Bob Schwartz

Tag: Iran

God and the H-Bomb

God and the H-Bomb

The Hydrogen Bomb is in the news, thanks to North Korea’s questionable claim that they have one and have tested it.

In the years following World War 2, the H-Bomb was big news. Big, just like The Bomb. The world had seen the destructive power of the A-Bomb used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The H-Bomb made the A-Bomb look like a stick of dynamite. Where once there was the power to destroy cities, we could now destroy the world. And ourselves. We were as gods, at least in our punishing might.

In 1961, a book called God and the H-Bomb was published. It’s not in print, but you might find a copy used or in a library, as I did a few years ago. The cover carries this question: “What counsel do our spiritual leaders offer in response to mankind’s greatest challenge?”

The roster of contributors is an impressive list of thinkers, some of whom are still recognized names, some less familiar. Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, Pope Pius XII, and so on.

We don’t see many—any—religious and spiritual leaders interviewed about the North Korean test, about the Iran deal, or about any Bomb related stories. Except for those religious and spiritual leaders with political strategy in mind or a political axe to grind.

That’s not what this 55-year-old book is about. It is about the moral and spiritual dimensions of the H-Bomb. That is reflected in the titles of the pieces. The power of self-destruction. War and Christian conscience. Fifteen years in hell is enough. Thy neighbor as thyself. The road of sanity.

The foreword is by Steve Allen, who is a little remembered as a significant television personality, but less as one of the most entertaining and brilliant public intellectuals of the middle twentieth century. Here’s what he writes:

That our nation is in the throes of moral collapse of serious dimensions is, apparently, no longer a debatable conclusion. Liberal and conservative spokesmen vie to see who shall express the conviction most vigorously. Churchmen and secularists, too, agree that we have fallen upon evil days. These various groups naturally differ as to the reasons for the situation, but that it exists no one seems to doubt….

Will our nation be guided in this dread hour by the moral code it professes to honor?

Will it?

Why I Read the Qur’an This Yom Kippur

Qur'an

There comes a time on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, when the official proceedings pause. In the space between morning and afternoon services, lunch on a fast day not being an option, some people engage in group discussions of matters biblical and theological. A sort of hungry High Holy Days Torah study.

This year, I read the Qur’an.

At Yom Kippur services, the Book of Jonah is read. I made that the topic of my High Holy Days blog post, writing that Jonah is a tale we tell to the youngest children, as if, literally, a five-year-old would get it. In fact, Jonah is unique among all Old Testament prophetic books, and may be one of the most variously interpreted texts in the Hebrew Bible. So if you or that five-year-old think it is the simple story of obedience to God and the power of repentance, you might think twice.

Then a few days later, it was reported that an Iranian psychotherapist had just been hanged for, among other things, misinterpreting the Qur’an and insulting the prophet Jonah. For those unfamiliar with the Qur’an, many of the major figures of the Bible—Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus, and others—make appearances there. Sometimes it is a quick mention, but they are important links in the chain leading to Mohammed. Jonah among them.

This then became for me the Yom Kippur of Jonah. The Book of Jonah is so short, four brief chapters, that it can be read in minutes. While I have read many of the suras (chapters) in the Qur’an, I had never focused on the role of Jonah.

My interest in Qur’an began years ago with an extraordinary 3-volume set, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Professor F. E. Peters. Peters is one of the leading scholars on the shared foundations of these faiths, and this work offers parallel scriptural excerpts from each on a range of themes. I was well-versed in the Bible, Jewish and Christian, but had never read a single word of Qur’an. This began my still-ongoing attempt to fill that gap.

Literacy and familiarity with Abrahamic scriptures—reading them, being aware of structure and content, knowing some of the theological and interpretive issues—might run from 0 (no knowledge) to 10 (comprehensive knowledge). On that scale, many if not most Jews would probably score a 2 for the Hebrew Bible (maybe higher if limited to Torah and assorted familiar books of the Tanach), 0 for the New Testament, and a negative number for the Qur’an, that is, a studied and sometimes antagonistic ignorance. No blame for any of that, though we hope that those who engage in discussion or offer opinions about them might do it with some measure of knowledge.

The sura Jonah (Yonus) in the Qur’an is not what a non-Muslim might expect. Jonah is mentioned only once in it at verse 98:

If only a single town had believed and benefited from its belief! Only Jonah’s people did so, and when they believed, We relieved them of the punishment of disgrace in the life of this world, and let them enjoy life for a time.

The next verse of the sura encourages the Prophet (Mohammed) to be patient in waiting for unbelievers to come around:

Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [Prophet] compel people to believe?

The more familiar biblical story is found at verse 139 of the sura Al-Saffat (37). As with many of the Qur’an’s recaps of these stories, it is very condensed:

Jonah too was one of the messengers. He fled to the overloaded ship. They cast lots, he suffered defeat, and a great fish swallowed him, for he had committed blameworthy acts. If he had not been one of those who glorified God, he would have stayed in its belly until the Day when all are raised up, but We cast him out, sick, on to a barren shore, and made a gourd tree grow above him. We sent him to a hundred thousand people or more. They believed, so We let them live out their lives.

It isn’t clear from the reports how the psychotherapist, who was leading a Qur’an study, insulted Jonah. It is true that much of official Islam “discourages” unorthodox translation and interpretation (in some cases with fatwas, imprisonment, and death). It is also true that translators, scholars, and teachers have continued to push the boundaries anyway, shaking up the tradition and risking it all.

If you have an interest in seeing what the modern generation of Qur’an translations reads like, see M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s The Qur’an: A New Translation (2005)
(from which the above excerpts are taken).

Don’t wait until next Yom Kippur. You don’t even need a holiday, Jewish or Christian. If you are of the non-Muslim Abrahamic persuasion, or even if you’re not persuaded at all, have a look at the Qur’an. You may believe in many respects besides religious—historical, social, cultural—that the Bible is one of the most important books in the world. You may also have to admit that in its impact, the Qur’an is its equal.

We hear regularly about how there are people killing for the Qur’an, or at least for their often misguided interpretations of it. Remember that there are also those trying to correct those interpretations, and they are dying for it.

Jonah, Yom Kippur, Iran and Irony

Mohsen Amir-Aslani

Sometimes coincidence is irony to the point of cruelty.

This week, the Book of Jonah is read as a part of the Yom Kippur service.

Last week, Iranian psychotherapist Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged for, among other things, insulting the prophet Jonah.

In a post last week, Jonah and the New Year, I gave free rein to biblical possibilities. I pointed out, “It is supposedly so simple a story that we tell it to the youngest children. It isn’t that simple.”

For many reasons, it is a good thing that I am not in Iran. It is also a good thing to be part of a faith and a country that not only tolerate interpretive iconoclasm but (theoretically) encourage and thrive on it. According to the report in The Guardian:

Mohsen Amir-Aslani was arrested nine years ago for his activities which the authorities deemed were heretical. He was engaged in psychotherapy but also led sessions reading and reciting the Qur’an and providing his own interpretations of the Islamic holy book, his family said….

According to the source, Iran’s ministry of intelligence was behind Amir-Aslani’s arrest. “He was initially held for making innovations in Islam and providing his own interpretations of the Qur’an but later he was accused of insulting prophet Jonah and also faced accusations of having sex outside marriage,”

This week, whether you read the Book of Jonah at Yom Kippur services or on your own, consider Amir-Aslani. We can do little directly about this aspect of Iranian life. And if we are not Muslims, there is little that we can do about the evolution of someone else’s religion, other than encouragement and modeling progressive behavior. The best we can do—and it is no small thing—is to honor openness in religion by demonstrating openness in our own religion. By supporting innovation, and making sure it is never tantamount to a capital crime.

Analogies to Egypt

Rosetta Stone

Who doesn’t love analytical analogies—situations past that bear a resemblance to current circumstances and might offer at least a little usable insight.

The current state of Egypt, like many situations in the new global age, is a bit sui generis—a unique thing of its own that we neither know how to classify or handle. For some, it is like going to watch a sports competition where you don’t exactly understand the game, don’t know nearly enough about the teams, and yet are being expected to choose sides—to root for somebody.

Here are a few of what we might call impressionistic analogies: examples from recent history that won’t withstand close scrutiny as directly related scenarios, but do have a certain similarity that at least gives us food for thought.

Iran – The impending release of Mubarek by the military government—ostensibly because the fraud case leading to his arrest would not hold up—brings to mind Iran and the last Shah. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the Shah and ended the West-friendly dynasty that the U.S. had long supported. One of the small but historically high-profile early incidents was President Jimmy Carter allowing the very ill Shah to seek medical help here in 1980—a factor in the subsequent hostage-taking, that in turn was (just one) of the reasons that Carter was not re-elected.

The U.S. is not alone in having to bet on somebody in turbulent times. Leaders are both real and symbolic in these contests. In Iran, our betting on the Shah—who was like us, who we understood, and who wss not like “them”—has proven disastrous. In the case of Mubarek in Egypt, what we wanted with him all those years was stability and moderation, but when it became apparent during the Arab Spring that we were looking decidedly anti-democratic, we opted to cut him loose and hope for democracy to follow. When that democracy started looking theocratic, possibly militantly so (Muslim Brotherhood), we were very confused and concerned—and so were the remnants of Mubarekism still in or near power. Military and stability or democracy and “adventure”. The Egyptian military made their decision, but we seem unable to decide. Will the military try to re-install Mubarek, or just leave him as a symbol of better days. Do we wish that we had handled Iran better, maybe helping to ease out the Shah and autocratic rule? It probably would not have prevented theocracy, but we didn’t try.

Iraq – Iraq, like Egypt, is another example of wanting to act strategically, while looking like the “good guy” and trying to figure out what a good guy looks like or acts like in these times. We supported Saddam Hussein, we refused to topple him, we toppled him, we executed him. All hell broke loose, and that fire may burn for generations. Whatever our skill at playing a real-world version of Risk globally, our track record in the Middle East is atrocious. At this point, we may want to consider where we stand relative to the historic record of the British and the French. (Note: We seem to have a bizarre predilection for following in their footsteps with little more, or even less, success than they had. See, e.g, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.)

Latin America – Our experiences in Latin America may serve as the most interesting of these tenuous analogies. The policy and history is easy to understand. We feared (still do) the incursion of Communism into the continent. We would support just about anybody who promised to keep the threat of socialism/Communism down. This put us in bed with a very bad lot, alliances that have had two lasting impacts. American fingerprints are all over the legacy of some despicable regimes. And now that many of those regimes are in the dustbin of history, residual anti-Americanism lingers on.

None of these alone, or even taken together, may offer much guidance in figuring out what to do in Egypt. Maybe a general lesson is that being powerful is not the same as being smart or being right. Maybe it’s that America is not as powerful as it thinks—back then, or even more so now—in a world it does not fully understand (again, ask the British and the French).

Egypt today is not that different from Egypt two years ago, or Syria now, or Iran or Iraq or Latin America. America has to expressly define and transparently decide how to stack our values and principles. Do we want American-style democracy or are we willing to settle for one of its other versions? Do we want democracy no matter what the results, or are we willing to trade democracy for authoritarian rule? Is authoritarian rule better than democratic or quasi-democratic Islamism, socialism or Communism? What is regional or global stability worth? What is peace worth? What is a Syrian or Egyptian or American life worth? Could billions in Egyptian aid, aside from whether or not we continue or suspend it, be better used to help Americans in an age of sequestration and austerity?

Grown up questions for grownups at the table.