Category Archives: Politics & Society

Buddhist Thailand – occasional notes

While speaking of Buddhism in Thailand here are some additional little details:

Signage in a city train. Can you guess what the orange one represents? A Buddhist monk.

I don’t often see monks on public transport and have to confess I felt somewhat outraged when once a monk asked me to move for him. There was a vacant seat next to me but if he took it he would have had to sit between me and a woman. He made it clear to me he had no intention of sitting next to a woman!

Monks are not allowed to touch female members of the opposite sex. And that makes for some interesting gossipy news as per the following that I have taken from a news site:

The monk normally places his hand on a man’s heart for the extra blessing but on a woman’s head for same; but this is a trans man undergoing hormone replacement treatment. As I alluded to earlier there seems to be a more easy acceptance of transgenders here in Thailand than one expects in Australia. (Nonetheless the above picture did cause a bit of a scandal even here.) Recollecting The Federalist article I spoke about earlier, I should add that there is nothing unusual about seeing a prostitute taking a few moments out to offer prayers and offerings at a shrine or temple. No-one there to respond with a command, “Go, and sin no more!”

A more common scene in both streets, shopping complexes, work offices and factories, and in household properties, both inside and outside houses and units, are Buddhist shrines where regulars and passers-by will often be found stopping to pray and leave offerings. People do both in public quite unselfconsciously as if simply filling up at a petrol station or pausing to answer their cell phones.

That photo reminds me of a scene I witnessed this morning. In a busy city street a man had stopped on his bicycle to call to a passing monk. After sorting out the various food items in his bike basket he gave most to the monk who then proceeded to pray for him. Both faced each other, hands held together in our familiar prayer gesture, while the monk prayed at some length. (He had been given a lot of food, after all.) They each then went on their way.

Here are the contents of one of many aisles in a large supermarket. Can you work out what they are? They are ceremonial items for one’s shrine at home or anywhere else where one wants to stop and pray and leave an offering. All part of the weekly grocery shopping list.

And here’s the shrine at the entrance to where I happen to be staying now: Those items on the front table are drinks, one an equivalent of a Thai coke with a straw in it. They are part of what have been left there by passers by stopping to kneel as they pray before moving on with their daily business.

I find it difficult to dislike Buddhism because what I’ve been exposed to is on the whole so non-judgemental compared with Western Christianity. But it does consist of humans and as I think I mentioned previously there are massive public scandals about one outfit accused of all sorts of corruption. Nor do I ever know what to make of seeing monks in a goldsmith’s shop, as I sometimes do. And I cannot help but wonder if behind the public facade there are the same sorts of sexual abuse going on that have finally come to light among Western Christian churches.

 

The Hamas Charter: Context and Significance

“Despite its militant extremism, the Islamist movement has shown that it can be pragmatic.” — Roy, “Hamas and the Transformation(s) of Political Islam in Palestine,” 13

Let’s address head-on the Hamas Charter that denies Israel’s right to exist. (We will leave aside in this post Israel’s Likud Party platform that denies the right for a Palestinian state to ever exist.) I have tried to keep abreast of the makeup and intentions of Hamas for some years but confine myself in this post (or series of posts) on two relatively recent studies:

The prevailing inability or unwillingness to talk about Hamas in a nuanced manner is deeply familiar. During the summer of 2014, when global news rooms were covering Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip, I watched Palestinian analysts being rudely silenced on the air for failing to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization outright. This condemnation was demanded as a prerequisite for the right of these analysts to engage in any debate about the events on the ground. There was no other explanation, it seemed, for the loss of life in Gaza and Israel other than pure-and-simple Palestinian hatred and bloodlust, embodied by Hamas. I wondered how many lives, both Palestinian and Israeli, have been lost or marred by this refusal to engage with the drivers of Palestinian resistance, of which Hamas is only one facet. I considered the elision of the broader historical and political context of the Palestinian struggle in most conversations regarding Hamas. Whether condemnation or support, it felt to me, many of the views I faced on Palestinian armed resistance were unburdened by moral angst or ambiguity. There was often a certainty or a conviction about resistance that was too easily forthcoming.

I have struggled to find such certainty in my own study of Hamas, even as I remain unwavering in my condemnation of targeting civilians, on either side.

(Baconi, p. xi)

  • Baconi, Tareq. 2018. Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Caridi, Paola. 2012. Hamas: From Resistance to Government. New York: Seven Stories Press.

The Beginning

The Hamas charter, adopted in August 1988, made clear the Islamist values of Hamas, declaring that the Quran was its constitution and the land of Palestine part of Islam’s sacred territory that could never be surrendered to non-Muslims.

A few months after its creation, in August 1988, Hamas issued its charter, “The Charter of Allah: The Platform of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).” This document introduced the movement and outlined its mission, values, and goals. It defined Hamas’s motto as “God is its goal; The messenger [the Prophet Mohammed] is its Leader; The Quran is its Constitution; Jihad is its methodology ; and Death for the Sake of God is its most coveted desire.”

(Baconi, p. 21)

On August 18, 1988, Hamas published its charter, the Mithaq, its most debated, cited, and condemned document and one that was often used as a political bargaining tool. Article 13 expressly states that “the initiatives, what is called a ‘peaceful solution’ and ‘interna­tional conferences’ to resolve the Palestinian problem, are contrary to the ideology of the Islamic Resistance Movement, because giving up any part of Palestine is like giving up part of religion. The national­ism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its religion; it edu­cates its members on this, and they perform jihad to raise the banner of God over their nation.”

(Caridi, p. 101)

Who wrote the Charter?

The charter was a rambling work of religious and antisemitic slogans put together by an aged cleric a generation removed from the contemporary leadership of Hamas. The charter was never debated.

According to the most credible account, the text of Hamas’s Charter was penned by Abdel Fattah al-Dukhan, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s older generation in Gaza, who was among those present at the December 9, 1987, meeting at Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s house. Nearly the same age as Yassin and a refugee from the Ashkelon area . . . . It was therefore neither one of the new leadership’s ideologues nor one of the future leaders of the Diaspora who wrote the Mithaq. The hand that wrote the foundational Charter, the militant text that over the years became a political manifesto that Hamas itself never debated, belonged to a teacher of fifty years, a preacher from one of Gaza’s refugee camps.

(Caridi, p. 101)

A nationalist-religious charter

According to the charter Palestine is a “waqf” or Islamic land until Judgment Day and that can never be surrendered to non-Muslims.

Through its charter, Hamas made clear its refusal to recognize the State of Israel. The document stressed the indivisibility of the land of “Historic Palestine,” referring to the land that constituted the British Mandate, located between the Eastern Mediterranean and the River Jordan, over which Israel was established. Hamas defined this territory as “an Islamic land entrusted to the Muslim generations until Judgement Day.”107

(Baconi, p. 23)

The Charter’s preamble speaks of the destruction of Israel, but through one of the three citations that appear at the beginning of the text rather than by means of a discussion. The citation is taken from Hassan al-Banna, who in 1948 said, “Israel will grow and will remain strong until Islam will eliminate it, just as it eliminated what came before it.”4 Paradoxically, however, it is not so much these words of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood that created a nearly insurmountable obstacle to changing the Mithaq, but Article 11, which defines Palestine as an Islamic waqf, and therefore a land that can not be subject to the disposal of men, but rather “an Islamic land entrusted to the Muslim generations until the Judgment Day.”’ Thus, adds the Charter’s author, “no one may renounce all, or even part of it.”6

(Caridi, p. 102)

Hamas leaders respond to calls to change its charter

Hamas’s secular rival, the PLO, had always bound itself to the Palestine National Congress’s charter that likewise declared its national duty to be “the liberation of Palestine” and “the elimination of Zionism in Palestine”. Since the PNA’s charter did not prevent Israel from negotiating with the PLO Hamas leadership have dismissed Israel’s objections to its charter as an excuse. They believe that Israel is most perturbed by Hamas success in popular elections in Gaza and that this is its real reason for refusing to negotiate.

Hamas leaders insist they want to avoid the mistake of the PLO who, they believe, gave in to Israel too cheaply.

According to sources inside Hamas, it was on this article that internal debate had in recent years focused in order to try to allow what is, after all, a pragmatic organization to move beyond the formal impasse that had bogged it down. Hamas’s Mithaq, after all, simply echoed what had already been said in a nationalist vein in the Palestinian National Charter, approved by the Palestinian National Congress on July 11, 1968, according to which “the liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national duty . . . and aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine.”Eliminating that phrase, just like the other anti-Zionist elements in the Palestinian National Charter, was not the sine qua non condition for the negotiations between the PLO and Israel that led to the Oslo Accords. In practice, the question of its elimination was tackled only in 1996, after the PNA had already been established, and even then it was left formally unresolved.

The history of the Palestinian National Charter has been taken as an example by many Hamas leaders to argue that their Mithaq has been used by Western governments as an alibi and by Israel to avoid contact with the Islamist Movement, especially after its decision to take part in electoral politics in 2005.

. . . . For the Islamist leadership, however, recanting even parts of the Mithaq meant recognizing Israel without having obtained a reciprocal legitimization and, according to many among that same leadership, without having obtained an equally formal recognition not only of the Palestinian people, but of Palestinians as a nation. From a strictly political point of view, Hamas has always feared repeating the mistakes made by Fatah and the PLO, who gave away too much to Israel without receiving anything in exchange. On the contrary, during the life of the PNA and during the negotiations between the 1991 Madrid Conference and the 2000 talks at Camp David, Hamas had always opposed the stances of the PLO and of the PNA, which it considered lax. According to Islamist leaders, if they had a similarly flexible negotiating stance, it would lead to making significant concessions without substantial and tangible results in return.

(Caridi, pp. 102f)

In late 1988, a few months after Hamas issued its charter, Yasser Arafat convened the exiled Palestinian leadership in Algiers. . . . [Arafat] declared the independence of the State of Palestine and invoked international resolutions that demonstrated the PLO’s willingness to accept a state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as the capital. Arafat’s declaration signaled the PLO’s readiness to concede the 78 percent of Palestinian land that had been lost in 1948 and willingness to fulfill the American demand of renouncing terrorism. This signaled to the United States that the PLO was ready to enter into a negotiated settlement with Israel, prompting the administration of President Ronald Reagan to open a dialogue with the PLO in late 1988.

. . . . The PLO’s concessions were anathema for Hamas, whose charter proclaimed that “jihad for the liberation of Palestine is obligatory.” No other path for liberation was viable. The movement dismissed diplomatic efforts as contrary to its ideology, primarily because they were premised on the condition of conceding parts of Palestine, but also because Hamas believed they were unlikely to serve Palestinian interests.

(Baconi, p. 23)

Hamas evolves, reflects on its “worst enemy”

“three people sat around a table and wrote it” . . .  “Palestine cannot be considered a waqf
read more »

A Passing Note on Thailand

While waiting here in KL for my flight to Thailand I have been catching up with rss feeds from all over the place and one stood out as timely and appropriate: What The West Can Learn From Thailand About Loving One’s Heritage by Casey Chalk. Unfortunately it’s from The Federalist site whose articles I normally find way too “conservative” for my own tastes, but it does make some substantial points about Thailand that are worth noting.

Since the story of the Thai students trapped in a remote cave hit the international news wire, observers have been fascinated with the children’s expression of Thai religious piety and customs. Videos released by the Thai navy show the boys offering the “wai,” a traditional greeting where the palms are pressed together. Images that accompany related news stories often show large groups of Thais, including their classmates, offering Buddhist prayers for the stranded children.

The first time I was in Bangkok and greeted by two Thai nieces with the wai I gaffed by wai-ing back. It is not appropriate, I quickly learned, for the senior to wai the junior, or certainly not to bow in doing so. There are all sorts of rules about that.

Tourists visiting Thailand are usually taken aback by the signs prominently displayed at Suvarnabhumi Airport and on billboards along the highway into downtown Bangkok. One such billboard reads: “It’s wrong to use Buddha as decoration or tattoo. Means no respect. Don’t buy or sell Buddha.” Another sign asserts: “Welcome to Buddha Land. It’s wrong to buy or use Buddha symbol as merchandise, decoration, tattoo or to own Buddha head. Disrespect to Buddha is wrong by law.”

Thais are a very conservative people and the Buddhist religion runs deep. It is customary for boys to spend time as monks just as it is customary for young men to do “national service” in some other countries. I find Buddhism easier to stomach than western “Churchianity” but don’t think Buddhism is all the same here. There are serious corruption charges under way against certain Buddhist monks under way. Some monks come across as plain greedy. But those appear to be the extremes. As usual there is the vast middle of normality and by-and-large respectability.

Families are bound by values Westerners would regard as old-fashioned. It is not universally accepted, for example, that young people live together before marriage. For a young person to do so could well cause deep pain, even offence, to many parents.

Reverence for the Thai monarchy has been bound up with Buddhist conventions, too. I can discuss that side of things another time in more depth. Not everything connected with that question is a good thing.

Oh yes — when you go to a movie here in Thailand you will experience just before the main feature the playing of national anthem and a film of the king. Everyone stands, of course.

Casey Chalk talks about the infamous sex tourism but it is very easy to live and get around in Thailand without seeing that side of things at all.

I’m not sure I’d think of certain Western differences from Thai culture as “losses” as Chalk goes some way to suggesting. The “traditional ways” have their own challenges. There’s way too much poverty here and I can’t justify the status quo by appealing to (or hiding behind) “unifying traditions”.


Added note some time after original posting:

It doesn’t really work to compare values or social attitudes between different cultures as if there can be neat correspondences. Example: I’ve talked above about the ‘conservatism’ of the Thais but I would despite the West’s gains in acknowledgement of gay rights I still would not expect to walk into a very ordinary hairdresser shop in a major conservative-area suburban-type shopping mall and be attended by a ladyboy.


 

Looking for Trouble: Two Views

Interesting to compare two different responses to Southern Lauren‘s attempt to enter a Muslim area she opposes. Each links to a different report of the event. (I had thought Southern had been denied a visa to enter Australia; I’ve obviously been out of touch with the latest developments.)

Jerry Coyne’s Comment P.Z. Myers’ Comment
A darling of extreme right-wingers everywhere . . .  there’s no doubt that she’s a bigot. Nevertheless, she has the right to speak and the right to go anywhere she wants in public. In this encounter, though, she wants to enter to a “no go” part of Sydney, Australia inhabited largely by Muslims. There’s no doubt she wanted to stir up trouble. . . . The thing is, she has a right to do that; and, indeed, calling public attention to Islamic homophobia or sharia law has its beneficial side. . . . I emphatically defend Southern’s right to say and do what she wants in public. . . . [A]n Aussie police inspector . . . has “grave concerns that she might cause a breach of the peace” because the area is “highly religious”:===. . . . [H]er counterarguments are sound: any “breach of the peace” would be the fault of those who would cause the trouble, not Southern. . . . . Southern did her usual schtick of seeking out what she calls “no-go zones” to show how racist they are, as if she thinks racism is a bad thing. So she walks into an area with a high proportion of Muslims with camera and sound guy in tow, making a little bit of a spectacle of herself, and notices how suspiciously people are looking at her (surprise!) and that some people are yelling in Arabic (oh my god), and starts to head down a street to a mosque to stir up some real juicy footage. She’s stopped by a policeman, who tells her no: he knows that she’s there to provoke trouble, so he tells her that she may not go there. He also informs her that local white people have no trouble coexisting in this neighborhood — making it clear that the problem isn’t with respectful citizens, it’s specifically with her and her actions. . . . She knows nothing.

The Crimea-Russia Connection: Historical Overview

“Grabrich” recently reminded me of an excellent study on the background to the Ukraine crisis today. I quote one section from early in the book setting out an overview of the historical background to Russia’s involvement in Crimea. I have added hyperlinks and broken up the paragraph for easier reading.

From RussianArtDealer.com

The Crimean peninsula is the heartland of Russian nationhood. It was here in Khersones that Prince Vladimir adopted Orthodoxy as the official religion of the people of Rus.

Following the Mongol invasion, the Crimean Khanate ruled the peninsula from 1441, whose territories at one point encompassed a large part of the northern Black Sea littoral.

From 1736 Russia started its push to take over the region, prompted in particular by the desire to put an end to the raids on the Slavic parts to the north.

Catherine the Great’s push against the Ottoman Empire saw Crimea occupied by Russian forces in 1783, and on 2 February 1784 it formally entered the Russian Empire as Taurida Oblast.

In turn, the Tatar population now faced successive waves of deportation, including in response to the threat from Napoleon in 1812, when they were sent to Siberia, and then in 1855, towards the end of the Crimean War, when they were branded as enemy agents and tens of thousands were sent to Turkey.

From the 1860s the imperial authorities launched a new wave of deportations, accompanied by attempts to Russify the northern Black Sea region.

The worst deportation was Stalin’s, on 18–20 May 1944. The whole population, some 230,000, including 40,000 who had served with distinction in the Red Army, were sent to Siberia and Central Asia, with at least 100,000 expiring en route of hunger and thirst. They had been accused of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers, but given the purges of the 1930s, which had wiped out much of the Crimean Tatar elite, surprisingly few (some 2,000) joined ‘defence teams’ rather than be sent to work in Germany.

Tatars now make up 13 per cent of the Crimean population, whereas before the Russian occupation of 1783 they comprised 80 per cent.

In 1954 the region was transferred from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction, a decision that was contested from the first, above all because Russians made up the majority of the population.

The 2001 census revealed that 1.45 million (57 per cent) out of a total population of 2 million claimed to be Russians, 576,000 Ukrainians and 245,000 Tatars, while some 77 per cent were registered as native Russian-speakers.

It was the return of Crimea to Russia in March 2014 that transformed the Ukrainian crisis into a major European confrontation (see Chapter 5).

Sakwa, Richard. 2015. Frontline Ukraine Crisis in the Borderlands. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015. pp. 12f
The Crimean Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysaray, by Carlo Bossoli

Understanding Hamas in Gaza

Tareq Baconi and cover of his newly published book

I have read four studies of Hamas and have this evening begun to update my information by beginning my fifth, Hamas Contained : The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance by Tareq Baconi. So far I have only read the Preface and already I wish everyone could read it and follow up by speaking out and doing their little bits to spread light on a world that is too often lost behind distortions of reality.

Sections of the Preface that hit home with me:

The simplistic binaries that frame conversations of Palestinian armed struggle evoke the condescension expressed by colonial overlords toward the resistance of indigenous peoples. “Palestinians have a culture of hate,” commentators blast on American TV screens. “They are a people who celebrate death.” These familiar accusations, quick to roll off tongues, are both highly effective at framing public discourse and insulting as racist epithets.

Bolded emphasis in all quotations is my own.

I have often found discussions about Hamas very difficult so when I read the following I recognized something immediately:

The prevailing inability or unwillingness to talk about Hamas in a nuanced manner is deeply familiar. During the summer of 2014, when global news rooms were covering Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip, I watched Palestinian analysts being rudely silenced on the air for failing to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization outright. This condemnation was demanded as a prerequisite for the right of these analysts to engage in any debate about the events on the ground. There was no other explanation, it seemed, for the loss of life in Gaza and Israel other than pure-and-simple Palestinian hatred and bloodlust, embodied by Hamas.

Totally absent from any discussion, it seems, is any serious consciousness of the “broader historical and political context of the Palestinian struggle”.

Whether condemnation or support, it felt to me, many of the views I faced on Palestinian armed resistance were unburdened by moral angst or ambiguity. There was often a certainty or a conviction about resistance that was too easily forthcoming.

Oh yes. Black and white. Right and wrong. Good and evil. The simplistic paradigms that have always guaranteed the perpetuation of ignorance and suffering.

Tareq Baconi explains that what he attempts to do in the book is to

peel back all the layers that have given rise to the present dynamic of vilifying and isolating Hamas, and with it, of making acceptable the demonization and suffering of millions of Palestinians within the Gaza Strip. . . . This book works to advance our knowledge of Hamas by elucidating the manner in which the movement evolved over the course of its three decades in existence, from 1987 onward. Understanding Hamas is key to ending the denial of Palestinians their rights after nearly a century of struggle for self-determination.

At the end of his Preface Baconi discusses the wide ranging archival and other sources he has used for this purpose.

Story 1

Personal anecdotes have the potential to encapsulate hundreds of words of analysis. One discussion was with a young boy that took place about a year after the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza:

The conversation was during the Islamic month of Ramadan in 2015, and everyone was sluggish from the June heat. I asked him about the school year he had just finished and whether he was happy to be on holiday. He shrugged. “Sixth grade was fine,” he said, “a bit odd.” He was in Grade A and he used to look forward to playing football against Grade B. That past year, though, the school administration had merged several grades together. The classes were crowded and the football games less enjoyable. I wondered aloud to the boy why the school administration had done that. Annoyed that I was not engaging with the issue at hand, that of football politics, he answered in an exasperated tone. “Half of the Grade A kids had been martyred the summer before,” he snapped. The kids who had survived no longer filled an entire classroom.

Story 2

Another conversation with a Gazan boy (driving his taxi) who was about to graduate from his final school year:

I asked him what he wanted to do postgraduation — always a fraught topic in a place like Gaza. He said he “was thinking of joining the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades,” Hamas’s military wing. I had seen posters throughout the city and on mosque walls announcing that registration was open for their summer training camps. A few of his friends had apparently signed up. Why, I asked. He replied that he wanted to “fight the Jews.” He’d never seen one in real life, he added, but he had seen the F-16s dropping the bombs.

Almost a decade into the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which had begun in earnest in 2007, “Jew,” “Israeli,” and “F-16” had become synonymous. A few years prior, this boy’s father would have been able to travel into Israel, to work as a day laborer or in menial jobs. While it would have been structurally problematic, that man would have nonetheless interacted with Israeli Jews, even Palestinian citizens of Israel, in a nonmilitarized way. This is no longer the case. One could see in my driver how the foundation was laid for history to repeat itself. Resistance had become sacred, a way of living in which he could take a great deal of pride serving his nation.

Reality is complex

Here is why I wish many people would read this book: read more »

Tiananmen Square (My Uncomfortable Visit)

In 2005 I had the opportunity to visit Tiananmen Square. It was an eerie, haunting experience not simply because of knowing what had happened there 16 years before but because of the pressure to remain silent and forget.

From the night of June 3, 1989 until early morning, Chinese soldiers carried out a clearance operation on and near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a crackdown on what the Chinese Government wrote off as a “counter-revolutionary riot”.

Western media reported at the time that the death toll from the resulting massacre ranged from 100 to 3,000, but according to a secret UK diplomatic cable released last year, up to 10,000 protesters may have been killed. . . .

Over 1 million people were occupying Tiananmen Square in a show of solidarity by mid-May, but on June 2, China’s rulers made the order to send tanks and armed soldiers into the heart of Beijing.

ABC Report

Only a year earlier we had been treated to high-tech 3-D visuals of Tiananmen Square as a proud jewel of the Chinese exhibit at Brisbane’s World Entertainment Expo.

The event “never happened” according to Chinese government and educational institutions.

Born in 1990, Ming says he never even heard about the Tiananmen Square massacre until he was at university.

He happened to overhear his roommates talking about the so-called June Fourth Incident — a topic which is completely censored by Beijing and inaccessible for ordinary Chinese people.

It is not mentioned in Chinese state media, and it is not taught in schools. It is also a taboo topic even within some Chinese families, including Ming’s.

In 2005 soldiers stood guard at key points to enforce …. I’m not sure what. Presumably the curfew: no-one was allowed there after daylight hours. Possibly against large groups or persons they deemed suspicious from approaching. It remained a vast empty space broken in one direction by Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and queues of people slowly moving past his embalmed body. I felt very conspicuous stepping far away from that shrine to the vast empty expanse of the rest of the square that particular afternoon, with only a handful of others in the area, and with my movements being watched by the many young guards.

What agonized me was the failure of my Chinese hosts to indicate the slightest awareness of why I might have been interested in exploring further there at all after I had completed the obligatory look at Mao’s embalmed corpse. There was the usual talk of old history, of Mao, of the architectural features. . . . I finally burst it out, though nervously, softly: What did they think of what happened …. I don’t think I had the chance to finish my sentence. One girl butted in with a tense, anxious tone (or was that my imagination?) to tell me that yes, some bad people had been there at one time and how soon afterwards soldiers came to her family’s house (far away from Beijing) to ask about her. I think she had been a student at that time. I was told that her parents and neighbours assured the soldiers that she was a “good girl” and was not mixed up with any of those very bad hooligans causing some very bad trouble in Beijing. The soldiers, she told me proudly, went away smiling having been assured by parents and neighbours that she was, as they said, a “good girl”.

The reaction to my question left me in no doubt that I had seriously gaffed. It was not my place to raise such a question about such a “bad thing” that happened so long ago. Was I some sort of sympathizer with “bad people” for even thinking and wanting to ask about that horrible “forgotten” time?

That was the end of my visit to the vast and — except for the guards and the people immediately surrounding Mao’s mausoleum — practically empty Tiananmen Square.

Photo: Guo Jian’s artwork The Square. It’s a model of Tiananmen Square covered in pork mince. (Supplied: Guo Jian)

The Day Another Race Likened Me to an Ape

Photo from flickr

My RSS feeds tell me that there’s a scandal in the U.S. right now over a prominent personality tweeting a comparison of an African American advisor to Obama with an ape.

I had my own small taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of such a comparison a few years back when I was visiting China. It happened when I was somewhere in the middle of the mainland (certainly away from coastal regions like Shanghai and Beijing where foreigners were not an uncommon sight), in Wuhan province I think. I was sitting with my Chinese friend in a large and crowded cafeteria and was slightly amused to notice that so many of the other diners appeared to be focusing their eyes on me. I assumed the reason was that I was the only white Caucasian in the room. I could not help wondering how often any of these people had ever seen a non-Chinese person “in the flesh” before. I mentioned my thoughts to my Chinese friend whose reply took me aback: I was told they were staring at my hairy legs and arms; I was told that they were thinking that I looked like a monkey.

I confess that that comparison took me aback for a moment. I laughed, but something deep down inside me was not laughing. Did I not belong to a race that historically compared others to subhuman species? That’s what “we” did to “them” — what was the real source of the ugly feelings I was feeling deep down inside at that moment?

That was the first time I had been in a country where I was the racial minority figure and being compared with a wild animal. In Australia I had become accustomed to hearing of certain ignorant whites comparing other races, including Asians, to a species less than human. Here I was in China getting a small taste of the tables being turned.

I was able to laugh it off, though, because I had no reason to suspect there was anything more than innocent curiosity and analogy in the minds of my Chinese neighbours. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I suspected they all thought I was literally a less evolved animal.

 

Sam Harris’s Immoral Arguments for Israel’s Treatment of Palestinians

Hello Vridar, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. I’ve been far afield exploring new ideas and old. Time to leave self-indulgence aside for a moment and return to share a few of them. (Though my hiatus was not all self-indulgent insofar as some of my time was also taken up exploring new ways to be actively involved in various causes that I care about.)

Marcus Ranum describes himself as “a computer security specialist, consultant, gamer, crafty artist, photographer, soap and cosmetic experimenter, and all-around surrealist” but whatever one makes of that we all owe him a huge thank you for the enormous effort he made to take on point by point Sam Harris’s justification of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, most recently on display on the Gaza border while leaders congratulated themselves on the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. I have attempted to take on Sam Harris’s arguments in small bite-sized morsels, addressing just one or two salient details at a time. But Marcus Ranum has had the tenacity, the patience, the stamina, to take up each one of Sam Harris’s points that he made in another one of his rambling, contradictory, mealy-mouthed justifications for any bloody action taken against Muslims on Israel’s border. (“Mealy-mouthed” because he will drop in contradictory phrases in hopes you won’t notice the barbarism implicit in his words and that will enable him to protest that you were “taking him out of context”. Marcus R dissects it all leaving Sam H stark naked in the end.)  See

Sam Harris on “Why is That You Never Criticize Israel?”

Bookmark the page now but be sure to return to it when you have a good hour to digest it slowly as it deserves. Needless to say, my complaint is not personal. Sam Harris is a nobody who is given way too much publicity for no clear reason as far as I am concerned. My concern is that Sam Harris is articulating the arguments that are all too common everywhere else and whose assumptions and inhumane values, along with outright ignorance, bigotry, not to mention simple logical deceit, need to be addressed and smacked down.

Some of the points addressed (you’ve heard them all before): read more »

Democracy, data and dirty tricks —

Are any readers old enough to recall Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders? I see Amazon sells a reissued 2007 edition of it. My copy was already old, published 1960, when I first read it. Hidden Persuaders was my introduction to the way the science of psychology was used by the marketing industry to influence potential buyers by subtle manipulation of emotions.

Much later I finally caught up with Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky; then Taking the Risk Out of Democracy by Alex Carey. Many other works on media have followed and I can now say I have some awareness of the history and methods of how stealthily propaganda has worked to guide “the masses” ever since Edward Bernays and the World War 1 era.

Tonight I watched Four Corners play the ITN documentary Democracy, data and dirty tricks. The promotional blurb reads

Four Corners brings you the undercover investigation that has left social media giant Facebook reeling through the unmasking of the secretive political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Four months in the making, this ITN investigation for Channel 4 in Britain used hidden cameras to reveal the tactics used by the UK firm Cambridge Analytica to influence elections and undermine the democratic process in several countries.

Propagandists know the importance of avoiding any message that looks like propaganda. Soviet and Nazi propaganda was too crude to genuinely persuade millions. Hence control by fear was even more important than the message. Propagandists in western style democracies are far more successful because they are far more subtle. They know how to manipulate behaviour by appealing to emotions. Head arguments and cold facts are irrelevant.

In the program key persons in Cambridge Analytica are filmed boasting how they won the election for Trump by a mere handful of 40,000 votes in key states. It was their research that led them to target those states and focus on the margin of potential swing voters.

Can we begin to raise awareness and push for the role of propaganda to be taught in high schools as part of a core civics curriculum? Without such community awareness how can we expect democracy to ever survive surface.

 

 

 

 

 

Gun Culture: What Makes America Different?

AR-15 Variants (from Wikipedia)

For years, I’ve been meaning to write a book on slavery in the United States. I don’t mean to minimize or oversimplify the issues surrounding the issues of chattel slavery in America, so up front I will say without reservation that the subject is complicated and multifaceted, and that it covers several centuries. It deserves more coverage than I can provide in a single post.

Having said that, I remain convinced that slavery is the fundamental cause of the American Civil War, which is, of course, the consensus among the majority of historians. The weight of the evidence puts the matter beyond dispute. However, whenever we can, we should distinguish proximate causes from ultimate causes.

Saying that slavery caused the Civil War is correct, but insufficient. It would be just as true to say that the election of Abraham Lincoln provoked the South to secede. But why was that the last straw? What did Southerners believe they would lose if they stayed? What did they think they would gain by leaving?

Slavery did not exist in a vacuum. It was not simply an ancillary feature of 19th-century Southern society that, by itself, made them different from the North. Slavery could not exist without the framework that supported it, an interlocking network of structures: Slave society, slave politics, slave economics, slave justice, even slave (pseudo-)science. Religion played a role as well, as Christian clergymen found ready ways to explain why Africans were a cursed race and how slavery was part of the natural order. All of these ingredients working together created Slave Culture.

Slave Culture had its own unique history, as well, which one would expect. That history celebrated the gentleman planter while it warned of the terrors of slave revolt. They were determined to learn the lesson of Haiti. Never let the slave get the upper hand. Always respond with maximum violence.

In a similar way, a large swath of modern America is Gun Culture. I support sensible gun control, including background checks, registries, mandatory gun safety classes, etc. But when gun enthusiasts tell us over and over, “Guns aren’t the problem,” they unwittingly have a point. They are right. For while guns most assuredly are part of the problem, they do not float, detached in the ether. They are not just another consumer product. read more »

Jihad Closer to Marx than the Koran?

There has almost never been an example in Muslim history to parallel today’s terrorist acts.

I recently posted a few thoughts of Olivier Roy in his Jihad and Death and here I post something he said in an earlier book, Globalised Islam. In his Introduction chapter he has a section headed Is jihad closer to Marx than to the Koran?

His opening paragraph makes it clear that the terrorists are introducing innovations to Islamic views on the notion of jihad. In traditional Islam jihad is a collective duty contingent upon circumstances. It is only with modern radical innovators like Sayyid Qutb that jihad has been reinterpreted to mean a “permanent and individual duty”. Here is Roy’s opening paragraph (with my own bolding and paragraph formatting):

Where does the violence of Al Qaeda come from? Islamic radicals as well as many Western observers and experts try to root this violence in an Islamic tradition, or even in the Koran. As we have stated, the debate on what the Koran says is sterile and helps only to support prejudice. The reverse attitude (to explain that the Koran does not define jihad as an armed struggle, and so on) is equally sterile.

That the terrorists claim their violence is religiously motivated and legitimate is in itself important, but does not preclude what Islam really says on violence or from where the terrorists are really coming. We speak about people, acts and motivations, not theology.

Interestingly, however, the terrorists in their endeavour to root their wrath in the Koran are introducing some obvious religious innovations. The most important is the status of jihad. Whatever the complexity of the debate among scholars since the time of the Prophet, two points are clear: jihad is not one the five pillars of Islam (profession of faith, prayer, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage) and it is therefore a collective duty (fard kifaya), under given circumstances.

But the radicals, since Sayyid Qutb and Mohammed Farrag, explicitly consider jihad a permanent and individual duty (fard ‘ayn).30 This is probably the best criterion with which to draw a line between conservative neofundamentalists and radical ones: the latter are rightly called ‘jihadist’ by the Pakistani press. Among the few writings of Osama Bin Laden, the definition of jihad as a permanent and personal duty holds a central place.31 His concept of suicide attack is not found in Islam.32

31. See Bin Ladens fatwa (published by the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Atabi on 23 February 1998) stating that ‘to kill Americans is a personal duty for all Muslims’. The text can be found at (‘Text of Fatwah Urging Jihad against Americans’).

32. Many sheikhs have condemned the World Trade Centre attacks, while often supporting the Palestinian suicide bombers. See, for example. Sheikh Al Al-bani’s fatwa ‘Suicide Bombing in the Scales of Islamic Law’, which condemns any suicide attacks (‘These suicide missions are not Islamic – period!’; <http:// www.mushmtents.com/aminahsworld/Suicide_bombing2.html>); and the fatwa of Sheikh al-Qaradawi, which forbade attacks on civilians, except in Palestine (Doha, Qatar, 13 September 2001; <http://www.islam-onhne.net/ English/News/2001-09/13/article25.shtml>. See also the fatwa of Qaradawi and others at <http://www.unc.edu/~kurzman/Qaradawi_et_al.htm>.

(Globalised Islam, pp. 41f)

It is clear that jihad is traditionally a concept that is justified only as a collective Muslim community response to enemies. It is not, traditionally, “an individual and personal decision”.

The terrorists are evidently in something of a contradiction when on the one hand they claim to be following the pathways of their ancestors, and declare anyone who strays from their path an infidel, yet themselves justify their political activism on an “obvious innovation.”

[M]ost radical militants are engaged in action as individuals, cutting links with their ‘natural’ community (family, ethnic group and nation) to fight beyond the sphere of any real collective identity. This overemphasis on personal jihad complements the lonely situation of the militants, who do not follow their natural community, but join an imagined one.

There has almost never been an example in Muslim history to parallel today’s terrorist acts. . . . . (p. 42)

Some historical context

Some have suggested that most present-day conflicts involve Muslims. Maybe so, maybe not. (One should probably elaborate: most conflicts that are of interest to the West involve Muslims.)

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Jihad and Death: The Hero and the Aesthetics of Violence

What inspires the most lethal assailants today is not so much the Quran but a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. (Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2015)

Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. (Scott Atran, … On Violent Extremism…, 2015)

To be in a revolutionary vanguard is an exciting thing. I was once part of just such a fantasy in the religious realm. We saw ourselves as pioneers, a very select few, called to witness to the coming apocalypse, to witness the destruction of society and to be exalted as glorified leaders in the new utopian world to follow. And if we died as martyrs before that transition, then our glory would be truly great.

Olivier Roy in Jihad and Death appears to concur with Atran’s perspective but with a difference. Roy stresses not so much the thrill of seeking to bring about revolution and millennial future but the black nihilism of the entire exercise.

A consistent characteristic of the jihadists, Roy says, is responding to a feeling of humiliation and being dominated by taking on the role of an “avenger” and “lone hero”. A lone hero, yes, but the group is most important, too, because it is the group that will eulogize him when he gets blown up or shot leading an assault.

Radicals’ obituaries are a succession of hagiographies, and even the body of the martyr is above the fate of the everyman: he is handsome and has a sweet smell, or he is sublimated in the explosion. (Jihad and Death, p. 49)

Roy finds most striking the “extraordinary narcissistic posturing” of these jihadists.

They broadcast themselves in self-produced videos before, during, and after their actions (posthumous videos). They pose on Facebook:

  • Salah Abdeslam posted a picture of himself holding the ISIS flag three weeks before the 13 November 2016 attacks in Paris (proof once again that the taqiyya—dissimulation—argument used to explain the normal life of the terrorists is unconvincing).
  • Coulibaly called French television stations while he was holding hostage the customers of the Hyper Cacher market on the outskirts of Paris.
  • Omar Mateen posted selfies while he was shooting his victims in Orlando.
  • Abdelhamid Abaaoud had himself filmed in Syria dragging enemy corpses. Larossi Abballa left statements on Facebook while he was still in the house of the murdered police officers,
  • and Adel Kermiche told his friends that they would be able to stream a video of the murder of Father Hamel in real time.

It is acting out the glory of the superhero in a movie or videogame.

A typical cliche is that of the future hero whose destiny is not at first clear, as he leads an empty or too-normal life. And then he receives the call (taken in its religious sense of a sudden vocation, but with reference to the popular video game “Call of Duty”) and turns into an almost supernatural, omnipotent character.

The narrative draws upon the mythical image of the first followers of Muhammad, to martyrdom and the right to sex slaves, to the conquest of deserts and cities.

A scene from film Salò

But this master narrative also fits within a very modern aesthetics of heroism and violence. Their video-editing techniques (fast cutting, succession of images, voice-over, slow motion used to dramatic effect, haunting modern music, juxtaposition of different scenes, targets plastered over faces) are those of video clips and reality television. Violence is theatricalized and scripted in sophisticated videos. Many executions are known to have been rehearsed prior to filming, which in some cases might explain the apparent passivity of the hostages.

This “barbarity” does not belong to times past: it makes use of a “Sadean” code such as that dramatized by Pier Paolo Pasolini in the film Salò (1975). A small, all-powerful group in a restricted space, united by an ideology, asserts all rights over life as well as sex. But this all-powerfulness takes on two different aspects: the law of the group and the staging of self. None of them can satisfy their desires on their own, none of them can rape at will: rape must be theatricalized and involve the group. As in the film Salò, in ISIS territory sex slaves are exhibited, exchanged, and forced into sexual behaviors that have nothing “matrimonial” about them. They are tortured and killed. But the group member who acts out of view of the others and without their approval is a transgressor and is executed in turn. Sharia, more than a legal system, is in this case a metaphor for the rules of the group, which has become a sect. (Jihad and Death, p. 50)

Thus Roy sees the ISIS as having set up a real-life “gaming space”. The heroes have a vast desert through which they can ride in their four-wheel drives, “hair and flags blowing in the wind, guns raised, fraternity exhibited by the uniform, often similar to the ninja model.”

Young losers from destitute suburbs become handsome, and plenty of young girls on Facebook go into raptures over their look. The video game turns into an epic adventure in a huge playground. (p. 51)


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Why Blaming Islam for Terrorism is Misguided

Yes, we know that suicide terrorists regularly announce that they are killing in the name of Allah and they quote the Koran to justify what they are doing. And, of course we should, must, listen to what they say and take it seriously.

Far from denying any of that, I think it is all necessary information that needs to be registered and understood if we want to understand why some people proclaim that they “love death as we love life”.

One Vridar reader recently invited me to read an article that presented a point of view contradicting the one in my two recent posts on Jihad and Death. The article is Islamic Terrorism is Motivated by Religion, Not Retribution.

Let me explain as simply and clearly as possible why I believe the article is misguided.

The article’s fundamental argument is that

  • if we can show that the terrorists cannot be motivated by a desire to seek vengeance against Western powers for their policies in the Middle East,
  • and if we can show that the terrorists themselves repeatedly claim to be motivated by religion and quote the Koran to justify their killing,
  • then obviously we are forced to conclude that Islam is responsible for terrorism.

The article makes the comparison with neo-Nazis. It is obviously the ideology of the neo-Nazis that motivates their hate and racism; it ought to be just as obvious that it is Islam that motivates the Islamist terrorists.

The first point of the argument (to demonstrate that it makes no sense to blame Western powers foreign policies as the motivating grievance of the extremists) can be accepted. Terrorist movements have changed over the decades. (Western powers have certainly exacerbated and even created conditions that have fanned radicalization, but it is evident that many of the terrorist attacks are not directly related to seeking retribution for Western policies.)

It is the second point that is ill-informed. Islam has been around for a long time but the Islamist terrorism that we are witnessing day is a very recent development. It is a very “new thing” claiming to be inspired by something very old. It is like a modern day Jonestown type cult claiming to have rediscovered long-lost “truths” in the Bible of which the mainstream churches have for centuries forgotten or even heretically left behind. Look into the cult’s origins and you won’t find the Bible despite the insistence of cult members that the Bible is their sole authority. No, they have learned to interpret and apply Bible verses the way a cult leader has taught them in other writings and sermons. The question to ask is, What factors cause a person to join such a cult in the first place?

Ed Husain wrote of his own experience with extremism in The Islamist: why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left, and recalls the horror with which the Islamist ideology was met by most “ordinary Muslims” when they first heard of it. His recollections as a child spending time with his devout grandfather:

As they compared notes on abstract subjects in impenetrable languages, I buried myself in Inspector Morse or a Judy Blume. I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticized, an organization named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All of it was
beyond me. . . . (p. 10)

Then later when Ed was 16 years old:

. . . I recalled Grandpa and his students, many of them clerics trained in madrassas in India and Bangladesh, talking about the Jamat-e-Islam in disparaging terms. I had heard many of these conversations taking place between imams in various towns, and they complained about the increasing influence of jamat-e-Islami activists in their mosques. They had sought clarity from Grandpa about the nature of the Jamat-e-Islami, and Grandpa had spoken repeatedly about a man named Abul Ala Mawdudi.

Born in 1903, Mawdudi was a Pakistani journalist who translated the Koran according to his own whims, without reference to or within the paradigm of classical Muslim scholarship. He developed and promoted a new brand of Islam, highly politicized and deeply anti-Western. Mawdudi . . . was the first Muslim to reject Islam as a religion and rebrand it as an ‘ideology’. (pp. 22f, my bolding)

Likewise with Islamist violent extremism. Modern day “prophets” have written their own politico-religious ideologies that they claim to be based on the “long-forgotten truths” of the Koran and hadiths. The first was Qutb with Milestones. (The links are to Vridar posts on the topics. See the side box for the initial reception among religious Muslims on another early jihadist ideologue, Mawdudi.) Others have followed. One of the most influential is The Management of Savagery by “Naji”. My recent post mentioned Al-Awlaki, a major influence among English speaking recruits.

Those writings, not the Koran, are the Mein Kampfs of jihadism. Those writings lead persuaded readers to reject the preachings and Koranic studies of the imams and to quote-mine the Koran for proof-texts to justify their political and ideological agendas.

Understanding why

If we want to understand radicalism we need to go beyond what the extremists themselves say about their motives. Yes, we must listen to them, of course, and understand their world-view. But to take an extreme analogy, if someone says he believes God told him to kill someone, we don’t necessarily take his word as the whole story. We ask, Why did he believe God told him to do that? Is he mentally ill? Schizoid?

Some extreme Christian cults do horrible things, but it is hard to say that Christianity is to blame when most Christians deplore what they do. Instead, scholars study  psychological and sociological factors that are associated with persons joining extreme or bizarre cults. Same with Nazism. It would be ignorantly simplistic to blame Nietsche or even Socialism for the National-Socialist (Nazi) movement.

If we want to understand poverty we can blame the laziness and self-indulgence of the victims or we can take a more comprehensive view that includes a study of the institutional factors that have created a class of down-and-outs.

Many communities are enlightened enough to know that policing alone is inadequate to confront the problem of youth crime. Most parents know that youth behaviour is complex. So positive youth programs, clubs, recreational venues, and so forth are also very important.

Any attempt to blame Islam for terrorism runs into a few facts that belie that charge: jihadism is a very recent phenomenon — that is, it has only very recently emerged to become associated with the Muslim world; it has attracted only a very few, many of whom are largely ignorant of the details of the Koran and Islam and who often do not practice a religious life; and most Muslims deplore terrorist violence and are even overwhelmingly the victims of it.

If the religion of Islam is responsible for modern jihadism then we have to somehow explain why Islamist suicide bombers and other murderous jihadis were not part of our landscape for most of the twentieth century and earlier. We need to explain why most Muslims condemn their violence and why, given the larger picture, terrorists target mostly Muslims.

We need to build up a big picture. That will include listening to what the jihadis say about their motives but it will not naively assume that that is the entire story. After all, most followers of the Koran deplore terrorism so saying Islam causes terrorism makes no sense. It does not explain why a handful of people, contrary to the overwhelming majority of believers, say they are so motivated.

This post is only addressing the reason I am convinced that we cannot accuse the religion of Islam itself of being responsible for terrorist violence. I am not addressing here the studies that do explore, through data-based research, a more comprehensive understanding of what lies at the root of this modern horror.

Some of the past posts that do address those studies:

The most recent ones, of course, on Olivier Roy’s Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State

A series on Riaz Hassan’s Inside Muslim Minds

A series on Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and to Us

Series on Jason Burke’s of The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy

On an article by Scott Atran and a series on his book, Talking with the Enemy

Several on Thomas Hegghammer’s publications:

A key quotation in Raffaello Pantucci’s “We Love Death as You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

On Nate Rosenblatt’s All Jihad Is Local

On William McCants’ article How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill and other writings

And several on ISIS, including….

A post on by Mohammed Hafez’s Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers

On Robert Pape’s Dying to Win

Then there are a number of posts on Islam more generally:

On Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from within

John Esposito’s Who Speaks for Islam?

A post containing an extensive bibliography:

There are many more posts accessible by searching for terms like “terrorism”, “islamism”, “islam”, “islamic state”.