An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Friday, April 19, 2002
Al-Ahram Weekly interviews an American politician whose
analysis of the situation in the Middle East is unique, and it is unequaled among most of the American leaders.The leader is Lyndon LaRouche.
I came across this in the Arab News:
What is the difference between Ariel Sharon and Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial for war crimes? Apart from the fact that one killed Bosnians and Albanians while the other kills Palestinians, the answer is none whatsoever. At least, that is the answer heard across the Arab and Muslim world. Now, across the West too, the same judgment is heard. Public opinion has started to regard Sharon as a war criminal.The phrase, "the scales fell from his eyes" comes from Acts 9:18, which was an English translation of a Greek translation of a Hebrew idiom. The phrase was first rendered into English by William Tyndale in his translation of the New Testament in 1526.
I suppose I should comment on the substance here, but this time I'll pass.
The strange case of Jean Gimpel, interlude
I'll write more on Jean Gimpel tomorrow. Constructing the argument is too tiring. Instead I'm just going to blog.
Thursday, April 18, 2002
The strange case of Jean Gimpel, Part One
I have written before (I’d provide links, but I’m still having trouble getting into my archives; I think I promised more about Jean Gimpel in my very first post on Ideofact; this post will barely mention him) about the development of technology in the Middle Ages. In no other era, prior to our own, was technological progress so rapid. In many ways, the Middle Ages were the period of technological development par excellence, especially when one considers that science was moribund, unlike in our own age. The Medieval engineer worked at a practical level, developing power sources like water mills, and harnessing that energy through innovations like the camshaft. They worked by trial and error, and advanced without caring much about the academic debates of the Church and the universities. While the latter were arguing that a vacuum could not exist, Medieval mechanics were employing them in pumps to empty mines of water.
The late great Lynn White Jr., who blazed the trail studying the subject of technology in the Middle Ages, was persuaded that this peculiarly Western mindset began to develop early in the Dark Ages, took centuries to flower, but was deeply ingrained in the culture and religion of the West. I agree with him for the greater part, and I’m amazed at how little people appreciate this. In my day job, I occasionally get emails suggesting that the Founders of this country were more or less atheists because they were Deists, and a Deist, who viewed God as the creator and engineer of a Newtonian universe, had nothing to do with a Christian. Leave aside the voluminous writings of some of the most conspicuous Deists among the Founding Fathers (among them Franklin, who left behind records of his opinions of various denominations that are not at all atheistic in their content, or Jefferson, who made his version of the Gospels and annotated the Qur’an). The Deistic conception of God goes back as far as the twelfth century, and as early as the thirteenth, God was regularly portrayed in Christian illustrations as an engineer, with a compass and a rule.
The attitude toward technology in the Middle Ages, unique in all the world, gave rise to our modern society. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Lynn White put it quite eloquently in the criminally out-of-print work Medieval Technology and Religion:
When a Syrian, a Nigerian, or a Burmese looks at the Occident, however, what does he see as really distinctive and valuable? What does he want most eagerly to appropriate for himself and his society? Generally it is not parliamentary democracy, although with the collapse of their own old regimes they have indeed taken over its external forms, faute de mieux. What they want are our technology and, secondarily, the natural science that we assure them is fundamental to that technology. The capacity of an industrial society to turn out goods to end the appalling poverty of the non-Western world; its ability to produce the arms that in our mad epoch are the means to a group's self-respect -- these, to non-Occidentals, are the hallmarks of Westernization. Russia, beginning with Peter the Great, Japan after the Meiji Restoration, prove to them that democracy is a folkway of the West, whereas technology and science are the essence of its power.Think, for a moment, of Osama bin Laden, wearing his fine Swiss time piece and his U.S. Army surplus camouflage field jacket, kalashnikovs prominently displayed before the Mercator projection map of the world, recording his thoughts on Western (or Japanese) video cameras, and you begin to get a sense of what White is talking about. Easter weekend I watched a special on A&E about the life of Christ, then switched over to MSNBC which was showing a special on the Afghan-Soviet war; if it weren't for the Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades that were shown in the latter, you wouldn't have been able to tell the Afghans from the historical representations of Christ and his disciples, running around in flowing robes with no pants (pants were an invention of the misnamed Dark Age Europeans).
As much by accident as by choice, I'm something of a journalist. I remember a cartoon from a collection of New Yorker cartoons, in which the cub reporter blurts out at a news conference his questions: "Who What Where When How Why?" So let's play cub reporter. The who-what-where-when we know: Europeans, technology, Middle Ages, Europe (or the West, if you prefer). The how -- how was it that backwards, post-Roman Europe gave birth to a technological revolution -- and the why remain obscure.
Lynn White suggested that the answer could be found in religion, but I find his thesis to be problematic. It appears that the technological bent of Europe affected religion, and not the other way around. God became an engineer after engineering had proven its worth, and not before. White argues that monotheism, the end of classical pantheism, let Europeans start exploiting natural resources without worrying that water nymphs or tree gods would strike them dead for building wooden water mills. Perhaps, but that doesn't explain why the water and wind mills were built in Europe, and not in, say, the Muslim world, which also had a fairly developed montheistic religion.
I don't dispute the importance of religion as prerequisite, but I think there must have been other factors at work as well. Regrettably, few scholars have asked this fundamental question: Why was it that the West developed a technology that made it the preeminent human society?
The frustrating thing is that few scholars dabble in this field. Enlightenment, after all, begins in the enlightenment; the higher learning of the Renaissance rejects the work of those Medieval semi-barbarians. Few scholars recognize that
The Middle Ages was one of the great inventive eras of mankind. It should be known as the first industrial revolution in Europe.That quote comes from The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages by Medieval scholar and social historian Jean Gimpel. Like Lynn White, Gimpel gets it: what happened in the Middle Ages has repercussions for our own age:
...the history of technology has been so universally neglected, thanks largely to the age-old attitude of academics and intellectuals toward manual work and engineering. Plato, in the Gorgias, gives evidence of the contempt in which engineers were held by philosophers in his time: "You despise him and his art, and sneeringly call him an engine-maker, and you will not allow your daughter to marry his son or marry your son to his daughter."Gimpel is one of the few historians, like Lynn White, who "thought it worthwhile to cross the gap in order to study or to write the history of mechanical arts, the history of technology."
Nevertheless, Gimpel's book disappoints, and I'll explain why in a post on Friday...
Tuesday, April 16, 2002
Islam, suicide and murder
Reading sites like Arab News is getting too depressing, and I think it's time I stopped. Over the weekend, I stumbled across a book by Abu'l-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd, a twelth-century Andalusian philosopher better known as Averroes. (Of his name, Borges wrote: "a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis.") Averroes was a student of law and medicine, a jurist, but above all, a student of philosophy. His expositions of the works of Aristotle earned him the title, in thirteenth century Europe, of The Commentator.
The book I found, given the English title Faith and Reason in Islam by the translator, argues that faith -- the Islamic faith -- should not impose limits on the exercise of rational thought. (At least, that's what the back cover says; I've only read the preface, introduction, and the first ten or so pages of the text.) (An aside: Interesting that while I write, logically enough, of Averroes in the past tense, I still feel naturally inclined to type that his "book...argues," rather than use the past tense.)
Averroes was unquestionably a courageous man. In response to the influential Al-Ghazari's polemic against good Aristotelians titled Tahafut al-Filasafah or The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Averroes wrote Tahafut al-Tahafut, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. In 1195, the Andalusian Caliph found Averroes guilty of heresy; his punishment was to have copies of his works (obviously, not all of them) burnt, and to suffer exile. Within a few years, he was allowed to return to his home. He died in 1198. And lest anyone think that Averroes' punishment was excessively cruel, remember that William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament and the Pentateuch into English (and gave us phrases like "the powers that be," "a law unto themselvs" and "the salt of the earth," was strangled and his corpse burnt at the stake for the deed in 1536. I'm not saying that book burning is a light punishment, but it beats strangulation and having your corpse burnt.
Tyndale and Averroes probably wouldn't have cared much for one another. Had Tyndale lived a few hundred years later, we'd probably label him a fundamentalist. For Tyndale, only the Bible counted; the various innovations of the Catholic Church -- bishops, the celibacy of the priesthood, penitance, and so on -- were anathema. The meaning of the Bible was evident -- even a plough boy could understand it on his own, without any help whatsoever. There was a similar school of Qur'anic scholars, which Averroes calls literalists, in the twelth century. They were one of four main theological schools, about whom Averroes says:
All these sects have entertained diverse beliefs about God and distorted the apparent meaning of many statements of Scripture with interpretations applied to such beliefs, claiming that these interpretations constitute the original religion that all people were meant to uphold, and that whoever deviates from them is either an unbeliever or a heretic. However, if [all such] beliefs were examined and compared with the intent of religion, it would appear that most of them are novel statements and heretical interpretations.Yet there is some superficial similarity between the two men. Tyndale attacked the Catholic Church of his era; he did so by referring to scripture. Averroes' attack on the theology espoused by the various sects is firmly grounded in the Qur'an, but analyzed through the prism of philosophy.
I can read Averroes (or at least, the back cover of the book) and feel a kind of intellectual kinship with this man, separated from me by eight centuries. I can consult one of the three different translations of the Qur'an I have (regrettably, I don't know Arabic, although my wife does) when he refers to a Surah without quoting the text. It is not necessary for me to believe (although Averroes obviously did) to appreciate the richness of the text, to follow the workings of a supple intelligence as it constructs complex arguments about man's place, and God's place, in the universe.
So forgive me if I'd rather read Averroes than, say, Amir Taheri, of the Arab News. He writes an article that asks a question Averroes would have had trouble contextualizing: "Does Islam promote suicide bombing?" It would appear that Taheri answers in the negative:
Anyone familiar with Islamic ethics and philosophy would know that the rule of “the ends justify the means” has no place in either. There are no circumstances under which suicide could be sanctioned, let alone glorified, in the name of Islam. This writer does not know of anything in the Qur’an, or from any prominent Muslim theologian, dead or alive that would qualify that position.That seems to be definitive. Elsewhere, he notes that we're not just talking about an individual choice:
It is disingenuous to claim that suicide bombers are ordinary youths who suddenly decide to sacrifice their lives to kill some of the “enemy.” Organizing and implementing a suicide attack is a complex operation that requires recruitment, training, finance, logistics, surveillance and postoperation publicity. (Often, there is a video cameraman to film the would-be suicide bomber’s carefully written testament.) An 18-year old girl may fancy herself as a suicide bomber but, alone, would not be able to organize an operation.I don't think Taheri is necessarily endorsing suicide-bombings here by saying that Palestinian leaders decided they would "encourage positive evolutions in Israeli behavior" by refraining from indiscriminate killings of civilians, although it is probably noteworthy, all things considered, that he believes Palestinian leaders can turn suicide bombers on and off.
Taheri even gives an articulate overview of the view in the Islamic world of the question of the propriety of strapping explosives on your waist and trying to blow up as many people as possible:
As far as this writer can make out, three answers are circulating in the Muslim world at present.Nice to know that suicide bombers are okay against Israel or the United States or even feckless Europe, but not against such enlightened leaders as Abdullah, Assad, or Hussein.
I'm presenting the argument out of order; the paragraphs above appear in the original piece before Taheri says that it's not just desperation; for every suicide bomber, there are several people willing to strap the semtex around her waist and give her directions to the nearest pizza parlor. But Taheri never says anything of those who aid the bombers, or, more tellingly, of their victims, the people who, while sipping a coffee or buying bread or riding on a bus, are blown to smithereens by some crackpot, aided and abetted by the Palestinian "leadership."
It's also not reassuring to read phrases like these:
All three answers are problematic...It seems to me such questions should be fairly simple to answer, and for Taheri, Islam provides a ready guide:
Islam forbids suicide without any “ifs” and “buts”. Life belongs to He who grants it, not to mortal men who are its trustee. To violate that rule amounts to a claim of divine authority for mortal man. The issue becomes more complicated when would-be suicide bombers are presented as “martyrs”. In Islam, however, it is not up to mortal man to decide to become a martyr. A martyr is either one who suffers at the hands of the enemies of Islam, often to the point of death, because of his or her faith, not politics, or someone who falls in a battle against aggressors. The martyr does not want to become one. He knows that the highest value is the preservation of life; he is put to death not by his own hands but by his oppressors.I'm glad he cleared that up, but then he muddies the waters:
Islam, as an existential reality, is something else. As noted, there are politicians who glorify suicide bombing. But how representative are they? We will never know until there is an atmosphere in which opinions are aired without fear and, more importantly, without taqiyyah (dissimulation). In the meantime to brand a whole civilization as a “cult of death” is unfair, to say the least.Absolutely. But the whole civilization, which includes Mohammad and Averroes and Avicenna and Al-Ghazali, isn't being branded. Rather it's those who embrace such a practice as a means to a political end, who justify it in religious terms (as many do), who encourage young men and women to turn themselves into living (briefly) bombs, who dress up children in suicide bomber costumes, who pass blithely over those who arm the bombers, who -- above all -- ignore the victims -- that create the impression of a cult of death, particularly when you end this way:
The key question in ethics is this: Are you prepared to practice what you preach? In this case: can you become a suicide bomber? Are you prepared to urge your offspring to become human bombs?I think it is only a tiny fraction of Muslims in the Arab world who would answer that question with a yes. I desperately hope that to be the case. But it appears that a large majority, if they do not practice, nevertheless preach -- applaud, cheer, justify and even reward -- those who do urge their offspring to become human bombs. Which is why, I think, I'd rather read about the existential reality of Averroes' Islam than that of Amir Taheri's.
Colin Powell, war criminal
At least, according to this article, that's what some leftist Lebanese lawyers are claiming:
Two Lebanese lawyers sent State Prosecutor Adnan Addoum an official notification, urging him to strip the visiting Powell of his diplomatic immunity and requesting that he be either arrested or expelled for his alleged role in war crimes and in the Israeli offensive against Palestine.In 1996, Powell was hawking his memoirs; he was out of the government at the time.
Let me know when the lawyers file their briefs against Saddam for the Iran-Iraq War and the invasion of Kuwait.
Monday, April 15, 2002
The Land of War
I found this piece in the Arab News website to be of interest. In it, a Dr. Muhammad Al-Awa (regrettably, no tagline gives us any sort of biographical information about the author) writes of the division in Islamic law between the Dar Al-Islam, or land of Islam, and the Dar Al-Harb, or land of war. He notes that some scholars add a third category, the Dar Al-Ahd, or land of treaty, although treaties have been problematic for the Dar Al-Islam.
The author notes the division has been challenged by some scholars of late:
Some of them have expressed the view that “the old juristic view of the world fails to appreciate its full multiplicity and richness, while contemporary revivalism takes a hostile attitude that makes it unable to understand the world or deal with it.” This view has been expressed by Dr. Radhwan Al-Sayyid in his paper on the “Emergence and Disappearance of the Land of Islam”, presented to a conference on international relations in Islam held at the University of Cairo in November 1997.I wish I knew more about Dr. Al-Sayyid, including whether he adheres to this view now. (I ran both him and the name of the author through a couple of search engines, and didn't find any exact matches). Al-Awa doesn't quite endorse Al-Sayyid's formulation, but he does note that Islamic revivalists "reiterate, without proper study, juristic concepts they read in books..." Al-Awa sees this as problematic:
To stick to an old view that is unsuitable to a new situation will lead only to a disservice to the interests of the Muslim community. This is a violation of the duty of scholars and the community at large to ensure and protect such interests.This is, certainly, a reasonable statement. Dr. Al-Awa goes on:
A case in mind is that of the concept that divides the world into the land of Islam, or Dar Al-Islam, and the land of war, or Dar Al-Harb. This is a concept based on a situation where Muslims are a distinguished community living in their own geographical areas. Similarly, non-Muslims form distinguished communities living in their own areas. Relation between the two camps is one of strong hostility and continuous warfare. Hence, the non-Muslim areas were called the land of war.The western portion of the Roman empire collapsed in 475 A.D.; however, Dr. Al-Awa is probably referring here to the Eastern Roman Empire, or what we would call the Byzantine Empire. I don't think that "ethnic superiority" was a concept which motivated the Byzantines, although ethnic differences probably played a part in the rise of Islam. Dominque Sourdel, in his regrettably out-of-print volume Medieval Islam, wrote, about the 7th Century spread of Islam,
The populations of Byzantine Syria for example were, as we know, very dissatisfied with the Byzantine rule which was imposed on them, and which expressed itself chiefly in fiscal demands held to be intolerable. Besides, these populations had adopted, from the religious point of view, Christian doctrines which did not conform with orthodoxy as held by Byzantium. The Monophysite doctrine was there dominant and hostility to official theological formulas, which was usual, was without doubt based on a diffused feeling of of discontent rather than on precise intellectual reasoning. In general, the eastern Roman Empire, whose dominions extended to Africa, was composed of provinces too various from an ethnic viewpoint and at the same time, too developed culturally to be able to remain for long under the domination of Byzantium. Their inhabitants, who had for many decades observed, and sometimes taken part in, theological quarrels, did not find themselves in a position to reject immediately as a new religion, what appeared to them rather like a simple sect of Christian origin, as some contemporary texts suggest. Thus no urban group in a Syria or an Egypt politically or religiously had serious reasons for not seeking, by a negotiated capitulation, some satisfactory arrangement permitting it at the same time to preserve the lives and goods of its members in the center of the new regime which these latter themselves helped to make viable.Sourdel makes the collapse of the Byzantine empire in Africa sound more like a dispute over taxes and theology than a case of slaves throwing off their chains and fighting ethnic oppression, but let's skip that and return to Al-Awa's consideration of the Islamic and the Islamic "other":
Muslim scholars have formulated the concept of the land of Islam, or Dar Al-Islam, and the land of war, or Dar Al-Harb in response [to the Byzantine empire]. But this concept is based on two elements: faith and practical realities. It forms the basis of legal rulings, none of which allows any form of aggression or arbitrarily relaxes the rules of Islamic law. This division does not accord any superiority to a particular community or race over the rest of mankind. Those who formulated it were keenly aware of the Qur’anic verse which states: “Mankind! We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most genuinely God-fearing.” (49: 14) They were guided by the Prophet’s statement: “Mankind! You all belong to Adam, and Adam was created of clay. No privilege is given to an Arab over a non-Arab, or to a white man over a black man, except through piety.”Note two things: The first, that the division of the world into the Land of Islam and the Land of War is not a Qur'anic concept, but rather is the result of the work of scholars interpreting the Qur'an and the Hadith, or the stories of the life of the Prophet. And second, note that the concept of "race" is introduced. Dr. Al-Awa now discusses the merits of Al-Sayyid's argument:
It is certainly not true to say, as some studies put it, that it shows the old juristic view of the world as failing to appreciate the full multiplicity and richness of the world. It recognized the fallacy of racial discrimination, and the appropriateness of distinguishing people in accordance with their religious faiths and their effects reflected by people’s practical behavior and piety.Yes, the old juristic view of the world recognized the fallacy of racial discrimination (to a point: the Islamic world was certainly familiar with the concept of slavery, and showed little discomfort with the peculiar institution). Yet religious discrimination is no better than racial discrimination; "distinguishing" people by their religious faiths is every bit as problematic as distinguishing them in accordance with their racial backgrounds. And this is why Dr. Al-Awa ends up doing a "disservice to the interests of the Muslim community," and violates "the duty of scholars and the community at large." Of course, when you're basing your reasoning on a Hadith which says, "No privilege is given...except through piety," and you believe that piety is only achieved through following the dictates of our own religion, the idea that that portion of the world which falls into the category of the Dar Al-Harb should enjoy the same rights as that of the Dar Al-Islam should be rejected. Dr. Al-Awa, however, says that the formulation of the divided world isn't the fault of the jurists:
Moreover, it did not initiate a new situation; it was simply a reaction to the attitude of the Byzantines, when the Muslims confronted them.Modern policy is to be based on attitudes of the Byzantines, who peopled a political order that ceased to exist some 649 years ago. At the end of his essay, Dr. Al-Awa writes,
In the light of the above, is it necessary that Islamic law, in all subsequent periods, should retain this division and revert to it whenever a problem of international law arises? Is it not necessary that scholars in every generation should formulate fitting solutions to such problems in line with what fits their generation, ensuring that Muslim interests are served, and harm is prevented?I can hardly wait to find out what the answers are.