Category Archives: Politics

The End of Suffering: Buddhist Political Philosophy (Introduction)

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I’ve long been interested in the idea of a Buddhist political philosophy.

Buddhism has long been criticized for being unconcerned with political or social reality. Indeed, most books written on Buddhism in North America today deal with psychic subjects like meditation and mindfulness, while others (Buddha in the Boardroom and The Buddha on Wallstreet) align Buddhism with modern day capitalism.

These questions have failed to engage with the deeper questions of Buddhist philosophy. They have also failed to question the basic premises of our liberal-democratic capitalist system. Such questioning is even more pressing given the loss of public confidence in our institutions following years of war, conquest, financial crises, bank bailouts and demagogues.

Buddhist political philosophy offers a new way and timely of thinking about and imagining our political reality. I look forward to writing more about it here.

 

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Russia is a threat … or is it?

Putin Threat

Why does the United States perceive Russia as a threat?

Powerful countries like the United States have always viewed other powers (or rising powers) as threats. Athens felt threatened by the rise of Sparta. The United Kingdom and France historically viewed one another as threats, and both countries viewed a rising Germany as a threat on the road to World War I.

The threat of the “other” nation is also a matter of perception. Like individuals, nations find it difficult to perceive reality objectively. Their perceptions are instead processed through and conditioned by their own historical, nationalist and cultural beliefs and biases. The resulting distorted perception is taken as reality.

The United States’ perception of Russia is obscured by the shadow of the Cold War. The Soviet Union not only challenged the United States politically and militarily but was seen by the U.S. as ideologically threatening and unassimilable. Russia today is seen as openly defiant and dangerous. Whether it’s facing off against Washington over Syria, interfering in the U.S. election or refusing to democratize, Russia is large, powerful and plays by its own rules.

Is Russia a threat to the United States? This is largely a question of perception. Perhaps it’s only natural for the United States to view powerful countries like Russia (or rising powers like China) as threats to its own power. In Russia’s case, however, America’s perceptions are further clouded by memories, beliefs and assumptions arising from the Cold War. The result is a distorted view of Russia, the so-called threat.

– Thanks to Marco, a dear friend; and Bilal, a beloved nephew

 

 

 

 

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The Causes We Cherish

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Jagmeet Singh was interviewed yesterday on CBC Radio. The leader of the federal NDP was asked about a seminar he attended with the National Sikh Youth Federation in the U.K. in 2016. The organizer of the National Sikh Youth Federation, Shamsher Singh, was heard discussing the legitimacy of armed struggle by Sikhs in the creation of Khalistan.

In his radio interview, Singh condemned terrorism without condemning the Khalistan movement. He expressed sympathy with the pain and trauma suffered by Sikhs, while dodging any suggestion that the Khalistan movement was a terrorist movement.

Within hours, the internet was awash headlining Mr. Singh’s name with phrases like “Sikh separatist,” “blood hatreds” and “strange loyalties.”

The Khalistan movement was a violent and divisive movement. It bloodied the towns and villages of the East Punjab for nearly a decade. Its leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, turned Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, into a military stronghold. And the movement turned a generation of young Sikhs into militant separatists.

Murderous and divisive as its legacy has been, the Khalistan cause has long since fallen on the losing side of history. The Canadian media is right to question such causes or, as in the case of Singh, its suspected supporters. Yet the same also fails repeatedly to question those politicians who support “winning” causes like Israel, Saudi Arabia or Canada’s policies towards its own Aboriginal peoples.

Justin Trudeau illustrated this point last month when he visited India. Trudeau met with India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a man whose government has become perhaps the worst violator of human rights in independent India’s history. In 2002, when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi presided over the worst anti-Muslim program in India since 1947. Since his becoming Prime Minister in 2014, India has witnessed widespread and repeated abuses of human rights and civil liberties.

Trudeau failed to condemn any of this, and the Canadian media failed to question Trudeau. His “loyalty” to Canadian values like human rights weren’t scrutinized. For Trudeau, unlike Singh, was on the winning side.

 

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India at 70

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This year marks the 70th year of India’s independence.

Since 1947, India has grown to become one of the world’s largest economies. It has become self-sufficient in food production, developed a space program and created a large skilled, middle-class. And, it has maintained its democratic political system.

In India Unbound (2002), Gurcharan Das envisioned an India bypassing the industrial revolution to become an IT superpower. Shashi Tharoor spoke of a soft-power superpower spreading Bollywood and its spirit of religious tolerance globally.

Both men are loath to admit, however, that, for all its achievements and potential, India remains a poor country. It is poor in terms of the absolute number of its poor and in terms of its per capita income. Its governments have failed to invest adequately in health and education and India ranks lower than Sri Lanka and Indonesia on the Human Development Index.

India has failed to become an IT superpower. While it has produced successful companies like Infosys and Wipro, its high-skilled labour force comprises no more than 2% of the country’s labour force. Industry employs less than 15% of Indian workers with most eking an existence off the land.

India’s secularism and its democratic political system are also being eroded. Under Narendra Modi and the Hindu-Nationalist BJP, the Indian Government has curtailed freedom of expression and dissent by authors, students, scholars and filmmakers. It has also stoked violence against India’s Muslims through its cow-protections laws.

Its worth reflecting on what India is today and where it is going. In Midnight to MilleniumTharoor remarked that the BJP and Hindu Nationalists could not destroy India unless they destroyed India’s political culture of secularism and its acceptance of pluralism. With that culture now being undermined, can India be far behind?

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Film Review: Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai

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Directed by Nakul Singh Sawhney

There was a time when Muslims and Hindus lived together in Muzaffarnagar. Their children played cricket. They celebrated Eid, Holi and Diwali. They worked the fields and sat on farmers’ collectives like the Bharatiya Kisan Union. The town was referred to as “Mohabbatnagar,” the city of love.

In September 2013, however, the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Uttar Pradesh suffered one of the worst pogroms in modern India’s history. Over 100 people (mostly Muslim) were massacred while more than 80,000 were displaced. Homes were wrecked, mosques were vandalized and dreams turned to dust.

In Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hai, Sahwney probes the underlying causes of the pogrom. He shows how the BJP (and its agents) instigated the pogrom to win the general election of 2014 which brought Narendra Modi to power. The BJP was assisted in Muzaffarnagar by local Hindu Jats who used the pogrom to seize Muslim property, women and wealth.

Sawhney also unravels the BJP’s strategy in stirring up violence for votes. First, they turn Islamist terrorism into the new bête noire deeming Muslim youths as members of ISIS. Second, they revive the idea that Hindus have been “cheated” with election banners and posters speaking about “struggling” for Hindus. Third, they play on old anxieties of Hindu men about Muslim men stealing Hindu girls through the new “Love Jihad” conspiracy.

Those who survived the pogrom were put into camps. As Sawhney shows, however, the refugees failed to receive adequate provision for food or medical care. When it was discovered that over one hundred children died in the camps due to disease, the government has the camps bulldozed to avoid any unwanted scrutiny.

Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is a difficult film to watch. Sawhney could have reined in the many threads in the documentary (such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union) for a tighter narrative and unity of theme. Still, in giving voice to the unheard and letting us enter their world, Muzaffarnagar triumphs.

 

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Ambedkar, Buddhism and Caste

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Written by Randeep Singh

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was one of modern India’s most remarkable statesman. He drafted the Constitution of India, served as the country’s first Minister of Law and led the Untouchables in his fight against the caste system.

Ambedkar singlehandedly revived Buddhism in India. On October 14, 1956, he converted to the religion, prompting the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of his followers. He created a new identity for India’s Untouchables, but he polemicized his interpretation of Buddhism in the process.

Ambedkar claimed that the Buddha did everything to uproot the caste system, but ignored the fact that the caste system remained entrenched in India throughout the Buddhist period (c. 268 BCE – 551 CE). He did not mention that the practice of Untouchability first emerged during this period. He gushed about how Buddhism gave India democratic parliaments with whip, quorum, resolutions, ballot voting and vote counting.

He inspires me nonetheless and I believe that Buddhism, as secularized political philosophy, can help undermine the caste system. It was the first religion to challenge the caste system by turning upside down the concepts upholding it. Its insights in this respect are interesting from a modern, secular perspective.

Buddhism is concerned with the end of suffering as a human problem.  Its primary concern is to promote human welfare and happiness. It holds that only humans can end their own suffering through moral action, self-discipline, and understanding. No God, divine being, black magic, superstition or astrological charts are necessary.

Humans are equal in Buddhism in the sense of being equally capable of achieving enlightenment. They are equally subject to one universal moral law (‘Dharma’) with moral obligations to one another such as to respect one another’s life, liberty and dignity. This contrasts to the caste system which differentiates laws on the basis of caste.

The Buddha recognized the existence of caste in his society. He exhorted his followers, however, to emphasize the cultivation of moral character as an indication of self-worth. Caste or rather class in Buddhism arise due to human expediency, not divine sanction: it is a matter of vocation, not birth.

Caste is not static either. Like all existence, individual or collective, it is subject to change, interrelated and composite and conditioned by many interdependent factors. The seasons come and go, empires rise and fall and ancient communities perish. There is no “caste” other than the conditions giving rise to it.

Lastly, Buddhism left an important secular legacy for India. It inculcated a more humane ethic in politics (e.g. the reign of Ashoka). It formulated a social contract theory of government. It established inclusive social institutions such as universities, monasteries, and hospitals. Its appeal to reason, ethics and its concern for human well-being, can enlighten India yet.

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The Burqini Ban

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Written by Randeep Singh

The Muslim women of France are being forced to be free, again.

A few days ago, on a beach in Nice, police forced a woman to remove her burqini. The woman was fined and charged with disrespecting secularism. She stood in the shadow of four police officers armed with handguns, batons and pepper spray. She was gawked at by others, told to go home.

I am not a fan of the hijab, niqaab or any form of face or head covering. I think they are a form of oppression. But it is not my place to tear them off Muslim women. Nor is it the place of a state with all its coercive powers to force women toward freedom by having them remove their clothing or head covering.

Like any law or ideology, French secularism is not neutral. It is the product of French culture, history and society. It reflects the will of the French majority. It did little for its Jewish minorities living in an anti-Semitic French society and culture before World War II, just as it struggles to manage an ethnically and religiously diverse society today.

The Muslim woman’s veil, in particular, has long haunted France. Colonial France saw the veil as the major barrier to the spread of her superior, egalitarian civilization. In the Algerian War of Independence (1954 to 1962), the French called themselves liberators of Muslim women. In 1957, Muslim Algerian women were publicly unveiled as part of the French “emancipation” program.

Then there’s the policing of women’s morality. This, of course, is not unique to Muslim women. In 1907, the first woman to sport a sleeveless swimming outfit in Australia arrested. The two-piece bikini was banned in Spain, Italy and Portugal and denounced by the Pope. In 1967, French women in mini-skirts were stripped by a mob.

And of course, Saudi Arabia enforces the niqaab, Iran upholds the hijaab and Pakistan has its shariah-compliant bra. To veil or not to veil is a question answered by the state, cleric or clan, but rarely just left to the Muslim woman.

Further Reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/the-burkini-ban-what-it-really-means-when-we-criminalise-clothes

 

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