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Category Archives: faith and philosophy

“Guest Post” — Anthony Venn-Brown

Uganda – a wake-up call for US ‘ex-gay’ and Evangelical leaders

Have you been following the news about Uganda’s Anti-homosexual Bill will is currently being pushed through the parliament. If not, just Google Uganda Anti-homosexual Bill and you’ll get 102,000 pages.

123 The current law allows authorities to imprison suspected homosexuals and AIDS patients for up to 14 years. The new legislation would make the prison term a life sentence. The practice of "aggravated homosexuality" would allow the authorities to sentence homosexuals to death. Members of the public would be required to report acts of homosexuality within 24 hours of witnessing the act. If they fail to do so, they would also be imprisoned for a minimum of three years. The bill also states that the nation would be prepared to cut ties with other countries and stop any commitments they have with them to allow the new laws to be enforced.


How can such regressive and repressive legislation even be introduced?

Firstly it should be noted that colonialism has a lot to answer for. Outdated laws established by the empire builders still exist in many countries years after independence was gained. One of those laws is the so called ‘sodomy laws’ which made any sex, except for procreation, illegal and punishable by death. This can be seen in many parts of the world such as the Pacific, India, Caribbean, Bahamas and of course many parts of Africa. Australia was the last country in the British empire to hang a man for a homosexual act.

Secondly, we know there has been much anti-gay preaching by some ‘ex-gay’ leaders and evangelical preachers which has reinforced already negative beliefs about gay and lesbian people. Preachers and leaders from the US have purposely visited Uganda and other African countries to speak specifically on homosexuality. Their message? Homosexuals are sick, it is a choice and God can cure them. Funding and materials from the US have been given to promote this message.

So there we have it. If people continue to preach messages that promote outdated, ignorant beliefs about sexuality this is how far they can be pushed.

In the US, some leaders have realised how damaging their message can be and have issued statements about the evil nature of the proposed legislation in Uganda that is currently being pushed by many Christian groups.

Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International issued this statement. Of course this probably carries little weight when he, Randy Thomas and others sign the statement as supposedly ‘former homosexuals’. There is no such thing.

Ps Rick Warren of Saddleback issued this video

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has made his first public statement on the proposed anti-gay bill passing through Uganda’s parliament.

Even the Vatican has got in on the act.

One wonders whether this is all too late now the horse has bolted. If this bill is passed, and gay and lesbian people are imprisoned or die we know who are the guilty ones.

It’s time for those in the western Christian church, still living in the dark ages, to wake up and realise that homosexuality is not an illness, choice or sin; it’s an orientation. To preach anything else is not only ignorant, it’s dangerous.

Freedom 2 b[e]

 

The inspirational Muhammad Yunus

Here is a clear case of the importance of rejecting group-think, stereotypes and prejudices about Islam and Muslim people. Andrew Denton interviewed Muhammud Yunus on Monday. See also: Meet the New Heroes and the Yunus Centre:

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ANDREW DENTON: Your dad, have I got his name right? Doula Mia?

MUHAMMAD YUNUS: Doula Mia, yes.

ANDREW DENTON: You described him as, you were what you were largely because of him. What was it he taught you?

MUHAMMAD YUNUS: Well he didn’t have much education, he went to school up to eighth grade, my mother went to school to about fourth grade. But he always wanted his children to go to school. He valued education very much, so every single child he wanted to put in school and kept them in the school. Usually in a business family of that level they always want to get their children to come and work with them, expand the business and so on, but my father never tried to do that. My father always said "No no, don’t waste your time, you stay in school and continue with your education". So that was very important. He was a very religious person.

ANDREW DENTON: He did the Hajj I think three times didn’t he? He went to Mecca three times.

MUHAMMAD YUNUS: Yeah, that’s right, he performed his Hajj.

ANDREW DENTON: What’s your memory of him going doing that?

MUHAMMAD YUNUS: Well, at that time going to Hajj was a big thing because there was no plane to take you, so you go by ship. So for them it’s a big journey to go and we, as kids, we waited for all the gifts for us, when he gets back.

ANDREW DENTON: Like kids everywhere.

MUHAMMAD YUNUS: Like kids everywhere, yeah.

ANDREW DENTON: What sort of gifts would he bring back from the Hajj?

MUHAMMAD YUNUS: From Hajj he’d bring … dates, this is a very favourite one so we would like to wait for them and lots of trinkets for kids… even the coins, we loved the coins he would bring for us, the coins of another country, so that’s another attractive thing for us.

ANDREW DENTON: So exotic.

MUHAMMAD YUNUS: Exotic, yes…

 

Q&A last night

Have you tried the Twitter version? Spammers certainly have!

Last night’s episode – transcripts from 2 pm today our time – was a bit of a hoot in some ways. With major political incorrectness kicking in I found myself thinking “arrogant Pommy bastard” quite often whenever Christopher Hitchens opened his mouth. His “religion poisons everything” thesis is up there with the most classic sweeping generalisations but it does attract attention. I thought he was just awful with the Iranian girl who was making rather reasonable points – in fact he didn’t really listen to her in the last part of that exchange. I suspect she is a supporter of the Iranian opposition.

Waleed Ali was really good as the first actual tweet I have seen so far notes; that tweeter was rather fonder than I of Hitchens. There’s a lot to be said for judging people by the actual things they do and the policies they endorse rather than by the most extreme positions their faith tradition may hold. I thought Ali’s version of the secular society being one where all views, religious or not, may contest without any of them being the line the state must take was well conceived. But perhaps that’s just me.

I will be saying more, by the way, about Mark Davis’s book – believe it or not this is almost relevant! – as it has many merits. He has thought through much more thoroughly than I have quite a few positions which I have been moving towards myself for years now. Later…

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2009 in faith, faith and philosophy, interfaith, TV

 

Reading several books at once may do your head in…

… or it may set up a rather interesting and unexpected harmonic.

The three books in question are:

All three are well worth reading. 

I give Armstrong five stars more as a history than as a work that is entirely convincing theologically – it is if you agree with her, which I am inclined to do, but even so I still take the Axial Age hypothesis with a grain or two of salt. What is good in this wide-ranging work is the fresh insight it has afforded me into unexpected and often hitherto unexplored parallels in the thinkers and prophets of the ancient world in Greece, India, the Middle East and China. Armstrong is no fundamentalist; her very respectable scepticism on the historicity of much of the Bible as “fact” bears witness to that. On the other hand, her opposition of mythos and logos will not appeal to everyone, even if I think there is much to be said for it so long as one realises it has the weakness of all such dichotomies. Religion to Armstrong is not well served by being treated as logos. Paradoxically that is what fundamentalists tend to do. Mythos reminds me more than anything of John Keats and “negative capability.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

More on Armstrong: Heavy-hitter stands up for God and religion; Richard Dawkins vs. Karen Armstrong: "Where Does Evolution Leave God?"; Man vs. God – the Armstrong/Dawkins “debate” which was reprinted in The Australian this weekend: it mostly shows two contrasting sensibilities, in my opinion.

I repeat: Armstrong is an excellent historian of ideas.

D Michael Lindsay is an excellent ethnologist of religion. I very much agree with this review.

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America – politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay’s essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don’t necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay’s documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don’t always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result…

It is “thick description” – far more subtle than the standard rant pro or con religion in US politics. I found it fascinating.

SONY DSC                     Timothy Clack is far younger than I thought! He is “[St Peter’s] College [Oxford] Lecturer in Archaeology and Director of Studies in Archaeology and Anthropology. Tim is an anthropological archaeologist with diverse research and teaching interests. Themes with which he is currently engaged include: archaeology of experience, archaeological mediation, syncretism and religious fusion, anthropology of conflict, and memory and cultural landscapes. He has been fortunate in being able to conduct archaeological and anthropological research in the UK, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Borneo. Timothy is an elected fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. He is also holds associate membership of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford.”

He has, however, not been well served by proof-readers – there are quite a few clangers in Ancestral Roots. For example, I am sure Dr Clack knows that T H Huxley is not the same as Aldous Huxley, though they are related.

The book is in the evolutionary biology genre, but ranges much more widely than most. According to Alan Bilsborough in The Times Educational Supplement: “Overall, Ancestral Roots is a fluent and wide-ranging account of the human condition viewed from an evolutionary perspective, although the author’s preaching sometimes obtrudes to interrupt the flow. The text suffers from the selectivity of all such eclectic accounts, and there are sufficient errors of detail in the bits I think I know something about to make me wonder as to the accuracy of those I don’t. In other words, read this book as a stimulating and engaging survey, but don’t take it too seriously as a definitive diagnosis of our current predicament.”  I didn’t mind the preaching, personally. Loved what he says about ethnocentrism, religion, and co-operation – just to name a few areas.

 

A tale of two gay men

Fascinating column by South Australian conservative and former John Howard speech writer Christopher Pearson in Saturday’s Australian. Full marks to him for frankness, but he encapsulates a syndrome I have seen in some others, including a noted Sydney literary academic and another very vocal supporter of the monarchy and the High Church.

At the time friends reminded me of how, in 1982, British author Malcolm Muggeridge had described his conversion as "a rat swimming towards a sinking ship", prompting a telegram from B.A. Santamaria: "Welcome aboard."…

Despite my apprehensions that Catholicism wasn’t going to be a bed of roses, it was clear to me that if I wanted to return to the practice of the faith, there was nowhere else to go. I could never have been happy as a gay Christian — with or without a rainbow sash — because it always seemed to me a contradiction in terms.

There was no getting around the fact the New Testament said we were all meant to be chaste or monogamously married and I had reluctantly concluded that St Paul was right about homosexual sex.

In any case, prudence in the plague years meant I gradually became all but sexually inactive from the mid-1980s and no longer saw much point in defining my identity primarily in terms of sexual preference…

Some of my friends said at the time that I must have crossed the Tiber for the sake of beautiful music and ceremony. But as Gerard Manley Hopkins told his family in reply to similar charges, if it had simply been a matter of aesthetic preferences, the Church of England would always have been far more congenial. Hopkins deplored the kitsch that mostly characterised Catholic devotional life in England then. Heaven only knows what he would have made of the banality of the present-day English liturgy.

What I most wanted was not beauty, crucial though it is, but certainty: immutable doctrine and valid sacraments. As an Anglican, the closest I had come to "the peace which passes all understanding" had been through the sacraments: in the confessional and at the altar rail. By my late 40s it felt like time to come back to them…

Ah, the chimera of certainty! So much has been and is being wrought in this world by that particular phantasm! Had Christopher been born in a Muslim country, heaven knows where that drive may have led him – different outcome, perhaps, but the drive to abnegation is identical.

Compare a young man of note.

470matthewmitcham,0

That is in today’s Sun-Herald. Yes, it is diver Matthew Mitcham, Australia’s pride at the Beijing Olympics.

In the seats high above the Sydney Aquatic Centre dive pool, Matthew Mitcham is wearing a printed white T-shirt and blue jeans, his blond hair neatly cut, and is pondering life beyond elite sport, with the caveat his ambitions are subject to revision week by week.

“I’d like to discover new things, help to change the world,” he says.

Chlorine blankets the air and a coach’s booming voice echoes from the adjacent swimming lanes, the water jets gushing and splashing. Mitcham’s talking about a career in medicine, maybe, whenever he stops diving: “I think everyone deep down wants to do that; leave their mark.”

Ah, but a year ago at the glowing blue Water Cube at the Olympic Games in Beijing, Brisbane-born, Sydney-based Mitcham left an indelible mark. He achieved the highest diving score in Olympic history with his back two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists in the pike position.

Then, in the spectator stands before the world’s media, he briefly kissed his Sydney-born partner, marketing strategist Lachlan Fletcher, and gave him his bouquet. No sweat.

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” declared his diminutive, beaming mother, Vivienne, who was also by his side as her boy earned a perfect score of 10, “I don’t know who cried more, him or me.”

Six months later he danced on the lead float as chief of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. At the time, the throng that turned out to line Oxford Street must have pondered that there were few secrets in the life of Matt Mitcham, now 21…

Does Mitcham, more than a year later, see his coming out as brave? “I don’t see sexuality as influencing my beliefs or opinions or perceptions of anybody. Whether they’re gay, straight, bi, trans, experimental, I don’t care. I see it as a very uninfluential factor.”…

Whose attitude is healthier, do you think? Pearson’s or Mitcham’s?

 

Some reading matter for you

1. South Sydney Herald

The August issue has been out for a week or so. I have been slack about uploading you copy, but it is a good issue. As usual there are plenty of articles that transcend the parochial, but the parochial may also be interesting. Inner Sydney/Redfern is an interesting place.

August 09 SSH — PDF

2. More from Colin Chapman.

I gave Chapman’s Whose Holy City? the thumbs up in Is objectivity about Israel and Palestine possible? Today I give you a couple of substitutes for those without access to the book.

A Biblical Perspective on Israel/Palestine from the Arizona publication EMEU goes into some depth about a more balanced evangelical perspective on the matter. It is for the theologically inclined, more so than the book. EMEU is Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding – and further from John Hagee and company it can hardly be, but it is an evangelical Christian site, remember.

‘Islamic Terrorism’ and the Palestine-Israel Conflict: Christian Response is a special issue of Encounters, a Christian mission e-zine from the USA. Not by Chapman is an article I strongly recommend as it is not too far removed from my own thoughts on the subject: Muslims – Friends or Enemies. (Dr Jonathan Ingleby, 1548 words) – a PDF file. I have added here the abridged version of Chapman’s ‘Islamic Terrorism’:  How should Christians & the West respond?

Chapman PDF

 

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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.

 

Welcoming Russell Darnley OAM

My former colleague at SBHS Russell Darnley has entered the blogosphere. I mentioned Russell a while ago in Islam has about 1.3 billion followers worldwide. He was in Bali at the time of the bombing and wrote about it; the full text is in that post.

“I want to write about the overwhelming manifestation of selfless human love and care I have experienced.”

It’s obvious that the tragedy in Bali has brought great grief to the lives of many Australian families. For those of us that have been intimately involved in the tasks of ministering to the needs of the injured, attempting a body count and counselling the grieved friends and families of the missing it has been a demanding task.

This has been a task made more bearable by the massive upsurge of goodwill and the magnificent cooperation that has emerged in the face of this tragedy.

There has been little time to reflect on the intentions of the perpetrators. Our energy has been elsewhere. With the evacuations complete and the forensic process now underway there is time to write.

My first task was to survey a network of private hospitals surrounding the Sanglah public hospital for walking wounded. There were none. What first confronted me was the youth of the patients. Sure there were people of my own age but many were Rugby and AFL players from Australia. As a Rugby coach I found an immediate affinity with lots of the young guys that were lying, not always gravely injured, but bewildered about the whereabouts of missing teammates. I could only ask them to have hope and if the inclination took them, to pray for their friends…

Many thousands of people have assisted in the relief effort. Their care of the sick and dying and the respect they have shown for the dead have filled me with great hope.

The overwhelming majority of Indonesia’s 230 million people I am sure are deeply appalled by the wanton violence. Bali in particular is now confronting the prospect of a significant economic downturn if tourism is no longer seen as safe and viable.

I can only conclude with the words of the Denpasar (Badung) Fire Brigade Crew that I happened to talk with yesterday as a walked back to Sanglah Hospital from the Garuda office.

“Tell the Australians that Bali is safe. We can guarantee this. We will protect them. Tell them that we want them to come.”

Now he is out there for you all to read. I commend his blog to you.

russell 

Speaking of blogging friends, thanks Jim Belshaw for your kind words today.

 

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Conflicting perspectives

That is an HSC English topic much exercising me of late, but it is also an interesting thing to explore.

Take President Sarkozy and his recent speech. There is an interesting Australian Muslim perspective on Crikey: Sarkozy’s proposed burqua ban is a blunt instrument.

…Last year, I spent a few days in Paris with a French friend of Moroccan background. She and her family and friends related stories of almost routine discrimination  — of elderly relatives being rejected as unworthy for citizenship after fifty years of law-abiding, tax-paying residence, of always having to strive that little bit harder in work and study in order to prove yourself to your non-Muslim colleagues, of the banning of religious symbols in public schools, which was seen as particularly targeting Muslim girls wearing hijab.

My friend now lives in Sydney, and said that she felt a sense of resignation in the face of Sarkozy’s speech. “It’s just another chapter. The kind of events that are almost unthinkable in Australia are commonplace in France. It’s supposed to be about the burqua, but it’s really about something deeper  — about attitudes to Muslims.”

Many Muslim women, including many hijabis, are deeply uncomfortable with face-covering. It is so vanishingly rare among Muslims in the West that many observant Muslims have only encountered it at a distance.

In Australia, a disproportionate number of the women who observe this practice seem to be converts. Their stated commitment to face-covering as their “personal choice” is rendered problematic by the fact that many of them don’t believe that personal choice over dress standards should be extended to women in Muslim-majority societies. While they believe that covering the face is commendable rather than obligatory, they defend the mandatory covering of women’s hair in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But as Sarkozy’s speech illustrates, they are not the only ones who think that choice is a one-way street  — you can choose, so long as you choose what I tell you to choose. There is no single experience of face-covering, just as there is no single experience of the bikini. Some Muslim women describe face-covering as providing a sense of privacy and comfort…

Not quite unthinkable in Australia of course, but the outcome was more commendable.

In helping one of my coachees towards a definition of “conflicting perspectives” for HSC purposes earlier this week I raised the question in the following way: “I suppose at your school there are heaps of girls wearing hijab…” “Yes,” he replied. “Does anyone take any notice of it?” “No,” he said. Then I asked if he knew what the French President had been saying recently. He did. We then explored what perspective he might have been operating from – and I was as objective and non-judgemental about it as possible, the point not being whether Sarkozy was right or wrong, or whether he was playing dog whistle politics – a term the French do not have according to that Crikey post. We went through a number of historical and cultural factors. We did conclude that making an issue of such things – and similar things like Sikhs who have to wear turbans – tends to exacerbate the conflict of perspectives.

And Bruce, from an atheist perspective, comes in practice to similar conclusions. (I have to say I am bemused by the sectarianism that leads to charges of “accomodationism” or “Uncle Tom atheism”. A bit “holier than thou” isn’t it, if you get my drift?)

…Harris is famed for championing a reduced form of intolerance, which I think most of the people where I come from would just call criticism. Maybe it’s an antipodean thing, but intolerance to me seems more a matter of civics than of intellectual conduct. Maybe its an Australian thing – I think we and Canada have done better with these kinds of concepts, at least in practice, than the US or any of Europe (you will notice that as the primary architects of multiculturalism in practice, neither Australia nor Canada fell for the mockery of human rights that was the Durban Review Conference – so much for the culpability of multicultural tolerance in that mess.*)

I think Harris falls into a deadly rhetorical trap for even associating the criticism of religion with intolerance. It’s not “conversational intolerance.” It’s not intolerance at all!

Intolerance is kicking a kid out of school for wearing a burqa. It isn’t intolerant to opine that the burqa, when forced upon someone, is oppressive. Or to opine that theological reasons for the burqa are sophistry.

Does the fact that I’m against banning the burqa in schools make me an accommodationist? Even given what I think of it? Please do make a distinction between my applied civics and my intellectual position – just because I think something is a bad idea doesn’t mean that I don’t think intervention would be worse…

I certainly endorse that conclusion.

 

June review catch-up 1

Yes, I know how long I have been promising a string of reviews on that “sticky” above. ;)  Well, now to get started…

star30 star30star30star30star30 1. Simon Schama, The American Future: A History (2008).

Rather snooty review by David Brooks in The New York Times: “His book is called “The American Future: A History” (which is a puerile paradox before you even open the cover), and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the American future.” When you actually read the book you do get the title: historically “The American Dream” (the phrase itself, if not the idea, first appeared in 1931) has been very much about possibility and the future – witness the ending of The Great Gatsby. Beginning each chapter with vignettes of the 2008 Presidential Election, Schama traces a series of themes back through a number of intelocked and fascinating profiles. The result, in my view, is one of the most subtle portraits of the USA and its evolution that I have ever read. Nothing puerile about the title or the book.

Much nearer the mark is Carmela Ciuraru in The Christian Science Monitor.

William Faulkner once famously wrote that “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past,” a quote that aptly describes the perspective of Simon Schama’s latest book. In The American Future: A History, the eminent British historian and Columbia University professor offers a kaleidoscopic view of our national identity – by way of examining war, immigration, religion, and prosperity.

He sets off these themes with the 2008 presidential election, “impregnated with history,” an event that Schama likens to Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural in 1801, when Jefferson similarly spoke out against divisive rhetoric, proclaiming that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Weaving in original reportage, analysis, and historical events, Schama investigates where our nation of boundless appetite and ambition might be headed. The book (a companion to his BBC documentary series) is both a celebration and a wake-up call. “The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation,” he writes. “The American past is baggy with sobering truth.” The author is particularly harsh about our country’s recent past, notably “the woeful performance of [former president George W. Bush] and his hapless maladministration.” …

He isn’t striving for objectivity; this book is part history, part polemic. As a scholar and an outsider in his adopted country, he views the Bush administration as an unmitigated disaster. Yet the author is smart enough to (mostly) keep his opinions to himself, and let others do the talking – whether through contemporary interviews or quotes from historical figures…

He’s especially adroit at studying our historical ambivalence toward immigrants, and how religious ideology has shaped our identity. (He notes that American evangelism has always puzzled “habitually secular, skeptical Europeans.”)

American history is endlessly rich and fascinating, but Schama’s travelogue makes it come alive in a wonderfully accessible way. Sure, some of his pronouncements seem a bit obvious, but he includes so many surprising moments (an amusingly candid off-the-cuff encounter with George W. Bush, for instance) that all is forgiven. Schama happens to be a marvelous storyteller, too. Never condescending, his portrait of America’s complexities and contradictions is entertaining, provocative, and above all, hopeful.

The chapter on religion — “American Fervour” – is particularly valuable. It is a nuanced corrective to the polarised and polarising views of the subject one so often sees.* Let’s face it, too much we see and hear about the USA is at the level of cartoon thought, whether it be mindless patriotism on the one hand or subscription to the idea that the USA is at the bottom of all that is wrong with the world on the other.

You can read Chapter One here. Some idea of the TV series may be seen here. A definite Best Read of 2009!

* See also Caspar Melville “Free Market Faith”, New Humanist May/June 2009.

star30star30 star30 2. Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (2007)

I really have mixed feelings about this one.

"Many US high school students think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife."

The book is written for a popular audience and serves several good purposes. It contains a useful “encyclopedia” of relevant religious movements and ideas that really does encapsulate much that we all “need to know” to make sense of the world around us. These entries cover most of the main world religions. They are sane on Islam-related matters.

On the other hand much of the historical section is, to my mind, quite odd – a nostalgia for contexts and situations that even the author eventually admits we can’t return to, and probably shouldn’t try.

star30star30star30star30 3. June 2009 Monthly Magazine

I particularly enjoyed Waleed Aly “Patriot Acts”, Fiona Capp “In the Garden” (about Judith Wright and Nugget Coombs) and Peter Sutton “Here I Stand” – a very insightful profile of the undoubtedly brilliant if controversial Noel Pearson: “Peter Sutton reflects on the many facets of Noel Pearson’s thought as it appears in Up From the Mission, the Cape York leader’s comprehensive new collection of writing.”

The blurb for “Patriot Acts” follows.

“American patriotism does not celebrate a country that exists or has ever existed. It is a celebration of the idea of America: of possibility, what Barack Obama calls ‘America’s promise’. Where we may look upon America as the country of slavery and racial segregation, Americans see a country that overcame these things … This is a concept alien to those whose sense of patriotism has an older, more European flavour. The message of Australia’s staunchest patriots is that ours is a great country with a great history and no need for change.”

In “Patriot Acts”, Waleed Aly looks beyond the cheering and flag waving to provide a unique and compelling analysis of American patriotism, its history and complexity, and the lessons Australia can draw from it. “The secret to America’s unique brand of national identity,” Aly says, is that it “coheres principally around not a social culture but a political one”; it is this, he argues, that allows American patriotism to be embraced by even the most marginalised in US society.

“The demands America makes of its minorities are less trenchant than those preferred by anti-multiculturalists. Its demands are civic demands. If Australia has lately had a message for its migrants, it has been, ‘Fit in’. America’s message is, ‘Participate’. The two are worlds apart. The latter expresses a national identity that is dynamic and open, and that offers citizens a belief in their own freedom of conscience and the opportunity to contribute something new. The former expresses a national identity that is comparatively fixed, that makes its demands without inviting input and that, as a consequence, inspires little fidelity.”

 

Substantial food for thought on Radio National

Given the trivia and infotainment and sometimes unbalanced ranting that characterise too much of the media, it can be refreshing – and challenging – to tune into Australia’s Radio National. I probably should do so more.

I was struck particularly by some recent episodes of All in the Mind.

1. Child soldiers: the Art and arts of healing (Part 1 of 2). “Born into the bloody horror of war, Sudanese rap artist Emmanuel Jal was 9 when he was recruited into the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army as a child soldier. Incredibly he survived, and his music reaches a generation of Lost Boys.”

2. Child soldiers: the Art and arts of healing (Part 2 of 2). “In Sierra Leone, child soldiers committed acts that words can barely describe. At the war’s end, ravaged communities responded to them with terror and stigma. A minority of former child soldiers, many orphaned, have access to reintegration programs. Dance and movement therapist David Alan Harris describes an extraordinary project to respond to the traumatised psyche through engaging the body.”

You can listen, or read the transcripts. It is strong stuff.

Then I enjoyed A tribute to Isaiah Berlin on The Philosopher’s Zone.

John Gray: Although he thought each of these conceptions, negative and positive liberty were in some ways legitimate and authentic developments from a basic core, which is common to both, he preferred negative liberty to positive liberty in any of the versions that it had had throughout history, and there were several. I mean I think what he feared in positive liberty was paternalism, and even a type of authoritarianism, or even totalitarianism….

I should make one very important point though. I think it’s a great mistake as some people do, to assimilate Berlin therefore to certain types of narrow or extreme liberal or libertarian thinkers who argue that what states should only do is to protect negative liberty. And he himself certainly did not take the view that the purpose of government was only to protect and promote negative liberty. As I mentioned earlier he wasn’t a tremendously political person; he was never actively involved in politics but if I had to describe his political outlook it would be that of a Rooseveltian liberal or in British or Australian terms of a moderate social democrat, and of course being that, meant that negative liberty could and should be tempered and constrained and supplemented by other important values such as social cohesion, distribution, equality and so forth.

Nonetheless he was strongly critical of positive conceptions of liberty because they assumed within individuals and between individuals and in societies as a whole, an actual or a potential harmony which he thought was delusory.

NOTE: The transcript for the second All in the Mind program goes up later this week. You may listen though.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2009 in Africa, Australia, Australia and Australian, faith and philosophy, human rights, humanity, inspiration, intellectual spot, radio

 

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: 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.