Saturday, September 16, 2017

Harvey, Rohingya, Yemen, and Syria: A Sermon on Duty Ethics in Charity

I received a surprising email late Thursday afternoon informing me that I was scheduled to give a sermon at ISGH Main Center yesterday. I thought that my formal preaching days were over (and I pity my colleagues and students who have to bear with my informal moralization), but duty ethics dictate that whenever invited to speak, one should.


For the opening verse, I chose 

[O people of faith, be conscious and wary of God, and make your words truthful and carefully aimed; so that He may make your actions felicitous and expiate your sins; and whoever obeys God and his messenger has won a great reward.]

Next, I narrated a related prophetic tradition
عن تميم بن أوس رضي الله عنه ، أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال : ( الدين النصيحة ، قلنا : لمن يا رسول الله ؟ قال : لله ، ولكتابه ، ولرسوله ، ولأئمة المسلمين وعامتهم ) رواه البخاري ومسلم
[Bukhari and Muslim narrated on the aurhority of Tamim Al-Dari (r) that the Prophet (p) said: "Religion is sincerity in intention and deed." We (the companions) asked: "For whom, O messenger of God?," and he said: "For God, his book, his messenger, and for Muslims leaders and commoners."

I digressed on the word nasiha (نصيحة), which is used most commonly in Arabic to mean advice, but noted that the root of the word means purity; and its application in the context of advice simply refers to good advice being unadulterated by ulterior motives. 

Main Point

To be religious is to be sincere in what we wish for others and how we act to achieve various ends.  Therefore, even as we respond to the latest events, be they hurricanes or escalations in various humanitarian crises. 

Reacting positively to such events, by helping our neighbors or those far away, is merely part of basic human decency. Religiousness is about being principled and steadfast in purity of intentions and conduct. This allows us to remain mindful and focused -- neither overreacting to the latest developments, nor mixing our intentions with political impurities. 

In this regard, Ali ibn Abi Taleb (r) famously said that this verse of the Qur'an summarizes the perfect level of detachment (called zuhd in Arabic; neither total detachment to the point of selfishness, nor insufficient detachment that makes us overreact emotionally to new events):
[No calamity befalls the earth or yourselves except it has been preordained and recorded before we bring it into existence; this is easy for God. (We tell yo this) so that you will not be sad for what you missed or happy for what you may get; God does not love those who are haughty and proud.]

That is also why the Prophet (p) said:
[Partial recounting of narration by Bukhari on the authority of Aisha (r): "The actions most beloved to God are the steadiest, however limited in scope."]

This means that when we budget our time for charitable work, be it volunteering our time or donating our money, we should make it steady, and avoid being manipulated psychologically in ways that may constitute dereliction of duty to earlier commitments.

To explain this concept, I covered four examples with increasing degrees of complexity, but which illustrate the same common principle: Almost all calamities on earth have political dimensions that may bring impurities into our intentions or conduct, and the task of religion is to keep our intention and conduct pure, at least with regards to helping those most impacted by those calamities.


The first example I gave was hurricane Harvey, which hit us in Houston, and many admirably swung to action, helping our affected neighbors however we could. We all did this, regardless of our political views, even though there was a clear political dimension to this hurricane. 

Thus, this is a political issue, which can introduce impurities into our thinking. Are some environmentalists at least partially wishing for stronger storms so that they will be proven right? Religious and ethical ones surely would not, and they would agree with the Pope that we hope that nobody will get hurt, but should act, nonetheless, assuming the worst, because the harm if scientists arguing the climate-change case are right is quite substantial.

We can disagree is with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's argument that this was not the time to discuss climate change. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can disagree on political agendas based on our beliefs and interests, arguing our respective political cases, and still spring to action to help those who lose property or are at the risk of losing what's much more important.

Thus, it is clear that we can disagree over political assignment of guilt and recipes for solving problems, but still do our duty to our fellow human beings. Thus, our principle should be quite obvious in this case. If we dissect the remaining three problems, which appear progressively thornier, we will find that they are exactly the same, at their core, and our duty is also the same: If you have a talent for politics and ideas on how to solve problems, then you should provide that advice. In the meantime, we should all do our duty by helping our fellow human beings who need that help.


The next example is only slightly more complicated, at least from the likely political standpoint of this community, so it should be relatively easy to see how the same principle applies. 

The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been a longstanding problem for decades. One thing that we should make clear is that this is not a religious issue -- as groups like AQ or countries like Iran may suggest to manipulate us psychologically into accepting their political agendas, at least partially. Even the Dalai Lama has said explicitly that if the Buddha were alive today, he would be the first to advocate for helping the poor Muslims who are fleeing persecution.

The plight of the Rohingya is a political problem about land, ethnicity, and nationhood, similar to the plights of Armernians, Palestinians, Kurds, and other groups who were left out when nation states came into existence. Again, if you have political skill and ideas on how to solve this problem, then you should provide advice to leaders on how to do that. In the meantime, we can all agree that as long as countries like Bangladesh, which has been receiving many of those refugees, don't have the resources to accommodate them, and with international humanitarian aid being constrained because nation states are not donating sufficient funds to those efforts, it is part of our duty to help the humanitarian efforts in any way that we can -- regardless of where our political leanings may lie.


This brings me to the third crisis which is conspicuously absent from our community and media discourse, despite being the world's worst humanitarian crisis, by orders of magnitude. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs(OCHA) offers these numbers: 2.9 million people ar internally displaced, 17 million (well over half the population) are food insecure, and more than half a million have been infected with cholera. The humanitarian response funding gap stands at $1.3 billion, which comes to 56.5% of the total needed to date.

And yet, we hardly see any attention being paid to this crisis of epic proportions. This is partly a consequence of the recency effect in news cycles that are becoming shorter each year, but it may also be partly caused by politic sensitivities in this situation... It shouldn't.

Exactly as we should have recognized in the first two examples that our political views (in this case, whether one sides with the Houthi rebels who started strife in Yemen or with the coalition in which we are taking part), the humanitarian duty to help those suffering from disease, malnutrition, and starvation should not be neglected. 

Again, our duties are clear: If you have political skill and can provide solutions, by all means you should volunteer your advice. In the meantime, we all need to do what we can to help in bridging this humanitarian response funding gap highlighted by the UNOCHA. 

And we shouldn't forget this duty simply because other duties arise. Steadfastness of support is just as important, and possibly more important, than the initial response.


Which brings us to the greatest refugee crisis in modern history. Political and military complications aside, including the difficulty with which UN and other international relief agencies can reach some of those impacted in the country, it is still true that 13.4 million people need the world's humanitarian assistance, and the UNOCHA estimated humanitarian response funding gap at this time stands at $2.1 billion (which is 63.6%, or nearly two thirds, of what is needed to date). 

Our lack of steadfastness in helping our fellow humans is apparent in the larger gap for Syria than for Yemen -- this is the old news effect. 

Here also, as in the three previous cases, and despite the much more complicated politics of the situation, which may make it very difficult for most people even to formulate an opinion on who is to blame for all the suffering, the basic human duty to help our fellow human beings should be obvious.

It is noteworthy in this regard that the estimated property losses from hurricanes Harvey and Irma are approximately $290 billion. This is very sad, but it is fortunately a very small percentage of our gross domestic product. The more interesting calculation in light of the previous discussion shows that just over 1% of that sum could save the lives of nearly 30 million people.

Concluding Remarks

We are commoners, and our efforts are unlikely to make any significant difference, but that does not eliminate our duty to do what we can to help our fellow human beings, wherever they are. Our attentions may be distracted by the news cycles, but we can budget our time, effort, and giving, so that we do not neglect any of our duties simply because new duties came up. And our varied political views, whatever they may be, do not alter those basic duties to fellow humanity.

That's what religion is about, and then, after we have done our work (knowing that we cannot influence the outcome), we simply follow the order that God gave his Prophet:
إن مع العسر يسرا. فإذا فرغت فانصب و إلى ربك فارغب.
[With every difficulty, there is ease. So once you have fulfilled your duties, turn to your Lord in prayer and supplication.]