January 29, 2004

2 Qutb 5b

In the second century before Christ, Polybius, a Greek who had lived among the Romans, wrote a history of the Republic in the hope of explaining to his countrymen -- of making explicable the inexplicable -- why it was, precisely, that the Romans had surpassed the Greeks, and dominated the world. Much of the work has been lost; much of the rest survives in summaries of later editors rather than in Polybius' own words, but even with those limitations, the edition that survives provides us with much useful information on Roman martial practices, diplomacy, culture and character. One passage, that survives in summary form, deals with the Roman government, noting that it combined the three main forms the merits of which Greek philosophers had debated for a few centuries -- tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Polybius, who was an enthusiast for the Roman constitution (he mistakenly believed it would last in the form he found it for centuries; within one hundred years of his writing, a military dictatorship and then a hereditary empire replaced it), argued that the Romans had the best of all three worlds -- that its consuls, senate and assemblies of voters allowed for executive decision, the deliberation and caution of the upper classes, and responsiveness to the common citizen. The Founding Fathers (particularly Madison, as I recall) were heavily influenced by Polybius's ideas when drafting the Constitution.

I got to thinking of Polybius when reading the fifth chapter of Qutb's Milestones, largely by way of contrast. Given my limited familiarity with Qutb's works, perhaps I'm being unfair, but one of the rather surprising things about Qutb is how disinterested he seems in the mechanics of government. In Social Justice in Islam, he offers ten or twelve specific actions that governments can take to make themselves more Islamist -- some are what you might expect (making the Zakat the basis of the tax and welfare system), while others are scarcely distinguishable from the programs of Arab nationalist governments (or European, Latin American or Asian leftist governments) like nationalizing key industries and natural resources. In both Social Justice and Milestones, Qutb expresses a desire for modern Muslim societies to emulate the companions--the generation of believers who followed the Prophet--and (if I recall correctly) three of the first four rightly guided Caliphs. Oddly enough, he hardly notes how those Caliphs were chosen (by acclamation, a sort of voice vote of the faithful -- or at least the male faithful). Qutb never explains how a caliph would be chosen for the modern era -- in a single country of tens of millions of inhabitants, how would that be done? Would the caliph simply be chosen by Qutb's vanguard (which owes absolute loyalty to its leadership)? Would there be a vote, and, if so, who would vote? What about the Shoura, the council of respected leaders who act as a sort of cabinet and consultative body? Whose respect would they have to earn -- the leadership, or that of the faithful? And what about the clerics who would rule on court cases according to the sharia? Suppose the caliph promulgated a law which a cleric ruled went against the sharia -- how would that be resolved? In the passages of Qutb I've read, he seems singularly uninterested in these questions.

Perhaps I'm wrong -- perhaps somewhere in the Qutbian oeuvre there's a detailed plan for how to choose a caliph, for how to impeach a shoura member who's abused his trust, for balancing the awesome executive power of the caliph against the judicial prerogatives of the clerics, and so on. But in what I've read, it all sort of comes down to passages like this one:

'La llaha illa Allah"-"There is no deity except Allah" - is the first part the Islamic declaration of faith, meaning that there is no one to be worshipped except God; "Muhammadar Rasul Allah" - "Muhammad is the Messenger of God; - is the second part, meaning that this worship is to be carried out according to the teaching of the Prophet - peace be on him.

A believing Muslim is one into whose heart this declaration has penetrated completely, as the other pillars of Islam and articles of faith are derivatives of it. Thus, belief in angels and God's Books and God's Messengers and the life hereafter and al-Qadr (the measurement of good and evil), and al-Salat (prayers), al-Siyam (fasting), al-Zakat (poor-due) and al-Hajj (pilgrimage), and the limits set by God of permissable and forbidden things, human affairs, laws, Islamic moral teachings, and so on, are all based on the foundation of worship of God, and the source of all these teachings is the person of the Prophet- peace be on him -through whom God has revealed to us.

A Muslim community is that which is a practical interpretation of the declaration of faith and all its characteristics; and the society which does not translate into practice this faith and its characteristics is not Muslim.

Thus the declaration of faith provides the foundation for a complete system of life for the Muslim community in all its details.

I have some speculations on why this is, which I'll offer in a later post...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:09 PM | Comments (1)

January 28, 2004


I've added a link to Exit Zero; I was going to write on the mystifying lack of specificity that Qutb offers for his Islamist government, but was shut out of ideofact for a couple of hours, and decided to read a book instead (on the problem of time). It wasn't nearly as exciting as the Goosebumps book I read to the five year old before he went to bed -- the hero and his sister discovered a skeleton!! -- but it does touch on a topic I've been thinking about for some -- well -- time. I'm not capable of offering anything so eloquent as A New Refutation of Time, but I might have something worth saying.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2004

2 Qutb 5a

When I started skimming Milestones, written by Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist theorist who has been called the "brain of Osama," I had no intention to go all the way through it. And as I've read it, I've had little desire to offer line-by-line descontructions of the work; I've coasted on a lot of shorthand here, assuming my readers would be able to follow me on the basis of my previous posts (which I haven't bothered to offer an index to, something that Zack of Procrastination has been kind enough to do). And, much as I've wanted to, I haven't had much of an opportunity to comment on either this post, the most recent in the series, or this one. So, all this rigamorole is a bit of an apology for not being more engaged in the discussion; between work, family, and the renovations of stately Ideofact manor (which are going fine, but neither Rome nor remodelled kitchen, bathrooms or basement were built in a day), I haven't had as much time as I'd like for the blog. And, full disclosure, tonight is no exception -- these are impressions more than critique, about the fifth chapter of Milestones, in which he tells us that, according to his definition, "all the societies existing in the world today are jahili," that is, they are un-Islamic (perhaps un-Islamist is a better word).

I've written before about Qutb's notions regarding jahili society -- he argues that it's the duty of Muslims to abolish any government that's not Islamist, regardless of whether that country has any Muslims in their population. There's plenty of examples of that in chapter five -- I'll quote one passage:

All idolatrous societies are also among the jahili societies. Such societies are found in India, Japan, the Philippines and Africa. Their Jahili character consists first of the fact that they believe in other gods besides God, in addition to Him or without Him; second, they have constructed an elaborate system of devotional acts to propitiate these deities. Similarly, the laws and regulations which they follow are derived from sources other than God and His Law, whether these sources be priests or astrologers or magicians, the elders of the nation, or the secular institutions which formulate laws without regard to the Law of God, and which attain absolute authority in the name of the nation or a party or on some other basis, while absolute authority belongs to God alone, and this can be brought into action only in the way shown to us by the Prophets of God.

All Jewish and Christian societies today are also jahili societies. They have distorted the original beliefs and ascribe certain attributes of God to other beings. This association with God has taken many forms, such as the Sonship of God or the Trinity, sometimes it is expressed in a concept of God which is remote from the true reality of God.

Now, leave that aside for a moment -- although it does strike me as odd that a putative reformer puts so much stress on world domination (what would one think if Luther's 95 Theses or Thomas Paine's Common Sense spent several paragraphs on the need to convert the Japanese or to overthrow the Ottoman Empire). What interested me was the theological justification Qutb offers.

In his opening section, he writes,

...the declaration of faith provides the foundation for a complete system of life for the Muslim community in all its details. This way of life cannot come into being without securing this foundation first. Similarly, if the system of life is constructed on some other foundation, or if other sources are mixed with this foundation, then that community cannot be considered Islamic. God says: 

"The command belongs to God alone. He commands you not to worship anyone except Him. This is the right way of life." (12:40) 

"Whoever obeys the Prophet obeys God" ( 4:80 ) 

Later, in explaining why Christian and Jewish societies are jahili, he writes,

These societies are Jahili also because their forms of worship their customs and manners are derived from their false and distorted beliefs. They are also jahili societies because their institutions and their laws are not based on submission to God alone. They neither accept the rule of God nor do they consider God's commandments as the only valid basis of all laws; on the contrary, they have established assemblies of men which have absolute power to legislate laws, thus usurping the right which belongs to God alone. At the time of Revelation, the Qur'an classified them among those who associate others with God, as they had given their priests and rabbis the authority to devise laws in whatever way they pleased. 

'They have taken their rabbis and priests as lords other than God, and the Messiah, son of Mary; and they were commanded to worship none but One God. There is no god but He, glory be to Him above what they associate with Him!" (5:31)

The first Qur'anic quotations seems not much different than the Commandment saying that one shall take no gods before the One God (sorry, the King James Bible -- along with all the other translations I have -- is packed away, and my memory for quotes isn't especially good). Now, one can argue that some political figures have a small core of devotedly loyal, almost cult followings, but I find it hard to believe that most people worship Presidents (let alone members of Congress, let alone state legislators, let alone county freeholders or school board members). Or, to put it another way (and taking the last Qur'anic quotation into account), can you imagine someone running for, say, mayor on the slogan, "I'm bigger than Jesus"?

Posted by Ideofact at 10:55 PM | Comments (5)

January 26, 2004

Scam email

I kind of liked the opening of this Nigerian emailer's pitch:

I crave your indulgence as I contact you in such a surprising manner.

It's a little downhill from there. I mean, how surprising is it to get an email announcing that untold riches will be mine if only I assist in getting millions of dollars from an account in Nigeria (or Holland or Belgium or whatnot) patriated to the United States? Send me a dozen roses with a handwritten note suggesting intrigue. Leave a fine bottle of port with a cryptic hint or too about what is to follow. Have a limo waiting out front of my office building on a cold, rainy night when I've worked late, and fill my head with tales of oil money lying unclaimed in a numbered account...

I can't say I would be any more indulgent, but I would, at least, be surprised...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2004


When I wrote this rather poorly named post about Deep Space 1, the first craft (well, perhaps I should say the first human built craft) to use ion propulsion, I neglected to mention something that caught my eye. Deep Space 1, "the little spacecraft that could," was built as part of NASA's New Millennium Program, the purpose of which is described here:

Although the objective of the NMP technology validation missions is to enable future science missions, the NMP missions themselves are not science-driven. They are technology-driven, with the principal requirements coming from the needs of the advanced technologies that form the "payload." The missions are high risk because, by their nature, they incorporate unproven technologies that, in general, will not have functionally equivalent back-ups. (Indeed, if an advanced technology does not pose a high risk, flight validation by NMP is not required.)

I thought the distinction was worth noting -- I used to make the same one when writing about the rapid advance of medieval European technology while its science remained rather primitive. It seems to me there is something of a contrast between the two, and it's interesting to see someone else, in a decidedly different context, making the same distinction.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:56 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2004

Qutb critique

I've had a few commenters on my Qutb entries who have defended Qutb's ideas, and suggested that some of my criticisms are unwarranted -- particularly the notion that Qutb incorporated some aspects of European totalitarian philosophies into his ideas. Needless to say, I found this lengthy critique of Qutb from a Muslim commenter of great interest. To begin with, it suggests something that I've been trying to get at and haven't been able to state with enough precision: Qutb's call for a new Islamic leadership, to which his vanguard is supposed to rally and offer its absolute loyalty, will necessarily be arbitrary. By that I mean, Islam is not monolithic; there are many variations among believers about just what the true faith means. I recall reading in a rather learned treatise by Averroes that there are parts of the Qur'an which are to be understood literally, others metaphorically, and others the meaning of which have not been revealed. But there are even more fundamental differences than that, like the interpretations of various verses that should be simple enough to understand (and in a governmental setting, must be understood; otherwise, there would be chaos). For instance, our commentator on Qutb tells us,

This socialist writer thinks of himself as a scholar of tafsir and gives wrong meanings to many ayats....

After quoting the preceding ayat, he says, "Allahu ta'ala has distributed possessions and property to the society. The society is obliged to use these possessions well. The society originally owns all possessions. Heirs [trustees] have the right to use these possessions only with the permission of the society," thus slandering Islamic religion and attempting to reform it. He struggles to inoculate the youth with his socialistic ideas under the name of tafsir.

That's a fairly fundamental difference in interpretation -- does the believer have a right to property or not? If I agree with Qutb's interpretation, but my neighbor does not, can my property be confiscated while his cannot?

One notes that the theme I've expounded upon, the European influence on Qutb's ideas (I think it has more affinities to hard Communism than soft socialism), is present in this critic as well. Then there's this, about slavery:

12) Again in his tafsir book, he says, "No rule has been mentioned in the Qur'an about making the captives slaves. Islam has eradicated slavery." Realizing that this opinion of his is wrong, he changes his tone and says, "Islam eradicated slavery, except for the legitimate captives of war, for, in those days, it was not powerful enough to force the society to admit a rule which was against the common usage." Through this absurd logic, he tries to cover his error. He cannot deny the fact that, in the year 7 A.H., Rasulullah ('alaihi 's-salam) distributed the captives which he had captivated in the Ghaza of Khaibar to his companions as slaves and jariyas and this has been practiced for centuries in Islamic states. But, as if Islam had brought rules for societies of unbelievers -he supposes so- he puts forward a very horrible idea: "Islam was not powerful enough to have its rules admitted." He could not think that this lack of power would refer to Allahu ta'ala and would cause unbelief. Whereas, Islam has not brought any rules, that is, commands and prohibitions, to unbelievers. Islamic rules are for Mulims and Muslim societies. Islam demands one single thing from unbelievers: To have iman. The reason why the zimmis have to obey muamalat is because they are counted as Muslims legally.

Our commentator obviously has a low opinion of Qutb, of whom he writes, "it will be seen that he is just an orator who brings the readers into raptures by his zealous writings, which are the natural art of a journalist or a politician. Like a broker who puts a covered treasury up for sale, he only praises Islam and, instead of opening it and exhibiting the jewels in it, he tries to hush up Islamic scholars and their books from the youth and exhibits his own ideas as religious knowledge." Our commentator adds these wonderful lines:

"There is the famous saying: 'A half-religious man will ruin one's faith; a half doctor will ruin one's body.' Recently, many ignorant people using names such as shaikh, alim or murshid have been deceiving Muslims and leading them to heresy. May Allahu ta'ala protect Muslims from believing them!"

So the theoretician of the Islamist state is regarded by this believer as a half religious man who will lead Muslims into heresy. Somehow, I doubt he would have an opportunity to, say, debate the finer points of theology with Qutb's Islamists, or publish his criticisms in a newspaper, or challenge the ruling party in an election under Qutb's system.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:57 PM | Comments (8)


All right, I'm in a bad mood tonight, and for the most annoying of blog-related reasons. When I logged into this site, I noticed that there were about 172 or so new comments. That, not coincidentally, is the same number of posts on Ideofact. Apparently, some butt munchkin from a sleazy, slimy, disreputable online pharmacy (I can say it's sleazy, slimy and disreputable because a reputable online company would never, either itself or through an agent, countenance the theft of someone else's bandwidth to advertise their sleazy, slimy, disreputable company.

In any case, I had to go through 172 separate entries to delete the offending comments, wasting an enormous amount of time on such a tedious endeavor. Thanks a lot, strofir@work.com. Of course, I banned the monkey spank's IP address ( for those curious), but that's small satisfaction.

By the way, my apologies for the language. This kind of thing seems to require considerably less courtesy than I usually try to employ here.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:39 PM | Comments (1)

January 20, 2004


You won't often see the word "totalitarian" used to express a program that's desirable. "My economic policies will work because they're totalitarian," or "This education plan is based on sound totalitarian principles." But that wasn't always the case. David Watkin, in the fine work Morality & Architecture, notes that architectural critic Nikolaus Pevsner did exactly that in selling the internationalist style:

...at the end of the book [Pioneers of the Modern Movement, originally published in 1936] he reaffirmed that 'this new style of the twentieth century ... because it is a genuine style as opposed to a passing fashion is totalitarian'.

In post-War editions of the book, Pevsner changed "totalitarian" to "universal."

Actually, architecture -- or at least interior design -- has been much on my mind of late. Stately Ideofact manor is about to undergo some renovations. The downside is that I've had to pack up everything in our basement (including my books, and soon this computer) and stow it away; the good news is that, once we're finished, I'll have a much nicer workspace (along with other improvements). So I'll be blogging on the laptop for a while, which means that posts may be even less impressive than normal...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:24 PM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2004

Space junk

A commentator at the always excellent Cronaca points to this story on paraffin rockets, which might represent a great advance over our current technology. While we'll need rockets to lift craft into orbit for some time, I think if we're going to Mars, ultimately, we'll need to improve on an engine we've already made using superior technology. I refer to the Deep Space 1 project, launched on October 24, 1998 (its mission ended December 7, 2001). The probe was fueled by an ion propulsion system, the advantages of which are obvious -- it's a far more efficient and potentially faster engine than a conventional rocket:

The ultimate speed of a spacecraft using ion thrust depends upon how much propellant it carries; indeed, the same principle applies to chemical propulsion systems, although they are much less efficient. The ion propulsion system on Deep Space 1 carries about 81.5 kilograms of xenon propellant, and it takes about 20 months of thrusting to use it all. It increases the speed of the spacecraft by about 4.5 kilometers per second, or about 10,000 miles per hour. If we had the same amount of chemical propellant, it would provide only one tenth as much velocity increment. If DS1 carried a larger solar array, it certainly would have a slightly higher acceleration, and if it carried more Xe propellant it could reach a much higher final velocity by simply thrusting longer. But DS1 is testing ion propulsion solely to find out if it works as well as predicted. Future missions that use it likely will carry more propellant to achieve still higher speeds.

And here we learn that an ion engine is ten times as efficient as a conventional rocket engine.

I don't think rockets will be able to send a craft to Mars and back, but ion propulsion might be capable of the feat. The important thing, in my mind, is to set the goal -- then get out of the way of the engineers who will do the rest...

Posted by Ideofact at 10:54 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2004


I found this photo fairly appealing -- I think it's the obvious joy in the woman's expression; the wreaths of smoke lend her a certain aura of mystery as well. It would be difficult not to respond to her obvious pleasure -- pleasure is pleasing, even if enjoyed vicariously.

But, as the article accompanying the photo in Al Ahram informs us, smoking is bad. It is bad for both sexes, but Egypt has embarked on a campaign to persuade women to drop the habit of smoking the shisha, those ornate pipes with hoses that filter tobacco smoke through a mix of molasses and other flavors:

"Women who smoke shisha [water pipe] don't realise how bad it looks." Thus Gamal Shanan, the artistic production studio director at the Ministry of Health, displaying the image of a "fallen" young woman wearing tight pink jumpsuit and racy makeup as she straddles a chair next to a large shisha -- the work of Al-Akhbar cartoonist Mustafa Hussein. "That's why we created this poster -- to help show them how terrible they look, or rather how men see them, when they're holding a shisha to their mouths."


Rather than reflecting disinterested health concerns, however, negative reactions to the spread of shisha smoking seem to be more about class- and gender than health. More than anything else, it is the rise of shisha smoking among young women that Shanan finds particularly disturbing.

"All of a sudden this seriously perilous business is everywhere," he says. "All those pretty girls spending hours at [traditionally exclusively male] cafés. To men they are no longer feminine, let alone respectable. How on earth will they find a husband?"


Despite objections to the advertisement, Shanan told the Weekly that even more aggressive campaigns against women smoking are planned. "We are declaring war on women who smoke shisha and in so doing we intend to hit where it hurts," he says. "Our intention is to protect the image of women. And what on earth should any decent women care about if not, before all else, her image?"

I wonder if there's an Arabic translation for "You've come a long way, baby" ...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:05 PM | Comments (2)

January 15, 2004

2 Qutb 4b

Well, I've read all of the roughly 10,000 words of the fourth chapter of Sayyid Qutb's Milestones for the third or fourth time. Approaching it intelligently is difficult -- there are so many pieces of it worth mulling over that I fear this will end up being far too long of a blog entry. Previously, I'd noted that Qutb insists that Jihad is universal in application and obligation; here's another passage indicated what he regards as its extent. Attacking those Muslims who hold that war is only permissible for defensive purposes, Qutb writes

This group of thinkers, who are a product of the sorry state of the present Muslim generation, have nothing but the label of Islam and have laid down their spiritual and rational arms in defeat. They say, "Islam has prescribed only defensive war"! and think that they have done some good for their religion by depriving it of its method, which is to abolish all injustice from the earth, to bring people to the worship of God alone, and to bring them out of servitude to others into the servants of the Lord. Islam does not force people to accept its belief, but it wants to provide a free environment in which they will have the choice of beliefs. What it wants is to abolish those oppressive political systems under which people are prevented from expressing their freedom to choose whatever beliefs they want, and after that it gives them complete freedom to decide whether they will accept Islam or not.

Norwegians, Eskimoes, the Yanomamo, Japanese and Laplanders; Taoists, Dionysians, Calvinists, communists and Catholics -- all must see their political systems abolished so that they can freely choose whether or not to adopt Islam. Of course, some will fight back. Americans in particular are not particularly fond of those who attack us (eg., Japan, 1941-1946) or those who attempt to abolish our system of government (eg., the Confederate States, 1861-1865). I imagine the citizens of other countries might feel the same way. So Qutb is advocating war on a global scale (perhaps incrementally; perhaps total war). I can't help wondering whether, having written this in the 1950s, Qutb was influenced by what he saw in the years following World War II. Communism went from the Soviets to the People's Republics in Eastern Europe in short order, then on to China and North Korea. Perhaps Qutb saw in the spread of communism a way for his own Islamism to spread, absent the messy business of waging wars to topple governments. That might explain why a man who saw the relative military weakness of the Arab states in the 1948 attempt to strangle Israel in its crib to would go on about world domination. But I digress.

Qutb tells us,

It is not the intention of Islam to force its beliefs on people, but Islam is not merely 'belief'. As we have pointed out, Islam is a declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men. Thus it strives from the beginning to abolish all those systems and governments which are based on the rule of man over men and the servitude of one human being to another. When Islam releases people from this political pressure and presents to them its spiritual message, appealing to their reason, it gives them complete freedom to accept or not to accept its beliefs. However, this freedom does not mean that they can make their desires their gods, or that they can choose to remain in the servitude of other human beings, making some men lords over others. Whatever system is to be established in the world ought to be on the authority of God, deriving its laws from Him alone. Then every individual is free, under the protection of this universal system, to adopt any belief he wishes to adopt. This is the only way in which 'the religion' can be purified for God alone. The word 'religion' includes more than belief; 'religion' actually means a way of life, and in Islam this is based on belief. But in an Islamic system there is room for all kinds of people to follow their own beliefs, while obeying the laws of the country which are themselves based on the Divine authority.

Never mind that, say, Voltaire's writings would earn him the death penalty in that country; let's focus instead on the words that caught my eye -- "laws" and "country." The latter shouldn't figure in Qutb's neo-Caliphate; presumably, under the universal system, with its Muslim leadership, to which first the hardcore of followers and later everyone else would pledge absolute fealty, there would be no need for countries. Then there's the question of law -- which Qutb is quite clear in stating will be shariah. The New Encyclopedia of Islam notes, in its entry on Shariah, that,

Islam makes no distinction between religion and life, nothing being excluded from religion, or outside it and "secular". Islamic law covers not only ritual but every aspect of life. It is often said that in practice today Islamic law is limited in many Muslim countries to questions of family and religious practice, whereas civil administration and commerce are covered by separate legal systems. In fact, a similar situation prevailed from early times; the parallel system of law was the civil law of the prince, which, being also of indigenous origin, did not raise the kinds of objections which are being raised today by traditionalists against modern legal systems which represent modern times and are therefore borrowed from European models. Because Islamic law is extremely idealistic in its approach, assuming a natural desire to conform to the truth, and the existence of a "holy" society disposed to religious conformity, there has always existed a parallel system of justice administered by the state.

....[The] exercise of judicial authority by the civil authorities, the prince and his delegates down to the local level, was called siyasah shar'iyyah and accounted for as much administration of justice as did the religious courts. The Prince also promulgated qanun, or civil law (from the Greek, kanon, "canon"), and published edicts (az-zahir), prerogatives which are taken over by modern governments and legislatures.

So who will those princes be? Who will issue the qanun? Who will administer that parallel system of justice?

Incidentally, the encyclopedia, after noting that in moder society it is impossible to implement shari'ah without incorporating some alien, modern legal ideas, adds that,

This was foreseen by prophecy, for there is a saying attributed to the Prophet that: "In the beginning, if one omits a tenth of a law, one will be punished, but at the end of time, if one accomplishes a tenth of the law, one will be saved."

Posted by Ideofact at 11:44 PM | Comments (31)

January 14, 2004

Consolation of theology

I doubt Glenn Frazier would approve (for that matter neither Servetus himself or, less importantly, yours truly, would approve), but Bernard Cottret, in his study of John Calvin, suggests that one of the reasons the Calvin and his fellow Genevans consented to burn Michael Servetus out of common Christian feeling. Servetus denied the Trinity; Calvin and the Genevans, who had their own problems with Catholicism (the Mass, veneration of Saints and so on), may have had ulterior motives in persecuting Servetus:

To become fully acceptable among Christians, it was desirable for [Calvin] in his turn to identify a heretic, a heresy, a blasphemer, an apostate. Bullinger saw at once the benefit that the whole of Protestantism could derive from the condemnation of Servetus. "God has given you an opportunity to wash us all clean from the suspicion of being heretics or favoring heresy if you show yourselves vigilant and ready to prevent this poison from spreading further." From this standpoint the burning of Servetus simply marks the respectability of the Genevan church and its entrance into the communion of saints.

There may have been other reasons as well -- Calvin had been accused of denying the trinity himself by one Pierre Caroli in 1545; by burning Servetus, he proved his orthodoxy on this point. Again, small comfort if you happened to have been Michael Servetus...

Posted by Ideofact at 10:57 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2004


Via the always interesting KurdishMedia.com comes an Open letter to Arab intellectuals by Shahin B. Sorekli, who addresses his letter to

those of you who have a conscience based on reason and fairness, to those of you who consider themselves a part of a broader human society that changes with time, to those of you who believe in the fundamental rights of every person in our world regardless of their ethnic and religious background for I know it would be a waste of time to address those who think Arabs belong to a race that is independent of the rest of the world, who believe God must be called Allah, who believe only a “truly Arab Islamic” system can eliminate misery and backwardness currently visible in many Arab and Islamic countries. I am not addressing my letter to those intoxicated by tribal nationalism or unknowingly drowned in fascist forms of nationalism.

The whole thing is worth reading -- Sorekli offers a ringing defense of federalism, and he doesn't ignore the Islamists entirely. I was a little disappointed by his paragraph on Israel -- surely Sorekli could understand that if the more militant Palestinians achieve their ends, and Israel ceased to exist as a state, the fate of the Jews living in the Middle East would be far worse than that of the Kurds, but I digress. I was particularly struck by this passage:

Before ending this open letter allow me to present two contrasting pictures, one showing some of the rights Muslim Arab migrants enjoy in Australia, a country some fundamental Islamists may call “infidel,” and another portraying what more than two million Muslim Kurds do not enjoy in Syria:

Australia: The Arabic speaking people came to Australia as migrants. Most of them came from Lebanon after the start of the civil war in the seventies (the majority of them live in Sydney and Melbourne). They have radio programs, including those financed by the Australian government, and radio stations that broadcast 24 hours. They have Arabic satellite TV channels. The Australian SBS TV broadcasts news in Arabic and often shows films and other programs in the Arabic language. There are more Arabic newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne than in some Arab countries with some directly or indirectly financially supported by government agencies. There are several Arabic and Islamic schools. The Arabic language is accepted as a subject at schools and children of Arabic speaking families are taught Arabic at government schools if they so wish. There are hundreds of Arabic organisations and welfare agencies with many financed by government funds and grants. Members of the Arabic community have the right to demonstrate against government policies or to express themselves in any regard…

Syria (where more than two million Kurds live): Kurdish identity: Not recognised / Kurdish radio, TV or newspapers: No / Teaching in Kurdish: No / Even one single Kindergarten where Kurdish is accepted as the second language: No / Kurdish representation in parliament: No / Kurdish organizations or agencies supported or recognized by the government: No…

Has there been one Arab government, organization or group that has approached the Syrian government regarding the rights of the Kurdish population? I leave the answer to your conscience.

Speaking of conscience, Mark Steyn has reprinted his wonderful December 2003 Atlantic Monthly piece on the great Elia Kazan, whose convictions and conscience led him to name Hollywood figures who were allied with Moscow in the Cold War:

Amid the herd-like moral poseurs, Kazan was always temperamentally an outsider, and his work benefited after he became one in a more formal sense. But, both before and after, his best productions concern themselves with a common question: the point at which you’re obliged to break with your own – your union, your class, your group, or, in Kazan’s case, your Group. The 1947 Oscar-winner Gentleman’s Agreement strikes most contemporary observers as very tame, square Kazan. But, in a curious way, that’s the point. When you start watching and you realize it’s an issue movie “about” anti-semitism, you expect it to get ugly, to show us Jew-bashing in the schoolyard, and vile language about kikes. But it stays up the genteel end with dinner party embarrassments, restricted resort hotels, an understanding about the sort of person one sells one’s property to. Dorothy McGuire and her Connecticut friends aren’t bad people, but in their world, as much as on Johnny Friendly’s waterfront, people conform: they turn a blind eye to the Jew-disparaging joke, they discreetly avoid confronting the truth about the hotel’s admission policies, and, as Gregory Peck comes to understand, they’re the respectable face of what at the sharp end means pogroms and genocide.

That’s what all those Hollywood and Broadway Communists did. They were the polite front of an ideology that led to mass murder, and they expected Kazan to honour their gentleman’s agreement. In those polite house parties Gregory Peck goes to in Kazan's movie, it’s rather boorish and tedious to become too exercised about anti-semitism. And likewise, at gatherings in the arts, it’s boorish and tedious to become too exercised about Communism – no matter how many faraway, foreign, unglamorous people it kills. Elia Kazan was on the right side of history. His enemies line up with the apologists for thugs and tyrants. Whose reputation would you bet on in the long run?

Posted by Ideofact at 11:52 PM | Comments (3)

January 12, 2004

A little sports

I don't often write about sports, so indulge me (anyone who reads this blog indulges me, so perhaps this goes without saying). A few observations on recent sporting headlines:

1. I am a devoted fan of Philadelphia sports teams, so take my bias into account, but Donovan McNabb, the Eagles quarterback, has had a stellar season in the only category that matters -- wins. The soft spoken McNabb has been the epitome of grace under fire, as have his teammates (particularly his receivers). I hate to say it (perhaps I say it because, having predicted it, I believe it won't happen -- a kind of reverse magic), but I suspect the Eagles will not win it all this year. Injuries have taken their toll. But that won't be the fault of McNabb.

2. Shoeless Joe Jackson was acquitted by a court for fixing the 1919 World Series, but nevertheless was barred from baseball, and the Hall of Fame. I think that was a grievous miscarriage of justice. Pete Rose, who was instrumental in my beloved Philadelphia Phillies winning their only World Series in what otherwise had been more than a century of baseball futility, broke the cardinal rule of baseball. For years he claimed that he was innocent, that he did not understand the terms of the agreement he signed that barred him from baseball. He did not fight it in court, and now he has admitted to betting on baseball, including on the team he managed. As much as I respect Rose's accomplishments as a player, which should (and are) enshrined in the Hall, the man himself does not belong there. Absent a confession from Rose, I would have believed that on the basis of the Shoeless Joe precedent (or rather, I would have suggested that Shoeless Joe had priority on entering the Hall over Rose), but after Rose's cynical confession, I am persuaded that the man simply does not deserve to be enshrined with the likes of Gehrig, Ruth and Williams. As an alternative, perhaps the late Tug McGraw, one of the pioneers of relief pitching, should find his place among the immortals of Cooperstown.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:56 PM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2004

2 Qutb 4a

The fourth chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones deals with Jihad. There's a lot to write about, but to summarize briefly, Qutb sees the goal of Jihad as destroying all non-Muslim governments, and replacing them with Islamist ones:

This movement treats people as they actually are and uses resources Which are in accordance with practical conditions. Since this movement comes into conflict with the Jahiliyyah which prevails over ideas and beliefs, and which has a practical system of life and a political and material authority behind it, the Islamic movement had to produce parallel resources to confront this Jahiliyyah. This movement uses the methods of preaching and persuasion for reforming ideas and beliefs and it uses physical power and Jihaad for abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili system which prevents people from reforming their ideas and beliefs but forces them to obey their erroneous ways and make them serve human lords instead of the Almighty Lord. This movement does not confine itself to mere preaching to confront physical power, as it also does not use compulsion for changing the ideas of people. These two principles are equally important in the method of this religion. Its purpose is to free those people who wish to be freed from enslavement to men so that they may serve God alone.

Charming fellow. He has a similar passage in Social Justice in Islam, and it's worth noting that for Qutb, a country like the United States, which has freedom of religion, must also see its government abolished.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:28 PM | Comments (3)

January 08, 2004

2 Qutb 3

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. -- Exodus, 20-3.

In the third chapter of Milestones, Sayyid Qutb, who some have described as the brains of Osama bin Laden, begins to describe how the vanguard that will bring about his Islamist vision must operate. But first, he points out where societies have gone wrong. Qutb begins with this passage, which I tried my best to paraphrase but decided I wouldn't do it justice:

The message of Islam brought by the Messenger of God, Muhammad - peace be on him -was the last link in the long chain of invitations toward God by the noble Prophets. Throughout history, this message has remained the same: that human beings should recognise that their true Sustainer and Lord is One God, that they should submit to Him Alone, and that the lordship of man be eliminated. Except for a few people here and there in history, mankind as a whole has never denied the existence of God and His sovereignty over the universe; it has rather erred in comprehending the real attributes of God, or in taking other gods besides God as His associates. This association with God has been either in belief and worship, or in accepting the sovereignty of others besidesGod. Both of these aspects are Shirk [Shirk is an Arabic word which refers to ascribing the attributes, power or authority of God to others besides Him and/or worshipping others besides Him.] in the sense that they take human beings away from the religion of God, which was brought by the Prophets. After each Prophet, there was a period during which people understood this religion, but then gradually later generations forgot it and returned to Jahiliyyah. They started again on the way of Shirk, sometimes in their belief and worship and sometimes in their submission to the authority of others, and sometimes in both.

Throughout the chapter, Qutb sets up a distinction between Islam -- which is the submission to God, the following of his laws -- with Jahiliyyah, which are the manmade systems which, Qutb argues, lead inevitably to the submission of one man to another. He sets up this historical contrast:

In this great Islamic society Arabs, Persians, Syrians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Turks, Chinese, Indians, Romans, Greeks, Indonesians, Africans were gathered together- in short, peoples of all nations and all races. Their various characteristics were united, and with mutual cooperation, harmony and unity they took part in the construction of the Islamic community and Islamic culture. This marvellous civilization was not an 'Arabic civilization', even for a single day; it was purely an 'Islamic civilization'. It was never a 'nationality' but always a community of belief'.

Thus they all came together on an equal footing in the relationship of love, with their minds set upon a single goal; thus they used their best abilities, developed the qualities of their race to the fullest, and brought the essence of their personal, national and historical experiences for the development of this one community, to which they all belonged on an equal footing and in which their common bond was through their relationship to their Sustainer. In this community their 'humanity' developed without any hindrance. These are characteristics which were never achieved by any other group of people in the entire history of mankind!

The most distinguished and best known society in ancient history is considered to be the Roman Empire. Peoples of various races, languages and temperaments came together in this society, but all this was not based on 'human relation- ship' nor was any sublime faith the uniting factor among them; rather their society was ordered on a class system, the class of 'nobles' and the class of 'slaves', throughout the Empire. Moreover, the Roman race - in general - had the leadership and the other races were considered its subjects. Hence this society could not achieve that height which was achieved by the Islamic society and did not bring those blessings which were brought by the Islamic society.

Various societies have also appeared in modern times. For example, consider the British Empire. It is like the Roman society to which it is an heir. It is based on national greed, in which the British nation has the leadership and exploits those colonies annexed by the Empire.

I find this odd, because Islam tolerates slavery, whereas the British Empire went to great lengths in the 19th Century to stamp it out, but let's leave aside Qutb's historical view and note instead the manner by which he intends to bring back that Islamic paradise:

It is therefore necessary that Islam's theoretical foundation-belief-materialize in the form of an organized and active group from the very beginning. It is necessary that this group separate itself from the jahili society, becoming independent and distinct from the active and organized jahili society whose aim is to block Islam. The center of this new group should be a new leadership, the leadership which first came in the person of the Prophet-peace be on him- himself, and after him was delegated to those who strove for bringing people back to God's sovereignty, His authority and His laws. A person who bears witness that there is no deity except God and that Muhammad is God's Messenger should cut off his relationship of loyalty from the jahili society, which he has forsaken, and from jahili leadership, whether it be in the guise of priests, magicians or astrologers, or in the form of political, social or economic leadership, as was the case of the Quraish in the time of the Prophet-peace be on him. He will have to give his complete loyalty to the new Islamic movement and to the Muslim leadership.

There are any number of reasons to find this demand for "complete loyalty" objectionable. In the course of my lifetime, my "leadership" has included quite a few people I haven't respected; no American, in fact, is required to give his complete loyalty to our political leaders -- rather, as citizens, we are perfectly within our rights to be part of a loyal opposition -- loyal to our Constitutional system, but opposed to those who have been elected and exercise power (indeed, the system depends on opposition). I am perfectly free, if I so choose, to allow my religious beliefs dictate my political philosophy -- to vote according to a particular creed. If my candidate tells me tomorrow that to realize his program, I have to do things I find unethical or immoral, I can choose not to.

Beyond that, Qutb is proposing a "true Muslim" leadership which must be followed -- to which the follower must follow -- one man submitting to another. Isn't this something of a contradiction?

Posted by Ideofact at 10:39 PM | Comments (7)

January 07, 2004

Morality & Architecture

Vaguely inspired by this post by the always engaging Mind-Numbing, I thought I'd offer, not five books I didn't read last year, but one which I'd like to reread this year. That's David Watkin's Morality and Architecture, which takes a critical look at how architects and architectural theorists and critics have argued that architectural forms are shaped by -- are in fact the answers to -- the needs of society, or of what those needs ought to be. To demur from such certainty, according to some of the grandees Watkin follows, is to be antisocial, unethical, even immoral.

I read the book when I was in college (long before that advent of the Internet), and I confess my architectural knowledge is rather limited, as is my ability to imagine structures on the basis of written descriptions is minimal. Nevertheless, I regarded Watkin's book as being somehow fundamentally important, perhaps for passages like this one:

It seems that no one with a proper training in philosophy, intellectual history, religion, or the social sciences has turned a critical eye on architectural history. Architectural historians have consequently found it easy to fall back on the belief in a unitary, all-pervasive Zeitgeist. One important reason for this is that modern art history began in the nineteenth century as a by-product of history and the philosophy of culture in Germany; the rapid growth of popular Marxist sociology, which has a similar intellectual origin, also played a role. Thus everything is seen as a 'reflection' of something else -- the economic structure, the spirit of the age, the prevailing theology, and so on. There is also an evolutionary assumption that in each epoch a new economic structure or a new Zeitgeist is 'struggling to be born'. It thus becomes the obligation of creative spirits, be they poets, architects, or whatever, to 'express' that new nascent spirit. To express an antiquated Zeitgeist is to be condemned as a poor artist or architect.

But it is man, creative, mysterious, and unpredictable, who is the proper subject of the historian, not the subterranean collective urges of the spirit of the age or of the 'needs' of an as yet non-existant society.

In a dense 115 pages, Watkin traces the former phenomenon through Catholic theology and the Gothic, the monumental architecture of Nazis and Communists (all in Weimar and post-Weimar Germany), English socialism, and much else. An engaging work, to say the least. Perhaps I'll get around to re-reading it in 2004...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:43 PM | Comments (3)

January 06, 2004

2 Qutb 2

Today I read through a translation of the Afghanistan constitution recently adopted (note: the link goes to a PDF); each page tells us that it's an unofficial translation, and readers should refer to the Pashtu and Dari versions for accuracy. For some reason, I have a great deal of trouble deciphering written Pashtu and Dari -- perhaps because I don't speak either language. For my purposes here, however, I think the approximate translation is good enough.

I won't go into too many specifics, but I note that the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, a popular, directly elected president who must win more than 50 percent of the votes (with a runoff between the top two finishers if no candidate garners more than 50 percent in the first round), a bicameral legislature, with the president appointing a third of the upper house (of whom a certain percentage must be women), and a dalliance at a kind of federalism in recognizing local councils. It calls for the equality of all Afghanistan's ethnic groups, freedom of expression, trial by jury, the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and a host of other things we'd put firmly in the liberal tradition.

That said, it's not exactly a perfect document. Articles one through three establish Afghanistan as an Islamic Republic; no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam, and while followers of other religions "are free to perform their religious rites" this must be done "within the limits of the provisions of law." This is one of two elements of the constitution which can't be amended, the other being the Republican character of the government.

There are plenty of other things to criticize -- article nine states that, "Minerals and other underground resources are properties of the state," so don't go looking for an Afghan gold rush anytime soon. But the provisions relating to religion are of far more concern -- article seventeen, for example, states that,

The state shall adopt necessary measures for the promotion of education at all levels for the development of religious education, and for organizing and improving the conditions of mosques, madrasas and religious centers.

According to the CIA fact book, Afghanistan is 99 percent Muslim (I seem to recall reading at some point in the 1990s that the Taliban intended to make a small Hindu minority wear identifying patches on their clothes), but there is a sizeable (15 percent) Shi'a minority. How will the state improve the conditions of Shi'a mosques relative to Sunni mosques?

Reading it, I was reminded of the second chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work, Milestones, about which I started to blog here and continued here. Qutb attacked the predominantly Muslim countries -- their governments and, I would argue, their people -- for failing to have thoroughly submitted themselves to Islam. In the cited chapter in Milestones, he wrote,

This aspect of the nature of Islam defines the way it is to be founded and organized: by implanting belief and strengthening it so that it seeps into the depths of the human soul. This is essential for its correct development, for only through this method can a relationship be secured between that part of the tree of religion which reaches upward and the roots which are in the depths of the earth.

When belief in "La ilaha illa Allah" penetrates into the deep recesses of the heart, it also penetrates through the whole system of life, which is a practical interpretation of this faith. By this means, those who believe are already pleased with the system which this faith uniquely determines and submit in principle to all the laws and injunctions and details even before they are declared. Indeed, the spirit of submission is the first requirement of the faith. Through this spirit of submission the believers learn the Islamic regulations and laws with eagerness and pleasure. As soon as a command is given, the heads are bowed, and nothing more is required for its implementation except to hear it. In this manner, drinking was forbidden, usury was prohibited, and gambling was proscribed, and all the habits of the Days of Ignorance were abolished-abolished by a few verses of the Qur'an or by a few words from the lips of the Prophet- peace be on him. Compare this with the efforts of secular governments. At every stage they have to rely on legislation, administrative institutions, police and military power, propaganda and the press, and yet they can at most control what is done publicly, and society remains full of illegal and forbidden things.

Yet purely religious communities have their share of sin too -- anyone with a passing familiarity with the Hadith will note that quite a few deal with members of the faithful who have lapsed in their behavior -- imbibed alcohol, mistreated their slaves, fornicated, and so on. As I noted previously, there was even dancing in Calvin's Geneva.

It is too early to tell whether the Afghan constitution will allow dancing in Kabul (this piece isn't encouraging), but I wish them the best.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:50 PM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2004


From Leonardo's notebooks:

The acquistion of any knowledge whatever is always useful to the intellect, because it will be able to banish the useless things and retain those which are good. For nothing can be either loved or hated unless it is first known.

Of course, in my case, I tend to retain far more of the useless stuff...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:48 PM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2004


Despite my best intentions, I still haven't finished reading the Bernard Cottret book, Calvin: A Biography (which, as reader Kristine helpfully pointed out, is still in print after all). I'm almost done, which is a cause for some sadness -- it's a wonderful work. Here's Cottret, a French historian, on Voltaire's "a pox on both your houses" stance toward Protestants and Catholics:

The Protestants were no better than the Catholics. This seemed obvious to Voltaire, who advocated a form of free thought that would find its end in natural religion. According to Voltaire, the revealed religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in all its lines, Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, all presented the same distressing spectacle. The Christians themselves are in turn victims and executioners: persecute them, and they supply martyrs; give them power, and they persecute in their turn. The controversy between Jesuits and Jansenists in the France of his day seemed to Voltaire to epitomize this cross fire of intolerance and sectarianism.

So thought the author of Candide, using those flippant sallies that the volatile French usually take for granted. At some centuries' distance, we see clearly that the most secular societies have in their turn given birth to monstrosities and that atheistic totalitarianism has undoubtedly surpassed all revealed religions in horror.

I've noted the same phenomenon myself at times. And while it may seem, at first blush, harsh to condemn whole societies laboring under the totalitarian boot, I remembered a passage from Robert Conquest's work A Harvest of Sorrow:

The necessary hatreds were inflamed; the activists who helped the GPU [the forerunner of the KGB] in the arrests and the deportations

were all people who knew one another well, and knew their victims, but in carrying out this task they became dazed, stupefied...

They would threaten people with guns, as if they were under a spell, calling small children 'kulak bastards', screaming 'bloodsuckers!' ... They had sold themselves on the idea that the so-called 'kulaks' were pariahs, untouchables, vermin. They would not sit down at a 'parasite's' table; the 'kulak' child was loathsome, the young 'kulak' girl was lower than a louse. They looked on the so-called 'kulaks' as cattle, swine, loathsome, repulsive: they had no souls; they stank; they all had venereal diseases; they were enemies of the people and exploited the labor of others ... And there was no pity for them. They were not human beings; one had a hard time making out what they were -- vermin, evidently.

This last paragraph is from Vasily Grossman. Himself Jewish, and the Soviet Union's leading writer on Hitler's holocaust, he draws the analogy with the Nazis and the Jews. A woman activist explains, 'What I said to myself at the time was "they are not human beings, they are kulaks" ... Who thought up this word "kulak" anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed the Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.'

And thus did the bulk of their societies proudly participate in the horrors that followed.

Cottret (a French historian) raised Voltaire in the context of Calvin's (and Geneva's) persecution of Michael Servetus. Like Giordano Bruno, Servetus was, by the standards of the dominant religious group he ran up against, certainly a heretic -- he denied the trinity, among other things. Voltaire helpfully points out that, where the situation reversed, and Servetus ruling over Geneva, it would be Calvin and his fellow trinitarians with necks "squeezed in nooses." Cottret continues,

Calvin or Servetus? Following Voltaire's steps, we shall not choose, not from lack of humanity, but for the sake of historical precision -- and in the first place, to exclude all anachronism from our judgments. For neither the word "tolerance" nor the concept existed in the sixteenth century. Philosophical tolerance, which Voltaire was trading in, was an imported article which the French seized on with their customary love of new products. Tolerance was born in the 1680s, at the beginning of the Enlightenment; it developed in a single area, that of northwestern Europe, England and the United Provinces [i.e., the Netherlands]. Finally, it was the work of one man in particular, John Locke, to whom the eighteenth century devoted faithful worship.

Tolerance, then, did not exist in the sixteenth century. In fact, it appeared impious. Is an example wanted? Thomas More, the author of Utopia, who was faithful to the end to his ideal of Catholic humanism, preferring the ignominious death of a traitor to renouncing his principles -- the great Thomas More accepted the stake for heretics. Indeed, he could not very well see what one could do with heretics other than burn them.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:37 PM | Comments (2)

January 02, 2004


It's been lovely having the office closed this week. I've spent a lot of quality time with the five year old -- we saw the Enterprise at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the new satellite of the National Air and Space Museum. We also visited Air and Space on the mall, and saw, for about the umpteenth time, the Wright Flyer. I've never been a tremendous fan of the space shuttle, but I have to admit that seeing the prototype (the Enterprise was built just to test whether the vehicle could glide to earth; it never flew in space) was inspiring -- maybe it's all the 1970s Roger Moore Bond flix I watched the last few weeks, but suddenly 1970s technology didn't look so bad. The five year old, who got quite a few space ships, astronauts, and the like for Christmas, was most fascinated by the Wright Brothers' plane. We picked up a kids' book on the Wrights, and also How We Invented the Airplane by Orville Wright, edited by Fred C. Kelly. The narrative by Orville Wright was a deposition in a patent lawsuit (the Wrights were not parties to the suit, as far as I can tell); I raise all this because of an offhanded comment I made this post, "If the Wright Brothers believed in elves, and that by flying they would have the opportunity to commune with the elves, would that have diminished their airplane?"

In his introduction to Orville's deposition, Kelly tells us that the Wright's inclination ran in the other direction:

The Wright household was a harmonious one. Bishop Wright's influence on his sons was great. From their childhood he encouraged them to seek factual information in books, but to do their own thinking. His theological library included books by Robert G. Ingersoll and other agnostics, and he offered no protest when he discovered that Wilbur and Orville were influenced by them. Moreover, he gave his blessing to their spending what money they had on hobbies and experiments. It was all right, he said, to spend money in any way they chose, so long as they earned it. "All the money one needs," he said, "is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others."

Orville once told me that he thought he and Wilbur had enjoyed special advantages. "If my father had not been the kind who encouraged his children to pursue intellectual interests without any thought of profit, our early curiosity about flying would have been nipped too early to bear fruit."

One other aviation related note: I was pleased to find, in the Smithsonian's gift shop, the same balsa wood gliders I used to buy, I think, for a dime a piece (a quarter for the ones with propellors) when I was a little kid. We bought a few of those as well -- the gliders did better than the ones with props, which seems to square with my childhood memory.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:21 PM | Comments (0)

January 01, 2004

Forever Now

All right, a more definitive take on this essay, Is There an Islamic Problem? by M. Shahid Alam. From the outset, let me reiterate that I'm not persuaded that there's an Islamic problem if what we're talking about is one of the three great revealed religions that came from the Middle East. On the contrary, I have often written that in my view, the main problem in the Middle East is temporal -- specifically, the various tyrannies that range from the Saudi Monarchy, which owns the state, to the corrupt theocrats in Iran to the gangsters and thugs in the Palestinian authority to the hereditary dictatorships in Syria and, most likely, in Egypt. In this regard, I am probably closer to the ideas of Pervez Hoodbhoy, whose essay Alam responds to. That said, I'm not particulary close -- while Hoodbhoy writes,

For Muslims, it is time to stop wallowing in self-pity: Muslims are not helpless victims of conspiracies hatched by an all-powerful, malicious West. The fact is that the decline of Islamic greatness took place long before the age of mercantile imperialism. The causes were essentially internal. Therefore Muslims must introspect, and ask what went wrong.

Muslims must recognize that their societies are far larger, more diverse and complex than the small homogenous tribal society in Arabia 1400 hundred years ago. It is therefore time to renounce the idea that Islam can survive and prosper only in an Islamic state run according to Islamic "sharia" law. Muslims need a secular and democratic state that respects religious freedom, human dignity, and is founded on the principle that power belongs to the people. This means confronting and rejecting the claim by orthodox Islamic scholars that in an Islamic state sovereignity does not belong to the people but, instead, to the vice-regents of Allah (Khilafat-al-Arz) or Islamic jurists (Vilayat-e-Faqih).

Muslims must not look towards the likes of bin Laden; such people have no real answer and can offer no real positive alternative. To glorify their terrorism is a hideous mistake - the unremitting slaughter of Shias, Christians, and Ahmadis in their places of worship in Pakistan, and of other minorities in other Muslim countries, is proof that all terrorism is not about the revolt of the dispossessed.

I don't agree with a great deal of his analysis -- he writes, for example, that the Afghan campaign was an attempt to "exact blood revenge" for September 11 -- I think if blood revenge were the goal, there would have been far more blood spilt. But be that as it may, let's return to Alam, whose view of these United States can be summed up in this rather remarkable statement:

In blatant disregard of its founding principles, the Grand Exorcist has for decades – two hundred years, in the Western hemisphere – worked feverishly to deny basic human rights to more than three-fourths of humanity.

"Grand Exorcist" is what Hoodbhoy calls the U.S.; the statement is on its face ridiculous. To give but a few examples, the Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War were all fought to increase the access of humanity to human rights. This is not to say that the U.S. has never stumbled, or chosen the wrong course, or intervened when doing nothing would have been preferable. Nevertheless, I find it impossible to think of a country that has done more for human rights than the United States, often at great cost to itself. Similarly, when Alam writes,

During an ascendancy that now spans at least two hundred years, the West has contributed little to forging a single humanity that includes all the children of Adam and Eve. For the most part, Western thinkers have pursued their humanist ideals within the paradigms of race and tribe. With few exceptions, the Enlightenment thinkers refused to share their humanity with Africans, Amerindians or Asians. Racism was germane to the thinking of the leading Western humanists, not excluding the great Montesquieu, Hume, Kant and Jefferson. Even as they glorified ‘man,’ they saw little that was wrong in colonialism, slavery, or the massacres of ‘uncivilized tribes,’ ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages.’ Europe’s dream of reason did not lead to sweetness and light for Amerindians, Africans, Asians or the ‘outsiders’ in Europe itself.

...its difficult to take his critique especially seriously. I find it hard to square his notion of an inherently racist and tribal Western notion of rights with, to cite one example, Jefferson's description of the passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Some members of the Virginia legislature wanted religious freedom restricted to Christians; the final draft approved by the majority made no such stipulation, which, Jefferson described as,

...a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.

Alam questions the notion that the decline of Islam began with al-Ghazali, the author of the Incoherence of Philosophy, a work that attacked the likes of Averroes. I don't agree with the al-Ghazali argument necessarily; Alam attributes it to the "Zionist Orientalist" Bernard Lewis. I've read several works by Lewis (although not the 1970 essay Alam footnotes), and while I think I've come across the al-Ghazali argument in his works, it's been in the context of Muslim thinkers from the 18th and 19th Century trying to understand "What Went Wrong," to borrow the title of one of his books. It would be ridiculous to blame the decline -- if there indeed was a decline -- of a great civilization on a single, largely unread philosopher. As I wrote a long time ago, I think Lewis -- and the Muslims he quoted in that book -- was asking the wrong question. It's not so much what went wrong in Islam, as it is a question of what went right in the West. Alam offers the following:

Western Europe’s ascendancy began with its lead in two critical areas, gunnery and shipping, starting in the fifteenth century. The West Europeans did not invent gunpowder and cannons; both are Chinese inventions, diffused to Europe and the Middle East by the invading Mongols in the thirteenth century.

If I'm not mistaken, firearms using gunpowder were employed in Europe in the 14th Century; there is also a rather tedious debate on whether the Mongols used guns; there's no definitive evidence either way, although I seem to recall reading more works arguing against than in favor. But this is a minor point; what's more interesting to me is the shifts employed by Alam. If, as he suggests, the fortuitous discovery of the New World and the maritime trade routes to the East gave Europeans an enormous windfall, then surely the Spanish and the Portugese, who first exploited these routes, would have remained the preeminent European societies. In his analysis, little attention is paid to the role that competing political systems played -- it is significant that the English, the Dutch and the French displaced the Spanish and Portugese. I think Alam might be obliquely referring to this when he writes,

A historical narrative – one that is rooted in cumulative processes, contingencies, conjunctures, contradictions, accidents and unintended consequences – tells a different story. The colonization of the Americas, the growing control over the trade of the Indian Ocean, the mercantilist rivalries and incessant wars among European states – produced by the anarchy of their decentralized political system – accelerated the dynamic of historical change in Europe, allowing it to outpace the more centralized, mostly land-based empires of the Middle East, India and China. In the long run, the Netherlands, Britain, France and the United States slowly built upon their successes in commerce, shipping, the arts of warfare, state-formation and manufactures to develop into centers of capitalist production, which drew their economic strength from an alliance between capital and the state. (emphasis added)

What he's missing in this reading is the fundamental discovery -- rediscovery may be a better word -- of a political system that offered full participation to the people. The farmer and the laborer, via free speech, the town meeting, the ballot, were fully integrated -- if they cared to be -- into the political life of the nation. Rather than having a country run top down, with the sheep sent to whatever slaughter the dictator or emporer or sultan favors, the nation was run bottom up -- the people were sovereign.

The power of this model cannot be underestimated. In the American Civil War, for example, Southerners fought for nationalism, to protect their homes and their way of life -- intensely emotional issues that explain to a large extent their high morale in an unjust cause. By contrast, Northerners fought for a pair of abstractions -- liberty and the Union. They proved more powerful than hearth and home. (One might quibble that the North enjoyed a higher level of industrialization, access to capital, etc. etc. -- but that's part and parcel of NOT relying on a slave economy; there's a necessity for developing efficiencies that does not exist for slaveowners.)

In the 20th Century, the U.S. faced a virulent form of nationalism in Germany, both in the First and far more dangerous in the Second World War, and then the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union and its enslaved satellites -- tyrannies that thought nothing of slaughtering millions to ensure their despotic rule. So it's a bit odd that Alam writes,

The impotence of Arabs in the post-colonial period goes back to three additional factors: Zionism, the old Christian vendetta against Islam, and oil. The Zionist movement was founded on a confluence of Jewish and Western interests in the Middle East. The Zionists proposed to rid Europe of Jews if Europe would help them to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. In succession, Zionist ambitions combined with European Islamophobia to produce the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the vivisection of the former Ottoman territories in the Fertile Crescent, the creation of a Maronite-dominated mini-state in Lebanon, the British mandate over Palestine, and the creation of a Jewish colonial-settler state in Arab Palestine. Arab aspirations in the Fertile Crescent had been dealt a body blow from which it would be hard to recover. Had the Arabs of this region been free to realize their nationalist aspirations, most likely they would have created a single Arab state that might well have included – because of its religious significance – the Arabian Peninsula as well, or at least the Hejaz and the oil-rich Gulf coast.

Let's leave aside the nonsensical notion that "Zionists proposed to rid Europe of Jews" -- that was largely the promise of the anti-Semites, which Hitler did his best to bring to fruition. It's interesting that Alam entirely ignores the central story of the Twentieth Century -- the battle against the industrial totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia -- in his discussion of how that century played out. This explains by and large why the U.S. propped up the Shah and other dictatorships in the region -- our bastards were better than the Soviet's bastards. But that policy by and large has been abandoned in the wake of Sept. 11 -- about a dozen years after the end of the Cold War.

So the question is whether the Islamists represent the aspirations of the Muslim people, or whether they're merely another group of self-appointed Utopians who will further immiserate the people of the region. A narrower question deals with Alam himself -- he seems to show a certain amount of sympathy for Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, as if this somehow would further the cause of, well, of what I'm not quite certain. He also shows some enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution, regarding the Mullahs not as a frustration of, but rather the expression of, the desires of the Iranian people.

And this, ultimately, is the great question of Islamism. Its practicioners seem to offer no mechanism for popular sovereignty, no political structures, no means for holding corrupt or incompetent rulers accountable. In 1992, Americans voted the architect of the Gulf War out of office because they felt it was time for a change. Does Islamism offer any comparable mechanism? Or is it merely another tyranny from self-appointed avatars of a utopian fantasy that will end in mass graves and misery?

Posted by Ideofact at 11:47 PM | Comments (2)