Monday, July 18, 2016
Parenting Muslim Children in an Age of Terrorism
by Jalees Rehman
"These terrorists aren't true Muslims" is a phrase that I have often heard being used by American Muslims when talking about terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam. Recently, I encountered another version of this comment. Parents at a suburban Islamic Sunday School were encouraged to use this same approach when talking to their children about the recent spate of terrorist attacks. Arguments for denying the Muslim identity of the perpetrators include the moral incompatibility of the atrocities committed by the terrorists with Islamic law, which does not sanction the extrajudicial killing of civilians or suicide, which is frequent element of the attacks. This is an understandable reaction. The views of the perpetrators and their actions seem so abhorrent that it is impossible to reconcile their perception of Islam with those of the vast majority of American Muslims. However, even though one may sympathize with the desire to distance oneself from the terrorists, declaring terrorists to be non-Muslims or not "true" Muslims is the wrong answer.
The first problem with the arbitrary post-hoc excommunication of terrorists is that it is not really grounded in Islamic law. The process of takfir (excommunication Islam) requires very strong evidence and is difficult to uphold in most Islamic legal traditions if the person in question continues to see himself or herself as a Muslim. Someone may commit a grave sin or terrible crime, but these actions alone do not propel the person outside of the faith.
In fact, many of the terrorists or the organizations that endorse and support them portray themselves as true followers of Islam. Daesh (the so-called "Islamic State") claimed responsibility for the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels (March 2016), Dhaka (July 2016), Baghdad (July 2016) and Nice (July 2016). Members of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram detonated bombs in a mosque in Maiduguri (January 2016), killing 22 worshipers and themselves. American-born Omar Mateen who murdered and injured over 100 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando (June 2016)swore allegiance to the leader of Daesh just minutes before his murderous shooting rampage. A group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban targeted the Christian community celebrating Easter Sunday in a Lahore park (March 2016) with a suicide bombing. Even though the precise nature of the involvement of Daesh in each individual attack is not always clear, the attackers and their handlers routinely invoke Islamic justifications for their actions. One may disagree with their logic and interpretations of Islam but this is not sufficient to warrant their excommunication. In fact, extremist groups are the ones which play fast and loose with takfir when it comes to Muslims with differing views on religion and it is important for the majority to resist the impulse of following their example. The second problem with declaring terrorists who view themselves as faithful followers of Islam to be non-Muslims is that it serves as a form of dangerous absolution. If atrocities are committed in the name of Islam, then Muslims need to carefully scrutinize what elements of their faith or the manner by which the faith is taught could have inspired such violence. Such introspection can serve as a starting point for change in approaching and teaching religion within Muslim communities to prevent the spread of Islamist ideologies that promote hatred and endorse violence. On the other hand, if the acts were committed by people who weren't true Muslims, then the community absolves itself of the responsibility to engage in introspection. They had a completely erroneous view of Islam, which is why we do not need to change.
The importance of avoiding false absolution is especially important when it comes to parenting Muslim children. Engaging the youth in introspective analysis of what aspects of religion (or any ideology) can promote supremacist and violent views may allow them to become active partners in thwarting the rise of extremism. As a parent, I discuss terrorism with our children, covering the broader sociopolitical context as well as the aspects within the Islamic tradition and history that are often used to justify atrocities. I am guided in part by my experience of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Germany. This German composite word combines Vergangenheit (the past) and Bewältigung (the process of struggling and overcoming) and refers to actively discussing the Nazi past in Germany. It would have been very easy to shrug off the Nazi ideology as not being truly German because it violated many ideals of German culture and absolve Germans of their historic burden but German society instead chose to confront its history. Schoolchildren visit concentration camps, talk to their parents about their grandparents' or great-grandparents' involvement in the Third Reich and are thus sensitized to the re-emergence of supremacist ideologies or fascism.
When I talk to my children about contemporary Islamist terrorist attacks, I try to engage in Gegenwartsbewältigung (Gegenwart = the present). These discussions do not only revolve around terrorism and violence but also involve broader contemporary issues in ethics, religion, decision-making and responsibility. As a family, we routinely sit together and listen to the inspiring Philosophy Bites podcasts by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton which allows us to then segue into the discussions about philosophy and religion.
Terrorist acts perpetuated by co-religionists require Muslim parents to engage in difficult conversations with their children. Hiding behind false absolution is a disservice to their children and to their community. My hope is that Gegenwartsbewältigung will foster open-mindedness and introspective critical thinking which is antithetical to the rise and spread of hatred and violence.
Monday, June 27, 2016
‘We Sinful Women' Will Not Be Silenced
by Humera Afridi
I want to hear her: bold; questioning; insistent, refusing to compromise her ideals. I want to understand; to see, her: this woman of deep faith, with a distinctive laugh, who "had no equal among either the women or the men of her century." Possessed of a brilliant mind and exceptional memory, she was controversial—beloved, reviled, envied, not averse to taking risks in the service of truth and justice. Falsely accused of adultery, she was publicly defended by her husband, Seal of the Prophets and a political leader, who took to the minbar and challenged the men bent on sullying her name and that of his household. At 42, she led an army against the fourth Caliph—the infamous Battle of the Camel in the mid-seventh century—in which she suffered devastating losses. Mother of the Believers, yet herself childless. Youngest wife of Prophet Muhammad. Transmitter of two thirds of his sayings, the Hadith or traditions, that are treasured keys to a deeper understanding of the Quran and the commentaries written on its divinely revealed verses.
But: where is Aisha today?
When we speak of Muslim women, or the status of women in Islam, harking back always to that distant past—seventh century Arabia—which through a prismatic lens continues to determine our present, why are the Mothers of the Believers silent, invisible, absent? Asked whom he loved the most, Prophet Muhammad, magnificent warrior against misogyny in egregiously patriarchal Arabia, unhesitatingly declared, "Aisha!" Aisha in whose lap he breathed his last breath before he passed into the Realm of Beauty.
All this to say, Aisha was far from flat. She was refreshingly complex, multi-dimensional, a "round character"—to borrow a literary term from E. M. Forster—filled with the breath of God. And she wasn't the only one. Well before her, there was Khadijah, the Prophet's first wife—with whom he had monogamous relationship for twenty-five years until her death—savvy business woman, older than him by over a decade, a former widow, who on discerning his gentle and upright character, qualities she deemed attractive in a man, proposed marriage to him when he was a lad of 25 and in her employ.
I envision Umm Salama playing a role similar to that of a present-day community organizer and advocate. Captivatingly intelligent as she was beautiful, she broached the issue with the Holy Prophet.
"Beloved of Allah, tell me," she asked, "Why are men mentioned in the Quran and why are we not?"
I imagine her husband, founder of the newly forming religion, receiving her question quietly with unwavering gaze; his light-filled aura, the atmosphere of gentle sobriety that always surrounded him, filling the space between them in her modest quarter. Perhaps, his eyes fluttered closed and he took a breath, full and deep and murmurous as the ocean's floor, then sent up a prayer for guidance. It would be some days before Umm Salama received an answer. But one afternoon, as she was combing her hair, she overheard the Prophet's voice coming from the minbar, reciting in the mosque the latest verse that had been revealed to him.
"O people! Allah has said in his book: ‘Men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty) and men who remember Allah and women who remember—Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.'" (Surah 33, verse 35; italics mine)
With absolute clarity, and repetitive force, a verse addressing Umm Salama's question had been revealed, removing any doubt of the place and status of women in a community of believers. Women, indeed, had a stake in the topography of the sacred text. There is no refuting that. What strikes me as marvelously refreshing is that the newly converted women of the Hejaz were far from diffident—they protested, asked questions, and expected an answer. And they were heard.
In fact, women's voices and concerns were not merely heard by the Prophet, but, moreover, were sincerely acknowledged and addressed. Complementing Umm Salama's revolutionary verse, a verse on Women—Surah An-Nisa— was revealed, laying out laws on inheritance, rendering women inheritors like their brothers, protecting them from enslavement, and overturning their pre-Islamic status as chattel. Surah An-Nisa created a furor among the male members of the Prophet's community who could not comprehend how this new religion which promised conquests was simultaneously infringing on their material privileges.
Fast forward 1400 years. The pulse of celebration has all but faded. We have regressed to the Age of Jahiliyya, the pre-Islamic Era of Ignorance, a time of barbarism, with the murky passions of tribalism, and modern-day capitalism, blinding our sense of justice and truth and ethics, where misogyny is rampant, and the dense, dark aspects of what it means to be human prevail. The new-found gains of the pioneering women of Islam, the spirit of progress and equality introduced through the intercession of the visionary Prophet and political leader Muhammad, were short-lived. Certainly, the spirit of egalitarianism is hard to discern today in the so-called ‘Islamic republics' of the modern world, which function most efficiently as travesties of their self-described identities.
As a woman born into the Islamic tradition, I feel an urgency, am filled with a fury to get it right. If it means plunging into a revisionist journey, going back to the beginning, I say, Let's begin, What's the delay?
In The Veil and the Male Elite, Moroccon sociologist Fatima Mernissi writes:
"Delving into memory, slipping into the past, is an activity that these days is closely supervised, especially for Muslim women. A passport for such a journey is not always a right. The act of recollecting, like acts of black magic, really only has an effect on the present. And this works through a strict manipulation of its opposite—the time of the dead, of those who are absent, the silent time that could tell us everything. The sleeping past can animate the present. That is the virtue of memory. Magicians know it, and the imams know it too.
"To ride alone back into memory with no guardian or guide; to take the paths that are not forbidden, but simply pleasant, agreeable, not heavily traveled, still unexplored (perhaps because power doesn't take that route); to go poking around in the vast areas of the Muslim heritage that is mine—is this a sin for me?" Mernissi asks. (page 10)
To me, what counts as "sin" – a word wrought with Biblical overtones, but so fitting—is not the earnest exploration and reclamation of the hopeful past, but the litany of news headlines screaming out of the raw wound of Pakistan's immediate present:
Pakistani Woman Burned Alive by Mother for Eloping Outside Ethnic Group (Worland, Justin; Time, June 9, 2016)
Pakistani Woman Burned to Death for Refusing Marriage Proposal (Durando, Jessica; USA Today, June 1, 2016)
Pakistani Husbands Can ‘Lightly Beat' Their Wives, Islamic Council Says (Craig, Tim; The Washington Post, May 27, 2016)
'Rampant' Violence Against Women in Pakistan Revealed as Groups Fight ‘Un-Islamic' Law Against Domestic Abuse (Dearden, Lizzie; Independent, April 5, 2016)
One harrowing story after another, weeks apart from each other, all in the last three months. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that approximately 900 women were raped and sexually assaulted in Pakistan in 2015. 279 cases of domestic violence were reported while hundreds more remain invisible. There were 143 recorded cases of women being burnt and tortured, 833 reported incidents of kidnappings, 777 reported suicides and attempted suicides involving women. All in 2015. Perpetrators of violence against women remain largely unpunished and free. Fearful of repercussions, and of being socially stigmatized and ostracized, many women who've been assaulted choose to remain silent.
Rampant misogynistic violence unspooling with wild abandon. How can we as a society, as a people—how dare we—remain silent? What do these macabre happenings say about the state of women in Pakistan? About the heritage—and the inheritance—of a Pakistani woman's identity? What does it mean to be Pakistani today? And in the midst of this embattled mentality, all this violence unleashed with ease, what is the responsibility and role of the Pakistani male?
To this sordid matrix, add the draconian stewardship of the Council of Islamic Ideology, a shockingly powerful religious body that advises Pakistani lawmakers on the compatibility of legislations with Islam. This dubious but determined Council of twenty—with its sole female member who has sadly internalized misogynistic attitudes—denounced a landmark women's protection bill in February 2016—the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act—which aimed to criminalize violence against women and establish hotlines and shelters for those confronting domestic, psychological and sexual assault. The Council repudiated the bill on the grounds that the women's protection bill conflicted with the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad!
Time, indeed, for us all to go back to the very beginning—back to the seventh century— for a refresher course. Time for us to pause, to look deeply at just how distorted and warped Islam and the Prophet's message of justice and equality have become in our modern age.
Writing in the 90's, Mernissi sheds light on the dangerous and execrable state of affairs:
"Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies. Since all power, from the seventh century on, was only legitimized by religion, political forces and economic interests pushed for the fabrication of false traditions. A false Hadith is testimony that the Prophet is alleged to have done or said such and such, which would then legitimate such an act or such an attitude. In this conjuncture of political stakes and pressures, religious discourses swarmed with traditions that legitimated certain privileges and established their owners in possession of them." (page 8)
Author Mohammed Hanif, writing about the Council of Islamic Ideology in an op-ed in the New York Times, (April 1, 2016) declared: "It's probably the most privileged dirty old men's club in the country."
I think of these council members shunning the women's protection bill, steeped in their narrow, self-serving judgment of others, worshipping the idols they have made of their egos, utterly misaligned with the spirit and ethos of the spiritual tradition they purport to represent. I think: what if, perchance the Prophet, lustrous hair touching his shoulders, graceful yet imposing in an immaculate robe, by some feat of time and manifestation, were to walk in to their majlis? Would they recognize him? Would they blush in shame at their apostasy? Or would they shun this unlettered Messenger of the Book of Light?
Muhammad understood women better than most, neither fetishizing them nor dominating them, but seeing, recognizing and appreciating them as whole beings within a vast spectrum of endless potentialities—earthy, luminous, enquiring, wild-spirited, desirous, yearning, cosmic. As a lay person, and a woman, I find reading the stories of Muhammad in seventh century Arabia to be surprisingly liberating—freeing of the falsity of limited religion; of the manipulation and domination by convention, patriarchy and political interests.
"Memory and recollection are the dawn of pleasure; they speak the language of freedom and self-development…" writes Mernissi. "They tell us of a Prophet who spoke of absurd things: nonviolence and equality. He spoke to an aristocracy fierce with pride and drunk with the power of the bow." (page 10)
As I mourn two young compatriot sisters, tragically and savagely murdered in separate incidents earlier this month because they chose to shape the course of their lives— 20-year old school teacher Maria Sadaqat and 18-year old Zeenat Rafique—I pray that we will raise our voices to demand justice, remain vigilant, and insist on laws that ensure women can live their lives free of fear and violence in the Era of Ignorance that has swooped upon us.
Pakistani poet Kishwar Naheed's "We Sinful Women," translated into English by Rukhsana Ahmed in 1991, transmits a soulful and incendiary current which resonates more than ever today.
We Sinful Women
It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns
who don't sell our lives
who don't bow our heads
who don't fold our hands together.
It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvests of our bodies
become the just princes of the material world.
It is we sinful women
who come out raising the banner of truth
up against barricades of lies on the highways
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.
It is we sinful women.
Now, even if the night gives chase
these eyes shall not be put out.
For the wall which has been razed
don't insist now on raising it again.
It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns
who don't sell our bodies
who don't bow our heads
who don't fold our hands together.
Monday, June 20, 2016
The Mesh of Civilizations in Cyberspace
by Jalees Rehman
"The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics."
—Samuel P. Huntington (1972-2008) "The Clash of Civilizations"
In 1993, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published his now infamous paper The Clash of Civilizations in the journal Foreign Affairs. Huntington hypothesized that conflicts in the post-Cold War era would occur between civilizations or cultures and not between ideologies. He divided the world into eight key civilizations which reflected common cultural and religious heritages: Western, Confucian (also referred to as "Sinic"), Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African. In his subsequent book "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order", which presented a more detailed account of his ideas and how these divisions would fuel future conflicts, Huntington also included the Buddhist civilization as an additional entity. Huntington's idea of grouping the world in civilizational blocs has been heavily criticized for being overly simplistic and ignoring the diversity that exists within each "civilization". For example, the countries of Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia were all grouped together under "Western Civilization" whereas Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Gulf states were all grouped as "Islamic Civilization" despite the fact that the member countries within these civilizations exhibited profound differences in terms of their cultures, languages, social structures and political systems. On the other hand, China's emergence as a world power that will likely challenge the economic dominance of Western Europe and the United States, lends credence to a looming economic and political clash between the "Western" and "Confucian" civilizations. The Afghanistan war and the Iraq war between military coalitions from the "Western Civilization" and nations ascribed to the "Islamic Civilization" both occurred long after Huntington's predictions were made and are used by some as examples of the hypothesized clash of civilizations.
It is difficult to assess the validity of Huntington's ideas because they refer to abstract notions of cultural and civilizational identities of nations and societies without providing any clear evidence on the individual level. Do political and economic treaties between the governments of countries – such as the European Union – mean that individuals in these countries share a common cultural identity?
Also, the concept of civilizational blocs was developed before the dramatic increase in the usage of the internet and social media which now facilitate unprecedented opportunities for individuals belonging to distinct "civilizations" to interact with each other. One could therefore surmise that civilizational blocs might have become relics of the past in a new culture of global connectivity. A team of researchers from Stanford University, Cornell University and Yahoo recently decided to evaluate the "connectedness" of the hypothesized Huntington civilizations in cyberspace and published their results in the article "The Mesh of Civilizations in the Global Network of Digital Communication".
The researchers examined Twitter users and the exchange of emails between Yahoo-Mail users in 90 countries with a minimum population of five million. In total, they analyzed "hundreds of millions of anonymized email and Twitter communications among tens of millions of worldwide users to map global patterns of transnational interpersonal communication". Twitter data is public and freely available for researchers to analyze whereas emails had to be de-identified for the analysis. The researchers did not have any access to the content of the emails, they only analyzed whether users any given country were emailing users in other countries. The researchers focused on bi-directional ties. This means that ties between Twitter user A and B were only counted as a "bi-directional" tie or link if A followed B and B followed A on Twitter. Similarly, for the analysis of emails analysis, the researchers only considered email ties in which user X emailed user Y, and there was at least one email showing that user Y had also emailed user X. This requirement for bi-directionality was necessary to exclude spam tweets or emails in which one user may send out large numbers of messages to thousands of users without there being any true "tie" or "link" between the users that would suggest an active dialogue or communication.
The researchers then created a cluster graph which is shown in the accompanying figure. Each circle represents a country and the 1000 strongest ties between countries are shown. The closer a circle is to another circle, the more email and Twitter links exist between individuals residing in the two countries. For the mathematical analysis to be unbiased, the researchers did not assign any countries to "civilizations" but they did observe key clusters of countries emerge which were very close to each other in the graph. They then colored in the circles with colors to reflect the civilization category as defined by Huntington and also colored ties within a civilization as the same color whereas ties between countries of two distinct civilization categories were kept in gray.
At first glance, these data may appear as a strong validation of the Huntington hypothesis because the circles of any given color (i.e. a Huntington civilization category) are overall far closer to each other on average that circles of a different color. For example, countries belonging to the "Latin American Civilization" (pink) countries strongly cluster together and some countries such as Chile (CL) and Peru (PE) have nearly exclusive intra-civilizational ties (pink). Some of the "Slavic-Orthodox Civilization" (brown) show strong intra-civilizational ties but Greece (GR), Bulgaria (BG) and Romania (RO) are much closer to Western European countries than other Slavic-Orthodox countries, likely because these three countries are part of the European Union and have shared a significant cultural heritage with what Huntington considers the "Western Civilization". "Islamic Civilization" (green) countries also cluster together but they are far more spread out. Pakistan (PK) and Bangladesh (BD) are far closer to each other and to India (IN), which belongs to the "Hindu Civilization" (purple) than to Tunisia (TN) and Yemen (YE) which Huntington also assigned to an ‘Islamic Civilization".
One obvious explanation for there being increased email and Twitter exchanges between individuals belonging to the same civilization is the presence of a shared language. The researchers therefore analyzed the data by correcting for language and found that even though language did contribute to Twitter and email ties, the clustering according to civilization was present even when taking language into account. Interestingly, of the various factors that could account for the connectedness between users, it appeared that religion (as defined by the World Religion Database) was one of the major factors, consistent with Huntington's focus on religion as a defining characteristic of a civilization. The researchers conclude that "contrary to the borderless portrayal of cyberspace, online social interactions do not appear to have erased the fault lines Huntington proposed over a decade before the emergence of social media." But they disagree with Huntington in that closeness of countries belonging to a civilization does not necessarily imply that it will lead to conflicts or clashes with other civilizations.
It is important to not over-interpret one study on Twitter and Email links and make inferences about broader cultural or civilizational identities just because individuals in two countries follow each other on Twitter or write each other emails. The study did not investigate identities and some of the emails could have been exchanged as part of online purchases without indicating any other personal ties. However, the data presented by the researchers does reveal some fascinating new insights about digital connectivity that are not discussed in much depth by the researchers. China (CN) and Great Britain (GB) emerge as some of the most highly connected countries at the center of the connectivity map with strong extra-civilizational ties, including countries in Africa and India. Whether this connectivity reflects the economic growth and increasing global relevance of China or a digital footprint of the British Empire even decades after its demise would be a worthy topic of investigation. The public availability of Twitter data makes it a perfect tool to analyze the content of Twitter communications and thus define how social media is used to engage in dialogue between individuals across cultural, religious and political boundaries.
Huntington, S. P. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs, 72(3) 22-49.
State, B., Park, P., Weber, I., & Macy, M. (2015). The mesh of civilizations in the global network of digital communication. PLoS ONE, 10(5), e0122543.
Monday, June 06, 2016
Viewing the Early Muslim State Through Its Coinage
by Ali Minai
The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries CE were arguably among the most cataclysmic and consequential events in world history, creating a completely new and long-lasting civilization from India and Central Asia to the Western edge of North Africa. And, while this civilization has ramified and fragmented considerably over the subsequent thirteen centuries, its imprint still shapes the history of these regions today to a decisive degree. An especially important manifestation of this influence is the widespread sentiment among the Muslims of this region for some sort of "return" to that idealized earlier period of glory and purity – a sentiment that has fueled revivalist movements ranging from political ones such as the Muslim Brotherhood to violent ones like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, this revivalist impulse goes far beyond these visible movements, and pervades Muslim societies from South Asia to Morocco, entering every aspect of social, cultural and political life in myriad ways. In a sense, this can be seen as the natural impulse of people attempting to repossess their past after a period of colonization, but what makes such a desire compellingly possible is the fact that so little is truly known about the early period of Islam.
Ernest Renan famously said that Islam – unlike other great world religions – was "born in the full light of history". However, this view has been challenged vigorously in the last century by Western scholars seeking to apply modern historical methods to the origins of Islam. To be sure, some of this "near-revisionism" is motivated by skepticism about the religion itself, but the problem is real enough. Most Muslims have implicit faith in the received reports and traditions about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but the fact is that the first biographical reports of the Prophet – by Ibn Ishāq and Mālik b. Anas – were not written down until more than a century after his death, and the earliest comprehensive histories of Islam – by Ibn Sa'd, Al-Wāqidī, Al-Tabarī, al-Balādhurī, et al. – date from the late 8th to early 9th century. A century or two may not seem long in the context of history, but the rise of Islam was so rapid that its truly formative period was basically over by the mid-8th century when the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad caliphate, replacing that most Arab of dynasties with one rooted in a more cosmopolitan ethos. Also, because of the way it had acquired power, the Abbasid dynasty had a strong incentive to promote a specific version of early Islamic history and doctrine. Thus, it is especially important to look at contemporary evidence to obtain an accurate picture of Islam's earliest period.
In searching for the roots of Islamic society in the period between the Prophet's death c. 632 CE and the fall of the Umayyads in 750 CE, historians have very few truly contemporary sources to rely on. Remarkably, one of these sources is the Qur'an – the Islamic scripture – some partially preserved copies of which have recently been dated to within the Prophet's lifetime or soon after. The fact that these original copies of the Qur'an are virtually identical to the text used today supports the Muslim belief of scriptural integrity, and enhances confidence that the theological content of the original Islam can reasonably be obtained from the Qur'an itself. However, this still leaves large parts of cultural, political and socioeconomic history uncertain. The contemporary sources that provide information about these are: 1) Direct or incidental statements by contemporary non-Muslim writers referring to Muslims; 2) A growing (and as yet mostly un-studied) corpus of papyrus texts describing administrative and financial transactions; 3) a few rock inscriptions; 4) The ruined palaces and other archeological sites from the Umayyad period; 5) The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, constructed by the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān c. 691 CE; and 6) An immense and varied body of coins. The rest of this article looks at the last of these, and considers what this coinage may tell us about the policies and attitudes of the early Islamic state.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF EARLY ISLAMIC COINAGE
Money in the form of coins is such a fundamental part of human society that it is easy to lose sight of how relatively recent an invention it is. For about half of the five thousand year period that may be considered "recorded history", there was no known use of coinage. To be sure, metals such as gold and silver were considered valuable, and were probably used in barter arrangements or the payment of tax and tribute. However, according to both Herodotus and archaeological evidence, the first known coinage was introduced in the kingdom of Lydia in modern-day Turkey in the 6th or 7th century BCE – possibly by King Croesus (595-546 BCE), whose name became a symbol of wealth. The Lydian coins were made from a mixture of gold and silver called electrum, and though made into pieces with various denominations, they were actually used by weight – a practice that continued for centuries thereafter until the advent of precisely controlled mechanized minting. Once invented, coinage spread rapidly to other Greek states, and to the Persians, whose emperor Cyrus the Great defeated and killed Croesus in 546. Something similar to coinage also arose in India around the same time in the form of punch-marked pieces of silver called puranas or karshapanas. These were to become more widespread and elaborate during the great Mauryan Empire in the period after c. 320 BCE (Figure 1). By then, the Greeks – including the Greek states Alexander left behind in Western India, Iran and the Middle East – were issuing much more sophisticated coins with recognizable portraits and elaborate inscriptions. In particular, the Greeks introduced a silver coin whose name was to become ubiquitous throughout the region from India to Spain – the drachma. Variants of this name – drachm, dram, dirham, dam, damma – have been used for coinage by states ranging from the Parthian and Sassanian empires in Iran to the modern states of Morocco, Armenia and, until recently, Greece!
For more than seven centuries after Arab armies burst forth from Arabia to conquer an empire spanning three continents, the coinage of most of the Muslim world was to consist of three types of coins: The gold dīnār, named after the Byzantine Denarius Aureus; the silver dirham, and the lowly copper or bronze fals. But this system took some time to emerge. What happened during the transitional period offers interesting insights into the early Muslim state and poses several tricky questions. In particular, the coins of Islam's earliest period represent possibly the most concrete basis of archaeological and historical reconstruction for a period where evidence of other kinds is remarkably thin.
Like much of the early history of Islam, the origin of Islamic coinage is shrouded in mystery, but it is possible to reach a few broad conclusions based on the available corpus of coins. This article looks at the Islamic coinage of the period from the beginnings of Islam to about 700 CE, when the Umayyad dynasty was well-established at the top of the Muslim state. One goal in doing this is to obtain insight into the policies and attitudes of the society that produced this coinage, and possibly to infer the motivations of its leaders.
From a numismatic viewpoint, this duration can be divided into six distinct periods, with transitions often corresponding to major historic events. As with any division of historical time, this periodization is somewhat arbitrary, but useful nevertheless.
I. The Early Period: From Inception to 651 CE
The Arabs at the advent of Islam in c. 610 CE appear to have had no coinage of their own, and presumably used Roman (Byzantine) and Sassanian coinage. Rather conveniently, the Byzantines minted gold and copper coins while the Sassanians minted mainly silver. One can speculate that a trade-based economy such as that of Western Arabia's oasis towns might have used currencies from both sources in a standard gold-silver-copper configuration.
The Arab conquests began in the earnest around 634 CE, two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sassanian Empire fell after losses at Qadisiyya in 636 and Nahavand in 642, leaving the Arabs in almost complete control of the empire. Syria, Palestine and Egypt had also all been wrested away from the Byzantine Empire by 642, though the empire endured to the north of Syria in most of Anatolia and into Europe. Thus, within a remarkably short period of eight years, the Muslim state had come to hold sway over a vast region that had previously encompassed most of two great empires, with major cities, active commerce and highly productive agricultural lands in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt. Yet, through most of this period, the Caliphate based in Medina still did not issue any coinage, and continued to use Byzantine and Persian coins as before. The coinage in use seems to have been the Byzantine gold solidus and copper follis, and the Sassanian silver drahm. The latter typically weighed about 4 grams and had a design that had largely been unchanged for 400 years, with the portrait of the Shahanshāh (emperor) on the obverse side and a Zoroastrian sacred fire altar with two attendants on the reverse side, which also carried the date and mint name (see Figure 2).
After the loss of his capital at Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad) in 636 CE, the last Sassanian emperor, Yazdegerd III (r. 632 – 651 CE), fled with his court, first to eastern parts of Iran in the Kerman region, and then eventually into Central Asia, where he was assassinated in 651 CE. Throughout this period, silver drahms were minted in his name in areas still under his nominal control. Presumably, these coins also found their way into the rest of the region and comprised the primary silver coinage of the early Islamic Caliphate. The Arabs called this coin the dirham, and the word remained in use for centuries thereafter.
Figure 2: Top: Silver drahm of the first Sassanian emperor, Ardeshir I (r. 222-242 CE). Bottom: Silver drahm of the last Sassanian emperor, Yezdegerd III (r. 632-651 CE). The coins show how the same general pattern was followed in coins throughout the Sassanian period, with the emperor's profile on the obverse and a fire altar on the reverse. For most of this period, the fire-altar was flanked by two attendants, which is the design that the Muslim state inherited and used. Author's Collection.
The copper coinage of the early period is rather confusing and poorly understood. Stefan Heidemann (2010) has indicated that the Arabs continued to import standard Byzantine copper coins in large quantities for use in the conquered areas, probably with the acquiescence of the Byzantine state which still regarded these regions as part of its jurisdiction and the Arab conquerors as temporary occupiers. However, the Arabs also appear to have started minting their own copper coinage around 636 CE (Heidemann, 2010), comprising imitations of the Byzantine coins with the Emperor's portrait and Greek inscriptions.
A remarkable fact about the coins used in the Islamic Caliphate until about 651 CE is that they bore no Islamic text or symbolism at all. Instead, they had the portraits of the Byzantine and Sassanian emperors and explicitly religious Zoroastrian and Christian symbols – the fire altar and the cross! Thus, paradoxically, the coins used during Islam's most sacred period violate what came to be regarded as one its strictest edicts – the proscription of figural images and un-Islamic symbols. These coins depicting non-Muslim emperors and symbols must have filled the bayt-al-māl (treasury) of the most doctrinally iconoclastic state in history, and the earliest believers whose faith taught them to abhor such images must freely have used these coins in ordinary commerce. Or perhaps these were pragmatic people, and not quite as rigid and doctrinaire in these matters as later generations would make them appear.
II. The Islamic Imprint: 651 CE – 660 CE
Interestingly, the first coins with an explicitly Islamic imprimatur appeared around 651 CE – exactly the time when Yazdegerd III was assassinated. It is impossible to know why this was the case, but informed speculation is possible. At this point in history, coins were the most visible symbol of sovereignty and derived their value both from the metal they contained and the certification of the ruler in whose name they were issued. To be acceptable, a coin needed the backing of a recognized authority, much as currency today needs the backing of a central bank. It was as though, up until Yazdegerd's death, the Muslim state had been content to "borrow" the sovereignty of the defeated Persian emperor for the credibility of its silver coinage. This may have been a purely political choice, given that almost the entire population of the conquered regions was still non-Muslim and probably more emotionally attached to their former ruler. However, once he was dead, an urgent need was felt to replace his authority with the visible symbol of a new one: Islam.
Figure 3: A silver dirham that is generally considered to be the "first" Islamic coin. Probably issued during the period of the third "rightly-guided" caliph, ʻUthmān b. ‘Affān (r. 644-656 CE). The coin uses the same dies as contemporary Sassanian coins, with "bismillah" added in Arabic in the obverse margin. Author's Collection.
The solution that was adopted at this point was also rather instructive. Instead of moving to a radically different coinage, Sassanian silver dirhams were "Islamized" by adding a small piece of Arabic text in the margin on the obverse side, leaving the emperor's portrait, the fire altars and the Pahlavi inscriptions (including the emperor's name) in place! The text added varied, but the classic Muslim invocation "bismillāh" (In the name of Allah) was the most common (see Figure 3). Others included "jayyid" (good/valid) and "lillāh-il-hamd" (praise is for Allah alone), as well as a few rarer inscriptions. Apparently, local governors had wide latitude in which of these they wished to put on their coins. One other interesting device was also adopted for these coins. Sassanian coins carried the date of their minting by stating the regnal year of the emperor whose portrait they bore. The last coins issued by Yazdegerd thus carried the date "Year 20", indicating their issuance in the 20th year after his enthronement in 632 CE. For the subsequent coins issued with the Arabic inscriptions, this date was "frozen" at this value, so that coins issued in the period 651 to 660 CE often carried the nominal date "Year 20", making it very difficult to date the coins more precisely. This may have been done simply out of convenience, so that the dies used to make the final coins of the Sassanian era could be reused with the added Arabic inscription.
After 650 CE, there is evidence of a drop-off in imported Byzantine copper coins – presumably as the Byzantine state came to terms with the permanence of the Arab conquest – and the establishment of Arab mints in Syria. However, these mints continued to produce coins using the Byzantine template, with the image of the Emperor, occasionally with the added Arabic words "tayyib" (pure) or "jā'iz" (authorized), or the word "KALON" (good) in Greek (Heidemann, 2010). In later copper coinage from about 670 CE onwards, the cross is often replaced with a non-Christian shape such as a staff or a globe, though coins with the cross continued to be minted even into the 690s (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: Umayyad copper fals minted in Emises/Hims (modern Homs) c. 685 -697 CE. Note the stylized portrait of the Emperor with crosses on the crown and on the globe he is holding. The Arabic word "tayyib" and the Greek work "KALON" (both meaning "good") indicate the validity of the coin. Author's Collection.
III. Early Umayyad Period: 660 CE – 680 CE
Islamic coinage for the period between 660 CE and 700 CE provides a series of interesting details with potential insights into the social and political events of this critical period – and possibly even into the evolution of Islamic doctrine. However, in the absence of strictly contemporary writings or records, it is difficult to interpret these details with certainty.
The year 660 is of special significance in Islamic history. It represents the transition of the Caliphate from the first four "rāshidūn" (rightly-guided) caliphs to the first ruler of the Umayyad dynasty, Muʻāwiya b. Abī Sufiyān, who moved the capital to his power base in Damascus. The 21 years of his rule saw the consolidation of the Muslim state, and the establishment of a more typical administrative structure derived from the Sassanian and Byzantine models. This may be the reason that changes with more overtly political significance begin appearing in coins minted during this period.
One notable change in the silver coinage was that dirhams bearing the portrait of the defeated Yazdegerd III were replaced by those bearing the portrait of Khusrau II (r. 590-628 CE) – known as Parvīz – the last truly powerful Sassianan emperor. The tradition of marking the coins as Islamic by adding an Arabic inscription in the obverse margin was continued. The reason for the change of portraits is not known with certainty, but informed speculation suggests that, even three decades after his death, Khusrau Parvīz commanded greater awe among the former Sassanian populace than the hapless Yazdegerd, and the use of Khusrau's portrait may indicate that the new Umayyad rulers felt a greater need for pro-active methods to win the loyalty of their subjects in Iraq and Persia. Coins with the portrait of Yazdegerd did continue to be minted, though the dates based on Yazdegerd's accession began to be updated as well. Eventually, this led to a coin dated "Year 1 of Yazīd" (Mochiri, 1982) – the first coin dated with reference to a Muslim ruler, Yazīd b. Muʻāwiya.
Another interesting change that occurred in this period was that the name of the Sasanian emperor on the coins was often replaced by the name of the Arab governor under whose authority the coin was being issued, but in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) script rather than Arabic (Foss, 2002). Thus, one has the paradoxical situation of coins with Zoroastrian religious symbology, the face of a dead Sassanian emperor labeled by the name of a Muslim governor in Pahlavi script, and an Arabic religious inscription in the margin! This chimeric design remained the standard silver coinage of the Muslim state for almost four decades. A similar pattern is apparent in the copper coinage, where the portrait of the Byzantine emperor (and sometimes several emperors or an emperor and his queen) coexisted with Greek and Arabic inscriptions, occasionally accompanied by the Christian symbol of the cross (Figure 4).
Figure 5: Silver dirham c. 673 CE issued in the name of the Caliph Muʻāwiya b. Abi Sufyan. The coin depicts Sassanian Emperor Khusrau II, with the Pahlavi inscription "maawia amīr-i wurrishnikān" in front of the emperor's face. The Arabic inscription in the obverse margin reads "bismillāh" (in the name of Allah). Author's Collection.
A very important milestone in this period was the issuing of coins explicitly in the name of the Caliph himself, with the inscription "maawia amīr-i wurrishnikān" – Muʻāwiya, Commander of the Believers (Foss, 2002). The term for "believers" comes from the Pehlavi verb, "wurrōyistan", which means "to believe". These silver dirhams, minted around 673-674 CE (52-54 AH), represent the first instance when the all-important title was used on a coin (Figure 5), and it is truly remarkable that the title appeared in Pahlavi rather than Arabic form (amīr- al-mu'minīn). The Arabic form does, however, appear around the same time in several rock inscriptions.
IV: The Second Fitnah: 680 CE – 692 CE
The death of Muʻāwiya in 680 CE precipitated a twelve-year period of exceptional turbulence and trauma for the Muslim community. This is termed the Second Fitnah (civil strife) of the three such episodes of civil war recognized in early Islamic history (the first followed the assassination of the third Caliph, ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān, and the third was the Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty). While the history of this period was only written down later from oral reports, coins provide direct, if often cryptic, contemporary documentation of the events. As such, the numismatic record of this period is of incalculable historical value.
The Second Fitnah arose from the refusal of large sections of the Muslim community to recognize the successors of Muʻāwiya – notably his son, Yazīd I – as Caliph. Of these rebellions, the one that lasted the longest and became most problematic for the Umayyads was the declaration of a rival caliphate in Hejaz by ‘Abdullāh b. al-Zubayr – usually known as Ibn Zubayr. Initial Umayyad attempts to quell this rebellion failed. Eventually, Ibn Zubayr controlled almost half of the territory of the Muslim state, including the Arabian peninsula and parts of Iraq and Persia. He became the second individual to issue coins declaring himself "Commander of the Believers" (see Figure 6). Ibn Zubayr, who ruled from Mecca, was ultimately defeated in 692 CE by an Umayyad army under Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf, but only after a siege that resulted in the virtual destruction of the Ka'ba in Mecca and the Great Mosque in Medina.
Figure 6: Silver dirham issued by Ibn Zubayr c. 682 in Istakhr (Iran). The Pahlavi inscription in front of the face of Emperor Khusrau II reads "apdwla-i zubiran amīr-i -wurrishnikān" (ʻAbdullah bin Zubayr, Commander of the Believers). The Arabic inscription in the obverse margin reads "bismillāh" (in the name of Allah). Author's collection.
The period of the Second Fitnah was also marked by the ascendancy of several ultra-fundamentalist – or khārijī – Muslim groups. One group called the Azraqites, led by Qatarī b. al-Fujāʻa, issued coins with the declaration "lā ḥukmu illā lillāh" (There is no dominion except for Allah) c. 694 CE, while another led by ‘Atiya b. Aswad inscribed the somewhat less categorical phrase "bismillāh walī-al-amr" (in the name of Allah, Master of affairs) on his coins issued around 691 CE. The Islamic phraseology of these coins indicates the presence of the same literalist and inflexible attitude that imbues the extremists jihadi groups of today, who are the doctrinal descendants of these early khārijī rebels.
Three very important milestones occurred on coins in this period:
- The first appearance of the slogan "allāhu akbar" (Allah is Great) on a coin – one minted in Central Asia c. 684 CE (65 AH) in the name of the Umayyad governor, Salm b. Ziyād, and bearing inscriptions in three languages: Pahlavi, Arabic, and Bactrian (using Greek script)!
- The first appearance of the name of the Prophet Muhammad in any dated Islamic text (except the Qur'anic manuscripts), and the first instance of the declaration "muḥammad rasūlallāh" (Muhammad [is] the messenger of Allah). This occurred on coins issued by ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abdullāh, Ibn Zubayr's governor of Bishapur c. 685 CE (66 AH) (see Figure7). Once started, this trend caught on quickly, and the phrase became standard on Umayyad coinage within a few years.
- The first appearance of the full "shahāda", or expression of the Muslim creed on a coin issued by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. ‘Abdullah, Ibn Zubayr's governor of Sistan (Eastern Iran) c. 691 CE (72 AH) (Johns, 2003). Remarkably, this too was written in Pahlavi, reading "One God, except He / no other god exists / Muhammad [is] the messenger of God" (Mochiri, 1981). Thus, the first surviving instance of the Islamic shahāda is not in Arabic but in Pahlavi! An Arabic version would not appear until a few years later.
Figure 7: Silver dirham of ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abdullah, issued c. 685 CE (66 AH), and bearing the Arabic inscription "bismillah / Muhammad rasūlallāh" (In the name of Allah / Muhammad [is] Allah's messenger). Author's Collection.
V. Umayyad Consolidation: 692 CE – 696 CE
The Umayyad rearguard against Ibn Zubayr's revolt was led by Marwān b. al-Hakam, a cousin of both ‘Uthmān and Muʻāwiya. In 685 CE, his son, ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān, was declared the Umayyad caliph in Damascus, truly inaugurating the so-called Marwanid period of the Umayyad dynasty. After defeating Ibn Zubayr in Mecca (c. 692 CE) as well as the various khārijī rebel "caliphs" in Iraq and Persia, ‘Abd al-Malik consolidated Umayyad authority and, some have suggested, laid the practical groundwork for much of what has since been recognized as the Islamic ethos. In terms of coinage, ‘Abd al-Malik's reign saw a remarkable set of experiments, culminating in a standardization that became the model for Islamic coinage for centuries thereafter.
Perhaps the boldest and most important innovation in coinage by ‘Abd al-Malik was the attempt to introduce explicitly Muslim figural elements. Until this point, the human figures in the coinage had been those of Sassanian and Byzantine emperors, though clearly the implication was to have these figures confer authority upon the Muslim ruler. Around 691-92 CE, ‘Abd al-Malik introduced a gold coin where the three imperial figures were given decidedly Arab costume (rather than Byzantine), and the complete shahāda – "la ilāha illallāh waḥdahū / muhammad rasūlallāh" (there is no god but Allah, the One, [and] Muhammad [is] Allah's messenger) was inscribed on the coin. This is generally regarded as the first official instance of the complete shahāda in any Islamic artifact, followed soon by its inscription in the Dome of the Rock c. 692 CE. Around the same period, ‘Abd al-Malik's brother, Bishr b. Marwān, who was governor of Basra, issued Sassanian-style silver dirhams with a three figure motif replacing the fire-altar and attendants, and the same complete shahada as the gold coins.
There has been much debate about whom the three figures might represent, with the general assumption that the central figure in both the gold and silver coinage is probably meant to be the caliph himself. It is interesting that, in the silver coinage, this figure has his hands raised to his ears, which is interpreted as an oratorical position, i.e., the caliph is depicted giving a sermon – or perhaps praying. The surrounding figures may represent governors or sons. In any case, there is little doubt that these coins represented a significant step towards the Umayyads taking complete ownership of their coinage.
Another remarkable series of coins minted in this period were the so-called "Mihrab and Anaza" silver dirhams (Treadwell, 2005), where the Sassanian emperor's portrait was surrounded by the shahāda and modified to suggest that it represented an image of the caliph (e.g., holding a sword). On the reverse side of these coins, the Sassanian fire altar was replaced by an arch with a spear standing upright in it. Most notably, the inscriptions on either side of the arch read "amīr al-mu'minīn" (Commander of the Believers) and "khalīfatullāh" (Deputy of Allah) – though the latter has also been read as "khalaftullah" (I act in the name of Allah). The spear is flanked by the words "naṣr \ Allāh" (succor from Allah).
This approach culminated in the issuance around 694 CE of a famous series of gold and copper coins known as the Standing Caliph series. These coins depicted a standing figure, clad in Arab robes and head-dress, and holding what looks like a sword (though some have termed it a staff). There is near-consensus that this figure is meant to represent the caliph himself, much as Sassanian and Byzantine coins had depicted emperors. Notably, some scholars such as Foss (2001) and Hoyland (2007) have suggested that in some cases, the figure depicts the Prophet himself, but this is unlikely (Schulze and Schulze, 2010). The gold coin also carried the complete shahāda and, for the first time, an explicit declaration in Arabic of the year the coin was minted. Both these features were to become permanent in subsequent gold and silver coinage. The copper coinage with the standing caliph motif was more varied (see Figure 8).
Figure 8: Two types of Umayyad copper coins with the Standing Caliph motif. The coin on the left has the complete shahada and the name of the caliph with the title "amīr al-mu'minīn", whereas the one on the right only has "Muḥammad rasulallāh" and the name of the mint, "īliya / filisṭīn" (Jerusalem, Palestine). The inscription and the distinctive posture of the figure has led some to suggest that the latter coin might depict the Prophet Muhammad himself, but this is extremely unlikely. Author's Collection.
The Standing Caliph series lasted only for a few years (Bates, 1987), and it is hypothesized that it failed because of objections to its figural content from the Muslim community. If so, this indicates that, by this point, some degree of iconoclastic feeling had pervaded the Muslim polity. Another indication of such sentiment comes from the response to a set of coins issued by Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf, the governor of Basra around 694 CE. These Sassanian-style coins had the emperor's portrait, surrounded by the complete shahāda in one of two different styles (see Figure 9 for one style). Notably, the name of the governor on these coins was inscribed in Arabic rather than Pahlavi. Apparently, the more pious members of the community raised some sort of objection on these coins as well – perhaps to the conjunction of the shahāda and the emperor's portrait – and the coins stopped being minted.
Figure 9: Silver dirham issued by Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf c. 694 CE, with the full shahada and the governor's name in Arabic. Author's Collection.
VI. The Reform Coinage: 696 CE onwards
Finally, in 696-97 CE, ‘Abd al-Malik implemented a sweeping reform of all coinage, moving away from all figural depictions and non-Arabic scripts, and switching to purely aniconic designs with Arabic inscriptions. First, a gold dinar was issued in 696 CE. On the obverse, it had the central inscription "lā ilāha illallāh waḥdahū lā sharīkalah" (there is no god but Allah, the One, He has no associates), and along the circumference the inscription "Muḥammad rasūlallāh arsalahū bi-l-hudā wa dīn al-ḥaqq liyudhhiru ‘ala al-dīni kullihī" (Muhammad [is] the messenger of Allah, whom He sent with guidance and the religion of Truth that He might proclaim it over all religions). The part after Muḥammad rasūlallah quotes from the Qur'an 61:9. The reverse had a central field inscribed with part of chapter 112 from the Qur'an – "Allāhu aḥad Allāhu al-ṣamad lam yalid wa-lam yūlad" (Allah is one. Allah is eternal. He did not beget and was not begotten), with the inscription around the circumference explicitly stating the mint and year of minting in Hijri calendar.
The silver coinage, issued a year later, followed exactly the same pattern, with two minor changes. In the quote from Qur'an 61:9 on the obverse, a part omitted in the gold coins was included, so that the inscription read "Muḥammad rasūlallāh arsalahū bi-l-hudā wa dīn al-ḥaqq liyudhhiru ‘ala al-dīni kullihī wa-law karih-al-mushrikūn" (Muḥammad [is] the messenger of Allah, whom He sent with guidance and the religion of truth that He might proclaim it over all religions even if the associators are averse). On the reverse, the central inscription now quoted the complete text of chapter 112: Allāhu aḥad Allāhu al-ṣamad lam yalid wa-lam yūlad wa-lam yakun lahū kufuwan aḥad" (Allah is one. Allah is eternal. He did not beget and was not begotten. And there is none like unto Him). An early example is shown in Figure 10.
Figure 10: Umayyad post-reform silver dirham following the standard pattern, except the inclusion of the mint name, Marw, in Pahlavi script at the bottom of the central field on the obverse. Author's Collection.
Once implemented, the pattern of the gold and silver coinage was followed without any change until the end of the Umayyad dynasty in 750 CE, and continued with minor changes in the first two centuries of the Abbasid dynasty (Figure 11). Indeed, broadly similar designs with textual and stylistic variations were to be used for gold and silver coins through most of the Islamic world for many centuries thereafter, and with rare exceptions, the use of figural motifs in coinage was abandoned completely until modern times.
Figure 11: Gold dinar issued by the Abbasid Caliph Harūn al-Rashīd. Note the continuity of the general pattern from the Umayyad reform coinage (Figure 10). Author's collection.
Interestingly, the early use of the shahāda and Qur'anic texts on fundamentally commercial artifacts such as coins indicates that currently held popular ideas about the use and handling of such texts are a recent invention. Today, many Muslims have come to regard even the damaging of paper with Qur'anic text or the handling of such texts by non-Muslims as disrespectful, or even blasphemous. But such texts were used on coins from Spain to India for a thousand years. These coins were mishandled, hammered, gouged, cut and re-melted. They were used by people of all creeds, and even copied (poorly) by many Christian states for use as their currency (see Figure 12). They found their way to all parts of the known world, so that some of the biggest hordes of early Islamic coins have been discovered in places such as Sweden. All these things show that early Muslims had a much more relaxed attitude towards the sanctity and appropriate use of religious texts than many imagine today.
Figure 12: A gold Bezant of the Crusader State of Jerusalem, c. 12th-13th cent. CE. The coin imitates Fatimid dinars, including the inscriptions of the shahāda and other religious declarations. Author's collection.
INTERPRETING THE NUMISMATIC DATA
Coins are remarkably informative archaeological artifacts, referring explicitly to persons, dates and places, and often providing additional information through their inscriptions, their physical attributes, and the location of their discovery. However, this richness also makes it difficult to interpret their information precisely – especially in the absence of other sources. The numismatic corpus from the early Islamic period is especially difficult in this sense. Looking back at it with modern eyes – and with the cultural and religious history of the last thirteen centuries in mind – several questions arise naturally: Why did it take so long for the Arab conquerors to settle on an "Islamic" design for coinage? Why did they rely on chimeric designs with obviously "un-Islamic" symbology and attributes for an extended period? Why were sacred inscriptions so often in Pehlavi rather than Arabic? What motivated the choice of designs and inscriptions as the coinage evolved? What sort of state was it that produced this evolving coinage?
Some of these questions have been addressed indirectly in the discussion above, but this section will consider them more explicitly to explore what the coinage in question might say about the social, cultural economic, political and religious milieu that produced it.
Two issues, in particular, deserve special attention:
- The use of chimeric coins over an extended period lasting at least until 692 CE.
- The sudden proliferation of overtly Islamic statements on coins and in other texts after about 690 CE, leading to the issuing of reformed coinage in 696 CE.
Both provide uniquely significant insight into the likely nature, orientation and evolution of the early Muslim state.
The Use of Chimeric Coinage
To the person unfamiliar with early Islamic coinage, its most striking and surprising feature is the use of Byzantine and Sassanian designs, including the portraits of emperors and depictions of non-Muslim religious symbols. This remarkable fact has elicited much interest, and some highly questionable revisionist theories about the origins of Islam (see Grodzky (2014) for a good summary). However, much more plausible and historically justifiable explanations can be found based on existing evidence and minimal speculation.
Most people – especially Muslims – have been conditioned to believe that Islam is an exclusivist, iconoclastic faith that forbids images and execrates the symbols of other faiths. Yet, in the very period idealized today by Muslims everywhere – including the time of the Prophet himself – Muslims seem to have used Byzantine and Sassanian coinage without objection. Even more astonishingly, when Islamic features did begin to appear on coins, the most significant features of the non-Islamic design – emperors' portraits, fire altars and crosses, Pahlavi and Greek scripts – were still retained. Indeed, the first dated expressions of the Muslim creed (the shahāda and the formal affirmation of the Prophet Muhammad's status), as well as the first reference to a named caliph as "Commander of the Believers" on a coin, all occur in Pahlavi, not Arabic! From the date of its first major conquests, the Muslim state took more than 60 years to arrive at a coinage design that reflected what would today be recognized as a strictly Islamic form.
One common misunderstanding must be dispelled at this point. The chimeric coins of early Islam were not existing Byzantine or Persian coins stamped over with Arabic inscriptions. The coins with the mixture of symbologies and inscriptions were minted explicitly by the Muslim state – often using new dies prepared wholly within the period of Muslim rule. Thus, it is not the case that Muslim administrators could not have initiated a more overtly "Islamic" coinage at a much earlier date. Rather, they chose not to do so – or at least saw no need for it – and it is interesting to ask why that might have been the case.
To answer this question, one must consider the early Islamic state in the context of its time rather than through the lens of subsequent centuries. In retrospect, the Arab conquests look like the beginning of an entirely new civilizational turn in the areas ruled by the Persian and Byzantine empires, but things probably looked very different to those who actually accomplished the conquests, and the choices they made – including those about coinage – were necessarily driven by their conceptions in real time.
In view of what followed, perhaps the most easily overlooked aspect of the Arab conquest is its relatively mundane nature. To be sure, the Arabs were extremely unlikely conquerors, but conquest itself was a commonplace affair for most of the region in question. The two great empires – and their predecessor empires – had been over-running each other's territories regularly for almost a thousand years before the Arabs appeared. This was especially true in the areas comprising modern Syria and Iraq. Each of these conquests involved the transfer of sovereignty over large populations from one ruler and one religion to another. And though the conquerors often indulged in massacre, enslavement, and desecration of sacred places, most of the populace was allowed to go about its affairs without the imposition of grand societal transformations. The authority of the conquerors was generally maintained through a relatively small occupying force and a local bureaucracy co-opted by force. The Arabs were no exception. Indeed, they needed this model more than prior conquerors because of their smaller numbers and a lack of governing experience or infrastructure.
As documented, among others, by Hodgson and Hoyland using Muslim sources such as al-Tabari and al-Balādhuri, the early Arab conquerors had little interest in creating a new civilization, or in converting the conquered populations to Islam. Rather, they saw these populations mainly as a source of labor, goods, and revenue, which was consistent with the practices of the time. The Arab soldiery – which included Christians as well as Muslims – lived in separate garrison towns and had limited contact with the local populace. People of all faiths in the conquered regions – including Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and later Hindus – were recognized as "People of the Book" so that they could be subject to the poll tax (jizya), which formed a critical part of the Muslim state's tax base. Indeed, when the locals did begin to convert under social and financial pressures, it became something of a fiscal crisis for the Muslim state, prompting drastic changes in tax law to ensure that conversion could occur without loss of revenue. Even so, non-Arab converts typically needed to find an Arab Muslim patron before they could fully join the Muslim community. It took well over three centuries for most of the Middle East and Persia to become Muslim majority regions. All these things indicate that the original Muslim state's conception of itself was very different than that promoted by later revisionist thinking, and was more along the lines of traditional control over conquered peoples rather than the creation of a radically new egalitarian polity. This is reflected in the fact that the poll tax was often imposed on all adults in the conquered lands, implying that they were considered a single class regardless of their religious affiliation. A polity rooted in an Islamic identity only emerged as non-Arab Muslims acquired greater power and sought to erase the memory of their subservient status.
Given this situation, it was natural that the decisions of the early Muslim state would be concerned more with maintaining control rather than a zeal for "Islamization". This was especially important because the Arab forces comprised a tiny, relatively isolated minority in the lands they had conquered. Continuity would clearly have been more useful in this context than wholesale disruption of societal patterns, and the decision to keep using existing coinage with minor changes may have been driven by this consideration. The still largely Zoroastrian or Christian populations were more likely to feel secure with fire altars, crosses and familiar images of their old rulers on the coins they used every day (Donner, 1986). And yet, like all conquerors, the Arabs must also have felt the need to stamp their authority in some way, especially as the conquest took hold. One way they did so was by introducing explicitly Islamic inscriptions on coins. But here too, it must have been important to make sure that the message got through. Thus, in Persia which had no familiarity with Arabic, the Muslim state used Pehlavi to make its religious statements, but felt freer to use Arabic in Syria and Egypt, where the language may have had somewhat greater penetration already.
Another important likely factor was the necessarily asymmetric relationship between the Muslim state and its two predecessor empires. Unlike the Sassanian Empire, which was overthrown completely and its last ruler killed in exile, the Byzantine Empire remained a strong force even after losing Syria, and held on to its legendary capital, Constantinople. Thus, Zoroastrian symbols and the Pehalvi language represented no real threat to the conquerors, whereas Christianity and Roman civilization remained potent adversaries. This may explain why removing the Christian cross from coins was given a much higher priority than removing the Zoroastrian fire altar – though the cross continued to appear sporadically until 692 CE.
The long-lasting use of chimeric coins, and especially ‘Abd al-Malik's initial experiments with putting his own image on coins, also suggests that early Islam was far less dogmatic about figural representations than is seen later in history. At the same time, it is also clear from the failure of Abd al-Malik's figural coinage that, by the mid-690s, Muslim opinion-makers had come to frown upon the practice of depiction. Hodgson (1975) has called the choice of a non-figural coin design "a stroke of genius" that symbolized the Muslim faith in compelling fashion.
The Proliferation of Official Religious Statements Post-690 CE
Prior to the accession of ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān to the caliphate in 685 CE, there is very little overt assertion of religious doctrine in the historic record, but this changes rather abruptly after about 690 CE – on coins as well as in written texts and architectural decoration. This has led several revisionist historians to suggest that the currently accepted religion of Islam was largely created during the period of ‘Abd al-Malik and his successors, building upon a more rudimentary earlier cult. Another implication derived from the evidence is that the Muslim state prior to 690 CE was relatively weak and not based explicitly on a religious vision. However, as Hodgson, Donner, Hoyland and others have argued persuasively, there is little reason to accept the first assertion, and the second one must be understood in proper historical context. An increasing amount of evidence from early papyrus inscriptions indicates that the Muslim state was administratively quite sophisticated as early as the period of the second Caliph, ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb (583-644 CE), and certainly by the caliphate of Muʻāwiya b. Abi Sufyān (660-680 CE). Numerous rock and papyrus inscriptions from the pre-690 CE period also show that Islamic religious sentiment and Qur'anic expression at the personal level had become well-established among Muslims by that time. Why, then, the sudden emergence of official religious statements?
The answer may lie in political calculation.
Hoyland – following Crone and others – has speculated that, until the eruption of the second fitnah, the expanding Arabs saw themselves as an army of "believers" (mu'minīn) rather than an army of Muslims (muslimīn) alone. Thus, the amīr al-mu'minīn (Commander of the Believers) saw himself as a leader of Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and the practice of Islam per se was regarded as a private matter within this larger milieu – hence the lack of official religious proclamations by the state. There is indeed indirect evidence that the Prophet Muhammad initially saw Christians and Jews as members of his larger community – a principle embodied in the "Compact of Medīna" signed after the Prophet's migration to that city. It is also true that the conquering Arab armies included Christian Arabs in addition to Muslims, and that these people were treated as equal members of the community, in contrast to the conquered peoples. However, it is far from clear if this situation held as late as 690 CE, by which time large populations of Christians and Jews in Iraq, Syria and Egypt were paying the poll-tax (jizya) as protected minorities. So why did the official usage of Islamic expressions by the state only begin after 690? To answer this question, it is useful to look at the situation at the time from the Umayyad perspective. ‘Abd al-Malik was facing two major challenges: The civil strife of the Second Fitnah, and the perpetual conflict with the Byzantines. Both were likely factors in the decision to adopt a more overtly Islamic official discourse.
On the home front, opposition came from three directions: The ultra-orthodox regime of Ibn Zubayr; the various puritanical khārijī groups; and the supporters of the fourth Caliph, ‘Ali, who would later become the Shī'a branch of Islam. The notable thing is that all three opponents based their claims on religious rectitude, asserting that they – and not the Umayyads in Damascus – were the true practitioners of Islam in its purest form. In the case of the Shī'a, this assertion was accompanied by belief in a divinely sanctioned leadership role for the Prophet's family. Of the three opposition movements, the Shī'a revolt was ultimately to prove the most effective and lead to the end of the Umayyad dynasty, but during ‘Abd al-Malik's time, it was the least powerful of the three. The other two acquired real, if transient, power, and proclaimed it explicitly through strong religious statements. As discussed earlier, Muslim coinage prior to 685 is either devoid of any Islamic inscription, or carries minimal ones such as "bismillah" or the designation of the Caliph as "Commander of the Believers". The first explicit statement of "Muhammad is Allah's messenger" appears in 685 CE on coins issued by ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abdullāh in Bishapur (in southern Iran), and the full creed (shahāda) appears first in 691 CE on a coin minted by ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. ‘Abdullāh in Sistan (Eastern Iran). Notably, both were regional governors appointed by Ibn Zubayr's ultra-orthodox regime in Medina, not by the Umayyad caliph in Damascus (Johns, 2003). The khārijī groups also put vociferous religious inscriptions such as "lā ḥukmu illā lillāh" (there is no dominion except for Allah) on coins – and presumably using them in their discourse. The Umayyads spent the period from 683 to 692 CE fighting these movements, and gradually defeated them all. It is precisely towards the end of this period that the highly specific religious statements introduced by their more puritanical foes began appearing on official Umayyad coinage, and the walls of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem were adorned with passages from the Qur'an. And, to cap it all, once the rebel groups had been vanquished, the Umayyads introduced a reformed coinage with the full shahāda and two long quotes from the Qur'an. This pattern suggests strongly that the move towards the official use of religious statements reflected a political decision to co-opt the narrative of the rebels to dissipate the widespread sympathy they enjoyed in a populace already growing more puritanical under their influence. A somewhat parallel phenomenon can be seen today, where the emergence of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS has had the effect of increasing religious fervor even among Muslims who do not support these groups politically, in turn forcing governments to adopt more puritanical postures on issues such as blasphemy and shari'a law.
The struggle against puritanical Islam, however, is only a part of the explanation for the adoption of overtly religious discourse by the state after 690 CE. Some of the "credit" must go also to the state's emerging relationship with the Byzantine Empire. Initially, the Muslim state had been monetarily dependent on the Byzantines, and the latter seem to have regarded the Muslims as temporary occupiers of their lands in the Levant. However, as Arab hold over Syria and Egypt became more complete, the two states adopted a posture of mutual hostility, symbolized most clearly by the repeated military expeditions sent by the Umayyads against Constantinople – all of them fruitless. And, given that the Byzantine Empire presented itself as the guardian of Christian supremacy, it was natural that the Arabs responded by adopting a similar position in the name of Islam. Thus, when ‘Abd al-Malik did finally introduce a reformed Islamic coinage, the Qur'anic texts placed on them appeared to be directed squarely at Christian beliefs. The focus of Chapter 112 (Al-Ikhlāṣ) is on the oneness of Allah, and on the key statement, "He did not beget and was not begotten" – a direct challenge to the divinity of Jesus. The challenge is even clearer in the choice of Qur'an 61:9 – "Muḥammad is the messenger of Allah, whom He sent with guidance and the religion of truth that he might proclaim it over all religions even if the associators are averse." There can be little doubt that the term "associators" here referred to the dominant faith in the Levant and its "association" of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit with the Divine. Indeed, this text, among others, was also inscribed on the walls of Abd al-Malik's new Dome of the Rock. Thus, the post-fitna period beginning in 692 CE can be seen as the beginning of a transformation in the Muslim state, taking it from yet another occupier to a new civilizational force with Islamic orthodoxy at its core. The aggressive statement of Qur'an 61:9 on coins was a fittingly supremacist declaration of Islam's new intentions, and the basis of solidarity against the Christian empire.
The picture of the early Muslim state that emerges from this is one highlighting the practical aspects of its evolution rather than the ideological form imputed to it by later generations. Once can imagine a young, energetic and rapidly expanding state run by people with little experience of statecraft relying on their instinctive administrative genius – which was considerable in some cases – and on the principles of their new faith. It is natural that they would be less pre-occupied with doctrinal issues such as the prohibition of images or explicit statements of creed, and more with the practical considerations of governing diverse populations, collecting taxes, and keeping the soldiery in shape. Indeed, history suggests that, ultimately, it was this focus on the "worldly" affairs of state that elicited the puritanical revolts of Ibn Zubayr, the Kharijites, and even some Shī'a groups. This, in turn, forced the state to adopt a posture of more overt religiosity, essentially using a "protector of the faith" argument to solidify its political control – especially in opposition to the overtly Christian Byzantine state. It is not surprising, then, that the intellectual basis as well as the bureaucratic framework of Islamic law begins to flourish in this period, though it did not find full fruition until after the fall of the Umayyads. In a real sense, the idea of a state based on "Islamic laws" rather than "Islamic rule" was a creation of ‘Abd al-Malik and his successors – including the Abbasids – and driven by the agenda of their puritanical opponents.
This viewpoint has interesting implications. Among other things, it suggests that the second fitnah was a critical event in Islamic history, and changed its course for all future time. Many of the features that orthodox Muslims associate today with the notion of an "Islamic state" arose at this time, and probably for purely political reasons. This also means that, rather than separating the period of the first four "rightly-guided" caliphs from the rest, it is more useful to see the reign of Mu'awiya as a continuation of this period, with the real break coming after his death.
An important consequence of the Islamization instituted by ‘Abd al-Malik would have been to finally turn Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims irrevocably into outsiders, reversing the early practice of regarding Arab Christians and Jews as part of the community of "believers" and reserving outsider status only for conquered people. After ‘Abd al-Malik's consolidation of the state, Islam became the core of its identity. Even so, the state did not force non-Muslims to convert – indeed, actively discouraged them in many cases – and allowed them to maintain their communities, albeit in a subservient status. This was the model that Muslim rulers from Spain to India were to follow for the next thousand years, and even follow today in certain ways. It is a self-consciously supremacist and exclusionary model – very much of its time and clearly unsuited to the 21st century – but it is nothing like the fantasy that excites groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The society it created was – like all others in its time – manifestly illiberal, but it was also intellectually vigorous, multi-faceted, diverse, creative and dynamic. It produced writers, poets, philosophers, scientists, historians, and, yes, warriors and tyrants. It was full of argument and passion, but also capable of thoughtful analysis. In a word, it was complex, not the stark, simplistic, static and joyless caricature that today's revivalists seem to have in mind.
Above all, the varied coinage of the early Islamic period presents a very human picture of the evolving Muslim state, laying bare the challenges it faced, hinting at motivations, suggesting calculations and choices made. It shows energetic leaders coping with problems far exceeding their control, and finding strategies to muddle through. The fact that some of these pragmatic strategies have since ossified into religious orthodoxy is a large part of the problems the world faces today. Muslim societies in particular should look more deeply into their history and learn to appreciate its complexities rather than seeking simple answers in the mythology of received "truths". It's worth remembering that societies that forget their past truly have no future!
M.L. Bates (1987) "The Coinage of Syria Under the Umayyads, 692-750 A.D.", IVth International Conference on Bilad al-Sham During the Umayyad Period: Proceedings of the Third Symposium, pp. 195-228.
P. Crone (2014) The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism. Cambridge University Press.
D.C. Dennett (2000) Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam. Harvard University Press.
F.M. Donner (1986) "The Formation of the Islamic State", Journal of the American Oriental Society 106, pp. 283-296
C. Foss (2001) "Anomalous Arab-Byzantine coins – some problems and suggestions", Oriental Numismatic Society Newletter 166, pp. 5–12.
M. Grodzki (2014) "Christian-Muslim Symbolism on Coins of the Early Arab Empire", Asian and African Studies 23, pp. 255-273.
M.G.S. Hodgson (1975) The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam, University of Chicago Press.
R.G. Hoyland (1997) Seeing Islam as Others Saw it: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam, The Darwin Press, Princeton, NJ.
R.G. Hoyland (2006) "New documentary texts and the early Islamic state", Bulletin of SOAS 69, pp. 395–416.
R.G. Hoyland (2007) "Writing the biography of the prophet Muhammad: problems and solutions", History Compass 5/2, pp. 581- 602.
R.G. Hoyland (2015) In God's Path: The Arab Conquest and the Creation of an Islamic Empire, Oxford University Press (See also video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ly46AjPDptw )
J. Johns (2003) "Archaeology and the History Of Early Islam: The First Seventy Years", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 426-427.
D.N. MacLean (1989) Religion and Society in Arab Sind. Brill.
M.I. Mochiri (1981) "A Pahlavi Forerunner of the Umayyad Reformed Coinage", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 168-72.
M.I. Mochiri (1982) "A Sasanian-Style Coin Of Yazīd B. Mu‘āwiya", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 1, pp. 137-141, Plate I.
Sotheby's Auction Catalog, 2011, "Important Coins of the Islamic World".
L. Treadwell (2005) " "Mihrab and 'Anaza" or "Sacrum and Spear"? A Reconsideration of an Early Marwanid Silver Drachm", in Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World, XXII, 1-28.
I. Schulze and W. Schulze (2010) "The Standing Caliph Coins of al-Jazīra: some problems and suggestions", The Numismatic Chronicle 170, pp. 331 – 353.
Monday, May 30, 2016
The Prescriptivist's Progress
by Ryan Ruby
This month, two minor controversies revived the specter of the "language wars" and reintroduced the literary internet to the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism. One began when Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize and readers took to their search engines en masse to look up the word "Kafkaesque," which had been used by the book's publishers and reviewers to describe it. Remarking upon the trend, Merriam-Webster noted sourly: "some argue that ‘Kafkaesque' is so overused that it's begun to lose its meaning." A few weeks before, Slate's Laura Miller had lodged a similar complaint about the abuse of the word "allegory." "An entire literary tradition is being forgotten," she warned, "because writers use the term allegory to mean, like, whatever they want."
When it comes to semantics, prescriptivists insist that precise rules ought to govern linguistic usage. Without such rules there would be no criteria by which to judge whether a word was being used correctly or incorrectly, and thus no way to fix its meaning. Descriptivists, by contrast, argue that a quick glance at the history of any natural language will show that, whether we like it or not, words are vague and usage changes over time. The meaning of a word is whatever a community of language users understands it to mean at any given moment. In both of the above cases, Merriam-Webster and Miller were flying the flag of prescriptivism, protesting the kind of semantic drift that results from the indiscriminate, over-frequent usages of a word, a drift that has no doubt been exacerbated thanks to the internet itself, which has increased the recorded usages of words and accelerated their circulation.
Since the trials of the word "Kafkaesque" have already received ample coverage (by Allison Flood writing for The Guardian and Jonathon Sturgeon writing at Flavorwire), I'd like to turn my attention instead to the uses and abuses of the word "allegory" as described by Miller. Most of the time Miller is not one to quibble with the way people use words. But a recent spate of film reviews—one claimed Batman vs. Superman was an allegory for the primary contest between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, another said that Zootopia was an anti-Trump allegory, a third called Jafar Panahi's Taxi an allegory of artistic repression in Iran—caused her to draw a line in the sand. "What people usually mean when they call something an allegory today is that the fictional work in question can function as a metaphor for some real-world situation or event," Miller writes. But allegory "is not just another word for metaphor."
Because one good quibble deserves another, allow me to point out that this last assertion isn't entirely accurate. The offending examples Miller lists are indeed abuses of the term. The first two films were made before the political events they are supposed to allegorize; the third simply is about artistic repression in Iran. But this is not because allegory stands in no relation to metaphor, it's because these particular films stand in little to no relation to what the reviewers claim they are metaphors for. If Miller is normally a descriptivist, it's quite difficult to understand why she has chosen to make an exception in the case of allegory, which Angus Fletcher, in his definitive study of the term, calls "a protean device, omnipresent in Western Literature from the earliest time to the modern era."
Miller takes the features of the medieval literary genre to define its limits. Unlike more realistic fictions, the characters of medieval allegory are personified representations rather than representations of people. The protagonist of a typical medieval allegory, let's call him Everyman, journeys from Doomville to Blisstown, encountering, along the way, such embodied abstractions as Truth, Justice, and Sin who act and speak truthfully, justly, and sinfully, helping our hero reach his destination or tempting him away from the right path. Beginning "in the waning years of the Roman Empire"—presumably with Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524)—Miller claims that allegory reaches its heights in works such as Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose (1275), Edmund Spenser's The Faery Queene (1596) and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Although she admits that the genre has largely been eclipsed by the realist novel, it lives on in the writing of C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling and Haruki Murakami, in the films of David Lynch and in the drawings of today's political cartoonists.
Unfortunately, this simplifies history to the point of falsification (and not just because The Divine Comedy does not figure into it). To fix a word's meaning, a prescriptivist should start with its etymology, lest her definition seem as cherry-picked as that of the descriptivists she criticizes. Allegory comes from the Greek words allos ("other") and agoreuein ("to speak openly"). Originally the word did not refer to a literary genre at all, but a rhetorical mode. "In the simplest terms," Fletcher writes, "allegory says one thing and means another." Like irony, allegory exploits the natural polysemy of language. It's a kind of double talk that is especially useful under conditions of political censorship or in societies where blasphemy is a crime. Allegorical speech deploys figurative language to alert the hearer the existence of a latent meaning beneath the manifest content of what is said. You would not be wrong to detect in agoreuein the word agora, the place where the Greeks came together to discuss politics. Nor would you be wrong to detect in Fletcher's paraphrase something akin to metaphor, which, to quote the prescriptivists at Merriam-Webster, is "an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol for something else." The English lexicographer Edward Phillips, writing in the same year as The Pilgrim's Progress was published, defined allegory as a kind of semantic "Inversion," derived from translatio, the Latin word for metaphor.
Allegory—"one of the foundations of Western literature"—is in fact much older than Miller suggests. The first known usage of the word can be found in the Moralia, a collection of essays by the Hellenist philosopher, biographer and literary critic Plutarch, who died in 125, four hundred years before The Consolation of Philosophy and over a millennium before The Romance of the Rose were written. According to Plutarch, the ancients called it hyponoiai ("under-thought" or "hidden ideas"). The most famous example from antiquity is of course the "strange image" in the seventh book of Plato's Republic (c. 380 B.C.). There, Socrates describes a society of imprisoned cave dwellers who take the shadows of things for the things themselves and relates what happens when one of them frees himself from his shackles and sees what the world beyond the cave is like. In what is variously known as the Analogy, Myth, Metaphor, or Allegory of the Cave, Socrates' story reveals itself to be a network of metaphors or symbols, wherein each element is meant to correspond to an element of reality as Plato sees it. Platonic allegory is a corpus symbolicum whose cells are metaphors. In so far as allegory and metaphor are different here, it is a difference of degree, not kind.
The same is true of allegorical reading. In Plutarch's time, allegorical exegesis of canonical texts, the Homeric epics above all, was a well-established critical practice, as philosophers demonstrated correspondences between the stories of Greek mythology and their own cosmological and ethical theories. In "How a Young Man Should Study Poetry," Plutarch instructed readers not to take the myths about the Gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey literally, but rather to interpret them as astronomical metaphors and symbolic prefigurations of Platonic ideas. Around the same time, a similar operation was being performed on the myths of Genesis by the philosopher Philo of Alexandria and by the early biographers of a parable-speaking preacher from Nazareth.
By focusing on medieval allegory, Miller takes a particular, historically situated usage of a word—albeit a well-known one—to stand in, synechdochally as it were, for a whole tradition of usage. The works Miller takes as emblematic of the form are actually deviations from and even inversions of this older tradition. The personages and places of these works are entirely literal; irony is absent from their narratives and metaphors are reified as proper names. When Lady Philosophy speaks to Boethius, or when Despair tempts Red Cross Knight with an argument about suicide, there's no need to wonder whether the author means anything other than what he says. All allegories alert their reader to the fact that they are allegories, but few do so as ham-handedly as Pilgrim's Progress. Nearly everything a reader needs to know about Bunyan's book can be found on its frontispiece (see above).
Bunyan turns the distinction between manifest and latent content inside out; then he dispenses with latent content altogether. In so doing he dispenses with the very feature that had distinguished the form for centuries (all the way back to the prophet Hosea in the 8th century B.C. if we are to take his word for it). The Pilgrim's Progress does not represent the form's culmination; it represents its decadence.
Miller is right to wonder if we are even capable of reading such books any more. Aside from children, who can still enjoy allegories as pure tales of adventure, contemporary readers are likely to prefer the round characters, psychological depth, moral ambiguity, and narrative complexities that are some of the hallmarks of the realist novel, which has been the dominant form of storytelling since the late eighteenth century. "Should a book or form present its argument so simply that even a child can discern it, what's left to talk about?" she asks. "Merely language, story, and imagery—all the pleasures that art is made of."
As a defense of allegory in the age of the novel, this is puzzling, to say the least. Having begun with an attempt to distinguish allegory from metaphor, Miller ends up arguing that pure formalism is the only way we can still appreciate the most didactic of all genres. The pleasures of language, story, and imagery were the very criteria by which Flaubert wanted his arch-realist "book about nothing" to be judged. For all the formal differences between a book like The Pilgrim's Progress and a book like Madame Bovary, the ideological literalism of medieval allegory is only a step away from the mimetic naturalism of the realist novel. In any event, stripping an allegory of its ideological framework in order to read it as "entertaining adventure yarn" isn't how the form stays relevant in the twenty-first century. It's how Dante's Inferno gets turned into a video game.
This reductio ad absurdum is the inevitable consequence of taking medieval allegory to exhaust the meaning of the term. More generally, it shows how a narrow definition of a word can be just as harmful to its meaning as overly broad usage of it. With a prescriptivist for a white knight, meaning hardly needs a dragon.
Monday, May 23, 2016
The Past of Islamic Civilization
by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”
― George Orwell, 1984
These days every other person seems to be concerned about the future of Islamic Civilization. From the Islamists, the traditionalists, the Liberals, the Conservatives etc. almost everyone seems to have a stake in the future of Islam. While these different groups may have different vision of the future they do have one thing in common – they almost always define the future in terms of the past: From the Salafis harkening back to a supposed era of purity, to the academics yearning for the Golden Age of Islam and to the more recent Ottoman nostalgia in Turkey and the wider Middle East. The study of history becomes paramount in such an encounter since a distorted view of the past can become a potentially unrealizable view of the future.
As any historian will tell us each group reads history in terms of its own aspirations and agenda. For the Muslims world in general the nostalgia for the past usually seems to be heavy on reviving the glories of the past. The danger here being that one may start living in a non-existent romanticized past and be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. In the West every other political pundit seems to be calling for an Islamic Reformation even though parallel religious structures do not exist in Islam. What do these visions of the future-past look like and what can be learned from these?
For the majority of Muslims, it is the time of the Prophet that represents an idealized society. However many of them implicitly also realize that by its own constitution that era cannot be replicated precisely because of the Muslim belief that the Prophet cannot come back and there will not be another prophet – a perfect society needs a perfect man. The era after that which is most revered by (Sunni) Muslims is the era of the Righteously Guided Caliphs. What most folks fail to realize that that era was revered in classical Islam not because of it was a time of peace and prosperity but because of its proximity to the time of the Prophet. On one hand it was a time of great expansion where the foundations of Islamic governance were also laid down. On the other hand it was also a time of civil wars when there was a great deal of intra-Muslim bloodshed. To anyone who wants to revive that era, one must caution that it is also the time when the Khawarij, the intellectual ancestors of groups like ISIS first arose. One must be careful in what one wishes for.
Then there is the Golden age of Islamic civilization centered on Baghdad, Cordoba and Samarkand. While the Islamists tout the greatness of this era what gets shoved under the rugs is that many of the rulers of this era were less than exemplary when it comes to their orthodoxy. Another fact that many people fail to recognize is that even during the Golden Age the majority of the subjects of the Islamic empire were non-Muslims including an appreciable percentage of scientists and philosophers who were instrumental for the rise of Islamic civilization. Science and technology back then as it is now is an international collaboratory enterprise. The last point is especially relevant to our day and age since the exclusion of non-Muslims in the national narratives in the Muslim world has unfortunately become the norm. Outside of small academic circles most people, Muslims or non-Muslims, are unaware of the fact that what came to be identified with the Islamic systems of governance was heavily borrowed from the Sassanids. The millet system of the Ottomans was inspired by a similar system that the Rightly Guided Caliphs has enacted which in turn was invented by the Sassanids. When the rulers of Vijaynagar in South India were copying the style of Muslim palaces they were actually copying the plans that Muslims had acquired from Sassanids. The greatest irony here being that while some modern day non-Muslim Iranians blame Muslims for destroying their culture, it was actually the Islamic culture that led to the widespread dissemination of the Iranian culture but under the Islamic garb.
The lesson being that he early Muslims had to deal with many practical considerations of ruling a multi-ethnic multi-religious Empire and inspiration had to be taken from anywhere and everywhere. Even the aesthetics that came to be identified as quintessentially Islamic had roots in earlier civilizations. The archetypical image of how a mosque should look like is heavily borrowed from Eastern Orthodox Churches that the Muslims first encountered in their conquests of Syria and the Levant. These observations do not make these developments less Islamic but rather it shows the openness of the Islamic culture of a bygone era. The translation of Greeks works did not start in the time of Abbasids as in the popular imagination but rather it had already started in the second generation from the time of the Prophet. Khalid bin Yazid, an ummawid prince and a scientist himself was instrumental in sponsoring the translation project in Alexandria less than 50 years after the time of the Prophet.
Then there is Al-Andalus or Muslim Spain has been romanticized by people as diverse as Tariq Ali, Osama bin Laden, head of States etc. It is supposed to represent a time when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side in an era of supposed harmony. While one may disagree with the details of convicencia how it came to an end is where a great deal of disconnect lies in the minds of the Muslim masses. It was not just the advancing armies of Aragon and Castilia that doomed the culture of tolerance but the Almohad were equally intolerant towards the culture of coexistence. It is easier to kill a culture if it already has a self-inflicted wound. The last great flowering of the Islamic civilization was of course the Ottoman Empire. It is also arguably the most successful Muslim empire in history. The empire that now stands as the emblem of the Caliphate only took up that mantle in its declining years. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople was followed by more than a century of Romanphilia. In fact Mehmet the Conqueror wanted to conquer Rome itself to “reunify” the Roman Empire. The Ottoman Sultans styled themselves as the Emperors of the Romans till the very end of the empire. People in the Balkans focus on the ethnic conflict in the dying days of the empire but fail to mention the 5 centuries of coexistence prior to that. Thus the question of brining back the Ottomans is more appropriately phrased as which incarnation of the Ottoman Empire as it greatly changed over the course of seven centuries. The dichotomies of Christian vs. Muslim disappear even more when one realizes that the majority of the Ottoman army at the siege of Vienna in 1683 may actually have been made up of Christians. Can we really imagine such a scenario three hundred years after the fact?
If the Abbasids represented the Golden Age of Islam then perhaps the rise of Ottomans, Mughals, Safavids, the Mali Empire, the Indian Ocean trade networks and the spread of Islam in South East Asia should be termed as the Silver Age of Islam. There may be many more things that we can learn from the less glamorous and the seemingly peripheral parts of Islamic history: The question of Islamic law and how Muslims should live as minorities in a non-Muslim state has come to the fore in the West recently. Even some of the learned ulemas act as if this is an unprecedented situation and as if this has not happened before. Islam has been in China for longer than most Muslim majority places in the world. Chinese Muslims have a long history of integrating with and long conversing with a foreign civilization. Chinese Muslims arts, culture, language and even philosophy has much to teach the rest of the Muslim world if only they are willing to listen. Al-Andalus was not the only region of Europe that was occupied by Arabs and Berbers and brought advanced civilization there. Sicily was the Andalus that disappeared early on. What is however missing from discussions of Sicily is that Muslims did continue to flourish in Sicily for 150 years even after the fall of Islamic rule there mainly because of the somewhat enlightened rule of the Normans in Sicily. The most well known of these Christian rules was Roger II, after whom the most famous book of Islamic geography is named Kitab ul Rigel (The Book of Roger), by the celebrated geographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi. Even after the persecutions started it was not until 1336 that the last group on Muslims in Italy were forced to convert.
My point here is not to argue that one must not look at the past for inspiration but as with most things in life the good comes with bad. It could be that none of the examples that I have outlined previously are that relevant to the present predicament of the Muslim world. Pick up almost any history text on Islamic history especially in Arabic, Persian or Urdu it reads more like a series of events than a meaningful analysis of history. Thus missing from the narrative of the Islamic world is the impact of the Black Plague in the historical imagination of the Muslim world even though which is equally devastating in the Middle East as it was in Europe or how the disruption of the Indian Ocean trade network by the Portuguese was instrumental in the long term economic decline of the Muslim world.
Perhaps the answer may lie in something else entirely – alternate history. By forcing Muslims to think about what could have been they may also start thinking about what could be in a more nuanced manner. There will of course be people who might object and say that why dwell in the past in any form whether positive or negative. It is however impossible to escape history, the kind of people that we want to become is usually a function of how we imagine how we got to be what we are. Historians may argue that all national, ethnic and even religious histories have an element of useful fiction and objectivity is relative at best. Even if we take this view we still have to answer the question, what kind of fiction do we choose for ourselves. We are who we are by the virtue of stories that we tell about ourselves. Make sense of history thus becomes paramount in moments of civilizational crisis. This is of course not to discount that there are indeed more urgent problems in the world like the Syrian Refugee crisis or the Climate Change but with a group of people that constitute around a forth of humanity there are enough people to have interesting and valuable thoughts to any subject under the Sun and perhaps even beyond.
Monday, February 29, 2016
Shame on You, Shame on Me: Shame as an Evolutionary Adaptation
by Jalees Rehman
Can shame be good for you? We often think of shame as a shackling emotion which thwarts our individuality and creativity. A sense of shame could prevent us from choosing a partner we truly love, speaking out against societal traditions which propagate injustice or pursuing a profession that is deemed unworthy by our peers. But if shame is so detrimental, why did we evolve with this emotion? A team of researchers led by Daniel Sznycer from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which suggests that shame is an important evolutionary adaptation. According to their research which was conducted in the United States, Israel and India, the sense of shame helps humans avoid engaging in acts that could lead to them being devalued and ostracized by their community.
For their first experiment, the researchers enrolled participants in the USA (118 participants completed the study; mean age of 36; 53% were female) and India (155 participants completed the study, mean age of 31, 38% were female) using the online Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform as well as 165 participants from a university in Israel (mean age of 23; 81% female). The participants were randomly assigned to two groups and presented with 29 scenarios: The "shame group" participants were asked to rate how much shame they would experience if they lived through any given scenario and whereas the "audience group" participants were asked how negatively they would rate a third-party person of the same age and gender as the participants in an analogous scenario.
Here is a specific scenario to illustrate the study design:
Male participants in the "shame group" were asked to rate "At the wedding of an acquaintance, you are discovered cheating on your wife with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).
Female participants in the "shame group" were asked to rate "At the wedding of an acquaintance, you are discovered cheating on your husband with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).
Male participants in the "audience group", on the other hand, were asked to rate "At the wedding of an acquaintance, he is discovered cheating on his wife with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn't view him negatively at all) to 7 (I'd view him very negatively).
Female participants in the "audience group" rated "At the wedding of an acquaintance, she is discovered cheating on her husband with a food server" on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn't view her negatively at all) to 7 (I'd view her very negatively).
To give you a sense of the breadth of scenarios that the researchers used, here are some more examples:
You stole goods from a shop owned by your neighbor.
You cannot support your children economically.
You get into a fight in front of everybody and your opponent completely dominates you with punch after punch until you're knocked out.
You receive welfare money from the government because you cannot financially support your family.
You are not generous with others.
For each of the 29 scenarios, the researchers created gender-specific "shame" and "audience" versions. The "audience group" reveals how we rate the bad behavior of others (devaluation) whereas the "shame group" provides information into how much shame we feel if we engage in that same behavior. By ensuring that participants only participated in one of the two groups, the researchers were able to get two independent scores – shame versus devaluation – for each scenario.
The key finding of this experiment was that the third-party devaluation scores were highly correlated with the shame scores in all three countries. For example, here are the mean "shame scores" for the wedding infidelity scenario indicating that people in all three countries would have experienced a lot of shame:
The devaluation scores from the third-party "audience group" suggested that people viewed the behavior very negatively:
For nearly all the scenarios, the researchers found a surprisingly strong correlation between devaluation and shame and they also found that the correlation was similarly strong in each of the surveyed countries.
The researchers then asked the question whether this correlation between personal shame and third-party negative valuation was unique to the shame emotion or whether other negative emotions such as anxiety or sadness would also correlate equally well with devaluation. This experiment was only conducted with the participants in the USA and India. The researchers found that even though the fictitious scenarios elicited some degree of anxiety and sadness in the participants, the levels of anxiety or sadness were not significantly correlated with the extent of devaluation. The researchers interpreted these results as suggesting that there is something special about shame because it tracks so closely with how bad behavior is perceived by others whereas sadness or anxiety do not.
How do these findings inform our view on the evolutionary role of shame? The researchers suggest that instead of designating shame as an "ugly" emotion, it is instead an excellent predictor of how our peers would view our behaviors and thus deter us from making bad choices that could undermine our relationships with members of our community. The strong statistical correlations between shame and negative valuation of the behaviors as well as the universality of this link in the three countries indeed support the conclusions of the researchers. However, there are also so important limitations of these studies. As with many evolutionary psychology studies, it is not easy to ascribe a direct cause-effect relationship based on a correlation. Does devaluation lead to evolving a shame mechanism or is it perhaps the other way around? Does a sense of shame lead to a societal devaluation of certain behaviors such as dishonesty? It is also possible that the participants in the audience group responded with the concept of "shame" in the back of their mind even though they were not asked to directly comment on how shameful the act was. Perhaps their third-party assessments of how bad the behavior was were clouded by their own perceptions of how shameful the behavior would be if they themselves had engaged in it.
Another limitation of the study is that the participants represented a young subgroup of society. The mean ages of 23 (Israel), 31 (India) and 36 (USA) as well as the use of an online Amazon Mechanical Turk questionnaire means that the study results predominantly reflect the views of Millennials. The similarities of the shame and devaluation scores in three distinct cultures are among the most remarkable findings of these studies. However, perhaps they are more reflective of a global convergence of values among the Millennial generation than an underlying evolutionary conservation of an adaptive mechanism.
These limitations should not detract from the provocative questions raised by the studies. They force us to rethink how we view shame. Like all adaptive defense mechanisms, shame could go awry. Our immune function, for example, is an essential defense mechanism but an unfettered immune response can destroy the very body it is trying to protect. Perhaps shame acts in a similar fashion. A certain level of shame could help us function in society by promoting certain moral values such as justice, honesty or generosity. But an excess of shame may become a maladaptive prison which compromises our individuality.
Daniel Sznycer, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Roni Porat, Shaul Shalvi, and Eran Halperin. (2016). "Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Image Credit: The image of the mask was obtained via Wellcome Images.
Monday, February 15, 2016
Why should I respect your stupid opinion?
 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Vol.2 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), p. 595. It should be noted that in this same letter Jefferson argues in defense of the idea that the world is the product of intelligent design.
 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 16 (Washington DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association,190 ), pp. 100-1.
 This criticism of the principle that people are entitled to have their beliefs respected is made by Peter Jones. (See Peter Jones, “Respecting Beliefs and Rebuking Rushdie,” British Journal of Political Science,” Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct. 1990), pp. 415-437.)
 This essay is a revised version of part of Chapter Five of The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton University Press).
Monday, December 07, 2015
The Dire State of Science in the Muslim World
by Jalees Rehman
Universities and the scientific infrastructures in Muslim-majority countries need to undergo radical reforms if they want to avoid falling by the wayside in a world characterized by major scientific and technological innovations. This is the conclusion reached by Nidhal Guessoum and Athar Osama in their recent commentary "Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world", published in the scientific journal Nature. The physics and astronomy professor Guessoum (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) and Osama, who is the founder of the Muslim World Science Initiative, use the commentary to summarize the key findings of the report "Science at Universities of the Muslim World" (PDF), which was released in October 2015 by a task force of policymakers, academic vice-chancellors, deans, professors and science communicators. This report is one of the most comprehensive analyses of the state of scientific education and research in the 57 countries with a Muslim-majority population, which are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Here are some of the key findings:
1. Lower scientific productivity in the Muslim world: The 57 Muslim-majority countries constitute 25% of the world's population, yet they only generate 6% of the world's scientific publications and 1.6% of the world's patents.
2. Lower scientific impact of papers published in the OIC countries: Not only are Muslim-majority countries severely under-represented in terms of the numbers of publications, the papers which do get published are cited far less than the papers stemming from non-Muslim countries. One illustrative example is that of Iran and Switzerland. In the 2014 SCImago ranking of publications by country, Iran was the highest-ranked Muslim-majority country with nearly 40,000 publications, just slightly ahead of Switzerland with 38,000 publications - even though Iran's population of 77 million is nearly ten times larger than that of Switzerland. However, the average Swiss publication was more than twice as likely to garner a citation by scientific colleagues than an Iranian publication, thus indicating that the actual scientific impact of research in Switzerland was far greater than that of Iran.
To correct for economic differences between countries that may account for the quality or impact of the scientific work, the analysis also compared selected OIC countries to matched non-Muslim countries with similar per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) values (PDF). The per capita GDP in 2010 was $10,136 for Turkey, $8,754 for Malaysia and only $7,390 for South Africa. However, South Africa still outperformed both Turkey and Malaysia in terms of average citations per scientific paper in the years 2006-2015 (Turkey: 5.6; Malaysia: 5.0; South Africa: 9.7).
3. Muslim-majority countries make minimal investments in research and development: The world average for investing in research and development is roughly 1.8% of the GDP. Advanced developed countries invest up to 2-3 percent of their GDP, whereas the average for the OIC countries is only 0.5%, less than a third of the world average! One could perhaps understand why poverty-stricken Muslim countries such as Pakistan do not have the funds to invest in research because their more immediate concerns are to provide basic necessities to the population. However, one of the most dismaying findings of the report is the dismally low rate of research investments made by the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, the economic union of six oil-rich gulf countries Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar with a mean per capita GDP of over $30,000 which is comparable to that of the European Union). Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, invest less than 0.1% of their GDP in research and development, far lower than the OIC average of 0.5%.
So how does one go about fixing this dire state of science in the Muslim world? Some fixes are rather obvious, such as increasing the investment in scientific research and education, especially in the OIC countries which have the financial means and are currently lagging far behind in terms of how much funds are made available to improve the scientific infrastructures. Guessoum and Athar also highlight the importance of introducing key metrics to assess scientific productivity and the quality of science education. It is not easy to objectively measure scientific and educational impact, and one can argue about the significance or reliability of any given metric. But without any metrics, it will become very difficult for OIC universities to identify problems and weaknesses, build new research and educational programs and reward excellence in research and teaching. There is also a need for reforming the curriculum so that it shifts its focus from lecture-based teaching, which is so prevalent in OIC universities, to inquiry-based teaching in which students learn science hands-on by experimentally testing hypotheses and are encouraged to ask questions.
In addition to these commonsense suggestions, the task force also put forward a rather intriguing proposition to strengthen scientific research and education: place a stronger emphasis on basic liberal arts in science education. I could not agree more because I strongly believe that exposing science students to the arts and humanities plays a key role in fostering the creativity and curiosity required for scientific excellence. Science is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, and scientists can benefit greatly from studying philosophy, history or literature. A course in philosophy, for example, can teach science students to question their basic assumptions about reality and objectivity, encourage them to examine their own biases, challenge authority and understand the importance of doubt and uncertainty, all of which will likely help them become critical thinkers and better scientists.
However, the specific examples provided by Guessoum and Athar do not necessarily indicate a support for this kind of a broad liberal arts education. They mention the example of the newly founded private Habib University in Karachi which mandates that all science and engineering students also take classes in the humanities, including a two semester course in "hikma" or "traditional wisdom". Upon reviewing the details of this philosophy course on the university's website, it seems that the course is a history of Islamic philosophy focused on antiquity and pre-modern texts which date back to the "Golden Age" of Islam. The task force also specifically applauds an online course developed by Ahmed Djebbar. He is an emeritus science historian at the University of Lille in France, which attempts to stimulate scientific curiosity in young pre-university students by relating scientific concepts to great discoveries from the Islamic "Golden Age". My concern is that this is a rather Islamocentric form of liberal arts education. Do students who have spent all their lives growing up in a Muslim society really need to revel in the glories of a bygone era in order to get excited about science? Does the Habib University philosophy course focus on Islamic philosophy because the university feels that students should be more aware of their cultural heritage or are there concerns that exposing students to non-Islamic ideas could cause problems with students, parents, university administrators or other members of society who could perceive this as an attack on Islamic values? If the true purpose of liberal arts education is to expand the minds of students by exposing them to new ideas, wouldn't it make more sense to focus on non-Islamic philosophy? It is definitely not a good idea to coddle Muslim students by adulating the "Golden Age" of Islam or using kid gloves when discussing philosophy in order to avoid offending them.
This leads us to a question that is not directly addressed by Guessoum and Osama: How "liberal" is a liberal arts education in countries with governments and societies that curtail the free expression of ideas? The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison because of his liberal views that were perceived as an attack on religion. Faculty members at universities in Saudi Arabia who teach liberal arts courses are probably very aware of these occupational hazards. At first glance, professors who teach in the sciences may not seem to be as susceptible to the wrath of religious zealots and authoritarian governments. However, the above-mentioned interdisciplinary nature of science could easily spell trouble for free-thinking professors or students. Comments about evolutionary biology, the ethics of genome editing or discussing research on sexuality could all be construed as a violation of societal and religious norms.
The 2010 study Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university surveyed professors at an anonymous GCC university (most likely Qatar University since roughly 25% of the faculty members were Qatari nationals and the authors of the study were based in Qatar) regarding their views of academic freedom. The vast majority of faculty members (Arab and non-Arab) felt that academic freedom was important to them and that their university upheld academic freedom. However, in interviews with individual faculty members, the researchers found that the professors were engaging in self-censorship in order to avoid untoward repercussions. Here are some examples of the comments from the faculty at this GCC University:
"I am fully aware of our culture. So, when I suggest any topic in class, I don't need external censorship except mine."
"Yes. I avoid subjects that are culturally inappropriate."
"Yes, all the time. I avoid all references to Israel or the Jewish people despite their contributions to world culture. I also avoid any kind of questioning of their religious tradition. I do this out of respect."
This latter comment is especially painful for me because one of my heroes who inspired me to become a cell biologist was the Italian Jewish scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini. She revolutionized our understanding of how cells communicate with each other using growth factors. She was also forced to secretly conduct her experiments in her bedroom because the Fascists banned all "non-Aryans" from going to the university laboratory. Would faculty members who teach the discovery of growth factors at this GCC University downplay the role of the Nobel laureate Levi-Montalcini because she was Jewish? We do not know how prevalent this form of self-censorship is in other OIC countries because the research on academic freedom in Muslim-majority countries is understandably scant. Few faculty members would be willing to voice their concerns about government or university censorship and admitting to self-censorship is also not easy.
The task force report on science in the universities of Muslim-majority countries is an important first step towards reforming scientific research and education in the Muslim world. Increasing investments in research and development, using and appropriately acting on carefully selected metrics as well as introducing a core liberal arts curriculum for science students will probably all significantly improve the dire state of science in the Muslim world. However, the reform of the research and education programs needs to also include discussions about the importance of academic freedom. If Muslim societies are serious about nurturing scientific innovation, then they will need to also ensure that scientists, educators and students will be provided with the intellectual freedom that is the cornerstone of scientific creativity.
Guessoum, N., & Osama, A. (2015). Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world. Nature, 526(7575), 634-6.
Romanowski, M. H., & Nasser, R. (2010). Faculty perceptions of academic freedom at a GCC university. Prospects, 40(4), 481-497.
Monday, June 29, 2015
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
Introduction by Bill Benzon
This month I've decided to turn things over to my good friend Charles Cameron, whom I've known for somewhat over a dozen years, though only online. He's a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn't take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He's been around.
But it's his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh "Grazin in the Grass" Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.
To the bridge builders...
Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si'
by Charles Cameron
I propose that in his recent encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis is exercising his function as Supreme Pontiff, or @pontifex as he calls himself on Twitter – a pontifex being literally a bridge builder. It is my contention that in his encyclical he bridges a number of divides, between Catholic and Orthodox, sacramental and social, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific, even Christian and Muslim, traditional and of the fast advancing moment, in a manner which will impact our world in ways yet unforeseen.
It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.
The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.
The line, the transmission, is of sheer humility. It begins with the Founder of the line, Christ himself, lapses, which all high inspirations must as routine replaces charisma, only to emerge brilliantly a millennium later in the saintly maverick, Francis, lapses again though still fermenting in the imagination of church and humankind, and now at last shows itself once more, in that most unexpected of places: in the heart of the bureaucracy, at the head of the hierarchy, atop the curia, simple, idealistic, practical – a pontifex building bridges.
And in all this, there is lyricism.
It is characteristic of St Francis that he is lyrical, not just in his great Canticle of Creatures but in his lifelong love of chivalry and the songs of the troubadours, in his words – like Orpheus, he could tame the beasts – and in his preaching to the birds.
Of St Francis, the Pope writes:
I do not want to write this Encyclical without turning to that attractive and compelling figure, whose name I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast ..
Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.
It is only appropriate, therefore, that Pope Francis titles his encyclical with the ongoing refrain of his chosen name-sake’s Canticle, Laudato Si’. The encyclical’s opening words set this lyrical theme and tone, which is indeed the theme behind Francis’ own pontificate and this encyclical in particular:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her…
Scott Beauchamp comments in his Baffler piece, It Sounds Like a Melody,
Laudato Si’ is 184 pages long. Only twenty-eight of those are about the politics of environmental change. The rest is theology.
It is. It also, as Beauchamp’s title suggests, sounds like a melody.
Beauchamp is quoting Ornette Coleman here, who said of his own playing, “it sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody.” An encyclical is not a melody, but in Francis’ voice it sounds like one.
Catholic and Orthodox
In proposing that Laudato Si’ is a work of bridge-building, I want to suggest reading it as an ecumenical document, bridging the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches of 1054. Francis’ encyclical is explicit as to the ecumenical impact it hopes to achieve, mentioning and quoting Francis’ “beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion."
Indeed, when presented to the world at a conference in the Vatican, the encyclical was introduced by a panel that notably included Metropolitan John of Pergamon, representing Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is informally known as “the Green Patriarch”. John Chryssavgis writes of him:
No other church leader has been so recognized for his leadership and initiatives in confronting the theological, ethical and practical imperative of environmental issues in our time as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. He has long placed the environment at the head of his church's agenda, earning him numerous awards and the title ‘Green Patriarch'.
John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon himself is known, among other things, as the author of Preserving God’s Creation: three lectures on theology and ecology, published in 1989 and ‘90 in King’s College London Theological Review. In his introductory remarks at the conference announcing the encyclical, he said:
I should like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the honour to be invited to take part in this event of launching the new Encyclical of His Holiness Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. I am also honoured by the fact that His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has asked me to convey to you his personal joy and satisfaction for the issuing of the Encyclical. As some of you may already know, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been the first one in the Christian world to draw the attention of the world community to the seriousness of the ecological problem and the duty of the Church to voice its concern and try to contribute with all the spiritual means at its disposal towards the protection of our natural environment. Thus, back already in the year 1989, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued an Encyclical to the faithful Christians and to all people of good will, in which he underlined the seriousness of the ecological problem and its theological and spiritual dimensions.
But these remarks do no more than touch the surface of the devotional theology in which the Orthodox approach creation. When Metropolitan John says “The issuing of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ is, therefore, an occasion of great joy and satisfaction for the Orthodox”, the words “great joy” convey the merest hint of what is intended.
Let me share and expand here some paragraphs of my guest blog at LapidoMedia, where I am currently serving as editor, Poetry, controversy and praise in Pope Francis’ Encyclical:
It has long been the Eastern Church which has taken an understanding of the sacred gift of the earth to its deepest and most profound levels.
Indeed, Orthodox theologians from St Maximus the Confessor down to the present day have held that the transformation of the earth is central to our human purpose. St Maximus explains the meaning of the world by saying, ‘that is why the Word became flesh: to open to us, through the holy flesh of the earth transformed into a eucharist, the path to deification.’ The world will become a “eucharist” – a word that describes both the great and continuing sacrifice of the Mass, and, literally in the Greek, a thanksgiving.
As man becomes less sinful and more like the Creator in whose image he was made, the world under his care becomes the paradise that has always been its destiny. Again, the high lyrical note sounds in Metropolitan John’s 1989 homily in Zurich, A Theology of Creation:
Christ, through his Incarnation, his Resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit, has brought about the potential transfiguration of the universe. ... In him fallen matter no longer imposes its limitations and determinisms; in him the world, frozen by our downfall, melts in the fire of the Spirit and rediscovers its vocation of transparency.
These words express the Orthodoz’ fiery and blazing sense of the world as not merely “the ecology” in peril, not simply “the creation” even, but as the veil and symbol through which our creator aches to speak with us, to reveal his beauty, his love, his care.
Sacrament and Society
The words, the lyricism, the aspirations are so lofty that the secular mind may not reach them, and even the religious mind falter for lack of oxygen, but they are the sacramentally sustained basis for a move outward, into the world, driven by the exigencies of our pre-catastrophic situation.
Francis aims to appeal to both sacramental and social motivations, offering the sacramental value of the human individual as the driver for the highest and fullest movement towards love, truth, justice, and peace.
In my own early adolescence, my own mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston CR, counseled me to anchor myself in the sacramental and move out into the world to accomplish what measure of social good I might find myself called and suited to. In his great book Naught for your Comfort – the first non-fiction book to challenge the inhumanity of Apartheid in his much lived South Africa – Fr Trevor made this causal link between the sacramental, contemplative and mystical life and the necessity for actions of social justice explicit, writing in a key paragraph:
On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.
Similarly Pope Francis, from within his richly sacramental perspective, intends and calls for us to shift the world from what he perceives as its present, dire and eventually catastrophic course to one which will by contrast be loving, creative, and sustainable.
Liberal and Conservative
In bridging sacramental and social values, the Pope’s plea is unavoidably and interestingly controversial.
Let me draw again on my observations in my LapidoMedia post:
While those in the environmental movement worldwide welcome it, conservatives who doubt the theory of global warming – or celebrate the global market economy and consumerism – see the Pope’s encyclical as a radical attack on core values.
Ross Douthat in his New York Times op-ed, Pope Francis’ Call to Action Goes Beyond the Environment, notes that the encyclical “includes, as many liberals hoped and certain conservatives feared, a call to action against climate change.” It also contains, as many liberals feared and many conservatives will take comfort in, a clear statement of the Catholic Church’s continuing position on abortion.
“Since everything is interrelated,” Francis writes, “concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion.” And “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”
Both climate change believers and doubters, pro-choice and pro-life factions, will find their own concerns addressed in this encyclical. Indeed, Pope Francis offers both liberals and conservatives something to applaud and something to trouble them. And this brings us to the heart of the encyclical.
Francis quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who “observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since ‘the book of nature is one and indivisible’, and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that ‘the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence’.”
Both the environmental and pro-life strands in Francis’ encyclical stem from his view of the unity of God’s creation, and the human role, created ‘in the image of God’, within it. Indeed, it is this unified vision which makes the encyclical both richly welcome and deeply disturbing to many on both sides of some of the great divides of our time.
This in turn begs the question, what happens when an influential world figure of undoubted moral stature crosses the lines that usually separate opposing camps? Does he lose respect on both sides? Or does he begin to build a bridge between them?
Religion and Science
The same issue arises when we view Francis’ encyclical as building a bridge between religion and science.
Once again, we can turn to the Orthodox church for an early understanding of the situation. John Chryssavgis in Theology, Ecology and the Arts: Reconciling Sacredness and Beauty, tackles the longstanding “war” between religion and science, writing:
In his book Being as Communion, Metropolitan John [Zizioulas] of Pergamon, arguably the foremost Orthodox theologian today, compares these two different approaches, and asserts that: Science and theology for a long time seemed to be in search of different sorts of truth, as if there were not one truth . . . This resulted in making truth subject to a dichotomy between the transcendent and the immanent.
One of the primary and visionary goals of the ecological initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been precisely the reconciliation of these two ways, which have long been separated and estranged. Pope Francis has the same visionary goal, expressing it in his detailed exposition of the science behind climate change. As a correspondent in the scientific journal Nature’s News blog put it, “never before has a pope drawn so resolutely from science, a sphere that has long been considered irreconcilable with essential Catholic religious beliefs.”
The encyclical’s passages include such purely scientific observations as this paragraph, chosen as much for its generality as for its detail:
A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.… It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.
And what of those who dispute this scientific consensus? He includes them in his regret and hope:
Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.
Christian and Muslim
That greater ecumenism which seeks to reconcile the world’s great faiths finds its quiet place in the encyclical too. St Francis – as Dr Hoeberichts demonstrates to my satisfaction in his Francis and Islam – had a willingness for his “little brothers” to live among the Saracens in humility and peace, at a time when this was far from the normative teaching of the church in those crusading times.
Idries Shah would take the matter further, observing that ”The atmosphere and setting of the Franciscan Order is closer to a dervish organization than anything else” and that Francis’ poetry “so strongly resembles in places that of the love poet Rumi that one is tempted to look for any report which might connect Francis with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes.”
Shah then goes on to recount the tale of St Francis and Brother Masseo arriving at a fork in the road. When Masseo asked which road they should take, Francis instructed him to “turn round and round as children do, until I tell you to stop.” When at last Francis gave the command to stop, Masseo found himself facing the road to Siena. "Then to Siena we must go," Shah tells us St Francis said – “and to Siena they went.”
Perhaps most suggestively, the Pope’s encyclical in a footnote quotes a Sufi poet:
The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted...”
Again, the intense lyricism. And it is perhaps notable that Ibn 'Arabi, the Shaykh al-Akbar, quotes a closely similar saying from another North African master, Abu 'Uthman al-Maghr.
Ali al-Khawas’s words are drawn from his pupil Sha'rani’s Lata'if a-lminan wa-l-akhlaq, or al-Minan Al-kubra. Dr Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia, a noted scholar of Sufism, has kindly allowed me to quote these two sentences as part of a longer translation which he hopes to publish in full in due course:
And among that which God, may He be blessed and exalted, has granted by means of Himself to me is [the following]: my not hastening to repudiate whoever stands up [during sama'] and engages in ecstatic dance, even if he were to be among transgressors or even if he was not used to it, since God (ta'ala) [during such a dance] might unveil the veil from some hearts, such that they would yearn for their primordial homeland and then sway, like the tree that, as it were, desires to pull its roots from the earth. I heard Sidi 'Ali al-Khawwāṣ (may God – ta'ala – have mercy upon him) say, "Samāʿ (the practice of both listening to the singing of spiritual poetry and music as well as dancing) has a great effect on the inrushing of [spiritual] truths [into the consciousness of the practitioner]
The attitude is a merciful and forgiving one – and once again, the whirling dance and song are at the heart of its inspiration.
His pupil, the scholar-sufi al-Sha'rani describes al-Khawwāṣ as “an unlettered man” and “a man who is totally hidden such that almost no one knew of his sainthood and knowledge except for the practicing scholars, for he is indeed a perfect man to us without any doubt!” Such was the poet-saint that the Pope quotes in his encyclical – In a footnote, yet another bridge from this second Francis to Islam.
Traditional and Immediate
In all of this, Francis is balancing the traditional – the magisterium or timeless teachings of the church – with the immediate – the crisis at hand.
Pope John XXIII, he notes, “addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire ‘Catholic world’ and indeed ‘to all men and women of good will’.” John XXIII spoke at a time when the world was ‘teetering on the brink of nuclear crisis.’ Pope Francis regards the current world situation as no less dire, and addresses a yet wider audience:
Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet. … In this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.’
The final bridge Francis wishes to build is one he hopes we will cross – the bridge between his own and the church’s sacramental insight, and our will to cherish and protect our home, our niche, our planet.
* * * * *
I am indebted to Bill Benzon for his generous invitation for me to post at 3QD on the topic of the Encyclical, to Jenny Taylor for her permission to quote from my LapidoMedia blog post, to Alan Godlas for his permission to quote a part of his upcoming translation of the relevant passage from al-Sha’rani, and for further help regarding al-Sharani and al-Khawwas received from Jane Clark, Julian Cook, and others at Beshara.
Monday, April 27, 2015
Freedom as Floating or Falling
Nine days after 9/11, on 20 September 2001, President George W. Bush responded to the World Trade Centre attacks by addressing a joint session of Congress. He lamented that in the space of a 'single day' the country had been changed irrevocably, its people 'awakened to danger and called to defend freedom'. Out of the painful deaths of almost 3000 people germinates anger and a drive for retribution. The attackers, whom Bush terms 'enemies of freedom', are apparently motivated by envy as well as hatred:
They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
In this passage alone, there are four instances of 'freedom', and in the approximately 3,000-word-long speech from which it is taken, 'freedom' is invoked 13 times.
Given that the speech was a major statement of Bush's intent following the wound of 9/11 and that the US government uses the name 'Operation Enduring Freedom' to describe its War on Terrorism, it is clear that freedom is a crucial concept to the US and its allies. This is unsurprising, since the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island off the coast of New York City has long served as a symbol of freedom and the vaunted American myth of social mobility. But what does freedom consist of and is it a universal value? In other words, does everyone – men and women, and people from different classes, races, or religious backgrounds – experience it in the same way?
In 2014, Bangladeshi-origin writer Zia Haider Rahman published his fascinating and very male debut novel In the Light of What We Know. The book deals in part with 9/11 and its aftermath. One of Rahman's two main protagonists, Zafar, works in Afghanistan soon after the outbreak of war in 2001. He avers that the American occupiers 'justify their invasion of Afghanistan with platitudes about freedom and liberating the Afghani people'. Having studied law and worked for a US bank, Zafar is in some ways part of the American 'relief effort'. And yet he is simultaneously not part of it, due to his Bangladeshi background and brown skin. Because of this, coupled with his working-class origins, he sees through the rhetoric of freedom as platitudinous.
Later, Rahman's Zafar describes a raucous, sexually charged UN bar in Kabul, concluding, 'It was a scene of horror. This is the freedom for which war is waged'. Here he unpicks what the Americans mean by freedom. It bathetically involves a person being free to drink alcohol and explore his or her sexuality – whether within or outside marriage is not usually seen as important. To the occupiers, freedom is about individual choice in the free market. This means little to the majority of Afghans. As Zafar points out, the efflorescence of new drinking establishments under the occupation is popular with the local elite class, but 'the poor are disgusted'.
Out of freedom's sister word liberty comes the verb 'liberate', another word for saving. This idea of liberation and saving brings us to Lila Abu-Lughod's book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (2013). The anthropologist moves ideas about freedom into the realms of race, class, and gender. Herself a feminist with heritage partly in the global south, Abu-Lughod suggest that Western feminists see themselves as 'saving' their benighted Muslim sisters.
Abu-Lughod also scrutinizes the repercussions from one notion of freedom being extolled above all other values. She questions whether women's clothing can symbolize freedom or unfreedom, and whether forces that put limits on every individual's free will mean that, as Wendy Brown puts it, 'choice … is an impoverished account of freedom'. Abu-Lughod seems to suggest that the binary opposition of free and unfree is at the heart of twenty-first-century versions of Orientalism. She argues that American feminism is deceived by the 'powerful national ideology' of freedom and fails to recognize the unequal power relations that underpin this ideology.
Rather than accepting the premise that Western freedom contrasts with imprisonment by Islam, Abu- Lughod shows that believing Muslims have their own ideas about and goals for liberation. The Islamic scholar Abdal Hakim Murad, also known by his birth name of Tim Winter, similarly writes that Islam represents 'radical freedom, a freedom from the encroachments of the State, the claws of the ego, narrow fanaticism and sectarian bigotry and an intrusive state or priesthood'.
The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. ... To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.
This somewhat tongue-in-cheek list intermixes trivial things, ideals, and rights. It also neatly illustrates that many apparent freedoms are culturally specific shibboleths that might alienate not just 'fundamentalists', but a good number of non-Western, non-Christian, non-male people (and many Western vegetarians including me would be put off by the bacon sandwiches!). Ideas of freedom are culturally located. Notwithstanding Rushdie's claims, liberty does not equate to wearing miniskirts rather than burqas.
I move now to Muslim women writers' ideas about freedom in Britain. Attia Hosain, who died in 1998, is known for the short story collection Phoenix Fled and novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, both set in India. However, she also wrote a promising putative novel about diasporic Britain, 'No New Lands, No New Seas'. Hosain worked on this between the 1950s and 1970s, but eventually abandoned the novel, perhaps because the virulent racism of the late 1960s onwards (typified by Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech and the subsequent rise of the National Front) made her migrant topics too painful to complete.
Her central migrant character Murad is having a minor breakdown in the paradoxically crowded, isolating capital of London. He frequently expresses the idea that he has been unmoored, thinking that his thoughts should be 'pegged down, hammered to solidity or he would fly into space, dissolving all matter into formlessness'. He remembers that when he first arrived in London 'he floated away with a wild incredulous sense of freedom'. Perhaps the most interesting instance of Hosain's portrayal of freedom as what David Bowie memorably described as 'floating in a most peculiar way' is this passage:
his happiest moments were in the in-between world where he was free yet not free of intrusive presences, as when at a concert his submerged thoughts would float above the music and cover it with a drifting film until he pushed it away, and under the sounds to which he forcibly attached his mind until the music emerged clearly as if he, with every nerve-end vibrating, were himself one of the instruments.
Although at certain moments, Hosain's text represents freedom as floating in an unnerving way, in this passage Murad's thoughts soar with the music. They are then brought back to earth by a 'drifting film', an image of feather lightness that nonetheless weighs down, of the film's transparency that still manages to ground the character again.
This idea of happiness coming from an in-between realm that at once represents freedom and bondage is illuminating. It's a notion that women especially can appreciate. The Cairo-born, London-resident writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif once said that she feels most free when she is writing on her own in a room but can hear her family busy with happy activities not far away. She finds contentment in being free and yet not free.
Although Hosain's ideal is a sublime freedom coexisting with unfreedom, breaking down the binary that Abu-Lughod so dislikes, the novelist recognizes that a banal version of freedom as individual choice is the one that prevails. Murad and his friend Isa together investigate 'the areas of liberty that London had given them'. The narrator notes that this is initially 'mostly in respect of women and wine, then through pubs and prostitutes to the poetry of freedom and friendship without the taboos of tradition, the constraint of custom and duress of duty'. It is a similar version of freedom to that which Rahman criticized: a prosaic lack of restraint in relation to 'women and wine'. Alliteration underscores the glibness of Murad's free indirect discourse on freedom here.
Formlessness, lack of solidity, freedom, and loneliness: these images echo again through the pages of Sudanese author Leila Aboulela's London novel, Minaret (2005). Hosain's notion of flying or floating up into space is inverted in the later text. Aboulela describes her Sudanese protagonist Najwa's metaphorical ‘fall' through space due to an encounter with the vertiginous liberties of the West.
What makes Minaret distinctive as a novel of Muslim experience is that it centres on a character's journey towards religion, rather than away. Many Anglophone novels about the British Muslim experience from the 1990s and early 2000s are about young Muslims discovering 'freedom', in the shape of a secular life, and independence from familial or kinship ties. In contrast, Aboulela's novel traces the Westernized protagonist, Najwa's, downwardly-mobile journey from her privileged position as a Sudanese minister's daughter, to exile in London when a coup dislodges her father from power, and eventually life as a domestic servant to a wealthy Arab family in the former imperial capital. During this descent, an unfurling religious identity sustains Najwa through her losses.
The supportive ties that Najwa discovers in her mosque are starkly contrasted with the supposed 'freedoms' of the non-religious world, which Aboulela portrays as being constrictive rather than liberatory. The notion of liberty in Western thought, since the time of Hobbes's Leviathan, has meant a freedom from external constraints and the right of individual self-determination. In Arab and South Asian thought, by contrast, freedom, hurriya in Arabic or azadi in Persian and Urdu, has typically had political, communitarian connotations. It would be wrong to suggest that Muslims have not hotly debated the concept of freedom over the centuries. In the Sufi tradition, freedom has been compared to ‘perfect slavery', which indicates not only that slavery in the Arab world was, in Amitav Ghosh's words, a relatively 'flexible set of hierarchies', but also that the institution was often used as a metaphor for understanding 'the relationship between Allah the "master" and his human "slaves"'.
I don't explain … my fantasies. My involvement in Tamer's wedding to a young suitable girl who knows him less than I do. She will mother children who spend more time with me… I would like to be his family's concubine, like something out of The Arabian Nights, with life-long security and a sense of belonging. But I must settle for freedom in this modern time.
The issue of clashing cultural understandings of liberty highlighted by this passage is particularly pertinent in the light of Abu-Lughod's analysis of the rhetoric of 'freedom' used to justify the War on Terror. With her evocation of Alf Laylah wa Laylah or The Arabian Nights, Najwa indicates that feminism has not usually considered non-Euro-American traditions when defining 'women's lib'. Yet Najwa's wish is itself problematic, especially since later chooses to perform Hajj rather than marry Tamer. This internal monologue smacks of lugubrious, even masochistic propensities.
Najwa has been brought up in a broadly Western tradition: she comes from an elite family that only pays lip service to Islam. Her early life, while affluent and sheltered, is nonetheless depicted as lacking some essential component. Within conventional limits, Najwa has considerable freedom in her dress, education and sexual relations. Yet she feels uneasy when strange men appraise her body in its revealing clothes, and her only sexual relationship with a Marxist exile in London is sordid and guilt-ridden. After a Leftist coup in Sudan leads to her father's imprisonment and eventual execution, her family is described as ‘falling' through space. This image of descent evokes the 'horror' inherent in too much liberty. Of course it also suggests the fall common to both Judeo-Christian and Qur'anic theology, whereby Adam and Eve/Hawwa were banished from the Garden of Paradise to live on earth. Najwa's fall is complete once her brother Omar is imprisoned for drugs and her mother dies. Freed from her caring duties, Najwa supposes that she should feel a sense of emancipation, but instead observes, 'this empty space was called freedom'.
To recapitulate the ideas explored in this article, the War in Afghanistan has led to the privileging of a Western dichotomy of freedom vs. unfreedom. Lila Abu-Lughod interrogates and genders this binary. Hosain anticipates these debates in her 1950s-70s fragment, while in a post-9/11 context Aboulela robustly challenges them. We should not forget, though, that ideas of political freedom are more crucial in the Muslim world now than ever. This is easily perceptible in the Arab Spring (now mournfully becoming known as the Arab Winter). I conclude with Soueif's quoting of a chant against the Egyptian regime: 'They said trouble ran in our blood and how'd we dare demand our rights | Oh dumb regime | understand | what I want: | Liberty! Liberty!'
Monday, March 02, 2015
Does Thinking About God Increase Our Willingness to Make Risky Decisions?
by Jalees Rehman
There are at least two ways of how the topic of trust in God is broached in Friday sermons that I have attended in the United States. Some imams lament the decrease of trust in God in the age of modernity. Instead of trusting God that He is looking out for the believers, modern day Muslims believe that they can control their destiny on their own without any Divine assistance. These imams see this lack of trust in God as a sign of weakening faith and an overall demise in piety. But in recent years, I have also heard an increasing number of sermons mentioning an important story from the Muslim tradition. In this story, Prophet Muhammad asked a Bedouin why he was leaving his camel untied and thus taking the risk that this valuable animal might wander off and disappear. When the Bedouin responded that he placed his trust in God who would ensure that the animal stayed put, the Prophet told him that he still needed to first tie up his camel and then place his trust in God. Sermons referring to this story admonish their audience to avoid the trap of fatalism. Just because you trust God does not mean that it obviates the need for rational and responsible action by each individual.
It is much easier for me to identify with the camel-tying camp because I find it rather challenging to take risks exclusively based on the trust in an inscrutable and minimally communicative entity. Both, believers and non-believers, take risks in personal matters such as finance or health. However, in my experience, many believers who make a risky financial decision or take a health risk by rejecting a medical treatment backed by strong scientific evidence tend to invoke the name of God when explaining why they took the risk. There is a sense that God is there to back them up and provide some security if the risky decision leads to a detrimental outcome. It would therefore not be far-fetched to conclude that invoking the name of God may increase risk-taking behavior, especially in people with firm religious beliefs. Nevertheless, psychological research in the past decades has suggested the opposite: Religiosity and reminders of God seem to be associated with a reduction in risk-taking behavior.
Daniella Kupor and her colleagues at Stanford University have recently published the paper "Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking" which takes a new look at the link between invoking the name of God and risky behaviors. The researchers hypothesized that reminders of God may have opposite effects on varying types of risk-taking behavior. For example, risk-taking behavior that is deemed ‘immoral' such as taking sexual risks or cheating may be suppressed by invoking God, whereas taking non-moral risks, such as making risky investments or sky-diving, might be increased because reminders of God provide a sense of security. According to Kupor and colleagues, it is important to classify the type of risky behavior in relation to how society perceives God's approval or disapproval of the behavior. The researchers conducted a variety of experiments to test this hypothesis using online study participants.
One of the experiments involved running ads on a social media network and then assessing the rate of how often the social media users clicked on slightly different wordings of the ad texts. The researchers ran the ads 452,051 times on accounts registered to users over the age of 18 years residing in the United States. The participants either saw ads for non-moral risk-taking behavior (skydiving), moral risk-taking behavior (bribery) or a control behavior (playing video games) and each ad came either in a 'God version' or a standard version.
Here are the two versions of the skydiving ad (both versions had a picture of a person skydiving):
God knows what you are missing! Find skydiving near you. Click here, feel the thrill!
You don't know what you are missing! Find skydiving near you. Click here, feel the thrill!
The percentage of users who clicked on the skydiving ad in the ‘God version' was twice as high as in the group which saw the standard "You don't know what you are missing" phrasing! One explanation for the significantly higher ad success rate is that "God knows…." might have struck the ad viewers as being rather unusual and piqued their curiosity. Instead of this being a reflection of increased propensity to take risks, perhaps the viewers just wanted to find out what was meant by "God knows…". However, the response to the bribery ad suggests that it isn't just mere curiosity. These are the two versions of the bribery ad (both versions had an image of two hands exchanging money):
Learn How to Bribe!
God knows what you are missing! Learn how to bribe with little risk of getting caught!
Learn How to Bribe!
You don't know what you are missing! Learn how to bribe with little risk of getting caught!
In this case, the ‘God version' cut down the percentage of clicks to less than half of the standard version. The researchers concluded that invoking the name of God prevented the users from wanting to find out more about bribery because they consciously or subconsciously associated bribery with being immoral and rejected by God.
These findings are quite remarkable because they suggest that a a single mention of the word ‘God' in an ad can have opposite effects on two different types of risk-taking, the non-moral thrill of sky-diving versus the immoral risk of taking bribes.
Clicking on an ad for a potentially risky behavior is not quite the same as actually engaging in that behavior. This is why the researchers also conducted a separate study in which participants were asked to answer a set of questions after viewing certain colors. Participants could choose between Option 1 (a short 2 minute survey and receiving an additional 25 cents as a reward) or Option 2 (four minute survey, no additional financial incentive). The participants were also informed that Option 1 was more risky with the following label:
Eye Hazard: Option 1 not for individuals under 18. The bright colors in this task may damage the retina and cornea in the eyes. In extreme cases it can also cause macular degeneration.
In reality, neither of the two options was damaging to the eyes of the participants but the participants did not know this. This set-up allowed the researchers to assess the likelihood of the participants taking the risk of potentially injurious light exposure to their eyes. To test the impact of God reminders, the researchers assigned the participants to read one of two texts, both of which were adapted from Wikipedia, before deciding on Option 1 or Option 2:
Text used for participants in the control group:
"In 2006, the International Astronomers' Union passed a resolution outlining three conditions for an object to be called a planet. First, the object must orbit the sun; second, the object must be a sphere; and third, it must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. Pluto does not meet the third condition, and is thus not a planet."
Text used for the participants in the ‘God reminder' group:
"God is often thought of as a supreme being. Theologians have described God as having many attributes, including omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), and omnibenevolence (perfect goodness). God has also been conceived as being incorporeal (immaterial), a personal being, and the "greatest conceivable existent."
As hypothesized by the researchers, a significantly higher proportion of participants chose the supposedly harmful Option 1 in the ‘God reminder' group (96%) than in the control group (84%). Reading a single paragraph about God's attributes was apparently sufficient to lull more participants into the risk of exposing their eyes to potential harm. The overall high percentage of participants choosing Option 1 even in the control condition is probably due to the fact that it offered a greater financial reward (although it seems a bit odd that participants were willing to sell out their retinas for a quarter, but maybe they did not really take the risk very seriously).
A limitation of the study is that it does not provide any information on whether the impact of mentioning God was dependent on the religious beliefs of the participants. Do ‘God reminders' affect believers as well atheists and agnostics or do they only work in people who clearly identify with a religious tradition? Another limitation is that even though many of the observed differences between the ‘God condition' and the control conditions were statistically significant, the actual differences in numbers were less impressive. For example, in the sky-diving ad experiment, the click-through rate was about 0.03% in the standard ad and 0.06% in the ‘God condition'. This is a doubling but how meaningful is this doubling when the overall click rates are so low? Even the difference between the two groups who read the Wikipedia texts and chose Option 1 (96% vs. 84%) does not seem very impressive. However, one has to bear in mind that all of these interventions were very subtle – inserting a single mention of God into a social media ad or asking participants to read a single paragraph about God.
People who live in societies which are suffused with religion such as the United States or Pakistan are continuously reminded of God, whether they glance at their banknotes, turn on the TV or take a pledge of allegiance in school. If the mere mention of God in an ad can already sway some of us to increase our willingness to take risks, what impact does the continuous barrage of God mentions have on our overall risk-taking behavior? Despite its limitations, the work by Kupor and colleagues provides a fascinating new insight on the link between reminders of God and risk-taking behavior. By demonstrating the need to replace blanket statements regarding the relationship between God, religiosity and risk-taking with a more subtle distinction between moral and non-moral risky behaviors, the researchers are paving the way for fascinating future studies on how religion and mentions of God influence human behavior and decision-making.
Kupor DM, Laurin L, Levav J. "Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking" Psychological Science(2015) doi: 10.1177/0956797614563108
Monday, September 15, 2014
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
The case for God's existence is unsuccessful. Theistic arguments either beg the question, or involve deductive fallacies, or don't really prove what they promised to. Furthermore, the atheistic arguments all seem decisive – there's no morally acceptable solution to the problem of evil, and there is no need for God in a naturalistic universe. Current theistic replies are mostly rear-guard actions in reaction to the atheist – more apology than apologetics. The evidence overwhelmingly supports the thesis that God doesn't exist. And this is good news, too. God is just a cosmic bully. Such a being might provide the universe with meaning, but in so doing, makes it all pointless, especially human autonomy -- which, by hypothesis, would have to resolve itself into God's will. God's existence would be a moral tragedy, so good riddance to bad rubbish.
Call the view expressed above Positive Evidential Atheism (PEA). It is the two-part thesis composed of an evidential claim and a positive assessment: (1) our overall available evidence supports belief that there is no God and (2) God's non-existence is a good thing. We endorse PEA. Paul Moser challenges PEA in his book The Severity of God (2013). Moser argues that if God exists, He would be silent; moreover, He would be particularly silent to those who accept PEA. This "divine hiddenness" explains why PEA's advocates think they have no evidence for God's existence. Given that God hides, the evidence is misleading. In response to Moser, we defend PEA along two lines: (1) PEA needn't be undercut in the fashion Moser takes it to be, and (2) divine hiding can be rendered as supporting PEA.
Let's begin by considering the divine hiddenness view in a little more detail. It runs like this: Even though the problem of evil may seem unanswerable, we humans are not in a position to know that God would not allow severe evils in the world. Moreover, we do not know if God intervenes in this universe with individuals engaged in proper relationships with Him. Access to evidence of God is not a matter of looking and seeing, but a matter of searching, yearning, and then being transformed. God, in fact, wants relationships with us, not just our assent to claims of His existence. And so He hides from us until we are ready for His presence.
Notice that the divine hiddenness view reconciles the fact of widespread disbelief with God's capacity and goodness. God is silent until we are ready to hear. Were He to reveal himself when we are not ready, the relationship He desires and we need would be perverted. God's ways, in short, are not our ways; to expect otherwise is nothing short of idolatry. Divine hiding, so the reasoning goes, is something we should positively expect of a God truly worthy of worship.
God's motivation to hide is especially pronounced in the case of the positive atheist. As Moser has it, "God typically would hide God's existence from people ill-disposed toward it"; as they are ill-disposed toward God, "their lacking evidence for God's existence is not by itself the basis of a case for atheism"(2013:200). Thus positive atheists should expect that their evidence regarding God's existence is misleading, since they are precisely those for whom God's presence will be elusive. Hence PEA's positive assessment undercuts its evidential claim. Moser calls this the "undermining case" against PEA. Yet, as we will argue, the undermining case is not decisive.
First note that PEA's positive assessment and evidential claim are not logically separable in the way that Moser assumes. PEA concedes that if God exists, He is the only object worthy of worship. But worship is itself morally suspect. Worshipping God is an all-in, complete commitment – one gives one's life completely over to Him. All one's meaning and value, then, comes from Him. To give oneself completely over to anyone, to have that entity determine all the values and meanings for you, is to completely give up one's autonomy. To demand of others that they completely give up their autonomy is immoral, and to require that they do so with the very last act of their own singular volition is positively sadistic. Consider, then, that God demands that we worship Him, and punishes those who fail to do so. The worship of anything is immoral; thus God's existence would be a morally bad thing. Yet, God by definition must be morally perfect, and His existence must be a good thing; therefore, God is a morally impossible entity. So the reasons for PEA's positive assessment of God's nonexistence are also part of the evidence for His nonexistence. Rather than undercutting the evidence against God, the positive assessment contributes to the evidence for atheism.
Here's a second defense against Moser's undermining case. The divine hiddenness view holds that PEAs can see no evidence for God's existence because God deliberately hides from them. The view seeks to explain why PEAs can't see any reason to accept God; however, the view seems unable to explain how one becomes a positive evidential atheist. After all, one does not arrive in this life, fresh from the womb, despising the very idea of God. Rather, one typically thinks one's way into an atheist position from a theistic one. How, then, can divine hiddenness account for the fact that very often individuals become atheists after considering their evidence while espousing a theist view? If God hides from those who are disposed to reject Him, why does He also seem to hide from those who yet believe but begin to doubt, or merely wonder? Now, on Moser's view, it may be in character for Him to withdraw even from the doubter – He is severe, after all – but this kind of severity is morally unacceptable. Thus, we rare brought back to PEA's positive assessment: Moser appeals to God's severity in order to explain the fact that the atheist's evidence against God looks so compelling; but the existence of a severe God would be morally atrocious. And that's further evidence for positive evidential atheism.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Buddhist Musings in Ramadan
by Jalees Rehman
Ramadan is the month of fasting and a time for spiritual growth among Muslims. The traditionalist approach to "spiritual growth" is for Muslims to complement their fasting with performing additional prayers at night and regular reading of the Quran throughout the month. My own approach is somewhat different, I tend to complement my fasting with the reading of writings and scriptures from other philosophies or faith traditions, including atheist and humanist teachings. This year, I decided to study the Dhammapada (in the translation of Gil Fronsdal), one of the most widely read and revered writings in the Buddhist faith.
I was inspired to learn more about Buddhism because I was reading the remarkable novel "A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki, who is not only a brilliant author but also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. The first person narrator in the novel is a 16-year old Japanese girl Nao who is bullied by her classmates. Nao's parents moved from Japan to Silicon Valley but were forced to return to Japan when the Dotcom bubble burst. Nao's father loses his job and the family is forced to live in poverty. The family's poverty and the fact that Nao is seen as an alien "transfer student" lead to her being ostracized at school. But her classmates go even further and begin psychologically and physically torturing her, leaving scars and scabs all over her body.
Nao is invited to spend the summer with her 104-year old great-grandmother Jiko who is a Buddhist nun. In the following scene, Jiko takes a bath with Nao and notices the scars:
"I waited. Old Jiko liked to take her time, and she was really good at it because she'd been practicing for so many years, so as a result, I was always waiting for her, and you'd think that waiting would be annoying for a young person like me, but for some reason I didn't mind. It wasn't like I had anything better to do that summer. I sat there on my little wooden stool, naked and hugging my knees and shivering, not from the cold but in anticipation of the scalding heat of the water, so when, instead, I felt her fingertip touch a small scar in the middle of my back, I was startled. My body stiffened. The light was so dim, how could she see my scars with her bad eyes? I figured she couldn't, but then I felt her finger move across my skin in a pattern, hesitant, pausing here and there to connect the dots.
"You must be very angry," she said. She spoke so quietly, it was like she was talking to herself, and maybe she was. Or maybe she hadn't said anything at all, and I'd just imagined it. Either way, my throat squeezed shut and I couldn't answer, so I shook my head. I was so ashamed, but at the same time, this enormous feeling of sadness brimmed up inside me, and I had to hold my breath to stop from crying.
She didn't say anything else. She washed me gently, and for the first time I just wanted her to hurry up and finish. After we were done, I got dressed quickly and said good night and left her there. I thought I was going to throw up. I didn't want to go back to my room, so I ran halfway down the mountainside and hid in the bamboo forest until it got dark and the fireflies came out. When Muji rang the big bell at the end of her fire watch to signal the end of the day, I snuck back into the temple and crawled into bed.
The next morning I went looking for old Jiko and found her in her room. She was sitting on the floor with her back to the door, bent over her low table. She was reading. I stood in the doorway and didn't even bother to go in. "Yes," I told her. "I'm angry, so what?"
Once Nao is able to speak about her anger to Jiko, Nao's healing process can begin. The story makes frequent references to Buddhist teachings, quoting from Buddhist texts as well as allowing the reader to gradually imbibe important spiritual concepts. To better understand these concepts, I decided to read the Dhammapada. I first began with the chapter on "Anger" where I was struck by the following verses:
"The one who keeps anger in check as it arises,
As one would a careening chariot,
I call a charioteer.
Others are merely rein-holders."
How often do we let our anger chariot determine our paths? I can remember countless times when I have been passively holding the reins but rarely take control of this chariot.
I will just leave you with one more excerpt from the Dhammapada, but I advise you to read it (and, of course, Ozeki's novel!) in its entirety:
From the chapter "The Sage":
"As a solid mass of rock,
Is not moved by the wind,
So a sage is not moved
By praise or blame."
Monday, March 03, 2014
Is Internet-Centrism a Religion?
by Jalees Rehman
On the evening of March 3 in 1514, Steven is sitting next to Friar Clay in a Nottingham pub, covering his face with his hands.
"I am losing the will to live", Steven sobs, "Death may be sweeter than life in this world of poverty, injustice and war."
"Do not despair, my friend", Clay says, "for the printing press will change everything."
Let us now fast-forward 500 years and re-enact this hypothetical scene with some tiny modifications.
On the evening of March 3 in 2014, Steven is sitting next to TED-Talker Clay in a Nottingham pub, covering his face with his hands.
"I am losing the will to live", Steven sobs, "Death may be sweeter than life in this world of poverty, injustice and war."
"Do not despair, my friend", Clay says, "for the internet will change everything."
Clay's advice in the first scene sounds ludicrous to us because we know that the printing press did not usher in an era of wealth, justice and peace. Being retrospectators, we realize that the printing press revolutionized how we disseminate information, but even the most efficient dissemination tool is just a means and not the ends.
It is more difficult for us to dismiss Clay's advice in the second scene because it echoes the familiar Silicon Valley slogans which inundate us with such persistence that some of us have begun to believe them. Clay's response is an example of what Evgeny Morozov refers to as "Internet-centrism", the unwavering belief that the Internet is not just an information dissemination tool but that it constitutes the path to salvation for humankind. In his book "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism", Morozov suggests that "Internet-centrism" is taking on religion-like qualities:
"If the public debate is any indication, the finality of "the Internet"— the belief that it's the ultimate technology and the ultimate network— has been widely accepted. It's Silicon Valley's own version of the end of history: just as capitalism-driven liberal democracy in Francis Fukuyama's controversial account remains the only game in town, so does the capitalism-driven "Internet." It, the logic goes, is a precious gift from the gods that humanity should never abandon or tinker with. Thus, while "the Internet" might disrupt everything, it itself should never be disrupted. It's here to stay— and we'd better work around it, discover its real nature, accept its features as given, learn its lessons, and refurbish our world accordingly. If it sounds like a religion, it's because it is."
Morozov does not equate mere internet usage with "Internet-centrism". People routinely use the internet for work or leisure without ascribing mythical powers to it, but it is when the latter occurs that internet usage transforms into "Internet-centrism".
Does Morozov's portrayal of "Internet-centrism" as a religion correspond to our current understanding of religions? "Internet-centrism" does not involve deities, sacred scripture or traditional prayers, but social scientists and scholars of religion do not require deism, scriptures or prayers to categorize a body of beliefs and practices as a religion.
The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) thought that the feeling of "absolute dependence" ("das schlechthinnige Abhängigkeitsgefühl") was one of the defining characteristics of a religion. In a January 2014 Pew Internet survey, 53% of adult internet users in said that it would be "very hard" to give up the internet, whereas only 38% felt this way in 2006. This does not necessarily meet the Schleiermacher threshold of "absolute dependence" but it indicates a growing perception of dependence among internet users, who are struggling to envision a life without the internet or a life beyond the internet.
Absolute dependence is not unique to religion, therefore it may be more helpful to turn to religion-specific definitions if we want to understand the religionesque characteristics of Internet-centrism. In his classic essay "Religion as a cultural system" (published in "The Interpretation of Cultures"), the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) defined religion as:
" (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."
Today's Silicon Valley pundits (incidentally a Sanskrit term originally used for learned Hindu scholars well-versed in Vedic scriptures) excel at establishing "powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations" and endowing "conceptions of general order of existence" with an "aura of factuality". Morozov does not specifically reference the Geertz definition of religion, but he provides extensive internet pundit quotes which fit the bill. Here is one such example:
"To be a peer progressive, then, is to live with the conviction that Wikipedia is just the beginning, that we can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, governance, health, local communities, and countless other regions of human experience."
—Steven Johnson in "Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age"
One problem with abstract definitions of religion is that they do not encompass the practice of religion and its mythical or supernatural aspects, which are often essential parts of most religions. In "The Religious Experience", the religion scholar Ninian Smart (1927-2001) does not provide a handy definition for religions but instead offers six "dimensions" that are present in most major religions: 1) The Ritual Dimension, 2) The Mythological Dimension, 3) The Doctrinal Dimension, 4) The Ethical Dimension, 5) The Social Dimension and 6) The Experiential Dimension.
How do these dimensions of religion apply to Internet-centrism?
1) The Ritual Dimension: The need to continuously seek connectivity by accessing computers or seeking out wireless connectivity, checking emails or social media updates so frequently that this connectivity exceeds one's pragmatic needs could be considered a ritual of Internet-centrism. If one feels the need to check emails and Facebook or Twitter updates every one to two minutes, despite the fact that it is unlikely one would have received a message that required urgent action, it may be an indicator of the important role that this ritual plays in the life of an Internet-centrist. Worshippers of traditional religions feel uncomfortable if they miss out on regular prayers or lose their rosaries that allow them to commune with their God, and it appears that for some humans, the ritual of Internet-connectivity may play a similar role.
2) The Mythological Dimension: There is the physical internet, which consists of billions of physical components such as computers, servers, routers or cables that are connected to each other. Prophets and pundits of Internet-centrism also describe a mythical "Internet" which goes for beyond the physical internet, because it involves mythical narratives about the power of the internet as a higher force that is shaping human destiny. Just like "Scientism" attributes a certain mystique to real-world science, Internet-centrism adorns the physical internet with a similar mythological dimension.
Ideas of "cognitive surplus", crowdsourcing knowledge to improve the human condition, internet-based political revolutions that will put an end to injustice, oppression and poverty and other powerful metaphors are used to describe this poorly defined mythical entity that has little to do with the physical internet. The myth of egalitarianism is commonly perpetuated, yet the internet is anything but egalitarian. Social media hubs have millions of followers and certain corporations or organizations are experts at building filters and algorithms to control the information seen by consumers who have minimal power and control over the flow of information.
3) The Doctrinal Dimension: The doctrine of Internet-centrism is the relentless pursuit of sharedom through the internet. The idea is that the more we share, the more we collaborate and the more transparent we are via the internet, the easier it will be for us humans to conquer the challenges that face us. Challenging this basic doctrine that is promoted by Silicon Valley corporations can be perceived as heretical. It is a remarkable testimony to the proselytizing power of the prophets and pundits in Silicon Valley that people were outraged at the government institution NSA for violating our privacy. There was comparatively little concern about the fact that the primary benefactors of the growing culture of sharedom are the for-profit internet corporations that make money off our willingness to sacrifice our privacy.
4) The Ethical Dimension: In many religions, one is asked to follow aspects of a religious doctrine which have no direct ethical context. For example, seeking salvation by praying alone to a god on a mountain-top does not necessarily require adherence to ethical standards. On the other hand, most religions have developed moral imperatives that govern how adherents of a religion interact with fellow believers or non-believers. In Internet-centrism, the doctrinal dimension is conflated with the ethical dimension. Sharedom is not only a doctrinal imperative, it is also a moral imperative. We are told that sharing and collaborating is an ethical duty.
This may be unique to Internet-centrism since the internet (both in its physical or its mythical form) presupposes the existence of fellow beings with whom one can connect. If a catastrophe wiped out all humans but one, who happened to adhere to a traditional religion, she could still pray to a god (ritual), believe in salvation by a supernatural entity (mythological) and abide by the the religious laws (doctrinal). However, if she were an Internet-centrist, all her rituals, beliefs and doctrines would become meaningless.
5) The Social Dimension: Congregating in groups and social interactions are key for many religions, but Internet-centrism provides more tools than any other ideology, cultural movement or religion for us to interact with others. Whether we engage in this social activity by using social media such as Facebook or Twitter, by reading or writing blog posts, or by playing multi-player games online, Internet-centrism encourages us to fulfill our social needs by using the tools of the internet.
6) The Experiential Dimension: Most religions offer their adherents opportunities for highly personal, spiritual experiences. Internet-centrism avoids any talk of "spirituality", but the idea of a personalized experience is very much a part of Internet-centrism. One of its goals is to provide opportunities for self-actualization. We all may be connected via the internet, but Internet-centrists also want us to believe that this connectivity provides a path for self-actualization. We can modify settings to customize our web browsing experience, we can pick and choose from millions of options of what online courses we want to take, videos we want to watch or music we want to listen to. The sense of connectedness and omnipotentiality is what provides the adherent of Internet-centrism with a feeling of personal empowerment that comes close to a spiritual experience of traditional religions.
When one reviews the definitions by Schleiermacher or Geertz, or the multi-dimensional analysis by Ninian Smart, it does indeed seem that Morozov is right and that Internet-centrism is taking on many religion-like characteristics. There is probably still a big disconnect between the Silicon valley prophets or pundits who proselytize and the vast majority of internet users who primarily act as "consumers" but do not yet buy into the tenets of Internet-centrism. But it is likely that at least in the short-term, Internet-centrism will continue to grow, especially if Internet-centrist ideas are introduced to children in schools and they grow up believing that these ideas are both essential and sufficient for our intellectual and social wellbeing. Perhaps the pundits of Internet-centrism could discuss the future of this emerging religion with adherents of other faiths at a TEDxInterfaith conference.
Image Credits: Photo of Gutenberg Bible (Creative Commons license, via NYC Wanderer at Flickr)
Monday, February 03, 2014
The Impossibility of Satan
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
God is by definition is the greatest possible thing.
If God is the greatest possible thing, then He cannot fail to manifest any perfection — otherwise, there would be a possible thing greater than He.
Existence is a perfection; that which does not exist lacks something that would improve it.
Therefore, God must exist.
The conclusion can be strengthened, further, with the thought that necessary existence is a greater perfection than contingent existence, and so it is necessary that God necessarily exists. Now, that's a pretty heavy conclusion derived only from some strikingly lightweight premises. This is what makes the Ontological Argument so interesting – it seems clear that something's gone wrong, but it turns out that it's very hard to explain what it is.
In our Reasonable Atheism and elsewhere, we've held that the Ontological Argument is a kind of litmus test for intellectual seriousness concerning God's existence. We've claimed further that atheists in particular had better grapple with it. Here's why: Every atheist thinks the argument goes wrong; moreover, they think it's obvious that it fails. But saying that the argument's failure is obvious is not yet to identify what the failure consists in. Yet very few atheists offer much more than simple derision of the argument. Now, that's not intellectually serious – especially if the whole point of any argument is to articulate reasons for the sake of guiding belief. Saying that an argument is obviously wrong and then not having anything substantive to say about its failure is contrary to what honest argument is all about. Smug dismissals of the Ontological Argument as insipid or mere wordplay are themselves mere blather. On top of that, it is exactly the sort of thing anyone devoted to the Enlightenment project should avoid. If you're committed to reason and think the Ontological Argument isn't any good, you've got to wrestle with it and devise an account of its flaws. And while you're at it, you had better bother to consult the most sophisticated versions of the argument available. Otherwise, you're just a poser and a hypocrite.
Now, the Ontological Argument has its critics, and some of the more trenchant objections have been devised by theists. One longstanding objection has been that the Ontological Argument proves too much – specifically, that it overpopulates the world with strange but necessarily existing entities. And so, to St. Anselm's version of the Ontological Argument, the Catholic monk Gaunilo ran the counterargument that the same reasoning could prove that there is a Perfect Island. Atheists have gotten in on the game too. Michael Martin has argued that the Ontological Argument can prove that there must be a perfectly evil being (1990: 93). Richard Dawkins claims that by identical reasoning he can prove that pigs can fly (2006: 84), and Christopher Hitchens argued that it allowed him to prove that there are dragons (2007: 265). We joined the game in our Reasonable Atheism, where we argued that the same reasoning at work in the Ontological Argument can be extended to prove that God can't be the thing that necessarily exists (2011: 88).
Here's another run at the "proves too much"critique, one that takes the existence is a perfection premise in a quite different direction. Here, we are not concerned to show that the Ontological Arugment overpopulates the Christian's world, but rather that it underpopulates it in a crucial respect.
Call it the Ontological Proof for the Impossibility of Satan. To start, we employ the similar definitional setup as the Theistic Ontological Argument. Let's say that Satan is, by definition, the worst possible thing. If something is the worst possible thing, then it not only must have lots of bad properties, but it must not have any perfections; it must be the kind of thing that could not be made any worse than it already is. If it had a perfection, it would be better, not worse, than a thing that lacked that perfection, and thus would not be the worst possible thing. Next, we adopt the Ontological Argument's premise that existence is a perfection. And the conclusion swiftly follows: Satan must lack existence. Further, assuming that a possibly existing thing is better than necessarily not existing thing, it must follow that it is necessary that Satan necessarily does not exist. The Christian's world just got a whole lot smaller.
At first blush, this argument might be excellent news for theists and atheists alike. That there's no Satan is morally speaking an excellent outcome. It is a proposition that atheists already knew, but it will also be one that will relieve the theists of the threat of all-encompassing eternal torture.
But now consider a troubling consequence of the argument. If one accepts the Ontological Argument for the Impossibility of Satan, one must hold that there are some evils that, in virtue of not existing, are worse than evils that do exist. Consider a case of evil – say, the kidnappings in Cleveland, Ohio. An implication of our Ontological Argument for the Impossibility of Satan is that the morally identical copy of those kidnappings that might have happened in Pittsburgh but did not,are worse than the ones that occurred in Cleveland. This looks twisted. The implication is that the world is made better when evils actually occur, as existing evils are less bad than nonexistent ones. How could that be? The culprit is the premise that existence is a perfection. And that's the premise driving our Ontological Argument for the Impossibility of Satan, and some version of this premise features in all versions of the Ontological Argument for God's Existence that we know of. Indeed, it strikes us that some such premise is a sine qua non of Ontological Arguments as such. Alas, this premise must be rejected if the theist wants a world populated by both a God and Satan. Perhaps the better course for the theist would be to just abandon the Ontological Argument.
Monday, December 09, 2013
A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists
by David V. Johnson
In "San Manuel Bueno, Martir," the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.
"The main thing," San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, "is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all."
When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. "Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them," San Manuel tells him. "It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything."
Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.
The twist: Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. ("I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …") What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's "conversion," then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.
I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.
The question is why.
* * *
I like to follow the practice of philosopher Mark Johnston and label the Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris trinity and their followers the "undergraduate atheists." And risking oversimplication, I would summarize their view with the following statement:
Humanity would be better off without religious belief.
This view — call it the Undergraduate Atheists' Thesis (UAT) — asks us to compare two different lines of human history, one in which the vast majority of human beings have held and continue to hold religious beliefs, and one in which they haven't and don't. Their argument is that the world will be better off in the latter scenario.
I am an atheist who was raised Catholic and, like Lazaro, I am also someone who frets about the public's general lack of scientific understanding. Yet I am deeply skeptical of UAT.
First, demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.
My impression of UAT advocates is that they think it obvious that human beings would be better off without religion. Their typical mode of argument suggests this. They tend to argue by piling up a litany of anecdotes that, in total, suggest such a massive sum of evil from religion that it tips the scales so strongly toward the negative that a more careful weighing is unnecessary. But I remain unconvinced. In fact, I suspect the scales might tip the other way.
Why? For the same reasons as San Manuel Bueno's. The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence. This mental state is, I submit, so important to human happiness that people are willing to suffer and die for it, and do so gladly.
As someone who knows what it's like from the inside to be a believer, I suspect that I'm better able to appreciate this point than the undergraduate atheists, who perhaps never grew up as part of a faith. For them, the only thing worth calculating is the objective consequences of religious superstition. But that would represent a gross error.
Under the comparative scenario on which UAT rests, we are to imagine, as far as we are able, a course of human history without religious belief. This is exceedingly difficult to do, since religion is nearly universal across cultures. Yes, in this alternate universe, there would be no religious wars — but I suspect there would be wars. There would be no superstition — but I suspect there would be nonsense and folly all the same. But what this universe would lack is the ability of human beings to have religious faith and reap its subjective psychological benefits. I submit that this would be a huge net negative for humanity, even if we granted that the religious universe would have more war, more intolerance and more folly than the non-religious one — something I'm not willing to grant.
* * *
A related problem for this alternative scenario: Some researchers have suggested that there is a natural tendency in human beings, perhaps even grounded in their neuropsychology, that leads them to form religious beliefs. If this is true, the alternative scenario under UAT would have human beings like us — i.e. ones who have a tendency (dare I say a need?) for religious belief — who nevertheless lacked the resources to form such beliefs. That sounds to me like a recipe for mass misery.
Or suppose that in the alternative universe, human beings would not have this tendency towards religion. They would not be quite like us. Let us call them "Dawkinsians." They would be like human beings in every respect, including their stupidity, impulsiveness and tribalism, but they would lack any tendency toward forming religious beliefs. They would certainly lack the psychological boon from religion, but they would also somehow not have the need for it. They couldn't all be like David Hume, meeting death without blinking — that would be unfair. (Of course humanity would be better off if everyone were like David Hume!) What would it be like, from the inside, to be a Dawkinsian in a world of fellow Dawkinsians? To be a human-like creature, but to be satisfied with the rational belief that there is no God, no ultimate meaning or goodness to the universe, no life after death, and so on. Would Dawkinsians dread their own deaths? Would they have any capacity for mystical feeling? Would they suffer existential angst? Would they worry about the ultimate grounds of good and evil? If they did, then they would likely be worse off, I submit, than a world of human beings with religion. If they didn't, then Dawkinsians are a species that is so unlike ours that it's not a fair comparison.
Note that I do not need to secure agreement with the conclusion that humanity with religion is better off than without. All I need to put UAT in doubt is the consideration that a full investigation into its truth would require calculating not only all the good and bad objective consequences of religious belief versus the good and bad of a world without belief — wars, intolerance, violence, etc. — but also the subjective psychological consequences of human beings with religious belief versus humans without. If you believe that this is a hopelessly complicated task, you have reason to suspend judgment about UAT.
Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Black and Blue: Measuring Hate in America
by Katharine Blake McFarland
On Saturday, September 20, 2013, Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh man who wears a turban, was attacked by a group of teenagers in New York City. "Get Osama," they shouted as they grabbed his beard, punched him in the face and kicked him once he fell to the ground. Though Singh ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw, he survived the attack.
More than a year earlier, on a hot day in July, Wade Michael Page walked into Shooters Shop in West Allis, Wisconsin. He picked out a Springfield Armory XDM and three 19-round ammunition magazines, for which he paid $650 in cash. Kevin Nugent, like many gun shop owners, reserves the right not to sell a weapon to anyone who seems agitated or under the influence, and Page, he said, seemed neither. But he was wrong. Eight days after his visit to Shooters Shop, Page interrupted services at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, about thirty minutes southeast of West Allis, by opening fire on Sunday morning worship. He killed six people and wounded three others, and when local police authorities arrived on the scene, he turned the gun on himself.
Page, it turns out, had been a member of the Hammerskins, a Neo-Nazi, white supremacist offshoot born in the late 1980s in Dallas, Texas, responsible for the vandalism of Jewish-owned businesses and the brutal murders of nonwhite victims. He was under the influence. The influence of something lethal, addictive, and distorting: indoctrinated hatred. We don't know the precise array of influences motivating the teenagers who attacked Prabhjot Singh. But even considering the reckless folly of youth, their assault against him—a man they did not know, a physician and professor targeted only for his Sikh beard and turban—reverberates down the history of American hate crimes.
Last fall, I attended a workshop offered by the Southern Poverty Law Center on hate groups in the United States. The workshop was part of an educational retreat for law enforcement and corrections officials, and was being held at a remote lodge in northern Ohio on one of the most beautiful fall days I can remember, trees ablaze against a deep blue sky that betrays the blackness of space behind it. It was a strangely glorious setting in which to learn about skinheads. The dissonance was unnerving.
The man leading the workshop on hate groups was very muscular, a little shiny and a bit red in the face. Reminiscent of a cartoon bull, he is the kind of man I instinctively hope never to see angry. When I googled him before the presentation nothing turned up, but this anonymity is purposeful. Since the 1980s, SPLC has used the courts to undermine extremist groups, winning large damage awards on behalf of victims. Several hate groups have been bankrupted by these verdicts, rendering SPLC the occasional target of retaliatory plots. Thus, the low Internet profile and somewhat threatening physique of the workshop presenter, whose singular job it is to monitor these groups day in and day out. I found myself wondering about his family—what did his children know about their father's work, what did they think of it, were they safe?
Before the workshop, my knowledge of hate groups was limited, an epistemological deficiency afforded by privilege. I knew about the terror of the Klan in the 1800s, and their resurgence in the 1900s. I had studied, read, and heard firsthand stories of cross burnings and lynchings, sinister echoes of our nation's Original Sin. But my notion of modern-day extremism was based on the occasional unkempt white supremacist, rising up from his subterranean Internet world to buy a town. According to SPLC, the reality is more damning. Here's what I wrote down in my notebook during the workshop:
- There are more than 1000 active hate groups, including Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, and border vigilantes.
- This figure—this 1000+—represents a 67% increase since 2000.
- Since 44th President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, has grown 813% from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012.
- Only 5 – 15% of hate crimes are committed by actual hate groups.
In the margin next to this fourth fact, I scribbled three question marks and the words, how do we measure threat?
When I was six years old, my favorite fairytale was The Princess and the Pea. The Prince's search for a real Princess, a designation determined entirely by her sensitivity to a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds, seemed remarkable. As an unduly sensitive child, I marveled at the notion that sensitivity could be the key to a happy ending. In my own life, even in those earliest years, sensitivity seemed only a liability.
But lately I've remembered the story in a different light, for its comment on what lies beneath. The ability of unseen, seemingly insignificant phenomena to affect the surface. A relatively small proportion of all hate crimes are committed by hate group members. But statistical insignificance might not obviate concern because numbers might tell only part of the story. I scarcely slept at all, the Princess said, I'm black and blue all over.
Here is a problem of statistical measurement: in 2008, two professors wrote a white paper that found no significant relationship between hate groups and hate crimes. "Though populated by hateful people," they write, " [hate groups] may be a lot of hateful bluster." But in 2010, Professor Mulholland at Stonehill College conducted a study that found hate crimes to be "18.7 percent more likely to occur in counties with active white supremacist hate group chapters."
Part of the problem is a lack of reporting. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics out this year, victims are less likely to report hate crimes to the police than they were ten years ago, with only 35 percent of all crimes reported. The result is that thousands of hate crimes go uncounted each year. This study also found an increase in the number of violent victimizations (92 percent of all hate crimes are now violent), and an increase in the number of religiously-motivated crimes over the past 10 years.
In a somewhat complicated coincidence, the problem of inaccurate data collection was addressed by Prabhjot Singh in a New York Times op-ed he wrote over a year ago. He called on the FBI to stop categorizing anti-Sikh violence as anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic in their annual reports. He decried the popular assumption that all hate crimes against Sikhs are instances of "mistaken identity," wherein the attacker assumes the victims to be Muslim. A true and fair grievance. But a year and a month later, Singh was victimized in his own neighborhood in Harlem by a group of teenagers yelling, "get Osama."
How do we measure threat?
Just after the shooting at Oak Creek, and months before the workshop on hate groups, I attended an interfaith service at a Sikh Gurdwara to commemorate those killed by Wade Michael Page. Upon entering the Gurdwara, I was instructed to take off my shoes, which I did, and then a young woman handed me a scarf to cover my head. I was escorted to a long, white room, with an aisle down the center—women sitting on the floor to the left, men on the right, and an altar adorned with brightly colored tapestries and cloths at the front. The room was almost full, but I found a spot near the back. The women's headscarves—blood orange, deep blue, and scarlet—burned beautifully against the white walls.
The service opened with a Sikh prayer, and Dr. Butalia, the leader of this Gurdwara, welcomed us all in English. He expressed how much it meant to him and his community to be supported by so many visitors, and he asked all the Christians to stand. I stood up, along with the two Catholic nuns in front of me, and about fifteen others. When we sat down, he asked all the Muslims to stand. When the Muslims sat down, he asked the Jews to stand, then the Hindus, then the Buddhists, then the Baha'i, then the Jains, then the "various people of conscience." With each group that stood, the hard shell formed by the word "stranger" cracked and dissolved. Children ran back and forth across the aisle, holding hands, on important missions from mother to father and back again. Dr. Butalia described his friend, Satwant Kaleka, the leader of the Gurdwara in Oak Creek who died trying to protect his congregation with a butter knife. His voice faltered, "He was a peaceful man." Then we prayed for the man who killed Kaleka. We prayed for Wade Michael Page, naming him "a victim of hatred," and we prayed for his family.
Towards the end of the service, a speaker told us a story that went something like this: a long time ago, there was a king who sought to be the most powerful man in all the land. He went around proving his strength by breaking the branches off trees with his bare hands. A wise man saw him doing this and approached him. "‘Oh, you are very strong,' said the wise man, ‘but now, can you put it back together?' People who destroy are not powerful," the speaker said, "people who unite are powerful."
The earliest definition of the word "victim" dates back to the 15th century and connotes a holy sacrifice. By the following century, the word lost its exclusively sacred associations, and today four definitions are offered:
- a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency;
- a person who is deceived or cheated, as by his or her own emotions or ignorance, by the dishonesty of others, or by some impersonal agency;
- a person or animal sacrificed or regarded as sacrificed;
- a living creature sacrificed in religious rites.
A person harmed by injurious agency. A person deceived by her own ignorance. A person sacrificed. It's too much to measure.
And there is no word or concept for "victim" in the Sikh tradition. After he was attacked, Prabhjot Singh's responses embodied the Sikh concept of chardi kala, which translates to "joyous spirit" or "perpetual optimism." He said that if he could talk to his attackers he would "ask them if they had any questions," and "invite them to the Gurdwara where we worship." He was also thoughtful about his one-year-old son: "I can't help but see the kids who assaulted me as somehow linked to him."
Numbers and naming can take us only so far. Sometimes causality defies quantifiable analysis and sometimes the relationship of one thing to another is indirect, cyclical, or statistically unlikely. A restless night, a confusing coincidence. Perhaps the question is not exclusively, or even primarily, one of measurement—the measurement of threat and causation, the correct category and quantity of victims—but a different question entirely:
Can you put it back together? I'm black and blue all over.
Monday, April 29, 2013
The Folly of Perpetual Victimhood
by Jalees Rehman
I grew up in a culture of guilt. One of the defining characteristics of post-war Germany was the "Vergangenheitsbewältigung", a monstrous German word that describes the attempts to come to terms with the horrors of Nazi-Germany and World War II. How could Germans have abandoned all sense of humanity and decency? Why had millions of German actively or passively engaged in the mass murder of millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, socialists and so many other minorities? This Vergangenheitsbewältigung resulted in a deep-rooted sense of collective shame and guilt, one which transcended the generation which had lived through the war and even engulfed Germans born after the war and Germans with immigrant backgrounds, whose families obviously had no historic link to the atrocious crimes committed in Nazi Germany. We did not feel blameworthy in the sense of having to answer for the Nazi crimes, but we did feel that the burden of history had foisted a responsibility on us. We felt that it was our responsibility to be continuously vigilant, watching for any signs or symptoms indicating a recurrence of right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, fascism, racism, militarism, nationalism, discrimination or other characteristics of Nazi Germany. Our obsession with collective introspection at times became so excessive that it paralyzed us, such as when we developed a general paranoia of expressing any form of German patriotism, because it might set us on a path to Nazism. Many Germans also had near-hysterical responses to any discussions about genetic engineering, because it evoked haunting memories of Nazi eugenics. But despite these irrational excesses, I think that we Germans greatly benefited from our post-war soul-searching which helped us build a mostly peaceful country – no small feat, considering our past.
Roughly one decade ago, "mirror neurons" were among the hottest items in neuroscience research. These neurons in the brain of an individual were thought to fire upon observing behaviors in other individuals: When I see someone eating a delicious piece of chocolate, my mirror neurons fire and help create a proxy sensation or awareness in my brain that mirror the observed behavior so that I might have some sense of eating the chocolate myself. If this were true, mirror neurons would play a central role in generating a sense of empathy. Newer scientific research has questioned whether "mirror neurons" truly exist, but there is little doubt that our brain has some neurobiological substrate that enables empathy, even if it does not consist of the exact same set of anatomically defined neurons as has been previously suspected. I therefore still like to use the "mirror neurons" metaphor, because it aptly evokes the image of a neurobiological mirror in our mind. I would like to extend that mirror metaphor and also propose that our mind might contain "guilt neurons", which fire when we observe some degree of resemblance between ourselves and perpetrators of crimes. Part of being immersed in the post-war German tradition of collective guilt and soul-searching is that it endowed me with ultra-sensitive hypothetical "guilt neurons". When I hear about a tragedy or crime, I not only feel the natural empathy with the victims, but in a reflex-like manner ask the question whether I bear some degree of responsibility – not blame – for this tragedy and crime and how to best work towards preventing it in the future. This "guilt neuron" activity is strongest when I sense that the perpetrator is a member of an in-group that I also belong to, such as crimes being committed by fathers or husbands, by Germans, by scientists or physicians, by Muslims, by people with a South Asian heritage and so forth.
When Anders Breivik in Norway committed his mass murder in 2011, I felt a very deep sadness, because I could really empathize with the victims and their families. He killed teenagers and young adults attending a youth camp of the Social Democratic party. His victims could have been my children, and a couple of decades ago, I might have attended a similar youth camp in Germany. My guilt neurons were silent – I did not feel much of a responsibility because I had little to nothing in common with the perpetrator. He despised everything that I supported – diversity, feminism, progressive-liberal thought and the environmental movement. But I felt that there were people who ought to have felt some degree of responsibility. His manifesto quoted extensively from far-right bloggers and authors in the United States and in Europe, who seemed to have shared his world-views. Does this mean that everyone promoting anti-immigrant or far-right views in Europe and the US should have been blamed for the deeds this mass killer? Of course not! They did not directly provide him with the weapons and they did not ask him to murder the social democratic youth – but shouldn't one take some responsibility for promoting hateful messages that denigrated immigrants, Muslims and citizens with progressive-liberal thoughts? The responses of the far-right politicians and authors who might have unwittingly influenced Breivik were quite disappointing. Instead of undergoing an introspective analysis, the far right just issued perfunctory condemnations, stating that they would never have endorsed the murders. The politicians and far right bloggers continued to engage in their hateful rhetoric, even tried to seize the opportunity to portray themselves as unfairly maligned victims. The Breivik acts of terror did not seem to have activated the "guilt neurons" of the far right.
The week following the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013 was a very sad week for me. Boston is one of my most favorite cities in the world. It is the first US city that I ever visited. I spent many months there when I was a student in the 1990s. Boston eased me into American culture by cushioning the culture shock that Europeans experience when they first visit the US, mostly because it reminded me a lot of my home town Munich, famously known as the "Weltstadt mit Herz" ("city of the world with a heart)". Like Munich, Boston is wonderfully suited for long city walks. The Bostonians were extremely hospitable and friendly. I remember seeing beautiful sunsets in Boston, spending hours in the wonderful bookstores in Cambridge and Boston and being thrilled by the plethora of universities and their libraries in the Boston area, which seemed like an endless treasure trove of knowledge. I was thus devastated when I saw the tragedy of the bombings unfold – more or less live on the Internet and on Twitter revealing painful descriptions of victims who had lost their limbs at a marathon. I was haunted by the image of the young boy Martin Richard holding up a sign which said "No more hurting people" in 2012 – only to be murdered in the subsequent year at the Boston Marathon bombings. The idea of this beautiful city, normally bustling with activity and creativity, being forced into a lockdown because of some psychopathic killers was heartbreaking.
On Friday morning, I heard the news that the perpetrators had been identified; two Muslim immigrants with Chechen origins. They were brothers, the older one - 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev - had been killed in a shoot-out. The younger one - 19 year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev - had not yet been captured and an ongoing manhunt was still paralyzing the city of Boston. There were vague reports of "Islamist connections" of the older brother based on his alleged Youtube video playlists. The younger brother was a college student at the University of Massachusetts and had a Twitter account with the handle @J_tsar, from which he had sent his last tweet on April 17, two days after the Boston Marathon bombing. His last tweet was a re-tweet of the conservative Muslim cleric, Mufti Ismail Menk: "Attitude can take away your beauty no matter how good looking you are or it could enhance your beauty, making you adorable." Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's last self-authored tweet was "I'm a stress free kind of guy", one day after the bombing – both tweets seem rather cynical in the context of someone who had helped inflict so much suffering. His Twitter feed of the past months was a combination of mindless blather, evoking the traditional cliché of the banality of evil, but it also contained a number of tweets which indicated that he saw himself as a Muslim, even quipping about how Muslims at his mosque thought he was a convert to Islam instead of being born a Muslim.
The specific motives of the two brothers were not yet known when the news broke. Did they murder and maim their fellow citizens because they felt it was consistent with or even mandated by their view of Islam? Was it a political statement regarding the war in Chechnya and they just happened to choose innocent civilian targets in Boston because it was easier than planting bombs in Chechnya or Russia? Were they psychopaths seeking notoriety and infamy without any specific religious or political goals? Were they aided by a terrorist organization or acting as individuals?
Multiple Muslim organizations and prominent Muslims strongly condemned the Boston Marathon bombings, expressed their condolences for the victims and made it very clear that such acts of terror were inconsistent with Islam. Muslim organizations routinely issue such statements when Muslims commit acts of terror, but the question remains whether such statements are enough. Since I possess overactive German guilt neurons, I feel that as members of the Muslim community in the US, we have a deeper responsibility to undertake an introspective analysis and explore why US Muslims engage in forms of violence. Some might argue that there is no need for such introspection, since we do not yet whether the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers were in any way linked to Islam. Even apart from the Tsarnaev brothers' motives, US Muslims need to understand that there is an unfortunately high level of tolerating suicide bombings or violence against civilians. A Pew survey conducted in 2011 revealed that 13% of US Muslims thought suicide bombings or violence against civilian targets could be justified to defend Islam (rarely justified: 5%; sometimes justified: 7%; often justified: 1%). The Pew survey compared the results to those obtained from surveying Muslims in Pakistan, of whom only 7% felt that such violence could be justified in the name of Islam. Sadly, this degree of acceptance of suicide bombings or violence against civilians among US Muslims has not budged since 2007. This suggests that there is a disconnect between US Muslim organizations (which categorically condemn all attacks against civilians) and the US Muslim community.
Even though the 13% represent a small minority within the larger US Muslim community, they might be the ones who are most likely to be radicalized and it is thus important to understand what motivates them to endorse suicide bombings and violence against civilians. One hypothesis that can be explored is whether the Muslim self-perception of collective victimhood may contribute to their willingness to endorse violence. During the past 15 years that I have lived in the US, I have noticed that in Friday sermons (khutbahs), discussions, lectures, articles and books, American Muslims often perceive themselves as collective victims. Khutbahs routinely end with prayers for people in need, but in my experience, there is a rather one-sided portrayal of the global Muslim community as victims - khateebs (khateeb = person who gives the Muslim Friday sermon or khutbah) frequently mention the plight of Muslims who are oppressed and persecuted in regions such as Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir or more recently, Burma. However, there is little mention of prayers for victims in situations where Muslims are the primary perpetrators, such as is the case when Sunni Muslims murder Shia or Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, or when they kill or persecute Christians, Jews or atheists. The buzzword "Islamophobia", which is not really a phobia in the psychiatric sense, is frequently used to depict Muslims as victims. There are many cases of anti-Muslim hate speech and discrimination, but the haphazard use of "Islamophobia" to bludgeon legitimate criticisms of Muslims or Islam is rendering this term useless. An exaggerated "Islamophobia" view of the world also perpetuates the one-sided portrayal of Muslims as victims instead of promoting a more balanced view, one which would also include some discussion of anti-Western hostility that is found among Muslims ("Occidentophobia", incidentally is also not a true "phobia").
Is there any evidence that such a sense of collective victimhood could affect one's moral judgment? A remarkable study conducted by the social psychologists Michael Wohl and Nyla Branscombe lends credence to this idea. In a paper entitled "Remembering historical victimization: Collective guilt for current ingroup transgressions" published 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Wohl and Branscombe examined the acceptance of Israeli acts of violence against Palestinians by Jewish Canadians. Using a web-based questionnaire, they surveyed Jewish Canadians in two different conditions, one which included showing the participants a website that reminded them of the Holocaust and the suffering of Jews and one condition in which participants just saw a neutral website. Importantly, participants who were reminded of the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust (prior to answering the questions) experienced significantly less guilt about Israeli actions against Palestinians. In a different set of experiments, Wohl and Branscombe then asked Americans how they felt about the harm inflicted by American troops on Iraqis. The American participants felt far less guilt regarding the American attacks, when the participants were reminded of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interestingly, they also felt less guilt about the Iraq war when they were reminded of the Pearl Harbor attack. This suggested that it was not a causal link between September 11, 2001 and Iraq that had made them endorse American violence, but merely the sense of collective victimization - independent of whether the perpetrators were the Japanese military or Muslim terrorists.
Considering these data, it might be important to study whether Muslims who are continuously reminded of historical or ongoing collective victimization - being victims of "Islamophobia" or of military actions in Palestine, Kashmir or Chechnya - could promote a justification for violent acts, quite similar to the participants studied by Wohl and Branscombe. Conversely, a more balanced and realistic view of history and current affairs which would depict Muslims as both, victims and perpetrators might lower the likelihood of Muslims endorsing violence.
On the Friday after the Boston Marathon bombings, prior to heading to the Friday sermon, I wondered whether the newly disclosed information that the bombers were US based Muslims would help promote a process of soul searching in the American Muslim community. Unfortunately, the twitter feed of one of the most popular English-language Muslim blogs, MuslimMatters.org, known for its überconservative or right-wing ideas, did not suggest that this would occur. Some of its tweets and re-tweets on Friday morning suggested an all-too-familiar reaction of American Muslims. The religion of the Tsarnaev brothers was supposedly not relevant and had no bearing on the attacks; "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime"; "If it wasn't you, then don't feel guilty. Do not take the burden of others upon your shoulders when they are wrongfully placed there"; and there were tweets about how Muslims might need to be vigilant about potential "Islamophobic" backlashes: "Please contact your local CAIR chapter if you experience any type of violence as a result of the tragedy in Boston: cair.com."
The idea that somehow "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime" is puzzling since we routinely look at context of a crime. When Adam Lanza went on a shooting rampage, murdering children and terrorizing an elementary school, American society did not just respond with "only the perpetrator is responsible for the crime". There was an extensive effort made to re-evaluate gun laws and the mental healthcare system, and there was a general shift in the public opinion on gun control. It may be important to clarify the difference between "blame" and "responsibility". As a society, we should take responsibility to help each other and care for each other, and when we fail to do so, there is no shame in taking responsibility for that failure. That does not necessarily mean that we are all to "blame" for the acts committed by the Tsarnaev brothers or by Adam Lanza. Also, there is no need to expect that only Muslims have a responsibility to act in response to the Tsarnaev crimes. One should explore all the factors that resulted in the tragedy, such as failures of law enforcement to detect the planned plot, addressing how they accessed the weapons and training that enabled them to commit their crimes or whether there had been warning signs that could have alerted family members, friends and colleagues. Muslim soul-searching is just part of the greater soul-searching process that involves society-at-large in response to the tragedy.
As I headed towards our Friday khutbah in Chicago, I wondered whether the khateeb would broach this difficult subject. The first part of the khutbah was about Moses and David, and how these two prophets should be our role models because they exemplified steadfastness in their faith, gratitude and prayer, thanking God even under most difficult circumstances. The second part of the khutbah specifically addressed the Boston bombings. The khateeb strongly condemned the terror attacks, and said that Muslims are never allowed to kill innocent civilians. He then explained the horrors of the Chechnyan war and how Muslims suffered at the hands of the Soviet and Russian military. However, instead of an analysis and introspection addressing how we could help reduce the recurrence of such acts, the khateeb indicated that he wanted to mention one other event in this context. He said that after the Boston attacks, an interfaith service had been planned and that the initially proposed Muslim representative had been vetoed by some members of the Boston community. The objection to this particular choice stemmed from the suggested imam's alleged ties to Islamist groups. A different Muslim representative was then chosen for the Interfaith service. Our khateeb then made a rather bizarre statement in a defiant tone and said that Muslims should choose their own leaders instead of allowing "Zionists" to make decisions for the Muslim community! Rather than look in the mirror and think about potential reasons for why some US Muslims justify violence with religion, Muslims were again being portrayed as victims of alleged "Zionists". The promising first part of the khutbah had focused on Moses and David and emphasized the shared Abrahamic traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but the same khutbah had ended with the spreading of unnecessary conspiracy theories and regurgitating the image of the victimized Muslims. I left the khutbah with a heavy heart.
In the subsequent days, I observed how Muslims attempted to downplay the Muslim connection of the Tsarnaev brothers but I also saw how right-wing, anti-Muslim American groups began asking for massive profiling of Muslims merely based on their faith or ethnicity. We need to move beyond the two extremes - the one-sided portrayal by anti-Muslim hate-mongers of Muslims as purely evil perpetrators and the equally one-sided portrayal of Muslims as perpetual victims. We can then achieve a balanced and honest view of the role of Muslims in American society with a realistic and equitable distribution of responsibilities and expectations.
As with most unfathomable crimes, there are probably many factors that come together, there is no one single all-explanatory cause. The vast majority of supporters of far-right ideology do not go on shooting rampages like the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik did. The vast majority of homes containing an arsenal of guns do not give rise to child murderers such as Adam Lanza. The vast majority of Muslims who watch Islamist Youtube videos do not commit terrorist attacks. In all of these cases, we have to carefully analyze the risk factors that lead to the tragedies and work together to reduce the risk of recurrences. I do not want to live in a libertarian heaven with dormant "guilt neurons", where everyone is exclusively responsible for their own actions and where we can expediently shrug off any responsibility for the suffering of fellow humans or for the crimes committed by others. The strength of a society depends on the willingness of its members to engage in introspection and shoulder responsibilities.
Monday, September 17, 2012
Civility and Public Reason
Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
According to a prevailing conception among political theorists, part of what accounts for the legitimacy of democratic government and the bindingness of its laws is democracy’s commitment to public deliberation. Democracy is not merely a process of collective decision in which each adult citizen gets precisely one vote and the majority rules; after all, that an outcome was produced by a process of majoritarian equal voting provides only a weak reason to accept it. The crucial aspect of democracy is the process of public reasoning and deliberation that precedes the vote. The idea is that majoritarian equal voting procedures can produce a binding outcome only when they are engaged after citizens have had ample opportunity to reason and deliberate together about matters of public concern. We claimed in last month’s post that democracy is all about argument; this means that at democracy’s core is public deliberation.
In a democracy, public deliberation is the activity in which citizens exchange reasons concerning which governmental policies should be instituted. This activity is necessary because democratic decision-making regularly takes place against a backdrop of disagreement, where different conceptions of public interest conflict. It is important to note that although reasoning always has consensus among its goals, democratic deliberation is aimed primarily at reconciling citizens to the central reality of politics, namely that in a society of free and equal individuals, no one can get everything he or she wants from politics. As democratic citizens, we disagree about which policies will best serve the public interest, and so, when democracy makes collective decisions, some of us will lose – our preferred policy will fail to win the requisite support. Yet democratic laws and decisions are prima facie binding on us all, even when they conflict with our individual judgments about what is best.
Public deliberation is that component of the democratic process in which citizens show each other respect: When democracy decides, some will win, and others will lose, but everyone has the opportunity in advance of the voting to present reasons and arguments in favor of their preferred outcome and against its competitors. Even though democracy requires each of us to live under some laws and policies that we individually oppose, we nonetheless can see ourselves as something more than mere subjects; because we each are able to contribute to the deliberation leading up to the vote, we can see ourselves as authors of the laws and policies that result, even when our individual judgment opposes those results. In short, public deliberation enables us to see democratic policies as justified even in cases where we individually think them mistaken. We cannot require unanimity in a society of free and equal citizens, but we can nonetheless respect each other by resolving to live together under only those laws and policies that can be justified. Public deliberation is the means for exhibiting this kind of respect.
Given that the public deliberation is supposed to manifest respect among citizens who disagree, there are a few desiderata that processes of public deliberation must satisfy. The most obvious is egalitarianism. Those who affirm a view about the public good must be open to questions and challenges from any quarter; every citizen has the right not only to assert views, but also to voice objections. “Because I said so” and “you don’t count” are never valid moves in public deliberation. This leads naturally to an additional feature of proper public deliberation, namely, reasonableness. If processes of affirming views and voicing objections are going to manifest respect among citizens, then when gets exchanged must be reasons rather than threats, commands, and insults. At the very least, this means that public deliberators must argue in accordance with basic rules of critical thinking and proper inference. But reasonableness also requires that citizens exchange reasons of a certain kind. More specifically, in order to be reasonable, public deliberation must be conducted by means of reasons that are themselves public. Public reasons are those reasons that are recognizable as reasons by democratic citizens as such. They are reasons that could be acknowledged from the perspective of any democratic citizen, rather than only from the perspective of some individual perspective or other. Accordingly, in public deliberation, citizens must reason from a public perspective rather than from the perspective of their individual moral or religious convictions. Just as “Because I said so” does not count as a reason in public deliberation, neither does “Because my church says so.”
Here’s why. We noted above that the main function of public deliberation is not to prove that one’s views about the public good are true, but rather to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable. And to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable is to show that they are justifiable to them. In order to show that one’s views about the public good are justifiable to your fellow citizens, one must articulate the case for one’s views in terms that do not presuppose one’s own particular moral, metaphysical, or religious commitments. For your fellow citizen may reject these commitments without thereby disqualifying themselves for democratic citizenship.
An example will help. Imagine a fellow citizen affirming that the state ought to prohibit same-sex marriage because God forbids homosexuality. Here, what has been offered is a reason that could count as a reason only for those who hold certain religious convictions. But free and equal citizens of a democratic society are not required to have any religious convictions at all. So the justification proposed fails to show that the position is justifiable. Contrast this with the case of a fellow citizen who affirms that that the state ought to prohibit same-sex marriage because permitting it would weaken the stability of the family, thereby weakening the most basic institution of all human society. Social stability is a concern for democratic citizens as such. Accordingly, in response, a critic will challenge the claim that allowing same-sex marriage will undermine the stability of the family, and thus social stability overall. But the important thing is that the social stability argument proposes a reason of the right kind. Those who support same-sex marriage cannot simply say in response, “Who cares about social stability?” They instead need to engage with the reasons offered by the same-sex marriage opponent. To be sure, we are confident that the social stability argument against same-sex marriage falls short, but that is a different matter from what is now at issue, namely, which reasons are properly public.
We may say that public reasons are of the kind that cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or unintelligible by democratic citizens. Thus there is a fundamental difference between a reason such as “The Bible forbids it” and “Equality requires it.” One who dismisses the former does not thereby disqualify himself for democratic citizenship; one who dismisses the latter does. Accordingly, a group of citizens that insists on a public policy that can be supported only by means of nonpublic reasons thereby shows disrespect for their fellow citizens. Put otherwise, to affirm a public policy that cannot be supported by public reasons is in effect to say to one’s fellow citizens “Because I said so.” And that’s to deny that one’s fellow citizens are one’s equals. That’s disrespectful.
Indeed, it’s uncivil. The moral core of democracy consists in the project of enabling citizens to live together socially as equals, despite the fact that they disagree deeply about fundamental moral and religious matters. This democratic moral vision can be realized only when citizens recognize a duty to respect each other as fellow citizens, equal sharers in political power. This respect requires citizens to recognize what John Rawls called the duty of civility, which is the duty to offer one’s fellow citizens public reasons when deliberating with them about the public good. Knowing that deliberation occurs against the backdrop of deep disagreement, we must on the one hand be willing to recognize the diversity of religious, philosophical, and ethical commitments available to democratic citizens. On the other hand, we must be able to explain the basis for any policy we advocate with reasons we can expect any of those diverse individuals to endorse as consistent with their status as a fellow free and equal citizen. That’s the tightrope of democratic justification. Democratic deliberation, then, requires us to argue from a public perspective.
Accordingly, we see that civility is indeed all about being respectful. But the relevant kind of respect is not that of the calm tone and cool demeanor. The respect proper to democratic citizens has to do with the ways in which we acknowledge our fundamental equality as sharers in self-government. And this is in turn a matter of whether we reason together even when our reasons conflict.
Monday, July 23, 2012
The Argument from Ugliness
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
1. The universe (or parts of it) exhibit property X.
2. Property X is usually (if not always) brought about by the purposive actions of those who created objects for them to be X.
3. The cases mentioned in Premise 1 are not explained (or fully explained) by human action or non-intentional events internal to the universe.
4. Therefore: The universe is (likely) the product of a purposive agent who created it to be X, namely God.
The variety of teleological arguments is as broad the range of properties one can reasonably substitute for X. Traditional teleological arguments plug in for X the claim that some feature of the universe is fine-tuned for life, or that the universe has whatever is required in order to support creatures capable of consciousness, or moral responsibility. The argument from beauty, by contrast, begins from the premise that the universe exhibits beauty. This, the argument runs, entails that the universe must have been created by God, and thus that God exists. But teleological arguments have what we call evil twins. These are arguments that are teleological in structure, but proceed from premises concerning the imperfection or nastiness of the universe to the conclusion that there is no God. The universe, after all, is a mixed bag. Thus, for every theistic argument from, say, fine-tuning, there’s an atheistic challenge beginning from the observation that precious little of the universe is inhabitable and that living creatures are actually poorly designed. Similarly, for every theistic argument from consciousness, there’s an opposing atheistic argument that contends that consciousness deeply flawed and in any case not much of a boon. And for every theistic argument from the fact of moral responsibility, there’s an atheistic argument from immorality. This is what we call the evil twin problem: if theists contend that teleological arguments are valid in their logical form, then they must confront the atheist versions.
Here we will pose the evil twin problem for the argument from beauty: the argument from ugliness.The theistic argument from beauty has been around at least since Hesiod, who explains the grandeur of the world as a product of Gaia and Ouranos’ love. Plato, too, invokes the divine to account for beauty in the Symposium. Augustine gives an explicit version of the argument in his Confessions: We look upon the heavens and earth, and they cry aloud that they were made. . . . It was You, Lord, who made them: for You are beautiful, and they are beautiful; You are good, and they are good: You are, and they are. (XI. 4) In the twentieth century, F.R. Tennant proposed a version of the argument, noting that the world is “saturat[ed]” with beauty (1930:91). He continued, “Nature is sublime or beautiful, and the exceptions do not but prove the rule” (1930, 91-2). Nature, Tennant then infers, must be the product of a mind with the purpose of aesthetic fulfillment, intent on producing something beautiful. Mark Wynn, extending Tennant’s line of thought, notes that: Most believers, it seems to me, are more likely to be impressed by the beauty of nature, when considering whether the world answers to providential purpose, than by mere regularity or order. (1999: 15) Wynn, however, is modest about how much the case from beauty can actually prove; he holds that it cannot be “persuasive in isolation from other [theistic] arguments” (1999: 36). Nonetheless, Wynn does take it to be a positive case. Finally, Richard Swinburne holds that “God has a reason to create a beautiful inanimate world – that is, a beautiful physical universe” (2004: 121). Swinburne claims that God, being the source of good, will be instrumental in producing as much good in as many varieties as possible. So, he reasons, if God creates a universe, it will be beautiful. Since the universe is beautiful (and a universe without a creative god would likely not be quite as beautiful as this one), we therefore have reason to believe that God exists and has aesthetic values (2004: 190).
Again, the general problem for theistic teleological arguments is that the world is a mixed bag. Yes, there is order, pleasure, goodwill, and beauty aplenty. But there’s also disorder, suffering, hate, and ugliness. Now, if we are reasoning from effects to a cause, then the cause of the mixed-bag universe must be a mixed bag as well. But God can’t be a mixed bag. You get the idea. Like the argument from beauty, the argument from ugliness proceeds from a few key cases. Consider terrible art. We have some in mind, for example songs by the 1980s rock group Ratt and Thomas Kinkade paintings. They are schlocky and stupid, things merely to endure. Yet these are human products. So consider instead the harsh call of crows, or the unsightly leaking of sap from a splintered tree limb. Or take the human form and the insipid and unwieldy elbow – even the most graceful can only but manage its awkwardly hinged angularity. The anglerfish of the deep and the aruana of the Amazon are hideous creatures, and spiders are so awful, it is hard for many to contain themselves when up close to them. In addition, there are sticky and stinky swamps, boring groupings of trees, misplaced shrubbery, and intermittent villages filled with sticky and stinky children. Yuck. A friend of ours recently stopped smoking, and he remarked that, as an unfortunate consequence, his sense of smell had returned: “Most of the smells in the world are disgusting.” And, of course, there’s also vomit, puss, bile, phlegm, and feces. The world is tolerable only in small and selective doses, or perhaps from very far away. Why so much ugliness? Is it that there’s a God who has inverted aesthetic sensibilities and wishes to impress them upon us? Is God ugly and so causes earthly ugliness? The argument from beauty contends that since there is beauty in the world there must be a God who is beautiful or prefers beautiful things. By similar reasoning, one might conclude that God either is ugly or likes ugliness. But there’s a third possibility: Perhaps God created such an ugly world because he hates us. Consequently, given the amount of ugliness in the world, we have reason to believe that God either is ugly, likes ugliness, or hates us and torments us with ugliness. However, given that God must be a perfect unity of all good things, a being that either is ugly, likes ugliness, or inflicts ugliness on others cannot be God. Therefore there is no God.
Monday, May 28, 2012
Only Philosophers Go to Hell
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
The Problem of Hell is familiar enough to many traditional theists. Roughly, it is this: How could a loving and just god create a place of endless misery? The Problem of Hell is a special version of the Problem of Evil, which is the general challenge that a just and loving God would not intentionally create a world with excessive misery, and yet we see the excesses all around us. Hell, on its face, seems like it is actually part of God’s plan, and moreover, the misery there far exceeds misery here. At least the misery here is finite; it ends when one dies. But in Hell, death is just the beginning. Those in Hell suffer for eternity. Hell, so described, seems less the product of a just and loving entity than a vicious and spiteful one. That’s a problem.
There are two standard lines in defense of Hell. The first is the retributivist line, and the second is the libertarian line. We think that if either succeeds, only philosophers could go to Hell. This is because only someone who understands exactly what she is doing in sinning or rejecting God could deserve such a fate as Hell, and only a philosophical education could provide that kind of understanding. So, it follows, only philosophers can go to Hell.
Retributivism with regard to Hell runs as follows: Those in Hell are sinners, and sin demands punishment. Therefore, Hell is necessary; it is the place where that punishment is delivered. This seems reasonable as far as it goes, and it does work as a nice counterpoint to the regular complaint that sometimes the wicked prosper in this life – they will suffer appropriately in the next. But retributivism about Hell ultimately seems problematic. Grant that sinners deserve punishment. Nonetheless, the amount of punishment being visited upon those in Hell is objectionable. Sinners can’t do infinite harm, no matter how bad they are. But they get an eternity of torment. Punishment is just only when it is proportionate to the wrongs committed by the guilty. So even if Hell’s express purpose is to enact retribution on those who are guilty of sin, and even if the guilty do get what’s coming to them in Hell, making that punishment eternal is moral overkill. Again, disproportionate punishment is morally wrong, and Hell is guaranteed to be exactly that for everyone there.
Take a moment to consider some moral wrong you’ve done. Perhaps you stole a piece of bubblegum from the corner store. That was wrong. You know that. Now imagine that you were caught in the act, and you were given a beating for doing that wrong. And we’re not talking just any beating – we’re talking about a real drubbing, one that ranges from your legs, up to your torso, and then to your face. And it doesn’t stop. The people who caught you keep hitting you. For a week. For a month. For a year. Now, for sure, you got punished for your moral error. The problem with the punishment is that it was out of proportion to the seriousness of the wrong you committed. You stole bubblegum, but you got a year-long beating in return. The beating was much worse than the moral harm done in stealing the bubblegum. Now consider: Every sin is only a finite harm, but punishment in Hell is eternal. No matter how bad the sins of sinners are, they will always be punished disproportionately in Hell. That’s unjust.
One response might contend that the sin of those in Hell isn’t in the temporal wrongs they have committed in sinning, but rather, the sinners in Hell commit the wrong of rejecting God, the greatest good. That is their infinite error. Consequently, the sin of those in Hell is infinite, and so they deserve eternal (hence proportionate) punishment.
Notice that in order to deserve the full measure of that punishment in Hell, a sinner who rejects God must know exactly what she’s doing. If, say, the person who rejects God does so because she did not understand Him properly or because she did not know what she was rejecting Him, then she cannot deserve full punishment of Hell. She has made an error, but it was not related to her character, but consists in her failure to grasp the divine. She didn’t fully understand her actions. Only those who understand exactly what they are doing deserve proportionate retribution.
It seems clear that only someone with appropriate philosophical acumen could have that kind of understanding. Being familiar with a textual tradition is clearly insufficient, as the art of interpreting those texts is what’s required to take them appropriately. (No one takes Solomonic wisdom to consist in the threatening to chop up anything in contention.) Philosophy is what constitutes those interpretive moves. So, on the retributive theory of Hell, only a philosopher could justly go there.
The other going justification for Hell is libertarianism, the view that one freely chooses Hell as embracing an eternity away from God. God made Hell as a place where those who want to be away from Him can go. As C. S. Lewis put it, “the doors of Hell are locked from inside.”
Again, choosing is not simply a matter of what gets chosen, but it is also a matter of what the chooser thinks she’s choosing. A person who freely drinks a cup of petrol while believing it to be a cup of water does not really choose to drink petrol. Consequently, only those who know who and what God is can properly choose to be without Him. And only those with accurate philosophical understanding of God can be in this position. Again, only philosophers can go to Hell.
All this seems excellent news for non-philosophers. Socrates may have been right that the unexamined life is not worth living, but at least it keeps you out of Hell. But there’s some bad news, too. By way of the same kind of arguments presented above, we should hold that Heaven is reserved only for philosophers. If Heaven is our loving communion with God, it must be something we’ve knowingly chosen. God could not want us to enter into an eternity of loving communion with Him without our knowing what we are doing. And, again, only philosophers could understand what that choice amounts to. Only philosophers can go to Hell. And only philosophers can go to Heaven. Maybe that’s not such good news for non-philosophers. But perhaps there’s some comfort in the thought that non-philosophers might be able to avoid going anywhere for eternity.
Aikin and Talisse's Reasonable Atheism is available from Prometheus Books.
Monday, January 16, 2012
On the Areopagitica: Why Milton’s Defence of Free Speech Remains Almost Unsurpassed but Not Secular
by Tauriq Moosa
In 1643, the English Parliament instituted the Licensing Order. This meant pre-publication censorship on all printed writings, including and aiming mostly at newspapers. This followed the abolishing, two years earlier, of the Star Chamber, which according to Kevin Marsh, “had been the monarchy's most potent tool of repression for centuries: a court that held secret sessions, without juries, and produced arbitrary judgments... all to please the king.” This blanket censorship, however, disappeared, requiring Parliament to take some action, thus the Licensing Order. But the next quilt of authority was simply knitted from the frayed threads of the previous.
Arrests, search and seizure of books, book burnings and all other classical depictions of authoritarian hatred were the outcome of this Order. The Stationer’s Company, a guild of booksellers, printers and so on, and established by Queen Mary in 1557, was put in charge of dealing out this Order. Hindsight makes those fires brighter and stupidity greater and fear lesser; curled pages to us invite anger at oppression, but in the eyes of the moralisers, it meant something called order.
The great poet, John Milton, delivered a speech in 1644, called Areopagitica (or, its full title Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England). In it, he made an impassioned plea that rings out today, calling for free thought, speech and reason, for “when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained, that wise men look for.”
His most powerful argument is encapsulated in what is surely one of the most beautiful sentences ever written:
A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.
Here, Milton cut to the heart of the problem.
Belief is not knowledge, it is merely a belief or a formation of viewpoints on a particular subject. Belief backed by evidence, reason, engagement, self-criticism is the ideal of any thinking person – but we cannot expect all our beliefs to follow suit, though we ought, as much possible, to be testing our beliefs against these forms of self-engagement, since we could be wrong.
Milton highlights that even if a belief be absolutely true – “the planet is not on the back of a tortoise” – it is the basis of that belief that highlights whether one is a heretic or not. If your basis of belief is because some pastor or assembly dictates the belief, then anything can be believed. A pastor could claim that condoms increase the spread/danger of AIDs, an assembly could determine that public spending on stem cells is wrong – but no one should accept that just because the pastor or assembly has so determined.
If a group of people decide that a particular piece of writing violates what they consider appropriate morals, attitudes or views, they will then censor that piece of writing, whether through complete obliteration or, worse, modification tailored to the tastes of the mindful moralisers; its existence is one aspect but it is also the idea’s distribution that concerns censors. An idea or viewpoint’s contrarian view will be locked inside its author’s head, forced to rot, since it is denied the sustenance of fellow minds. This is the goal, in any case, of every form of censorship.
But it doesn't work.
The “heresy” that Milton refers to is not Biblical antagonism; it’s not defying the orders of the ruling religious authority (though obviously that’s the definition we assume). Milton’s heresy is about complete domination of thought.
Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks.
Milton, however, must not be viewed as a secularist, fighting to untangle religion's root in political decision-making. He was not against the status quo and indeed was simply advocating that if a view or opinion truly is against the status quo, then so be it. This blasphemy however can be discovered afterwards and the books can be done away with then: blasphemy will reveal itself, so should not concern us before since we might end up lumping in legitimate, albeit controversial, inquiries which could benefit us all, among the things we ought not to see or to have been produced in the first place. The Areopagitica is filled with justifications based upon Bibilical mandates to seek out “God’s work”, in order to understand him. His suggestion was that works should not be censored before publication. There will be many failures and offences, he said, “ere the house of God can be built.”
It is this that makes Milton's argument seem strange. After all, Milton has just indicated that one ought not to believe based on an appeal to authority – but is defending free speech because God has said so. However, Milton can overcome this by indicating that the purpose of life is to discover his god’s purpose, which can only be found by constantly engaging with ideas, forcing them apart, seeking what is true. Indeed, the idea of knowledge leading to proper engagement also made it easier to separate good from evil, since, as Milton says, “good and evil… grow up together almost inseparably.” Milton claims that to fight Adam’s curse, humans require better knowledge overall, despite knowledge being the basis of the curse. In order to know good, Milton says, we must know evil.
Therefore the state of man now is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer what which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.
There is little wonder then that Milton’s most famous character is his Satan, in the celebrated long poem Paradise Lost. Satan and what he embodied is so potent, Alasdair MacIntyre says, that this character alone “brought Blake over to the devil’s party, and has been seen as the first Whig.” Satan’s motto is, after all, Non Serviam, which, continues MacIntyre, is “not merely a personal revolt against God, but a revolt against the concept of an ordained and unchangeable hierarchy.”
The point being that the fight for individual liberty means the distancing from the security of larger dominance. Security does not necessarily mean safety though: it only means one is not in danger of intrusion - like having one’s views, opinions and therefore life upended by radical alternatives (that, possibly, might be better). The point being that overarching infringement on individuals was done for the purposes of maintaining, as we have seen, “order” (for the common folk - also known as "power" for the rulers). Satan upset this order as set by god by “rebelling” – though this is in itself quite a complicated matter – but forever served as the catalyst for thought against overarching domination – even if, as all domination claims, it is for the individual’s own good because he is part of a larger group. Milton was evidently in two minds about it, but saw the necessity in both areas.
The beauty of the Areopagitica is that it eloquently outlined and began a conversation from the lips of one of our greatest word-users. Even if, as I’ve highlighted, Milton only began a conversation for free thought - and did so within the narrow confines of religious thought - Milton was spurned on not by anti-religious sentiments but by what he perceived to be a twisting of the very religious sentiments which should make humanity curious, knowledgeable and able to engage with varying and new concepts. Milton feared that due to our inherent ignorance, which can only decrease (or increase if we want to take a Socratic stance, given our awareness of our ignorance) with more knowledge, we are not even in the right position to know whether something should be banned or censored:
He who thinks we are to pitch our tent here, and have attained the utmost prospect of reformation that the mortal glass wherein we contemplate can show us, till we come to beatific vision, that man by this very opinion declares that he is yet far short of truth.
How does someone know that we need not attain more knowledge, simply because the idea appears heretical? Milton’s worry, though apt, was driven by the desire to learn more so that humanity could be closer to God. Milton thought therefore opposing knowledge acquisition was to, essentially, oppose humanity's most important mission, since“he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.”
Only God is so infallible, Milton could claim, as to know what is and is not allowed to be considered. Humans, being infallible and ignorant and full of sin, would be going against their very nature and design to deny knowledge, since they would be claiming to have that knowledge anyway: how can we know if it is good or bad unless we know what it is!
The irony should be obvious now: Humanity’s fall was supposedly through its acquisition of knowledge in the Garden. For Milton, the fruit of our failure becomes the seeds of our salvation.
The reason for highlighting Milton’s motivations and justifications is to not allow us to paint a secular portrait of this religious man. This does not discredit his brilliance, talent and genius, nor should it lessen the power of the Areopagitica. But in order to know our history of fighting for freedom of thought and speech, we should consider one of the most important documents to be the Areopagitica. But in so doing, we should be as fully aware of its origin and justifications as possible. As Milton himself tried to do, knowing an origin can help clarify a path for the future.
The Areopagitica remains one of the best documents for freedom ever conceived. But, one that remains central to me, will have to be a little book by another John, published in the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, called On Liberty.
Monday, December 12, 2011
The Case Against Santa
As we have noted previously on this blog, Christmas is a drag. The holiday’s norms and founding mythologies are repugnant, especially when compared to its more humane cousin, Thanksgiving. The story of the nativity doesn’t make much sense; moreover, it seems odd to celebrate an occasion that involved the slaughter of innocent children. And the other founding myth - the myth of Santa and the North Pole - is one of a morally tone-deaf autocrat who delivers toys to the children of well-off parents rather than life-saving basic goods to the most needy. But, when you think about it, the Santa myth is far worse than even that.
To start, the Christmas mythology has it that Santa is a being who is morally omniscient - he knows whether we are bad or good, and in fact keeps a record of our acts. Additionally he is somnically omniscient – he sees us when we’re sleeping, he knows when we’re awake. Santa has unacceptable capacities for monitoring our actions, and he exercises them! In a similar vein, Santa takes himself to be entitled to enter our homes, in the night and while we’re not looking, despite the fact that we have locked the doors. In other words, Santa does not respect our privacy. He watches us, constantly.
This is important because the moral value of our actions is largely determined by our motives for performing them. Performing the action that morality requires is surely good; however, when the morally required act is performed for the wrong reasons, the morality of the act is diminished. Acting for the right reasons is a condition for being worthy of moral praise; and, correlatively, the blame that follows a morally wrong action is properly mitigated when the agent can show the purity of her motives.
The trouble with Santa’s surveillance is that it affects our motives. When we know that we are being watched by an omniscient judge looking to mete out rewards and punishments, we find ourselves with strong reasons to act for the sake of getting the reward and avoiding the punishment. But in order for our actions to have moral worth, they must be motivated by moral reasons, rather than narrowly self-interested ones. In short, under Santa’s watchful eye, our motivations become clouded, and so does the morality of our actions.
The exclamation at the end of Santa Claus is Coming to Town captures the moral ambiguity that the Santa myth imposes on us: “You better be good for goodness sake.” Could there be a more confused moral prescription? On the one hand, if the expression aims to exhort us to act on the basis of properly moral motives (for the sake of goodness itself), then the Myth of Santa undercuts our reasons to be moral. Apparently, the account runs as follows: Santa keeps tabs on what you do and when you sleep. He will punish or reward you on the basis of your performance. So you should be good for purely moral motives. The trouble, again, is that after having given a variety of non-moral, strictly self-interested reasons to act, it is a perfect non sequitur to conclude that we must act on the basis of purely moral motives. In fact, if we’re right, the Santa myth undermines the idea that we should act on the basis of our moral reasons. By accepting the Santa myth, then, we nearly ensure that we will not be good.
On the other hand, the expression “be good for goodness sake” may be simply a form of emphatic interjection, like “Do your homework, for Chrissakes!” or “Exercise and eat right, for Pete’s sake!” And in light of the story of Santa’s monitoring practices and the consequent rewards and punishments, this interpretation seems more in keeping with the overall Santa myth, and seems like a more psychologically plausible bit of advice. This reading, however, embraces the usurpation of moral motivation. It impels its listener to be bribed for good behavior; in fact, it places bribery at the heart of morality.
So far, we’ve presented a broadly moral argument against Santa. He doesn’t respect our privacy, and our knowledge of that fact, in light of his role in punishing and rewarding us, distorts our moral motives. Yet he seems to require that our motives be pure. Santa is thus a moral torturer: he punishes those who are not good, and then imposes a system of incentives and encouragements that go a long way towards ensuring that everyone will fail at goodness.
To our moral argument there could be added a theological critique of Santa. The problem with Santa Claus from a religious perspective is that he is presented in the mythology as a kind of god. Like the gods of the familiar forms of monotheism, Santa is morally omniscient. He rewards the good and punishes the evil. Moreover, he performs yearly miracles of bounty that, at least by our lights, put Jesus’ miracle of the fishes and loaves to shame. In other words, Santa Claus can be no mere man; accordingly, the Santa mythology implies a Santa theology. And monotheists should be alarmed. We know that Yahweh is a jealous god, and encouraging children to propitiate Santa with their moral behavior sounds very much like the sort of thing that makes a jealous god very, very angry. Imagine Moses’ frustration with the Israelites were he to come back from the mountain to find them telling Santa stories instead of only worshipping a golden calf. It seems to us that taking the first commandments seriously (the ones about worshipping only the god of Moses) should be a source of moral concern about the Santa myth. Christian parents that embrace the Santa myth make idolaters of their children.
We, the authors, are atheists. We deny Santa’s existence, and Yahweh’s, too. The case we’re pressing against Santa here is analogous to the famous argument from evil. (We think the argument applies to Yahweh, too; but that’s a different story.) It works on Santa because he is a morally objectionable entity who is supposed to be intrinsically good, and intrinsically good yet bad entities do not exist. There is, of course, much more to say about the moral case against Santa. To repeat: he uses his miraculous production capacities to make toys instead of things that contribute to lasting welfare; he uses his monitoring capacities to keep track of the things people do, but does not see fit to prevent morally horrible things, assist the victims of crimes, or report criminals to the authorities. And so, not only does Santa Claus not exist, it’s a good thing, too. The questions that remain are why the myth of Santa persists, and why a major holiday is partially focused on such a despicable character.
Monday, October 17, 2011
On the Gods of Horses
The Presocratic philosopher-poet Xenophanes famously noted that if horses could draw, they would draw their gods as horses. The same, he holds, goes for lions and oxen. What is the intended critical edge of such observations? Suppose it’s true that horses would draw their gods as horses. So what?
The famous Xenophanes fragment runs as follows:
If horses or oxen or lions had hands
or if they could draw with their hands and
produce works like men,
horses would draw the figures of the gods as
similar to horses, and oxen as similar to oxen,
and they would make the bodies
of the sort which each of them had.
The Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria is our source. He portrays Xenophanes as a religious reformer, one committed to criticizing anthropomorphism in religion. To construct a god in your own image, he holds, is a form of idolatry. Clement also provides another Xenophanes fragment, one that he takes to provide parallel support for this interpretation:
Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black;
Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.
The same lesson is said to follow: Humans make their gods look like themselves. But the question remains. What is the critical edge? They serve a critical religious program, but there is no overt argument in either. We hold it that the observations function as a reductio ad ridiculum.
To see this, we must make explicit what’s funny about horses drawing horse gods. In doing so, we’ll ruin the joke, for sure, but that’s philosophy. So what’s funny about horses and horse gods?
Imagine a horse crafting a god in his own image, an ox attributing to the divine the best of what he can conceive. What’s funny is that these are self-indulgent depictions, limited by the depictor’s imagination, which is bounded by the kind of animal it is. An image may capture the comic intuition: In the process of drawing the gods, each animal’s body casts a shadow. The animal draws an outline of the god’s body using that shadow. That’s how each animal gets started conceiving of the divine.
The correlation observed is between properties of the one doing the depicting of a god with the depiction of the god. Crucially, the humor, then, indicates that these depictions are, as one would expect, erroneous. God just doesn’t look like a horse, or an ox, or a lion, or....
But why would such images be in error? Imagine a committed polytheist, one who thinks that there are many, many gods. Polytheists of course disagree about the number of gods there are. So consider a Herculean polytheist. The Herculean polytheist believes in the maximal number of gods. He may say that the Xenophanes’ joke relies on an underestimation of the number of gods there are. The Herclulean polytheist may say in response to Xenophanes:
Exactly! The Thracians have red-haired gods, Ethiopians have dark-skinned gods. Greeks have Greek-looking gods. Same with oxen, horses, lions, and so on, all the way down to squid, moles, and worms. They’ve all got gods that fit with them. The variety of the representation of the gods is not a challenge, but rather evidence of the vast number of gods.
When there are philosophical bullets to bite, the Herculean polytheist makes a meal of them. The Herculean polytheist surely has devised a clever strategy of embracing the presumptively ridiculous consequences of the view. Herculean polytheism, however, invites two uncomfortable consequences. First, it excessively populates divine entities. Greeks have the Olympians and their ancestors and progeny, which already seems bloated; now multiply those numbers by the number of species and races. That’s a whole lot of gods, many of whom are simply redundant. Does the horse’s sun god or the Greek’s sun god or the sparrow’s sun god move the sun across the sky? Was it a team effort when the Thracian, mole, and squid gods created the world?
Second, on the Herculean polytheist view, the duty to worship the gods now has more to do with the worshippers than the gods. One might think that the reason why one should worship a god is that the god is special; the Herculean polytheist holds that one worships a particular god because of who one is. It may seem correct to do so as a gesture of identity, but then worship is no longer about god, but about the worshipper’s identity. Hence we are back to Xenophanes’ critical concern (and Clement’s extension of it), namely, that it looks like religion is more about the humans the gods.
Consider an analogy. In freethinker and atheist circles, a version of the Xenophanes correlation is often invoked to capture the contingency of religious belief. The following is exemplary.
Freethinker: If you were born in the United States of America, you are most likely to become a Christian. If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you are likely to become a Muslim. If you had been born in Norway in the viking ages, you would have believed in Thor and Odin. If you were born in Athens around 500 BC, you’d worship Zeus and Athena.
The correlation here is, roughly, that the surrounding cultural milieu determines how one conceives of the divine. We may call this the sociological theory of religion. As the dominant religion of the culture varies with time and geography, the conceptions of the divine held by individuals will also vary. So far, this is only a descriptive point, but it is often deployed as a criticism of religion. The presumption seems to be that one’s conception of the divine should not be determined by simple contingencies. And so the more one’s theology is the product of time and chance, the less confident one should be that it is correct. The determining factors are sociological and historical, not rational.
However, once we make this observation about our images of the divine, we can subject the whole of our theology to the same criticism. It’s not just conceiving god with a long beard that’s in trouble; conceiving of god as rational, loving, and good may be projections as well.
Interestingly, the question of existence never arises for Xenophanes. In fact, in other fragments, Xenophanes offers positive conceptions of the greatest of the gods. But once we see the critical trajectory of Xenophanes’ challenges, we are compelled to ask the question: Isn’t god’s existence, too, a projection, the product of mere contingency?