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Norm, Ahmed, Shafana, Aunt Sarrinah, radicalisation and Australia

The first of the Things to look forward to is now done. It was the world premiere of Alana Valentine’s Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah and a revival of Alex Buzo’s 1969 classic Norm and Ahmed.

pakistanirestaurant shafana-0026-aunt-sarrinah-8low

Left: “Ahmed” takes “Norm” to a Pakistani Restaurant

Right: the opening scene of Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah

Pics from the Alex Buzo Company blog linked above.

Of her new play Alana Valentine writes:

I hope Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah will surprise audiences with its portrait of Afghani Muslim women, who are articulate, highly educated, deeply spiritual and enraged by the way Australian and global media paint them as oppressed, meek and silent. To be part of a project where Buzo’s theme and concerns might be reignited through a new work…is genuinely exciting. In effect, it allows the ‘conversation’ to move into a third dimension: not just Buzo speaking anew to the 21st Century, but Buzo reflected and responded to through the voice of a contemporary playwright. It’s a vision of Australian theatre as a historical continuum…

Alana’s plays are always grounded in in depth research and interviews with the groups she is representing; that depth came through in last night’s performance which both Sirdan and I found very thought-provoking. The issue is whether or not Shafana should wear hijab. She eventually decides she will, even if Aunt Sarrinah, whom she dearly loves, is somewhat appalled by that decision. The play takes us beyond our often mind-numbingly dreadful understanding (if that is the right word) of the issues Australian Muslim women face and that we face in our response to them. A valuable exercise well dramatised, if, I thought, just a bit slow off the mark at the beginning.

As for Norm and Ahmed I agree with the woman sitting next to me in the theatre: “the more things change the more they stay the same.”  Sirdan was born in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia at the time) but could well relate to Norm and Ahmed – for him it was, unlike for me, as new as Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. He agreed that the contemporary relevance of this forty-year-old play was quite amazing.

A thoroughly good night out.

By coincidence, my mind still on Alana’s play especially, I read a truly excellent article in this morning’s Australian: From a human to a terrorist by Sally Neighbour.

… The perplexing question is: Why? How does a seemingly ordinary young man come to embrace violent extremism? Its corollary, the question that confounds counter-terrorism experts worldwide, is: how can we stop them?

The rapidly morphing nature of global terrorism demands an evolving response. Since 9/11, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida has diminished but its ideology has flourished, spawning hundreds of like-minded groups and cells across the world. US terrorism specialist Marc Sageman describes this new phenomenon as a "violent Islamist born-again social movement" straddling the globe. Its fragmented and anarchic nature makes it arguably a bigger threat than al-Qa’ida, according to Britain’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism, unveiled in March this year. Unlike the once highly centralised al-Qa’ida, the new grassroots terrorism cannot be fought with border protection measures or military strikes, but must be tackled at its roots.

This reality has spawned a new buzzword in the anti-terrorism fraternity: counter-radicalisation. Its aim, in Sageman’s words, is to "stop the process of radicalisation before it reaches its violent end"…

Sageman, the pre-eminent expert on radicalisation theory, is a former CIA mujaheddin handler in Pakistan, now a psychologist and author of two books, Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad. After studying 165 jihadists, Sageman is adamant that terrorists are not born but made. There is no psychological profile of a terrorist and Sageman believes "root causes" such as socioeconomic deprivation are overrated. The most common factor in the making of a terrorist is alienation. Of the jihadists Sageman studied, he found that "a remarkable 78 per cent were cut off from their cultural and social origins". He concludes "this absence of connection is a necessary condition for a network of people to join the global jihad"…

Sageman adds they are not violent psychopaths but "generally idealistic young people seeking dreams of glory fighting for justice and fairness"…

Much better in its analysis that most of the rants you see. The dynamics of that alienation, though not in a form likely to lead to terrorism, are also seen in Alana Valentine’s play.

Oh – and a footnote. I have always thought taking the French path and “outlawing” the hijab in Australia would be really stupid. Fortunately both John Howard and Kevin Rudd have not been tempted.

* Special thanks to Emma Buzo. :)

Update

See the The Australian Stage review.

[On Alana’s play] …This is a powerful night at theatre and a welcome, bold, essential addition to the culturally homogeneous theatre one can expect to see in some of the larger venues around town. I believe this to be an extraordinarily brave and bold double bill containing four very fine performers. Actors who embrace the challenge of new work, with new perspectives are worth their weight in effusive praise and I feel compelled to mention the spectacular performances by Camilla Ah Kin and Sheridan Harbridge who confront this subject with tenderness, fierceness and great compassion – to the extent that I felt stunned and broken by the time the lights dimmed.

 

Obama and the Muslim world – not unexpected or without precedent

There has been much comment on Obama’s speech in Cairo, but its tone and direction are not unexpected. One can even hope that it will be effective in focussing on violent extremism (of any kind) rather than confusing the issue, as past policy has done, by intentionally or unintentionally indicting about a third of the world’s population. It comes as no surprise as Obama’s approach closely follows that of Madeleine Albright in her The Mighty and the Almighty and was foreshadowed in Changing Course – A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim WorldReport of the Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement September 2008 (SECOND PRINTING, WITH A NEW PREFACE AND ENDORSEMENTS February 2009). See my earlier post on this.

One might also reflect on the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli.

Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

 
 

Some non-fiction read recently 2c – tentative conclusions

And I really mean tentative. Further, there is no way a shortish post like this can do more than indicate rather than expound. After all, the books with which this series of posts began comprise around a thousand pages, while this post will most likely be just one to three! And I am about to add to that by recommending another thousand pages or more, which I have either skimmed or, in the case of Jason Burke, read attentively since commencing these posts.

Supplementary texts

star30 star30star30star30star30star30 Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: the true story of radical Islam, Penguin 2004. This is the most thorough and most convincing book I have read on the subject. The writer has gone to first-hand sources and has relevant language skills, unlike very many who write on this. He speaks Urdu, the principal language of Pakistan and a second language understood by many of the players in Afghanistan. He has been to many of the relevant places and spoken to many of the people involved and thoroughly documents everything he says. His understanding of Islam and of the bewildering array of groups and their connections, or lack of direct connections, with Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda is superior to that of most western commentators. Anyone at all interested has to read this book. It outclasses the derivative work of Burleigh in this area by a factor of what – 1000%? The small sample of his work I attach below barely indicates the strengths of the book, but does indicate the direction Burke takes.

star30star30star30star30star30 Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: the Islamist attack on America, Granta 2002. There has been an edition since then, which I don’t have. This was the first book of its kind that I read and remains among the best, but some of his conclusions about his subject need to be reconsidered in the light of Burke’s book. He is sceptical about the direction much US and UK policy was taking at that time, particularly about reliance on military solutions. That remains true, but does not rule out all military involvement. Excellent on the ideological background of “Islamist” groups.

star30star30star30star30star30 Karen Armstrong, Islam: a short history, Verso 2001. Short it is indeed, but also scholarly and fair-minded.

star30star30star30star30 John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, Faber 2003. Even shorter! The thesis is very interesting, however, and has a lot going for it.

star30star30 Melanie Phillips, Londonistan: how Britain is creating a terror state within, Gibson Square 2006. Burleigh endorses this book, but I still find it tendentious. Phillips does, however, highlight some of the ironies of following our own values of free speech. She overdraws, as does Burleigh, the “multiculturalism is to blame” argument. In The Mighty and the Almighty Madeleine Albright comes almost to the opposite conclusion: that a deep understanding of cultural pluralism and a willingness to respect the Other may be part of the solution. There’s a big difference, I would argue, between that position, which I share, and craven surrender to the bizarre and positively dangerous in our midst. Getting the balance wrong in either direction won’t help us, and may indeed do worse than that. The temptation to divide the world into goodies and baddies, alluded to below under “complexity”, must be resisted.

star30star30star30star30star30 Abdullah Saeed, Interpreting the Qu’ran: Towards a contemporary approach, Cambridge UP 2006. Saeed is Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne. I am sure this book would not please either of the speakers at that 2005 Mine Seminar, but it will please very many Muslims and seems to me, by analogy with my understanding of some parallel dilemmas in Jewish and Christian circles and with my understanding of the nature of text and reading generally, to be a very fruitful approach for all concerned. Accepting, as all observant Muslims do, that the Qu’ran is indeed of divine origin, Saeed argues that interpreters of the Qu’ran are not so blessed.  He distinguishes three approaches, and in that respect adds nuance to the rather too broad idea of “fundamentalism”. The three approaches are: i) textualists, who argue for a strict following of the text and adopt a literalistic approach to the text; ii) semi-textualists, who “essentially follow the Textualists as far as linguistic emphasis and ignoring of the socio-historical context are concerned, but … package the ethico-legal content in a somewhat ‘modern’ idiom, often within an apologetic discourse.” Apologetic there is in the theological sense of presenting scripture in a way meant to refute sceptics. Having broken that sentence structure, I now present: iii) contextualists, who emphasise “the socio-historical content of the Qu’ran and of its subsequent interpretations.” Or, as a Presbyterian minister I knew many years ago was fond of saying, “a text without a context is a pretext.”  Thus, while I agree with the very well expressed statement by Sheik Yasin on context towards the end of that video referred to in the previous post, it is clear nonetheless that he is not a contextualist in Saeed’s sense, and may even be in camp i), though possibly in camp ii).  I still find it unfortunate that contextualism does not, in general, go as far in Qu’ranic studies as perhaps it should, as it has (much to the distress of many) in Biblical Studies.

Complexity

0402occidental140 So much could be said here! People often resist complexity. They like their boundaries neat. Thus the vision of Al-Qaeda that emerges in Burke’s book may be resisted because the appeal of something resembling a Western or a James Bond movie is far easier to imagine. This can be a fatal trap when the true situation is simply not so neat, as Burke convincingly demonstrates. See too a 2005 post here: Lernaean Hydra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. I posted that at the time of the London bombings.

Let’s just take one example: Did the CIA fund the Taliban?

This is a widely held view. I even shared it myself. However, is it true? It may well be that it is not. There are issues of chronology involved – the Taliban emerged rather late in the day compared to other mujahadeen groups, and Burke is excellent at unpicking all that. (Some thought of by many as Al-Qaeda in many books turn out to have been very loosely connected, or not connected, or even rivals of Al-Qaeda.)  Certainly the CIA, mostly via Pakistan intelligence and along with Saudi and other financiers, did fund some of those fighting the USSR and the Afghan Marxist regime, but it appears the US backed off from that policy during the Clinton years, and that further in the stage when such funding was occurring the Taliban hardly existed. Nonetheless, much of the materiel did fall eventually into Taliban hands.

This video is a typical example of the case for the CIA having funded the Taliban, but looking at it carefully one does see much chronological sliding going on. Rather, when the Taliban did emerge it appears the question really was “Who the hell are they?” See for example The Taliban Files from National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 97. Various Pakistani groups, on the other hand, were heavily involved, but Pakistan too is another instance of complexity, but there isn’t space here to go down that track. See also Beyond the Burqa: The Taliban, Women and the C.I.A. (September 12, 2001).

Idealism

shsislam I am really trying not to sound patronising, because I respect idealism and even cling to some to this day, modified as it might be by experience and knowledge, especially of history.

The young, confronted with a world that all will admit is not the best of all possible worlds, may react with cynicism, apathy, or a deep desire to make a difference. Those who desire to make a difference will soon seek out how to make a difference, and therein is some danger, as well, of course, as much of the hope of the world. Those boys at The Mine, just like their confreres in the rather fundamentalist Christian and Jewish or political activist groups in the school, look for people who offer convincing solutions. Now you have to admit that both those speakers in the 2005 seminar (the video linked from the previous post in this series) are quite excellent public speakers. As a former debating coach I wouldn’t mind having them on my team, and it is no accident that one of the two sixteen year old presenters was indeed a valuable member of his age-group’s debating team, as was the brave young lad in cadet uniform who got up to rebut what he had heard. (The body language going on behind him, if you have seen the video, is interesting; it’s almost as if the presenters wish there was a hook in the wings or a trapdoor under the stage.) That lad, by the way, is now one of my Facebook friends.

You will also note on the right that the seminar the previous year directly dealt with the issue of terror. The tactic was definitely not recommended.

We need to remind ourselves that terrorism is a tactic and not an ideology, nor is it inevitable in a Muslim context. The nearest that terrorism came to being a rather empty ideology was in the case of the Russian nihilists and the weird Germans in the 60s and 70s. Burleigh is actually very good on both, especially on the Germans.

On the other hand, when an ideology goes in for group judgements, whether these be based on class, race or religion, there is a likelihood that terror may become an attractive tactic. In my view we need to strenuously resist group judgements. It also must be said that the ideology recommended by the two speakers in the 2005 seminar is ultimately total – they said as much – and you can’t get a higher authority than God as its author. Indeed, if the premises of the speakers were in fact correct it would follow that we should listen, but unfortunately I think the premises are highly questionable.

But as the speakers also said, we do have to all live together. Their solution, however, is not mine. In the world, let alone Australia, we all have to find ways to harmony in difference. It is a challenge, one we have not done too badly on here in Oz, comparatively, much better in fact than much of Europe.

Language

One small but important example. In Blood & Rage (p. 468) Burleigh defines takfir as “the art of deluding infidels”. Burke notes (p. 331) “Takfir: excommunication, a practice in Shia Islam but until recently almost unknown among Sunnis.”  See also this from a conservative Muslim source. The authority referred to there is a key figure in the development of political Islam in the 20th century.

Jason Burke article.

 

Some non-fiction read recently 2b – the personal component

See also Some non-fiction read recently: 2a.

This goes back to 2005 and a particularly interesting if controversial event. On the day I was not there, as I had to attend a meeting of ESL teachers at Erskineville – or was it Arncliffe, one of the last such meetings for me as I retired the following year. But I did know all the participants at The Mine end, and I posted on it at the time and the following year. See Salt Mine and Islamic Students; 7.30 Report: The Mine and the Islamists; The Mine and the Islamists: cause for concern?. On Floating Life Apr 06 ~ Nov 07 there is also a major entry from April 2006.

What I found yesterday was a video on YouTube of the complete 2005 Seminar referred to in those entries. The controversy centred on the guest speakers, Sheik Khalid Yassin and Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Wassim Doureihi. These people would fall in one of Michael Burleigh’s inner circles (see previous entry) but not necessarily, of course, into the innermost circle. While I had concerns about the Mine students involved, I very much doubt they would have even considered the innermost circle – quite the opposite in fact. (I also refer to these students in my Cronulla 2005 posts.)

05shs

Stills from the video.

Mine students often show initiative, of course, and these particular students were very bright indeed and participated in all aspects of school life to the full. An earlier generation some ten years before promised they would have Barry Crocker and Kamahl at their farewell assembly. We thought they were joking, but on the day, there they were! The Tamils were especially happy. So were the office ladies.

Now you have to wait for Part C of this post.

 

Some non-fiction read recently: 1

star30 star30star30 1. Rachel Kohn, The New Believers, Harper Collins 2003

Rachel Kohn is the presenter of ABC Radio National’s “The Spirit of Things”. Some love her, others tend to find her infuriating. I have to admit I sometimes find her a bit of a flake, but this book does rather refute that. It is genuinely interesting and quite wide-ranging, and somewhat more critical than she appears to be at times on her program. It has to be said that her sympathies do come through rather clearly, however. Even so, it is a good guide to much in the very diverse world of religion, and that is a valuable service.

star30star30star30 2. William G Naphy, The Protestant Revolution: From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, BBC Books 2007

This is the “book of the series” for a BBC program that hasn’t appeared, so far as I can tell, in Australia. You can read a thoroughly Marxist review of the series here, albeit predictable.

Engels returned to the scene of Luther and Müntzer’s great schism, but saw in it not the birth pangs of an inscrutable religious force, but an encounter between the social contradictions of an emerging capitalism and the potent ideologies that crystallised newly born class oppositions.

Müntzer, as the theologian of the revolution, gave voice to class grievances in the only vocabulary then available, using the egalitarian aspects of the gospels…

Engels thus introduces us to what remain crucial elements of Marxist theory. There is the idea that socially immature periods demand that class politics is shown through a “religious screen”. There is also an attention to the mobilising function of religion.

But Engels also teaches us that it is concrete social struggles that force religious doctrines to split into progressive and reactionary tendencies, not vice versa. It is this fundamentally materialist lesson that Hunt has missed.

It does rather make me want to scream “Karl Popper” though.

The book is not great, but it is genuinely informative. There is a detailed review here.

…As he points out – somewhat belatedly – in his conclusion, Naphy has written what "in some senses … is not a history at all. Rather it is a consideration of those features that seem unique to Protestantism through the centuries and that, perhaps, explain the societies and cultures that have been largely, if not predominantly, influenced by Protestantism". Beginning with a discussion of the authority of the medieval church and the challenges it faced, and of developments in piety (devotio moderna) and in learning (humanism), Naphy proceeds to consider the Reformation as initiated by Martin Luther in Wittenberg and Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich. He highlights the radical impulses that emerged alongside the more measured approach taken by those who, like Luther and Zwingli, chose to work alongside magistrates and princes…

This is a wide-ranging book with a strong and compelling thesis. It is marred by a disconcerting failure to attend to detail. Thus Zwingli’s death is placed by implication in 1529, although the correct year of 1531 is given in the (very helpful) biographical glossary. The Peace of Augsburg appears to have legitimised "Catholicism or Protestantism", but turn the page and it becomes clear that "Protestantism" here should in fact mean Lutheranism. The number of such misleading passages makes it difficult to recommend this book wholeheartedly to the general reader for whom it is doubtless intended.

More fundamentally, Naphy appears to attribute the rise of reason, liberalism and individual human rights and conscience entirely to the influence of Protestantism. The French Revolution achieves one brief mention acknowledging that "the idea of natural rights played a key role in providing the ideological justification for the American and French revolutions", and that liberal ideas arose "in Catholic, absolutist France and Presbyterian Scotland". That latter observation alone suggests that the stark contrast that Naphy proposes between a Catholic "mechanism of authority" and a Protestant "recipe for chaos" is overdrawn. There is fascinating material here, and considerable depth of observation and analysis, but it is unfortunate that Naphy did not place his fascinating analysis of Protestantism against a more nuanced account of Catholicism.

It is a great source of quotes. For example: “I had believed that [Connecticut was] the last retreat of monkish darkness, bigotry and abhorrence… I join you, therefore, in sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood is at length broken up, and that a Protestant Popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character. If by Religion we mean Sectarian Dogmas … then … this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it. But if the moral precepts, innate in Man … if the sublime doctrine of … Deism taught us by Jesus of Nazareth … constitute true religion, then, without it, this would be … indeed a Hell.” — Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams (1817).

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2009 in America, Australia, book reviews, faith, faith and philosophy, History, reading, religion, USA

 

On OzPolitics and Bishop Holloway

A couple of items which attracted my attention in today’s Australian.

1. George Megalogenis: Nation leans to the Left.

This makes a great deal of sense, I think.

IT’S the trend that dare not speak its name because neither side of politics is accustomed to thinking about the electorate in this way. But Australia, for the time being, has tilted leftward in a way it has never done before.

Every Newspoll since Kevin Rudd became Labor leader in December 2006 has seen the Centre Left gather more than 50 per cent of the primary vote; a prospective landslide in anyone’s language. Centre Left in this context means Labor and the Greens. The Coalition, by contrast, has not reached 40 per cent on its primary since the previous federal election.

Even in its reform heyday of the 1980s, when Bob Hawke enjoyed record approval ratings, the Centre Left never had more than a month’s worth of Newspolls with a primary voting intention above 50 per cent, namely in June 1987. Back then the nation’s third party was the Australian Democrats, an offshoot of the progressive side of the Liberals. Today the third party, the Greens, is to the left of Labor…

The original in print has a handy graph.

2. Stephen Jewell:  Doubting cleric’s church in exile.

I have in the past referred you to Richard Holloway, former Anglican Primus of Scotland: here and here. He has just published a new book, Between the Monster and the Saint. Australian publisher Text has taken it up. On 6 April Phillip Adams interviewed Holloway. It was an excellent interview.  I have also uploaded the relevant extract to my new eSnips account.

 

St Mary’s South Brisbane

Many of us are watching developments with interest. This “rogue” Catholic Church has been using WordPress to get its message out: St Mary’s Community South Brisbane and St Mary’s Discussion Forum*. See also (Brisbane Archbishop) Bathersby ousts Kennedy at St Mary’s.

I had been thinking of posting on this, but would rather leave it to a progressive Catholic. Michael Bayly in St Paul Minnesota is an Australian expat whose blog The Wild Reed is on my blog roll, thanks to a tip from Renegade Eye some time back. Michael has just posted on the issue: Mustard Plants in the Hierarchy’s Garden.

…But wait! The center may be in a state of stasis and decay, but at the periphery of our living tradition we can observe sprouting and flourishing like mustard seeds, pesky* yet invigorating ways of being Catholic that are truer to the life and message of Jesus, and thus the true mission of the Church. Two recent examples are St. Mary’s in South Brisbane, Australia, and the Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community in Minneapolis, USA. (The latter is my spiritual home.)…

See also a project Michael is involved with, The Progressive Catholic Voice.

Here in Surry Hills and Redfern one immediately thinks of Redfern’s Kennedy, the late Father Ted Kennedy. There the forces for “the centre” have apparently triumphed, but again the blogosphere, among other things, keeps the dream alive. See The Church Mouse.

The Church Mouse maintains an eclectic public record of the history and curious goings on in the parish of St Vincent’s Redfern, an inner city suburb of Sydney, Australia.

This is the third major revision of the website. All of the old website content – with the exception of the Church Mouse Journal – can now be found here, and that material is being moved over as time permits. New articles are published here…

A recent post included this letter:

RWTIt also links to replies.

Update 28 February

* Note these sites are being replaced by St Mary’s Catholic Community South Brisbane, a new site. The old sites carry this message: “All material from this site will be moved to the new site and this address will cease to operate from March 31 2009. You are encouraged to join the newsletter subscription list on the new site to receive our regular bulletins.”

 

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