paleo Ideofact

Saturday, September 07, 2002
Aziz Poonawalla is considering adding a counter to Unmedia. I usually don't write much about the mechanics or even the philosophy of blogging. I'm having fun, and that's really all that matters to me. For a long time I spurned the idea of having a counter (I sent Josh over at i330 a too-long email on the subject some time ago). But curiosity got the better of me.

One thing I've noticed -- it's really taken the incentive out of writing on weekends, since I know all of 4 people look at the site then (this is a slight -- very slight -- exaggeration. It's actually 3 people). I have also noticed that on the few days when I've updated during the day (I do all of my writing at night, but occasionally some kind friend points out that I've mangled the English language again, and I will correct the error from work and post some kind of update), I get more visits around the time I correct the bad post. This is probably because blogger sends out some kind of message that the blog has recently been updated, which shows up in some people's blog links. I don't really understand how all the mechanics of it work, but I don't really care either. As I told Josh in the aforementioned email, if I got too obsessive over readers, unique visitors, page views and the like, I'd probably stop blogging altogether (for what it's worth, I actually get more than I expected, which still isn't a whole lot, but thank you, kind readers, and feel free to email -- there are few enough of you that I'm sure I can manage personal responses).

So, I pretty much ignore the numbers, or at least try to avoid letting them affect me. If I paid attention to them, I would have saved something like the Coulter diatribe below for the Tuesday to Thursday period, which are my biggest days hit-wise. I actually liked it (I don't like everything I write, I usually disappoint myself). Probably the worst time to post anything is a Friday night, but what the hell, who cares. Except for the occasional email, I have no way of telling what pieces people are reading, and more importantly, I have no way of telling if everyone who visits the site thinks I'm a complete idiot. I do know I'm not wasting my time, because I blogged for roughly six months without a counter and never thought twice about it, and enjoyed myself.

So, memo to Aziz: the counter is a mixed blessing. I vaguely think I'm better off for having it, but I'm going to spend the next few weeks not checking it. And I'm not going to let it affect when I post things, or if I post things, or how I go about writing on this site.

Friday, September 06, 2002
A while back, the inestimable Meryl Yourish noted that I disagreed with a particular bit of fact-checking of Ann Coulter's book Slander. I think I made clear in my emails to Meryl that I am no fan of Coulter's (and her wording accurately reflects the point I made). Ann Coulter is not the sort of writer who writes for me, and I'm normally willing to leave it at that.

However, today a friend emailed me a link to her latest column, and suggested it might be the kind of thing that would interest me. I read up until this point, when she discusses the LAX shooting of July 4, 2002:
Four days after the shooting, the story vanished amid an embarrassed recognition of the fact that any Muslim could snap at any moment and start shooting.
For those who don't know, my wife is Muslim. For the record, I don't wear a bulletproof vest around the house, I don't drop crumpled newspaper on the floor around the bed so I'll be awakened should she approach my sleeping form with a loaded pistol, I don't feel the need to caution neighbors, friends and family members that I'm married to a woman who, by virtue of her religion, is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. To be frank, in six years of marraige I've given her ample reason to consider grabbing a gun, but religion has nothing to do with it (the cats' litter boxes are another matter entirely).

My friend emailed me at home, asking me to comment on the piece, that it might remind me of something I'd mentioned to him a while back. So I reluctantly read the rest. I wouldn't say I'm glad I did, but perhaps it was worth the effort after all.

Coulter has two main points. The first is that, were Christian extremists behind the recent rash of terrorism, the major media would have no problem whatsoever branding the entire religion as extremist. I stress that this is not an exact parallel, but I should say that I don't recall the media arguing that David Koresh represented all Christians, or regarding his theology as being particularly mainstream. Perhaps I'm quibbling here. In any case, her media criticism isn't my main interest.

Her second point is that she doesn't much care for Islam, which she compares unfavorably to Scientology. Coulter apparently has read of a book on Islam, and wants to share with us the benefit of her learning:
In a fascinating book written by two Arab Muslims who converted to Christianity, Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner give an eye-opening account of Islam's prophet in "Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs."

Citing passages from the Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad, the Caners note that, by his own account, the founder of Islam was often possessed by Satan. The phrase "Satanic Verses" refers to words that Muhammad first claimed had come from God, but which he later concluded were spoken by Satan.

Muhammad married 11 women, kept two others as concubines and recommended wife-beating (but only as a last resort!). His third wife was 6 years old when he married her and 9 when he consummated the marriage.

To say that Muhammad was a demon-possessed pedophile is not an attack. It's a fact.
Ah yes, of course. And every Muslim regards the Prophet as a devil worshipper, and they know that they secretly worship Satan, and they are eager to be cast into hell for all their iniquities. Muslims in Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia can't wait to marry off their six-year-old daughters, unless they get really lucky and find someone who'd rather have the girl as a concubine, or better yet, as a sacrifice in a satanic ritual. When we saw the sonogram, the first thing my wife said is, "Why is it a boy? I won't be able to marry him off when he's six," to which I replied, "Relax. If we're good parents, one day he'll grow up to marry someone else's first-grader."

The learned Islamic scholar goes on to write,
Muslims argue against the Caners' book the way liberals argue against all incontrovertible facts. They deny the meaning of words, posit irrelevant counterpoints, and attack the Caners' motives.
I would suggest that a convert from one religion to another might not be the most reliable source of information on their old faith. People convert for many reasons, but let's posit two here: disaffection with their old faith, or an attraction the new one. In the former case, one may be tempted to lay out all the reasons why one left. One may be tempted to depict the old beliefs in the most unflattering light possible. Such was the case of Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Jew who converted to Christianity early in the 16th Century. He wrote a series of pamphlets (perhaps signed his name to them is more accurate -- the pamphlets may well have been written by Dominican monks of Cologne) arguing that the Hebrew books of the Jews -- the Torah and Talmud, works of literature and philosophy, fables, poetry -- should be burned.
He called for an accelerated program of missionizing designed to bring about the mass conversion of Jews in German lands. Among his recommendations were economic restrictions on Jewish livelihood, the coercion of Jews to attend Christian sermons and the destruction of Jewish books.
Pfefferkorn, who almost certianly did not read Hebrew, argued that Hebrew books contained nothing but blasphemies against Jesus Christ. I raise his specter only to note that it is not entirely unprecedented in history for converts to wage war on their former co-religionists.

By none of this do I mean that there aren't serious problems in the Muslim world, that the images of Palestinian children draped with explosives aren't a sign of a serious disorder which has a religious component, that the influence of Wahhabi innovation and Qutb-inspired radicalism isn't a serious threat to the West (and to Muslims themselves, I might add). But it seems to me that Coulter has gone far beyond such criticisms.

I used to think she was a woman who understood how to make money from being outrageous -- cynical and shrewd, perhaps, but not serious. But I am beginning to think I was wrong, and that she really means what she says. I'm not sure which is worse.

Blood Libel Suit
Al-Ahram has an interview with -- forgive me, I almost wrote "crusading" -- with jihading Egyptian newspaperman Ibrahim Nafie, who argues that a recent lawsuit filed against him in France is aimed at having a chilling effect on the Egyptian press,
"an attempt to terrorise and silence Egyptian journalists and intellectuals so they desist from criticising Israel. As you know, Egyptian writers and intellectuals are the most involved in exposing Israel's terrorism against the Palestinians."
The particular writer and intellectual who is mentioned in the lawsuit, one Adel Hammouda, wrote an article -- which Nafie published in the Oct. 10, 2001 edition of the Arabic language Al-Ahram -- entitled "A Jewish pie from Arab blood."

Thursday, September 05, 2002
Ecumenical 2
Erasmus once acidly commented, "If it is Christian to hate the Jews, then are we all not excellent Christians?" I can almost hear Joshua Treviño grinding his teeth from here, but I quote Erasmus by way of contrast, and for the purposes of clarification: while there are certainly a few Christian bigots today who hate Jews out of what they perceive to be a religious duty, we have come a long way since the days of Erasmus.

Josh wrote me an email more in sorrow than in anger, and posted a brief comment as well. I gather he thinks the whole debate I mentioned in the post immediately below got out of hand, and in fairness to Josh, he was more interested in a Christian doctrine (and specifically, a Catholic bishops' group statement about it) on the universal applicability of Christ's message. He didn't say how this doctrine should be applied; others raised the issue of evangelizing Jews. Josh wrote to me, in part:
I don't have any desire to single out Jews for evangelization; my argument was that the evangelization mission is universal, and the Catholic bishops' effort to exempt a particular group from its scope was contrary to the preceding c.2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy. Christianity is, after all, premised upon the universal necessity of Christ -- deny that necessity even in part, and the whole structure crumbles. Like I said, I'd have reacted quite the same if the bishops had said Seventh-Day Adventists instead of Jews.

But of course they did say Jews, and so Lynn B. and Judith Weiss got involved, and things spiraled downward from there. Judith in particular began making some odd and unsupportable statements (notably that the evangelization mission per se was an inevitable precursor to Christian barbarity), and so the discussion moved away from my primary point.

But just to be perfectly clear -- I don't have a burning desire to convert the Jews. No more than my burning desire to convert the Hindus.
As always, Josh is a decent and articulate fellow, and I'm sorry if I gave the impression (I hope I didn't) that he was eager to storm Jewish retirement homes with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.

Nevertheless, I still find the subject intriguing; perhaps I will write more in the future. For the record, there were moments in the long, uneasy historical relations between Christians and Jews in which the idea of merely preaching the Gospel to Jews (as opposed to forced conversions or expulsions) was a true mark of the progressive spirit of tolerance.

Note: After posting this, I edited it slightly for clarity. I should add that I planned a much longer post originally, touching on Reuchlin, Luther, and various other worthies, but decided to give it up for the time being.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002
Joshua Treviño, who I will add is one of my favorite bloggers, got himself into a bit of controversy with Lynn B. of In Context and Judith Weiss of Kesher Talk over the question of whether Christians should proselytize Jews. Over the weekend, I wrestled with the debate, and decided at length to say nothing. Then I came across this post from Josh, a Catholic, linking to this post from Telford Work, a Southern Baptist. Josh links it approvingly. Mr. Work writes that Christians should evangelize Jews, and justifies this view with scripture. He reasons that converted Jews could retain their distinctive Jewishness:
Israel (here meaning the people, with or without the nation-state) suffers from two main threats: annihilation at the hands of enemies (Europe in the 1900's, Arab states today), and assimilation into the hands of friends (America today).

If Christian mission to Israel is an agent of cultural assimilation, then I think it is wrongly conceived. Both testaments appreciate Israel as distinct among the nations, even when the nations come together under the lordship of Christ, and even on the Last Day (Rev. 7). Christian Israel is still Israel.
For what it is worth, I find the targetting of Jews for evangelizing -- a word whose meaning has two senses: spreading the Gospel and converting (two related, but different, activities) -- distasteful. In part, it's a practical question: how does one go about it exactly? Hanging out around Synagogues, Jewish community centers, retirement homes, Hebrew schools? In a mass media culture like ours, statements like this one, also from Telford Work, strike me as bizarre: refuse the good news of Jesus Christ to Jesus' own people is to add insult to injury.
In my local Borders, the shelves groan under the weight of hundreds of volumes of Christian theology. I can turn on the television any Sunday and see any number of Christian ministers preaching the Gospels. There is a Catholic cable network. It is hard to argue that the good news of Jesus Chirst has been refused to a people who, for a little less than 2,000 years, have lived side by side with Christians.

On the other hand, we should take some comfort from the idea that a Catholic and a Southern Baptist regard one another so highly. There was a time when Catholics regarded the Protestant insistence on the primacy of the Bible to be anathema, and labelled them heretics. In turn, Protestants considered the Catholic hierarchy to be servants of the antichrist. The veneration of saints was idol worship, unsupported by scripture, the veneration of the virgin was similarly rejected on Biblical grounds. Catholic theologians said that the Church was infallible, and that its practices were part of a secret oral tradition handed down directly by Christ and the Apostles. Both sides argued that those following the beliefs of the other were doomed to hell. So, after roughly 500 years, we have reached a point at which a Southern Baptist and a Catholic can agree, but regrettably the agreement is on the necessity of evangelizing Jews.

A is for Anachronous
I probably shouldn't be too dismissive of this reminder in Arab News that Islamic civilization's contribution to mankind is certainly worthy of respect. Oddly enough, though, the most recent of those achievements is Ibn Khaldun's philosophy of history. The author of the Muqaddimah died in 1406.

Worth noting
I liked this piece by Lawrence Henry from the American Prowler, and I tend to agree with his assessment of the timing of the war on Iraq. I also enjoyed his characterization of America:
Why do so many people misunderstand us so? Or why does it seem that the misunderstanders get so much attention? McDonald's is not a part of our foreign policy. McDonald's does what McDonald's does. Britney Spears is not a government initiative. If she takes off her clothes on television to the outrage of Muslims abroad, this is not our public business. No law governs her. Indeed, our current President probably has little idea who Ms. Spears is. Many of our own citizens, famous ones, draw attention to themselves with public pronouncements as stupid as any ever uttered by a French intellectual. These are not policy statements; they say them; they fall silent; we forget about them again.

Cultural imperialism? What's that? We are nice people in a nice country, the nicest ever. Our country was founded on what governments could not do, not on what it could, on rights that "shall not be infringed," on a Congress that "shall make no law." Millions of people abroad understand this very well, pack up, and come here, because they want to live the way we do.

How are we to respond to this story from Al-Ahram, the Egyptian paper:
Yehia Ismail, former secretary-general of the dissolved Front of Al-Azhar ulama (scholars), was handed a one-year prison sentence on 19 August, for libeling the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi.

The case began two years ago, after an article by Ismail entitled "Khul': Made in America" appeared in Al-Shaab newspaper. The piece was highly critical of Sheikh Tantawi's approval of khul' (a legal process by which women are entitled to a divorce via a court ruling, on condition that they give up all their financial rights), and hinting that the new law had been dictated by the US.

The article was reflective of the long-running dispute between the grand imam of Al-Azhar and the Al-Azhar front of scholars, who had been spear-heading an anti-Tantawi campaign via criticism of what they saw as his liberal views concerning, amongst other things, the legality of bank interest and organ transplants. The severest criticism directed by the front against Tantawi came in 1997, after the grand imam hosted a rabbi at Al-Azhar Mosque.
I think the sentence is wrong (worth noting: it was handed down at a time when Ismail was out of the country, in Saudi Arabia -- it may well be the Egyptian government is merely telling him not to bother returning). It would be far better to point to individuals whose lives had been extended or improved by organ transplants, to small businessmen who got their start by borrowing with interest, to women who escaped abusive marraiges through the divorce law, to the Judaic roots of Islam, to discredit him, rather than sentencing him to a punishment he will never serve. As to the libel charge, well, perhaps it would be better to argue that yes, no-fault divorce is a U.S. concept, and there are things we can learn from the United States.

Qutb 7:4
A short post. Here is Qutb's view of Western civilization: is a civilization founded on pure materialism, a civilization of murder and war, of conquest and of subjugation.

Moe Freedman of the very fine Occam's Toothbrush noted in a post the other day,
There seems to be a rumor floating around, or being leaked, or something, that goes something like this: All the arguments about Iraq are going to be mooted shortly by the administration, which will release a particular piece of intelligence that will make it clear that an attack on Iraq is necessary.
Moe speculated that Saddam may already have the bomb; I thought that unlikely, since the argument goes that if Saddam does, we can't attack because he might use it against Israel. As it is, the argument against attacking because of he might use chemical and biological weapons against our troops, or Israel, has already been floated. So Saddam's possessing the bomb would be one more source of division, rather than a unifying call to action.

I think this story about a lawsuit filed against Iraq, bin Laden, et al, suggests a more plausible alternative of what the particular piece of intelligence may be:
The lawsuit said there have been numerous meetings between Iraqi intelligence agents and high-ranking al-Qaida members to plan terror attacks.

It said one of those meetings occurred in 1992 when bin Laden's chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose whereabouts are now unknown, met with Iraqi intelligence agents in Baghdad over several days.

An Iraqi serving with the Taliban who fled Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and was captured in Kurdistan has corroborated the meeting and confirmed that Iraqi contacts with al-Qaida began in 1992, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit noted that Ramzi Yousef arrived in New York on Sept. 1, 1992, with an Iraqi passport to begin planning the 1993 trade center bombing that killed six people and injured more than 1,000 others.

The lawsuit alleges that Yousef was an Iraqi intelligence agent who traveled to the United States using travel documents forged in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation of that country in 1991.

Even though he seems to relish it, I'm a little sheepish about the compliment I bestowed on Aziz. I'm not sure I'd like to read in someone else's blog that an Islamist wanted to have a chat with me with the benefit of instruments of torture (of course, in my case, there wouldn't even be much to chat about...)

In a review of a book by H.G. Wells, Jorge Luis Borges notes that Wells traced the origins of Naziism to Carlyle (1795-1881) and Fichte (1762-1814) and adds, "That is why the true intellectual eschews contemporary debates; reality is always anachronous."

I'd try to use this as a justification for writing about Tyndale and the like here, but I'm not a true intellectual.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002
Sitcom plot
A humorous little item from the Arab News:
JEDDAH, 4 September — A man in the southern city of Baha was in for a terrible shock when he found that his chat-room female partner was none other than his own wife, Al-Riyadh newspaper reported yesterday. She learned his secret code name for chatting with girls from her son. The husband learned that it was his wife he was talking to only when she provided him her land and mobile telephone numbers for further contacts. Embarrassed and angry at being caught red-handed, the man rushed home cast doubt on her fidelity. However he was convinced of her innocence when their son told him that it was the son who gave her the code name as a practical joke.
Of course, this loses some of its humor when one recalls that the Qur'anic punishment for infidelity is 100 lashes with a whip, and some hadith suggest that the whip is too good for her, and a good stoning to death is what she needs to shape her up...

Qutb 7:3

Note: The previous post in this series can be read here, which also provides links to the entire series.

I'm reading a book that I've found disappointing so far, Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction by Howard R. Turner. I say disappointing, because the whole thing seems to have been written on a seventh grade level. Admittedly, this means that a few sections -- those on mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, optics, geography, and the natural sciences, to name a few -- are way over my head, but the section on philosophy is reduced to one in which we learn that Islamic thinkers thought a lot about lots of different things, and read the works of Socrates, which is pretty impressive, especially since he didn't write any.

I apologize for the flippant tone at the outset; I should add that Turner's book is about what one would expect for a general survey written for the most general of audiences. This, I suppose, is the danger of ordering a book off of Amazon -- had I picked it up in Borders, I would have leafed through it, and decided to save my money for something else. But Turner's book does have some value: if nothing else, it reminds us at least of the vibrant civilization that was Islam, of the Sufi mystics, of the skeptical Mu'tazilite school of the ninth century, of the Persians, Turks, Jews and Christians who all contributed to the Islamic intellectual milieu from the 8th to the 13th centuries. I thought of how resilient Islam was, to conquer those who conquered the Islamic realms -- Seljuk Turks, Mongols, Circassians, Ottoman Turks, and so on, all accepted the faith of the conquered. (A parallel can be seen in Christian Europe, dating before the fall of the Roman Empire, as a succession of barbarian invaders -- Lombards, Goths, Visigoths, Franks, Huns, Normans, Bulgars, Danes, etc. etc. -- accepted Christianity.) The multiethnic character of the Islamic realms was one of its great strengths. Further, in what should be music to the ears of some libertarians, successive caliphs understood that the key to prosperity was low taxes, free trade, law and order, protection of property and a relatively laizzez-faire society. I don't mean to overstate the case -- it wasn't paradise, not by a long shot. But in the long history of mankind, the world of Islam from 800 to 1300 was cosmopolitan, urban, mercantile, philosophical, and even fun. Not a bad combination.

Not so, says Qutb.

In an earlier post on Qutb, I noted that he tossed most of the heritage of Islam out the window. In his seventh chapter, translated as The Historical Reality of Social Justice in Islam, he tells the precise moment the Islamic ideal died, and the world descended into chaos.
The greatest crime of Mu'awiya, therefore, was that he destroyed the spirit of Islam at the very beginning of his reign by a complete suppression of its moral elements.
Qutb is referring to the first Umayyad Caliph, who deposed Ali (the last of the four rightly guided Caliphs; the event led to the Sunni-Shi'ite split), whose reign lasted from 661 A.D. to 680 A.D. Pace, Aziz, I do not mean to praise Mu'awiya or the Umayyad caliphate. On the plus side, though, by establishing hereditary rule, the Umayyads largely ended the practice fo caliphocide as a means of regime change (three of the first four rightly guided Caliphs were assassinated; Ali was accused of killing or conspiring to kill his predecessor, Uthman).

Qutb regards the Umayyad caliphate as a catastrophe for the world -- surpassed only by the victory of Europe and its bastard child America over the world. He writes, for example:
However strong the spirit of Islam may have been, and however powerful in extending its hold over all these heritages [i.e. -- those of the conquered lands], an element of time was essential before all this new material could be homogenized, before a change could be wrought in the old moral ideas, the rooted traditions, the cherished social systems and customs. Thus the Umayyad attack on the spirit of Islam just at this juncture took place at a unique point of time; if it had been stayed for a space, it could never have accomplished all that it did.
"However strong" indeed. For Qutb, Islam is a delicate and tempermental flower that will wilt if subjected to the slightest breeze. He writes, for example,
The spirit of Islam continues to be thus active as long as the Islamic world is free from the influence of materialistic Western civilization.
He goes on to quote at length an account of a North African villager whose family is starving as an example of the profound effects of the spirit of Islam. Yes, but in the materialistic West, few people starve.

For Qutb, a man like Aziz Poonawalla is an impossibility. Here Aziz writes that hearing that the sun never sets on the Azaan (well, not a precise metaphor, read the post) affects him:
From my perspective, I find this to be a deeply moving observation.

I'm studying for my PhD in MRI physics, I was born in Chicago, I lust after a PS2 and I drive a 2002 Ford Explorer, so I have all my yuppie genX westernized american credentials in place. Still, it moved me.
Qutb seems to argue that, because of something that happened in the seventh century, Aziz's response to that deeply moving observation is compromised. And he'd probably like to have a chat, preferably with the benefit of a few instruments of torture, about Aziz's westernized credentials.

Two opinions
I expect that we'll hear much, in the next few weeks, about the dangers of al Qaeda, the instability of Afghanistan, and the need to prosecute the war on terror anywhere other than Iraq ... Last night's post was probably my best...

Monday, September 02, 2002
I'll be back tomorrow with another post on Qutb. I spent a good deal of time writing here over the weekend, but I didn't post anything. In the end, I decided that nothing I had to say was worth reading.