Seeking, not finding

Ben Dandelion explains how modern day Quakers celebrate their faith through silence and seeking

No longer a group wearing ‘Quaker grey’ bonnets and broad rimmed hats, Quakers in Britain today embrace a vibrant faith of spiritual exploration. Whilst the very first Quakers of the seventeenth century believed they were the ‘true church’, God’s chosen vanguard at the time of an unfolding second coming, today’s Friends (as Quakers are also called) are far less dogmatic.

Indeed, in terms of beliefs, they are one of the most permissive religious groups around. They worship in silence, without priests or outward sacraments, having always found this the most appropriate medium to approach God: authentic spirituality is to be found inwardly away from the outward. In absence comes a sense of presence, and out of the silence comes rich spiritual experience. This may result in some words to be shared (‘vocal ministry’) or simply the inward affirmation of Quaker values and the lifestyle that accompanies it.

Quakers are renowned for their commitment to peace and justice, and integrity. Belief, however, is not shared in the same way as these moral imperatives. Instead, Quakers interpret their experience individually, revisiting and revising their way of explaining their experience regularly. What is shared is an approach to God, an approach to life, and a very particular approach to belief, one of seeking.

Quakers are far more comfortable with a lack of theological doctrine than they are with trying to pin down experience in words. Seeking rather than having found feels a more appropriate place to be, a more authentic mode of faith. It is as if Quakers are rationally sure of never being able to be certain of theological specifics. This is a very different position from those in other faiths who may from time to time be uncertain of their faith’s certainties, and it means Quakers are cautious about any claims by anyone to have found the final or literal truth.

In the silence of worship, Quakers feel the mystery of the divine, or sense God’s guidance but do not claim they then know God. It is radical and exciting package that places silent worship, direct revelation from God, peace and justice work, and a deliberate emphasis on seeking, not finding, and one which attracts over 20,000 adherents to close to 500 local ‘Meetings’. Quakers are very different from their seventeenth century forbears and are alive and well.

Ben Pink Dandelion works at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and is Professor of Quaker Studies at the University of Birmingham. He has been a Quaker for more than twenty years

Ben Pink Dandelion is an Honorary Professor in Quaker Studies at the University of Birmingham and Programmes Leader at the Centre for Postgraduate Quaker Studies at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. He is the editor of Quaker Studies. He has been a Quaker for over twenty years.
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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad