Swans Commentary » swans.com September 8, 2008  




The Sultan and St Francis


by tiziano terzani







From the windows of a house not far from the one where you too were born, I look out on the austere, elegant blades of the cypress trees silhouetted against the sky. I think of you in New York, as you look out of your windows at the panorama of skyscrapers from which the Twin Towers are now missing. I recall going for a long walk with you one afternoon many, many years ago, along the little roads through the olive- trees which give our hills their silvery colour. I was starting out on my career, a novice in the profession where you were already a giant. I remember you suggested we exchange "letters from two different worlds", me from China, where I had gone to live in the immediate aftermath of the Mao era, you from America. It was my fault it never happened. But I've taken the liberty of writing to you now, in response to the offer you so generously made back then and certainly not to engage you in a correspondence which both of us would rather avoid. I can honestly say, I've never felt as keenly as I do now that though you and I share the same planet, actually we live in two different worlds.

I'm also writing, publicly, for those of your readers who, perhaps like me, were almost as stunned by your outburst as they were by the collapse of the Towers. I'm writing to let them know they're not alone. Thousands of people perished in those Towers, and with them our sense of security. What seemed to die in your words is reason, the noblest part of the human mind, and compassion, the noblest sentiment of the human heart.

Your outburst struck me, and it wounded me. It made me think of Karl Kraus. "Let him who has something to say come forward and be silent", he wrote, in despair at the fact that the unspeakable horrors of the First World War had loosened rather than stilled people's tongues, causing them to fill the air with a confused, absurd babble. For Kraus, to be silent meant to pause for breath, to look for the right words, to think before speaking. He used this conscious silence to write The Last Days of Mankind, a work which even today seems disturbingly topical.

You have every right to think and write what you do, Oriana. But the problem is, your fame ensures your brilliant lesson in intolerance is now making its way into schools and influencing our children. That upsets me.

These are extraordinarily important days. The unspeakable horror has hardly begun, but we still have time stop it and turn it into a chance to rethink things on a large scale. It's also a time of enormous responsibilities. Impassioned words from loosened tongues merely awaken our basest instincts. They rouse the beast of hatred which lies dormant in us all. They provoke the kind of blind emotions which render every crime conceivable, which make us, like our enemies, entertain the possibility of suicide and murder.

"To conquer the subtle passions seems to me to be harder far than physical conquest of the world by the force of arms", wrote the noble-minded Gandhi in 1925. He went on: "So long as man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures, there is no salvation for him".

You, Oriana, have put yourself in the highest place in this crusade against everyone who is not like you and everyone you dislike. Do you really believe you're offering us salvation? There's no salvation in your burning anger, just as there's no salvation in the calculated military campaign called "Enduring Freedom" to make it more acceptable. Or do you really think that violence is the best way to defeat violence? No war has ever put an end to war, and nor will this one.

Something new is happening to us. The world is changing around us. We too must change our way of thinking and the way we relate to the world. It's an opportunity. Let's not waste it. Let's throw everything open to discussion and imagine a different future for ourselves from the one we thought we'd have before 11 September. Above all, let's not give in to anything as if it were inevitable, least of all to war as an instrument of justice or pure revenge.

All wars are dreadful. The modern tendency to refine the techniques of destruction and death simply makes them more so. Think about it. If we're prepared to fight this war using every weapon at our disposal including the atomic bomb, as the American Secretary of Defence has been suggesting, then we must expect our enemies, whoever they are, to be even more determined than they were before to do exactly the same, to disregard the rules and ignore every principle. If we respond to the attack on the Twin Towers with even more terrible violence, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, then who knows where, this too will be met with violence which is worse still, then we will be forced to retaliate once again, and so on and so forth.

Why not just call a halt to it all now? We've lost all measure of who we are. We've forgotten how fragile and interconnected the world we live in is. We've deceived ourselves into thinking that a dose of violence, if applied "intelligently", can put an end to the dreadful violence of others. We should think again. We should ask those of us who possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, chief among whom is the United States, to give their solemn pledge that they will never be first to use them, rather than ominously reminding us of their existence. Now this really would be ground-breaking. Not only would it give those who make such a pledge an advantage in moral terms, which in itself could prove to be a handy weapon in the future, but it might also be just enough to defuse the unspeakable horror which has been set in motion by this chain reaction of vengeance.

In the past few days I've rediscovered a lovely book by an old friend of mine, which came out in Germany a couple of years ago. It's called Die Kunst, nicht regiert zu werden: ethische Politik von Sokrates bis Mozart, "The Art of not being Governed: Ethical Politics from Socrates to Mozart", and it's by Ekkehart Krippendorff, who taught in Bologna for years before returning to the University of Berlin. Krippendorff's fascinating thesis is that politics in its noblest form arises from the need to transcend revenge. Western culture, according to this view, has its deepest roots in certain myths, such as the story of Cain and Abel or the Erinyes, which have always served to remind man of his need to break out of the vicious cycle of revenge if civilization is to be established. For instance, Cain murders his brother but God forbids man to avenge Abel's death. Instead, he marks Cain with a sign, which also serves as a form of protection, and condemns him to exile where he founds the first city.* Vengeance thus belongs to God, not man.

According to Krippendorff, theatre from Aeschylus to Shakespeare has had a crucial role in shaping Western man. Putting all the characters in a conflict on stage, with their different points of view, their second thoughts and their possible choices of action, encourages the audience to reflect on the significance of the passions, and on the futility of violence which can never achieve its aim.

Sadly, the only protagonists and spectators on the world stage today are us Westerners. Through our television and newspapers we hear only our own reasons and experience, only our own sorrow. The world of others is never represented.

The kamikaze might not interest you, Oriana, but I'm very interested in them. I spent days in Sri Lanka with some young Tamil Tigers who had made vows to suicide. I'm interested in the young Palestinian Hamas who blow themselves up in Israeli pizzerias. Perhaps even you would have felt a moment's compassion if you'd visited the centre where the first kamikaze were trained at Chiran on the island of Kyushu in Japan, and read the tragic, poetic words they wrote in secret before setting out, reluctantly, to die for flag and Emperor.

The kamikaze interest me because I'd like to understand what makes them so willing to commit an act as unnatural as suicide, and perhaps even find out what could stop them from doing so. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have children without having to write posthumous letters to them are deeply concerned today at the thought of seeing them burn in the fire of this new, rampant kind of violence, of which the massacre of the Twin Towers may be no more than one episode. It is not a question of justifying or condoning but of understanding, because I'm convinced that the problem of terrorism will not be resolved by killing terrorists, but by eliminating the causes that make people become such.

Nothing in human history is simple to explain, and there's rarely a direct, precise correlation between one event and another. Even in our own lives, every event is the product of thousands of causes, which work together with that event to produce thousands of other effects, which in turn cause thousands more. The attack on the Twin Towers was one such event, the consequence of countless previous complex events. It's certainly not the act of "a war of religion" perpetrated by Muslim extremists to conquer our souls, a crusade in reverse as you call it, Oriana. Nor is it "an attack on freedom and western democracy", as the simplistic formula used by politicians would have it.

An elderly academic at Berkeley University, a man whom no-one would suspect of anti-Americanism or leftist sympathies, has given a completely different interpretation of the event. "The suicidal assassins of September 11 2001 did not 'attack America', as our political leaders and news media like to maintain; they attacked American foreign policy," writes Chalmers Johnson in the October issue of The Nation. For Johnson, the author of several books, the latest of which, Blowback, was published last year and has an almost prophetic quality, it represents the umpteenth "blowback", deriving from the fact that the United States has managed to maintain its imperial network of some 800 military installations around the world despite the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union.

In an analysis which during the Cold War years would have seemed like a product of KGB disinformation, Johnson lists all the dirty tricks, conspiracies, coups, persecutions, murders and intervention in favour of corrupt dictatorial regimes in which the United States has overtly or covertly been involved in Latin America, Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, from the end of the Second World War to the present day.

He claims that the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon is a "blowback" forming part of a whole series of such events, which started with the CIA's operation to overthrow the government of Mossadegh in Iran and install the Shah in power in 1953, and goes right up to the Gulf War, and the permanent stationing of American troops in the Arabian peninsula, especially Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam's holy places. According to Johnson, this policy "helped convince many capable people throughout the Islamic world that the United States was an implacable enemy". This explains the virulent anti-Americanism which has spread throughout the Muslim world and today so surprises the United States and its allies.

However precise or imprecise Chalmers Johnson's analysis may be, it's clear that the main reason for all our and America's problems in the Middle East, apart from the Israeli-Palestinian question, is the West's obsessive concern to ensure the region's oil reserves remain in the hands of regimes which are "friendly", whatever else they may be. This is a trap, and now we've got an opportunity to escape from it.

Why not review our economic dependence on oil? Why not look closely at every alternative potential source of energy, as we could have done at any point in the past twenty years?

We could thus have avoided getting involved with regimes in the Gulf which are no less repressive or odious than the Taliban. We could thus also avoid the increasingly disastrous "blowbacks" which the opponents of such regimes will unleash on us. At the very least, we could help to maintain a better ecological balance on the planet. We could even save Alaska, which just a couple of months ago was opened up to drilling by President Bush himself, whose political roots, as we all know, are in the oil business.

And while we are on the subject of oil, Oriana, I'm sure you too will have noted how, with everything that's being written and said about Afghanistan in these days, hardly anyone has mentioned that much of the interest in that country is due to the fact that any pipeline carrying the immense resources of natural gas and oil from Central Asia, i.e. those countries which used to be Soviet republics and have now all become United States allies, to Pakistan, India and then on to the countries of South- East Asia, has to pass through it if it is to avoid going via Iran. No-one in these days has mentioned the fact that as recently as 1997, two delegations from the horrible Taliban were received to discuss this matter in the Department of State in Washington, and that Unocal, a large American oil company advised by Henry Kissinger no less, signed an agreement with Turkmenistan to build a pipeline through Afghanistan.

Behind all the speeches stressing the need to protect freedom and democracy, the imminent attack on Afghanistan may thus conceal another less high-sounding but no less significant motive.

For this reason some American intellectuals have begun to express concern that the combined interests of the oil and arms industries, a combination which is very well represented in the administration which currently runs Washington, should decide that American foreign policy will operate in one way only, and in the name of counter-terrorist emergency regulations restrict those extraordinary freedoms which make life there so special.

The fact that an American television journalist was reprimanded from the White House pulpit for wondering if Bush's use of the adjective "cowardly" was appropriate to describe the suicidal terrorists, along with the fact that certain programmes have been censured and certain correspondents deemed heterodox and removed from their newspapers, has obviously done nothing to dispel such anxieties.

Dividing the world into "those who are with us and those who are against us" in a way which strikes me as being typically Taliban, clearly creates the necessary conditions for the kind of witch-hunts that America suffered in the 1950s under McCarthy, when so many intellectuals, academics and state officials were unjustly accused of being communists or sympathizers, and were persecuted, tried, and very often left jobless.

The tirade you spat out against the people you call "cicadas" and "intellectuals of doubt" goes in much the same direction, Oriana. Doubt is an essential function of thought. It's the basis of our culture. To try and remove doubt from our heads is like trying to remove air from our lungs. I make no claim whatsoever to have clear, precise answers to the world's problems, which is why I'm not a politician. But I do think it's useful for me to be allowed to have doubts about other people's answers, and to ask honest questions concerning them. It shouldn't be a crime to speak of peace in times of war such as these.

Unfortunately, there's been a desperate clamour for orthodoxy even here in Italy, not least in the "official" world of politics and the media. It's as if we were already frightened of America. We may switch on the television and hear a post-communist holding an important office in his party inform us that Private Ryan is an important symbol of America, the country which twice came to our rescue. But did that same politician not also take part in marches against American involvement in Vietnam?

I realize this is a very difficult time for the politicians. I understand them, and I particularly appreciate the difficulties of someone such as our own Prime Minister who, having chosen the path of power as a shortcut to solving his little conflict of earthly interests, now finds himself caught up in a huge conflict where the interests are all divine, a war of civilization being fought in the name of God and Allah. No, I don't envy the politicians.

We're very lucky, Oriana. We have precious little to decide, and not actually being in the river ourselves, can enjoy the privilege of standing on the bank and watching the current flow. But with privilege comes responsibility, and one responsibility we bear is the far from easy task of getting behind the truth to try to "construct fields of coexistence rather than fields of battle", as Edward Said, a Palestinian professor now at Columbia University, wrote in an essay on the role of the intellectual which appeared just a week before the massacres in America.

Part of our trade involves simplifying what is complicated. But we can't exaggerate by presenting Arafat as the quintessence of duplicity and terrorism and accusing our Muslim immigrant communities of being incubators of terrorists. From now on your arguments are going to be used in schools to counteract the kind of position which makes a virtue out of goodness, as exemplified by Edmondo De Amicis's Cuore. But do you really believe the Italians of tomorrow will be any the better for being nurtured on this kind of intolerant over-simplification?

Wouldn't it be better to spend a moment looking at Islam in religious education classes, or study Rumi or Omar Khayyam, whom you despise, in literature lessons? Wouldn't it be better for at least a handful to study Arabic, alongside the many who already study English and even Japanese?

Did you know that there are only two officials who speak Arabic in the Italian Foreign Ministry, even though Italy looks directly onto the Mediterranean basin and onto the Muslim world? Or that, as is the way of things here, one of them is currently consul in Adelaide, Australia?

A phrase of Toynbee's keeps going round in my mind: "The works of artists and writers live longer than the deeds of soldiers, statesmen and businessmen. Poets and philosophers go further than historians. But the saints and prophets are worth more than the rest put together".

Where are the saints and prophets today? We could certainly do with at least one! We need a St Francis. There were crusades in his day, too, but he was concerned with the others, the ones the crusaders were fighting against. He did all he could to go and find them. The first time he tried, the ship he was sailing on was wrecked, and he only just survived. He tried again, but fell ill on the way and had to turn back. Then, in the siege of Damietta in Egypt during the fifth crusade, embittered by the crusaders' behaviour ("he saw evil and sin"), but deeply moved by the sight of the dead on the battlefield, he finally crossed the front line. He was taken prisoner, chained and brought before the Sultan. It's a shame CNN didn't exist in 1219, because it would have fascinating to see this meeting on television. It must have been remarkable, because after a conversation which doubtless lasted deep into the night, the Sultan allowed St Francis return unharmed to the crusaders' encampment the next morning.

I like to imagine each putting his viewpoint to the other, St Francis speaking of Christ, the Sultan reading passages from the Koran, and them ultimately agreeing with each other on the message that the poor friar of Assisi repeated wherever he went: "Love your neighbour as yourself". I also like to imagine there was no aggression between them, given that the friar knew how to laugh as well as preach, and that they parted on good terms in the knowledge that they couldn't stop the course of history anyway.

But today, not to stop history might mean bringing it to an end. Do you remember Father Balducci, Oriana, who used to preach in Florence when we were young? Referring to the horror of the atomic holocaust, he asked a very pertinent question: "Has man become any more human because of the end-of-the-world syndrome, because of the choice between being and not being?". Looking around, I think the answer must be "no". But we can't give up hope.

"Tell me, what is it that drives man to war?" Albert Einstein asked Sigmund Freud in a letter in 1932. "Is it possible to channel the psychic evolution of man in such a way that he may become better able to resist the psychosis of hate and destruction?"

Freud took two months to reply. He concluded that there were grounds for hope. Two factors would help put an end to war in the short term, he believed: a more civil attitude, and the justified fear of the effects a war in the future might have.

Death spared Freud the horrors of the Second World War just in time, but not Einstein, who became more and more convinced of the need for pacifism. Shortly before his death in 1955, he made a final appeal to humanity for its survival from the little house in Princeton where he had taken shelter: "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest".

It isn't necessary to attack in order to defend, Oriana (I'm referring to your spitting and kicking). One doesn't have to kill in order to defend oneself, though there may be justifiable exceptions. In the Jataka, the stories of Buddha's previous lives, I've always liked the one where even he, the epitome of non-violence, commits a murder in a previous incarnation. He's on a boat with five hundred other passengers when, already endowed with the gift of second sight, he "sees" that one of them, a bandit, is about to kill and rob the others. He prevents him from doing so by throwing him into the water. The bandit is drowned and the rest are saved.

To be against the death penalty doesn't mean being against penalties as such or in favour of criminal liberties. But in order to punish justly we must respect certain rules, rules which are the product of a civilized society. The reasons for punishment must be convincing, and above all there must be proof. The leaders of Nazi Germany were brought to trial in Nuremberg, and the Japanese leaders responsible for all the atrocities committed in Asia in Tokyo. All of them were duly hanged. The evidence against each of the defendants was overwhelming. But Osama bin Laden?

"While talks are on for the extradition of CEOs, can India put in a side request for Warren Anderson of the US? ... We have collated the necessary evidence. It's all in the files. Could we have him, please?" Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, put this question to the Americans from India a few days ago, clearly in order to provoke. Like you, Oriana, she's famous and controversial, loved and hated. Always ready to kick up a fuss, like you, she used the worldwide debate on Osama bin Laden to demand that the American chairman of Union Carbide, responsible for the explosion in a chemical factory in Bhopal which killed 16,000 people in 1984, be tried in an Indian court. Is he too a terrorist? Very possibly, from the point of view of those who were killed.

The terrorist who has now been singled out as the "enemy" to be defeated is the Saudi billionaire who orders the attack on the Twin Towers from his lair in the mountains of Afghanistan. He's the engineer-pilot and fanatical Muslim who kills himself and thousands of innocent people in the name of Allah. He's the Palestinian boy who carries a bag full of dynamite and blows himself to smithereens in the middle of a crowd.

Yet we must accept that for others, the "terrorist" may be the businessman who arrives in a poor Third World country, not with a bomb in his briefcase but plans for a chemical factory, which could never have been built in a wealthy First World country because of the risks of explosion and pollution. And what about the nuclear power station which gives cancer to the people living nearby, or the dam which makes thousands of families homeless? Or even the construction of hosts of little factories, which concrete over ancient ricefields in order to produce transistor radios or trainers, until such time as it is cheaper to take production elsewhere and the factories are closed, leaving the workers unemployed and bereft of the fields in which they could have grown rice, and the people to die of starvation?

This isn't relativism. I'm merely saying that terrorism, understood as a way of using violence, can express itself in different ways including economic, and that it will be hard to agree on a common definition of the enemy to be defeated.

The governments of the West are today united in backing the United States. They claim to know exactly who the terrorists are and how they are to be fought, but the people of the countries themselves seem less convinced. So far there have been no mass demonstrations for peace in Europe, but there is a widespread sense of unease, as widespread as the confusion over what should take the place of war. "Give us something nicer than capitalism", said a placard carried by a demonstrator in Germany. "Un mondo giusto non mai NATO", "A fair world has never been born", said a banner carried by some young people marching in Bologna a few days ago (playing on the Italian word "nato", "born"). True enough. A "fairer" world is perhaps what we'd all like, now more than ever. A world in which those who have plenty look out for those who have nothing. A world which is governed by principles of lawfulness, and based on just a little more morality.

The enormous, composite alliance which Washington is putting together, overturning former coalitions and reconciling countries and individuals which previously had been at loggerheads simply because it's now in their interests, is just another example of that political cynicism which currently feeds terrorism in certain parts of the world and discourages so many fine people in our own countries.

The United States has recently tried to get the United Nations involved too, in order to have the greatest possible backing and give its war against terrorism a veneer of international legality. Yet no country has been more reluctant than the U.S. to pay its dues to the institution housed in the glass palace. It still hasn't signed the International Court of Justice statute or the treaty for banning anti-personnel mines, let alone the Kyoto Treaty on climate change.

American national interests take precedence over all other considerations. For this reason Washington has now rediscovered the usefulness of Pakistan, a country previously to be kept at a distance because of its military regime, and punished with economic sanctions for its experiments with the nuclear bomb. For this reason too the CIA will again soon be authorized to hire mafiosi and gangsters, to whom it will entrust the dirty job of liquidating the people it has put on its blacklist here and there around the globe.

And yet one day politics will have to join hands again with ethics if we want to live in a world which is better, better in Asia as in Africa, better in Timbuktu as in Florence.

And while we're on the subject of Florence, Oriana, I too am hurt and saddened by it every time I'm here, as I am now. Everything's changed, everything's been cheapened. But Islam isn't to blame, nor are the immigrants who've taken root here. They aren't the ones who've made this into a city of shopkeepers that's sold itself to tourism. The same has happened everywhere. Florence was beautiful when it was smaller and poorer. Now it's hideous, but not because Muslims hang around Piazza del Duomo, because the Filipinos meet in Piazza Santa Maria Novella on Fridays and the Albanians congregate in front of the station every day. It's hideous because it too has been globalized, because it's failed to stand firm against the march of those market forces which till yesterday seemed irresistible.

In the space of two years, Via Tornabuoni, a lovely old street in the centre of Florence where I've enjoyed going for a stroll ever since I was a boy, has lost an historic bookshop, an old café, a traditional chemist's and a music shop. And what has taken their place? Lots and lots of fashion shops. Believe me, Oriana, I don't feel at home here any more either.

Which is why I too have retreated, to a kind of chalet in the Indian Himalayas, looking out on the most divine mountains in the world. I spend hours alone, just looking at them in their majesty and stillness, a symbol of the utmost stability. Yet they too, like everything in the universe, reveal their diversity and impermanence with the passing of the hours. Nature is a great teacher, Oriana, and every now and then one has to return to her and sit at her feet. You too, Oriana. Boxed up in an apartment which is boxed up in a skyscraper, looking out on other skyscrapers full of boxed up people, you'll end up feeling truly alone. You'll feel your existence is an accident rather than part of a whole which is greater, far greater, than all the skyscrapers which stand before you and even those which are no longer there. Look at a blade of grass in the wind and imagine you're like it. Even your anger will pass.

I bid you farewell, Oriana, and hope with all my heart that you find peace. Because if there's no peace within us, there won't be peace anywhere else either.



*  Kabul, according to an Afghan legend.  (back)




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tiziano terzani (14 September 1938 - 28 July 2004) was an Italian journalist and writer. Please read Gilles d'Aymery's introduction to Letters Against The War. You can also check terzani's entry on Wikipedia and visit tizianoterzani.com (in Italian).



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Published September 8, 2008