December 14, 2018
Hesse’s Arrested Development
The stories Hesse tells appeal to young people, because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow.
December 14, 2018
The stories Hesse tells appeal to young people, because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow.
December 5, 2018
by Tajuddin Rasdi
In this article I present my views on the different responses and approaches of two Malay and Muslim educated leaders to raise questions about nation building. The two personalities are Prime Minister Dr Mahathir. Mohamad and the “respected” mufti, scholar and academic Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin.
The scenario in question is the recent Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman temple incident. I do not view the temple incident as a racial one even though the police have established that the clash was between 50 Malay “hired thugs” and the devotees of the temple.
From the excellent police report and Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s statement, we can gather that these Malays were hired to solve the problem of vacating the land in order for commercial development to take place. The company to which the land belongs has since denied it was involved in hiring thugs.
I have heard whispers of this kind of thuggery being undertaken to resolve the problem of vacating people from state and private land. I have also heard whispers that police often turn a blind eye to such actions. I hope these whispers are not true but the glaring events at the Seafield temple have confirmed my personal fears that there may be truth to many of them.
Whatever the real and intended purpose of the Malay “thugs”, I am convinced it was not a racial conflict but a simple “Melayu-thugs-for-hire” one. But politicians, clerics and opportunists have grabbed on to this incident to colour it as a racial conflict. When I read that 70 Malays turned up later that day, I feared the worst but thankfully, our police force was at its best.
When Asri came out with a forceful statement about taking a harsh approach in dealing with “illegal temples”, I feared it would only aggravate the situation, especially with sentiments over the ICERD still strong.
Although Mahathir has reversed the government’s earlier decision to ratify the UN treaty, many, including the “respected” cleric, seem to be egging on a demonstration that I fear could pull this country apart. We know the damage that was done by the previous Jamal Yunos-led Red Shirts rally.
Here I wish to draw attention to the approach of Mahathir on the temple issue: he showed exemplary leadership in putting Malaysian, “Malaysianness” and nation building above the idea of “Malayness”, “Islamicness” and “Tanah Melayu-ness” of those in PAS and Umno, and now – sadly – Asri.
One excellent character trait of Mahathir that I admire is that he can stand firm, no matter what the ulama, royalty and politicians throw at him. From his writings, speeches I have heard and media statements, Mahathir does not come out as a simplistic “my race above all” thinker like Zahid Hamidi and Ibrahim Ali, nor does he comes off as an “Islam above all” thinker like Hadi Awang or Asri.
He has his own personal views of Islam which I have read, his own idea about Malaysia’s history as well as his own personal formula on how Malays should change. He even admitted his failure to change the Malays, giving as proof the vast corruption by Malay elites, including in UMNO and the civil service. He dumped UMNOo… twice! Yes, UMNO dumped him once, but he did it twice. He is even said to be engineering UMNO’s elimination and a reboot of his own version of “Malay-Malaysianess” in PPBM.
Personally, I think it will never work as he is too old and may not have time to train Malays in the new “Malay-Malaysian ideology” so that they become progressive and critical-minded Muslims with a Japanese work culture.
That model of “Malay-Malaysianess” never took off even when he was the leader of UMNO.
But what I admire most about the way Mahathir handled the Seafield issue is that he was decisive and humanitarian and he did it with a Malaysian finesse. The government has ordered the status quo to be maintained and for the rule of law to take effect.
The matter has been taken to the courts again by some devotees, and a few millionaires have started a campaign to raise funds to buy the land from the owner. I suspect Mahathir may have had a hand in the idea of buying the land.
Mahathir may have lost his credibility as a Malay, a Muslim and a leader among kampung-educated Malays, bandar-educated Malays and university-educated Malays. But he has won my respect and that of the non-Malays and the very, very few thinking Malays.
He has lost the Malay political mileage that is badly needed to restabilise Malaysia as well as prop him up as the PPBM and Pakatan Harapan leader. I think it is a costly price that he has paid personally, but Mahathir is no stranger to such sacrifices.
What matters to him is a clear and unadulterated vision of where Malaysia should be heading, a vision very few Malays understand and are willing to follow, both in the opposition and in the government. Mahathir has put his political career on the line for the sake of a peaceful Malaysia.
The same can be said about the ICERD issue. Many have criticised him for “backtracking” from his tough talk at the UN but I think it takes guts and a visionary leader to go against one’s “reputable standing” and make decisions within a dynamically changing socio-political scenario. Other politicians would have taken more time to weigh the political cost and delay their decision, but Mahathir was quick, decisive and clear over both the ICERD and Seafield issues.
In contrast, let us look at how Asri responded to the temple issue. A day after the reported clash, I was shocked to read his harsh statements encouraging the authorities to come down hard on the Indians with regard to the many “kuil haram” on land not belonging to that community. Although many Muslims I know will side with him in this very popular statement, I think it is selfish and immature with respect to the idea of nation building.
Although I have admired Asri for his academic and religious views framed in an intellectual stand on many issues, his statements suggest his stand on Indians is far from friendly. The first clue to this attitude was given in his Facebook posting about Hindus attacking Muslims in India as well as the burning of widows. He made those statements in defending controversial preacher Zakir Naik, who is wanted in India. I have also heard his veiled attempts at making Hinduism look bad by associating it with the abhorrent caste system.
I will answer his criticism of the Hindu religion by giving three points. Firstly, it is most difficult to discern the principles of a religion from the cultural practices of the adherents. Until I read 20,000 hadiths, I never knew that Malays were practising “Melayu-Islam” and not the Prophet’s Islam. When Asri criticised harshly many of the attitudes and practices of the Malays using hard textual evidence, many Malays despised him but I agreed 100% with what he said concerning this matter.
I have read the hadiths and so I know. Most Malays do not read and they depend on clerics like Azhar Idrus or Zamihan Mat Zin to fill them in on what Islam is. I am 200% behind Asri in his “war” against the Malays and their ethno-centric interpretation of Islam.
Having said that, I have to ask: does Asri know enough about Hinduism to separate the cultural practices or attitudes from the philosophical teachings of that religion? I have read several books on Hinduism, including the Bhagavad Gita and the meditative techniques stemming from that faith, and I find them filled with the wisdom of the ages.
Hindus dissected the self, the ego and the mind long before Prophet Muhammad was born. Much of the concept of “self” by Muslim scholars such as al-Ghazali and Rumi echo the same teachings – not because they have been “influenced” but because of the generality and universality of the messages.
Most Muslims have a narrow window, framed in the 1,400-year scholarship of Islam, and refuse to take a walk outside of that box into the world of human civilisation and strive to understand who they are and how best to behave or act in a community of communities.
Secondly, with respect to the caste system, most societies, even the Malays, practise them. Abdullah Munshi detested the difference in punishments meted out to peasants, guards of the Rajas, the bangsawan or aristocrats and the Rajas, saying they were un-Islamic. To him all men were equal under Allah. I have many Hindu friends and I have never heard of widow burning or the imposition of the caste system; neither have I heard them threaten people of other faiths.
Thirdly, if Asri considers all Hindus as terrorists for atrocities committed against Muslims by some, then what of the Islamic State fanatics bombing here and bombing there, using lorries and other vehicles to knock down and kill non-Muslim civilians? Certainly Asri would point out that Islam the religion is free from such heinous acts and that those who do these things do not reflect Islam which offers a message of peace.
If that is so, why can’t Asri see the “terrorist Hindus” as a party totally different from Malaysian Hindus such as P Ramasamy and P Waytha Moorthy who are fighting peacefully in the political arena for the betterment of their own race? Clearly Asri has not acted with wisdom or out of consideration for the peace and safety of the many Malaysians in making such statements. He thought only about his own race and faith.
Thus, in conclusion, we can see two sons of Malaysia, two sons of the Melayu culture and two sons of Islam having two divergent approaches and attitudes towards the idea of building a peaceful nation.
One of them cares about all life in Malaysia while the other seems to care only about those of his race and religion. One has a long view of Malaysia’s future in the global community while the other has views limited to what is important to his own faith.
Malays have to decide who they should follow.
* The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
November 15, 2018
“It has to be said, there are no points to be won from liking Hesse nowadays.” This rueful assessment of the novelist Hermann Hesse, quoted in the opening pages of Gunnar Decker’s new biography, “Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow” (Harvard), appeared in an obituary in 1962; but it could just as well have been pronounced yesterday, or a hundred years ago. Ever since he published his first novel, in 1904, Hesse has been one of those odd writers who manage to be at the same time canonical—in 1946, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature—and almost perpetually unfashionable among critics. The great German modernists who were his contemporaries mostly disdained him: “A little man,” according to the poet Gottfried Benn; “He displays the foibles of a greater writer than he actually is,” the novelist Robert Musil said. In America today, Hesse is usually regarded by highbrows as a writer for adolescents. Liking him is a good sign at age fifteen, a bad one by age twenty.
For many readers, Hesse’s novels are among the first serious fiction they encounter—a literary gateway drug. This was particularly so during the international Hesse craze of the nineteen-sixties, when the books became passports to the counterculture and Timothy Leary advised, “Before your LSD session, read”‘ Siddhartha’’ and ‘Steppenwolf.’ But, long before then, adolescents were the core of Hesse’s readership, a fact that sometimes irritated him.
His first novel—“Peter Camenzind,” the tale of a moody, nature-loving young man who drops out of bourgeois society—was taken up as an inspiration by the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature youth movement that promoted what Hesse himself derided as “campfire Romanticism.” For Peter to inspire a mass of followers, Hesse complained, was a misunderstanding of the whole point of the character: “He does not want to follow the path trodden by many, but to resolutely plow his own furrow. . . . He is not made for the collective life.”That book was at least written by a young man about the problems of the young.
“Steppenwolf,” on the other hand, tells the story of an aging intellectual’s midlife crisis; you don’t need the clue offered by the initials of Harry Haller, the book’s unhappy hero, to make the identification with the author. It seems strange that such a book would become a bible of the sixties, inspiring the name of the band behind “Born to Be Wild.” Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. “I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over ‘Steppenwolf,’ ” he wrote, in 1955. “After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.”
Still, Hesse’s young readers, then and now, were not wrong to feel that he was speaking directly to them. The stories he tells appeal to young people because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow—the woundedness, the exaltation, the enormous demands on life. The young Emil Sinclair, the narrator of “Demian,” is a good example of Hesse’s totally unironic self-seriousness: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams—like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”
Many young men, in particular, see a glamorous reflection of themselves in the typical Hesse hero—a sensitive, brooding man who cannot find a place for himself in ordinary society. This figure might live in India in the age of the Buddha, like Siddhartha, or in Germany in the Jazz Age, like Harry Haller, or in the Middle Ages, like Goldmund in “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Whatever the setting, his path will generally feature the same landmarks. He will be plucked out of his childhood surroundings and sent to an élite school, where he will suffer deeply. He will rebel against conventional ideas of success and refuse to pursue any kind of career, combining downward mobility with spiritual striving. Often, like Peter Camenzind, he will turn to drink, regarding alcoholism as a kind of noble infirmity. “The god of wine loves me and tempts me to drink only when his spirit and mine enter into friendly dialogue,” Peter says.
Because the Hesse hero occupies a precarious position outside human society, he is at the same time extremely arrogant—Siddhartha refers to the normal human beings around him as “the child people”—and full of self-contempt. No wonder he is much given to thoughts of suicide, whether or not he actually commits it. For, as Hesse explains in “Steppenwolf,” “to call suicides only those who actually destroy themselves is false. . . . What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk.”
The idea that one’s inner life is unusually dangerous and risky is one that most adults grow out of—partly because we get calmer with age, partly because we come to recognize the full reality of other people. But Hesse’s heroes are punk Peter Pans—they don’t grow up, and despise people who do, because they see maturation as a surrender to conformity and accommodation. Things that most people learn to put up with strike Harry Haller as the fetters of a living death:
Without really wanting to at all, they pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain, and it could all be done or left undone just as well by machines; and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead.
Most people, in other words, are what Holden Caulfield, another favorite avatar of teen-age readers, called “phonies.” What torments Hesse is the difficulty of being authentic—of staying true to who you really are, despite the enormous pressures of alienation and conformity. “If I search retrospectively”—in his own writing—“for a common thread of meaning, then I can indeed find one,” Hesse wrote near the end of his life. “A defense of (sometimes even a desperate plea on behalf of) the human personality, the individual.”
Decker’s biography shows that Hesse’s life was an uneasy compromise between his spiritual absolutism, which pushed him in the direction of irascible isolation, and his human needs, which encumbered him with wives, children, and houses that he never quite wanted or accepted. Married three times, he was unhappy as a husband and as a father, and the characters in his books mostly shun both roles. His last novel, “The Glass Bead Game,” is a futuristic fantasy about an academy of scholars who are all male, and all single.
It is not surprising that Hesse would remain attuned to adolescence, since his teen-age years, in the eighteen-nineties, were the most dramatic and consequential period of his life. It was then that Hesse was first forced to confront the entire weight of the institutions ranged against him—family, church, school, society—and do battle with them in the name of defending his individuality. He won, but not without sustaining deep wounds; in a sense, his fiction is a series of reenactments of this primal struggle.
From a very young age, it was clear that there was a mismatch between Hesse and his family. He was born in 1877, in Calw, a small town in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany, where his father and grandfather worked together in a Christian publishing house. On both sides, he was descended from devout Pietists—members of a German Protestant sect that, like the Methodists in England, rejected the established church in favor of a fervently inward, evangelical striving for virtue. In Decker’s words, Pietism “regarded as the devil’s work everything that did not serve the ultimate purpose of preparing one for the kingdom of God in the hereafter.” When it came to child-rearing, this conviction translated, at least in the Hesse family, into a concerted effort to break the young Hermann’s will, to teach him the docility and submissiveness that God demanded.
Yet in Hermann this religious force met an immovable object. “I was the child of pious parents, whom I loved tenderly and would have done even more so had they not made me aware from a very early age of the Fourth Commandment. Unfortunately commandments have always had a catastrophic effect on me,” Hesse recalled in an autobiographical sketch. Compelled to honor his father and mother, he instinctively refused. In one incident recorded in his mother’s diary, the three-year-old Hesse put an iron nail in his mouth, and, when he was told he could die if he swallowed it, he stubbornly replied, “I don’t care! If I die and go to my grave, I’ll just take a couple of picture-books with me!” Some years later, his father contemplated sending him away “to an institution or to be raised by another family.” For his part, Hesse recalled that, as a child, he would dream of setting the family’s house on fire and of murdering his father.
These tensions boiled over in 1891, when the fourteen-year-old Hesse enrolled in Maulbronn Monastery, an élite state-run boarding school housed in a medieval abbey; its mission was to recruit the region’s brightest boys and turn them into Lutheran ministers. Getting into Maulbronn required passing a gruelling examination, an experience that marked Hesse so deeply that he returned to it in several novels. Indeed, many of his books are not just novels of education—the Bildungsroman that had been a classic genre in European literature since Goethe—but specifically novels of schooling. Each of the dormitories at Maulbronn, for instance, had a grandiose name; Hesse lived in Hellas, a tribute to the school’s conventional idolatry of ancient Greece. Fifteen years later, when he came to fictionalize his school days in the novel “Beneath the Wheel,” the main character goes to just such a school and lives in a dormitory called Hellas. And thirty-seven years after that, in “The Glass Bead Game,” Hesse told the story of Joseph Knecht, who once again lives in a dormitory called Hellas.
“Beneath the Wheel” assigns many of Hesse’s own experiences to Hans Giebenrath, a gifted boy who is emotionally destroyed by the pressure of studying to get into a Maulbronn-like school. He passes the examination, but only by cramming so intensively that his boyish love of life is extinguished. He is soon overcome by apathy and despair, and has to drop out; in the end he drowns in a river, possibly a suicide.
The conclusion of the book channels the self-pity that Hesse remembered so well: “All nausea, shame and suffering had passed from him; the cold bluish autumn night looked down on the dark shape of his drifting body and the dark water played with his hands and hair and bloodless lips.” (The very title of the book is an indictment, and “Beneath the Wheel” belongs with other German works of the period, such as Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel,” as an exposé of a soul- and libido-crushing educational system.)
Hesse avoided Hans Giebenrath’s fate, but only barely. In March, 1892, he ran away from Maulbronn and was reported missing. He returned after just a day and, as Decker writes, truancy hardly sounds like an unprecedented crime for a fourteen-year-old. But the reaction from school and family was extreme. It speaks volumes about his parents’ religious sensibility, for instance, that his mother’s response to the news of his disappearance was to hope that he was dead: “I was very relieved when I finally got the feeling . . . that he was in God’s merciful hands,” she wrote in her diary.
Unfortunately, he returned alive, a bigger headache than ever. Hesse had to leave school, and his parents, unable to cope with him, resorted to having him committed to a mental asylum. Facing the prospect of indefinite, possibly lifelong incarceration, he bombarded his parents with heartbreaking letters: “I loathe everything here from the bottom of my heart. It is like it has been designed especially to show a young man how wretched life and all its aspects are.”
After several months, Hesse was released on a trial basis, and he was able to attend a local high school. But the damage to his relationship with his parents was permanent: when his mother died, in 1902, he refused to attend the funeral. And the damage to his career seemed equally irreparable. At Maulbronn, he was on a fast track to a prestigious and secure job as a minister or a teacher. Now college was out of the question, and Hesse became an apprentice to a bookseller. To his parents—often, surely, to himself—it must have looked as if he had failed for good.
But Hesse’s genius was to embrace this failure and make it his inspiration. “In the beginning was the myth” is the first sentence of “Peter Camenzind,” the book that rescued Hesse from poverty and obscurity; and many of his books are retellings of the same myth, one that Hesse devised to interpret his own unhappy existence. Indeed, Hesse’s novels are best understood as successive versions of a spiritual autobiography—a form that, ironically, was a staple of Pietist literature. “The only way I can conceive” of writing, Hesse once said, is “as an act of confession”—a statement that could have been endorsed by his paternal grandfather, a doctor who left behind a memoir in two volumes. Indeed, in rebelling against his Pietist upbringing, Hesse ended up recapitulating its central themes: he never lost the habit of rigorous self-examination or his feelings of unworthiness and his longing for an experience of the divine.
The difference was that he could not imagine finding that experience within Pietism. “If I had grown up in a respectable religious tradition, for example as a Catholic, I would probably have stuck to the faith throughout my life,” he explained wryly.
Instead, he was driven to look for spiritual wisdom in other traditions, always admiring figures who seemed to defy dogma and doctrine. Francis of Assisi was an early inspiration: Hesse wrote a short biography of the saint who preached to the animals and spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.
He soon found himself looking farther afield—especially to the East, to the religious traditions of India. This, too, was a kind of atavism—his maternal grandfather, a missionary, had spent many years in India, and his mother had partly grown up there. But, while they went to spread a Christian faith they knew was the true one, Hesse went as a seeker. In 1911, he made an impulsive journey to Ceylon and Singapore, which proved disappointing at the time—he could not get used to the climate—but laid the groundwork for his later book “Journey to the East,” which imagines a spiritual secret society that includes the great minds of Europe and Asia.
The book that connects Hesse with India for most readers, of course, is “Siddhartha.” Published in 1922, in the wake of a world war that had destroyed and discredited European civilization, “Siddhartha” takes refuge in a distant place and time—India in the age of the Buddha, in the fifth century B.C. In this short book, Hesse boils down his archetypal story to its mythic core. Once again, we meet a sensitive, gifted young man—Siddhartha, the son of a Brahman priest—who rejects his family, its religion, and its aspirations, and sets out to discover the truth for himself.
Along the way, he experiences the extremes of deprivation, as an ascetic, wandering monk, and of satiety, as the wealthy lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. But he remains unhappy in every condition, until he finds that the only true wisdom is nonattachment, a resigned acceptance of everything that happens. Life cannot be fixed in place; it flows, like the river where Siddhartha receives his revelation:
And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.
“Siddhartha” appears to be a kind of wisdom writing—a teaching. Yet the central message of the book is the impossibility of learning anything that matters from a guru or teacher. Siddhartha’s revelation sounds very Buddhist, and Hesse borrowed the character’s name from Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. But, in the book’s most important scene, Siddhartha actually encounters the Buddha—and spurns him. While his more timid and conventional friend, Govinda, becomes a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha knows that any kind of religion—even a true and admirable one—is an obstacle to enlightenment. “No one will ever attain redemption through doctrine!” he exclaims. After all, the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha by following the Buddha; he forged his own unique path. Hesse’s moral is similar to that of a famous Zen koan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Hesse’s emphasis on self-reliance, with its echoes of Emerson—another writer fascinated by Eastern religions—helped to make him a trusted guide for a generation of readers whose faith in institutions was destroyed by the First World War. Indeed, Hesse’s reputation as a sage rests mainly on the books he wrote after the war—starting with “Demian,” in 1919, and continuing through “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” in the nineteen-twenties.
Although Hesse was a German subject, he was a resident of Switzerland—he lived there on and off during his early life, and permanently starting in 1912—and he viewed the war fever that infected Germany from an ironic distance. (He nonetheless volunteered for the German Army, but was rejected because of his weak vision, the result of a childhood fireworks accident.) Early in the war, Hesse published an essay in which, while he still expressed hope for a German victory, he insisted on the need to preserve humane values and communication between nations. “This disastrous world war should serve to drum into us more insistently than ever the realization that love is better than hate,” he wrote. Even so mild an avowal earned Hesse the permanent hostility of many Germans. For the rest of his life, he would be attacked by incensed nationalists, both in the press and in regular deliveries of hate mail.
By the same token, in the nineteen-thirties Hesse’s hostility to Hitler was automatic. Nazism, with its blood sacrifice of the individual to the state and the race, represented the opposite of everything he believed in. In March, 1933, seven weeks after Hitler took power, Hesse wrote to a correspondent in Germany, “It is the duty of spiritual types to stand alongside the spirit and not to sing along when the people start belting out the patriotic songs their leaders have ordered them to sing.” Still, while he hosted and helped many émigré writers—including Thomas Mann, a good friend—Hesse never threw himself into anti-Nazi politics. Decker points out that, in the nineteen-thirties, he made a quiet statement of resistance by reviewing and publicizing the work of banned Jewish authors, including Kafka. But, tellingly, his own books were not banned by the Nazis until 1943.
It was Thomas Mann who, at the end of the First World War, published a book called “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man”; but the title would have applied much better to Hesse, for whom being nonpolitical was a first principle. After all, if the world and the self are illusions, it is delusive to believe that they can be redeemed. To those who wanted him to take a more public stand against Hitler, Hesse replied that anti-fascism was as much a betrayal of the self as fascism: “What’s it got to do with me?” he asked. “I can’t change a thing. What I can do, though, is offer a little succor to those who, like me, strive in everything that they think and do to undermine the whole filthy business of striving after power and political supremacy.”
This attitude to politics and history is characteristic of what Hegel called “the beautiful soul”—one who remains unstained by the world because he declines to engage with it. The phrase was invented by Goethe, who used it in his “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” a fictional memoir in which a Pietist noblewoman describes her spiritual life. Hesse, by analogy, might be called an ugly soul, one who is so occupied with his own spiritual distempers that the outside world barely makes an impression. This is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer. ♦
November 4, 2018
“I would urge every person of faith (in this room) to take personal responsibility to move religion back to where it should be, on the side of right, and on the side of the rights of people.
There are many inspiring stories around the world. In Philadelphia, where I’m now on sabbatical, I visited the leading human rights group that stands in defence of Muslims in in the US, the Council on American Islamic Relations.
CAIR in Philadelphia is headed by a white Jewish American, its legal officer is an African-American Christian, and a Muslim is its education officer (main photo). So its three full time employees are a white Jew, a black Christian, and a Muslim immigrant. And they are fighting for Muslims’ human rights. This is what religion is capable of. It is capable of coming together in interfaith struggles to pursue social justice.”– Singapore’s Public Intellectual George Cherian
An extract from the Q&A after my talk at the IPS Diversities conference.
Q: To what extent do you think a civic impulse is workable only insofar that we have don’t have religious groups that are seeking to expand?
A: We can tell how open this IPS dialogue is, when we can actually talk about religion, which is a third rail in many societies.
I still think that, despite the worrying rise in aggressively exclusive religious groups around the world that have also inspired groups in Singapore, politically it is not as serious a problem here as it is elsewhere. I study intolerance and hate around the world, so relative to the stuff that is going on in other parts of the world, we are in pretty good shape.
And I’m convinced that one reason why is that no matter how worrying some of these trends are within any one faith group — or more accurately within sub-groups within major religions — there’s a limit to how much damage will be caused as long as those force are not aligned with party political forces. That’s when it becomes very potent elsewhere, when it becomes in the interest of a political party to court and partner with some of these exclusive and intolerant religious movements. And that makes sense in countries with a dominant religion, whether it’s India or Indonesia or Myanmar or the US or most of Europe.
It simply does not make sense in Singapore. A political party could try it, but it would not succeed, because even if you court the 40% Buddhist population out there, you’re going to alienate the 60% that make up everyone else. The same applies to other religions. And that does give us some assurance that there is a limit to how much religious divides can translate into electoral advantage.
Of course politics is more than elections. So religious forces can influence how debates are handled. And yes, in that sense we are in a worrying phase globally as well as in Singapore. For whatever mix of reasons, which sociologists of religion will be better equipped to explain, the centre of gravity in many of the world’s religions is at the more intolerant and exclusive ends of the spectrum.
It’s important to realise that this wasn’t always the case. I’m convinced this moment will pass. It is up to us collectively to make sure this moment passes. It is especially up to those who are the most devout in your respective communities to make sure this moment passes.
It was not too long ago that religious groups were at the forefront of progressive change around the world. Think of the major successes in human rights and democracy over the last 200 years. Most of them were fronted by religious organisations. The Quakers in Britain helped to get rid of slavery. Think of the church’s role in the Philippines’ People Power movement or the American civil rights movement. Think of religion’s role in Indian nationalism, which we benefited from as well. So there is a strong history of religion being on the side of tolerance and expanding human rights.
It is depressing to see how this strong tradition of religions standing up for the rights of others, including the rights of other faiths, has somehow been relegated, and instead the wind is at the backs of those who are more exclusive. I would urge every person of faith in this room to take personal responsibility to move religion back to where it should be, on the side of right, and on the side of the rights of people.
There are many inspiring stories around the world. In Philadelphia, where I’m now on sabbatical, I visited the leading human rights group that stands in defence of Muslims in in the US, the Council on American Islamic Relations. CAIR in Philadelphia is headed by a white Jewish American, its legal officer is an African-American Christian, and a Muslim is its education officer (main photo). So its three full time employees are a white Jew, a black Christian, and a Muslim immigrant. And they are fighting for Muslims’ human rights. This is what religion is capable of. It is capable of coming together in interfaith struggles to pursue social justice.
One of the proudest achievements of Singapore is to host the world’s oldest interfaith organisation, the Inter Religious Organisation. This is one of the resources we have. Sadly, though, that’s not where the action is, so to speak, in public life. Sadly, the agenda has been seized by a minority of leaders and members within the world’s great faith groups, that are pushing intolerance and exclusivity. That needs to change.
FULL Q&A – VIDEO
October 20, 2018
On October 3rd, the day after Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, the Washington Post received a final column left behind with his assistant when he went off to Turkey to get married. It was, in seven hundred words, poignant and personal and epically appropriate, considering his fate. “The Arab world was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011. Journalists, academics and the general population were brimming with expectations of a bright and free Arab society within their respective countries,” he opined. “They expected to be emancipated from the hegemony of their governments and the consistent interventions and censorship of information.” Instead, rulers grew ever more repressive after the short-lived Arab Spring.
Today, hundreds of millions of people across the Middle East “are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives,” Khashoggi wrote. They are either “uninformed or misinformed” by draconian censorship and fake state narratives. As the headline of his last published words asserted, “What the Arab world needs most is free expression.”
In his death, Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and former government supporter who became a vocal and fearless critic of the current Saudi crown prince, has galvanized global attention far more than he was able to do during his life. The horrific details of his murder and dismemberment have had an effect he would never have imagined—putting into serious question the fate of a Saudi leader, the state of U.S.-Saudi relations, American foreign-policy goals in the world’s most volatile region, and even policies that have kept dictators in power. The repercussions are only beginning.
But Khashoggi was hardly a lone voice decrying political repression in the Middle East, as he acknowledged in his final Post column. Saudi Arabia may be the most cruel and ruthless government in the region, but it uses tactics embraced by dictators, sheikhs, and Presidents across twenty-two countries.
In 2014, Egypt’s military-dominated government seized all print copies of the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, whose name means “The Egyptian Today.” Al-Masry Al-Youm is that rare private newspaper in the Arab world where young reporters once dared to question government policies in hard-hitting editorials and groundbreaking journalism. “The Egyptian government’s seizure of the entire print run of a newspaper, al-Masry al Youm, did not enrage or provoke a reaction from colleagues. These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community,” Khashoggi wrote. “Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.”
The world, particularly the West, is partly culpable for looking the other way, he wrote. It is a tragic irony that the world is paying attention to Khashoggi’s death, yet still not making an issue of a sweeping problem that could determine the future of a region of twenty-two countries and four hundred million people. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, announced that he would not attend the Saudi investment conference known as “Davos in the Desert,” which is pivotal to the crown prince’s plans to modernize the kingdom’s oil-reliant economy. The British trade minister, the French and Dutch finance ministers, and the president of the International Monetary Fund also backed out after Khashoggi’s disappearance. But no foreign government is addressing the broader political practices in any other country, or any other case, in the region.
In his column, Khashoggi drew attention to imprisoned colleagues who receive no coverage. “My dear friend, the prominent Saudi writer Saleh al-Shehi, wrote one of the most famous columns ever published in the Saudi press,” Khashoggi noted. “He unfortunately is now serving an unwarranted five-year prison sentence for supposed comments contrary to the Saudi establishment.” Shehi, who had more than a million followers on Twitter, was charged with “insulting the royal court” for his statements about widespread government corruption in his columns for the newspaper Al Watan and on a local television program.
Michael Abramowitz, the President of Freedom House and a former national editor at the Washington Post, told me that Khashoggi rightly identified the broader stakes. “Khashoggi’s final column accurately pinpointed the appalling lack of political rights and civil liberties in much of the Arab world, especially the right to freely express oneself,” he said. Khashoggi began his last piece by citing Freedom House’s 2018 report—and the fact that only one Arab country, Tunisia, is ranked as “free.” Abramowitz told me, “What is especially sad is that, while we are properly focussed on the outrageous actions by the Saudi government to silence one critic, we must also remember that countless other bloggers, journalists, and writers have been jailed, censored, physically threatened, and even murdered—with little notice from the rest of the world. And, in some cases, notably Egypt, conditions have deteriorated.”
In the Gulf states, Human Rights Watch chronicled a hundred and forty cases—a number chosen based on the original character limit on Twitter, though there are actually many, many more—where governments have silenced peaceful critics simply for their online activism. Among the most famous is Raif Badawi, a young Saudi blogger who ran a Web site called the Saudi Liberal Network that dared to discuss the country’s rigid Islamic restrictions on culture. One post mocked the prohibition against observing Valentine’s Day, which, like all non-Muslim holidays, is banned in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, he was sentenced to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes, and a fine that exceeded a quarter million dollars. (I wrote about his case in 2015.)
Badawi’s sister Samar—who received the 2012 International Women of Courage Award at a White House ceremony hosted by Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—was arrested in July. When the Canadian Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, tweeted her concern about the Badawi siblings, in August, the kingdom responded by expelling the Canadian Ambassador, recalling its envoy, freezing all new trade and investment, suspending flights by the state airline to Toronto, and ordering thousands of Saudi students to leave Canada. (I wrote about the episode that month.)
In Bahrain, Nabeel Rajab, one of the Arab world’s most prominent human-rights advocates, is languishing in jail after being sentenced to five years for tweeting about torture in the tiny sheikhdom and criticizing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed Mansoor, who ran a Web site focused on reforms, was sentenced to ten years for social-media comments calling for reform.
“The Arab people are desperate for real news and information, and Arab governments are desperately trying to make sure they never get that,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, told me. “Uncensored communication on social media promised journalists and writers in the Middle East the greatest hope to freely exchange ideas and information, but it’s also why Arab governments, so terrified of the voices of their own citizens, rushed to pass laws criminalizing online communications and jailing writers and activists for mere tweets.”
The wider world bought into the Saudi narrative that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de-facto ruler, was intent on opening up the kingdom. Perhaps tellingly, it is the free press elsewhere in the world that first asked questions about Khashoggi’s October 2nd disappearance, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he had gone to get papers so he could marry. “The world should take note that it is the free press, not the Saudi government or the White House, that has doggedly searched for the truth about what happened to Mr. Khashoggi,” the Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, said in a statement. “It reminds us, once again, that a free press is an essential check against tyranny, dishonesty, and impunity.”
August 31, 2018
Steve Oh’s Message to Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s 7th Prime Minister
“There is no independence in the true sense of the emancipation of a nation until the people are free to think, act and exist in a total state of freedom.
May God bless Malaysia still. May Mahathir live longer still and have the humility to walk with God and the people, act justly and have the wisdom of Solomon to govern the nation.
May the government carry out its duties with diligence, honesty, fairness and utter competence. Merdeka then is meaningful.”
COMMENT | Merdeka 2018 is momentous.
I hope for the sake of Malaysia, it will be the final time citizens celebrate their national day with the exhilaration of deliverance from an oppressive political yoke still fresh in their minds.
In 1957, the country was set free from British colonialists. There was a similar euphoria. But the fledgling nation, after deposing the affable first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, was recolonised by a new group of myopic local leaders led by Razak Hussein that included Mahathir Mohamad, Musa Hitam and other UMNO young Turks . The neocolonialists imposed upon the people a yoke heavier than the British yoke.
Fast forward to 2018, and the nation will reverberate once again with freedom and shouts of acclamation on August 31.
After May 13, 1969, she was hijacked and subjected to a lifetime of abuse. Race, closely accompanied by religion, constricted the nation. The nation still forged ahead economically but became tangled in draconian laws and discriminatory policies; was pitifully abused, serially raped and treacherously plundered. Polarisation of the people was purposely planned and executed.
It is treachery of the worst kind when a government led by Najib Razk betrays the trust of the people, divides and steals from them and tries to get away with deception, conspiracy and lies.
Preaching unity and the usual platitudes, it carried out an agenda of subversion, undermining the rule of law and brought the nation to the brink of economic and social disaster. The courts of power became the circuses of clowns, and like Nero the Roman emperor, fiddled away the nation’s future.
Many became cynical, others despondent, yet many never lost hope and worked for change. Still others prayed.
Then the “miracle” the people had worked and prayed for took place on May 9 this year. The nation was emancipated from the abusers, the rapists and the thieves. The treacherous king of kleptocrats now faces justice and the long arm of the law. Those who are culpable will be punished.
The blood spilled and lives taken of innocent victims will be vindicated. The masterminds of the much-publicised slayings of Altantuya Shaariibuu, Kevin Morais (photo) and Hussain Ahmad Najadi, among others, will face justice. The true kidnappers of Pastor Raymond Koh and others will be revealed.
Like many others in a religious Malaysia, I believe in God and the universal law of reaping what you sow. Nothing escapes the truth of time. In time, the truth will surface. And the guilty will be shamed. They will never evade divine justice.
God answers prayers still. For nearly 30 years, even in a faraway land, without fail when I water-hosed my potted plants, I asked God to destroy the evil that had gripped the nation. God answered. He has changed the course of history and saved Malaysia from certain ruin.
Many unsung heroes cried to God for deliverance and he heard their pleas. Often, over the years, I wrote in Malaysiakini of the “higher official who watches over the officials” and will intervene to achieve his purpose. I make no apology for my utter confidence in the God of Justice.
A Good and Decent Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi turned out to be considering the plunder of the Malaysian state under Najib Razak
Malaysia is a unique nation and deserves to succeed. Former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi hit the nail on the head when he lamented the nation’s “third-world mindset” despite its “first-class infrastructure”.
What will derail the nation is not the cessation of Chinese railway projects but the constricting ideas of the misguided. I’m glad there are “watchmen” – including women – over the country who sound the alarm against the extremists.
The danger of religion is that it can be abused to lead a nation down the slippery slope. To the credit of concerned Muslims like those in the G25 group, their voice of reason resounds through the corridors of power and the public arena.
When religion slices through the heart of a nation and splits it in two, when self-proclaimed defenders of faith become a threat to those they purport to protect, it is time for the state to act and rein in the bigots.
When my father died two years ago at 96, I did not shed a tear. Deep in my heart I know he lived a full life and, in faith, I shall see him again in the place I know. I miss him nearly every day.
Yet, three days ago, the tears welled in my eyes and I felt a tautness in my heart after watching a video I received through WhatsApp.
It was a social experiment organised by Media Prima that took place in the vicinity of Pavilion Shopping Centre in Kuala Lumpur. A giant elevated electronic screen positioned above the crowds came to life with the audible sounds of a talking man and stopped the passersby in their tracks. The presenter asked them some simple questions, one after another.
“Who likes nasi lemak?” ‘Who has a close friend from another race?’ ‘Who knows how to sing the national anthem Negara-ku?’ They were asked to gather in a marked square if they answered in the affirmative. In the end, the square was filled with the biggest group of Malaysians of all races.
I saw in the video the heartfelt joy of diverse Malaysians – young men and women of different races and religions – unified in their love for their country. They were evidently overjoyed to share so many things in common despite their ethnic and religious differences. The only other time I saw a similar display of spontaneous kinship across race and religion was at the Bersih 5 rally.
Successive governments, leaders, groups and individuals have harped about the uniqueness of Malaysia. Yet the nation still flounders and has yet to come to grips with the devil they know that threatens to derail the nation – the abuse of race and religion. Leaders have yet to act decisively and concretely against the perpetrators of the doctrines that divide, that destroys and that is against the spirit of national unity.
Malaysians know who the devil is that tears the nation apart. Their political sponsors have been sent packing from Putrajaya.
The fire has been put out. But the cinders are still smouldering, their smoke choking the nation and threatening to start bonfires here and there. The nation’s threat lingers and loiters at the corridors and closets of power.
The 1957 Merdeka freed the nation from a foreign yoke. The 2018 “Merdeka” freed the nation from the home-grown yoke.
Will a future “Merdeka” free the nation from the yoke of race and religion that constricts, divides and destroys the unity of the nation?
Believe it or not, the Pavilion event revealed the truth about Malaysia, that the diverse religions and races do co-exist in harmony despite the differences.
Rid the nation of the subversives – those who use race and religion as political weapons to gain the political ascendancy – and you end up with a Malaysia united, prosperous and peaceful.
It is time the new government be bold, be true and be honest in dealing the devil of disunity a fatal blow. Who will it be? Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Pakatan Harapan de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim, or some eminent Malay leader?
The metamorphosis of Merdeka is a long journey. It is a historic event as much as an ongoing process. Getting out of jail is one thing, staying out of jail is another. Gaining independence is one thing, giving the people their independence is another.
There is no independence in the true sense of the emancipation of a nation until the people are free to think, act and exist in a total state of freedom.
May God bless Malaysia still. May Mahathir live longer still and have the humility to walk with God and the people, act justly and have the wisdom of Solomon to govern the nation.
May the government carry out its duties with diligence, honesty, fairness and utter competence. Merdeka then is meaningful.
Happy Merdeka 2018, Malaysia!
STEVE OH is the author of the novel “Tiger King of the Golden Jungle” and composer of the musical of the same title. He believes in good governance and morally upright leaders.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.