Apr 29th 2019

Bringing Light to the Darkness

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

Daily, we are inundated by a numbing and dizzying array of outrageous horrors and painful tragedies occurring both here at home and abroad. There are reports of: families torn apart by war, domestic strife, or callous authorities; innocent lives taken by cruel acts of terror or brutally insensitive governmental action; and the freedoms of individuals and groups denied by repressive regimes or discriminatory policies. 

With so much accumulated pain and suffering, it often becomes difficult to sustain the confidence that good will triumph over evil and the hope in a better tomorrow. At the times when I'm feeling overwhelmed by what appears to be the mountains of evil that confront our humanity, I turn to a simple insight I gleaned from my favorite theologian/philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin. 

Teilhard would suggest it's not that there's more evil in today's world, it's that we are more aware of the evil that exists. And it is precisely because we are more conscious, that we are more capable of responding to the suffering and acting to ameliorate the conditions that have produced it. 

A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.  

Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 

Seeing our ever-expanding response to evil gives us hope and inspires us to do more. The bottom line is that despite all that is wrong in today's world, humanity is, in fact, in a better place today than ever before in history. A few examples: 

We read commentaries suggesting that the instability, terror, and wars raging across the Arab World are unprecedented, with Western analysts suggesting that it's all the result of the endemic brutality or dysfunctionality of Arab culture or society. In response, I ask these "scholars" to recall that in a short 30-year period of European history, nations on that continent fought two wars that produced the horrific slaughter of more than 50,000,000 souls. Added to this were the tens of millions of Arabs, Africans, and Asians who, during that same time frame, were victims of Europe's oppressive and violent colonial rule. 

Most of those tens of millions died without provoking any questioning – then or now – of what was wrong with European society or Christian culture. While innocent Armenians, Ukrainians, Indians, and Algerians cruelly lost their lives, their tragedies were not recognized until decades later. 

Today, on the other hand, we organize protests in defense of the Rohingya Muslims, the people of Darfur or East Timor or Gaza, or the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq. We have international NGOs waging campaigns for justice for oppressed peoples on the other side of the world, mobilizing protests on behalf of victims of torture, or raising billions of dollars to house those displaced by war or to rescue victims of natural disasters or famine.      
 
Looking to my own country, just a little over five decades ago, millions of African Americans lived under a repressive discriminatory regime that denied them basic human rights and justice. And during World War II, over one hundred thousand Japanese American citizens lost their businesses, property, and their freedom as they were placed in concentration camps for the duration of the war. 

Today, African Americans, although still plagued by economic and social inequities and still victims of official violence at the hands of authorities, have made significant advances because powerful movements organized by their own visionary leaders and supported by other people of conscience, rose up to demand justice and press for change. And while many feared that in the post-9/11 period that Arab and Muslims in America might suffer the same fate as the Japanese Americans, a coalition of dozens of civil rights, religious, and ethnic communities – led by Japanese Americans – mobilized to defend them. The same coalition came together, almost spontaneously, and packed US airports to welcome Muslims to America after President Trump announced his now infamous "Muslim Ban." 

The lessons are clear. The world has changed – for the better. Evil still exists, but awareness of evil and the will and capacity to resist it now enables us to a difference.       

It is in this context that I note that my organization, the Arab American Institute (AAI), will, this week, host our annual Khalil Gibran "Spirit of Humanity' Awards Dinner. We use this event to honor those individuals and groups who have helped increase our collective awareness of the world's suffering and have, in ways big and small, worked to alleviate that pain. 

This year's honorees include: the BBC's Lyse Doucet, whose reporting has brought home the personal stories of those whose lives have been devastated by war; Mayor Gus Newport, who for 50 years has been in the forefront of efforts to fight for racial, economic, political, and environmental justice; RAICES, an organization devoted to supporting families torn apart by the cruel family separation policy imposed by immigration authorities; Miriam Zayed, a Chicago community activist, whose life taught us the simple truth that those who are true leaders are those who are devoted to the service of others; and Emel Mathlouthi, the Tunisian singer, whose marvelous talent has given voice to the cry for freedom and the pain of refugees. 

Those whom we honor have helped to bring light into the darkness and give us not just the hope of a better tomorrow but the confidence that we are on the path to making that hope real.  

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More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."