It was a small group of South Asian immigrants who gathered this week in the basement of a local physician, Mohammad Khalid, in Potomac, Maryland.
The discussion, as it often happens in a group of immigrants, revolved around what they could do to make things better where they came from, while playing a positive role in their adopted home as well.
Ahmed, a young South Asian American, found this debate very interesting. When he went home, he did his own little experiment to understand the difference between light and fire.
Ahmed turned off the lights in his room. Lit a candle. And placed it at a safe distance. First, he tried to hold the flame between two fingers. Kept the fingers close to the flame until he felt the heat but removed it before it hurt.
Then he covered the candle from three corners, and then gazed at it from the open side until his eyes began to water. He then he closed his eyes and relaxed.
He had done this exercise before, starting it with a fixed object, such as the name Allah written in Arabic, and then moved to the candle.
This is an old concentration exercise, known as Tratka in Sanskrit that Muslim Sufis learned from Hindu Sadhus.
The exercise always had an amazing effect on Ahmed. After a few attempts, he sees the flame changing into a wide illuminated space. And with some efforts, he has learned to allow this light to wipe clean all his worries.
What is left is a soothing space that calms his nerves. When his mind is receptive again, Ahmed feels a presence, which is very reassuring. Ahmed cannot define this presence but sometimes he has the urge to speak to it, but does not, fearing that it may lead him to a bigger presence that he may not be able to handle.
As Ahmed was focusing on the candle, he remembered one of that evening’s speakers, Ali Imran, asking: “What’s light? It is not an ordinary object. But first you need to see, then understand and then connect with it. Only then you will know what is light.”
“What is light?” Ahmed asked himself. “It is definitely soothing but it is so vast that it is difficult to grasp it.”
“Do not try to seize it because you cannot. It is divine. Try to separate a ray from this vastness and then connect with it,” his Sufi teacher once told him.
Ahmed had not yet learned to separate a ray from a light source, connecting to it would come later. “And understanding it may take much longer,” he thought. “The fire is easier to understand, even in its extreme forms.”
He recalled another speaker at the debate warning the audience that the nuclear power was a present and immediate threat to humanity. “A little mistake, a tiny misunderstanding, even a slip of tongue can push the entire world into a nuclear holocaust,” said Dr Khalid, who heads the Washington chapter of a Nobel Prize-winning organisation, “Physicians for Social Responsibility.”
“A nuclear war,” the speaker added, was “an extreme scenario but the depleted uranium is already being used, such as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the radiation it is creating will remain for centuries, causing deformities and diseases.”
For Ahmed’s modern mind, such threats were easy to understand because they were quantifiable. Other concepts, such as those dealing with human behaviour, were difficult. “People are so unpredictable,” he thought. “But even these concepts can be understood if they are linked to a particular event because then they are quantifiable,” he murmured as he listened to the evening’s other speaker, Amineh Hoti.
Hoti, co-founder and director of the Cambridge University-based Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, was talking about “cultivating inter-faith understanding” and about the need for “healing a world of terror by valuing diversity.”
Ahmed knew that before 9/11 very few in the school he graduated from would have even bothered to understand such concepts. But this year, he has already attended two such lectures on related topics at his college.
“Yes, 9/11, deaths in the Afghan and Iraq wars and in terrorist attacks are all computable. So we understand them and the concepts related to these events.”
Hoti, who describes her work as “building bridges,” wants to set up the world’s first-ever interfaith university in Islamabad, open to students from local schools and even adults, such as policymakers, policemen and journalists. The university will offer courses on topics ranging from women’s roles in the Abrahamic traditions to depictions of religious groups in the media.
“In a post-9/11 world, educational centres worldwide will have to introduce new and cutting-edge subjects that should and must introduce ideas encouraging mutual respect and understanding,” she said.
Dr Khalid agreed with her, saying that in today’s global village “we must understand and accept each other or we will all perish.”
He then played a little documentary to show how the nuclear “fire” could destroy this village if people did not learn tolerance.
The video referred to various studies, some published this year, depicting how a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan risks the most damaging consequences in terms of human deaths.
Ground burst strikes on Indian and Pakistani cities would produce extremely high immediate and long-term deaths and neither country has the medical and security facilities to deal with such casualty burdens. Outside aid help cannot come in time to be effective.
Even a limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan would cause significant climate disruption worldwide.
In the US, corn production would decline by an average of 10 per cent for an entire decade, with the most severe decline, about 20 per cent in year 5. There would be a similar decline in soybean production, with, again, the most severe loss, about 20 per cent, in year 5.
A second study found a significant decline in Chinese middle season rice production. During the first 4 years, rice production would decline by an average of 21 per cent; over the next 6 years the decline would average 10 per cent.
The 925 million people in the world who are chronically malnourished have a baseline consumption of 1,750 calories or less per day. Even a 10 per cent decline in their food consumption would put this entire group at risk. The number of people threatened by nuclear-war induced famine would be well over one billion.
“That’s fire,” Ahmed said to himself as he recalled the evening’s discussions. “Yes, it can destroy the entire world but what can the light do to prevent this catastrophe?”
“Just trying to separate one ray from the light and focus on it, will not work,” he thought. “We need to take this light to others and also show them the difference between light and fire.”