Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
Scott Shane reports in the NY Times:
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump don’t agree on much, but Saudi Arabia may be an exception. She has deplored Saudi Arabia’s support for “radical schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path towards extremism.” He has called the Saudis “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.”
The first American diplomat to serve as envoy to Muslim communities around the world visited 80 countries and concluded that the Saudi influence was destroying tolerant Islamic traditions. “If the Saudis do not cease what they are doing,” the official, Farah Pandith, wrote last year, “there must be diplomatic, cultural and economic consequences.”
And hardly a week passes without a television pundit or a newspaper columnist blaming Saudi Arabia for jihadist violence. On HBO, Bill Mahercalls Saudi teachings “medieval,” adding an epithet. In The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria writes that the Saudis have “created a monster in the world of Islam.”
The idea has become a commonplace: that Saudi Arabia’s export of the rigid, bigoted, patriarchal, fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism. As the Islamic State projects its menacing calls for violence into the West, directing or inspiring terrorist attacks in country after country, an old debate over Saudi influence on Islam has taken on new relevance.
Is the world today a more divided, dangerous and violent place because of the cumulative effect of five decades of oil-financed proselytizing from the historical heart of the Muslim world? Or is Saudi Arabia, which has often supported Western-friendly autocrats over Islamists, merely a convenient scapegoat for extremism and terrorism with many complex causes — the United States’s own actions among them?
Those questions are deeply contentious, partly because of the contradictory impulses of the Saudi state.
In the realm of extremist Islam, the Saudis are “both the arsonists and the firefighters,” said William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar. “They promote a very toxic form of Islam that draws sharp lines between a small number of true believers and everyone else, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he said, providing ideological fodder for violent jihadists.
Yet at the same time, “they’re our partners in counterterrorism,” said Mr. McCants, one of three dozen academics, government officials and experts on Islam from multiple countries interviewed for this article.
Saudi leaders seek good relations with the West and see jihadist violence as a menace that could endanger their rule, especially now that the Islamic State is staging attacks in the kingdom — 25 in the last eight months, by the government’s count. But they are also driven by their rivalry with Iran, and they depend for legitimacy on a clerical establishment dedicated to a reactionary set of beliefs. Those conflicting goals can play out in a bafflingly inconsistent manner.
Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian terrorism expert who has advised the United States government, said the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said. . .
And do read the whole thing. There’s a lot more, and it shows how the Saudi initiative has unbalanced the role of Muslim in daily life in dozens of countries and cultures.
Later in the article:
Why does Saudi Arabia find it so difficult to let go of an ideology that much of the world finds repugnant? The key to the Saudi dilemma dates back nearly three centuries to the origin of the alliance that still undergirds the Saudi state.
Around where I live, on Monterey Bay, a lot of surfers wear wetsuits, which apparently are illegal in France, at least for women.
UPDATE: No, The Wife tells me, wetsuits are okay.
I think I can’t make sense of the law because the law doesn’t make sense. It’s an example of laws passed to show social disapproval of a group, not for any other reason. (One reason, I’ve read, that (alcohol) Prohibition did not work in the US is that the law was passed by Protestant rural majorities, who tended to drink little, to show their disapproval of urban Catholics, who did imbibe. Once the law was passed and the disapproval was shown, the public really didn’t care whether the law was enforced or not.
Anyway, I think one can reeasonably condemn the French law and whatever passed for the “thinking” behind it.
Very interesting article in Jacobin by Jon Anderson.
Justice Samuel Alito seems to have no understanding of the effects of his judicial decisions. When President Obama noted in his State of the Union address that Citizens United would allow foreign contributions to US elections, Alito ostentatiously mouthed, “Not true.” Only, as it turns out, it is true. Michael Hiltzik comments in the LA Times about another Alito contribution, the Hobby Lobby decision that corporations can have religious beliefs that the law cannot challenge:
“The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”
That’s how Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concluded her dissent to the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. That’s the case in which the court ruled that businesses have a right to their own religious beliefs, and could use them to flout otherwise generally applicable federal laws — in this particular, the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that businesses provide contraceptive coverage as part of their employees’ health insurance.
The minefield Ginsburg warned about has now detonated. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox of Detroit ruled that a local funeral home was well within its rights to fire a transgender employee because its owner had a religious belief that gender transition violated biblical teachings.
Cox’s ruling puts the lie to Justice Samuel Alito’s denial, in his majority opinion in Hobby Lobby, that the ruling would provide a shield for a wide range of discriminatory practices by allowing them to masquerade as religious scruples. “Our decision today provides no such shield,” Alito wrote.
Ginsburg, who was on the short end of a 5-4 decision, knew better. She said there could be “little doubt” that religious claims would proliferate, because the court’s expansion of religious freedom to corporations “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.” She asked, “where is the stopping point?… Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage … or according women equal pay for substantially similar work?”
She further cited court precedents holding that “accommodations to religious beliefs or observances … must not significantly impinge on the interests of third parties.”
As it happens, the case before Cox involves all those points. At issue was the firing of Aimee Stephens by R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, which she had joined as a funeral director and embalmer under the name Anthony Stephens in 2007. In July 2013, she informed her employer that she would transition to her female identity starting in 2013, living and working as a woman for a year before undergoing sex-reassignment surgery. Within two weeks, she was fired. A year later, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the funeral homes on her behalf.
At first, the case resembled an ordinary sex-discrimination matter. The employer’s defense was that it had a written dress code distinguishing between men’s and women’s working garb, and Stephens had refused to wear men’s clothing. Soon, the funeral homes added a religious dimension, citing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the same statute underlying the Hobby Lobby case. That legislation was designed to give people a pass on generally applicable laws if they could show that the burdens imposed on their beliefs outweighed the public’s interest. . .
Murtaza Hussain writes at The Intercept:
Not much is yet known about Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the 31-year-old man French police say is responsible for a horrific act of mass murder last night in the southern city of Nice. In the wake of the killings, French President Francois Hollande has denounced the attack as “Islamist terrorism” linked to the militant group the Islamic State. Supporters of ISIS online have echoed these statements, claiming responsibility for the attack as another blow against its enemies in Western Europe.
While the motive for the attack is still under investigation, it is worth examining why the Islamic State is so eager to claim such incidents as its own. On the surface, ramming a truck into a crowd of people gathered to watch Bastille Day fireworks seems like an act of pure nihilism. No military target was hit. Initial reports suggest that the killings may lead to French attacks on ISIS’s already-diminishing territories in Iraq and Syria. And French Muslims, many of whom were reportedly killed in the attack, will likely face security crackdowns and popular backlash from a public angry and fearful in the wake of another incomprehensible act of mass murder.
But the Islamic State’s statements and history show that such an outcome is exactly what it seeks. In the February 2015 issue of its online magazine Dabiq, the group called for acts of violence in the West that would “[eliminate] the grayzone” by sowing division and creating an insoluble conflict in Western societies between Muslims and non-Muslims. Such a conflict would force Muslims living in the West to “either apostatize … or [migrate] to the Islamic State, and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.”
This strategy of using violence to force divisions in society mimics the group’s tactics in Iraq, where it used provocative attacks against the Shiite population to deliberately trigger a sectarian conflict, one that continues to rage to this day.
It may be that the Islamic State had no direct line of communication to Bouhlel. Unlike many other previous attackers, he had not been on the radar of French security services. There is no indication that he had received training or traveled to ISIS territory. Initial reports from those who knew him paint a picture of a depressed and angry man who “spent a lot of his time at a bar down the street where he gambled and drank.” He had a history of petty crime, including an arrest this past May following a road-rage incident.
But in a way, these details don’t matter. ISIS’s model for terrorism relies on the weaponization of individuals such as Bouhlel; the group calls on the young, angry, and purposeless around the world to lash out at those around them in its name. In this way, the power of desperate insurgents is magnified through a combination of social media and propaganda of the deed. An influential text used by the group, titled The Management of Savagery, prescribes terrorist attacks as a means of “inflam[ing] opposition,” to drag ordinary people into conflict whether “willing or unwilling, such that each individual will go to the side which he supports.”
Far-right parties hostile to minorities are growing in popularity in Europe, while in the United States, polls show significant public support for once-unthinkable measures like banning non-citizen Muslims from the country. Like a hurricane in slow motion, every act of violence seems to do incremental damage to the possibility of a tolerant, liberal society.
After yesterday’s attack in Nice, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich piled on by calling for “[testing] every person here who is of a Muslim background” and adding, “If they believe in Sharia, they should be deported.” . . .
In the NY Times Nicholas Kristof writes:
FIRST, a three-part quiz:
Which Islamic country celebrates as a national hero a 15th-century Christian who battled Muslim invaders?
Which Islamic country is so pro-American it has a statue of Bill Clinton and a women’s clothing store named “Hillary” on Bill Klinton Boulevard?
Which Islamic country has had more citizens go abroad to fight for the Islamic State per capita than any other in Europe?
The answer to each question is Kosovo, in southeastern Europe — and therein lies a cautionary tale. Whenever there is a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists, we look to our enemies like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda. But perhaps we should also look to our “friends,” like Saudi Arabia.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has recklessly financed and promoted a harsh and intolerant Wahhabi version of Islam around the world in a way that is, quite predictably, producing terrorists. And there’s no better example of this Saudi recklessness than in the Balkans.
Kosovo and Albania have been models of religious moderation and tolerance, and as the Clinton statue attests, Kosovars revere the United States and Britain for averting a possible genocide by Serbs in 1999 (there are also many Kosovar teenagers named Tony Blair!). Yet Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries poured money into the new nation over the last 17 years and nurtured religious extremism in a land where originally there was little.
The upshot is that, according to the Kosovo government, 300 Kosovars have traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq, mostly to join the Islamic State. As my colleague Carlotta Gall noted in a pathbreaking article about radicalization here, Saudi money has transformed a once-tolerant Islamic society into a pipeline for jihadists.
In a sign of the times, the government last year had to turn off the water supply in the capital temporarily amid fears of an Islamic State-inspired plot to poison the city’s water.
“Saudi Arabia is destroying Islam,” Zuhdi Hajzeri, an imam at a 430-year-old mosque here in the city of Peja, told me sadly. Hajzeri is a moderate in the traditional, tolerant style of Kosovo — he is the latest in a long line of imams in his family — and said that as a result he had received more death threats from extremists than he can count.
Hajzeri and other moderates have responded with a website,Foltash.com, that criticizes the harsh Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. But they say they are outgunned by money pouring in from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to support harsh variants of Islam through a blizzard of publications, videos and other materials.
“The Saudis completely changed Islam here with their money,” said Visar Duriqi, a former imam in Kosovo who became a journalist who writes about extremist influences. Duriqi cites himself as an example: He says he was brainwashed and underwent an extremist phase in which he called for imposing Shariah law and excusing violence. Those views now horrify him. . .
A very interesting op-ed in the LA Times by Carel van Schaik and Kai Michel:
Believers read the Bible as the word of God. That is not always easy. Many biblical stories do not speak clearly to modern ears. People seek the help of theologians to wrest lessons from its opaque verses, but theologians often disagree.
Nonbelievers, and in particular the vehement group known as New Atheists, argue that Holy Writ has nothing to say at all. Author Sam Harris, for instance, bets that if you enter a bookstore and pick a random book off its shelf, it would have more “relevance and more wisdom for the 21st century than the Bible.” And evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins maintains that its contents are “just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents.” At best, they argue, the Bible has literary value and can serve as a helpful source of pithy aphorisms.
The Bible, then, has it coming from both sides. This may explain why today hardly anyone still reads the Old Testament beyond Genesis. That is unfortunate, because the Good Book is neither incomprehensible nor nonsensical. We just have to read it in a new way: as humanity’s diary.
People keep diaries to make sense of the maelstrom of everyday events, and there was a lot to mull over during the time the Bible was written and the preceding millennia, when some of its stories took shape. The Bible’s texts echo the consequences of humans moving from living off the land to producing food themselves. The adoption of agriculture was unprecedented in the evolution of life on Earth. Wherever this radical shift happened, it touched off a cultural big bang.
The new agriculturalists had to toil for long hours and contend with droughts, floods and damage to crops and stores. Devastating epidemics arose as a result of the new lifestyle: sedentary, in densely packed villages and in intimate contact with farm animals. Humans got smaller and died younger. Women began to have trouble giving birth. As states arose sometime later, and with them much more systematic inequality and violence, as well as dirty, overcrowded cities, things only got worse. Old customs became counterproductive and new, more effective ones had to be invented, fast.
The Bible has to be read against this background. The authors reasoned like everyone else did in those days. They explained events as actions by invisible actors, and bigger events, such as natural disasters, meant bigger actors — gods — were at work. In an interesting freak of history, the storytellers of the Bible added this persuasive innovation: There is just one, all-powerful God, whose anger is aroused by particular human actions, which leads him to correct those disobeying his wishes, often by punishing the collective, as in epidemics, earthquakes or floods — events we still call acts of God.
If a single God is responsible for all calamities, terrible events become almost predictable and preventable. The writers of the Bible therefore produced rule after rule — the Ten Commandments are just the beginning — with a single goal in mind: to keep from provoking God’s wrath again.
As time went by, it became clear that even strict adherence to the rules could not guarantee peace and prosperity. So the Bible’s authors did what good scientists today would do: They adjusted their explanatory model. For instance, illness and catastrophe were God’s punishment in the early books of the Old Testament; by the time of the New Testament, they had become the work of the devil and his demons.
And so, for more than 1,000 years, many authors added new stories — about Job and the Apocalypse, for example — to humanity’s collective diary and continued to edit older texts, and so kept it up to date. But by the 5th century CE the emerging Christian church needed to establish its authority. The Bible was canonized; it became Holy Writ: the perfect word of a perfect God. It was eternal, unchangeable, and thus its explanatory model grew increasingly outdated. No wonder exegesis became ever more convoluted.
Viewed from this cultural evolution perspective, the Bible was an ambitious attempt to come to grips with new challenges to our earthly existence — pestilence, injustice, war, suppression — at a time well before we had natural science to help. Of course, it got much of its explanations wrong, and most of us no longer accept them as accurate.
But modern evolutionary biology has confirmed that the Good Book got its fundamental picture of human nature right. . .