An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Saturday, October 05, 2002
On the other hand...
I think Aziz is a bit off his rocker when he argues that
The central tenet of the Neo-Conservatives is that all foreign policy, especially that pertaining to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, should be aimed at benefiting Israel.Unless I'm misreading Aziz, he's accusing Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld -- whom he lists among the Neo-Cons -- of something pretty close to treason.
Beyond that, I think his characterization and his cast of Neo-Cons is a bit off. It's late and I'm tired, so I won't ferret out the references now, but as I recall, the neoconservative movement had its origins in the Cold War. Democrats broke with their party over what they saw as the party's soft stand on containing or rolling back Soviet Communism. George Will is hardly a Neo-Con -- he was always conservative, as was Rumsfeld. I don't know enough about the history of the others to render a judgment one way or another.
Also, I'm curious to know exactly which policies the Neo-Cons are pushing that are aimed at benefiting Israel, and not the United States specifically or the world in general. Toppling Saddam? Encouraging a democratic movement among the Palestinians, and getting them to drop their self-destructive, self-defeating, suicidal terror campaign? Going after al Qaeda? Toppling the Taliban? Opposing the mullahs in Iran? Again, just wondering...
Friday, October 04, 2002
I'm working, I'm working, but regrettably, at 11:49 on a Friday night, I have actual work (the kind I get paid for) to do.
I'll try to finish the next post tonight, but it might have to wait until tomorrow...
Perish the thought 2
I'm not sure if Xavier Basora (4th item) quite understood my response to him (reading it over, I'm not sure anyone could). But Aziz Poonawalla has written, much more eloquently than I could, making the point I tried to make about Islam:
Xavier subsequently writes to wonder if I (or other bloggers writing about Islam) will be able to explain how these sermons fit into Islam. He assumes I will have a "hell of a time explaining the vehemence of those sermons and the vitrolic hatred". As I have written on numerous occassions before, the answer is simple. These sermons have nothing to do with Islam. They are manifestations of a tribal impulse to exert political control over a population.The kicker is the conclusion
True Islam -- even if mis-practiced by a billion Wahabi fanatics -- is eternal. It cannot be suppressed. As long as a single Muslim like myself practices it in accordance with the original teachings of the Prophet, it cannot be extinguished from this world. As a Muslim, it's not my place to worry about how Islam is perceived by you. It's to worry about how Islam is practiced by me.I have tried to make this point before, albeit in a different context, but one of the problems with the Middle East is the lack of a free press, or the more fundamental concept of free speech. In such societies, public pronouncements are used by the regime to further its political agenda. It does not matter what symbols the regime uses to make its points -- the Nazis wouldn't have appropriated the Qur'an for its purposes, instead preferring Wagner to further its crackpot reading of biology. The Soviets shifted gears a few times -- a cult of the modern, a cult of personality -- to further its crackpot reading of economics. I'm going to try another analogy: What one reads of the sermons in Saudi mosques is to Islam what Soviet ideas of economics were to Adam Smith.
Incidentally -- and understand, I like Xavier, I'm a fan of his blog, and I hope he doesn't take offence -- I noted that he never responded to his prime minister's remarks that 3,000 Americans deserved to be incinerated on Sept. 11 because of America's arrogance. Why is it that Canadians -- who, after all, have a right to free speech (albeit weaker then America's) -- won't denounce such hate speech? How do Canadians reconcile their supposedly tolerant and peaceful political culture with leaders who justify mass murder?
Thursday, October 03, 2002
Perish the thought
Xavier Basora surmises, after reading translations of some Saudi sermons, that
Bloggers like Aziz, Adil or Bill must despair each time they read sludge as this, they want to throw up their hands and write about other subjects than Islam and Islamic civilization.He adds that he hopes this is not the case. Obviously I can't speak for Aziz or for Adil (who regrettably seems to be taking another long hiatus -- a depressing turn of events), but I don't despair. Here is part of the reason why.
Let me offer an outrageous scenario. Suppose a new political party, calling itself the Founding Fathers, somehow managed to seize control of the government in the United States. They profess utter devotion to the founding spirit of America, and set about implementing their reading of it. The first thing they do is cancel all the Amendments to the Constitution (after all, they came later, and were innovations on the Founders' original design). Freedom of speech and the press and religion, the right to bear arms, women's suffrage, equal protection under the law, the ban on slavery, all go out the window. They bring back slavery, since some of the founders owned slaves. They smash the Lincoln Memorial, since Lincoln erred by innovating and insisting that the phrase "All Men Are Created Equal" included blacks. They bring back the Alien and Sedition Act, because John Adams -- the colossus of independence -- supported it. They begin quoting America's fairly rich racist literature; ensuring that we truly have seen the last of the Mohicans, and the Sioux and the Apaches and the Chocataw, becomes national policy. Figures in American history who had been of heroic stature -- Andrew Jackson, Sherman and Grant, Poe and Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau, the two Roosevelts, Martin Luther King, perhaps even the Wright Brothers -- are villified. The collection of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. -- filled with the works of decadent Europe -- nudes, still lives, impressionists, Dutch masters -- is burnt on a pyre.
The Fathers argue that theirs is the only legitimate interpretation of American history and American ideals; dissent is met with prison, torture, and death. The document they claimed they were preserving -- the Constitution -- is largely quoted only in reference to a black man constituting 3/5s of a white man (yes, I recognize that this was actually an anti-slavery measure, but the Fathers don't -- taken out of context, it supports their re-institution of slavery).
I have offered a clumsy analogy, but my suspicion is that the sermons Xavier references distort Islam in much the same way my hypothetical Founding Fathers movement distorts American history, and American ideals. I don't know a great deal about Wahhabism, but from what I've read, a good analogy for it would be this: throw out all of Thomas Jefferson's writings on the equality of man, on religious tolerance, on freedom, substitute (and glory in) modern accusations that Jefferson slept with (even raped) a slave, and base your state on that.
This is not to say that I don't find a great deal of traditional Islam to be not to my personal taste, or that I'm anywhere near converting to the faith. I am, as I think I have said before, a worldy wiseman (to use Bernard Shaw's memorable phrase) -- someone who isn't particularly devout, or even all that interested in religion. And finally, I am not nearly generous enough in spirit to despair over a religion whose history extends nearly 1400 years, and whose culture stretches across the continents and takes in widely divergent peoples. So rest assured, Xavier, I'll most likely continue offering the reflections of others and my own modest thoughts on this vast and protean subject.
The great (and patient) Aziz Poonawalla emailed me to say that my surmise in the last Qutb post wasn't entirely crazy; the brain of bin Laden may have attacked Yazid so vehemently in order to appeal to radicalizing Shi'ites.
Tonight I'll continue with the next installment of the Qutb series, which I like to think of as being subtitled "Hammer and Crescent."
Wednesday, October 02, 2002
Izetbegovic's Prison Notebooks
In a 1981 interview, the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert discussed his inability to publish in his native land:
I do not blame myself -- or the touchy authorities. The languages of politics and literature are entirely different and so are the mentalities. Politicians are concerned with 'far-reaching' goals, personal games, gangster-style tricks. What interests me is human fate. What does me good is bad for politicians; what suits them I find indigestible. We use two different styles. I have tried to use the conditional. I hesitate. I appeal to conscience. ...Regular readers of Ideofact may have noticed that I never discuss politics, and only rarely mention heads of state. There are reasons for this, not the least of which is that in my day job I get my fill of what passes for gangster-style tricks in American politics (consider, for example, the Torricelli affair, as chronicled in the sometimes dispassionate, sometimes heated blogosphere reaction, compiled by the indispensible Prof. Glenn Reynolds. Dressed up in high-minded appeals to fair elections is the naked lust for power. But I digress...). There would be little mental relief from that if I sat here typing away about appropriations bills or political maneuvering of various congressional factions. So it may seem strange if I discuss here a recent political figure -- albeit a minor one, who is no longer in office -- but I would argue that he belongs as much to literature as he does to politics.
I am referring to Alija Izetbegovic, who until he resigned in October 2000 was the president of Bosnia. His acts as a politician do not interest me as much as his ideas, a collection of which, written when he was a dissident prisoner in communist Yugoslavia's prisons, has recently been published.
The notes are dated 1983-1988, although Izetbegovic tells us that during his first year in prison, he hardly wrote anything at all. I didn't know what to expect when I got the book -- I know hardly anything about Bosnian cultural figures. My wife, who knows a great deal about the subject, rarely discusses such things with me.
It is too early for me to comment definitively on the work, but as I paged through it, reading his notes at random -- notes written by a pious Muslim (he was imprisoned for arguing for religious freedom), some things seemed worth sharing.
Perhaps I should note that the Serb nationalists who attacked multiethnic Bosnia and their apoligists have argued about Izetbegovic that
THE LEADER OF BOSNIAN MUSLIMS IS THE LEADING FIGURE IN THE MURKY ISLAM FUNDAMENTALIST WORLD.I can't vouch for the veracity of the various works cited on the page I've linked, but they provide such "damning" quotes -- from an earlier work by Izetbegovic -- as this:
"...Islamic order may be implemented only in countries where Muslims represent the majority of the population. Without this majority, the Islamic order is reduced to authority only (because the other element is lacking - the Islamic society), and may turn into violence. ..."and this
"...In the struggle for an Islamic order all methods are permitted, except one - except crime. No-one has the right to smear the beautiful name of Islam and this struggle by uncontrolled and excessive use of violence. ..."They are taken from a work Izetbegovic wrote in 1970; I do not necessarily doubt that they are accurate. At the time, Tito enjoyed good relations with Nasser, and pan-Arabism was still ascendant. To be honest, though, on the basis of what he wrote while a political prisoner, I wish Izetbegovic were a leading figure of the murky world of Islamic fundamentalism -- if he were, we wouldn't have a great deal to worry about. Consider this note:
1214. Communists claimed that classical freedoms have only formal nature and no value. What is the value of freedom of religion, that is, the right to believe according to your own choice -- they say -- when an individual loses an internal ability to believe in anything that cannot be proven? Or, what is that so-much-praised freedom of speech for, when much of what man thinks and says is in actuality that which others think and say. Or, what is worth to you that you are free from external authorities (king, dictatorships, church) when anonymous authorities such as public opinion and the press have even more authority? These internal authorities have greater power over man than external, etc. My response to this: Give us as many of those "formal" freedoms, and do not worry about our health. It has been shown, namely, that this objection to formalism of freedom is in fact justification for a totalitarian system of government. For, those who have talked of formal freedoms did not instead of those give real ones, but have abolished both one and the others. This hypocritical game continues and repeats itself, surprisingly with success.Then, there is this slightly more sardonic observation:
744. ...[Jurgen] Habermas is considered to be the most significant Marxist writer of the modern age. This was not a hindrance to his appointment in the 1970s to the post of director at the Max Planck Institute for Research of Life Conditions of the Scientific-Technological World (West Germany)(in this capacity he wrote the book The Problem of the Legitimacy of Late Capitalism). In a reversed situation (if he wrote in Communism against Communism) he would get, like myself, 14 years in prison. ...Here is an observation about America:
3059. I have read somewhere that in Cleveland, Ohio (United States) as many as eighty different nationalities live, each of which is proud of its symbols, cherishes them, and respects those that are different. No one is cramped for space in Cleveland.Changing gears somewhat, here are a few passages about religion and culture:
1916. There is one predominant principle in Western culture. That is the principle of human dignity. The European culture owes this principle to Christianity. If somebody asked me what makes the Christian foundations of European civilization recognizable, I would answer: the predominant principle of human dignity.I do not agree with everything I have read in the book (I do not agree with all the opinions I have held at one time or another), but nevertheless I find his ideas stimulating. I also find it interesting that he is far more critical of Islam, at least as it is practiced, than Christianity. Perhaps that is because he quite obviously believes so deeply, so sincerely. One more anecdote, which I have heard but I cannot verify: Such was his devotion that when Izetbegovic was in prison, during the winter, he would crack ice in the exercise yard, use it to perform his ablutions, and then pray.
No doubt I will have occasion to quote him again, which makes me a little less reluctant to finally stop typing, and share what I feel is a grossly incomplete post with my readers.
Meryl Yourish has done some real work, tracking the total number of U.N. Security Council Resolutions proposed and the percentage of same dealing with Israel. Some 15 percent deal with what now represents .5 percent of the countries in the United Nations.
I was reminded of a passage from the great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote -- in 1934, before there was an Israel -- a response to a fascist magazine, Crisol, that had accused him of being Jewish (why else would someone be a tireless advocate of tolerance?). After stating that, regrettably, he had found no Jewish grandfather, or ancestor going back as far as 200 years, he wrote,
I am grateful to Crisol for having impelled me to pursue these investigations, but I have less and less hope of ever ascending to the Altar of the Temple, to the Bronze Sea, to Heine, to Gleizer, the Argentine publisher, and the Ten Righteous Men, to Ecclesiastes, and Charlie Chaplin.It is Borges' last paragraph that seems especially relevant:
Statistically speaking, the Jews were very few. What would we think of someone in the year 4000 who discovers everywhere descendants of the inhabitants of the San Juan province [one of the least populated in Argentina]? Our inquisitors are seeking Hebrews, never Phoenicians, Numidians, Scythians, Babylonians, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Ethiopians, Illyrians, Paphlagonians, Sarmatians, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Libyans, Cyclops, or Lapiths.I do not like to say so, but it appears that not much has changed since 1934, except for the existence of a Jewish state.
Tuesday, October 01, 2002
Note: The previous posts in the series can be found here and here; the latter post provides a link back to earlier posts. Sorry, but hyperlinking all of them every time I want to write about Qutb is getting to be such a drag that it's a disincentive in and of itself to be continue with this book.
Well, now that I've gotten that off my chest, perhaps I should provide the obligatory boilerplate on Qutb. For those of you who've followed this series, feel free to skip the next paragraph.
These posts are my all-too-lengthy reflections on Sayyid Qutb's work, Social Justice in Islam. Qutb, an Egyptian "intellectual" (in the same way we might speak of Lenin as an intellectual) has been called "the brains behind Osama" (although why D'Souza didn't go for the much more alliterative "brains behind bin Laden," I can't say). Qutb was born in Egypt in 1903, had memorized the Qur'an word for word before his tenth birthday, lived in the West (in the late 1940s and early '50s, including a stint in the United States, where he was apparently shocked by the promiscuity of American women) before returning to Egypt, where he soon ran afoul of the Nasser regime. He was executed in 1966.
In the seventh chapter of the work, the title of which is translated as The Historical Reality of Social Justice in Islam, Qutb, naturally enough, spends a fair amount of his time writing about history. It is perhaps worth noting the kind of history Qutb writes; here he is on Abu Bakr, the first caliph:
He always held himself personally responsible for the needs of every individual among his flock, because he believed strongly in that constant watchfulness of conscience that Islam lays upon both ruler and ruled and in that keen moral perception that it kindles in the conscience of all and sundry. This he carried to the point of drawing milk for the poor from the flocks and herds of his neighbors at al-Sunh. For when he came to the caliphate he heard a servant girl say: "The ewes of our household will give no milk for us today." Abu Bakr, hearing it, said: "Nay, by my life, but I will milk them for you." And so he did. Sometimes he would ask the girl: "Girl, do you want the milk frothing or clear?" Sometimes she would say one, and sometimes the other, but whatever she asked, he milked accordingly.Qutb's recitation of history goes on like this for page after page. The positive anecdotes bear a striking resemblance to Washington and the cherry tree, the negative ones feature either rapacious caliphs or weak, befuddled rulers overwhelmed by their scheming courtiers. The Umayyads are bitterly attacked for introducing succession by heirs, rather than the original model, which involved succession by political assassination in three of the four first Caliphs -- something Qutb does not mention, followed by the new ruler being chosen by acclamation of the faithful (a sort of one-candidate, one-time election-for-life). The Abassids, the dynasty that succeeded the Umayyads, and claimed descent from the Prophet, also come in for criticism, although it seems that what bothers Qutb as much as the personalities and proclivities of the rulers -- who he says abandoned the principles of Islam -- is the fact that so many in the Caliphate were getting so rich.
I noted in a previous post in this series that Qutb's cutoff for pure Islam -- the period during which the faith and its values were transcendant -- was roughly 680 A.D. In A History of Christian-Muslim Relations, Hugh Goddard writes of the situation in Umayyad Spain in the ninth century:
...the Christians of Cordoba, the capital of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain, were, like Christians elsewhere in the world of Islam, tolerated and protected, yet also in some ways disadvantaged. They could worship, and their lives were not endangered, but they had to pay the jizya, a special tribute to their rulers, and there were considerable restrictions on public manifestations of worship. The Christians of Cordoba suffered other disadvantages, however, particularly that they were isolated from the rest of the Christian world, and ignorant of Latin learning, both Christian and secular, even to the extent of not knowing Augustine's City of God. They also lived in the capital city of the Umayyad caliphate, in the midst of a brilliant and flourishing civilization, and this evidently exercised a considerable seductive power over them.In other words, in the ninth century, it was the Muslims who were broadcasting MTV, and the temptation of joining the elite culture threatened to diminish the ranks of Christians by voluntary conversions. Sorry to belabor the point, but it still strikes me as incredible that Qutb sees this period not as a flowering of Islamic culture, but rather as a period of runaway wealth, moral decline, and the abandonment of the principles of Islam. Instead, he sets as his model a caliph milking ewes for the poor.
To take this to a ridiculous extreme, suppose we take Qutb seriously. Let's say the ummah consisted of 10,000 of the faithful, of whom a mere one percent -- 100 people -- fell into the category of the poor, or those who could not provide for their needs themselves. A caliph devoting ten minutes a day to look after their concerns -- being personally responsible for the needs of just the poor individuals among his flock -- would devote 16 hours and 40 minutes a day to them. That's hardly an effective use of a ruler's time.
Of course, given that Qutb believes that rulers are the weak link in Islam, forever subverting the faith, perhaps it's better that they milk goats. Consider his writing on Yazid -- the first the first Umayyad to become caliph through hereditary succession. Yazid was caliph when Husain, the son of Ali, was slain at Karbala, which made permanent the Shi'ite-Sunni schism. He has a mixed reputation; here is an all-too-brief biographical sketch. Qutb writes of him,
And what was this Yazid?In support of Qutb one can cite this poem of Yazid's (yes, he was a poet too), which runs,
There is no true joy but lending ear to musicSo the aesthete or bon vivant charge seems justified; in Qutb's view of the world, it's a short step from there to sanctioning incest. I am only speculating, but I wonder whether the attack on Yazid was an attempt to curry favor with radicalized Shi'ites.
What's interesting is that after Qutb's delving into a mythologized history based entirely on the personalities of rulers and ignoring broader social trends, he shifts gears and indulges in an economic discussion by which he attempts to indicate how far these rulers diverged from Islam. What is interesting is that Qutb's economic Islam bears a striking resemblance to Marxist economics, but that analysis will have to wait for a later post -- the last on chapter seven.
Monday, September 30, 2002
Ray of hope watch
Joe Katzman -- whose Winds of Change is one of the most erudite blogs around, and, I see from my referrers counter, generates as many visitors to Ideofact as any other site -- will, on occasion, put up a post like this one, recognizing the beginnings of what may be a liberalizing trend among Muslim scholars -- a ray of hope, as it were. I do not mean to denigrate such promising signs.
Dissidents in the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, Poland, and elsewhere through the Eastern Bloc helped pave the way toward the fall of communism. Recognizing them was preferable to the hopeful introductions that a succession of Soviet premiers in the 1980s received from the Western media. Andropov liked jazz; Gromyko was fond of tailored suits; Gorbachev's wife was like a First Lady. These hopeful signs proved to be unimportant (some will argue Gorbachev was different; certainly he was, although his goal wasn't to end the Soviet Union, but rather to make it work).
I too have had a tendency to look for hopeful signs -- here, for example. But then it occurred to me that the extremist elements of the Muslim world might be looking for hopeful signs that the West was coming around to their way of thinking.
At the end of his post, Joe writes:
I don't honestly know if a culture of democracy and liberty (as opposed to a veneer of same) are possible in Arab Islamic culture as it exists today. This much I do know, however: we must try. Success in that endeavour would do more than almost anything else to protect us against Islamic fundamentalism, especially if it's accompanied by the liberation of women. If acceptance of that transition is to happen, it will require the help of people who can speak to the culture from within its own frame of reference.I think Joe puts this remarkably well. Still, I suspect that what will be decisive is pressure from the West -- both military and diplomatic.