Sunday, December 19, 2010

Islam: some home truths

Ranking as the third major component of the Abrahamic sequence, Islam inherited a heavy load of judgmentalism, intolerance, and violence from its Judaic and Christian predecessors. Comparative study of all three demonstrates this point. Yet such study also shows that as it unfolded, Islam augmented the stock, bringing forth a veritable swarm of dismal refinements of its own.

1. Islam divides humanity into a hierarchy of three strata. a) Only Muslims count as fully human, as their unique and complete adherence to divine law permits them to achieve their inborn capacities. b) The “Peoples of the Book,” Jews and Christians, deserve regard for their precursor status. However, efforts to bring them to recognize the superiority of Islam must be unceasing, through imposing the jizya tax and other disabilities. c) The lowest category consists essentially of vermin, who must be dealt with decisively--through extermination if necessary. This subhuman group includes Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, and animists.

2. All unbelievers are regarded as unclean, For this reason, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are closed to non-Muslims, whose presence would pollute them. The Saudi government supports this ban by citing Sura 9:26 from the Qur’an: “O you who believe! the idolaters are nothing but unclean, so they shall not approach the Sacred Mosque after this year; and if you fear poverty then Allah will enrich you out of His grace if He please; surely Allah is Knowing and Wise.”

Not surprisingly, the existence of cities closed to non-Muslims and the mystery of Muslim pilgrimage have often aroused intense curiosity in non-Muslims. Some have masqueraded as Muslims in order to visit the city of Mecca and the Grand Mosque. The first to leave a record was Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna (1503). The most famous account of a foreigner's journey to Mecca is “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina,” written by Sir Richard Burton. In 1853 Burton traveled as a Qadiriyah Sufi from Afghanistan. Individuals who use fake certificates of Muslim identity to enter risk being arrested and prosecuted by Saudi authorities.

During the Soviet period, certain technological cities in the USSR were closed to outsiders. However, the Mecca-Medina ban, which goes back to the early days of Islam, is the only major example that is known of such exclusion on religious grounds.

3. Since the time of Constantine in the fourth century CE, Christian polities have honored a dual system of law: the civil law, inherited from the Romans, and canon law, the religious counterpart. After a long struggle in the West, the supremacy of the civil law has triumphed. Historically, Islam did not acknowledge this duality, adhering only to sharia, or religious law. More accurately, one could say that sharia fuses religious and secular functions. As a result of Western influence, some states that have been historically Islamic, such as Turkey and Egypt, did in fact adopt civil law codes. Currently, however, the Islamic world is seeing a chorus of demands that the sharia be enshrined as the sole source of law. Some even insist that sharia be introduced into Western countries.

4. Sharia law harbors a number of indisputable barbarities, such the hudud procedures of stoning for adulterers (rajm) and amputation of the hands of thieves.

5. An important tool of Islamic exegesis is the doctrine of abrogation (nashk). For example, in the early days of the faith wine drinking and gambling were permitted (see the passage in Sura 2:219); then the permission regarding these practices was withdrawn, and both were banned (5:93). This principle of abrogation bears significantly on the “peaceful” verses of the Qur’an, which occur mainly in the earlier (Meccan) Suras. Following the abrogation principle, these are nullified by other, later verses contradicting them. For this reason, Islam cannot be rightly described as a religion of peace.

6. Islam views our planet as divided into two spheres: the Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the Abode of Warfare (Dar al-Harb), which has not yet been placed under Islamic rule. It is the duty of the Believers to act so that the latter sphere, the infidel realm, will constantly shrink, with the goal that ultimately the whole planet can be declared the Abode of Islam. In many ways--the departure first of Jews and then of Christians from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East; the tensions in Nigeria, the Southern Sudan, and in Thailand and the Philippines--we see the malign effects of this expansionist principle today.

7. As a rule, in Islam the value of a woman counts as only half that of a man (Sura 2:282). This principle applies to inheritance, legal testimony, and other matters. A husband may easily divorce his wife; but not the reverse.

8. The death penalty for male homosexuals, currently being carried out in Iran, goes back to the earliest strata of the hadith. To be sure, at various times and places, pederasty (sexual relations between an adult man and a boy) has enjoyed de facto toleration; never, however, adult-adult homosexuality.

From time to time we hear that one should not worry about this or that barbarous provision, for it is “not found in the Qur’an.” As with Christian apologists, sometimes self-designated progressive Muslims seek to buttress this claim by marshaling exegetical legerdemain so as to mitigate or efface inconvenient assertions that actually are in the Qur'an. That is not the only problem,for one needs to acknowledge that not everything the makes up the Islamic core is found in the Qur’an. For example, the practice of male circumcision is not mentioned in the Holy Book; yet it is integral to Islam. The Muslim faith is in fact constituted by two controlling authorities: the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunna, or recognized body of religious tradition. In judging what is authentically Islamic both source streams must be taken into account.

Observers in progressive circles in Western Europe are wont to assert that Muslims are basically pleasant, peaceful people, who left to themselves, would go about their business without troubling others. It is only Western pressure and aggression that have riled them up. Accordingly, these disingenuous individuals claim, if we will just cease our unwarranted interference, our hysteria and fear-mongering, our “Muslim problem” will be solved. Currently being promulgated by Max Blumenthal and others, this is wishful thinking.

Brief as it is, the above exposition has shown that such naivete' ignores key features of the original remit of Islam. These shortcomings are not the exclusive province of “extremists,” but are broadly held and practiced by Muslims as such. In many ways "extremist Islam" = mainstream Islam.


Towards the end of the main discussion above, while outlining some core problems residing in the Islamic faith, I alluded to a puzzling attitude currently rife in "progressive" circles--a seeming indifference to the authoritarianism, aggression, and violence that so many Muslims display today. This Islamic misbehavior is common both in the Middle Eastern heartland and in the diaspora communities, particularly those in Western Europe. One would have thought that human-rights considerations--witness the subjugation of women and the persecution of homosexuals--would have moved these progressives off the dime. Instead, though, they tend to prefer the ostrich tactics of ignoring such inconvenient facts.

Having once been a leftist (long ago, it is true), I asked myself: what can these progressives be thinking? The following rationales have occurred to me.

Themselves religiously indifferent, the progressives find it hard to wrap their minds around the sensibility of those to whom religion is important. To be sure, they decry the bigotry of Christianists and fundamentalists--but those folks are, in their enlightened view, hopelessly stupid. There is no reason to have any concern with what mere rednecks think. By contrast, Muslims, heirs to their glorious Golden Age, are subtle thinkers.

Because of this selective attention to the importance of religious motivation, the progressive Islamophiles prefer to disregard the central role played by a set of archaic Arabian superstitions. Since the latter are merely incidental in their view, there is no need to examine the beliefs and practices in detail. And so the progressives don't. As a rule, I find that Western leftists, serene in their Islamophilia, are ignorant of the most basic features of Islam, such as the Five Pillars.

A corollary of these views is the comforting illusion that those who adhere to their faith in its full rigor are just a small band of "Muslim extremists," in no way typical of the great mass of decent Muslims. As I showed in the previous posting, however, the Islamic mainstream shares many basic beliefs with the so-called "extremists." There is no bright line of separation.

Those who know a bit more, and who have been paying attention to diaspora apologists like Tariq Ramadan, will contend that the perceived excesses of Muslims today (such as "honor killings" and female genital mutilation) are not part of the original faith. This argument tends to rely on the notion that the Qur'an alone is the defining guide for Muslims. In fact there are two sources of authority: the Holy Book and the Prophetic Sunna (tradition). The ulema is still interpreting the Sunna today.

More generally, all religions have evolved. Most Christians, even some Catholics, would admit that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a modern accretion. On a more trivial level, Christmas trees and Santa Claus (the contemporary version as distinct from St. Nicholas of Myra) are recent innovations. Yet these things are Christian. Islam has evolved in a similar fashion. However, honor killings and female genital mutilation are not trivial matters.

Moreover, progressives tend to perceive Muslims primarily as victims: 1) in their homelands, long ravaged by Western imperialistic incursions, and 2) in the diaspora in Western Europe, where they are harried by discrimination and prejudice. Response to the plight of minorities, of almost any kind, has long ranked as a sort of knee-jerk reaction on the left.

Influenced by the relativism that stems from anthropology and the social sciences in general, progressives emphasize the need to respect cultural differences. This approach has advanced under the banner of multiculturalism. In this perspective, Muslims do not care about individual rights; they see everything in community terms. For their part, many Muslim women say that they are not oppressed; therefore, they are not. We are also told that there are very few genuine homosexuals in Muslim-majority countries; homosexuality is a concept imposed by Westerners. Without this Western interference, men who love men and women who love women would have no problems in the Islamic world (see the recent book of Joseph Massad). This claim is pure, unrefined b.s.

Finally, there is the wish to separate oneself from the vehemence of such antijihadists as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. I too would distance myself from such figures, but by the same token I cannot ignore the very real danger that the serious core of Islam presents, as its adherents increase their numbers in our midst.

For a variety of reasons then, progressive thinkers prefer to pass in silence the crimes against humanity which are part and parcel of the Islamic heritage. Sometimes, though, euphemism is preferred, as when the vicious practice of female genital mutilation is called simply "cutting."

The argument that one must not give comfort to the antijihadists reminds me of the situation sixty years ago during the Cold War, when it was said that one must not criticize the USSR because this would lend credibility to the McCarthyites. Yet the crimes of Stalin and his accomplices were very real. Similarly, one might recommend that one not speak of the Holocaust, the Shoah, because this helps the cause of Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC. Yet the Holocaust really did happen, and it does not enhance one's credibility to downplay or deny it, for whatever reason.

A final issue is this. If one is critical of the policies being pursued by the state of Israel (as I am; see my previous postings), one is expected to mute one's comments about Islam. Conversely, a thoroughgoing critique of Islam is thought to go together with an uncritical defense of the state of Israel.

Why this need for a choice? Both critiques are needed.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, there is no truth that should go unspoken. That is the principle I am seeking to follow.

POSTSCRIPT. By coincidence, I have just finished reading Andre' Gide's critical account of his 1936 trip to the USSR. As he prepared his book on the subject for publication, Gide found that a number of his leftist friends, while acknowledging the basic truth of his allegations about Stalin's tyranny, nonetheless urged him not to publish the book. To do so, they averred, would give aid and comfort to reactionary forces. In a similar fashion, I am now asked to mute my criticisms of Islam because that would associate me with the "hysteria" that is ostensibly raging on the right about the subject.

It seems to me that one's first obligation is to speak the truth, and not to worry about what inappropriate use might be made of such frankness. Besides, I am not and will not be an Andre' Gide, a man whose integrity and fame were both immense.

I am just a minor blogger. By the same token, I am free to discharge my volleys according to my lights. Ganymede willing, I will continue to do so.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is the cyberspace going to contract?

Quite a while ago--before the Punic Wars in fact--the first clunky computers were introduced. Unlike today's PCs, they had little memory and had to be linked with a mainframe at a bricks-and-mortar location. The possibility of controlling these mainframes suggested to some that computers might actually facilitate the extension of statist control of our lives.

Not long after, though, we learned that the Soviet Union (a najor candidate for this role of social control by technology) was not in fact cybercompatible. Since then a wonderful anarchy has arisen in the world of cyberspace.

Along with many others I rejoiced at the recent revelations provided by Wikileaks, pouring a welcome light on the formerly private conversations conducted by our Masters. Every action, though, begets a counteraction. It is not certain whether the US government will succeed in prosecuting Julian Assange. I hope not. However, the authorities are taking action to secure their data bases. There is also a growing chorus of demand for supervision of the Internet.

During the last decade the fallout from 9/11 offered a golden opportunity for statist nannies and control freaks of every sort. It may be that Wikileaks will provide a similar pretext. It all depends on whether we fight back. With my recent experiences with airport security, where arbitrary social control is constantly increasing, I am not too confident that freedom will prevail.


Thursday, December 09, 2010

Israelis potential berserkers?

Scott McConnell is a writer with solid conservative credentials. I was surprised therefore at his balanced and generally accurate piece on US-Israel relations, which refrains from offering the usual specious Neo-Con arguments for maintaining this appalling "special relationship." (

The piece is too long to summarize here, but I took note of a curious argument towards the end. Of course the US tilt towards Israel is conditioned by our domestic politics, McConnell acknowledges. But he says that there is a deeper reason, which he asserts is widely held in elite foreign policy circles. The argument goes like this. If the US were to abandon Israel, that country would become unhinged, striking out against all of its neighbors. The nuclear arsenal (that Don't Ask, Don't Tell subject) would be fully deployed.

This is the argument of a manipulative teenager. "Hey, mom and dad, you've got to buy me that new car I want. Do it pronto! Otherwise, I'll go crazy and shoot up the high school."

Isn't this kind of thing just simply blackmail?


Wednesday, December 08, 2010


An important exhibition of gay art, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," is currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. I have not seen the exhibition, but have acquired the fine Smithsonian Press book reproducing most of the exhibited works.

The event has garnered considerable attention owing to the fact that the Catholic League (seconded by Reps. Boehner and Cantor) demanded the removal of one work; caving in, the Gallery complied. The banned work is an excerpt from the late David Wojnarowicz's video "A Fire in My Belly" (1986-87), a poetic meditation on humanity, life, death, faith, and suffering made in part as a response to the AIDS-related death of his close friend, artist Peter Hujar. The offending segment shows ants crawling over a crucifix. In response, other museums around the country are stepping forward to post the video. The New Museum in New York is now showing the film in its lobby, as is the CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles.

Such censorship on the part of the Gallery, recalling the earlier Mapplethorpe controversy, is deplorable.

Yet consider this thought exercise. Supposing the curators had decided to include a photograph of ants crawling over the face of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course such a work would never been exhibited in the first place. Exclusion, which happens behind closed doors, is the most insidious form of censorship.

Is my example fantastic? I think not, for the New York Times and other newspapers refused to print the Danish Muhammad cartoons in their stories about the issue. Yale University Press published a book on the cartoon controversy--again without reproducing the cartoons.

Clearly a double standard is operating here. When Christianists and their allies succeed in suppressing visual expression, the art world is up in arms--as it should be. But when Muslim censorship is operative the same people are strangely silent.

Some would say that the intention of the Muhammad cartoons, satire, is different from the intention of the Wojnarowicz image. And so it is. However, the perception of offense--by Muslims and Christians, respectively--is the same. Also, satire has a long and honorable tradition, serving the vital function of exposing the faults of the rich and powerful. Should we carve out an exception for religion, so that it is forbidden to satirize Scientology, for example? The answer is clearly no.

However, the objection of the Islamists to the Muhammad cartoons goes far beyond the perception of disrespect towards the founder of their religion, for sometimes they assert that all depictions of Muhammad are forbidden. This claim is clearly false, for there are many of these in Islamic illuminated manuscripts. Even today, in several cities in Iran one can buy idealized oleographs of the Prophet--icons if you will.

What the Islamist castigators of the Muhammad cartoons seem to be saying is this. It is acceptable for Muslims to create and purchase images of the Prophet. Yet nonbelievers must be prevented from doing so. Such distinctions are clearly inappropriate. They should be addressed directly, and decisively rejected.


Monday, December 06, 2010

PC and airport security rituals

I rarely agree with the ultraconservative commentator Charles Krauthammer. But he hits the bull's-eye when he characterizes today's airport-security rituals as "a national homage to political correctness" (

The notion that an 80-year old grandmother or child of 3 is likely to be a terrorist is ludicrous on its face. But we are told that these humiliating rituals, all of them, are essential for national security.

In the meantime a professor in Texas claims to have found "mathematical certainty" that random screening is more effective than targeted screening. The targeted screening that the Israelis practice is grim and time-consuming to be sure, but the evidence is that it works--the professor's algorithms notwithstanding.

We keep hearing that we must not let the terrorists win. Yet win they have--over and over again--as we permit bureaucrats and their minions to subject us to ever-new forms of personal humiliation and societal expense.

The reality is that there is a de facto alliance between our jihadist opponents, on the one hand, and our nanny state, on the other. The result is an ever-narrowing sphere of personal freedom--pointing to a result not unlike traditionalist Muslim states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and so forth) where there is precious little personal freedom. This is a topic not covered (as far as I can tell) in those formerly confidential transmissions by the State Department that have been disclosed by Wikileaks. It should have been.


Friday, December 03, 2010

Airport madness

I refrained from commenting on the screening/pat down techniques at airport security until I had flown myself, which I did at the height of the controversy--on November 24, the day before Thanksgiving. I passed through security easily, though both of the airports I visited did not yet have the expensive new screening devices.

On my return, something else happened that was gravely disquieting. After we had passed through all the screening at the Phoenix Airport and were in the waiting area, my partner and I decided to have lunch, with a beer. The waiter demanded that we show IDs. My partner easily obliged with an driver's license. I do not have a driver's license, but I produced two pieces of identification, one a picture ID released by the State of New York. Unsatisfied, the waiter demanded that I produce my passport. I had in fact shown it when we went through security, but had packed it away because I thought that I would not be needing it any more. I refused and we left. Later, on plane, I bought a little bottle of red wine without showing any ID.

I have not been able to find what regulations, if any, pertain to the waiter's insistence that two pieces of ID were not enough, and I must produce a passport. One wonders what will be next: will I need a passport to go to the john--or just to breathe? Well, I am exaggerating. Still, the incident highlights the way that the Obama administration and its allies are no different from the Bush administration in extending social control under the pretext of "national security."

Today it is impossible to enter any major building in Manhattan, including my own Hunter College, without showing a picture ID that is acceptable to the checkers. A friend of mine defended this spreading blight by saying that it creates jobs. So it does, but only in the "service" area, and not in the realm of production, where we fall further behind Asia with each passing day.

On TV, Judge Andrew Napolitano (cousin of Big Sis?) has been hammering away against these abuses. Moreover, a brilliant account of why the new procedures of screening and patdowns are unconstitutional has been written by the legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen for the Washington Post. It is at: