He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do

If you said “Nice day,” he would look up
at the three clouds riding overhead,
nod at each, and go back to doing what-
ever he was doing or not doing.
If you asked for a smoke or a light,
he’d hand you whatever he found
in his pockets: a jackknife, a hankie –
usually unsoiled — a dollar bill,
a subway token. Once he gave me
half the sandwich he was eating
at the little outdoor restaurant
on La Guardia Place. I remember
a single sparrow was perched on the back
of his chair, and when he held out
a piece of bread on his open palm,
the bird snatched it up and went back to
its place without even a thank you,
one hard eye staring at my bad eye
as though I were next. That was in May
of ’97, spring had come late,
but the sun warmed both of us for hours
while silence prevailed, if you can call
the blaring of taxi horns and the trucks
fighting for parking and the kids on skates
streaming past silence. My friend Frankie
was such a comfort to me that year,
the year of the crisis. He would turn
up his great dark head just going gray
until his eyes met mine, and that was all
I needed to go on talking nonsense
as he sat patiently waiting me out,
the bird staring over his shoulder.
“Silence is silver,” my Zaydee had said,
getting it wrong and right, just as he said
“Water is thicker than blood,” thinking
this made him a real American.
Frankie was already American,
being half German, half Indian.
Fact is, silence is the perfect water:
unlike rain it falls from no clouds
to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
to give heart to the thin blades of grass
fighting through the concrete for even air
dirtied by our endless stream of words.

by Philip Levine


Faith leaders show unity after Paris attacks

Leading members of Britain’s religious communities held a joint conference at a prominent London mosque on Friday in a show of unity and shared condemnation a week after the Paris attacks.

More than 20 leaders from Jewish, Muslim and Christian and other faith communities gathered at London Central mosque in Regent’s Park for an “interfaith unity gathering” in response to the terror attacks that left 17 people dead.

Dr Shuja Shafi, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, opened the event by saying: “We come together in difficult circumstances. Last week, we all watched in horror as people were killed mercilessly. Last week, we saw gunmen kill, insulting our faith, and defying the Quranic injunction to save life.

“We come together in solidarity … There has been a lot of heat generated in the last week about freedom of speech, about security and about the place of British Muslims in society.”

Shafi went on: “Yes, Muslims are no doubt hurt and offended by those depictions [of Muhammad]. But nothing offends us more than the insult, hurt and dishonour this attack has brought on our community and faith.” He added that he was particularly hurt and shocked by the attack on the kosher supermarket in France and said: “Islamophobia and antisemitism have no place in society.”

Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputy of Jews, who sat beside Dr Shafi, said: “It’s lovely to see a unity of people from different faiths.” He said the attack on freedom of speech in Paris was an attack on values in our society: “You attack one minority, you attack us all.”

Senior Rabbi to Laura Janner-Klausner speaks
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner (centre) speaks to invited guests during an interfaith unity gathering at the Islamic cultural centre in London. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
Senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner from the Movement for Reform Judaism, who was in Paris last week, said: “Just a week ago, somebody tried to break something.” But she went on to say that Friday’s event offered a moment of sanctity. “Jews and Muslims are united by the word shalom/salam. This word doesn’t just mean peace – it also means completeness. We will not allow that [disunity] to happen,” she said.

Dr Harriet Crabtree, director of the InterFaith Network for the UK, told the Guardian: “At times such as these, where events overseas have an impact on inter faith relations in the UK, the response of faith groups and interfaith bodies here is very important.

“It is clear, though, that there is recognition that there are serious issues involved which call for long-term, considered reflection and engagement. Identifying and building on shared values and also finding ways to discuss areas of disagreement is crucial.”

After the joint conference, the religious and community leaders held up “#hopeunity” banners in a photo shoot beneath the golden dome of the Central Mosque before the Friday call to prayer for Muslims.

Charlie Hebdo, the pope and what to do with the freedom to give gratuitous offence

Religions, so Pope Francis declared in response to the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Jewish shoppers, have a dignity that we must respect. He no doubt believes that to give religions such privilege would limit aggression and hate. The problem is that there can be no agreement as to what constitutes a religion that would thus be entitled to have its dignity protected. More importantly, many religions, like his own, claim to be the only gateway to God. On that basis, holy wars, the killing of “infidels”, “heretics” and adherents of the “wrong” religion were justified and declared a holy duty. “Deus lo vult” was the battlecry of the crusaders who, on and off for two centuries, massacred Albigensians, Muslims and Jews, and ransacked their homes. A few hundred years later the great reformer Martin Luther advised the German princes to follow the example of other Christian countries “for the honour of God and of Christianity” to drive out “this insufferable devilish burden – the Jews”.

It would have been more helpful had the pontiff supported the humanist view that every human being has an inherent dignity that must be protected. An attack on that is a blemish on our own worth and diminishes us as moral beings. To understand that, we don’t need any religion.

Thus the torture of prisoners, detention without trial, withholding basic rights, degrading living conditions and crass inequality are infringements of the basic need to respect human dignity.

In this context it is pertinent to call into mind article 1 of the German constitution of 1949, expressing a lesson learned from recent history: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”
Jurgen Schwiening
Market Bosworth, Leicestershire

The pope and various Muslim and Jewish religious leaders are agitating for limits on freedom of speech for those who do not share their beliefs. It’s not atheists who advocate violence in response to criticism or ridicule of their views. As an atheist, I am uncomfortable about people proselytising irrational beliefs, especially to children, especially where these preachers advocate violence.

So if freedom of speech is to be limited, perhaps we should at least act in an even-handed way by taking their proposal to the logical conclusion of outlawing freedom of all speech about all religion – both pro and anti. Without indoctrination of new recruits to their religious factions, the number of believers would quickly reduce over time. Think how much more peaceful the world would become without this source of strife, or justification for murdering other people.

For clarification for those who do not understand the principles of the cartoonists who were brave enough to ridicule this sort of repressive nonsense – this suggestion is, of course, sarcasm.
Annie Thackeray

In one sentence the pope says it is wrong to respond to insults with violence, and in the next says he would do exactly that himself. It is beyond satire.
Catherine Rose
Olney, Buckinghamshire

I’m amazed at the contrast between the outrage that (rightly) greeted the plan by some American religious bigots in 2010 to stage a public burning of the Qur’an, and the reaction to the provocative republication (by “secular bigots”?) of satirical cartoons featuring Muhammad. Of course people should have the freedom to give gratuitous offence, free from fear of violent reprisal, just as, for example, they should be free to commit adultery, but that doesn’t mean they are right to do so in either case.
Dr David Golding
Honorary chaplain, Newcastle University

If only the concern of anti-war campaigners at UK foreign policy could be put down to a “coping mechanism” to deal with our fear of terrorism, as Jonathan Freedland suggests (Opinion, 17 January). We take this view because it is demonstrably the fact that the war on terror, begun nearly 14 years ago, has failed in its aim. Terrorism has grown in terms of its degree of threat and its spread geographically. The wars continue, leading to devastation in countries as far apart as Libya and Afghanistan.

The implication that we consider Islamist terrorists as “the armed wing of the Stop the War Coalition” is the opposite of the case. We oppose their politics and methods. But we argue that the policies followed by successive governments have allowed these groups to grow, as has support from western allies in the Middle East. If we are going to deal with the effects of this terrorism in Europe, we have to understand its causes.
Jeremy Corbyn MP (chair) and Lindsey German (convenor)
Stop the War Coalition

Jonathan Freedland writes: “There were two groups especially shaken by last week’s attacks – journalists and Jews.” Muslims, by implication, have not been shaken and have nothing to fear, though it is likely they will be even more victimised throughout Europe than they have been so far as a result of these attacks. And it is Muslims who are the main victims of extreme Islamism throughout the Middle East, as well as of US and European responses to Islamism.
Sophie Richmond

The identity of Muslims is strongly bound up with Islam, and, as we too often forget, attacking people’s deepest identity only drives it deeper. Moreover, the defining experience of most Muslims in Europe has been one of social exclusion. They have lower incomes, higher rates of unemployment and fewer qualifications than the rest. They also suffer from housing deprivation and disproportionately from bad health. They are also more likely to be the victims of crime. In addition, unqualified western support for Israel and military interventions in the Arab world cause much anger. These factors of poverty, exclusion and war don’t justify the killings, but they go a long way to explaining them.

Satire has traditionally referred to the ridiculing of the rich and powerful, not lampooning those suffering deprivation and exclusion. In this sense, the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not examples of satire but Islamophobic attacks.
Sabby Sagall

Thank you, Tim Lott, for your wonderful piece in praise of doubt, and against anger. In some ways, it seems to me, it is even worse than you say, but in other ways, not quite as bad. Even science – the soul, one might think, of reason and institutionalised doubt – has its unacknowledged dogmas. There are unacknowledged assumptions about metaphysics, values and politics built into the aims of science. Science would be all the more rational if these implicit articles of faith were made explicit, so that they can be critically assessed and improved as science proceeds.

On the other hand, is it really true that “all our belief systems are just constructs”? It may well be that “everything is in doubt”, as you say, but still things exist that are genuinely of value in themselves in the world – the laughter of a child, an act of kindness, a good article in the Guardian. All views about what is ultimately of value in life may be open to doubt, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing that is genuinely of value.

I hear America singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

by Walt Whitman