternoon, but I am not equipped with the antennae needed to perceive such things with any exactitude.

After bowing out to the trees, we walked most ordinarily, no longer with sealed lips, to a tavern on the forestside. I lagged behind, and suddenly found myself in the company of a charming lady coming up from another forest path. She seemed to be more familiar with the place. Was she part of the territory? After all, an Enchanted (or Re-Enchanted) Forest needs its own Lady of the Lake. No, she was simply going back to her car after a stroll in Asdonk. Not a pilgrimage, just a pleasant afternoon in the greenery. We exchanged a few comments, nothing profound. Or did she keep her lips sealed on the deeper secrets that Asdonk divulges only to its persistent lovers, those who return there once and twice and thrice over?

P.S.: Google for "Asdonk wandeling" and the local tourism service will explain to you how you too can come and respectfully contribute to the Asdonk spirit.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

China rebukes rude Miss Belgium

Hedonistic navel-gazing is the prevalent mode of contemporary popular culture. Never in history have celebrities found the opportunity for self-indulgence on such a massive scale. This makes them painfully incomprehending of people who have to deal with reality and therefore have a more sober and less whimsical lifestyle. Case in point: Goedele Liekens' misplaced intervention on sexual mores in China.

Enough has been written against colonialism, including irritatingly anachronistic tirades by Third-Worlders against "neo-colonialism" deemed to secretly perpetuate colonial power equations. Yet, some colonial attitudes do persist, particularly among the liberal elite. They have neither understanding nor sympathy for the cultural conservatism and resistance to Western cultural influence displayed by most Third World populations. After all, even if Muslim populations free themselves from their religious straitjacket, they still won't fall into the other extreme, that of Western liberalism and libertinism. This is demonstrated by the reticence of the highly secularized Chinese people in matters on which our society has recently broken all taboos.

Just now I saw a re-broadcast of a VRT (Flemish state TV) series on contemporary China, some two years old. The guide was Lulu Wang, a Chinese author living in the Netherlands and fluent in Dutch, and she takes one Flemish celebrity after another to places and people pertinent to their own specific areas of interest. This time her guest was Goedele Liekens, former Miss Belgium, sexologist (a specialism within the psychology faculty) and author of several very explicit sex guidebooks. She went around questioning people about their love/sex lives.

Every businessman about to visit China is briefed beforehand that prior to talking business, you first have to establish a relationship by means of light talk over tea or dinner, and let a day or more pass before coming to the point. And that's only business, here the theme of the conversation was rather more intimate stuff. Yet our Goedele (no, I'm not being sexist by using her first name: she set the trend herself by launching a magazine named Goedele) plunged right in. The programme had to be shot in a few days, so perhaps there was no alternative. At any rate, in those circumstances I'd be wary of the quality of the answers she was getting.

Then again, it's not like as if the Chinese interviewees were made to divulge more than they wanted. Those ordinary peasant women knew for themselves how far to go with this unabashed big-nose (= Westerner). They mainly talked about how their marriages were contracted and how concerned they were about finding a good match for their own children (or, more often, only child). A mother of one remained perfectly friendly when explaining that she was with her husband only once a month, for that's how often he could come home from work, and even when being asked: "Don't you miss the sex?" Kindly, she didn't let on that Goedele came across as not merely vulgar, but as a sex-hungry unhappy female, just the stereotype that most Orientals have of emancipated Western women.

Dissatisfaction is indeed the basic vibration of her type of sexual liberation preacher. To make the point more explicit, while teaching her Chinese interlocutors about love, she had to include a little aside that she had just divorced. And we may add that meanwhile in the real world, the boyfriend who replaced her husband has also just left her. These things happen, and I wouldn't dream of berating any fellow human being for it,-- but then please don't start preaching to distant nations about how to conduct relationships.

She kept on fussing about how unhappy rural Chinese wives were under the presumed tyranny of their husbands, fathers-in-law and (especially) mothers-in-law. Yes, a young man on the look-out for a bride was recorded as saying that she should be well-disposed towards his parents, and Goedele considered this a strange priority. She failed to understand that the nuclear marriage is a very shaky construction whereas the integration of a couple into a larger family is a formula that has proven fairly successful across millennia. She saw no sign of love between any husband and wife, even between boyfriend and girlfriend, meaning that she didn't see them making intimate displays of affection in public. Just once did she observe a couple kissing, and this made her exclaim: "This is the first time I see people showing love for each other." She had no appreciation for the Chinese people's natural discreetness and modesty, as if these were merely obstacles to be removed.

In her sexology studies, Miss Belgium had of course come across the fabled illustrated sex manuals from ancient China, in which the woman's pleasure is a central concern of her male partner. That is a far cry from the African and now largely Islamic custom of female genital mutilation, intended to limit the woman's lust. While this Chinese pursuit of the female orgasm was of course more pleasurable for the woman, the reason for it was nonetheless far from feministic: the idea was that female juices enhance the vitality of the man who plunges his organ into them, and he could extract more elixir out of her if she climaxed mightily. To maximize the effect, he should do it with as many healthy young women as possible. This practice has been denounded as "sexual vampirism", though the victim was given maximum pleasure. For all her lamentable oppressedness under the ancient Confucian patriarchy, at least this premium on the Chinese woman's sexual satisfaction must have been quite a consolation to her.

Unfortunately, in today's China Goedele didn't see any signs of this erotic tradition. Of course not, it was mainly a pastime of the ruling classes dismantled by the Republic (1912-49) and the People's Republic (1949-), never much in vogue among the peasant majority. Moreover, as a vestige of "feudal superstition" and "decadent ruling-class hedonism", this Daoist sexual "alchemy" and any general displays of erotic enthusiasm, after having already lost some steam during a neo-Confucian millennium of increasing prudery, were actively suppressed by republican modernizers and especially by the Communists. Chairman Mao, however, was one Communist who, as his unique privilege, did put into practice the belief that plenty of sex with plenty of young women promotes health (and even cures venereal disease). Unfortunately, he wasn't available for an interview.

Goedele equated the marriages brokered by parents or by match-makers with the "loveless, calculated" marriages in premodern European royalty. Chinese people explained to her that when a couple start raising children, they lose their initial passion for each other anyway but evolve a deeper bond, more consequential and lasting than the juvenile infatuation which Westerners call "love" and deem the only legitimate basis for marriage. But she didn't do much listening and preferred to do the talking. To the extent that the Chinese (and likewise the Indians) haven't been swayed yet by pop culture from the West, they consider the exclusive Western premium on emotions as the basis of marriage or "relationships" as downright silly.

For all her psychological training and sexological experimentation, she clearly hasn't understood that the emotionalism and self-centredness that condition contemporary sexual mores in the West, are not deemed superior by Asian societies, nor a welcome enrichment. Far from being superior to the sobriety and self-control that she found to be still largely the norm in China, they are the main cause of the brittleness of contemporary marriages in the West.

My apologies to Goedele for my rudeness in putting it so explicitly to her. But then, speaking of rudeness, her performance at Beijing University (rated one of the top five universities worldwide) was amazingly inappropriate. She started telling the Chinese audience, consisting of advanced psychology students and their professors, that they did it all wrong, that Chinese men don't love their wives, etc. After the Western fashion, she invited comments from the audience, and those that she got made perfect sense: the proud Chinese explained to her, again in very friendly tones, that she shouldn't confuse love with ostentatious displays of affection. When a man said this, she objected that he was a man, and he had no answer to that. So female students raised their voices to explain that Chinese women lead pretty successful lives and are pretty happy as well. (They certainly smile a lot more than Goedele does.) She had announced before entering the hall that she was going to carefully raise explicit sexual issues, which I didn't see, but it must have been tough stuff, for at some point Lulu Wang, at the hosts' request, told her she had to stop the presentation. She was not taken to a labour camp, merely shown the door in the most inoffensive manner possible. Outside the door, she wondered aloud why they had taken offence.

To be sure, my judgment may be overly harsh in that I haven't taken into account her disorientation at being thrown quite suddenly into a very foreign society. So, my apologies again if this has come across as my definitive opinion on Goedele Liekens' sexual philosophy and on her record as a missionary of sexual liberation. If she could do it all over, I am sure she would correct some of her mistakes even without anyone telling her to. Nevertheless, her performance certainly has revealed an incomprehending attitude of condescension that is still common enough among Westerners.

Two days ago, I saw an episode of a similar documentary series on India (conceived as a sequel to the China series), where another Flemish TV lady explored man/woman relations in Kerala and uttered all the same platitudes. She too failed to show any respect for the explanations the natives gave for their age-old familial arrangements, e.g. the allotment of specific types of agricultural work to women only. There is plenty of progress in the position of women in both India and China, but what alienates our celebrity ladies is that it doesn't have the same self-obsessed quality that they themselves display in their interviews to glossy magazines. In China, chan/zen monks literally contemplate their navel, but people seeking love should extend their awareness beyond their little selves.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Eroticism and flaky spirituality

Human life has different dimensions. Hindu scripture gives them a specific time of the day: religion (dharma) at dawn, lucrative work (artha) in the daytime, erotic pleasure (kama) in the evening. All civilizations have tried to give each of these a proper place. But some people aren't satisfied with this division, and want to unite and fuse these different dimensions. I think there is no need for this, and that it can't work anyway. In particular, the fusion of spirituality and sex is a mirage.

In the "natural healing" centre in the town where I live, courses are being offered in "Tantra". This is advertised as a way to enlightenment through sex. In my Indology studies I have had to spend some time reading the Tantric tradition, and of course it turned out to be rather more complicated than what it is made out to be in the lifestyle magazines. A demythologization is in order, and I'll make a modest beginning here.

Let us clarify first of all that there is nothing mystical about the Sanskrit word tantra. It means "weaving-loom", with warp and woof, hence a multi-dimensional system, something complex and its explanation, hence a manual or simply a "text", a "book". This is the same derivation as that of text from Latin texere, "weave". The Tantra-s are a class of medieval religious texts focusing on ritual and symbolism. In some cases, the sex act is also a symbol-laden ritual, which is why some Hindu and Tibetan gods and goddesses are depicted as copulating, in a dignified seated posture.

In the June 2009 issue of the quarterly EnlightenNext (Dutch edition), the well-known thinker Ken Wilber, who calls himself a "defender of the Dharma" and an "intellectual Samurai", grapples with the issue of sex as a purported way to Enlightenment. With approval, he summarizes the position of the Tantric tradition thus: it says to neo-Platonists and Theravada Buddhists and other ascetic traditions that "you can focus on consciousness and rise to the top of integral unity etc., but you know what... you can also do the same through sex. And sexually it's a lot more fun!"

Oh well, if there's a lady out there who knows the secret of realizing enlightenment through sex, I am willing to learn from/with her. But so far, I don't believe that there really is such a thing as " for enlightenment", though people are at liberty to try. No dour moral rejection of the whole idea, this, just skeptical that it is even possible. Not on empirical grounds, I can't say I've tried the experiment, but on logical grounds.

In the Buddhist concept of enlightenment or "awakening" (bodhi), the goal of the path is technically defined as "blowing out" (as of a fire), "extinction" (nirvana). This means in particular the extinction of desires ("thirst", trshna), which the Buddha calls the cause of man's ultimate problem, viz. suffering (duhkha). In Upanishadic doctrines of "liberation" (mukti, moksha), the focus is more on the conquest of "ignorance" (avidya), the self-forgetful absorption of the Self in its objects of consciousness; but the need to still the noise of desire is never absent. Enlightenment is, as a minimum, a state of peace, of freedom from desire. It is by definition a state that cannot be bettered by anything that is more desire-fulfilling or, to use Wilber's phrase, "more fun".

Meditation is exclusive of any focus of the attention outside, not even on a dearly loved partner, nor on the sensations accompanying the sex act. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the goal of yoga is "isolation" (kaivalya), viz. of consciousness from its objects, so that consciousness is exclusively focused on (or "resting in") itself. These objects from which consciousness must be turned away are everything that is not the neutral, empty, purely observing state of consciousness itself. They include sensory perceptions, memories, imagination, reasoning, interpersonal concerns, dirty desires as well as noble feelings, anger as well as love. Whatever the value of those things in human life may be, they have by definition no place in meditation leading to enlightenment.

Incidentally, the Sanskrit term kaivalya, "isolation", seems to be etymologically cognate to the Latin words coelebs, whence "celibate". We should not make too much of etymology, and this one should not be taken as proof of any necessary connection between celibacy and enlightenment. Quite a few traditions do think that celibacy is a necessary precondition for serious progress in meditation, others are more generous. At any rate, the term kaivalya in this context does not speak out on the matter. The isolation indicated by it is not that of man from woman, but that of consciousness from its objects. This term merely says that true meditation is a state separate from any and every kind of mental involvement in anything.

After meditation, after "coming down" into ordinary consciousness of and interaction with the world, your experiences may undergo a quality change, and I suppose even sex will not be the same as before. In that sense your sex life may benefit from meditation, but it cannot constitute meditation nor replace it as a method for enlightenment. By all means, make your partner happy, in bed and elsewhere, that's already a mighty contribution to a better world; but please don't delude yourselves that this is enlightenment. The fun of it is good enough in itself and has no need of being labeled "spiritual".

This is really pretty obvious, and it's a bit silly that I have to articulate something so self-evident. Only a spoiled generation like our own could think up this fanciful idea of sex as a way to enlightenment.

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Ban smoking for freedom

Two political-cultural aspects of the anti-smoking policies enacted in most Western countries frequently come up for debate: freedom, and "the cult of health". In my view, contra some of my libertarian friends, the freedom to smoke is restricted by other people's freedom to breathe. As for the "cult" of health, I fully subscribe to it.

The data are in: the recently enacted bans on smoking in public places have drastically lowered the incidence of cardiovascular crises. As a heart patient, I have often felt unwelcome as well as suffocating and in mortal danger in smoke-filled public places. So I took to avoiding them and staying away from quite a few social events. That's all over now.

People who don't value freedom of expression and of association, and who don't realize their distinctive importance for liberty and democracy, have lumped them together with "freedom to smoke" as victims of "political correctness". A side-effect of such usage is that it blunts the critical impact of the ironical anti-leftist use of "political correctness", a leftist term subsequently turned around to expose the tirannical thrust of the left's hegemony. But more importantly for now, it illegitimately borrows the aura of higher freedoms to justify the petty freedom to indulge a habit that is harmful to oneself and to others.

Do people have the right to force others into sharing their own harmful puffing? No, and especially not from a libertarian viewpoint. This overpopulated world is still big enough to allow for walks in the wild where you don't impose your carcinogenous exhalation on others.

Do people have the right to harm themselves, a right that the "cult of health" seems to deny? Well, even health faddists don't usually go out of their way to force others into the gym or out of their smmoking and drinking habits. The current smoking bans still leave smokers free to smoke, viz. in the larger half of space that doesn't consist of public gathering-places. It is not forbidden to overeat, or to live without exercise or natural amounts of physical locomotion. So, the freedom to harm oneself still prevails.

But something could indeed be said for encouraging responsability by not shielding people from the consequences of their own harmful conduct. Once I had a pre-surgery talk with a cardiac surgeon, who wanted to know about my lifestyle, because he limited his services to people willing to take charge of their own health: "I do not like to use my expertise, and social security should not be made to pay, for treating people who bring it on themselves by refusing to quit smoking." I don't want to pronounce off-hand on how far this principle can be taken, but you get the idea: people should not pretend to be surprised and treated unjustly when their conduct turns out to have consequences.

And to some extent, your health isn't entirely private property either.

There does exist such a thing as collective property. Consider for example the landscape. In Belgium until recently, libertarian anarchy prevailed: you could buy real estate anywhere and build anything on it. In the neighbouring countries, and increasingly here too now, the rule is that you can only build in designated areas, and then often only in the traditional local building style. The character of the neighbourhood is a collective property that the individual is not permitted to disturb. This notion of collective property, particularly collective heritage, is probably the central bone of contention between conservatives and libertarians.

To some extent, and I admit that things are very relative in this grey area, even one's own life and health are collective property. If you take your own life, it affects not only yourself. You also deprive your parents of a son, your wife of a husband, your children of a father, your associations of a chairman or valued member, etc. Now that euthanasia is becoming mainstream (in Flanders, 2% of deaths nowadays are through euthanasia), most people don't mind if a terminal patient has his life and suffering terminated: his presence at that point doesn't make much difference, he already isn't playing his role in the family and in society anymore. But in most cases, taking your own life is a devastating intervention in other people's lives as well. Likewise though to a lesser extent, neglecting or harming your health is an infringement on a common good, a unilateral imposition of a burden on others.

That is one of the reasons for bans on hard drugs. With smoking, a total ban may go too far, but serious curbs and discouragements are entirely in order. Let us drect our libertarian energies to serious struggles, currently especially to the defence of freedom of expression, and not waste it on the freedom for smokers to drag others down with them in the effects of their own habit.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

"The founder of my religion" and the wisdom of crowds

The wisdom of crowds: the many founders of post-Christian religiosity


            I am here as a representative of the largest faith community in this country, viz. the ex-Catholics. That is not a community with a sense of unity and structures of its own, like the Catholic Church. As a leading unbeliever in this country used to say: “No, freethinkers don’t need structures of their own. It’s not because diabetics get together in their own self-help group, that non-diabetics should likewise get together.” So, I have not been mandated to represent the millions who fall in the category of ex-Catholics, I am only representative in the sense that I am a typical case. I am an apostate, I no longer espouse the beliefs I was brought up with. An earlier generation of ex-Catholics, when they were still a small minority of the Belgian population, often became anti-Catholic, anti-Christian and anti-religious with a vengeance. Today’s far more numerous ex-Catholics no longer have serious accounts to settle with the Church of their childhood. They, i.e. we, are simply sceptical of its defining beliefs. No hereditary sin of Adam and Eve, no virgin birth of Jesus, no resurrection.

Not that we reject everything about Jesus. He’s still popular for some of his sayings, especially when he was being anti-authoritarian like ourselves, when he went against the stifling weight of tradition and prejudice. But Son of God, no, most baptized Belgians don’t believe this anymore. That defining belief of Christianity is doubted now even by many of those who still go to church on Sundays. I understand that Muslims likewise venerate Jesus but reject his divine status. This at least proves that it is possible to be religious and yet not believe in Jesus as the divine Saviour.

One component that recurs in many though not all religions is God. People who have had bad experiences with a tough and authoritarian religion, tend towards a wholesale rejection of religion, including and especially God. They find something heroic in atheism, like standing on top of a mountain with no one above you. Or as John Lennon used to sing: “Above us only sky.” To assert human freedom, they would find it a crucial point to reject God. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Si Dieu existe, l’homme est un néant. Si l’homme existe, Dieu n’existe pas.” Among ex-Muslims, this is still common, e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes her discovery of atheism as a liberation.

By contrast, now that Catholicism has lost its teeth, most ex-Catholics don’t bother to rebrand themselves as atheists or God-deniers anymore. The anti-authoritarian generation dislikes the idea of a monarch in the sky, but then He can be redefined as something hazier, genderless, faceless, a mere “something”. We are the Something-ists. If you ask us whether we believe in God, we say: “It depends how you define God.” Tongue-in-cheek, God is still okay, though the old expression “the fear of God” can now only be used in an ironical sense. Conversely, long-standing atheists have lately explored the idea of an “atheist religiosity”. Their rejection of the Pope and of Biblical authority need no longer imply a wholesale rejection of religion. Or “spirituality” as some insist on calling it, with studied vagueness.

We learn that Buddhism and some lesser-known Asian tradition also fall into this category of “religion without God”. That’s why the Buddha is so popular in modern culture: he reputedly doesn’t want you to submit to some omnipotent authority in heaven. At the same time, the millions of modern Westerners who do Buddhist things, like practicing “mindfulness”, don’t become card-carrying Buddhists. They don’t want to put all their eggs into a single basket.

It is like in science. Everybody accepts that many pioneers have contributed to the present state of our scientific knowledge. Nobody swears by only one of them, nor denies the importance of all the others. Everybody knows that Aristotle’s work was, by all accounts, path-breaking, yet his knowledge was tentative and often clumsy. Both these facts, glorifying as well as belittling Aristotle, are equally true, and uncontroversial. Of course his work was a tremendous contribution to science, and of course it was very incomplete, in need of improvement by others who came after him. Nobody faults him for the immaturity of his theories, because everybody knows a single man couldn’t have created the whole edifice of science. Nobody says that Aristotle was the only son of the science god, nor that he was the seal of the scientists never to be equalled.

A poet has said that after Isaac Newton, “all was light”, so decisive was his breakthrough in physics. Yet to those who would dismiss the preceding generations of thinkers and researchers as merely caught in darkness, Newton admonished that he could only see as far as he did because he stood on the shoulders of giants, i.e. his predecessors in thought and research. No scientist would ever say that he received the whole of scientific knowledge in a flash, devoid of any prehistory nor in need of any additions or improvements.

In the experience of most moderns, the same is true in religion. Earlier, a very monarchical view of religion prevailed: one founder, a single leader with a single book, and the rest are devout and obedient followers. Or if they aren’t, they are outsiders to and enemies of the religion. Today, we are evolving towards a more democratic view of religion. It is open-ended on all sides.

It is open-ended in a geographical sense: valid religious teachings have originated in many parts of the world. In the colonial age, Christian travellers were puzzled to find noble people in China, in Arabia, in Africa and other heathen countries: “How can they be so good and not be Christian?” And they had qualms of conscience: “How sad that this Chinese new friend of mine, this thoroughly good man, will have to go to hell because he isn’t baptized!” Today, ex-Christians and quite a few Christians are confident that even God hasn’t put all his eggs in a single basket: non-Christians had been provided with their own Zarathustra, their own Yajñavalkya, Confucius, Bodhidharma, or Shankara. Post-Christian people quote from Jesus, Laozi, Kabir or Jalaluddin Rumi with equal respect.

It is open-ended towards the past. Every teacher was a pupil once. Everyone has a navel as visible proof that he was born from a mother and is indebted to earlier generations. The Buddha, who is often venerated by Buddhists as totally unique and original, acknowledged that he had merely walked the path that all the earlier Buddhas before him had walked. After him, his tradition spawned equally important masters like Bodhidharma, Huineng or Dogen. Evolutionary psychology shows that the germs of religion go back very far. We now know that a sense of morality, of altruism and fellow-feeling, which religious teachers usually claim as a special merit of religion, is present already in the higher animal species. Apes already have an (admittedly very embryonic) sense of religion. Some of you may have seen the documentary in which a gorilla flares up in anger against a burst of lightning: he is caught in the act of inventing a personal god behind the phenomenon of thunder and lightning. Right there, he just thought up a thunder god, like Jupiter or Indra or Thor. Later mankind has discarded this belief in personal agents behind the natural phenomena, but it was a step on the way forward and upward. While it is still controversial here and there to say we have descended from apes, I dare say that we are, moreover, the pupils of the apes.

Modern religiosity is open-ended towards the future. More teachers are bound to come, equal in rank with the ancient teachers. Nobody is the last prophet. We’ve heard that after Mohammed, some Muslims had a Baha’ullah or a Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. Without going into the merits of these specific individuals, we can generally say that most people agree that renewals are called for once in a while, and that even in religion, progress is made once in a while. Nobody has a monopoly on the road to truth or salvation in our post-Christian religiosity.


Brussels, 3 May 2009.

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Interreligious dialogue

Interreligious dialogue is very fashionable these days. But what achievements does it have to show?

Interreligious meetings are ten a penny nowadays. It is obviously better for people to spend their time talking to each other than to smash each other’s heads in. But apart from this elementary use, do they have any merits? Last January I attended a conference on “Religion in Asia after 9/11” at Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi. There, Swami Agnivesh, the Hindu equivalent of a liberation theologian (“Vedic socialism”), was asked to evaluate his long experience with interreligious dialogue. His conclusion: “No, it has no use. Have we achieved anything with it? No, we have not. It is time we tried something else.”

Yet, some people keep on trying. In the forthcoming weekend of 12-13 September 2009, Antwerp (hall Paroza, Bacchusstraat 67-71, all are welcome) will witness a modest conference of all religions, or nearly all. Every religion will have its own little stall for self-presentation and a spokesman from each will give a speech. The major religions will be present, though they mistrust such meetings as (1) conveying the theologically unacceptable impression that their own message is on a par with that of other, “false” religions; (2) giving undue importance to small religions, since each one sends one delegation regardless of the size of its flock.

Indeed, neo-Druids, neo-Templars, non-Muslim “Sufis”, would-be-Amerindian sweatlodgers and other Wiccas will stake their claim to an equal seat at the table with the billion-plus religions of Catholicism and Islam. Biblical and Quranic orthodoxies dismiss such syncretism and “equal respect for all religions” as Pagan par excellence, an insult to the sole revealed truth. The initiative for the upcoming conference lies with these small religions, though they found a Catholic priest willing (and others unwilling) to open his church for the oecumenical celebration. Some Catholics have gone soft under the impact of the Zeitgeist, represented by the political authorities of the city, who are always eager to patronize such chummy interreligious affairs.

This planned highlight of a truly oecumenical celebration is theologically very risky. For example, many traditions impose specific purity requirements for a ritual to be effective, requirements which outsiders don’t observe and generally don’t even know about. Therefore, the usual scenario is that at such gatherings the delegates pat each other on the shoulder a lot in the plenary session, intone the predictable mantras about “mutual understanding” and “respect”, but insist on celebrating the intimate moments of religious worship separately (e.g. at the Assisi gathering hosted by Pope John-Paul II). Let us just see how it works out.

Meanwhile, my own experience with such gatherings is that they may have their uses at the personal level. On 3 May 2009, I participated in an interreligious dialogue session organized by the Belgian Ahmadiya community in the Basilica of Koekelberg (Brussels). It worked out very nicely, at least for me.

The Ahmadiyas are a Muslim-yet-non-Muslim tradition. Founded in the late 19th century in British India by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad from Qadian, they claim to be Muslim and even excel in their zeal for Islam, yet they are considered non-Muslim by other Muslims including the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The reason is that the Ahmadiyas consider their own founder as another prophet, completing and reaffirming the message of Mohammed. But Islamic orthodoxy holds that Mohammed was “the Seal of the Prophets”, the final prophet whose word is definitively authoritative until Judgment Day. The Prophet’s status is belittled by the claim that he could have any use for a self-styled helper. Because of this alleged disrespect for the Prophet of Islam, Ahmadiyas are actively persecuted in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, hence their massive presence among our bonafide asylum-seekers.

One of their tactics to wriggle out of their persecuted condition is an emphatic veneration for Mohammed, the very prophet in whose name they are persecuted. An Ahmadiya spokesman and religious teacher explained at the Koekelberg meeting that the name “Ahmad” does not so much refer to founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, but to the name’s literal meaning, “praiser (of God)”, of the same root as Mohammed, “praised one”.

He mentioned only in passing the belief dear to the Ahmadiyas that Jesus had migrated east after the crucifixion and resurrection, then lived most of his life in Kashmir, there to die at the high age of 115 of natural causes. A Catholic priest was pressed for his view on this matter, and upheld the Christian belief that Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, in a grave identified three centuries later by Emperor Constantine’s mother. It was a friendly meeting, so this dissonance caused no unpleasant reactions. However, the priest could have been even more diplomatic by avoiding this negative answer yet sticking to the Gospel truth, the way Jef Ulburghs did at the Islamist mass meeting in Genk (Limburg, Belgium) of 6 April 1992. Ulburghs, a Catholic priest and then socialist MP, dismissed the Crusades as a sad mistake: the Crusaders had gone to Palestine to liberate the Holy Grave, but that was a perfectly unimportant place as “Jesus was no longer in that grave, he was resurrected!”

Each of the Ahmadiya speakers denounced the Jihad-mongers in the Muslim community, at least those who justified terror as Jihad, e.g.:. “Other Muslims reproach us for not waging jihad. But this is jihad, this interreligious get-together here!” If such convivial meetings are really jihad, I wouldn't mind jihad too much.

They were very strict about the peace-loving and tolerant reinterpretation of Islamic scripture. Thus, they highlighted Quranic verses seemingly implying that Hell is not eternal, that even those condemned to hell (which includes all unbelievers) will get a chance to enter heaven eventually. They accepted the Quranic doctrine that God alone decides who becomes Muslim and who non-Muslim, and that it is only up to Him to punish wrong human “choices”. The orthodox reading is a fatalistic one, viz. that man has no real choice and that God is the only real agent in the universe, the rest of us being mere pawns in His game. But these Ahmadiyas said it means that God has willed the existence of different religions, and that this is a Quranic basis for religious pluralism.

Even more surprisingly, they effectively nullified the notion of “false gods”, since other gods but Allah are in reality merely other names for the same Allah: “There is no god but Allah, He is the god worshipped by Zarathustra, Krishna, Buddha and all other prophets. Mohammed accepted that messengers had been sent to all nations. Eventhough not mentioned by name, Zarathustra, Krishna, Buddha and others are acknowledged as valid by the Prophet.”

This comes close to the notion of the “common truth underlying all religions”, preached by Baha’ullah, Mahatma Gandhi and other moderns. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad lived and worked in the same colonial, proto-globalist context, the time when Ludwig Zamenhof a.k.a. “Dr. Esperanto” launched his “international language” as an instrument for world peace. The Baha’is and Ahmadiyas are two sects of Islam that came under the influence of the internationalist spirit of the age and increasingly started taking the “common truth underlying all religions” seriously. This is the philosophy underlying most contemporary interreligious initiatives. It sounds nice but is abhorred by religious orthodoxies, and I’m afraid it only convinces those who already take a liberal view of religious truth claims.

The liberal interpretations of Islamic scripture by the Belgium-based Ahmadiya community are theologically questionable, indeed they are sharply rejected by the orthodox. But there is no question that the people I met were entirely serious about them. Maybe the Quran does not truly support religious pluralism, but these people clearly do.

This, then, is my personal reason for supporting interreligious dialogue in principle. It doesn’t get the participants doctrinally closer, they are in no mood to change their minds about their cherished beliefs, not even by their dialogue partners; but it brings them humanly closer. Perhaps my speaking some Urdu had something to do with it, but I found the Ahmadiya hosts a very friendly group, in the sense that I felt like being among friends. The use of personal encounters with people representing other religions, even gravely distrusted ones like Islam, is to remind us that they are not abstract quantities in a discourse on “jihadist infiltration” and “demographic aggression”, but real people.

I get a lot of criticism these days for allegedly going soft on “the threat of Islam”. I remain perfectly aware of the problem that Islam poses. But I insist that any solution must start from the realization that Muslims are human beings who, like the rest of us, have merely developed an identification with the religion they happened to be born into. It is possible to outgrow one’s early conditioning, as I have done to quite an extent. We should not deny them the opportunity to go through a similar growth process, but we should respect their human freedom and capacity to discover the truth for themselves. Underneath the crust of religious doctrine, there is in them the same lava of longing for truth, pushing to break free.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

No more handshakes

In the Netherlands, and no doubt other countries as well, Muslims have drawn attention to themselves by refusing to shake hands with women officials. While their specific motives are open to criticism, there may nonetheless be a good justification for not jumping into the risks of the handshake, let alone the kiss. Stop all this huggy-bear and kissy-face.

Some time back, I had to take high doses of a medicine that neutralizes the immunity system. In accordance with medical advice, I abstained from the usual handshaking and kissing that is common in our part of the world when you meet a relative, friend or occasional acquaintance. Actually I liked it, especially after people had accepted this odd new habit of mine. There were, after all, good alternatives established by centuries-old custom. I India, I rarely shook hands, and that only with Westernized Indians. Hindus would fold their hands and say "Namaste" or more colloquially "Raam Raam", Muslims would touch their hand palm to their forehead and say "Aadaab Arz" or "Salaam". Chinese people with a sense of tradition put their right fist in their left palm in front of the chest and bow slightly.

Touching someone is a mutual invasion of privacy with all the impurities you carry. Therefore, some cultures consider it a very intimate act not entered into loosely. While they didn't know about micro-organisms, they sensed correctly that such an invasion may have more than merely symbolic effects. Today, with the Swine Flu paranoia, health authorities advise the public to refrain from kissing and shaking hands except in situations of true and intentional intimacy. So, the coolies and fellahs were right all along. We ought to learn from them.

A handshake between a man and a woman creates an additional problem. The purity threat in the traditional view is in this case that the woman may be menstruating. This constitutes a radical impurity in most traditional cultures in South and West Asia, Africa and elsewhere, to the extent that menstruating women are not allowed into their own house nor to prepare food. This is also the reason why women are often not allowed into particularly sacred spaces. In this respect, Christianity was a forerunner of modernity by generally ignoring this monthly impurity, though it barred women from becoming priests or speaking in the assembly for other reasons.

But apart from the taboo on touching a woman in a state of impurity, there are more reasons for frowning upon a handshake between man and woman. In Islam, there is a veritable obsession with the chance that the slightest provocation may arouse in them an unstoppable sexual arousal. That is why a woman must not show an inch of flesh or hair, and why she is not permitted to spend even the shortest time in the sole company of a man who is not a direct relative of hers, such as a medical doctor making a diagnosis. Give a man and a woman half a chance and they will have a go at each other right away.

In European and some other civilizations, by contrast, a man is expected to control himself even when exposed to a woman's near and less-than-fully-covered presence. But he too should not shake hands with her. A handshake, after all, is a form of greeting between equals. When you are received in audience by the Pope, you don't shake hands with him, you kneel and kiss his ring. Likewise, when you meet a woman, you must use a form of greeting that befits your inequality.

In some respects, a woman is considered inferior, in others superior. In Chinese, a language expressive of a patriarchal but courteous culture, the numerical classifier zuo, "pedestal", is used for both women (sanzuo nüren, "three women") and mountains, (sanzuo shan, "three mountains"), because a woman is something you look up to and possibly aspire to climb. She is never your equal, never "one of the boys". Depending on who she is to you, a gentleman of the old school may take off his hat and bow, or he may kiss her hand, or nod and give a merely verbal greeting. Us carefree moderns would feel more comfortable giving her a hug or a kiss on the face, slightly more intimate but at any rate allowing for an expression of the distinction between man and woman.

A handshake, by contrast, is a purely symmetrical gesture, and therefore contrary to the traditional sense of courtesy, which always wants to do justice to people's specific status. It is a recent innovation, and there is always something uneasy about it. Let us follow the example of our Muslim fellow-countrymen and take some distance from the modern ways at least in this respect.

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