Sunday, February 21, 2010

"The customer is always right" goes out the window in France

Or to be fair to what is really a very large country, one corner of France.

I have to admit I was somewhat shocked by the stupidity/rabble rousing revealed in this news report from Al Jazeera English. When you hear that Muslims in Europe will not integrate with the older population, remember this.


Where are those terrifyingly threatening backward baseball caps, anyway?

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

"All the fuss we made over these writers, as if what they said was a matter of life and death to us."

I have just finished reading one of the most remarkable books I've read in a very long time: Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a difficult book to describe; one might say it is a memoir, perhaps somewhat fictionalized, of an upper-class Iranian woman, partly raised in Britain and the United States and now living in the USA, which focuses on what it was like to teach English literature in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. In particular, she talks about her interactions with some of her students during this period. Nafisi comes across as a secular person, and she sees the Islamic revolution as nothing but a disaster. For instance page 119, when she talks to one of her students, a Khomeini supporter, about the trial of a supposed counterrevolutionary:

I told him they had no proof that the gentleman in question was a CIA agent, in any case I doubt if the CIA would be foolish enough to employ someone like him. But even those whom he called the functionaries of the old regime, regardless of their guilt, shouldn't be treated this way. I cannot understand why the Islamic government had to gloat over these people's deaths, brandishing their photographs after they had been tortured and executed. Why did they show us these pictures? Why did our students every day shout slogans demanding new death sentences?

Mr. Bahri did not respond at first. He stood still, his head bent, his hands linked in front of him. Then he started to speak slowly and with tens precision. Well, they have to pay, he said they're on trial for their past deeds. The Iranian nation will not tolerate their crimes. And these new crimes? I asked as soon as he had uttered his last word. These new crimes? Should they be tolerated in silence? Everyone nowadays is an enemy of God -- former ministers and educators, prostitutes, leftist revolutionaries: they are murdered daily. What is his and his had these people done to deserve such treatment?

His face had become hard, and of the shadow of obstinacy has colored his eyes. He repeated that people had to pay for their past crimes. This is not a game, he said. It is a revolution. I asked him if I too was on trial for my past. But he was right in a sense: we all have to pay, but not for the crimes we were accused of. There were other scores to settle. I did not know then that I had already begun to pay, that what was happening was part of the payment. It was much later that these feelings would be clarified.

This book has been criticized for giving a very negative view of the Islamic Republic of Iran, of women and even more men in Iran and even of Islam itself. Notably, Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz (another Iranian academic based in United States and writing in English) accuses Nafisi of promoting a neo-Orientalist agenda and confirming all the old clichés of the backward, static and exotic East. I don't see it myself. There's nothing exotic about the presentation of life in Tehran in this book, and there's plenty of action and change. What is really wrong with the criticisms I've heard is that they assume that Nafisi had to write the book that the critics wanted to read, or have other people read. This is a very personal memoir, not the history of revolutionary Iran. It tells Nafisi's story of how the revolution affected her as a teacher and scholar, and how it seemed to affect some of her more memorable students -- and not just the ones he liked. I have yet to read a review that picks up on what I think is very important point: this memoir might easily be about the Cultural Revolution in China, or the Jacobin revolution in France, or any other number of similar upheavals.

The quotation at the head of this post tells the story as I read it. It is about reading, teaching, learning, speaking about intellectual subjects when it is really important and far from easy. Again, p. 338:

I said to him that I wanted to write a book [after she left Iran] in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me -- to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom. I said, right now it is not enough to appreciate all this; I want to write about it. He said, you will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you'll see. The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place, this land and these trees. You don't think that this is the same Austen you read with Dr. French -- it was Dr. French [probably at U. of Oklahoma], wasn't it? Do you? This is the Austen you read here, in the place where the film censor is nearly blind and where they hang people in the streets and put a curtain across the sea to segregate men and women. I said, When I write about all that perhaps I'll become more generous, less angry.

If you like that sample of Nafisi's writing, there is lots more where that came from.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Unhappy; or, what's the matter with kids today?



A certain number of people in France think they are unhappy about Muslim immigrants and their children for not fitting in to the French way of life. I am not so sure that their self-diagnosis is correct.

The issue that everyone is talking about is the government policy forbidding women -- Muslim women -- from wearing in many public places veils of various sorts and more concealing garments like the burqa. Although there are about 5 million Muslims in France, it is estimated that only a few thousand or maybe even a few hundred women actually wear these things. Yet the government is rolling out the big guns against them.

It was when I read the Globe and Mail report about the wider context of this move that I began to doubt that Islam is really that central to this feeling of France is on the wrong track. Look at these quotations and you tell me:

The public hearing [part of a government-sponsored national debate] was called to discuss one question: What does it mean to be French? It got off to a rocky start...

The next speaker wanted to talk about globalization. “Kids today,” he said, as people around him rolled their eyes, “identify more with Michael Jackson and Madonna than with France."

...

The French have also been uninhibited in their response to the call for debate, with more than 40,000 comments posted in the first month on the government's national identity website. About 6 per cent, according to the Immigration Ministry, were racist or hateful enough to be removed.

The posts that remain run the gamut from quotations from 19th-century French philosophers to rants about immigrants.

“France has become a colony of Africa,” wrote one contributor. To be truly French, wrote another, one must have “French blood” from both parents “and going back several generations.” Others said all schoolchildren should be required to memorize the Marseillaise and to sing it, on pain of punishment, at least once a week.

...

Nadine Morano, the junior minister for family affairs, has tried to backtrack for days after she was filmed at another debate advising young French Muslims how to fit in. “What I want,” she said, “is that they love France when they live in this country, they get a job, they not use slang … and not wear their caps back to front.”

I absolutely love the junior minister's remarks about the characteristics of all powerful, unstoppable, heritage-endangering Islam. If you somehow missed that in the last paragraph, that dangerous foreign religion apparently consists of:

Hating France

Not getting a job

Using slang

Wearing [baseball] caps back to front.

Straight out of the Arabian desert in the seventh century! I might buy some of this had I not been a teenager in the 60s, when I was told that wearing jeans to school and growing your hair too long made you some kind of outlaw. Same, same.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Religious development is not just a matter of chronology


Kamal Al-Solaylee's Yemeni family is a lot more conservative now than it was in 1975, when the picture above was taken. Al-Solaylee talks about this in a Globe and Mail article.

Isn't this about the time a teenaged Osama bin Laden was touring Sweden?

Juan Cole has an interesting post
on outright radicalization, namely the radicalization of Humam al-Balaw, the double agent who killed a number of CIA operatives in Afghanistan. No surprise to me that a figure with his background -- educated Jordanian-Palestinian -- would be hostile to American policy. Quotation from Cole (bold is my emphasis):

What is fascinating is the way al-Balawi's grievances tie together the Iraq War, the ongoing Gaza atrocity, and the Western military presence in the Pushtun regions-- the geography of the Bush 'war on terror' was inscribed on his tortured mind.

Morally speaking, al-Qaeda is twisted and evil, and has committed mass murder. Neither the US nor Israel is morally responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots. Al-Qaeda or a Taliban affiliate turned al-Balawi to the dark side. Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught us the proper response to social injustice (and it should not be forgotten that Gandhi had a significant following among the Pashtuns). But from a social science, explanatory point of view, what we have to remember is that there can be a handful of al-Balawis, or there can be thousands or hundreds of thousands. It depends on how many Abu Ghraibs, Fallujahs, Lebanons and Gazas the United States initiates or supports to the hilt. Unjust wars and occupations radicalize people. The American Right wing secretly knows this, but likes the vicious circle it produces. Wars make profits for the military-industrial complex, and the resulting terrorism terrifies the clueless US public and helps hawks win elections, allowing them to pursue further wars. And so it goes, until the Republic is bankrupted and in ruins and its unemployed have to live in tent cities.

So, yes, this al-Balawi person was going to help Jordan and the US find al-Qaeda leaders Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Sure he was. Walmart does better background checks on its store clerks than the CIA and Jordanian intelligence did on this guy.

You also may want to read the comments to that post.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Professor Ali Ansari explains the religious backgroun of the Iranian situation


From the Times Online:

Ancient power struggle has relevance for today’s Iran
Professor Ali Ansari: Analysis


Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Moharram in the Muslim calendar, is a day replete with symbolism for much of the world’s Shia community. In Iran, in the run-up to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it acquired enormous political significance as the message of Ashura was redefined for the modern age and the struggle against the Shah. Now it has been reinvigorated and turned against today’s Islamic leadership.

The story of Ashura revolves around the succession to the Prophet Muhammad. According to Shia belief the succession should have devolved to the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali, the first of the Shia Imams. Ali finally assumed the leadership and became the fourth Caliph but after his death the succession should have followed through his family. Unfortunately for them, the leadership was seized by a rival family, the Umayyads. In 680AD one of Ali’s sons, Hussein, with a small band of followers, challenged the Umayyads, who were led by the Caliph Yazid. Hussein was defeated and killed. Ever since Hussein has been hailed as the Lord of Martyrs, the champion of the oppressed. His sacrifice is lamented every year on Ashura.

The Government has tried to portray Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the new Ali, and there is a suspicion that he is seeking to make the title of Supreme Leader hereditary. This has outraged orthodox clergy and many devout Iranian Muslims.


Thus, instead of being the new Ali, Khamanei has been portrayed as the Yazid of the age. With news of fatalities as the clashes continue, it is an association he will find increasingly difficult to shake.


I am fascinated by the "suspicion" noted in the second-last paragraph above. It sounds like something out of a Left Behind novel.

Image: Pious Shia still weep over the martyrdom at the battle of Karbala. Ashura is the most emotional day on the Shia calendar.

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Big deal in Iran

From Juan Cole's Informed Comment:

The BBC is reporting that clashes are continuing into Monday morning between protesters and the regime security forces in Tehran and perhaps other cities, marking the first decisive failure of the basij paramilitary to control the streets by early morning of the day of a big demonstration. The number of protesters allegedly killed by security men rose to 9, with dozens wounded and 300 persons allegedly arrested.

...

The chanting on Sunday turned against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, not just against President Ahmadinejad. He was castigated as the Dictator and as worse than the old shah, and the very ideological basis of the regime, the doctrine of clerical rule, was chanted against in the streets. The legitimacy of the regime, profoundly shaken by the events since early June's presidential election, is now being shredded further.

Another remarkable dimension of Sunday's events was the sheer number of cities where significant rallies and clashes occurred. Some of those allegedly killed are said to have fallen in Tabriz, a northwestern metropolis near Turkey. Even conservative cities such as Isfahan and Mashhad joined in. Shiraz, Ardabil, the list goes on. The attempt of some analysts to paint the disturbances as a shi-shi North Tehran thing has clearly foundered.

The most ominous sign of all for the regime is the reports of security men refusing orders to fire into the crowd.

But for the movement to go further and become truly revolutionary, it would have to have a leader who wanted to overthrow the old regime and who could attract the loyalty of both the people and elements of the armed forces. So far this key revolutionary element, of dual sovereignty, has been lacking, insofar as opposition leaders Mir Hosain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have tried to stay inside the Khomeinist framework while arguing that it is Khamenei who violated it by making it too authoritarian. Saying you want slightly less autocracy within a clerical theocracy is not a recipe for revolution.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports from Tehran for the FT that on Sunday in the capital, crowds-- bigger than even some of those that assembled in June-- maintained their discipline and proved unassailable by the basij motorcycle and other crowd control techniques. She quotes people in the crowd urging demonstrators to stick together for this purpose. She must be suggesting that the crowds were several hundred thousand strong in the capital.

...

But values come into it, too. Farnaz Fassihi of the WSJ points out that the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar, Muharram, has been considered a month for truces and non-violence. The very name of the month means 'sanctified.' Even the brutal troops of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah or king overthrown in 1979, had not fired on crowds during Muharram. Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi openly said that even the shah's regime had not behaved on Muharram as clerical Leader Ali Khamenei's had. Hint: in revolutionary Iran, that is a slam.

The regime therefore violated crowd norms, helping account for the vehemence of the pushback.
...

The killing of Ali Mousavi, the 34-year-old nephew of former presidential candidate Mir Husain Mousavi, was also a violation of Shiite values. The Mousavis are putative descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, a sort of caste in Muslim societies called 'sayyid' or 'sharif.'

In fact, in the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, one of the complaints of the crowd was that the Qajar monarchy had had sayyids beaten. So if beating a scion of the House of the Prophet can help spark a revolution, what about shooting one? And, oppositional film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf maintains that Mousavi was killed by a death squad that came for him in a van rather than just falling victim to random police fire.

Killing a sayyid is a blot on any Iranian government. Doing so on Ashura, the day of morning for the martyred grandson of the Prophet, Imam Husayn, borders on insanity.

Cole also provides a link to Robin Wright's article at the Times Online: Is this Iran's Berlin Wall moment?

Of course questions like this are hard to answer. However, it is clear that for millions of Iranians, the current regime has lost any claim to representing Islam (in other words, justice).

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Friday, December 11, 2009

"Crazy stuff" in history


Apocalyptic belief, belief in a revelation of the end of time, usually a revelation that the end of time is just around the corner, probably qualifies for most people as "crazy stuff." Something suitable for more Terminator sequels, a graphic novel, or a heavy metal album. There is always a need for another heavy metal album about the end of the world.

But crazy or not, apocalyptic beliefs are pretty commonplace in real life, and have a stronger influence on politics and culture than most people who don't believe in the apocalypse would guess. Three countries whose politics is strongly affected by the apocalyptic beliefs of some influential people and a proportion of the general population are the United States, Israel, and Iran.

More than once in recent months I have read about the apocalyptic beliefs of the president of Iran. Shiism has always had an apocalyptic logic: roughly, they think that the leadership of the Muslim community was hijacked soon after the death of Prophet, that the true leaders have been in physical or spiritual exile ever since, and eventually that leadership will return to clean up the mess. But most Shiites don't wait with bated breath for the return of the Mahdi, just as most Christians don't think very much about the Book of Revelations (also known as the Apocalypse of St. John) when planning out their weekly activities. And a lot of Jews have given up on the return of the Messiah.

However, as support of the Islamic Revolution has been falling apart in Iran, the true believers in the revolution are turning more strongly to the belief that the end is near.

Here is what Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has to say about the subject:

It's both crazy and dangerous.

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad believes and acts on the expectation that the reappearance of the Hidden Imam is imminent, and that U.S. efforts in the Middle East are primarily focused on preventing his return. Shi'ite Muslims believe that their 12th imam, the Mahdi, born in 869, did not die but was hidden by God and will eventually reappear as the savior of humankind, ending tyranny and bringing justice to the world. One-tenth of the world's Muslims and 85 percent of Iranians are Shi'a.

In a recent speech in the central city of Isfahan, Ahmadinejad said: "With those [U.S. troops] who came to occupy Iraq, the appearance was that they came just to exploit the oil. In reality, though, they know that something will happen in this region -- a divine hand will come soon to root out the tyranny in the world."

"And they know," he added, "that Iran is paving the way for his coming and will serve him."

Belief in the apocalypse and messianism are nothing new in human history. There are both Jewish and Christian messianic traditions, according to which a king of Israel or messiah will appear to herald global peace. And Shi'ite Muslims, unlike the majority of their Sunni co-faithful, have always believed in the Mahdi.

But Ahmadinejad and his main supporter among the ultra-conservative Iranian clergy, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, do not want to just peacefully hope and wait for the Mahdi. RFE/RL Radio Farda's analyst Majid Mohammadi says Ahmadinejad has introduced a completely new system in the Iranian politics: "a militarist and messianic Islamism."
There's more here.

The third and fourth paragraphs of the excerpt above reminds me very strongly of this version of Pope Urban's speech at Clermont. Surely not what was actually said, but this is what made sense to one informed and learned observer. This is what he thought the Pope should have said when he launched the First Crusade.
Interesting times, interesting times. Don't you just... love it? Well, maybe not.

Image: An impression of the return of the Mahdi to fight the Antichrist.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Taqwacore: The birth of punk Islam (2009)

Last night I saw this movie at the Windsor International Film Festival. Taqwacore is supposed to be a combination of "taqwa" ( God consciousness) and "hard core punk." I think the word is an invention of Michael Muhammed Knight, a young Muslim from New York State whose immediate family is Roman Catholic. At some point in his life he thought, "What if a bunch of musicians got a house together and lived the true Muslim/punk life?" He wrote a novel called Taqwacore about the possibilities, and soon enough he was the center of a network of American Islamic punks who wanted to do it for real. Taqwacore the movie tells the story of what happened next, in the USA and Pakistan.

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie shows the band, of course called Taqwacore, playing for a convention of middle-aged, mainstream American Muslims in Chicago, who are so offended by the hard-core presentation, and the use of a female lead singer, that they call the police to eject the band. At the same time, all the 15-year-old daughters, dressed in hijab, are giggling and smiling and grooving to this rebellious music.

And then there is the confidence that these Americans have that they can take the true spirit of Islam to Pakistan, again with mixed results.

I found the whole thing as American as... Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac. It's one more version of On the Road.

The trailer is here. Do have a look.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More on the war

Yes, there's a war on -- more than one!

Juan Cole at his most optimistic has an article in Salon,
Obama's foreign policy report card.

Matthew Hoh, an American official and ex-Marine with extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, resigns. Why? The war in Afghanistan makes no sense. See
his letter of resignation and the Washington Post article describing his background.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Then there is this...

Behind the Veil, a video report on women in Kandahar from the Globe and Mail.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

From the NYT: Fashion in Iraq now


I was reading a short time ago about the visible spread of conservative dress among Iraqi women over the last decade. Now things may be swinging the other way.

Image: Engineering students in Baghdad.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Afghans speak about the Afghan election

In an amazing good piece from the New York Times' blog At War, Afghans (men, no women) express their various opinions about the recent election and the country's situation in general. And various those opinions are. If your country has troops in Afghanistan, you owe it to yourself and them to read this relatively short account.

One thing that really caught my eye were the differing evaluations that two interviewees expressed on elections themselves. Have a look at this:

Sardar Mohammad
Aged 31, from Helmand Province.

Did you vote? “No. There is no security. In fact the election is not being held there. There are Taliban, they don’t let the polling boxes reach there.”

Was it a free and fair election? “No, no, no. It is to benefit America’s private interests. They have captured the whole country. America came to capture Afghanistan to oppress Afghans.”

Would you have voted if you had the chance? “No, never. Islam doesn’t accept the infidel’s democracy, Islam has its own law, God’s book.”
And then at this:

Abdul Khalil
Teacher. Aged 60.

Was it a free and fair election? “It was not a good election. There was fraud in this election, and it was not a fair or good election because there was low turnout. A lot of people did not go to vote. Firstly, because of the Taliban, and secondly, because of our traditions many Afghan women could not go out to vote. Our tradition is that our women never go to vote, men go but not women.

“This is not a good tradition, in my opinion, but for us Afghans this tradition has been laid down for us by our fathers and grandfathers, so we have just continued living like this.

“In the last election there was fraud, and this time also. I heard it on the media, and everyone knows it is true. It is clear that there was fraud. The last time when [Yunous] Qanooni was a candidate, there was fraud. He couldn’t win the election, and this time as well.”

As he spoke his, pro-Karzai, fellow Pashtuns heckled him for being a dissenter, shouting “he’s crazy.”

Sardar Mohammed from war-torn, Taliban-influenced Helmand province appears to have bought into a fairly common Islamist meme; but Abdul Khalil (from Jalalabad? Kabul?) see things differently. He believes that there has been a tradition of elections in the country where men voted and women didn't (a bad tradition, he thinks). What elections does he mean? I can think of only three national elections in Afghanistan, two since the invasion and one in the 1960s. Does he also count some kind of local elections? Have there been a number of separate provincial elections? Anyone who knows more about this than I do, please chime in.

Image: Abdul Khalil.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Ramadan crescent moon, Amman, Jordan

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Modern" to "Islamic" in just a few years


From the New York Times "At War" blog:

She said: “Abeer you know me, we used to wear such clothes in college.” I told her: “Things are very different now.” Then I showed her a picture on my mobile phone of me wearing an abaya. She was shocked and said: “I heard about it, but I can’t believe it, I never imagined things would go this way.”

We have got a gap inside the Iraqi community. A gap between people of the same generation, I mean between those who fled the violence and traveled out of Iraq after 2003, and these who stayed in the country.

The people who left Iraq cannot imagine what happened, they only have the barest idea, and they have not seen and lived the Islamist style of life.

At that restaurant meeting where I met a group of my friends we chatted and talked about many things, including the provincial elections next month. All of them, even the religious ones, agreed that they would not vote for an Islamist, of any kind. “Even if he was blessed by Ayatollah Sistani and got Sistani’s signature beside his name,” one of them said.

But my friend who had lived outside had an extremely different opinion. She said: “Why not, if they are good?”

More here.

Image: Back before the invasion.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Xinhua, China's official news agency, speaks

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Tehran: the cats are happy

Juan Cole passes along this "final dispatch from Tehran," which I don't dare summarize. Don't miss it.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

An authoritative religious critique of the situation in Iran

Ayatollah Montazeri is one of the highest-ranking religious scholars in Iran, though he holds no political office. The following statement was posted on the Iranian-American blog, niacINsight. It takes only a little imagination to see how such an analysis might harm the religious legitimacy of the current Iranian government:

Montazeri said “I have been involved in the struggles against the previous (Shah) regime and the establishment of the Islamic Republic as much as I can. I feel ashamed in front of the people and clearly announce that beloved Islam…is different from the behavior of the current rulers. These actions and policies being done under the banner of religion will certainly cause large segments of people to become cynical regarding the principles of Islam and theocracy and will ruin the hard and valuable work of the Islamic ulema.”

Montazeri harshly criticized the militarization of the society saying “In a country and a regime which is proud of being Islamic and Shiite, and only 30 years after the victory of the revolution when people still remember the last scenes of the past regime, how could they turn Tehran and other large cities into a big garrison while the world is watching? They have put our brothers in the armed forces against the people. By using plainclothes agents, who are reminders of baton-carrying agents of Shah, cowardly shed the blood of the youth and men and women of this land.”

Montazeri then posed questions to authorities asking “was this the strategy of Prophet Mohammad and Imam Ali? They never cursed and accused their enemies and didn’t silence them by the sword…Now, a group of people thinking that they can commit any crime because they see themselves as being close to the government; attack student dorms, beat them and throw them down the building, commit chain murders and terrorize intellectuals of this nation and be immune from punishment; this is not compatible with any religion and custom.”

Montazeri advised the people to “pursue their reasonable demands while maintaining their calm.” He also advised the authorities, asking them to stop using harsh and irrational measures which destroys people’s trust and exacerbates the separation between them and regime. “[The authorities] should not create divisions among the people, apologize for their past mistakes, and understand that worldly positions are not permanent.”

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's not a show for the spectators

US coverage of world events is very Washington-centric. Like domestic political issues, international ones are usually seen as an opportunity to show that one is on the right side, or that one's domestic opponents are on the wrong side, or if you're a journalist, to write a real horse-racing style piece-- who is ahead, who fell on his or her face. This all too easily slops over on us next door.

Joe Klein, a political columnist at Time, wrote a column today which in part says what I feel about this tendency. As others have put it, "it's not about us," what Iranians are doing comes from their own needs and perceptions, although it is important to us and the rest of the world and we will be affected. We should remember that simple phrase while we wait to see what emerges from Iran.

Joe Klein:

Again, the crucial fact about the protesters is this: they may hate the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime--who wouldn't?--but that doesn't make them particular fans of the United States. I have yet to meet an Iranian who does not believe that the United States gave poison gas to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, gas which injured thousands upon thousands of Iranian men, who still live, incapacitated, in the shadows of that society. (Indeed, the attention Ahmadinejad has paid to the Iran-Iraq war veterans and their families is a major source of his extensive support among the Iranian working class.)

The protesters admire our freedom, but they are appalled--and insulted--by our neocolonialist condescension over the past 50 years. The reformers, and even some conservatives, consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran--a crude, unsophisticated demagogue, who puts a strong Potemkin face to the world without very much knowledge of what the rest of the world is about. This was an anology that came up in interview after interview, with reformers and conservatives alike.

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout "Allahu Akbar" in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program, even if many have doubts about the efficacy of weaponizing the enriched uraniam that is being produced. They want greater freedom, to be sure. And they believe that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad forces--and the militarized regime they have empowered, the millions of basiji and revolutionary guards--is a profound perversion of that revolution. They are right. They deserve our prayers and support. But they don't need grandstanding from an American President, and they certainly don't need histrionics from blustery old John McCain.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Following events in Iran

I am following events in Iran, in so far as that is possible, but I don't think I have any special insight, except this: it is the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran as it has existed for the last 20 years or so. It's likely that in 2029, middle-aged Iranians will all know where they were today, no matter how things turn out.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Rights of Man...and Woman

Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting column in the Times Online by Danny Finkelstein. Why Finkelstein associates his values with Neoconservatism I don't know; I associate it with indiscriminate aerial bombardment. Nevertheless, I agree with much of what he says here:

For years we have been told, we neocons, that other cultures don't want our liberty, our American freedom. Yankee go home! But it isn't true. Because millions of Iranians do want it. Yes, they want their sovereignty, and demand respect for their nation and its great history. No, they don't want foreign interference and manipulation. But they still insist upon their rights and their freedom. They know that liberty isn't American or British. It is Iranian, it is human.

This idea that the critics of neocons advanced so vociferously, that liberal democracy can't be “transplanted” on alien soil - what does it mean to the people of Iran who have thronged the streets to express their will?

Does it mean that we think the morality police is just part of Iranian culture? Just their way of doing things? For the thousands of protesters it is not. It turns out that they don't think it's right for young girls to be arrested, snatched from the streets for wearing the wrong coat. And they don't think there is a cultural defence to beating these girls until their parents arrive with a “decent” garment.

They don't think that public hangings are Iranian, either. Nor arbitrary detentions of doctors who dared to organise conferences on Aids, nor keeping human rights activists in solitary confinement, nor sentencing trade union leaders to five years in jail for trying to organise fellow workers. They don't think there is anything culturally valuable in sentencing political activists to death after secret trials lasting less than five minutes, or returning lawyers to jail again and again for opposing the death penalty or “publishing insulting material with unacceptable interpretation of Islamic rules”.

It is not part of their precious heritage that someone be charged with a capital offence for circulating a petition on women's rights. Nor that nine-year-old girls should be eligible for the death penalty, and children hanged for their crimes. There is no special Iranian will, even given their religious conservatism, that students should be flogged in public for being flirtatious, and homosexuals hanged in the streets.

The protests for Mr Mousavi do not just expose the lie of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory. They expose the lie that there is something Western in wanting democracy and human rights. [The best line!--SM]

And what of the other leg of the neocon argument? What of the idea that peace comes through the spread of liberalism and democracy? Can anyone really doubt that should the reformists succeed, even a little bit, the world would be a safer place? A democratic Iran would stop financing world terrorist movements, it would stop obsessing about external enemies and foreign conspiracies, it would stop threatening its neighbours. It would still oppose Israeli policy, it would still want to acquire nuclear material, but the threat of violence would recede.

The mistake the neocons made is that we were not conservative enough, not patient enough. Such impatience with dictatorships is understandable, indeed laudable. But the frustrating truth is that there are limits to what can be achieved by outsiders. Instead we have to wait as national movements, one by one, stand up for their rights. And sometimes, tragically, we even have to stand aside as those movements are crushed by their oppressors.


Comments welcome.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran coverage, June 16

From Laura Secor at the New Yorker (excerpt):

What are Khamenei’s options? With protesters yelling “Down with the dictator” in the streets of nearly every city in Iran, his position could not be more precarious. He has staked his very legitimacy, and perhaps that of the edifice he sits atop, on forcing Iranians to accept Ahmadinejad’s supposed landslide victory. He can continue to try to force that down their throats with a show of raw power, or he can bend, which would show the opposition that he and the system are not really so powerful after all, that they are vulnerable to pressure from below. If he takes the latter road, it would be a radical departure from his style of governance up until now. This is the regime that violently quelled protest movements in 1999 and in 2002, crushed the hopes of reformers under Mohammad Khatami from 1997 through 2005, and apparently could not tolerate even the possibility of a Mousavi Presidency. But if he chooses the path of violence, he will transform his country into a crude and seething autocracy.

This is uncharted territory for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Until now, the regime has survived through a combination of repression and flexibility. The dispersal of power throughout a complex system, among rival political factions, and with the limited but active participation of the voting public, has allowed a basically unpopular regime to control a large population with only limited and targeted violence. There have always been loopholes and pressure points that allow the opposition and the regime to be dance partners, even if one or both of them is secretly brandishing a knife behind the other’s back. That has been less true under Ahmadinejad than in the past. But the culture of the organized opposition under the Islamic Republic has tended to remain cautious and moderate. Many of the protesters of recent days are not calling for an end to the Islamic Republic. They are calling for their votes to be counted. More nights like last night, however, when some seven protesters were allegedly shot, could swiftly change that.

So is there any way Khamenei can dial the situation back even to the unhappy modus vivendi of June 11th?...
Iason Athanasiadis and Saeed Kamali Dehghan at the Guardian, article entitled At opposite ends of Tehran's great avenue, the two Irans gathered:

"What you're seeing is the result of 30 years of pressure and strangling," said Hossein Rahmati, a 68-year-old carpet seller wearing an old-fashioned 1980s suit to attend the march. "Iran is like a dam about to burst."

Standing in the cool of a Tehran ­afternoon, his rimmed glasses held on by a cord, Rahmati was surrounded by crowds, some dressed in the green of Mir Hossein Mousavi's street revolution, ­others in black with scarves over their faces and mobile phones in hand to capture the occasion.

Across the capital, a few miles to the south, it was a different rallying cry. Batol Mojahedi, 55, a housewife, stood with one hand holding her black hijab, the other a poster of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "My son was martyred in the Iran-Iraq war. I don't want to lose our Islam. We did not participate in 1979, in the revolution, to have this kind of freedom that Mousavi supporters claim they want.

"We don't want the freedom they want. Ahmadinejad is a courageous president. There was not any rigging in Friday's election. What's happening now is just [being influenced] by foreigners."

Tehran was a city literally divided yesterday as rival rallies for incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his defeated centrist challenger Mousavi took over either end of Vali Asr Avenue, the city's north-south spine. In a study in opposites, some districts appeared deserted while traffic was gridlocked elsewhere. The words from both camps were equally stark, each seeing the other as the cause of the greatest tension the Islamic republic has witnessed in 30 years.

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Meanwhile, next door

An Iraqi correspondent sadly contemplates an

Aborted attempt at protest

With what Iraq endured over the last four decades, sometime I feel we deserve what happens to us because we are a weak people we cannot even show our protests with our facial expressions.

Today on my way to work, an event occurred that happens every day in Iraq. The road was suddenly blocked, and no one knew why. As usual, the solders deployed in the roads aimed their weapons towards the crowd.

Today was different for me because I tried to take an unusual action. I tried to read the expressions on the faces waiting in cars around me. I mean, the anger or protest on the faces of those who were forced to wait inside their cars for 15 minutes without any known reasons. In general, the delays are caused by an Iraqi politician of 'the new Iraq' leaving his stronghold.

But the faces were glad as if they were happy with what was happening. Some of them were chatting with each other, and some were listening to music on radio stations--listening to love songs while the gangs of soldiers were aiming their weapons at their cheerful faces.

At this moment I tried to do something to wake them up. I wanted to honk the horn to show a sign of protest to those who were carrying their weapons towards us. But I hesitated. I couldn’t make this trivial sign of protest. I felt afraid of such action because I was waiting a volunteer hero who would lead my anger, my revolution.

But he didn’t show up.

Here in Iraq we always wait for this hero, but it is useless to wait because, according to a verse from the Koran, God doesn't change the condition of people if they don’t change themselves first.

And we are so weak to change ourselves and defeat our fears or make any sign of protest--even honking the horn of the car to show anger.

I think our wait will be long for the hero who will take our hands and walk us to the safe land

.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

The Big Picture on the streets of Tehran

See Iran's Disputed Election.

I've picked out three images:

Plainclothes revolutionary militia members or Basij -- all volunteers -- breaking into Tehran University to attack pro-opposition students.


An opposition rally supporting(!) presidential candidate Mousavi (he's centre in glasses and gray shirt).


A pro-Ahmadinejad rally.




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Another aspect of the turmoil in Iran

Shireen Hunter, a well-published expert on Iranian and modern Islamic politics, reminded me in an interview on CBC One's "The Current" that some of the prominent opposition leaders in Iran are former hardliners. It's not just the post-revolutionary generation against those who remember the revolution, nor the big city against the small towns and villages.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

The election in Iran -- two sets of comments

Juan Cole: Class v. culture wars in Iranian elections.

Gary Sick: Iran's political coup.

Now there are beatings in the street.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tomorrow's election in Iran

And what are people talking about? A clue: it isn't jihad. Read TIME on the "marriage crisis."

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Electoral excitement in Iran


Juan Cole has a long post today summarizing and linking to media reports on the pre-election excitement in Iran.

It is interesting that in many countries where effective elections do not exist, elections, public opinion polls on politics, and so forth are a real if subordinate part of the political system.

Of course in Iran there have been pro-democratic movements since 1905, a fact I imagine enters into the world view of very few non-Iranians.

Image: Yesterday's pro-Mousavi demonstration, from the Wall Street Journal.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, by Charles Kurzman

In this book, Charles Kurzman examine some of the more common causes or retroactive explanations of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and finds them all lacking. He contends that Iranians joined the protest movement against the Shah when and as they decided it was a viable movement. This judgment by Kurzman reflects his view of how people interact. See page 138:

Viability does not explain why the movement turned out as it did. Rather, viability is not predictive. Its focus on the variability and confusion of protest runs counter to the project of retroactive prediction [identifying causes or factors that would allow an observer to predict the outcome]. In this sense, it is not an explanation but an anti-explanation. Instead of seeking recurrent patterns of social life, anti-explanation explores the unforeseen moments when patterns are twisted or broken off. Instead of emphasizing routine behavior, it emphasizes "deviant" cases and statistical "outliers." Focus on the fringe reminds us that the whole fabric of social life -- all behaviors and institutions that we take for granted, that seem unchangeable -- may be vulnerable to unraveling, that the fabric survives only through our collective expectation that it will survive.

What is left when we part from retroactive prediction? Understanding.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mapping the conflict in NW Pakistan


Besides this map, the BBC provides details on the various districts involved in the current conflict.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some follow-up on recent Turkish history

Over at the serious but not very seriously named blog, The Duck of Minerva, a short discussion by an expert, Peter Henne (the right doctoral candidate is usually pretty expert) on recent developments in Turkish and Armenian relations. I feel that my discussion of post-Ataturk Turkey was pretty inadequate in the Islamic Civilization course, so for those of you who are still hanging around, here's a primer. I particularly draw your attention to this:

While there are many factors at work, it is very likely that this is part of a broader shift in Turkish security policy under the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002. The party’s electoral victory prompted concerns about the group’s commitment to democratic norms and the possibility it will institute Islamic law. The concerns proved unfounded, however, with the AKP acting as responsible reformists; ironically, the Turkish military—the guardians of secularism—emerged as the greatest threat to democracy in the country, threatening several times to remove the AKP from power. Yet, while the AKP is not a radical force in the mould of the Taliban, their rise to power did change Turkey through the redefinition of Turkish identity and the incorporation of religious influences.

The Turkish political system began to open up in the 1990s, and increasing popular pressure on the state’s actions gradually broke the military’s exclusive hold on security policy. This also undermined the military’s monopoly over what security means, exposing this to popular contestation as well. The AKP’s rise was part of this, advancing a conception of Turkish security that questioned the state’s US ties and was more concerned with global Muslim opinion than its predecessors’. This was not a revolutionary rejection of the West, though, as Turkey continues to view itself as European and the AKP actually criticized the secular parties for not pushing hard enough on gaining accession to the European Union.


And this:

Yet, this has also involved a break with Turkey’s secular nationalist legacy, which could prove positive. While the AKP has advocated an increased role for Islam in Turkish society, it has simultaneously deemphasized the significance of ethnic divisions and attacked ethnic Turkic chauvinism. The party launched major outreach campaigns to the Kurdish population—although Kurdish parties won out over the AKP in 2009 local elections—and has proved more willing to compromise on the Armenian issue, as its identity is not tied as tightly to the founding myths of Turkish nationalism (which include downplaying crimes against the Armenians). Interestingly, the digging up of the Kurdish graves was enabled through the arrest of several security officials who were involved in actions against the Kurds; they were arrested on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the AKP in early 2009.

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Juan Cole's links on the situation in Pakistan

Juan Cole at Informed Comment provides us with some useful information and commentary on the situation in Pakistan. I particularly liked the following report and panel discussion:

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

'Honour': Crimes, paradigms, and violence against women, edited by Lynn Welchman and Sara Hossain

I have read much of the introductory and theoretical chapters of this book, which concerns so-called "crimes of honor" against nonconforming women, and which is packed full of information and insight. I was particularly struck by the conclusion of an article by Purna Sen, "'Crimes of honour,' value and meaning." Sen objects to one common way that "honor killings" and "crimes of honor" are discussed, especially when the crimes take place in Islamic countries or communities. Sen find it less than useful to contrast the "culture" of the "West" or the "international community" with the "culture" of a criticized community:
Making culture the divisor also renders those who inhabit the culture under scrutiny problematic per se, and suggests that their salvation lies in abandoning this culture and, by implication, adopting another. Almost invariably that Salvation is Western, Judeo-Christian culture. Is this really the answer? If the problem were Islam, or Islamic culture, it might be -- but then only if Western culture and religion had eliminated violence against women. If violence against women exists in the cultures that criticise the "other," as it clearly does, then existing cultural practices do not determine the safety women, as in no culture are women assured freedom from violence.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Top Ten Good News Stories in the Muslim World, 2008 (That Nobody Noticed).

I cited the above-named article by Juan Cole in class yesterday; here's a link.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And then last night on CBC TV...

...Newsworld's Passionate Eye documentary program to be specific, I saw a show called
Pakistan's Taliban Generation. It was about how the Taliban are spreading their influence in Pakistan, and not just in the tribal areas. It was scary, in part because it was a no BS presentation. Unfortunately you cannot see this on the CBC Internet site, but you can read about it here, and perhaps hunt up another broadcast where you can see it.

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CBC One at its best

I spent a lot of time in the car this past weekend, much of it listening to the CBC. I am quite the CBC fan, it is one of the things that made me a Canadian, but it doesn't always suit my mood. Those of you who listen too know what I mean. This time however, I won the radio lottery.

On Saturday morning's edition of Go!, Brent Bambury conducted "The Hunt for Canada's Alt Anthem." As the website puts it:

In tough uncertain times, it always pays to have a contingency plan... for EVERYthing. This morning, GO! is on the hunt for Canada's alt anthem.

We love O Canada, but we wonder what its hip 2009 B-side would sound like.
Of course, this idea had great potential for lameness, even lameness on a cosmic scale. But although one of the three candidate songs was only true and apt, the other two were BRILLIANT! One of them had me sitting in the car with my mouth agape, amazed (not for the first time) at how, sometimes, people can rise to the occasion. With so much mean-minded insanity out there in the world, it was great to hear some fun, sane stuff coming from my compatriots.

Was this what Marconi was aiming for?

Here is a page where you can listen to them yourself. They are the three excerpts listed under 03/28/2009, from Amanda Martinez, Tiny Bill Cody and the Word Burglar.

Go ahead, take a chance on the mothership.

On Sunday, on the way home, the show Tapestry was equally good in a completely different way. Usually Tapestry drives me a bit nuts, it being a show that specializes in earnest interviews with people about their unremarkable spiritual experiences. I only listen to it in the car, and not always then. Sunday's show, however, was fascinating. Mary Hynes talked to Michael Muhammad Knight, a formerly Catholic convert to Islam from upper New York State (the Burned Over District lives!). Discouraged by his inability to be a good Muslim by his own standards, Knight wrote a novel about a fictional punk rock house full of young punk rock Muslims, all of them searching for the true way. Knight started photocopying the book for would-be readers, and now The Taqwacores is a hit. You can hear the whole interview here.

I found it interesting that Knight shares an idea I've had-- that any reasonably successful religious tradition expands to include many disparate elements; as he said, "Islam is what Muslims do," and quite evidently they do many different things. I came to this as a historian, he as a believer. It was not surprising to me to hear such a thought from an American from the Burned Over District (a region known for new, even anarchic movements since the early 19th century). I would be happy if I heard people from Pakistan same the same thing occasionally. But then, maybe they do and I'm just too far away to hear it.

By the way, the current government wants to cut back on all this wonderful stuff from the CBC -- the Conservatives have always hated it. If you value the CBC and its potential, do something. Call or write your MP.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Religion in Iraq today

From McClatchy's Inside Iraq, a cheering account of an Iraqi correspondent's participation in the important Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala:

On last Saturday, I started a long journey to Karbala city to commemorate the anniversary of Imam Hussein. The distance to the holy shrine in the holy city of Karbala is 67 miles. I haven't been practicing much sport for the last twelve years because of the type of life I live. So, walking such a distance was a big challenge to my will and abilities as I always show off being a very good athlete for years and years. My colleague came to the office where I spent the night around 5:50 a.m. and the journey started at 6. We reached Mussayib city around 6 p.m. I was completely exhausted but all the pain became a source of joy and happiness when I was received by people from the city begging me to spend the night in the big tents they set everywhere in the city. Young boys were working with their parents to serve us. The people were shouting "Dear the visitors of Imam Hussein, please come and spend the night here, we have everything for you, food and bed. Please give us the honor of taking care of you" Others wrote on big pieces of black fabric "serving the visitors of Imam Hussein is our honor." I chose one of the tents randomly. A tent set by a Sunni tribe who decided to serve the Shiite pilgrims.

More here.

Image: Pilgrims at the shrine in 2008.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

30th anniversary


February marks the 30th anniversary of the climax of Iran's Islamic revolution. RFE/RL has an article asking whether this durable revolution can also be seen as a successful one. Well, the question remains unanswered, but there is some good material in the article nonetheless. Also at the same location you can find a collection of famous pictures of the Iranian revolution, or at least the huge crowds that turned out against the Shah. And don't miss the launching of an Iranian satellite, the first such launch without foreign help.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Bombs over Israel and Gaza...


...and the people they hit. The Big Picture shows us the weapons, the explosions, the blood and the terror.

To leaven this with some good news, see Juan Cole's New Year's article, Top Ten Good News Stories in the Muslim World, 2008 (That Nobody Noticed).

Image: a firefighter tries to douse a medical warehouse (!).

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sufism in South Asia

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Russian Muslims pray in downtown Moscow!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Crusader motivation

In a famous eyewitness account of the taking of Jerusalem in 1099, the crusading chaplain Raymond of Aguilers described a bloodbath at the Temple Mount (drawing, as has often been pointed out, on the Book of Revelations):

It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses. These are small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to the knees and bridle reins.. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God that in this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood.... Now that the city was taken, it was well worth all of our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the holy sepulcher. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang a new song to the Lord! For their hearts offered prayers of praise to God, victorious and triumphant, which cannot be told in words. A new day, new joy, me and perpetual gladness, the consummation of our labor and devotion, drew forth from all new words and new songs. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity, the humiliation of paganism, and the renewal of our faith. "This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it," for on this day the Lord revealed himself to his people and blessed them.

This passage relates to two questions that often come up in studying history, but particularly the history of the Crusades (or for that matter, jihad).

The first might be the question of sincerity. Did so-and-so undertake this project, or conquer this country, or start this war because he sincerely believed in his stated ideals? I find this as a historical question somewhat uninteresting. Every observer has his or her views as to how human nature works in general and in particular cases, say for instance, how kings and emperors act. It is hard to convince people to change their mind on this issue. So arguments about sincerity don't go very far unless you clearly define what you are talking about -- and people generally don't.

Part of the problem is terminology, especially the use of the word "religion." Often when people talk about "religion" they are talking about a creed or set of beliefs that someone else really (or doesn't really) believes in. Or they may mean a set of rules that members of a given religion are supposed to follow. But both beliefs and rules are usually discussed in terms of formal definitions laid down by higher authorities in well-defined religious organizations. If you look in detail about what individuals say they believe or how they actually act, you may well find that these individual "believers" or "followers" not to have the same "religion" as the great authorities. If a theologian says that Christianity believes thus, or a scholar says that Islam demands thus, it is trivially easy to find Christians or Muslims who do not believe or do those things. In any big-name religion, the greatest and most respected authorities only speak for one stream of a very diverse tradition. And if ordinary people attached to that tradition claim to be obedient followers, the outside observer may often find that they don't realize how far they are from literal adherence to proclamations of their leaders; or do realize, and have good reasons of their own for their particular interpretation of what the religion means.

Which brings us to the second question, which might be put this way: "Were the Crusades really about religion? What does holy war have to do with the teachings of Jesus?" My answer to these questions is, yes they were about religion (if you just want a war that were plenty closer to hand in 11th- century Europe) -- but what was that religion like? What was its actual content? Christianity in most varieties is a lot more than the teachings of Jesus. Put aside for the moment the vast diversity of the Bible, which makes it possible to find justification for almost anything in it, especially if you use sophisticated symbolic interpretation. More important, I think, is that even Christians with little or no firsthand knowledge of the Bible have strong opinions about what Christianity is. When we are talking about the motivations of Crusaders it is probably more useful to think about the individuals who trekked across the Balkans and Anatolia and how they acted, rather than what Pope Urban II said at Clermont (important as that might be in other contexts). When we are talking about the religion that led men to Jerusalem and helped produce the slaughter there, Raymond of Aguilers’s version of Christianity is as important as that of any Pope, or of Augustine of Hippo, if not more so.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

More on the Mumbai attacks

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has a very interesting article called Indian Muslims Refuse to Bury Militants (following a BBC story). I quote extensively:

The Muslim community in Mumbai says it doesn't want the gunmen who attacked Mumbai to be buried in the Muslim cemetery, on the grounds that they are not Muslims.

A spokesman for the Muslim council said, ""These terrorists are a black spot on our religion, we will very sternly protest the burial of these terrorists in our cemetery . . ."

Certainly the perpetrators are criminals from the point of view of Islamic law. The Qur'an forbids murder (qatl) and the classical jurisprudence on jihad forbids the killing of innocent noncombatants, sneak attacks, or the undertaking of military action without the authorization of duly constituted Muslim authorities.

Although removing an avowed Muslim from status as a Muslim, which is called 'takfir' or faith-denial, is frowned on by the mainstream Sunni tradition, it may be legitimate in this case, given the egregious departure from Sunni law, practice and belief in which the perpetrators engaged. It is an ironic twist, since the radical vigilantes are the ones who have been declaring normal people non-Muslims for the past few decades.
More here.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Extremism


Juan Cole at Informed Comment is hoping that India does not make the mistakes that the USA did after 9/11. His piece includes this worthwhile passage:

There is a danger in India as we speak of mob action against Muslims, which will ineluctably drag the country into communal violence. The terrorists that attacked Mumbai were not Muslims in any meaningful sense of the word. They were cultists. Some of them brought stocks of alcohol for the siege they knew they would provoke. They were not pious. They killed and wounded Muslims along with other kinds of Indians.

Muslims in general must not be punished for the actions of a handful of unbalanced fanatics. Down that road lies the end of civilization. It should be remembered that Hindu extremists have killed 100 Christians in eastern India in recent weeks. But that would be no excuse for a Christian crusade against Hindus or Hinduism.

We could call the extremist cult the "Rivers of Blood" party. They would rather create rivers of blood than let people, say, rent videos at the corner store. Whatever specific thing is "bad," rivers of blood, or military spending, or labor camps are always "good."

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Friday, November 28, 2008

An analysis of the Indian situation


Students in the Islamic Civilization course may be interested in this analysis by Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail.

Image: From the Big Picture.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Correction to readings for HIST 3805 for Wednesday, November 12

The sufi poetry page is here.

A sufi-inspired Bollywood video is here.

For Quranic verses about "hijab" see this site.

You can search Hadith for "hijab" at this site (MSA-USC Hadith Database) using the window halfway down the page.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Timothy I Catholikos of Baghdad and Caliph Al-Mahdi

Interested in what Christian and Muslim religious leaders debated in the early Abbasid era?

Public benefactor Roger Pearse has just made that a whole lot easier. He writes:

In 781 AD the East Syriac Catholicos, Timothy I, was invited by the
Abbassid Caliph al-Mahdi to answer a series of questions about
Christianity over two days. The questions and his replies are extant in
Syriac. I've placed the English translation by Alphonse Mingana online
here:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/timothy_i_apology_01_text.htm

Introduction here:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/timothy_i_apology_00_intro.htm

Timothy I was an interesting man, heavily involved in the Nestorian
evangelism which ultimately reached China. He also was involved in
biblical textual criticism, and his letters record the discovery of some
old manuscripts of the Psalms in the region of the Dead Sea; a possible
precursor of the modern Dead Sea Scrolls discovery.

The text above is public domain: please copy freely. It now forms part
of my collection of public domain patristic texts available here:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/

For those who would like to support the work of the site, you can buy a
CDROM of the translations from here:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/all_the_fathers_on_cd.htm

Thanks, Roger!

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Friday, September 19, 2008

It's Ramadan -- Pictures from around the world


The Big Picture has a wonderful selection.

Image (it was hard to pick just one): "A seller of traditional Syrian sweets calls out for customers in the Meidan quarter of Damascus September 2, 2008."

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Al Qaeda: defeated?

I was not going to post on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, since I had nothing unique or new to say.

I still don't, but I just got around to reading Juan Cole's post for today at his blog Informed Comment. Cole is an expert on Shiism, speaks and reads Arabic, and is a strong critic of the destructive Bush-Cheney policies, so when he says that the original Al Qaeda has been defeated, and surveys the state of terrorist organizations in the Middle East to prove his point, he's worth listening to.

Canadians will be interested in what he has to say about Afghanistan.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Historians: write like this

I guess it would be boring if everyone wrote alike; but the world could certainly use more scholars like Patricia Crone, author of God's Rule, and many other works on Islamic history. The clarity and grace with which she explains complicated phenomena are a joy to see. for instance, this passage from page 340 of God's Rule:

To a greater or lesser degree, all Sufis stepped out of the social rules for a realm of freedom, permanently, temporarily, or just momentarily, to escape the endless demands of family and friends and the rigid rules of social etiquette, seeking to find a deeper meaning to life. Originally, they did not form a hierarchy themselves. But all places of escape fill up as news of their attractions spreads, and all develop organization in the process. By the end of our period, the Sufis were no longer back-packing tourists in an untouched and exotic world. The great Sufi orders were under formation and there were now Sufi hierarchies in this world reflecting angelic hierarchies in the next. The leaders of such hierarchies, though wealthy and influential, still did not have actual political or military power, but that too was to come, especially in tribal areas, if only after our period.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Al Qaeda Goes Viral

Since I'm now preparing a course called Crusade and Jihad for the fall term at Nipissing University, I think about jihad every day. Jihad is a complicated phenomenon and the word has many meanings. One meaning or set of meanings that many people have a natural interest in is, "what does jihad mean to Al Qaeda, or its remnants, or its sympathizers?" Here's part of the answer. At the moment, the front page of the Washington Independent, a worthwhile news site, features an article by Spencer Ackerman, a book review of Architect of Global Jihad by Brynjar Lia, of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. Lia makes available to a wider audience, English-speaking audience an influential Al Qaeda text: Abu Mus'ab al-Suri's The Global Islamic Resistance Call. It's a critique of Osama bin Laden's strategy of directly attacking the United States and other non-Islamic states, instead of the "apostate" regimes of the Middle East. Perhaps more important, it has been an influential support for the idea of decentralized or viral attacks instead of a strategy of centrally directed initiatives. Well worth a look.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Those people seem to be especially pious

In a couple of American op-ed articles the claim has been made that Barack Obama should not be viewed as a potential American leader who can reach out to the Muslim world, just because his father was a Muslim. In fact, say these pundits (no compliment here), Obama as president would be a complicating factor in American foreign policy: he would be regarded as an apostate and therefore subject to prosecution and the death penalty for apostasy. Edward Luttwack, a longtime purveyor of specious generalizations on very complex subjects (Roman military policy for instance), says for instance:

Because no government is likely to allow the prosecution of a President Obama — not even those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only two countries where Islamic religious courts dominate over secular law — another provision of Muslim law is perhaps more relevant: it prohibits punishment for any Muslim who kills any apostate, and effectively prohibits interference with such a killing.

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known — as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

This is nonsense, as Juan Cole, a real expert in Shiite Islam, points out on his website Informed Comment. His commentary is well worth looking at.

Cole's discussion raised another point which has often occurred to me but which seldom seems to enter into intellectual discourse, whether it's about current events or historical phenomena. Cole says:
Another error is to see persons of Muslim heritage as necessarily religious. Frankly, most Muslims nowadays don't pay any attention to those kinds of minutiae.
That line reminded me of a conversation with a friend a long time ago. I had grown up in an area where Protestants were the majority but there was a large minority of Catholics. Catholics were regarded as being unusually pious. After all, they went to Mass every Sunday, had their own version of the Lord's Prayer which they insisted upon, and sent their kids to Catholic schools -- except of course when it was too expensive or inconvenient. My friend had grown up in a Catholic-majority area, where being a Catholic was pretty important to local identity, but it was the minority Protestants who were thought to be pious, since they seemed to be the ones going to church on regular basis, not the Catholics, who were just baptized and married in church.

Reading a short general description of what North American Catholics and Protestants were supposed to believe would do nothing to reveal the realities we had grown up with.

Educated people who want to be well informed often fall into a trap simply because they are open-minded and when studying religion that is not familiar to them, go to the library and pick up a book by a member of that religion, usually a member of the clergy or an academic theologian. Those people, however honest and outreaching they are, will probably give their readers what they consider the right slant, but a narrow one, on a very varied tradition, mostly followed -- or not -- by people who have never been to theological school and never considered entering the clergy for a second.

About 15 years ago I read a book on the history of Buddhism -- unfortunately I can't remember its name -- which tried to give the basic facts in about 200 pages. I came away from it very impressed by the variety of that tradition. In fact, I realized a general truth. Any big-time religion must contain a tremendous variety within it or it would never have become a big-time religion in the first place.

This insight, if accepted, should be especially useful for my students in the Crusade and Jihad class. Just because someone is labeled a Muslim or Christian, don't leap to assume that you know what that means for their social and political attitudes and priorities. Look and see what they really were, if the sources allow. Maybe some of the people you are studying weren't unusually pious after all.

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