Saying is not imposing

Jun 18th, 2008 4:46 pm | By

What is fanatical atheism? Dan Gardner had some thoughts in the Ottawa Citizen last year.

In the past, I’ve tried to avoid talking about religion in such sharp terms. It’s not that I fear giving offence (which would be something of a limitation in my line of work). Rather, I know, as all humans do, that it’s scary knowing you’re going to die. And if belief in angels on high eases the existential fears of some, I won’t begrudge them. Whatever gets you through the night, as a long-haired prophet once said.

Sure. I don’t go to funerals so that I can tell the assembled mourners that there are no angels on high. I don’t force my views on anyone. But I do feel entitled, and permitted, and free to talk about them among friends and acquaintances, and to write about them here and elsewhere. I draw a distinction between forcing one’s views on people, and talking and writing about them in public places. And this means that I get more than a little tired of people who call atheists who discuss their atheism in public fanatics or too noisy or similar. I get called all those things myself now and then, and I think the charge is fraudulent. I think it’s fraudulent when made of the putative New Atheists, too. No one is forced to buy their books, or to read them, or to listen to them through buds in the ears, and it’s not as if they’ve altered the prevailing culture so radically that religious belief has all but disappeared. So where does the fanaticism come in? Where are the evil snarling monsters of fanatical atheism?

The first problem for the moderate believer comes from those who like their faith hot. You’ve agreed God exists and that He mucks about in the world. You’ve agreed this book contains His holy commandments. So how do you respond when the mad religious zealot says, “hey, here on page 23, it says we should slice open unbelievers and use their guts for garters. And over here on page 75, it says we should bury homosexuals up to their necks and stuff olives up their noses.”…[T]he more common response is to simply pretend the garters-and-olives passages don’t exist and prattle on about how God is merciful and loving.

But the garters-and-olives passages do exist, and lots of people think God is not merciful and loving but wrathful and punitive, at least when dealing with other people. So why is the onus on us to pipe down?

Then there’s the problem on the other side — among the atheists such as Richard Dawkins who have been labelled “fanatics.”…When the Pope says that a few words and some hand-waving causes a cracker to transform into the flesh of a 2,000-year-old man, Dawkins and his fellow travellers say, well, prove it. It should be simple. Swab the Host and do a DNA analysis. If you don’t, we will give your claim no more respect than we give to those who say they see the future in crystal balls or bend spoons with their minds or become werewolves at each full moon. And for this, it is Dawkins, not the Pope, who is labelled the unreasonable fanatic…This is completely contrary to how we live the rest of our lives. We demand proof of even trivial claims…and we dismiss those who make such claims without proof. We are still more demanding when claims are made on matters that are at least temporarily important.

Just what I was saying yesterday. We want good reasons to believe even trivial claims in the rest of our lives, so why is there this fenced-off bit of our lives where we don’t? And why is it considered fanaticism to ask questions like that? (As long as one changes the wording, at least. To ask questions like that in the same words over and over again, day after day – okay that’s fanaticism. You know who you are. Don’t make me write your name on the blackboard.)


Jun 17th, 2008 12:18 pm | By

George H Smith remarks in his book Why Atheism? that salvation religion includes the belief that “at least some knowledge necessary for salvation requires faith in divine revelation, knowledge that cannot otherwise be justified through reason alone.” [p. 28 n. 1] That’s an interesting idea. It means that salvation religion believes in a god who is a terrible cheat and bully – one who makes “salvation” dependent on voluntary stupidity.

It also requires us (if we want “salvation”) to divide our thinking and functioning in two – because for ordinary purposes, faith is not the right way to go, it’s the wrong way. It’s wrong and we know it’s wrong. We don’t claim to use faith for purposes of ordinary inquiry. We may use it of vague guessworky subjective matters – the future, people, results of actions – in combination with more rationally-based knowledge, but we don’t use it of empirical subjects. On the contrary, we use maps and schedules and recipes and blueprints and we expect the people who make them to use something other than faith. Yet in this other area, the rules are completely different. Well why? Why do that? Why make different rules? Why give us a reliable way of finding out things, and then make it a condition of “salvation” that we not use it in this one important area? What kind of arrangement is that? A perverse, unfair, backasswards, unreasonable one, that’s what. If faith isn’t good enough for ordinary inquiry, why is it good enough for any kind of inquiry? Even in the more guessworky subjects, blind faith is no good. Blind faith in a person you have abundant reason to know is a malicious enemy is a bad idea. So what kind of god would make faith the right way to get knowledge in one area but not the other? A trickster? A demon? What?

In a way that doesn’t matter, because of course the real reason “faith” is necessary is the fact that there is no evidence. But in another way it does matter, because it means that people believe in a god who plays wicked games with human cognition.

Somebody somewhere said

Jun 16th, 2008 3:38 pm | By

Andrew Coyne’s running blog of the Macleans-BC Human Rights tribunal hearing is fascinating and horrifying. He keeps pointing out that the chair is deciding this or that but that it’s hard to know what the basis of the decision is when there are no rules of evidence. Ponder that. Macleans is up before a tribunal but the rules are made up on the spot.

1:59 PM: [W]e’re walking through another passage—which Faisal Joseph notes is particularly significant—in which Steyn particulalry disavows any suggestion that his concerns attach to all Muslims, but rather that the trends he observes prevail in “enough” of the Muslim population of Europe to be worrisome. This strikes me as eminently arguable—but whether it is or not, it is just surreal in a free and democratic society to be calling in a government panel to decide it. Instead of, you know, arguing it.

A couple of hours later –

3: 50 PM: Back from a break, as the tribunal members wrestle with yet another ruling on admissibility in the absence of rules of evidence. They’ve decided again to sort-of admit questioning about the “impact,” not of Steyn’s article, but of various, mostly obscure blogs who were allegedly “inspired” by Steyn’s piece. Understand: we’re now to be subjected to the state’s inquisition, not for anything that appeared in the magazine, but for whatever lunatic ramblings might appear anywhere in the blogosphere! 4:10 PM: Now we’re into, not even blogs, but comments left on a YouTube post. Is bathroom grafitti next?

Inspiring, isn’t it?

Ten is the new thirteen

Jun 16th, 2008 10:52 am | By

The Freethinker has an atheist blog challenge in which it tapped me, so I’ve obliged.

How would you define “atheism”?

Non-theism; no belief in any gods.

Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Very vaguely and nominally, and less and less so over time. And it never took.

How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?


What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Several do – but I’ll go with cognitive science. But there’s astronomy, too. So I’m a cheater.

If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

Well to start with I would never call it a community! I feel fully entitled to be an atheist without being a member of any poxy community – which is not to deny that I feel a certain commonality with other atheists, especially vocal ones. But I still don’t think of atheists as enough of a community for it to be meaningful to want to change something about that community. All I know about atheists as such is that they are atheists, and I have no desire to change that.

If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

It was nice knowing you.

What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Oh, there are so many…One fave is the ‘science can’t explain why we are here’ type. I don’t exactly refute it, I just say neither can religion.

What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Er, er, er. I’m not sure I have one – possibly because I’m not sure what general attitudes among other atheists are. There are a lot of other atheists! The only general attitude I’m confident they have (excuse repetition) is non-belief in gods, and I uncontroversially share that one. Come on, try. Er, er. Well I’m not a humanist (except in the minimal sense of not being theist); that will have to do.

Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I don’t have a favourite. They’re all fine upstanding members of the atheist community.

If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

The Saudi king.

Now name three other atheist blogs that you’d like to see take up the Atheist Thirteen gauntlet.

The New Humanist. Um…that will have to do; I’m too shy to name anyone else.

The truth is not a defense

Jun 15th, 2008 5:06 pm | By

You Can’t Say That.

A couple of years ago, a Canadian magazine published an article arguing that the rise of Islam threatened Western values. The article’s tone was mocking and biting, but it said nothing that conservative magazines and blogs in the United States do not say every day without fear of legal reprisal.

Sigh – not just conservative magazines and blogs. Why is this so hard to grasp? Islam is not left-wing or liberal. Islam itself is far, far more conservative than most of the conservative magazines and blogs in the US. Islam is reactionary; Islam is in many ways medieval. It is not, repeat not, just conservatives who have strong reservations about ‘the rise of Islam.’ You don’t have to be a conservative to argue that the rise of Islam threatens liberal values – although being a conservative may tend to cause you to call liberal values ‘Western’ values, which is silly and wrong. (Newsflash: one of the values in question is universalism, which means that the values can’t be purely Western ones, and they’re not; they done spread.)

Things are different here. The magazine is on trial. Two members of the Canadian Islamic Congress say the magazine, Maclean’s, Canada’s leading newsweekly, violated a provincial hate speech law by stirring up hatred against Muslims. They say the magazine should be forbidden [to say] similar things, forced to publish a rebuttal and made to compensate Muslims for injuring their “dignity, feelings and self-respect.”

But what if the rise of Islam does in fact threaten liberal values? What then?

[T]he lawyer for Maclean’s, Roger D. McConchie, all but called the proceeding a sham. “Innocent intent is not a defense,” Mr. McConchie said in a bitter criticism of the British Columbia law on hate speech. “Nor is truth. Nor is fair comment on true facts. Publication in the public interest and for the public benefit is not a defense. Opinion expressed in good faith is not a defense. Responsible journalism is not a defense.”

Oh. You can’t say it even if it’s true. That’s interesting.

Grasping at straws

Jun 13th, 2008 11:49 am | By

Giles Fraser is both wrong and confused.

In a recent paper for the journal Intelligence, the notorious Professor Richard Lynn has argued that intelligent people are “less likely to believe in God”…Dr David King…said: “We find Richard Lynn’s claims that some human beings are inherently superior to others repugnant.” The same thought applies to women with blond hair, to people with darker skin, or to those of us with religious belief.

No it does not. Sex, hair colour, and skin colour are all genetically determined physical differences. Religious belief is not. The two categories are not comparable. This is not, obviously, to claim that people ‘with religious belief’ are inherently inferior to others, though Giles Fraser wants to try to trick us into thinking it is. It is merely to point out that the same thought does not apply to Fraser’s mixed bag of people.

[W]hat’s really nasty here – and it’s a part of a growing phenomenon – is the way religion is being used as a subtle code for race. Belief in God is alive and well in Africa and in the Middle East and declining in western Europe. Writing about the intelligence of religious believers has, for some, become a roundabout way of commenting on the intelligence of those with darker skins whilst seeking to avoid the charge of racism.

Really? And how many is ‘some’? A few hundred?

Actually it looks to me as if it’s the other way around – as if Giles Fraser has spotted a handy and self-flattering way of warding off criticism of ‘faith’ as a way of thinking. He’s noticed that there’s a lot of belief in god in the third world and not so much in Europe (though he failed to mention the US, which of course doesn’t fit this simple-minded pattern) and realizes this presents an opportunity to wrap himself in the anti-racist flag. So wrap he does.

The BNP, for example, has started using religion as a category of racial designation so as to deflect charges of racism. For instance, they seek to defend something called “Christian Britain”. But what they really mean is “no Muslims” – and that really means “no Asians”. The fact that these categories are not in any way equivalent does not detract from the message the BNP is sending by using them in the way they do.

And the fact that your categories – people with darker skin and people with religious belief – are also not in any way equivalent doesn’t seem to have slowed you down much, either. In any case, if the BNP is defending Christian Britain, it’s not claiming that people without religious belief are inherently superior, is it – so what do you mean ‘for example’? For example of what? Not what you were talking about, at any rate.

Just being around isn’t experience

Jun 10th, 2008 12:49 pm | By

I’ve never understood, or accepted, this idea that Clinton is the feminist candidate, or even that her election would be much of a victory for women or feminism. I’ve always thought it would be radically, drastically compromised by the huge boost she got from whose wife she was. I’ve always thought such an election would be a victory for women or feminism only if the woman in question did it on her own merits, not partly those of her husband.

Indeed, Clinton has never been just a victim of her gender. When it came to the deeper narratives of the campaign, Clinton benefited, as do many women in politics, from her good fortune of having married a successful political man. Hillary Clinton has spent only four more years than Obama in the Senate, but she was consistently assumed to be a more plausible commander-in-chief than her rival based on her time as First Lady.

Being married to a president does not make anyone a more plausible c-in-c, any more than being the offspring of a president does. And I think this kind of sloppy thinking does feminism in general no favours, in the same sort of way that invented history does feminism in general no favours.

At the same time, it’s been widely assumed that she’s been entirely vetted, leaving many parts of her life–her disastrous leadership style on health care reform, her role in trying to silence and discredit Bill’s mistresses, her husband’s post-White House financial dealings–unexamined.

Which, again, I’ve never understood. She keeps being credited with having ‘experience’ with health care reform. But her only experience was in completely fucking it up! Why is that supposed to be a plus?

And above all why are so many women loyal to her on the grounds that she is a woman? She’s not the only woman in the world! Thatcher’s a woman, too, but I don’t feel any need to be loyal to her. And to be quite frank, I despise some of the tactics Clinton used in the campaign; I despise that ‘elitism’ nonsense: it’s fraudulent, it’s cheap, it’s anti-intellectual, it’s ridiculous, and it’s just plain low. Feminism doesn’t mean admiring all women unconditionally no matter what.

The inter-faith world

Jun 9th, 2008 12:15 pm | By

What exactly does Blair have in mind with this ‘Faith Foundation’ thing?

We want people of one faith to be comfortable with those of another because they know what they truly believe, not what they thought they might believe.

But what if ‘people of one faith’ believe things that in fact make ‘those of another’ uncomfortable? And vice versa? And why on earth does Blair assume (as he apparently does) that that can’t and won’t be the outcome? Why does he assume that once people know what people of another ‘faith’ believe, then they will necessarily be ‘comfortable’ with them? Has he never in his whole life met or heard of someone who believed loathsome sinister vindictive murderous things? We know that’s not true – we know he’s heard of lots of people who believed such things. We know he heard of some of them on the morning of July 7 2005, for just one example. So what does he mean? What is he thinking? Is he seriously thinking that if ‘people of faith’ just hash things out for long enough, in the end everyone will be ‘comfortable’ and we’ll all get along? He can’t be – he’s not stupid. But then what is he thinking?

We cannot afford religious illiteracy. No modern company would today be ignorant of race or gender issues. The same should be true of faith.

No it shouldn’t. This is the same pie-eyed thinking that tried to treat ‘religious hatred’ as the same kind of thing as racism and sexism, but it’s not the same, it’s different, because religion is propositional while race and sex are not. Race and sex are genetic and physical while religions are sets of ideas.

We have agreed to partner the proposal initiated by the Co-Exist Foundation to establish Abraham House in London. Though expressly about the Abrahamic faiths, it will be open to those from the wider faith community. It will be a standing exhibition, library and convention centre for the inter-faith world.

Ecch. That’s as substantive as he gets in the whole speech. You keep looking for something specific about what he is actually going to teach at Yale, about what ‘faith’ is actually supposed to have to do with globalization, but all in vain. It’s a big blob of warm fuzzy well-meaning wool. Maybe his friendship with Bush isn’t so surprising after all.


Jun 9th, 2008 11:39 am | By

One the one hand what do you expect from a conference of the OIC, but on the other hand, what sinister bullying crap.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, warned there seemed to be a growing “campaign of hate and discrimination” against Muslims by a small number of individuals and organizations. In a speech to a conference in Kuala Lumpur on improving ties between Muslims and the West, Ihsanoglu praised Western nations for criticizing acts such as the recent release of an anti-Quran film by a Dutch lawmaker, but said more should have been done. “Mere condemnation or distancing from the acts of the perpetrators of Islamophobia will not resolve the issue, as long as they remain free to carry on with their campaign of incitement and provocation on the plea of freedom of expression,” Ihsanoglu said.

Well that’s blunt enough. Mere criticism and condemnation and distancing are not enough, as long as people remain free to criticize Islam. Mere condemnation is not enough: they have to be stopped, they have to be prevented, they have to be made not free to carry on. Criticism of Islam must be made globally universally illegal; only that will ‘resolve the issue.’

On the one hand, criticism is too weak, more must be done; on the other hand, criticism is much too powerful and must be forcibly stopped. Criticism of Islamocritics must be enforced with forcible silencing of Islamocritics, while criticism of Islam must be eliminated altogether. Yeah, that’s fair, also a really good idea, being as how Islam is so perfect and all.

“It requires a strong and determined collective political will to address the challenge,” Ihsanoglu said. “It is now high time for concrete actions to stem the rot before it aggravates (the situation) any further.”

Bully bully bully bully; threaten threaten.

Imam Feisal Rauf sets us all straight.

What we have today is much less a “Clash of Civilizations” than a clash of perceptions. Little about our cultures, religions or ways of life—though these are certainly different—suggests coexistence to be impossible; rather, it is our perception of this impossibility that drives discord…Incorrect perceptions in the West about Muslims need fixing too, including the oft-heard charge that Muslims categorically practice violence and abuse women. As we know, however, Muslim-majority countries are more tolerant and diverse than many in the West suppose.

That’s nice – and probably true, because it’s so vague. Exactly how tolerant and diverse is that? More so than many in the West suppose. Ah! That clears that up. But it’s perhaps just as tolerant and diverse as many others in the West suppose, and a great deal less tolerant and diverse than many still others in the West suppose. There are lots of people in ‘the West’ and they suppose lots of things. But how tolerant and diverse Muslim-majority countries actually are is another question – and the sad truth is that we know damn well a lot of them are not very, and are getting steadily less so. The sad truth is that we are hard-pressed to think of a majority Muslim country that is overall anything we would call really tolerant. Indonesia? Jordan? Morocco? Better than some, but not exactly starry.

The impressive plurality of ethnicities, languages, beliefs and opinions among today’s population of more than 1.2 billion Muslims does more than validate the Prophet’s tradition that “Differences of opinion in my community are a blessing”—it puts to rest the notion that Muslims are a homogenous and insidious group, naturally opposed to dissent from within or without.

Oh that tradition! The one that fits so nicely with dire punishment for apostasy, and the division of the world into Muslims and unbelievers – that tradition. And the issue isn’t whether Muslims are ‘naturally opposed to dissent’; of course they’re not; that’s a red herring; the issue is whether they are trained (by Islam) to be that way. There is considerable evidence that they are, and that it takes a lot of effort and courage to resist.

Issues of perception are key in debunking the sense that cultures are clashing. Lately, it has become clear just how carefully religious scholars, politicians and commentators must choose their language to avoid making the problem worse. To illustrate, the current US Presidential election has seen both John McCain and Barack Obama distance themselves from former spiritual guides—Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who famously blamed the US for the September 11th terrorist attacks and Reverend Rod Parsley, the notorious defamer of Islam. Though both candidates have rightly disavowed such comments, they recognize that more work still needs to be done, and have sent representatives to Kuala Lumpur to help repair the damage to the public’s perception of the Muslim-West divide.

Hmmmm. Okay, but is it only Christian ‘spiritual guides’ who say stupid or vicious things? Do they have a monopoly on hate-mongering? Are there no imams who get a little heated sometimes? Is it really all a matter of ‘the West’ trotting obligingly along to KL to grovel and apologize and promise to do better, while the Organization of the Islamic Conference presents it with a list of ways to crack down harder on ‘Western’ people who fail to admire Islam? Hmm?

Whatever’s good for you

Jun 7th, 2008 6:05 pm | By

Gourevitch on Mugabe.

Mbeki has been utterly unwilling to show any spine in dealing with Mugabe. On the contrary, he has exhibited a sinister solidarity with his fellow onetime liberation fighter…In April, South African stevedores refused to unload a shipment of seventy-seven tons of rockets, mortars, and other munitions from China destined for Zimbabwe—a cargo reminiscent of the deliveries to Rwanda before the genocide of 1994. And, in deliberate contrast to Mbeki’s obliging absence, the American Ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee, has been making his presence felt, leading his colleagues in the diplomatic community into the rural areas to investigate and report on the extent of the torture. On a recent excursion, he collected testimonies, notebooks, and photographs that document how Mugabe’s goons flay their victims and break their bones. McGee offered this evidence to Mbeki’s representatives; they declined to meet with him, and Mugabe threatened him with expulsion.

Meanwhile, in Burma, people go on dying miserable deaths while the USS Essex and four support ships steam away with all their relief supplies still on board. Mugabe tells international aid agencies to stop distributing food and Burma’s generals turn away relief – callous thugs are perfectly content to sacrifice thousands or millions of people for their own trivial self-interest. It gets you down. Hundreds of thousands of people suffering starvation, thirst, exposure, disease on the one hand, and a few people protecting themselves on the other. There’s a lack of proportionality there. Contemplating this doesn’t make one think well of human beings.

Sex and the shantytown

Jun 5th, 2008 12:05 pm | By

If you’re a woman – don’t live in Sierra Leone if you can help it.

One in 8 women dies during pregnancy or childbirth, and women have an abysmal life expectancy of just 43 years, one of the lowest in the world. Girls can expect to receive only six years of schooling. On top of it all, the horrors of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, in which perhaps a third of the country’s women and girls suffered sexual violence, haunt women today. Widows struggle to get by, survivors of wartime rape face stigma and discrimination, and men continue to assault women with impunity.

One in 8! One in 8!! That’s grotesque. But Papua New Guinea is not great either.

Girls in Papua New Guinea can expect to receive only five years of schooling. What’s worse, accusing women of sorcery is often used as a form of social “payback.” If someone unexpectedly becomes ill or dies, the grievance is often taken out on an alleged “sorcerer”—almost always a woman—who is beaten, raped, or even killed in retaliation.

Haiti isn’t a female nirvana.

Nearly half the young women and girls in the capital’s Cite Soleil shantytown have been raped or sexually assaulted…[T]he problem isn’t taken seriously because many Haitians, including members of the police and judicial system, consider nonconsensual sex as rape only if the victim was a virgin….[I]f a husband finds his wife engaging in adultery in his home, the criminal code excuses him if he kills her…

And as for Yemen, why, it sounds very much like Saudi Arabia –

Early marriage is commonplace in Yemen, with 48 percent of girls married by the time they are 18 and some brides as young as 12….One in 39 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, and 1 in 10 children doesn’t make it to a fifth birthday. Yemeni women live particularly restricted lives; for example, getting a passport and traveling abroad requires a husband’s or father’s permission.

If you’re a woman…be very careful about where you settle down.

Denmark used to have a reputation

Jun 5th, 2008 11:45 am | By

Jakob Illeborg says Denmark should have known better.

[T]he hawkish approach taken by the Bush administration internationally is reflected by a similarly tough position on Islam and Muslims in Denmark. If the US is leading a global mission, the Danes have been fighting an inner mission, standing up against what is perceived, by some, as a threat to our democracy. Ever since the prophet cartoon crises of 2006 and 2008, Islamist extremists around the world have been threatening bloody revenge on Denmark.

So…maybe that’s why this ‘what’ is perceived by some as a threat to our democracy? Because of the, you know, threats? Of bloody revenge? For some cartoons? Could that have something to do with it? And could there be a way to describe it other than ‘hawkish’?

Monday’s attack, is of course, indefensible, but it raises questions about the wisdom of the much-debated cartoons and Danish reactions to Muslim wrath…The tragedy in Islamabad only confirms the views of those on both sides of the argument…[M]any are proud of Denmark’s newfound role as a “player” in the international conflict between the west and Islam. This is certainly not a position we used to pride ourselves on – nor is it one that is shared by other Scandinavian countries. Denmark used to have a reputation as a liberal, consensus-seeking country advocating calm and reason…

Whereas now it has…what? A reputation as an illiberal country that thinks newspapers should be able to publish innocuous cartoons without triggering death threats and riots and car bombs outside embassies? Is that what he’s saying? Is he saying that publishing the cartoons is not liberal? That it’s anti-liberal?


Particularly insidious

Jun 5th, 2008 11:18 am | By

Very good take-down of Edward Said (and review of Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West). I don’t always agree with Peter Berkowitz (much less the Hoover Institution) but I do here.

Like the book it introduces, the preface exhibits a master propagandist at work, as he weaves together moderate and reasonable pronouncements with obscurantist rhetoric and sophisticated invective.

That’s how it’s done, of course – mixing the two so that the reasonable stuff provides cover for the obscurantist rhetoric.

Certainly, Said’s conclusions can be convenient. Learning Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and studying the Koran and Islamic jurisprudence, Muslim poetry and philosophy, and the social and political structures and history of the peoples of the Middle East are exacting and arduous labors. It’s much easier to forgo all that hard work and instead, following Said who follows Foucault, proclaim that such learning and study inevitably falsify their subject matter and ineluctably contribute to the domination of cultures that the Western mind can never hope to understand. Better not to engage in systematic study of Arabs and Muslims, and better still to take one’s stand against those who do. In this way, Said and his disciples stand the scholarly vocation on its head, transforming the self-imposition and social enforcement of ignorance into intellectual and moral virtues.

And what’s really annoying about that is that Said has countless epigones who think and say that he was a great scholar, when that’s just what he wasn’t. David Barsamian on ‘Alternative Radio’ the other day, for instance:

Edward Said, the great Palestinian-American scholar commented that racism against Arabs is the last acceptable form of racism in the U.S. Arabs are constructed as the Other, dark and evil.

Uh huh. Barsamian ought to visit Saudi Arabia sometime if he wants to see some real Othering.

There’s one passage that every scholar, journalist, popularizer, and educator should learn by heart.

Said’s brand of propaganda is particularly insidious. Although he presents himself as a heroic defender of liberal learning and systematic scholarship, he conjures egregious misrepresentations and promulgates toxic misunderstandings, thereby undermining the separation between scholarly vocation and partisan pleading in defense of which he purports to write.

Yeah. There’s a lot of that around. That’s bad.

Sisterhood is powerful

Jun 4th, 2008 6:00 pm | By

I love it when women push back against exclusion and demand their rights, don’t you?

Muslim extremist women are challenging al-Qaida’s refusal to include – or at least acknowledge – women in its ranks, in an emotional debate that gives rare insight into the gender conflicts lurking beneath one of the strictest strains of Islam. In response to a female questioner, al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman Al-Zawahri said in April that the terrorist group does not have women. A woman’s role, he said on the Internet audio recording, is limited to caring for the homes and children of al-Qaida fighters. His remarks have since prompted an outcry from fundamentalist women, who are fighting or pleading for the right to be terrorists.

Well I should think so. The nerve of that guy! A woman’s role is limited to house and children, indeed – doesn’t he know it’s the 21st century?! Jeez – wake up, dude, we got past that awhile ago. Women can do anything! Free to be you and me! Our bodies ourselves – our bodies belong to us and we can blow them up just as well as men can. We probably do it better – we’re better at planning and patience, you know.

“A lot of the girls I speak to … want to carry weapons. They live with this great frustration and oppression,” said Huda Naim, a prominent women’s leader, Hamas member and Palestinian lawmaker in Gaza. “We don’t have a special militant wing for women … but that doesn’t mean that we strip women of the right to go to jihad.”

All right! Way to go Hamas, not stripping women of their right to explode themselves and others. Solidarity forever.

Mr. Al-Zawahri’s remarks show the fine line al-Qaida walks in terms of public relations. In a modern Arab world where women work even in some conservative countries, al-Qaida’s attitude could hurt its efforts to win over the public at large.

Uh…so it comes as a newsflash to these women that al-Qaida isn’t really a feminist outfit? Have they been paying full attention?

On the other hand, noted SITE director Ms. Katz, Mr. al-Zawahri has to consider that many al-Qaida supporters, such as the Taliban, do not believe women should play a military role in jihad.

Well quite. This is what I’m saying. Many al-Qaida supporters do not believe women should drive cars, or have jobs, or get medical attention when ill, or refuse to marry when told to, or leave the house. Playing a military role kind of fits into that larger picture, if you see what I mean.

Mr. Al-Zawahri’s stance might stem from personal history, as well as religious beliefs. His first wife and at least two of their six children were killed in a U.S. air strike…“I say to you…[I have] tasted the bitterness of American brutality: my favourite wife’s chest was crushed by a concrete ceiling,” he wrote in a 2005 letter.

Oh…that’s a shame. So sad that it wasn’t his least favourite wife instead. Poor guy.

Women bent on becoming militants have at least one place to turn to. A niche magazine called “al-Khansaa”…has popped up online…Its first issue, with a hot pink cover and gold embossed lettering, appeared in August if 2004 with the lead article “Biography of the Female Mujahedeen.”

Excellent! Kind of Sex and the City for the abaya set.

She baked a date cake as a thank-you

Jun 2nd, 2008 1:02 pm | By

But of course the real crime is the murder of Leila Hussein – a story I can hardly make myself read.

Leila Hussein lived her last few weeks in terror. Moving constantly from safe house to safe house, she dared to stay no longer than four days at each. It was the price she was forced to pay after denouncing and divorcing her husband – the man she witnessed suffocate, stamp on, then stab their young daughter Rand in a brutal ‘honour’ killing for which he has shown no remorse. Though she feared reprisals for speaking out, she really believed that she would soon be safe. Arrangements were well under way to smuggle her to the Jordanian capital, Amman. In fact, she was on her way to meet the person who would help her escape when a car drew up alongside her and two other women who were walking her to a taxi. Five bullets were fired: three of them hit Leila, 41. She died in hospital after futile attempts to save her.

She was so close.

‘She had not been able to sleep the night before. I stayed up talking to her about her plans after she arrived in Amman. I gave her some clothes to take with her and she was packing the only bag she had. She was too excited to sleep.’ Mariam said that when she awoke Leila had already prepared breakfast, cleaned her house and even baked a date cake as a thank-you for the help she had been given.

And then they shot her.

As she lay in her own hospital bed receiving treatment, Mariam said that she heard someone saying that Leila had been shot in the head. But there were other mutterings that were clearly audible. ‘I could hear people talking on the corridors and the only thing that they had to say was that Leila was wrong for defending her daughter’s mistakes and that her death was God’s punishment. ‘In that minute I just had complete hatred in my heart for those who had killed her.’

Yeah. And I still do – and for the hateful malicious vindictive brutal shit god they invoke. I hate them all.

Crime wave

Jun 2nd, 2008 12:53 pm | By

Another shocking crime – some slag got married and it turned out she wasn’t a virgin.

The wedding night party was still under way at the family’s home in Roubaix when the groom came down from the bedroom complaining that his bride was not a virgin. He could not display the blood-stained sheet that is traditionally exhibited as proof of the bride’s “purity”. Mr X went to court the following morning and was granted a annulment on the grounds that his bride had deceived him on “one of the essential elements” of the marriage. In disgrace with both families, she acknowledged that she had led her groom to believe that she was a virgin when she had already had sexual intercourse. She did not oppose the annulment.

Sounds like a fun party, doesn’t it? But what was the judge thinking? This was a secular court in France, not a jirga. Are French women legally required to be virgins when married? If so, who does the testing? Maybe they call in the pope.

A crime, I tell you

Jun 2nd, 2008 12:43 pm | By

Good good. The Vatican is still alert, it’s on the job, making sure nobody sneaks anything past..

The Vatican insisted Friday that it is properly following Christian tradition by excluding females from the priesthood as it issued a new warning that women taking part in ordinations will be excommunicated…”The church does not feel authorized to change the will of its founder Jesus Christ,” Amato said…The reference is to Christ’s having chosen only men as his Apostles.

Yes, but as I’ve murmured before, JC did a lot of things, and the Vatican doesn’t feel compelled to imitate all of them. (Poverty springs to mind, and then settles down there and makes itself at home.) It is not as self-evident as the Vatican would apparently like to think that JC’s choice of apostles was intended as a sex rule for all time.

The decree was published Thursday by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which in a headline called the ordination of women a “crime.”

Yeah, and an exceptionally vicious crime at that.

Pope Benedict…has consistently rebuffed calls to change traditional church teachings on divorce, abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and the requirement that priests be male and celibate.

No kidding. That’s presumably what they chose him for – the ability to rebuff calls to change ‘traditional church teachings’; the narrowness and malice to call the ordination of women a crime; the blindness and authoritarianism to insist on continuing an all-male clerisy that presumes to tell women what to do and what to be.

In El Dorado nobody can hear you scream

May 30th, 2008 5:28 pm | By

They want to escape, but they can’t. (The article is from 2006.)

Police in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Ariz., say they’re seeing a number of teenagers who are fed up with the Fundamentalist LDS Church and leaving on their own…”One of the biggest problems that we have with the individuals that are wanting out is they’re underage and there’s not much we can do for them legally,” said Gary Engels, a special investigator for the Mohave County Attorney’s Office…[S]ervice providers cannot help them because they’re minors and runaways…”At HOPE, we follow the law and with a runaway we’ve got to call law enforcement and child and family services,” said HOPE director Elaine Tyler. “With the last two we’ve dealt with they’ve gone right back to their parents.”…While most of the teenagers who leave the border towns are not reported as runaways because their polygamous families do not want to attract government attention, it still becomes problematic to deliver services.

Their polygamous families do not want to attract government attention – why not, exactly? What a sinister ring that has.

In May [2006], Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed HB30 into law. It allows 16-and-17-year-olds to petition the juvenile courts for emancipation from their parents.

Good, good – but what about 15-year-olds? 14-year-olds?

Tyler said many children are waiting until they’re adults before coming to The HOPE Organization for help. “Some have come to us after they’ve turned 18 and then we’re able to help them. There was a girl who was living in a basement of another girl I was helping. She said ‘I was living in rags and I couldn’t tell you I was there,’ ” Tyler recalled. “It broke my heart.”

The Utah Department of Human Services has been considering changing laws and policies to help children leaving polygamy…Price said they need to move quickly to provide resources to teenagers leaving a closed society before they succumb to the temptations of the world.

What a mess.

And the ACLU joined the suit, siding with the parents – which I find horrifying. They’re defending the parents’ ‘rights’ to raise their children as prisoners kept away from any possibility of outside help. Why aren’t they defending the children’s rights instead? Why aren’t they worried about what’s going on behind those fences?

Women go strolling

May 30th, 2008 11:35 am | By

Whenever things get a little slow, and there seems to be nothing pressing to do, and it’s just really hard to think of any way to interfere with everyone – that’s when it’s time to get busy telling women what to do. It’s a thankless task, but somebody’s got to do it. It’s a job that’s never done, so somebody’s got to keep doing it over and over and over again. The horrible slags never listen, but somebody’s got to keep trying all the same – and anyway when desperate somebody can just kill them when they don’t listen.

A powerful state body regulating the role of Islam in Turkey has come under fire over an article on sexual behaviour…”Women have to be more careful, since they have stimulants…His highness the prophet Muhammad did not think kindly of women who put on perfumes outside their homes and go strolling and saw this as immoral behaviour.”

No; we know. Tough shit. His highness the prophet Muhammad should have minded his own business, and so should you.

The article said women and men should not be alone together unless married and questioned the role of females in mixed-gender workplaces. It blamed “social and moral” decline in the west for the legalisation of abortion…Yusuf Kanli, a columnist in the English-language Turkish Daily News, said it reflected a “very primitive mindset”, adding: “Is this mentality at all different with that of the Taliban that placed Afghan women behind chadors?”…The article is especially striking since Diyanet has a reputation for promoting a moderate interpretation of Islam. It is sponsoring a study of the hadiths, the sayings ascribed to Muhammad, with a view to striking out those judged inauthentic or misogynistic.

Well…so much for that idea then.

Not too hot and not too cold

May 29th, 2008 5:49 pm | By

A little of this, a little of that; split the difference; a plague on both your houses; between two extremes the correct answer is always in the middle; nothing too much; there are two sides to every question; cut the kid in half. Funny how often that cashes out to some caring woolly sentimentalist discovering that everyone to that side is wrong in that way and everyone to the other side is wrong in the other way and Caring Woolly Sentimentalist turns out (what a coincidence!) to be the one person who has it Just Right. Yeah sure – that’s how that always works, as sure as sediment sinks to the bottom. Ideas sort themselves into two sets of opposing wrong extreme versions and a tiny spot right in the middle that is Perfection Itself.

Waldman wins his centrist peace by dismissing Christian conservatives’ majoritarian bullying and secularists’ insistence on separation of church and state as “extremes” that can be reconciled by the former acknowledging pluralism and the latter accepting that separation is neither strict nor meant to be universal.

But why carve it just there? And why narrow the discussion to two groups each of which has one idea? Because that makes it easier to declare oneself the winner. Yeah but besides that.

Waldman’s centrism may appear to support a mildly liberal resolution; his book is, in the end, a defense of separation of church and state, very narrowly defined. But by slighting the enduring strength of religious conservatism, suggesting that the right’s partisans and the left’s separationists are evenly matched and assuming that his relatively liberal views are the happy mean, Waldman undermines the case for real religious freedom and liberty of conscience. Founding Faith is one of those books that find friends and enemies on both the left and the right and thus declare themselves balanced, as if freedom and equality were sandwich meats to be weighed on a scale.

It’s always a bad idea to assume that one’s own views are the happy mean. It’s kind of like assuming the center of the universe is the spot where you happen to be sitting.