Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chicken Little . . . or just chicken?

Somehow the recent discussion about the Park51 Center and Islam in the US has morphed into a kind of Left/Right thing, mirroring earlier developments in Europe, where sectors of the Left have chosen to defend Islamists in the name of multiculturalism, even when they are mistreating the Left's traditional allies, women and gays.

Bien pensants tell us that the Right in this country is hysterical about sharia law. While there is no immediate danger that the US will become "sharia-compliant," such Pollyannaism disguises real problems, especially those that arise from the core principles of Islam. Neither the opponents of Islam nor its defenders have troubled much to examine the origins and nature of Islam. As regular readers of this blog know, I have made this effort. I have concluded that much of what is wrong with Islamism is what is wrong with Islam. Stoning for adultery, for example, is specifically prescribed in the Qur'an. However, it is not necessary for any particular belief or practice to be attested in the Qur'an (a relatively short book) for it to be part of the sunna, the accepted roster of orthodox belief. The Hadiths, at least those deemed reliable, cover much additional ground. For example, male circumcision is not mentioned in the Qur'an, but the rite is universally observed.

Now comes an odd argument from one of the Islamo-Pollyannas, a certain Josh Goodman at Goodman argues that we should not worry about sharia, because both Israel and India have it, though only for Muslim citizens. The reason for this is the older imperial heritage, stemming from the Ottoman millet system, on the one hand, and the Mughals, on the other. Over the years, however, the scope of sharia has been whittled down in both Israel. Stoning of adulterers and persecution of homosexuals are no longer obligatory. Even polygamy is now discouraged. In fact, sharis--ostensibly God's law--survives only in fragments in Israel and India. The principle is not very different from the survival of Hispanic law in New Mexico in the US.

In England, however, the Archbishop of Canterbury (whose advocacy goes unmentioned by Goodman) proposes to i n t r o d u c e elements of sharia law. Unlike the survivals in Israel and India. this would be an innovation. In the latter two cases, sharia law is fading. In Britain it may be burgeoning. And since England is the source of our common-law tradition, can we be certain that such an intrusion will never darken our shores?

To be sure, sharia law does not take the form of a single, canonical set of documents of the order of the Justinian and Napoleonic Codes. Because of the de facto freezing of Islamic legal traditions some 1000 years ago (the Closing of the Gates of Ijtihad), the whole thing has consolidated into a relatively consistent mass--one that is consistent according to its major principles, if not always in detail.

And then we have that insidious business of "sharia compliance." Muslims feel free to urge that o u r laws be amended so as to agree with sharia principles. Every one in this country who has become a citizen should be reminded that they swore an oath to uphold the US Constitution and the laws that our Congress enacts. These must always override sharia law. If Muslim immigrants choose not to adhere to this principle, they have violated their oath, and should be deported.


Monday, September 20, 2010


This morning I learned a new word: pareidolia.

According to Wikipedia, "Pareidolia (pronounced /pærɪˈdoʊliə/ pa-ri-DOE-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse. The word comes from the Greek παρά (para- – "beside", "with", or "alongside"—meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech)) andεἴδωλον (eidōlon – "image"; the diminutive of εἴδος, eidos – "image", "form", "shape"). Pareidolia is a type of apophenia." Hmm, apophenia, I haven't looked that one up yet.

As an art historian I had long been familiar with the tendency of Renaissance artists such as Mantegna and Duerer to include "hidden" images in clouds. Mantegna's Vienna St. Sebastian contains a remarkable example of clouds simulating a rider in the sky above. By contrast, medieval art, which is not realistic, does not seem to afford this possibility. As a familiar passage in Shakespeare's Hamlet shows, clouds offer a very tempting area for the detection or pseudodetection of such gestalts.

Television has familiarized us with current popular versions of such projections. For example, in 1978 a New Mexican woman found that the burn marks on a tortilla she had made corresponded to the traditional Catholic depiction of Jesus Christ's face. Thousands of people came to view the wondrous tortilla. There have been many other sightings of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the word Allah. There is even a market for such objects on ebay. The phenomenon is not limited to the Abrahamic religions. In September, 2007, the so-called "monkey tree phenomenon" caused a brief sensation in Singapore. A callus on a tree resembled a monkey, and credulous believers flocked to the tree to pay homage to the "Monkey God."

A somewhat gross example occurred in a sketch by the Upright Citizens Brigade broadcast on Comedy Central in 2007. An earnest Christian holds up a bowl that is said to contain the image of Jesus in spaghetti. A sudden power failure occurs and when the lights are restored the spaghetti Jesus has vanished. The tell-tale red marks on a young woman's face in the audience reveal that she is the culprit. She is made to regurgitate it, and the image reappears: the vomit Jesus. Then the sequence is repeated with a man who eats the vomit Jesus. Instead of vomiting it, he defecates it: feces Jesus.

The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia by creating bloblike forms in which the subject is encouraged to spot images. This practice, now largely abandoned, is supposed to reveal significant aspects of the personality, including sexual orientation. Ostensibly, the thoughts or feelings of the respondent are projected onto the ambiguous inkblot images. In this instance projection is a form of "directed pareidolia" because the Rorschach cards have been deliberately designed so as not to resemble anything in particular.

Some evolutionary theorists, such as the late Carl Sagan, have proposed that as a survival technique, human beings are "hard-wired" from birth to identify the human face, as with a care giver. This propensity allows people to use minimal details to recognize faces even at a distance and in poor visibility. Yet the knack can also lead them to interpret random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces. The evolutionary advantages of being able to distinguish friend from foe with split-second accuracy are obvious.

There are also auditory parallels, as when listeners claim to hear hidden messages in rock songs that are played backwards. Sometimes travelers in exotic foreign countries where they do not know the language report that, when they were tired, it seemed that people were actually speaking in English. It is not clear what survival purposes such auditory illusions might have, casting doubt on the whole theory.

What remains, I think, is that human beings are programmed to look for meaning, and we may find it even when it is not there.

UPDATE (Sept. 27)

My Australian friend David Buncel has reminded me of an important passage in Leonardo’s “Treatise on Painting.” This reads as follows: “I will not forget to insert into these rules, a new theoretical invention for knowledge’s sake, which, ,although it seems of little import and good for a laugh, is nonetheless, of great utility in bringing out the creativity in some of these inventions. This is the case if you cast your glance on any walls dirty with such stains or walls made up of rock formations of different types. If you have to invent some scenes, you will be able to discover them there in diverse forms, in diverse landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, extensive plains, valleys, and hills. You can even see different battle scenes and movements made up of unusual figures, faces with strange expressions, and myriad things which you can transform into a complete and proper form constituting part of similar walls and rocks. These are like the sound of bells, in whose tolling, you hear names and words that your imagination conjures up.

“Don’t underestimate this idea of mine, which calls to mind that it would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls, the ashes from the fire, the clouds, the mud, or other similar places. If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, animals, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like. These will do you well because they will awaken genius with this jumble of things.”

In another passage Leonardo da Vinci ascribes this practice to Sandro Botticelli--why I am not sure.

As Mr. Buncel informs me, the Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp offers a speculative interpretation that is worth pondering (“Behind the Picture,” London, 1997, p. 243).

"He (Leonardo) agrees with Alberti that 'inventione' or composition of narrative [storia] is the 'end of such scientia'. When he looks at stains on walls into which he imaginatively projects new subjects, he is seeking 'various inventione'. Human powers of invention occupy a central place in Leonardo's ideas, in all the fields we now know as art, science and technology. He sees inventiveness as taking the human potential for making things beyond the scope of those created by nature. The painter's works are 'more infinite than those made by nature' allowing him to invent an infinite number of things that 'nature never created'. He writes that 'nature is concerned only with the production of elementary things but man from these elementary things produces an infinite number of compounds, although he has no power to create any elementary thing except another like himself, that is his children'. This notion of invention is not that of the alchemists, who aspire to create gold and the 'philosopher's stone', but involves compounding and building upon the multitudinous items created by nature."

There is now a book-length study of the overall problem by the Swiss art historian Dario Gamboni: Potential Images (2004). After discussing the earlier permutations of the idea in some detail, Gamboni focuses on modern art.

The perennial problem, of course, is this. When we detect or affect to detect such images in paintings or other visual media, are we simply “seeing things” (which is what Leonardo recommends), or are we genuinely recovering an element that has simply not been generally noticed before?

The matter goes to the larger issue of creativity. Are there in fact exercises which can usefully stimulate the creative faculty by inducing us to think outside the box, or by other means?


Friday, September 17, 2010

Tariq Ramadan

On leave from his post at Oxford, Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim theologian and public intellectual, is currently in the United States, where he has been speaking and writing on various occasions. The current controversy over the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan has, of course, heightened his visibility.

Who then is Tariq Ramadan? He was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1962 and was primarily educated in that city. He is a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University. His most important theme is that the Muslim diaspora in Western Europe and North America must adapt to its new cultural setting, while at the same time remaining true to the core beliefs of Islam. While this project is laudable in principle, Ramadan’s efforts have elicited some skepticism because of a sense that he shades his views, offering one emphasis to Western audiences and another to Muslim ones. In 2009 Foreign Policy magazine ranked Ramadan 49th in a list of the world’s top 100 contemporary intellectuals.

Indeed, Ramadan comes from a distinguished line of Muslim thinkers and activists. He is the son of Said Ramadan and the grandson of Hassan al Banna. who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Gamal Abdul Nasser exiled his father from Egypt to Switzerland, where Tariq was born.

In Geneva Tariq Ramadan studied Philosophy and French literature at the Masters level. He then wrote a PhD dissertation entitled “Nietzsche as a Historian of Philosophy.” He completed his studies with work on Islamic theology at Al-Azhar university in Cairo.

As of 2009, Tariq Ramadan was persona non grata in Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria because of his "criticism of these undemocratic regimes that deny the most basic human rights." Curiously enough, he had the same status for several years in the US. In February 2004 Ramadan accepted a professorship at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. At first granted, his visa was then revoked by the State Department under the “ideological exclusion” provision. After several court appeals, the ban was finally lifted on January 20, 2010.

To put the matter in the vernacular, his approach to Islamic theology is to see whether it can afford “wiggle room” with regard to inhumane and intolerant precepts that conflict with established Western principles of human rights. He emphasizes the difference between religion and culture, which he maintains are too often confused. More particularly, citizenship and religion are separate concepts which should not be mixed. Along these lines he claims that there is no conflict between being both a Muslim and a European; a Muslim is required to accept the laws of his country. He likes to sum up things in terms of capital letters. Thus he enjoins the three L's: language (meaning that Muslims must be proficient in the language of the country where they reside and not just in their language of origin); law (accepting that the law of the host country is supreme); and loyalty. In keeping with the last principle Muslims must accept that when a host country is in conflict with a Muslim-majority country, Muslim citizens must side with their country of citizenship. (He is not quite clear--or convincing--on this last point.)

Ramadan recommends that Western Muslims create a "Western Islam" just as there is a separate "Southeast Asian Islam" and an "African Islam.” where cultural differences are implicit. By this he means that European Muslims must reexamine the fundamental texts of Islam (the Qur’an, the Hadiths, and the legal deliverances of the several schools that seek to define sharia), interpreting them in light of their own cultural background, influenced as it is by European society.

In this process of reinterpretation and exegesis Ramadan emphases the principle of context. With the Qur'an and Hadiths we must acknowledge that they stem from a tribal society very different from our own, sifting the texts accordingly. By the same token, some repugnant practices current among Muslims, such as female genital mutilation and "honor killings" reflect contingent conditions in the countries of recent residence. The problem with this approach is that if everything is contextual, what in fact must we believe? As with some Christians, religion turns into a spiritual cafeteria, where we choose one dish but disdain another.

Ramadan rejects the common Muslim division of the world into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War), on the grounds that such a division is not mentioned in the Qur'an. For Ramadan, what is important is "dar al-shahada," the "Abode of Testimony" [to the Islamic Message]. He holds that Muslims are "witnesses before mankind"; they must continue to review the fundamental principles of Islam and take responsibility for their faith. With seeming liberality, he avers that for him the "Islamic message" to which Muslims are expected to bear witness is not primarily the particularist, socially conservative code of traditionalist jurists, but a commitment to universalism and the welfare of non-Muslims; it is also an injunction not merely to make demands on un-Islamic societies but to express solidarity with them. These are fine words. Yet as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and Ramadan’s more detailed explications do not always seem in accord with these lofty sentiments.

At all events, he emphasizes a Muslim's responsibility to his community, whether it be Islamic or not. He decries the “us vs. them” mentality that some Muslims have adopted vis-a-vis the West. He also recommends encouraging Muslim scholars in the West who are versed in Western mores, so as not to rely on religious studies that come only from the Islamic world. He wants more Islamic philosophy written in European languages. He thinks that European Muslims' dependence on an imported, "external" Islam, leaves them feeling inadequate and insecure, one of the main causes of alienation from European culture.

Not surprisingly, he is also worried about Western perceptions of Islam. He says the Muslim community has done a poor job of representing itself, allowing westerners to confuse Islam with contingent cultural traits, as well as with current political realities in the Middle East. He believes that many avowedly Islamic countries have governments that betray the principles of Islam. Historically, if I may interject, that Caliphate has not been distinguished by its preference for democratic principles.

In a 2003 French television debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president accused Ramadan of defending the stoning of adulterers, a punishment rooted in the Qur’an and stipulated in the sharia provisions known as hudud. Ramadan said that he opposed stoning and that he favored “a moratorium” on such practices, but refused to condemn the stipulation outright. Many observers, including Sarkozy, were outraged. Ramadan later defended his position by arguing that, because it involved religious texts, the law would have to be properly understood and "contextualized." Ramadan argued that in Muslim countries, the simple procedure of "condemning" won't change anything, but with a "moratorium" the way could open for further debate. The problem with the moratorium concept is that it suggests that any lifting of the provision would be temporary. Indeed, it is hard to see how it could be anything else, since stoning is part of the Qur’an. In terms of reason, how could there be any debate about judicial murder?

Adulterers are being stoned in Iran, while homosexuals are being hanged. What are Ramadan's views about homosexuality? In his "What I Believe" he devotes two pages to the subject. As with misogyny, he concedes that the perception of homophobia is damaging the image of Islam in the West. Some way must be found to reduce this harm. Possibly gay Muslim groups--which exist only in the West--can be helpful. However, only heterosexuality ranks as part of the "divine project." Evidently Ramadan sees Muslim homophobia as simply a PR problem. This discussion is a good example of how he tries to have it both ways.

Ramadan wrote an article entitled, “Les (nouveaux) intellectuels communautaires,” which the French newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro refused to publish. did eventually make the text public online. In the article he criticizes a number of French Jewish intellectuals, such as Alexandre Adler, Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann and Bernard Kouchner, for allegedly abandoning universal human rights, and giving special status to the defense of Israel. Ramadan was accused, in return, of anti-Semitism and having used inflammatory language.

In her 2009 book "Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan," the French feminist writer Caroline Fourest presented the results of her scrutiny of Ramadan's fifteen books, 1,500 pages of interviews, and approximately 100 recordings. She concludes that "Ramadan is a war leader," and the "political heir of his grandfather," Hassan al-Banna, stating that his discourse is, "often just a repetition of the discourse that Banna had at the beginning of the 20th century in Egypt." She argues that "Tariq Ramadan is slippery. He says one thing to his faithful Muslim followers and something else entirely to his Western audience. His choice of words, the formulations he uses – even his tone of voice – vary, chameleon-like, according to his audience."

Christopher Caldwell, author of an antijihadist book on Muslims in Western Europe ("Reflections on the Revolution In Europe," 2009) describes Ramadan as being "the very embodiment of double language," which Caldwell defines as, "not saying two different things to two different audiences," but, rather, as "preaching a consistent message that will be understood in different ways by two different audiences." According to Caldwell, "When Ramadan speaks of 'resistance," and calls on Muslims everywhere to wage it.." "Europeans... have chosen to believe that... he really means 'reform.' He does not. He means jihad."

The title of Paul Berman’s 2010 book “The Flight of the Intellectuals” deliberately echoes that of Julien Benda’s classic of times past, “The Treason of the Intellectuals.” Berman’s polemic is largely directed against Ramadan, together with those Western writers like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ashe whom he perceived as his dupes. However, Berman's argument is so obsessive and over-the-top that it largely fails in its purpose.

For his part, Ramadan denies contacts with terrorists and other Islamic fundamentalists. He also rejects the claims of anti-Semitism and double talk, ascribing the charges to misinterpretation and an unfamiliarity with his writings. He states: "I have often been accused of this 'double discourse', and to those who say it, I say - bring the evidence. I am quite clear in what I say. The problem is that many people don't want to hear it, particularly in the media. Most of the stories about me are completely untrue: journalists simply repeat black propaganda from the internet without any corroboration, and it just confirms what they want to believe. Words are used out of context. There is double-talk, yes, but there is also double-hearing. That is what I want to challenge." He points out that two days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he published an open letter, exhorting Muslims to condemn the attacks and the attackers, and not to "hide behind conspiracy theories.." and that less than two weeks after the attacks he had stated that “The probability [of bin Laden's guilt] is large, but some questions remain unanswered ... But whoever they are, Bin Laden or others, it is necessary to find them and that they be judged,” and that the interview had been conducted before much evidence was publicly available.

Tariq Ramadan's 2009 book "In the Footsteps of the Prophet" is a popular life of the Prophet Muhammad. The author’s main purpose seems to be to familiarize non-Muslims with the ways in which the faithful understand the story of their founder. Yet those looking for something meatier are likely to be disappointed by Ramadan's sentimental hagiography, which corresponds to what one might find in the Muslim equivalent of Sunday Bible school lessons.

The prophet is said to have had respect for animals, saving a litter of puppies, but engages in animal sacrifice. Ostensibly, the prophet respected the religious practices of others, but went about smashing the art of unbelievers and blackmailing his adversaries into converting to Islam. He preached love and forbearance, but ordered the execution of 600 captives. He abhorred slavery, but on capturing a city doled out the women as loot to his army.

An interesting question is this: how much influence does Ramadan actually have in the Islamic world? His audience seems to be mainly non-Muslim Westerners, especially those like Karen Armstrong and John Esposito who have adopted a benign stance towards Islam. Yet in most Western countries 80% of the imams are financed by Saudi Arabia, which means that they are likely to have Wahhabist (fundamentalist) views.

Liberal commentators in the West frequently assert that we know too little about Islam. Point taken. However, the information proffered must not be sanitized. We need to see the dark passages in the overall picture as well as the brighter ones.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tea leaves

To the best of my knowledge, the United States is the only country that was founded on the basis of limiting and reducing the influence of government in the daily lives of its citizens. This occurred first through the break with Great Britain and secondly through the principle of separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution.

In the Mother Country, the Magna Carta of 1215 ranks, falsely, as an icon of limitation of government powers. Yet that document only limited the power of the king, while greatly enhancing that of the barons. With the advent of the Hanoverian dynasty in 1714, the power of the British monarchy was definitively contained. But the power of Parliament became untrammeled. As Walter Bagehot famously said, Parliament can do anything except make a man a woman or a woman a man. Surely it can do those things too nowadays.

Another example is modern Italy, which arose only in 1870, when the individual states of the peninsula were melded into a unitary state. With that change came an all-powerful bureaucracy which has risen to impossible heights of arrogance and indolence, so that it is currently reducing the country to the status of a banana republic.

Since the Tea Party movement taps into this foundational strain of American sentiment for limiting the power of government, it is likely to remain with us in some form or other for a long time. To be sure, academic pedants and censorious pundits in the MSM like to point out the historical errors made by Tea Party adherents. So what? With the rise of the blogosphere, the mainstream media are on the way out. Newspapers are downsizing and closing down, and viewers are deserting the TV network news services. Good riddance to all of them.

Of course, there is the allegation that the Tea Party is mainly a group of white people. We are, I think, past the period in which mere allegations of political incorrectness could make their targets run for the hills. The whiteness of the Tea Partyites is something one has to get used to. A century ago, Max Weber pointed out that modern parliamentary democracies function as places where various interest groups can negotiate settlements among themselves without going to war with each other. Since blacks, Hispanics, Catholics and all sorts of other groups are represented at this colloquy, why not white people? Sometimes. bizarrely, we hear that Wall Street represents white people. Well, it certainly does not represent me.

As Tuesday's election results show, a fire is ablaze in the land, and it is certain to blaze brighter. Many corrupt politicos in DC and the state capitals will lose their jobs. That prospect is now clear.

I hasten to add that I am not a Tea Partyite, and the cure could well be worse than the disease. But something is happening and the permanent government in DC is powerless to stop it.

As a final note, we gay people have common cause with the Tea Party folks because our most important effort has been the dismantling of the sodomy laws, a forty-year campaign concluded only at the beginning of this millennium. Getting the government out of the bedroom should be part of any program of limited government. We seem to differ from them, though, in our advocacy of hate-crimes legislation and ENDA. It is not clear to me, however, that the latter two are truly a good thing.


Monday, September 06, 2010

Religous intolerance: is it completely unwarranted?

Uh, oh. It’s time for another controversial posting: thinking the unthinkable.

With reference to the nation-wide hostility that has recently surfaced with regard to the building of mosques, the media have now fastened onto the notion that such things are nothing new. American history, we are told, shows a long nativist history of negativity towards “foreign interlopers” in the realm of religion. Fortunately, this opposition generally proves to be temporary. Indeed, Catholics and Jews, who were once widely decried, are now assimilated into the mainstream of American life. (Mormons, though, do not seem to have quite made it, as seen in the resistance to Romney’s candidacy for president.)

Was this resistance, however, totally irrational and unjustified? As recently as 1960 John Kennedy felt it necessary to deny that, as president, he would be influenced by the Vatican. If Catholics were in fact regarded as harmless, why would he need to do so? The recent history of the cover-up of abuse by pedophile priests, sometimes in contravention of American law, shows that there are still some reasons for concern about the subculture of the Roman Church.

For their part Protestants have not been so wonderful, as shown by their history of burning Catholic churches in the nineteenth century and their record of anti-Semitism.

While anti-Semitism persists, it is now widely denounced, and rightly so. Still, there are concerns about the degree to which some, in fact many American Jews place the interests of the state of Israel over those of this country.

In the light of these phenomena, why is it wrong to wonder whether Islam, that soi-disant “religion of peace,” could bring trouble to our shores?

Some would say that the best solution is essentially to bid good-bye to religion, as is occurring, by and large, in Western Europe. However, this retreat is not likely to happen here. As long as the major Abrahamic religions are strong in North America, we are entitled to ask questions about them. This goes for Islam, just as it does for the others.