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Libyan Writer Ghoma

Thursday, 13 April, 2006

ISSUES OF DEVELOPMENT: Religion and Public Policy!

By: Ghoma

        Science tells us the universe is an unfinished project: metamorphosing, expanding and contracting, and sucking its spent material in large blackholes. The earth, the small, tiny blob, in the middle of the solar system is also in continuous morphing: convulsion and evolution, warming and cooling, etc. Humans, the apex of life on earth, are likewise in constant stirrings, that's, a project-in-progress.

        If everything we can think of -at least the hardware part- is bound by the ironclad of Nature's laws, the essence of which is change, the question then: are the cosmos and the world of here and now made out of hardwares only, or are there also "software packages," Religions, that came with them? And if there were such packages for what purpose(s) were they meant -were they presumably sent to regulate human-to-human, human-to-God relationships, or more than these? And if we admit the existence of some or all of these softwares, are these then subject to the same laws which govern the rest of the universe or have they a life of their own? Religions are an exception some people say! Why there must be an exception? And what about the theoretical and practical problems such a supposition may lead to? Such as, a constant and closed self-referential system becomes an odd in the midst of a plastic universe. It'd upset the coherence, if not the aesthetics, of the whole edifice. Since the only law pervading the universe is the law of change then if the precarious and tenuous balance is to be maintained all the various factors that constitute it have to interact in such a way that's consistent with systems's teleology. Perhaps among these teleologies, the maintenance and improvement of life! For this to take place, only and unless the process is uncluttered and open, otherwise the "going on and developing" would be fixed around its own constants and exceptions. A logical conundrum! History's mainstay has been made out of the give-and-take between those who insist on the absolute veracity of the idea of the universe -or at least life on earth- as spinning in the same spot and on its own axis, evidenced and asserted by the existence of the handed down softwares and their exemption from the rest of Nature's laws, in the sense these exceptions having their own logic and thus their own codes to go by; and those who're open to the idea of free-spinning and change.

        The idea of free-spinning and change has been gathering momentum. Since at least the European Renaissance another set of ideas has been gaining ground. The ones which say that the world, the artificially-made realm, civilizations and their discontents! are all human constructs, that's, produced by human brains and brawns. And like all things human are less than perfect. This view asserts the old cliche of 'nothing is perfect,' extending to whatever humans do or touch, including themselves. Everything in the world as a human construct, ergo, imperfect! If we accept such notions, at least as plausible, then all systems, including Religions, are fallible, less than perfect. Falsifiable, in Karl Popper's scientific methodology. Whatever is invented is good for a while until something else pups up to point out not only the shortcomings of the old but also the new road to nirvana! Meanwhile, in the interval between old and new systems, the Hegelian dialect grinds on, a continuous adjusting and tweaking gnaws on, after all we live by and in the shadow of these systems, as the saying goes: First we make our houses and then our houses make us!

        Out of all systems humans had ever invented, Religion, the organized system of Beliefs, endures the most! Part of this endurance can be attributed perhaps to the way humans look to Religion: it's been seen a guidepost, a beacon, or even an anchor, in a world constantly in motion -the mere fact that humans need such a fixed reference supports the idea of change- as a one variable which can be depended on as a constant -not an absolute constant but rather a relative and changing one just as the constants (i.e. the speed of light) in the Einsteinian conception of the world- if a real shot to the difficult equation of human search for meaningful existence is ever to be tried. The other parts of the endurance of Religion are perhaps due to the institutions created to guard and to perpetuate such a notion, and by the endeavors devoted to the maintenance of the system.

        What makes Religion appealing constitutes also its Achilles's heel. In creating a system of ready-made judgments religion may not have neutralize the moral universe completely, but certainly puts it on an automatic pilot as far as daily demands go. This leads to the observed phenomenon: wherever religious culture dominates stasis reigns supreme! Why? Because Religious culture is caught in its own contradictions. As everything in the universe is ruled by the idea of change, adaptation or extinction, so to speak, the notion of endurance becomes an aberration. The notion of stasis is not at all blessing to Religion either, since it gives it perhaps a false appearance of life to body, if not calcified completely, is, in fact, in the last throngs of convulsions. Thus some Religions have long been kept alive on what's equivalent to a support system, by the state for example, until they've become 'living dinosaurs,' and mummified corpses, their adherents insist, in Heidegger's words on their still "being in the world".

        True to any system, Religion is no exception, for it not to go out of life is by keeping a-living. And to keep living is to get engaged to the world by adapting to whatever time brings its way. As time goes by, in order to keep rolling it's to constantly revise but most of all re-define its role in human affairs and the relationships with other systems and constructs.

        All cultures are affected by Religion. In some, Religion has long become only one of the tributaries to culture, while in others still dominates culture. Religious cultures, by definition, are closed systems caught in a vicious cycle, similar to a dog chasing its won tail, feeding on itsr own illusions! Where Religion dominates culture two phenomena are found: a- stasis; and b- chaos. The pillars of backwardness.

        Backwardness is a state of mind before a material objective fact. The characteristic traits of backwardness or underdevelopment are many, among them:

        1- An utter lack of a conversation in general and a "national conversation," in particular, a continues formal and informal public talk on the issues facing society;

        2- When there's any exchange, when it's not a monologue, it's mostly disorganized gabblings of a scattered gibberish dominated by Religion.

        If the first could be attributed to the nature of the State and its tight grip on public actions -a condition which goes back to the question of legitimacy of its birth; and, above all, to the endurance of the neo-colonial state itself- and to the degree thereof of the mutual trust between it and the public at large. The second is due to the persistence of the traditional culture and the suffocating hold Religion exercises on it in general to the point of being wrapped in taboos and soggily saturated of metaphysical, superstitious, and fatalistic views of life.

        Is there a need for 'public conversation'1 and if so how could be brought to action? A quick look to the developed and prosperous societies leaves no doubt that their thriving is due in no smaller part to the constant hammering on themes and subjects that are relevant to their political and economic well being. Thus, the notion of need is beyond dispute, the question is a matter of how and on what bases.

        It's almost a universal fact that in most backward cultures, the totalitarian state and no less likewise Religion are the only game in town. Two giant beasts, King Kong-type, are holding strongly and squeezing the small and puny individual in their tight grips! Almost everyone, who fell under the sway of the neo-colonial state, has been decrying its despotic nature, and its far reaching arms as well as the overuse of its powers. What perhaps escaped or has not been noticed, so far, is the despotic nature of the other powerful system, Religion, which shares, and to a certain extent props up the power of such a state2! It's perhaps opportune to shed some light and draw attention to such a snare3, and thus to the need to discuss the role of Religion in public policy as a timely issue. However, before such a talk could be kicked-off, another debate should take place to determine the modalities on which a meaningful exchange will be possible, i.e., not only the role each plays -or should play- in the overall scheme of things but where they come in contact, intersect, and where they part company. The objective is to find ways to crack some chinks, if not to knock the wall that surrounds the puzzling paralysis, which holds the culture in the grip of archaic ideas4, and thus feeds the area's stagnation, as a result of having two wholistic systems jostling with each other for power and prestige -State and Religion- competing in the domination of the same subjects,. The crux of the matter is how to reconcile State and Religion with each in on non-competitive basis. This will only come as a result of delineating their respective spheres of actions -rather than by solving their internal contradictions- i.e., by defining their respective roles, if possible, the demand to clarify their exclusive and mutual areas of expertise will attenuate their pretentious overreach.

        State and Religion remain the two main powers that dominate most societies particularly so in the so-called less developed world. Call them the Formal and the Informal powers that be! Together constitute the throne and the power that lurks behind it; the king and the king maker. The state monopolizes power and with it the vital information and Religion appropriates the "truth" and thus directs any thinking to its area of concern: rituals, rites, and metaphysical speculations. Subjects find themselves, therefore, torn between allegiances to two masters with often times contradictory demands and loyalties, a competition which were bound from the beginnings5 to end up in some sort of unholy alliance to keep the flock under tight control or clashes which eventually would lead to either total chaos or fidelity to none! A major part of backwardness is due to paralysis brought about by a relative degrees of total chaos6. How to correct this lopsided equation and liberate information -as power- from the State and open up Religious dictates to the secular concerns of the faithfuls and non-faithfuls alike constitute perhaps the challenge and at the same the spark that may be needed to jumpstart the kick-off process toward development.

        There are different ways to tackle Religion and public policy. Among them not the one(s) taking place on Libyan websites and many Arab and non-Arab. A blatant and ferocious attack against Islam and Arab culture in general. On the other side a stalwart rounding of the wagons to resist the attack! These, of course, represent the extreme edges of an already polarized exchange7: some of them challenge directly Religion with the subtext of reforming it while the others assert its supremacy. What is missing is the one that attempts to seek some re-alignment of Religion with public policy -and mind you not the other way round, that's, to align public policy with Religion. All of these groups and individuals are doing a great service. However the idea of reforming Religion from without, that's, to bring such a capillary and historically entrenched system to reform itself from without is a futile attempt if not a piper's dream8. It'll never happen unless and until those inside the system rebel against it and leave it to form their own brand of creed and/or its interpretations. What induced an individual or a group to take such a drastic and perilous step was always a matter of historical reconstructions. Perhaps it was due to the pressures such as our Libyan critics are doing now or perhaps were due to the gathering of historical constellations of forces and circumstances that made such an eruption possible?

        The less developed society is, the higher the degree of interpenetration of Religion into Public Policy. The question of the relationship between Religion and public policy is such an intricate tangle that's difficult to unravel and to understand. Religion, by definition, is only partially a public affair but public policy is. To Religion is attributed the weighing of the ethical and moral scales of values which presumably help orient us navigate the complexity and intricacies of public debate. Public policy on the other hand is a constant search for what's possible for a community to reach through means of consensus' gathering in the conduct of its affairs. In order not to jam each other and to be -State and Religion, in unison, it's not a matter of which of the two has precedence over the other or which one is righter than the other, but rather it's necessary to find a way of regulating their interactions and establishing some rules of engagement. The question becomes: are they to be taken and treated on equal footings? Or, is it feasible and legitimate to give some advantages to one over the other, to prefer one over the other, and is it possible to separate one from the other?

        Before answering this question a fast purview of what the two main terms mean in themselves and to each other perhaps would help. Religion, above and beyond the descriptive and functional definitions, is the "inspired will of God," -conceived specifically for the realm of the spirit- consisting mainly of a system of ethical and moral codes before it's an interpretative system of the world, life, and death: with all the normative statements of conduct, lethargy, and rites and rituals that go with them. The state, as the embodiment and manifestation of the conscious collective will, is the product -as well as the guardian in the same time- of the "Social Contract"; and, as such is the ultimate repository of power and the exclusive possessor of the tools to perpetuate it. The state, by its nature and definition, is the arbiter of the social good; and as such and to that end, is thus the holder to the monopoly of the means of violence to enforce the dictates of the laws it enacted. Religion's beginnings were attributed to the High Up: "a merciful endowment," once-and-for-all, fixed "blueprint' to the down-under to live by. As such its foundational truths are seen -and taken- as absolutes and its dictates are unquestionable! The State, as the here-and-now from the bottom up, the human construct par excellence, the most complex machine that's ever been invented but never perfected, is a project-in-progress. And as such its "truths" are relative and its dictates are temporal. The two powers dominating society -State and Religion- while appear as complimentary, if not congruent, in reality if not outright contradictory they're certainly incongruent to say the least: beyond and above relative vs. absolute truth, consensus vs. command injunctions; the most important is in the view of life, one sees it as an end in itself and the other as only a mean to something further beyond. While both in practice, less in theory, rely on coercive means to carry on their mandates, only the State possesses the means of coercion, ergo, the Religion's insistence to live under the shadow of the State, and indeed, the need to have the alliance sealed in heaven.

        Religion and State, two wholistic systems, one, in its essences and ideal perception, controls the spiritual realm, the other the physical means of the world. The ideal perception of them is to compliment each other, and despite being intricately interrelated and interwoven, in reality both compete on the dominion over the whole social system. In Muslim societies both systems were left to act in each others' ways, to step on each others' toes, so to speak, with the predictable results of antagonistic, if not contradictory, forces pulling them apart sometime and putting them at daggers' heads at other times, over who has priority on or the last word of issues of the day. The State as relatively a newer comer on the block, has historically laid claims to total control over political and economic issues (from the form of government to the structure of the economy); Religion on the other hand , while never assented to this division of labor nor gave up the claims over the total of society's interactions, was left to dominate the social and cultural areas (from matters of personal laws, inheritance rules, to issues of ethical mores dealing with life and death, etc.). This model may have had worked in tribal pastoral-agriculralist times. Contemporary socio-economic formations are a bit more complex than what came before. However we look at the world, the intricacies of the two domains and the mutual dependence of the substructure and superstructure - rather than the old belief in one overriding the other, the so-called overdetermination theory- the political and economic variables on the social-cultural values, the most worked out and so far successful model is the one which separates them, that's, delineates for each -State and Religion- its sphere of action. Does that mean they were taken and treated as equals? No! The State got, if not the lion's share, certainly the upper hand.

        Is it possible to separate one from the other? It all depends on what's meant by separation. If it's meant a complete severance, putting a barrier between the two: the answer is no! They have been living with each for a long time to the degree it's not easy to know where one ends and the other starts. To separate them totally and completely or much less to ban one and to keep the other is a gargantuan task perhaps better left to the evolutionary time line. For Religion penetrates deep into the souls and minds of its constituents, who're in the same time those who make up the public for whom policy is made. We're confronted with a situation similar to that of the chicken-egg paradox; how far can be seen as separate and which one comes first is a matter of conjecture and convenience! There're, however, practical, if not political and philosophical, considerations, that beg to put an end to the historical stand-off: between Islam and the State. For, if we take the traditional analogy of society as a ship prying in the fog of uncharted territory, then the presence of two captains at its rudder is a recipe for disaster! Sooner or latter a difference of opinion is bound to occur and this will give rise to a taking of sides and thus risking, if not total, at least some paralysis taking over. European history gives an example to this condition. From the collapse of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century to the Renaissance there was almost total paralysis manifested in the hot or simmering wars between the nascent states on one side and the hegemonic Church on the other. The gestation of State power accompanied the will of nerves that underlined the mano-a-mano periods in which the national states found a formula to coexist under the Church's umbrella. At the stage when states had built up enough muscles to challenge the Church, a new bloody wars ushered in breaking up of the marriage.(England nationalized its own church, France worked out a modus vivendi with the Catholic Church, Northern Europe went into Protestantism, Italy remained under the sway of the Church of Rome until the Concordato had been signed during the Fascist period! Spain, Portugal, and Latin American states never reached a consensus to regulate their relationships with the Holy See!). At the end of these convulsions a cohabitation formula, based on the biblical urging: Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and render to God what belongs to God, was worked out by which the State deals exclusively with the mundane and the Church was left with the sacred domain. For the first time since the rise of monotheism the State has the upper hand and took precedence over Religion! Since then Western Europe's and North America's squabbles with the Church have mainly to do with delineating the different spheres in which each conducts its business. Secularism9 was the result of those historical conflicts, it was used as an ideology under which the divorce was finally sealed. However foggy secularism's birth was -in reaction and as a counterbalance to Religion's total domination of culture back in the Middle Ages- it served as a way to justify the loosening of the tight grip and pervasive control of Religion's domination over public policy and indeed the whole of life and thus helped assert the primacy of the State as the embodiment of secular concerns. In essence, secularism's purpose was, still is, never to make people atheists or the State without religion, as many zealots want us to believe, but rather to sift the grain from the chaff, so to speak, to find for each its rightful place and area of concern and expertise. The slogan, Religion for the individual, the state is for all, comes close to its essence.

        We're faced still with persistent claims and high shouts of Islam is not only a Religion but also a way of life10! What's implied by this slogan is the supremacy of Religion above everything human and thus the State as a human product, is at a lower par and therefore must be at the service of Religion and cannot be separated from it. This unequal relationship was insisted upon, as a matter of convenience, by Religion since Religion needed an enforcer of its boot-camp-like discipline. What comes out of this, especially for Islam, is the implicit, if not explicit message that Islam is a set of practices more than a system of spiritual guidelines and theological speculations, and as such, made up of disciplinarian rites and rituals which are in need constantly of endorsements as well as enforcements, only the State can carry out. The upshot, Islam is a coercive system in need of the police power of the State for its application!

        However historical this may have been, the reality of the modern world is shaping itself on quite different paradigms - maybe not always in opposition to the traditional notions of Religion but certainly not in total agreement with their historical claims either. Modernity sprang amidst a general societal conditions of fatigue and exhaustion, or what Max Weber's called "disenchantment with world"11 (with traditional modes of thinking and living which, among other things, made virtue out of ignorance!), this condition is slowly but persistently reaching out to all the corners of the globe, and has worked itself out of rejecting the compulsory nature of absolute moral judgments. While both traditional Religion and modernity were centered on the individual, only the latter believes in the "free will"! If anything characterizes modernity is the idea of personal freedom : the firm belief in the individual as being the beginning and the end of social processes, the supreme agent of history, and as such is not disposed to willingly be subjected to any discipline outside of what he/she has accepted and agreed to live by. Therefore, in modernity's view, all systems have to align themselves with such notions, that's, to accept the supremacy of the subject. All systems have to submit themselves to his/her scrutiny and consensus. Religion is no exception!

        Such proposition is easily said than done. How to persuade, actually to convince, an entrenched system, as Religion, to give up some of its historical claims on both individual and social levels without a fight is tantamount to asking corporations to give up the idea of profit. Hence Religion's last stand: Fight but no flight, which in the long run, according to some maybe is the only way left for Religion. But it's a losing strategery! For if Religion plans to remain an active protagonist among the contenders and a serious interlocutor with the other systems, this is the wrong way to go: it'll only force the other systems to reach to each and unite -against it- to exclude it as a serious system, a step which may cause radicalization and rebellions to grow to the detriment and loss to all systems.

        If there must be a fight, let it be among ideas! A battle fought with the modern means of communications and thus requiring no organized arms, weapons, or a fervent and polarized hate that goes with them; all it requires is a set-up of a conversation, a chat, where each brings forth what he/she has and the implications of their ideas on the way of life and its quality thereof. One thing though has to be made clear early on: the traditional claims of Religion's exclusive custody of 'moral' life and 'good personal behavior' don't hold water anymore. If there's any validity at all to such claims, they've to be looked at within the totality of all systems having contributions to the overall pot. For such claims and the tight grip to hold them exclusive have only brought about the present impasse and of the moral and otherwise bankruptcies resulting in the general malaise sapping the area since the last few rationalists had lost their battle with the strict constructionists and literalists.

        A conversation almost never starts as a town meeting, rather among a limited group of people and as themes got agreed upon, ideas to proceed got elaborated, and rules got established more and more people need to join to enrich the debate. An organized and goal oriented, in the broadest senses of these terms, talk would temper the tendency of some people to take matters into their own hands and "solve" problems according to how they see them. Instead of the violence and the hate it engenders, a debate will certainly teach its participants the mutual respect they so badly in need of in order to live together in peace and prosperity. Only through exchange of ideas, at all levels, a way maybe found to channel the energies of a community, away from destructive behaviors, and to more useful and creative endeavors. And what's better than to start with than "Religion and Public policy"?

1- Conversation, as an expression and at the same time self-assertion of both the individual and his/her higher forms of human groupings, of their awareness and the ability of these - individuals and groups- to exteriorize their selves and the knowledge that comes with it towards the other. Among its demands are: the ability to listen, interpret, and imagine as well as to be tolerant and attentive to someone whose perspective is perhaps different. It's one of the fundamental political and social acts indispensable for establishing common grounds.

2- while no one for sure knows exactly which one came first, Religion or the State. The close relationship between them had been a fact for a long time now. To the degree that this shared modus vivendi was not always easy, both had somehow found ways to divvy up power between them since time immemorial. If in the beginning Religion dominated power, the State slowly but persistently has been inching towards the total control of power, gaining more and more of it until finally in some societies Religion was pushed off to the side of the central stage of power. While even in secular societies Religion still yields disproportionate amounts of power, its grip on culture finally has been broken, hopefully, once and for good.

3- A religiously dominated culture affects all facets of life. Since Religious learning is a repetitious activity based on rote memorizing which stresses more the what and how but almost never the why -this latter is considered a challenge. In this way it creates a world of black and white verities populated by ready-made moralistic kind of judgments that only encourages conformism and thus stifles innovation. The end product of this kind of learning process is an unimaginative mind easily taken by hagiographies, embellished stories, and soothing fables of bygone times! Religiously dominated cultures, almost by definition are antagonistic to anything that may challenge their premises. This lack of the critical-creative mind was, still is, the cause to these cultures's staleness and stagnation.

4- It's well-known that Islam perhaps, more than any other religion had dominated culture since its inception. The shattering of the Meccan gods upon its opening, and the burying of what had preceded Islam under the epithet of " Age of Ignorance" had their dire consequences on the subsequent cultural developments. It gave way to Arab culture's poverty in areas of folklore and mythology, visual and performing arts, sports and recreation, civil polities, etc. The limiting of culture's rudimentary constituents was due in no small part to Islam's injunctions on one side and to the ascetic and austere life styles and ways of life it encourages. Arab culture under Islam went into semi-coma, merely vegetating; the result of which can be seen in today's touristic focus on anything -from desert to beaches to ancient world's ruins: Mesopotemian relics, ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, etc.- but Islamic culture however material it maybe". Arab culture's dead-end alley led to the recent frenzy of the so-called Danish Cartoons and their alleged 'blasphemous' representations, that's, figuration of the Prophet! Art has been taken as synonymous of, if not replacing, reality!

5- Islam's peculiar beginnings made the relationship between Religion and the State more problematic. The Prophet was the carrier of the new Message and the founder to the new State that sprang thereof. Thus Islam, the Divine Dictate, became the foundation on which the State was built and worked also as the scaffoldings which propped up the State's erection and duration. Though theocratic in origin, the state's power was geared from the start towards unity and expediency more than through piety and orthodoxy. However, political success followed, and to a ceratin extent, depended more on piety and affiliations rather than merit and leadership qualities..

6- The tumultuous history of the Islamic state was caused by as well as a result of the relative degree of chaos. The remoteness and weakness of the central authority gave rise to continuous wars and rebellions. Notwithstanding the nominal fealty to Damascus or Baghdad, the multiplicity of fractious local states with their complete autonomy made things worse than they appeared later on in history.

7- The polarization, between Muslims and others, particularly the West, is far from what S. Huntington called "The Clash of Civilization!" A civilizational collusion implies at least two things in the same time: a- Islam is a living civilization; and b- this civilization can still mount a counterattack! The fact of the matter at this juncture in human history there's only one civilization, that's, modern civilization. This civilization led by the West is taking over most of what's left out of its orbit. Islamic reaction is only the quivers and paroxysms which usually precede a traumatic convulsion. These haphazard and disorganized reactive desperate acts, are only feeble attempts at showing it's alive and to put some pro forma resistance, more for symbolism's sake than real resistance -for this requires elaboration of a viable alternative- before giving up the ghost.

8- To ask a millenarian system as Religion, to revise its dictates, or God forbids, to change its tenets, is to ask it to become political in nature? That's exactly the crux of the matter. The question of asking Religion to change itself is non-meaningful question , that's, a nonstarter. No Religion accepts to forgo its foundational themes without losing at least some of its power , if not legitimacy! No matter how irrational or unscientific some of the themes and tenets of its doctrine, in the overall scheme of things, though still held as absolute truths from within, however these may appear or become relativistic from without, that's, when Religious truth becomes only one among many other equally competing claims to the same"truth"! What brought a system which was and still claims to be built on absolutes to become only Relativistic was part of the magic of modernity's workings - the idea that all truths are temporary until proven wrong, is one of the achievements brought by sciences!

9- Secularism defined in the dictionary as what belongs to the ages, generations; comes from Latin and refers to the human wisdom acquired through time including what preceded the rise of monotheism and its total control of life. The Enlightenment ideology had postulated that religion is not key to understanding the world. It drew heavily from -as well as yearned for- Greek and Roman cultures which were seen as human-centered way of life as opposed to what came after them: the Church insistence of God's centered world.

10- Given religions' historical beginnings surrounded in mystery and wrapped in fog. It could be argued all religions have such claims. A "blueprint" for a total way of life! The Semitic God, the omniscient and omnipotent, with His mood swings which oscillates between the extremes of love and mercy to anger and wrath, wouldn't have asked less nor would have He be satisfied with partial attention.

11- Max Weber in "Science as a Vocation" (1918-1919) wrote: "The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by 'disenchantment of the world'".

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