Religion Today

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Palestinian Statehood and the Arab Spring

In his September 2010 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama expressed the hope that, "When we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that can lead to a new member of the United Nations, an independent, sovereign state of Palestine living in peace with Israel."
This month, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority brings a proposal for Palestinian statehood to the U.N. The United States opposes it and may veto it. What is going on?
Since Israel gained control of the Palestinian territories from Jordan and Egypt during the 1967 Six-Day War, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians has ricocheted between occupation and self-governance, between military operations and terrorist actions, between peace negotiations and the silence of rejection. All of this has played out against the backdrop of the two peoples' incompatible national aspirations.
Despite its small size, Israel has military superiority over not just the Palestinians but also its Arab neighbors. It has never lost a ground war. This is due to Israel's military readiness and the strategic abilities of its commanders and soldiers. It is also due to large amounts of American monetary assistance.
But there is a battlefield where Israel has rarely won a fight, even with American assistance. That is the United Nations. The Arab and other Third-World nations, sometimes with European countries, often mobilize to censure Israel's occupation and its excesses. The United States has regularly used its veto power to protect Israel from these condemnatory resolutions.
So in the United Nations as well as the Middle East, Israel's closest ally is the United States.
Obama's statement last year envisioned a peace settlement negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that would lead to recognition of Palestinian statehood. Those negotiations never got to first base. Blame adheres to both sides, but it is clear that Israel's refusal to stop building new Israeli housing on Palestinian territory caused Palestinians to leave the bargaining table.
In this context, American opposition to U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood seems to be a ploy to push Palestinians back into peace negotiations, using statehood as a reward for successful talks.
The problem with this view can be expressed in two words, "Arab Spring." From Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Syria and Yemen, Arab citizens have rebelled against their dictatorial and oppressive rulers. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco have made limited political and/or economic changes to head off such protests.
Across the Middle East, then, Arabs have been struggling for and often gaining more rights and liberties--except in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. The Palestinians have been quiet. Few noticeable protests have occurred. Although a couple of terrorist incidents resulted in deaths, they were minor compared to murderous events in Israel's neighbors of Syria and Egypt. You could even describe the Palestinians as "well behaved."
President Abbas has managed to keep control of his people in part because of his plan to request Palestinian statehood at the U.N. This proposal is his way of having the Palestinians participate in the Arab Spring. It is non-violent. It does not involve scenes of soldiers or thugs shooting at peaceful demonstrators. It is restrained and diplomatic.
What will the future be if the United States vetoes this Palestinian Arab Spring, its reach for statehood? Will this win the hearts and minds of the average citizen on the Arab street?
The obvious answer is no. This highly visible vote carries enormous symbolic weight. A negative vote will tarnish our reputation for decades. Sure, America can make up for it by supporting the governments of the newly emerging democracies. We can give them monetary support. (Can we really? In these difficult economic times?).
But supporting governments is largely invisible. It will do little for our street-credibility among the Middle East's residents. Around the world, we will be known as the tyrant who prevented Palestinian independence. Given Obama's address to the U.N. last year, we will even be seen as duplicitous (that's diplomatic-speak for lying).
President George W. Bush argued that America should encourage democracy in the Middle East and inspire its people to practice self-determination. Well, we did and they are. Will America now be seen as helping or hindering what we called for?
Perhaps America can best help Israel by promoting democracy and self-determination everywhere in the Middle East. Wouldn't that be the best road to a stable Middle East in which Israel and the Palestinians can participate as independent democratic nations?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Religious Pollution in China

September 7, 2011 — "Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.
Religious pollution is a common concept across the world's religions. It is sometimes referred to as impurity or uncleanness and other times as guilt or sin. A recent article in the Taipei Times of Taiwan revealed a different notion of religious pollution.
Looking forward to the Ghost Festival, a popular Chinese religious holiday, the paper reported that the Taiwanese Environmental Protection Agency was concerned about the air pollution caused by the ritual burning of approximately "280,000 tonnes (metric tons) of paper ghost money" nationwide.
The EPA asked people to bring the ghost money to one of the 18 incineration plants set up by local governments instead of burning it outdoors.
These practices stem from ancestor veneration, which has been part of Chinese religions for thousands of years. Quite early in their history, the Chinese developed an elaborate set of observances to show reverence to their dead ancestors, building on the respect people display to the living elders of their family. Ancestor worship later became part of Daoism and has been reinforced by Confucianism's emphasis on showing esteem to older family members.
When family elders pass away, they are represented with tablets placed into the family shrine. Offerings are set before the tablets to them in the belief that this would encourage the deceased to bring blessings to the family.
Frequently, these offerings consist of gifts of flowers, fruit or other food, as well as incense burning. Another common offering type is the burning of joss paper.
The most common type of joss paper is imaginary money printed on cheap paper designed solely for the purpose of burning to the ancestors. It is believed that the money's spirit will join with the deceased and they can spend it for goods or luxuries in the afterlife. It is also known as ghost money, spirit money or hell money.
Ghost money is often printed in large denominations, such as 100,000 or 10 billion dollars, and may bear the image of Daoism's heavenly "Jade Emperor."
Rather than send money to ancestors, one can send the luxury items themselves. It is not uncommon to burn "luxury goods" made from joss paper and cardboard or from paper-mache. These items can range from clothing and computers to cars, houses and even servants.
Annual festivals such as the Ghost Festival and the Qing-Ming Festival feature the ritual remembrance of the dead spirits, both one's own ancestors and the spirits of those with no living relatives and who may therefore wander the world causing trouble. It has become customary to purchase and burn joss paper money and goods for them at this time. Temples often conduct rituals where people bring joss paper items and incinerate them together in a great bonfire.
As the size and number of the burnings has increased, so too has the pollution they cause. As an analogy, imagine the amount of smoke that would be generated if American churches burnt Christmas trees as part of Christmas celebrations.
To make matters worse, Chinese funerals include the burning of joss paper and many businesses burn joss papers on auspicious days twice a month.
It is no wonder that in highly populated areas such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, government agencies, temple boards, religious leaders, research scientists and private firms are working together to reduce joss paper pollution.
When citizens complained about the amount of smoke from these fires, governments turned to scientists to analyze the problem. They found that in addition to large amounts of particulate matter, joss-paper smoke contained polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and benzene, a known carcinogen.
Sensitive to religious concerns, officials sought ways to reduce the pollution. In response, some private companies produced temple-sized joss paper burners with scrubbers to remove particles and chemicals from the smoke. Many temples have installed these burners, which replace the quaint traditional burner and turn their back courtyards into something resembling the piping and duct-work of a small oil refinery.
Daoist leaders also have emphasized flowers and fruits as traditional gifts for the dead.
Buddhism has taken a theological tack. Some attack worship of the dead as superstition. Tzu Chi, the leader of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Foundation, has argued that the belief in benefits from burning joss paper stem from false, concocted stories. Proponents of Pure Land Buddhism point out that the dead who inhabit Buddhism's heavenly "Pure Land" have everything supplied for them and thus need no money or goods from the living.
So while religious beliefs concerning joss-paper burning have led to the pollution problem, religious leaders and temple organizations are changing their rituals and challenging practices to remove the pollution.