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Iran is a classic wicked problem

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Iran, unknown unknowns, Madhyamika philosophy and a blessed unknowing ]

image from Jackson Pollock / AustinKids
an artist’s representation of a wicked problem to be untangled?


Dr. TX Hammes, who will need no introduction to most ZP readers, wrote a few days back in On Bombing Iran, A False Choice:

While there has been some discussion of Iran closing the Straits of Hormuz, there has been no consideration of other Iranian actions – mining harbors overseas (using merchant ships), major attacks on oil production chokepoints globally or major terror attacks using the nuclear equivalent explosive power inherent in many industrial practices. In short, bombing proponents assume Iran will be an essentially supine enemy and not attempt to expand the conflict geographically or chronographically.

Iran is a classic wicked problem. Any “solution” brings a new set of problems. Lacking a solution, the strategist’s job is to think through how to manage such a problem.

My train of thought now departing the National Defense University on Dr Hammes’ platform will make its way with stops at Hans Morgenthau, Jeff Conklin and Richard Feynman to a final destination deep in the heartland of Buddhist Madhyamika philosophy with Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel.


Drs. Francis J. Gavin and James B. Steinberg‘s recent Foreign Policy piece The Unknown Unknowns carried the subtitle:

If the past half-century of American political history has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t possibly know the consequences of bombing — or not bombing — Iran

and opined:

Based on our experiences — one of us a former senior policymaker, the other a historian of U.S. foreign policy — we are convinced that the “right” answer, but the one you will never read on blogs or hear on any cable news network, is that we simply cannot know ahead of time, with any degree of certainty, what the optimal policy will turn out to be. Why? Even if forecasters could provide probabilities about the likelihood of a narrow, specific event, it is simply beyond the capacity of human foresight to make confident predictions about the short- and long-term global consequences of a military strike against Iran.


It appears that this sense of unknowing has application beyond the specific question of whether or not to bomb Iran. Blog-friend Peter J Munson just the other day quoted Hans Morgenthau in a short SWJ piece titled Gentile: Realities of a Syrian Intervention — using a Morgenthau quote that he also features as an epigraph to his book, Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.

So that’s Iran, Iraq and Syria — but the Morgenthau quote itself, from his Politics among Nations, is even more general in application:

The first lesson the student of international politics must learn and never forget is that the complexities of international affairs make simple solutions and trustworthy prophecies impossible.



And it goes further. Love that quote from Laurence J Peters that Jeff Conklin uses as the epigraph to his seminal paper on Wicked Problems:

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them

Next up, here’s the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman speaking in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a Horizon / Nova interview, illustrating the approach Morgenthau takes to international relations as applicable to the grand issues of philosophy, religion and science:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean.


And how far is that from Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, student and wife of the lama Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, writing in her book on Madhyamika, The Power of an Open Question (p. 58):

Maybe experiencing complexity brings us closer to reality than does thinking we’ve actually figured things out. False certainty doesn’t finalize anything. Things keep moving and changing. They are influenced by countless variables, twists and turns … never for a moment settling into thingness. So maybe we should question the accuracy or limitations of this kind of false certainty. Conflicting information confuses us only when we’re trying to reach a definite conclusion. But if we’re not trying to reach a conclusion in the first place — if we just observe and pay attention — we may actually have a fuller, more accurate reading of whatever we encounter.


Zen, too, welcomes this “open ended” approach in its working with koans, those mysterious and / or paradoxical riddles and / or poetic statements and / or legal cases for which such teachers as Dogen Zenji had such affection. In the words of Shozan Jack Haubner:

The searching, open-ended nature of koan work yields the kind of answer, however, that frustrates easy analysis, not to mention that most exquisite of all human pleasures: being “right.” For, ultimately, koan practice teaches that as long as a question is alive in the world around us, it should not — indeed, cannot — be settled once and for all within us. Koan practice does not put life’s deepest issues “to bed.” It wakes these issues up within us, waking us up in the process.

or consider this, from Lin Jensen, An Ear to the Ground: Uncovering the living source of Zen ethics:

Judgments on right and wrong are a nearly irresistible enticement to pick sides. And that’s exactly why the old Zen masters warned against becoming a person of right and wrong. It isn’t that the masters were indifferent to questions of ethics, but for them ethical conduct went beyond simply taking the prescribed right side. For these masters, the source of ethical conduct is found in the way things are, circumstance itself: unfiltered immediate reality reveals what is needed.

Policy-makers, of course, can’t suspend judgment indefinitely — but maybe a contemplative approach in general would make them better prepared for snap judgments and sound intuitions when such are called for. Clausewitz [grinning, with an h/t to Zen here]:

When all is said and done, it really is the commander’s coup d’œil, his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.


And let’s go the distance…

Here’s Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel again, from an online retreat she gave last year for subscribers to Tricycle magazine:

We need to ask, what is love or beauty or pain before we objectify it? what happens when we can abide without conclusions? you know, these are questions for the practitioner, practitioners questions… and I wanted to use one word in Tibetan that I’ve found very useful for myself… and this is the word zöpa.. this translates usually as patience or endurance or tolerance, but there’s this very subtle translation of zöpa, which is the ability to tolerate emptiness basically, which is another ways of saying the ability to tolerate that things don’t exist in one way, that things are so full and infinite and leave you so speechless, and so undefinably grand – and these are just descriptive words, but you have to use some words to communicate, I guess — the ability to bear that, that fullness, like we’ve been talking about, not turning away, not turning away.

A fatwa on the disposal of the Qur’an by fire

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — fire, respect, or local fury? a meld of motives ]

Yesterday my friend and colleague Dr Tim Furnish posted a piece on the permissibility of Qur’an burning on PJ Media under the title Burning Defaced Korans: Islam-Approved. My own experience of Islam is colored by almost fifty years of exposure to the Sufi poets (I corresponded with Thomas Merton about “dervish” spirituality in 1964, see Merton’s Road to Joy: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To New And Old Friends, p. 333), so my emphasis in these matters differs somewhat from that of Dr Furnish, but I wanted in particular to thank him for pointing us all to the fatwa issued by the Permanent Committee of Research & Islaamic Rulings Of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which informs us, among other things, that:

It has been confirmed in Saheeh al Bukhaaree in the chapter entitled, “The Collection of The Qur’an”, that ‘Uthmaan Bin ‘Afaan (radi Allahu ‘anhu) ordered four of the good and righteous reciters from the Sahaabah to transcribe copies of the Qur’an from the Mushaf which was gathered by the command of Abu Bakr (radi Allahu ‘anhu). When they completed this task, ‘Uthmaan sent out copies of these Qur’ans to every region. Then he ordered that all other pages and copies of the Qur’an be burnt.

The Director of Religious Affairs of the Islamic Center of Southern California, Imam Jihad Turk, similarly remarked in an NPR interview last September (again, h/t to Dr Furnish for the pointer):

The Qur’an as an idea is something that is in the hearts and the minds of the believers and followers of Islam. It’s not the actual text. It’s not the piece of paper. Muslims don’t worship the text of the Qur’an or destroy the Qur’an.

Although it’s not sacred or something that’s worshiped, it is considered the representation of the sacred word of God, and given that it’s a representation of it, a Muslim would want to make sure that it’s treated respectfully.

When Muslims want to respectfully dispose of a text of the Qur’an that is no longer usable, we will burn it. So if someone, for example, in their own private collection or library had a text of the Qur’an that was damaged or that was in disrepair, so the binding was ruined, etc., or it got torn, they might bring it by to the Islamic Center and ask that someone here dispose of it properly if they were unsure how to do that. And what I’ll do is I’ll take it to my fireplace at home and burn it there in the fireplace. So I sort of take the pages out and then burn it to make sure that it gets thoroughly charred and is no longer recognizable as script.

In the Islamic tradition, it’s the Arabic that is really considered the authentic, original scripture. The very early scripture of the Qur’an—when it was first collated and put into a binding there were a lot of loose papers around, and this was about 1,400 years ago. The first companions of Muhammad, led under the leadership of the third caliph, Uthman, actually instructed the followers to take all of those pages and burn them, and so that kind of set the precedent as to what should be done. If you burn it, it destroys the word, the ink on the paper. It’s no longer perceptible, and so therefore it is no longer scripture. It’s just ashes at that point.

Taking those two comments together, it would appear that it’s not fire so much as respect that’s at issue, theologically speaking. Not that the folks rioting in Afghanistan were necessarily rioting theologically.

And in today’s Afghanistan, it also stands to reason that there are other factors in play…


In my own response to Dr Furnish, I quoted Dr. Abdalqadir as-Sufi, who wrote:

We have news for the poor creature. He cannot burn the Qur’an. It is impossible. The Qur’an is the uncreated word of Allah. When a Muslim asks another Muslim to hand it to him he does not say, “give me the Qur’an” but rather “give me the Mus-haf.” That is to say , “give me the copy.”

[ … ] The Qur’an is the uncreated word of Allah. That is why it is unassailable. Of course, we treat the Copy with respect. However this unbalanced peasant preacher, in copying Mao and The Red Guards simply displays his ignorance. “Allah uses the enemies of the Deen to advance the Deen.”

When word came to a remote Muslim village in China that Mao’s Revolutionary Guards were coming to burn their Mus-hafs, the Imam assembled all the children and began to teach them to recite the Qur’an. When the Guards finally arrived they were met by smiling villagers in front of a pile of Copies. As the Guards set fire to the books the sounds of a hundred children came from the Mosque reciting the blessed words of the Qur’an.

The subtleties are always more interesting than the barbarities — which is why a scholarly approach to such enthusiastically contested issues is so important.


FWIW, I’ve come at this topic before, and found myself in some neat conversations — see Burning scriptures and human lives, also Of Quantity and Quality I: weighing man against book, and more recently On fire: issues in theology and politics – ii.

In the shadow of the sacred

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — international theft and collection of sacred objects, icons, relics ]

image credit: © Chriusha / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The other day I posted an image of the stolen heart of St Laurence O’Toole – and today’s Irish Independent [h/t Michael Robinson] carried a story headlined ‘Relic hunter’ may be behind theft of heart:

Church officials now fear a “relic hunter” may be behind the theft of the heart of St Laurence O’Toole from Christ Church Cathedral last weekend.

And there are suggestions the same person may be responsible for last year’s theft of the True Cross from the Holy Cross Abbey in Co Tipperary as well as the attempted theft of a relic of St Brigid from a church in Dublin.

A relic hunter!


I thought I ought to look into this a bit deeper, and what I found probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but did. A 2006 report from the Los Angeles Times headed Stolen icon travels a well-worn trail contained some interesting perspective — and striking statistics:

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav wars brought a flood of looted Christian works — including icons, chalices, crosses and gilded iconostases, or altar walls — into a black market already heavy with objects from places such as Eastern Europe and Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drew an unprecedented wave of Muslim and pre-Islamic artifacts and cultural patrimony. Recently, investigators have noticed a surge in stolen works from Latin America and Southeast Asia, such as Buddhist ceremonial figures and pre-Columbian sacramental pieces.

“It’s a phenomenon that is now so widespread,” said Jennifer Thevenot, a spokeswoman for the Paris-based International Council of Museums, which works with Interpol and other agencies on art theft issues. “It affects all regions and all religions.”

Interpol and the U.N. cultural heritage agency UNESCO call stolen art the No. 3 illegal market behind drugs and arms trading.

Interpol statistics offer some guidance. For 2004 — the most recent data available — nearly 1,800 thefts were reported from places of worship, led by Italy and Russia. For the same period, there were 334 museum thefts and 291 from dealers or galleries.

Sacred beats secular in art theft, by almost 3 to 1!


I think it’s pretty clear that you don’t collect a stolen icon or relic because you want to ingratiate yourself to the divine by making it a private object of your devotion when the religion in question considers theft a sin… and the iconoclasts of old would have been perfectly content to smash or burn examples of imagery that they deemed offensive to the divine command.

No — the collectors for whom relic hunters hunt relics (which is quite a tongue-twister, if you like such things) collect them because of the aura of the sacred which they exude – likely with a dash of sin for the thrill of it, much like a twist of angostura bitters in gin…

The shadow of the sacred…

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