Heroes

Remember when I said, a while back, that I wanted to try my best to alternate the content of my posts between the usual complaining, bitching and caustic deprecation, and something that’s actual positive? You know, try to not be so “clever” and angst-ridden and try to be more open and joyful? Well, today is one of those positive posts.

It’s not often that we actually get to meet our heroes. Heck, it’s not often that our heroes are even alive while we are. Actually, no, that’s not true. We all have people we look up to from out there in the world, people who inspire us, people we aspire to be. Call them heroes, call them idols, call them role models, but they are there, and it’s rare that we are graced with the opportunity of meeting them.

Thanks to this radio volunteering gig I’ve got going on right now, I was able to secure a press pass to the World’s Religions After 9/11 conference that just wrapped up here in Montreal after five days of lectures, fora and symposia.

Being a member of the press definitely does have its advantages. In this case, I saved a cool $375 US, which was the exorbitant cost of a five-day pass to the conference. I suppose I can understand why it was so expensive—they had a large number of speakers, many of them internationally renowned in the field of religious scholarship.

My purported task at this conference was merely to record some speeches. The station frequently plays speeches given by a variety of speakers—activists, experts, intellectuals—in their entirety, or at least in a format longer than the usual 30-second sound bite. In that vein, I decided that I would record some of the more Islam-related speeches in hopes of getting them played on the once-weekly Arab and Muslim community show.

Over the four days of the conference, I attended five different events. Three of them were plenary session speeches that kicked off each day’s events. Still, the three plenary speakers I beheld were all of tremendous pedigree: on Tuesday, it was Shirin Ebadi, recipient of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize; on Wednesday, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, George Washington University professor and eminent Islamic scholar; and, on Friday, Seyyed Mohammed Ali Abtahi, once-bigwig under the reformist Khatami government of Iran.

It’s interesting to note that all three of the speakers are Iranian, which once again speaks to the immense intellectual vigor of Iranian culture despite the one-dimensional portrayal of Iran as “evil” by Bush. It’s also interesting to note that two of the three—Shirin Ebadi and Mohammed Ali Abtahi—were connected to the Zahra Kazemi incident a few years back; Ebadi, a lawyer, volunteered her services to the Kazemi family, while Abtahi was one of the government sources who honestly disclosed the facts surrounding Kazemi’s murder despite pressure from within the government to keep it covered up.

I particularly enjoyed Nasr’s and Abtahi’s speeches. Nasr is just so damn knowledgeable about every nook and cranny of world religious history and philosophy that it’s scary. I mean, he’ll completely deconstruct any topic, from postmodern linguistic theory to land politics in the Middle East, and everything in between.

Abtahi was very interesting as well. He was actually one of the first Iranian officials to embrace blogging legitimately. He’s currently starting some policy commission or something (he resigned from the Khatami government some years ago). Besides all that, he spoke about things like accepting local narratives versus attempts at creating one single global truth (can you say, “War on Terror” or “Freedom”?). I mean, the guy was talking about networks so much, I thought he was going to pull out the Cluetrain Manifesto. Okay, well, maybe not.

Another interesting point he made, one that seems so damn obvious, is that none of the major wars and conflicts currently being blamed on religion are actually based on religion. Religion has absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 or with the invasion of Iraq. These are political disputes, not religious ones. It’s only people who rehash this tired, clichéd “clash of civilizations” claptrap that’s been regurgitated since Pope Urban II who think that religion is the cause of these problems. Holy war, indeed. Religion wasn’t even the issue back then, but the political dispute was sacralized and therefore legitimized.

(I’m not saying that an ideology based on particular religious ideas doesn’t grease the wheels of a Bush or a Bin Laden. But these ideas are merely the vocabulary that give expression to realities and conflicts based on politics. The 7/7 transit bombings in London weren’t based on a refutation of Trinitarian theology. Nor was the invasion of Iraq an answer to the Incarnational aspects of Shii Twelver doctrine. But just because we accept that religion isn’t the root of these problems, it doesn’t demean the pain we’ve seen throughout the world for years, for centuries. It doesn’t make the fall of the Towers any less…any less…I don’t even know what words makes sense here. How can I make sense of this?)

Aside from the three plenary speeches, I attended two panel discussions. The first one featured a number of scholars from various religions discussing the difference between spirituality and religion. It’s an idea that I’ve been awakening to over the past year or two, myself. Doctrine, dogma and ritual are not in and of themselves all that there is to the religious life. Spirituality is the core behind all that. Without that, humanity is pretty much an empty shell lower than the lowest amoeba.

We all know that religion, up until 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001, was considered fairly dead here in the West. Nietzsche put out the obituary on God over a hundred years ago, and most in mainstream public discourse would agree that organized religion wasn’t far behind. Of course, mainstream public discourse is largely attended by a particular intellectual hegemony, but that’s a whole other topic. Anyway, none of us could deny that despite the fanfare with which “fundamentalist” secularists have celebrated God’s “death,” despite the seemingly limitless potential of the unfettered Modern hero soaring above fallen steeples, there remained Sartre’s “God-shaped hole.”

I’m not saying that organized religion works for all people. Hey, it barely works for me. Still, can we deny the fact that we wrap our spiritual Christmas trees with ornaments of things we’ve read and heard, thereby creating our own private “religions”? It’s especially true the more individualistic we perceive ourselves as being. As one of the speakers mentioned in that panel discussion, family and community were once the primary places where religious instruction took place. Religious institutions were never intended to really broadcast religion; they were forced into that position when communities began to dissipate. Besides, faith is like love; you can’t teach it, you can’t explain, and when you’re in it, you kind of just know.

Montreal is perhaps the perfect example of this idea of community. This is the city of which Mark Twain once said, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window. Yet I was told that you were going to build one more. I said the scheme is good, but where are you going to find room? They said, we will build it on top of another church and use an elevator.” My point is that there were tiny little solar systems, churches that acted as suns for their congregations, for their communities. But they only handled those few hundred planets, not more. Now we’re all comets zooming back and forth between the sun and the Oort cloud.

Anyway, this is turning into a very, very long digression, even for me. The second panel discussion I attended featured four religious scholars. Two of them, I honestly wasn’t paying much attention to. The other two consisted of Seyyed Hossein Nasr and none other than my beloved Karen Armstrong.

I arrived quite early and managed to get a seat dead-center front row.

PRESS PASS!

This was almost as good as getting last-minute scalped VIP tickets to the Katie Melua show a few months back. Almost. If I could describe Karen Armstrong in one word, the word would be “feisty.” And though Karen is a rather pale-skinned white woman with a grey bob, she reminds me a lot of my high school English teacher Mrs. Sutherland, an elegant West Indian woman who had long black hair. The same feisty nature, the generosity, the intelligence and the warmth. Plus, the accent, obviously. Karen’s got that British accent, and Mrs. Sutherland had that West Indian quasi-British accent.

As the room filled up, the speakers took their spots at the table on the dais. I pulled out my copy of my favorite book, A History of God, and bashfully made my way across the ten-foot, forty-year chasm that separated me from Karen Armstrong. Time traveling, worm holes, quantum mechanics. I asked her if she would mind, terribly, signing my book. She asked me my name! I told her, then tried to make some polite chitchat and asked her if she had spent the whole week in Montreal for the conference, even though I knew that she had delivered the opening night address (which I had missed due to lack of press credentials at the time). Anyway, she signed my book. I now have a signed copy of my favorite book! I don’t normally go for celebrity, but even I have my moments. I’m just surprised at how subdued I was.

Sadly, the batteries of my MiniDisc recorder died after about ten minutes, so I didn’t get to record most of their discussion on the Israel/Palestine conflict. But I still enjoyed it. Karen just had so much to say; she was so ready to answer, so reluctant to stop talking. Ah, God bless that woman, seriously. I’m officially making her my honorary aunt. What, universities routinely give honorary degrees, so why can’t I give honorary family relations? I mean, aren’t my best friends like honorary brothers and sisters, anyway? Didn’t many of us grow up together like brothers and sisters, anyway? Yes. Therefore, I’m well within my rights to assign her this great honor. If only I had thought of this two days ago when I could have actually made a fake degree in Photoshop and given it to her. I mean, who can forget being made someone’s honorary aunt? Ah, well, next time.

Next time. It’s not often that we get to meet our heroes. And Karen Armstrong definitely is one of mine. She said that it was the slanted, discriminatory portrayal of Islam in the media after the Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses controversy that made her want to dig deeper into the history of Islam and the history of religion. That controversy deeply marked my impressionable ten-year-old self and took me about fourteen years to get over. So when she said that, I was like, “Damn right, Karen!” I mean, she’s in it for us, for us! No one’s in it for us, but she’s in it for us, and she’s doing a damn fine job of it.

I loved watching her watch the audience while other speakers spoke. She had this look of approval in her eyes, a kind of pride mixed with generosity and humility and even reverence. I feel like she was still amazed after all these years of winning awards and being loved by so many people that people actually wanted to be there to engage with her in this great, crazy idea called religion. It’s like she’s this friend you haven’t seen in five years who you sit down for coffee with, and she just sits and smiles because she’s happy to see you and proud of what you’ve done with your life, proud of your enthusiasm in her and in her life and in life in general. It’s a beautiful thing.

For one small moment, I was a bit glad that I had had a stroke. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have tried to shift the priorities of my life and pursue this wacky dream of being the most bashful journalist on Earth, which led me to meeting, so unexpectedly, one of my heroes.

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Religion