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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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Scary Santa Claus and the Master of Souls


The New York Times covers a celebration of something-or-other in Baghdad.

Image: Read all about it.

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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 21, 2009

A very important point in my understanding of religion and its history

Over there at MEDIEV-L, we were discussing Islam, and someone mentioned Karen Armstrong, the prominent writer on religious issues. This clause was a side remark in a long argument:

...the question is not who armstrong thinks is a "real representative" of a religion that is not hers ...
And that impelled me to say this:
And for me that opens up another question: even if the religion is yours, do you get to say who is the real representative of that religion? You may think you are an X, and that all Xs believe such and such, and Y is the best representative that belief or practice, but somebody else somewhere in time and space has an equally strong contrary belief about what Xs say and do and believe, with plenty of evidence to back themselves up. If we are talking as historians and scholars, both persons' claims are ahistorical. What would be objectively verifiable is that there are certain tendencies and disagreements within religion X, and that any definition of religion X includes and excludes people who may or may not think of themselves as X.
Reader, if you care about what I have learned in decades of historical studies, this is one of the most important things.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Holy books?

Phil Paine critiques the practice of using books as talismans:

There should be no Holy Books. Our species would make a significant step forward if it forsook the habit of declaring books to be sacred scriptures. The belief that certain books aren't just the writings of human beings, but direct revelations from a divinity, or that they are "sacred" has caused no end of mischief. But I plead my case precisely because I love and respect books. There is some profound wisdom to be found, if one cares to look, in certain books. But there seems, in my view, to be no greater insult to a wise person than to turn their work into a silly magical talisman, to be mindlessly chanted and ranted, rather than read and judged with reason.

A noteworthy feature of holy scriptures is that people seldom read them. They may run glazed eyes over them. They may fix on whatever passages appear to confirm their base passions, their petty hatreds, or their tribal customs. They call on their authority as a trump card, usually under the direction of some self-declared religious authority. But they hardly ever actually read them.

More here.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

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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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Icon


An illustration of the adaptability of just about any system of symbolism; a Joseph Stalin/Virgin Mary icon, hanging in a church in Strelny:
The church's Beneficiary Evstafy Zhakov said the legend has it that Stalin would often hold discourse with Blessed Matrona of Moscow. And that is the scene depicted on the icon. However, church visitors didn't think it was a good idea and the icon was placed in the church's remote corner.

Beneficiary Zhakov explained that he sees Stalin as one of the nation's fathers, no matter how bad he was. He does not believe Stalin was an atheist.

Someone on the Mediev-L discussion list points out that Stalin has his back to the Virgin and seems to be striding away. Oh, well, he wasn't Russian, either.

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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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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Chivalry and religion in the Middle Ages

As we reached a natural pause in my seminar on chivalry, I asked my students what they have learned about the Middle Ages in the course so far. One of the more common answers (illustrated with specific examples) was that the importance of religion, even in this sphere where they had not necessarily expect to see it, had really made an impression. Now I am sure that all of these people were aware that religion was important in the Middle Ages, but having it demonstrated to them in concrete form and in detail made a big difference. This is one thing I love about seminars, where you can really get into the material.

Image: Galahad receiving the Grail from the Grail maidens, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (19th c.).

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Human rights, religious freedom, and tolerance in Canada

Phil Paine has written at philpaine.com an essay on a human rights case in Toronto entitled Distinguishing between real and fake human rights issues. followed the link and page down Wednesday, April 2, 2008.

Although Phil does not have a comment section on his website, he encourages replies from his readers. Drop him a line.

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