August 15, 2008
International Conference: Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace
Sometime last month I was given the honour of moderating a lecture by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar at this International Conference: Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace. His political faux-pas aside, I truly resonate with his views on religion.
I am pasting his paper in full here (I hope that is okay!) – with a full citation and attributed to him of course.
TOWARDS A UNIVERSAL SPIRITUAL-MORAL VISION OF GLOBAL JUSTICE AND PEACE.
by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, Universiti Sains Malaysia
Humankind is at a critical juncture. Our very survival as a species is in balance. Our present ideologies and religions do not seem to offer a solution. Because the challenges that confront us are global in nature, it is imperative that the philosophy that guides us in facing them is also truly universal. A universal spiritual-moral vision which seeks global justice and peace for the entire human family is what this imperilled moment in history demands.
What is this universal spiritual-moral vision of global justice and peace? It is universal because it goes beyond religion, culture, community and nationality. It transcends class and gender. It not only binds the citizens of the planet together but also connects them to the planet itself and indeed to all the universes. It is spiritual because it links the human being to the Divine. It endows human life with meaning and purpose as it seeks to comprehend death and this transient existence. It is moral because it accords primacy to values and virtues that elevate the human personality. It regards values as eternal and fundamental, not ephemeral and expedient. Global justice and global peace are all embracing moral values that are not conditioned by situation and circumstance. Attaining them is the goal of our universal spiritual-moral vision.
This vision is not some novel idea spawned by some fringe cult. If we reflected upon the teachings of the great prophets and their lives, it would be clear that their central mission was to ensure that the human being submitted to the Divine, to God, and through that surrender, committed herself to her humanity, to noble values and to virtuous deeds. It was through these values and deeds that the prophets sought to prepare humankind for the journey towards justice and peace. Elaborate rituals and rules, laws and regulations, symbols and practices were not part of the essence of their message. These developed later as the interpretation of their message became the monopoly of religious elites sustained through institutions and authority structures. Indeed, the edifice of religion itself — often named after its founder — with its emphasis upon form and ritual signifying its exclusive identity owes very little to the founder himself.
It is partly because of the institutionalization of the universal divine message through religion that the perennial values of justice and peace that are so essential to that message are often subordinated to the preservation and perpetuation of an exclusive religious identity. The place of worship and the performance of a religious act then become primary while justice for the downtrodden or compassion for the orphan becomes secondary. Of course, right through history there have been individuals and groups in all religions who have given more significance to values and principles that bring forth one’s humanity than to forms and rituals that reinforce one’s exclusive identity. Among them would be the illustrious, universally oriented mystics found in all the religious traditions. The simple and honest lives led by millions of ordinary women and men since time immemorial — whatever the faith they profess — would also be a reflection of the enduring power of that universal spiritual and moral message rooted in the Divine.
There is another reason why that spiritual-moral message has not become a dominant force in most societies. With the exception of small, closely-knit communities in the past that embodied values of egalitarianism, trust and solidarity, the structure and hierarchy of power in most societies whether they were tribal or feudal did not facilitate the translation of spiritual–moral virtues such as equality and respect into realities. Socialist states in recent times may have attempted some sort of redistribution of wealth but were notorious for their concentration of political power in the hands of a small elite thus negating both the principles of equality and human dignity cherished in the spiritual-moral message. Capitalist societies on the other hand however democratic some of them may be allow vast disparities in wealth and status to undermine the dignity and the well-being of the ordinary person. Societies inspired by religion in the past as in the present have also exhibited stark inequities and injustices in their political, economic and social structures and for that reason betray the spiritual-moral vision of the prophets.
In fact, religion more often than not reflects the ideological ethos of a society. It had adjusted to tribalism and feudalism in an earlier age as it has integrated into socialist and capitalist milieus in the contemporary world. Religion often serves power. Power often uses and harnesses religion for its interests. It explains further why the spiritual-moral message has often struggled to express itself in societies, both ancient and modern.
The Contemporary Challenge.
Today, that message faces its greatest challenge ever. The present phase of capitalism — euphemistically described as ‘neo-liberal’ — with its huge global reach is utterly contemptuous of values such as justice and equality and has marginalized the ordinary human being. Its single-minded obsession is with the pursuit of wealth and riches for a miniscule segment of the human family. Consequently, there is greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands on a global scale than ever before while socio-economic disparities between the ‘have-a-lot’ and the ‘have-a-little’ are widening at an alarming rate.
In this grossly unjust, starkly unequal, system, the capital that dominates the globe is speculative capital. This is why contemporary global capitalism is rightly seen as ‘casino capitalism’. By its very nature casino capitalism is a repudiation of all that the spiritual-moral worldview represents. Never before in human history has gambling been institutionalized and legitimized to this degree.
It is not surprising therefore that casino capitalism is one of the major causes of the current global financial crisis — a crisis which has already impoverished millions of people in the Global South and which threatens to reduce millions more to destitution in the coming years. Casino capitalism is also directly linked to the energy crisis which is partly due to massive speculation over oil. The energy crisis is also caused by the unbridled oil consumption of the United States’ elite, and of other elites of the world — a problem that stems from their failure to limit their wants, to control their desires. From a spiritual-moral perspective this lack of restraint in consumption is a serious flaw. There is yet another reason why the energy crisis which has had an adverse impact upon all aspects of life and has been a bane to the world’s poor is linked to spiritual-moral concerns. One of the main explanations for the steep rise in the oil price in recent years is the slide in the US dollar, the currency in which much of the global oil trade is carried out. This slide in turn is the result of a variety of factors including the escalating cost of an immoral war in Iraq, the massive US budgetary and trade deficit, the US’ position as the world’s biggest debtor nation, its tendency to live beyond its means, and its low savings rate. Each of these factors would be totally unacceptable to those moral principles that are central to our spiritual-moral vision.
If we looked at two other crises, we would see how they are also connected to our spiritual-moral vision. The current global food crisis was triggered off to some extent at least by the diversion of essential food crops to the production of bio-fuel to meet the energy demands of the upper stratum of US society. Here again, instead of moderating their own consumption, the elites have chosen to deprive the larger — and invariably the poorer — segment of society of its basic need. From a moral perspective, it is an act of injustice. Similarly, since environmental degradation, specially global warming, is due in part to consumption patterns, elites and the upper stratum of society should bear a bigger slice of the responsibility. Global warming is also caused by indiscriminate logging of rainforests — an activity which in most circumstances reveals the depth of human greed. Indeed, the global environmental crisis testifies to that profound truth that is integral to our spiritual-moral vision: that there is a deep bond between the human family and the environment that we transgress at our own peril.
Underlying the four global crises that confront humankind today — financial, energy, food and environmental — are two traits which from a spiritual-moral standpoint are amongst the basest: greed and selfishness. Greed and selfishness are not just at the root of the grave crises that threaten our very survival as a species. They explain the pursuit of hegemonic power over the planet undertaken by the US elite and its allies. This is why they had invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 respectively. In both instances, the greed for oil and the desire to control strategic regions and routes had played a significant role.
Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate how the greedy, selfish desire for hegemony leads to war and violence. If we took a longer view of the drive for global hegemony, starting perhaps with the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, we would realize that the pursuit of this goal has already claimed millions and millions of lives. This alone renders the pursuit of hegemony an unconscionable goal, a diabolical mission. For the sacredness of life — ‘to kill one human being it is as if one has killed the whole of humankind’— is precious to the spiritual-moral vision. Besides, since hegemony is control and dominance, it is inimical to the idea of the liberation of the human being through submission to God, and God alone, which is at the heart of the spiritual-moral vision, as many of its adherents would opine.
Though war and violence in pursuit of hegemony subverts spiritual-moral norms, there are religious elements that endorse the drive for hegemony. Various groups within the Christian Right for instance, especially Christian Zionists, have been enthusiastic supporters of President George Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his larger Middle East agenda. They work in tandem with some religious Jews, the Jewish Right, which is part of the Zionist Right. For both the Christian Right and the Zionist Right, US hegemony is vital for the perpetuation of Israeli supremacy and for the subjugation of the Palestinians. There are even religious Muslim elites who collude and collaborate with Washington’s drive towards global hegemony in order to protect their own vested interests.
These interests are sometimes intertwined with global capitalism which is why the Hindu Right when it was in power in India was also prepared to work hand in glove with the American hegemony. As with the Zionist Right in Israel, the Hindu Right in India is also preoccupied with its domestic adversaries: the large Muslim minority and the small Christian community. Adopting adversarial stances against ‘the other’, needless to say, contradicts what our spiritual-moral vision represents. The Buddhist Right in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Korea, Taiwan and other Buddhist majority countries is also closely aligned to forces associated with global capitalism. It seldom opposes global hegemony as it expresses itself in regional and international politics.
The most concerted and consistent opposition to hegemony by a group claiming to speak in the name of religion in recent years has come from Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda and other such groups are committed to combating hegemony through violence and terror. They are convinced that global justice and peace can only be accomplished via their strategies. For those of us who subscribe to a spiritual-moral approach, it is not just Al-Qaeda’s methods that are morally reprehensible. One should not separate means from ends. Noble goals cannot be achieved through vile and vicious tactics. On a whole gamut of other issues related to Al-Qaeda’a struggle — the dichotomization of the human family into ‘believers’ and ‘infidels’; the degradation of women; its bigoted interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) — there is total divergence from the spiritual-moral perspective.
It is significant that a lot of other Muslim groups that are also opposed to global hegemony do not endorse Al-Qaeda’s worldview or its mode of struggle. Among these groups there are some who realize that eternal values and principles embodied in Islam should be accorded greater emphasis and importance than rituals and symbols. They are aware that it is the application of these values and principles in the contemporary context that will enable humankind to address the monumental challenges of our time such as the global environmental crisis and the global economic malaise. They know that being honest and accountable, kind and compassionate, just and fair in one’s relations with one’s fellow human beings, is what actually constitutes fidelity to God. Loyalty to God should supercede loyalty to religion.
This type of thinking about God and religion can be found in almost all religious communities today. Among progressive Catholics and Protestants for instance there is not only pronounced and principled criticism of global hegemony and global capitalism but also a profound commitment to an inclusive and universal understanding of Christianity. There are also Jewish rabbis and intellectuals who parallel their Christian counterparts on the question of imperialism on the one hand and the challenge of internal reform on the other. Hindu and Buddhist reformers have for some time now been arguing for an approach to religion that bestows primacy to universal values and principles without being trapped in elaborate rituals and practices.
Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who are opposed to global hegemony and global capitalism, who understand the primacy of values and principles in their respective religions and who view their faiths from a universal, inclusive perspective, are consciously or unconsciously advocates of that spiritual-moral vision of global justice and peace that we have articulated in our presentation. It is imperative that they communicate much more with one another. They should join forces in fighting against the grave global injustices that confront humankind today. As they struggle together, their bond of solidarity will get stronger. In the process, their shared universal spiritual-moral vision of global justice and peace will become clearer.
It is apparent that the advocates of a universal spiritual-moral vision are faced with two challenges. One, within each religion they will have to endeavour to strengthen the quintessence of faith, reinforce that fundamental message of justice, dignity and compassion which is what the universal spiritual-moral vision is all about. This will be no easy task. It demands nothing less than a revolution within religion. Ritual and form will have to be subordinated to principle and value. An exclusive notion of religious identity will have to yield to an inclusive concept of human identity which goes beyond one’s own religion. Truth will no longer be the prerogative of a particular text or tradition. It will be the universal possession of the entire human family. Two, it will only be logical to nurture and nourish this universal spiritual-moral vision in one’s own faith through interaction with individuals and groups from other religions who also espouse such a vision. Indeed, multi-faith interaction, as we have observed, is crucial for the strengthening of this universal message. And today, more than at any other time in the past, we humans have become deeply conscious of the importance of transcending our own religious identity as we confront grave global crises that cut across religious boundaries. We know that we simply cannot overcome any of these crises if we choose to stick to our own religious kind.
In other words, we are forced to reach out to the other, as a human being, in the interest of our mutual survival. As we reach out, our human identity becomes paramount. It is this recognition of our common human bond that will persuade us to embrace a universal spiritual-moral vision that seeks justice and peace for the entire human family.
In that quest lies our tryst with the Divine.
Universiti Sains Malaysia (Penang)