Sunday, April 19, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 3: Why Islamophobia is Wrong

In the prior entry of this five-part post, I criticized The New Criterion for its racism and Islamophobia. However, I’m not going to stop there. After calling-out Roger Kimball’s bigoted rag for what it is, I also want to go on and write a broader post about why Islamophobia is wrong. This can be done by addressing a key complaint of Kimball’s: “the systematic reluctance of Western leaders to describe Islamic terrorism as, well, Islamic terrorism.”

How important is it that we use the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ rather than ‘terrorism’? Well, in typical hysterical form, Kimball and The New Criterion view this semantic molehill as a mountain that does nothing less than threaten the fabric of American democracy. It is a symptom of “an epidemic allergy to candor” and an “embrace of euphemism [that] will alter not only our language but also the reality our language names”. Invoking images of Orwellian dystopias, Kimball concludes with fire and brimstone frothing that this "atmosphere of supine anesthesia is an invitation to tyranny."

I don’t claim that the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ will lead to an apocalypse, nor does my reluctance to use it arise from political correctness or a shadowy Orwellian plot to destroy America. People avoid a term like this because, simply enough, it is entirely inaccurate as a way to refer to terrorism, even terrorism committed by Muslims. The reason it is inaccurate it because it is bigotry; it can only be an accurate label if we assume a group of people (Muslims) all possess an inherent trait (the tendency to be terrorists).

In an attempt to clarify this point for the Kimball’s of the world, let’s start broadly. The primary charge of Islamophobes – and the logic behind Kimball wanting to use the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ is that these people view Islam as a ‘religion of violence’. Kimball admits as much when he comments: “Islamic peace can be vouchsafed only when the entire world has been converted to Islam. At the end of the day, the options for non-Muslims are three: conversion, slavery, or death.” I’m not sure what Muslims Kimball hangs out with, but no Muslim I ever met offered me such options. But then I never met a crazy person who happened to be Muslim (though there are clearly people who fit the bill in the world, just as there are ‘Holy Rollers’ and cults who end up worshipping unemployed wack-a-doodles).

Putting personal experience – and common sense arguments – aside for the moment, Kimball’s statement and the ‘religion of violence’ riff in general is immediately ridiculous to anyone with even a cursory understanding of Islam. To start, let’s consider the five pillars of Islam. They include:
1. Declaring there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet
2. Ritual prayer five times a day
3. Tithing a percentage of income to the poor
4. Fasting during Ramadan
5. Making a pilgrimage to Mecca if one is able
None of these could conceivably be interpreted by anyone as an exhortation to violence.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali
Deeper investigation, such as perusing the Qur’an itself [my version is the translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali p.1938] reveals that Allah does not support violence. For example, in the very first Sura you will find this passage: “Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray” (Sura I:6-7, italics mine). The Qur’an goes on to suggest proselytizing is pointless: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Sura II:256). The reasoning for this is as follows: “As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe” (Sura II:6). Note that these are not isolated quotes drawn from a text otherwise filled with bile; they reflect the general thought in the Qur’an.

At this point, an Islamophobe will counter that they can find passages in the Qur’an that do encourage violence. I personally don’t know what these passages are, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that they exist. The problem with citing them as evidence of anything is that all religions have such passages in their holy texts. Given that most Islamophobes in the US are Christian, the phrase “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” comes to mind.

In fact, the Bible is replete with hideous statements that no Christian (or at least none I ever met) would accept as part of the fabric of their faith. Doubt it? Then try these on for size (text pulled from The New Oxford Annotated Bible):

  • “A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies.” and “He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness.” (Nahum 1:2 and 1:8)
  • “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” (Zephaniah 1:17)
  • “You shall devour all the peoples that the Lord your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity.” (Deuteronomy 7:16)

There are websites calling out dozens of further examples, but the point is that even if we were to accept that Islam’s revered texts are filled with violence and murder, the texts from Christianity and Judaism are just as bad or worse.

To extend the argument, even a religion as overtly pacifist as Zen Buddhism has some passages that will make you cringe. For example, in the Bloodstream Sermon Bodhidharma preaches: “By doing the opposite of what he [Buddha] intended, such people blaspheme the Buddha. Killing them would not be wrong. The sutras say, ‘Since [unrepentant sensualists] are incapable of belief, killing them would be blameless, whereas people who believe reach the state of Buddhahood’.”  That’s pretty harsh stuff. What’s especially shocking about this passage to a Zen Buddhist is its implication that some people are incapable of ‘buddhahood’, meaning they do not have the Buddha nature in them at all. This runs completely counter to every Zen Buddhist text I’ve ever read as well as, I believe, the words of the Buddha himself.

So are all these ‘religions of violence’? Of course not, because people follow religions based on their content and ideas, not by mindlessly swallowing a literal interpretation of every single line of their texts. If people did this, then Christians would be in a world of trouble. Consider the following:

  • Most upper middle class and rich people would be going to hell (Matthew 19:24)
  • Women would have to sacrifice two turtledoves after every period (Leviticus 15:29-30)
  • Think an impure thought about someone? Pluck out your eye. (Mark 9:47)

Christians don’t comply with these ideas any more than reading “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” transforms them into psychopaths who kill wiccans. Similarly, when I ran into the above referenced quote from the Bloodstream Sermon, I didn’t think: “Oh goodie, I can kill anyone who’s not a Zen Buddhist and not care! Where’s the nearest gun shop?” It’s the same with Muslims. We discard such passages because we know these otherwise revered texts were written over a thousand years ago by people living in cultures that had a very different view of individual rights than we do in 21st Century democracies.

As such, the rationale behind the Islamophobes’ charge is invalid as a way of judging a group of people who belong to a faith.  Ultimately, it’s the individual – not their religious affiliation – that determines whether they choose to practice good or evil, love or hate, compassion or violence. To blame our behavior – or anyone else’s – on their religion is dodging personal responsibility. Being religious doesn’t give people a blank check on behavior so long as they can dig up a sentence or two in a book written a thousand years ago that supports their actions.

Is this enough to persuade Islamophobes to abandon their anti-Muslim bigotry? Sadly no. They will readily accept that we should judge individuals and go on to suggest that Muslims – unlike Christians – engage in terrorism, the suppression of minorities, and holy wars of violence. Of course, sweeping generalizations like this once again simply evidence the bigotry of Islamophobes. But more to the point, it simply isn’t true.

You want Christian terrorism? There are Christians who bomb clinics and murder doctors who provide specific types of medical care.

You want suppression of minorities? Christian racists and bigots have repeatedly used (and still use) the Bible to justify oppression: slavery, the subjugation of women, and homophobia. It was Christians who committed cross burnings and lynching of African-Americans from the end of the Civil War clear up until the 1960s. Heck, we all learn in second grade that it was people fleeing persecution from Christians who first colonized the United States.

When it comes to holy wars of violence, Christianity has had a harder time in the last few centuries because Western democracies generally enforce a separation of church and state. However, if you go back to when Christianity heavily influenced government, you will find violent wars that make today’s jihadists look like rank amateurs: the Crusades, the burnings during the rise of Protestantism, and the Inquisition. Along these lines, it’s worth asking why our Founding Fathers made separation of Church and state a fundamental basis for their new government?  It certainly wasn’t because they were concerned about the ill effects of burkas and Sharia law.

From this reasoning, it seems fair to settle on several points:

  • All religions are based on revered texts with violent content
  • Most believers ignore this content, and those who do not ignore it create warped versions of the religion
  • All religions produce zealots who engage in violence which they claim is justified by their religion

Despite this, millions of adherents to the major religions are neither violent nor engaged in terrorism.

While it is true that Muslims commit most terrorist acts in today’s world, it is something else entirely to say that Muslims are more likely to commit terrorist acts because they are Muslim. The former point is a statement of fact; the latter is Islamophobic bigotry. If people like Steve Kimball refuse to acknowledge this difference, then that is why they have trouble in "polite society" as he phrases it, especially in the United States. In the US, our ideal is that people are viewed as individuals, not clones churned out in identical millions by the Muslim Factory or the African-American Factory or the Homosexual Factory. One cannot assume a person's character based on the activity of other people who share one facet of that person's make-up.

If we ignore this and accept Kimball’s logic, then the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ would still be inaccurate because it doesn’t go far enough. It would be better to use the term ‘male heterosexual terrorism’ since this label would include all such acts (assuming most female practitioners are part of outfits run by men). And, if Kimball and his cohorts are so passionate about “candor”, why not go even further?

  • Let’s label sex crimes against children as ‘straight male pedophilia’.
  • Add a sub-category of ‘Christian pedophilia’ to cover the epidemic of child abuse within churches.
  • Let’s re-label gay bashing as ‘heterosexual hate crimes’.
  • Bombed abortion clinic? That’s ‘Christian terrorism’.

The reason we don't use any of these terms is the same reason we avoid referring to terrorism by Muslims as ‘Islamic terrorism’. They are bigoted labels that identify a group with a crime, thus implying an inherent trait about that group. We would not want to do this in any of these cases because the majority of straight males, Christians, and Muslims do not commit any of these crimes. As a result, these are unnecessary – as well as inaccurate – modifiers.

I would finish by arguing that bigoted terminology should also be avoided because it does have a negative effect. These terms take the focus off the crime and make the discussion about denigrating a group of people. As noted in my prior post, demonizing a group of people has never solved any problem the world has ever faced. All it accomplishes is justify ranting speeches – like the essays in The New Criterion – that spit venom without offering any practical solutions. In this way, such labels actually erode candor, as the ranting becomes the focus of discussion. Meanwhile, the causes of the problem – in this case the causes of terrorism – are ignored and left to fester.

Part 4 of this Five-Part Post (“The Cause of Terrorism in the Middle East”) will be added soon

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Garden of Adonis, Suite for Flute and Harp - Hovhaness

A couple years ago, I wrote a post about Diabelli's Serenata Concertante op. 105, because I often play it right at the start of Spring. After the harsh winter we suffered this past year, I'm more than eager to welcome Spring with open arms and listened to Diabelli this afternoon on the way home from work.

Another composition that evokes the return of Spring for me is The Garden of Adonis, Suite for Flute and Harp by Alan Hovhaness (1911 - 2000). Like the piece by Diabelli, this one is made up of multiple movements. There are seven movements, in fact, but each is quite short and the entire piece is only 16 minutes long.

Hovhaness was an American composer, and the only music I have of his is the pictured album featuring Yolanda Kondonassis on harp. The album contains several pieces, which are all wonderful. However, The Garden of Adonis is especially ear-catching with its mystical melodies and muted beauty.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Mumonkan, Koan 34: Nansen's "Reason Is Not The Way"

Nansen said, "Mind is not the Buddha; reason is not the way."

The Buddha in the tree at a temple in Thailand
(photo from the blog "Life as you make it...")
At first, this koan seems to directly contradict what I learned in koan 33 and to also contradict Baso's words in koan 30 ("This very mind is the Buddha"). My first reaction was that these statements cannot both be true, however this is not so.

The issue is using words to speak about Zen. Words are imprecise, which is why Zen is usually transmitted wordlessly. The statements are contradictory if we focus specifically on the words and what they mean, but if we read between the lines at the understanding that these words are trying to convey, we can conclude that both statements are true and are in agreement.

We find Buddha nature through our mind, and it is the only place we can find it. However, we cannot say the mind is Buddha in a concrete way because the mind is an object just like a book or a couch or a TV set. Living things have Buddha nature, but that does not mean a cat or a whale or myself are the Buddha.

Wine has flavor, but it is not flavor. A balloon is filled with air, but it is not air. The mind is the Buddha, but the mind is not the Buddha. No object, concrete or abstract, is the Buddha. But all living things are the Buddha.

I think this is the best I can do to explain.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 2: Racism & Islamophobia in The New Criterion

One of the magazines I subscribed to as part of my 'renaissance of reading' this past year was The New Criterion, a conservative magazine published and edited by Roger Kimball centering on arts and culture. I was excited about this unique publication, and I found that many of the magazine’s art and cultural essays did an outstanding job of providing actual criticism in place of the artsy-babble in standard academic writing.

That said, The New Criterion needed only two issues to confirm the primary criticism I’d heard leveled against it: that its political and social commentary represent an embarrassingly low level of thought. I’ll go further: its political and social commentary is mostly the kind of overly emotional slogan-as-discourse ranting one expects from partially-educated old farts at a Tea Party rally. The low bar set for thinking in these essays is especially glaring when printed mere pages away from intelligent discussion on other subjects.

One example of this is Charles Murray’s review of The Triple Package in the April 2014 issue. The authors of this book, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, apparently claim to have identified three traits that drive an ethnic- or religion-based group’s success in society. The authors then assess which ethnic groups best embody these attributes and use this analysis to conclude which groups are 'most likely to succeed'. Such generalizations are, of course, racist and Murray seems to know it. However, far from calling out the racism as a flaw in the authors' work, he makes a big to-do at the start of his essay about how those who object to generalizing groups of people are merely knuckling under to “political correctness”. 

This prelude is critical for Murray to engage in because, by discrediting objections to racism, he seeks permission to wallow in racist viewpoints without the risk of being called a racist. Unfortunately for him, when something quacks like a duck and walks like a duck then it is a duck. Murray immediately makes what he is clear, both through his own views as well as quotes he pulls from The Triple Package. He starts with airing stereotypes: “Jews have been overachievers in the professions”, “blacks became overachievers in sports”, as well as a roundabout remark about how Asians have knack for running dry cleaning businesses and convenience stores. Elsewhere, in more detail: “Chinese keep trying as long as it takes; whites give up before [them]”, “…the Chinese…may have verbal skills that are no higher, or even a bit lower, than European verbal skills”, and “marked differences in the temperament of Chinese and European infants show up as early as the first few days of life.” These are all blatantly racist statements.

Murray attempts to justify his racism with nothing more than the usual racist tripe: “Some groups of Americans are conspicuously better than others in certain things”. That may or may not be, but there is a big difference between making an observation and suggesting that the observation is evidence that an entire group inherently possesses a trait. For example, it's one thing to note that a disproportionate number of incarcerated adults in the United States are black men. It's something else entirely to suggest that this fact means black men are likely to be criminals because they're black men. The former statement is an observation; the latter is racism. No amount of ranting about the ills of political correctness changes this.

Of course, Murray would likely complain that I am taking these quotes out of context and that the authors’ theory is much more complex or nuanced than I allow. However, I would counter that the complexity or nuance of a theory is irrelevant if the components it rests upon are racist. Murray's essay and, as far as I can tell, the assessments of the different ethnic groups in The Triple Package are both based on racism. In other words, the complexity or nuance of a turd doesn’t make it any less a turd.

Murray’s motives for vehemently defending the racism behind the conclusions of The Triple Package is easily explained. During his essay, Murray uses the conclusions to classify himself - and presumable people like him - as possessing the traits that lead to group success. Note that racism’s greatest appeal to racists has always been the ready-made superiority it hands them. This superiority is something they desire yet, apparently, cannot achieve as individuals. I have little doubt Murray’s essay would have read quite differently had The Triple Package concluded white men are a third-rate group, doomed to underachievement.

But I digress. Whatever its cause, Murray’s need to defend the racism in this theory prevents him from remarking upon the obvious flaw in the credibility of Chua and Rubenfeld’s work: that the two ethnic groups the two authors belong to (Jewish and Chinese) just happen to be the ones which they conclude are best suited for success. 

Is there an emoticon for ‘rolling your eyes’? 

Murray's failure to consider this as evidence that The Triple Package might be biased, self-serving, or…just plain comical...renders him a living case study of the folly to which racism leads its adherents. When someone uses racism to judge people, they also use it as proof of their own superiority. Once this is done, critical thinking that questions racist assumptions must be silenced to protect the superiority that is so desperately desired. If Murray chooses such blindness, that is his prerogative. However, for a publication that editor Roger Kimball touts as "providing America's most incisive criticism" to print such drivel destroys his credibility and that of his publication.

As a reader who had enjoyed many articles in The New Criterion, I turned from Murray's essay telling myself that I don’t need to agree with everything a magazine prints in order to find value in reading it. I simply hoped that this vile essay's attempt to dress-up racism was merely an aberration. 

It wasn’t. I soon found that essays of the Swiss cheese variety are a consistent main course in the pages of The New Criterion. Most of the essays follow the same pattern. First, they rant about some political, economic, or social ill, followed by histrionic implications about the doom which draws nigh for America as a result. Then, the entire problem is blamed on President Obama and/or liberal thought. That's it. No solutions are offered, no way forward is presented, no analysis from multiple viewpoints…just a long complaint (what most of us term ‘whining’).

Of course, everyone is free to blame President Obama and/or liberalism for any particular ills that concern them. But to read The New Criterion, one would assume planet Earth could be instantly transformed into a vast Garden of Eden if only we had a Republican president and all liberal thinking were expunged from America. This Swiss cheese is bad enough, but what makes it indigestible is the heavy dose of martyrdom with which it is served. Most of the essays contain tedious lamentations (of varying length) about the agonies of being a conservative in America. Some of the angst is so melodramatic that one wonders if the authors were enduring the pain of healing stigmata as they wrote. While one doesn't like to resort to teenage barbs, ‘drama queen’ is the only term to accurately encapsulate the mentality conveyed by most contributors of political writing in The New Criterion.

The racism - or more accurately - the bigotry in The New Criterion which formed the catalyst for this multi-part post against Islamophobia appeared at the nadir of the magazine's abysmal political and social commentary. The January 2015 issue offered a symposium called "Free Speech Under Threat". A recurring point in the articles of the symposium was a regurgitation of the belief that Islam is a religion of violence and that this explains why Muslims are prone to terrorism. This point of view is bigoted and, as a result, invalid for the same reason Murray’s article was racist. It is certainly true that many of the terrorists we read about are Muslim; however that does not mean that Muslims are more likely to be terrorists because they are Muslim. Anyone who knows even a single Muslim who is not a terrorist - and most people have - can disprove the basis of Islamophobia entirely.

Even more repellent than this blatant bigotry is the conservative-on-the-cross angle associated with it: the symposium claims that free speech is under threat because conservatives are oppressed by an American society that discourages Islamophobia. The authors even go so far as to cast themselves as valiant heroes fighting this 'oppression' by bravely continuing to declare that terrorism is caused by Islam and Muslims. Note that no other possible cause of terrorism is seriously discussed over eight essays and nearly forty pages of text, despite the wide ranging geopolitical underpinnings and motivations for terrorist acts. Nor does anyone seem to recognize that people objecting to Islamophobic views does not represent oppression. Free speech only means you can say what you like; it does not guarantee you that people won't be offended, vehemently disagree with you, call you an ignorant old fart, or consider you a liability in an inclusive society based on the primacy of the individual over the group. 

In the end, after one scrapes away the rhetoric, drama, and admirable vocabulary, the symposium "Free Speech Under Threat" in The New Criterion is a revolting ‘heart of darkness’ of white fear and proudly uninformed emotionalism, crowned with a railing against ‘political correctness’ to justify the knee-jerk bigotry its authors (seriously) offer as the sole tool in analyzing and combating terrorism. To reduce such a difficult, complex subject to a mere opposition to Islam is oversimplification at it’s worst. However, this is exactly what racism and bigotry are designed to do: simplify things. They provide scared people with a way to easily make sense of a difficult situation and avoid pondering complexities or seek tough solutions. Bonus prize: they get someone to aim their fear at in the form of hate.

I really tried to ‘take the best and leave the rest’ with The New Criterion, and there truly are some amazing writers in its pages. However, no amount of fantastic writing or insight about art and culture can justify supporting a magazine that willfully promotes bigotry and racism. I did not finish the January issue, nor will I read any future issues I receive. Needless to say, Mr. Kimball, I will not be renewing my subscription to your loathsome magazine.

Part 3 of this Five-Part Post (“Why Islamophobia is Wrong”) will be added soon

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 1: Introduction

Islamophobia is a kind of bigotry that has exploded in the United States, post-9/11. More recently, Islamic State, Boko Haram, and shootings in Paris, Sydney, and elsewhere have fueled the kind of fear that breeds such bigotry and racism. When times get tough, some people – instead of uniting behind the difficult work of solving problems – choose instead to sit on the sidelines and demonize a group of people. By demonizing Muslims, either directly or through attacks on their religion, bigots can freely vent their frustration and rage (both of which are really just fear). They also free themselves of having to think or deal with the complex problem of fighting terrorism, because they have convinced themselves that the only problems are Muslims and Islam.

The problem with such oversimplification is that it is self-sedation, and it has never worked to solve any challenge humanity has faced. Centuries of race wars, religious wars, and spates of violent nationalism in which bigots and racists demonized groups of people have never once solved anything. In fact, history shows that bigotry and racism only make things worse by adding a layer of hate and violence to already difficult situations, while allowing the real problems to fester unhindered. Racism and bigotry have always been wrong in the final analysis, and actions taken in their name have always wrong. Given this, many people have come to believe racism and bigotry should not be tolerated in any form. I urge people to resist Islamophobia on these grounds.

My five-part post covers several issues that build off each other:
1) Introduction
2) Racism & Islamophobia in The New Criterion (the catalyst for these posts)
3) Why Islamophobia is Wrong
4) The Cause of Terrorism from the Middle East
5) Implications for the United States

Part 2 of this five-part post (“Racism & Islamophobia in The New Criterion”) will be added soon.