Violence and ideology

• January 20th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

Another main source of authority in Islam (see previous post) is the Hadith: stories about the actions and sayings of the Prophet that were transmitted orally and written down some time after his death.  In the following hadith, for instance, the Prophet (who, as I noted before, gives himself the right to use his female captives for sex), deals with an man who admits to adultery:

Narrated Abu Huraira: A man from Bani Aslam came to Allah’s Apostle while he was in the mosque and called (the Prophet ) saying, “O Allah’s Apostle! I have committed illegal sexual intercourse.” On that the Prophet turned his face from him to the other side, whereupon the man moved to the side towards which the Prophet had turned his face, and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I have committed illegal sexual intercourse.” The Prophet turned his face (from him) to the other side whereupon the man moved to the side towards which the Prophet had turned his face, and repeated his statement. The Prophet turned his face (from him) to the other side again. The man moved again (and repeated his statement) for the fourth time. So when the man had given witness four times against himself, the Prophet called him and said, “Are you insane?” He replied, “No.” The Prophet then said (to his companions), “Go and stone him to death.”

This quotation can be found (among other places) on Sunnah.com, a website which aims to “provide the first online, authentic, searchable, and multilingual (English/Arabic at the individual hadith level) database of collections of hadith from our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.”  Once again, my point is that, while it may well be true that the brutal actions of radical Islamists are unrepresentative of the attitude of mainstream Islam, those actions seem to be well supported by the sources – the Quran and the hadith – which mainstream Islam still accepts as the ultimate authority.   Mohamed lived in the time that we know in Europe as the Dark Ages, and he was a man of his time.  His attitudes and behaviour, as reflected in the sources accepted as authoritative by Islam as a whole, looks much more like a role model for organisations such as the Taliban or Islamic State than a role model for a tolerant, pluralist religion that is comfortable with liberal securalism.  I don’t see how this fact can be completely excluded from the conversation.

*   *   *

All that said, though, Adam Shatz is right when he says that “ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter.”   As he goes on to point out:

The Kouachi brothers [i.e. the Charlie Hebdo assassins] were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention… It’s unlikely they could have recited more than the few hadith they learned from the ex-janitor-turned-imam who presided over their indoctrination. They came from a broken family and started out as petty criminals, much like Mohamed Merah, who murdered a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012. Their main preoccupations, before their conversion to Islamism, seem to have been football, chasing girls, listening to hip hop and smoking weed. Radical Islam gave them the sense of purpose that they couldn’t otherwise find in France. It allowed them to translate their sense of powerlessness into total power, their aimlessness into heroism on the stage of history. They were no longer criminals but holy warriors. To see their crimes as an expression of Islam is like treating the crimes of the Baader-Meinhof gang as an expression of historical materialism. And to say this is in no way to diminish their responsibility, or to relinquish ‘moral clarity’.  (Italics added by me.)

I myself remember a time when, as an odd, socially isolated, angry teenager with vague, unfocussed left-wing ideas, I was briefly drawn to the idea of violent acts of terror against ‘the System’.  (I was very taken for instance, by the Lindsay Anderson film “If…” in which some schoolboys climb up onto the roof of their school and machine gun parents and dignitaries arriving for a speech day).  Luckily for me (and, I guess, for others too!) this never got past the level of fantasy.   But it does mean that I understand, from personal experience, Shatz’s point that, in looking for the cause of violence, we can’t just look at the ideology that happens to be used to justify it but also at the social and psychological context which makes that ideology attractive.  I felt excluded and alienated and very angry – that was the root cause of my brief interest in the idea of political violence – but in the left-wing terrorism of that time (the mid-seventies) I saw a means of dignifying the violent expression of my anger by redefining it as a fight in a noble cause.  (Without ideology, as Shatz says, a violent act would make me a criminal; with it, I could see myself as a holy warrior.)  Angry people who want to hit out, will use whatever rationalisations they can find.

This makes the whole thing extremely complicated.  On the one hand, in this context it seems likely that mockery of Islam in a country like France or Britain, will actually add to the sense of alienation that young Muslims already feel, and therefore stoke up the anger which is the real root cause of the violence.   On the other hand, the ready availability of ideological justifications for violence within the core traditions of this particular community is surely a problem in its own right.  Yes, ideology can only go so far in explaining behaviour, but it is a factor all the same.

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Islam and mockery

• January 16th, 2015 • Posted in All posts

The longest exposure I have had to a Muslim society is the couple of occasions I have stayed in the Moroccan seaside town of Oued Laou in the company of my friend Jonathan, who speaks Moroccan Arabic. Small things I’ve noticed and liked are that the standard greeting to a stranger is “Peace be with you”, and the way that any discussion of future events is routinely followed by the phrase “insha’Allah” (God willing), but, for an outsider, the most obvious manifestation of the Muslim religion occurs at intervals through every day, when the loudspeakers at the top of the town’s main mosque crackle into life and you hear the beautiful call to prayer, echoed by other mosques across the Laou valley and up on the surrounding hillsides. At these times, if you go into the little market, many of the stalls are simply unattended. Their owners can be seen through the open door of the mosque, shoeless, praying. I find this moving, admirable even: the idea of a community which, at regular intervals through the day, sets aside its own individual concerns and preoccupations, and submits itself to the mystery at the core of the universe itself. I can see how, by comparison, modern secular western society might seem shallow and narcissistic. And I can see why someone taking part in these rituals that are shared by Muslims across the world, might experience Islam as a religion of peace.

A not-particularly religious Muslim friend spoke in similar terms about the month of Ramadan. There was something rather wonderful, she said, about the idea that an entire community was moving together through this season of abstinence and self-denial, reminding themselves that there was more to life than simply the pleasure of the senses. As a child, when my (also not particularly religious) parents sent me to Sunday School, I acquired a somewhat similar feeling about the traditional Christian calendar. Though the religion itself didn’t rub off on me (or on my parents either, as it turned out!) I still like the idea of an entire community (and in days gone by, an entire society) moving together through a story, repeating it over and over: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter…

Religions are sometimes characterised as a set of ‘beliefs’, of propositions, of statements about what is and isn’t true, and while most of them do include this element, it is quite a narrow way of looking at them, for there is a great deal more to them than that. They are also customs, practices, shared ways of doing things, collective acts of imagination. Whether the stories we enacted in Sunday School were literally true or not, they certainly brought me closer to some of the mysteries of life, and part of that was to do with the cycle itself, the repetition, which somehow made them much deeper than a single telling would have done.

I’m sure the same is true of the customs of practicing Muslims, and for that reason I don’t find it hard to see why these practices and rituals seem profoundly precious to them, and why they should be distressed when others mock. Life is hard, and it can seem empty and futile. Each of us tries to find ways of imbuing it with some sense of purpose, or beauty, or meaning, but all of those ways are fragile.  We should be as respectful and gentle as we can with one another’s attempts. Mocking other people’s religious practices, just for the sake of it, is simply rude and inconsiderate in much the same way as it would be rude and inconsiderate to barge into a concert that other people were enjoying and shouting out abuse, just because the music wasn’t to our own taste.

There is a “but” though.

* * *

Islam may be more than just a set of “beliefs”, but nevertheless (like most religions, and more than many) it certainly includes beliefs. To be specific, a core belief is the idea that the words of the Quran are the infallible word of God. And this is where things get complicated, because these words sanction behaviour that, in modern terms, would be heinous criminal offences in most parts of the world . To give one example, the Quran very clearly states in several places that a man is entitled to have slave girls and to have sex with them.

Here are Surahs 23: 1-6*:

(1) The believers must /(Eventually) win through –

(2) Those who humble themselves / In their prayers;

(3) Who avoid vain talk;

(4) Who are active in deeds/ Of charity;

(5) Who abstain from sex,

(6) Except with those joined/ To them in the marriage bond,/ Or (the captives) whom / Their right hands possess –/ For (in their case) they are / Free from blame.

See also, among others, Surah 4:24, which prohibits sex with married woman unless they are your captives (in which case it’s fine), or Surah 33: 50, which begins “Oh Prophet! We have / Made lawful to thee / Thy wives to whom thou / Hast paid their dowers; / And those whom thy / Right hand possess out of /The prisoners of war whom / Allah has assigned to thee…”  Here, note, it is Mohamed himself who is being told by God that he can have sex with women he’s captured in war.

Of course the Quran is of its time, written in the early decades of the seventh century, when England was still a collection of petty Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that wouldn’t come together as a single country for another 300 years. I am sure that the Angles and Saxons who settled Britain, and the Romans who preceded them, and the Vikings who were to follow, would all have had a similar attitude towards female captives, and certainly the Old Testament, which Jews and Christians alike traditionally view as the word of God, contains similar notions. I’m even prepared to be persuaded that Islam was in many respects ahead of its time, back in the seventh century. (Perhaps it’s Islam’s misfortune that its founder felt the need to lay down very specific instructions which aren’t terribly amenable to reinterpretion). But the fact remains is that what is being sanctioned in these verses is, in modern terms, the crime of rape: the feelings and wishes of the women and girls simply do not come into the equation at all. And, right now in the twenty-first century, Islamic State in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria are using the authority of the Quran to justify capturing girls, making them into sex slaves, and even (in the case of IS) giving out a nicely printed leaflet confirming that it is fine for their followers to have sex with girls (including prepubescent girls) that they capture.

I know that many Muslims would say that such behaviour is not consistent with their own understanding of the religion, and I really do believe them: religion in practice really is a much more complex, idiosyncratic and many-layered thing than its doctrines would suggest on cold examination. But until a modern Islam emerges that is able to draw a clear line between itself and the idea that the verses of the Quran really are literally the word of God, Muslims can’t expect their religion or their prophet to be exempt from the criticism and mockery of those who find many of those verses to be brutal, abhorrent and medieval**.

Which I guess was Charlie Hebdo’s point when they printed their fateful Nov 2011 cover on which a cartoon Mohamed tells readers, “A hundred lashes if you don’t die laughing.”

 

*I am using the translation edited by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, and distributed free by the Albirr Foundation UK (10th edition, 1999).
** I’m using the issue of women and slavery as an example, but I could have used others. IS’s use of crucifixion as a punishment for their opponents, for instance, is also specifically sanctioned by the Quran, which states that that “execution, or crucifixion, / Or the cutting off of hands / And feet from opposite sides, / Or exile…” are the appropriate punishment for “those who wage war against Allah and his messengers” (5:33).

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Interview with Verushka Byrow

• December 28th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Interviews etc

This interview took place some months ago, but has only just been posted here.  They were rather interesting questions, though, looking through my responses, I seem to have been a slightly jaundiced mood at the time.  The interviewer is based in Sydney.

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Hierarchies in Eden

• December 15th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

In the article I discussed in my previous post, David Brin argued that a rigidly hierarchical pyramidal social structure was an “attractor” in the mathematical sense of the word: a pattern or shape towards which a dynamic system tends to evolve.

I’ve often seen Dark Eden described as a ‘dystopian’ novel but, though life may seem grim in Eden, the society itself, as described at the beginning of the book, is actually in many ways utopian.  It has not settled into one of those rigid hierarchical pyramids.  There are no distinctions between rich and poor; women are at least as powerful as men; murder and rape are unknown.

In the second Eden novel (Mother of Eden) all this has changed.  Most of Eden has succumbed to the pyramidal attractor, and the majority of its population live in one of two highly stratified societies, one founded by John Redlantern, the other ruled by the descendants of David Redlantern.   In the case of the ‘Johnfolk’ at least, the people at the bottom of the pyramid are really no more than serfs, ruled over in a more-or-less feudal way, by ‘chiefs’ who are the heirs of those who were John’s lieutenants in his protracted struggle against the Davidfolk. The great rift in Eden’s human community that was depicted in the first book, was the catalyst which set in motion the process of stratification which  also included the increasing dominance of men over women.

One of the things I was interested in exploring in Mother of Eden is how those hierarchies work.   My main protagonist, Starlight Brooking, comes from one of the few remaining exceptions to the pyramidal norm, and she finds it bewildering that such a very number of people can exercise so much control over so many.  Why don’t the people at the bottom of the pyramid simply refuse to do what they’re told?

She discovers there are many reasons, one of which is the fact that the system of stories and beliefs which people use as their source of meaning has, to to speak, been rigged so that it bolsters the status quo.   Another is a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ kind of paradox: yes, if all the ‘small’ people rose up together, they could defeat the ‘big’ people, but if some stand up to the big people and the others don’t take their side, they’ll end up a lot worse off than they would have been if they kept their heads down.   Another again is that even people who seem low down in the pyramid, and look like they are getting a pretty bad deal, do in fact turn out to have at least some stake in in maintaining the structure as it is.

I won’t say how it all works out for Starlight, but I will say that I think people sometimes forget that last point when they are thinking about politics in the modern world.  It simply isn’t the case that the world can be divided up in ‘the rich and powerful’ and ‘the rest of us’, however much we’d like to place ourselves squarely on the side of the good guys.  In a country like the UK, even middle-income people who don’t think of themselves as especially well off are, by global standards, not only very rich, but quite possibly richer (at least in purely material terms) than will ever be possible for the human race as a whole.

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Where are the aliens?

• December 14th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Climate

I enjoyed this article by David Brin.  It seems to me to exemplify the way the science fictional imagination works, connecting together, in a single speculative sweep, ideas that come from astronomy, mathematics, biology, history, politics and economics.

Beginning with the Fermi Paradox (that is: if we are not alone in the universe, how come we aren’t detecting any aliens?), Brin moves on to consider the question as to whether we should actively seek to identify ourselves to putative alien civilizations.  He’s cautious about this, and considers there to be a real possibilility of alien species having very different priorities to ours: “would our favorite models of ‘human nature’ … apply equally to a sapient race descended – say – from pack carnivores, like wolves? Or solitary hunters, like tigers? Or solipsistic omnivores (bears), or herd herbivores? Or ants?”*

Brin then discusses the way that even human societies (societies developed by “gregarious apes”) have a strong tendency to form pyramid-like hierarchies. Our present western society he sees as an exception to this:

Across the last two centuries we have experimented with a different attractor model – one that is diamond-shaped, with an empowered middle that both outnumbers the poor and is unafraid of the rich. In the Enlightenment Experiment, arenas like markets, democracy, science, courts, and sports successfully harness regulated competitiveness to create tsunamis of wealth and free exploration, while also allowing and encouraging countless opportunities for willing cooperation. The resulting society roils and froths. It may seem chaotic, especially for those who dream of simple, perfect utopias. But inarguably it has outperformed – in just two centuries – all of the preceding feudal pyramids… combined.

He thinks that this diamond shape is constantly under threat from forces seeking to pull society back to the old, stagnant, feudal pyramid, and takes a swipe here at those who think of free markets as somehow ‘natural’ states that thrive without external intervention:

Anyone who claims that competitive arenas can remain effective without carefully negotiated regulation to suppress cheating should try this experiment: set up a sports league without rules, in which the strongest players are free to unite in a single team, if they so choose. (To make the experiment perfect, establish it without even laws against violence and murder: think Rollerball.) …

When the strong can side with the strong against the less-strong, you quickly get cartels and monopolies, then inherited ruling castes, and the old cycle is re-established. It is being attempted as we speak.

It is indeed.  People like myself, whose political instincts are on the ‘leftward’ side of the political spectrum (insofar as that is even a meaningful concept: but that’s for another time!), are prone to conflate the idea of ‘free markets’ with the idea of ‘capitalism’, but in fact the idea of a free market is a false front behind which monopoly capitalism hides, much in same way as the idea of people’s power is the false front behind which communist tyrannies hide.  By calling on the idea of ‘free markets’ capitalism resists the very regulation that is necessary for genuine pluralism in the market place, and, if still unchecked, it becomes first monopolistic, and finally a new kind of feudalism.

Brin wonders if the pyramidal structure is an ‘attractor state’ so powerful that it provides a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox.  If stagnant, rigidly hierarchical pyramids are the default structure towards which societies of sentient beings are inevitably drawn, then perhaps this explains why there aren’t societies out there which are dynamic and technologically advanced enough to be detected?

At this point, though, I find his argument a bit of a stretch.  We need to bear in mind, I think, that those ‘tsunamis of wealth and free exploration’ have been acheived, not simply by a certain kind of social structure, but through an unprecedented level of exploitation of the resources of the planet**.  I’d suggest that a much more plausible explanation of the Fermi Paradox can be found in what we now know about climate change.  Perhaps to achieve a sufficient level of technological sophistication to be detectable across space, a society has to draw so massively on its planet’s reserves of stored up chemical energy, that a civilization-destroying ecological catastrophe becomes inevitable?

Obviously I hope I’m wrong, and that societies of sentient beings can find other ways of progressing that don’t involve self-destruction.   Or at least that we can, even if none of the others out there have yet managed it.

* I had some slightly similar thoughts about wolves and bears here.
**And indeed, exploitation of people: which actually suggests to me that the diamond shape is something of an illusion, and has always looked much more like the old-fashioned pyramid when seen on a global scale.  (Much as apartheid-era South Africa might seem ‘diamond-shaped’ if you only looked at the white population, but was very decidedly pyramid-shaped, if you looked at the population as a whole.)

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Digital Fausts?

• December 11th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

I thought I’d write a few lines about an article I read on Saturday about how Facebook avoids UK taxes, by shuffling money around in the usual way (like Starbucks, which will apparently pay no corporation tax at all in the UK for the next 3 years).   But when I searched for the article on Google (yes, I know),  I was invited to access it via – guess what? – my Facebook account, and warned that this would mean sharing information about myself.

I begin to wonder why I have anything to do with this outfit, let alone voluntarily provide it with information about myself, my views, my contacts, my choices, that it can use to make money, and others can use for whatever purpose they like.

I’ve been thinking lately about flashback scenes in movies and stories (see here and here), when characters look back to the early days, when they saw the signs, but paid no heed.  I was put in mind of them by news about climate change (which I still think will come to eclipse every other question).   But one can easily envisage another movie, in which characters look back wonderingly at the days when they first voluntarily surrendered their privacy to huge international organisations over which they had almost no control.

Maybe it would be a good thing if the whole phenomenon really were to fade away like bubonic plague, as some have suggested it may?   And perhaps it would be a good thing too, if we were to stop falling for things that are supposedly ‘free’ but which we actually pay for with our souls?

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The world changes forever: no one notices

• December 6th, 2014 • Posted in All posts

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For obvious reasons, I take a certain interest in other people’s takes on the Eden myth, and my eye was caught by a newspaper story about this painting ‘The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man’, painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder in 1613.

What strikes me as brilliant about this beautiful image is the way that Adam and Eve, on the point (according to the story) of changing the entire course of human history, are tiny figures in the background who you’d barely notice if their significance hadn’t been signalled by the painting’s title.

The painting is like a seventeenth century version of the flashback scene that I wrote about in a previous post.  Significant events, events whose consequences will be felt for millenia, don’t come labelled as such, and may look at the time like little details, hardly worth noticing at all.

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Sola fide

• December 3rd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, News & events

A new story of mine, ‘Judgement’, appears in a new anthology, In the Empty Places, published as a fundraiser for the Bantuan Coffee Foundation, a charity which helps victims of child prostitution and trafficking in Indonesia and elsewhere.

The story imagines what it would be like to discover that we lived in a world where the Protestant theological principle of sola fide was literally true, so that anyone who did not believe in Christ, regardless of their own conduct, really would be damned forever.

It is terrifying to live under a brutal dictator who may torture and kill you if you dare to criticise him, but imagine living under an omnipotent and omniscient creator who is so incredibly cruel that, if you don’t believe in him, he won’t even let you die, preferring to have you tortured for all eternity!

Others will have to judge how well the story works, but it certainly terrified me when I was writing it!

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Heat

• December 3rd, 2014 • Posted in All posts, Climate, My favourite posts

It’s like being in a disaster movie or novel.  Not in the main story, though, not in the drama itself, but in one of those little flashback scenes where the narrative glances back at how it all began: the small apparently innocuous signs, the little details that people noticed but didn’t think much about, the other preoccupations that now look so trivial, but which seemed more pressing at the time.

This is the hottest year on recordNext year looks like it may be even hotterFourteen of the fifteen hottest years ever have been in this century.

The movie returns from the flashback to the main narrative.  “Why didn’t they see it?” the characters ask one another in bemusement.  “Why didn’t they do anything about it?”

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An unsung Einstein

• October 10th, 2014 • Posted in All posts, My favourite posts

This article by Sophie Heawood struck a chord with me. She’s writing about her daughter, who she “hoped and prayed… wouldn’t want to start down the road of passive pink princess crap, not when she could be out climbing trees and building dams and doing stimulating things with her life”, but who insisted on wearing a pink tutu and ballet shoes for her third birthday.

“I’m not saying the fight in me has completely gone,” she says. “But I am starting to wonder why mums like me write this stuff off so vigorously: isn’t it more sexist to regard things that are girly as not being good enough?”

I had a similar thought at the recent World Science Fiction Convention, listening to a woman panellist extolling an author (I forget which) for her strong, powerful ‘bad-ass’ female characters. I’m absolutely in favour of having powerful female characters behaving in ways that are stereotypically masculine, but it struck me at the time that we should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that stereotypically feminine characters, whether female or male, are somehow inferior. That, as Heawood implies, is just sexism in another form, and do we really want to give out the message anyway that soldiers, say, are better and more interesting than nurses? Challenging sexism shouldn’t be about denigrating the stereotypically feminine and extolling the stereotypically masculine. It should be about validating both and making sure that people of either gender are able to play whichever role suits them.

As a not particularly ‘bad-ass’ man, I’m proud to have worked most of my adult life in social work, a stereotypically feminine profession (like nursing), which is overwhelmingly female. Last time I checked, the social work workforce in the UK was something like 85% women, and this is certainly true of the social work students I now teach. Do I think that these women are wasting their talents by not training to be engineers or bankers? Certainly not. Am I bothered that both genders aren’t equally represented? Not particularly. (Who knows whether our dispositions and preferences are entirely socially determined, or whether there’s a biological component, but either way, it’s important that people are able to do the kind of work they are drawn to, not what others think they ought to do.) What does bother me though is that difficult, demanding and manifestly important activities like looking after people in hospitals, teaching in primary schools, or protecting children from abuse, should be regarded as less important and less prestigious, than stereotypically masculine activities like building dams, or playing with money.

Some years ago – I was involved at the time with a fostercare agency – I attended a Christmas dinner that the agency laid on as a thankyou for its carers. The woman sitting next to me was a working class single parent. She was not particularly well-educated, and certainly not in any way famous, but I found myself telling her that I felt a bit like I was sitting next to a kind of Einstein. This woman took in children who had been through absolutely horrendous experiences: children who’d been serially raped before they even started school by the adults on whom they were entirely dependent for care, children who couldn’t get through a night without screaming because of the flashbacks, children who trusted no one and wouldn’t let anyone near them. She took them in, took all their rage and rejection, their violence and chaos, and somehow hung in there, calmly and steadily, for months and years, until even they began to feel they’d arrived somewhere safe. Very few people have this kind of talent. Most people, and certainly me, would very quickly buckle in that blast of misery and terror.

In a more rational world, a woman like her really would be esteemed as highly as famous scientists and great leaders. I guess that will never happen, not least because part of her talent lay in knowing that her own ego wasn’t the most important thing.  But don’t tell me that some action hero is a better role model than her.

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