Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What is a "Link"?

One of the most maliciously confusing words in contemporary discourse is "link". It was used to great effect during Obama's presidential run, during which he was "linked" to his former minister, to a group who registered voters for him, and to a guy he met once at a party who blew stuff up when Obama was eight years old. One "link" that allegedly helped to justify the Iraq war was a communication in which Osama Bin Laden asked for help, and Sadam Hussain refused it. Before and after that conversation, each man offered a reward for killing the other, which apparently didn't weaken the link significantly. And then there is the Mother of all Links: George Bush's "Axis of Evil". For the historically challenged, the original Axis was an alliance between Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, who signed a treaty which outlined a detailed plan for world conquest which was financed with billions of dollars, and executed by millions of trained soldiers, weapons, and military transport. . Bush's "Axis of Evil" consisted of two countries who had been at war with each other for over a decade, and a third country that barely knew the other two existed. When I first said this, someone told me that Korea was "linked" to one of these other countries (I forget which, because I don't care) because it had allegedly sold it nuclear material. The word "link" blurs the fact that there is a tremendous difference between being a military ally and being a customer. I have frequently bought french fries at McDonalds. Does that make me and McDonalds part of the Axis of French Fries?

The men who overpowered airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center were not just "linked". They were organized and co-ordinated in essentially the same way that a football team or an army is co-ordinated. To conflate this kind of organization with a "link" that consisted of a few emails between an Imam and a single soldier is to be dangerously confused. One of the things that makes this kind of confusion even more likely is that no terrorist organization has done anything as remotely well co-ordinated since, and consequently there really isn't that much difference between terrorists and lone gunmen today. There is a difference in degree but today there is no real sharp way to draw the line. Al Qaeda once had almost completely political control of Afghanistan , which became their base of operations for something that resembled a genuine military campaign. That base was destroyed during the war with Afghanistan, and now Al Qaeda is nothing but a disorganized group of malcontents that share little more than a willingness to wear the same T-shirt.

The underlying assumption of the controversy around Fort Hood has been that if we see lots of similarities between Hasan and Al Qaeda, this must prove that Hasan is somehow part of the same Mass-movement as Al Qaeda, and therefore should be feared. What I am saying is the fact that there are so many similarities between Hasan and Al Qaeda shows that we should consider both to be ordinary criminals, not a major military threat. There is not that much difference between Hasan and the other nutcases blowing things up in the name of Islam, because all the so-called Jihadists are a rag tag bunch of losers, who had one lucky strike with the World Trade Center, and have no central organization worthy of the name. Those of us who grew up with the fear of Communism should remember (and some of us do) that in comparison to the Commies, these so-called threats to our security are a disorganized bunch of loonies, not a serious well-organized threat. They did and will continue to do some damage, but in comparison to Hurricane Katrina and Global warming they should be seen as a very low priority. These guys are about as organized as the Bloods and the Crips in LA, and probably less dangerous. They are certainly less organized than the Mafia.

Surprisingly,I have heard similar thoughts from two of NYtimes' token conservatives: John Tierney and Ross Douhat.

A year or so ago, Tierney pointed out that more people have died in bathtubs since 9/11 than have died from Terrorist attacks. Anybody want to allocate a billion dollars to keep America safe from the Axis of Bathtubs? There are probably "links" that connect all of those bathtubs to a few key manufacturers, some of whom might be Muslims. Should we throw out the constitutional right to privacy and put cameras on every bathtub in America? Call me wild and reckless, but I'm not willing to give up my constitutional rights to be that safe. For those who keep saying "Freedom doesn't come Free": You're right. The price of freedom is living with the possibility that occasionally crimes get committed, and people get hurt. A society in which everybody was constantly under surveillance might be a society with no crime, but it would also be a society with no freedom.

Ross Douhat wrote on the Anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall that " "Osama bin Laden is no Hitler, and Islamism isn’t in the same league as the last century’s totalitarianisms. Marxism and fascism seduced the West’s elite; Islamic radicalism seduces men like the Fort Hood shooter. Our enemies resort to terrorism because they’re weak, and because we’re so astonishingly strong." You never know who's going to end up agreeing with you.

We Americans got emotionally wounded by the 9/11 experience, and with good reason. That incident caught us unawares, (or with our "unawares" down, as it were), and did a spectacular amount of damage to America, both physically and emotionally. But now, several years later we need to put what happened in perspective. We need to recognize that these guys are at this point not significantly more organized than Hasan, and we should stop acting like they are the biggest threat we face. Some of them do think of themselves as striving towards world domination, but they have less chance of beating the US army than a flea has of winning a wrestling match with an elephant. They don't have the resources to conquer the world, and they don't have the mental discipline to hold on to power even if they had it. For obvious reasons, suicide bombers are not very good at focusing on long range plans.

The basic principle of mind is that everything is related to everything else, so finding links is always easy. Discussions about terrorism would produce a lot less heat, and a lot more light, if the participants spent less time looking for links and more time trying to make significant distinctions. We should stop using terms like "Islamofascism", which "links" all sorts of groups together simply because they might be dangerous to us. Instead we need to make distinctions like Sunni and Shiite, Salafi and Sufi, Farsi and Arabic, Wahhabi and Qutbist. Some people claim that the real danger is not Islam itself but Wahhabi Islam, which I think is on the right track. However, even that claim gives too much unity to this so-called "movement." Bin Laden sees himself as Wahhabi, but the head Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia have condemned him to death. Many of them have also issued detailed scholarly criticism of the idea that Islam permits violence against civilians. For more on this, see this website on The Wahhabi Myth As I understand it, the guys that are being described on this site also believe that women should not be allowed to uncover their faces, work outside the home or drive cars, which makes them bad guys in my book. But these attitudes are no threat to American security, and shouldn't be lumped together with the belief that Muslims have an obligation to violently attack non-Muslims. They both need to be dealt with, but they need to be dealt with in different ways. It's rather like seeing Iran as part of the same conspiracy as Al Qaeda, even though Al Qaeda in Iraq is blowing up Shiite Mosques. It's also rather like lumping Palestinian suicide bombers together with the suicide bombers who are seeking world Islamic domination. Palestinian suicide bombers don't want to dominate the world, they just want to acquire one particular piece of real estate they believe is rightfully theirs. This distinction doesn't justify the actions of either group, but it does show that it is dangerously confused to think of them as being "linked".

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Fort Hood Incident

There's no way that a person concerned about Islamophobia could ignore the Fort Hood incident. I've been posting on discussion boards all week, and this post is to some degree a summary of what I read and wrote. I've got one main point I want to make, but there are a couple of auxiliary points that can't be ignored, not even in the interests of stylistic coherence.

I)There are a lot of Muslims, even very conservative ones, who are openly repudiating the shooter. I visited the site of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Radical Imam "linked" to Hasan, who praised the shootings. By my estimation, The Muslim posters who criticized his stance outnumbered the supporters by about two to one. There are also several prominent Islamic organizations and clerics who have denounced the shootings, including a very conservative imam in Saudi Arabia. It's important to remember that, just because someone has hateful beliefs about women's rights to drive cars and show their faces in public, doesn't mean they think it's OK to murder people in the name of God. All this can be found at the City of Brass Blog, by Aziz Poonawalla. Poonawalla also quotes from an interview with al-Awlaki, back in the days when he was a moderate. An even more extensive list of Muslim organizations condemning extremism can be found at www.theamericanmuslim.org

I've always been a bit irritated by the cries of "Where's the Muslim Outrage" every time a Muslim nutjob blows something up. First of all, I haven't seen any Christian organizations speaking out against the abortion clinic murders,and no one seems angry about that. Secondly, there are two excellent reasons why most Muslims are hesitant to speak up against Muslim extremism 1) It's hard for Muslims to feel solidarity with a government that treats them as collateral damage. American government policy assumes that the danger of terrorism justifies harrasing innocent Muslims at airports, arresting and detaining them without trial, and killing them with robot drones. This is not the sort of behavior that inspires trust in those on the receiving end. 2)Speaking up against Muslim extremists greatly increases your chances of being killed by them. Muslim extremists have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims. Despite these factors however, more and more Muslims are denouncing the Fort Hood Shootings, and I applaud their courage. It must be difficult to be caught between two groups that violently disagree with each other, each of which is determined to dehumanize you if you show any signs of disagreeing with them.

II) A lot of people are complaining about the fact that maintaining "PC" attitudes has compromised our ability to protect ourselves against terrorism. I think this is a false controversy because:




Sorry to shout and repeat myself, but this is something that doesn't get said often or loudly enough. It's not just that terrorism is the lesser danger. Islamophobia is the thing that makes terrorism grow, and so fighting Islamophobia is the most effective way of fighting terrorism. I write this blog because I don't want to live in a country where guys in pickup trucks are running around shooting little girls in hijabs, and their fathers are responding by bombing pickup trucks. Islamophobia is the first step in that direction, just as man-on-the-street anti-semitism was the first step towards Auschwitz. You don't have to be a Muslim to condemn Islamophobia, just as you don't have to be Jewish to condemn Auschwitz.

Now to the real meat of this post: The dispute over whether Hasan is a "Lone Gunman" or a "Terrorist" or in David Brooks' words, was this "an isolated personal breakdown" or an "ideological assault". If we start with the Aristotelian category system (as Common Sense always does), the natural thing is to look for the essential properties that define each of these categories, and see which of these properties Hassan possesses. As new information came in, Muslims and others argued over whether Hasan was really a Muslim, whether he shouted "Alahu Akbar!" when he was shooting, whether he exchanged emails with Anwar al-Awlaki etc. David Brooks came up with what he saw as the most essential property of all: The embracing of a narrative that "has emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world. It is a narrative that sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other. This narrative causes its adherents to shrink their circle of concern. They don’t see others as fully human. They come to believe others can be blamelessly murdered and that, in fact, it is admirable to do so."

One commenter on the NYTimes website correctly pointed out that because Brooks asserted that "the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy", he had bought into the exact same narrative himself. The only difference between Brooks and Hasan on this issue was which side of the narrative they each chose to play out. I would add that the fact that innocent Muslims are often seen as collateral damage shows that both sides embracing this narrative "shrink their circle of concern".

Brooks argues that Hasan must be seen as as a terrorist because he had this narrative in his head: end of story, and anyone who wanted to include any other narrative was not "serious". That is the problem with arguments using the Aristotelian category system: they ultimately boil down to assertions that "My intuitions can beat up your intuitions" as to the differences between accidental and essential properties." This is the main reason that the classical American Pragmatists (Peirce, James, and Dewey), adopted a method James called "cash value analysis". They claimed that the meaning of any assertion consists of nothing but the actions that accepting it would require. If there is no difference in action, there is no difference in meaning. Suppose we argue about whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. Everyone recognizes that tomatoes have seeds, and thus are fruits from a biologist's point of view, and that they provide the kinds of nutrients that prompt nutritionists to classify them as vegetables. According to the pragmatists, that settles the matter. There is no point in asking whether the tomato is REALLY a Fruit or REALLY a vegetable, independent of these kinds of actions.

Similarly we need to ask ourselves "How would it effect our behavior, our goals, our actions if we labeled Hasan a terrorist or a loan gunman?" If we label him a terrorist, this could mean that we should strengthen the Patriot act, throw all Muslims out of the military, and cry out that Bush, unlike Obama, kept us safe from terrorism. If that's what you mean by terrorist, then I will argue against all of these actions. Such an argument has some real chance of being about the facts, rather than an empty question about definitions. Similarly, if we label him a lone gunman, we need to ask whether gun control laws ought to be tightened to stop crazed actions like this, and we need to stop comparing him to Osama Bin Laden and start comparing him to people like the Columbine Killers, the Korean student at Chapman University, and probably most importantly, the other shooters who have killed people at Fort Hood during the past few years. It seems to me that Hasan has much more in common with the latter than the former. The thing that made Bin Laden dangerous was the fact that he once had an organized military machine that had almost complete control of a foreign country. This enabled him to launch a well co-ordinated strike involving dozens or even hundreds of accomplices. The fact that Hasan and Bin Laden had the same narrative in their heads is an accidental, not an essential property, and therefore should not be used to put them in the same category. What goes on between their ears is not the problem, the problem is what actions they perform and/or are capable of performing. The actions that Hasan performed were those of a lone gunman, and that's what they would have been even if, like the Columbine killers, he had had two or three friends who had helped him. His appearance on the scene gives us no reason to either believe or disbelieve that terrorism is again on the march, or that we need to gird up our loins to prepare for another 9/11 style assault.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Who are "the Unbelievers"?

I have been following a discussion on beliefnet in which an apparently Christian poster quotes this passage from the Koran.

"O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people." Qur'an 5:51

and claims this is proof that "Islam is against the rest of humanity".

The Author admits that "I have heard that particular Ayah explained as not applying to all Jews and Christians" , but adds "there is no general consensus about that in the various sects of Islam, nor is there anything to conclusively prove otherwise in Hadith or other sources, so it seems correct to take that literally."

He/She contrasts this with the following passage in the Bible

Philippians 2: 3,4

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others

Overall the tone on this post is quite reasonable and patient, although you might not think so from the quotes I've made here. This provides one more piece of evidence for my main criticism of this post: the phrase "take that literally", which I hear so much from those in the Abrahamic traditions. I think that phrase can only mean "whatever meaning pops into my head, when I read it 2000 years after it was written." Meaning is always determined by context, so if you want to know what any sentence means you have to know when it was said and what was happening at the time. When these phrases came to Muhammad, he was surrounded by Arabs of 3 different religions (Christians, Jews and Pagans) that were actively trying to kill him and his community. He had preached peace for the years prior to that, and his community needed to realize that in this case those teachings of peace had to be temporarily suspended to insure the survival of the community. There are several passages describing characteristics of "The Jews", "The Christians" or "The Pagans", which refer to specific actions performed by those particular Jewish, Christian, and Pagan Arabs, which show that these were the only Pagans, Jews and Christians he was referring to. Some translations of the Koran translate the word I refer to as "Pagan" with the word "Unbeliever", which causes even greater confusion. Many Christians think that this term refers to them as well, even though distinctions are made between Christians, Jews, and Unbelievers in the complete text. Ambiguity in translation causes almost as many problems as ambiguity of context.

The author of this post is quite right that there are some Muslims who interpret these passages as applying to all non-Muslims. I would encourage all Muslims to actively speak up against these interpretations of the Koran. All texts are subject to multiple interpretations, and a legitimate interpretation would have to harmonize with the overall message of the Koran. My interpretation above harmonizes with the famous "Let there be no compulsion in religion" sura, so it seem to me that it is the most rational one to accept.

The fact that there is more than one interpretation of a text does not mean that any interpretation is acceptable. There is no legitimate way you can accept Woody Allen's interpretion of the Talmud as saying that one should only avoid eating pork in certain restaurants. The most widely accepted "literal" interpretion of Sura 4:89 (that Apostates should be killed) is just plain wrong, even though many Muslims and Islamophobes interpret it that way. To see this, you don't have to recreate the context of 7th century Arabia. You only have to read two or three passages on either side of the quote. Taken 'literally", i.e. out of context, it means exactly the opposite of what it actually says. Check my post on Sura 4:89 for a further explanation.

P.S. I also don't think it was fair to compare Islam and Christianity by quoting the worst passage one can find in the Koran and the best passage in the Bible. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that are scarier than that (Esther ordering the slaughter of all of Haman's people). And if you look at the history of the Islamic empires, you'll see that the Muslims had a much better record for tolerance that the Christians (Compare Spain before and after Christian rule.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Abida Parveen:Daughter of the Dargah

From an article first published in India Currents

The Liner notes of the recent Navras DVD Songs of the Mystics assert that Abida Parveen is “The only woman allowed to sing at the shrines of the Sufi saints.” There must be a story behind this, I thought. I was sure there must have been public denunciations of her by fundamentalist mullahs, which were answered in turn by Sufi mystics and music lovers, resulting in her being carried into the shrines on the shoulders of triumphant well-wishers. I thought that all I would have to do is line up the positive and negative quotes, and I’d have a great story about the triumph of common sense, art, and genuine religious feeling. The problem with this speculation was that this woman seemed to be as universally popular as the Dalai Lama. I couldn’t find anybody who criticized her, even on the most conservative Moslem websites, except for one polite suggestion that she wear a headscarf. Even more remarkable, she had been trained by Khyal vocalist Salamat Ali Khan. How was this woman able to change the mind of a man who for many years had refused to give musical instruction to his own daughter, who would grow up to become the popular Pakistani vocalist Riffat Sultana?

The answer turned out to be far more complicated than it first appears. Riffat informed me that her father’s early refusal to teach her had nothing to do with Islam. “There are some families that permit woman to sing and others that don’t,” she said. “My mother sang for friends and family, and she was very good. But my family gharana was a lineage of male singers, so we women were not permitted to sing in public.” And yet, the Navras DVD liner notes say that Parveen’s father also came from a lineage of male singers. Despite this, he had designated her as his musical successor when she was five years old, even though he had eligible male relatives. Apparently these rules, like most other South Asian traditions, can be bent or broken when necessary. Does this make it possible for women to express themselves in a culture that Westerners see as male-dominated?

The beginnings of an answer can be found in The Female voice in Sufi Ritual by Bengali Anthropologist Shemeen Burney Abbas. According to Abbas, some dargahs (Sufi shrines), do forbid women to sing. However, most dargahs permit women to sing for other women, many dargahs permit them to perform for everyone on special occasions, and many dargahs permit woman to perform regularly for everyone. There is in fact, a whole class of women who make their living by singing at dargahs for alms. They perform in a style called Sufiana-kalam, which is both similar to and significantly different from the male-dominated Qawwali. Both forms derive their texts from the teachings of the great Sufi mystics. But Qawwali usually begins with an invocation in Arabic or classical Persian before switching to a vernacular language such as Sindi or Punjabi. Sufiana-Kalam is sung in the local vernacular throughout. Qawwali singers create complicated improvisations. Sufiani-Kalam sticks to a well-known folk melody sung solo or in group unison. Qawwali is thus a sophisticated elitist form that makes room for artistic virtuosity, whereas Sufiani-Kalam is a folk form sung mostly by the poor and uneducated. The main reason that women of certain families are not allowed to sing thus appears to be a very non-Islamic one. Even though Islam officially rejects the caste system, people everywhere don’t like to be associated with those on the bottom of the economic ladder.

Abida Parveen’s studies of Khyal and Qawwali have enabled her to transform Sufiani-Kalam to a new level of improvised artistic virtuosity. Although not the first woman to sing in dargahs, her artistic innovations have made her the first to be treated with this kind of respect and reverence. She also performs her own unique versions of ghazals, qawwali, and other traditionally male-dominated styles, in ways which can be seen as truer to the original intentions of the poetry. Because the word “Islam” literally means submission, the great Sufi mystics believed that the essence of Islamic worship was visible in the lives of women, who regularly submit to the demands of husband and family. Consequently, they often wrote poetry from the point of view of women, comparing themselves, for example, to brides who lift the veil when they first see the face of Allah. When male Qawwali singers perform these songs, they often sing them in falsetto, an artifice which is obviously unnecessary for Parveen. One could say that when she performs these songs, she is a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. But in fact, what she expresses, both by her singing and her personal example, is that spiritual aspiration transcends all distinctions of class and gender.