Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vanity Projects

It's been a while since I posted a Robert Fisk article, but I'm going through his hefty tome on his travails in Lebanon from 1976 onwards, and have been struck by the sheer volume of field experience that the man has. This recent Independent article is worth a read. I'm seriously considering a subscription to the print edition.


The stakes get higher as Arab princes try to outdo each other

Do the Saudis not have the slightest idea of what is going on around them?

Prince al-Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia is quite a man.

He says he doesn't want to be the prime minister of Lebanon – everyone who wants to be the prime minister of Lebanon says that – but he is immensely wealthy. True, his bank balance has sunk from $23.7bn to a mere $13.3bn since 2005 (thus sayeth Forbes magazine). But he's just announced that he wants to construct the world's tallest building – a 1km-high goliath which will dwarf his neighbour emir in Dubai who last month opened the paltry 25,000ft Burj Khalifa amid the sand dunes of his bankrupt creditors. The nephew of King Abdullah, al-Waleed understandably calls his company Kingdom Holdings. He also happens to be a major shareholder in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp – which is why you won't be reading these words in The Times. Long live Kingdom Holdings, I suppose.

Because yesterday morning, I was taking an al-Jazeera television crew around the repulsive, obscene, outrageous, filthy, stinking slums of the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps not far from my home in Beirut, a place of such squalor that the gorge rises that human beings even live there. Sabra and Chatila – yes, the site of that infamous massacre in 1982 when Lebanese Christian militiamen allied to Israel slaughtered up to 1,700 Palestinian civilians while the Israeli army surrounded the camps, watched the killings – and did nothing. They were the survivors of the great exodus or ethnic cleansing of 1948 – or their sons or grandsons – who fled Galilee for the "temporary" safety of Lebanon and, like the visa applicants of the movie Casablanca, wait and wait – and wait – to go home. Which they will never do. "I am very positive," Prince al-Waleed said when he announced his new priapic tower, to be constructed in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. "We are always looking for new investments."

Now I know that there are a lot of fine philanthropists in the Gulf, Prince al-Waleed among them, but what is one to make of all this? Afghanistan is collapsing in blood; Iraq remains a state of semi-civil war; the Israelis continue to thieve land for Jews and Jews only from the Arabs who hold the title deeds to that property – and Prince al-Waled wants to build a tower reaching a kilometre into the sky. Do the Saudis – who gave so much largesse to the Taliban (we have to forget this, of course, along with the fact that the Saudis provided most of the murderers of 9/11, which is why we bombed Kabul rather than Riyadh) – not have the slightest idea of what is going on around them?

For example, we all know that the Americans maintain stocks of weapons among their allies. They keep munitions in South Korea and, indeed, in the Arab Gulf (aka Saudi Arabia). But very quietly this week, they agreed to double their munitions supplies in Israel from $400m of weapons to $800m. Of course, Washington's gift of $9bn to Israel up to 2012 – never, of course, to be spent on those illegal colonies which are built against international law on Arab land but which Barack Obama now pusillanimously ignores – has nothing to do with this. But don't imagine that – in the event of a new "preventive" war – Israel cannot draw on these supplies for its own army and air force. After all, it was a missile taken to Saudi Arabia by the US marines for use against Iraq in 1991 that ended up in the hands of the Israeli air force as part of a quid pro quo for not joining in the war against Baghad - and which was subsequently used to kill civilians in a Lebanese ambulance in 1996.

But these days, Arab compliance reaches new heights every day. Now, for example, we have the Egyptian government – and its ever popular president (see the American-approved presidential election results which are way above 90 per cent) – building a wall around Rafah, part of the vast mass of poverty which constitutes Gaza, thus preventing food, gasoline (and, no doubt, weapons) from reaching the trapped Palestinians of this prison camp. A camp, one has to add, which meets with the full approval of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara, whose honourable involvement in the invasion of Iraq has now been outdone by is extraordinary success as peace envoy to the Middle East.

Egypt's intelligence boss (a certain Mr Sulieman who might be the next president of Egypt were it not for his pattern of heart attacks) approves of this wall, which is a very definite assistance to Israel and which will yet further impoverish the Palestinians of Gaza to the point at which the inhabitants of Sabra and Chatila might actually feel themselves lucky they don't live in "Palestine".

In Israel itself, the deputy foreign minister humiliates the Turkish ambassador – while complaining about an anti-Semitic series on Turkish television – by forcing the diplomat to sit on a low sofa, refusing to shake hands and addressing him, with two colleagues, from higher chairs. The foreign minister himself, our dear friend Mr Lieberman, has now acquired the habit – every time poor old (and I mean old) US envoy George Mitchell raises the question of Jerusalem – of walking out of the room. That's what Obama's point man is worth. Israel's crazies – Netanyahu is a moderate chap by comparison – now prove that Israel can be just as much a banana Raj as the rest of the Middle East.

But fear not. The princes and the emirs and the caliphs and the presidents will be able to outbid each other in towers and hotels. I have a bigger painting set than yours. I have a sharper pencil, more crayons, a larger train set (Qatar, please note), a bigger bear than yours. And the world will watch this tragedy and marvel at the toy boxes now being opened in the Middle East. And, by the way, how many crayons do the children of Sabra and Chatila have?

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Friday, January 22, 2010

"We all fail the failed state test"

Fantastic opinion piece in the often-obtuse Grope and Flail.

. . . This is the perennial underside of charity and generosity: a chance to feel simultaneously kind and morally superior while reinforcing the relations between those who have power and those who don't. Plus a component of taking vicarious pleasure, in a quasi porn-like way, in the misery of others. I'm thinking here of the insatiable news programming and the repeated requests by interviewers to “Tell us how you feel. . . "

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The best thing ever written about Mark Steyn. . .

Offering something other than music trivia, or cultivated ethnic resentment wrapped in prurient humour, is tough. . .
The rest of the article is as informative as the above was entertaining.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Unskilled Religion

Karen Armstrong is a remakable person, an ex-Catholic nun and now a self-described "Freelance Monotheist," who has taken some strong criticism from as varied sources as the Christian right, the Anti-Islam brigades, and the so-called "new Atheists" (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and co.) for her writings, in which she defends essential ideas of religion.

I thought this was a particularly interesting response to a person with anti-religious feelings.

From the TED blog, Q&A with Karen Armstrong:

enlashok asks: How bad does an idea have to be before the appropriate reaction is to discard it?

[KA:] This question comes from Enlashok, but he has asked a lot of other questions and makes a lot of other points too, particularly about the harm religion does. I will try to give as comprehensive an argument as possible.

First, I freely admit that a great deal of religion is indeed "unskilful" -- there is bad religion just as there is bad art, bad sex, and bad cooking. I have written books about this type of destructive faith. Far too many people, as Enlashok points out, are uncritical of themselves and their tradition; they have indeed "maintained and propagated immoral, racist, sexist and homophobic policies, promoted tribalism, and shielded extremism." Religion -- like any art or science -- is very difficult to do well. Religion may, for example, teach compassion, but far too many people -- secularists as well as religious -- prefer to be right rather than compassionate.

Enlashok says that he realizes he has asked a lot of questions and that he would be content if I would simply answer his first question, which I have cited above. So let me say again: religion is not an "idea." Its doctrines can only be verified when they are consistently translated into practical action. They are certainly not ideas that can be "factually supported from available evidence," to quote Enlashok again. As I have tried to explain, the notion that religion is an idea that can be empirically proven is a great fallacy that developed in the Christian West during the early modern period, when theologians tried to force theology into a scientific idiom that was alien to it. As soon as they did this, atheism became inevitable. When you mix mythos with logos, you get bad science and unskilful religion. Unfortunately, as globalization proceeds and more and more people adopt the Western ethos, this unviable, "scientific theology" is spreading to other faiths and other regions.

Instead of seeing religion as a science manqué, I think it is more helpful to regard it as an art form. Like art, religion at its best helps us to find meaning in a tragic world; like art, it holds us in an attitude of wonder and introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is not dependent upon logic or empirical truth. Music, for example, is not about anything and you cannot verify the meaning of a late Beethoven quartet, but it has a powerful and enriching effect upon us. Poetry pushes language to the limits and makes us aware of the difficulty of expressing some of our more profound insights in a purely logical way. Religion has always expressed itself most effectively in terms of art: poetry, music, dance, song, architecture, calligraphy, drama, and sculpture.

Religion differs from art in its summons to practical action. It is not sufficient to have an aesthetic or "spiritual" experience. The Buddha explained that, after achieving enlightenment, a person must come down from the mountain top, return to the market place and there practice compassion for all living beings. A spirituality that focuses only on a numinous warm glow is "unskilful" and selfish. All art is transformative; it is meant to change us. Religion -- at its best -- is a form of ethical alchemy that helps us to limit the egotism that causes so much human suffering, both to ourselves and to others.

Like art, religion was not meant to provide us with information and explanations that lie within the remit of scientific logos. It helps us to consider problems for which there are no final solutions -- mortality, the prospect of our inevitable and painful extinction, sickness, injustice, and cruelty. It does not mean that we will suffer less but, if we work hard enough, we might be able to endure our own pain and to assuage the suffering of others.

Science deals with verifiable ideas; scientists struggle with a problem, and when that is solved move on to the next one. There is continuous improvement, progress and development. But the humanities do not function like that. Philosophers are still meditating on the same issues and problems that preoccupied Plato. Harold Pinter is not necessarily a better playwright than Shakespeare, simply because the sum of human knowledge has advanced since Shakespeare's time. There are some aspects of life -- death, sorrow, the nature of happiness, evil and the nature of goodness -- that each generation has to grapple with for itself. And there never seems to be a definitive solution.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

The wogs can't even get that right . . .

No particular point here, just the irony of this Australian police association secretary's remarks:

"Cartoons in Australia are normally done by people who are either clever or witty and this one's neither," the secretary of Victoria's Police Association, Greg Davies, told reporters."
The rest of the news item:

Indian 'racist police' cartoon angers Australia

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam

Tariq Ramadan has emerged in this millenium as the foremost Muslim intellectual in the Western world, if not the World. The impact of his thought is evidenced by the number of prominent Western journalists and public intellectuals who have written about him, both in praise and in condemnation of what they perceive is his message. What exactly that is, however, has been itself a matter of some controversy - Carouline Fourest, a nationalistic French feminist, wrote an entire book on the subject, accusing Ramadan of an insidious "doublespeak", a message that was deviously designed to mean one thing to a Western audience, and another to a Muslim one.

Aside from Ramadan's own writings in such broadsheets as Le Monde, feature articles about him have been published in the American newspaper The New York Times, and the The New Republic magazine; French politicians up to then-Interior Minister (now President) Nicholas Sarkozy have debated him on French national television, an encounter which has followed him in almost every appearance he has made on French TV since.

To his detractors, Ramadan represents the Trojan horse of radical Islam, a smooth-talking representative of the jihadist conspiracy for world domination, making yet another play for the soul of Western Civilization. To his partisans, Ramadan represents a new Muslim consciousness and the possibility of a wider Muslim Renaissance. Ramadan's most recent work, Mon Intime Conviction, deals with the accusations of doublespeak that have been accruing against him.

But what do his writings actually say?

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam is Ramadan's 2004 book devoted to drawing, as he says in the introduction

the shape of European and American Islam: faithful to the principles of Islam, dressed in European and American cultures, and definitively rooted in Western societies.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Ramadan lays out what he considers to be the spiritual components of the Muslim personality. He points out that the current ways in which most Muslims view the world are outmoded, and were actually formulated by men, and not God, in response to the geopolitical realities that Muslims found themselves in following the dramatic spread of Islam and Muslim economic and military influence throughout the old world. Ramadan isn't particularly interested in answering anti-Islam calumnies in this section - what he wants to do is to convince the reader that the traditional wordviews held by Muslims are neither universally held by Muslims, nor are they a necessary consequence of the primary sources.

This section contains some interesting ideas. Firstly, Ramadan, as a Swiss-born Muslim, wants to establish that Islam is a Western religion. It is a point that seems relatively obvious, given the number of Muslims are now born and raised in Western cultures, but it is nevertheless one that appears to have escaped the majority of first-generation North American and European Muslims, who continue to see the countries in which they live and raise their children as host countries in which they are immersed in alien cultures that they strive to separate themselves from. Given that Islam is now a Western religion, argues Ramadan, it is high time that Muslims began to define for themselves what the parameters of "Western Islam" are; that is, what elements of Western culture should Muslims not only tolerate, but become active participants in, and what elements must they argue against.

In order to do this, Ramadan then defines those principles of Islam that he feels lie at the heart of the Islamic character, and that are, in his opinion, non-negotiable.

Ramadan also highlights the sad state of Muslim scholarship in Islamic theology, effectively confirming that the intellectual leaders of the Muslim world really haven't come to terms with "modernity," primarily because the societies in which they live do not fulfill Western criteria for being "modern" - a separation of church and state, capitalism, and political agency are much less pervasive in the Muslim world. Because of this, Ramadan argues, the rulings issued in the Muslim world in response to questions from Muslims in the West are logically invalid, because the response emanates from a place where the social, political, and economic conditions are sufficiently incomparable. What results, according to Ramadan, is a patchwork of compromises and accommodations of the Western reality, and not a comprehensively Western Islamic worldview.

In a highly interconnected world, argues Ramadan the old categories of "dar-al-Islam," "dar-al-Harb," and"dar-al-Ahd" (the Abode of Islam, the Abode of War, and the Abode of Treaty) are irrelevant, even potentially dangerous. Instead, he develops a new way of looking at the pluralist societies that Western Muslims live within today: "Dar-al-Shahada" - the Abode of Testimony.

Ramadan does not here mean here for Muslims to view themselves as missionaries out to convert the heathen. As he says in a later chapter:
In other words, "to invite" is first to "bear witness," as much as by one's behaviour as by the content and form of what one says, what the message of Islam is. It is not a matter of wanting to convert, because people's hearts are God's domain and secret. It is a matter of bearing witness, which is a invitation to remember and meditate. This meaning is also captured in another verse: "And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before mankind."
In the second part of the book, Ramadan lays out his vision as to how communities of Western Muslims should behave. For a Muslim who has lived in Canada for a long time now, most of this is unremarkable. Ramadan speaks against "Islamic schools" as a form of self-imposed ghettoization, and exhorts the believers to bring their faith into political action just on behalf of the ummah abroad - which is what often preoccupies new Muslim communities in Canada and the United States - but more importantly into social and political activism on behalf of social and economic justice, a core Islamic value. Ramadan encourages Muslims to make common cause with members of other faiths, people of various political persuasions, and even those with stridently atheist views in order to realize their shared goals of a more just society.

If there is anything controversial in the book, it must be the chapter on "Economic Resistance." Ramadan in this case assumes the position of the majority of Islamic scholars in his condemnation of all forms of interest as being "riba" (unlawful usury), but goes a step further in condemning speculation and price-fixing as also being immoral and un-Islamic. Here Ramadan is, however, forced to acknowledge the pervasiveness of these things in Western society, and effectively says, in so many pages, that while Muslims must forever strive to eliminate these things from the Earth, they have no hope of achieving this goal if they don't at least participate in the global neo-liberal economy in some limited way, necessitating at least the use of interest-bearing financial instruments.

And this epitomizes my major criticism of Ramadan's entire argument in the book. "Fine," I say, "I agree 100% with all of this. How exactly do we get there?" (I really don't agree with 100% of it, but close enough.) Ramadan is strong on justifying the ends, but weak on describing the means. Just as he seems unable to lay out practical means of avoiding the receipt and payment of interest, and just as he does not describe how to construct an economy that does not permit speculation, he also does not describe how exactly to bring about his vision of a Western Islam.

The best we have is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy - that because Tariq Ramadan, the superstar of Islamic scholarship, has said that it should be so, then ultimately enough people will work to make it so.

I am probably being too demanding - after all, I have no idea how to bring about Tariq Ramadan's world either, but I do agree that it should be brought about, which is a rare thing for me, especially given the abject stupidity that often passes for Islamic scholarship globally today.

The book, however, did also satisfy one burning question that I had about Tariq Ramadan prior to reading it: Is Ramadan a fork-tongued religious zealot, intent upon subverting Western culture into something unrecognizable under the cover of a devious doublespeak, or is his representation of himself honest and straightforward?

The answer is very clearly the latter.

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