An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Saturday, August 17, 2002
I feel even more irrelevant than usual, so I'm going to celebrate it by translating something from Latin. In the meantime, I thought I'd share this, from Hamid Algar's little book on the Iranian Revolution. There was a question and answer session after each lecture; here is one exchange:
Question: I know that you have done work on freemasonry in Iran and Turkey. Is there any evidence to suggest a link between the Shah and Zionism was forged through the medium of freemasonry?I don't know what to make of this. Jews and Freemasons. It reminds me of an Umberto Eco novel.
Just a few things to note. Xavier Basora of Buscaraons was kind enough to point out this review of a couple of books dealing with Qutb and other Islamist thinkers. Although I found a few points to be objectionable, including this characterization of our Russian friends' 72-year-long nightmare:
Soviet Marxism did not spring from an Orthodox monastery. It was one of the finest flowers of the European Enlightenment. Equally, the USSR was nothing if not an Enlightenment regime. The Soviet state was the vehicle of a westernising project from start to finish. The Cold War was a family quarrel among western ideologies, in which rival versions of political universalism struggled for hegemony.I don't dispute the notion that Soviet Communism traced its ancestry to certain Enlightenment thinkers, but to characterize it as a flower is just bizarre -- noxious choking weed is more accurate.
But overall, the idea that Marxism influenced Qutb is actually quite accurate, and of the opposing sides in the Cold War, Qutb fully expected the Communists to win because of their inherently superior system. Of course, he wasn't the only one who made this mistake.
In an entirely different vein, I'm still working (admittedly, not diligently) on the next part of my own modest efforts on Qutb. One of the few pleasures of writing about his seventh chapter is that it's given me the opportunity to leaf through some books, including some I bought years ago, that I've too long neglected. One is Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah, written in 1377. It is the first work of historiography. The following passage from the work is preceded by a section in which Ibn Khaldun writes about the golden age of Muslim intellectual life, when Greek philosophers and scientists were avidly studied, and original philosophers like Averroes, Avicenna and others "reached the limit in the intellectual sciences. The men mentioned enjoy especial fame and prestige." Sadly, something changed:
The intellectual sciences and their representatives succeeded to some degree in penetrating Islam. They seduced many people who were eager to study those sciences and accept the opinions expressed in them. In this respect, the sin falls upon the person who commits it.And there ends the passage.
Friday, August 16, 2002
I came across the following lines in Hamid Algar's little book, Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran:
As his title, Muhandis, indicates, Bazargan is an engineer by background and he enjoyed a scientific education abroad. At the same time, he was well grounded in Islamic subjects. Bringing together these two areas of concern and competence, he wrote a large number of books stressing a number of things.Hamid Algar is a professor at University of California Berkely's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Algar, who's a piece of work in his own right (you can read about his run-in with some students of Armenian descent here), presents these ideas, including the claims about science, without a trace of irony, or a hint of skepticism.
Algar's book is composed of lectures delivered in 1979, and I believe Bazargan wrote his books in the 1940s and 1950s, so perhaps its unfair to cite so recent an example of the lack of congruence. On the other hand, my recollection is that the Theory of Evolution was around in the 1950s, the 1960s, and even in 1979. The article concerns the recent announcement of the Toumai skull, a hominid dated to somewhere between six and seven million years b.p.:
The new fossil skull found in the central African country of Chad has dealt a heavy blow to the evolutionary claims regarding the origin of man. Given considerable space in world-renowned scientific journals and newspapers, this new fossil has shattered the claim that "man evolved from ape-like creatures" so doggedly maintained by Darwinists for the last 150 years. Discovered by the French scientist Michel Brunet, the fossil was given the name Sahelanthropus tchadensis.The author of the article, which appears on the Islam Online site, goes on to say
... it emerges that man came about all of a sudden, with no evolutionary process behind him. In other words, that he was created.That doesn't necessarily jibe with this recent story I came across thanks to Prof. Glenn Reynoldson a human mutation that facilitated speech:
The Nature paper reports several lines of evidence suggesting that the FOXP2 mutations that distinguish humans from chimpanzees occurred quite recently in evolution -- and then spread rapidly, entirely replacing more primitive versions of the gene within 500 to 1,000 human generations, or 10,000 to 20,000 years.Full disclosure: I have expressed my own doubts about evolutionary theory, although I have also said and still say that the part of the theory I studied most closely, hominid evolution, is the most compelling and plausible to me. It's the no life to life part I have a problem with, and the single cell to complex animal. That said, I think I'm smart enough to recognize that whatever problems I have with it -- it's more based on plausibility than any religious conviction -- are not in complete congruence with "the established findings of modern natural sciences." You'd think a university professor delivering a lecture in London would want to point out the same thing.
Thursday, August 15, 2002
I've read and re-read Lee Harris's essay that I found via Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs site (Opinion Journal also posted it). The essay, entitled Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology, argues
...the purpose of 9-11 was not to create terror in the minds of the American people but to prove to the Arabs that Islamic purity, as interpreted by radical Islam, could triumph. The terror, which to us seems the central fact, is in the eyes of al Qaeda a byproduct. Likewise, what al Qaeda and its followers see as central to the holy pageant of 9-11--namely, the heroic martyrdom of the 19 hijackers--is interpreted by us quite differently. For us the hijackings, like the Palestinian "suicide" bombings, are viewed merely as a modus operandi, a technique that is incidental to a larger strategic purpose, a makeshift device, a low-tech stopgap. In short, Clausewitzian war carried out by other means--in this case by suicide.Harris, who warns us against trying to interpret Al Qaeda's actions in terms of our own cultural expectations, goes on to compare Al Qaeda to Italian Fascists and Nazis, and contrast them with the Imperial Japanese. That doesn't necessarily bother me (well, it does, but I'll get to that later). To a certain extent, Harris's analysis gibes with my impressions of the seventh chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work, Social Justice in Islam, in which Qutb (who has been called "the brain of bin Laden") draws on the great Islamic past (well, a highly selective reading thereof) to point the way to the future Islamic Utopia. Harris describes this as a crucial aspect of fantasy ideology:
This theme of reviving ancient glory is an important key to understanding fantasy ideologies, for it suggests that fantasy ideologies tend to be the domain of those groups that history has passed by or rejected--groups that feel that they are under attack from forces that, while perhaps more powerful than they are, are nonetheless inferior in terms of true virtue.I tend to agree that all these elements are present in Al Qaeda's Weltanschauung, but I think Harris is missing a crucial point: Al Qaeda thinks it can win, and thinks it know how to win. And I would respectfully suggest that the greatest danger to us is in dismissing its capabilities, as Harris seems to do:
That we are involved with an enemy who is not engaged in Clausewitzian warfare has serious repercussions on our policy. For we are fighting an enemy who has no strategic purpose in anything he does--whose actions have significance only in terms of his own fantasy ideology. It means, in a strange sense, that while we are at war with them, they are not at war with us--and, indeed, it would be an enormous improvement if they were. If they were at war with us, they would be compelled to start thinking realistically, in terms of objective factors such as overall strategic goals, war aims and so forth. They would have to make a realistic, and not a fantasy-induced, assessment of the relative strength of us vs. them. But because they are operating in terms of their fantasy ideology, such a realistic assessment is impossible for them. It matters not how much stronger or more powerful we are than they--what matters is that God will bring them victory.I think it's a mistake to think that Al Qaeda is incapable of making realistic assessments. This does not mean that they're accurate assessments, but they are realistic, after a fashion.
Consider, for a moment, another pronouncement of bin Laden's from a videotape, released around the same time as bin Laden's admission that he didn't expect the World Trade Center to collapse:
More than US $1 trillion in losses resulted from these successful and blessed attacks and may God bless these martyrs and welcome them to paradise.He's referring to the drop in the value of U.S. stocks that followed September 11 (an aside: whatever happened to the investigation into the shorting of stocks in United, American Airlines, and the various businesses that had significant operations in the World Trade Center? This story seemed to drop off the radar.) For Bin Laden, America's strengths are its economy and its military, perhaps not in that order. The attacks were designed to strike at both, but I suspect more the former than the latter. And he has put a strain on the U.S. economy. The recent bankruptcy of USAir, the layoffs at American, and the collapse in the share price and possible bankruptcy of United are all consequences of the attack (not that the attack is the sole cause, but certainly is a contributing factor). If I'm not mistaken, Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, said his motivation was to make Americans fear flying -- to not fly. (The great Robert Musil has a post explaining why Reid's attempt may not have been necessary -- USAir's collapse could bring the whole airline industry down. And that will effect Boeing, which in addition to selling commercial aircraft is also a military contractor. I don't mean to say that all this was part of the planning of Al Qaeda, merely that they understood that their attack would have economic consequences. They didn't fly a plane into the Washington Monument, after all.)
Harris writes that fantasists do more than tilt at windmills, but then approaches Al Qaeda as its targets are merely symbolic. He goes further to show the spell bin Laden is under, offering one quote from him to show that he didn't expect the towers to fall, and it was by the Will of God that they collapsed. I read the quote differently -- I believe Bin Laden expected the floors of the tower above the point of impact of the plane to collapse, which would have achieved much of the same effect as the Towers completely collapsing: They would have been destroyed. You can read a transcript of the remarks Harris refers to here. The relevant passage says:
...we calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all.It does not seem to me that bin Laden is slipping into fantasy. Nowhere does he say that it wasn't the hijackers, but Allah, who brought down the World Trade Center.
And I would suggest that Al Qaeda was not solely tilting at -- or crashing planes into -- windmills. Its goal, very similar to that of the Japanese in 1941, was to eliminate U.S. power. We have arms and a generous defense budget because we have an economy that produces enough wealth that can be taxed to pay for it all. Al Qaeda attempted to dent that economy. They might merely have nicked it, and they certainly didn't knock out its engine. But they did pursue a rational strategy against the United States.
That doesn't mean that I don't agree to some extent with Harris's assessment. September 11 was meant to have an impact on the Arab and Muslim world as well. But then Pearl Harbor was crucial for the Japanese psyche, just as Billy Mitchell's raid on Tokyo -- or the valiant passengers who fought back on Flight 93 -- were important to American morale.
So Harris's implied contrast of September 11 and Pearl Harbor seems inapt to me. It seems to me that the Japanese and al Qaeda had similar war aims, and also idiotically understimated the ferocity with which America would strike back against an unprovoked attack. Harris writes, though, for example,
When the Japanese started the Pacific war by bombing Pearl Harbor, it was not because Pearl Harbor was a symbol of American power; it was because it was a large naval base and the Japanese had the quite rational strategic goal of crippling the American Pacific fleet in the first hours of the war. Furthermore, the act itself would not have taken place if the Japanese had believed themselves otherwise capable of securing their political goals--i.e., American acceptance of Japanese hegemony in Asia and the Pacific. And the war would have immediately ceased if the United States, in the days following the attack, had promptly asked for a negotiated settlement of the conflict on terms acceptable to the Japanese.I'm not persuaded that this is a correct reading of the Japanese mindset. Pearl Harbor was more than a symbol, but the intended (and nearly successful) destruction of the entire Pacific fleet was meant to send the same sort of message that September 11 sent: fear us, we can destroy you. Also, I can't imagine what terms would have been acceptable to the Japanese. If the U.S. had sued for peace, would we have been able to keep Hawaii? How long before the U.S. presence on the West Coast of the Pacific Ocean would have been intolerable to the Japanese? A decade? Two? Would the Japanese have believed that the U.S. intended to keep its word, or would it have suspected that a buildup of ships on the West Coast following any peace treaty was not for defensive purposes?
As for the contrasting situation with al Qaeda, we cannot accept terms of peace with Al Qaeda because they would correctly view us as too powerful to long be content with being defeated. Nothing short of the destruction of U.S. power will satisfy them. That doesn't necessarily entail occupation of U.S. territory, but it does mean destroying the sources of U.S. power -- our economy and the military it makes possible. Thus the September 11 attacks. Like the Japanese, al Qaeda miscalculated the U.S. response, but that doesn't mean they were not pursuing what they believed to be a rational strategy.
That leaves us with the vast disparity between U.S. power and al Qaeda's, and how al Qaeda might try to compensate for that. Harris does address this, writing,
This element of magical thinking does not make al Qaeda any less dangerous, however. For it is likely that in al Qaeda's collective fantasy there may exist the notion of an ultimate terror act, a magic bullet capable of bringing down the United States at a single stroke--and, paradoxically, nothing comes closer to fulfilling this magical role than the detonation of a very unmagical nuclear device. That this would not destroy our society in one fell swoop is obvious to us; but it is not to our enemies, in whose eyes an act of this nature assumes a fantasy significance in addition to its sufficiently terrifying reality--the fantasy significance of providing al Qaeda with a vision of ultimate and decisive victory over the West.Given the tempo and history of al Qaeda's operations, however, the evidence seems to be that, contrary to Harris, they see the war as a long one. They have been at war with us for a decade now. If they are anything, they are patient. And while a nuclear bomb would not destroy us, and would not eliminate our ability or desire to fight, it would needless to say have dire consequences (as Harris agrees). If al Qaeda is pursuing an incremental strategy, and assumes that this war will last a generation or more, a nuclear bomb isn't a magic bullet -- it's another major blow to the United States, which won't know where the next one is coming from.
Finally, the suicidal/martyrdom element does not strike me as entirely without logic, albeit a sick and twisted one. The Palestinians, for example, do not attack military targets, they specifically target civilians, including (perhaps especially) women and children. They don't blow themselves up around soldiers -- they try to evade checkpoints in order to strike their intended targets. And finally, they don't dance in the streets of Ramallah when a martyr kills only himself, either, although this, too, is considered by them to be martyrdom.
I suspect that the purpose of the Palestinian attacks has more to do with the survivors than those killed (although they certainly seem to take a great deal of pleasure in the corpses as well). The purpose is quite simply to make life unbearable. In similar fashion (although the goals of al Qaeda are different from those of Hamas, and thus the methods differ), bin Laden hoped to crush -- or at least damage -- the economy of the United States, and took great pleasure in the decline of the stock market. Much of the U.S. economy depends on optimism about the future (my modest portfolio is littered with examples of how this optimism doesn't always pan out). Al Qaeda attempted to destroy that optimism.
Which is why I think that Harris's metaphor of the plague and quarantine isn't particularly helpful. He is merely suggesting defensive measures. To put it in terms of his metaphor, we need a vaccine. And we have that in the very things bin Laden tried to destory.
Tuesday, August 13, 2002
I'm grateful again to Richard Phillips, who sends along a lengthy email (and his own translations!) on the great Polish poet and essayist, Zbigniew Herbert, about whom I wrote here and earlier, here.
Mr. Phillips and I exchanged a few emails on the subject of Herbert, courage, classicism and communism. We agreed that Herbert's life and writings have much to teach us today, that he's relevant not just to the Cold War, but to the current war as well. And, lest anyone that the intellectual struggle of the Cold War is over, I suggest you read this post from Innocents Abroad, which I found via the still-gold-standard Prof. Glenn Reynolds.
In any case, without further ado, here's the fruit of Mr. Phillips' scholarship:
I found out the following information from Joanna Siedlecka's biography of Zbigniew Herbert (I hope my translations haven't distorted anything -- there are a few words which could have different meanings in English but I think I have got the gist of what the Polish says).I'll end on a lighter note. In a 1981 interview, Herbert was asked the most difficult question for a poet living in self-imposed exile. How did it feel to be unknown in Poland, in his native language, while in America, for example, he was very famous, and there were even clubs named after his poetic alter ego, Pan Cogito. Herbert began by saying there were no clubs. "You must have me confused with Playboy," he said.
Well, I painstakingly reloaded most of the old posts into the archives. I have no idea whether any of them will be there tomorrow. I have no idea if, should I republish an archive, they'll disappear again. And some are gone for good, including Qutb 3:1, and the first ever post on Ideofact, in which I offered the world the secret of eternal life. Oh well, if you want to know what it is, just email blogger and let them know that the post disappeared and you'd like to know what happened to it...
Petulance update: Okay, I'm over the fit. Thanks to Aziz Poonawalla, who emailed some encouragement and also a suggestion on how to get the blogger folks to retrieve the missing posts. He says this is an issue when switching from Blogger to Blogger Pro. Sorry to post my temper tantrum, but I've had quite a few nights when I've spent more time wrestling with blogger than blogging, and that isn't any fun at all.
Monday, August 12, 2002
Blogger is a real piece of work. It appears all of my longer posts have disappeared from the archives. There's just no text there at all.
Not that I really think anything I've written here is worth saving for the ages, but it's really depressing to go back to look for old posts and find that they've been eaten. Some of it I backed up, much of it I didn't, but that's not really the point.
Things like this really piss me off. When the aggravation exceeds the pleasure one derives from something, it's time to consider giving it up. I'll sleep on it, but about twice a week blogger raises my blood pressure to the boiling point, and very few things in life are worth that much frustration.
My analysis of Chapter 7 of Qutb's Social Justice in Islam is taking longer than I anticipated. I believe this chapter, more than the ones on economic or political theory, is the meat of his argument. It's translated as "The Historical Reality of Justice in Islam" and it stretches for 91 pages. There's quite a bit to chew over.
Sunday, August 11, 2002
Some corrections should be more prominent than others. This is one of them, even though Richard Phillips, the reader kind enough to point out the mistake on my post mentioning Zbigniew Herbert below, isn't 100 percent sure I got something wrong. But I think I did, when I wrote that "he was a member in good standing of both the Polish Writers Union and the communist party":
Zbigniew Herbert was never a member of the Communist party and refrained from publishing any of his poems until the period of Stalinism was over, supporting himself during that time by taking on a series of dead-end jobs.I tend to think Mr. Phillips is right for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the character of Herbert. Beyond that, I think it was possible in 1948 to be a member of the Polish Writers' Union and not be a member of the communist party, and actually likely that most writers in the Union weren't members of the communist party. That came later. Another great Polish writer, Czeslaw Milosz, describes the history of that period in what has to be one of the bleakest -- and bravest -- books I've ever read, The Captive Mind.
In any case, Mr. Phillips has promised to research the question, for which I'm grateful. He also sends along a link to this interview with Herbert, which I've printed out and will read on the Metro to work tomorrow.
Like me, he laments the lack of Herbert volumes in print.
I've added a link to Post Politics, as they were kind enough to link me. Sorry for the delay in getting to this -- this is one of the links I lost in a minor email disaster a while back.