Serving Brings Happiness

Over the past 22 years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching English to immigrants on a volunteer basis in both California and Utah. I’ve also been able to donate hundreds of my multicultural/bilingual picture books to refugee and other charitable organizations for language learning. While I’ve been the teacher, it’s been an education for me. Students from Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, China, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, El Salvador, and Syria have enriched my world. These people are so grateful for the privilege of living in the greatest country on earth. (If you don’t yet know that the United States is the greatest country, find a way to live abroad–not simply visit tourist capitals.) While their language abilities vary, they want very much to master English and contribute positively to the community. Some of their stories are too intense for human consumption (and yet these humans have lived them). Sacrifice and struggle seems to be the price to come here. These people are generous with the little they have and are always grateful for help with perhaps the most difficult language in the West. If you can make time to help newcomers, I promise you, it is the cure for self-focus and “the world is going to heck” thinking. Find service opportunities in your area by typing your zip code in the following site: JustServe.org. You will be happier than you are today.

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Ramblings of an International Relations Guy

Aside from stereotypical images of Jihadis and impoverished tent dwellers many of us have had, we westerners also misunderstand the predominant culture of the Middle East & North Africa. For example, I have heard Christian leaders denounce the worship of Allah (which is simply the Arabic word for God), as if he were some pagan idol. They ignore the common Abrahamic roots of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity and the fact that, like the Bible, the Qur’an has been interpreted in a myriad of ways to justify ideas and practices that are far from humble submission to God (the prevailing message of both texts).

Author Dona Stewart makes the important distinction that the intense hatred so common in the Middle East isn’t so much jealousy of our freedoms and prosperity, but our general departure from moral virtues–which Muslims value above freedom and tolerance–and the fact that we make this departure so alluring.

Most Muslims don’t begrudge us our technological progress; they’re happy to have access to it. It is the hollow secularism that is so often transmitted via technology that they resent. We in the West are the “Great Satan” not because we have democracy and science, but (speaking generally) because of how we choose to use it. Professor Daniel Peterson says that Western secularism is “simultaneously repulsive and attractive” to Muslims. It’s not just that we have vices contrary to Muslim sensibilities; it’s that they are so hard to resist. This internal conflict fuels intense resentment. While we in the West don’t have a monopoly on vice, our misunderstanding this critical difference in priorities exacerbates East/West frictions. This cultural divide is central to the chasm between the West and the Middle East & North Africa. Understanding it is critical to understanding East/West relations.

See:
Stewart, Dona J. 2009. The Middle East Today. New York: Routledge (page 10).
Peterson, Daniel. 2002. Perspectives on the Islamic World. Paper presented at the 13th Annual Conference of the International Society and the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, Aug. 18 – 19, at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.
Posted by Karl Beckstrand at 6/7/2012 6:26 PM | Add Comment

The World

When Communism was about to fall, Francis Fukuyama wrote of a coming “end of history,” because democracy had won and free markets would unify the world via prosperity. 
     A little later, Benjamin Barber wrote of another reality: a coming collision between two hollow ways of living: Jihad and capitalism, “one re-creating ancient sub-national and ethnic borders from within, the other making national borders porous from without.”
     Barber seems a little jaded in his view of these clashing cultures: “…tribe against tribe … a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence,” versus, “[the true goal of free markets is] not liberty and the right to vote but well-paying jobs and the right to shop.”  
     While many supposed that “globalization” (information and capitalism) would triumph over tribal backlash, I don’t see national borders or cultures eroding as many have predicted. We can’t even agree on terminology, let alone environmental accords. “Imposing a free market may even have the opposite effect,” writes Barber. “Democracy grows from the bottom up and cannot be imposed from the top down.”
     “Nationalism was once a force of integration and unification …bringing together disparate clans, tribes, and cultural fragments under new, assimilationist flags,” he continues. “The passing of communism has torn away the thin veneer of internationalism … to reveal ethnic [differences]” This clash of traditions (ongoing since the beginning of recorded history) is why mortals will never arrive at a homogeneous sameness, and why it’s not a contest between only two soul-less ways of living. Thank heaven for non-conformity and third options! Hooray for distinct cultures—insofar as they don’t promote hatred and favoritism.
     Seeing the history of tradition, I don’t think we can dismiss it as a phase or a fad to be waited out. My friend from Albania says that as soon as communism fell, her people rebuilt their cathedrals (even though Christians are a minority there).
     It makes sense that government must be local, that it require buy-in and participation, and that cultural and national borders be respected. While I have great hope in the universality of information, Jihad will conquer democratic ideals unless we dying westerners (who refuse to procreate [oops—that’s me, gulp!]) teach the principles of freedom—if not to our children, then to those of the Jihadists. This education cannot take place in an environment of fear, isolation, or bigotry. It will also not occur if all that the rising generation seeks from the worldwide well of knowledge is music, games, and videos.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. “The End of History?” The National Interest, Summer.
Barber, Benjamin R. 1992. “Jihad Vs. McWorld” The Atlantic, March.

Posted by Karl Beckstrand at 9/22/2011 9:14 AM