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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

An Islamic State in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Presidential Elections

by Barbara Zollner, guest contributor

Banned Muslim Brotherhood CandidatesA composite photograph of Egyptian Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail (left), Khayrat al-Shater (center), and former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Egypt’s election commission said on April 14, 2012 that the three men were among ten candidates barred from running for president. (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

The battle over Egypt’s democratic future is at a significant crossroads. But while the fight for succession to Mubarak’s throne is fully under way, the rules of the competition seem to be constantly changing.

Only two weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced their decision to field a candidate for the May presidential elections. They nominated businessman and multi-millionaire Khayrat al-Shater. Fostering deep-seated fears about Islamist regimes, the Washington Post expressed concern that, should Shater win the elections, Islamic law would be enforced.

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"It’s not a war. It’s a massacre, an indiscriminate massacre." Chilling words from a photojournalist on the ground in Syria.

From thepoliticalnotebook:

“As I’m talking to you now, they’re dying.” Injured Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy gives Sky News an interview from his hospital bed. This is a really important interview. His descriptions of what’s happening in Homs are painful and terrible. He spoke of the scheduled regularity of the shelling, beginning with horrible predictability at 6:00 every morning.

I’ve worked in many war zones. I’ve never seen, or been, in shelling like this. It is a systematic … I’m an ex-artillery gunner so I can kind of follow the patterns… they’re systematically moving through neighborhoods with munitions that are used for battlefields. This is used in a couple of square kilometers. 

He described the state of fear in Homs, calling it “beyond shell shock,” and the actions of Assad’s forces “absolutely indiscriminate,” with the intensity of the bombardments increasing daily. Conroy’s detailing of the inhumane conditions and the position of the Syrian citizens and the Free Syrian Army is important, because we don’t have as many journalists who have been able to tell us what it was like to be there as we have had elsewhere. He tells us that “The time for talking is actually over. Now, the massacre and the killing is at full tilt.” 

I actually want to quote his entire interview about the people who are living without hope, food, or power and his conviction that we will look back on this massacre with incredible shame if we stand by and do nothing. In lieu of that, you must must must watch every bit of this interview.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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A Skeleton Key to Stories and Ideas, Legend and Myth

by Krista Tippett, host

Sari Nusseibeh and Krista Tippett at Al-Quds University in East JerusalemSari Nusseibeh and Krista Tippett at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem (photo: Trent Gilliss)

When we were in Israel and the West Bank this past spring, the momentum was building for what is now unfolding on the floor of the United Nations — a new approach to Palestinian sovereignty that, depending on whom you listen to, might change everything or might change nothing. Still, while the new energies of the emerging Middle East herald new beginnings with uncertain outcomes, they are bringing a definitive end to the recent status quo.

But “recent” is a relative term, as I palpably experienced in Jerusalem and as Sari Nusseibeh embodies in his person. “Recent” in American minds might be a matter of months, perhaps years. Here it is a matter of centuries. Seeking to understand that profoundly different sense of time and history is the only way we will be able to see the complexity of what is now unfolding — to apply caution where it is needed, hope where it is warranted, and a sense of how we can best care. Sari Nusseibeh’s voice is a gift towards that end.Locking the Door to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

For starters, he has an utterly fascinating personal story, which contains layers of Arab history now shaping history in the making. The original “Nusaybah" was a female companion — and fellow fighter — of the prophet Mohammad. And sometime after the Muslim entry into Jerusalem in the seventh century, one of Nusaybah’s relatives was appointed the official keeper of the keys to the holiest Christian site in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To this day, an elaborate ritual of opening and closing the church’s ancient wooden doors with an oversized skeleton key continues, and Sari Nusseibeh’s family remains part of that ritual.

Fast forward 13 centuries, give or take, and his mother’s family lost everything when the state of Israel was created, out of war, in 1948. His father, nevertheless, had an illustrious career as a statesman — as governor of Jerusalem, Jordanian ambassador to London, and Jordanian minister of defense. For, in one of those chapters it is easy to lose sight of the “recent” history of the Middle East — before the watershed year of 1967, when the current and ever-contested borders of Israel and Jerusalem were drawn — the West Bank was a territory administered by Jordan, not Israel.

In the sweep of his memory and experience, then, Sari Nusseibeh provides helpful, necessary context for thinking about the Arab world as it’s evolving in real time today. His perspective concretely addresses current events. But it is the combination of this lived perspective and his philosophical mind that makes his wisdom uniquely illuminating and useful. He sees through current events, through political cycles of turmoil and progress, to the “human evolution” that is necessary for real change to happen. He argues forcefully that this is underway, albeit painfully slowly, and cannot be measured merely in terms of politics and peace processes, either successful or failed.

Sari Nusseibeh’s stories and ideas leave me with so much to think about. And from his unusual vantage point, he adds yet a new layer of complexity to my thinking about the contradictions, perils, and promise of events in this land: the layer of myth and legend and their force in human life. Naming this piece of the picture actually helps bring some of the rest into a more manageable focus. This part of the world, he knows in his bones, brings a special intensity to the human inclination to shape reality as much on the basis of what is imagined as what is real. We must take this seriously as a way human beings make sense and find their ways toward truth. He speaks to the evolutionary possibility in all of our lives, and all of our societies, when he says this of the “legends and myths” that are part of rock-solid reality in his land:

"You have to somehow grow into them, grow out of them, know how to deal with them, live peaceably at them — while at the same time accepting other myths that may conflict with them. But I think it’s happening."

About the embedded photo: A keyholder to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre locks the front door before ceremonially passing the key through a lower portal to a Greek Orthodox priest on the inside. (photo: Trent Gilliss)

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The Conscience Behind the “Idea of America”

by Krista Tippett, host

It’s easy to forget, especially around U.S. Independence Day, how much trial and error went into the creation of American democracy, how much of what Americans now take for granted wasn’t fully formed for decades after 1776. The warm and wise philosopher Jacob Needleman looked back at the American founders with this in mind for his book The American Soul. He took apart the ingredients that grew up our democracy. And he found that every iconic institution, every political value, had “inward work” of conscience behind it. Every hard-won right had a corresponding responsibility.

It feels important to me, right now, to revisit the 2003 conversation I had with Jacob Needleman about this, and have been formed by ever since. In our historical moment, it is as clear as ever before that the American republic is an ongoing work in progress. And at the very same time, young democracies are fighting to emerge across the world and are looking for instruction and models.

To rise to this occasion, I believe, we need to remember and pass on this inward work as much as the outer forms of government that were long in the making. As we created this week’s show, we also pulled in words Jacob Needleman points to — of founding voices of “the idea of America.” These include George Washington and Thomas Paine, but also Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman.

For this commentary, I offer excerpts of Jacob Needleman’s insights from our interview — and a little Walt Whitman — for remembering and reflection.

On the rights of the individual

"Individualism and individuality have to be separated. Individualism can take a turn where it’s a kind of egoistic, selfish thing: Me, me, me, me, and what I want and what I care, what I think and what I like. Oh sure, we need to have the liberty to express all that, but a real individual is a different thing. And to be truly one’s self is to be truly in contact with this great self within, this divinity within. And the paradox of true individuality is that the more you are in touch with what all human beings have in common under God, the more you are uniquely what you, yourself, are. And that’s why I say we need to bring back the obligations that go along with the rights in order to understand the depths of what the human rights really mean."

On freedom

"A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if … I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that’s what we’re speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?"

On conscience 

For the founders and for all spiritual teachers — and by “founders,” by the way, I want to broaden the founders to include people who came later, including such people, of course, as Lincoln and also — one people may find strange — Frederick Douglass and people like that who spoke very powerfully of conscience. Conscience is an absolute power within the human psyche to intuit real values of good and evil and right and wrong. We are born with that capacity. It’s not just socially conditioned into us. This is what the great traditions teach. This is what I think. But it is covered over by a lot of the egoism and chaos of our un-free inner life.”

On the importance of “thinking” in public, political life

"Shouting is not thinking. ‘Come let us reason together,’ the prophet says, God says to Isaiah… I think the moment you start thinking together with someone, immediately their eyes light up… I must confess I spoke to — I won’t say who, but I spoke to some members of Congress not long ago. We had a very quiet evening together and we started opening up, just what you and I are doing now. And they said, in effect, you know, ‘We never get a chance to do this. We’re in there trying to, you know, speak to television cameras or make points with electorates or with lobby groups, but we never…’ I said, ‘You mean you never come together and just reflect together?’ And they said no. To me, that’s the dirty secret of America at the moment. That’s the problem."

From Walt Whitman’s essay Democratic Vistas, which Jacob Needleman also includes as part of the long tradition of the foundational “idea of America,” and which ends our show.

"I say the mission of government, henceforth in civilized lands, is not repression alone and not authority alone, not even of law, nor the rule of the best men, but higher than the highest arbitrary rule, to train communities through all their grades beginning with individuals and ending there again to rule themselves. To be a voter with the rest is not so much. And this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation and equal with the rest, to commence the grand experiment whose end may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman — that is something."

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"Arab Spring" Forces Americans to Ask Hard Questions of Ourselves

by Krista Tippett, host

U.S.-Islamic World Forum

I recently attended a remarkable gathering in Washington, D.C., the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, cohosted by the Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar. For the past eight years this event has been held in Doha, Qatar.

This year, of course, the “Muslim world” is in the midst of seismic change. It was a remarkable experience to be — at this moment — with state and diplomatic leaders, civic and humanitarian activists, and senior religious authorities from Muslim majority countries around the world, as well as their counterparts from the United States and other nations.

So I found myself next to the Iraqi ambassador to the United States in one session and next to a young Bahraini human rights activist at another. She was juggling a laptop, an iPhone and an iPod simultaneously (and with notable ease). I made a lighthearted remark about how she was redefining the meaning of multitasking for me. She responded graciously, with a lovely smile, and then told me she was following new pictures just released on the Internet showing that Bahraini political prisoners are being tortured. Her father and two brothers, she told me, are in those prisons. She was fierce with dignity.

Representatives of Turkey, meanwhile, suddenly found themselves the "democratic model" of the Arab world that others want to study and emulate.

U.S.-Islamic World ForumAbdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s foreign minister from 2001-2005, during a panel session. (photo courtesy of Brookings Institution)

Key players from the emerging Egyptian leadership were also in attendance, as were ministers from the new government in Tunisia. And the Egyptians and Tunisians were, to a one, quite transformative simply to be around. They seemed to glow. They manifest a sense of having lived through a miracle, even as they face the tasks ahead with gravity.

"We have discovered ourselves," one longtime Egyptian activist proclaimed. And there is clearly no turning back on this collective self-discovery, painful and uncertain as the road ahead may be.

In a sense, this moment challenges Americans to a new era of self-discovery, too. As we watched ordinary men and women, young and old, become citizens for the first time on Tahrir Square, we saw a version of our own national narrative unfolding. The economic and foreign policy challenges ahead of us are profound — and will become even harder as countries like Saudi Arabia inevitably experience their version of the “Arab Spring.”

These events force us to ask hard questions of the policies we condoned for years, of decades-long dictatorships that we helped hold in power. More presently and importantly, they ask us to bring the best of our virtues, and the complexity of what we have learned in our own 200 years of democratic experiment, to the changed world we inhabit now.

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