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three problems with Islamic society, moderate or otherwise

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As a teacher of English to foreign students, I have a lot of dealing with, mostly male, Moslems. I generally get on very well with them. Religion doesn’t come up as an issue, any more than with my Chinese or Vietnamese students. I’m teaching them English, after all. However, it’s my experience of the views of a fellow teacher, very much a moderate Moslem, that has caused me to write this piece, because those views seem to echo much that I’ve read about online and elsewhere.

  1. Homosexuality

It’s well known that in such profoundly Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, there’s zero acceptance of homosexuality, to the point of claiming it doesn’t exist in those countries. Its ‘non-existence’ may be due to that fact that its practice incurs the death penalty (in Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Iran and Sudan), though such penalties are rarely carried out – except, apparently, in Iran. Of course, killing people in large numbers would indicate that there’s a homosexual ‘problem’. In other Moslem countries, homosexuals are merely imprisoned for varying periods. And lest we feel overly superior, take note of this comment from a very informative article in The Guardian:

Statistics are scarce [on arrests and prosecutions in Moslem countries] but the number of arrests is undoubtedly lower than it was during the British wave of homophobia in the 1950s. In England in 1952, there were 670 prosecutions for sodomy, 3,087 for attempted sodomy or indecent assault, and 1,686 for gross indecency.

This indicates how far we’ve travelled in a short time, and it also gives hope that other nations and regions might be swiftly transformed, but there’s frankly little sign of it as yet. Of course the real problem here is patriarchy, which is always and everywhere coupled with homophobia. It’s a patriarchy reinforced by religion, but I think if we in the west were to try to put pressure on these countries and cultures, I think we’d succeed more through criticising their patriarchal attitudes than their religion.

Having said this, it just might be that acceptance of homosexuality among liberal Moslems outside of their own countries (and maybe even inside them) is greater than it seems to be from the vibes I’ve gotten from the quite large numbers of Moslems I’ve met over the years. A poll taken by the Pew Research Centre has surprised me with its finding that 45% of U.S. Moslems accept homosexuality (in 2014, up from 38% in 2007), more than is the case among some Christian denominations, and the movement towards acceptance aligns with a trend throughout the U.S. (and no doubt all other western nations), among religious and non-religious alike. With greater global communication and interaction, the diminution of poverty and the growth of education, things will hopefully improve in non-western countries as well.

2. Antisemitism and the Holocaust

I’ve been shocked to hear, more than once, Moslems blithely denying, or claiming as exaggerated, the events of the Holocaust. This appears to be a recent phenomenon, which obviously bolsters the arguments of many Middle Eastern nations against the Jewish presence in their region. However, it should be pointed out that Egypt’s President Nasser, a hero of the Moslem world, told a German newspaper in 1964 that ‘no person, not even the most simple one, takes seriously the lie of the six million Jews that were murdered [in the Holocaust]’. More recently Iran has become a particular hotspot of denialism, with former President Ahmadinejad making a number of fiery speeches on the issue. Most moderate Islamic organisations, here and elsewhere in the west, present a standard line that the Shoah was exactly as massive and horrific as we know it to be, but questions are often raised about the sincerity of such positions, given the rapid rise of denialism in the Arab world. Arguably, though, this denialism isn’t part of standard anti-semitism. Responding to his own research into holocaust denialism among Israeli Arabs (up from 28% in 2006 to 40% in 2008), Sammy Smooha of Haifa University wrote this:

In Arab eyes disbelief in the very happening of the Shoah is not hate of Jews (embedded in the denial of the Shoah in the West) but rather a form of protest. Arabs not believing in the event of Shoah intend to express strong objection to the portrayal of the Jews as the ultimate victim and to the underrating of the Palestinians as a victim. They deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state that the Shoah gives legitimacy to. Arab disbelief in the Shoah is a component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unlike the ideological and anti-Semitic denial of the Holocaust and the desire to escape guilt in the West.

This is an opinion, of course, and may be seen as hair-splitting with respect to anti-semitism, but it’s clear that these counterfactual views aren’t helpful as we try to foster multiculturalism in countries like Australia.They need to be challenged at every turn.

Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns holds a rally in front of the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats against Isreal and denial of the Holocaust, Monday, March 13, 2006 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

3. Evolution

While the rejection, and general ignorance, of the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution – more specifically, natural selection from random variation – may not be the most disturbing feature of Islamic society, it’s the one that most nearly concerns me as a person keen to promote science and critical thinking. I don’t teach evolution of course, but I often touch on scientific topics in teaching academic English. A number of times I’ve had incredulous comments on our relationship to apes (it’s more than a relationship!), and as far as I can recall, they’ve all been from Moslem students. I’ve also come across various websites over the years, by Moslem writers – often academics – from Turkey, India and Pakistan whose anti-evolution and anti-Darwin views degenerate quickly into fanatical hate-filled screeds.

I won’t go into the evidence for natural selection here, or an explanation of the theory, which is essential to all of modern biology. It’s actually quite complex when laid out in detail, and it’s not particularly surprising that even many non-religious people have trouble understanding it. What bothers me is that so many Moslems I’ve encountered don’t make any real attempt to understand the theory, but reject it wholesale for reasons not particularly related to the science. They’ve used the word ‘we’ in rejecting it, so that it’s impossible to even get to first base with them. This raises the question of the teaching of evolution in Moslem schools (and of course, not just Moslem schools), and whether and how much this is monitored. One may argue that non-belief in evolution, like belief in a flat earth or other specious ways of thinking, isn’t so harmful given a general scientific illiteracy which hasn’t stopped those in the know from making great advances, but it’s a problem when being brought up in a particular culture stifles access to knowledge, and even promotes a vehement rejection of that knowledge. We need to get our young people on the right page not in terms of a national curriculum but an evidence-based curriculum for all. Evidence has no national boundaries.

Conclusion – the problem of identity politics

 The term identity politics is used in various ways, but I feel quite clear about my own usage here. It’s when your identity is so wrapped up in a political or cultural or religious or class or caste or professional grouping, that it trumps your own independent critical thinking and analysis. The use of ‘we think’ or ‘we believe’, is the red flag for these attitudes, but of course this usage isn’t always overt or conscious. The best and probably only way to deal with this kind of thinking is through constructive engagement, drawing people out of the groupthink intellectual ghetto through argument, evidence and invitations to reconsider (or consider for the first time) and if that doesn’t work, firmness regarding the evidence-based view together with keeping future lines of communications open. They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, and it’s a piece of wisdom that works on a pragmatic and a humane level. And watch out for that firmness, because the evidence is rarely fixed. Education too is important. As an educator, I find that many students are open to the knowledge I have to offer, and are sometimes animated and inspired by it, regardless of their background. The world’s an amazing place, and students can be captivated by its amazingness, if it’s presented with enthusiasm. That can lead to explorations that can change minds. Schools are, or can be, places where identity politics can fragment as peers from different backgrounds can converge and clash, sometimes in a constructive way. We need to watch for and combat the echo-chamber effect of social media, a new development that often reinforces false and counter-productive ideas – and encourages mean-spirited attacks on faceless adversaries. Breaking down walls and boundaries, rather than constructing them, is the best solution. Real interactions rather than virtual ones, and thinking about the background and humanity of the other before leaping into the fray (I’m beginning to sound saintlier than I’ve ever really been – must be the Ha Ji-won influence!)

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Written by stewart henderson

April 19, 2017 at 10:27 am

patriarchy, identity politics and immigration – a few reflections

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Germany. Muslim migrants  being threatening. Note the female presence.

Germany. Muslim migrants being threatening. Note the female presence.

 

A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…

As everyone  knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.

I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.

Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of  her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.

These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.

So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.

So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.

At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.

Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2016 at 9:34 pm

who says women should be modest?

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Does my body look too real in this?

Does my body look too real in this?

The French government is copping lots of flack for its ban on face covering in public, and rightly so, for outright bans are rarely effective, and this one is seen, rightly or wrongly – and probably rightly – as discriminating against Moslem women and the burqas that some of them wear.

However having said that, I’m no fan of the burqa, or any form of dress that sharply divides women from men (I love women in suits, and I wish I had the courage to wear skirts in public – I’m still considering buying one of those kilts I saw advertised on Facebook recently). But the burqa seems particularly regressive, and it’s clearly not a coincidence that it’s an outfit favoured by the Taliban and the Islamist Saudi government. Of course there are many variations of Islamic head-wear for women, but according to the women themselves, from what I’m always hearing, they choose to wear these head trappings as a sign of modesty.

It seems to me that modesty is the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ term for these women, because modesty’s a virtue, and who’d criticise a woman for wanting to be virtuous? However, given that men and women are equal in intelligence and ability, I see no reason whatever for modesty to be a woman-only virtue. So why aren’t men wearing burqas? It isn’t a rhetorical question – I note that there’s a movement in Iran for men to wear hijabs in support of female associates targeted by the government there for being ‘improperly dressed’. Government imposed modesty.

This kind of modesty is of course highly dubious, it’s about not putting yourself forward – for education, for advancement, for leadership. It’s about knowing your circumscribed place. It’s a shame because the term ‘modesty’ has I think a value that has been demeaned by this more recent cultural usage. The modesty I value is where people tend to avoid trumpeting their achievements, however impressive those achievements might be. This kind of modesty is obviously not gender based and surely has nothing to do with head coverings.

However, this modesty-in-women malarky is about more than just trying not to be seen as, or even not to be, a great achiever. It’s about sexual modesty, and that’s what the covering is all about. One of the key features of patriarchy is controlling women’s sexual freedom. It really is about women as objects which need to be hidden from the lusty urges of male subjects, though women themselves are subjects only insofar as they must effectively hide or cover themselves from male appetites, otherwise they’re blameworthy and need to be punished.

So all this stuff about female headcovering is essentially about female sexual control, which is of course most effectively achieved if females internalise the idea and exercise the control themselves, thereby assenting to and bolstering the patriarchy that deprives them of sexual and other freedoms. Banning these head-coverings isn’t the solution,  though it might be necessary in some places for practical purposes. What we need to do is win the intellectual argument against the stifling restrictions of patriarchy, and engage women on the hypocrisy of female sexual modesty where there is a different standard and expectation for males.

men in burqas, not popular in Afghanistan, I wonder why

men in burqas, not popular in Afghanistan, I wonder why

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2016 at 1:12 pm

was the invasion of Iraq justified?

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iraq-war-not-worth-cost.si

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

In 2003 I protested against the impending attack on Iraq, along with so many others, though I don’t like being involved in mass protests, because they tend to over-simplify the response. A lot of the protesters were saying things I didn’t agree with, as is often the case. For example, some were using the national sovereignty argument, which I have little time for. Others were saying that war is always wrong, but I think war can be justified if it results in less harm than non-intervention, though this isn’t always easy to determine. As a humanist, I don’t think national or cultural boundaries should interfere with what we owe, ethically, to others, though I recognise as a pragmatic fact that they often do.

To me, the Iraq invasion has always been a clear-cut case of a criminal act, resulting in a loss of life – hardly unforeseeable – far greater than that suffered by the USA on September 11 2001. Furthermore, the September 11 atrocities, without which the invasion clearly would never have occurred, were in no way connected to the Iraqi regime. In the lead-up to the invasion, at the time of the protests, I was incensed, like others, at the Bush regime’s bullying treatment of the weapons inspectors in Iraq, and Hans Blix in particular, because their findings didn’t fit with the story Washington was trying to sell. This bullying proliferated, of course, to the leaders of major European nations such as France and Germany. The response of the French government to the possibility of war still seemed to me the most sensible and prescient one. In January of 2003, their foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin said ‘We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution’, even though the French government felt at the time that Iraq wasn’t being truthful about WMD. In an impassioned speech to the Security Council only a few weeks later, Villepin spoke of the “incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region”, whose overwhelmingly Moslem inhabitants had sound historical reasons for suspecting and wanting to resist western interventions. He said that “the option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest, but let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace”. He also reported on the intelligence of France and its allies, which failed comprehensively to support links between al-Qaeda and Hussein’s regime. Of course, Villepin’s speech was roundly rejected and disparaged by the US and UK leadership, and the rest is the history we’re making and trying to make sense of today.

I’m returning to the subject for two reasons – a philosophical summary of pacifism and just war theory in a recent issue of Philosophy Now magazine (issue 102), and the views of British leftist but pro-Iraq war writers such as Nick Cohen.

In 2006, a document called the Euston Manifesto was produced in Britain. A leftist document, it was designed to draw the line against what its authors and signatories claimed to be an overly-indulgent, cultural relativist tendency in a large sector of the leftist commentariat. The document focused largely on the positives – upholding human rights, freedom of expression, pluralism, liberalism, historical truth, the heritage of democracy, internationalism and equality. It expressed opposition to tyranny and terrorism, racism, misogyny and censorship. In more specific terms, it supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict and opposed anti-Americanism – though in a somewhat backhanded way:

That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.

This is all outlined in the manifesto’s ‘statement of principles’ (section B), none of which I have any issue with. Section C, ‘elaborations’, addresses the Iraq war, inter alia, and is a little more problematic. Just before the Iraq campaign is dealt with there’s a paragraph on the September 11 attacks, which is uncompromisingly hostile to the view that it could be in any way justified as payback for US policy in the Middle East. Again I completely agree.

The paragraph that follows is interesting, and I will quote it in full, always remembering that it was written in 2006, before the execution of Saddam Hussein, and not long after the first parliamentary elections. Much has changed since then, with Iraqi governments becoming less democratic, and the contours of instability constantly changing.

The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change. We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.

Since this post is precisely about the arguments over intervention, I should say something in justification of my writing it. While we can’t predict precisely the outcome of an intervention or invasion or liberation (words are so important here), there are often broad and quite obvious signs to indicate whether such an event will advantage or disadvantage the targeted population. In analysing these signs we utilise history (or we should do) – that’s to say, we pick through the rubble of previous experiences of intervention. The question of whether the invasion (or whatever you choose to call it) of Iraq was justified is therefore a question about the future as well as the past. How, in the future, and in the present, should we, as humanists, deal with oppressive, reactionary, murderous regimes, such as exist today in North Korea, in Myanmar, and in the wannabe state of ‘the caliphate’? Not to mention so many other dictatorial regimes whose likely ‘murderousness’ is hard to get data on, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Asian and African tyrannies large and small.

I also have a quibble with the view that all good liberal leftists, regardless of their position before the war, should jump on board with the invaders to ‘remake’ Iraq into a democracy. The obvious problem with this view is that many of the anti-war protesters were concerned, and deeply so, that the reason for the invasion wasn’t democracy-building. The stated reason for the invasion, after all, was a defensive one; getting rid of WMDs to make the world a safer place. Other reasons were suspected, including simple restoration of US pride, and economic exploitation. The bullishness of the invasion rhetoric didn’t sound much like an attempt at democracy-building.

But I think the overwhelming reason for this deep concern  –  it was certainly my concern – was the suffering and harm that the invasion and aftermath would inflict on the people of Iraq. Nations invaded by foreigners tend to fight back, regardless of how much of a basket case the invaders think the nation is. This is even more the case when the ‘liberators’ are seen as having values antithetical to the target nation. Think of the consternation caused by the threatened invasion of England by the Spanish in the 1580s, or the French in the early 1800s, surely mild compared to that felt by the overwhelmingly Moslem Iraqis, fed for decades on tales of western decadence and double-dealing. An invasion would be fought bitterly, Hussein or no Hussein, and democracy isn’t the sort of thing to be imposed from above. So it’s understandable that those opposed to the invasion, and crushed by their failure to stop it, didn’t rush to join hands with those whose motives they so distrusted in an enthusiastic experiment in nation-restructuring.

I’m no pacifist,  and I’m concerned and demoralised by brutal dictatorships everywhere – many of which we know little about. I would like to see interventions wherever murder and oppression are the weapons of state control, but that’s a big ask, and where do we start, and how do we do it? Warfare is one of the most problematic options, but will a siege of sanctions be effective? A united, internationalist front which will offer credible threats – desist and democratise or else? And should we start with the tinpot dictatorships and work our way up to the giants? Which leads back to the question, why Iraq in the first place?

Muddled motives and intentions lead inevitably to muddled and contradictory outcomes. Indeed the stated motive for the intervention, dismantling WMDs and making the rest of the world a safer place, didn’t consider the Iraqi people directly at all. On that basis alone, the war could hardly be justified, because it was clear that even if Hussein’s weapons existed, they were not an imminent threat, with the dictator doing everything in his power to placate the west. Hussein was brutal and nasty, but his instinct for self-preservation was paramount, and it was clear in the last days of his regime that he was saving his sabre-rattling for his domestic audience while bending over backwards to comply with international demands.

One argument being put at the time was that anything was better than Saddam. But is this really the case? Consider two polar scenarios; a failed state in which there are no government regulations, and no police or legal institutions, an anarchic free-for-all; or a rigid dictatorship in which freedom is highly circumscribed and much that we value in life is sacrificed just for survival. Which is better? Well, with that very slight sketch it’s impossible to judge, but neither is very palatable. In the case of Iraq it would be comparing a ‘known’ with an ‘unknown’. The result of deposing Saddam was unknown and poorly planned for, but clearly it would unleash violent forces, and we knew from organisations such as Human Rights Watch that the day-to-day dictatorship, though repressive, wasn’t murderous at the time of the invasion.

My concern then, was saving lives, or more broadly, minimising harm. One thing I’ve always loathed is the ‘big picture’ politics of certain world leaders who like to redraw maps and bring down regimes with grand strategies, with very little thought to the ordinary struggles for survival, the lives and loves of people who suffer the consequences of those grand plans – including death and destruction. Of course, harm minimisation is fiendishly difficult to quantify when you’re talking about such variables as freedom and opportunity, but at least we can try. Just war theory might help us with some guidelines.

Duane Cady, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at Hamline University, Minnesota, provides a two-part outline of just war theory as currently understood. I’ll focus only on the first part, which seeks to answer the question – When is it justified to go to war?

Going to war justly requires meeting 6 conditions:

1. The war must be made on behalf of a just cause

2. The decision to go to war must be made by proper authorities

3. Participants must have a good intention rather than revenge or greed as their goal

4. It must be likely that peace will emerge after the war

5. Going to war must be a last resort

6.  The total amount of evil resulting from making war must be outweighed by the good likely to come of it.

I hardly need to go into detail to show that a number of these conditions were not met in the case of the Iraq venture, but I’ll briefly discuss each one.

For condition 1, if WMDs were the cause, then it wasn’t just, as there weren’t any, and the best intelligence showed this. Other causes, such as getting rid of a despot, bringing about democracy, lead to the question – why Iraq? Why not Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Why pick on any Middle Eastern country where western interference would be fiercely combatted?

For condition 2, there are supposed to be strict rules regarding such decisions, though of course they’re unenforceable. In September 2004, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan declared the Iraq invasion illegal from the point of view of the UN’s charter, presumably because of insufficient numbers in the Security Council agreeing to it. If you consider the UN the proper authority to make such final decisions – and if not what would be? – then condition 2 hasn’t been met.

Condition 3 goes to intentions, which might be muddled or concealed. My view is that revenge, or wounded pride, had much to do with it on the US side. People may disagree, but nobody can seriously argue that the Bush administrations’s intentions were clear and humane.

Condition 4 gives no timeline. ‘After’ is a long time, and peace might achieved at the cost of maximal loss of life. The condition is a little too vague to be useful. Certainly, a quick peace looked highly unlikely, and I think that was a major concern of protesters worldwide.

Condition 5 clearly wasn’t met. The term ‘last resort’ infers something else – a last resort before x occurs, that x being something catastrophic and to be avoided at all costs. Whether there was an x in Iraq’s case is highly questionable.

In the long view, I think, or fervently hope, condition 6 will be met, but that’s only because I’m a ‘better angels of our nature’ advocate, and anyway the lack of a time-frame attached to the condition renders it essentially meaningless. Is Europe now more humane and peaceful as a result of the Thirty Years’ War? To what degree is our greater tolerance of diversity a direct result of the Nazis’ homogenising race policies? There’s no doubt that the most horrible wars can result in massive lessons learnt, leading to accelerated positive outcomes, but that in no way justifies them.

 

So, okay, the Iraq war was a disaster. However, I thoroughly agree with Alex Garland, the writer and film-maker, who referred briefly to the war in   a recent Point of Inquiry interview. It’s too late to wonder about whether the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and it was essentially too late even when the protests began in 2003, as it had a horrible inevitability about it. Trying to work out the consequences, to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives, and to take responsibility for those consequences, is much more important. Particular nations, including Australia, imposed this invasion on the Iraqi people. Those nations, above all, should take most of the responsibility for the consequences. I don’t think that’s really happening at the moment.

Written by stewart henderson

May 30, 2015 at 10:53 am

the rise of the nones, or, reasons to be cheerful (within limits)

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This is a presentation based on a couple of graphs.

The rise of the nones, that is, those who answer ‘none’ when asked about their religious affiliation in surveys and censuses, has been one of the most spectacular and often unheralded, developments of the last century in the west. It has been most spectacular in the past 50 years, and it appears to be accelerating.

The rise of the nones in Australia

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This graph tells a fascinating story about the rise of the nones in Australia. It’s a story that would I think, share many features with other western countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, but also the UK and most Western European nations, though there would be obvious differences in their Christian make-up.

The graph comes from the Australian Census Bureau, and it presents the answers given by Australians to the religious question in the census in every year from 1901 to 2011. The blue bar represents Anglicans. In the early 20th century, Anglicanism was the dominant religion, peaking in 1921 at about 43% of the population. Its decline in recent years has been rapid. English immigration has obviously slowed in recent decades, and Anglicanism is on the nose now even in England. In 2011, only 17% of Australians identified as Anglicans.  The decline is unlikely to reverse itself, obviously.

The red striped bar represents Catholics – I’ll come to them in a moment. The grey hatched bar represents devotees of other Christian denominations. In the last census, just under 19% of Australians were in that category, and the percentage is declining. The category is internally dynamic, however, with Uniting Church, Presbyterian and Lutheran believers dropping rapidly and Pentecostals very much on the rise.

The green hatched bar represents the nones, first represented in 1971, when the option of saying ‘none’ was first introduced. This was as a result of pressure from the sixties censuses – that seminal decade – when people were declaring that they had no religion even when there was no provision in the census to do so. Immediately, as you can see, a substantial number of nones ‘came out’ in the 71 census, and the percentage of ‘refuseniks’ (the purple bar) was almost halved. But then in the 76 census, the percentage of refuseniks doubled again, while the percentage of nones increased. The Christians were the ones losing out, a trend that has continued to the present. Between 1996 and 2006 the percentage of self-identifying Christians dropped from 71% to 64% – a staggering drop in 10 years. The figure now, after the 2011 census, is down to 61%. If this trend continues, the percentage of Christians will drop below 50% by the time of the 2031 census. Of course predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.

One thing is surely certain, though. Whether or not the decline in Christianity accelerates, it isn’t going to be reversed. As Heinrich von Kleist put it, ‘When once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence’.

The situation after the 2011 census is that 22.3% of Australia’s population are nones, the second biggest category in the census. Catholics are the biggest with 25.3%, down from 26% in 2006 (and about 26.5% in 2001). The nones are on track to be the biggest category after the next census, or the one after that. Arguably, though, it’s already the biggest category. The refusenik category in the last census comprised 9.4%, of which at least half could fairly be counted as nones, given that the religious tend to want to be counted as such. That would take the  nones up to around 27%. An extraordinary result for a category first included only 40 years ago.

Let me dwell briefly on this extraordinariness. As you can see, in the first three censuses presented in this graph, the percentage of professed Christians was in the high nineties. That’s to say, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, virtually everyone one identified as Christian. This represents the arse-end of a scenario that persisted for a thousand years, dating back to the 9th and 10h centuries when the Vikings and the last northern tribes were converted from paganism. We are witnessing nothing less than the death throes of Christianity in the west. Of course, we’re only at the beginning, and it will be, I’m sure, a long long death agony. Catholicism still has an iron grip in South America, in spite of the scandals it’s failing to deal with, and it’s making headway in Africa. But in its heartland, in its own backyard, its power is greatly diminished, and their’s no turning back.

The rise of the nones worldwide

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But there’s an even more exciting story to tell here. The rise of the nones isn’t simply a rejection of Christianity, it’s a rejection of religion. And with that I’ll go to my second graph. This shows that the nones, at 750 million, have risen quickly to be the fourth largest religious category after Christians, 2.2 billion, Moslems, 1.6 billion, and Hindus, 900 million. These numbers represent substantial proportions of the populations of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the USA and western Europe, as well as nations outside the Christian tradition, such as China and Japan. Never before in human history has this been the case.

One thing we know about the early civilisations is that they were profoundly religious. The Sumerians of the third millennium BCE, the earliest of whom we have records, worshipped at least four principal gods, Anu, Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki. These, as well as the Egyptian god Amon Ra, are among the oldest gods we can be certain about, but it’s likely that some of the figurines and statues recovered by archaeologists, such as the 23,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, represented deities.

Why was religion so universal in earlier times?

We don’t know if the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians and Indus Valley civilisations were universally religious, but it’s likely that they were – because supernatural agency offered the best explanation for events that couldn’t be explained otherwise. And there were an awful lot of such events. Why did the crop fails this time?  Why has the weather changed so much? Why did my child sicken and die? Why has this plague been visited upon our people? Why did that nearby mountain blow its top  and rain fire and burning rocks down on us?

Even today, in our insurance policies, ‘acts of god’ – a most revealing phrase – are mentioned as those unforeseen events that insurers are reluctant to provide cover for. Nowadays, when some fundie describes the Haitian earthquake or Hurricane Katrina as a deliberate act of a punishing god, we laugh or feel disgusted, but this was a standard response to disasters in earlier civilisations. Given our default tendency to attribute agency when in doubt – a very useful evolutionary trait – and our ancestors’ lack of knowledge about human origins, disease, climate, natural disasters, etc, it’s hardly surprising that they would assume that non-material paternal/maternal figures, resembling the all-powerful and often capricious beings who surrounded us in our young years, and whose ways are ever mysterious, would be the cause of so many of our unlooked-for joys and miseries.

Why has that universality flown out the window?

It’s hardly surprising then that the rise of the nones in the west coincides with the rising success and the growing explanatory power of science. For the nones, creation myths have been replaced by evolution, geology and cosmology, sin has been replaced by psychology, and a judging god has been replaced by the constabulary and the judiciary. I don’t personally believe that non-believers are morally superior to believers because we ‘know how to be good without god’. We’ve just transferred our fear of god to our fear of the CC-TV cameras – as well as fear for our reputations in the new ultra-connected ‘social hub’.

It’s obvious though that the scientific challenge to ye olde Acts of God is very uneven wordwide. In the more impoverished and heavily tribalised parts of Africa, India, China and the Middle East, the challenge is virtually non-existent. Furthermore, it’s a very new challenge even in the west. To take one example, our understanding of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity has greatly increased in recent times through advances in technology and also in theory, most notably tectonic plate theory. This theory was first advanced in the early 20th century by Alfred Wegener amongst others, but it didn’t gain general scientific acceptance until the sixties and didn’t penetrate to the general public till the seventies and eighties. Even today in many western countries if you ask people about plate tectonics they’ll shrug or give vague accounts. And if you think plate tectonics is simple, have a look at any scientific paper about it and you’ll soon realise otherwise. Of course the same goes for just about any scientific theory. Science is a hard slog, while the idea of acts of god comes to us almost as naturally as breathing.

In spite of this science is beginning to win the challenge, due to a couple of factors. First and foremost is that the scientific approach, and the technology that has emerged from it, has been enormously successful in transforming our world. Second, our western education system, increasingly based on critical thinking and questioning, has undermined religious concepts and has given us the self-confidence to back our own judgments and to emerge from the master-slave relationships religion engenders. The old god of the gaps is finding those gaps narrowing, though of course the gaps in many people’s minds are plenty big enough for him to hold court there for the term of their natural lives.

The future for the nones

While there’s little doubt that polities such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union will become increasingly less religious, and that other major polities such as China and Japan are unlikely to ‘find’ religion in the future, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that any of the major religions are going to disappear in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren. Africa and some parts of Asia will continue to be fertile hunting grounds for the two major proselytising religions, and Islam has as firm a hold on the Middle East as Catholicism has on Latin America. If you’re looking at it in terms of numbers, clearly the fastest growing parts of the world are also the most religious. But of course it’s not just a numbers game, it’s also about power and influence. In all of the secularising countries, including the USA, it’s the educated elites that are the most secular. These are the people who will be developing the technologies of the future, and making decisions about the future directions of our culture and our education.  So, yes, reasons to be cheerful for future generations. I look forward to witnessing the changing scene for as long as I can

Iraq, ten years on

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I protested against the Iraq war ten years ago, but as always with my sceptical tendencies and my need to have a worked-out, informed position, I had qualms about simply joining the anti-war crowd. Getting rid of Saddam would surely be a good thing, but that wasn’t the motive of the US administration. They were talking about WMD and trying to make a connection – quite ludicrously – between Iraq and September 11. And they were clearly bullying the UN reps who were reporting no hint of WMD, and the UN Security Council nations who opposed war. What’s more, the US push had little to do with humanitarianism, and much to do with the restoration of national pride after a fall, an absolutely appalling reason for a militarily mighty nation to declare war on a much smaller one. The outcome was a foregone conclusion and the cost to the Iraqi people would surely be enormous.

But that was my dilemma. Saddam’s dictatorship was obviously hurting the Iraqi people, though some more than others (and I didn’t really know too much about the ethnic, regional, economic and religious differences within the country and how they aligned with Saddam). Could an intervention manage to topple Saddam as bloodlessly as possible, and replace him with something more generally liberating for the Iraqi people? I thought not, even with the most meticulous international planning. And of course, there’s no such thing as meticulous international planning, and I hold little hope that there ever will be.

So, though, I believe in the, probably hopelessly idealistic, humanistic notion of humanitarian intervention to rid any nation or region of oppressive government, and though I have little respect for the notion of the inviolability of national sovereignty, being humanistically anti-nationalist, I recognised pretty clearly that the planned invasion of Iraq would do more harm than good. Of course I didn’t recognise at the time just how much harm it would do.

So just how much harm has it done? Just last week, in my adult English class, I talked to my students, apropos of the coming Australian election, about the politics of their own countries. One of those students was from Iraq. Her words were – ‘before, Saddam in power, bad person, but country not so bad. Now, after war, everything bad. No safe, all fighting, economy, all bad. All destroyed. Terrible.’

It was an assessment that confirmed my suspicions, but of course somewhat lacking in detail, and for all I know quite incorrect. So let’s have a bit more of a look-see. I’ll base much of what I write here on the three-hour BBC documentary aired recently.

That documentary starts with Bush’s simple-minded post-September 11 us-and-them pronouncement, ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorists’, and then takes us to communications between the US and Iraqi governments. The US was demanding a complete falling-in-line with their position, it appears. They were asking, ‘are you going to fully co-operate with us against al-Qa’ida?’ Saddam’s response, according to an Iraqi intelligence agent, was ‘America isn’t the only country to suffer terrorism. The sanctions on Iraq are also terrorism.’ He also said that these sanctions had killed far more people in Iraq than died in the US on September 11. He may well have been right, but he conveniently omitted his own role in bringing those sanctions about, and I’ve no doubt that he would’ve manipulated the sanctions and their impact for his own propaganda purposes.

The point is that his response to the US administration wasn’t grovelling enough, and the Bush team used this as an excuse to target him. Ten years later, some 170,000 Iraqis are dead (the figures are of course notoriously rubbery) and their families devastated, Baghdad remains a hell-hole, and the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, has assumed quasi-dictatorial powers and has been acting against the Sunni minority, within his own government and within the country, in order to suppress sectarian violence. This hasn’t been hugely successful, and I think it’s fair to say that the Iraq of today is neither peaceful nor particularly democratic, though earlier this year Maliki’s opponents managed to get a law passed banning him from seeking a third term in office. Maliki has been PM since 2006, having been re-elected in 2010.

So what was it all for? The war brought al-Qa’ida into Iraq, where it hadn’t been before. It unleashed terrible sectarian forces within the country, as well as creating huge anti-US and anti-western resentment. You could say it has led to an uncertain Iraqi future, but that would be unfair, since that was also the situation under Saddam. The war would have cost the US a fortune, though I’m sure that many Americans ripped their own fortunes out of the Iraqi economy during that time. About 4,500 US soldiers were killed during the invasion and occupation, and none of their objectives have been met. The world is not safer because of it, quite obviously, and Iraqis are certainly not safer for it. The main lesson to be learned from it is a lesson that never does get learned – don’t intervene in a nation’s affairs (or a region’s affairs) unless you’re sure that the outcome won’t be worse than the situation that caused you to intervene.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized that this is something you can never know for sure, and could therefore be used as an excuse for never intervening anywhere, but generally you can have a good idea, and you can plan for an outcome. In fact, it’s highly irresponsible not to, especially when human lives are at stake. The Bush administration seems to have had very little interest in the outcome of its intervention. Was it interested in establishing a democracy in Iraq? Seriously? Could it possibly be so utterly devoid of realism? It seems to me obvious that it had never given the outcome that much thought. The intervention in Iraq was, as I’ve said, about restoring US prestige after September 11. Invading Afghanistan and ousting the Taliban (or half-ousting them) wasn’t enough of a muscle-flexer, something had to be done on a bigger stage. The Iraqi people, if they were ever considered at all, were treated as if they would be just like Americans. They’d all hate living under a dictatorship, they’d all embrace democracy whenever they got the chance – maybe they’d even become a new Christian outpost in the Middle East. As for the Sunni-Shia problem, the Kurdish problem and all the other sectarian issues, the lack of secular political institutions, the absence of any real history of democracy and so forth, all of these were barely considered.

It was irresponsibility on a massive scale, but the question is – was it criminal? Listening to Tony Blair talking in the documentary about – and this is a direct quote – having ‘taken the view that we needed to remake the Middle East’, as if it was a piece of plasticine, shows breathtaking naivete, hubris and insensitivity (think of who the ‘we’ is here), but on the face of it, it hardly sounds criminal. After all, Blair is a ‘good guy’, unlike the bad guys of al-Qa’ida. He’s not out to kill as many infidels as possible so as to be a hero to his people. He genuinely wanted to help the Iraqi people, I’m sure, but in doing so he chose to minimise their nature, or to recast them, essentially, as western liberal democrats. I’m sure that he would argue that he wasn’t under-estimating the task, but the fact is, that’s exactly what he was doing. Underestimating the task and the cost to the – completely unconsulted – inhabitants of the region.

Heads of state, especially of powerful states, have an enormous responsibility, which carries with it extra accountability. History is an account of heads of state, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan to Adolph Hitler, using their power to conquer or reshape massive, and massively populated regions of the world, with little regard for the local inhabitants. In earlier times, this was just the way of the world – if you and your family were in the way of the Viking or Mongol or Nazi invaders, bad luck. But times have changed, and we now have terms like genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, to consider, and we have – admittedly fledgling – institutions such as the International Criminal Court, to render justice to those ‘inconvenienced’ by the mayhem involved in the remaking or reshaping of particular regions of the globe.

Iraq has been pretty well wrecked by the needless intervention of western powers in the last ten years. I would say that 200,000 avoidable deaths would be a conservative estimate, and that’s just the pointy end of the mess. Possibly as many as 2 million have been displaced. Nobody has been held accountable and western leaders are still telling bare-faced lies about the impact of the invasion. Just last month the death toll from fighting in Iraq was 1,057 – the biggest monthly death toll in 5 years. The descent into civil war looks inevitable.

The most powerful countries don’t want a bar of the ICC, they prefer to have a free hand for their reshaping and remaking, but if the behaviour of the decision-makers who created this bloody debacle isn’t criminal, I can only scratch my head and wonder what the word ‘criminal’ actually means.

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2013 at 11:41 am

on transcendental constructions: a critique of Scott Atran

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Some years ago, when watching some of the talks and debates in the first ‘Beyond Belief’ conference at the Salk Institute, I noted some tension between Sam Harris and his critique of religion generally and Islam in particular, and Scott Atran, an anthropologist, who appeared to be quite contemptuous of Harris’s views. Beyond noting the tension, I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time, but I’ve decided now to look at this issue more closely because I’ve just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s powerful book Infidel, which gives an insider’s informed and critical view of Islam, particularly from a woman’s perspective, and I’ve also listened to Chris Mooney’s Point of Inquiry interview with Atran back in April, shortly after the Boston marathon bombing.

The interview, called ‘What makes a terrorist?’ was mainly about the psychology of the more recent batch of terrorists, but in the latter half, Atran responded to a question about the role of Islam specifically in recent terrorist behaviour. It’s this response I want to examine, not so much in the light of Sam Harris’s contrasting views, but in comparison to those of Hirsi Ali.

In bringing up the role of Islam in terrorism, Chris Mooney cites Sam Harris as pointing out that ‘there’s something about Islam today that is more violent’. Atran’s immediate response is that ‘this is such a complex and confused issue’, then he says that ‘religions are fairly neutral vessels’. This idea that religions, especially those that survive over time, have a degree of neutrality to them, has some truth, and in fact it served as the basis for my critique of Melvyn Bragg’s absurd claims that Christianity and the KJV Bible were largely responsible for feminism, democracy and the anti-slavery movement. But there is a limit to this ‘neutrality’. Religions are clearly not so ‘neutral’, morally or culturally, that they’re interchangeable with each other. Fundamentalist, or ultra-orthodox, or ultra-conservative Judaism is not the same as its Islamic or Christian counterparts. In fact, far from it. And yet these three religions ostensibly share the same deity.

The interaction between religion and culture is almost impenetrably complex. I wrote about this years ago in an essay about traditional Australian Aboriginal religion/culture, in which it’s reasonable to say that religion is culture and culture is religion. In such a setting, apostasy would be meaningless or impossible – essentially a denial of one’s own identity. Having said that, if your religion, via one of its principal texts, tells you that apostasy is punishable by death, you’ve already got a yawning separation between religion and cultural identity – the very reason for the excessive threat of punishment is to desperately try to plug that gap. It’s like the desperate cry of a father – ‘you’ll never amount to anything without me!’ – as the son walks out the door for the last time.

These major religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are embedded in texts that are embedded in culture. Different, varied texts interacting complexly – reinforcing, challenging, altering the culture from whence they sprung. Differently. Judaism’s major text, always arguably, is the Torah. Christianity’s is the New Testament, or is it the gospels? Islamic scholars – but also those believers who rarely ever read the sacred texts – will argue about which texts are most important and why. Nevertheless, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have a different feel to them from each other, even given the enormous variation within each religion. Judaism is profoundly insular, with its chosen people uniquely flayed by their demanding, unforgiving god. Christianity is profoundly other-worldly with its obsession with the saviour, the saved, the end of days, the kingdom to come, the soul struggling for release, not to mention sin sin sin. Islam, a harsh, desert religion, somehow even more than the other two, is about denial, control, submission, and jihad in all its complex and contradictory manifestations and interpretations. The status of women in each religion, in a general sense, is different. Christianity gives women the most ‘wriggle-room’ from the start, but its interaction with the different cultures captured by the religion can sometimes open up that space, or close it down. The New Testament presents a patriarchal culture of course, but in the gospels women aren’t given too bad a rap. Paul of Tarsus notoriously displays some misogyny elsewhere in the NT, but it isn’t particularly specific and no detailed restrictions on women’s freedom are presented. More importantly, the dynamism of western culture has blown away many attempts to maintain the restrictions on women’s freedom dictated by Christian dogma – pace the Catholic Church. In any case, Christianity has no equivalent to Sharia Law, with its deity-given restrictions and overall fearfulness of the freedom and power of women. And neither Christianity nor Islam has the obsession with ritual and with interpretation of the deity’s very peculiar requirements that orthodox Judaism has.

To return, though, to Atran. He argues that the reason the big religions survive and thrive is precisely due to their lack of fixed propositions – which is why, he says, that we need sermons to continually update and modernise the interpretations of texts, parables, suras and the like. I’m not sure if the Khutbas of Moslem Imams serve the same purpose as priests’ sermons, but I generally agree with Atran here. The point, of course, is that though there is much leeway for interpretation, there are still boundaries, and the boundaries are different for Islam compared to Christianity, etc.

What follows is my analysis of what Atran has to say about what are, in fact, very complex and contentious matters relating to religion and social existence. Whole books could be, and of course are, devoted to this, so I’ll try not to get too bogged down. I’m using my own transcript of Atran’s interview with Mooney, slightly edited. Occasionally I can’t quite make out what Atran is saying, as he sometimes talks softly and rapidly, but I’ll do my best.

So, after his slightly over-simplified claim that these big religions are ‘neutral vessels’, Atran goes on with his definition. These religions are:

… moral frameworks that provide a transcendental moral foundation for large groups coalescing – for how else do you get genetic relatives to form large co-operative groups? They don’t have to be necessarily religious today, but it involves transcendental ideas. Take human rights, for example, that’s a crazy idea. Two hundred and fifty years ago a bunch of intellectuals in Europe decided that providence or nature made all human beings equal, endowed by their creator with rights to liberty and happiness, when the history of 200,000 years of human life had been mostly cannibalism, infanticide, murder, the suppression of minorities and women, and so [through the wars?] and social engineering, they took this crackpot idea and made it real.

I have a few not so minor quibbles to make here. Presumably Atran is using the term ‘transcendental’ in the way that I would use the term “over-arching’ – a much more neutral, and if you like, secular term. The trouble is – and he uses this term often throughout the interview – Atran uses ‘transcendental’ with deliberate rhetorical intent, taking advantage of its massive semantic load to undercut various secular concepts, in this case the ‘crackpot’ concept of human rights.

This isn’t to say that Atran objects to human rights. My guess is that he regards it as a somewhat arbitrary and unlikely concept, invented by a bunch of European intellectuals in the Enlightenment era, that just happened to catch on, and a good thing too. That’s not how I see it. It’s just much much more complex than that. So much so that I hesitate to even begin to explore it here. The germ of the concept goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and it involves the increasingly systematic study of human history, and human psychology. It involves the science of evolution, and it involves pragmatic global developments in commerce and diplomacy. Eighteenth century Enlightenment ideas had a catalytic effect, as did many developments of the scientific enlightenment of the previous century, as did the growth of democratic ideas and the concept of systematic universal education and health-care in the nineteenth century, in the west.

My point is that, though I have no problems with calling human rights a convenient fiction – nobody ‘really’ has rights as such – it’s based on a this-worldly (i.e. non-transcendental) understanding of how both individuals and societies flourish and thrive, in terms of the contract or compromise between them.

Atran goes on:

But, in general, societies that have unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions win out over those that don’t –  I mean, Darwin talked about it as moral virtue, and said that this is responsible for the kind of patriotism, sympathy and loyalty that makes certain tribes win out over other tribes in […] competition for dominance and survival, and again, without these transcendental ideas people can’t really be blinded to [exit strategies], I mean, societies that are based on social contracts, no matter how good they are, the idea that there’s always a better deal down the line makes them liable to collapse, while these societies are much less prone to that. And there are all sorts of other things associated with these sorts of unverifiable propositions.

Presumably these ‘unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions’ are religions, and I’ve no great objection to that characterisation, but I’m not so convinced about the positive value for ‘dominance and survival’ of these constructions. One could argue that my kind of scepticism can only flourish in a secure environment such as we have in the west, where such ‘undermining’ values as anti-nationalism and atheism can’t threaten the social cohesion of our collective prosperity and sense of superiority to non-western notions. There are just no ‘better deals down the line’, except maybe more health, wealth and happiness, commitment to which requires the very opposite of an ‘exit strategy’. In other words, western ‘social contract’ societies, in which religious belief is rapidly diminishing (outside the US), are showing no sign of collapsing, because there is no meaningful exit strategy, unless a delusional one. There is no desire or motivation to exit. We’re largely facing our demons and rejecting overly ‘idealistic’ solutions.

Perhaps my meaning will be clearer when we look at more of Atran’s remarks:

So now, the propositions, these things themselves can be interpreted, however, depending on the political and social climate of the age. Islam has been interpreted in ways that were extremely progressive at one time, and at least parts of it are extremely retrogressive, especially as concerns science for example, the position of women in the world, especially parts of it in many countries it’s extremely retrograde. But, Islam itself, I mean does it have some essence that encourages this kind of crazy violence? No, not at all – that truly is absurd, and just false.

Atran’s becoming a bit incoherent here, and maybe he expresses himself better elsewhere, but his base argument is that there’s no ‘essence’ to Islam which renders it more violent than other religions, or transcendental constructions (eg communism or fascism) for that matter. He overplays his hand, I think, when he claims that this is ‘absurd’ and obviously false. We could call this ‘the argument from petulance’. Islam does have some essential differences, I think, which makes it more able to act against women and against scientific ideas, though I agree that this is a matter of degree, and that it’s very complex. For example, the growth of Catholicism in Africa has combined with certain aspects of tribal culture and patriarchy to make African Catholic spokesmen very outspoken against homosexuality – and a recent local television program had a Moslem leader speaking up in favour of gay marriage. So, yes, there is nothing fixed in stone about Islam or Christianity with respect to human values.

The thing is that, for writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I suspect Sam Harris too, the question of ‘essentialism’ is largely academic, for right here and right now people are being targeted by Moslems (under the pressure of cultural connections or disconnections), because they are apostates, or critics, or women trying to get an education, or women dressing too ‘immodestly’, and this is causing great tension, even to the point of death and destruction here and there. In fact, Hirsi Ali, in calling for an enlightenment in the Moslem world, is backing a non-essentialist view. It’s the culture that has to change, but of course religion, with its transcendentalist, eternalist underpinnings, acts as a strong brake against cultural transformation. To engage in the battle for moderation is to battle for this-wordly, evidence-based thinking on human flourishing, against transcendentalist ideas of all kinds.

Atran, I think, relies too heavily on his notion of ‘transcendental constructions’, which he uses too widely and sweepingly, even with a degree of smugness. Let me provide one more quote from his interview, with some final comments.

But again, I don’t see anything about Islam itself… you need some kind of transcendental ideal to get people to sacrifice for genetic strangers, for these large groups. Religion is the best thing that human history has come up with, but there are other competing transcendental notions of which democratic liberalism, human rights, communism, fascism, are others, and right now the democratic-liberal-human rights thing is predominant in a large part of the world and it’s a salvation [……..] and people don’t want that or feel left in the driftwood of globalisation, they are looking for something else to give them equal power and significance.

Methinks Atran might’ve been spending too much time in the study of religious/transcendental ideas – he’s seeing everything though that perspective. I myself have written about democracy, in its various manifestations, from a sceptical perspective many times, and I’ve been critical of the over-use of the concept of rights, and so forth. It’s true enough that people can take these concepts, along with fascism or communism, to a transcendental level, making of them an unquestionable given for ‘right living’ or ‘a decent society’, but they can also be taken pragmatically and realistically, reasonably, as the most serviceable approaches to a well-functioning social order. Social evolution is moving quickly, and we can make sacrifices for genetic strangers, based on our growing understanding, as humans, of our common genetic inheritance. We’re not so much genetic strangers, perhaps, as we once thought ourselves to be. Indeed, it’s this growing understanding, a product of science, that is expanding our circle of connection beyond even the human. We need to promote this understanding as much as we can, in the teeth of transcendentalist, eternalist, other-worldly ideas about submission to deities, heavenly rewards and spiritual superiority.