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Jottings 11: self-immolators and suicide bombers?

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — on some aspects of religiously motivated suicide, and I’m not clear why I called this one a jotting, since it’s quite long and detailed ]
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I have been taking a couple of online courses on terrorism in recent months, and in one of them I ran across a Foreign Policy article titled Ultimate Sacrifice: What’s the difference between self-immolators and suicide bombers?

… there is another form of deadly protest that has made a resurgence in recent years. Not only did Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s fiery suicide ignite the region and inspire subsequent self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, but a growing number of Tibetans have also set themselves alight to protest Chinese rule in Tibetan region

It’s an intriguing question, phrased by one of my fellow students as the question, “Can Tibetan Self-immolators be considered “terrorists”?

**

I did my “due diligence” research, and came up with some articles worth reading:

  • Tenzin Tharchen, 125 Self-Immonlations: why suicide by fire protests continue in Tibet
  • Tsering Shakya, Self-Immolation, the Changing Language of Protest in Tibet
  • Martin Kovan, Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahayanist Absolute Altruism
  • while my interlocutor offered this one:

  • Jose Cabezon, On The Ethics Of The Tibetan Self-Immolations
  • But you know, the mind has indirect back-channels as well as direct information freeways, and the question seems to have been percolating while I’ve been asleep.

    **

    Sonam Wangyal, Lama Sobha, was the first Tibetan lama to self-immolate, and left a cassette tape in which he explained his motives:

    I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them — each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts — to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.

    The full text of Lama Sobha’s message can be found at the bottom of an International Campaign for Tibet page titled Harrowing images and last message from Tibet of first lama to self-immolate — the “harrowing images” themselves are linked to, but not shown.

    **

    The Chinese come close to targeting Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists, using the terms “Splittist”– so often also used of the Dalai Lama — and calling their actions “intentional homicide”. This from the “>Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Tibet:

    Nonetheless, the response by the Chinese authorities to self-immolations by Tibetans has been extremely draconian, largely because of an assumption that all protest by Tibetans must be intrinsically “splittist” (that is, secessionist). In particular, it has involved the formulation of new laws that seem to target Tibetans specifically, and the imposition of collective punishments, and the application of the crime of “intentional homicide” to all those aiding, abetting, encouraging or even photographing self-immolations.

    **

    It occurs to me that sacrificing oneself for the benefit of other beings is symbolically enacted in the Tibetan Chöd ritual, in which one symbolically feeds the parts of one’s body to the pretas or hungry demons to satiate them and put them to sleep — and also in some of the Jataka Tales of the previous rebirths of the Shakyamuni Buddha.

    I’m thinking particularly of The Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress, and will quote here from Edward Conze‘s telling in Buddhist Scriptures, pp 24-26. On being told that self-sacrifice is difficult, Mahasattva (the future Buddha) replies:

    It is difficult for people like us, who are so fond of our lives and bodies, and who have so little intelligence. It is not difficult at all, however, for others, who are true men, intent on benefitting their fellow-creatures, and who long to sacrifice themselves. Holy men are born of pity and compassion. Whatever the bodies they may get, in heaven or on earth, a hundred times will they undo them, joyful in their hearts, so that the lives of others may be saved.

    His prayer before offering his own body and blood to feed an ailing tigress and her cubs is:

    For the weal of the world I wish to win enlightenment, incomparably wonderful. From deep compassion I now give away my body, so hard to quit, unshaken in my mind. That enlightenment I shall now gain, in which nothing hurts and nothing harms.

    Assuming the Jataka tales made it to Tibet, this one might be a potent influence on potential self-immolators.

    **

    A possible Tamil “comparable” — presumably Hindu rather than Buddhist, culturally if not religiously:

    When young Murugathasan Varnakulasingham (aged 26) committed self-immolation in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva on 19 February 2009 he was protesting against international failures of intervention in the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in northern Sri Lanka, where he believed that large bodies of Tamil people faced extinction by the Sri Lankan government. “The flames over my body will be a torch to guide you through the liberation path,” he wrote in his parting letter.

    There have been a few other protest suicides by Tamils in Tamilnadu and Malaysia, but Varnakulasingham’s altruistic act probably garnered the most attention.

    **

    Further thoughts:

    There’s always Samson, pulling down the pillars that upheld the roof of their temple on the Philistines, once he’d regrown his hair and strength…

    Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand. And when the people saw him, they praised their god: for they said, Our god hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us. And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they set him between the pillars. And Samson said unto the lad that held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them. Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport. And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

    — Judges 16.23-30 — not quite self-immolation, not quite suicide bombing, but certainly suicidal warfare with a religious motive.

    Okay, When Christians quote John 15.13:

    Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

    surely they include in their understanding of that verse, those who throw their bodies on top of grenades to protect their comrades — which would seem in its own way to parallel the teaching of the Jataka Tale.

    **

    Likewise, when Muslims quote the hadith from Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 53, in which the Prophet says:

    Narrated Anas bin Malik:

    The Prophet said, “Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause).”

    and from Sahih Muslim, Chapter 28, Book 020, Number 4626:

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace upon him) said:

    [ … ] By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, if it were not to be too hard upon the Muslims. I would not lag behind any expedition which is going to fight in the cause of Allah. But I do not have abundant means to provide them (the Mujahids) with riding beasts, nor have they (i.e. all of them) abundant means (to provide themselves with all the means of Jihad) so that they could he left behind. By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, I love to fight in the way of Allah and be killed, to fight and again be killed and to fight again and be killed.

    — how close are we to Nathan Hale:

    I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country

    — and behind that, to Joseph Addison:

    What a pity it is
    That we can die but once to serve our country.

    — that’s from Addison’s now obscure play, Cato, a Tragedy, Act IV, Scene 4

    **

    Of course, the way to stop self-immolations in Tibet is simple — put up a notice:

    See also New document sheds light on China’s campaign against self-immolations in Tibet

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    Jottings 10: The rabbi who cried Allahu Akbar

    Monday, February 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — expect the unexpected ]
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    I can’t claim to understand Hebrew or Arabic, but the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, a leading Gush Emunim settler rabbi, can clearly be heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” at 5.37 and then repeatedly at 5.42 and following.

    What’s going on?

    **

    I wrote a while back:

    I am hoping to make Jottings a continuing series of brief posts, some serious and some light-hearted, that release the toxins of fascination and abhorrence from my system rapidly, ie without too much time spent in research. Jottings — hey, my degree was in Theology, Mother of the Sciences — derives from the English “jot” — and thence from the Greek iota and Hebrew yod, see Wikipedia on jots and tittles.

    Today, I hope to post four more of them. This one’s the first.

    **

    Rabbi Froman was visiting a mosque that had been desecrated the previous day by a group of his fellow settlers, who had scribbled the phrase “price tag” and some slurs against the Prophet on the walls, then set the mosque on fire.

    Harvard Professor Noah Feldman, in a Bloomberg op-ed titled Is a Jew Meshuga for Wanting to Live in Palestine? explains:

    If Israelis and Palestinians agree on one thing, it’s that more settlements in the West Bank will eventually make a two-state solution impossible. Rabbi Menachem Froman, who died on March 4 at age 68, thought differently.

    Froman was a proud and early settler, a founder of the hard-line Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”), theologically committed to permanent Jewish settlement in what he considered historical Judea and Samaria. But Froman also fully accepted the idea of a Palestinian state there — in which he and his fellow settlers would continue to live as minority citizens.

    Crazy, you say — as did just about everyone else in Israel, to say nothing of other settlers. Froman played up the appearance of madness by appearing in Palestinian villages in his prayer shawl, tefillin (phylacteries) and long white beard and blessing the people in Arabic and Hebrew. His acting and speaking like a biblical figure further underscored the impression that he was some sort of unrealistic prophet, whether utopian or dystopian resting in the eye of the beholder.

    But why, really, is it impossible to imagine that religiously committed Jews might live under Palestinian sovereignty as citizens in the way that some Palestinian Arabs live under Jewish sovereignty in Israel proper? Looking at the standard reasons carefully, instead of just assuming their truth, can provide us with a much-needed thought experiment about the viability of the two-state solution, which looks increasingly tenuous to its supporters and critics alike.

    Food for whatever that thing is that hearts and minds do.

    **

    Related readings:

  • Yair Rosenberg, To Save the Peace Process, Get Religion
  • International Crisis Group, Leap of Faith: Israel’s National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  • Adam Garfinkle, If Kerry Wants To Make Peace in the Middle East, He Should Just Put God In Charge
  • **

    Allahu Akbar — God is Great. Not such an unexpected sentiment coming from a rabbi, after all?

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    Oklahoma and the various believers

    Thursday, January 9th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — puzzled, amused, and a little pained by these goings on ]
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    There’s a new-ish monument of the Ten Commandments at the Oklahoma state capitol, and now some Satanists want to erect a statue of their deity, and Oklahoman Hindus are chiming in with their own proposal…

    Okay, as far as I’m personally concerned, Satan (above, upper panel) can get behind me — far behind, not right behind, preferably — while I’m happy to have a small statue of a Hindu deity above my desk — although in my case it’s Ganesh rather than Hanuman (above, lower panel), since Ganesh is the patron of writers. But that’s my personal take.

    Oklahoma, however…

    Let me put it this way. I suspect the Satanists are mostly drawn by the thrill of doing something the French have a handy phrase for: épater le bourgeois — literally shock the bourgeois, or more colloquially, blow their tiny minds

    To be honest with you, I think that’s not a bad motto for poets and artists in their teens and twenties, Rimbaud, even Baudelaire… but being shocking at my age, even if you’re a poet, gets frankly tedious, and trying to build or conserve a civiliation on that basis — more than a little ridiculous.

    Those who have a devotion to Hanuman, on the other hand, are simply members of one world culture among many in this grand American experiment.

    So let me put it this way: putting up a monument that proclaims “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” — in a nation proudly founded on the principle of freedom of religion — really does offer the épateurs a hyper-juicy opportunity to do some blowing of minds — though just whose minds are “tiny” here is not a discussion I choose to enter.

    And Hanuman, Lord Rama‘s friend? Well, if there’s a freedom of religion issue, all parties have a right to their beliefs…

    **

    One of the reasons some religions ban religious imagery is because so many of us mistake the image for the deity it’s supposed to represent. And contrariwise, one of the reasons some religions treasure their religious imagery is because so many of us are reminded of the deity it represents. So you’ll often find both iconoclasts and iconodules, puritans and poets, the via negativa and the via positiva — the great cathedrals and the dissolution of the monasteries, the Bamiyan Buddhas and the Taliban.

    Laws have a difficult time coming to terms with paradoxes of this nature.

    What’s needed is greater human understanding and consideration. As in the Two Commandment (abridged) version found in Matthew 22. 27-29.

    But please don’t make a monument out of that…

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    Happy Thanksgiving

    Thursday, November 28th, 2013

    [ from the crew at Zenpundit via Charles Cameron ]
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    Blog-friend Michael Robinson emailed me yesterday to let me know that the (US) National Archives have now posted all their Thanksgiving films — many taken abroad in war zones — and suggested Zenpundit’s readers might enjoy one or more of them.

    This first clip from 1930 is almost more of an online education than I need, but if my tech skillz are sufficient it should be followed by others from the same archive — several clips in the series showing wartime Thanksgivings during WWII, in Vietnam and elsewhere.

    My 70th birthday fell yesterday, so that first clip would have been shot a dozen years before I was born: time flies. As a Brit, I didn’t run acrsss Thanksgiving until I was in India of all places, decades later — and this evening I’ll be celebrating it here in California with my boys.

    So before I go spruce myself up for the event, I’d like to wish a Happy Thanksgiving — and Chag Sameach — as appropriate, to all our ZP readers.

    And thanks, Michael, for the suggestion!

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    Kristallnacht at Seventy-five

    Monday, November 11th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — of fire and light ]
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    Since Zen tweeted a link to my own Armistice Day, Veterans Day post from last year and posted his own The Vietnam War at Fifty today, I’d going to skip back a day or two in my own calendar this time, and commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which fell on the night of November 9/10, 1938.

    I believe this is a photo of the Hannover synagogue burning:

    **

    I don’t know how we even begin to think about this.

    George Steiner famously said “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning” — and also observed, “The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason” — and Adorno: “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”.

    Contemplating that photo of the burning of the Hannover synagogue, then, I am thrown back on a story told of the rabbi — a disciple of Rabbi Gershon — who came to visit the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, and to whom that great master first revealed his spiritual station:

    In the night the rabbi found no sleep. It seemed to him as if here and now the wonder of the far and the wonder of the near must flow together. In the middle of the night the command came to him, soundless and without form. He arose and went. Then he was already in the other chamber and saw: The chamber was filled with flames up to the height of a man. They rose dull and sombre, as if they were consuming something heavy, hidden. No smoke ascended from the fire, and all the furniture remained uninjured. But in the middle of the fire stood the master with uplifted forehead and closed eyes.

    The rabbi saw further that a division had taken place in the fire which gave birth to a light, and the light was like a ceiling over the flames. The light was twofold. Underneath it was bluish and belonged to the fire, but above the light was white and unmoving and extended from around the head of the master unto the walls. The bluish light was the throne of the white, the white rested on it as on a throne. The colours of the bluish light changed incessantly, at times to black and at times to a red wave. But the light above never changed, it always remained white. . Now the bluish light became wholly fire, and the fire’s consuming became its consuming. But the white light that rested on it did not consume and had no community with the flame.

    The rabbi saw that the head of the master stood entirely in the white light. The flames which leaped upward on the body of the master turned to light, and every little while the amount of light increased. At last all the fire became light. The blue light began to penetrate into the white, but every wave that penetrated itself became white and unchanging. The rabbi saw that the master stood entirely in white light. But over his head there rested a hidden light that was free of all earthly aspects and only in secret revealed to the beholder.

    It was thus that the Baal Shem Tov become known to the wider world.

    **

    If I might draw the moral here, suiting my tale (quoted from Martin Buber‘s The Legend of the Baal-Shem) to the occasion — there is fire that destroys, and there is light indestructible.

    We choose, always we choose.

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