Monday, December 28, 2009

The leg bomber and the shoe bomber

I wanted to say something about Islamic science this week, but I suppose there's no avoiding talking about the Nigerian Leg bomber. During a month in which thousands were killed by muggers, lightning, and perhaps drowning in bathtubs, A rather simple minded young Nigerian man tied a bomb to his leg, covered himself with a blanket, and almost burned himself alive when the bomb failed to ignite properly. This was exactly the same kind of explosive used by the unsuccessful Shoe bomber a few years ago, and the result was the same. If everyone had sat munching their peanuts for the next half hour, the plane would have been completely consumed by flames, and everyone would have died. Fortunately, someone dashed forward and put the flames out, and he is now rightly considered a hero. There's a monthly column in the Boy Scout magazine Boy's Life, called Scouts in Action, which describes acts of heroism of this sort, and the young men in that column deserve as much credit as this young man deserves.

I don't think it's possible to design a security system that will eliminate all these sorts of dangers, any more than I think it's possible to keep out all illegal immigrants, or catch all child molesters. But this problem was complicated by the fact that the Feds arguably should have caught this particular young man. His parents had warned them about his interest in extremist Islam, and the British had already denied him a visa. It's also rather irritating that after all the time that the rest of us have spent taking off our shoes and throwing away our nail clippers, this young man was able to walk on to a plane with a bomb strapped to his leg. For those who wish to blame Obama, one can reply that all the security checking took place in Nigeria and Amsterdam. But if the British thought this guy was too dangerous to be let into their country, that should have been a good enough reason to keep him out of ours. So yes, the security was not as tight as it should have been, and Obama will probably do a few things to make things a bit tighter.

Be all that as it may, we need to recognize that although this is a real problem, it is not a big problem. The big argument now seems to be whether this guy is "linked" to Al-Qaeda in Yemen. The answer to that question is irrelevant. If he isn't linked, he's a lone nut who's no longer a danger once he is caught. If he is linked, the people who run Al-Qaeda are every bit as stupid as he is, and should be considered about as dangerous as the Lavender Hill Mob. This bomb did not go off for the exact same chemical reason that the Shoe bomber's bomb did not go off. If these guys couldn't learn from a mistake of that magnitude, they do not deserve to be taken seriously. The NYtimes estimates that there are about 100 active members of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, which makes them smaller than most American street gangs. So they are small in number, and stupid. Why are they the biggest threat we face, exactly? Why do we have to give up our privacy and our constitutional rights to be protected from these people?

The NYtimes correctly points out that although they are small in number, these Yemeni Al-Qaeda have an unknown number of sympathizers, and these sympathizers are the real danger. So what can we do to keep their numbers down? Make sure to make as clean a distinction as possible between Al-Qaeda and other Muslims, so as not to support the Al-Qaeda claim that the West is at war with Islam itself. Arabs are stereotyped as a proud people, but that stereotype is irrelevant here. People of all cultures are tempted by the argument "I might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb." Avoiding racial and cultural profiling is not just PC, it's the best strategy for letting this whole movement destroy itself.

P.S. I did feel a little twinge as wrote "Al Qaeda and other Muslims" above, as I was reminded of a conversation I had with a Muslim friend. His English was not that good, and my Turkish is non-existent, so I had a lot of trouble understanding his claim that there were no Muslim terrorists. When I mentioned Al Qaeda, he said that those people were not Muslims. I finally realized that he was using the word "Muslim" the way many Christians use the word "Christian": as referring only to those who actually follow the teachings of that religion. By that definition, he is quite right: There are no Muslim terrorists, or Christian ones, for that matter.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Islam and Music

Does Islam forbid Music? Many Muslims think so, and many of those Muslims are in positions of power and influence, thanks to the oil money that finances Salafi teachings. But the majority of Muslims believe otherwise. Almost all of my music teachers are Muslims, and almost every Muslim culture-Pakistan, Arabia, Egypt, Persia- has a rich and beautiful musical tradition of its own. So where does this idea of music being forbidden come from?

There is nothing in the Koran that specifically forbids music. This prohibition comes entirely from controversial interpretations of the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet which were written down by those who interviewed people who had known Muhammad. I think that studying the Hadith is very worthwhile. Muhammad was an extraordinary human being, and one can learn a lot from seeing the skillful and creative way he dealt with the challenges that were given him. Perhaps more importantly for Muslims, it's impossible to understand the Koran (or any other text) unless one is familiar with the historical context in which it was written or spoken. However, Muslim scholars have never treated the Hadith with the same level of reverence as the Koran, and this is how it should be. There is a complex ranking system used for evaluating the reliability of the hadith, depending on who was speaking and who was writing them down. Also, It would be blasphemous to say that Muhammad's words, admirable though they are, should be given the same authority as the Koran. The Koran is the word of God, and it would be idolatry to forget that Muhammad's words are literally sacred only when God is speaking through him.

There are thus two equally effective ways for criticizing the Hadith scholarship that produced the ban on music. First of all, the three hadiths that are cited are both questionable and ambiguous. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has a detailed criticism of both the historical reliability and the anti-musical interpretation of these Hadith. In the first hadith, Muhammad criticizes idle talk, which for some reason is interpreted by a cleric named Ibn Mas`ud as referring to singing. In the other two hadiths, Muhammad allegedly speaks of an apocalyptic time in the future when the Ummah will be punished by Allah for doing a variety of sinful things. Amongst the activities listed are wearing silk, adultery, drinking alcohol, listening to female singers, and playing stringed instruments. Al-Qaradawi points out that there is not an unbroken line tracing these hadiths back to the prophet himself and thus they are questionable.

In Al-Qaradawi’s words: all these hadiths are declared ‘weak’ by the followers of Ibn Hazm, Malik, Ibn Hanbal, and Ash-Shafi`i. In his book, Al-Ahkam, Al-Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn Al-`Arabi says, “None of the hadiths maintaining that singing is prohibited are considered authentic (by the scholars of the Science of Hadith Methodology).” The same view is maintained by Al-Ghazali and Ibn An-Nahwi in Al-`Umdah. Ibn Tahir says, “Not even a single letter from all these Hadiths was proved to be authentic.”Ibn Hazm says, “All the hadiths narrated in this respect were invented and falsified.” Al-Qaradawi also points out that this text could be seen as a general description of license and excess, with the details of drink, music etc. added to show the kind of atmosphere created by excess. Just because all of these things together are forbidden, that does not mean that each of them would be.

Those who accept these hadiths as authentic and/or anti-musical must also account for the fact that there are numerous other hadiths in which Muhammad permits and encourages music. There are stories, for example that tells of some of Muhammad’s people who were celebrating by singing and dancing. When Muhammad’s counselors complained, Muhammad said that they should continue to sing and play. In one case, Muhammad specifically ordered that a singer be sent to accompany a wedding ceremony. There are also numerous historical documents describing musical celebrations by Muhammad’s people in Medina. The music-haters respond to this by saying that these documents only describe music made with voice and drums, and therefore what is forbidden is instrumental music, particularly stringed instruments. Apparently the assumption is that whatever isn’t specifically permitted is forbidden.

Al-Qaradawi points out however, that there is a famous passage in the Koran which says exactly the opposite, and gives a second way of the responding to these arguments. The Koran arguably forbids the whole procedure of inferring any sort of taboos and prohibitions from any hadith. To quote Al-Qaradawi again:

“We do have a good example to follow from one of our earlier pious scholars. Imam Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: “It was not the habit of those who preceded us, the early pious Muslims, who set good example for the following generations, to say, 'This is halal, and this is haram. But, they would say, ‘I hate such-and-such, and maintain such-and-such, but as for halal and haram, this is what may be called inventing lies concerning Allah. Did not you hear Allah’s Statement that reads, 'Say: Have you considered what provision Allah has sent down for you, how you have made of it lawful and unlawful? Say: Has Allah permitted you, or do you invent a lie concerning Allah?” (Yunus: 59) For, the halal is what Allah and His Messenger made lawful, and the haram is what Allah and His Messenger made unlawful.”

And if I may provide one more argument of my own: If Allah wanted to institute a command as radical as banning music, isn’t it highly implausible that he would have buried it in a couple of highly questionable hadiths? He could have eliminated all doubt by simply saying “Don’t play music” in the text of the Koran itself.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Here's the muslim outrage!

I wish I could find a way of keeping this link permanently on the top of my page. If there's anyone who knows how, please let me know on the comment page. Also if there's some way I could link to this image rather than the text above I would love to know that as well. For all the people who keep saying Muslims should speak up against terrorism: Many Muslims are doing so, but most people don't hear about it because Bombs are much more likely to hit the front page than are petitions. Click on this link and check them out.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Albanian Guest Blogger

I found this on the comments page of an NYTimes article. signed simply "David, New Jersey". I really liked it, and present it without comment.

Mr. Douthat, as an American of Albanian descent who happens to be Orthodox Christian, I am deeply offended by your simplistic, myopic portrayals of Europe's Muslim communities, but I am not surprised. Your writing on this subject, as with many others before this, is rife with Fox Network-inspired talking points and glitzy, contrived mots justes ('Eurabia', 'Clash of Civilizations' and 'dhimmitude'). This piece could have been written by any wide-eyed, fearful Evangelical Christian who's never left the deep south, and frankly, Mr. Douthat, it already has been - many, many times over. You paint with an extra-wide brush here about yet another large segment of humanity of which you seem to know next to nothing, and with which it would appear you have had zero meaningful contact. Europe is not now, nor has it ever been all Christian, all Western, all the time. Get to know Europe's indigenous Muslims in their countries of origin, Mr. Douthat, and have your eyes opened for you. Albania had more Jews in it after World War Two than it did before. I used to attend Albanian school on Fridays at the Albanian Islamic Center in Waterbury, Connecticut. My father used to drive me there - it was about forty-five minutes from our home. Like me, he felt it was important to maintain a connection to Albanian language and culture. After my language class was over, and patriotic songs sung, I used to sit in on the religion class, so that I could learn about Islam. I would even go up into the mosque to pray alongside my classmates - all American-born teenagers and children. The Imam was a wise older man who was aware that I was an Orthodox Christian (my Godparents were known and loved by many in this community). He always made me know that I was welcome to pray, in my own way, right alongside the other kids. I would watch their motions and prostrations as I silently said the Lord's Prayer, and made the sign of the cross. I enjoyed hearing the call to prayer, and listened attentively to the sermon (hutbe), which was always about loving and helping one another, forgiveness - much the same things as I'd hear in church on Sunday. In short, I understood from a very young age that Muslims weren't any different from Christians or Jews. The only time I ever saw any women with headscarves on was when they walked into the mosque to pray. Otherwise, once they were outside, the headscarves went into purses, the kids went into the car, and everyone went off to have pizza. Visit Albania and you will see the situation is identical there today. Because Albanians have suffered together through the ages, and share an ancient, unique language which binds them together, we have always felt ourselves to be Albanians first. Our people intermarry across religious lines, and have a strong tradition of the separation of church and state. Albania: statistically 65% Muslim and 35% Christian and 100% European and proud of it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Swiss Minaret Ban

There have been a lot of confusions between things the Swiss might have done and what they actually did. There would arguably have been justification for certain neighborhoods banning the sound of the call to prayer, if it was interfering with people's sleep. I wouldn't have asked for it. I have a gospel church near my house, and I rather like hearing the singing each sunday morning. (I'm somewhat annoyed by the parking problems the Church services produce, but I can live with that.) But I can understand how some people might make such a zoning request, and I wouldn't see that as religious prejudice (just grouchiness). Perhaps in a historical neighborhood, a minaret might be declared architecturally inappropriate. But this is a ban for an entire country. That is wrong, and clearly motivated by religious prejudice. In fact, according to Al Jazeera, the regions of Switzerland where the four minarets existed actually voted against the ban, so it was not a problem caused by the minarets themselves that inspired this ban. It was the idea of minarets that bothered people who had never actually had one in their neighborhoods.

Those alleged feminists who worked for the ban should have collaborated with Islamic feminists (yes, there are such things) to make the changes in the Islamic community they wanted. This ban will make it much harder to do that.

Much of the discussion on this topic relies on a fallacy that is so old it has a Latin name: the Tu quoque argument. "You do X, so how can you can complain that we do X?". Tu quoque arguments can always be turned back on the person who makes them "You complain when we do X, so how can you do X yourself?" Also the word "you' refers to a two different set of people each time it occurs in the sentence. The Muslims complaining about this are not the ones in the Saudia Arabian Government who do this. (I believe Saudia Arabia is actually the only Muslim country that bans the practice of other religions, but I could be wrong about this.)

Also, I am virtually certain that there is no country in Western Europe that actually recognizes Sharia law as part of their legal system in any way whatsoever. If anyone has any actual evidence of such recognition, I'd like to see it. No unsupported assertions please, just actual evidence, preferably with a link as reference.

The Archbishop of Canterbury proposed the possibility that Sharia courts might be permitted to arbitrate in civil disputes. Licensed private firms in both American and England are already permitted to do this; The Archbishop was just suggesting that Sharia courts be granted those licenses. This idea was attacked by almost everyone who heard about it, and was never carried out. I thought it was an acceptable idea at first, but after reading some objections by Islamic feminists, I realize that this strengthens patriarchal structures in Islamic cultures in ways that make liberalization of Islam difficult. These patriarchal structures are more cultural than Islamic, and many Muslims want to change them. Things like the minaret ban make it much harder for them to do so.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Evil Empire from the East

When David Brooks talks about the narrative that shapes both Islamic extremism and our fear of it, he would do well to consider how deeply rooted this narrative is. Ever since Xerxes and Darius tried to invade Greece around the 4th century B.C., western Europe has been haunted by the fear that a powerful empire from the East would invade and plunge the world into a second darkness. The Movie 300 artfully (and somewhat creepily) connected this story to modern phobias by portraying the Persians as wearing turbans, and the Persian emperor as some sort of bizarre bejeweled half-naked quasi-African tribal chief. It also ignored the fact that life under the Persian empire was arguably closer to modern democracy than the fascistic monarchy of the Spartans. The constant rhetoric about "freedom" from a king who deliberately flouted the rulings of the city council reminded me a lot of George Bush.

After the Persians gave up on trying to conquer Europe, the eastern empire myth was continually reinforced by the fact that 1) Nobody wants to live in the Gobi desert and 2) Anyone who has learned how to survive in the Gobi desert is probably tough enough to grab any piece of real estate they want. Consequently, Europe was perennially threatened by tribes riding forth out of what is now Mongolia and into Europe: The Huns, the Mongols, the Seljuk Turks, the Ottoman Turks. The fact that the Arab Muslims managed to convert the last two groups, and stage an impressive invasion of their own, managed to tie this fear of Easterners to Islamophobia.

The main reason that the Gobi desert warriors were so dangerous is that they were brilliant horsemen. I believe they invented the stirrup, which greatly increased the flexibility of a mounted warrior, and there is lots of documentary footage showing that the Mongols are as good at horseback riding as they ever were. Towards the end of his career, Buffalo Bill added Mongolian horsemen to his Wild West Show, and renamed it "Rough Riders East and West." Now that the horse is essentially useless militarily, the Mongols have become the sweetest, most harmless people you are ever likely to meet. Nevertheless, Orientophobia has been transferred to other targets, and lives on in both literature and foreign policy.

Both Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia rely heavily on Orientophobic images derived from medieval epic literature. The human beings who fight for Sauron in the Lord of the Rings have black curly hair, dark skin, gold earrings, and ride on "Oliphaunts". The Orcs and Urukai are patterned after European superstitions about the Mongols, including cannibalism and the use of dragons in battle. The great Calormen empire that lies south of Narnia is inhabited by people who have turbans, scimitars, dark skin, and a poetic speaking style patterned after the Arabian Nights. In The Last Battle, Calormen conquers Narnia, which eventually ushers in Judgment Day. Both authors were temperamentally very tolerant people, and were careful to surgically remove these racist images from their historical context. Tolkien, sensitive to the dangers of racism against actual humans, mentions that the Oliphaunt riders must have been duped or misled by Sauron. (There is no danger of roving bands of skinheads beating up elves.) Tolkien also combined fear of the East with fear of industrial squalor to create a completely new and nonhistorical vision of Imperialistic evil. C.S. Lewis had the Calormens worshiping a god called Tash, who was very like the polytheistic gods that Muhammad was campaigning against.

When the Islamic empires were colonized by the West, the Islamic images of Orientophobia also faded into the background. Nevertheless, politicians and generals where still able to manipulate these fears for rhetorical effect. During World War I, The Germans were referred to as "Huns" (well, Germany is east of France). After World War II, the Communists replaced Islam as the Eastern Bugbear of choice, for it was clearly their intention to conquer the world. Once Communism collapsed, however, there was something even scarier to fear: Nothing. As Heidegger pointed out, Nameless Dread (which he called Angst) is much harder to deal with than any particular enemy. For several years after the Berlin wall fell, the question kept hovering in the background "What do we need all of these weapons for?". The only answer was "Well, the World is a pretty dangerous place."

And then we were rescued from Anxiety, and delivered into Fear, by 9/11. Here was our dear familiar enemy, The Evil Empire from the East, with all of the trappings we had been trained to respond to: The turbans, the beards, the violent attacks, the threat of world domination. The number of people who actually called for the latter was only in the low thousands, possibly even hundreds, but with so much Pavlovian training, the slightest stimulus could trigger a response.