I Just Thought I'd Dash This Off.. (An Editorial)
Let me just rattle off a very quick word about one of the hiccups of American politics of the day. There seems to be some partisan upset with Democratic President Barack Obama, for his reluctance to call Middle Eastern-based terrorism "Islamic Terrorism" or "Islamic Extremism," or "Islamic Jihadi Terrorism," or what have you. The bulk of the criticism comes from the Republicans, naturally, and people otherwise "on the Right," as it pertains to national security issues.
I have even heard this point of view expressed by the fairly hard left liberal television talk show host, Bill Maher (Real Time with Bill Maher). The thinking is that if we cannot even "name it," we cannot combat the phenomenon effectively.
Now then, I am not the first person to make the following point: but why don't we call the American Mafia an expression of "Catholic extremist terrorism"? Why don't we say that about these Italian-or Sicilian-American criminal organizations, whose core members are of Italian and Catholic cultural heritage?
Because the issue is not their nominal faith. The only relevant question is: Are they or are they not gangsters!
Let me say something about what we call "religion."
Tell me something: Is it or is it not the truth that anti-Catholic bigotry, for example, has always---and I mean ALWAYS---been about a polite way of saying Irish, Mexican, French, and Italians "need not apply"?
Take the English-Irish centuries long conflict in Northern Ireland. It is officially, and I might add, "politely," known as Protestant-Catholic. But does anybody out there actually believe that all of those people, over the centuries, fought, shed blood, killed, and died over actual differences in doctrine (whatever those may be) between Protestantism and Catholicism? How many people living even know or care what those differences in doctrine are?
Surely, the Protestant-Catholic thing has always been about Great Britain's very concrete project of its colonization of Ireland and the dispossession of the Irish. For further reading on this I would recommend Maire and Conor Cruise O'Brien's Ireland: A Concise History. For a thorough grounding you probably want to read through the first six chapters.
I bet I know what you're thinking: Yeah but those Islamic terrorists in the Middle East are waving around their Koran's, which means that they are doing what they are doing in the name of Islam!
I would counter that by saying that the only reason there was no Bible-waving around during the first centuries of the English-Irish wars, as far as I am aware of, is because both sides were Christian and knew it. It would have, therefore, been pointless and redundant to wave around the Bible.
Question: Yeah but Islam is a violent religion. Just look at the text of the Koran. Violence permeates it and the jihadist are using this inherently violent text as their playbook.
Answer: Really? I say to that: Really? Whatever has happened to placing text in their historical context?
1. The Koran was written in sixth-century Arabia. We are not talking about twenty-first-century Denmark here!
2. The Koran was born in the mind of Prophet Muhammad in sixth-century Arabia, after long periods of solitary, mystic contemplation. This is why I used the picture of "chakra"-driven, meditation in this essay. The goal of the exercise of "yoga" or other forms of mysticism is, broadly, what is known as "Enlightenment."
3. Why was the sixth-century Arabian businessman, Muhammad, seeking "Enlightenment"? Well, his world, Arabian society was undergoing a period of severe crisis. There was class violence perpetrated by the strong and wealthy clans upon the weaker and poorer ones. Arabian society seemed to be coming apart at the seams. And perhaps most distressingly, from Muhammad's perspective, Christians and Jews were teasing the Arabs about not having a monotheistic religion of their own, as they did. These persecutors of the Arabs were suggesting that this was indication that they had been left out of the divine plan.
For further reading on this I would recommend Karen Armstrong's short, A Short History of Islam, for a superb introduction to the contours of the Islamic world, from the sixth-century Arabs Muslim powers to the Ottoman empire until the end of World War One.
Religion, or at least an aspect of spiritual devotion, has always been a tool of identity-shaping, a way of conceiving of an US and THEM.
When someone is stopped at the airport, is he stopped because you can tell, on sight, that he is a "Muslim"?
No, but what you think you can tell on sight, sometimes, by the way he is dressed and his complexion, is whether or not he is an Arab. At this point we might as well pronounce the word they way American television's favorite bigot, Archie Bunker, says it: A-Rab.
Getting back to the historical context of the Koran's revelation to Muhammad, what we understand that he was a man of his time. You have to remember that this is sixth-century Arabia we are talking about. He was functioning in a world of the sixth-century, many centuries before the Geneva Convention and all that. A tribal leader would have been expected to be a relatively stern, even ruthless character, to do "whatever it takes to get the job done," and so forth.
By the way, just as a footnote: Is it not true that "made" men in the Mafia have always been brought to that status by a ceremony that uses, however profanely, Catholic imagery---the burning playing card of a saint?
Question: Yeah but what about those Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, that export extremist Wahhabis Islam, and don't even let women show their faces or drive, and things like that?
Answer: I would venture to say that neither I nor anybody likely to read this know anything, anthropologically, about the culture of Saudi Arabia, such that we know which customs are specifically dictated by the doctrine of Islam and which are holdovers from the country's pre-sixth-century, pre-Islamic past.
Don't quote me on this, but I recall reading, for example, that Saudi Arabia's custom of covering women from head-to-toe was actually something the Arabs conquistadors copied from Byzantine (East Roman) culture.
You cannot tell me that there is any way to Koran-ically derive a prohibition on women's driving automobiles, since they did not exist in the world of the sixth-century.
But perhaps there was a prior Arabian prohibition against women riding camels and horses?
If so, would this have been specifically limited to a woman's time of pregnancy? I'm just thinking out loud here.
In any event, what we're talking about is patriarchy and sexism, not actual "religion," per se.
Question: If the thesis presented here is correct, about religion being about "identity" and all that, and "Muslim" is, in one respect, a polite way of saying "A-Rabs" "need not apply," and so forth, why do Middle Eastern terrorists wave around the Koran? What are they trying to say, if they are not calling for "Islamic World Rule," per se?
Answer: Just as it is more polite to say "Islamic Extremism," as opposed to "Arab Scourge," it is apparently more polite from the Middle Eastern perspective, to say "Western" or "Western Christian Oppression," than it is to say "what they really feel," which would be something like "White Devils" or "White European Devils"; the closest any Middle Eastern entity has come to this, as far as I know, was the religious leadership of Iran, who coined the term "Great Satan," in reference to the United States.
By the way, even the Spanish Inquisition of the sixteenth-century was, as we now know, really about the desire of the Crown to create the national unity of a modern state, by addressing what they thought of as the Jewish problem, more specifically the conversos, the population of Jews who had converted to Catholicism. There was the concern that the presence of too many unconverted Jews would threaten national unity, by acting as too great a temptation to the "conversos" to 'revert,' as it were, back to Judaic practice. (See: Perez, Joseph. The Spanish Inquisition). However, again, it was more professional and polite to call the exercise a fight against "heresy."
Again, you just have to ask yourself if there is any way to spot a Christian, Muslim, or Jew by sight. If not, what is it that you think you can tell by sight? Whatever that is, you will usually find that the religious tag is a polite substitute for that.
Thank you for reading.