Calvinism, atheism, and Hinduism


A journalist associated with NPR made some prejudiced comments about Hinduism, and she is probably going to get in trouble. By the name, her background is that of a South Asian Muslim.

One of my immediate reactions is that this sort of comment about Hinduism is very common among South Asian Muslims. Growing up people would joke about Hindus drinking piss and obsessing over cow dung all the time. This is a widespread private comment, and this woman’s mask just dropped in public.

But, there is another aspect that emerged in discussion with a Hindu reader of this blog: the Muslims making these sort of jokes were not the very pious, but the more liberal and secular sort. Extremely religious Muslims did not talk about Hinduism in jocular terms, because they feared Hinduism.

This actually goes back something foundational in the Abrahamic religions, and that is the Hebrew suspicion and fear of foreign gods. Note that in the Hebrew Bible the Israelites repeatedly turned away from Jehovah, and sacrificed to the gods of the Canaanites. These religions and cults were tempting. The original Hebrews were clearly henotheistic, not monotheistic in a deep metaphysical sense. They did not reject the existence of other gods but were devoted to a particular god, their own tribal god.

In the Greco-Roman period, Jewish and Christian thought took the next step: they demonized the gods who were not their God. When I say they demonized the gods who were not their God, I mean demonized in a literal sense. The early Christians believed that the pagans worshipped demons, who were deceiving humans as to their true nature. These religions were not false religions because people worshipped the non-existent, but because they worshipped evil or deceptive beings who were not the true God.

There are still Christians who hold to the old ways. Some evangelical Protestants believe they are in a spiritual “war” with devils who are all around us. Which brings me to Calvinism. There is a line of argumentation that John Calvin and his heirs “rationalized” Christianity to such an extent that they drained the demons and supernatural from the universe. They were atheists and materialists except for the exception of their one God and his retinue.  This was a sharp break with the older Christian tradition, whereby the gods of other religions were false gods, but real gods (after a fashion).

I don’t know what I think about this argument, though it seems plausible. But, the sort of Muslim who makes fun of Hindus has been shaped by this way of thinking. They do not fear Hinduism. They do not think that Hindus believe in anything real. Their gods are no-gods. In contrast, many devout Muslims believe Hindus worship devils.

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Pebbles dropped in the Brownpundits pond

a bumpy ride from the void, geographically and legally envisioned, via strategy to complexity and fiction, winding up in Rushdie territory with his Quichotte

Just a few odds and ends that spark, I suppose, evens and beginnings.

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The Mandarin, The rocky road to reconciliation in Australia

the British declare Australia terra nullius, a place belonging to no one. The land is most definitely not a ‘null’, but the doctrine of terra nullius is a convenient legal cover for theft on a colossal scale.

Terra nullius — is that the legal equivalent of a cartographer’s here there be dragons?

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Also a nullius matter?

Moot for real or mootness as gamesmanship?” the legendary Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse asked in The New York Times.

That’s from Garrett Epps, ‘The Supreme Court Is Not Well. And the People Know It.’ in the Atlantic.

A moot law is a null law, surely. But though both are fascinating, neither one addresses the viod plenum which so interests me. Still..

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Continuing my meander through one level of abstraction above regular reality..

WOTR, THE GREAT DUALITY AND THE FUTURE OF THE ARMY: DOES TECHNOLOGY FAVOR THE OFFENSIVE OR DEFENSIVE?

In war, firepower favors the defensive and maneuver favors the offensive.

Hm. Assuming this is common knowledge, having two doctrines is one thing — but how many generals have two mindsets, and can switch between them as appropriate. I’m hoping some of our strategy buffs will weigh in here. This is abstract enough to catch my eye, but war is gritty enough that even strategic thinking comes with trench mud and blood attached.

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A Brexit madman or master bluffer? What’s behind Boris Johnson’s suspension of UK Parliament

Game theory – the study of strategy and decision making – offers some clues. In the language of game theory, Johnson faces a serious “credibility” problem. He needs to convince the various players in the Brexit game – including the EU as a whole, Ireland, MPs in the House of Commons, the public and businesses – that he will indeed have the UK leave the EU, if need be, without a deal in place, on the October deadline.

Currently, many of these players do not truly believe that he would – perhaps informed by the inaction of the government of Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, or the high stakes involved of leaving without a deal.

Hm, a governmental void as strategy.

That excerpt offers a neat illustration of why human decision-making is so complex and, by extension, fallible

It also illustrates the utility of a HipBone-variant game board for carrying the voices of multiple stakeholders in mind at once — a polyphony (multiple voices) in counterpoint (point counter point) —

Time, clipping the wings of possibility, increases tension at a decision fork where, as another Channel News Asia article also notes, Britain is in its “deepest crisis in living memory”.

Okay:

Complexity? the national and international interests, personal interests, thoughts, and feelings of all participants, as above. How good is Boris Johnson at evaluating all those influences?

After a long period of digestion, I’m willing to believe a novelist or TV showrunner might be able to capture the web of influences involved. But that’s after the fact, after the fork — after fatal decisions have been made. And we call them fatal both because they produce fatalities, and because the Fates, the Moirae spin them.

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For instance:

To face a people and catch its characteristics as if being confronted by just one person is practically impossible especially when the intention is to give an admonition… or suggest a way to govern it. It is much safer to rely on literature, on the way writers have represented her life, her way of being, the constant mobility of her reality and the variety present in the characters described.

That’s from an account of Sicily and its Mafia connections, but the novel offering access to the understanding of a people by means of the interplay of characters..?

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Meanwhile right here at Brownpundits..

Dr Hamid Hussain, An Extension for General Bajwa

:Bless the British who instilled a sense of professionalism in officer corps that has taken a big hit in successor Indian and Pakistani armies. The most scathing criticism came from Lieutenant General Nathu Singh of Indian army who said, “I have not known a British officer who placed his own interests before his country’s, and I have hardly known any Indian officer who did not”

That’s quite a tribute —

the master gamekeeper at the national park

Just for the phrasing..

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& finally:

somewhere between a pinball machine and a three-dimensional game of snakes and ladders

That’s not a description of goepolitical life in the Presidency of Trump, it’s praise for Salman Rushdie‘s upcoming novel
, upcoming my way at least, I hope, Quichotte

Enough!

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DoubleQuoting Myanmar and Assam..

It’s the first quote that carries the implication of genocide, but what of the rest?

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It’s not a joke, is it? Myanmar..

The United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention warns of certain indicators that “provide an environment conducive to the commission of atrocity crimes,” including “increased politicization of identity” and discriminatory “measures or legislation” targeting protected groups. In addition to certain prohibited acts, such as killing members of a group, genocidal States often use legal and administrative tools to facilitate the destruction of a targeted group “in whole or in part.”

In Myanmar, successive governments have implemented measures and legislation to erase Rohingya Muslims’ identity and rights, creating an enabling environment for genocide.

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It’s not a joke, is it? Assam..

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi today expressed his concern over the publication of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) that may put large numbers of people in India’s north-eastern state of Assam at risk of becoming stateless.

It is too early to say what the nationality status of those left off the National Register, some 1.9 million according to the authorities, may ultimately be. UNHCR is concerned, however, that many are at risk of statelessness if they do not possess another nationality.

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That’s a DoubleQuote — but it’s also pattern recognition, and the start of a possible concatenation of such quotes — a mala of urgencies.

BTW, it’s more than possible, as Myanmar >> Bangladesh migration illustrates, that mass migration across national borders may be a pragmatic alternative to genocide — but that threatens national sovereignty, doesn’t it?

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A couple of instances of Christianity in the world around us

I saw Omar Ali yesterday — terrific conversation — and when I asked what topics I should discuss here, he suggested I post whatever interests me — so here’s the anointing of Brazilian strong-man Bolsonaro, and hymn singing in Hong Kong.

Religious behavior in general fascinates me — but when it affects politics, people often don’t realize what powerful motivation it can provide.

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Religion can be coercive, as in the anointing of Bolsonaro

see video

— Remember the laying on of hands over Donald Trump? The overarching authority of religion has Trump bow his head, but sets Bolsonaro on his knees! —

— and religion can be liberating —

see video

— That’s a crowd of protesters in Hong Kong singing “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”.

Remarkable.

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From Reuters in June:

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord’ an unlikely anthem of Hong Kong protests

For the past week, the hymn has been heard almost non-stop at the main protest site, in front of the city’s Legislative Council, and at marches and even at tense stand-offs with the police.

It started with a group of Christian students who sang several religious songs at the main protest site, with “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” catching on among the crowd, even though only about 10 percent of Hong Kong people are Christian.

“This was the one people picked up, as it is easy for people to follow, with a simple message and easy melody,” said Edwin Chow, 19, acting president of the Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students.

The hymn is simple, optimistic yet adds a touch of solemnity and calm to the proceedings, and also affords some legal protection to the protesters —

The students sang the songs in the hope of providing a cover of legitimacy for the protest. Religious gatherings can be held without a permit in the financial hub.

“As religious assemblies were exempt, it could protect the protesters. It also shows that it is a peaceful protest,” Chow said.

The hymn was composed in 1974 by Linda Stassen-Benjamin in the United States for Easter. Its five words are repeated over four stanzas in a minor key, which gives it an air of meditative solemnity.

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Between the anointing of a dictator and the hymn singing of a crowd of protesters demanding democratic freedoms from the Chinese state, we have quite an instructive confluence of ways in which religion can enter the public square.

No doubt there are others. In Nepal, there’s the tantric cultus of the goddess Kubjikaa. What’s religion up to in your neck of the woods?

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Invisibility, Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, and the goddess Kubjikaa

It’s like a waterfall: you stumble on an idea that comes from the mouth of Doug Coe, describing the principle behind the influence of The Family, of which he was the long-time leader —

— and it turns out the same principle is referenced in an article on surveillance in Defense One

— only to re-emerge in Dr Mark SG Dyczkowski‘s work on the tradition, philosophy and practice of the goddess Kubjikaa.

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There’s clearly a principle at work here that could find application in many fields, contexts, silos — and the concatenation of such instances is itself a demonstration of the value of silo-breaking thinking.

FWIW, I wouldn’t have so much as heard of the Goddess Kubjikaa were it not for my half-century friendship with Mark Dyczkowski, to whom I owe so much, and into the waters of whose scholarship so deep I have dipped no more than a toe.

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How Islam’s greatness redounds to Indian religion


Reading a paper on Yemen made me realize something that is quite bizarre upon reflection: the greater the evidence of Islam’s transformative power, the greater the miracle and robustness of Indian religion in the face of its expansion. To me, Islam’s demographic impact is clear when it comes to Sub-Saharan African ancestry. Though some of the admixture into Near Eastern and Mediterranean populations predates the Islamic era, most of it always seems to date to the last 1,000 years.

Whatever the ideological merits of Islam, the Islamic civilization had massive economic, social, and demographic consequences as seen in the genes. It took the culture of Iran and transformed its religion.

Which takes me to India: the more impactful Islam seems to me, the more amazing it is that India remained 75% non-Muslim on the eve of partition. The most Islam-skeptic Indians tend to be pro-Hindu, but historical evidence of Islam’s power and influence actually suggest that Hinduism is something very special as a cultural complex.

Note: I say “Indian religion” to side-step semantic arguments about Hinduism. Ironically, I think modern elite Hinduism probably emerged and developed around the same time as Islam itself, though proto-Hindu beliefs are clearly very old.

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Climate change: impact on the Hajj


The Hajj, Mecca

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Since I posted my poem Mourning the lost Kaaba in late November 2017 — though not, I imagine, because of my poem — a report on the likely impact of climate change on the annual Hajj pilgrimage has come out from scientists at MIT and Loyola Marymount:

Kang, Pal, & Eltahir, Future Heat Stress During Muslim Pilgrimage (Hajj) Projected to Exceed “Extreme Danger” Levels

Here’s the abstract:

The Muslim pilgrimage or Hajj, which is one of the five pillars of Muslim faith, takes place outdoors in and surrounding Mecca in the Saudi Arabian desert. The U.S. National Weather Service defines an extreme danger heat stress threshold which is approximately equivalent to a wet?bulb temperature of about 29.1 °C—a combined measure of temperature and humidity. Here, based on results of simulations using an ensemble of coupled atmosphere/ocean global climate models, we project that future climate change with and without mitigation will elevate heat stress to levels that exceed this extreme danger threshold through 2020 and during the periods of 2047 to 2052 and 2079 to 2086, with increasing frequency and intensity as the century progresses. If climate change proceeds on the current trajectory or even on a trajectory with considerable mitigation, aggressive adaptation measures will be required during years of high heat stress risk.

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That’s the science — and while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the G20 in June that the Saudis are committed to “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the negative effects of climate change,” beliefs concerning the Prophet’s institution of the Hajj in 632 CE following on earlier Abrahamic practice may well clash with scientific claims that the Hajj may become impossible for future devout Muslims to observe.

What happens, then, when this divine command intersects with increasing temperatures that eventually render Mecca uninhabitable? How do the climate change scientists fare when they sit across the table from the ulema, the scholar-clergy of Islam?

From a Muslim point of view, we’d better climate-correct, and do so fast:

Shahin Ashraf, We must stop climate change before it makes Hajj impossible

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The issue I’ve raised above is tightly focused on one sanctuary, one religion, one pilgrimage. Below are some other major pilgrimage sites to consider in light of climate change:

I would be interested in the cross-disciplinary exploration of the impact of climate change as understood by the scientific consensus, global migration patterns now and as expected in the coming years, and the devotional rituals and ceremonials of the various religions involved.

Large pilgrimages and religious ceremonials

This list draws text from Wikipedia and other online information sites.

Kumbh Mela:

Allahabad, India, 120 million devotees, every 12 years. The Prayag Kumbh Mela is a mela held every 12 years at Allahabad, India. The fair involves ritual bathing at Triveni Sangam, the meeting points of three rivers: the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Sarasvati. The Kumbh Mela in 2013 became the largest religious gathering in the world with almost 120 million visitors.

Arba’een:

Karbala, Iraq, 30 million pilgrims annually. The Arba’een Pilgrimage is the world’s largest annual public gathering, held every year in Karbala, Iraq at the end of the 40-day mourning period following Ashura, the religious ritual for the commemoration of martyrdom of the grandson of Prophet Mohammad and the third Shia Imam, Husayn ibn Ali’s in 680. Anticipating Arba’een, or the fortieth day of the martyrdom, the pilgrims make their journey to Karbala on foot,where Husayn and his companions were martyred and beheaded by the army of Yazid I in the Battle of Karbala. The number of participants in the annual pilgrimage reached 30 million or more by 2016.

Papal Mass

Philippines, 7 million adherents, occasional. Pope Francis’ apostolic and state visit to the Philippines garnered a record breaking crowd of 7 million people. The mass conducted by the pope was the largest gathering in papal history.

Makara Jyothi

India, 5 million pilgrims annually. This pilgrim center and temple is located amidst a dense forest in the southern region of India. It was visited by over 5 million pilgrims in 2007 for a festival known as ‘Makara Jyothi,’ occurring annually on the 14 of January. Although the Sabarimala Temple, site of the Makara Jyothi celebration) draws a crowd of 50 million visitors annually, the specific day of the miraculous celestial lighting observation gathered 5 million pilgrims in 2007.

Bishwa Ijtema:

Near Dhaka, Bangladesh, 5 million pilgrims annually. The Bishwa Ijtema, meaning Global Congregation, is an annual gathering of Muslims in Tongi, by the banks of the River Turag, in the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. It is one of the largest peaceful gatherings in the world. The Ijtema is a prayer meeting spread over three days, during which attending devotees perform daily prayers while listening to scholars reciting and explaining verses from the Quran. It culminates in the Akheri Munajat, or the Final Prayer, in which millions of devotees raise their hands in front of Allah (God) and pray for world peace.The Ijtema is non-political and therefore it draws people of all persuasion. It is attended by devotees from 150 countries. Bishwa Ijtema is now the second largest Islamic gatherings with 5 million adherents

[ this is where the Hajj, with 2.3 million pilgrims annually, fits in ]

Umrah:

Mecca, size unknown, year round. The ?Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Hijaz, Saudi Arabia, performed by Muslims that can be undertaken at any time of the year, in contrast to the ?ajj which has specific dates according to the Islamic lunar calendar. It is sometimes called the ‘minor pilgrimage’ or ‘lesser pilgrimage’, the Hajj being the ‘major’ pilgrimage which is compulsory for every Muslim who can afford it. The Umrah is not compulsory but highly recommended.

Kalachakra,:

Various locations, 500,000 participants, variously. The Kalachakra is a term used in Vajrayana Buddhism that means “wheel(s) of time”. “K?lacakra” is one of many tantric teachings and esoteric practices in Tibetan Buddhism. It is an active Vajrayana tradition, and has been offered to large public audiences. The tradition combines myth and history, whereby actual historical events become an allegory for the spiritual drama within a person, drawing symbolic or allegorical lessons for inner transformation towards realizing buddha-nature. The Dalai Lama’s 33rd Kalachakra ceremony was held in Leh, Jammu and Kashmir, India from July 3 to July 12, 2014. About 150,000 devotees and 350,000 tourists were expected to participate in the festival. The Kalachakra has also been performed, eg, by Grand Master Lu Sheng-yen of the True Buddhs School, a Chinese Vajrayana group.

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The impacts of climate change will need to be studied as they apply not only to these sites of pilgrimage, but also to holy sites in general, notably including Jerusalem, Rome, Varanasi, and Kyoto.

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Muslim-American personalities and political polarization – part 1

 

I was meaning to write this for some time now but somehow I kept postponing. Razib’s recent post about Mehdi Hasan inspired me to sit down and finish what I was thinking of writing down (https://www.brownpundits.com/2019/07/31/mehdi-hasans-hypocrisies/). This long post is not about Mehdi Hasan par se, or even Ilhan Omar (sheepishly admitting her clickbait value). This is mainly about prominent Muslims in American public life and public perception of Muslims. In the first part of this post I will discuss direct political aspects of Muslim public representation and in the second I will dive into some of the relevant socio-political and moral issues.

Barack Hossain Obama became the first African-American person to be elected President of United States in 2008. He was reelected in 2012. Now, there are lot of grounds for criticism of Obama’s presidency. His leadership in lot of important matters, particularly in foreign affairs , have come under lot of criticism since the end of his presidency. In domestic matters too, his leadership record has lost lot of luster even among his supporters. However, most Americans agree that Barack and Michelle Obama occupied the White House with exemplary dignity and fulfilled the inspirational role that Americans generally expect the presidential office to provide in this very republican (small R) of countries.

The Obamas were very acutely aware of the huge responsibility they had as the first African-American couple in the White House. They knew personal scandals, failure to control and command, would create huge barriers for the next ethnic minority aspiring to be president. That’s why they were dignified and moderate to a fault in their conduct. In that consideration, the Obama presidency was an unqualified success. Today Barack Obama is the most popular living President to Americans with 60% approval rating (https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/explore/public_figure/Barack_Obama) and Michelle Obama is frequently polled as the most admired woman in America. The next presidential candidate of African-American descent who will reach the final stages of election, will not face any questions because of his/her ethnic background except from the incorrigible bigots.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the first Catholic president in 1960. It’s hard to believe now but prejudice against Catholics was very widespread among mainstream Protestants of America, who were the overwhelming majority, until fifty years ago. When populist nativists of the early 20th century railed against domestic and foreign enemies of the people, ‘Jews, Papists and the N-word’ was the standard phrase used. Kennedy was aware of the great headwind facing him in seeking primary nomination and then eventual victory. He famously said before the election, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me,” (https://www.wbur.org/news/2017/05/25/kennedy-catholicism-presidential-campaign). He kept emphasizing this point before the election and was mindful of his role as the first Catholic president after getting elected. Suffice it to say anti-Catholicism ceased being significant in American political sphere after the Kennedy’s presidency.

Ilhan Omar became the first visibly-Muslim, hijab-clad elected representative at federal level in 2018. Understandably, her ascension to national stage created huge amount of interest, savory and unsavory, in all corners of the politically engaged section of the people. I am not going to mention the long list of accomplishments and  controversies Ilhan Omar has been registering in almost daily basis since her election. It will not be an exaggeration to say that she has become one of the most prominent banner issues that are feeding the frenzy of the two battling political armies in national arena. She is inflaming passion even more than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who may be representing more the economic division than the cultural division represented by Omar.

I personally think that Ilhan Omar is not a very religious Muslim, the identity aspect of the religion is more important to her. Rather than cosmic theology, her religious identity offers her a worldview theology; providing explanation of power relations among communities, groups and institutions of today’s world. Socio-cultural beliefs define the modern political man and Ilhan Omar represents the current cleavages more starkly than almost any other public figures.

However, Ilhan Omar was not lucky enough to get the elite education and varied experience that both Obama and Kennedy had. Experiences greatly influence worldview. A liberal, integrative, long-term worldview that typify Obama, Kennedy, may be too much to ask from her. I personally think she is not very sophisticated but that is not germane to this discussion. However, among her most prominent public defenders there are many who have benefits of background and who are very articulate. That brings me to public personalities like Mehdi Hasan.

In the last couple of years, several Muslim media figures have been regularly invited into mainstream media like CNN, MSNBC, NYTimes, WaPost whenever some events related to Muslims became prominent in the fast churning stream of news and views. Mehdi Hasan, Wajahat Ali probably commanded bulk of those airing of Muslim perspectives. They are among the staunchest defenders of Ilhan Omar (also of other minority social justice public figures) in media. They are also among the most vehement critics and denouncers of Trump, Trump-supporters, the Republican Party and American foreign policy in general. They had been like this since Trump became the Republican nominee. I remember how I first saw Wajahat Ali in CNN before the 2016 election when he repeatedly and day after day described Trump as ‘impotent’. I cringed every time I heard that, but it could have been just me.

Now, people like Ilhan Omar, Mehdi Hasan and Wajahat Ali have lot of justification to go ballistic against Trump and his supporters. I think that Trump is significantly more racist than an average white American septuagenarian, his policies have targeted Muslims discriminatorily, his utterings have stoked outpourings of anti-Muslim hate, Muslims in America may become further victimized if Trump is reelected. However, opportunities of public criticism should not just opportunities for lashing out. We should evaluate effects of these criticisms, whether they are benefitting the country or even Muslims themselves. There is also an ethical aspect of this public criticism, which I will discuss in part II of this blogpost.

Ever since the 9-11 attacks the partisan divide in attitudes towards Muslims and Islam has gradually diverged in America. There are reasons to believe that the divide has become starker in recent years. A recent survey conducted before the 2018 elections show that 71% percent of self-described Republicans agreed they don’t believe Islam is compatible with American values, compared to an overall 42%. 60% of Republicans agreed with the idea that Muslim Americans weren’t as patriotic as non-Muslim Americans, compared to 38% generally (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/01/new-america-study-report-republicans-muslims-trump-midterms). The wide difference between the Republican numbers and the average for the population means the difference in attitude between the two parties is very wide. Few wedge issues signal the difference between the two parties more clearly now than their respective attitude towards Muslims in America.

Shadi Hamid has said that he is comforted that at least one of the two political tribes of America is acting as a shelter for American Muslims in these troubled times (https://gen.medium.com/how-donald-trump-made-me-a-muslim-7f28abcfd33a).  Muslim Americans reciprocate the Democratic support faithfully. It is estimated that about 90% of them vote for the Democratic party in national elections now, before 9-11 the figure was more even. As much as 30-40 Muslims voted Republican in the 1990s. Other analysts OTOH have expressed reservation about the state of Muslims in the political polarization. Republican disdain for the Democratic Party and suspicion about Muslims in America may be reinforcing each other, worsening the political divide. Moreover, it’s not that Muslims find a very natural place in Democratic Party that is mainly characterized by secularism and progressivism. Shadi Hamid recounts that a religious Muslim told him, “I can sense the disdain from the Democratic Party towards my faith, even as they don a cape against Islamophobia. The underlying view Democrats have [about] anyone seriously religious is that they’re, at best, silly and gullible, and at worst, dangerous.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/for-religious-american-muslims-hostility-from-the-right-and-disdain-from-the-left/2019/07/25/7121e4ce-99e4-11e9-830a-21b9b36b64ad_story.html?utm_term=.f693a53b2fd8 )

For a minority that comprises only 1% of the voters, this kind of polarization should be very alarming. Its true that there are other minorities who also are reliable member of the Democratic clan. Black-Americans generally vote for the Democrats in the 90s while Jewish voters vote in the 70-80% range. However, the socio-political positions of Muslims are not same as Blacks or Jews. Black American voters comprise about 12% of the total voters; they are indispensable core of the Democratic coalition and a un-ignorable part of America for Republics. Moreover, sufficient number of Black Americans take part in Republican politics and intellectual development , making them always cultivable for Republican political leadership.  While Jewish voting population is close to 2% of total, they have very powerful representation within the Republican establishment.

We must consider this context when examining the role of Muslim political and media personalities in the political sphere. It seems to me the most visible Muslim personalities in politics and media, determinedly and gleefully want to exacerbate the partisan divide. Few rational observers would disagree that Donald Trump has been most un-presidential in his public sayings during this political phase of his life. Even labelling those words as juvenile would probably be unjust towards the youth. However, these Muslim public personalities seem to think that going toe to toe and tit for tat with Trump and the Republicans, are the best tactics for Democrats and Muslims. I think, apart for impact on partisanship, there are important ethical aspects in these public exchanges that also have deep and wide consequences, which I intend to discuss in the second part.

These Muslim public personalities want total war against Trump and Republicans where crossing the line or fraternization with the enemy will be unthinkable. A few days ago, a very prominent Muslim religious leader, Hamza Yusuf, got widespread notice among Muslim Americans for joining a multi-religious state department commission on Human Rights (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/time-muslim-americans-condemn-hamza-yusuf-190715130254222.html). Many people would argue this as a very sensible move considering the plight of Muslims in many countries of the world and the very important role that America has in global concerns about those hapless Muslims. However, for political activist Muslim-Americans, Hamza Yusuf joining a Trump presidency commission was an ultimate betrayal, an act of Vichy French ignobility.

A Blitzkrieg style total war wouldn’t be so reckless if the chances of victory were good. However, chances don’t look good at least in the short term. When Trump became presidents, Democrats and liberals were openly speculating how he would be removed from power within one or two years because of all the scandals and malfeasance in the past and before the election. With low presidential approval ratings acting as comfort blanket, few Democrats were thinking Trump would last the full first-term, let alone getting reelected. Now desperation is in the air. Democrats openly speculate that Trump is heading for a second-term and Democrat’s chances are not so good. Betting markets reflect that increasing despair also. This political atmosphere again demand that Muslim Americans take long hard look how their political and media personalities are representing them in the public sphere. I have not read any reports of how Muslim Americans view role of their representatives in the public arena but from my personal interactions I gather that most of them are very uncomfortable being the spearhead of the resistance. Lot of them say that they physically wince whenever Ilhan Omar is in the news and they wish she would be far less prominent.

However, coalition-building, gradual advances may be things of the past and the spirit of the times may demand reckless combativeness. Just as revolutions in military affairs made Blitzkrieg possible, revolutions in socio-political affairs of current era may be favoring bold tactics. After all, Republicans had their May 1940 moment in November, 2016 in a most improbable victory with a most improbable candidate who refused to occupy the center ground. In these kind of historical victories, being the armored spearhead of deep battles brings everlasting glory. Nevertheless, people should also remember that Blitzkrieg grinded to a halt in 1941 in face of obdurate structural conditions and determined resistance. The spearheads were obliterated.

 

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The limits of semantics; Hindus before Hinduism

When I was a 20-year old atheist I would read books on the philosophy of religion and explore arguments for and against the existence of god(s). Though I was never naive enough to think that just if people could be exposed to arguments against the argument for design people would be atheists, I wouldn’t have rejected it out of hand.

This is not a view I hold on to in any way because I believe religion as a social-cultural phenomenon is too complex and multi-faceted to reduce to a set of philosophical propositions. The “god of philosophers” ultimately misses the point of the reason so many people believe in god, and what sustain’s religion. But because the philosophers write the histories and dominate the priestly class, they have rewritten religion in their image.

A more complex view has to be brought to bear when we talk about ideas such as the “invention of Hinduism” by the British. If one limits the term “Hindu” to its utilization to point to a self-conscious and concise confessional community unitary across South Asia and disjoint from that of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, etc., then one can assent to the proposition that the “Hindu identity” was “invented” relatively late in history.

But this is a piss-poor resolution to understanding the dynamics of human cultural evolution in South Asia.

As I have noted before, 1,000 years ago al-Biruni presented and anthropological understanding of the religion of Hindus that is totally recognizable and comprehensible to us. I say here “religion of Hindus” because he was referring here to the people of India, Hindus, rather than a religion called Hinduism. This is a shading which refines the descriptions with more precision, but if you actually read al-Beruni you notice that the term “Hinduism” is pure semantic sugar. It doesn’t add much substance, though it tightens up the style. He clearly outlines a religious system and communal identities which we would recognize today as Hindu.

For the philosophers and intellectuals, religion can be reduced down to particular parameters. My own view is that when people say a “Western view” of religion, they are actually alluding to the conception that arose out of the Calvinist framework, which strongly informed the American conception in relation to church-state interaction (and, in some ways, modern atheism is the child of the demystified Calvinist cosmology). Even within the West, this highly rational, confessional, and individualistic, understanding of religion is an artifact of the past few centuries, and not normative across all Christian traditions and societies.

When it comes to this weblog the usage of terms always needs to be framed in the context of their times. If you speak of the “Sunni-Shia” conflict of the 7th-century, you need to realize this is highly anachronistic. Sunni Islam, as we understand it, only developed organically over the centuries in reaction to the claims of the party of Ali and his scions, those who became Shia. Similarly, if one talks about “Hindus” in the context of Maurya India, one realizes that one is bracketing a host of philosophical schools and religious sensibilities which are at variance with Buddhism and Jainism. One can argue whether the term “Hindu” is more or less informative, but one should also understand that one can extract significance from the term even before its 19-century maturation.*

* I would be personally cautious about using the word “Hindu” before the Gupta period, but think that it makes sense after that, even if there was no a self-conscious Hindu religion for many centuries after. Your mileage may vary.

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To understand Islam one must understand religion


Over the last few months, the traffic on this website has increased. The proportion of pageviews from India is now approaching parity with the proportion from the USA. To me, this suggests that perhaps it would be useful to outline a few things anyone who has read me in the past would probably know, but new readers will not know. I am in particular aiming this post to moderately above average intelligence readers, such as “Scorpion Eater.” Someone used to being the “smartest person in the room” due to the normal mediocre company of the unread or dull. The sort of person who leaves long comments on other peoples’ posts or articles. There’s a reason they aren’t writing anything original themselves.

In addition to being moderately intelligent, I also want to target the “internet Hindu” segment of the audience. I don’t mean the term pejoratively here, but more as a bracket for a wide range of people of different stances. One of the strangest things about internet Hindus in my experience is that:

1) They, like many Muslims, believe Islam is a religion of preternatural characteristics

2) Despite not being Muslim, and often hostile to Islam, they are convinced they know all about Muslims and Islam, even better than people who might be Muslim or of Muslim origin. They can get themselves inside the minds of Muslims

An analogy might be talking to a white nationalist who is convinced of the unique prowess of black people and seems inordinately confident that they know more about black history than black people themselves.

One thing that both internet Hindus and many atheists have in common is they lack a good intuitive feel for the phenomenology of religion. An internet Hindu or a village atheist will respond to the question of “what is Islam” with “read the Koran!”

I was myself a typical village atheist, or more precisely a philosophical atheist (I had read books like Atheism: a philosophical justification and The Case Against God) in 2003 when I read Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: An Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Atran is a cognitive anthropologist, who treats religion as a natural phenomenon. He is part of the “naturalistic paradigm” within anthropology. A small group of scholars, these intellectuals bring a multi-disciplinary framework to analyzing human cultures, with a strong theoretical basis in cognitive science and evolutionary biology. This is in contrast to the more common “thick description” that is the norm in much of modern anthropology,  which offers few broad generalities (or a Marxist viewpoint, which offers the same generality).

In Gods We Trust is a very dense book. Religion Explained is a similar work but written a bit more accessibly for the lay audience. But you get the picture.

What is the biggest takeaway from cognitive anthropology and religion? That religious phenomenon can best be understood as a manifestation of common psychological intuitions. The reduction of religion to complex theologies is to a great extent a propagandistic narrative promoted by religious professionals, who have written the histories of religion for the past 2,500 years. Those who exhibit mastery of texts, and dispense ritual, will naturally reduce religion to texts and rituals. That’s what they control.

But the underlying psychological impulses remain. This explains why “atheistic” Communist societies so often develop personality cults of charismatic leaders. The religious impulse is simply projected upon a different target.  Strip away the books and the incense, and the human mind still has as the basic fundaments of the religious phenotype.

How does this apply to Islam? In the book Theological Incorrectness, the anthropologist D. Jason Slone reports on his fieldwork in Sri Lanka amongst Theravada Buddhists,  Hindus, and  Muslims. Using psychological experiments, which remove participants from easy to comprehend cues and scripts, he showed that all three religious groups had the same conception of god(s). This is interesting, because, in theory, Hinduism and Islam have different conceptions of gods, while Theravada Buddhism deemphasizes gods.

One reaction to these findings, which tend to be cross-cultural (that is, humans tend to have the same conceptual framework for a god despite theological distinctions), is that believers misunderstand their religion.  I think a better interpretation is that religion can be thought of as two tracks, a conscious verbal track, which is quite superficial, and a deep cognitive track, which is harder to elucidate but primal and universal.

To illustrate, most Christians believe in a Trinitarian God, three persons with one substance. But this is really just a verbal script.  Most Christians don’t even know the technical philosophy of substances and essences which serve as the basis for the Trinity.

All of this brings me back to Islam and the internet Hindu. Muslims are wont to promote a story of a miracle in the Arabian desert 1,400 years ago, and the emergence of the armies of Islam from that desert with Koran in hand. Soon they accomplished a conquest of Persia and much of the Roman Empire.  This incredibly violent and organized religion then smashed against India and raped and assaulted the Hindu civilization. Finally, the assault ended, and India recovered,  though Islam is still a specter haunting South Asia.

I have a revisionist take. I think the most probable model is one where Islam developed organically in the 7th and 8th centuries after the conquest of the Arabs. The Arabs were probably something close to what we’d recognize as heretical Christians but developed Islam to separate and elevate themselves from their subjects. More precisely, Sunni Islam cannot be understood until deep into the 9th century, after the Mu’tazilite period, and the rise of law as the dominant tradition with the Islamic sciences.

The Koran cannot explain Islam because most Muslims were and are illiterate in the Arabic of the Koran, and Islam itself did not develop in its full form until well after various elements of the Koran had already come into being. The weakness of scripture in predicting religion can be illustrated by the fact that the Hebrew Bible is more violent than the Koran,  but Jews have been relatively pacific since the 2nd century A.D. (the reality of two failed rebellions left its mark on Jewish memory).

Of course, Muslim fundamentalists will tell you this is nonsense. That their religion is all about the Koran. That it’s a special religion.   And the internet Hindu agrees.  It is special (though in their case not a “good” way).

I am skeptical of that. I agree with Samuel Huntington’s empirical observation that “Islam has bloody borders.” At least today. But I would offer caution on chalking it up to something primal. In 1900 we might be wondering about in Jesus Christ’s message made it so that Christianity was an imperial religion of world domination and hegemony. Today we would laugh at that.

Note: I’m usually pretty lax about moderation on this blog, but if you are stupid, and you probably are, I will like trash your comment.  This post exists mostly to familiarize people with books.

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