Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More Verses from the Koran (Islam, Part 4)

[In this fourth post in my series on Islam, I simply want to excerpt more verses from the Koran, passages that most non-Muslims have never seen before.  I would assume that most Muslims have seen them, because Muslims tend to read their holy book.  The numbers before the verses indicate the chapter  and verse(s) of the reading in the Koran itself.  Of course, there are verses that would show the less attractive side of Islam in the Koran, and you can read them for yourself in the Koran (http://quran.com/).  Am I 'cherry picking'?  A little, but not as much as you might think!  My point here is to show that there is much in the Koran that is appealing to non-Muslims and that divurges from the commmon stereotypes that we have of Islam.] 

2:115    “To God belongs the east and the west. Whichever way you turn there is the face of God. He is omnipresent and all-knowing.”

2:136    “Say, ‘We believe in God and that which has been revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes; to Moses and Jesus and the other prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them, and to Him we submit.’”

2:151     [On the sending of Muhammad] “Thus have We sent forth to you an apostle of your own who will recite to you Our revelations and purify you of sin, who will instruct you in the Book and in wisdom and teach you that of which you had no knowledge. Remember me, then, and I will remember you. Give thanks to Me and never deny Me.”  [The 'We' and the 'Me' here is clearly meant to refer to God, speaking directly to his people through the text.]

2:190     [Rules of war]  “Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors.”

2:256     “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”

"Just Leave Me Alone"

Mark Lilla, professor at Columbia University, has some interesting insights on the Tea Party movement:
The populist insurgency is being choreographed as an upsurge from below against just about anyone thought to be above, Democrats and Republicans alike. It was galvanized by three things: a financial collapse that robbed millions of their homes, jobs, and savings; the Obama administration’s decision to pursue health care reform despite the crisis; and personal animosity toward the President himself (racially tinged in some regions) stoked by the right-wing media. But the populist mood has been brewing for decades for reasons unrelated to all this.

Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

My own view is that we need to...see [the new populism] as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

Obama's 'Default Mode'

Joseph Lelyveld writes about the aspect of Barack Obama that dominates everything else (in a review of David Remnick's new book on Obama in the NYReview):
However the Obama presidency turns out, it’s all too obvious already that it’s unlikely to be remembered as an era of good feelings in which the partisan divide was healed as the candidate optimistically promised.

What Remnick’s portrayal of Obama’s political evolution makes clear is that the promise was more than a calculated choice, a campaign pose. It was intrinsic to his character and recognized as such early on. As far back as Harvard Law School, he stood out for “his way of absorbing and synthesizing the arguments of others,” for his “earnest, consensus-seeking style,” for an “open-mindedness [that] seemed strange even to his friends.” Later on, when as an obscure state legislator he sat in on a seminar at the Kennedy School, the seminar’s leader, Robert Putnam, was struck by Obama’s ability “to listen for a whole day and see common themes in the midst of an arguing bunch.”

It’s a refrain to which Remnick regularly returns. “Conciliation [is Obama’s] default mode,” he writes, “the dominant strain of his political personality.” The 43 percent of whites who voted for the first African-American president presumably recognized this quality. Its effect on an irreconcilable portion of the 55 percent of whites who voted against him is suggested by the fury of the Tea Party activists. That’s a paradox yet to be resolved. The very qualities of thoughtfulness and patience that made Obama’s election seem such a hopeful harbinger now make him vulnerable to charges of weakness from both flanks of the political divide. It’s who he is.
Last night on Hardball, Chris Matthews and his friends were hitting on Obama for not defending himself against accusations from the Right. This 'default mode' really explains why he wouldn't, I think.

Unregulated Capitalism As Its Own Worst Enemy

Here is an excerpt from a piece by Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books from last April.  He recently died from ALS, after a long and distinguished career as a public intellectual. 
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.
Judt goes on to prescribe 'social democracy' as a political philosophy with some answers for what ails us today.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Piety and Patriotism

Here is Ross Douthet's first-hand report in the NYT on Glenn Beck's rally in DC last weekend:
The Fox News host had promised that the rally, billed as a celebration of American values, would be an explicitly apolitical event. And so it came to pass: save for an occasional “Don’t Tread On Me,” banner, the crowded Mall was nearly free of political signs and T-shirt slogans, and there was barely a whisper of the crusade against liberalism that consumes most of Beck’s on-air hours.

Instead, Beck served up something considerably stranger. This was a tent revival crossed with a pep rally intertwined with a history lecture married to a U.S.O. telethon — and that was just in the first hour.

There was piety — endless piety, as speaker after speaker demanded that Americans rededicate themselves to God. There was patriotism: fund- raising for children of slain Special Forces vets, paeans to military heroism (delivered by Sarah Palin, among others), encomiums to the founding fathers. There was an awards ceremony on the theme of “Faith, Hope and Charity,” in which community-service prizes were handed out to a black minister, a Mormon businessman and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Albert Pujols. And since this was (as you may have heard) the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, there was a long tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

To this rally-goer, though, the most striking thing about “Restoring Honor” was the way the pageant effortlessly tapped into the same rich vein of identity politics that has given us figures as diverse as Palin and Howard Dean, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — but did so, somehow, without advancing any explicitly political agenda.

Now more than ever, Americans love leaders who seem to validate their way of life. In a sense, Beck’s “Restoring Honor” was like an Obama rally through the looking glass. It was a long festival of affirmation for middle-class white Christians — square, earnest, patriotic and religious.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Catholics Then, Muslims Now

Two Roman Catholic professors at Notre Dame University describe the struggle that Catholics had in America during the 19th and 20th centuries to gain acceptance in a country very suspicious of their loyalties.  A useful reminder of a different but similar religious prejudice now showing itself in the US:
For much of the nineteenth century Catholics in America were the unassimilated, sometimes violent “religious other.” Often they did not speak English or attend public schools. Some of their religious women—nuns—wore distinctive clothing. Their religious practices and beliefs—from rosaries to transubstantiation—seemed to many Americans superstitious nonsense.

Most worrisome, Catholics seemed insufficiently grateful for their ability to build churches and worship in a democracy, rights sometimes denied to Protestants and Jews in Catholic countries, notably Italy. In the 1840s and 1850s these anxieties about Catholicism in American society turned violent, including mob attacks on priests and churches as well as the formation of a major political party, the American Party, dedicated to combating Catholic influence. This led to novel claims that the US constitution demanded an absolute separation of church and state—claims that stem not from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington but from nineteenth-century politicians, ministers, and editors worried that adherents of a hierarchical Catholicism might destroy the hard-won achievements of American democracy. In 1875, a decade after accepting General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, President Ulysses S. Grant publicly warned that Catholicism might prove as divisive in American society as the Confederacy.

Like many American Muslims today, many American Catholics squirmed when their foreign-born religious leaders offered belligerent or tone-deaf pronouncements on the modern world. New York’s own Bishop John Hughes thundered in 1850 that the Church’s mission was to convert “the officers of the navy and the Marines, commander of the Army, the legislatures, the Senate, the Cabinet, the president and all.” The Syllabus of Errors, promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1864 denied that the Church had any duty to reconcile itself with “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

But a Catholic president was elected in 1960, and today Catholics hold more seats in Congress than any other religious body. The Vice-President and Speaker of the House are Catholics, as are six of the nine Supreme Court justices.

The American Credo--Lead, Save, Liberate, Transform

Andrew Bacevich, retired Army officier and professor of International Relations at Boston University, has become a leading critic of conventional American foreign policy and military interventionism.  In his latest book, Washington Rules, he tries to describe how America has seen its role in the world since WWII and what's wrong with that.  Here is an extended excerpt:
Washington Rules aims to take stock of conventional wisdom in its most influential and enduring form, namely the package of assumptions, habits, and precepts that have defined the tradition of statecraft to which the United States has adhered since the end of World War II -- the era of global dominance now drawing to a close. This postwar tradition combines two components, each one so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view.

The first component specifies norms according to which the international order ought to work and charges the United States with responsibility for enforcing those norms. Call this the American credo. In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States -- and the United States alone -- to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world. In a celebrated manifesto issued at the dawn of what he termed “The American Century,” Henry R. Luce made the case for this spacious conception of global leadership. Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens to “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” Luce thereby captured what remains even today the credo’s essence.

With regard to means, that tradition has emphasized activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled “negotiating from a position of strength”) over suasion. Above all, the exercise of global leadership as prescribed by the credo obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defense. Prior to World War II, Americans by and large viewed military power and institutions with skepticism, if not outright hostility. In the wake of World War II, that changed. An affinity for military might emerged as central to the American identity.

A people who had long seen standing armies as a threat to liberty now came to believe that the preservation of liberty required them to lavish resources on the armed forces. During the Cold War, Americans worried ceaselessly about falling behind the Russians, even though the Pentagon consistently maintained a position of overall primacy. Once the Soviet threat disappeared, mere primacy no longer sufficed. With barely a whisper of national debate, unambiguous and perpetual global military supremacy emerged as an essential predicate to global leadership.

Friday, August 27, 2010

National Long-Range Thinking

David Brooks had a particularly insightful column today, explaining why Germany's economy is rebounding while America's isn't:
The situation can be expressed this way: German policy makers inherited a certain consensus-based economic model. That model has advantages. It fosters gradual innovation (of the sort useful in metallurgy). It also has disadvantages. It sometimes leads to rigidity and high unemployment.

Over the past few years, the Germans have built on their advantages. They effectively support basic research and worker training. They have also taken brave measures to minimize their disadvantages. As an editorial from the superb online think tank e21 reminds us, the Germans have recently reduced labor market regulation, increased wage flexibility and taken strong measures to balance budgets.

In the U.S., policy makers inherited a different economic model, one that also has certain advantages. It fosters disruptive innovation (of the sort useful in Silicon Valley). It also has certain disadvantages — a penchant for over-consumption and short term thinking.

In the past decade, American policy makers have done little to maximize their model’s natural advantages or address its problems. Indeed, they’ve only made the short-term thinking problem worse, with monetary, fiscal and home-ownership policies encouraging even more borrowing and consumption.

Nations rise and fall on the intertwined strength of their cultures and governing institutions. Despite all the normal shortcomings, German governing institutions have functioned reasonably well, ushering in painful but necessary reforms. The U.S. has a phenomenally creative culture, but right now it’s an institutional weakling.

If you look around the world today, you see that a two-class system is coming into being. Some countries are undertaking fundamental reforms. In those places, weaknesses have been exposed. Orthodoxies have been shattered. New coalitions have formed.

This is happening in Britain, where a center-right government is reining in a government that had spun out of control. It’s also true in Sweden and other consensus-based countries, where there is so much emphasis on consistent, long-range thinking.

In other countries, political division frustrates long-range thinking. The emphasis is on fixing things for next month or next quarter. The U.S., unfortunately, is struggling to get out of Group 2.

The Koran (Islam, Part 3)

[Click here for the entire series on Islam]

[In 2006, after moving to First UMC Lexington and in the middle of the Iraq War, I decided that I and my congregation needed to know more about Islam.  So besides giving a couple of lectures to this Thursday evening study group of around 30 members (the kind you'd receive in college about the life of Muhammad, Sunnis and Shias, the Five Pillars of Islam, etc.), I thought to myself "why not go the extra mile (did you know that's a reference from the New Testament, Matthew 5:41?) and actually read the Koran/Qur'an."  I knew that the Koran was actually about the size of the New Testament and was therefore readable in about 3 months, 50 pages or so a week.  So that's what we did.]

If you really want to know what Christianity is about, you can either talk to a Christian or go read the Gospels.  Which do you think will give you the better, more reliable answer?  Duh.  The same is true in Islam, if you want to know what it's about, go read the Koran.  The Koran (or better, Qur'an) is the basic sacred document/scripture of Islam, just as the Gospel is the basic sacred document/scripture for Christianity.  Reading it will give you the best idea of what Islam was originally all about. 

Muslims believe the Koran to be the literal word of God as revealed to Muhammad, over a period of twenty-three years by the angel Gabriel, and regard it as God's final revelation to mankind.  The Koran was written in the language of Arabic (the New Testament, on the other hand, was written in the Greek language, while the Old Testament was written in Hebrew), and it consists of 114 chapters with a total of 6,236 verses. (By way of comparison, the New Testament has 260 chapters and 7,956 verses.)  There are numerous English translation of the Koran (just like the Christian Bible), and here is one you can access online:  http://quran.com/.

The first chapter of the Koran is the most important, in that it is recited in prayer every day by every faithful Muslim in the original Arabic.  Here it is in English translation:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe,
The Compassionate, the Merciful,
Sovereign of the Day of Judgment!
You alone we worship, and to You alone we turn for help.
Guide us to the straight path,
the path of those whom You have favored,
Not of those who have incurred Your wrath,
Nor of those who have gone astray.

This chapter, often called the Exordium, illustrates the simplicity of both the Koran and Islam, I think.  It is a basically a prayer of praise to God (Allah in Arabic, Elohim in Hebrew, Theon in Greek ), with a request for divine assistance in living a life of which God would be pleased.

The second chapter of the Koran begins: "This Book, there is no doubt in it, is a guide to those who guard (against evil).  Those who believe in the unseen and keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them. And who believe in that which has been revealed to you and that which was revealed before you and they are sure of the hereafter.  These are on a right course from their Lord and these it is that shall be successful."  [The 'we' in the above passage seems to be in the Koran a reference to God speaking directly to the hearer/reader.]

The second chapter is the longest chapter of the Koran (286 verses), and in it, we find the basic viewpoint of Islam set forth.    Namely, an acceptance of the basic Jewish scriptures and story--beginning with the creation of Adam, the faithfulness of Abraham, the formation of Israel under Moses' leadership in the desert, followed by an acceptance of Jesus as God's messenger and Christians as believers in God, all of which is testified to by God's final prophet, Muhammad.  [If you only have time to read one thing from the Koran, read the second chapter.  Your friends will be amazed... and shocked!]

This will surprise many Christians who don't know anything about Islam, but the fact is that the first reference to Jesus in the Koran is here in chapter two, and it is favorable: “We gave Jesus son of Mary veritable signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit.” (2:87)   And both Jews and Christians are clearly referred to as believers who, if they are faithfully, will be rewarded by God:  “Believer, Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans—whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right—shall be rewarded by their Lord; they have nothing to fear or to regret.” (2:62)   Jews and Christians are repeatedly and respectfully referred to in the Koran as 'people of the Book'.

2:177 contains what I think to be the most basic description of what it means to be a Muslim in the entire Koran:  “The righteous man is he who believes in God and the Last Day, in the angels and the Book and the prophets; who, though he loves it dearly, gives away his wealth to kinsfolk, to orphans, to the destitute, to the traveler in need and to beggars, and for the redemption of captives; who attends to his prayers and renders the alms levy; who is true to his promises and steadfast in trial and adversity and in times of war. Such are the true believers; such are the God-fearing.”

The Koran goes on in this fashion for almost 8,000 verses, and while there are some verses that seem to contradict other verses, for the most part, it follows in what I have described above.  It is well worth reading, because you will then understand Islam from the original, founding Scripture, which is the correct understanding (and, might I add, massively violated and abused by terrorists/extremists who happen to be Muslim).

In fact, I would say this: UNTIL you read it, have the courtesy (or perhaps decency) not to criticize it, because you probably will only be speaking out of ignorance. 

Shalom/Salam/Peace.  (To be continued)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Islamic Nail Torture (Ahem...)

A Sri Lankan maid returned from her job in Saudi Arabia with 24 nails inside her body – the result of torture by the family who employed her, a doctor and government official said Wednesday.

L.G. Ariyawathi's body is riddled with needles and nails, which are scheduled to be removed Friday, a doctor confirmed Wednesday.

Ariyawathi, 49, returned to Sri Lanka on Saturday from Saudi Arabia and was hospitalized the next day with severe pain at a facility about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away from capital, Colombo, according to media reports.

She told a local newspaper that her employers tortured her with the nails as punishment.

"They (employer and his family) did not allow me even to rest. The woman at the house had heated the nails and then the man inserted them into my body," Ariyawathi was quoted as saying in the Lakbima, a newspaper published in local Sinhalese language.
Gee, this torturer of his maid was Saudi. Saudis are Muslim. This must mean that Muslims are in favor of the 'nail torture'!  It must be in the Koran somewhere, don't you think.

Not Too Late to Change Course

Professor Derek Shearer, writing in the HuffPost, shares his experience at the World Ecological Forum in Visby, Sweden:
The most important speech of the conference was the address by Johan Rockstrom, a professor of natural resource management at Stockholm University and head of the Stockholm Environmental Research Institute. Rockstrom received the Forum's Global Impact award for outstanding environmental publication, given for his article, "A Safe Operating Space for Humanity" (Nature, vol. 461/24, September 2009). Rockstrom is a compelling scientific speaker who knows how to hold an audience (perhaps Davis Guggenheim, who directed Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, should make a short documentary of Rockstrom's presentation). The message that Rockstrom expounded is very sobering -- he is not alarmist, but his presentation is highly alarming.

He and his colleagues have worked out the biophysical conditions that allowed human beings to appear and then prosper on the planet -- the safe operating conditions for humanity. They have quantified nine interlinked planetary conditions and their boundaries, which include climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and other eco-indicators necessary for human survival and civilized development. Three of these boundaries have already been overstepped because of growing global reliance on fossil fuels, industrialized forms of agriculture, and overuse of natural resources. The world economy is fast approaching almost all of the other boundaries.

Rockstrom and his colleagues' work and analysis deserves the widest possible attention -- yet few public figures in the US seem to have heard of him.

Sweden, along with other Scandinavian countries and perhaps New Zealand, has the greenest national policies on the planet. Yet, even Sweden cannot go it alone. Rockstrom explained to me that, by being linked to the global economy, his country cannot be carbon neutral because the products it imports are not manufactured to be. Certainly, countries like Sweden and even green US cities (described in the new book, Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development, by Joan Fitzgerald) can be exemplars of sustainable policies and take political leadership to argue for them beyond their borders, but there is no local or one-country solution to the boundary dangers that Rockstrom describes. In this case, playing over the line can be a deadly game for humanity.

At a final conference lunch overlooking the Baltic Sea, I asked Rockstrom whether we are at the point of no return. He said that it is true we have passed the peak production of oil, that some effects of climate change are already here, and that we have injured some biological realms -- but the earth is not yet beyond repair. Like most Swedes, a master of calm understatement, Johan said that it is not too late to change course. We can preserve a safe and healthy operating planet for humanity and perhaps build a decent, sustainable and more equitable human society. We have time -- but he could not say exactly how much. When I pressed him, he said probably until the middle of the century -- about thirty or forty years or so, at which point, if we haven't already begun to change course, then we will reach a tipping point and life on the planet will go downhill at a much more rapid pace.

Searching for His Lost Character

John McCain's new mission:
Having shed much of his dignity, core convictions and reputation for straight talk, Senator John McCain won his primary on Tuesday against the flat-earth wing of his party. Now McCain can go search for his lost character, which was last on display late in his 2008 campaign for president.

Remember the moment: a woman with matted hair and a shaky voice rose to express her doubts about Barack Obama. “I have read about him,” she said, “and he’s not — he’s an Arab.”

McCain was quick to knock down the lie. “No, ma’am,” he said, “he’s a decent family man, a citizen.”

That ill-informed woman — her head stuffed with fabrications that could be disproved by a pre-schooler — now makes up a representative third or more of the Republican party.

Palin's 'Collected Tweets'

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson writes about the new Tea Party Republicans:
In the normal course of events, political movements begin as intellectual arguments, often conducted for years in serious books and journals. To study the Tea Party movement, future scholars will sift through the collected tweets of Sarah Palin. Without a history of clarifying, refining debates, Republicans need to ask three questions of candidates rising on the Tea Party wave:

First, do you believe that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional? This seems to be the unguarded view of Colorado Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck and other Tea Party advocates of "constitutionalism." It reflects a conviction that the federal government has only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution -- which doesn't mention retirement insurance or health care.

This view is logically consistent -- as well as historically uninformed, morally irresponsible and politically disastrous.

Time for a New Economic Team

This from the WaPo:
With statistics due out Friday that are expected to show the economy grew much less than estimated in the second quarter of the year, Fed-watchers are hoping Bernanke's comments later that day in Jackson Hole, Wyo., will instill confidence that he has a plan and can act decisively if the economy continues to deteriorate.
What is he supposed to be, some kind of wizard? The man come down from the mountaintop with all the answers from God?  How ridiculous.

It would be helpful to have some honest answers from this administration and its economic team about the situation we're in.  But no, it seems that that would be too politically risky.  Besides, who believes Summers and Geithner anyway.

It's time for a new economic team (of course, we're stuck with Bernanke).

Where Did Islam Come From (Islam, Part 2)

So these three 'Western' religions all worship the God of Abraham, and trace themselves back to the great Patriarch who became a 'wandering Aramean'.  How did each of the three come into existence?

Judaism began as 12 tribes of Hebrew slaves (who in turn traced themselves back to the 12 sons of Abraham's grandson Jacob) escaped from Egypt under the leadership of Moses around the 13th century BCE.  They made a covenant with God in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai and received the Law there, and before long they made their new home in the promised land of Canaan, which soon became Israel.

Christianity began some 1200 years later in Judea, when Jesus of Nazareth, a 30-year old Jewish itinerant rabbi and spiritual healer, was baptized by John and began preaching a message of the nearness of God's Kingdom and repentance, in the Roman province of Judea.  After he was crucified by the Jewish and Roman authorities, his followers proclaimed him alive again, that he was the prophesied Messiah and Lord, and that everyone should be baptized in his name.  Christianity was spread around the Roman Empire by apostles and missionaries (the most famous of whom was Paul of Tarsus) and within 300 years had become the official religion of the Empire.

Islam began about 600 years after Jesus lived, in the 7th Century CE/AD.  As the story goes, a young Arab named Muhammad began to have visions of the angel Gabriel (who had also appeared to Virgin Mary), who gave him messages ('angel' means messenger) that were first memorized and then written down as the Koran.  The messages had to do with the one sovereign God ('Allah' in the Arabic language) who desired the submission of human beings to Him ('Islam' means submission).  Muhammad went forth and began to prophesy/proclaim this message to his pagan neighbors, who worshipped many gods.  He saw himself in the line of Old and New Testament prophets, bringing a message of repentance and obedience to God.  And over time, the people responded.  Islam grew and expanded (sometimes at the point of a sword) until it had become the religion of a huge part of the world, including the Middle East, Central and South Asia, Northern Africa, and even parts of Europe.

The similarities in message and content between these three religions are obvious and multiple, while the differences mostly have to do with chronology and personalities.  Repentance and obedience to the One True God, first worshipped by Abraham, was the common message.  The Jews formed their holy scriptures over 1,000 years.  The Christians adopted the Jewish scriptures and added their own.  The Muslims in turn approved the Jewish and Christian scriptures and then added their own.

Now, all of this is not to say that a Jew can easily become a Christian (or vice versa), or a Christian or Jew can become a Muslim (or vice versa).  There are too many differences of language, culture, history, and doctrine for that to be the case.  Yet it is simply much easier for us to understand each other, and even accept each other--with all our differences--than it is between the far different religions of the West and the Orient.

(To be continued)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and their God (Islam, part 1)

So what is Islam?  It's easy to decry prejudice against Muslims--steming from fear and ignorance--but it's a lot harder to describe exactly what distinguishes Muslims from other faiths.  But it is necessary if we are to make progress in reducing Islamophobia.  So that's what I want to try and do. 

My efforts here are based on 32 years as an active Methodist pastor, during which time I came to an indepth understanding of Christianity, its scriptures, history, and theology.  That in turn was based on a Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies, a Master of Divinity from Duke University, and doctoral study in world religions under the respected scholar of world religions Prof. Huston Smith at Syracuse University.  But it's probably safe to say that most of my knowledge has come from personal reading over 40+ years and preparing to preach sermons and teach classes at my churches.

Islam is best understood as one of the three great Western religions, part of a larger family that includes Judaism and Christianity.  Of these three, Judaism is the oldest at over 3,000 years old, Christianity is next at about 2,000 years old, and Islam is the youngest at about 1,300 years old. 

Each of these religions traces itself back to 'Father Abraham', who they revere as the great founder of the Western religious tradition.  And this means that they each worship the God of Abraham, which is probably the most important point I can make here.

Judaism, Islam, and Christianity share a common God.  God's 'name' differs depending on whether you are speaking Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Arabic, but it would not be incorrect to simply translate their shared deity as 'God'.   Their (our) God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Moses, David, and Jesus.  The Catholic Church, mainline Protestantism, the major branches of Judaism, and Islam all agree on this point. 

Fundamentalist Christianity tries to assert that Islam's God is not the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  They are simply wrong in this, historically, philosophically, and theologically.

A serious difference does arise between the three faiths when you try to define God.  For both Judaism and Islam, God is one and undivided.  For Christians, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Trinity), though not all would agree on the meaning of this.  The divinity of Jesus is the most divisive doctrine between the three faiths, leading to much hard feeling and mutual antagonism on all sides.  Jews rejected Jesus, Christians rejected Jews, Muslims later reproved both Jews and Christians for their having departed from the original faith given to them in the Torah and the Gospel.

But the bottom line is, all three faiths worship the God of Abraham.  That must be the starting point for understanding Islam.  (To be continued.)

(Meaning of Arabic Calligraphy above: Allah is He besides Whom there is no god, the Everliving, the Self-subsisting by Whom all subsist; slumber does not overtake Him nor sleep; whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is His; who is he that can intercede with Him but by His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them, and they cannot comprehend anything out of His knowledge except what He pleases, His knowledge extends over the heavens and the earth, and the preservation of them both tires Him not, and He is the Most High, the Great.)

We Either Live Together Or We Die Together

The Spreading Disease of Islamophobia

What this controvery over the Islamic Community Center a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center in Manhatten (aka as the 'Ground Zero Mosque') reveals is the extent of real Islamophobia that infects our nation.  Islamophobia can be defined as 'an unreasonable prejudice againt Muslims and Islam, based on fear and/or hatred of them by the surrounding majority, non-Islamic culture.'

Up until a few years ago, there was real prejudice against black Americans, such that the notion of electing one as President seemed an impossibility.  One of the greatest gifts given to us as a nation (and really the world) by the election of Barack Obama is the proof that racial prejudice against black Americans has subsided in this country to much less than a majority of the people.  It took a long time to get there (over two centuries, counting from the birth of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights), but we made it, thank God.  Notice that I said "less than a majority of the people".  I think such prejudice is such a part of our human nature that we'll never totally eliminate it, unfortunately.  But I would rather have it at whatever it is now (20-25% maybe?), then what it historically was for most of our history.

Judeaphobia (aka anti-semitism) has always been a problem in America until recently as well.  But we almost elected a Jewish vice-president in 2000 (Senator Lieberman), and even the Christian Right has recently championed not only Jews but also the Zionist project of Israel (which is a distinctly different issue).  So we're making progress there as well.

But Islamophobia is going to be a tough one, for a number of reasons.  First of all, we are currently at war/occupying two primarily Islamic nations, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Never mind the fact that we count among our allies and friends many more Islamic nations (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Turkey, UAE, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc.).  Right now, what most people see is that our enemies, killing several of 'our boys' every day, are passionate, radical Muslims (Taliban and Al-Qaeda, primarily). 

Furthermore, most Americans know next to nothing of significance about the religion of Islam.  It is a huge, dark mystery to them.  At least when it came to African-Americans, they were mostly Christians.  When it came to Jews, most Americans (who are Christians) know something about and feel comfortable with the Jewish Scriptures (some of which we call 'the Old Testament' in our Christian bible).  But who's read the Muslim scriptures, the Koran?  I hadn't really read it thoroughly myself until about 4 years ago, when I taught a church study on it.  Most Americans, because they know so little about Islam, are ready to believe anything.  And on this issue, the misinformation that been dispensed by the Christian (ie. Franklin Graham) and Secular (ie. Rush Limbaugh) Right in this country is simply awful.

Thirdly, there aren't very many Muslims around us in America.  The last figure I saw was 2%, and a good many of them (I've seen the number of 40%) are black muslims, having converted from Christianity.  Furthermore, they tend to keep to themselves in terms of their faith (for good reason), and therefore again most people have very little exposure to their faith.

Fourthly and most recently, we now have ambitious politicians and media types using our ignorance of Islam to further their own goals and, in the process, trashing Islam as a pagan, violent, and wicked form of religion.  They should know better, but apparently they don't.  They didn't do this as much during the Presidency of George W. Bush, because he would have called them on it.  He always made it clear that Islam was NOT the enemy but rather those radicals and extremists who abused it and hijacked it.  But those pushing Islamophobia now think Obama himself is a Muslim, for god's sake (or at least some of them do), so there's not one at the top who can call these clowns out on this. 

These four reasons alone make it hard to see what it is that will provide a cure for this sickness of Islamophobia.  And it can do (is doing) a lot of damage to America, because there are something like 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, second only to Christians.  Deepening enmity between them and us does not bode well for our future.

Prejudice, Old and New

The advice of the critics of the Ground Zero Mosque reminds Michael Kinsley of old racial prejudices:
Imam Rauf and his followers, however, are not likely to be persuaded by the argument that, even though they had no connection whatever to the events of 9/11, their very presence near Ground Zero is upsetting to the sensitivities of 9/11 survivors and families. It is like telling blacks or Jews that they have every right to move into the neighborhood, but wouldn't they really be happier in some other neighborhood, not too far away, where the neighbors' sensistivities won't be offended? And--as Charles mentioned in both columns and obviously feels is important--the governor will even help you find one. That's how badly people don't want you around.

No offense.

Nutty Buddy

One of the more honest intellectuals of our day, Stephen Walt of Harvard, has this to say about the current state of the Right and the Republican Party:
Meanwhile, the supposedly "conservative" American right is getting nuttier by the minute. Instead of serious policy debate, it indulges in bizarre theories about Obama's religious beliefs, and his supposedly "socialist" (or "Muslim") agenda and takes its marching orders from entertainers like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (who once admitted he's only in it for the money). When the Party of Lincoln's leading lights include unprincipled opportunists like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, you know you're a long way from the days of Dwight Eisenhower or Brent Scowcroft.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Answer Was 'Yes'

I found these comments in a pre-2008 election issue of the New York Review of Books (not the New York Times) by Russell Baker. In hindsight, they seem to have been right on target.
Despite his seventy-two years, McCain has a giddy, impetuous quality more commonly associated with youth than Obama’s pensive gravity.

Watching McCain is entertaining. He seems never to have got over being a bomber pilot and notorious bad boy of the Naval Academy. It was the giddy, impetuous, bomber-pilot McCain who gave America Sarah Palin as the best possible right-wing Republican to be the next president of the United States and thus—to the delight of leading political wordsmiths—galvanized, electrified, and energized his party’s famous “base,” its indispensable army of Christian churchgoers.

Though he has sometimes worked well with Democrats to get legislative results, McCain also has the amateur chess player’s weakness for making an impulsive move just to see what will happen: thus his eleventh-hour intervention in the Wall Street crisis negotiations. In chess what almost always happens after the impulsive move is doom.

Obama lacks impetuosity, giddiness, and the zest for demagogic combat, or maybe he has simply been too well brought up to talk back to a man old enough to be his father. Or perhaps he is just another one of those cool Harvard Law Review cats who can’t field-dress a roasted chicken, much less a moose.

Obama seems to me very much like the Jack Kennedy who ran for president in 1960. Kennedy was the young candidate speaking for a new generation, insisting that it was their turn, pressing the old to get out of the way and let the earth turn.

At first everything seemed wrong about Kennedy. His speeches were too short. His accent was funny. His tailoring was too elegant. Above all, he was simply too young for a nation that thought presidents should look like Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt, or Hoover. He was forty-three years old. Many thought it amazing that a Catholic could be elected president.

The fascinating question this year is whether a black can be elected president.
And the answer, amazingly, was yes.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Big Divide

Ross Douthet of the NYT makes an important observation about how Islam is seen by two very different Americas:
There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

These two understandings of America, one constitutional and one cultural, have been in tension throughout our history. And they’re in tension again this summer, in the controversy over the Islamic mosque and cultural center scheduled to go up two blocks from ground zero.

The first America, not surprisingly, views the project as the consummate expression of our nation’s high ideals. “This is America,” President Obama intoned last week, “and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.” The construction of the mosque, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told New Yorkers, is as important a test of the principle of religious freedom “as we may see in our lifetimes.”

The second America begs to differ. It sees the project as an affront to the memory of 9/11, and a sign of disrespect for the values of a country where Islam has only recently become part of the public consciousness. And beneath these concerns lurks the darker suspicion that Islam in any form may be incompatible with the American way of life.

Spreading Democracy

While my daughter Sarahbeth was gone for the last month, I borrowed one of her college books to read.  Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower argues in the first couple of chapters that the new liberal democracies in Europe failed after WWI because (1) the constitutions were poorly constructed, and (2) people didn't actually want modern democracy but a society that worked.  The new democratic arrangements wilted between the passionate Communism on the Left and the fascist authoritarianism (as well as the lingering yearning for the old monarchies) on the Right.  Here's one paragraph:
Unambiguous support for democracy was thin on the ground throughout Europe. Guglielmo Ferrero remarked in 1925 that democracy's failure in Italy was chiefly due to the lack of a strong democratic party. But not only in Italy. The core group of old-time liberals were marginal figures in the inter-war years, their battles largely won with the defeat of monarchs and aristocracies....Mass suffrage threatened them with a marginal political role in the face of the great parties of the Left, of conservatism and nationalism, and of Catholicism. Fear of communism, in particular, drew many liberals toward authoritarian solutions. They were joined there by other kinds of elitists--the social engineers, business managers and technocrats, who wanted scientific, apolitical solutions to society's ills and were impatient with the instability and incompetence of parliamentary rule.

Many conservatives, for their part, were no happier with inter-war democracy and were keen to see a return to more elitist, aristocratic and occasionally even monarchical modes of governnment. For them the problem with democracy lay in the power it gave the masses, in the supposed incompatibility of democracy and authority. They were prone to attack democracy on ethical grounds too. It placed too much stress on rights and not enough on duties. It had bred egotism and sectional self-interest and had thus contributed to its own downfall by failing to encourage a civic consciousness or a sense of community....
Now, if this was true in early 20th century Europe, the most democratic part of the world (other than America), then how successful can 'liberal democracy' possibility be in places where 'the democratic support on the ground' is super thin? For example, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last night in that Rachel Maddow interview with the Iraqi family, after saying the government couldn't even provide electricity, the father of the family said that what he wanted was 'one leader'.  Doesn't sound like parliamentary democracy's going to succeed there either.

Which leads me to this final citation about the purposes of our being in Iraq.  A veteran of Iraq had spent his time in Iraq trying to train Iraq troops and had very little support in doing so from his American army superiors.  He believed we were there to spead democracy. But after returning home to America and ruminating on the purposes of the invasion and occupation, the soldier said this in The American Conservative:
I returned home in September 2005, grateful and safe, but stripped of the illusions I had taken with me. My experience proved that contrary to countless official pronouncements, the Bush administration has no interest in the Iraqi army training program. We were fighting a war to establish permanent bases in Iraq to better manipulate the flow of Middle East oil. For if this war was about human rights, why were we not in Rwanda? If our mission was about bringing democracy to a region, then why were we not in Cuba? And if the intelligence leading up to this war was merely faulty, why was no one fired?

I believed in my mission, and I wanted the Iraqis I was training to run their own country. But this wasn’t an American priority, and I left Mosul feeling that my efforts were either erased or ignored.
Military bases and oil.  Maintaining, if not expanding, the American Empire.  That's why we're over there.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Results of Our Trillion Dollar War in Iraq: A Democracy That Doesn't Work

Rachel Maddow just broadcast from Iraq, where she interviewed a family.  The main complaint they had: no electricity.  Then I read this in The American Conservative:
Washington waits and waits while constantly demanding that Iraq’s government function properly—that its leaders compromise and work together, that it at least provide electricity, trash pick-up, and minimal services to its citizens. Yet all this is impossible because of the structure of government America set up there. Hopelessly dysfunctional, it was doomed from the start.

There is simply no way Iraq’s government could or can succeed. Think first how we destroyed its civil structure—its police, civil service, most of its functions of government, even schoolteachers were fired en masse. Then it’s easier to comprehend that Washington also set up an unworkable government.

Emerging Adulthood--What's Happening To The 20s

What's happening to those in their 20s, from the NYT:
It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be — on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.

Getting to what we would generally call adulthood is happening later than ever. But why? That’s the subject of lively debate among policy makers and academics. To some, what we’re seeing is a transient epiphenomenon, the byproduct of cultural and economic forces. To others, the longer road to adulthood signifies something deep, durable and maybe better-suited to our neurological hard-wiring. What we’re seeing, they insist, is the dawning of a new life stage — a stage that all of us need to adjust to.

Occupation, Not War

I've been thinking about the previous post "The Second Fake Ending of the Iraq War".  What I realize is that the Iraq War is over and has been over for some time.  That much is true.  The phase we are in now is 'occupation'.  We continue to occupy Iraq, with 50,000 troops, and probably another 50,000 private contractors, etc.  It is not a peaceful occupation exactly, but it's not 'hot' war either.

How long will we occupy Iraq in this fashion?  My guess is for a very long time, given the fairly strategic location of Iraq.  The cost of this occupation?  Certainly many, many billions of dollars.  I just saw that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the war and its aftermath (occupation) will cost over one trillion dollars by 2017.

And what do we gain in return?  Yes, what do we gain...that's a good question which no one seems to be interested in talking about.  For what exactly will we have spent a trillion dollars?   Not to speak of all the lives destroyed and seriously damaged, both American, allied, and Iraqi. 

More and more commentators are admitting the Iraq War was all a big mistake... premised on lies and misunderstandings.  Yes, yes, I know, a vicious dictator was removed, and a semblance of democracy created.  That seems to be the answer as to why.  Our national mission in life seems to be to remove dictators everywhere and spread democracy to every land.  Wonder if the Founders would have approved of that?

Now we're doing it again two countries over in Afghanistan.  Invasion, 'putting down' the insurgency, occupation, building a 'democracy'.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and private contractors.  Billions more dollars being spent.  Many thousands more people, militants and innocent civilians alike, being killed and maimed by our amazing military machine.

Meanwhile, the economy of the US continues to implode, with millions of people out of work, public debt exploding, federal, state, and local budgets shrinking, the standard of living for the average person declining, the political pot boiling because many people are enraged and striking out at any nearby political target.

But the merry American empire goes on as if nothing is wrong.  Is there no connection here?  Doesn't this huge military establishment we have built take away from other things we need?  Doesn't every tank or plane we build mean that we can't build a new train system or a school or keep our budget in balance?  Of course that's what it means.  Our military is simply the biggest government program around, beloved for some reason by anti-government Conservatives and tax-hating Republicans.  We can't afford it, but we're going to do it anyway. 

Let's see, what country can we invade next?  Who wants to be free?

When Push Comes to Shove

Now here's an interesting quote!
When a constitution proves itself to be useless, the nation does not die--the constitution is altered.
You're not going to believe who said this bit of wisdom.

Adolph Hitler in 1931, to German Chancellor Bruning.  Two years later, Hitler slightly altered the German Constitution.

Intel America

One of our big strengths as Americans--perhaps the biggest--is the pluralism of our people and culture, with different nationalities, races and religions all mixing together. 

Sometimes we view this as a liability--such as with the current immigration or the 'Ground Zero' Islamic center controversies.  But looking back just a little further historically, it is definitely our strength.  English, Scots-Irish, German, French, Scandinavian, and Dutch from Western Europe adding their strengths together, along with the Africans originally brought to our shores against their will....followed by Italian, Greek, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Russian, Jews, etc. from a little further east and south.  Add to that the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Philippinos, Indonesians, and other Asians, along with the Turks, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, Afghanis, Iranians, Indians, and Pakistanis from the Middle East, Central and South Asia.  Add to that Mexican, Central American, Columbian, Brazilian, Argentinian from south of the border.  A true rainbow of humanity all come to America (everybody sing..."on the boats and on the planes, they're comin' to America...free, only want to be free, we huddle close, and hang on to our dream."  by Neil Diamond.) 

And among these folk are persons from each of the great world religions: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist.  And increasingly these religions are being mixed and matched into new forms and creeds, or even no creed at all.

Which of these are you (or more than one, as is probably the case)?  I personally am fairly homogenous--75% Swedish and 25% German, but my wife is a European hybrid.  And we are Christians.

You probably know and admire someone from many of these nationalities and religions.   You probably eat their food from one of the numerous restaurants we each pass by every day.  Each one of them (us!) brings some strength and virtue to our new world, don't you think?   

Okay, we can all admit that we can no longer have completely 'open borders'.  There has to be laws that  control admission to the country.  You need a passport to come in and some kind of legal status to stay.  Let's get that in place and enforce it.  (Agreed, Mr. Conservative Businessman who likes to hire cheap, undocumented laborers and who doesn't want any real restrictions?)

But we don't have to go to the other extreme and become obsessed with outsiders and foreigners...that is the way of the KKK and other nativists, who have done little that is positive for our nation and much that is harmful.  The problems we are having are NOT being caused by immigrants.  I would be willing to debate that contention with anyone, and I'm pretty confident I would win, simply because we are/were all immigrants (with the possible exception of full-blooded American Indians)!

So let's stop obsessing about the Muslims, the Arabs, the Mexicans, the ______ (you fill in the blank) as if they're all terrorists and enemies and undesirables.  They're not, and we just make ourselves look foolish to the rest of the world doing that.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Second Fake Ending of the Iraq War

So the Iraq War has ended?  Nah!!!!!!
It was another of those great TV moments. Embedded reports filming as the “last” brigade of American troops in Iraq cross the border into Kuwait bringing over seven years of unhappy conflict to its final, conclusive end. America was, at last, at peace.

But like so many other great TV moments, this one was a scripted fantasy, a fake exit done purely for political gain by an increasingly unpopular president trying to look like he is keeping at least one campaign promise.

It was perhaps a different sort of scripted, mythical end to the Iraq War than the last one, the May 1, 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech of President Bush, but it was no more real, as over 50,000 US troops remain on the ground in Iraq tonight.

The “end of the war” may bring some measure of relief to the American people, but it must be something of a sombre moment for those 50,000 troops, as they continue to go into combat operations with the bulk of the American public believing, because their president told them so, that the war is over and combat operations have ended.

Officials have been pretty straightforward about what really happened, not that it has been picked up by the media, which has preferred the more pleasant narrative of a decisive military victory. Instead, the US simply “redefined” the vast majority of its combat troops as “transitional troops,” then removed a brigade that they didn’t relabel, so they could claim that was the “last one.” Even this comes with the assumption that the State Department, and a new army of contractors, will take over for years after the military operations end, assuming they ever do.

And it worked, at least for now. All is right with the world and the war is over, at least so far as anyone could tell from the TV news shows. But as violence continues to rise across Iraq, and July saw the worst violence in over two years, it will likely be difficult for the Obama Administration to keep this war a secret for much longer.
So, does anyone really believe this stuff?  Oh yeah....they believe it!

"We Are the Ones Who Pay"

Jeff Snyder writes about being asked to bail out Wall Street:

In his remarks upon signing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act on July 21, 2010, President Obama said that "the American people will never again be asked to foot the bill for Wall Street’s mistakes." This was one of the most quoted sound bites in main stream media accounts of the passage of this historic legislation, and rightly so. What better statement from the speech so forcefully and unconditionally conveys Obama’s promise of Hope and Change?

I have waited and waited thinking that surely someone, somewhere would blurt out the obvious riposte to this Presidential claim, and point out the awful significance of the truth, but to date, I have not seen it. So I feel I simply must say it now, or burst.

We will never be asked again to foot the bill for Wall Street’s mistakes? Again? Hey Congress and President, here’s a dose of truth for you! We weren’t asked to bail out Wall Street the first time! There was absolutely nothing voluntary about it. The financial system threatened a complete meltdown only about two years ago, and I still remember exactly what happened. You and the private banking cartel known as the Federal Reserve just bailed it out. In fact, I pretty clearly recall that when then Treasury Secretary and ex-Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson was demanding $700 billion in TARP funds from Congress, making threats that Americans would turn feral if the banking system collapsed and warning Congress that it would have to declare martial law, the American public, which wasn’t asked but which freely volunteered its opinions anyway, disapproved of the bailouts about 99 to 1. I also recall that the American people overwhelmingly opposed the bailout of General Motors as well, but you did it anyway. So Obama, thanks for the reassurance and the noble pledge, if that’s what you think they are, but I’m not really losing any sleep worrying about whether I’ll be asked again to foot the bill for Wall Street’s "mistakes," because I know that asking and listening to the public are absolutely no part of the process. We are the ones who pay. That pretty well sums up our entire role in the system.

Terrorism Is Not Religious, It's Just a Crime

Terrorism isn't 'Islamic' or 'Christian' or 'Jewish' or 'Hindu' or (funny, I don't think Buddhists are ever terrorists)....it's just a crime.  Hijacking a great world religion to try and justify the crime is understandable, but no one should buy it for a minute.

On the Edge of a Precipice

This article is interesting in its analysis of the fundamental weakness of the US (and Western) economy.  It is by a Swiss banker.

Fighting Islamic Extremism

William Dalrymple writes an Op-Ed in the NYT today about the misperceptions of Islam in America:
The problem with such claims [by Newt Gingrich and others] goes far beyond the fate of a mosque in downtown Manhattan. They show a dangerously inadequate understanding of the many divisions, complexities and nuances within the Islamic world — a failure that hugely hampers Western efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism and to reconcile Americans with peaceful adherents of the world’s second-largest religion.

Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors.

Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith. Had the George W. Bush administration been more aware of the irreconcilable differences between the Salafist jihadists of Al Qaeda and the secular Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the United States might never have blundered into a disastrous war, and instead kept its focus on rebuilding post-Taliban Afghanistan while the hearts and minds of the Afghans were still open to persuasion.

Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative is one of America’s leading thinkers of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam, which in terms of goals and outlook couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists. His videos and sermons preach love, the remembrance of God (or “zikr”) and reconciliation. His slightly New Agey rhetoric makes him sound, for better or worse, like a Muslim Deepak Chopra. But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination.

For such moderate, pluralistic Sufi imams are the front line against the most violent forms of Islam. In the most radical parts of the Muslim world, Sufi leaders risk their lives for their tolerant beliefs, every bit as bravely as American troops on the ground in Baghdad and Kabul do. Sufism is the most pluralistic incarnation of Islam — accessible to the learned and the ignorant, the faithful and nonbelievers — and is thus a uniquely valuable bridge between East and West.

A 2007 study by the RAND Corporation found that Sufis’ open, intellectual interpretation of Islam makes them ideal “partners in the effort to combat Islamist extremism.”

Sufism is an entirely indigenous, deeply rooted resistance movement against violent Islamic radicalism. Whether it can be harnessed to a political end is not clear. But the least we can do is to encourage the Sufis in our own societies. Men like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf should be embraced as vital allies, and we should have only contempt for those who, through ignorance or political calculation, attempt to conflate them with the extremists.

Islamophobia, the New Anti-Semitism

Columnist Eric Margolis writes:
What we are seeing is an eruption of cultivated anti-Muslim hatred that has been building up for the past nine years since 9/11. Openly attacking Muslims has become the last acceptable public prejudice.

Islamophobia has become the mantra of the right, not only in the US, but across Europe.

I saw the first signs of Islamophobia fifteen years ago when I interviewed Jean Marie Le Pen, France’s far right, Vichyite leader. "Muslims are invading Europe," he told me. "They are spreading crime and disease. We must drive them out."

Today, we witness Islamophobia in normally sensible, levelheaded nations like Denmark, Holland, Britain, Belgium, France and Switzerland.

Hatred and fear of Muslims has become as much a central creed of the right’s thinking as was right-wing hatred and fear-mongering about Jews in 1930’s Europe. Simply replace the word "Muslim" with "Jews" in today’s anti-Islamic screeds and the evil flavor of the 1930’s is revived.

Few politicians or media have dared tell Americans the truth about the real cause of 9/11. Instead, we have had a steady outpouring of junk psychological clap trap about how Islam is a sick religion; how Muslims are innately violent; and how "Islamofascism" supposedly menaces America.

The dragon teeth of religious hatred planted by the Bush administration, and nurtured by the neocons and religious far right, are blooming.

Islam had no more to do with 9/11 than Christianity did with World War II. The men who staged the attacks were Muslims, and spoke in its idiom, as most Muslims do, but their inspiration for this awful act was punishing the US for Palestine, overthrowing Mideast governments, expropriating resources, and imposing brutal tyrannies on the Muslim world.

A Lovely Fellow

Here's a chilling interview I found from 2002 between Studs Terkel and Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Studs Terkel: Do you have any idea what happened down below?

Paul Tibbets: Pandemonium! I think it's best stated by one of the historians, who said: "In one micro-second, the city of Hiroshima didn't exist."

Studs Terkel: You came back, and you visited President Truman.

Paul Tibbets: We're talking 1948 now. I'm back in the Pentagon and I get notice from the chief of staff, Carl Spaatz, the first chief of staff of the air force. When we got to General Spaatz's office, General Doolittle was there, and a colonel named Dave Shillen. Spaatz said, "Gentlemen, I just got word from the president he wants us to go over to his office immediately." On the way over, Doolittle and Spaatz were doing some talking; I wasn't saying very much. When we got out of the car we were escorted right q uick to the Oval Office.

There was a black man there who always took care of Truman's needs and he said, "General Spaatz, will you please be facing the desk?" And now, facing the desk, Spaatz is on the right, Doolittle and Shillen. Of course, militarily speaking, that's the correct order: because Spaatz is senior, Doolittle has to sit to his left. Then I was taken by this man and put in the chair that was right beside the president's desk, beside his left hand. Anyway, we got a cup of coffee and we got most of it consumed when Truman walked in and everybody stood on their feet.

He said, "Sit down, please," and he had a big smile on his face and he said, "General Spaatz, I want to congratulate you on being first chief of the Air Force," because it was no longer the air corps. Spaatz said, "Thank you, sir, it's a great honor and I appreciate it." And he said to Doolittle: "That was a magnificent thing you pulled flying off of that carrier," and Doolittle said, "All in a day's work, Mr. President." And he looked at Dave Shillen and said, "Colonel Shillen, I want to congratulate you on having the foresight to recognize the potential in aerial refueling. We're gonna need it bad some day." And he said thank you very much.

Then he looked at me for 10 seconds and he didn't say anything. And when he finally did, he said, "What do you think?" I said, "Mr. President, I think I did what I was told." He slapped his hand on the table and said: "You're damn right you did, and I'm the guy who sent you. If anybody gives you a hard time about it, refer them to me."

Studs Terkel: Anybody ever give you a hard time?

Paul Tibbets: Nobody gave me a hard time.

Leaving Iraq?

How is it that 'leaving Iraq' means still having 50,000 troops there plus God-knows-how-many private contractors and CIA agents and American government personnel?  That's the kind of Alice in Wonderland world we're living in these days.

Demanding Change

Arianna Huffington writes:
In a post about last month's Netroots Nation gathering in Las Vegas, Matt Yglesias wrote that at this year's event, "the dominant mood" was "depressed" and that he could feel a "considerable degree of ill will toward Barack Obama and his administration."

Those in the "disappointed" camp maintain that Obama presented himself one way to gain their support during the campaign and then, once he had it, ended up governing another way, turning his energies to winning over Republicans instead of changing the game in Washington. As Paul Krugman puts it, "Why does the Obama administration keep looking for love in all the wrong places? Why does it go out of its way to alienate its friends, while wooing people who will never waver in their hatred?"

Those in the "not disappointed" camp claim it's not Obama's fault. He's the same Obama he was during the campaign, they say, and cite a host of logistical and structural reasons for why he had to make all the compromises. Among them: the huge mess left by the Bush administration; the deeper than expected financial crisis; the abuse of the filibuster by Senate Republicans; the intransigence of Blue Dog Democrats; the rise of the Tea Party movement; the right-wing attack machine; a media addicted to the notion of "bipartisanship." The list goes on and on.

So which side in the "disappointed/not disappointed" debate is right? And what accounts for this friction? Well, after two years of seeing a pattern being established, I think I have the answer. Progressives, for your own good, it's my duty to point something out to you: the president's just not that into you.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Judging Islam By Its Violent Fundamentalists and Kooks

"They (the Muslims) have a right to build a mosque near Ground Zero in NYC, but should they?"

That seems to be the majority consensus right now in the country, with some putting more emphasis on the first half and many more on the second half of the sentence, including some Democrats like Harry Reid and apparently even President Obama.

As for me, this is all a very ignorant discussion.  It is incredibly narrow-minded and bigoted to paint all Muslims as violent, anti-Christian, anti-American radicals.  Of course they (1.2 billion around the world) are not, and anyone who knows Islam (like more of us should know Islam) should know that. 

The 9/11 terrorists were fundamentalist, politicized Muslims, representing a narrow, radicalized, modernist aberration of an acknowledged world religion.  We Christians have our analogue, in the person of Eric Rudolph, Timothy McVeigh, Jim Jones, David Koresh (and this list could go on for quite a while, and I would probably include those militarized Christians who enjoy invading other countries in Jesus' name). 

What if the world only understood Christianity or judged Christianity on the basis of its kooks and extremists?  (In fact, that is what happens, since the world mainly sees the fundamentalist Christians who dominate the media...I rarely see anyone representing the way I and most of my pastoral peers think.)  We would think they were being unreasonable and bigoted. 

That is what we're doing to the Muslims in this country and hundreds of millions more around the world.  Judging them all on the basis of a few 'bad apples' and extremists.  It's ridiculous...and wrong.

Getting Beyond the Partisan Hype

Tom Friedman makes sense today:
There are no quick fixes. In America and Europe, we are going to need some big structural fixes to get back on a sustained growth path — changes that will require a level of political consensus and sacrifice that has been sorely lacking in most countries up to now.

The first big structural problem is America’s. We’ve just ended more than a decade of debt-fueled growth during which we borrowed money from China to give ourselves a tax cut and more entitlements but did nothing to curtail spending or make long-term investments in new growth engines. Now our government owes more than ever and has more future obligations than ever — like expanded Medicare prescription drug benefits, expanded health care, an expanded war in Afghanistan and expanded Social Security payments (because the baby boomers are about to retire) — and less real growth to pay for it all.

America will probably need some added stimulus to kick start employment, but any stimulus right now must be in growth-enabling investments that will yield more than their costs, or they just increase debt. That means investments in skill building and infrastructure plus tax incentives for starting new businesses and export promotion. To get a stimulus through Congress it must be paired with spending cuts and/or tax increases timed for when the economy improves.

Second, America’s solvency inflection point is coinciding with a technological one. Thanks to Internet diffusion, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and the shift from laptops and desktops to hand-held iPads and iPhones, technology is destroying older, less skilled jobs that paid a decent wage at a faster pace than ever while spinning off more new skilled jobs that pay a decent wage but require more education than ever.

There is only one way to deal with this challenge: more innovation to stimulate new industries and jobs that can pay workers $40 an hour, coupled with a huge initiative to train more Americans to win these jobs over their global competitors. There is no other way....

The president needs to take America’s labor, business and Congressional leadership up to Camp David and not come back without a grand bargain for taxes, trade promotion, energy, stimulus and budget cutting that offers the market some certainty that we are moving together — not just on a bailout but on an economic rebirth for the 21st century. “Fat chance,” you say. Well then, I say get ready for a long phase of stubborn unemployment and anemic growth.