Archive for the ‘Religion/Human Rights’ Category

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Another ‘Berlin’ post: Arthur Koestler & the story of his great novel Darkness at Noon

February 10, 2019

The author, journalist and multifaceted thinker Arthur Koestler (1905-83) lived, on and off, in Berlin from the mid 1920s until 1932. I studied his work when I was at university, reading many of his books except, including his great anti-communist novel, Darkness at Noon (published in 1940).

I was deeply affected by pretty much all his works: his account of his life as a (Jewish) communist in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis, his incarceration under a death sentence in one of Franco’s prisons. But I was also profoundly affected by his ideas: his struggle to free himself from the mid-forged manacles of communism and cultish thinking in general; his philosophical explorations trying to make sense of human nature…

I forgot about him for a couple of decades, but began re-reading him a few years ago. Living as I was at that time in Berlin, I suddenly realised that not only had his ideas influenced me far more deeply than I had expected, but also that many incidents from his life story occurred in parts of Berlin that I knew well. His work had always seemed extremely real – something that very few people manage to do when writing about the Nazis, but this added a dimension for me.

But despite having written one of the great novels of the twentieth century, there are no memorials or plaques to Koestler in Berlin. In the red brick buildings of the artists’ colony in Bonner Strasse where he lived, there are plaques memorialising many of the anti-Nazi activists, but none noting the domicile of one of the most important authors of the twentieth century.

The buildings housing the artists’ colony in Bonner Straße where Koestler lived until 1932

Plaque commemorating one of the artists — none for Koestler

Koestler’s undeserved non-fame in Germany is, in fact, easier to understand in the light of the extremely unusual history of his most famous book.

Arthur Koestler (probably in the 1930s)

Koestler had conceived of Darkness at Noon amidst tumultuous events of one of the most tumultuous times in world history. Having witnessed the rise of the Nazis, he had also just evaded a death sentence during incarceration in Spain. He escaped to France, but the Nazis soon invaded, forcing him to flee Paris to southern France. His partner, Daphne Hardy, had managed to translated the novel into English and send it to London before they had to flee again as the Nazi invasion rolled southwards.

Unfortunately in the chaos of this flight Koestler left the manuscript — the only copy — on the kitchen table. The translation thus effectively became the original.

And, it should be noted, the original translation had been further hampered by the fact that Hardy, was a sculptor, not a writer. The sharp edge of German communist terminology was often lost in a clunky transliteration, or simply skipped over. Other times she added elements to text that were not in the original. Her task was made even more difficult by Koestler’s highly strung nature, already exacerbated by the circumstances.

Yet Hardy’s translation and, above all Koesatler’s searingly insightful and tragic narrative, were sufficient for the book to be ranked No. 8 in the US Modern Library’s list of the Top 100 English language novels of all time.

In 2016, in an extraordinary twist of fate, a German doctoral student (Matthias Weßel) was reading through the contents list for a box of Koestler’s papers in a Swiss archive when he came across a listing for a manuscript titled Rubaschow — known to be the working title of Darkness at Noon. Incredibly, the manuscript that Koestler had left on a kitchen table in France had somehow landed in this archive and sat there for decades undiscovered.

In September of 2018, it was published for the first time in German.

Finally published in September 2018 (Koestler’s working title was Rubaschow. Translator Daphne Hardy suggested the English title.

Not many books become classics 78 years before they are published! And, I suppose, this also means it’s no longer a great English language novel.

Darkness at Noon dropped like an intellectual bombshell in 1940, upon many whose sympathies for communism had been heightened by a loathing for Nazism. When translated into French, “it was one of the primary reasons the Communist Party never came to power in France, a real possibility at the time”. This claim may sound exaggerated, but Anne Applebaum (the author of the this quote) is not given to hyperbole, and is not the only historian to reach this conclusion.

A German edition, (reverse translated with Koestler’s help) was published for that country in 1946.

Printed in London in 1946 for distribution in Germany but suppressed by the Allies! (Not a museum exhibit: my copy bought on Amazon for €1)

Like so much in Koestler’s life, there is a bizarre story attached to this event: the Occupying Forces in Germany, wanting to appease their new ally Joseph Stalin, suppressed the book and prohibited its distribution. (To add yet another layer of absurdity to this, Koestler’s application to emigrate to the US was rejected due to his communist background.)

In the novel, a communist leader, Vladimir Salmanovich Rubashov, has been arrested and is about to be tried for treason. His interrogator, Ivanov, (an old friend of Rubashov’s) has just told Rubashov he must sign a confession of treason or face execution. Rubashov asks,

“Why actually do you people intend to have me shot?”

Ivanov let a few seconds go by. He smoked and drew a few figures with his pencil on the blotting-paper. He seemed to be searching for the exact words.

Listen, Rubashov,” he said finally. “There is one thing I would like to point out to you. You have repeatedly said ‘you’, meaning State and Party, as opposed to ‘I’ – that is, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov. For the public, one needs, of course, a trial and legal justification. For us, what I have just said should be enough.”

Rubashov thought this over; he was somewhat taken aback. For a moment, it was as if Ivanov had hit a tuning fork, to which his mind responded of its own accord….

Rubashov immediately recognised the error that had crept into his thinking. His great personal weakness: he could not prevent himself from considering the perspective of others. He had begun to hesitate and reflect rather than carry out orders: revealing unacceptable doubts about the inexorable course of history that the Party embodied. He had begun to feel guilt — a petit bourgois sentiment entirely foreign to historical necessity. Either he would decide that his tendency towards self-reflection was correct and thus betray the Party; or he must recognise his fallibility and maintain his faith in the Party.

Koestler himself had internalised communist logic that the interrogator Ivanov so deftly expresses. As a brilliant thinker of rather unstable personality, communism no doubt gave him a structure he could accept and submit himself to. As a Jew in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he, quite accurately, saw the Party as the most powerful opponent of Nazism.

But for Koestler this it wasn’t just Realpolitik. He ultimately highlighted three characteristics of communism that made it especially persuasive: the way it used idea that the end justifies the means as a way of evading ethics; communism as a kind of religious faith; and that it carried a built in mechanism for disabling all criticism of Stalinism, and all self-reflection. These are of course, all interrelated.

He quotes, in Darkness at Noon, a declaration from a 15th century bishop:

“When the existence of the Church is threatened, she is released from the commandments of morality. With unity as its end, the use of every means is sanctified, even cunning, treachery, violence, simony, prison, death. For all order is for the sake of the community, and the individual must be sacrificed to common good.”

Koestler has Rubashov struggling with his doubts in his cell:

The ultimate truth is penultimately always a falsehood. He who will be proved right in the end appears to be wrong and harmful before it.

But who will be proved right? It will only be known later. Meanwhile he is bound to act on credit and sell his soul to the devil, in the hope of absolution.

(Incidentally, the incongruous phrase ‘sell his soul to the devil’ is not in the original German — an example of an addition by Hardy.)

Later Rubashov, compares his own own strength of conviction to that of the leader of Party (clearly based on Stalin).

No. 1 has faith in himself, tough, slow, sullen, unshakable. He has the most solid anchor chain of all. Mine has worn thin in the last four years… The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost.

The context in the novel is the tumultuous years of war and, within Russia, the attempted transformation of an agrarian society into an industrial super power at high speed. History was, so to speak cutting a destructive course through tens of millions of lives, regardless of which side was right or wrong.

Rubashov realises his self-doubt not only sets him outside the Party, but even prevents him from criticising the Party decisively. No one who doubts themselves believes they will be proven right by history. He ultimately goes to his execution still suspecting that No. 1 may be right after all.

Koestler himself, however, was able to extricate himself from this mental prison and clearly perceive the true nature of Stalin’s purges:

It is a logical contradiction when with uncanny regularity the leadership sees itself obliged to undertake more and more bloody operations within the movement, and in the same breath insists that the movement is healthy. Such an accumulation of grave surgical interventions points with much greater likelihood to the existence of a much more serious illness.

In Spain in the mid 1930s, Koestler had witnessed Stalin’s betrayal of Spanish communists. But his encounters with fascism also began to sow seeds of doubt about. He had decided to remain in Malaga to as the only journalist to report on the fall of that city to Franco’s troops in 1937, when he was arrested. Managing to evade summary execution, he was transported to Seville where he was incarcerated for 90 days in solitary confinement. Franco had signed an order for his execution.

Koestler’s mugshot upon his arrest in Malaga 1937

His status as foreign journalist working for an English newspaper seems to have delayed his execution long enough for Hardy and some English diplomats to successfully petition Franco for his release.

It wasn’t his so much his own apparently imminent execution that challenged Koestler’s communist beliefs — his ideological training had prepared him for that. And the amount of suffering and death he had witnessed in the preceding years had inured him to self-pity. Koestler later estimated that several thousand prisoners must have been executed in that prison during the period of his incarceration in Seville. As a communist he could have marked this up in the historical ledger as a fascist war crime. But he could not help but recognise an appalling reflection in the actions and mentality of Franco’s army. He could no longer use the exigencies of supposed historical necessity to cloak his conscience.

But something else happened to Koestler too during his incarceration that, as he later put it, demolished the foundations of his communism at a subconscious level.

To explain it, he borrowed a term from William James: the oceanic experience. Having lost everything except his own consciousness, and despite the agonies and deprivations he was being subjected to, he seems to have experienced intervals of profound peacefulness, or bliss. He didn’t quite realise it at the time, but it propelled him out of the ideological trap he had so deliberately entered.

His communist training — his conception of consciousness as the product of the economic substructure — simply had no place for this experience.

His extraordinary prison diary, published as Dialogue With Death, recounts his arrest and internment in a manner that is infused with this light. He writes of his own pain and terror in a way that is oddly neutral or non-emotional, yet vivid in detail. His horror and disgust are often palpable in his writing, but the sense of ‘drama’ that is usually to be found in accounts such as these, is entirely absent. In fact, this peculiar light imbues all his autobiographical writings, as well as Darkness at Noon.

His obsession in later life with pseudo-science is also largely a product of this, and I think he has been a little too harshly judged by history for this weakness.

That Darkness at Noon would end with Rubashov’s execution was intimated from the beginning of the book. But its unforgettable final passage is drawn from an incident in Spain. Koestler, being held after his arrest in a police station in Malaga was being forced to watch the brutal treatment of other suspects. The young soldiers seemed to be from elsewhere, but an older police officer doing paper work was probably, he surmised, a local. Koestler began surreptitiously observing this man for his reactions — he had probably lived and worked here all his life and must be shocked to find himself swept up in these events. The officer eventually noticed Koestler watching him, and at one point when another victim was being dragged out, he half-looked at Koestler and gave a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders.

Thus, the final passage of Darkness at Noon — the moment when Rubashov is executed — somehow manages to contain an echo of both the oceanic feeling and this man’s helpless indifference:

A second smashing blow hit him on the ear. Then all became quiet. There was the sea again with its sounds. A wave slowly lifted him up. It came from afar and traveled sedately on, a shrug of eternity.

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WordPress censors Jerry Coyne’s website in Pakistan

June 21, 2018

My webhost, WordPress, has (almost) always been good to me. They have been swift to provide assistance when I’ve had technical problems, even though I pay them no money. (Instead they place ads here occasionally.)

Jerry Coyne, however, pays them quite well to keep his site free of ads and with daily postings of high resolution nature photos.

However, during the odd moments when he is not feeding baby ducklings, he is busy upsetting the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, who “demanded” that WordPress block his entire site from Pakistan.

Faced with this demand from these religious fanatics, WordPress immediately capitulated.

As we know, Muslims tend to have identical autonomic nervous systems which seize up if they see a line drawing of a man with a beard, or a brief written text inviting them to ponder an idea if they feel like it. Some might find the previous assertion racist, bigoted, idiotic, insulting to Muslims and to humanity, and completely and utterly wrong. Some might argue that Muslims are a diverse bunch who are every bit as capable of taking responsibility for their emotional responses to things as anyone else on the planet. Some might argue that even the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority along with every other theocrat knows this too and is merely using mob mentality and hatred as a cloak for their own assertion of earthly political power.

But WordPress thinks it’s better to avoid such speculations and simply side with theocrats, and block an entire website from the entire population of Pakistan.

In other words, WordPress has clearly decided it is in its own financial interests to decide what Pakistanis can and can’t read.

Okay, at least now we know where they’re coming from. But we also know that their “Beat Censorship” page, which they included in their message to Jerry Coyne is missing one option: Don’t censor things yourself in the first place, unless you want to be exposed as a hypocrite as well as a coward.

I hope, and expect that WordPress will cop so much flak for their disgraceful capitulation and complicity, that they will reverse their decision. I will keep readers here posted.

Posted by Yakaru

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Religious Education vs Religious Instruction

March 4, 2018

I guess everyone knows why religious leaders try to get access to children as early and in as many ways as possible: to convince children they “belong” to a church — in other words, that they are owned by the church; to allow the church to seep into their identity to such a degree that the idea of leaving will feel like losing a limb.

When priests and other holy folk gain access to school children, they also have the opportunity to get children used to “religious talk” as a mode of communication — with its own social customs and unwritten rules. Children learn that when adults suddenly start speaking in hushed tones, usually beginning with a rising intonation, which soon descends into the calming tones of reassurance as holy knowledge descends to earth through the mouth of the preacher, the polite thing to is to remain silent and passive. Don’t, with a dubious sidelong glance, ask “Um, is that really true?” Or even worse, “How do you know that?”

Thus, when they grow up into adults, the preachers can still talk to them in these ponderous tones with the same intonation about all the things that God is, and God isn’t, without the adults asking “Hey, what happened to your voice just then? Do you talk like that all the time?” Rather, this special tone barely registers as weird anymore with most adults. It is simply accepted, even by the non-religious, that when we hear priests and popes talking in these hushed tones, we remain silent and look at our shoes rather than allow any involuntary “WTF???” to reveal itself publicly on our face.

Do to otherwise would be impolite, and a sign of poor character.

It’s difficult to go against social customs, when everyone else in the room is carrying on as if it is normal for a pope to be given fawning media coverage. I can understand why Catholics do it — they’ve been brainwashed into not applying normal ethical standards to their Church leadership; but why the hell do non-Catholics do it too?

Social pressure? Lazily accepted custom? Unquestioned habit?

Or do they subconsciously fear that God will strike them down for not fawning? Possibly; especially if they learned in school to fearfully display the required submissive signals in the presence of a holy person.

Another aspect of the religious infiltration into schools can be that teachers who otherwise have a highly developed idea of what “education” means, acquiesce to allowing “religious instruction” into their classrooms.

Instruction of course implies that there is only one way of doing it. And the “instructor” knows what this way is. And the “instructor” has done it (or is doing it) successfully himself. It is an open secret that there are other religious “instructors” who teach completely contradictory things, but it is impolite to notice this, and would be seen as inflammatory to comment on it. Children are insulated from hearing such stating of the obvious. They learn to mirror the acquiescent behavior of the adults, until any the recognition of the obvious is automatically dismissed from consciousness.

Alongside this subtle conditioning, and in perfect accordance with it, the ideas which children will encounter during their schooling will be unwittingly controlled by adults so as to avoid any expression of doubt. The idea that it is anything other than normal to “belong” to a religion; that religion is the only possible entrance to the realm of the profound or tragic; that religious leaders by their very nature speak from this exalted realm; will not appear in the normal course of schooling.

Never will they seriously confront the possibility that there are no gods, no heaven, or that none of the priests who routinely claim positive knowledge are being truthful.

Why is this?

Again, politeness, laziness, conformity, habit?

Religious “instruction” of course also implies an authoritarian power structure. And as such it grants a power and authority to the instructor immeasurably greater than what such a person can plausibly claim to know. But again, children’s conditioning for politeness in the face of grotesque absurdity is maintained. those who wear certain clothes are allowed to speak in certain tones and claim to know things without anyone having the right to expect a few qualifiers. “Perhaps”, “maybe”, and “I am speculating” are terms that are utterly alien to spiritual discourse. No one bothers to wait for them, and no one even notices that we gave up even expecting them ages ago.

To rewrite any of those nice priestly intonations about the nature God, but with qualifiers inserted would be impolite. No one would even dream of doing it mentally during a sermon, as it would swiftly render any church service intolerable.

No one would ever dream of giving it as an exercise for school children. The parents would rebel, and the children possibly placed in grave danger of being thenceforth incapable of suspending incredulity long enough to get through a religious upbringing without disowned or worse by their parents.

Education about various religions is of course perfectly in order, as long as it is treated like any other subject. I would however, argue that it should not merely be an uncritical look at the world’s religions. It should, especially in later classes, deal with problems and difficulties that arise as a consequence of religion.

Here are a few thoughts in this direction.

* Religion should not be presented as something that “everyone has”.

* Religion is often a matter of cultural identity, rather than a bunch of claims about facts. It is normal for people to identify with a religion while not believing all the finer details that a religion posits as fact. (Understanding this can later help protect people from domination by a priesthood.)

* Cultural identity linked to a religion allows a degree of conscious choice about which cultural aspects to follow and which to reject.

* Cultures change, and all religions change over time.

* The word “God” means not only vastly different things across various religions, but also within religions. Children can be made aware of the fact that two people from the same narrow sect might talk about “God” with each other every day for decades, and might one day discover they both mean something vastly different by it.

* Children can also be directly informed that no one who claims to know something about God really knows it. They may sincerely believe they know it, but they don’t. God is green and is surrounded by creatures whose bodies are covered in eyes, according to John the Revelator; has a long white beard and a particular set of genitals, according to other traditions; and is entirely free of attributes according to others. Everyone has the perfect right to say or believe what they want, but it would be polite to speak more reservedly about it in public, or not at all.

* Religious freedom is — and should always be — a universal human right. Anyone looking for “common ground” between various faiths, or science and various faiths can start right there. And it’s probably better to stop right there too, rather than piss everyone off by proclaiming all religions are “ultimately different visions of the same truth”. If you want to contradict the basic teachings of nearly every religion and form of belief that ever existed, fine, but do honestly — don’t stumble into it unwittingly by granting yourself the right to define all their core beliefs, while claiming to know all their contents better than their adherents. Don’t do that. It isn’t nice — it’s just dumb and arrogant.

* Do teach about evolution from an early age. Teach it as a fact first, without any tricky explanations. That way, no one will be shocked when they discover that there is a reason why we look and behave the way we do.

* Do not tell anyone that “evolution does not contradict your religious beliefs”, as the US’s National Committee for Science Education does. It’s arrogant and deceitful to claim such knowledge — it might be in accordance with them, but most probably it is not. Claiming it is, merely sets people up to either not fully understand evolution, or for a shock if they ever do fully understand it. You don’t want to wind up tricking people into losing their faith like that.

* Just teach about evolution without mentioning anyone’s religion, and let people figure out the implications for themselves. They’ll manage better without you.

Posted by Yakaru

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Religion, Spirituality and the ‘Inner Hierarchy’

February 25, 2018

This post is a collection of thoughts that starts suddenly in the middle of nowhere and then wanders off somewhere else. It is not especially coherent, but it is supposed to mean something. I am still clearing up the ideas involved in it. It might be interesting, dull, utterly inscrutable or mundanely obvious.

Humans, like other mammals and primates, have a more or less pre-programmed ‘inner hierarchy’. We automatically size up other people we encounter, to determine whether or not we feel dominant or submissive to them, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Much of this is learned and socialized of course, but there is also a substructure of automatic behavioral patterns that automatically kick in, especially if the dominance or submission is clear cut.

In other words, humans have a kind of map for sets of behaviors for each level of a hierarchy. Clearly, a similar set of psychological conditions accompany these.

These behavior patterns sit deep in the psyche, often largely beyond conscious awareness or control. these are triggered by certain signals — body posture, certain types of language use, adornment, etc. I assume anyone reading this has experienced a situation where they were shocked at their own behavior in some kind of unexpected response to such signals: too submissive to an authoritarian, or maybe nasty to someone who signaled submission.

I am arguing that we automatically place ourselves somewhere on a scale of dominance/submission, according to a kind of ‘inner map’, which also contains behavioral patterns which are triggered according to where we place on this scale.

Everyone tends to go a little weak in the knees when encountering an especially high status person. (There are of course good evolutionary reasons for an instinctive tendency to express submission to highly dominant individuals.) But it’s not just crass power games involving survival or receiving favors. Our sense of awe when encountering an extraordinary landscape, or a wild animal, or work of art, etc., probably comes from this same aspect of our psychology.

We are carrying, in other words, a complete program for how to act, and how to feel for each status level of this inner hierarchy.

So people can feel genuine awe for “God”, regardless of whether or not there are any gods, if they happen to stumble into that part of the brain where the feeling of awe for a higher power is located.

Mystics, especially outside the three dominant monotheisms, report feeling like they themselves have been transported to this higher status position, without feeling dominant over others, but more like they are observing themselves and everyone else as if from a great height or distance.

The existence of this ‘inner hierarchy’ makes humans very susceptible to religion. The notion of an ultimate alpha male is close enough to deep seated mammalian instinctive feelings and behaviors. We are at the utter mercy of external factors, regardless of whether they’re due to random chance or deliberate intention of a “higher” being. It’s not easy to live with that fact, and it is easy to feel stress related to powerlessness.

The biologist Robert Sapolsky has argued persuasively (using research o primates including baboons and humans) that stress is most closely associated with lower status. In fact merely occupying a lower status position is itself a cause of stress.

We can also note that under stress (aka lower status in relation to some stressor) or who feel helpless, are more likely to trust an authority figure.

All this makes it quite easy for priests to convince people that “God” is up there on the top step, and that there are steps descending downwards towards us — the hierarchies of seraphim and cherubim, the angels, a few saints, and then splashing out into physical reality, the popes, cardinals and bishops, down a few more stairs to the priest who is standing before you, one step up. You can see the stairs leading upwards, maybe the last visible step being some magnificent church, before it disappears into the clouds.

And that priest is at the immediate end of all that power, right in front of you.

Some religions and sects (and cults) are very particular about the status its sheep are allowed to occupy. They use ideology to prevent people from moving up the scale on their own ‘inner hierarchy’ as it exists in their psyche. They even define humanity in a way that denies the very possibility of such inward mobility.

Humans are guilty of original sin, or do not belong to a lower caste, etc. The whole thing is framed to keep followers stuck in one position on their ‘inner hierarchy’. (This is why religious authorities are unfailingly opposed to the idea of evolution. It loosens their grip on their power to define humanity, and therefore loosens their ideological control over their subjects.)

Should a subject feel themselves being tugged upwards, they should immediately dismiss it as hubris. The fear of falling even further downwards can be used as a constant threat over them.

Gautama the Buddha said “be a light unto yourself”, implying, I suppose, that humans are in fact free to move upwardly in this ‘inner hierarchy’.

The dissolution of the illusion of self — so surprising at first, and maybe a little shocking too — is a key to this. A ‘self’ can be fixed at one level on the inner hierarchy, and held there until its future Day of Judgment, where this single unified ‘self’ will be condemned or redeemed, according to its acts.

For this reason, mystics who preach the illusory nature of the ‘self’, have never been tolerated by any authoritarian religion. The practice of meditation is also treated with immense caution at best (and seen as a subset of prayer); and usually without outright condemnation. They don’t want people locating themselves at many different points on that inner hierarchy, or maybe, all points and nowhere on it, simultaneously. That ‘self’ is the thing that authoritarian religions hold power over.

(It is instructive to note here that despite appearances New Age esoteric spirituality is also guilty of this. They have carried over the Platonic/Christian view of the “soul” as something unitary and immortal. Thus the stakes for salvation are just as high as in Christianity, and the power of its priesthood just as great — though without any moral strictures for priestly behavior. This is bad for actual spirituality, but great for marketing.)

As a small child, I accidentally discovered this myself. I used to lie awake at night looking for who “I” refers to. I couldn’t find it, yet there was still consciousness, somehow, without any “I”, just bubbling up out of nowhere like a slow, happy fountain. I used to just lie there, completely astounded by this experience. As a teenager I once remembered that I used to be able to do it, but when I tried I couldn’t get there anymore. Too much inner turmoil.
Conscious awareness is a tiny little window onto the present moment, like a little piece of sky, with clouds swirling in and out of view. It is surrounded by a wall of words and thoughts about hopes and dreams, tied together ultimately, by emotions. Emotions resulting from the pain of loneliness and the fear of death or dissolution.

It does seem to me that it is possible for the frame of this window to expand or disappear, and reveal the vast empty sky — a sky of consciousness, which is just there: it is, by its nature, aware, but it doesn’t do anything.

Posted by Yakaru

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Keep Your Children Out of Your Politics

April 24, 2017

The US is trying to come to terms with the fact that it has been taken over by a mediocre crime family, which is currently in the messy process of grafting an oligarchic rulership clan onto the organs of state.

While I applaud those who have campaigned to prevent this from happening, I must also say that I find some aspects of political activism in general quite disturbing.

For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren (with whom I would probably broadly agree on most issues), proclaimed how inspired she felt recently, when she saw a man at the Women’s Rally, carrying his little daughter on his shoulders:

…And she was holding this carefully hand-lettered sign, and it said: I fight like a girl….

This little girl was clearly of no age to be actively involved in such a horrid political fight as this. Children are certainly capable of figuring out what they think is right and wrong, and certainly capable of recognizing a creepy, disgusting or absurd adult when they see one, but they should not be roped into a political fight against such an adult. Even if the child doesn’t immediately experience it so, this is far too much of an emotional strain for a small child. Elizabeth Warren should not be celebrating such (ab)use of children for (her) political purposes.

There might be understandable reasons for taking a child to a political rally — no babysitter, or maybe as an educational experience, if you have good reason to think your child might find it interesting to see a crowd of people marching about holding sticks in the air. But it is unethical to use your child as a political prop for your political purposes.

Despite what Elizabeth Warren thinks, a small child is too young to have developed a reasoned position about how the country should be run. What’s more, it is impossible for a child to grasp how complicated politics is. Worse, a child will almost inevitably become emotionally attached to the idea of your side “winning”.
Read the rest of this entry ?

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There is No “Western Paradigm”

October 4, 2015

The argument that there is an inherently exploitive “Western” way of perceiving the world, reflects justifiable concerns about neo-colonialist oppression and bigotry. But while it is perfectly valid to criticize lazy or demeaning assumptions about other cultures, the term “Western paradigm” can also be used in a similarly lazy manner, to discredit a particular line of inquiry.

There are other problems with the use of such terminology, too. Often, characteristics that are labeled “Western” are in fact universal. Racism, greed, and colonialism are not exclusively Western; nor, on the positive side, are curiosity and reason. 

It’s neither Western, nor inherently oppressive, to ask straight forward questions about matters of fact. Yet, as we shall see below, such questioning is often dismissed as part of the Western paradigm that tries to subjugate everything to the standard of reason.

The historian Tom Holland made a documentary film a few years ago. in which he asked whether or not the early accounts of the Prophet Mohammed’s life and the development of Islam are really true.

Holland, of course, was aware that the questions he was asking (as well as the evidence he found) were likely to upset some people. He was not merely concerned for his own safety, but also aware that he occupied a privileged position of some academic power, far removed from the people whose history and traditions he was studying. Of course he also comes from a culture that has often exploited and oppressed many predominantly Muslim countries.  

At one point in the film, Holland asked a professor of Islamic Studies if he thought that this line of inquiry was “complicit with the brute fact of Western imperialism”. The professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr responded:

No, not necessarily, as long as you remain aware of what you are doing. If you come as a western scholar or historian and in all honesty present what your world view is, and say, “When I look at the Islamic world from this paradigm, this is what I see”, and bring out why this is different from how Muslims see themselves, then I think it’s a very honest effort…

This is an intelligent and reasonable answer — an invitation for Holland to do his research and present his results. It is a stark contrast to those who screamed abuse and Holland and made death threats. But Nasr also makes some highly questionable assumptions.

He continues:

Gradually in the West, for the intellectual elite, the sense of the sacred was lost. A tribal person in Africa or in the Amazon has a natural sense of the sacred, whereas a graduate student at Oxford probably doesn’t….. It is from the West that this kind of history came up: that reason is the ultimate decider and judge of the truth…

But “this kind of history” — checking stated facts against available evidence — did not arise “in the West”. It arises pretty much all by itself from human nature. To ascribe it purely to “the West” does a disservice to everyone who has ever asked the simple question, “Is that really true?”

In the 9th Century in Persia, the celebrated physician Al-Razi considered the scriptures of his own culture and started a discussion for which he clearly was not celebrated. He noted that the various prophets contradicted each other and therefore cannot possibly all be right; nor can revelation — varying so wildly between the divine authorities — be trusted as reliable.

Al-Razi:

Prophets are impostors, at best misled by demonic shades of restless and envious spirits. But ordinary folk are fully capable of thinking for themselves and in no need of guidance from another….

How can anyone think philosophically while committed to these old fairy tales founded on contradictions, obdurate ignorance and dogmatism?

Reason, he argued, unlike revelation, is available to all.

Persian_Scholar_pavilion_in_Viena_UN_(Rhazes)Muhammad Zakariyā Rāzī (Al-Razi/Rhazes)

Al-Razi’s genius and importance as a physician no doubt protected him from serious persecution. (His heretical writings, however, were destroyed and are known only from quotations by those who argued against him.) Obviously, anyone daring to speak like that in Iran today would be in grave danger. 

Moreover, if someone speaks like that today in the West, they will probably be accused of letting their imperialist Western paradigm get the better of them. Or, that label’s big brother would be applied and they’d be called an Islamophobe. And, of course, the accusers would remain baffled by the issues raised, and meekly capitulate before their own ignorance for a few centuries more.

Naturally, bigots find it easy enough to doubt the religions of others too — but never their own. (One You-tube user who uploaded a copy of Holland’s documentary used the name martyr4Jesus!)

If there is a peculiarly “Western paradigm”, it would involve the use of the term paradigm.

This idea of a paradigm is quintessentially Western. Of course, the complete package includes the notion of a paradigm shift — which for some reason is only ever predicted to be awaiting those who supposedly hold a “Western” or “materialistic” paradigm. I can’t imagine Professor Nasr predicting that the Amazonian natives will have a revelation and drop their supposed “sense of the sacred” in favor of a materialistic paradigm.

Similarly, the “sense of the sacred” is a vague notion whose only clearly defined quality is a fence that divides it from the “materialistic West”.  The whole of Western scholarship is deemed to be an inherently exploitive paradigm that ethnocentrically distorts and demeans its subject matter, simply to avoid the uncomfortable truth that some stories are myths rather than factual history.

One non-Western academic who took issue with this over-simplification is Ibn Warraq. His book Defending the West identified three aspects of Western culture that are overlooked by those who see Western scholarship as inherently colonialist.

Here is Warraq’s list:

1. Universalism, i.e. recognition that the rights granted to oneself must be granted equally to others.
2. Curiosity and learning for learning’s
sake. (Edward Said had claimed that all knowledge of the Orient was acquired merely to enable colonialist exploitation. Warraq refuted this by pointing to the vast German scholarship of the 19th Century that was carried out in countries where Germany had no colonial interests.)
3. Self criticism.
(I would place the awareness of various paradigms in this category!)

To sum up, it is certainly easier to practice free inquiry in the West. But this should make us want to try to spread this freedom to non-Western countries, not do the opposite: to hinder and devalue it with pejorative labels and lazy judgments. It is ironic, and potentially disastrous, that the only truly Western idea that might ever spread to the Orient is that reason is not a universal quality, but part of an exploitive Western paradigm.

Posted by Yakaru

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Rudolf Steiner, Racism, Nazis & why Anthroposophy doesn’t grow up

August 24, 2015

Anthroposophy was developed by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in the early part of last century. It is best known for Waldorf Schools and Biodynamic farming. I studied it quite deeply for several years in my youth. I read a mountain of books, attended training courses and a national conference, and taught at a couple of Steiner schools. (This was in the late 1980s and early 90s.) I became a member of the Anthroposophical Society and seriously considered a career as a teacher in the Waldorf School system. I even went to their head quarters in Switzerland, a visit I still happily remember.

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The Goetheanum: designed by Rudolf Steiner

Several things troubled me however, most especially that some aspects of Anthroposophy appeared surprisingly racist. I put up with it for a while, believing that it only sounded racist because of the time and culture Steiner came from. My tolerance level was also raised because, as I was frequently told, the Nazis had closed the Waldorf schools. I accepted the implication that Anthroposophy must be the very antithesis of Nazism.

It is indeed true that Waldorf schools in Germany were ordered to close by Heinrich Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich; but here’s a word of advice to Anthroposophists: if you tell people that your movement was persecuted by the Nazis, you also need to tell the rest of the story — like the fact that Rudolf Hess supported Anthroposophy and wanted to keep the schools open. Why wasn’t I told that?

And why wasn’t I told that although Himmler didn’t like the schools, he did like Biodynamic agriculture? Even more importantly there was a Biodynamic farm at Dachau concentration camp. Weleda, (the Anthroposophical company well known today for cosmetics), provided doctors at Dachau with chemical supplies for experiments on prisoners. But I never heard anything about that when I was told about the closing of the schools.

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How Aspects of “moderate” religion morph into dangerous politics

August 11, 2015

Religious leaders are routinely invited to participate in the running of the state, and to enter public discourse on matters about which they haven’t a clue. Their ideas are often totally absurd and transparently self-interested, yet it is widely considered impolite to remark on the worthlessness of their contributions.

Curiously, it is not just religious types who enforce this blanket of politeness. It is often non-believers (especially those inhabiting the “liberal left“) who are quick to tell critics of religion to shut up. “Religion”, they feel, must not be treated as a single category. We must distinguish, they say, between religious “moderates” (who can be indulged as harmless or as potential allies), and extremists (about whom it is frequently asserted are not even religious at all).

Society gains little or nothing from this meek politeness. But worse,  extremists — whether “truly religious” or not — use this welcoming and non-judgmental climate, as a context for gaining access to the hearts and minds of the young.

Below, I outline numerous elements of “moderate” religion that are routinely indulged by democratic societies. These elements themselves may be more or less harmless, but refusing to contest their obvious (if at times trivial) flaws, we are effectively abandoning our first line of defense against extremists.

Problematic Aspects of “Moderate” Religion

Divisiveness

While religion does build communities, it also inevitably creates outsiders and heretics. Due to the arbitrary nature of religious beliefs and practices, there is no way to engage rationally with others about doctrinal matters. Agreeing to disagree is the only peaceful option. But there can be no resolution. The differences will remain, ticking away like a time bomb for generations. They can at any time be invoked as a means to divide people for political ends. (Mussolini cited the monophysite heresy of the Abyssinians, dating back to the 5th Century, as a justification for his invasion of Ethiopia in 1936!)

Ownership and Personal Identity

Religious people identify deeply with their religion or sect. This is no doubt partly a consequence of human nature, but it also involves a calculated strategy on the part of religions to effectively own people. A child is declared to “belong” to some strain of belief, before they can even speak or run away.

To illustrate the extent of this “moderate” presumptuousness, allow me to share that the Church Tax Office in Germany (where I live) is currently checking the records of the Catholic Church in Australia (where I was born) to see if I was baptized. Were they to find my name I would be legally forced to pay an 8% tax on my income for the last 15 years. 

Despite having failed to realize that Nazism is unethical, the Church in Germany is still taken seriously enough to be granted legal access to people’s earnings — on the grounds that they know the mind of God and represent His financial interests.

St Bernhard Hitler Gruß St Bernhard still gives the Nazi salute from a 1936 church tower in Berlin (author photo)

Special Status for the Priesthood

In a healthy society, any special status a person might be granted is attached to the special role that person plays, not to the person themselves. A police officer is only allowed to boss people around under strictly defined circumstances when on duty. Otherwise they have no special rights. Priests, however, claim that they are themselves special — that they belong to an elite class with divinely ordained privileges. 

Obviously, when religious fanatics start recruiting, or when crooks have seized government, this special status immediately gives them swift access to people’s private lives and instinctive submissive impulses. The hierarchical nature of this power structure conditions people, whether they are religious or not, to accept political and religious overlords as a fact of life. (Christopher Hitchens makes this point cogently in the latter chapters of God is Not Great.)

Reward and Punishment

Closely related to this is the fact that priests promise their subjects that god will reward temporal obedience with eternal life in paradise. Priestly authority is built squarely on this foundation — and they don’t have to lift a finger to reward anyone. 

They also invented hell of course, (the most repellent and immoral idea ever formulated). But while they entrust God with rewarding people, they have always happily accepted the burden of punishing sinners themselves. For some reason they don’t want to leave sinners in peace and trust God to deal with them later.

False Ideals and Denial of Human Nature

By creating impossible ideals, religions set people up for guilt, failure, and fear of punishment. It is also psychologically unhealthy to believe that some people (saints, prophets and priests) are holy and have no shadow.

priestly2

This pernicious nonsense is damaging even at its most moderate, yet it is routinely tolerated. In the hands of religious fanatics with power, it becomes perhaps the most invidious tool of oppression and misery. With barely a stricture needing to be altered, it can form an ostensibly credible basis for arbitrary persecution.

The Surrender of Reason

To steal a few lines from Christopher Hitchens, religion — moderate or extreme — involves deciding that the deepest questions about the nature of reality and of our personal existence are to be decided without recourse to rational inquiry. There is of course a long religious tradition debating the role of reason in relation to revelation, but reason has always come out second best.

How can the young be expected to see through the ravings of a religious extremist, when they have never seriously encountered the idea that God does not exist in the first place? As Al Razi pointed out in the Tenth Century, the revelations of the prophets are contradictory, irrational and divisive; but reason is equally accessible to all. (Had he said that today in Iran, he would certainly be persecuted. In the West he would no doubt be called intolerant by the left, or an Islamophobe!)

Closing Thoughts

Religious freedom is a civil and human right. In a secular society people must be free to practice their religion and identify themselves as a member of any peaceful religious group without fear of persecution or discrimination. Strangely, (or maybe not so strangely) many religious people don’t like this idea at all. Ensuring the religious freedom of others necessarily involves curtailing one’s own proselytizing ambitions. This potential loss of power is, no doubt, what religious leaders find so threatening. Public criticism of religion doesn’t “upset the moderates” as much as liberals claim, as open debate should hold no danger for sincere and sensible believers. It does however, undermine the status and influence of a privileged and useless elite.

Let us stop meekly and politely pretending that the elements listed above are useful or necessary for a productive or creative life. They are the accumulated mistakes of history, kept alive for oppressive and parasitic purposes. We need to see them for what they are, and to allow the young access to an antidote for their poisons.

Posted by Yakaru

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Easter Post: Random Thoughts on Religious Literalism

April 3, 2015

I appreciate the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion is a symbol for how we all “have a cross to bear”. And that those in an unbearable situation can take some solace from the thought that a higher being shares their suffering. That’s what myths are for. We all need fictions, because life is unbearable without them.

And I can understand that sometimes we even need to consciously let ourselves believe that our fictions are true… However, if you do this openly or in public, you risk looking silly. It also destroys the initial feelings behind it, because you have to become bullish enough to withstand ridicule or your own fears and self-judgments. This destroys one’s sensibilities and turns the original feelings into parodies of themselves.

I don’t know exactly where the image below comes from — it’s from an Australian newspaper. It’s one of the few occasions when Jesus and the Easter Bunny have been photographed together in the same habitat.

easter bunny jesus

Some guy has tipped ketchup all over himself, imagined that despite the hideous thrashings and beatings that a crucifee would have gone through, he would still have been able to keep his loincloth (or diapers?) neatly in place, and then stood on a post and pretended to be miserable….

…..While children walk by and receive chocolates from the Easter Bunny.

Folks, there’s a better way to do this metaphorical stuff.

Below are some (poor quality) pics I took inside one of the most extraordinary buildings I’ve ever seen, the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba. It’s a huge mosque with — incredibly — a cathedral stuck in the middle of it.

The contrast between the two approaches to the “sacred” is striking. First the (Andalusian) Islamic approach — no images of humans or animals, just color and designs, forms and empty space; and then suddenly in the middle of it, we’re confronted with torture scenes and bleeding Jesus.

The site was originally a Roman style Visigoth church. Then with the rise of the Umayyad caliphate-in-exile in the 8th Century, it was turned into a stunningly beautiful mosque, using some of the remaining Roman columns; dual arches inspired by the magnificent Roman aqueducts, blended with Islamic architecture and some new innovations.

IMG_0067

Double arches on top of Roman columns, with red brick alternating with limestone — brick giving strength, limestone flexibility. It is impossible to adequately describe the visual effect of all this. The columns in this enormous area, stretching off into the darkness, give a sense of space and meditative stillness; while the red and white double arches are buzz for the senses. Really, it’s like an architectural acid trip with a vision of eternity.

The hall used to hold 20,000 people for Friday prayers. From inside an alcove (see below), the imam would preach.

IMG_0119

IMG_0118

Muslim rule eventually collapsed, due partly to in-fighitng among Muslim leaders, the rise of Christianity as a military and political force, and of course, the random cycles of history. (See Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World for an engaging history of the period.)

King Ferdinand II destroyed the center of the hall in the 11th Century and inserted a cathedral in it. The mosque became a glorified entrance hall. (Horrendous as this was, it probably saved the building from later destruction.)

So, in the middle of that extraordinary space, we suddenly get hit with bleeding tortured Jesus. From the profoundly evocative metaphorical to the crass and literal. For my taste, the shock of this change of style is extremely jarring, and accompanied by a great sense of loss.

x

In dark alcoves all around the walls tortured and bleeding saints join with dozens of bleeding Jesuses. (It must have been fashionable at that time to emphasize how horribly chapped and grazed Jesus’ knees must have been. This one’s knees are only a bit grubby in comparison with the others in there. I think I counted about two dozen Jesuses, nearly all with horribly scraped knees. In some cases you could see the bone.)

So to Christians I say, you guys lost something when you removed old Judaic prohibition on images. It destroys all mystical or intuitive feeling. It enforces a particular way of experiencing and imagining things and inhibits others, and generally cheapens everything. Art is one thing, literalism, in my opinion, is another.

22A parrot would have been just as appropriate

Literalism is the death of spiritual feeling, in my opinion, and is always present in oppressive religious systems. There is only one way to interpret the literal, and that’s which ever way the most powerful priest says it is. For Christianity, the Inquisition followed the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Andalusia. Islam saw the triumph of the literalists over the philosophers, and a general stagnation of Islamic culture.

Posted by Yakaru

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Everyone has the right to question Islam and draw whatever they want

January 13, 2015

I don’t want to be told by some cartoonist at the Guardian that I should not draw any pictures of the Prophet Mohammed. And I don’t want to be told that it is — or “might be” — racist to do so.

moonNope. Racist cartoons are hate speech, not free speech. Getting firebombed or killed by fanatics does not automatically mean you’re a racist either. But assuming that a billion people will all react identically to a drawing, well that quite probably is racist.

It’s okay, I know I can avoid it by not reading the Guardian. I’m not complaining.

But I do hear this demand not to draw the Prophet from elsewhere too, including from some Muslims. Okay, I can accept it a little more easily from them, but I’m only prepared to take it seriously if I’m offered some very good reasons. And that’s where the trouble starts. No reasons are offered at all. So, of course — and this will shock some people — I have some questions.

Why was it not “offensive to Muslims” to depict Mohammed in the 15th Century?

0_01The Prophet Mohammed — not offensive in 1489

What changed? It looks to me like historically the censors won, and now they are even instructing me to comply. The order has been relayed to me through the pious pages of their craven and unwitting representatives at the Guardian, and secondly, of course, through generalized threats of violence.

And if I don’t comply, I’m a racist, and possibly a dead one. Well I’m sorry, I don’t respect people who talk to me like that.

It is entirely human to want to depict things. It’s human nature. The only reason to order people to stop being human is to get power over them. And that is what’s behind this insane and pathetic edict about not depicting the Prophet.

And are there really no Muslims today who would wish to depict Mohammed in their art, or see religious art depicting him? (And how does anyone at the Guardian know there isn’t?) Christians and Hindus do it all over the place. Every human civilization ever known does this kind of thing. Are all 1.5 billion Muslims different to the rest of humanity in this regard?

Usually people who make absurd generalizations about enormous groups of people are called racists. But here, that term is reserved specifically for those who do not talk in this stupid and ugly manner.

And what would happen to a Muslim who did just that — depicted the Prophet? For a start, they would be called culturally insensitive by the Guardian, and hounded by the same idiots on the left who call Ayaan Hirsi Ali “intolerant” and Maajid Nawaz a “neocon”. I assume I don’t need to say what would happen to such a Muslim if they lived in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

…….But luckily absolutely no Muslim would even dream of depicting the Prophet in their art, or of wondering about the veracity of the stories about Mohammed. Of course they wouldn’t — that’s just the way those fellows tick. They’re kinda different and exotic. They don’t even notice the censor’s rules. In fact, they love having the censors there to protect them from thinking the wrong thoughts. They need it, the poor darlings. And any neo-colonialist Westerner who speaks out against the censors is endangering the blissful insularity of the 1.5 billion Muslims who flourish under their protection…….

I’m sorry, I’m not buying it. None of it. It’s not wrong to draw pictures or to ask questions. It’s human nature. I cannot believe that all 1.5 billion Muslims have en masse given up this aspect of their humanity. Not all of them. Look in the jails for a start; read Amnesty’s list of political prisoners locked up, tortured, executed for asking questions.

This isn’t religion or spirituality. This is crass, blatant and ugly politics. And remarkably stupid and unrefined politics, at that. Anyone who’s fallen for it should be ashamed of themselves.

I don’t doubt that many Muslims feel upset about those Charlie Hebdo cartoons, especially if they don’t understand them. And they have every right to complain if they wish. But they also have worse things to worry about — like the dark age that has suddenly descended upon the culture they identify with.

You say that Islam deserves respect? How can I respect something — anything — if I’m not allowed to find out what the heck it is? Asking a few polite questions about it, as historian Tom Holland found out, leads to death threats from fanatics and censure from non-Muslims.

You say that Islam has a good model for how to run a modern state, but don’t want to answer any questions or have it criticized? This is why it’s called Islamo-fascism. It’s the very definition of totalitarianism. We can stop it there. You’ve disqualified yourself from being taken seriously. And don’t switch back to saying your feelings have been hurt or that I’m a racist if I question it.

If you want to say that the killers are not the “real” Muslims, well I can understand why Muslims would feel like that, but it’s still no reason for not being allowed to ask questions. In fact it makes it even more important. These lunatics are roaming around using the Qur’an as a recruiting tool. That is where this war started — on the battleground of propaganda. Keeping publicly important ideas like Islam away from public scrutiny gifts political leaders a free hand in shaping, interpreting, and blatantly lying about those ideas to maintain power.

You idiots have no arguments at all. And you either resort to violence, or, in the case of the Guardian, to pious lectures about racism. This is damaging to human beings, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

The liberal left still hasn’t properly woken up to this. And on the political right, some church groups are waiting to pounce on the next opportunity to introduce their own anti-blasphemy laws. (Fine by me guys — if you like this medieval stuff, it was blasphemous to translate the Bible into English. You can start by banning that.)

I keep hearing this has nothing to do with religion, and I kinda agree in a way. Religion is being used as a political tool, and uses the cloak of piety to avoid scrutiny and avoid losing its persuasive power. So by questioning it; by pointing and laughing at it when its conceits are revealed, we are not insulting anybody’s religion, just their politics. It’s their own stupid fault if they don’t understand the distinction, not mine. And their politics in this case needs to be opposed right now with everything we’ve got.

Posted by Yakaru

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Why does the Left oppose criticism of religion?

August 17, 2014

It seems to me that the political left has generally got its thinking about religion badly muddled. Too often people on the left adopt the role of religious apologist, both attacking critics of religion and defending religion itself. I think they have misunderstood the nature of religious criticism; misunderstood the aim of religious criticism (namely a secular state in this case); and probably misunderstood the nature of religion itself along with it.

… 

It is indeed necessary when criticizing religion to emphasize that freedom of religion is a basic human right. It’s abhorrent, stupid and self-defeating to see all Muslims as potential terrorists. But the left seems to be so fearful of even appearing to make this mistake, that it ascribes any negative aspects of religion to fanatics alone, as if their religion had little or nothing to do with it.

This approach stifles an important debate about secularism: the separation of religion from the power of the state.

Such a broad accusation like the one I make here is in danger of being too vague, so for the sake of clarity and brevity I’ll focus on one example of what I’m talking about.

This article from Jonathan Freedland, a senior editor at the Guardian newspaper, deals with the Islamo-fascist group ISIS, (now calling itself the Islamic State). The headline and sub-heading explain Freedland’s intentions:

This Islamic State nightmare is not a holy war but an unholy mess

It isn’t religious zeal but the collapse of state power that makes the clash in Iraq feel like a return to the dark ages

It is a typical and convoluted piece of religious apologetics from the Guardian. And typical for the left in being swift to blame all conflict in the Middle East on the US and neo-colonialism, while denying that religion plays any role much at all. Rather than making excuses here, they should step back for a moment and look at the phenomenon of religion as a whole.

All the main religions of the world are a system of ideas that grant special status to some people, and negate the rights of others. While the majority of religious believers may not always abuse the powers their system implicitly grants them, it is still a readymade system that can be swiftly utilized by those who seek power over others

The sudden rise of ISIS is an obvious example of this. Cutting off hands, stoning adulterers, declaring war on Shiites, Jews and Infidels… Although their success has clearly been enabled by a power vacuum, they are religious in character from start to finish.  

Freedland, however, sees it differently:

Yet neat though it is to see return to holy war as the motif of our age, it might be wrongAccording to Toby Dodge [scholar of Iraqi politics], what’s driving IS, or at least making its phenomenal success possible, is not pre-modern religious zeal so much as a pre-modern absence of state power.

Let’s look a little more closely at the wording here. First, he implicitly accuses critics of religion (“enlightenment types” as he calls them) of resorting to “neat” or simplistic explanations. Well, in what way is an openly declared Jihad not a holy war? And the insistence on the term “pre-modern” is also rather curious. Who is Freedland targeting for criticism here? As if these “enlightenment types” are rushing to write off the whole of Islam a mere relic from the dark ages. As if criticism of religion amounts to nothing more.  Also, why not refer to “religious fanaticism” instead of “pre-modern religious zeal”?

But most importantly, it’s a false dichotomy. There is no reason for it to be either religious “zeal” or the break down of the state that has brought about the rise of ISIS. Could it be any more obvious that it’s both? But the whole point of the article to deny the obvious. 

And there is no reason why the collapse of law and order is necessarily “pre-modern” either, so why insist on it? We may find out when we read further:

The state structures of both Iraq and Syria have all but collapsed. The result is a power vacuum of a kind that would have been recognised in the lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago – and which IS has exploited with the ruthless discipline of those long ago baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.

Such is the fear of sounding like a bigot when discussing Islamic fanaticism that ISIS must be compared to “baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.” Why “European” specifically? Why not Chinese? Or, for heaven’s sake, the old imperial warlords of the Caliphate, who ISIS are so keen to emulate in word and deed?

And why specifically “lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago”? Doesn’t a more recent analogy spring to mind? Like pre-Nazi Germany, with German society standing for Iraq and Syria, and Nazism for ISIS.  The similarities and differences would be revealing if Freedland or Dodge would allow them. 

Nazism was hate-driven, with a racial/religious hierarchy built in to its ideology. The same with the ideology of ISIS. Both of course are deeply anti-semitic and equally committed to the obliteration of their rivals as well as their enemies.

One important difference, however, is that ISIS comes complete with a highly detailed and ferociously strict set of pre-installed rules to govern every aspect of the daily lives of its subjects, carried over directly from the Koran. It was a bit different with Nazism. While being broadly determined by Christian anti-semitism, Nazism was in fact rather vague about most matters of public policy, especially at the start. Hitler often decided policy disputes by letting the various factions fight it out for a while and then simply back the strongest, subordinating policy to political expediency. This would be unthinkable for the ISIS leadership. All the rules are already there in the Koran (more or less), commanded by God, and rolled up and ready to go. This fact is too uncomfortable and inconvenient for Freedland and most of the left. The totalitarian nature of these rules needs to be criticized and openly condemned, regardless of whether or not the left deems Muslims likely to enforce them or not.

The point of all this is not for people like me to smugly gloat over the “pre-modern-ness” of Muslims, as Freedland seems to think. There is an important argument to be had here, about the separation of religion and state. I don’t care how “moderate” or trustworthy any member of any religion is. The most effective way to prevent the spread of ISIS and their followers is to close their door to state power and nail it shut with clearly worded legislation.

There would be no need to decide who is moderate and who not. How absurd. But it would mean reducing the powers of all those who have gained it by virtue of their religion. The only religious “moderates” who are upset by this idea are the ones who are in power (permanently installed in England’s House of Lords, for example), or who benefit in other ways (the state-collected Church Tax in Germany, for example). And of course it would anger those groups who are not currently thus privileged but would like to be — like religious fanatics, for example! 

The left has failed to comprehend this and has thus ceded important ground in the struggle for civil rights. And, incidentally, once you agree to grant “moderate” religious institutions a hand in government, you have simultaneously granted yourself the power to decide what a “moderate” is — a back door to the very kind of neo-colonial arrogance the left is trying to avoid.

Update 18 Aug ’14: Perhaps I should have referred to “many in the secular left” rather than just “the left”. I do know that not every single person on the left shares the perspective of Freedland, but I didn’t feel the need to add other examples because I’m not “accusing” the left holding such views — many hold them quite openly, especially at the Guardian. I am simply arguing with those who do hold such views, and arguing that we can avoid looking like bigots by focusing on separation of religion and state, for all religion. That also allows us to avoid getting tangled up in the question “Is it religion or politics” like Freedland does. If it happens in public and affects others, it’s politics. Religion is often politics.

Posted by Yakaru

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Pakistani Actress Fights Fire With Fire

March 29, 2011

Veena Malik, a Pakistani actress who appeared on India’s version of Big Brother (called Big Boss) has been condemned widely in Pakistan for her “shameful” behavior.

This clip shows part of an interview in which a cleric is attempting to humiliate her, sometimes screaming at her. Her response is stunning to watch. She has already received death threats from the Taliban, and here she risks her life, turning the cleric’s own weapons back on him. I’ve reproduced some of the translated captions below, because her statement is worth reading properly.

Veena Malik:

Mufti Shahab, first I would like to respond to your questions. As far as the Islamic religion is concerned, Islam is a vast religion. Islam also means that I am the sole provider for my five sisters and my brother, and I have paid for their education.

And as long as we are talking about Islam, let me tell you that you are not allowed to set eyes on me…Clerics may look at a woman once, but if they look at her a second time they must be punished….

Secondly, if you want to do something for the glory of Islam, you have plenty of opportunities. What are the politicians doing? Bribery, robbery, theft and killing in the name of Islam. There are many things to talk about. Why Veena Malik? Because Veena Malik is a woman? Because Veena Malik is a soft target for you?

…There are many other things to deal with. There are Islamic clerics who rape the children they teach in their mosques, and so much more. Pakistan is famous for many reasons other than Veena Malik. Veena Malik is into entertainment, and believe me I have done 10,000 good deeds, and my people have not supported me in this.

[Moderator and Shahab attempt to break in, but she continues]

Since you have set up a court here, I demand that the court dispense justice. I am more angry with you people than you are with me. If I am held accountable by you, then you must answer my questions.

Mufti Shahab, there are many things in your community that need to be rectified, so please correct them. Veena Malik and the entertainment industry are much further down on the list.

[Mufti Shahab cuts in and tries to say a few things, including “There is no need to get so emotional” – as if his ranting was calm and considered]

Mufti Shahab, I remember when you once called a woman “shameless”. If you are indeed spreading the Islam of the Prophet, peace be upon him, then you would know that the Prophet would stand up out of respect whenever a woman walked in. He never called them shameless.

You should begin by reforming your own home, and only then ask me to do the same.

(Thanks to Dave, in Kabul for the link)