Archive for category Islam

The Great Thinker Muhammad Iqbal

iqbal

A day after a brutal attack on not only a French satirical newspaper but on the very notion of freedom of speech, it’s inevitable that haters will turn around and attack all of Islam.   Islamophobes have more in common with Islamic extremists than with true lovers of freedom.   There have been attacks on Mosques in France, and Muslims again find the neanderthals attacking their religion because a few extremists committed an atrocious attack.

Rather than argue about that, I think it’s important to recognize great Islam has a history that includes tolerance, openness and sophisticated philosophical thought.  One of the greats is Muhammad Iqbal, 1877-1938.

Known primarily as a gifted poet, and knighted by King George V, Iqbar’s religious thinking is something that should be taken seriously in the Muslim world.   Iqbar was shaped in part by his time.   He lived in India under British rule (in the Punjab province, now part of Pakistan), and saw the exploitation and ruthlessness of colonial control.  Yet he studied law in Great Britain and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in Germany.

His religious thinking centers around how to reconcile the religious traditions of Islam in a modern world increasingly dictated by western norms and power.

He held on to deep religious convictions.  He believed in God, and felt that Muslims should have a community where religion is public – not a separation of church and state as in the West.   That makes sense, given how community oriented Islam is.  It is a religious of practice, not just faith.  Yet he admired western tolerance, science, and open thought.  He was heartened that the West adopted what he saw as Islamic values of freedom and equality.

Respect for Islam does not require giving up western traditions of freedom of the speech.  Nothing justifies the attack, nothing justifies self-censorship out of fear.

Respect for Islam does not require giving up western traditions of freedom of the speech. Nothing justifies the attack, nothing justifies self-censorship out of fear.

 

At one point Muslims had seen Christian Europeans as barbaric and uncivilized.  When the crusades took Jerusalem, Muslims were told “convert or die.”  Christian Europe lacked the technology, science and sophisticated learning of the Islamic world.  Yet by the 1700s that was all changing, and soon the West dominated.

Iqbal was the first to argue for a separate Muslim state in India.   He assumed the Muslim state would be an ally of India, even helping protect it from invasion.   As a deeply religious man, he believed that the spiritual core of Islam could lead the faithful to liberation and what one might call self-actualization.  He believed in a global Ummah, or community of believers.

Yet there was no desire to see other religions as enemies.  He accepted that there were other religions, even while believing in a conservative version of his own.

Iqbal is one of many Muslim thinkers who responded to the challenge of the West – how to maintain traditions in a new world, one now defined by globalization.   Almost all the great Muslim thinkers refused to go the route of seeing the West as the enemy, the challenge to them was to not let their faith get stifled by modernization and secularism.

The terrorists and extremists are not at all indicative of Islamic traditions or thinking.   They are reactionaries, hating the West and fearing change.  Sometimes we in the West feed their fear by bigotry, attacks on their religion, or refusal to understand or assimilate.   But what we need to do is help the vast majority of peaceful Muslims work through the challenge of adapting to modernism without sacrificing their spiritual faith.

Time is against the extremists.  Almost all Muslims are against the extremists, and the nature of Islam and its teachings over the years contradict the extremists.

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The Saudi Problem

US President Barack Obama speaks alongsi

President Obama will soon be in Riyadh, visiting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and no doubt hearing a litany of complaints about American policy towards the Mideast.   While the stated purpose of the trip is to soothe the feelings of Saudi leaders who feel neglected and are discontent with American policy, one reality cannot be denied:  The US and Saudi Arabia are seeing their interest diverge, and nothing the President can say will alter that.   The Saudis have become more of a problem than a trusted ally.

One issue Saudi leaders will push involves Iran.   The United States is trying to solve the Iranian crisis, on going since 2003, by improving relations with Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and working towards an agreement on Iranian nuclear weapons.  The Saudis see Iran as their major rival in the region – a view they’ve held since Iran’s 1979 revolution – and would prefer that Iran remain a pariah state.

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Both states straddle the Persian Gulf.   Iran could threaten the strategic and economically vital straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage way through which most Persian Gulf oil flows.  With Iraq now developing closer ties to Iran – Saudi leaders openly distrust and will not talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – they feel the balance of regional power is shifting away from them.  In fact, the Iraqis complain that the Saudis are arming and funding Sunni groups fighting against Iraq’s central government.   Some would argue that Saudi Arabia is at war with Iraq!

In that light, closer US – Iranian ties would cause the Saudis to worry about not only their regional power, but also the royal family’s hold on government.   As the region changes, their traditional and very conservative rule becomes harder to maintain.   And, as much as the West relies on Saudi oil, it may be in our interest to slowly sever the close alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.

First, compare life in Iran with life in Saudi Arabia.   Most Americans assume Iran is a bit of a hell hole.  Run by an Islamic fundamentalist government, people conjure up images of the Taliban or al qaeda.  The reality is quite different.  Iran is not only far more democratic than any Arab state (though Iraq is working towards democracy), but Saudi Arabia is where living conditions are defined by a fundamentalist view of Islam.   Women cannot drive, they cannot go out publicly without their husband, they cannot work in office where men are present.   They can’t even shop in stores which have men!   Indeed, if we went by human rights concerns, we’d clearly be on the side of Iran over Saudi Arabia!   The Saudis are second only to North Korea in terms of oppression.

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

In Saudi Arabia not only would such a protest not be allowed, but the woman pictured above would be arrested for simply being out of the house, head not fully covered, and in the company of men.   In short, the Saudis have an archaic system that should dissuade us from doing business with them.  We do business with them because they have oil.  Lots of oil.

Yet Saudi oil isn’t as important as it used to be.    The Saudis were the world’s number one producer of oil for decades.  Last year, the US took their place.   Thanks to natural gas development in the US, as well new oil finds, the United States is producing more domestic oil and gas than people thought possible just a decade ago.  That doesn’t mean our troubles are over, but as we shift towards alternative energy sources and develop our own fossil fuels, the utter dependency on Saudi Arabia is weakened.  We can afford to have them a bit upset.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year - which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year – which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

Beyond that, they have no real alternative.  Oil is a global commodity so they can’t punish only the US by cutting oil supplies.  That affects everyone, especially the Saudis!   They need to sell their oil to keep their economy afloat.   They have not used their oil wealth to build a modern economy, they’ve simply spent it or bought off their population.   When the oil runs out, they’ll have squandered an unbelievable opportunity – with our help.

The Arab Spring of 2011 was the start of a regional transition that will take decades.  The Saudis, despite the brutality and repression of their secret police, are not immune.   Their anachronistic Kingdom has persisted decades longer than it should have.   It will not last deep into the 21st Century.

Therein lies the dilemma for the US.   Actively supporting a dying Kingdom only makes it likely that the successors will be more fervently anti-American.   That’s why Iranian-American relations have been so sour, the US had supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran from 1954-79.  Yet as tensions continue with that other major energy producer, Russia, the US doesn’t want to needlessly anger the Saudis or risk some kind of crisis.   So while our actions will reflect interests that are our own, and not those of the Saudis, expect friendly talk from the President.

Our interest is to mend relations with Iran, the true regional power, settle the dispute over Iranian nuclear energy, and work to support change in the Arab world.   The Saudis would love to have us help overthrow Syria’s pro-Iranian government, but that is not in our interest.   Change in the Arab world will come about over decades as the culture shifts, it won’t be achieved with just a change in government – look at the troubles Egypt has had since 2011.

So President Obama’s response to Saudi complaints should be to smile, say he understands, and that he’ll take Saudi suggestions seriously.  He should have his advisers take vigorous notes about Saudi suggestions, promise his full attention, and then simply say goodbye.  If there are symbolic gestures that can soothe their discontent, by all means, soothe.  But overall the US should extricate itself from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and work to address the new realities of the Mideast.

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The Hard Truth in the Mideast

Protests in Egypt

A mantra when I teach Comparative Politics is that democracy is an extremely difficult system to implement and maintain.   It seems “natural” to us only because we have a culture that has built it over centuries.   It is in fact a system that requires sturdy cultural support and efforts to build democracy often flounder and fail before achieving success.

Last year as we discussed the results of the Arab spring, students speculated on what the region would have to go through.   Most figured it would take 20 to 30 years before we could even hope for a stable democracies across the region (I’m more optimistic about some states).   All predicted anti-American violence and clashes between secular and religious factions.

Alas, we still have a lot of people in the US who seem to think that if bad things happen somewhere else, the United States should get the blame.    Mitt Romney says the President has been too weak, others say a film portraying Muhammad in a bad light riled things up.   Both charges are self-serving and wrong.

Clearly people are mad about the film, but how many Christians in the US go on murderous rampages over a film?   It’s not that Christianity is any more peaceful at its core than Islam — it’s not.   These events are caused by cultural and political instability that will continue for some time.

As offensive as the film may be, the cause of this is a history of oppression, dictatorship, and lack of opportunity

Moreover, this isn’t something to bemoan or regret.   It’s better to have instability than to still have Mubarak or Qaddafi in power.    Donald Trump infamously tweeted that the US embassy wasn’t attacked when those two were at the helm, apparently suggesting that we’d be better off with authoritarian thugs in charge of those countries.    But that view is myopic on two levels:  a) it only considers the short term; and b) it neglects the human rights of the Egyptian and Libyan people.

One thing George W. Bush got right was that the authoritarian power structures in the Mideast are anachronistic and inevitably will fall.   That goes for the Saudi royal family as well — they are out of place in the 21st Century and the longer they stay in power the more angry the forces they suppress will become.   The more it appears that the US is enabling the authoritarians, the stronger anti-American sentiment will become.

Dictators like Mubarak, Saddam, Asad and Qaddafi follow in the footsteps of similar regimes of the Ottoman Empire, defining for 700 years the political culture of the region.

What Bush got wrong was the idea that the US could simply overthrow the bad guys and then quickly build a stable democracy in its place.   He overthrew Saddam within a few weeks, but democracy building…that takes decades and can’t be done by outsiders.   So despite money, effort and a strong will to make it work, Iraq descended into chaos and civil war, with the US only able to leave by abandoning most of the original goals for the war.

Egypt and Libya are going through the same kind of turmoil.   Iraq is still in disarray.   When Asad falls in Syria, expect instability to persist there as well.    It’s not something the United States can stop, it’s not something we can blame the President for, nor is it surprising.   In fact, it’s necessary and inevitable.

Continued support for dictators would only delay the inevitable and increase the level of anti-Americanism

We in the industrialized West are used to stability.   The wars of Europe are nearly seven decades in the past.   We transfer power with pomp and ceremony, and despite the vicious attack ads, the loser is gracious after the election.   But the West didn’t become what it is without violence, sometimes horrific violence directed against innocents.   We fought tremendous battles over slavery, ideology, and land.    By today’s standards of what a democracy is, ours took over 150 years to build.   Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries cannot be expected to leap to a stable future in a few short years.  The world doesn’t work that way.

John McCain, no doubt driven by good intentions, thinks we should use our military to help out in Syria and elsewhere.   But we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan that even the world’s most potent military power can’t shape this process.    The pent up anger and suppressed interests after centuries of authoritarian rule assure that there is more violence to come.   The lingering rage over past American/European influence assure we will be targeted.  No President can prevent that, no policy can fix it.

In the long run these extremists have no chance, history is against them. But the process has to play itself out.

Ultimately, it’ll be worth the pain.   Trade, technology and economic interests will, over time, overcome the reactionary extremists from al qaeda and other such groups.   It’s better to be on the path towards that future, then simply kept in an authoritarian pressure cooker that will inevitably blow.

The US can’t shape the result, but we need to avoid over reacting.   We should support democratic values as effectively as possible, and recognize that while there was a vicious attack in Libya, the next day brought out far more people protesting in support of the United States.

Extremists tend to see the world in stark terms — it’s either their way or the destruction of their civilization.   That’s how they rationalize such violence.   It only serves their interests if we treat the entire region as if they were all extremists, or if we yearn for a return of dictatorial thugs.   Their future is not ours to make.

In our consumer society it’s easy to forget that much of history was forged through bloodshed and violence.   We want to think the people in the Mideast should be able to go vote next Tuesday and happily embrace democracy and markets.   But change follows its own path, and often that path includes violence.   We should help the victims, do whatever we can to positively aid those who want peace, and we should try to prevent the violence from escalating out of control.   But the cold reality is that this is the start of a long process, one we should welcome, even if we know the transition will be difficult.

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Disgusting Islamophobia

TLC is doing a reality show called American Muslim,  following five Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan.   The show follows average Muslims living every day lives as cops, coaches and consumers — typical Americans.

Not for the Islamophobes!   Islamophobia is similar to the anti-semitism of the Nazi party in Germany before World War II.  It wants to posit Muslims as a different kind of people, not truly American – just as Jews were not truly German to the anti-semites.   They want to spread myths about Islam, making it sound like Sharia law is always some kind of horrific set of barbarian practices, that women are treated horribly, and every Muslim secretly wants the Taliban to come to power.

Not everyone who is concerned about Islamic extremism is an Islamophobe.   Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear of Islam, usually present when people become convinced that Islam is an inherently anti-western anti-modern religion that can never co-exist with Western values.   Such a view is absurd when taking into account the history of Islam and the reality of Islam in America (or Europe).     Yes, there are extremist and irrational Muslims too — and it’s right to oppose them, and when a filmmaker is killed in the Netherlands or a terror act occurs in London, the religious element has to be dealt with openly and clearly.

However, true Islamophobia is as dangerous as anti-semitism was in Germany in the 20s and 30s and must be fought just as fervently as any of us would fight anti-semitism if we were transported to Germany in 1930.   It is the stuff of vile bigotry, a kind of evil that is fundamentally anti-American and ignorant.   Alas, it still has clout.

The big retail chain Lowe’s caved to pressure from an Nazi Islamophobic organization called “The Florida Family Association.”    Like the Nazis, this group’s irrational fear and hatred is not limited to Muslims, they are also homophobic, warning of a gay and Muslim “agenda”.  From their website:   “TLC’s “All-American Muslim” is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values. ”

Get that – seeing Muslims as average Americans is dangerous because it hides the “Islamic agenda.”   Just like how the Jewish agenda in Germany was put forth when Jews were seen as normal shopkeepers, scientists and artists.   It is morally equivalent and Lowe’s is doing the moral equivalent of caving to Nazi pressure.   According to the neo-fascist website for the Florida Family Association, Sweet-n-Low is also withholding sponsorship, as is Home Depot.

One might be tempted to cut them some slack because they are a Christian organization.  But the world view they espouse does not differ much from any fascist world view.   Hitler said he was fighting to save Germany from anti-German elements — not just Jews, but liberals, socialists, pacifists, internationalists and homosexuals, all of whom stood against traditional German values.   Fascists portray themselves as promoting strength, virtue, and wholesomeness.   They defend their violence as saying it is the true strong German (or, in the case of this group they’d say American or Christian) is unafraid to speak the truth about threats to society and willing to do what is necessary to counter them.  Violence and intolerance is to them a virtue.

For Hitler the battle in the 20s was a culture war for Germany’s soul, promoting fear of the diversity emerging in the 20th Century in order to get people to embrace what was sold as a return to strong German values.   The world view of this “Florida Family Association” is similar.  They want to protect American culture from Muslims, gays, liberals, and secular humanists.   The core of their ideology is fear of difference, and even though they are not yet espousing violence, once a group is defined as a danger to society and something different and even evil, the line to violence is much easier to cross.

But even if it doesn’t go as far as Nazism did, such fear-based bigotry is fundamentally anti-American and enables discrimination, prejudice and abuse against others.  It is fear of people based on the essence of who they are — their faith, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity.  As such it’s an anti-human ideology, one that must be countered.

The best way to do that is to contact Lowes, Home Depot, and Sweet and Low — and whoever else refuses to advertise on that show.   Tell them that their support of an anti-American boycott is despicable and unless their policy changes you’ll shop elsewhere.  Moreover, one should speak out and condemn this kind of organization and the fear that underlies its mode of operation.  Having studied German history in the 20s and 30s, I know that apathy — or a belief ‘well, they’re a bit extreme but they have a point’ — is extremely dangerous.   Finally, watch the TLC show and support advertisers who don’t cave to extremist pressure.

Most importantly, however, is in our every day life to support tolerance and mutual respect for all people.   Disrespect and opposition should be based on actions people take, not who they are or even what they believe.   This includes groups like the Florida Family Association.

One has to focus on the specific actions taken by that group, and not use their actions as an excuse to be bigoted against Christians or even those whose personal belief system is one that does not support Islam, gay marriage or homosexuality.  There is room for all kinds of beliefs in this country, and we can’t respond to bigotry with bigotry in return — that simply reinforces and deepens the intensity of bigotry.   Instead the focus has to be on countering their message and offering a positive alternative.

We have come a long way in ten years.   The country understands and accepts Islam far better now than it did then, and groups like this are on the periphery.   Let’s keep it that way.

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Arab Winter?

The good news that Egypt has finally had free elections was for many people overshadowed by the preliminary results of the first round of voting.  While the face of the “Arab Spring” had been young and modern, the elections are currently being led by overtly Islamicist parties with a history of fundamentalism and extremism.

The largest party, the PLJ, defines itself as moderate Islamist and won 36.6% of the vote so far.  The El-Nour fundamentalist party got 24.3%, while the liberal Egyptian block gained 13.4% and the Nationalist party 7%.   What this means, however, is not as bad as the alarmists would claim.  First, this is the first round of elections; there are a lot more votes to count before we know what the make up of parliament ultimately will be.

These elections were to the lower house, where 332 representatives are elected through party lists, while 166 are elected on a majoritarian system, which includes run off elections.   The party list system is a multi member district system, with each district containing 4 to 12 seats.   More rounds of voting will be held before we know the actual make up of the parliament, and what kind of ruling coalition will take over.   Most likely it would not be the PLJ and the fundamentalist al-Nour because the former does not want to be painted with the extremist brush the latter inspires (they want to ban alcohol and take a Saudi like approach to the law).

In February the upper house (Shura Council) will be elected, with Presidential elections in March.   The new Parliament is to choose a 100 member council to draft a new Constitution, but the Military Council now running Egypt will limit the power of the new parliament and claims it has the authority to name 80 of the 100 members to the constitution council.   Meanwhile, youth protests continue and any new government (including the military council) knows that if protests could overthrow Mubarak, they can overthrow a new government that tries anything radical.    Those who want to write Egypt off over incomplete early results are over-reacting.

The Arab spring – probably the most important event of 2011, though part of a series of transitions going on globally – was all but inevitable.   Like most historical shifts from the reformation to the fall of Communism, it could have happened at a different time or in a different way, but the mix of globalization and demography — half of the Arab world is under age 22 — meant that the old order could not survive.  The fact that it rose in a completely unexpected manner in response to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi after his humiliation by the Tunisian bureaucracy shows something was boiling under the surface.   The speed at which it spread across the Arab world shows the region had become a powder keg ready to explode

Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself ablaze, igniting the Tunsian uprising

Yet the transition from being part of the most repressive part of the planet towards some kind of democratic future is not easy.   We in the west sometimes romanticize democracy as some kind of natural form of government that all should aspire to.  Yet democratic political cultures are hard to construct and maintain.   Until they really gain acceptance in the broad public, they easily can be undermined.   The difficulties across the Arab world are immense.

Almost the entire region is rated "not free," as the Arab world has been the most oppressive region of the planet

In Egypt one can imagine a scenario where the Islamic extremists try to take full power.   That would likely lead to a war of sorts between the Egyptian military and the Muslim brotherhood and other such groups, with the military winning.   Such a result would lead to a kind of militarized democracy, much like Turkey experienced in its early years.

Of course, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood know that, and realize that they have to walk a fine line between pushing for their agenda and not angering the military or protesters.   They are just as likely to ally with a liberal party and work for a unified Egyptian voice.   That could ultimately isolate the extremists and allow the development of an open, moderate form of political Islam alongside secular parties.   That would be the best result, as ultimately political Islam should be part of the future, not an enemy of change.

Moreover, while one can point to a lot of extremism within the Islamic parties in Egypt, there is also diversity and considerable moderate and even modern ideals.   The battle within political Islam for the Arab mind and soul is intense.  They can’t ignore the factors of globalization and demographics, nor can they simply grab control of the military.    The military sees itself like the old Turkish military after Attaturk, a guarantor of Egyptian stability and a protection against extremism.  Egyptian military officials have close ties with Israel, and are no doubt working to assure the Israelis that they have the situation under control.

A vision of a new Egypt: Coptic Christians surrounding Muslims at prayer time to protect them from Egyptian police last February

A best case scenario is the Egyptian military brokering deals between various interest groups and winning over support from protesters who start to realize that idealism alone does not bring freedom and prosperity.  Political Islam can define itself by rejecting anti-Western activism, accepting the legitimacy of Israel (even while demanding a Palestinian state) and rejecting the extremes of al qaeda and al-Nour.   This would play itself out over years, with parliaments and even the President gaining more control and authority slowly, based on a new Constitution that would limit what the government can do.

So is Arab spring slipping to Arab winter?   No, at least not yet.  We should be applauding Egypt’s first free election and recognizing that the task they are undertaking is exceedingly difficult.  Most important, we should not write off political Islam as an enemy or a threat.   That could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.    Instead we need to quietly offer support where we can, help if asked, and recognize that this is an Egyptian and Arab journey — their reality to make, not ours.   And, though naive optimism for a sudden rise of democracy is misplaced, so is a similarly naive pessimism that the region will collapse into some kind of extremist Islamic state ready to battle the West.

It is good that they’ve begun this journey, and ultimately history suggests that those who go against the course of history the way the Islamic extremists do tend to lose.    The Egyptians are trying to do within a generation what it took the west centuries to do — with a lot of violence and horrors along the way.   The start of this journey has been delayed too long; now thanks to young people willing to risk their lives for freedom, Egyptians have a chance for a better future.

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Love and Fear

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
– Yoda, Jedi Knight

Being asked to participate in a panel discussion about 9-11 Monday has caused me to reflect on what that event means ten years on.  There are many directions I could take in analyzing the impact of 9-11.  What does security mean in an age where technology allows a small group armed with only box cutters to alter the course of the world’s greatest power?   Did Bin Laden succeed in causing us to react in ways that harmed our country and the world economy?   Is there such a thing as a ‘war on terror,’ and if so, is anyone winning?

But as I reflect, it strikes me that the real lesson is more basic, it’s in the emotions that the events of 9-11 evoked in the public.   The strongest were love and fear.  I have a theory that most people’s personalities can be explained by the way they handle love and fear.  Those with the most fear are distrustful of others, angry at life, and often feel that they are victims of some kind of conspiracy.   Those with the most love are helpful, giving and open.   Too much love without fear opens one up to being abused and taken advantage of; too much fear and one lives a life of depression and bitterness.

By love I don’t mean romantic love, or even the love one has for family and friends.   Love at its purest is the sense that links us as humans.   It is what caused New Yorkers to help each other out and comfort each other on that horrific day.   It is the connection two people felt on that day when their eyes met and they realized they were sharing the same shock and grief.  It is what brought the country together to celebrate American values, it is what caused us to cry at the stories of tragedy and heroism, and feel for those who lost loved ones.    That sense of love also created a hole in our hearts as we looked at Manhattan burning.   Even if we had never been there, we connected.   Similar emotions were felt around the globe as they always are in times of tragedy — love is the core instinct that brings us to want to help and identify with others in times of trouble.  It is real and the most pure of human emotions.   It cuts through the fog of diverse perspectives, ideologies, politics and religion — it is the recognition that as humans we are linked.

Fear emerges when one believes that the very things that bring stability and order to life are under threat.    Fear is important to survival. Our cat has a fear of brooms.  Get a broom out and he goes into hiding.  No matter what treats are offered or if the broom gets put away, that fear lingers for awhile, until he’s convinced things are safe.   For humans fear is similar but due to our complex societies the base reaction to a sense of danger (such as an attack by a sabre tooth tiger) gets applied to social conditions that are more abstract and symbolic.

Shortly after the attacks I heard of how Arabs, Sri Lankans, and people from India were being beat up or intimidated by Americans who thought them a threat.   At that point I realized that fear was unleashing the worst of what we are capable of doing.   When President Bush called Islam a “religion of peace,” I was shocked to hear countless pundits attack the President and defame a great world religion, trying to associate its one billion adherents to that small pocket of radical extremists represented by Bin Laden.  Fear causes one to imagine dangers far greater than they are, and abstract them to whole groups of people, nations, ideologies or religions.   Fear allows bizarre rationalizations of what otherwise would be unthinkable.  Genocide, war crimes and cruelty are driven by fear.

9-11-01 brought out fear as well as love.   Suddenly people felt vulnerable, the images were intense, the perpetrators both strange and yet inconspicuous.    Would they strike again?  Where and how?   We didn’t know.   Anthrax, small pox, poisoning of water supplies and chemical warfare dominated discussion.   Fear reigns in conditions of uncertainty and ignorance.

Shortly after 9-11 students contacted me saying that they were impressing family and friends with their knowledge of Bin Laden, chemical and biological weapons and Islamic extremism — all from my World Politics class, where these themes were touched on years before 9-11-01.   The fact I’d been worried about these issues, and on visiting cities like New York and Washington always thought about the possibility of terrorism just as one thinks of earth quakes in California, made 9-11 less of a shock.   For people who thought all was secure and safe, the shock evoked a stronger sense of danger.   What other unexpected threats are out there?

After 9-11-01 I started studying Islamic religion and history, since it was clear that many were defining the attack as the opening act of a war between Islam and the West.   The more I learned about Islam, the clearer it became that like almost all religions it was focused on good, but had portions that could be used to arose anger and violence.    It is no more inherently violent than Christianity or Judaism, and certainly Islamic culture can’t be seen as more violent than that of the West — a culture that has given us colonialism, nuclear weapons and world wars.  Over time as a society we went from knee jerk fear to perspectives tempered with more knowledge and understanding.

Consider: Since 3000 people were killed on 9-11, only 33 people have been killed in the US by Islamic extremists.  During that same time there were 150,000 murders and 350,000 traffic fatalities.  By any rational measure one should fear their car more than Islam!   But uncertainty still intervenes — there are Islamic extremists out there, and they can strike again.

So ten years after I’d say that the biggest lesson from that horrific attack is the power of love to unify us, and the danger of fear to get us to act against our values.   We showed both.   In the time just after the attack I think at times fear trumped love — the treatment of the Dixie Chicks, the journalist Chris Hedges being booed off the stage when he gave a commencement address critical of US policy in Iraq, and admonishings to “watch what you say.”    That’s declined as we’ve learned more and worked through the wars and controversies of the last ten years.

But the love that brought us together has also declined.    The politics have become more petty and personal, with emotion and demonization replacing a sense of trying to come together to solve problems.

Societies may be like individuals.  Too much fear and they become aggressive, afraid of self-criticism, arrogant and unable to cooperate with others.   Learning from the strengths and weaknesses learned from 9-11 and its aftermath will help us keep a proper balance as we face future crises and threats.  The best way to limit fear to its rational and protective functions is to avoid ignorance and try to limit uncertainty.  Fearmongers probably driven by their internal demons, feed on ignorance, emotion and uncertainty to try to push people to embrace hatred and violence.

Clearly there are threats.   There are evil doers like Bin Laden, so blinded by fear and hate that they can rationalize mass destruction.   The power of love — us recognizing our common humanity and coming together to be more than what we could be separately is the best protection against folk like that.   Fear tempered by knowledge and understanding will help us measure how to respond to threats.

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American Education

Teaching international relations at a public liberal arts university, I’m constantly surprised by how little most students know about the world outside the US.   There are always a few who had teachers that opened their eyes to the cultural and historical diversity of the world, but few really comprehend much about what goes on outside our borders.

Conversely, there is generally pretty good knowledge about American history and US politics.   Education majors planning to teach high school civics and social science need to take courses in US history and American government; if they take world politics or comparative politics it’s as an elective (and state requirements leave them little room for electives).   Thus the bias against teaching about the world outside the US is shaped in part by how we educate future teachers — and that’s influenced by state requirements, what’s tested for the ‘no child left behind’ program, and political pressures to focus on knowledge about the US.

If I could choose three things I would  like students to understand coming out of high school it would be:

1.   A general understanding of the intellectual history of western civilization.

2.  Comprehension of political geography — how the world is divided, and the wars, colonialism, and agreements that shaped the basic structure of the world today.   This need not be detailed, but at least a framework into which knowledge in college could be plugged.

3.  An understanding of cultural diversity to work against bigotry, knee jerk phobias, and cultural chauvinism.

Recognizing the difficulty in adding to what students already have to know, I’d even argue that this could be taught in a semester course titled something like “Global Studies.”  Each of these proposed ‘units’ could be one or even two courses.  I’m suggesting a broad overview that prepares them for detailed work in college, and awakens an interest to keep learning and growing also among those who don’t go on to higher education.

Unit One:  Who we are.  A brief look at the themes and conflicts in western thought harkening back to Plato and Aristotle.  Students should understand a bit about the history of Christianity as that religion shaped western thought, including the ethics and core values of people who are now atheists or follow other beliefs.  The influence of the reformation, the themes of the enlightenment, and the rise of secularism would follow.   These are complex topics, but in an intellectual history one need not learn all the details of the philosophies and intricate disputes.   Again, at this level students would only need a basic understanding that “who we are” is the result of 2000 years of cultural history.   What seems “natural” and “self-evident” to us comes from deep cultural biases that have shaped the West.   Understanding that “who we are” isn’t “the one people who see reality as it truly is” will make it easier to understand and appreciate other cultural perspectives.

Unit Two:  Political Geography:  This would start in Europe (and could mesh with unit one) and focus on core concepts that would be spread to the rest of the planet.   I’d suggest Napoleon and nationalism, colonialism, the causes of WWI and WWII (avoiding the simplistic ‘blame Hitler the madman’ crap) and the Cold War.  Included would be an emphasis on each continent and its own development.   After this unit students would know “where we are” globally, and have a sense of how and why the world is as it is.

Unit Three: Cultural Perspectives:  Given current events, it is fundamental for students to understand at least the basics of Islamic and Chinese culture.   These are two great cultural civilizations that are not going to go away and will not be defeated by the West.   The fear that some people have, or the ‘enemy image’ the media often promotes are counter productive.  We’re going to have to co-exist and cooperate with people of other cultures.   I’d go into some depth on China and the Islamic world, enough for students to recognize that those cultures developed much like ours, only with some different traditions and core beliefs.   They’d also grapple with cultural relativism — we need to understand other cultures on their own terms, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up value judgments.  How to do that is difficult, especially since we can’t simply assume our superiority.   I think there should be brief considerations of other cultures — Latin America, an overview of the diversity of Africa south of the Islamic world — but there isn’t a need at this level to learn everything.   As long as students understand how to look at different cultures and have a sense of global diversity, they’ll be able to build on that in college.

In terms of standardize tests I’d recommend they cover basics of Islamic and Chinese culture/history, key historical developments of the planet (outside US history) and some of the major concepts of western intellectual history.  It probably would not be difficult to develop a template of core concepts and facts that high school students should know before continuing on to college or joining the workforce.

Right now the country reacts to events and problems with uncertainty, easily swayed by demagogic rhetoric and emotion.   Fear of others, envy, anger, and blame fly easily.   People grasp for simple answers.   It can be expressed as hope for a better future, such as that which elected President Obama, or a desire to return to a simpler past as put forth by the tea party.    But clear thinking is impossible without knowledge.

Some might question whether one high school course or inclusion on a standardized test would make a difference.   I think if done well, expanding peoples’ knowledge about the world will quite often spur people to become interested in learning more on their own — to travel, read about other places, and become life long learners.   Ultimately we can’t create an educated society by simply changing how schools or universities function.  Rather, schools and universities have to awaken a desire by students to want to continue to learn and grow, consistently questioning their beliefs and ideals.    Knowledge is what makes life interesting and enjoyable; if people stop questioning and rethinking/expanding their beliefs, they stagnate and become bitter.     When people keep learning, life becomes a joy.

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Godfather’s yes, the Presidency, no

Lately I’ve felt satisfied that the bout of Islamophobia the US suffered a few years ago is over.   With the “Arab spring,” death of Osama Bin Laden, and a lessening of fear, people realize that Muslims are not the enemy, nor is the religion particularly violent and strange.   I integrate bits about Islam and its history in many of my classes, believing all educated students should know more than the caricatured image the media often gives.   Lately I’ve been impressed by how often they come out of high school with that knowledge — kudos to US schools!

But now Republican Presidential contender Herman Cain says that communities should be able to ban mosques when they want to.    His rationale is plain weird.  He says that Muslims combine church and state and use mosques to “infuse their morals into a community.”   A mosque cannot itself combine church and state, last I checked no mosques in the country were involved in government.  They are a place of worship.   Muslim theology traditionally sees church and state together (as did traditional Roman Catholic theology — they fought wars about it!), but mosques in the US are simply serving a community.

I’m not sure what to make of the “infuse morals” comment.   I daresay that Christian churches try to infuse their morals into a community.   Moreover, I suspect there is far more agreement than disagreement between Christians and Muslims about moral issues.  Does  Cain object to people trying to infuse their morals into a community?   If a community of Christians lived in a predominately non-Christian town, would the non-Christians be justified in banning churches from being built?

Cain earlier expressed hesitancy about having Muslims serve in a potential Cain White House (the more he talks, the more purely academic that scenario becomes), hinting that they were more prone to terrorism.    If these broadsides had been hurled a few years ago, back when Tom Tancredo was saying we should bomb Mecca in the case of another terrorist attack, he may have been able to get away with it.    Now he just looks like a bigot.

To be sure, Tancredo’s crazy was a level that Cain has yet to come close to.   To bomb the center of a religion serving billions because a miniscule fraction of people claiming to believe that religion pull off a terror attack would be evil of the sort that would be admired by a Hitler or Stalin.   Cain’s apparent bigotry seems more rooted in ignorance than evil.  It was even too much for Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, who isn’t exactly liberal!

So I’ll give Cain the benefit of the doubt.   He may not be a bigot, he may simply have a very strong belief that Muslims have the wrong faith, and that it is his duty as a Christian to protect our culture from their influence.   I still don’t like it and will argue against it, but that’s within the realm of politically acceptable action.   One can be an advocate for a religion.   He’s no different than Muslims in the Arab world who try to stop Christians from spreading their ideas (and they don’t like missionaries over there); he can make his case in the realm of political discourse.

I believe his opinion makes him inappropriate for the office of the Presidency.   A President must, above all else, be true to the constitution and be President to all Americans.    President Bush recognized this, and proclaimed Islam a “religion of peace” and refused to define Islam as the enemy.   After all, with 10 million Muslim Americans, almost all of them anti-terrorist contributors to their communities, he was their President too.

There is something I like about Herman Cain.  He helped Pillsbury keep Godfather’s Pizza alive.   In the 80s the pizza chain was losing money for Pillsbury and they gave Cain the task of reviving the brand.  He did, and Godfather’s returned to profitability.

For that, I thank Cain.   One of the first Godfather’s opened in Sioux Falls back in 1977.    That was less than four years after the very first Godfather’s opened in neighboring Nebraska, if I recall it was about the 5th or 6th restaurant.   Pillsbury didn’t yet own the company and the owner at the time, William Theisen, came to Sioux Falls to celebrate the new store.  I was doing “a week with the mayor” as part of a mini-course in high school, and Mayor Rick Knobe asked me to say some words.  I praised the new restaurant and even mimicked Marlon Brando’s Godfather character at the end, “come to Godfather’s, please try our pizza, we hope you like the pizza…no, on second thought, you WILL come to Godfather’s, you WILL try the pizza, and you WILL like it!” Miss South Dakota was there too, which is always a treat for a 17 year old boy.

Godfather’s quickly became one of my favorite pizzerias, second only to Village Inn Pizza, where I worked.   We don’t have them in Maine, so whenever I get back home, I make a point to have some Godfather’s.   It’s good pizza still (though I think it was better back in the late seventies).  I have fond memories of meals and dates there, as it was just three blocks from Augustana College, where I got my BA.

So, Herman Cain, you’re obviously a good businessman.   And if you want to be politically active to promote your own religion and warn us of “false” faiths, go ahead, the Constitution gives you that right.   But if you want to be President, you need to understand that our Constitution recognizes the right of people of all faiths to worship and be treated with respect.   Moreover, you need to learn about the reality of Islam, not the pamphlets and biased polemics put out by the Christian right.    The only people who benefit when the extremists here show anti-Muslim sentiment are the extremists there who want there to be some kind of ‘clash of civilizations.’  Let’s not help the extremists.

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The Empire Falls, the Church Rises

Students from the "fall of Rome rise of the church" seminar in front of San Pietro

Today we offered a diverse set of seminars and excursions as students choose what they wanted to learn about with more depth.   I held an evening seminar near the Vatican with students who had just visited the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel.

Earlier a large group of students went with me to see the Colosseo, which now includes a museum covering that part of Rome before it became the spot for  the Colosseum.   Being in the center of Rome it had palaces and even a human made lake.   Only after the fire of 64 AD destroyed the region could a grand Colosseum be built.   This a definite a case of turning a crisis into an opportunity.

In awe of history!

Originally the Colosseum held brutal sporting events, including the gladiators, hunts, executions and a variety of violent entertainment.   When the grounds got too bloody, a layer of sand would be added.   55,000 spectators could come, most in shade provided by awning over the top (something we would have liked to have had today).

Many know that Christians were martyred here, but the relationship between early Christians and the Church is complex.   Despite some bouts of persecution, Christianity was usually tolerated even while banned.   Women were more likely than men to convert to Christianity, in part because Roman customs made women clear second class citizens.   Starting slowly, Christianity grew as the empire headed for decay.   Ultimately the empire fell as the church rose.

We found a secluded spot by the Tiber river near Castel Sant'Angelo for seminar

The roots of the rise of the Church go all the way back to how Paul settled a dispute early on.   Did one have to convert to Judaism to become Christian?   If so one would have to follow Jewish laws, men would have to get circumsized (that might dissuade some would be converts), and the religion would have the identity as being a sect within Judaism.   Paul, looking back to the story of Abraham, said “no,” meaning that anyone could convert without having to worry about Jewish law.   This turned Jews off to what had been a Jewish sect, and it quickly became appealing to non-Jews — and the Romans.

As the faith grew in numbers, Christianity was tolerated.   The catacombs started as secret burial grounds, but in time it didn’t matter.   There were so many Christians and Rome had a history of tolerating diversity (given the size of the empire) that any persecution faded.

Luckily the sun went behind the clouds so the Tevere river was peaceful; Castel Sant Angelo in the background (near the Vatican)

Finally the emperor Constantine (272-337) lifted the ban on Christianity and himself converted.  After his death Christianity was made the religion of the empire.    This wasn’t just a spiritual choice, but a practical one.   The empire was cracking and Romans were less willing to go into the military then ever before — they preferred a comfortable life.   Many refused because of their religion — early Christianity was a pacifist religion.  Christ didn’t fight back, he knew that the real world was the spiritual world.   Better to suffer or die in the material world than to risk your eternal spiritual soul by breaking God’s commandments.

Now the Romans had put the Christians in a quandary:  Do you let the now Christian empire collapse so the pagans take over?   Or do you fight to save Christianity?    Augustine (354-430) answers that you can fight — but only if it is a just war.   That wouldn’t be enough.   In 476 Romulus Augustulus was deposed as the last Emperor (though the eastern Byzantine Empire would continue)   The Barbarians may have defeated the Roman Empire, but they ultimately converted to Rome’s new religion.

As the world fell apart, Augustine espoused a spiritual theology that distrusted the material world.   The material world tempted humans to break God’s commands, and thus should not be the focus of our life.   With that other-worldly view, Europeans quickly lost the knowledge held by the Romans and life became local and defined by tradition.   The idea of progress was non-existent.   Better technology was in the past; this life was to simply get through so one could move on to eternal joy.

While some blame the Church for stifling creativity, the charge is unfair.   The world was changing in a way that would have destroyed Roman knowledge anyway.  What the Church did was actually preserve as much as they could, taking books and other artifacts up into monasteries where Roman knowledge was protected, even if it was also ignored.    Without Christianity we may not have had the renaissance because there may not have been enough knowledge to rediscover.

Augustine’s theology also linked the Christian world with Greek thought, particularly Plato’s idealism.   Many said God sent Plato to Greece to prepare the way for Christianity.  That idealism — the turning away from the material realm to focus on the spiritual — led to a world where tradition would dominate and change was extremely slow.

Fast forward to the 1200s.   Information and texts had been seeping into Europe from the Islamic world, generating a new interest in old Roman ideas and knowledge.  In 1066 the first modern university opened in Bologna.   By the 1200s Islamic rationalist scholars like Averroes and Avicenna were read in Christian Europe, creating an intellectual wave of dissent.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) would stand out as the figure who pushed the church into accepting Aristotle and making progress and a focus on the material as well as the spiritual acceptable.   This set in motion the process we’ve been discussing whereby humanism and ultimately a belief in abstract reason and the laws of nature would push aside religious authority.   The church tried to make Aristotle an authority not to be question, but as we’ve seen, Galileo and others would themselves read Aristotle and recognize that his philosophy went against unquestioning obedience to authority in intellectual matters.

Two students (Diana and Chris) wanted a "good restaurant;" we had an unbelievably delicious meal

While the ideas had been growing well before the 1200s, and change would have come to Europe even if Thomas had not been born in Napoli in 1225, he functions along with Augustine as convenient bookends for the a broad view of the history of western civilization.   From Augustine on the Church prevents a total collapse of Roman knowledge and civilization, and provides an other-worldly theology that supports a generally peaceful if stagnate feudalism.

My new Facebook profile

With Aquinas the process begins for the West to take off with unprecedented progress and change.   We saw it start with Giotti, whose work was just 30 years after Aquinas died, through Galileo, and now the globalized world of smart phones and materialism dominant.

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The End of the Osama Bin Laden Era?

In my Comparative Politics class Tuesday we had assigned readings covering terrorism and Islamic extremism as a revolutionary force.  I joked to the class that when I made the syllabus last December I purposefully put these readings for our first class meeting after Bin Laden’s killing.   The chapter about Islam as a revolutionary force (Sheri Berman, Islamism, Revolution and Civil Society) focuses on countries like Egypt, still stable when the article was written.  The chapter on terrorism (Martha Crenshaw, The Causes of Terrorism) nicely set up a discussion of Bin Laden’s death and what it means.   That made for a lively class discussion!

I think that Osama Bin Laden’s death symbolizes an end of an era.   For a decade Bin Laden has been the public face of Islam for many Americans, arousing fear, anger and antipathy.   Visions of Islam defeating the West or sharia law spreading to places like Oklahoma created almost surreal bouts of fear and distrust.   That is starting to fade away.

Since 9-11 al qaeda has had a meager record.  Unable to score any spectacular attacks in recent years, their message no longer resonates in the Arab world.   The youth today are less prone to be swayed by the rhetoric Bin Laden used in the 90s.   They are more in tune with the rest of the world as the information revolution and globalization make it harder to maintain isolation.

In the 90s this was part of the problem.  The encroachment of Western ideas into traditional Muslim communities was a threat, raising fears about losing identity and traditions to a godless, souless West, addicted to oil and willing to arm corrupt tyrannies.    It was this first phase of globalization that both Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld) and Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) sounded alarms about.   This phase emboldened Bin Laden as it was easy to stir up fear of the West and especially the US.

But now in 2011 we’re seeing generational change, as the youth are more immersed in modern culture and thus less enamored with the puritanical teachings of al qaeda or the Taliban.   Few want to go back to 622 AD.   Even those who dislike western foreign policy don’t believe it’s feasible or desirable to fight a war with the West.  The focus now is overturning tyrannies and taking care of their own political destinies.

It’s true that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a history of extremist rhetoric and a diverse membership, could be in a position to dominate new governments once the dictators leave.    But there is little reason to expect them to fundamentally threaten the West.    If they are too reactionary, they’ll likely face a backlash from their own people — a people who now understand that they can pressure governments and force change.    Most of them also reject al qaeda’s agenda or an all out war with the West.   To be sure, this will pressure Israel, but Wikileaks documents have revealed that even Hamas is more willing to work with the Jewish state than their public bravado indicates.

With Bin Laden’s death he no longer symbolizes the Arab or Muslim worlds.  In the US the perception of Muslims has already improved thanks to the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.    In the Arab world the so-called “Arab Spring” has displaced anger at America as the most visible political force.   NATO is bombing Libya, another Muslim country, though this time it is in support of a home grown revolution.

Given all of this, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the death of Osama Bin Laden is also the symbolic death of the danger and threat of Islamic extremism.   Not that there is no more terror threat — terrorism is possible any time a hand full of angry people can pull off some kind of deadly violent act.    Extremist elements in the Muslim world will remain active for some time.   But unless we over-react, the threat is dwindling.  Islam will still be a force in politics, but not a violent force bent on confronting the West.

Now the Taliban will be under more pressure to moderate their positions, break with al qaeda completely, and be part of a solution in Afghanistan.   Bin Laden’s death helps those elements in the Taliban willing to compromise and share power.  In other countries political Islam will look inward and focus on reforming their societies, perhaps more fully exploring the meaning of Islam in a modern world.   We may not like the path it takes sometimes, and progress may be excruciatingly slow, but it need not be something to fear.

It is the end of the Bin Laden era.   Fear of Islam will diminish in the West, and we will avert the clash of civilization that Bin Laden so hoped to spark.   This isn’t because the US killed Bin Laden — al qaeda’s been losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Arab world for years, and fear of Islam has been on the wane in the US — but his death is symbolically important.   It’s been a rough ten years; time to move on to something better!

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