29 November 2009

Courageous atheist

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2007)

The trajectory of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's life has points in common with that of Frank Schaeffer, whose quasi-autobiographical Crazy for God I posted about last weekend. But the contrast between where she started and how far she has come is vastly greater. The first part of this book is a fascinating look at a culture so alien to our own that it's hard to imagine it existing on the same planet; the rest is a profound story of personal and intellectual self-liberation.

Ayaan (Somali names don't consist of first and last names like ours -- I will use personal names for simplicity) was born in 1969 in Mogadishu, Somalia. She started off somewhat advantaged by the character of her parents -- her father Hirsi Magan Isse was well-educated, and her mother Asha had an independent streak, having divorced a previous husband before marrying Hirsi Magan. Still, at first Ayaan was raised fairly typically for a Somali girl, in an environment almost unimaginably different from what we know in the West -- a world in which clan identity and lineage were the very basis of identity, and individuality was constrained by traditional taboos and a rather muddled folk version of Islam.

Hirsi Magan was a leader of the democratic opposition to the Siad Barré dictatorship in Somalia, which meant that during much of Ayaan's childhood he was in prison or exile; his family also lived in exile in Kenya, which had a large Somali refugee community, but he was often not able to be there with them. In both Somalia and Kenya the family was surrounded by what Westerners would consider abject poverty and filth, but to Ayaan, of course, that environment was simply normal. At her father's insistence she did at least get a good basic education, including learning English and getting exposure to Western culture through novels.

The most harrowing passage in the book is Ayaan's description of her and her younger sister's clitorectomy. Their father strongly opposed this traditional practice, but their grandmother had it done in his absence. Ayaan later notes that this horror is inflicted on six thousand girls in the Islamic world every day, or more than two million each year.

The family also spent some time in Saudi Arabia, which proved even more backward and barbaric than Somalia, despite being richer. Ayaan's description of mass panic there over a Lunar eclipse is rather amusing.

Ayaan's adolescence coincided with an Islamic revival among the Somalis and other Muslims living in Kenya (the same phenomenon was going on throughout the Islamic world as a whole). Rather like the Protestant reformation in Europe centuries before, this revival aimed to purify Islam of the accretion of folk beliefs and practices which had merged with it over the centuries, returning to the pure Islam of Muhammad and the Koran. It was a movement which would later culminate in al-Qâ'idah and the Taliban.

Kenya's Somali community became infested with free-lance preachers ranting about hellfire, sexual purity, and the absolute submission of females to male authority. After spending some time listening to one of these fanatics, Ayaan began to have doubts:

I thought that perhaps Boqol Sawm was translating the Quran poorly: Surely Allah could not have said that men should beat their wives when they were disobedient? Surely a woman's statement in court should be worth the same as a man's?.....I bought my own English edition of the Quran and read it so I could understand it better. But I found that everything Boqol Sawm had said was in there. Women should obey their husbands. Women were worth half a man. Infidels should be killed. (p. 104)

Adolescence also meant the prospect of an arranged marriage, the norm in Somali culture. All the other Muslim girls Ayaan knew anticipated the same fate. None were enthused about it, but none could imagine a plausible alternative.

One day Ayaan's father informed her that he had found a match for her, a Somali man who lived in Canada but had come to Kenya to find himself a bride. She met the man and felt no attraction or compatibility, but her father simply ignored her objections. The marriage ceremony took place without her consent or presence; neither was required to make it valid.

When she was sent to join her "husband" in Canada, she had to stop in Germany for a time. There, at last, she rebelled and fled to stay with a Somali friend who lived in the Netherlands as a refugee -- and her life changed course completely. Plunged into a world utterly different from what she had known, she found that the despised infidels had built a society far richer, happier, more peaceful, and less corrupt than anything to be found in the Muslim lands she had known. Eventually, determined to understand how this had been achieved, she embarked on the formal study of the history and culture of the West.

She found the answers she sought -- but she also found that the roots of the West's success were profoundly secular, utterly incompatible with Islam. The Dutch way of life, too, refuted what she had been taught. Women were equal and sexuality relatively unconstrained by taboo, yet Dutch society did not collapse into chaos. Instead, it was Somalia that was collapsing into chaos; Siad Barré's regime finally fell, but Hirsi Magan's dream of democracy died in blood-soaked anarchy as clan feuds escalated into all-out civil war.

It was the September 11 terrorist attack that finally forced Ayaan to face the contradiction between her Muslim upbringing and the Western civilization she had come to love:

But I could no longer avoid seeing the totalitarianism, the pure moral framework that is Islam. It regulates every detail of life and subjugates free will. True Islam, as a rigid belief system and a moral framework, leads to cruelty. The inhuman act of those nineteen hijackers was the logical outcome of this detailed system for regulating human behavior. Their world is divided between "Us" and "Them" -- if you don't accept Islam you should perish. (p. 272)

All these statements that Bin Laden and his people quote from the Quran to justify the attacks -- I looked them up; they are there. If the Quran is timeless, then it applies to every Muslim today. This is how Muslims may behave if they are at war with infidels. (p. 273)

The Dutch people around her, knowing almost nothing about Islam, didn't get it:

Ruud said, "Ayaan, of course these people may have been Muslims, but they are a lunatic fringe. We have extremist Christians, too, who interpret the Bible literally. Most Muslims do not believe these things. To say so is to disparage a faith which is the second largest religion in the world, and which is civilized, and peaceful." I walked into the office thinking, "I have to wake these people up." (p. 268-269)

She was to have many such conversations with well-meaning but ignorant Westerners.

Ayaan's final apotheosis came when her Dutch boyfriend loaned her The Atheist Manifesto to read on vacation:

Just looking at it, just wanting to read it -- that already meant I doubted, and I knew that. Before I'd read four pages I already knew my answer. I had left God behind years ago. I was an atheist. (p. 281)

She began to speak out about issues such as honor killings among Muslims in the Netherlands (Dutch politicians claimed she was exaggerating the scale of the problem -- she proved otherwise). She began to receive death threats, but refused to be intimidated. Under Islamic law, her renunciation of Islam was itself a crime requiring death, and you can only be killed once.

Her collaboration with Theo van Gogh on the film Submission, and van Gogh's subsequent murder by a Muslim, finally did "wake these people up". After years of Muslim arrogance and intimidation, it was the last straw. Ayaan was placed under suffocating security; later she learned that several mosques had been burned down, suggesting that the government feared the whole country might erupt if she too were killed. Her warnings about the danger Islam poses to secular civilization could no longer be ignored.

As the West enabled her to free herself from Islam, so she has contributed to the West's protracted struggle to free itself from that same scourge.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali still lives in seclusion today, to avoid the fanatics who seek to carry out Islam's sentence of death for her "apostasy" and for telling the truth.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's website

28 November 2009

Gate-crashers: no trivial matter

Two gate-crashers managed to infiltrate the recent state dinner hosted by President Obama for India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Most of the media seem to be treating this as a trivial and amusing event. Given the escalation of terrorist threats against the President, it was anything but that. Unauthorized persons were allowed free access, not only to the President, but to the Vice President and to the leader of an important foreign nation. If one or both of those persons had had murderous intent, the results could have been catastrophic.

Fortunately, the relevant authorities are taking the matter more seriously. As Mara Gay at The Atlantic Wire reports, "Heads rolled at the [Secret Service] this weekend, and the president has called for a full investigation into the incident." The agency suffers from overconfidence (perhaps because there has been no serious attempt on a President's life since Reagan) and "spinelessness" in enforcing security procedures when they inconvenience powerful individuals.

I hope that the Secret Service will study this incident and learn from it. Because you can be sure the terrorists are doing so.

Link roundup for 28 November 2009

Apparently Ovaltine has a startling side effect (found via Mendip).

Keith Knight looks at the origin of the left and the right.

Obama issues a bleeding-heart-liberal pardon.

What would the Earth look like if it had rings like Saturn?

These strange rock formations near the Urals (found via Mendip) remind me of the stone towers of Starside.

PZ Myers wishes you a happy Wary Vigilance Day.

Holte Ender looks at the great imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Stupid Evil Bastard weighs in on that remake of The Prisoner. Sounds awful.

This Cultural Christian proposes the Ripley paradigm on abortion.

Oh come on, not that old rag again.

Three candidates attract 193% of Republican support.

Teabagger vileness descends to a new low.

Palin could be useful.

Republicans are considering a ten-part litmus test for candidates. David Frum doesn't like the idea; Dissenting Justice has more.

Obama makes a small but meaningful start on limiting the power of big money in Washington. The larger problem is this kind of thing.

David Frum looks at the threat a Dobbs Presidential run in 2012 might pose to Republicans.

Kids at a Florida school celebrate bigotry and bullying.

This holiday season, remember the wealthy.

Credit-card issuers are on a shameless rampage.

Chris Matthews interrogates Bishop Thomas Tobin on the Catholic Church's efforts to pressure politicians on abortion.

The Catholic Church used disgusting moral sophistry to protect child-molesting priests in Ireland for decades. In North Dakota, the Church wants to shield their retirement benefits (found via Outta the Cornfield).

Small parties should do well in the next British election.

Israel moves ahead on medical marijuana.

The birth rate of the Muslim minority in Israel is plummeting (found via Eye on the World).

A Russian priest who criticized Islam has been murdered.

Yesterday's train crash in Russia may have been a terrorist attack.

Chinese test pilot Yang Guoxiang encountered a minor technical problem. Unfortunately it involved an H-bomb (found via Mendip).

Sumatran orangutans face devastating loss of habitat (sent by Ranch Chimp).

The AIDS epidemic probably peaked in 1996.

I've linked to this Origin of Stupidity video before, but Jerry Critter's posted it again and it's too good to pass up.

Environmental damage due to global warming is moving faster than even the grimmest climate models predicted (found via Mad Mike's America).

Rising temperatures mean stronger winds on Lake Superior.

European scientists are studying the largest known star -- which may be about to explode.

A man blind for 30 years has regained some vision through bionic technology (found via Mendip).

Brain implants may allow direct mind-computer interfacing by 2020 (found via Mendip).

26 November 2009

There is no singleness of identity

We have a tendency to divide the world around us into categories. In fact, we have to, otherwise we couldn't make sense of it. When we refer to a wide variety of objects as "chairs", we're singling out a commonality of function which is much more important than their differences in detail. If we couldn't classify things that way as a kind of shorthand to mentally organize the world, we couldn't talk or think usefully.

It's when we apply this kind of categorization to people that we often create more confusion than we remove.

The problem is that we all too often fall prey to what I call "the singleness of identity" -- treating categories as exclusive. If you are an A, then you cannot be a B as well. Moreover, you are an A through and through, defined by your A-ness, fundamentally like all other As and distinct from all Bs. An A with a tinge of B is a concept foreign to this way of thinking.

The most obvious example of this is, of course, race. For a long time we thought of humanity as being divided into discrete, fairly-homogenous blocs: white, black, Asian, and so on. The US census still invites people to classify themselves that way (the addition of a "mixed-race" option, while a positive step, is really just adding another supposed hard-edged category), and all kinds of official statistics give rates of unemployment or literacy or whatever for these categories as if they were separate and immutable species. Everyone knows that most of those Americans we call "black" have a considerable amount of European ancestry, and most likely many of the Americans we call "white" also have some "black" ancestry. Yet except in cases of known and recent intermarriage, we generally don't think of anyone as being "mixed". For varying reasons, certain groups of people on both the left and right feel more comfortable thinking in terms of discrete racial and ethnic blocs, and are resistant to acknowledging the increased blurring of those categories which is the reality of the present and future.

(I frankly think that the weird racially-tinged hostility to President Obama in some quarters is actually more intense because of his known racially-mixed origin than it would be if he were straight-forwardly "black". Racists get far more agitated and upset about "miscegenation" than they do about the mere fact that people of different races exist.)

The more important flaw in such racial category-think, however, is the fact that, unlike such categories as "chair", it doesn't actually provide any useful information most of the time. Even in the case of a person whose ancestry comes entirely from just one "racial" category, it doesn't tell you anything important about him (except in the sense that it tells you how he is likely to be treated in a racist environment). There are no beliefs, behavior patterns, mental traits, or even major physical differences that correlate reliably with race. It's true that, for historical reasons, there are some cultural traits more often found among black, white, Asian, or Hispanic Americans than among Americans of other ancestries; yet assimilation, education, and the tendency of people to imitate behavior they observe in others, have dramatically blurred even these distinctions, even when no intermarriage is involved. A newly-arrived Chinese immigrant will certainly think, speak, and behave differently from the American-born people around him; but his American-born grandchildren will probably think, speak, and behave pretty much like other Americans in their social environment, regardless of whether they have any non-Asian grandparents. The traits involved are cultural, not racial.

What about culture, then? If terms like "black", "white", or "Asian" convey no important information about a person (only about others' likely prejudices toward him), the same cannot be said of "French", "Japanese", "Arab", "Latin American", and suchlike. Cultures are vast clusters of attitudes, values, and behavior patterns; cultural labels do convey important information about the groups of people they refer to.

But even there, there is no singleness of identity. A man born and raised in Paris and a farmer in Normandy may both be French in culture and ethnicity, but will probably differ in attitudes and values in important ways. A Chinese person from Hong Kong is far more likely to have absorbed some British ways of thinking and behaving than a Chinese person from the deep interior of the country. Ethnic Germans in Transylvania whose ancestors left Germany centuries ago are culturally different from people who live in Hamburg. No ethnic or cultural group is homogenous or free of outside influnces on its character. Moreover, identities overlap. A Breton or an Alsatian may feel every inch a patriotic Frenchman even though he grew up speaking Breton or a form of German. Many people in England are conflicted about whether they feel primarily English or primarily British. And what about people of, say, Irish ancestry who were born and live in England? Are they English or British or Irish or some pastiche of those identities?

With religion and ideology we are on firmer ground. Knowing that someone is a Marxist, or a Muslim, or a libertarian, or a Christian, etc., really does give you a lot of important information about his attitudes and values, especially if he is a fervent believer. It's much more meaningful to speak of a real and distinct Christian-fundamentalist subculture in the US than of a black or Hispanic subculture. Muslim societies of whatever ethnicity or ancestry share important features that differentiate them from non-Muslim societies. Yet even there, individuals differ in degree of fervor and in the other factors that affect their identity. Islam in India is not just like Islam in Saudi Arabia. Two Muslims living in the same apartment building in Paris may have completely different views about their religion and about how much they identify with the surrounding non-Muslim society.

Sexual orientation similarly refuses to fit into the singleness of identity. Homosexuality must have existed for millions of years, but the concept of "a homosexual" seems to be fairly new and not a very accurate way of describing reality. Most people are sexually attracted pretty much exclusively to the opposite gender. Some are attracted pretty much exclusively to their own gender; some (probably more) are attracted to both, in varying degrees. Some people change in orientation over time (it's fairly common for people who later feel exclusively heterosexual to "experiment" with homosexuality in late adolescence, for example). Nobody really knows the reasons for these variations. To say that a person with one preference "is" one thing, while somebody with another preference "is" a different thing, is worse than useless. To speak of "gays" is meaningful only in the sense that speaking of "blacks" is meaningful -- it describes the fact that the larger society walls off certain people into those categories and treats them differently. It doesn't accurately describe the underlying reality.

The fact is that every one of the seven billion humans on Earth is an individual, each one with a slightly different combination of some of the thousands of identity-categories we've devised to classify ourselves. No person is purely one thing. There is no singleness of identity.


Holte Ender has a roundup about the city from which the Pilgrims sailed. Darwin, too, set out from there.

Headline of the week

24 November 2009

The self-pwning wingnut

The forces of global-warming denialism seem to be in the process of engineering a major embarrassment for themselves.

A few days ago, hackers stole a large amount of data from the computer networks of University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, including numerous internal e-mails. The denialists have pounced on some locutions in some of these e-mails as evidence that the researchers had faked data related to global warming in the past. In fact, it seems to be mostly a matter of laymen misun-derstanding the way scientists use terminology, and in one case mistaking an e-mail about how to draw a graph based on data for manipulation of the data themselves. For more, see reports from Nate Silver (found via Andrew Sullivan), MediaMatters (found via Oliver Willis), and RealClimate (update: more here).

Of course, even if there had been deliberate faking of data at the CRU (fraud does happen in science -- see the 2005 Hwang stem-cell fiasco in South Korea, for example), it would no more have undermined the whole scientific basis of anthropogenic global warming than the Piltdown Man hoax undermines the whole scientific basis of evolution. The denialists are making fools of themselves. Nevertheless, we're not exactly dealing with people who are skilled at assessing the real significance of evidence. As one of Oliver Willis's commenters puts it:

Awesome. There will never, ever be another debate about climate change that doesn’t begin and end with a conservative moron saying “It’s all faked! The emails proved it!” We're all doomed.

Well, it's probably true that the CRU e-mails will join the list of denialist talking points that keep getting trotted out over and over no matter how often they're debunked, just as the creationists keep on and on dragging out irreducible complexity and the second law of thermodynamics. But this seems unlikely to sway anyone who wasn't fooled by their other talking points all along. For everyone else, this little incident will be remembered, if at all, as just one more case of the gullibility of anti-science ideologues when they run across something they think tells them what they want to hear.

22 November 2009

The reluctant fundamentalist

Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer (2007)

I'm not surprised that Frank Schaeffer achieved success as a novelist; he has a knack for making characters come to life on the page. In this quasi-autobiography, the "characters" include most prominently his own parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer.

Frank (since three people to be mentioned share the same last name, I'll use first names for clarity) grew up in unusual circum-stances at L'Abri, a sort of colony of American fundamentalists in Switzerland presided over by his parents. Edith was completely dedicated to "the work", looking upon even Frank and her other children largely as future missionaries to reach the unsaved; she also had a curious obsession with social respectability and refinement, as if to serve as a one-woman refutation of the fundamentalist-as-crude-hick stereotype. Francis was clearly a very complex person whom, perhaps, no one truly knew; a man whose rigidly conservative theological beliefs eventually closed off other directions in which he could have developed.

Over time, Francis's ideas became an important influence on the formation of the Christian Right in the United States. Frank thus had an intimate view of the birth of one of the most powerful and frightening ideological movements in American history.

Despite his status as one of the founding fathers of modern-day fundamentalism, Francis was far from being the kind of bigot we associate with the movement today. He was accepting toward homosexuals (regarding them as sinful, but no more so than anyone else) and declared that he would have no objection if any of his children chose to marry someone of a different race -- and he expressed those views in the 1950s and 1960s, when they were not common even in secular American society. He supported the hippie movement, agreeing with its critique of the stultifying conformist culture of the day, though he thought that the hippies had no coherent ideas to put in its place and would end up turning to Jesus. He was even unenthusiastic about the anti-abortion movement until Frank (ironically) goaded him into taking a harder line. And he was sometimes tormented by deep doubts about the path he had chosen; Frank opines that he might eventually have abandoned fundamentalism, had he not painted himself into a corner by becoming one of its leaders. Later, as the movement became dominated by such hard-line totalitarians as Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, Francis was actually horrified at the monster he had helped to create.

Francis died of cancer in 1984. Under Edith's direction, his funeral was staged as a horrifically vulgar fundamentalist "trade show", one more opportunity to advance "the work".

Frank himself eventually left the movement, unable to stomach its hypocrisy and intolerance. He tried to launch another career directing movies in the secular film industry, only to find that industry to be phony and superficial -- it was all about money and people's egos, not about making good movies. There's an obvious parallel there with the fanatical yet superficial culture of Christian fundamentalism.

Frank eventually found success as a novelist, and today he has become prominent on the political left, sounding warnings about the threats posed by the Christian Right whose character he knows so much better than those of us who have lived all our lives in the secular world -- I've linked to some of these warnings on this blog. He's not sympathetic to atheists and his most recent book (which I haven't seen) sounds like partly an attack on atheism. But Crazy for God is valuable as a very readable foray into the nature of the fundamentalist mind and, frankly, because it humanizes people of a kind we generally have every reason to fear and hate.

Crazy for God was quite difficult to find. I had to visit several boostores before I found a place which had it -- and even then, the sole copy was in storage in the back, not out on the shelves. I don't know what that signifies.

Frank Schaeffer's official website

Francis Schaeffer's Wikipedia article

21 November 2009

Ich muß hungrig sein

Earlier I linked to a couple of music videos by Nina Hagen. Here are a few more samples of the unique Ms. Hagen's work.

Antiworld: From her Jesus period. The video is a collection of images from many performances.

Zarah: A conventional treacly love song, Hagenized.

Auf'm Friedhof (At the Cemetery): Her vampire song. Gott ist tot!

Herman ist high: The fate of a junkie.

Pillow Talk: I actually hadn't seen this one before -- thanks to Rita for pointing it out. That's Heino again at the beginning.

Wir leben immer noch (We're Still Alive): The tune is from Lene Lovich's Lucky Number, but the song is completely different.

Auf'm Bahnhof Zoo (At the Zoo Station): Probably best not to explain this one.

Guten Appetit!

Link roundup for 21 November 2009

The happiest country in the world is Denmark (why am I not surprised?).

A new holy water dispenser has some flaws.

Mendip is unimpressed with the new version of The Prisoner. Ron Chusid doesn't like it either.

Middle of Nowhere has the goods on Palin. Zirgar has a question.

Truth Shall Rule compares right-wing visions of femininity and masculinity.

DemWit looks at the political right to lie.

Flibanserin could be the perfect gift for your wife or girlfriend.

Remember this next time you see a conservative scare story about health-care reform.

There's more on the Psalms 109:8 meme at BeliefNet and Politics Plus.

We'll probably be seeing a lot of this guy.

Congressional Democrats face risks in 2010.

After some last-minute nail-biting, NY-23 is really over.

The Republican primary system gives Palin a good chance of being their 2012 Presidential candidate. Read this too.

Most Republican Presidential contenders are creationists.

Republican party identification just looks worse and worse.

Tara McKelvey looks at Bush-administration attitudes towards veterans with PTSD.

391% isn't enough.

If you're not boycotting Mall-Wart yet, read this.

Obama's gone off the bipartisan deep end again.

Putin wades into the world of rap.

Gay marriage has come to South America.

Here's how socialized medicine actually works in five countries.

The Scottish Nationalist Party needs to choose its candidates more carefully.

The Guardian interviews Caspian Makan, boyfriend of murdered Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan.

PZ Myers reviews a debate with a creationist.

The Greenland ice cap is melting faster than ever, now losing 273 cubic kilometers of water per year.

A new "lab on a chip" could diagnose diseases faster and less traumatically.

In a strengthening of school standards, Britain has made teaching evolution mandatory in all primary schools (found via Oliver Willis). Let's hope we'll eventually do the same.

Gizmodo looks at progress in growing human organs in the lab.

19 November 2009

The terrorist specter (2)

A couple of months ago I linked to Frank Schaeffer, former spokes- man of the Christian Right and son of one of the founders of the movement, warning about the rising threat of religious-extremist terrorism from that very quarter.

A new slogan is now making the rounds, merchandised on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and so forth: Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8. To the secularist who doesn't know the Bible and wouldn't be inclined to look up the reference, it looks innocuous enough.

Here is the verse:

Let his days be few; and let another take his office.

The immediately-following verse (109:9) is:

Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.

In case you feel inclined to protect your sanity by telling yourself that this somehow isn't as bad as it seems, here's Frank Schaeffer again (long video -- the relevant part starts at 3:30), who, recall, probably understands the Christian-fundamentalist subculture better than anyone else who isn't still an active part of it.

The real issue here is not incitement to violence. The real issue is the existence of a subculture so engulfed in religious fanaticism and hatred that a slogan like this finds a ready market, and the Obama-as-Muslim/Hitler/Marxist rhetoric of teabaggerdom finds a ready voice. This problem would still exist, and would be just as dangerous, even if there were no such rhetoric being aired.

I've argued before that the fundamentalist subculture in the US is in many ways equivalent to the Muslim minority in Europe. Furthering the parallel, it harbors an inner core of violent "jihadist" elements whose thinking is becoming more and more apocalyptic and dangerous as they see their hopes of eventually dominating and transforming the secular mainstream society slipping away.

The mostly-secular American left has always had trouble taking religion seriously, and constantly struggles to re-interpret the far right in economic or racist terms -- thus missing the point of what remains an essentially religious phenomenon.

We seem to have beaten down the threat of Islamic terrorism, at least for now. The threat of Christian terrorism may be just getting started.

17 November 2009

Renouncing jihad

As a follow-up to my earlier post on how Islam in Europe is being eroded by the growing power of cultural assimilation, here's a must-read article by Johann Hari, illustrating how even some of the very worst -- violent jihadists -- are falling prey to the same phenomenon, at least in Britain. In case after case, men sworn to kill or die for the future global Caliphate gradually realized that the advanced and humane society around them was not the realm of evil they had been taught, while strict-Islamist revolution had brought only cruelty, violence, and backwardness everywhere on Earth where it had succeeded. Now they work against jihadism, using the knowledge gained while they were part of the movement.

It must be said -- which I think Hari does not emphasize enough -- that an important role has been played by tougher state policy against the worst rabble-rousers. Hari notes that the reason why Anjem Choudary now has such a high profile in Britain is that he's the last of his kind; over the last decade all the other major public preachers of jihadism in Britain have been arrested or deported. Without the cabal of fanatical leaders from the nineties to inspire and intimidate, doubt has been able to spread and be expressed among the rank and file.

It must also be said that moderation is not a permanent solution to the threat of Islam in Europe. Moderate and peaceful Muslims certainly exist, but moderate and peaceful Islam is an illusion; the Koran and Hadîth make it clear that the real Islam is the Islam of al-Qâ'idah and the Taliban, and ultimately anyone who still calls himself a Muslim at all must confront this. In the long run only de-Islamization can eliminate the threat. Yet those who recoil from jihadism have at least taken a first step down that road; and if talk of "non-literal" interpretations allows them to renounce violence and work to defeat those who still embrace violence, then even if theologically unsound, it must be considered a practical good.

14 November 2009

Free speech, hate speech

(Updated -- see below.)

This posting at The Swash Zone raises, among other issues, the problem of inflammatory rhetoric which carries a serious risk of inspiring actual violence:

I recently took this a step further on another blog, suggesting that the increasing violence in this country might be related to the increasing level of violent, angry rhetoric and use of shockingly violent images along with the spreading of rumors, lies and innuendo. And, predictably, the first amendment was dutifully trotted out.....

It is one thing to disagree and voice your opinion. It is quite another to spread lies and call for violent action. So, when do we cross the line from first amendment protected free speech to harassment, libel, slander and inciting violence? Or does the first amendment mean that anything goes?

My reaction to this:

Freedom of expression doesn't extend to actual libel and slander, anywhere. All legal systems, not just the American one, are clear on that.

With that one exception, our system wisely gives much broader protection to free expression than most other systems do. In most of Europe there are more restrictive laws about "hate speech", which predictably lead to prosecutions of people for expressing opinions the ruling party doesn't want to hear (critics of Islam get prosecuted, but Muslim preachers who openly call for the murder of Jews and homosexuals are never prosecuted).

The proper response to evil speech is to reply and refute, not to forbid.

Yes, the words of a Glenn Beck or an Anjem Choudary might someday lead a person to commit a terrorist act who, arguably, would not otherwise have done so. We can point this out. We cannot shut them up.

Allowing hateful and extremist speech has bad consequences. Forbidding it would have worse consequences.

Update (15 November 2009): The comment thread at the original post, while interesting and well worth reading, has veered off into Nazi-Germany analogies. (As an aside, it seems that last year's election repealed Godwin's law? Every time Obama does anything whatsoever, the teabaggers and other far-right nutters compare him to Hitler; and this seems to have thrown open the floodgates so that now everybody compares everyone and everything to Hitler.) Much as I despise Beck and his ilk, calling them Nazis is simply un-serious. But without conflating evils of radically-different magnitude, there is a point worth making here.

In Germany of the 1930s, people feared that Communism was so dangerous that they had to go along with restrictions on various freedoms to defeat the threat, as the Nazi party proposed. Many intelligent and well-meaning people agreed with such restrictions. And in fact Communism was a real danger. But submitting to the restrictions was still a bad idea.

Under President Bush, the claim was that Islamic terrorism was so dangerous that we had to accept some restrictions on traditional American freedoms to defeat the threat. Many intelligent and well-meaning people agreed with such restrictions. And in fact Islamic terrorism is a real danger. But submitting to the restrictions was still a bad idea.

Now it seems that many intelligent and well-meaning people are saying that right-wing extremism in the US is such a major threat that we need to agree to restrictions on our traditional freedom of speech in order to defeat it. And right-wing extremism is a real danger. But submitting to the restrictions would still be a bad idea.

My point is, the danger is not necessarily where people in each case think it is, or at least not only where they think it is.

In any case, while the extreme right in this country presents a plausible terrorist threat, it doesn't present a plausible threat of a fascist take-over. Let the Becks and Limbaughs yammer, and fight them with rebuttals, denunciations, boycotts, and the other tools of a free society. If they are silenced by some unconstitutional government action, millions will conclude (perhaps rightly) that they have a point.

Link roundup for 14 November 2009

What if The Matrix had been a Russian silent movie? (Found via Mendip.)

Here's what a fundamentalist-dominated world would look like.

Teabaggerdom is tearing itself apart in bitter and hilarious internal feuding. Read the comments too -- some of them are priceless.

Three videos tell the full story of Fox News's already-notorious insertion of film from another rally to exaggerate turnout at the recent teabagger event in Washington. Well, Fox needs to keep the teabaggers convinced that they're the majority.

This may be the most unfortunate company name ever.

Former Republican Marty Beckerman discusses his recovery.

Jane Goodall understands primitive, dangerous primates.

Rupert Murdoch has a brilliant plan to destroy his own media empire.

There's blatant abuse of police power going on in Chicago.

Health insurers are paying good money for votes against reform.

It's not "elitist" to point out that the teabagger movement is dumb.

NY-23 was just one case of fundamentalist meddling in politics.

Republican lies about health-care reform are debunked here.

David Frum argues that American conservatives can learn from British ones.

Part 3 of Jack Jodell's progressive manifesto, on foreign policy and national defense, is up.

So long as both political parties refuse (except under enormous public pressure) to do anything serious to protect the American people from illegal immigration and "free trade" scams, there will be a real risk of something like this.

Anti-incumbent sentiment is rising (isn't it always?). Surprisingly, data suggest that unemployment has little effect on mid-term elections -- but the Democrats better get health care fixed and give us a reason to vote for them.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is a target in the purge of moderates. Here's why.

Dan Savage discusses what marriage really means today. The governor of Rhode Island has no clue.

A mother of twins explains why she left the hypocritical Catholic Church.

Against atheist-bashing, Black Sun Journal bashes back.

An ex-Muslim teenager is fighting in the courts to avoid being sent back to her Muslim family, and the legal system appears to not quite grasp the issue, with one Florida agency reporting that "she believes Islamic law dictates she must be put to death for her abandonment of the Islamic faith." Wrong. It is an objective fact that Islamic law dictates this, whether or not she personally has been threatened yet.

Unregulated capitalism has little support in most major countries. Majorities almost everywhere take the middle-way view that capitalism is not "fatally flawed" but needs "regulation and reform".

A survey showing that Oklahoma high-schoolers are woefully ignorant was faked (found via Oliver Willis).

An American living in London posts "10 things I've learned about the Brits".

The latest source of America-is-in-decline blather is a crackpot ex-KGB man.

The AMA supports legalizing medical marijuana.

PZ Myers answers ten stupid questions from creationists.

German researchers are using computers to produce metal "bone" implants whose internal structure matches real bones.

Blogroll trim (2)

Papamoka has signed off from blogging, and unfortunately not for such an agreeable reason as Vamp had. The recession has been tougher on him than on most of us.

In the posting below, I noted the importance of recognizing that not all conservatives are crazy. In that spirit, I'm adding the Frum Forum, David Frum's site. Again, when I talk about rational conservatives, I don't mean people who could be mistaken for liberals. Frum is a conservative. But he's not a nutcase, and he's repeatedly stuck his neck out to call on fellow conservatives to renounce the nutty stuff (like the Obama-was-born-in-Kenya fantasy) which is wrecking their movement.

I'll be continuing to review the blogroll -- in general, if a blog has gone more than a month without a new post, I assume it's gone inactive. I'll be adding some recent new discoveries, too.

13 November 2009

Against jihadism -- consistently

Charles Johnson, one of the founders of the rightist blogosphere, has recently become increasingly disillusioned with the rising tide of crackpot ideas and paranoia within conservatism. In this short interview, he explains what drove him away:

But the main reason I can’t march along with the right wing blo-gosphere any more, not to put too fine a point on it, is that most of them have succumbed to Obama Derangement Syndrome. One “nontroversy” after another, followed by the outrage of the day, followed by conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, all delivered in breathless, angry prose that’s just wearying and depressing to read.

He doesn't shy away from identifying the real crux of the problem:

I’ve never been on board with the anti-science, anti-Enlighten-ment radical religious right. Once I began making my opinions known on issues like creationism and abortion, I realized that there just wasn’t very much in common with many of the bloggers on the right.....I think the Republican Party has a serious deficiency of real ideas, and the few popular ideas they do have are about pandering to the religious right and regulating private morality: abortion, gay marriage, etc.....In fact, in my opinion this is one of the main problems with the conservative movement today – the dominance of the religious right, which seeks to impose its own narrow belief system on the entire country.

Johnson was originally motivated to take up blogging by the September 11 attacks and the very real jihadist threat to Western civilization, but evidently came to realize that there also exists another religious-extremist threat to the values of the civilization -- one from within.

It's worth reading the whole interview. Never forget that there are rational conservatives out there, even if they are currently being shouted down and "purged" by the theocratic totalitarians and reality-deniers who have taken over the right.

Random stuff

I wish the teabagger movement had chosen something other "tea party" to denote itself. I like tea.

Normal beards are OK, but I hate those thin-layer-of-scraggle ones which have become common in the last few years, that look like the person just forgot to shave for three days or so. It's a slob look, no matter what the clothing.

One of the weirdest and saddest things that I've discovered via the internet is that there actually exist people who are offended by the sight of a woman breast-feeding a baby in public. Some of the same people think it's perfectly OK to smoke a cigarette in public.

When I visited Kiev I noticed that in general people dress better there than here. In particular, nobody was wearing white shoes with dark clothing. In fact, nobody was wearing white shoes.*

Libertarianism and Marxism paradoxically share the same flaw -- they reduce everything important to a matter of economics.

Some teabaggers once tried to test us. We ate their Hoffman with Scozzafava beans and a nice Chianti.

*Note: I am not a scold about clothes. Recently the office where I work introduced a dress code. All the employees hate it, but I was the only one to write a formal letter of protest to the division head against the idea.

12 November 2009

Historical vignette 4: the deadly armistice

Veteran's Day marks the date of the armistice which ended World War I on 11 November 1918. The armistice did not take effect until 11:00 AM that day because Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French commander-in-chief, wanted the war to end at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Fighting continued up to 11:00 AM even though it had been known for six hours that the war was effectively over, and even though during the negotiations three days earlier (when all that was still in doubt was the terms of Germany's surrender) German chief negotiator Matthias Erzberger had begged Foch to stop the fighting immediately. Thousands of soldiers died for nothing because combat continued up to the artificial 11-11-11 stopping point.

11 November 2009

Historical vignette 3: the Athenian murder

This story may be completely apocryphal. It's just something I read many years ago.

The story goes that once, in ancient Athens, a famous and popular citizen was murdered. The person who killed him was a nonentity, a nobody. His motive was the belief that, if he killed somebody important, his name would always be remembered, even if it was only for the notoriety of his crime.

He was tried and convicted, and his punishment took his motive into account. As part of his sentence, the people of Athens agreed among themselves that they would never mention the murderer's name, and that it would never be written down anywhere.

The sentence had its intended effect. The murderer's name was not recorded. It is now utterly forgotten and unknown.

It's in the same spirit, and because of my disgust at the way some people fetishize "famous" serial killers as quasi-celebrities, that I always refer to "the Fort Hood gunman" or to "the murderer of Dr. George Tiller" or suchlike. I prefer not to use their names. It's only the victims who deserve to be remembered.

And all I have to say about this is: good riddance to bad rubbish.

10 November 2009

In Florida, the fragmentation begins

As previously adumbrated, hard-line conservatives have begun officially supporting Marco Rubio against relatively-moderate Republican (and suspected closet homosexual) Charlie Crist to become the party's candidate for Florida's open Senate seat next year, though polls show Rubio less likely to win than Crist against a Democratic opponent.

As if that weren't enough, the "Tea Party" has now been registered as an official third party in Florida (found via Oliver Willis).

Stock up on popcorn -- and let a hundred NY-23s bloom!

09 November 2009

Half a loaf

In response to some of the criticism of the House bill that I'm seeing around the net:

Yes, it is far from perfect. It won't extend coverage to all citizens (though getting from 85% to 96% is important). It puts hurdles in the way of covering abortion. It restricts only some, not all, of the abusive practices of the insurance industry. It doesn't do enough, directly, to control costs. Mandates will funnel even more money to insurance companies, at least for a while. Only a small fraction of the population will be eligible to choose the public option.

But what's the alternative? The closeness of the vote on Saturday shows that reformists couldn't have pushed things much further. A lot of seats in both Houses are held by people who, whether due to ideology or due to money from the insurance industry, want no reform or only very limited reform. This is a fact and we are stuck with it. The House bill is the best we could realistically get.

If we can't get this finally enacted (and the Senate fight will be tougher), that won't mean Congress goes back to the drawing board and comes up with something better, any more than the defeat of reform under President Clinton meant that. It will mean we're stuck with the lethal and unsustainable status quo.

If it passes, we'll have achieved something. Fewer people will be dying. The public option will be a reality. People will have the real system in front of them, to compare with the scare stories the right has been using to whip up fear, and the lies will be exposed. If the public option does a better job than private insurance, then political pressure will grow to make more people eligible for it, and competition will start to drive costs (and insurance-industry profits) down. A limited but successful reform will change the political climate to make further reform possible later.

You can't always get everything you want right away. You have to get what you can and build on it. If you insist on all or nothing, you're likely to get nothing. All-or-nothing thinking is how the Republicans managed to lose a safe Congressional seat in NY-23.

The fact that the insurance industry has spent so much money trying to stop this is the best evidence that it is worth doing. They aren't stupid. They're looking several moves ahead. If they didn't know that this reform has the potential to curb their abuses and their power eventually, they wouldn't be so concerned about it.

Update (10 Nov.): Read this too.

08 November 2009

Getting the job done

The House of Representatives has passed a health-care reform bill with a public option (link sent by Ranch Chimp). The much more difficult task of getting something worthwhile through the Senate still lies ahead, but still, this is an achievement to celebrate.

It's not perfect. It will supposedly extend coverage to about 96% of Americans (so we still can't simply cover all citizens like every other developed nation does). Abortion coverage is restricted to satisfy a passel of conservative Democrats. But it's far better than what we have now. If finally enacted, it will save thousands of lives. And we're much better off getting an imperfect reform that can be improved later than insisting on everything up front and not being able to pass it at all.

The margin of passage was narrow, but that's a good thing, not a bad thing. It suggests that what we got here is probably the best we could get. Every additional vote would have been won at the cost of some concession or other. Winning by a small margin is still winning.

There's more on the bill (and on right-wing reactions) at Politics Plus and Reconstitution 2.0.

On patroll -- coming soon to a blog near you!

There seems to have been quite a surge in right-wing troll activity recently. There's always been some of it on Helloooo Mr. President and Our Rants and Raves, to take a couple of examples almost at random. There's another infestation at Who Hijacked Our Country, though I only recently started reading that blog and I'm not sure how new the trolling is. Recently the same erupted at The Middle of Nowhere, including this post, which was particularly annoying since I was especially interested in the topic. I can't prove it, but it seems like I'm seeing more and more of this around the net.

The goal is to distract and overwhelm, to disrupt conversation rather than participating in it. Personal attacks and change-the-subject comments are common, as are long cut-and-paste screeds and mindless recital of talking points.

I'm not sure what the point is, or why now specifically -- trying to disrupt grassroots organizing in support of health-care reform, maybe? Nor why some bloggers choose to tolerate it -- perhaps a misunderstanding of freedom of speech? (They have a right to express their views, but they don't have a right to do it on your blog. Free expression means I can put a lawn sign on my lawn, not on yours.)

Not every different view constitutes trolling, of course. See for example here -- "Lonni" didn't insult anyone, try to change the subject, cut-and-paste a bunch of generic talking points, or start an interminable back-and-forth argument, but just defended a contrary opinion. What's going on in the threads linked above is something very different.

I know a lot of people don't like comment moderation, but this is why I use it.

Blogroll trim

Vamp has signed off. She has a good reason, but I hate to lose a fellow vampire fan. Anyway, the link list is getting a long-overdue trim. I may prune a few more sites that have gone inactive.

07 November 2009

Violent religion

Zirgar asks:

I can't help but wonder if the people who are making a deliberate and concerted effort to point out that the Ft. Hood gunman is a Muslim also highlighted the fact that Dr. Tiller's killer is a Christian? Have any of them ever taken the time to condemn the religion of any other of this country's many mass murderers, assuming any of the other killers were religious?

A fair point. I'll bite:

Most murderers, presumably, believe in some religion or other to some extent. In most cases, that religion has very little to do with their motivation for the murders they commit.

Based on available evidence, the Fort Hood gunman was not just a murderer who happened to be Muslim; his Islamic belief -- his jihadist fanaticism -- was the central factor in what motivated him to kill. As I've repeatedly emphasized on this blog, we have seen a lot of violent terrorism by Muslim fanatics against "infidels" over the last couple of decades, and we can expect to see more.

Based on available evidence, the man who killed Dr. Tiller was not just a murderer who happened to be Christian; his Christian belief -- his anti-abortion fanaticism -- was the central factor in what motivated him to kill. As I've repeatedly emphasized on this blog, we have seen a lot of violent terrorism by Christian fanatics against abortion providers and liberals over the last couple of decades, and we can expect to see more.

There's no reason why these points should be taken as conflicting or contrasting; and there's no reason why they shouldn't both be emphasized and highlighted at every opportunity. One can argue about which of the two threats (violent jihadist Islam or violent fundamentalist Christianity) is more dangerous, but ultimately they are similar, not opposite.

Link roundup for 7 November 2009

Visit the huge and entertaining online Museum of Unworkable devices (found via Mendip).

Jon Stewart does Glenn Beck's act better than Glenn Beck.

Still got any of that demon-possessed candy? Here's what to do (found via Rita).

Yes, it is all Bush's fault.

Take that, you butt hurt Science Thumpers!

Help spread the word about this video.

Mr. Charleston has an interesting tale of serving on a mostly-female jury.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Ghlenbek R'epub wgah'nagl fhteabagn! (sent by Mendip).

Privileged Wall Street grandees get the swine flu vaccine ahead of hospitals and high-risk populations.

As unemployment hits 10.2% (finally equalling, if memory serves, the peak rate of the recession of the early 1980s), is the financial sector importing cheap foreign workers to displace Americans?

Bureaucratic blundering in Texas is setting hundreds of violent criminals free (sent by Ranch Chimp).

Obama is like Kennedy, not like Johnson.

Middle of Nowhere has highlights of this week's teabagger event in Washington.

What exactly is Pat Robertson so upsent about?

Looks like Orly Taitz will soon be in more trouble than ever.

Same nuts. Same squirrels.

Media spin notwithstanding, this week's elections were bad news for Republicans -- the party out of power is supposed to gain House seats in off-year elections, not lose them, and the results continue an ongoing pattern of Democratic wins in traditionally Republican turf.

Reconstitution 2.0 has a startling and revealing collection of quotes from Hitler. Keep these for the next time someone claims he was an atheist.

Jack Jodell is working on a "progressive manifesto" to clarify what the left stands for -- give feedback in the comments. Already up: the economy and the role of government.

Traitor. Dachau. Rothschilds. Sambo. Sponsored by top House Republicans.

A Sullivan reader tries to rationally address the teabagger phenomenon.

A conservative military officer reports that Iraq is a cesspit of corrupt.....Americans.

The Catholic Church is reaching out to Anglicans who think their own church isn't bigoted enough. Should we care?

Jacob Weisberg says the victory of freedom is inevitable.

Here's a stunning collection of World War II paintings from the Soviet Union.

Is adultery beneficial?

The internet is not causing people to become socially isolated.

Can't understand when someone speaks to you in a foreign language? By 2011 you'll be able to buy glasses that provide instant subtitles.

05 November 2009

Live by the teabag, die by the teabag (2)

On Tuesday, anticipating that far-right candidate Doug Hoffman would win the NY-23 Congressional race, I said:

If Hoffman wins....the hard right will claim that its strategy -- purge moderates and embrace ideological purity -- has been vindicated (even though this is a low-turnout election in a small, atypical district). And then it will pursue that strategy in 2010 and 2012 -- when it will be doomed among the much larger and more diverse electorates of statewide and nationwide contests.

The actual outcome, from the Democratic viewpoint, is starting to look like the best of both worlds. As we know, Hoffman lost -- but the hard-right element within the Republican party has insisted on learning that self-defeating lesson anyway, without us having to pay the price of Hoffman actually taking a seat in the House. Some right-wingers are proclaiming the NY-23 defeat to be a victory in disguise, bizarrely claiming that it "proves that Republicans can't win without conservatives", whereas what actually happened was that a conservative failed to win (in a district which has been Republican since 1871) without moderate Republicans. They're energized to purge more moderates and get more hard-liners nominated.

The next place to watch here is Florida. The present governor of Florida is Charlie Crist, a Republican who is moderate (at least on environmental and some economic issues), endorsed McCain for the Republican nomination last year, and is widely suspected of being secretly gay, though he is not supportive of gay issues. In 2010, he plans to run for the Senate. While far from liberal, Crist is moderate enough to win office in a culturally-diverse state -- and so he's anathema to the Beck-Limbaugh-teabagger hard-line right, which has found its Florida Hoffman in his more conservative rival Marco Rubio. Polls show Rubio much less likely than Crist to win aganst a Democratic opponent, yet a hard-right groundswell is now building to make Rubio the Republican nominee. Florida -- and many other races -- could be on track for another NY-23-style "conservative victory" next year.

Petits français

For many years jihadists have dreamed, and defenders of Western values have feared, that the Muslim minorities in western Europe would someday overwhelm the indigenous peoples and Islamize the region. Even though Muslim minorities in Europe are not very large (by far the biggest is in France, amounting to 8% of the total population), their higher birth rates and resistance to cultural assimilation led to panicked predictions of future Muslim majorities in some countries, often within absurdly-short time spans.

Paris-based writer Simon Kuper recently took an updated look at this problem, and found a very different picture. First, Muslim minorities in Eruope have not proven immune to the demographic transition which has swept the Third World and more recently arrived even in the Islamic lands:

In Belleville you see women of Arab ­origin pushing prams. But you also see the white French artistic couples who have recently colonised the neighbourhood pushing Bugaboo ­strollers. That Muslims are grinding out babies ready to take over Europe is an outdated canard. The Eurabia authors worry about declining ­European fertility, but in fact the Muslim decline is much sharper. In 1970, women in Algeria and Tunisia averaged about seven children each. Now, according to the CIA World Factbook, they average fewer than 1.8. The French rate is almost exactly two.....At last count Algerian women living in France averaged an estimated 2.57 children, or only slightly above the French rate. Moreover, the fertility rate of north African women in France has been falling since 1981. Eurabia is not a demographic prospect.

(Yes, you read that right -- the fertility rate in Algeria and Tunisia is now lower than the French rate, which mostly reflects the rate of the non-Muslim 92% of France's population.) I have noted this phenomenon before in connection with Denmark (see also here and here). In western Europe as a whole, the indigenous birth rates have crept upward a bit (following a similar pattern to the US a decade or two earlier, where birth rates fell and then rose again, apparently due to career women postponing childbearing), while Muslim birth rates have plummeted. The indigenous and Muslim rates are converging; soon the differences between them will be negligible. Even then, Muslims will produce a disproportionate percentage of the children in each country for a while, because a larger proportion of the Muslim population is in its young-adult child-producing years while the indigenous population is older, but eventually this effect too will disappear.

Even more important and more hopeful is Kuper's second major observation: the Muslim population in western Europe is proving much more susceptible to assimilation than previously thought. Obviously this phenomenon is much more difficult to quantify than birth rates, but the pattern seems clear:

Probably less than 5 per cent of French Muslims attend mosque every Friday.....Farhad Khosrokhavar, director of research at France’s Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, estimates that 15 to 20 per cent of French Muslims do not practise Islam at all......Poverty, not religion, is the main preoccupation of French nominal Muslims, polls consistently show. In a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2006, for instance, 52 per cent of French Muslims said they were “very worried” about unemployment. Only about a fifth said the same about the decline of religion or the influence of pop culture. Few French Muslims profess to care much about foreign political issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.....

Laouati told me her parental home was like a “little Algeria”. But Dreux Arabs younger than her had become “petits français”, she said. “They are much better integrated. They know very little of Maghrebian languages. They all watch French TV. Arab TV would bore them to death.”....Muslims in France consistently report strong identification with France. In a poll in 2005 by the US state department, for instance, 95 per cent expressed a favourable overall opinion of France. In a Gallup poll two years later, 46 per cent of Parisian Muslims said they identified “very strongly” or “extremely strongly” with France – exactly the same percentage as those in the national population.

You need to read Kuper's entire article to get a full sense of what he's talking about. It's clear that religion is still far stronger among European Muslims than among the post-Christian mainstream societies; but it is much weaker than it was among those Muslims' ancestors when they arrived in Europe, and much weaker than the Eurabia alarmists thought it could become. There is a great deal of muddled talk about building an identity "both Muslim and French", but this is a typical transitional phase, comforting to people who are on the way to full assimilation but prefer to believe otherwise. And as Kuper notes, Sarkozy's administration is taking a far more active role in enforcing assimilation than its predecessors did.

The logical end-point of the assimilation process, of course, is de-Islamization -- giving up Islam entirely. This is even harder to quantify, since writers tend to reflexively classify anyone whose parents or grandparents were Muslim as being a Muslim, regard- less of what he actually believes or doesn't believe. Nevertheless, de-Islamization is happening and is even becoming visible, at least in Britain, despite the obvious danger from hard-liners (Islamic law mandates the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam).

None of this is to deny the fact that Islam in Europe presents a real danger. It has brought terrorist attacks, riots, and an upsurge in violent crime in nations where such crime used to be rare (though all these problems seem to have subsided somewhat over the last few years, partly due to crackdowns by exasperated Europeans). Civilized legal systems are being confronted with sick medieval barbarities like honor killings and clitorectomy, and in many cases have been shamefully timid in opposing such things. Militant Muslims are evolving into a social force similar to our Christian Right, demanding official recognition of barbaric religious law and threatening the rights of homosexuals and women, and opposing secularism in general; on this phenomenon, see here and here.

But the demographic tide is turning. Militant Muslims in Europe are shrinking to a hard core of the most assimilation-resistant. Like some militant Christian fundamentalists in the US, they may actually become even more deranged and violent and dangerous as they realize that their dream of becoming the dominant force in society has been irrevocably dashed. European governments must, and probably will, take a far tougher line with them. But they are, and will remain, a manageable problem, not the bringers of the apocalypse.

The point is that Muslims in Europe are reacting pretty much like people from a backward society normally react when they are plunged into a far more advanced and attractive culture; over time they absorb that culture, and are absorbed by it. The process has been slower than with immigrants in the US, partly because Islam makes Muslims resistant to assimilation and partly because European countries lack our experience with large waves of very culturally-different immigrants and are less geared to assimilating them. But in the end the result will be the same.

04 November 2009

The rebellion that will not die

As predicted, protests have re-erupted across Iran today, and the theocracy is again openly at war with the Iranian people. NIAC and Andrew Sullivan are providing frequent updates and video.

The bare face of cruelty and evil

Gay Catholic blogger Andrew Sullivan, disgusted at the defeat of gay marriage in Maine and at the Catholic hierarchy's active role in it, seems to have seen the light about what his church truly is.

Live by the teabag, die by the teabag

[Updated -- see below.]

Contrary to my expectations, yesterday's election sent the Republicans an unambiguous message.

As everyone predicted, Republican Bob McDonnell won the governorship of Virginia. McDonnell had moved away from the Christian Right's "social issues" (a.k.a. theocratic bigotry and control-freakery) and ran on economics and transportation. That proved to be the right strategy for this formerly red, but now increasingly purple, state which is dominated by DC suburbia in the northeast while remaining traditionally Southern elsewhere. I would have preferred to see a Democrat win, but strengthening moderate forces within the Republican party is important as well.

As almost no one predicted, Democrat Bill Owens won in New York's 23rd Congressional district, beating Conservative party candidate (and champion of the Beck-Limbaugh-Fox-teabagger far right) Doug Hoffman even though 5% of the moderate vote was wasted on liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava, who had dropped out. This is in a district Republicans have held since well back into the 19th century.

So the moderate conservative wins in a socially-diverse state, while the far-rightist loses a race he should have won easily. If the Republicans want to pull out of their ongoing decline, the way to do it is as clear as can be.

The biggest disappointment was Maine, whose gay-marriage law appears to have been overturned in a referendum (though the margin was so small it's conceivable that a recount could change the outcome). Yes, it's encouraging that the margin was so small (like in California last year), in a rural state which was flooded with out-of-state money backing the anti-gay side; even a few years ago the result would have been far worse. And yes, it's encouraging that a domestic-partnership law offering most of the rights of marriage won in Washington state. But it's queasy-making to see fundamental rights put up for a vote, even if the right side were to win; it's a reminder that we must never compromise in defending Roe vs. Wade and the First and Second Amendments, to make sure other fundamental freedoms can never be similarly put at risk.

The other big race was the New Jersey governorship; I have no background knowledge of that, but New Jersey bloggers Sue and Hugh Jee may post about it later.

The serious danger is that the governorship losses may scare Congressional Democrats into an even more timid stance on health-care reform. If that happens, more spine-stiffening pressure from the public may be needed.

Oliver Willis reviews the results here -- "the much vaunted Tea Party movement probably just increased Nancy Pelosi’s power by one" -- and notes that this was not about Obama.

Update: Blogger reactions on the election from Sadly No, Jack Jodell, Liberal Values (here too), Attentive Aphorist, Hugh Jee, Sue -- and conservative Roger L. Simon, who "gets it" about NY-23. Andrew Sullivan has a roundup of more mainstream pundits.

What baffles me is all these right-wingers saying that NY-23 "proves that Republicans can't win without conservatives". Um, what actually happened was that a conservative failed to win without moderate Republicans.

03 November 2009

Thought for the day

The elephant is a magnificent and highly intelligent creature, and it seems very jarring to see it being used everywhere to represent the Republican party. The Republicans need to choose a more appropriate animal as a symbol.

After considering various options, I'm thinking they could use that thing that bursts out of John Hurt's chest and spends four whole movies trying to kill Sigourney Weaver. It embodies the themes of unwanted pregnancy carried to term, misogyny, selfishness, mindless violence, parasitic exploitation of humanity, and being alien to anything normal or native to this planet, rather nicely.


One election being held today may have an important impact on the future of the Republican party, even though no Republican candidate is actively running in it.

The 23rd Congressional district of New York state is rural and fairly conservative, though it went for Obama by a narrow margin last November. The Republican candidate who until recently was running in the district, Dede Scozzafava, is a moderate, even liberal by Republican standards; she supports abortion rights and gay rights to an extent, positions which are anathema to the Christian Right which now dominates the Republican base. Besides her Democratic opponent, Bill Owens, she faced a hard-line right-wing challenger, Doug Hoffman, running on the ticket of the minor Conservative party. Major hard-right Republican figures such as Sarah Palin have campaigned for Hoffman over their own party's candidate (Hoffman has been called a "carpetbagger" because he doesn't live in NY-23; this is misleading, but most of his money comes from outside the district, and he's clearly the candidate of the nationwide hard-line right in its battle against what remains of moderate conservatism). Recent polls showed Owens and Hoffman each supported by about 35% of voters, while Scozzafava hovered around 20%.

Over the weekend, Scozzafava dropped out, leaving the race to Owens and Hoffman. She endorsed Owens.

NY-23 has never elected a Democrat, and most analysts expect Hoffman to win easily today (dissenting view here). If he does, the hard right will celebrate -- but it could doom or at least deeply undermine the Republican party's hopes for a comeback.

The party's national support is still declining. This is what pretty much always happens in the US when a party goes too far in the direction of ideological purity and abandons the center (there have been times when it happened to the Democrats too), and yet -- again, just as usually happens in such situations -- among the ideological hard-liners there are those who claim that the party's problem is that it isn't extremist enough, that it needs to be even more purist in order to energize the base. A party's return from the wilderness generally begins when it learns to stop listening to those people and move back toward the center.

If Hoffman wins, it will push that day much further into the future for the Republican party. The hard right will claim that its strategy -- purge moderates and embrace ideological purity -- has been vindicated (even though this is a low-turnout election in a small, atypical district). And then it will pursue that strategy in 2010 and 2012 -- when it will be doomed among the much larger and more diverse electorates of statewide and nationwide contests.

The irony is that the Republicans actually have an example of an effective comeback strategy staring them in the face on this very same election day, provided by one of those larger contests -- the Virginia governor's race. The current Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, cannot run again due to term limits, and polls show that the Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, will almost certainly win -- precisely because he is a relative moderate who has moved away from earlier hard-line positions and can appeal to a more diverse electorate. The whole state of Virginia is certainly a lot more like the US as a whole than one district in upstate New York is.

At a time when their party is on the ropes, you'd think Republicans would be excited at the prospect of picking up a major office now held by a Democrat -- but among those to whom far-right ideology is what really matters, NY-23 has sucked up all the attention, and the wrong lessons will be learned.

01 November 2009

Historical vignette 2: Enrique de Malacca

When the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan reached the East Indies in 1511, he abducted one of the local people, an inhabitant of the port city of Malacca. He wanted this man, who has become known to history as Enrique de Malacca, for his knowledge of the region and of the local Malay language. When Magellan turned back for home, sailing across the Indian Ocean and around the southern tip of Africa toward Portugal, he took Enrique with him.

In 1519, Magellan sailed off in command of another expedition, whose mission was to head south, pass the southern tip of South America, and head west to explore the almost-unknown ocean west of the Americas. He took Enrique with him. In 1521 the expedition reached the Philippines, thus completing the first European crossing of the Pacific. They discovered that Enrique knew the language spoken in the Philippines.

The Portuguese explorers became embroiled in local political conflicts, and Magellan was killed. Enrique took the opportunity to escape, and eventually the Portuguese sailed away.

Since Enrique knew the language spoken in the Philippines, it has been speculated that he was actually Filipino and had traveled from there to Malacca before being captured by Magellan. It's also possible that the Filipinos he was dealing with could speak Malay, which was widely used as a trading language in the region. If he was originally from Malacca, most likely he returned there after escaping from the Portuguese in the Philippines.

Either way, Enrique de Malacca was probably the first human being to circle the Earth.

Historical vignette 1: al-Hâkim in the bazaar

A curious anecdote is told of the eccentric Egyptian Muslim ruler Abû 'Alî Mansûr Târiq al-Hâkim (reigned 996-1021). The story goes that al-Hâkim sometimes used to roam the marketplaces of Cairo, accompanied by a large, hulking slave named Mas'ûd, on the lookout for evidence of crooked dealings by the merchants hawking their wares there. If he discovered a merchant to be engaged in dishonest trade, he would order Mas'ûd to forcibly sodomize the offender right there on the spot. No statistics are available for recidivism rates in eleventh-century Egypt, but the deterrent effect of this practice must have been considerable.

When Congress gets finished with health-care reform and turns its attention to re-regulating our ethically-challenged financial sector in order to discourage a future recurrence of the behavior which precipitated the recent recession, I cannot help but wish that they would at least consider some updated version of al-Hâkim's no-nonsense approach to penalizing economic transgressions. Given the level of public anger at these arrogant miscreants, the idea might prove rather popular.