How Can We Live Beautifully in an Age of Vitriol?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 - 3:46 pm
Demonstrators argue during a national protest against the social welfare reform bill introduced by the government of President Michel Temer, which seeks to extend the years of contributions and raise the minimum age for retirement, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on March 31, 2017.

How Can We Live Beautifully in an Age of Vitriol?

These are days of snark and bluster. How do we live better and communicate more beautifully?

I spend a lot of my time wondering how to live a beautiful life in an age when the quickest way to get thousands of tweets and retweets is to post something filled with anger and vitriol, something that elicits a response from both avid fans of one side and rabid fans of the other side. How do we live beautifully when so much of dialogue is “marketized” based on how many people we can arouse to one side, immediately capitalizing on division and bifurcations? When conversation seems based less on listening and nuance and more on scoring points and eviscerating the perceived virtual opposition?

Where is not just the common ground but the higher ground?

How do we live beautifully when the president of the country is the provocateur-in-chief? How do we live beautifully when 140 character tweets take the place of careful policy, with worldwide consequences for all of us?

In times like this, I always turn to our faith traditions. Yes, there is profound racism, tribalism, and sexism in our traditions. That is the filth that covers up the jewels. But there are also luminous teachings that we can explore and draw from. This week I want to sit with one of these jewels and figure out how to invite it into my heart.

One of these gems is the African Muslim knight, Omar Mukhtar. The story of this brave warrior was preserved in the movie Lion of the Desert. Omar Mukhtar was a Libyan warrior and leader who led the resistance against the Italian Fascists between 1911 and 1931. The Italian colonial powers inflicted a terrible violence on the Libyans. They imprisoned some 125,000 people in concentration camps. Under the command of the dictatorial Mussolini and the general Graziani, the Italian forces slaughtered thousands of Libyan civilians whose crime was resisting a foreign occupying colonial army.

The Libyan resistance was led by several religious leaders, including a poor and humble teacher of the Qur’an. Omar Mukhtar, a brave Jedi-like Muslim knight who was initiated in a mystical Senussi Order, skillfully fought against the Italians until the eventual moment of his capture and his public execution.

I want to focus on one point in their resistance. After thousands of their countrymen were imprisoned by the Italians, the Libyans were able to capture two Italian soldiers. Many of the Libyans wanted to execute the Italian prisoners in retaliation. Omar Mukhtar refused, stating that this was not the way of Muslims.

The folks who had argued for killing the prisoners objected: “But the Italians killed our prisoners.”

Omar Mukhtar softly responded: “They are not our teachers.”

They are not our teachers. That response has lingered with me for days now.

We have our teachers. We follow our teachers. We imitate the best of our examples. We are not bound to return an eye for an eye, a tweet for a tweet. We can do better. We can rise above. We are not bound to stoop down to the gutter.

This temptation is a huge challenge. I myself know that I fall into this trap time and time again. We live in a culture that prizes a “quick wit,” defined as being able to return an insult with an insult. We have confused wisdom with a sharp wit that can identify the weakness in someone (or their argument) and attack them.

Can we be better? Can we step away from a fight in which no one wins? Can we, as the Qur’an says, “repel evil with something that is lovelier?”

No, as we have seen in the case of Charleston and so many other places, it should not be the moral burden of people of color and persecuted communities to always turn the other cheek and set the higher moral example when their systematic and structural suffering goes on. How do we insist on addressing structural violence, state sponsored terror, while also living up to the most luminous example of our own traditions?

These are not our teachers. We have teachers. We have exemplars. We have luminous souls we emulate.

May we be like Omar Mukhtar with the Italians.
May we be like Prophet Muhammad with the Arabs.
May we be like Desmond Tutu with the white South Africans.
May we be like Martin Luther King, Jr. with America.
May we be like the Dalai Lama with the Chinese.

May we follow in their path. May we live up to this beauty. May we become such that someday, others, in a moment of moral conflict, will look to us as their teachers.

May we be our own best selves for those around us and for ourselves. We are all in need of redemption and transformation.

May we be our own lamp, the light that shines within us, around us, above us, beneath our feet.

We have such teachers.
We have such teachings.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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  • Gabby

    I so appreciate this message, Omid, particularly for the young with lots of life ahead.
    One very central lesson I taught my children and still teach my students is that behaving in a way that reflects the best in us is always worth so much more than engaging in strategies that compromise ones best self for the sake of self-marketing. Quality over marketing is the most gratifying way to live.
    To those considering whether they want to communicate with sincerity and love of fellow humans or whether they want instead to be sharp, catchy, and condescending, I would ask, “Which audience do you truly want? Do you want to be partnered with those who value kindness and thoughtfulness or to attract those who value meanness and sharpness?”
    It is a choice.
    You and Parker make fine teachers.

  • charlotte

    I do not tweet but if I did, this is what I would say. “Every time you tweet back with the anger and viciousness the flows in you, the fight and flight chemistry in your body continues to turn off your immune system making you available fro illness and more suffering. Juld like football is daily destroying the players, anger will also destroy you. This is not the way out or up.”

  • Ted

    A wonderful and timely article – thank you.

    “They are not our teachers” can be said for so many these days…yet, we are all each other’s teachers. It is which lessons we choose to incorporate and which we choose to leave alone that makes the difference. And it all makes a difference.

    The Tale of Two Wolves…

    A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he tells him that there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other. One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery, and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred, and fear.

    The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”

    The grandfather quietly replies, “the one you feed.”

  • Judy Montel

    100%! Thank you…

  • Tia Berry

    Exactly. Muhammed and the Arabs….
    Let’s be real. I am interfaith, training to be an Interfaith Minister BUT we have to be honest about Islam. Read the Hadiths, Muhammed butchered thousands of Jewish Arabs who didn’t convert. Or made them pay a tax up to 50% of their earnings. That is love and peace.

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