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Archive for September, 2014

To Light a Candle

Sunday’s post on the Bahá’í World News Service describes the premiere, hosted by Omid Djalili,  of a film depicting the prolonged persecution of the Bahá’ís of Iran. Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

A powerful new documentary film, telling the story of the Baha’is of Iran and their peaceful response to decades of state-sponsored persecution, had its UK premiere on 12 September.

Using interviews, personal stories, and archival footage – often smuggled out of Iran at great personal risk – the film, titled To Light a Candle, highlights the constructive resilience of Iran’s young Baha’is who, in the face of systematic attempts by the Iranian regime to bar them from higher education, developed an informal arrangement known as the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), through which they could have access to university-level courses.

“It’s a beautiful and simply told documentary that will hopefully draw attention to an issue that is in and out of the news only very sporadically,” said the Anglo-Iranian actor and comedian Omid Djalili, who introduced the screening at the Hackney Picturehouse in London.

The film has been made by acclaimed journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari. He was Newsweek‘s Iran reporter from 1998 to 2011 and has produced a number of other documentary films about Iran. Mr. Bahari is not a member of the Baha’i community.

“The story needed a level-headed journalistic approach and that’s precisely what it got,” said Mr. Djalili, who described the documentary as “both extraordinary and highly emotional.”

The film vividly documents that the threat of arrest and imprisonment is a daily reality for Iran’s Baha’is, as academics barred from pursuing their professions attempt to educate young people in private homes.

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Bird print

The much earlier post on interconnectedness included a declaration of intent – I was going to seek a deeper understanding of the concept both by reading and by the practice of mindfulness, amongst other things. So, how have things been going in this latest phase of mindfulness practice from Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness?

To be honest, not too well.

It’s true that I spotted the faint bird print (see photo above) on the front room window as soon as I walked in, so I am definitely more observant than I was. You may need to click on the photo to see the effect more clearly. The bird had flown off again so I think there was no serious harm done.

However, I am rediscovering why I have avoided doing mindfulness exercises all these years and been sticking to following the breath instead. Using the breath works in the way I once read described very vividly. In the early days of meditating, before I learned more about the cruelty of some mahouts (see links for the pros and cons of this view), this seemed a charming story to illustrate why and how following the breath works to steady the mind.

When a mahout is taking an elephant through the market place, if the elephant’s trunk is free it snatches a banana here and a mango there from the stalls it passes. If the mahout gets the elephant to hold a short bamboo stick in its trunk it can’t do this anymore. So, if you give the mind a focus for its attention it becomes less distracted by passing thoughts.

So, the first exercises I did, which incorporated either following the breath or scanning the body, played to my strengths and I managed fairly well.

When, as now, I am asked to sit and simply watch my thoughts as they come and go, I am lost almost before I start, even when the lead in is to notice the sounds with which we are constantly surrounded, including the softest ones we usually don’t hear. I can do the sounds part of the exercise easily. My hearing is still pretty good and I can catch sounds at the edge of silence.

Once I switch to watching thoughts a problem emerges.

Because I hear thoughts rather than see them, instructions to watch the cloud of a thought as it passes across the sky of my mind simply doesn’t work. There’s nothing to see. What actually happens is that a thought comes into my brain either bubbling up from the bottom of my mind, soaking straight into my blotting paper attention, or through my right ear and passes straight into the centre of my brain, by which time in either case I am usually riding on this train of thought and have to remind myself to get off.

Because a sound in the outside world comes and goes there’s no need to get off. It passes and the next one comes. No problem.

When a thought comes, and it’s usually from the Writing Mind in the form of an edit to the draft of a blog post or a poem at present, I’m riding off to Scribbleland before I even realise. And this keeps happening. I haven’t yet found a way of not identifying with the thought at that first moment.

I am getting better at spotting more quickly that I’m on board and can scramble off faster, but can’t seem to eliminate that first moment of complete engagement. On balance though things are improving, especially in terms of the basic practices. This registers in a better baseline level of feeling grounded and calm, even in situations that would have created more tension in the past.

Garden party

 

It’s interesting too that in real life situations I listen better than I see. We were at a charming garden party recently and fell into an absorbing conversation with a young couple. When I saw the photograph the hostess had taken of our group I was amazed to see that both husband and wife had their sunglasses on their heads, and he had taken off his sandals and put them on the grass. I had been so engaged in the conversation I never noticed this.

It reminds me of those experiments about selective attention where they ask people to watch a video of a basketball match and count the passes. 60% of those who did this study failed to spot the stooge in a gorilla costume walking through the action. Or that other study where someone stops to interview a passer-by in the street. While they are talking a prearranged couple of workmen cut between them with a massive piece of wood. While this is happening, a different interviewer is substituted, and most people don’t even notice. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself in diagnosing my blind spot about the sunglasses and the sandals as a failure of mindfulness.

In any case I should simply be noting my own self-criticism as just another thought instead of buying into it.

Better luck next time, I hope.

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An undated photograph of Shadan Shirazi, taken from one of the more than two dozen Persian-language websites that told of her exclusion from university after scoring highly on the national entrance examination.

An undated photograph of Shadan Shirazi, taken from one of the more than two dozen Persian-language websites that told of her exclusion from university after scoring highly on the national entrance examination.

A recent article in the Huffington Post by Greenblatt and Milani describes in detail the continuing discrimination against Bahá’ís within the Iranian educational system. The regime does not seem to realise that this exclusion of able students from its universities and colleges is not only pernicious prejudice, but also augments its existing brain drain to its own long-term disadvantage.  

Shadan Shirazi’s story, mentioned below, is told in more detail on the Bahá’í World News Service website where it also explains exactly what the ‘evaluation centre’ ploy is meant to achieve: 

But Ms. Shirazi’s story sheds light on a new tactic adopted this year by the government to prevent young Iranian Baha’is from entering Iranian universities. The story of her injustice has also stirred the outrage of many Iranians, who have told and re-told it on more than two dozen Persian-language websites. 

The new tactic involves an apparent effort by the government to deprive Baha’is of any document or paper that can be used to prove that they were denied access to higher education because of their religious beliefs. In recent years, for example, they were told that their files were “incomplete” when they tried to get college entrance examinations results. Whether flashed on a computer screen and printed out or delivered by letter, that message left a paper trail.

This year, however, Baha’is like Ms. Shirazi are being told to go the local testing office for their results. There, often after considerable evasion and runaround, they are ultimately shown but not physically given papers that say only Muslims and “officially recognized minorities” are allowed to be accepted into university.

Below is an extract from the Huffington Post: for the full post see link.

While we as Americans believe that education is the vehicle for unlocking the potential of a society and key to economic growth, every year, the Islamic Republic of Iran shuts the doors of its colleges to thousands of its own citizens solely on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The academic year is now in full swing. College students around the world have settled into their routine, writing papers and preparing for exams. Yet Baha’i students in Iran face a different challenge: discrimination-based rejection and even expulsion from Iran’s universities, denying them a future.

Iran has historically championed freedom and human rights. It has been the birthplace of Zoroastrian, Baha’i and Sufi religions and the land where thanks to the human rights doctrine of Cyrus the Great and the general cultural tolerance, Judaism and Christianity alongside Islam have seen periods of coexistence and prosperity. But today, the Islamic Republic’s constitution which is inspired by the Sharia laws, prescribes second-class status to Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians (and women) with 50 percent rights given to their counterparts, and categorically deprives the followers of the Baha’i faith of any recognition or rights whatsoever.

It’s been estimated that for the past three decades tens of thousands of qualified Baha’i students who revealed their faith have been systematically denied university admission or expelled unceremoniously. . . . .

Among those who . . . . faced an aborted application process is Shadan Shirazi, an aspiring math major who ranked 113 in the entrance exam among over one million applicants. Shadan whose parents have served time in Iran’s prisons for their beliefs, represents the second generation of Baha’is who has been deprived of educational access for the past 36 years. Shadan, like many other students believes that she was automatically recognized by the online application system and directed to the “evaluation center” where even the employees seemed to know her by name. Shadan reports of an inconclusive visit where the officials could not facilitate the completion of her application nor offer an explanation for their decision. Rather, they asked her to put her complaints in writing, which she did. Shadan’s mother believes that these pseudo-appeal processes are just “calming” strategies to assuage the frustrated applicants and their families.

Interestingly, Iran was recently named the world’s number one country in its brain drain, reportedly losing up to 150,000 of its intellectual elite annually at an estimated cost of $150 billion. Given such intellectual and financial challenges, wouldn’t Iran be better served if it openly welcomed all of its qualified students regardless of religious belief? Young students such as Shadan and her peers representing the non-recognized religious minorities are at the prime of their educational achievement and like other Iranian students could boost the country’s brainpower and contribute to the growth of their society.

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First cause? The aftermath of the attacks of September 11 2001

First cause? The aftermath of the attacks of September 11 2001

To coincide with the appearance of her new book – Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence – Karen Armstrong published an interesting if not completely convincing piece for the Guardian the day before yesterday. There is an equally interesting riposte by Noel Malcolm in the Telegraph which my good friend, Barney, alerted me to. I shared an extract from her article yesterday. Here is an extract from the response. 

As I stated yesterday, I think each of them make valuable points. However, for me they fail to address clearly a fundamental aspect of the problem which Jonathan Haidt puts his finger on. Idealism, no matter how valuable it may be in many ways, can become fertile soil for murder and torture. Once you believe anything to strongly that the ends come to justify any means whatsoever you’re sunk in iniquity – an issue I have reblogged about recently. The other factors they adduce can all play a part in the toxic mix, and be used as justifications or act as triggers. None the less, if you remove over-identification with an ideology you significantly reduce the risk of an epidemic of atrocities. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is religious or secular.

Still what they say deserves careful consideration in my view. We need all the help we can get to reach a deeper understanding of the processes that lead to such senseless slaughter.

Below is an extract: for the full post see link.

‘Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. We thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11 changed all that.” So said Richard Dawkins, who until his retirement enjoyed the title of Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Some of us began to wonder whether Dawkins had secretly renegotiated the terms of his job, becoming instead the Professor for the Public Misunderstanding of Religion. To argue that one act of terrorism, however extreme, committed by members of one radical movement proved the harmfulness of all religion was a strange piece of reasoning. But, undeniably, it caught a popular mood, and the Dawkins-Hitchens denunciation of religious faith as a force for evil in the world has been on a roll ever since.

If the argument here were just about radical Islamism, this debate would at least have a clear and narrow focus. But the Dawkinsite argument is grafted on to an older tradition of anti-religious rhetoric going back to Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, who compiled an entire history of religiously inspired mayhem – from the brutal campaigns of the ancient Israelites to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the many “wars of religion” in western Europe. This is a heavy burden for any would-be defender of the faith to pick up and deal with.

Karen Armstrong does not flinch from this task. A prolific author of books about religion, she seems to have the right qualifications to be a moderate, non-dogmatic apologist for it: as a former nun, she can see things, so to speak, from both sides of the convent wall. Previously she has written about early religious history as well as modern fundamentalism; her new book runs from the one to the other, from Gilgamesh to bin Laden, covering almost five millennia of human experience in between. This is both an apologia and a history book, aimed always at supplying the context of what may look like religiously motivated episodes of violence, in order to show that religion as such was not the prime cause.

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guns and rosaries

To coincide with yesterday’s publication of her new book – Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence – Karen Armstrong has written an interesting if not completely convincing piece for the Guardian. There is an equally interesting riposte by Noel Malcolm in the Telegraph which my good friend, Barney, alerted me to. I plan to share that tomorrow. 

I think each of them make valuable points. However, for me they fail to address clearly a fundamental aspect of the problem which Jonathan Haidt puts his finger on. Idealism, no matter how valuable it may be in many ways, can become fertile soil for murder and torture. Once you believe anything to strongly that the ends come to justify any means whatsoever you’re sunk in iniquity – an issue I have reblogged about recently. The other factors they adduce can all play a part in the toxic mix, and be used as justifications or act as triggers. None the less, if you remove over-identification with an ideology you significantly reduce the risk of an epidemic of atrocities. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is religious or secular.

Still what she says deserves careful consideration in my view as does Malcolm’s response. We need all the help we can get to reach a deeper understanding of the processes that lead to such senseless slaughter.

Below is an extract: for the full and lengthy post, see link.

As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century. The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants. Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion. Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logical solution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion.

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace.

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Ludlow

Ludlow v2

For an explanation of the significance of the Bahá’í Holy Day, the Declaration of the Báb see link.

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