Overcoming Contradictions: When Leaders Ignore the People's Interests
ADELAIDE, Australia – At Tabor House Technical College, 21 young people sit in a semicircle looking curiously at Hakim and me. We’ve been invited to speak with them about the practice of justice. Hakim, who has lived among Afghans for the past nine years, begins by describing how an Afghan youth, Zekerullah, would greet them. “Salam,” he says to all. With his hand over his heart, Hakim makes eye contact with each student, and then nods in silent greeting. I smile, having watched Zekerullah do just this, whenever he entered a room. The students are interested.
“You can’t listen only to leaders,” Hakim tells them. “We must put our ears close to the hearts of ordinary people and listen to them.” Hakim is often poetic, but he’s also a trained physician, prone toward assembling data and seeking careful diagnosis.
Rising early this morning, he prepared for today’s presentation by collecting statistics about government responses, in various parts of the world, to massive manifestations of public opinion. As expected, the short survey showed that leaders aren’t listening well to ordinary people, that ‘national interests’ routinely overrule the people’s interests:
72% of Australians want their troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.
But Prime Minister Julia Gillard insists that Australian troops will remain "till the end of the decade, at least."
63% of Americans oppose the Afghan war.
But the US is about to sign a US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that will allow joint military bases in Afghanistan beyond 2024.
80% of the Spanish population support the estimated 6.5 to 8 million Spanish Indignados protesting unemployment.
But the Spanish government has been repressing the protesters since their police cleared out Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid on 17th May 2011.
89% of Chileans support the student protests for free public education.
But Chilean police used water cannons and tear gas to break up a student march on October 6th 2011.
US National polls over October and November 2011 were mixed, with agreement/approval ratings for Occupy Wall Street varying from 59% to 22%, but, generally, approval was larger than disapproval.
Yesterday, New York police cleared out the protesters from Zuccotti Park in New York.
“Do governments hate their people?” Hakim asks, “Or do they simply treat their general public as stupid belligerents?”
He encourages students to recognize the wisdom ordinary people hold, offering as an example Afghan villagers who became his teachers. He thought he had come to assist people in the Afghan village because he had ‘knowledge’ to offer them. He instead found that they changed his life completely. They taught him about love and community.
Then he shows us a video he filmed of Zekerullah answering questions posed by Hakim. Zekerullah was 13 at the time the video was made.
“Zekerullah Jan,” Hakim asks, “What are you doing?”
“I am peeling potatoes, teacher,” Zekerullah responds.
“Is having work good?” asks Hakim.
“Yes it’s very good for people. Not having work is a disease.”
“In 2009,” says Hakim, “3 Afghan children were killed daily in war, children like yourself.”
“This is vulgar and bad news…bad because there’ll be less Afghans,” Zekerullah says. “The people of Afghanistan will no longer exist.”
Hakim tells Zekerullah that when Afghan children are killed, foreign and local leaders express their ‘regret.’ “Is their ‘regret’ appropriate?” Hakim asks.
Zekerullah responds immediately. “No. Their regret seems to mean that however much the ‘regret,’ children will still be killed again, so their regret isn’t acceptable.”
Hakim asks a new question: “If your younger brother was killed by a bomb, and you were offered money in compensation, would you accept the money?”
Zekerullah says he wouldn’t accept it. “Firstly,” he asks, “why was he killed?”
“Secondly,” he continues, “those responsible should be punished so they won’t infringe on the rights of other people. The monetary compensation shouldn’t be accepted as money doesn’t match up to the value of a person.”
“Zekerullah,” Hakim asks, “Is your life as valuable as the life of Obama’s daughter?”
“Her life is very good,” says Zekerullah, looking directly at the camera, “because she’s the child of a minister or king.”
“Aren’t you as valuable as Obama’s daughter?” asks Hakim.
“In terms of humanity,” Zekerullah replies, “both of us are human beings.”
“Zekerullah,” Hakim says, “Never forget that you are as valuable as every other child, whether in Afghanistan, America or Europe.”
Zekerullah stares at the potato he is peeling, nodding thoughtfully.
“Okay,” he then says, looking up at Hakim.
“And all of us love you,” Hakim adds.
Zekerullah smiles slowly. “Be alive and at peace, teacher,” he says.
One of the students comments about how hard it would be to lose your brother. “These young people you know,” he asks, “can they feel forgiveness when their family members are killed?” Hakim says it is very hard. He tells the story of Abdulai who has publicly stated that it’s time to stop the spiral of revenge, even though the Taliban killed his father. Abdulai, age 15, was invited to join this tour of Australian cities, but the Australian government has not yet issued him a visa. “Why not value a bearer of forgiveness more than those who bring weapons and preparation for warfare into your country?” Hakim asks.
President Obama is visiting Australia today. During a 26 hour trip, he’ll go to Darwin where he and Prime Minister Gillard will most likely announce plans to greatly increase U.S. military presence at several bases. The 72% of Australians who no longer want Australian troops to participate in the U.S./NATO war in Afghanistan will have to work very hard to be heard by their leaders.
Using costly wars as the de-facto method of controlling terrorists and the world should be debated. The debate should include careful listening to people bearing the brunt of these wars. And alternative methods for resolving human conflict should be sought.
Hakim encourages the students to read “The Kingdom of God Is Within You,” by Leo Tolstoy.
Having watched Hakim’s encounter with Zekerullah, Tolstoy’s confidence that the law of love is in accord with human nature seems wonderfully plausible. Tolstoy writes:
The inherent contradiction of human life has now reached an extreme degree of tension: on the one side there is the consciousness of the beneficence of the law of love, and on the other the existing order of life which has for centuries occasioned an empty, anxious, restless, and troubled mode of life, conflicting as it does with the law of love and built on the use of violence.
This contradiction must be faced, and the solution will evidently not be favourable to the outlived law of violence, but to the truth which has dwelt in the hearts of men from remote antiquity: the truth that the law of love is in accord with the nature of man.
But men can only recognize this truth to its full extent when they have completely freed themselves from all religious and scientific superstitions and from all the consequent misrepresentations and sophistical distortions by which its recognition has been hindered for centuries.
The class is about to end. One of the students says that he’s glad we watched the video because it gives him hope that thirty years from now people in the future could know what the people like Zekerullah said and what the politicians did.