Thinking Aloud

Beauty as a bulwark against terror

Culture and wisdom found in diverse societies can bind us when violent forces aim to tear us apart

In a fortnight when talk of war and the clash of civilisations has made headlines, I have been thinking of chants, specifically of three magical encounters with the chants of the three monotheistic faiths so often implicated in acts of violence carried out in the name of religion.

The first took place in the dining room of Jerusalem's King David Hotel.

It was morning on a Saturday - when orthodox Jews mark the Sabbath - and a special Sabbath breakfast buffet of cold dishes was laid out as there is no cooking at this grand old hotel on this day of rest.

Joining the usual crowd of business travellers staying in the hotel was a large Jewish family enjoying the Jerusalem equivalent of Sunday brunch at the Raffles. I noticed them because of the chanting.


Soldiers patrolling near the Colosseum in Rome. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced on Wednesday that half of the $3 billion budget for fighting terrorism would be spent on security and defence while the other half will pay for cultural programmes. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

There were about 10 of them but only one young man was chanting what I took to be a blessing over the food and his family while the rest bowed their heads in silence.

He sang for perhaps a minute or two but it was as though time stood still as the glorious music of his prayer filled the air.

The second encounter took place in London's Westminster Cathedral.

Beauty like that I experienced in the chants of Judaism, Christianity and Islam stirs hearts and speaks a language of peace that transcends differences in doctrine. It helps to build a bridge of trust across faiths and cultures.

This time, I went specifically to listen to the cathedral's famous choir chant vespers or evening prayer.

The choir sang for perhaps 20 minutes and when they finished, I turned around to see an amazing sight - backpack-bearing tourists who had wandered into the cathedral stood there transfixed, captivated by the beauty they had stumbled on so unexpectedly. Some were already moving off but a small handful seemed to be just waking from a musical trance.

The third encounter took place in Meulaboh, Aceh, months after the 2004 Asian tsunami devastated this town on the west coast of Sumatra.

Some aid workers and I were staying in a two-storey house. Parts of its walls had crumbled during the earthquake and that is how I came to be standing by a large hole in the wall on the second storey very early one morning, listening to the azan or call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

It was a beautiful sound that washed over the wreckage all around, a song of hope and fresh beginnings.

In all three instances, the beauty of the chants drew me in.

Beauty has a way of doing that.

It heals and blesses.

It persuades without bullying.

It is the antithesis of the violence that terrorists exploit to sow fear and destruction.

Beauty like that I experienced in the chants of Judaism, Christianity and Islam stirs hearts and speaks a language of peace that transcends differences in doctrine. It helps to build a bridge of trust across faiths and cultures.

Indeed, the beauty and wisdom to be found in ancient faiths is a shared human heritage, as are many aspects of modern culture that have improved lives and enhanced our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.

But of what use is beauty or culture in a world where terrorists have no qualms about striking at the heart of the world's most beautiful cities and gunning down innocent civilians in cold blood?

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has an interesting response. He has come up with a proposal to fight terrorism with culture.

Last week, he laid out plans for €2 billion (S$3 billion) in new spending in response to the recent attacks in Paris, amid growing concerns that Italy could be a terrorist target.

While €1 billion would be used for security and defence purposes, another €1 billion would pay for cultural programmes, reports the Financial Times.

This includes more money for disenfranchised neighbourhoods on the outskirts of big cities, where there are often clashes between Italians and immigrants, but also a €500 bonus for every 18-year-old to spend at theatres, concerts and museums.

The idea, according to Mr Renzi, is to reinforce their sense of being guardians of Italy's vast cultural heritage. "What happened in Paris signalled a step-up in the cultural battle that we are living," Mr Renzi said in a speech at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

"They imagine terror, we answer with culture. They destroy statues, we love art. They destroy books, we are the country of libraries."

What the world's great cultures teach us is that human beings have much in common - we are similar in many ways, one of which is that our hearts long to find beauty and harmony in the world.

And yet, we are also unique. We have different traditions, world views and preferences.

We look different, we dress differently, we eat different foods, our music sounds different.

The great challenge of our age is to balance the things we have in common with those that make us different.

This is not a new challenge. Throughout history, people have come face to face with those who are different from them and struggled to respond in a balanced way.

What is different today though is the scale at which such encounters are taking place.

As British philosopher Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed in a speech: "In the past, most people in most places at most times lived among people who were like them.

"But today the sheer diversity of (a city like) London...is so great that when you walk down an average city street, you will encounter more diversity than an 18th-century anthropologist would have encountered in a lifetime."

And one response to that shocking encounter with difference can be fear, said Dr Sacks who wrote a book, The Dignity Of Difference, after the Sept 11 terror attacks in New York City. Fear in turn "becomes hate, which becomes violence and terror. And hence the appeal of fundamentalism", which is "an attempt to simplify a plural world into one where everyone is the same".

In the face of such attempts to extinguish diversity, he poses this challenge to those who stand against fundamentalism and all forms of totalitarianism: "Can we balance that lovely minuet, that fugue of our differences and our commonalities, the things that we share and the things that are uniquely us?

"We have things in common and we have things that are different and that is of the essence, because if we were completely different from one another we couldn't communicate, and if we were exactly the same we'd have nothing to say. And it is sustaining that balance that is the great challenge of the 21st century."

And if we do succeed, then we find a new way forward for our societies, which in turn, and with time, will become a fresh source of beauty and harmony.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'ThinkingAloud Beauty as a bulwark against terror'. Print Edition | Subscribe