Thursday, November 07, 2002

Assalaamu alaikum, Greetings, etc.

I suppose the time has come for me to face facts and basically put an end to this blog, or, more accurately, to say that it has been folded into the new website. Considering the new webzine has so far gotten 40 times as many hits in two weeks as this blog has gotten in the couple months that it has been up, it seems a little pointless to spend time on it when I scramble to get new issues of the webzine up.

So, if you've stumbled on this page and find it kind of interesting, then it's being continued at A True Word, but hopefully in a more refined and productive manner.

Salaam, Peace, and all that...


Monday, November 04, 2002

Whew! After a couple sleepless nights, we just got the new issue of A True Word up. It's going well, we've had an average of 12,000 hits a day and plenty of good feedback. I've had less time for this blog, which the new zine is kind of eclipsing. Ah well. Here's an article I just published there. Check out the site for the rest of the articles, including an interesting interview I did with ex-CIA official and RAND scholar Graham Fuller on the avoidability of a clash of civilizations.

Who are the Radicals?

In a very practical sense, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a tremendous success. September 11, 2001 dramatically advanced the agenda of a tiny group of radicals who perceive that the only way to achieve their goals is by driving the worlds of Islam and Christianity into a cataclysmic confrontation.

These radicals are not just Muslims; they are Christians and Jews as well. Under examination, the ultimate goals of the radical pro-Israel fringe, extremist Christian fundamentalists, and Al Qaida are startlingly similar. The line between the camps becomes quite fuzzy, a subject that A True Word hopes to examine in future articles.

The 9/11 conspirators, of course, had a good idea that war would be the consequence of their efforts, though they must be disappointed in the outcome as it stands today. The American attack on Afghanistan and wider "War on Terrorism" drove the Muslim masses, to a limited and superficial extent, into the arms of a group who had heretofore been relatively unknown, marginal, and lacking in influence.

Even among jihad circles, which Western mythology teaches that he dominated, Osama bin Ladin's embroilment in a civil war between Muslims, and the tendency of his group to engage in takfeer (excommunication) and accusations of hypocrisy against respected Islamic scholars and many Muslims in general, left him relatively isolated. Indeed, most activists in the Islamic resistance struggles in the 1990s advised potential volunteers to avoid Afghanistan and its convoluted, bewildering politics, from which most foreign volunteers had fled subsequent to the region's descent into Muslim-on-Muslim violence.

Lashkar Jihad, the largest jihad group in Indonesia, has explicitly distanced itself from Bin Ladin and denounced his methods. And in an April 2000 open letter to ABC News president David Westin, an official of the Kashmiri jihad brigade Lashkar-e-Taiba wrote that his group "has no organizational affiliation or ties with Usamah bin Laden. Our organization is not involved, nor has it ever been involved, in any activities in America or East Africa. We condemn all acts of violence against civilians and those who commit such acts, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Islam does not allow the killing of peaceful, innocent, unarmed civilians."

Indeed, it is the aspirations of Muslims for peace and freedom in places like Kashmir and Chechnya that have suffered as a consequence of 9/11. Bosnia has witnessed a slide back to the Communist era with a series of political arrests on the basis of flimsy or no evidence, justified by a "war on terrorism." Russia and China ape Bush's rhetoric, recasting domestic Muslim liberation movements as struggles against international terrorism. MIT Professor Noam Chomsky observes: "The atrocities of September 11 were a devastating blow for the Palestinians, as they instantly recognized. Israel is openly exulting in the 'window of opportunity' it now has to crush Palestinians with impunity."

While Muslims have been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny, the West has not paid a fraction of as much attention to its own, homegrown radicals whose agitation has contributed as much, if not more, to a potential Third World War as bin Ladin himself. A coterie of lobbyists, media commentators, and US government bureaucrats, pursuing their own unique but overlapping agendas, work together in an unlikely alliance under the assumption that such a war will benefit their peculiar and obscure causes. Those causes have very little to do with the interests of America and her citizens, Western countries, or humanity in general.

The average American doesn't believe that a war between Muslims and the West to usher in the return of Jesus Christ is a sensible policy goal, but quite influential lobbyists do. The interests of America and peace are sacrificed as opinion-makers and lobbyists drive a wedge between our country and the Muslim world as a means of shoring up an illegitimate regime in the Holy Land. Career spooks and defense contractors scramble for ways to justify their existence in a post-Soviet world with no enemy looming outside America's gates, no convincing threat to its survival.

But the problems of these fringe special interests are not humanity's problems, and what they believe is the solution to their problems-unlimited war-is not the solution to humanity's problems. And thus, we have a responsibility to begin identifying those for whom war is an end in itself, to analyze their arguments, and to expose their incongruence, falsehood, and danger.

This is the case regardless of religion or nationality, but we have the US media to put Muslims under the spotlight-although it quite often gets the story wrong, due to incomplete information or assumptions tainted by the influence of the aforementioned homegrown extremists. Therefore, each week, A True Word will examine the claims and credibility of the West's homegrown ideologues, taking up the slack that has been neglected in a society unable to perceive, like a purloined letter, its own roots in the conflict.

This does not mean that Muslims should dismiss criticism out of hand; on the contrary, we must begin listening to our detractors as a means of improving and refining our communication with the West, and even altering our behavior if we find that it has indeed been inconsistent with the noble and universal aims of our religion.

At the same time, the West must begin to recognize the difference between what are rational arguments and argumentation, between the seekers of truth and those who seek to obscure it with irrelevance, hyperbole, and hysteria. They must begin to emulate the former, and dismiss the latter to the dustbin of political irrelevance.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

More on Chechnya

Some readers question my view of the Moscow incident and the Russians' "resolution" of it. However, an uncharacteristically wise editorial from Monday's Wall Street Journal, which rarely has anything rational to say about Muslims, agrees:

Vladimir Putin may have brought an end to the Moscow hostage crisis, but he now faces the wrath that follows the death of more than 100 citizens, most of whom seem to have died at the hands of their rescuers. This "ending" is but a chapter in a wider crisis for Russia's president, one whose gravity he had tried to ignore. More than three years after he promised to "solve" the Chechnya issue, its dangers and cruelties are only multiplying. Ordinary Russians must now start asking hard questions about where Moscow's
Chechen policy is taking them.

Their first conclusion will be that they are not properly protected. Some ask why Movsar Barayev and his followers chose to embark on a suicide mission now; but the question is better put thus: Why had this not happened before? After all, Chechnya has suffered eight years of perpetual warfare and contains hundreds of men as brutalized and desperate as Barayev. Now, almost anything is possible. Russia is vast, with vulnerable targets and weak policing. As a Chechen moderate who has long called for negotiations
told me bitterly: "The Russians should thank God that they just seized a House of Culture and not a nuclear power station..."

Monday, October 28, 2002

The only practical difference between this guy, 18-year old Daniel Fears, and John Allen Williams (I won't call him by his assumed last name) is that Williams was a better shot. Both deserve execution if found guilty, of course.

Lying axe-grinders like Daniel Pipes are already trying to connect Williams, whom Farrakhan admits is a "Nation of Islam" fruitcake, to Islam itself. I'm waiting for Pipes to connect the guy in the photo here to Christianity or white people or something (and I'm focusing on Pipes as an example, but of course his way of thinking is quite widespread).

Fears' lawyer says the kid "just flipped out," but for Pipes and his ilk, a Muslim--like the Egyptian guy at the El Al counter, or even a counterfeit Muslim like Williams--are incapable of "just flipping out." Everything negative a Muslim does is proof of the evil of Islam, and everything positive a Muslim does is ignored, or, if aknowledged, dismissed as PR.

Camps for Americans to be held indefinitely without charge? Is that legal? Yes, says William J. Haynes II, the Defense Department's lawyer, because the Patriot Act authorizes the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force" (translation from legalese: "anything Bush damn well pleases") to protect the country.

So don't let anyone tell you that Osama bin Ladin and the Bush can't find some common ground: "I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed," OBL predicted.

Though honestly that isn't quite the common ground I'd prefer between Muslims and the West.

Sunday, October 27, 2002

Greetings. Well, I've got a new creative outlet going on-line today, a new weekly webzine called A True Word. It's a project of three people, myself, Amir Butler of Australia, and Shibli Zaman of Texas. Check it out, I hope you like it.

I'll probably be putting my more formal writing on that publication and using this more in a traditional blog sense, as informal ramblings and commentary. Ok, here goes. The New York Times says:

"Of the 117 hostages confirmed dead so far, the Moscow health committee said tonight, only one had died of gunshot wounds. The remaining 116 hostages appear to have died of gas-related injuries."

The article also points out that the Ruskies lied about the reason for the timing of the raid--that the hostage-takers hadn't actually begun executing people.

We hear about how Saddam gassed his own people. Guess he wasn't the last US ally to do that.


I went to the big anti-war rally over the weekend and stumbled on the two dozen pro-war counter-protestors. One of them was a Russian lady holding a sign that said "DESTROY CHECHNYA." I asked her why and she said because "they fight like animals, not soldiers; they kill prisoners of war."

Oh yeah? Well, here's this for those who feel the Russian army is some chivalrous band of heroes.

And executing women combatants while they're sleeping? That's OK, then?

Monday, October 21, 2002

The Futility of Apology

You’re in third grade again, one of thirty-five white kids in a class with five black kids, and your teacher is passing back your math tests. She turns to the class, stabs a finger at one of the black kids and accuses him of cheating on the test. The kid admits it and she dispatches him to the principal’s office.

Now she demands that the four remaining black kids stand and apologize for the lone cheater’s behavior. Confused and embarrassed, they awkwardly sputter something about being sorry. The teacher mocks their apologies and marches the whole lot off to the principle’s office.

Is this fair? Reasonable?

No, the scenario is ridiculous. The teacher, hopefully, would be fired immediately. So why does it seem reasonable to hold every individual Muslim responsible for the actions of a few? And why do Muslim spokesmen accept this responsibility?

In the days following the September 11 attacks, American Muslim leaders bent far, far over backwards to condemn the attacks, to such an extent that they sacrificed a certain amount of dignity as they prostrated themselves before the public and the media. Muslim leaders published contrite full page ads in national newspapers, held blood drives, cuddled in photo ops with President Bush, burned candles at vigils, hoisted flags outside mosques and draped their cars, homes and persons in red, white and blue, made pilgrimages to churches to pray for the destruction of the attacks’ perpetrators. They urged Muslims in America to join the FBI and to enlist in the US military and fight in Afghanistan.

None of it was good enough. From one corner, commentators from the right and left complained loudly that Muslim leaders had been absolutely silent. From the other, those who acknowledged the existence of the avalanche of condemnations complained that they were half-hearted and insincere. “We know these people really hate America,” one FBI agent told me.

The first contention is demonstrably false and the result of ignorance or deliberate deception. The second is of course wrong, but more understandable. Whatever the circumstances, it is impossible to apologize sincerely when the apology is made for the sake of smoothing things over, not because one is truly responsible for what one is apologizing for. At the same time, exaggerated apologies tend to imply an admission of guilt. As the Christians' own holy book says, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.”

It is true that there is a difference between condemning an act and apologizing for it, but somewhere after the fiftieth statement of condemnation the distinction is blurred. The fact is that Muslims had a unique responsibility to spell out Islam’s position on the events, which, after all, were carried out in the name of Islam and mainstream Muslim concerns. But this should be done in a dignified manner and to a reasonable extent. What is expected of Muslims, and what they have accepted, goes beyond our responsibility.

Last week, as I was running late for a late-night meeting, I stopped off at the Starbucks a block from my Virginia home for some coffee. Minutes after I got back in my car, a sniper shot and killed a woman at the Home Depot three stores down. After this brush with death, am I demanding that all white people apologize (most experts say the sniper’s probably white), or that the National Rifle Association hold a prayer vigil? No, because I don’t feel they are responsible.

At the same time, many of those who are loudest in demanding even more apologies from the Muslims are silent on the actions of those they actually are responsible for. The Middle East Media Research Institute, for example, a pro-Israel think tank, regularly plays “gotcha” with Muslims, dubiously translating speeches and articles sliced from their context to portray a Muslim world seething with hatred and extremism. The group’s director is Yigal Carmon, former administrative head of the occupied West Bank between 1977 and 1982, ranking member of Israel’s intelligence establishment, and an outspoken proponent of torture. “Pain is not taking life,” Carmon explained to the Washington Post. “Pain comes and goes. Pain disappears. You know, everyone experiences that. Unwillingly, of course.”

Aside from appearing guilty and insincere, the danger of losing perspective on this matter is that condemnations and apologies can deteriorate into an orgy of self-flagellation and unhealthy obsession with the alleged failings of Muslims. Our community is not perfect, and some of the responses of some Muslims to the challenges they face are the result of a combination of frustration and ignorance, willful or otherwise, of Islamic parameters of action. These Muslims should be advised and the people should be warned against their methodology.

This does not mean, however, that we should obsess over our mistakes, even if they are the only aspects of our community getting any media attention. I perceive in some quarters an inferiority complex taking hold, a paralyzing “9/11 Syndrome” that is causing many Muslims to retreat, curl up into a fetal position, be afraid to begin any sentence without a condemnation of terrorism, and just be happy they haven’t yet been deported. Why should Muslims feel so humiliated, when there is so much about our community to feel positive and hopeful about?

It has been repeated ad nauseum that, except for an insignificant fraction, Muslims in America want dialogue and harmonious relations with their neighbors. This is true enough. But Muslims need to stop expending energy fleeing from the fallacious notion that they bear responsibility for what a handful of people do, and be bold as lions in implementing their duty to Allah and the society they live in: “You [Muslims] are the best of nations raised up for the benefit of men: you enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong and believe in Allah.”

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Shortcomings in attacks on belief in God

Dig down to the root of just about any anti-religion statement and you’ll find at its foundation one of two philosophies: moral relativism or secular humanism. In modern American popular culture, these are the two belief systems that together comprise the intellectual roots of the anti-religion camp. These philosophies are in many ways hostile to each other, but their adherents are united against a common enemy. Both are seriously flawed. Both are in many ways religions themselves, and certainly among their adherents one finds those who are as insufferably self-righteous and dogmatic as any greasy-haired televangelist.

Moral relativism is the belief that moral standards are grounded only in social custom, not in any universal or divine truth, so therefore all beliefs and moral standards are equally true. Sound familiar? It should, it’s the official religion of most university campuses and has spread throughout pop culture. “There ain’t no wrong, ain’t no right,” sang rock group Jane’s Addiction.

This belief is a little problematic. So the Aztec ritual of flinging virgins into live volcanoes is the moral equivalent of, say, Ghandi’s principles of non-violence? And yet, a religious person will often find himself on the business end of a moral relativist’s finger, wagged Church Lady-style in disapproval. The accompanying sermon is usually some version of “I’m superior because I’m so tolerant.”

The truth is that moral relativism invalidates itself. If every belief is equally true, that means I’m wrong for believing in a divine revelation as a universal criterion for human beliefs and actions. But of course, it also means that my religion is just as true as moral relativism. So there’s nothing for a moral relativist to feel superior about or disapprove of, even in reference to a member of the Manson Family.

Secular humanists, on the other hand, hold that only theirs is a valid belief system; namely, that belief in God (and all that follows from that) is wrong because His existence cannot be proved. And indeed it cannot be “proved” by some mathematical formula or scientific experiment; that’s why it’s called “faith.” Humans are left to derive His existence from His creation: a child’s smile, a Virginia autumn, a sunset. The believer finds it difficult to reflect on these marvels and consider them cosmic rolls of the dice.

In secular humanism, human reason is the ultimate criterion, the ultimate source of truth: “…dogmas, ideologies and traditions…must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith,” states the Council for Secular Humanism. But this rather reasonable-sounding tenet is misleading, because to secular humanists, anyone who does accept a faith has not sufficiently “weighed and tested” it, since by definition it cannot be “proved” by the secular humanist criterion. This argument against religion fails because it assumes what it is trying to prove.

Secular humanists describe their belief system with neutral terms, calling it a “philosophy” or “conviction,” whereas they define religions with more loaded terms, as being “dogmas.” In reality, secular humanism and what would be traditionally considered “religions” like Islam and Christianity share a common ground in that they are all doctrines asserting an ultimate criterion of truth. Secular humanists simply dismiss belief in God out of hand because it’s not the ultimate source of truth that they believe in—the equivalent of a Christian trying to objectively prove that other religions are false because they don’t accept the Bible.

All belief systems, then, are not equally valid but they are all equally a set of assumptions whose validity must be judged on their own merits.

To be continued…