27 March 2015

A Thirty Years' War in the Muslim World?

It's often said, in an attempt to explain if not excuse Muslim violence in the 20th and 21st centuries, that Islam is a younger religion than Christianity and Judaism and thus in an earlier stage of development. We're only in the 15th century of Muslim century, which dates from the hijra of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. Using the history of Christianity in Europe as a model, Islam should be on the brink of a "Reformation" period of change, turmoil and war, from which the religion as a whole should emerge less warlike and more tolerant of individual and regional differences. It's sometimes said that nothing short of an equivalent to the Thirty Years' War of Christianity's 17th century, an ultimate showdown between Catholics and Protestants, will drive home to Muslims the folly of imposing religion or denominational dominance by force. Seen in this light, it looks like that war is coming ahead of schedule. Geopolitically speaking there's been a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for some time now. The Syrian civil war has been a proxy battlefield for these two powers, with Iran, a Shiite state, supporting Syria's Alawite ruler and the Saudis supporting a largely Sunni insurgency, with the self-styled Islamic State (aka the Daesh) as the joker in the deck. Now the Saudis have intervened with air power in Yemen, where a Shiite insurgency has forced the Sunni President out of the capital, with "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula" as the wild card. The Shiite Houthis have at least the moral support of Iran, where the government should be credited with some broadmindedness by regional standards. Neither the Alawites of Syria nor the Zaydi Houthis of Yemen are of the same Shiite denomination, roughly speaking, of the Iranian majority, yet Iran, seeing itself as the champion of Shiites in general, doesn't hold that against them, while Saudi Arabia has been the wellspring of increased intolerance among Sunnis. However, Iraq complicates any scenario portraying the Shiites as the good guys, since their overcompensation at Sunni expense for oppression by the Sunni/secular Baath regime created more support for the Daesh than it deserves. Also, Iran's Islamic republicanism, with its theocratic veto over elected leaders, is no model for other Shiite countries, although as far as I know the Iranians aren't pushing it as a model for Yemen or other places. The overall problem in the regime seems to be a rule-or-ruin mentality that distrusts power sharing because each tribe or sect distrusts the others. The question for the future is whether the region can learn from other regions' histories of misfortune and avoid repeating them, or whether they can only learn that whatever they're fighting over isn't worth fighting over the hard way. The question for the U.S. and Russia is whether either country can resist a temptation to help "their" sides in the larger conflict. Russia has made common cause with Iran in Syria, but it's unclear whether Putin favors Shiism in general or has a particular stake in Yemen. Americans remain convinced that Iran is evil and its influence must be limited or eliminated, so the challenge for us is see things clearly in Yemen without the screen and buzz of Iranophobia. It really should be no other country's business -- not ours or Russia's, not Iran's or the Saudis' -- how Yemen settles its internal conflicts. But the djinni is already out of the bottle there, and all we can do is hope the stain doesn't spread too far.

26 March 2015

Religious Freedom vs. Personal Freedom

Indiana has become the latest state to enact a so-called Religious Freedom Restoration law. Religious freedom is restored in these states, it seems, by requiring the courts to accept "freedom of religion" as a defense when someone gets sued for alleged faith-based violations of a plaintiff's presumed rights. The discussion of today's signing of the law by Gov. Mike Pence has been strangely disjointed. For critics, the real issue is gay rights. They fear that the new law will shield homophobes from accountability for discrimination against gay people or (and perhaps especially) gay couples. For supporters, the real issue is abortion. Pence justified his action by citing the Hobby Lobby case and other instances in which businesses or institutions faced legal action for refusing, on religious grounds, to subsidize abortion through their insurance plans. He noticed objections from homosexuals and their friends only to assert that "if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it." Nevertheless, the assumption that a "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" will empower homophobia has already provoked threats of boycotts against the state. I can't feel too bad about that because I feel bad enough about the way "freedom of religion" trumps the rights of individuals in our Land of the Free.

These "restoration" acts take freedom of religion beyond the scope the Framers meant to protect. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of worship and protects different denominations from having to support one "established" denomination with taxes. I don't think the free exercise of religion protected by the Constitution was understood to extend to acts of "conscience" in the public sphere, though many such acts would be covered under freedom of speech or assembly. As I've written before, I don't believe that moral objections to abortion or homosexuality are so essential to religious identity that submission to state endorsement of either would count as a violation of religious freedom. I doubt Christians would get very far even with their own kind if argued that you're not in good standing with Jesus if you don't oppose abortion and/or the gay agenda. Meanwhile, the whole "anti-Shari'a" movement, silly as it appears in its paranoia about Islam, accepts the premise that simple freedom of worship isn't violated if Muslims can't impose their morals on the larger society. While some secularists may object to state action favoring religion against individual liberty because they see such action as theocratic, my view is that people aren't entitled to the sort of legal shield the restoration acts provide because their homophobia or opposition to abortion -- add your controversy if you like -- should not be recognized as religious. The Constitution ought to be clear that religion is how you worship the divine, not how you judge your fellow citizens. If you challenge the rights conferred on individuals by government and you get sued for your trouble by individuals or the government, religion should be no excuse.

25 March 2015

Is Anti-Semitism the worst form of bigotry?

David Brooks isn't the first writer to note an increase in anti-semitism around the world. Another writer got some attention recently by asking rhetorically whether Jewish people should leave Europe in the face of rising anti-semitism there. Muslims are to blame for much of this, predictably enough, but for Brooks the Jews are playing their usual scapegoat role and have given Muslims no special reason to hate them or, worse, want them dead. Brooks sees anti-semitism as almost entirely a matter of projection, the result of a widespread human need to blame an other for their troubles, be those personal or global. For anti-semites, he writes, "The Jew is not a person but an idea, a unique carrier of transcendent evil: a pollution, a stain, a dark force responsible for the failures of others, the unconscious shame and primeval urges they feel in themselves, and everything that needs explaining."

The only real problem I have with this formulation is Brooks's belief that it applies only to Jews. He contends that anti-semitism isn't merely the most virulent or vicious form of bigotry, but is on an entirely other level from other forms of ethnic or religious hatred. "Most bigotry is an assertion of inferiority and speaks the language of oppression," he explains, "Anti-Semitism is an assertion of impurity and speaks the language of extermination." This is both ahistorical and inaccurate at the present time. Can't we presume that any people targeted for genocide has been subject to "the language of extermination?" The Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, perhaps? The Tutsis in Rwanda more recently -- a people equated with cockroaches by their Hutu persecutors? What they suffered could not be mere bigotry by Brooks's standard. Why, then, does Brooks seem to imply that only Jews have been subject to another level of super-bigotry? Probably because he still sees the Shoah of World War II as a unique event, even though it is more quantitatively than qualitatively distinct from other sustained mass atrocities. It's more likely, I suspect, that Brooks wants to draw as stark a distinction as possible between the indisputably bloody record of anti-semitism and the alarms raised over Islamophobia around the world. He finds it necessary to argue that the Jews are still the most hated and most endangered people on earth, if not necessarily the most oppressed. On some level I think this is an answer to an inferred Muslim argument that the umma is the most oppressed people -- an argument Brooks would probably ascribe to self-pity or explain by noting Muslims' self-oppression. But let's try to keep a more careful score. Isn't it possible that despite all the attention Jew-hatred gets, more people around the world hate Muslims than hate Jews? After all, nearly every other major religion has a concentration of Islamophobes somewhere: the Jews in Israel; Christians in the U.S. and Europe; Hindus in India; Buddhists (!) in Myanmar. And given an undisputed history of Muslim violence whose relevance to the present seems more obvious to most observers than the more ancient (and more disputed) history of Hebrew violence, isn't it more likely that people around the world will see Muslims as the unique carriers of transcendent evil, moral pollution, etc? Brooks makes a big deal out of admittedly abhorrent expressions of Jew hatred by Muslim leaders, but you could probably top them by scrolling down any comment thread on any popular American news site for a story about Islam. Even on sites where comments are moderated and censored, pretty virulent opinions make it through, and it's hard to tell the difference between assertions of inferiority and assertions of impurity after a while. It may still be objectively true that anti-semitism is growing in volume and virulence, but to observe this with outrage while Islamophobia is arguably growing faster in both categories, without the same outrage from David Brooks, is suspiciously selective. It really seems like just another way to tell Muslims to shut up -- among so many these days. I'm sure Brooks himself never dreams of exterminating Muslims, but if he goes on to assume that no one has such dreams, while Jews somehow are the only people anyone dreams of exterminating, then he's kidding himself, or else he's lying to us.

24 March 2015

Cruz: Rock music responded wrong to 9/11

Senator Cruz is a gift that keeps on giving. This was apparent well before he declared for the presidency, but in the past two days he's become a cornucopia for critics. This morning he expounded on a musical conversion experience he had after the September 2011 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Perhaps strangely for a born-again, the Texan had been a rock fan until that point. But he "didn't like how rock music responded" to the terror attacks, while he discovered an affinity for country music. Hearing country music, he says now, he "had an emotional reaction that said, 'these are my people.'" Since then, it seems, he has listened to country exclusively.

Even before I could search my own memory, critics of Cruz reminded us that rock musicians were at the forefront of the big memorial fundraising show that aired on all TV major networks within days of the attacks. But to be fair to Cruz, he did not say he objected to how musicians responded. His problem was, and presumably still is, with the music, and one can infer that rock (not to mention hip-hop!) is guilty of a sin of omission. Rock, at least on the mainstream level, did not produce war songs. To be more precise, rock acts did not produce exhortations or incitements to fight a war against "the terrorists." There's no rock equivalent I know of to "Have You Forgotten?" or "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue." To be fair also to country music, these songs don't represent the whole genre. I doubt whether Cruz is a big Steve Earle fan, for instance, and he most likely didn't like how the Dixie Chicks responded to the invasion of Iraq. But I suppose he gives the benefit of the doubt when he hears that twang until evidence throws an act's patriotism and authenticity into question. Of course, Cruz could simply be pandering to the same rural demographic he was implicitly courting yesterday at Liberty University. Regardless, your takeaway from this is that Cruz carries grudges against entire genres of music if they don't "respond" to important events the way he thinks they should. For someone touting his conservative Americanism and his love for liberty, that sounds downright Stalinist.

Is Liberty University a misnomer?

The libertarian Reason magazine website notes an irony to Senator Cruz's announcement of his candidacy at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. While some observers might find any equation of Falwell and liberty ironic at best, Reason's Robby Soave notes that Cruz spoke before a captive audience yesterday. He appeared during a convocation for which attendance is mandatory on pain of a fine and reprimand. This irked students who support other candidates, some of whom showed up wearing Rand Paul t-shirts. Meanwhile, in a further irony, Liberty University defends the scheduling on rather liberal grounds, arguing that convocations often are used to expose students to diverse points of view they might otherwise avoid, including heterodox religious views by Liberty's usual standard. This misses the point of the protests made by Liberty students and picked up by Reason. Cruz's announcement was a photo op above all. Appearing during a convocation with mandatory attendance created the appearance of mass spontaneous support for his presidential campaign, but required attendance renders that appearance false. I dare say that someone like Cruz probably would draw a big crowd at someplace like Liberty anyway, given his Christianist appeal and the potential historic significance of the occasion. But it seems clear that some who would have stayed away had to show up to form a more impressive backdrop for an event that was less an airing of unorthodox opinions than it was a political advertisement. This is all grimly impressive. Leave aside your judgment of anything Cruz actually said yesterday; the event was dishonest before he even opened his mouth.

23 March 2015

Cruz: 'God isn't done with America yet.'

They say location means something when you start a campaign. To this day, Democrats make a lot out of Ronald Reagan holding his first campaign rally after winning the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 in a town known as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. For Reagan's enemies, this could only mean that the candidate was appealing to white racists. His defenders argue that there was little in Reagan's actual speech that could be interpreted that way. The message sent by Senator Cruz of Texas in his choice of venue to launch his presidential campaign is less ambiguous. He spoke this morning at Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell, and his appeal was unabashedly "Christianist" if not "Protestantist."

Cruz sees born-agains as an untapped demographic if not the core of the hidden majority Republicans believe in. He noted this morning that "roughly half of born again Christians aren't voting," and while he didn't claim that they alone could tip the balance in a national election, he clearly thinks they can only make a difference for the better. He credits the survival of his parents' marriage to both of them getting born again. He implicitly credits his own faith with getting him through a tough economic time. Cruz is smart to offer his own story to young voters of any denomination. The story is that his parents went bankrupt before he went to college. He had to take out more than $100,000 in student loans and still had to work two jobs to make it through. Young people can empathize with that, but I wonder whether the empathy really goes both ways. Students should ask themselves, or ask Cruz if they get a chance, whether he feels that young people today shouldn't have to go through all that to get an education. His answer would tell a lot about him. I suspect he would say that his ordeal enhanced his character, while his faith sustained him. What follows from that is uncertain. There's something to be said for cultivating talents and traits to help you adapt to and overcome adversity. But I suspect that many Republicans feel that if they had to go through shit to get an education, so should every future generation, the alternative being some kind of decadence and a stunting of character. Cruz said nothing more about education beyond the elementary level, and on that subject he made predictable noises about school choice with an extra nod to home schooling thrown in. If he believes that an educated, truly competitive workforce for the future is a national imperative that can't be left to personal responsibility, he didn't let on at Liberty University.

What does it mean to be a Christianist politician today? It certainly doesn't make you an anti-semite, since Cruz basically promised unconditional support for Israel, or at least for the Netanyahu government. It may make you an Islamophobe, on the evidence of Cruz's promise not only to fight Islamic terrorism but to "call it by name." It definitely conditions your understanding of liberty, at least if you believe, as Cruz does, that human rights come not from man but from God, and do not extend to full equality for homosexuals. God raised two great pillars of liberty as far as Cruz is concerned: the right to live according to the New Testament and the right to make money. The only things keeping Americans out of work or holding back American entrepreneurship, he claims implicitly, are taxes and regulations. Greed, one could infer, never put anyone out of work. Let President Cruz do his thing and we'll be back to full employment promptly ... or as close to it, more likely, as the Market and/or God will allow. Let Cruz do his thing and let Jesus into your life, he argues, and you'll have no worries.

As a Christianist, Cruz believes that "God's blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation." Striking an optimistic note while working the born-again crowd, he added, "I believe God isn't done with America yet." Like many a limited-government type, Cruz invokes Thomas Jefferson, who otherwise isn't a great fit with a Christianist agenda. He had a lot to say about God, though his God might not exactly be the personal buddy Cruz claims to know. When Cruz talks about God not being finished with the U.S., I can't help thinking of something slightly similar that Jefferson wrote. The specific context is obsolete -- Jefferson was writing in his hypocritically critical way about slavery -- but a certain generality and a self-awareness of hypocrisy that seems absent in Cruz's chest beating about American supremacy haunts the old man's famous observation: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."

19 March 2015

Respect me (or else) respect my religion

If John Gray wonders why atheists get so angry, stories like this one ought to remind him. In Myanmar this week -- the nation also known as Burma -- three guys who run a bar were sentenced to 30 months in jail for insulting religion. The insult took the form of a poster showing Buddha listening to headphones against a psychedelic background. News reports link the prosecution and conviction of these infidels to a surge of "Buddhist nationalism" in Myanmar, which has taken its most notorious form in the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority culture. On one hand, "Buddhist nationalism" invites a clarifying comparison with "Islamic radicalism." Does anyone think there's anything intrinsically Buddhist about this Buddhist nationalism? Do the Buddha's teachings really compel these clowns in Myanmar to demand reticence if not reverence from nonbelievers? I suspect not, strongly. To anyone with the slightest grasp of Buddhism, the idea is absurd. Yet how different is this from Islamic radicalism? I suppose we must concede that Islamic radicalism has been more violent over time (even when we add Sri Lanka to the Buddhist ledger), but to the extent that Buddhist nationalists are persecuting people in Myanmar the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative. In both cases, idiots make religion a pretext for bullying people. Maybe what's going on here can be expected where cultures don't have the sort of egotistical individualism we see in most parts of the relatively secularized Christian world. Individuals everywhere crave respect about equally, I suspect, but in some cultures people may be more inhibited about demanding that you "respect ME!" than people elsewhere. If so, maybe what you get instead are extreme demands for respect toward religion and other signifiers of identity. I've long suspected that something similar goes on wherever dictators are objectively oppressive but also authentically popular. When people demand respect for their Great Leader, they vicariously demand respect for themselves; they deserve respect because their country and their leader are strong. Obviously the more individualistic nations and cultures aren't immune from this tendency, since you can attribute the same vicarious motives to superpatriots everywhere, and you can blame it, if you wish, on the absence of a more fully developed individual personality even in places where individualism is practically the reigning ideology. A philosophical pessimist like John Gray might note that wherever individualism is less fully developed -- though Gray himself might condemn individualism as mere egotism for all I know -- religion itself isn't necessarily the reason. There needn't be an inversely proportional relationship between piety and individualism, and 20th century critics may well have been right to note that revolutions uprooted traditional religion only to replace it with cults of personality. But if you treat the worship of Great Leaders as a religious impulse we can still find fault with that impulse. It would be something less benign than the comforting illusion Gray assumes to be necessary to struggling people in a soulless world. It could even be something that mankind could aspire to suppress, if you agree that this sort of bullying piety is less likely where people have more reasonable and conscientious self-esteem. Maybe a world without religion isn't possible, but a world without "sacrilege" or "blasphemy" as excuses to oppress people should be very possible.

18 March 2015

Blockupy in Frankfurt: cowards, no; nihilists, maybe

Here's an antidote to "liberal nihilism:" thousands of people demonstrated against the opening of the new European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt, and hundreds were arrested after clashing with police. They call themselves "Blockupy" in rhyming homage to the Occupy movement of a few years ago in the U.S. -- one of the few exceptions Steve Fraser cites to the Age of Acquiescence he describes in the book of that name. The doings in Frankfurt at first glance look a bit more like the Battle of Seattle than anything Occupy did. Blockupy is described as "far left" by this English-language newsite from Germany, while Reuters describes today's protest as "anti-capitalist." Blockupy objects specifically to the alleged trumping of national/popular sovereignty by a "Troika" of entities, including the central bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission, that subjects countries like Greece to austerity on the pretext of "debt that can never be repaid." Organizers of today's demonstration regret violence by protesters but blame the Troika's policies for enraging people. Since Blockupy is a coalition of groups, it's easy for leaders or individual factions to blame a "violent minority" for excesses, though I don't know if the usual "black bloc" suspects have been blamed yet. In any event, the demonstration is significant in its own right as a model for Americans who are neither acquiescent or nihilist toward the prevailing economic order. If the ECB president is representative, the austerity movement in Europe is as unsympathetic and unforgiven as its American counterpart. Countries like Greece have only themselves to blame for the "difficult period of adjustment" they must go through now, the official said in response to the protests, while protesters who think Europe is doing too little for Greece are wrong. You'd think the Greeks, however corrupt or incompetent their leaders actually were, had broken some immutable natural law. To deny that premise might make one a nihilist in certain eyes, but we're really seeing the struggle of one set of values against another, not the sort of negation of all values that some dread. Still, I'm sure many American observers would dismiss these Blockupy demonstrators as lazy losers, but I wonder how many would dare say it to their faces after today.