I’m looking forward to reading the new novel by Wole Soyinka, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. Soyinka will be attending this fall’s PEN America literary gala, flying in from Nigeria to help present an award to Henry Louis Gates Jr. A friend of mine has been invited to dine with Soyinka, and boy, am I jealous. I would love to have a conversation with Soyinka about his writing, his life, his humor, Nigeria, the United States…latest books he’s read.
I went back and re-visited a post I wrote in 2009 (below). I read his book Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World during my year of reading a book a day. That book of non-fiction is as relevant today as it was twenty-two years ago.
Wole Soyinka, writer, poet, playwright, and political philosopher, and winner of The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, wrote Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World in 2004, a collection of lectures that he gave in London in 2004. The lectures were his response to what he sees as the commencement of a new kind of warfare, where everyone is a potential enemy to be shot down and there are no sanctuaries. He is referring to the terrorism of random murder, beginning with Libya’s on-board bombing of Pan AM flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, followed less than one year later by the on-board bombing by Libya of a French airliner over Niger in 1989, and continuing with the Beslan school siege which led to the massacre of 186 children, and marching on to the World Trade Center mass murder of over 3700 people by Al Queda terrorists. “From Niger to Manhattan, the tail of fear had stretched and broadened to engulf the globe, warning its inhabitants that there were no longer any categories of the involved or noninvolved.”
Reading these lectures was difficult and demanding, but well worth the effort of my determined concentration and at times necessary (for me) back-tracking and memory-refreshing of events Soyinka refers to that I had forgotten about or never knew about. Soyinka puts together a strong argument for what I already believe: that fighting religious terrorism with government-sponsored military efforts that punish the innocent only underscores the fear (and the fact) that no one is safe and there is no sanctuary: we are all potentially face to face with an enemy who says, as Soyinka states, “I am right; you are dead.” Instead of a dialog of “I am right; you are wrong but I can live side by side with you without murdering you”, the world divides itself into “with us or agin’ us”. “Terror against terror may be emotionally satisfying in the immediate, but who really wants to live under the permanent shadow of a new variant of [the cold war’s] Mutual Assured Destruction?”
Soyinka argues that between formal states of government, dialog, with concomitant responsibility to both participate in the dialog and commit to its conclusions, is possible and should be pursued. He cites the “Dialog of Civilizations” supported by the United Nations which has led to many meetings between differing states as to how to foster tolerance of different religions and cultures: “the globe needs to saturated, almost on a daily basis, with such encounters.” Soyinka also believes in the efficacy of formal UN meetings and accords, with failure to meet responsibilities under accords resulting in full sanctions. He puts forth Iraq’s willingness to allow UN inspectors to continue inspections in Iraq prior to the US invasion and questions the invasion given Iraq’s irregular but nevertheless present compliance. So do we all, now. The United Nation’s program was working, it turns out, in its goal of preventing Iraq from building nuclear weapons.
But what to do about the quasi-states, the Al Quedas, the terrorist organizations that lack boundaries, have no definable government, and cannot be held accountable for actions? The power source for such organizations must be approached: the disenfranchised, the miserable, the ones for whom human dignity has been lost through destruction of their homeland, delegitimization of their statehood, intolerance for their religion or culture, and the accompanying and pervasive and pernicious forces of fear and anger.
Soyinka starts with the premise that “the assault on human dignity is one of the prime goals of the visitation of fear, a prelude to the domination of the mind and the triumph of power.” By promoting human dignity, we can weaken forces of terror. We have to work to eradicate poverty, promote education and fight illiteracy, protect civil and human rights, and prevent disenfranchisement of any group within a country. He believes that by according tolerance of religious and cultural differences to all people and fully condemning without fear of political correctness or fall-out, all those who use religion hysterically and violently and divisively, we as a global community can provide a bulwark against terrorism. “The banner of morbidity appears to have been hoisted all over the world. To take it down, the world must act in concert, and with resolve, but must also embrace or intensify a commitment to the principle of justice that ensures that the dispossessed shall enjoy restitution, and the humiliated are restored to dignity.”
In ending the lectures, Soyinka drew upon his knowledge of the religion of the Orisa from the Yoruba, and still widely practiced in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean: this religion does not recognize a spiritual division of the world. “Its watchword is tolerance, belief that there are many paths to truth and god-head, and that the world should not be set on fire to prove the supremacy of a belief or the righteousness of a cause.” When innocents die, as they always do in cases of terrorism and in blunt force responses to terrorism, it is as if the world is set on fire. Soyinka offers a way to put out the fires, eradicate the sources — the kindling — by addressing problems endemic to those areas of the world where young terrorists are growing, and by offering an alternative of dialog to those who would participate, and leaving the killers to smolder away and burn out, by themselves.
Is Soyinka an optimist? Definitely, but also a pragmatist, offering the worth of human dignity as so deep and so universal that we can all recognize it, we can all work to further it, and we can all condemn those who would take it away from anyone of us.