How to (or NOT to) talk to your kids (or grandkids) about ISIS at the Thanksgiving dinner

As I was disembarking from my flight from Atlanta to D.C. earlier this week, I overheard an older woman talk to someone seated next to her ‘I don’t know how to explain ISIS to my grand kids. I want to tell them they are animals…with their evil intent, but I love animals; so can bring myself to comparing these savages to animals. My grandkid said ‘Grandma they are nothing but murderers. Murderers who kill innocent people.’ Quite obviously, it is hard for anyone to talk about such a group. And you can only imagine how hard it is for Muslims, around the world to talk about ISIS, without first stating that this group is not really Islamic, even though they have appropriated the name ( in English) and the English media continues to use the name, instead of calling them Daesh, as they should be referred. What this group does in the name of Islam gives ammunition for Muslim bashing and more Islamophobia ( yes, it is real and exists). I do recommend this piece by Juan Cole, well worth your time.

So, how does one speak about the group called ISIS/ Daesh, which is actually a threat to some people, in some places? Their formidable power seems to be growing, if the Paris attacks are an indication. With Thanksgiving upon us, there are fears that they may retaliate again. While President Obama has assured Americans that there is no intelligence of a credible threat, the anxieties remain. To be clear, they are a clear and visible danger to many Muslims and non-Muslims, in the regions they rule. The wanton destruction of life and property that Daesh has caused cannot be discounted. While this is true, it is also true that there are over 1500 militias fighting for dominance in Syria and an equal number in Iraq. Dr. AbdulKhaleq Abdulla, speaking at the Annual Conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.  said “Regional and global  powers have created monsters (such as ISIS) that have gone out of control and are creating facts on the ground,” he added. Extremism, sectarianism, of kind that we have never seen before is manifest. Abdulla also added that it is impossible to predict that is coming next. Despite all the analysis by security analysts and other observers– the rise of ISIS, Arab Spring, Yemen conflict and the Russian move in Syria – none of these were predicated by anyone. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that social sciences are not very good at– or even meant to be – used for predicting the future. Rather political theory and related sciences are meant to offer an analysis of events past and a model for what institutions and logics can be used to analyze events occurring in the present.

While talking to your kids or grand-kids, please do break it down to them that this is not some holy pie in the sky kind of war, but a real one; with real interests at stake- land, resources, oil and territory. While ISIS and other groups may use religion to justify their actions, the religion they use to justify it – Islam – is as violent, nonviolent, passive, and aggressive as any other religion, and depends on who practices it, a point well made by Reza Aslan, recently. You should also remind your kids that Christians and Jews have lived for millennia, in Muslim majority countries, in relative peace. This is not a war of religions, but one of ideologies and one that was spurred by geopolitical shifts involving big powers. You should also tell them that in Political Science, it is a basic dictum that there are always players waiting to fill a power vacuum. With the fall of Saddam Hussein and the ongoing conflict in Syria, there is such a vacuum and it was filled by a group that is just plain ruthless, opportunitistic and bent on dominance – that calls itself Daesh.

My sincere advice: Avoid the topic of Daesh during Thanksgiving dinner. If you have to, or if some relative or friend brings it up, do bring up the entire complex geopolitical and strategic errors committed by many great nations and powers that have led to the creation of the monstrosity that we know as the ISIS. To simply reduce it to Islam or American actions in the region does not do anyone any good.  It only reduces complex global phenomenon to lame and predictable dinner table conversations – and we know that nothing good ever comes out of such analysis. Be wise this Thanksgiving and enjoy that Turkey!

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Should nonprofit pay be based on performance? No, says leading expert.

“If  Supreme court judges were to be paid for their ‘performance’ then we would surely have a higher conviction rate. The same can be said of institutions of education where incentives are given purely on ‘results'” pointed out Prof. Burton Weisbrod, during the plenary session of ARNOVA ‘s 2015 Annual conference, held at the historic Palmer Hotel in Chicago. As the ‘go to’ conference of its kind in the U.S., ARNOVA brings together about 800-1000 top researchers in the field of nonprofit and voluntary sector studies ( or third-sector) as it is commonly known. Weisbrod_Burton

More than answering any questions authoritatively, Weisbrod sought to ask provocative questions, all relating to whether ‘strong rewards can be used to motivate performance.’ His work examines how ‘mixed industries’ such as hospitals, schools – where government, private sector and others come together to offer solutions. Speaking of the challenges of rewarding performance, he suggested that it is very ‘hard to measure things in an unbiased manner.’ For example, how do you know if the hospital gave 2 aspirins to a patient or 4 out of a bottle of 50 – while billing the government for the whole bottle?  It would be inefficient incentive to justify a smaller number of units used, to get compensated; he argued.

Incentivising performance in public oriented systems can distort the system and lead to organizations ‘gaming’ the system – showing inflated graduation rates, greater resources used etc. all in an effort to receive greater ‘rewards’ or revenues from the government. This logic of the private sector can not hold well in the non-profit sector, or the government; which by nature are meant to benefit the underdog and serve those who cannot afford the services of the ‘for-profit’ sector. Similar arguments have been made by other scholars and practitioners – and the crux of this argument is that money, rather than professional judgment is driving these incentives, and it is not good for the profession.

While the U.S. is coming to terms with inequality, race-relations, tensions around the world; and also how the idea of ‘community’ and ‘belonging’ are being re-shaped, Burton’s call is a reminder that there are no clear-cut answers. Relying purely on empirical results and simple numbers to tell the story of performance is fool-hardy, it seems. Similarly, in this interesting talk, Weisbrod suggests that there is a very little understanding among people about how these institutions work.

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Should the real ‘war’ be against lazy thinking and bad English?

As early as 1946, George Orwell argued that English language is facing a ‘decline’ of sorts. In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell pointed out that English writing in his age – and I would argue, even in our age – suffers from two main problems, i.e., staleness of imagery and lack of precision. Using five paragraphs written by eminent thinkers and writers of his age, he suggests that we are witnessing this ‘mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence’ which has become the ‘ most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.’ He argues further that a word like ‘democracy’ has not only no agreed definition (just like the word ‘terrorism’) but the attempt to make one is resisted from all parties, involved. I quote Orwell at length about democracy, because it is such an important argument

In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. 

Whether it is the US Elections or the recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, news media (and those who write for social media) have resorted to use of words that seem to have lost their meaning. Orwell points out that the words ‘democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.’ What he is implying here is true of other words, concepts, ideas and phrases – used often for the ‘value’ they project- good, useful or pleasant and unpleasant, rather than any real concept that we are trying to understand or idea we wish to express.

In the age of social media, where ‘content curation’ has become far more important, than ‘content creation’ this problem has only become worse. I am as guilty of ‘sharing’ ideas that are not mine, in an attempt to sound cool or look profound, but not realizing that my own intellectual contribution to this idea has been zero. No input, no hard work, no clear thinking – just agreeing or disagreeing with something – with often a very superficial understanding of what has been said.

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Similarly, English media outlets around the world use terms like ‘tolerance’ ‘terrorism’ ‘violence’ and ‘sectarianism’ and ‘democracy’ without really critically examining what these words mean. What does each of this word mean in a specific context – what are its consequences and what do people in each region/ country think about the word and the concept associated with it. How is the lived reality of a Lebanese different from that of an American when it comes to his/her experience of democracy or inter-faith tolerance? Much of this is lost in the rush to explain the ‘extremist violence’ gripping all of Lebanon and the blame is usually assigned to one or two actors, and that somehow satisfies our sensibilities – given that we want easy explanations, much of the time.

Consider this a call for greater vigilance against lazy thinking and mental banking. We need a great war against bad use of English words, phrases and expressions, which obfuscate and confuse as much as they illuminate. We need a ‘global war on bad English’ as much as we had a ‘Global war on terror’. While the latter has failed, I do believe that with some vigilance, we can start to win the first one. The choice is truly ours to make!

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The problem with the question : ‘Is Islam a Violent Religion’

As a young scholar, I am amazed at how easily such a question can be posed towards Islam and  Muslims, without second thought – as if it is the most normal and banal question that one can ask – indeed, many of my close friends and associates have asked me this question, in the past. But there is one simple problem with that question: It is a deeply racist, divisive and intolerant question. By asking this very question, we are putting Islam in an ‘exceptional’ category, and by extension, also putting Muslims in a special ( not elevated) but rather a demoted place, where their actions, ideas and thoughts cannot be understood by ‘normal’ processes, and somehow we need special tools to ‘figure out’ what is going on in their minds. This question also builds on deeply held Orientalist assumptions of what the ‘Muslims’ think or feel[i].

In a deeply ironic way, this question is anti-enlightenment, in that it presupposes our knowledge of others, without even investigating the phenomenon. It is just poor journalism. Here, I am specifically referring to the recent ‘debate’ started by Foreign Policy on ‘Islam is a religion of violence or peace’ and the particular stance of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ali starts off her article by pointing out that since 9/11 and the “Global War on Terror,” the violent strain of Islam appears to have metastasized.” She further argues that between the three categories of Muslims – will determine the future of Islam. One wonders how she came up with this categorization – is she an expert on Islam, or Shari’ah or Muslim societies? The answer to each one is no.  While she pretends to offer an analytical view, it is nothing but her own imaginary constructs that guide her, in her analysis. The fact that a publication such as Foreign Policy chooses to highlight her arguments over other critical and scholarly voices such as those of Talal Asad, Abdullahi An’naim and dozens of similar scholars and activists shows either a complete disregard for credible scholarship or a bias towards sensationalism. In any case, this debate is not framed respectfully or appropriately.

Speaking of violence and the impact of ideologies in perpetuating it, is it not true that the GWOT de-stabilized the region we know as Iraq and also upset the geopolitical configuration of the region? Why are we not asking whether American militarism is justified or not? Can we ask whether ‘democratization’ processes have been violent, because indeed the GWOT and other attempts at bringing democracy to the Middle East have been extremely violent processes that have resulted in deaths of over 1.3  million deaths. A report by Physicians for Social Responsibility points out that “This investigation comes to the conclusion that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs[ii].”  These are credible numbers that actually point to the violence that has been caused in the name of spreading ‘peace’. So, can we ask whether our ‘values’ of promoting peace are violent? Can we ask whether ‘democracy’ is violent? Of course, any contrary evidence is brushed off by Ali, who seeks to look only in one direction – that which only proves her point.

What such narratives and the entire discourse of ‘Islam is violent’ creates is a ghettoization of Muslims. While I think there is virtue in debating the merits and de-merits of Shari’ah law or other related aspects, that impact values such as human rights and equal treatment of women, there is very little benefit to arguing for whether we should even consider Islam a legitimate religion – and this is the logical conclusion that Ms.Ali and others such as her reach. When she concludes by saying that we must not only focus on the violent extremism, but also the “We need to confront the nonviolent preaching of sharia and martyrdom that precedes all acts of jihad,’ she is taking her claims too far. There is real danger in this discourse, in that it marginalizes, stigmatizes Muslims and their religion and we are already seeing the negative repercussions of this – Islamophobia, hatred and bigotry.

The shooting of three Muslims in Chapel  Hill,N.C.,  the burning of the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin and several others incidents point to the rising hatred and violence against Muslims and those who look like them. As Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates points out in her OpEd in Washington Post, “American Muslims experience prejudice far more than they report to authorities. When asked anonymously in a 2011 Pew poll if they had been threatened or attacked in the past year, 6 percent Muslims said they had. Given that Muslims population is about 2.6 million of the population, Pew polls responses suggest that about 156,000 Muslims were victims of hate crimes[iii].” Ms.Khera further goes on to say that Justice Department believes that many of these crimes are not reported because victims believe the police will not or cannot do anything about it. The ‘real’ problems that Muslims face in the world are violence, bigotry and hatred, from those outside their faith community and also in many cases, from within. This is the truth that many reports and scholarly analyses showcase. That is not in dispute.  To the extent that this is a matter of ‘interpretation’ of texts, Ms. Ali is right. But to somehow link this violence to the entire belief structure of Islam is a logical fallacy that even someone familiar with basic tenets of Islam would not make.

As Noam Chomsky suggests in his essay ‘The Responsibility of intellectuals’ political analysis should be about looking for motives behind actions – and this analysis should go both ways – looking at actions and words of ‘others’ as well as our own[iv]. And to somehow assume that ‘we’ are always pure, clean and on the high moral ground is to be delusional. Democracy promotion, for instance has been deeply violent process that has cost millions of innocent lives. And ‘we’ are responsible for it. He further points out that creating an ‘open society’ and a ‘free’ one seems to have become a mantra, a dogmatic assumption that is not often challenged. He suggests that “If it is necessary to approach genocide in Vietnam to achieve this objective, than this is the price we must pay in defense of freedom and the rights of man.” This is the logic that Ms.Ali seems to be following.

Ayaan Hirshi Ali’s claims are nothing but screed and propaganda – aimed at provocation and incitement- but doesn’t meet the basic criterion of responsible journalism. It is peddling opinion as facts and beliefs as ‘truth.’ To call it scholarship would be an insult to those who practice it. The mark of any genuine scholarship or journalism is to look for ‘complicating evidence’ –stuff that challenges our assumptions and beliefs, and in this area, her entire argument falls flat. She is as dogmatic as the Taliban, and that is the real danger. We are dealing with a demagogue here, not an analyst.

[i]  A more detailed account of some of these ideas are in Carl Ernst’s Following Muhammad.

[ii]  Body Count, Physicians for Social Responsibility. March 2015 accessible at

[iii] Khera, F. Its hard to prove any hate crime. But for Muslim victims, its especially hard. The Washington Post. Feb 17, 2015

[iv]  Chomsky, N. The responsibility of intellectuals. Accessible at

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Can Philanthropy help fix the refugee crisis?

Beyond the headlines, the noise and clamor that we hear about immigration is a rather simple question: How will we welcome the stranger? The one who is unknown, perhaps vulnerable?  The question of refugees is also ultimately about us, especially those living in countries where refugees come to. The U.S, Europe and the Gulf nations have come under intense scrutiny in the past few weeks and will continue to be questioned by media pundits and experts who pay attention to this issue. I believe that the way policy makers and politicians (and civil society) addresses these questions will ultimately define who ‘we’ are. It is as much a matter of self-definition, as it is about dealing with the problem ‘out there.’ Let me explain.

Robert Wuthnow, one of the most well-known Sociologist in the U.S. argues that the stories that we tell ourselves. For instance, he says that they narratives or the ‘American mythos’ often lead us to believe that we are more generous than we are. He adds ‘the deep meanings of these stories provide us with common ways of thinking about who we are. At the same time, they bias our perceptions. For instance, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we really are. They result in ideas about how to escape from materialism and consumerism that are usually more wishful than effective.’ Wuthnow reminds us that since 1965, we have had over 22 million people enter the U.S. legally and about 8 million by other means. Consequently, this also has shaped the demographics of the country, bringing in more diversity. Our values regarding acceptance of people who are different from us have also changed. We are in a ‘New America’ of sorts – that is less white, less Protestant, more Hindu, more Muslim and more tolerant of these differences.

Speaking of civil society responses to the immigration issue, here is a recent write-up in the Wall Street Journal. In this piece, the author makes the claim that private, civil society responses to welcoming and taking care of immigrants has worked in the past. For about a decade, the State Department even allowed it in the U.S. but apparently the program was stopped due to lack of agreement on who should come. Also, I am assuming this changed after 9/11 and the scare of potential terrorists coming to the U.S. In my own personal experience, U.S. immigration is one of the hardest in the world and as a migrant from India, my own experience was quite difficult; even though I came through all the ‘proper’ channels, as an international student.

The WSJ article says that the delays in processing immigrants – and it can take upto 18 months for a refugee to get here involve paper work- for reasons that are entirely based on potential worse case scenarios, that the refugees are all potential terrorists. So, the framing of a refugee as a terrorist is in place and is extremely hard to combat, even if it is a three year old child. How can philanthropists overcome this framing, unless they spend enormous amount of money battling this policy framing? This is a question that the article does not address. Civil society has its limits, which are often defined by the state.

In Wuthnow’s view, the reason that we are unable to live to our promises is because our assumptions of who we are, often go unexamined. For instance, he argues that America is considered a ‘land of opportunities’ but at the same time, this myth goes unexamined. The stories we tell ourselves, about who we are he says ‘They are fundamentally about morality.’ He further points out that the very process of coming to the U.S . is one of renewal for those who come and also the society here. It has the potential to renew democracy, even.

If the process of immigration is about renewal and philanthropy is about individual values acting out in the public sphere, as Peter Frumkin argues, then there should be a role for philanthropists to address the refugee crisis. While there are pockets of groups in the U.S. and other countries, that are tackling the challenges, I would hazard a guess and say that current policies in place in EU and the U.S. restrict how much individuals and groups can participate in this process. Perhaps it is time to re-look at these policies and see if there is room for private intervention?

I will end with the question I started this article with: How we respond to the present crisis will be shaped by how we think of ourselves, as people. Also, equally importantly, this is a question of values and morality, as Wuthnow reminds us. It is not about pure rationality or logic.or this reason, I think philanthropy can have a huge impact on how refugees are rehabilitated and also find long-term opportunities. ACCESS, a MI based NGO, which has been working with recent immigrants for over 40 years offers an example of what can positively be accomplished. This is borrowing from Wuthnow’s insight that ultimately, many of our failures in solving social problems boil down to unexamined cultural assumptions. The assumption that is of interest to me is that governments should solve all of these problems. The second one is that the refugee is someone to be feared.  At the present moment, these two assumptions about how we treat the ‘stranger’ in our midst and our own philanthropic motives and its impact can shape what we end up doing, as a matter of policy.

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Insiders and Outsiders

In a recent exchange about the Israel-Palestine issue with a friend,  he informed me that as an ‘outsider’ to an issue, I couldn’t fully appreciate it. As someone who has academically studied this issue, I do have strong convictions. As a fellow human being, I have sympathies. Finally, as an intellectual, I believe that I have (an informed) opinion of the topic.

On a similar note, as a Non-resident Indian, I am an outsider in India and the U.S., where this in-betweenness can create not only legal challenges – not being able to vote – for instance, but also put one in a strange situation, where speaking ‘on behalf’ of a particular idea or conception is suspect, simply because of one’s positionality.paper-people

This line of reasoning of insider-outsider can lead one on many slippery slopes.  For instance: Can I, as an Indian born Muslim really ‘understand’ Arab-American issues? Or for that matter, can I truly appreciate what a right-wing Hindu nationalist feels about India?  Finally, can I ever know what it is to be an ‘American’ or ‘Mexican’? Does belonging to a group give special access to knowledge or insights?

As Robert Merton points out in his classic essay Insiders and Outsiders, Merton points out that an extreme manifestation of the ‘insider’ doctrine can lead to arguments such as: only Blacks can understand Blacks and only women can understand women. He calls this extreme manifestation as the ‘credentialism of ascribed status.’ This, he contrasts with the credentialism of acquired status, on which meritocracy is based. In essence, this means that our brahminical attitudes are not well-founded and extreme ‘insiderism’ – the belief that you must be one to truly understand one – is fundamentally flawed. I tend to agree.

In today’s world, we are all insiders and outsiders, to some extent. The notion of a ‘community’ is changing so rapidly that academics may have to throw out many of the old stodgy definitions of ‘place-based’ community and the like. What is the ‘community’ of internet users, what about a refugee? What is his or her community? What about diaspora communities?

With an Indian background, lineage going back to the Middle East (from my mother’s side) and Afghanistan (from my dad’s side) I realize I am an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ in more ways than one. I am currently in the U.S. and married to a Mexican-American woman. Though my Spanish leaves much to be desired, I believe our kids will inherit a far more complex lineage than mine and my wife’s. This is not to throw up my arms and say ‘We are all one’ or something similarly banal, but to actually carefully examine what all of this means. Does it mean that I have greater ‘authenticity’ when speaking of Mexican-American issues or those of the Middle East?

 The other extreme manifestation of this idea is to claim to know ‘everything’ about the other groups or individuals, by virtue of educational or other qualifications. While having indepth scholarly or professional expertise about other communities or groups may give us a lot of depth and gravitas, it does not fully give us an appreciation of what it means to live as the others do. Which is another way to say that there are limits to what we can ‘know’. Tacit knowledge cannot be gained by reading a book or just thinking about an issue.

One has to also live and experience a particular way of life, to truly appreciate it. In other words, we all need a measure of humility, before rushing to judgment about the ‘other’.

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Two jobs I Could Never have….like ever!

I dropped off my wife, who is a Catholic, to her colleague’s house on the  morning of Sept 23, at 4 am. Together, they, along with a few other colleagues were going to meet the Pope and the President at the White House.   On my way back, I was thinking to myself: Those are the two jobs I could never have – Being the Pope or the President of the United States. As a Muslim man, born in India; it may perhaps be the ultimate fantasy to be in either position. An impossible one at that.

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Well, I did have ambitions of a monastic life, at one point in my life. My ambitions of (Muslim) priesthood died out when my hormones kicked in.  Unholy thoughts replaced holy aspirations. But again, those ambitions wouldn’t have taken me to the Vatican, unless I converted. At best they would’ve taken me to the backwaters of Malakka in Malaysia or the theological seminaries of Oil rich Saudi Arabia. Neither appealed to my cosmopolitan upbringing. I was happy being a ‘regular’ Muslim, doing ‘regular’ things. Nothing spectacular or holy for me, please.

Conversion to any other religion never appealed to me, at any point of my life. And I have always believed that Islam is a very ‘open’ and ‘all embracing’ religion. Islam sees itself as truly Christianity 2.0 and Judaism 3.0, as in, a continuation of the monotheistic tradition that started with Abraham. Ask any Imam. He’ll confirm what I am saying. Even the Salafis will concede that point, theologically speaking. As the second son of two high-school teachers, teaching and being pedantic comes naturally to me. Ask my wife.

Anyway, back to the President. The (poor) President Obama has been pilloried since 2008 for being a ‘secret Muslim,’ and most recently the tactics used by Donald Trump to rev up emotions against Muslims in general have brought back this issue. This debate is about whether Obama is ‘truly’ American and ‘truly’ a Christian. The reasoning being that if he is not either, then he is obviously not eligible to be President. And of course, we know by now that being Muslim means that you are guilty unless proven otherwise, in certain circles. The Muslim identity is unfortunately ‘problematic.’ Even after writing my dissertation about American Muslim identity and its relation to philanthropy; I am looking for answers on how to ‘fix’ this issue. Perhaps no one knows. Neither the President nor his advisors. The media is merely a spectator, which spews out whatever is thrown at it, only amplified, many times over.

Anyway, having reconciled myself to the fact that I cannot be in either position, in this lifetime, at least; I came back home. I came back humbled and thankful for the life I have. Thankful and grateful that we have two sane people, who are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Both are men of faith and hope, who bring reconciliation, where others cause strife. Both embody a work-ethic, which I could hardly keep up with, even if I am a good 40 years younger than him. Both are deeply Christian, without being unnecessarily dogmatic or close-minded.

Can they do better? Yes, of course. But at least we don’t have people in positions of power that will jail, kill, persecute or maim others, for the color of their skin or their religious beliefs. I took a nap, knowing fully well that even if I can’t have the Pope’s job, I can rest assured that he is doing his, well.  And I can take a nap whenever I want. Neither the Pope nor the President have such luxuries.

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