fathers anguish

These are the kinds of photos that I don't want to see, because they trigger the most primal sort of fear: losing your child. I've had a brief shadow of that kind of fear just losing sight of my daughter in the mall for ten seconds; these photos are the face of that fear naked and revealed in all its power. I need to see these photos, and so do you, and everyone else too. More than submerged landscapes or chaotic relief camps, these capture the human scale of the tragedy that unfolded on Sunday.

An Indian man cries as he holds the hand of his eight-year-old son, who was killed in a tsunami in Cuddalore, southern India, December 27, 2004.

An Acehnese man is comforted by his father as he weeps next to his daughter who is badly injured at the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia's Sumatra island, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2004.

A hospital worker ties a tag on the dead body of a child at the Karapitiya hospital some 125 kms south of Colombo.

The toll is now at 77,000 - and a third are children. While miracles did occur, they were few.

the Brass Crescent shines

one of the main reasons I envisioned the Brass Crescent Awards was because I knew it would expose me to muslim voices I hadn't heard of or not been familiar enough with. I'm not aspiring to be the Glenn Reynolds of the Islamsphere on a regular basis or anything, but here's just a sampling of the amazing blogs I have been introduced to as a result of the Awards.

Abdusalaam al-Hindi has a hilarious piece making fun of stereotypical jumu'a khutbas. My favorite was the "We-Suck-Today-But-Our-Past-Was-Awesome" one, though the Jewphobic one has the best line: "Jews probably bullied this poor Khateeb when he was younger. The Jewish bullies most likely gave the Khateeb a wedgie in junior high school." rofl

Haroon Moghul writes about his outsider's experience of attending midnight mass on Christmas eve, and the insights it gave him. It's a somewhat disjointed piece, but stay the course.

Amazingly talented writer ihath pens a compelling tribute to Yasser Arafat, her fear of Saddam Hussein, preference for George Bush to win the election, and how she lost her religion in the Holy Lands. James Lileks has nothing on her for writing skill; her personal lifestory is like a romance novel come to life. Don't visit hr website unless you have an hour to spare.

The group blog Living Traditions takes on MuslimWakeUp founder Ahmed Nassef's overly broad categrization of non-Progressive muslims (ie, orthodox ones such as myself) as "neo-Salafists". They draw an analogy between this rhetorical tactic and those employed by the true fanatical Islamists themselves:

This method of dealing with questioners and critics reminds the author of the way extreme Muslim groups deal with questioners and critics. The words ("neo-Salafi, extremist" vs "kafir, mutbada'") may be different, but the purpose and ends are the same -- to shut down communication, questioning, learning, criticism. "You're either with us or against us."

While MuslimWakeUp had my sympathy for the recent hacker attack, I find that Living Tradition's points are valid in that MWU's founders often serve the cause of validating Islamic stereotypes more than refuting them - by using their publicity to denounce those muslims with whom they have ideological opposition.

And finally, fellow father of a baby girl Abu Aardvark has a post simply titled "Children" that is a must-read.

This is a miniscule sampling of the thought and debate within the Islamsphere today. Highlighting the diversity of thought and debate therein is the primary purpose of the Brass Crescent Awards. If you haven't cast your slate of nominations yet, what are you waiting for?

Remember, non-muslims are expressly invited to participate in nominations, voting, and have their own blogs eligible for nomination as well.


the allure of h-bd

In one post at GNXP, gc_emeritus perfectly illustrates why the "h-bd" (human biodiversity) paradigm is a stale avenue of scientific inquiry. While the fact that there are genetic variations between the races is essentially obvious, where h-bd falls flat is its attempt to consistently extrapolate from their existence into the spheres of politics and social policy.

gc begins by laying out an impressively detailed and factual case for South Africa's impending economic collapse. He ties together numerous sources of information brilliantly, making a rigorous argument. And then he blows it:

Sophists and h-bd deniers will denounce anyone who makes the unfortunate but true observation: no nation or polity composed primarily of sub-Saharan Africans has maintained a technological infrastructure. The coming collapse is the predictable consequence of black rule. It is a sign of our times that the person who makes such an observation is considered more evil than the person who pretends that up is down, and black is white...and who whistles past the graveyard of the half a million murders that have taken place since the end of apartheid.

I'm not an h-bd denier and neither will I blame the future collapse of South Africa upon racism. As GC's case study explained well, the root problem is institutionalized reverse-discrimination which is all to susceptible to corruption.

However, to argue that the coming collapse is the "predictable consequence of black self-rule" betrays the danger of taking h-bd too seriously. What GC is trying to say is that statistically speaking, success of a given nation state in Africa is inversely correlated with whether the government is comprised of black people. That statement may be true. What is not true, but is certainly implied by the GC's assumption that race has predictive power for a nation's success, is that the failure of all black states in the past is due to the fact of their being black nations, as opposed to them being (for example) post-colonial nations, resource-poor nations, disease-afflicted nations, low-education nations, external-debt nations, subsistence-farming nations, etc.

There's a good dialog to be had on why South Africa might fail and what that failure will mean for the rest of Africa as a whole. The allure of h-bd however obscures that debate by making race relevant.

Here's the litmus test however. Were the racial situations perfectly reversed in South Africa, would the white majority have prevailed under the precise same conditions, history, and political environment where the present black majority is now failing?

UPDATE: via Dean, comes this story about an experiment in black freedom and self-determination during the Slavery era - in the South. The success of Israel Hill can only be fit into GC's "predictive" model as an outlier, which is as much a head-in-the-sand approach regarding h-bd's limits as h-bd denial itself.

I've had numerous discussions with Razib at GNXP about h-bd's close ties to those (unlike GC) who really do argue racial politics in bad faith. I have been convinced by Razib's arguments that "race" is a meaningful and useful construct with utility in specific fields (for example, in medical treatment, where acknowledging genetic diversity allows racially-optimized patient care). However, the main problem is the obsession of those such as gc with the so-called "predictive" power of racial correlation. I think that this attitude misuses correlation statistics in much the same way that philosophers misuse quantum physics for their existential arguments. correlation is, as ever, not causation.


Massive off-shore earthquake in South Asia

A massive earthquake (8.9 on the Richter scale) has struck off the shore of Indonesia, sending devastating tsunami waves to India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Thailand.

The BBC estimates the death toll at 7,000 and rising due to the coastal resorts in the region being packed with holiday goers.

The blogsphere is the best aggregator of information about the quake - see Slashdot, The Command Post and this Daily Kos diary for latest updates discussion and details.

UPDATE: The death toll is over 10,000, and rising. Who knows how many of these deaths were likely preventable:

A warning centre such as those used around the Pacific could have saved most of the thousands of people who died in Asia's earthquake and tsunamis, a US Geological Survey official said.

None of the countries most severely affected - including India, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka - had a tsunami warning mechanism or tidal gauges to alert people to the wall of water that followed a massive earthquake, said Waverly Person of the USGS National Earthquake Information Centre.

"Most of those people could have been saved if they had had a tsunami warning system in place or tide gauges," he said yesterday.
Person said governments should instruct people living along the coast to move after a quake. Since a tsunami is generated at the source of an underwater earthquake, there is usually time - from 20 minutes to two hours - to get people away as it builds in the ocean.

"People along the Japanese coasts, along the coasts of California - people are taught to move away from the coasts. But a lot of these people in the area where this occurred - they probably had no kind of lessons or any knowledge of tsunamis because they are so rare."

UPDATE: toll rises to 44,000 confirmed dead. This animation of the wavefront is awe-inspiring.


Merry Christmas!

to all and to all a good night...

UPDATE: We had a white christmas in Galveston County! I'm no stranger to snow, hailing originally from Chicago. But this snowfall was all the more magical for its rarity, and timing.

The First Annual Brass Crescent Awards for the Islamic Blogsphere

In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful,

UPDATE: Voting has begun! The online form is now open - note that email confirmation is required, but all emails will be dicarded after the final tally.

Online Voting Form for the Brass Crescent Awards

AltMuslim and City of Brass would like to announce the first Annual Brass Crescent Awards for the Islamic Blogsphere!

The Brass Crescent Awards are named for the Story of the City of Brass in the Thousand and One Nights. Today, the Islamsphere is forging a new synthesis of Islam and modernity, and is the intellectual heir to the traditions of philosophy and learning that was once the hallmark of Islamic civilization - a heritage scarcely recognizable today in the Islamic world after a century's ravages of colonialism, tyrants, and religious fundamentalism. We believe that Islam transcends history, and we are forging history anew for tomorrow's Islam. These awards are a means to honor ourselves and celebrate our nascent community, and promote its growth.

The Awards are loosley modeled after the successful Koufax Awards and consist of two phases:

First, bloggers and blog-readers are asked to submit nominations for each of the categories listed below. Both muslims and non-muslims may paricipate in the nominations process. Nominations can be done in the official nomination thread at AltMuslim or City of Brass, or via private email. Self-nominations are encouraged! (AltMuslim.com and City of Brass may not be nominated for any category)

After the nominations period has concluded, we will go through and post a list of nominees, along with brief descriptions of the blog and why they were nominated. This will serve as a snapshot that we hope will serve as a benchmark to track the growth of the Islamsphere over time. Please help us with this by leaving descriptive comments along with the nominations!

Second, based on the number of nominations each blog receives for each category, we will select 8-10 finalists for each category. Voting will then take place for winner in each category. The blog with second-highest vote count in each category will be granted honorable mention status.

The nomination thread is here: First Annual Brass Crescent Nominations. These are the categories for this year's awards:

Best Blog - The single most essential muslim-authored blog in the Islamsphere, with the best overall writing and content.

Best Writing - Which blog is the most articulate, the most persuasive and well-reasoned?

Best Post - Which single post in the Islamsphere was the single most original, insightful, and important, above all the others?

Best Series - What regular, recurring feature deserves recognition for its comprehensiveness, its relevance to the concerns of the Islamsphere?

Best Iraqi Blogger - Whatever our opinions about the war, we can agree that Mesopotamia is once again fertile ground for self-expression and speech. Which blog from Iraq best captures the voice of the Iraqi people?

Best non-English Blog - Whether it is in Urdu or Persian or some other language, which non-english blog deserves the most recognition, especially for promoting multilingual blogging? (not 100% of the posts need be non-english).

Best Group Blog - which multiple group blog in the Islamsphere has the best diversity of writers and the most interesting debate on Muslim issues?

Most Deserving of Wider Recognition - Which muslim-authored blog is a true diamond in the rough, one that everyone should know about but for the vagaries of Google, few are aware?

Best Non-Muslim Blog - Which blog writen by a non-muslim is most respectful of Islam and seeks genuine dialog with muslims?

Best New Blog - Who's the most interesting new muslim kid on the block?

Best Commenter - The greatest aspect of blogging is the community that springs up around the blogs and their comment sections. Which commentator in the Islamsphere deserves respect for the most consistently insighful and wise contributions to the debate?

Best Thinker - Who is the most stimulating, insightful, and philosophically wise among us? This category is intended to highlight a blogger who may not post daily, but when they do post, they really make an impact.

Best Female Blog - The woman's voice in Islam is equal to the man's, and in the Islamsphere we seek to make sure the female perspective is highlighted and given its rightful due. Which muslim woman's blog has done the most to explore the role that women play within Islam and society?

Note: With exceptions noted above, any blog is eligible for any category, including blogs authored by non-muslims. In defining the Islamsphere, we are not relying solely on adherence to the faith, but an affinity for parts of the diverse cultural fabric that Islam embraces and is embraced by worldwide.


Cowards hack MuslimWakeUp!

UPDATE: MWU has restored their main page, including the Sex and the Ummah section. You can see the original hack here or download it here.

UPDATE 2: MWU has issued a statement on their front page. Excerpt:

...we will not be silenced and will not be intimidated. We will continue to fight falsehood everywhere, whether it takes the form of violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, or any other form of injustice. Our only weapons will continue to be truth, compassion, and honesty.

"And say, 'The truth has come, and falsehood has perished; for falsehood is bound to Perish.'" -- Qur'an 17:81

MuslimWakeUp!.com has been hacked with a death threat by some islamo-script-kiddies calling themselves the "Islamic 0xChallenge Brigades".

The FBI needs to be involved, because their hack includes explicit death threats. They photoshopped the MWU logo to "Murtad (apostate) Wake Up" instead of "Muslim Wake Up", and have litterred their piece with references to "final warnings". This is not the first time that a death threat has been issued by the cybertaliban - via Rebecca MacKinnon, Hossein Derakhshan (who remains the God Father of Iranian blogging) has received death threats from a blog calling itself the Islamic Army (how original). Hoder has been following up with the police, and I am sure MWU will take similar action.

Here's the infantile text they have replaced the main page with:

due to the continues violation by Muslim Wake Up website and its vile attack on Islam for a long period of time we at the Islamic 0xChallenge Brigades decided to deliever a powerful message to the people behind this website and so we started with an attack on MWU forum , all praise be to Allah the attack was successful but unfortunally the people running this website didn't understand our message and continued their attack on Islam and so we decided to deliever yet more powerful message and here we are!!


* No more slandering of the Mujahdeen
* No more peverts allowed to speak about Islam like Mohja Kahf and her warm fluid fantasies
* No more using our beloved prophet name in one of your dirty pornographic stories
* No more slandering of the respected scholars of Islam
* No more anti hijab articles

>> Optional

* remove the pic of the Egyptian girl with half bare breasts from your "Pornogrphy and the Ummah" section
* ask mohja Kahf to get a life
* stop being a minbar for hypocrites and learn the real Islam!
* move "hug a jew" to "sex and the Ummah" section......go figure why!

They claim to have deleted MWU's "Sex and the Ummah" section from the server. That section was very explicit; the latest entry was a short story about a muslim male who was cheating on his wife and delved into how his guilt manifested in increased piety at home and the mosque. It was crude and explicit and yes, even offensive at times, but it was a powerful critique of how culturally-inherited misogyny coupled with misogynistic self-serving interpretations of the faith lead to self-destructive behavior.

The obsession with mohja kahf is noteworthy - like Maryam's masterful critique of Theo van Gogh's film The Submission, I see in Kahf's writings an Islam I barely recognize. The males in Kahf's essays seem to be as imprisoned as the woman praying in van Gogh's film, by an Islam not of their devising but which has them firmly and cruelly within their grip. But Kahf deserves to write about the "dark side" of muslims' attitudes towards women just as van Gogh deserved to make films about it - and neither deserves censorship, let alone death.

MWU will be back, and I will continue to have my issues with their approach to the faith, which can be basically summarized as "the salad bar Deen" approach. But as victims of this puerile attack, they deserve nothing but unqualified support from the Islamsphere.

Some more snarky observations:

* The Islamic 0xChallenge Brigades seem to consider covering half-bare breasts being "optional" ... go figure why!

* They also seem to see jews as objects of sexual fascination ... go figure why!


Spirit of America

I'd like to remind everyone that the deadline for donating to the Spirit of America's "Friends of Iraq Blogger Challenge" is tonight, Dec 15th at midnight. Please do think about kicking in 5 or 10 bucks if you can spare it to help support the upcoming elections, buy Iraqi children toys, fund Arabic-language blogging tools, and other worthy endeavors.

I've set up a team donation link, whose modest donation totals can be tracked here under "City of Brass". Join me and let's add our voice to the chorus promoting success in Iraq and help to the Iraqi people, to whom we owe no small moral debt.

The list of projects is below - I have designated that the funds raised by my link above can be spent as the charity deems best. If one of these appeals to you more than the others, however, you can sign up yourself and donate directly to one of these causes only.

411th Civil Affairs - Re-equip Universities in Baquba, Iraq
Help Army assist 2 universities damaged by terrorist fighting

Library Books for Iraqi Children
Help kids who want to read and learn with books for children's libraries.

Friends of Democracy - the Iraq Democracy Project
Contribute to the success of free elections and democracy in Iraq.

Iraq's Universities
Support Iraq's next generation leaders by re-equipping higher education.

Arabic Blogging Tool - Viral Freedom
Support independent new media and free expression in Iraq and the Arab world.

Marines and SeaBees Seek Tools for Iraqi Tradesmen
Help those who make a commitment to improving their country.

Sewing Machines For Women in Ramadi
Putting economic power in women's hands

Iraqi TV in Al-Anbar
Spirit of America Helps U.S. Marines Equip TV Stations in Iraq

Operation Snapshot
Marines need Polaroid cameras and film to build goodwill and break down barriers in Iraq.


Flew's wager

What does one make of a famed advocate of atheism, who debated CS Lewis in the 1950s and a patron saint for modern atheist groups like infidels.org, suddenly declaring himself a Deist at age 81?

A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God more or less based on scientific evidence, and says so on a video released Thursday.

At age 81, after decades of insisting belief is a mistake, Antony Flew has concluded that some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe. A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature, Flew said in a telephone interview from England.

Flew said he's best labeled a deist like Thomas Jefferson, whose God was not actively involved in people's lives.

His later comment about the Christian and Muslim concept of God being akin to a "cosmic Saddam Hussein" suggests that he employs his dispassionate, Socratic assessment of evidence sparingly.

But what's more intriguing is to see him invoke belief buttressed by scientific evidence. As I've been wont to argue, proof denies faith. Not to say that a miracle on your doorstep wouldn't be valid empirical evidence, but rather that expecting to find conclusive rather than circumstantial evidence to rationally and rigorously deduce the existence of a Creator is misguided. Faith, by definition, lies outside the sphere of reason.

Still, the skeptic in me can't also help but wonder if his age doesn't have something to do with his tentative spirituality...

UPDATE: Richard Carrier of Infidels.org spoke to Flew personally about his apostasy, and reveals some more details:

I asked him point blank what he would mean if he ever asserted that "probably God exists," to which he responded (in a letter in his own hand, dated 19 October 2004):

I do not think I will ever make that assertion, precisely because any assertion which I am prepared to make about God would not be about a God in that sense ... I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations.

Rather, he would only have in mind "the non-interfering God of the people called Deists--such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin." Indeed, he remains adamant that "theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience," exactly as he argued in "Theology and Falsification."

This is much more reassuring - I unintentionally mischaracterized his position based on the earlier article. Flew is arguing more for a remote "First cause" that does not neccessarily have a scientific explanation - Godelian, if you will.

Carrier also quotes the following from Flew:

My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species ... [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms.

Carrier suggests that the modern literature, which Flew has not yet read, provides the naturalistic theory that Flew asks for, and so ends his article on the confident note that Flew will re-embrace the faith once more - after a suitbale period of re-enlightenment.

Overall, the case here is not of a conversion on the road to Damascus but rather one of plugging holes - which his atheist brethren are keen to rapidly provide him brick and mortar.

On the issue of whether a naturalistic account of the first reproducing organizms is required to banish introduction of a supernatural element to the origins of life, I think it's a red herring. I am sure that Richard Carrier can make a rgorous case that a purely naturalistic explanation can exist. The more I have learned of biology, the less mystique that early pre-cellular life seems to me, frankly.

Where the true wonder of creation manifests is in the longer view, and the staggerring complexity - and evolution itself - of complex organisms.

I predict Flew will return to the fold in due order, finding in Carrier's literature the excuses he needs.

UPDATE: Well, I was careless and thought that the following aricle came after Flew's flirtation with Deism, but it is actually from some years beforehand. Still, it is interesting: "">Sorry to disappoint, but I'm Still an Atheist"

I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word 'atheist' in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as 'atypical' and 'amoral'. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify - to show to be false - what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as "the religious hypothesis." The more I contemplate the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam the more I wish I could demonstrate their falsity.
I can suggest only one possible source of the rumours. Several weeks ago I submitted to the Editor of Philo (The Journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers) a short paper making two points which might well disturb atheists of the more positive kind. The point more relevant here was that it can be entirely rational for believers and negative atheists to respond in quite different ways to the same scientific developments.

The gratuitous dig at Islam and Christianity aside (I think there's an element of a-priori opinion driving his supposedly dispassionate analyses), I find it fascinating that stressed the "negative" aspect of atheism. Logically, being unable to disprove God is logically equivalent to being unable to prove God - the latter being my position. He had indeed basically adopted the view that "God exists" is a Godelian statement, outside the realm of proof or falsification.

The other interesting point is his explicit agreement with my position that rationality is not uniform. I discussed this in an earlier essay that basically critiqued Richard Hoftstatder's "super-rational" argument (itself grounded in the game theory of the Prisoner's Dilemma). It is indeed perfectly valid for two rational thinkers to assess the same set of observations and facts and yet come to completely different conclusions.

To be honest, finding this much common ground with an atheist (negative or otherwise) is not that surprising to me. I'm fairly confident in the rigor of my own analyses, and you could in one sense characterize Flew's evolving position as a desperate attempt to NOT be atheist. desit, or anything else. I think they call these people "agnostics" in the real world. Perhaps my post title isn't as snarky as I thought...

Now, all of the above is moot of course, since he is now a declared Deist (of the "Aristotelian" type). I think I found more in common with him intelectually speaking when he was not a Deist. Much like my post, he seems to hae wandered all over :)

BTW, Flew's famous 1950 essay on Theology and Falsification is indeed required reading, regardless of where you stand on the line (or straddling it, as the case may be).


Internet haram!

via a lengthy isnad[1], I've come across an article by Sikander Ziad Hashmi, a Canadian muslim who has is accorded sayyid status on the SunniForum.com website. He argues that blogging, and mixed-gender comment sections in particular, are not permissible according to Islamic principles. The key to his argument is:

In essence, blogging about one's personal life is similar to writing a journal entry and then posting it outside one's house or at a street corner for all to read. There isn't anything really wrong with doing that (if one wishes to be so public about one's private life), as long as one doesn't divulge any information that doesn't lead members of the opposite gender to envision and imagine the author, and doesn't let their hearts and minds become impressed and eventually lean towards the author.

Now, that may seem simple, but the fact is that nobody can really ascertain as to what may cause the above in the minds of the opposite gender. It may seem tempting to write-off this whole notion by saying that what goes through the minds of the readers is not the responsibility of the author. While that may hold true for truly objective pieces of work and in matters of true need, the onlookers would not be completely to blame for not "lowering their gaze" if a muscular, handsome man wearing boxers and a t-shirt were to unnecessarily walk through a group of women. The bulk of the blame would fall squarely on the shoulders of the one committing the unnecessary action, though the onlookers would be responsible for continuing to look even after they knew they weren't supposed to.

Similarly, bloggers must be careful about what they write, lest they divulge traits about themselves that they should otherwise not be making known to the opposite gender, while at the same time, leading the readers into sin by hooking them on to reading on and learning more about the things they really don't need to know, and shouldn't know. Some devoted readers even end up forming an affectionate, emotional attachment with the author.

The fact that the above is in fact possible has proven itself time and time again, with bloggers receiving marriage proposals and other suggestive comments through various means such as e-mail, the comments box on their blogs, etc. It is highly unlikely that a stranger would send off a marriage proposal unless he/she was able to get to know the author well enough to feel comfortable in taking such a step.

Now, let me first explicitly state that I have no problem with someone interpreting the faith to mean that something is permissible or not, and obviously he is not seeking to issue a fatwa or try to impose his view on others (though many at the Sunni Forum have already heeded his call to stop blogging entirely). As Ikram mentioned in Zack's (mixed-gender) comment section, you can take the argument on modesty arbitrarily far, to the point of sitting alone in a dark room 24/7 eating (homemade) bread. That's entirely a matter of personal interpretation.

Since I am clearly not imposing gender controls on my comment section nor have I deleted my blog, it will be no surprise to anyone that I disagree with Hashmi's interpretation[2]. Zack has already criticized elements of his logic, but my main critique centers on the religious assumptions above, namely:

  1. revelation of personality or physical details about yourself, even accidentally, is forbidden to members of the opposite sex, because this revelation will inevitably lead to sexual or emotional arousal

  2. a person bears part of the blame for any sexual or emotional arousal they may stir in a member of the opposite sex

Hashmi is careful not to couch the argument solely in sexual terms, which legitimizes his arguments considerably. The key here is that he seeks to prevent the author from compromising their modesty and becoming an object of desire of infatuation. As I have argued in my essay on the Burke and the Bikini, that reduction to object status is something to guard against, regardless of whether it is done with too many or too few clothes. While I don't disagree with the intent behind assumption #1 above, his prescription is simply too broad.

If any contact that could lead to getting to know someone better (which would help in evaluation of marriage prospects) is forbidden, then how will anyone ever get to know anyone well enough to make that evaluation? There's a contradiction here that only resolves itself if you assume that marriage proposals should be the arranged type only and that personality is a secondary concern. Given the emphasis on "Biodata" in south asian matchmaking, this is perhaps not an unreasonable assumption in all cases, but that's a cultural issue, whereas Hashmi is trying to make a religious argument that presumably would apply even to non-biodata-obsessed cultures.

But the far more contentious assumption is that the author bears blame for "leading into sin" their readers of the opposite gender. Hashmi's thesis is that emotional attachments between people of different gender is inherently sinful unless that relationship is a mehram one. The subtext here is that people are ruled by their passions and are emotionally immature, hence not fully responsible for their actions. This is a pernicious concept which is at odds with the concept of individual liberties, because it forces society to adopt the role of protecting you from your own impulses - for your own good, of course. We know where this leads - to repressive regimes like the Taliban or imposition of evangelical Christian social norms into the legal domain.

Consider the classic case of the rape victim. She has a right to dress as she pleases; the rapists' argument that she had it coming because she wore a tight dress is not accepted as a valid defense in our society. At least, not anymore, thanks to the efforts of liberal groups like the ACLU and the entire civil rights struggle. The "blame the victim" mentality is a hallmark of the extremist social conservative who seeks to wield state power against individual liberty in order to force others to conform to their values. A crime like rape is seen as a problem arising from immodest clothing rather than a violation of civil rights and the sovereignity of the self.

Hashmi is correct that by revealing information about yourself, you may cause infatuation amongst a reader. Where he is incorrect is that such infatuation is your fault, for leading them to sin[3]. Since I believe that the gift of reason (al-Aql al-insaan) from Allah is far more powerful (given its source) than the base instincts of our animal natures, it is hard to see what religious justification exists for the assertion that our animal natures can override reason, and hence our responsibility for our actions.

Still, Hashmi (and his followers at SunniForum) are welcome to their interpretation. I hope they do not fall to the easy temptation of judging the iman of those muslims such as myself who do not find their arguments rigorous enough to be binding.

I do have a question, though. Isn't participating in the SunniForum itself a violation of the same principles Hashmi outlines?

UPDATE: Here is a single-issue blog which makes the argument that chatting on MSN, AIM or equivalent is equivalent to zina (adultery). Aside from simply declaring it such, they do not provide any actual theologic references to justify the religious claim. This website is explicitly written as an attempt at dawah (proslytezation). The basic flaw in the argument is the assumption that any and all contact between non-mehram gender is inherently of immodest niyat (intent).

[1] Sister Soljah -> Zack -> Bill -> me. OK, this footnote is a bit gratuitous, I was really looking for an excuse to use the word isnad in a blogging context.

[2] Note that some muslims might interpret Hashmi's opinion as a fatwa and feel obligated to comply. Naturally, he's no authority as far as I am concerned, being a Bohra there is only one source of religious authority whose interpretations I would consider binding.

[3] Whether the infatuation is a sin itself is largely irrelevant to the discussion.


Happy Hanukkah!

To all my Jewish friends in the blogsphere, especially Jonathan, Diane, and Matthew.

For the benefit of my readers who don't know what this holiday[1] means beyond its commercial association with the generic Holiday season, here's a good summary from Wikipedia:

The miracle of Chanukah is referred to in the Talmud, but not in the books of the Maccabees. This holiday marks the defeat of Seleucid forces who had tried to prevent Israel from practising Judaism. Judah Maccabee and his brothers destroyed overwhelming forces, and rededicated the Temple. The eight-day festival is marked by the kindling of lights with a special Menorah, traditionally known amongst most Sephardim as a chanukah, and amongst many Balkan Sephardim and in Modern Hebrew as a chanukiah.

The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) says that after the occupiers had been driven from the Temple, the Maccabees went in to take down the pagan statues and restore the Temple. They discovered that most of the ritual items had been profaned. They sought ritually purified olive oil to light a Menorah to rededicate the Temple. However, they found only enough oil for a single day. They lit this, and went about purifying new oil. Miraculously, that tiny amount of oil burned for the eight days it took to have new oil pressed and made ready. It is for this reason that Jews light a candle each night of the festival.

The story of Hanukkah is fascinating to me because of the narrative about pagan desecration. Judaism is as strongly monotheistic as Islam (not that Christianity isn't monotheistic, but the other two faiths seem to place more emphasis on monotheism in their daily practices and observances, in my admittedly superficial observations). Therefore the struggle to resanctify pagan defilement of the single most important Temple seems strongly echoed in the Prophet's SAW cleansing of the Ka'aba, which was built by the grand patriarch of monotheism, Ibrahim Nabi (Abraham) and defiled by the pre-Islamic pagans (jahilliya). The Prophet SAW and his successor Ali AS cleaned out the Kaaba at the end of the (bloodless) conquest of Mecca, an event beautifully rendered at the end of the movie, The Message. I find a strong parallel between Hanukkah and the reclaiming of the Kaaba, as it's a theme that lies at the very heart of the concept of faith - an affirmation, and struggle, to assert Truth over falsehood.

This theme is also a parable for our times. The struggle against the "pagans" may not be about the numerical quantity of gods we follow, but rather about the universality of human liberty. If the day comes where constitutional liberalism[2] spreads to every corner of the globe, then a memorial much like Hanukkah might be worth envisioning - one candle, for every century that mankind labored under tyranny and oppression.

[1]I am tempted to use the spelling "Chanukkah" instead of Hanukkah, but am not sure what transliteration of the Hebrew word is more accurate since i have almost no experience in Hebrew pronounciation. With Arabic words like Qur'an, I do tend towards a stricter transliteration because I have knowledge of the difference in sound represented by the Qrather than the K, the presence of the apostrophe, etc. I fear it would be presumptous of me to write Chanukkah without the analogous knowledge of what pronounciation the spelling difference represents.
[2]I have learned that freedom is not synonymous with democracy, and sometimes is even its enemy. The true measure of liberty is constitutional liberalism, not democracy for its own sake. This is a strongly Madisonian view, but after reading Fareed Zakaria's book, it's hard to dispute the evidence of history. More on this later.


Engage Iran

Here are the things I think I know about Iran.

Iran has a legitimate need for nuclear energy, because even though it has oil resources, it's not enough for true economic independence.

The Iranian regime at present sees acquiring nuclear weapons as a means of survival - an attitude that is not helped by the facts on the ground (see map, via Needlenose). The Iranian public is strongly nationalistic and sees nuclear weapons as a national point of pride, just as India and Pakistan did.

China and Iran are developing close economic ties. Iran will sell gas to China for 25 years. China will be allowed to develop oil resources in the Persian Gulf. The EU meanwhile is offering Iran a nice deal on economic incentives in return for a freeze on uranium enrichment.

A mock wargaming excercise sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly and run by some retired military and intelligence types concluded that Iran will likely develop nuclear weapons, and that a full-scale preventive invasion is not really feasible (even assuming no budget or resources allocated for post-war policing). Airstrikes by Israel analogous to the Osirak reactor bombing in Iraq are not going to work, the Iranian program is decentralized and underground.

That's what we know. So what should we do? Here's my take.

Iran is building economic ties to the EU and China - and the carrot of nuclear power is one we can wave to get on board and compete for that market. The only reason the mullahs are likely to pursue nuclear power is because of perceived threat from America - but if we become an economic partner (and compete with China and the EU) then the incentive for nukes lessens.

Despite boilerplate mullah rhetoric, I don't think that a nuclear Iran would be suicidal enough to attack Israel. Mutually assured destruction, after all. Why would the Iranian regime be so interested in long-term economic alliances if they were really intent on all-out armageddon? I wouldn't be surprised if Iran simply copies Israel's own "strategic denial" policy on nuke capabilities.

I think that N. Korea is the country that we must stop at all costs from acdquiring nukes, because it's far more unstable (and irrational) leadership.

The best thing that can happen is for Iran to succeed in building economic ties to the West. That will lead to a middle class, increase in per-capita GDP, and quality of life. The mullahcracy will stay in power but be forced to incrementally liberalize, in much the same way that China is doing. In many ways the analogy is a close one between the two, and their close relationship only underscores the likelihood that the mullahs will see economic liberalization as the key to maintaing power without descending into North Korea-esque disaster. The Iranian theocracy is much more reality-based, and the enormous youth population virtually guarantees that some accomodation has to be made on their part.

In other words, we should at the very least do nothing. At the very most, we should actively engage Iran with trade (there's a huge population of youth there hungry for our blue jeans and sneakers!), hold Iran accountable to its promises and IAEA oversight (already much more stringent than anything Iraq agreed to), and help Iran with its energy crisis (as Kerry proposed during the campaign). And of course, military containment of Iran should continue - though with a non-threatening posture, so that the nuke incentive remains low.

Iran, like China, is a civilization in its own right - and liberal freedom is likely going to precede democracy there. Unless we intervene militarily as we did in Iraq.

ADDENDUM. Note that Kenneth Pollack's new book on Iran makes much the same general recommendations (though in a more roundabout way). Praktike summarizes Pollack's prescription as follows: 1. Hold Open the Prospect of the Grand Bargain, 2. A True Carrot-and-Stick Approach, and 3. Preparing for a New Containment Regime.


The story of Fallujah is yet to be written

Without question, the military offensive into Fallujah had a cost in innocent human life. That is a genuine tragedy and a genuine burden of conscience that all Americans must bear. However, I believe with genuine conviction that the Fallujah offensive was the lesser of two evils.

Some of the civilian refugees from Falluja are beginning to tell their stories, and the media coverage does not seek to minimize the terror that they experienced caught between the fighting. For example, aBoston Globe article begins with the face of innocence - a girl wounded in the fighting. I see my own daughter's face in hers. The article also describes how civilians had mostly fled the city, but one journalist embedded with the Marines stumbled inside a house to find a woman huddled in fear with her children as bombs exploded outside.

However, these refugees have been finding that the role of saviour and oppressor have not been as black and white as they were led to believe. Here's another anecdote from the Globe article:

Salehma Mahmoud, 43, and her four daughters fled Fallujah on Tuesday after her husband was killed fighting against the Americans. They walked 4 miles only to be confronted by Iraqi soldiers who insulted and harassed them, grabbing at Mahmoud's oldest daughter.

"He grabbed Fatima's hand and tried to kiss her. I was trying to stop him with all I had," she said. "He beat me and pushed me to the ground, and his friends were laughing at us loud. He tore the right sleeve of my daughter's dress and lay her on the ground."

To Mahmoud's surprise -- because she had been told that US troops would beat and rape her -- a US patrol rescued them. An American soldier pulled the Iraqi soldier away and yelled at him.

Mahmoud's daughter, who speaks some English, told her that the American called the Iraqi names and said, "If you had really come to save the people of this city, you would not have done such a thing."

The reality of life in Fallujah was not an idyllic paradise, free from Amereican oppression. It's clear from reports like this from the Times of London that the girl in the photo may now have a more positive future, despite her present pain:

Mutilated bodies dumped on Fallujah's bombed out streets today painted a harrowing picture of eight months of rebel rule.

As US and Iraqi troops mopped up the last vestiges of resistance in the city after a week of bombardment and fighting, residents who stayed on through last week's offensive were emerging and telling harrowing tales of the brutality they endured.

Flyposters still litter the walls bearing all manner of decrees from insurgent commanders, to be heeded on pain of death.
Another poster in the ruins of the souk bears testament to the strict brand of Sunni Islam imposed by the council, fronted by hardline cleric Abdullah Junabi. The decree warns all women that they must cover up from head to toe outdoors, or face execution by the armed militants who controlled the streets.

Two female bodies found yesterday suggest such threats were far from idle. An Arab woman, in a violet nightdress, lay in a post-mortem embrace with a male corpse in the middle of the street. Both bodies had died from bullets to the head.

For individual liberty to truly take root in Iraq, the tyranny of extremists over the civilians of Iraq must end. Such liberation cannot occur without cost. I am a classical liberal when it comes to human liberty - and Thomas Jefferson's legendary dictum "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure" is an expression of pragmatic principle, not vacant idealism, so neccessary to success in the endeavour at hand.

The girl in the photo above is a patriot of Iraq. Margaret Hassan (see sidebar) is a martyr of Iraq. Both patriots and martyrs cannot be in short supply if Iraq is to become free.
Margaret Hassan's murder by foreign insurgents, widely denounced by the Iraqi people, inspires moral clarity in the Arab News, commenting, "Humanity, Islam and brotherhood � the appeal fell on deaf ears." However, for Robert Fisk, the question of who murdered her remains unanswered. Fisk, unlike the Arab News writer, cannot conceive that evil plays a role in this conflict, firmly in denial that those who oppose marauding American myrmidons might not be pure of motive.

The truth is, however, that this evil predates Islam, it is the evil against which Islam itself was founded to fight against and against which we must all (muslim or otherwise) maintain vigilant jihad.

I am honest enough to admit that my support for these policies means I share the burdden of blame for the sufferring of innocents. But those who repeatedly reserve their concern for civilian Iraqis until only after American operations begin have far worse crises of conscience than I to face in the mirror.

ADDENDUM. Juan Cole, no friend to the Bush Administration or booster of the Iraq War, comments with crystal moral clarity:

the Marines at Fallujah are operating in accordance with a UNSC Resolution and have all the legitimacy in international law that flows from that. The Allawi government asked them to undertake this Fallujah mission.

To compare them to the murderous thugs who kidnapped CARE worker Margaret Hassan, held her hostage, terrified her, and then killed her is frankly monstrous. The multinational forces are soldiers fighting a war in which they are targetting combatants and sometimes accidentally killing innocents. The hostage-takers are terrorists deliberately killing innocents. It is simply not the same thing...

...the basic idea of attacking the guerrillas holding up in that city is not in and of itself criminal or irresponsible. A significant proportion of the absolutely horrible car bombings that have killed hundreds and thousands of innocent Iraqis, especially Shiites, were planned and executed from Fallujah. There were serious and heavily armed forces in Fallujah planning out ways of killing hundreds to prevent elections from being held in January. These are mass murderers, serial murderers. If they were fighting only to defend Fallujah, that would be one thing; even the Marines would respect them for that. They aren't, or at least, a significant proportion of them aren't. They are killing civilians elsewhere in order to throw Iraq into chaos and avoid the enfranchisement of the Kurds and Shiites.

Those who seek to equate the mission of the Marines who liberated Fallujah and the Islamist thugs who tyrannized the city and all of Iraq beyond, are the same ones who breathlessly invoke the Lancet study purporting 100,000 civilian deaths because of the US occupation, having been utterly silent during the genocide against the Shi'a during Saddam's rule. To them, I have nothing to say. Their agenda is quite clear, and it has nothing to do with true compassion for the citizens of Iraq.


get Firefox! surf, don't suffer, the web

Get Firefox!I was a bit puzzled by some of the feedback I've been getting on the site layout from people, until I realized that this pure-CSS layout likely looks a bit broken in Internet Explorer. IE is notorious for making Bad Decisions when it comes to rendering valid HTML and CSS. It pains me to know that my lovely layout is being mangled, so I'm going to repeat my call to all to switch to Firefox v1.0. Try it, its simple to switch and you'll literally rediscover the web.

Need convincing? In Firefox, you have a built-in and extensible search function that lets you easily query Amazon, Google, EBay, IMDB, whatever you want. It has much more sophisticated pop-up blockeres and cookie management. It protects you from web-borne viruses that exploit holes and flaws in IE. And wait until you discover tabbed browsing! You have to try this.

And last but not least, start appreciating City of Brass the way it was meant to be seen!


Islam and Freedom

I've argued many times before (with examples) that Islam is actually the mechanism through which liberty can be brought to the Arab world, and the false-dichotomy of the "Clash of Civilizations" worldview articulated by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. The Clash hypothesis is what animates foreign policy in the Bush Administration, and its defenders are forced to resort to condescension towards Islam and Arab culture to make their case.

Michael Hersh now has a detailed essay on Bernard Lewis and his influence upon policy, especially his persona grata status with Vice President Cheney (who sits like Shelob at the nexus of all policy decisions in the Administration). The following lengthy excerpt is the key to understanding the alternative school of thought to which I also subscribe (which you could call "muscular Wilsonianism"):

At least until the Iraq war, most present-day Arabs didn't think in the stark clash-of-civilization terms Lewis prefers. Bin Laden likes to vilify Western Crusaders, but until relatively recently, he was still seen by much of the Arab establishment as a marginal figure. To most Arabs before 9/11, the Crusades were history as ancient as they are to us in the West. Modern Arab anger and frustration is, in fact, less than a hundred years old. As bin Laden knows very well, this anger is a function not of Islam's humiliation at the Treaty of Carlowitz of 1699�the sort of long-ago defeat that Lewis highlights in his bestselling What Went Wrong�but of much more recent developments. These include the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement by which the British and French agreed to divvy up the Arabic-speaking countries after World War I; the subsequent creation, by the Europeans, of corrupt, kleptocratic tyrannies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan; the endemic poverty and underdevelopment that resulted for most of the 20th century; the U.N.-imposed creation of Israel in 1948; and finally, in recent decades, American support for the bleak status quo.

Yet as Bulliet writes, over the longer reach of history, Islam and the West have been far more culturally integrated than most people realized; there is a far better case for "Islamo-Christian civilization" than there is for the clash of civilizations. "There are two narratives here," says Fawaz Gerges, an intellectual ally of Bulliet's at Sarah Lawrence University. "One is Bernard Lewis. But the other narrative is that in historical terms, there have been so many inter-alliances between world of Islam and the West. There has never been a Muslim umma, or community, except for 23 years during the time of Mohammed. Except in the theoretical minds of the jihadists, the Muslim world was always split. Many Muslim leaders even allied themselves with the Crusaders."

Today, progress in the Arab world will not come by secularizing it from above (Bulliet's chapter dealing with Chalabi is called �Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places�) but by rediscovering this more tolerant Islam, which actually predates radicalism and, contra Ataturk, is an ineluctable part of Arab self-identity that must be accommodated. For centuries, Bulliet argues, comparative stability prevailed in the Islamic world not (as Lewis maintains) because of the Ottomans' success, but because Islam was playing its traditional role of constraining tyranny. "The collectivity of religious scholars acted at least theoretically as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Islam to redress the tyranny." This began to play out during the period that Lewis hails as the modernization era of the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. "What Lewis never talks about is the concomitant removal of Islam from the center of public life, the devalidation of Islamic education and Islamic law, the marginalization of Islamic scholars," Bulliet told me. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Muslim clerics had long feared, tyranny that conforms precisely with some theories of Islamic political development, notes Bulliet. What the Arab world should have seen was "not an increase in modernization so much as an increase in tyranny. By the 1960s, that prophecy was fulfilled. You had dictatorships in most of the Islamic world." Egypt's Gamel Nasser, Syria's Hafez Assad, and others came in the guise of Arab nationalists, but they were nothing more than tyrants.

Yet there was no longer a legitimate force to oppose this trend. In the place of traditional Islamic learning�which had once allowed, even encouraged, science and advancement�there was nothing. The old religious authorities had been hounded out of public life, back into the mosque. The Caliphate was dead; when Ataturk destroyed it in Turkey, he also removed it from the rest of the Islamic world. Into that vacuum roared a fundamentalist reaction led by brilliant but aberrant amateurs like Egypt's Sayyid Qutb, the founding philosopher of Ayman Zawahiri's brand of Islamic radicalism who was hanged by al-Nasser, and later, Osama bin Laden, who grew up infected by the Saudis' extreme version of Wahhabism. Even the creator of Wahhabism, the 18th-century thinker Mohammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was outside the mainstream, notorious for vandalizing shrines and "denounced" by theologians across the Islamic world in his time for his "doctrinal mediocrity and illegitimacy," as the scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb writes in another new book that rebuts Lewis, Islam and its Discontents.[1]

Now, I've been making my way through Fareed Zakaria's book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, and I've found that it's very much in tune with the perspective above. Zakaria makes the essential point that the rise of teh Catholic Church was really the catalyst for freedom in Europe, even though the Church itself was often not liberal at all. As Bill Allison has been saying for some time now, the Reformation was not a "progressive" vision of faith, if anything Luther sought a return to more strict orthodoxy. Zakaria calls this the Paradox of Catholicism and it's a topic on which I will blog more in the near future.

The bottom line here is that the goal is a liberal democracy - and that liberal freedoms often (in fact, nearly always) precede democracy. The absence of Islam from the public sphere has meant a lack of a counter-balancing check upon the power of the state in the Arab world - and into that void has rushed extremist ideology that ultimately enters symbiosis with the state itself. Nowhere is this more true than in Saudi Arabia.

The urgency of this debate centers on Iran. The neocon position is that we must invade to liberate. But if you see Islam as an ally, then there is a way to play catalyst to internal liberalization. That will lead to a far more stable sprig of liberty than one imposed (as the Iraq example shows).

The Future of Freedom is a compelling book and together with Gary Hart's The Fourth Power essentially is the foundation of my foreign policy views. The present neoconservative view in charge of policy, however, is unable to recognize that Islam is the key, not the obstacle.

[1] The book Islam and its Discontents is not yet on Amazon, but you can read an excerpt from the book online.



via Laura, I came across Jeanne's reaction to a photo of American soldiers occupying a Falluja masjid. She calls it a desecration, and asks herself how she'd feel if it were her church. I can probably shed some light on the question - were it MY masjid, I'd be angry indeed. Then again, that's because in MY masjid, in Houston USA, we do not as a rule store bombs, weapons caches, or fire upon police from the minaret. So, the presence of American soldiers in MY masjid would be cause for great anger, yes.

However, what makes me genuinely furious, rather than merely angry, is the desecration of another masjid illustrated at right. The militia of Muqtada Sadr occupied the Kufa masjid, the site of the martyrdom of Imam Ali As himself, and used it for their crude and clumsy political ends. And it happened in MY masjid, too - the Kufa masjid was renovated (under UNESCO's auspices) with contributions from Dawoodi Bohra muslims around the world, including my family's. The Kufa masjid is an icon of my faith and part of the fabric of my community's practices and traditions - and history. Where is the outrage?

Oh yes, there certainly are desecrations of masjids to be angered about. But the desecration of the masjid that Jeanne speaks about happenned well before the soldiers arrived there.

In fact, perhaps it is cleansing in some way for that masjid to now host the forces of liberation rather than oppression.

UPDATE: Bill Allison finds a link I'd meant to add as context for this post but had lost - as usual we are on much the same wavelength. Excerpt:

As US and Iraqi troops mopped up the last vestiges of resistance in the city after a week of bombardment and fighting, residents who stayed on through last week's offensive were emerging and telling harrowing tales of the brutality they endured.

Flyposters still litter the walls bearing all manner of decrees from insurgent commanders, to be heeded on pain of death. Amid the rubble of the main shopping street, one decree bearing the insurgents' insignia - two Kalashnikovs propped together - and dated November 1 gives vendors three days to remove nine market stalls from outside the city's library or face execution.

The pretext given is that the rebels wanted to convert the building into a headquarters for the "Mujahidin Advisory Council" through which they ran the city.

Another poster in the ruins of the souk bears testament to the strict brand of Sunni Islam imposed by the council, fronted by hardline cleric Abdullah Junabi. The decree warns all women that they must cover up from head to toe outdoors, or face execution by the armed militants who controlled the streets.

Two female bodies found yesterday suggest such threats were far from idle. An Arab woman, in a violet nightdress, lay in a post-mortem embrace with a male corpse in the middle of the street. Both bodies had died from bullets to the head.

Much of the offense taken by Muslims about the sanctity of mosques is almost transparently situational. I think that we muslims who have the good fortune to live in a place like Houston, rather than one like Falluja, have an obligation towards perspective. If there is self-deception, I believe it to be unintentional, and the blame can largely be placed at the feet of the false concept of Dar ul-Islam as a trans-national entity to which muslims should show some kind of allegiance. Clearly, in the case of Fallujah, membership in Dar ul-Islam is not something any western muslim would tolerate, having grown used to liberty.

Oh, and as for the template, I'm working on it :) You won't recognize the place, trust me, after I'm done...

Da Vinci Code: anti-Passion?

It's official - Tom Hanks will star in the movie version of The DaVinci Code.

What intrigues me about this, more than just the fact that it was an engrossing and thought-provoking book, is the possible reaction from the newly-empowered religious right.

Now, I should clarify something. The idea that Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene is at much at odds with my own religious theological framework as it is for Catholics (though, understandably, the Catholic faith is more directly threatened by the content). Ultimately, the key to appreciating The DaVinci Code is for what it reveals about DaVinci's personal beliefs through his paintings, not about Jesus's life.

The book has inspired an entire industry of Christian counter-propaganda, attempting to debunk or deny what they see as a threat to their faith. However, it is clear that the book represents a decidely non-conformist interpretation of DaVinci's beliefs, and the underlying message of his art. Regardless of whether you agree or not with that interpetation, it is clear that The Last Supper is a complex, subversive work and not one that seamlessly jibes with mainstream Christian views.

However, DaVinci has been co-opted by the religious right as a comrade in belief, and representations and derivative works of his paintings often completely obfuscate the subversive elements. Most notably, the diembodied hand and the gender of the person at Jesus's right-hand. In recreations (both painted and live-action) I observe that the hand becomes attached, somewhat awkwardly, to the figure peering leftwards, and the figure at Jesus's right is much more masculine. The fact that Leonardo deliberately bent gender identities in other paintings (not least of which is Mona Lisa / Amon Li) only adds to the mystery of that figure, and certainly isn't an argument in defense of the traditional religious interpretation of the painting.

So, it will be intriguing to see the reaction from the religious right to the release of this movie. It may well be the anti-Passion of the Christ. I have a feeling that we will see coordinated boycott campaigns, pressure upon movie theaters chains to stop the film, and a DaVinci-debunk-umentary on Sinclair-owned television stations.

I fully expect to see the right attempt to consolidate its influence and strive to enact actual social policy during Bush's second term. I hope I am proven wrong, but already even supposedly mainstream, big-tent Republican groups are interpreting Bush's mandate as a stimulus for sustained jihad against pro-choice GOP politicians and trial balloons about banning divorce (an action whose inherent misogyny would put the Taliban to shame). The war on choice has expanded to a war on birth control. And don't think for a moment it stops there - the self-styled architects of Bush's re-election, the ones who delivered the I-4 Corridor in Florida and the balance of power in Ohio, are suddenly conspicously public, and reminding the President that they expect their due this term. (UPDATE: More on Mullah Dobson here).

I think that The DaVinci Code, as a movie, will become a rallying-point. For both sides in the culture war that the religious right seeks to provoke.

UPDATE: I thought I was quite clear in the post above, but judging from some of the reaction in comments, trackback, and email, I guess not. The DaVinci Code is indeed a work of fiction, and is indeed based on historical fact and art history. The fiction part is the global conspiracy to hide the living descendants of Jesus Christ. The factual truth part is the description of details in Leonardo's works of art that do not jibe with mainstream Christian interpretation. Believe or not, you can not deny that The Last Supper, and The Mona Lisa, are subversive works, despite the varnish of orthodoxy applied to them in subsequent centuries.

Look at The Last Supper yourself. I have cropped the image at high res (see at right) to focus on Jesus, Mary/John, and the disembodied knife. Note that the character whose hand slashes across Mary/John's troat is the one usually depicted as holding the knife, but if you look carefully, it's impossible, because both his hands are accounted for already. One is slashing the throat of Mary/John. The other is actually holding the wrist of the disembodied hand! There is a character in the foreground between the Slasher and Mary/John, but both his hands are accounted for (see annotated figure). It's possible that the hand belongs to Mary/John, but from my viewing it seems to far away for it to be anatomically possible. And why would either Mary or John want to have a knife at the table? The figure to the left of the hand also has his hands accounted for. That hand truly is disembodied. It's creepy.

Now, you could argue, so what? creepy hand with knife floating around - it IS a painting that foretells Jesus's betrayal, after all. But the point is that the disembodied nature of that hand has been systematically erased from all other versions post-Leonardo. I've seen countless reproductions of The Last Supper since reading The DaVinci Code, from websites to Wal Mart, and they all without exception attach the hand to Slasher.

This isn't any kind of proof that Jesus married Mary, or that the figure at the table is Mary, or anything else. It's just proof that Leonardo had layers of meaning and symbolism that are well beyond the boundaries of the orthodox view. Where The DaVinci Code excels is in generating a renewed interest in the art, and is forcing the viewer to ponder not just The Last Supper but also The Mona Lisa, The Virgin of the Rocks, and many others in more detail. That's something to laud Dan Brown for, regardless of your beliefs.

UPDATE: I seem to have really ticked this guy off. Still, given his civil dialog with this other guy who criticizes his book, he seems a decent fellow. He seems strangely defensive to the phrase "religious right" and perceives a critique of the Bush Administration in my post, which baffles me. Maybe if he returns the courtesy and reads a bit more of my blog he'll see I'm not quite the stereotype muslim for whom "Dan Brown = Salman Rushdie" would be an illuminating analogy.



It was the best movie I've seen all year, with the exception of Return of the King. Must pre-order my copies of both.

Meanwhile, dour progressives insist on extracting every last drop of righteous offense they can. Blood from a stone indeed. That's the same mentality as the people who tried to provoke me into being offended by Lord of the Ring's "Easterners" as the bad guys vs The Men of the West. Listen, pal, count me firmly among the Valinor on that one.


religious beliefs informing abortion views?

At Dean Nation, I've commented on the phenomenon of pharmacists refusing to fill birth-control prescriptions, citing their pro-life religious beliefs. Fundamentally, being anti-birth-control is completely at odds with the pro-life position, because birth control prevents undesired pregnancy, obviating the need for abortions (the exception is the morning-after type pills, which could legitimately be interpreted as an abortion pill if you define life as beginning at conception).

It's tempting to ascribe the religious Christian right's self-defeating take on birth control as stemming from their religious attitudes towards human sexuality. I have very little knowledge on this topic, but the stereotype of the Christian faith is a Puritan attitude, where sex is a sinful act. The repressive attitude towards the topic may even account for the profusion of cabarets and erotic clubs in the South - when I moved from Boston to Houston, I was struck by how much more blatant these types of establishments are in their advertising and presence.

As I confessed, though, I simply don't know enough about Christian theology to have an informed opinion on the real religious impetus behind why this hostility towards birth control arises from the pro-life crowd. I do know that in Islam, sex between married couples is considered a religious act, and earns the man and woman blessings. The specific issue of whether birth control is valid or not was one i was previously unaware had any controversy attached (though I laughed along with everyone else at the "every sperm is sacred" skit in Monty Python, I didn't think that was actually practiced).

What are the religious justifications for a ban on birth control? I can't answer, and I suspect that there might well be none. Ultimately, this issue is probably driven more by political extremism (complete with purifying litmus-test jihad) than by any rational adherence to religious precepts or a sincere desire to reduce abortions overall.

Certainly, if reduction of abortion was the real goal, then methods like birth control that actively promote the desired results would not be under attack. That they are, I think, suggests something.


Fallujah: for the children

The issue of whether we should invade Fallujah is the wrong question. The right question is, why is it now neccessary to invade? The answer is, because of poor decisions by the Administration, most notably in the knee-jerk decision to disband the Iraqi Army and the mismanagement of the reconstruction funds.

But go in, I believe, we now must, mainly because as long as Falluja remains a foreign insurgent power base, then the future of liberal freedoms in Iraq is threatened. This is why:

Several people in Jolan said that the foreign fighters�Saudis, Tunisians, Moroccans, Yemenis, and Lebanese, directed by Syrian militants�had been crucial to the defense of the neighborhood. The groups of mujahideen who hung around mosques included men who looked to me like Arabs from the Gulf. Most of them were dark, with angular features, and they had long, well-groomed beards. Their dishdashas were short, in the Wahhabi style, ending a little below their knees. Friends of mine who had been held by mujahideen told me they had heard men speaking with accents from the Gulf, Syria, and North Africa.

The foreign mujahideen still in Jolan imposed strict Islamic codes of behavior on the neighborhood. They harassed Iraqis who smoked cigarettes or drank water using their left hand, which is considered impure. They banned alcohol, Western films, makeup, hairdressers, �behaving like women��i.e., homosexuality�and even dominoes in the coffeehouses. Men found publicly drunk had been flogged, and I was told of a dozen men who had been beaten and imprisoned for selling drugs.

These grafs are excerpted from Nir Rosen's compelling and exhaustively investigative reporting from Falluja, for the New Yorker magazine. The point here is that liberal freedoms are being curtailed by Islamicists who seek to turn all of Iraq into an explicitly Taliban-modeled nightmare state.

Of course, the selective blindness of the far left with regard to human freedom continues. One acquaintance sent me this typically-overwrought excerpt from Counterpunch.org:

Hush. Enough chatter about the stupid American election. I'm trying to listen to Fallujah right now.
I'm trying to hear the sounds of their helicopters overhead, trying to feel the rattle in my bones as chop, chop, chop, over Falluja, they draft the very air into war.
Chinaview reports (8 hours ago) that two have been killed and six injured in Fallujah, but we know since reading last Friday's article in the Lancet (editor's note: methodology completely discredited) that we have to multiply these numbers times ten.

So shush that grating talk about how we're all soon back together in some conspiracy of imperial purpose, all hailing the chief.

I'm listening for the still-born child, the heart attack, the stroke. The sound a little person makes when she covers her head with her bare hands.

Please mute that electoral count recap, would you?

I've got to listen to Falluja right now.

This is of course an elaborately crafted piece of propaganda that completely evades any attempt at discussing the merits of our post-war reconstruction policies, to try and simply score some theatrical points on emotion. To which, I respond with this:

November 5, 2004
Release Number: 04-11-12

CAMP RAMADI, Iraq � An Army unit assigned to I Marine Expeditionary Force, discovered and defused an explosive-laden youth center in Ramadi Nov. 4, which was rigged by insurgents to detonate and potentially kill dozens of Iraqi children. They also discovered more than two tons of explosives hidden in a mosque.

The discoveries were made during a sweep of the city looking for improvised explosive devices.

After a thorough investigation of the youth center, the Soldiers discovered that the explosives were rigged to detonate three ways: through a light switch, a remote control and by wiring that ran from the youth center to the nearby Al-Haq Mosque, where the unit discovered the firing mechanism.

At another mosque, a search yielded the discovery of more than two tons of ammunition, explosives, mortar systems and RPGs. Artillery rounds; assault rifles and various IED-making materials were found, as well. Fifty suspected insurgents were also detained during the sweep.

Mosques are granted protective status due to their religious and cultural significance. However, when insurgents violate the sanctity of the mosque by using the structure for military purposes, the site loses its protective status.

Ultimately, it's fundamentally dishonest to criticize a foreign policy or a military action on humanitarian grounds when the application of moral righteousness is so transparently one-sided. Anyone with genuine concern for the children of Fallujah have to concede, if they possess any intellectual integrity, that the future of those children is brighter under an elected Iraqi government rather than a Taliban-inspired city-state.

UPDATE: an email correspondent writes:

I couldn't agree with you more on the lines you conclude your argument with. In the minds of many who disagree with you, however, they stand out in stark
contradiction to some of your opening lines:

"But go in, I believe, we now must, mainly because as long as Falluja
remains a foreign insurgent power base"

The WE who are going into Falluja now were also instrumental in creating the
Taliban who have now run amuck. And the WE are also *foreign* fighters who
have supported Saddam historically. The WE were also complicit, a hair short
of encouraging, in Saddam's butchering of Shiite Kurds.

The issue has never been that anyone suppports the Taliban, or their brutish
ways. The problem has been the credibility of the occupying force. How can
you, per your own words, apply moral values so one-sidedly in favor of this
occupying force?

There's a fallacy here, of conflating all American foreign policy interventions as one monolithic bloc. You have to recognize that the realpolitik foreign policy doctrine of the Reagan Administration is completely different from the neo-conservative/PNAC doctrine animating the present one.

As I argued in the first paragraph, the fact that invading Fallujah is neccessary is a direct result of post-war incompetence by the present Administration. Extending causality beyond that is a pointless excercise, otherwise you might as well blame the British for creating Iraq in the first place.

I simply don't agree that the "credibility" of the occupying force is an issue. The bottom line is that the Taliban-lite DO control Falluja, that they DO want to control all of Iraq, and that they ARE a barrier to free elections in January. In other words, Falluja is an obstacle to both Iraqi and American self-interest. The self-interest of the Iraqi people is the primary objective, and the self-interest of America derives as a secondary measure from that one.

The question above has a certain idealistic tinge, that all motives must be pure, which I reject. Self-interest is a valid, even neccessary, requirement of policy. Whatever America's historical role may have been, this nation evolves much like any other. And so do their relationships, such as the enmity-turned-alliance of Germany and Japan with us today. Or America and Britain.

The important point here to construct our policy upon is to look forward, towards an alliance with a free Iraq (an invasion I did not support but whose outcome now I am committed to seeing succeed).

The invasion of Fallujah serves to liberate its inhabitants from the mini-Taliban, whom the "many who disagree with me" refuse to address.

As a liberal humanist, I believe that we must use our strength to liberate the oppressed whenever possible. There are cases where military power alone will not suffice however, such as Iran, a nation that invading would only hamper, rather than encourage, liberal reform. In Falluja, however, the course is clear, and there are no other options.


less politics

wondering why I haven't commented on the election, predicted the outcome, endorsed a candidate officially? That's because I'm making a concerted effort to shift all political discussion to Dean Nation. Go there if my opinion on suchlike matters, I've thrown down a gauntlet of sorts there recently.

Here, no more politics (unless I get REALLY provoked). Foriegn policy, religion, philosophy, tech, everything else, but no more politics.

Oh, and I'm moving to a new blog, and shutting UNMEDIA down. Time for some change, a fresh look, and a new name. Details to follow...

UPDATE: ok, I'm just going to rename the blog, not shut it down. The new URL, if all goes well, will be http://cityofbrass.blogspot.com. Hopefully the archives will transfer intact...

UPDATE 2: Seems to be working... one snafu is that the way in which I moved the blog means that all permalinks to old entries are probably (but not neccessarily) broken. However those entries are still here under the new URL, cityofbrass.blogspot.com instead of unmedia.blogspot.com, so if you just swap out "unmedia" with "cityofbrass" then you'll get to it.

Yeah, the template is inconsistent.. will do that later, since it's much more involved.


Muslim, wake up!

Truly astonishing column at MWU arguing that muslims should vote for Nader.

Astonishing because it actually assumes that a Nader vote would lend Muslims more political clout. The basic thesis is completely backwards - voting Nader and contributing to another squeaker win of Bush over his opponent would essentially make the Muslim community a pariah. By handing the election to Bush in 2000, Nader's entire relevance has plummeted. To those who call for a muslim voting bloc and dream of excercising influence upon the process, voting Nader is an anathema.

You want political clout? Deliver Michigan to Kerry. And watch both parties come begging in 2008 to your doorstep.

(Not that I don't have serious issues with the alliance of Muslim identity with progressive liberal politics, but that's a separate issue).


OBL alive means Bush failed to defend America

In the debates, John Kerry's most solid blow was the Tora Bora point - that Bush let bin Laden go, he "outsourced" the hunt for the terrorist mastermind, to focus on Iraq. Mike Kasper's graphic nicely summarizes the timeline).

Now bin Laden is on tape - alive, and referring to the election in a fashion leaving no doubt that it's a new tape, not pre-recorded. And the best the far right can do is weakly suggest that the bin laden tape is an endorsement of Kerry?

"Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands," bin Laden said.

That's an endorsement? Dream on, red staters... unless the standard for endorsement is "he mentioned his name" in which case looks like an equal endorsement of Bush to me.

Well, OBL's just an ass in a cave who can be hunted, can be found, and can be killed. By the right leader, that is.

And if Kerry can capitalize on the opportunity provided him by OBL to illustrate just how NOT a leader Bush has been on the WoT, then America will have a good chance of making OBL eat those words - and some bomb dust too.

I should note that it is technically possible bin Laden is actually dead, having pre-recorded about nine similar messages from his cave. "Neither Bush nor Sharpton can save you. Take 7. Neither Bush nor Dean can save you. Take 8. Neither Bush nor Gephardt can save you...)

my Guardian ire has cooled

Thebit[1] offers a much better defense of the Guardian article wherein Shakespeare is professed to have Sufic influences:

As for Lings' theory, balderdash though it is, what he is suggesting is this: Muslim religious tenants and beliefs were not unknown, if distorted and misunderstood, to Elizabethan England. It is not so far into the realms of fantasy to suggest that Sufi pietism or Sufi asceticism *might* have been inspirational (very strong speculation, unfounded imho). Afterall, it is only about 50 years after Shakespeare's death that Edward Pococke, professor of Arabic at Oxford, walks into a bookshop in Aleppo and picks up _Hayy ibn Yaqzan_, which he translates into English. Lings, being a Sufi, suggests parallels in how Shakespeare expressed himself in his plays and poems and certain Sufistic ideals.

That there are parallels between some Sufi ideas and some philosophic expressions by Shakespearean characters is a valid observation indeed, and Thebit's point about Muslim beliefs having potentially had some exposure to Elizabethan society is well-taken - let us not forget that Othello was a Moor. With Al Andalus on the doorstep of Europe, how could it be otherwise.

Where Ling goes astray is to take such parallel ideas as proof - or at least suggestive of - a direct influence upon Wm himself. And I can't help but notice that the supposed ideals of Sufism that are expressed as the proof of the link are so vague as to be almost generic. You might well argue that Shakespeare was influenced by the way of the Samurai (the daimyo Date Masamune sent a trade expedition to Europe in 1613), based upon a reading of the exact same excerpts.

My main gripe is this. If Ling is arguing "Wm Shakespeare was directly influenced by Sufism" then the obvious fallacy of the assertion (which Thebit does not dispute either) should have been received more critically by the Guardian's literature critic. Thebit tries to defend the Guardian on this score, arguing "it is not the job of the Guardian journalist to play the role of Shakespeare-scholar." But such a specialist's knowledge is hardly neccessary to recognize Ling's argument as fabrication of wishful-thinking. It is common sense.

However, if Ling is actually arguing "I have observed that there are parallels between Wm Shakespeare and Sufism, here are examples" then the Guardian has misrepresented his position.

Either way, the Guardian is guilty of failing to do due diligence. Still, Thebit makes a convincing case for leniency (though his analogy to the grapes/virgins issue still fails my persuasion threshold).

On the other issue, Thebit's analogy of the letter-writing campaign to Putin's endorsement likewise still does not really acknowledge the basic differences between an endorsement and an intervention, as I laid out in my earlier post. Therefore I still maintain it was an irritating and condescending interference. As TheBit noted, it is unlikely that we will agree on this issue, however, and that is perfectly acceptable. I don't expect Europe to ever understand that America's elections are first and foremost about America, even if there are about half of us who then will indeed seek to promote policies that will make John Le Carr� love us again[2].

Since John Kerry is poised to destroy George Bush decisively on Tuesday, I'm inclined to be magnanimous anyway.

Also, since the Guardian has taken down the assassination-insinuation piece and replaced it with an apology, the outrage of which I was most incensed and which Thebit wisely did not even attempt to defend, the main rationale for my irritation has cooled considerably. I am inclined to accept apologies with the benefit of the doubt regarding good faith.

If you haven't been to Thebit's blog, Muslims Under Progress, I urge a visit. His essay on secular fundamentalism in particular has been genuinely useful in articulating and clarifying a point that I've often tried to make for some time, but much more lucidly (and thus more persuasively).

[1] Thebit also informed me that his pseudonym is derived from the Arabic word thabet, and not "The Bit" which I had assumed was a reference to a computer background.
[2] James Maclean notes that he wasn't as offended by Carre's letter, except for the concluding paragraph. Frankly, that was exactly eth part that crossed my annoyance threshold.