Watching the markets in Shanghai
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS — Five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it seems that we are passing through an unprecedented layer of thick fog. We see one country suddenly accelerating while its neighbor suffers a “sudden stop.” But this isn’t the first time. The world was consumed by the same sort of uncertainty five years after another crash: the one in Wall Street in 1929. Is it 1934 all over again?

At first glance, of course, everything has changed. The world is now infinitely more open and much richer than it was back then. And information technologies have turned the world into a village. We are supposed to have learned a lot from the Great Depression that followed Black Thursday. Central banks, in particular, have led monetary policies that have not stifled the economy, contrary to their predecessors in the 1930s.

Global growth resumed in 2009 after one year of decline, whereas it had decreased for more than three years in the early 1930s, just like the stock market, according to an article written by economists Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke. The France of 2013 is also very different from 1934. The standard of living is five times higher. Even though there are political scandals, they are nothing like the Stavisky Affair and the deadly riots that followed.

On an economic level, the countries’ situations are strikingly similar. Let’s first consider their monetary situations.

Today, as in the 1930s, the United Kingdom and the United States seem to be getting back on their feet ahead of continental Europe. But the United Kingdom had been the first country to devalue its currency relative to gold in 1931, by 24%. The pound sterling suffered once again at the end of 2008, and its euro value today is still a quarter less than it was before Lehman’s bankruptcy.

In the 1930s, the United States followed suit in currency devaluation two years later. But Americans did things differently by carrying out a selective “internal devaluation.” In some industrial sectors such as automobile manufacturing, wage costs (salaries and future retirements) decreased significantly.

Meanwhile, the European countries are hanging onto their single currency, just as they hung on to the “gold bloc” in the 1930s. Their economies will suffer in the longer term. The exception is Germany, which was not part of the 1930s gold bloc and performed internal devaluation in the 2000s, before the crash, for its own specific reason (the compensation of the country’s reunification bill).

A time of rigor

The second similarity to the 1930s is budgetary. After the 1929 crash, as in 2009, most heads of state let deficits run their course — or let “automatic fiscal stabilizers work,” as we say today. Then they wanted to tighten things up. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president of the United States on the promise to rebalance public accounts by reducing expenses by 25%. Once in the White House, he maintained the deficit at a high level, as the U.S. has these last few years.

But in Europe, it was a time of rigor. In 1931, German Chancellor Heinrich Brüning suddenly reduced public spending. In 1934, French Prime Minister Gaston Doumergue made cuts in public sector wages and pensions. Prime Minister Pierre Laval made even more important cuts in the same sectors the following year. He also increased taxes. History repeats itself. Last year, the French government reduced the “structural” budget deficit like it hadn’t since the beginning of the crisis and announced new saving measures for 2014.

Learning from the past

It would be easy to make sarcastic comments about the various governments’ inability to learn from the past. Amid such extreme tensions, they are stuck in a maze of contradictory coercions — between electors, lobbies and creditors, between competiting and confusing analyses. The first lesson is that it is very complicated to understand such an important crisis five years after its symbolic start, just as it is very complicated for a captain to know his location during a storm.

The second lesson is perhaps the importance of looking at the past’s future — in other words, what happened after 1934? Five years later, war broke out. Before that, America fell into recession by increasing taxes, thinking that it was in the clear. Another five years later, it is 1944. The conflict is devastating, killing millions, reducing activity by half in France compared to what it was in 1929. Twenty years later, it is 1954. The American recession is just a distant nightmare. European markets are booming. French production has already increased by a third compared to 1929.

In the 21st century, war should not break out. If Europe sometimes seems too divided, it is important to remember that it is much more united than it was 80 years ago. The real lesson here is elsewhere. A deep crisis lasts a long time. If it sometimes leads to the worst, it can also allow us to build a better world.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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