Today Jesus would be an atheist

The Thinker by Rodin

My new home in Northampton, Massachusetts in some ways is not much different than life in the Washington D.C. region where I used to live. For example, there are plenty of homeless people here too. They are not hard to spot, particularly in downtown Northampton where they beg for spare change. I also see them at traffic intersections with cardboard signs saying they are down on their luck (usually ending in “God bless”) and a Styrofoam cup. Some of these people look familiar. They look a lot like me if I had been less fortunate.

Perhaps giving them some spare change is love, but it’s a minute measure of the love they need. There are lots of people who end up as at least temporary road kill, curiously often found next to roads. There are some social services for them, but not much. Mostly these services make their lives a little less bleak for a while. Rarely do they help transform these sad people the way a caring and loving society should.

My friend from childhood Tom has a podcast. Regular readers will recall I recently attended his father’s funeral. In fact, Tom once interviewed me. Tom is a talented creative artist currently scratching out a living in advertising by doing freelance work. But he also podcasts and helps support online progressive radio. In his last podcast, Tom conversed with Jeff Bell, who hosts his own podcast, The Left Show. Jeff’s show is a raucous, freewheeling, frequently hilarious but very bawdy weekly endeavor that is also surprisingly entertaining. In Tom’s latest podcast, I learned at Jeff has his friend Forrest (alias Podcast Phil) living in his home with him.

I have not been listening to The Left Show long enough to recognize Forrest’s voice. In the podcast I learned that Forrest has stage-four prostate cancer. Jeff and his wife were kind enough to let their very sick and destitute friend live with them until he dies. I learned that Jeff, very financially stressed himself, was hunting the Internet for donations so that when Forrest dies they can cover his end of life expenses and have him cremated. Yes, you can still die in America and there is no guarantee anyone — not even the government — will pick up the bill even for a cremation. I guess that would be socialism or something.

I felt appalled of course and contributed $50 toward his future cremation. During the podcast Tom contributed his own story of his father’s decline and fall. His father was lucky in the sense that by being a World War II veteran a local veterans’ home took him in at no charge. Tom comes from a large family but all have their financial challenges. Tom’s father never bothered to create a will and was basically destitute too. The family was at least able to scrape up enough money to have their father cremated, but a coffin and a cemetery plot were simply unaffordable.

Until I listened to the podcast, I had not learned another part of the story. Tom’s father was a long time member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Binghamton, New York. I attended his father’s funeral and it was very well done. A number of priests celebrated mass and reminisced about their time with Tom Sr., who was popular at the church, extremely Catholic, extremely Irish, and extremely Notre Dame (the university where he got his engineering degree). The funeral included a cantor and a luncheon for family and friends after the service. Aside from being destitute though, Tom’s family shared something in common with Forrest. St. Pat’s wanted money for the privilege of sending him off to the next world in the Catholic way. Apparently, all those years of Tom Sr. tithing money to the Catholic Church was not quite enough for a freebee funeral. There was also an exit fee for the family to pick up.

This surprised me but my surprise quickly turned to disgust. What did Jesus call the moneychangers at the temple? Jesus saw them as desecrating the temple. It made such an impact on early Christians that it appears in all four gospels. Two thousand years later, at least at some Catholic churches, charging money for service rendered is routine. It happens in the very church that Jesus himself founded.

Catholics are not alone in this grubby business. Mormons must tithe 10% of their income, although I don’t know enough about Mormons to know if they close the door on you at services if you don’t pay up. I read that Jews don’t require tithing anymore, but some practices like selling tickets for a seat on high holy days leave me revolted.

Churches, synagogues and I’m sure mosques have bills to pay too, so perhaps I should not be surprised they charge fees in addition to depending on donations. St. Pat’s is a big, honking Catholic Church. I can understand charging for certain services like a minister’s fee for a wedding when the participants are not members. That wasn’t the case with Tom Sr. A truly Christian community would certainly send off one of its most devout, popular and loyal members without charging an exit fee, right? You would be wrong.

I hear all the time that we live in a Christian country. While we are free to practice the religion of our choice, for many of the devout Christianity is our state religion. Well, I’ve got news for these people. Christianity is not our state religion. It’s Capitalism and it’s so much a part of our values that it’s built into our religious institutions too. It’s why most Christians in our country have little in common with Jesus Christ.

Perhaps due to the kindness of strangers or the beneficence of government some of our many distraught and uncared for people will get some escape from their misery. But while the services we do provide may seem like a lot, it is but a droplet of water to a thirsty man. It’s not nearly enough. Our tacit message to the poor like Tom Sr. and Forrest is that you have to throw the dice and hope on the kindness of strangers, and the kindness you get is likely to be meager if you get it at all. Tom Sr. got it from being a veteran. Forrest is getting it thanks to the beneficence of Jeff and his wife. Otherwise he would probably be on the street too, dying of prostate cancer in some back lot or hovel.

By the way, Jeff is an atheist in the predominantly Mormon state of Utah. No one from the state of Utah or the Mormon Church seems interested in making Forrest’s exit from this life humane, perhaps because I believe Forrest is an ex-Mormon and thus an apostate.

Apparently, it takes an atheist and the kindness of people on the Internet to see real Christianity at work these days. Which is why I suspect that if Jesus walks among us today, he is probably an atheist. Who could blame him?

Free speech has limits

The Thinker by Rodin

If freedom is not free then last week’s terrorist incidents in Paris by Islamic terrorists proves that free speech is not free either.

In the unlikely event you were away from the news the last week, sixteen people including four French Jews and one Muslim policeman were murdered by Islamic terrorists in two incidents in and around Paris. The resulting shock and outcry has predictably led to more security in France. It also caused an impressive rally yesterday that brought about one and a half million protesters into the streets of Paris. The protesters shouted that they would not be intimidated by these incidents.

The primary attack occurred at the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Three terrorists with automatic weapons quickly killed twelve people and wounded many others. Many of those killed were cartoonists that drew what most reasonable people would call patently offensive cartoons, far beyond what is depicted even in edgy publications here in the United States. In fact their offices had been attacked years ago for publishing cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammad. Four Jews were also killed in a subsequent attack at a kosher market near Paris on Friday.

Free speech is only possible in a culture where its underlying population is civilized enough to not take violent action when the hear or read what they perceive as grossly offensive and/or blasphemous speech. No such society actually exists, which means that incidents like these are bound to happen from time to time. They are more likely when terrorist organizations and states proliferate and their ideology gains traction within free societies. French citizens were of course outraged but no one was particularly surprised. The only real question was why something of this magnitude had not happened earlier in France.

Perhaps you have heard of this saying: if you are playing with fire, expect to get burned now and then. Charlie Hebdo had already played with fire and had gotten burned and it continued to pay with fire. It indiscriminately and most would say offensively satirizes people and groups from all sides of the political spectrum. Creating outrage was how it makes money. It is a profitable niche. It was also what they felt called to do.

Unsurprisingly I don’t get the violent reaction by Islamic extremists to what they perceive as the blasphemy of making cartoon depictions of Mohammed. In reality, even free speech is not entirely free of consequence, certainly not here the United States and in particular not France, which has very un-free and discriminatory laws that target Muslims in particular, such as requiring Muslim women not to wear their head scarves. The cartoon of a Muslim (it was not clear to me that it was supposed to be Mohammad) that seems to have triggered this attack was offensive to me (and I am not a Muslim) because it belittled and stereotyped a religion by depicting it as wildly different than what it actually is, in general. It would be like a cartoon that portrayed the pope as a child molester or the president as a cannibal. At best it was in very bad taste. It really spoke much more about the Charlie Hebdo than it did about Islam. While Charlie Hebdo tends to be nondiscriminatory in its satire, most of its work tends to be stuff that the vast majority of people at least here in the United States would consider beyond the pale. If it had an equivalent in the United States, most people would not want it on their coffee table. They would not want to be known as someone who read Charlie Hebdo. For the same reason most people would not leave out books of hardcore pornography on their coffee table either.

So freedom of the press is not in practice entirely free of consequence. Those who dare to go too far outside the mainstream are likely to find they will pay a price from time to time. And no government can guarantee that this freedom can be expressed without injury. Risk and freedom go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Unsurprisingly most publishers are somewhere in the middle, and seem to understand that it’s okay to express their opinions but that there are practical limits that if you transgress them then you could pay a price. So we mostly stick to moderation. The New York Times, for example, decided not to publish the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoon. While it had the right to do so, it made a sensible decision that the cost of this right was not worth the possible results of doing so. In some sense then the terrorists won, but the New York Times really made a judgment that was as sound from a business perspective as it was sound as an exercise in common sense. People with common sense will exercise reasonable self-censorship for the sake of overall societal harmony.

Of course there are places, like the Islamic State or areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban where freedom does not exist. Those who live there live in tyrannies. And this is evil because it is also not our nature to spend our life wholly muzzled from honest expression. It’s clear to me that those who perpetrated these crimes would have all of us live in such a state, where only behavior they believe to be sanctioned by God and the Quran would be allowed.

They are hardly alone. Here in the United States there are Dominionists that would turn us into a Christian state. If they had their way the United States would look a lot like the Islamic State, just with a cross as its symbol. There would be a state religion, divorce would not be allowed and homosexuality would be criminalized again. Many of us are pulled toward ideologies that will brook no dissent, perhaps for the feeling of comfort that such certainty brings. For these people, pluralism itself is an enemy and feels threatening. They find comfort and safety only when all people, either willingly or by force, do as they believe is required. Occasionally, as in Paris last week, an irresistible force will meet an immovable object. When this happens it proves to me that absolute free speech is an illusion. In reality, self-censorship is a practical way we maintain a broad general freedom of speech. We should not chase the illusion that all speech should be tolerated or permitted without consequence. It never has been and never will be.

Instead, we should work to create and maintain societies that promote general tolerance and moderation. Those that step too far out of this natural comfort zone don’t necessarily deserve what they get, but reality is likely to provide it anyhow, as happened in Paris last week. There is a natural Darwinism at work among these people. Transgressions outside this natural zone of reasonable taste should be rare, if they occur at all.

What goes around comes around, and unfortunately it came to Charlie Hebdo and Paris last week. My comments certainly are not meant to justify the terrorism that occurred but simply to point out that it can be anticipated in cases like these because the speech is so extreme.

We had best learn to live with it because we cannot really change it.

Death by religion

The Thinker by Rodin

Some years back I wrote about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and how I thought it was not only so much crap but dangerous and thoroughly discredited crap as well. It received some modest attention and still gets regular hits.

There are actually a lot of these addictive ideas that are killing us. Arguably capitalism is one of them but there are many others, including communism, fascism, socialism (in its pure form) and today’s topic: religion. Lots of people, mostly atheists, have been saying for a very long time that religion is harmful. They have lots of history to prove them right, as so many wars and so many millions of people have died because of religious conflicts.

Two related stories in Sunday’s Washington Post brought this home to me. One was the influx of foreign fighters into the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including hundreds of people here in America, to fight a religious war. Related to it was a disturbing article about Anjem Choudary, a Muslim cleric based in London who is a propagandist for the Islamic State. This “state” of course is busy overrunning much of Syria and Iraq not to mention beheading people and selling women into slavery. I zeroed in on this part:

Iraq and Syria, Anjem Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.

“We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam,” says the 47-year-old, calmly sipping tea and looking none the worse for having been swept up in a police raid just days earlier. “That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie — you know, Dr. No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”

In other words, none of this peaceful persuasion that Islam is the true faith crap, but lots of war, death and mayhem to make sure we are all compelled to believe his version of the truth. Christians shouldn’t feel so smug, after numerous crusades not to mention the Spanish Inquisition in which we tried (and failed) to make the infidels (read: Muslims) believe our version of religious truth.

There is not a major religion out there, including Buddhism that has not killed to promote its values, despite doing so is arguably the greatest hypocrisy against their religion possible. All these centuries later, despite our vast knowledge and understanding of history, despite technology and the Internet, large numbers of us are utterly convinced that only their religion is correct. They are so vested in it that they will wreak literally holy mayhem to make sure their religion, and only their religion is the only one anyone is allowed to believe and practice.

It’s quite clear what people like Choudary would do to those of us unenlightened enough not to become Muslims: lop off our heads like they are doing to infidels in Iraq and Syria right now or, if a woman, sell her into slavery. This is, by the way, quite similar to what Columbus did to the natives of Hispaniola shortly after discovering America in 1492, and what Cortez and many other conquerors did to the unenlightened natives of South and Central America as well. Killing infidels with the sword often had the desired effect. The natives were soon proclaiming to believe in Jesus Christ while also working as slaves for their enlightened conquerors. Infidels are going to hell anyhow for refusing to be enlightened, so they might as well be dead, is what passed for their rationalization. Choudary doubtless agrees but worse is working to facilitate the transfer of fighters into Iraq and Syria to spread this sort of enlightenment.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the form of religion is. They all seem to have this fatal flaw, which allows zero uncertainty to come between their religion and their actions. I believe this is because the human species is hardwired toward addiction to memes. And the religious meme is a powerful one: it promises us eternal paradise and the absence of all suffering, forever, in the glory of God if we just do precisely what some people say God wants us to do. People like Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida native, who on May 25 became an American suicide bomber for the cause of Islam. He blew himself up in a Syrian café frequented by Syria soldiers. In his farewell video, Abusalha says:

“You think you are safe where you are in America,” he said, threatening his own country and a half-dozen others. “You are not safe.”

Doubtless he is enjoying paradise now with his 72 virgins. That should satisfy his sexual desires for a while. Or, much more likely, he is simply dead, another pawn cruelly used in a much larger game of pointless chess. Chess is a game and on some horrific level these religious crusades are games too. Games may be won, but winning them doesn’t really change anything. Thanks to conquerors like Cortez and the missionaries that followed him, South and Central America today are suitably enlightened, with Roman Catholicism dominating society there. But it is still as infected with evils as any other religiously “enlightened” state. If you need a recent example, try this one. Or this one.

No religion, no matter how universal, will change the fundamental nature of man. It never has and never will. Choudary and Abusalha are ultimately playing the parts of fools, helping to feed chain reactions of generational war, death, trauma and suffering wholly at odds with the religion they proclaim will solve these problems. The religious meme – the notion that one size of religion can and must fit all – that has been proven over and over and over almost to the point where you can’t count anymore as fundamentally false and destructive. Religion in this incarnation is harmful to man, creates chaos and retards the enlightenment these people profess it will bring.

I speak as a cautiously religious man. My own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is creedless so perhaps we have earned an escape clause as a toxic religion. Still, my denomination is hardly free of its own very human evils. A previous minister of my church, for example, was sexually involved with a number of women in our congregation (while married), a scandal some thirty years in our past that still affects our behavior. But Unitarian Universalism at least does not proselytize. We don’t assume our religion is the only correct one. This will occasionally drive others nuts. It resulted in some deaths some years back in a congregation in Tennessee, and more recently a very disturbing takeover of a service in Louisiana by some local antiabortion nuts.

So here’s my new rules on religion and I hope it is a new meme we can spread:

  • I will not consider believing in any religion that assumes it has all the answers about the nature of God and how humans must behave
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that thinks it has succeeded when everyone is believing in its version of truth
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that cannot peacefully co-exist with other different faiths
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that has at any time in its past caused religious warfare
  • I will actively do all I can to civilly and peacefully undermine any religion that promotes any of the above
  • I will encourage everyone, including you, who may belong to such a faith to leave it

Such faiths are not worthy of the God you claim to worship and are ultimately far more destructive than helpful. Reflect on it. Pray on it. God will tell you it’s true.

 

The path to genuine enlightenment

The Thinker by Rodin

Religious violence is hardly news. Religious violence, such as what is currently going on between Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq, should drive millions of people to atheism. No God worth worshipping could possibly approve of any violence in its name, let alone require us humans to use force and murder as a means of spreading the faith.

Religions though really aren’t so much about God as they are about people. Supposedly the purpose of religion is to draw us closer to God. What’s its real purpose? As best I can tell, its real purpose is the largely futile attempt to calm our restless and flawed human souls, something it does imperfectly at best. Sometimes it does succeed in bring some of us to a higher spiritual or moral plain, but overall its track record is pretty poor and its lessons don’t tend to stick permanently. If I had to pick a number, I’d say it works perhaps ten percent of the time, at least in inculcating permanent behavioral changes for the better. What typically happens is we may get better for a while, but then we revert to doing what we do best: being flawed human beings.

It’s worse than that because we all have certain imperfections and angsts, which means that we will be drawn toward religions that accentuate these issues within us. What a lot of us really crave is absolute certainty in an uncertain world, and most religions offer that. You just have to find the religion that most closely aligns with your imperfections and predispositions. But mostly, as I first pointed out a long time ago, we tend to be drawn to the religions we were born into, if any. If we are going to stay with a religion, it will be with one that has the comfort of familiarity and the sanction of our parents.

If you live in Iraq, it’s almost certain that you are a Muslim, but alas what kind of Muslim is what is far more important. Both Shi’ite and Sunni believe there is only one God: Allah. Great, you would think that would make religious life pretty simple. But instead they are arguing, and have been arguing and killing each other for more than a millennium and about something that really doesn’t matter. This is: when Mohammad died, did he intend for the religion to be dynastic (what the Shi’ites believe) or not (what the Sunnis believe). ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is busy killing Shi’ites in areas it has conquered, but really anyone, including Sunnis, that don’t or won’t tow the line on their extreme and puritanical version of Islam.

I’d accuse them of channeling George W. “You are either with us, or against us” Bush except of course both sects have been doing this far longer than our last president has been alive. It’s a cycle of violence that shows no sign of ever being extinguished. Neither side will ultimately prevail. As best I can tell, the only way to really kill this cycle of violence is for everyone Muslim to simply abandon the faith. That doesn’t seem likely.

Of course it’s not just the Muslims that can’t get along with each other. Protestants and Catholics have been murdering each other for centuries. Even before Protestantism emerged, Christianity was rife with religious persecution. My particular religion is Unitarian Universalism. Early in Christian history, the Trinitarians ruthlessly persecuted the Unitarians. The Unitarians (very sensibly I believe) concluded that the notion of God in three parts (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) made no sense whatsoever, so they were killed or persecuted for their heresy. They eventually sought refuge in what is now Romania and Hungary. Within Protestantism, various denominations persecuted minority denominations. The Pilgrims that helped form the United States was but one of them.

The general problem is that humans don’t deal well with people that don’t conform to their beliefs. Of course it’s not just religious beliefs, but all sorts of arguably weird stuff like whether gays should get married or the limits of government that foment our intolerance. It seems we are born to factionalize, and leaders of our factions assume leadership because they have learned the art of persuading followers that their beliefs are the only correct ones.

Given all of this, why wouldn’t you want to be an atheist? Why wouldn’t an atheist go out and evangelize? Curiously, die-hard atheists imitate the tactics of die-hard theists. Mostly what you hear is, “God is total bunk, a fairy tale, just Santa Claus for adults” and they will argue endlessly why this is so with their scorn clear in their voices. They tend to lampoon the religious as intellectually flawed sheep.

Atheism has always struck me as just proselytizing of a different sort. What is the track record of atheism? Does it make for a better world? While the jury is out, we do have the example of the Soviet Union, which was basically an atheist state, not to mention communist China. Its leaders did a wretched job of managing the country or even making socialism work. So I am skeptical that if we were all atheists and that they were in charge that we would end religious violence. For atheism has all the hallmarks of a religion, including its dogmatic certainty, just without God at its center. I am convinced that if we were all atheists, we would find reasons to beat the heads of other atheists. We haven’t seen much of this yet probably because they have not evolved into a large enough force. I can see splits between dogma-driven atheists, who might forbid the teaching of religion, from humanistic atheists.

So the larger problem is not religion per se, but the dogmatic nature of our species in general. We find comfort in being with people like us, be it culturally, racially or spiritually, but it seems best to us when it is all of the above. And all this is because to make sense of our world we have to discern clear patterns, even where they don’t exist clearly and even where the differences really don’t mean anything. We actually worship the necessity of patterns that we can slavishly follow, not God. I contend that the crux of the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite are trivial. And yet century after century they keep killing each other because of their need for certainty and comfort. They seem ill equipped to expand their thoughts to the larger notion that we are all brothers.

So, to channel Bill Maher, I propose a New Rule: put kindness toward all ahead of your religious faith or lack thereof. Realize that our various faiths and beliefs, while often helpful and insightful to those who practice those faiths and beliefs, are not the most important aspect of their lives or of our lives. Our most critical virtues need to be kindness, openness and an understanding that we really all are one.

It’s hard to practice and obviously I am not a saint in this matter. It’s hard for even me to see that the divide between Democrats and Republicans is not as wide as I think. However, if I can practice open listening and tolerance, I am likely to be heard and acknowledged by the other side. And open hearts should open doors of communications and facilitate enlightenment in general. So I too must practice looking and emphasizing for those things that I have in common with people unlike me. I need to practice dialog with people like this, dialog that is respectful and healing.

This, I think, is the path to real enlightenment.

The Great Muslim War and what the United States should do about it

The Thinker by Rodin

I was with a group of people discussing politics last night. Principally, we talked about the war in Syria and what the United States should do, if anything. It’s a sticky widget, all right. I don’t envy President Obama’s role as The Decider of this problem. The more we talked about it the more we came to consensus that there is no way to impose peace on Syria at all.

Syria of course is hardly alone in being embroiled in war and sectarian conflicts across the Muslim world. Sectarian violence in Iraq resulted in more than a thousand deaths in May. We haven’t seen this level of violence there in a long time, like since 2006 when our forces were embroiled in the worst of it. Pakistan is rife with a mixture of sectarian and religious violence. In Afghanistan the Taliban are getting more serious again about waging war there. In Lebanon, Hezbollah apparently finds supporting Syria’s President Assad more important than waging war against Israel, and has entered the conflict there. In Egypt, their new democratic government seems autocratic and large-scale violence flares up periodically. In Yemen, the government and elements of al Qaeda duke it out periodically. In the Sahara Desert, al Qaeda temporarily overran Timbuktu, only driven out when French forces came to Mali. In Nigeria, Muslims periodically burn Christian villages and often kill the Christians within them. Iran is not directly at war with anyone, but feeds conflict in Syria and probably in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Muslim extremists periodically wage attacks against Christians in the Philippines. It seems like pretty much the whole Muslim world is at war, or aiding and abetting a war. Of course that’s not literally true. It’s not true in Indonesia, at least at the moment and places like Saudi Arabia are largely free of conflict. Even Turkey is getting civil strife, and it has a well-established democracy. Of course it also has periodic flare ups with ethnic Kurds.

Subtract out conflicts in Muslim countries though and the world otherwise looks pretty darn peaceful. Muslim related religious and ethnic violence however is almost global and scope, reaching from the Philippines in the east to Timbuktu in the west, from former Soviet Republics in the north to the savannas of Uganda in the south. Almost all of it is principally Muslim against Muslim violence. When I consider the scope of the conflict, I feel the need to call it what it is: The Great Muslim War, sort of like World War III. It’s not a world war in the classic sense. There are no clear Axis vs. Allied powers. Except in places like Syria, you usually don’t see tanks and missiles deployed as weapons. It’s mostly Sunni vs. Shia violence, but even within these major branches of Islam there are many ethnicities battling it out. It’s all a huge and confusing mess. Which leads to some questions that I will try to answer in my typical macro-thinking way.

How will this all play out? Most likely it’s going to be a series of decades-long conflicts with few clear winners and losers. In general, those with better armies and more fanatical followers will do better than those without. It’s giving President Assad in Syria the upper hand there at the moment. The most likely effect will be the continued Balkanization of the Muslim world, with communities becoming more polarized by religious and ethnic beliefs. However, given that it is so easy to move between these communities there is no reason to think that as long as one party still has hatred in its soul for the others, it will finish at all.

How will it all end? Again here it is unknown, since each conflict has its own unique elements and animus. It strikes me that it will end slowly when hatred finally gives way to utter exhaustion and simple desire to do something else in life besides wage war. My suspicion is that it really ends when moderates gain control over extremists. The generally apathetic center has to decide, “We got to get rid of these extremists. Every single damned one of them.” And then they do it through various tactics not all of which we will approve of. This process will be long and messy. The overwhelming majority of citizens in a country must decide they will not tolerate it anymore. This will happen while boundaries shift, countries form and reform and the resulting new countries look a lot less diverse than the old ones.

What’s causing it? I don’t claim to be a Muslim scholar, but there are a couple of roots to the problem, some of which are mirrored here in the United States and should be worrisome to us. A lot of it is about religious points 1500 years in the past that really don’t matter and center around whether Muhammad wanted descendants from his family to lead Islam after his death. It’s partly due to the increase in the gap between the privileged and the impoverished. Egypt, for example, cannot support the population that it has, and the plentiful and growing poor lengthen the odds that economic growth can change the dynamic. In general, Egyptians are not ready to accept some unpleasant facts, like they need to stabilize their population to really address long-term poverty. Democracy is a step in the right direction. It provides non-violent means to affect general changes. But it is not necessarily the solution; it just improves the odds of a viable non-violent solution. In implementing a democracy they also get a chance to practice civility toward each other in spite of enormous differences.

What can the United States do? Last night we talked about the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict as a “red line” that suggests we should enter the conflict and impose a peace. We largely agreed that it would be stupid to cross this red line. Drawing an unequivocal moral line in the sand usually makes problems worse, not better. Whether a civilian dies as a result of a chemical weapon or a bullet, they will be dead either way. The numbers who have allegedly died from chemical weapons in Syria is a tiny part of the total casualties. Chemical weapons in general are a terribly inefficient way to kill people. We can certainly continue to provide humanitarian aid. Providing weapons is probably not a good idea. It won’t shorten the violence or really bring peace to Syria, unless peace simply means everyone is dead. Humanitarian aid is of course not a solution, just a bandage, but should be ladled out generously.

In short it’s a mess and will be a mess for a long time, with no deterministic exit criteria. Whether we go into places like Syria or stay out, the most likely effect is we won’t be able to control or really do much to change the situation. These conflicts when looked at in the macro sense simply fall beyond the ability of a superpower, or large entities like NATO, to control the outcome. In the short term, staying out of these conflicts keeps the rest of us reasonably safe. In the long term we may end up embroiled in these conflicts ourselves, whether we like it or not. September 11, 2001 was an example of an event deliberately created to force the United States to get more embroiled in these Muslim-related violent conflicts.

My belief is that these conflicts in general will frame the rest of the lives of all of us, even the babies. In the end these Muslim-on-Muslim conflicts can only be solved by the will and determination of Muslims themselves. All we can really do is be careful not to stir the pot and stay the hell out of their way while they continue to pointlessly kill, maim and hate each other.

No Easy Answers on Islamic Terrorism

The Thinker by Rodin

Perhaps it got your attention on Wednesday when Senator and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama said this about the Pakistani government:

There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

From the back of the Republican pack, on Tuesday representative and presidential nominee Tom Tancredo had this suggestion for what we should do if there is another 9/11 type event:

If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Obama at least tempered his remarks by saying that he would double foreign aid to $50 billion a year, and allocate $2 billion to combat the influence of Islamic madrassas schools and to improve our public relations. These are actions that I support. However, statements like those quoted suggest to me that neither Tancredo nor Obama are ready to be our next president. Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn toward candidates who truly grasp the dimensions and nuances of the terrorist threat. Maybe it is time for me to give money to Senator Joe Biden’s campaign. At least Senator Biden gets it.

There is no question that our erstwhile ally in the war on terrorism, Pakistan’s president and possible dictator for life General Pervez Musharraf, could do a lot more to root out elements of al Qaeda. It, along with the Taliban, controls a rather lawless area of northwestern Pakistan. Osama bin Laden, if he is still alive, is likely living in that remote area. Even if he is not, it is clear that what leadership al Qaeda has is likely concentrated in that area.

The real goal of the United States is to reduce and eventually eliminate Islamic sponsored terrorism. Would capturing Osama bin Laden solve this problem? It probably could not hurt. Certainly, the man deserves to be brought to justice. However, al Qaeda has no centralized leadership. Those who think al Qaeda would go away with his capture or death are likely deluding themselves. Indeed, it could be argued that we are better off with bin Laden alive but on the run than we would be if he were dead. There is no way to know for sure, of course. That is part of the problem. The chessboard we are playing is bafflingly complex. One thing we have learned is that our actions, which often seem entirely reasonable and logical, are often counterproductive. Our invasion of Iraq is a case in point.

If our military were to strike in northwestern Pakistan with a limited but sustained military campaign to root out al Qaeda, what would be the results? It is hard to say for sure but I doubt we would end up safer than we are now. I hope that we would not try to emulate our tactics in Iraq by essentially occupying that part of Pakistan and hoping for its eventual pacification. I hope that if we did go into that lawless area that our mission would be targeted, surgical and we would withdraw after a matter of days or weeks. However, even if we succeeded in finding bin Laden and destroying the nexus of al Qaeda in that area, I doubt we would end up more secure from Islamic terrorism. I think it is much more likely that it would inflame anti-American feelings, already very high in that area of the world. I think it would lead to the recruitment of fresh terrorists to take up their cause. Islamic inspired violence directed against our country would increase rather than decrease.

Osama bin Laden understands all this of course. The reason he chose to attack us on September 11, 2001 was that he knew we would respond with 20th century tactics to a 21st century problem. By doing so, it aided his ends, as the spread of terrorism inspired by al Qaeda since that event demonstrated.

Just as we cannot solve Iraq’s problems through military force, neither can we win the war on terrorism through military force. Iraq’s problems, in the unlikely event they can be solved at all, are political in nature. The same is true with our war on terrorism. This is a political war that is won through succeeding at political tactics.

Obama was half-right by realizing that in order to end terrorism we have to address the issues that feed it. It is much as firefighters create fire lines to stop forest fires. We need to focus most of our resources in the war on terrorism, not by sending occupying troops or selling high tech military hardware to Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, but by working toward political reconciliation and improving the living standards of people in the region. We must replace religious fanaticism, oppression and despair with its most potent antidote: hope.

Principally this means bringing a just and lasting political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will require personal diplomacy, it will require the United Nations, it will require the organizations like the League of Arab States, and it will require any resource that can be brought to bear. While we are doing this, we must invest massively in sound non-partisan non-governmental organizations. We need to use these organizations as proxies to address the poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity that feeds the cycle of violence in that area. It means building schools by the hundreds in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It means creating affordable housing instead of refugee camps. It means building and improving roads, bridges and water treatment plants.

It also means making our military aid to Israel conditional on their solemn commitment to remove government support for Jewish settlements outside the state of Israel. It means making our aid to Israel conditional on their agreeing in principle that it will eventually withdraw to their 1967 borders. The conflict in that part of the Middle East is has its roots, not so much in the creation of the state of Israel, as it does in aftermath the 1967 Gulf War. Obviously, these are not easy things to do, which is why new workable political and economic tactics are vital.

Our real national security interests are in fact intimately tied to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. We must not do this unilaterally but together with the United Nations and other multinational organizations. We need to reduce the number of sticks and increase the number of carrots. The one resource Americans have in abundance is money. We have huge gobs of money, which are a direct result of our peace, freedom and stable democratic government. By the time our debacle in Iraq is over, we will have squandered at least a trillion dollars. Yet even this vast sum will hardly be noticed in our massive economy. We can afford to sponsor a Marshall-type plan for the Middle East, through neutral parties, that should replace hopelessness with hope. We also need to provide huge amounts of basic humanitarian assistance for a region that is still very much war torn and overflowing with refugees. Any new Marshall plan should cost a tiny fraction of what we have already recklessly squandered away in Iraq.

Our primary goal should always be to do what we can to reduce the factors fueling Islamic terrorism. If a particular action is likely to add fuel to the fire, we need to assess whether it is really in our national interest. Certainly destroying cities like Mecca and Medina as Rep. Tancredo suggested would guarantee eternal war and enmity against our country. It would be the most counterproductive, not to mention the stupidest thing we could possibly do in reaction to Islamic terrorism.

Our next president, unlike our current one, needs to be fully mindful of these tradeoffs. He or she must be progressive enough to push for the real political changes that might actually solve our long-term problem with Islamic terrorism. Senator Obama’s unwise remarks suggest he has not grasped the totality of the problem facing us. Let us hope that Democrats choose a nominee, based not on how inspiring they find his or her speeches at political rallies, but on whether they have the maturity, wisdom and judgment to apply our country’s resources wisely in these areas of the world during these very turbulent times.

Are free societies incompatible with Islam?

The Thinker by Rodin

Publish a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad and you may find your country’s embassy or consulate attacked and burned by angry mobs of Muslims. At least that is what happened to the Danish consulate today in Lebanon. At least one person has died, hundreds have been detained and Christian neighborhoods in Beirut have been ransacked. We can hope that this will be the last of this, but likely passionate Muslims will commit more acts of violence like this in the days and weeks ahead.

Granted, the Danish newspaper and many of the other European newspapers that reprinted these cartoons should have known better. Moreover, even if you are not a Muslim, the cartoons were in poor taste. We know there are some obvious hot buttons that will incite some groups of Muslims to riot. After all, in 1977 merely showing the movie Muhammad, Messenger of God caused Hanafi Muslims to hold 123 hostages for 39 hours at the B’nai B’rith building in Washington, D.C. Oddly enough, in that movie, Muhammad was neither seen nor heard, and was a reasonably accurate depiction of the Prophet’s life, yet it still gave offense to millions of Muslims. As Salman Rushdie the author of The Satanic Verses discovered, it is very dangerous to write a book that could offend Muslims. It has been nearly 17 years since the late Ayatollah Khomeni issued a fatwa on the man’s life. Any devout Shiite Muslim has permission to murder him in Allah’s name.

Therefore, these newspapers should have been mindful of the consequences of their actions. I hope that they have paid up on their property insurance. Even so, this violent reaction from what is likely a small minority of Muslims is disheartening. What is the likelihood of instilling a pluralistic and democratic society in Iraq if any group feels it can flout the law when an action offends their religious sensibilities? In the United States, should we be giving a pass to abortion clinic bombers because their concern for unborn life supersedes their requirement to be law-abiding members of society?

Newspapers throughout the Islamic world are full of political cartoons that take raw barbs at Americans and Jews. It is a good thing that both Americans and Israelis are reasonably tolerant people. The sad truth is that you would be hard pressed to find adherents of any other religion so, well, sensitive to having their religious figures or beliefs parodied.

Free societies are, well, free. Freedom of thought and expression come with the territory. The nature of a free society means that your feelings are going to be hurt from time to time. The good news is that in free societies people or institutions that engage in boorish behaviors like this Danish newspaper are generally shunned by the rest of society. The majority may not agree with those who express these opinions, but we learn to live with it so that order prevails and so we can express our opinions without fear of sanction when we feel called.

Perhaps this social contract needs to be made more explicit. Every naturalized citizen of the United States must take the following oath of citizenship. I think it should be amended to include the phrase in italics, and I would recommend that other free societies insert similar language in their citizenship oaths.

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I understand that this country is a free society that requires me to be tolerant of lawful behavior that I may disagree with as a result of my faith or convictions; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; that failure to uphold my oath may result in sanctions including my loss of citizenship and deportation as spelled out by law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God. In acknowledgement whereof I have hereunto affixed my signature.

Mixing democratic institutions with Islam may be like trying to get oil and water to mix. A good Muslim after all subjugates him or herself wholly to the will of Allah. Pluralism and Islam as it is currently interpreted in much of the Islamic world may simply not be compatible.

If faithfully practicing Islam means that when provoked Islam wins over civil law, then I do not see how such Muslims can be integrated into a free society. They should choose to live in societies that practice Islamic law only. In addition, western countries should rethink having any diplomatic or trade relationships with countries that adhere to such principles.

I do hope that in time Muslims will find lawful and nonviolent ways to accommodate such expressions. If they do not, rather than spreading Islam they will probably find that their societies will be increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.

Democracy is not always the solution

The Thinker by Rodin

The United States is in the proselytizing business. No I don’t mean Bush’s odious Faith-Based Initiative which contrary to our constitution seems to say it’s okay to shower religious institutions with tax dollars. I’m not talking about proselytizing religion at all. No, the United States is in the democracy-proselytizing business. No matter what the problem is overseas with some non-democratic government, democracy (with rabid capitalism) is our solution. One size fits all countries.

Given our heritage it is understandable that that we would want all other countries to also be democracies. Our country was founded on equal representation, liberty and freedom. It generally works for us. Democratic governments are unlikely to wage unilateral wars against other governments (present administration notwithstanding, of course.) Democracy certainly seems better than the usual alternatives such as theocracies, communism, socialism, despots, strongmen, anarchies and monarchies. And I’d have to generally agree. My problem is I don’t always agree that democracy is the best approach for any country.

As we are learning in Iraq, I don’t think democracy can be imposed from the outside. For it to work it must come from the citizens of a country. To work really well the citizens must crave democracy. It helps for them to be completely fed up with their non-democratic government. But it also requires a strong belief in the people in their ability to solve their own problems collectively. Democracy is like a garden. A garden requires good soil, lots of effort, persistence and tender loving care. Lacking these you end up with a lot of weeds, and the result may not be what you intended.

The same is true with democracy. In much of the Muslim world at the moment we have nations embracing theocratic versions of Islam. Clearly this is not a form of government that seeks much guidance from non-clerics. I anticipate that for the next 20-50 years Muslim countries that have not yet embraced democracy (the vast majority) will need to work through their issues of separating religion from government. Until that happens democracy is unlikely to take hold.

Still I suspect a lot of Muslims are quite pragmatic. Most would like to give their mullahs the heave ho. There is a lot of cultural baggage to deal with in Muslim countries. This is a problem shared by countries with a predominant faith. Islam’s predisposition toward theocracy makes it very difficult if not dangerous to speak out against any religious authorities that want to run a state.

Iraq’s experiment with democracy might actually succeed. The odds are at best 50/50 that it can be pulled off over the next decade. (My guess is it is actually about 1 in 5). But Iraq is more fertile a place than most in the Mideast for democracy. Why is this? It is clear that Iraqis have tried the strongman approach with Saddam and at best it was a mixed experience. It certainly gave order and security, but tyranny caused a lot of murders, death, hardship and repression. On the other hand in some ways Saddam Hussein was ahead of his time. One was in the area of education. Overall Iraqis have much more access to education (including higher education) than most people in the Middle East. There is a thriving middle class. The conditions in Iraq are not all that different from those of our country in 1776. So let’s keep our fingers crossed. Against the odds Iraq may actually live up to Bush’s vision as a democratic state at peace in the middle of the Middle East.

But then there is much of the rest of the Muslim world. There is also much of the third world. There is hope that even in third world countries democracy can take root. Bangladesh for example is a country mired in poverty and low educational standards and yet it has a reasonably successful democracy. Part of its success has to do with being in fertile democratic soil. India is next door and has been democratic for fifty years or so. It is poor enough so that it is not a likely target for invasion. It is also predominantly Muslim. And although it has seen its share of wars and ethnic conflicts more often than not their conflicts can be worked out through a political process instead of civil strife.

Unlike Bangladesh there a lot more places like Afghanistan. Here is a country where I can almost guarantee democracy will not work in the short term. First of all we would like all citizens of Afghanistan to have the right to vote. It seems reasonable enough from our perspective. Unfortunately a very conservative form of Islam embraces most of the country. It is hard enough for women to leave their house without wearing a burka. Most women have to be escorted by a male relative if they want to go anywhere. In many places they cannot even get medical care. The sad facts are that this is a culture that does not appear ready to give women much in the way of civil rights.

Then there is their education problem. While education improved somewhat in places like Kabul in the 1970s and 1980s, Afghanistan is an overall educational disaster. Women are rarely educated. The average educational level of an Afghani is 1.7 years! Think about this: the average person doesn’t even have a second grade education. It’s a good bet that most citizens have not studied democratic models nor developed critical thinking skills. I know I would be concerned about placing trust in the people if I knew they were operating at a second grade level.

So what works for these countries? It depends on the country’s culture and history. Progress should unfold in the context of that unique story. Historically monarchy has been a fairly successful way to get between feudalism and democracy. A succession of kings and queens gives a country a certain stability.

The Afghani loya jirga process is not quite democratic, but it may be the most realistic short-term solution for Afghanistan if it can be pulled off. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan can bind together as a nation at all. No such nation existed until the British created it in the 20th century. Like Yugoslavia it may make more sense for the country to balkanize into ethnic areas. There has to be shared interests on many levels in order to have a real country. It’s not clear these yet exist in Afghanistan.

The United States needs to stop pushing democracy as the solution to non-democratic states. Rather we require an enlightened approach to encourage democracy where the climate is favorable and encourage benign forms of government in places where it isn’t.