By Niels Hav
I have the feeling that we small
monster ants are alone at home
on this mystical planet.
The universe consists of 100 billion galaxies, our galaxy is just sea spray in the cosmos. If there are sentient civilizations on just a millionth of those planets we are far from alone. But what is going on here on Earth right now?
Recently I attended a demonstration in Copenhagen against ISIL. It was raining, as it always does in Denmark when something important is happening, but there was a decent attendance even so. Without flags or proclamations, we walked soberly beneath our umbrellas through the city while the rain poured down – walked in solidarity with the victims of these benighted fanatics. On our way I talked with a pair of Danish women of Turkish background. “We are against what is happening,” they said. “To behead people is against islam, it is a French invention.”
True enough, during the French Revolution the guillotine was industriously employed. Executions developed into public entertainment, hysteria took over, and the revolution was drowned in blood.
But how are we to understand what is going on in the heads of the ISIL people? Are they orthodox Muslims who have somehow misunderstood the fundamental tenets of Islam? The 20th century was an inferno of wars and conflicts: in Europe people attempted to replace religion with ideology, first Communism, then Facsim. Now in the 21st century, fanatical Islamicists are trying to reinstate religion as a political system. Is this basically what is occurring -, the forcing of a showdown with modernism and American imperlialism?
It is bound to fail. All religions are hypotheses that God could probably do without. We humans use religion as a rail to lean against in a bewildering world. But religious conviction is a personal matter, not a public one. The essence of all religions and cultures is the same: poets, philosophers, prophets and gurus seek to enlighten us, to show us the way to a good life in harmony with the spirit that rules the universe.
Cutting off people’s heads was not invented by the French: it is an age-old, macabre human ritual practised in many parts of the world. In Danish bogs, bodies have been discovered of people from thousands of years ago. The marsh preserved these bodies, which were intact, some with throats cut, some with a noose around the neck.
These finds of bodies in the bog inspired the Irish poet and Nobel prizewinner Seamus Heaney, and provided the stuff of some of his most powerful poems, with titles like “The Tollund Man” and “The Grauballe Man”. Heaney drew a parallel between those prehistoric, ritual executions and the political struggle in Ireland during the last half of the 20th century. In modern Ireland as well, people were dragged away in the night and underwent torture followed by a brutal execution before their corpses were thrown into the bog.
The violent conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland lasted nearly half a century and is now history, and the bodies of the executed are being recovered. The murders are being investigated. Earlier this year Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, a leading political party in Northern Ireland, was arrested for questioning and held for four days in connection with the abduction and murder of a woman in 1972. Something from the past had caught up with him. Gerry Adams was freed without charge, but a file is being compiled. The justice process is underway, and those found guilty will be held responsible.
The executioners of ISIL keep busy, carrying out beheadings and posing on the internet with their victims’ decapitated heads. It is macabre. But it is worth noting that these Jihadists in the midst of their present exertions are not satisfied with beheading the living; they also have time to assault statues of long-dead poets and philosophers. A strange kind of respect, but at least it shows that these vandals attach crucial importance to the written word.
During the conflict in Syria a Jihadist group beheaded statues of poet and philospopher Abu Ala al-Maari (973–1058). His writing can bring feelings to the boiling point even now, nearly a thousand years after his death. Without doubt because he was sceptical of all forms of public religion. Al Ma’arri remains widely cited among modern Arab atheists. His religious skepticism is expressed in a poem which states, “Humanity follows two world-wide sects: / One, man intelligent without religion, / The second, religious without intellect. ”
Small wonder that this could upset the rabid Islamists so much that they found it necessary to behead the statues of this poet, who was so far ahead of his time. In his famous work of prose known as “The Epistle of Forgiveness” (Resalat Al-Ghufran) Abu Ala al-Maari visits paradise and meets the Arab poets of the pagan period, contrary to Muslim doctrine which holds that only those who believe in God can find salvation. Because of this aspect Abu Ala al-Maari’s work has been compared to the “Divine Comedy” of Dante, which came hundreds of years later.
Just as is happening now in Ireland, the executioners of ISIL will sooner or later be brought to justice. Despots and empires grind to an end; brutal murderers and violent political systems last for only a time, then the regime falls apart from the inside, as if reality in its innermost structure were governed by reason. Perhaps after all, God has a finger in the pie.
Each morning when we get up, we must each and every one decide for ourselves whether to be part of the probem or part of the solution. A monster ant or a human being,
The Earth, the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars are sea spray in the cosmos. The galaxies are moving apart with dizzying speed. You and I are partakers in this acceleration, the spark of life pulses also in us. In our little brain with its thin shell are wonderful opportunities; being alive is a miracle.
© Niels Hav – Translated by Heather Spears.
The Two Universal Sects
They all err — Moslems, Jews,
Christians, and Zoroastrians:
Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
One, man intelligent without religion,
The second, religious without intellect.
The Cheat of Sacred Rites
O fools, awake! The rites you sacred hold
Are but a cheat contrived by men of old,
Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust
And died in baseness — and their law is dust.
Abu al-Maari (973–1058)
Beheaded statue of Abu al-Maari
This essay was originally printed in The Quarterly. / Du kan lese den danske versjonen her.