Category Archives: Islam

A strange book: how lawyers helped justify torture.

John Rizzo was the second-highest lawyer in the CIA for much of the 1990s and early 200os. On several occasions he was acting chief counsel, when the top job was unfilled. Rizzo’s book Company Man (published by Scribe) describes how the CIA came to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” after the 9/11 attacks.

company-man-book coverThe first really important capture of an Al Qaeda member after 9/11 was a man named Abu Zubaydah, the head of logistics for future operations against the US. The CIA feared another attack on the US might be immanent, and they needed to get any information out of him. His interrogators found him an “arrogant,… twisted, smug little creep,” (p.182-183) who told them lots of old news, mixed with outright lies.  When using standard legal interrogation methods, and ‘playing by the book,’ Zubaydah’s interrogators were getting nowhere, they sought permission to use a series of nine harsher interrogation steps, from slaps to the face, and escalating measures up to water boarding.

Because the CIA had been stung by previous accusations of illegal activities, those in charge of the interrogations wanted to ‘cover their asses’ by getting a CIA lawyer to tell them their proposed methods were legal. That request came to Rizzo, who in turn sought the opinions of the Department of Justice. every proposed action was described in sometimes ludicrous detail. A slap to the face had to be with an open hand, the fingers splayed and hit below the ear.  If he was shoved against a wall, they had to have a fake,  flexible wall installed, so that Zubaydah wouldn’t get bone fractures. Further down the list, he might be placed in a small box that forced him to curl up, and then harmless insects would be dropped into the box. “Why?” asked the lawyer  “Zubaydah hates bugs,” a CIA official replied. “It will be something harmless, but he won’t know that.” (p.184-185) And so it began.

Lawyers in the DOJ managed to somehow convince themselves that something wasn’t torture unless it resulted in  pain associated with “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions.” When the CIA needed to brief the congressional leadership, former POW Senator John Mc Cain sat stony faced and silent, and made a one-sentence comment at the end. “It’s all torture.”

I’ve described above what I consider, from a public interest view, one of the most controversial parts of the book. But much of the book gives an insight into the operational culture of the CIA, and how it changed over time. Covert actions, almost non-existent under President Carter, rose dramatically up under Reagan, and lawyers had to draft a Presidential “Finding” authorizing every last one.  People in the field wanted endless memos from lawyers telling them whether they could legally do various things. Even buying mules to give to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan needed a lawyers approval! It’s an interesting book, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Guantanamo Bay, how the secret prison system came into existence or the general culture of intelligence organizations.

It’s a five-star book.

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Is religion the major cause of wars? Karen Armstrong argues “No.”

Fields of Blood book coverOne only has to turn on the TV these days, or go to any internet news feed, to be confronted by horrific images of religious violence in the Middle East.  For those who saw the images of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the gunman murdering the wounded policeman on the pavement outside those offices, the religious violence seems all around us. So: Is religion to blame for most of the mass violence in the world?

Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood (Random House, 500 pages) traces the history of warfare since the invention of settled agriculture. Armstrong, a former Catholic Nun, has become one of the English-speaking world’s foremost scholars on the history of religion. She points out that in hunter-gather societies, there is no real warfare, except occasional skirmishes with nearby tribes, since the entire population is needed for food collection, and there is no agricultural surplus to sustain a kingly priestly, or soldier class. Once settled farming begins, and farmers are producing enough to support more than their own families,  a class of rulers, soldiers and priests can emerge.

The pace of agricultural innovation is terribly slow, however, so the only way that the new ruling class can expand its wealth is to conquer another nearby area and seize its surplus. That’s the start of warfare.

Throughout history, religions have been ideologies that propped up the legitimacy of the ruling class. (Have you ever known of a society where the major religion denied the legitimacy of the ruling class? How did that work out?) Warfare, Armstrong claims, occurs at times of social and economic change, and religion becomes enlisted in the political cause, rather than being the cause.

She also argues that the major conflicts of the 20th century were not religious. The first world war was not religious, and Germany didn’t start world War II  to spread either of its two recognized religions (Catholicism, and Lutheranism).   In the 1930s, Japan didn’t invade it’s neighbors to spread Shinto and Buddhism: China already had Confucianism and Buddhism, Thailand was already Buddhist, and Korea already had Buddhism.

The most interesting sections of the book deal with the crusades of the Middle Ages, and the religious ward of the 15 and 1600s, where religion really was at the center of the conflicts. The author has a knowledge of history that leaves me for dead.  For anybody who wants to get into the history of religion in a serious way, and is prepared to wade through some serious research, this book is a five star piece of work.

For those interested in reading some further reviews before committing to an arduous read, here is one from  The Guardian,  the New York Times   and here is publisher Random House’s description of the book’s subject matter. It’s a meaty read, but it’s worth it.

What it’s like to grow up in Hezbollah culture

This is an extraordinary description of what it’s like to grow up in an area controlled by Hezbollah. The writer then compares Hezbollah to the fundamentalist Christian family and culture she married into, and talks about the similarities. It’s real eye-opener. (The passage starting “Hey guys! It’s been a coupe of months…” is the intro paragraph by the original author, not me.) And her article is here.

When ‘Art’ insults Religion; where are the limits?

Contents of ‘When ‘Art’ insults Religion; where are the limits?’

Piper Bayard has written in  her blog  about the current  film on Youtube which has resulted in riots and protests in several counties. Bayard states that “…religion, like politics, is visceral and rational discussions of either are rare.” She’s dead right. Her blog also has a discussion (which I recommend) of which countries might stand to gain from the current unrest, which I won’t attempt to summarize here.

Here in Australia there was a demonstration this week in which an adult held a sign saying “behead those who insult the prophet” and a small child (aged 6-7) held a similar banner, given to the child by its twenty-six year old mother.  You can see the sign here. Several police and demonstrators were injured when the demonstration moved to Martin Place, home of the US consulate.

A childish, stupid film, by a dishonest director

I’ve seen the film on Youtube. It’s childish, stupid, and is clearly intended to offend. The director has been dishonest with his actors, because he overdubbed the actor’s voices with other dialogue after the film was produced.  You can easily see where the producer (Sam Bacile) overdubbed the voices to make the actors say lines that weren’t originally in their scripts: the overdubbed voices don’t even sound like the original ones. (The actors claim to have been used and didn’t realize what would be done with the film.) It features a donkey who appeared to have converted to Islam.  I gather there are still arguments about whether the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was related to the film or was already planned, so I won’t comment on that.

The film, we are told, only had one public viewing, in one cinema in Hollywood, for one night, and the audience consisted of about two dozen friends of the director. Without further publicity his film would have just fizzled away into the dustbin of history.

As best as I can figure, with the latest bombing in Afghanistan, the death toll appears to be about 20. (I’m writing about 4 pm Australia, Wednesday).   By demonstrating as they have, Muslims have only given the film free publicity and caused more people to click onto Youtube to see “what it’s about.”

So what role do we have – if any – in protecting the feelings of those who may be offended by deliberate insults to their religion?

Christians didn’t react with violence to the film Life of Brian. As far as I know Christians didn’t organize book burnings or demonstrations in response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. If they had it would probably just have increased his sales. Dawkins referred to the Christian God as a monster and a child abuser for ordering Abraham to (almost) sacrifice his son Issac on an altar as a test of faith. (For a summary of Dawkins’ claim and Christian reaction to Dawkins click here. ) On Melbourne television last night Muslim leaders appeared urging Muslims in Australia to ignore text messages and not to demonstrate.

Australia has a widely accepted  system of film censorship that mostly relates to sex and violence, but not religion.

So the central question: is how do you respond to so books or film that argue with or insult a religion?

Should we have censorship on the internet?

Should such things be censored?  Generally, my argument is no. In most of the English-speaking world, it’s legal to criticize, or even make a comedy about  a religion. I don’t see a way of banning the Youtube video unless Youtube itself pulls it – which it has done in several countries where the content would be illegal. But elsewhere governments have no power to do so. (Except China – but we don’t want to go down that pathway). Even if they had, the question becomes where do you stop? If governments had the power to ban this video, do you ban the Life Of Brian? Mel Gibson’s film, ‘The Passion of the Christ? Certain episodes of Southpark? I don’t see that religion is in a special category of its own that should somehow be exempt from logical criticism, humor, or ridicule. If there is a reason for religion being a special category, let’s discuss that – calmly and rationally.

On purely pragmatic grounds it sometimes helps to hold your tongue. If you’re at a family gathering and you think Mormon baptism of the dead is ridiculous (which I do think), or a loving monotheistic creator wouldn’t create a world in which the majority of its inhabitants are destined for hell, (which happens to be my own view) but you have a Mormon family member at the barbecue, it’s better for the sake of peace in the family to stay quiet.

In Australia, any religion is free to set up a table on the street or on a university campus, and debate or criticize the beliefs of others, including atheists, and others are free to criticize their religion – in fact any religion – and the best course of action is to respond with rational discussion debate. Explain why you think your religion is better than others, but do it logically.

Why give your enemy free publicity?

The actions of perhaps 50 people in Sydney have reinforced stereotypes of several hundred thousand other Muslims in Australia, who had nothing to do with these demonstrations. Many Muslim leaders in Australia have urged their followers to stay away from any similar future demonstrations about this film, and in this, I think the local Muslim leaders are correct.

We all have to accept that free speech means sometimes people will think that what you say is offensive, and they might think your views are offensive, so keep the response rational and civil.

Additional note: I found this video by a Muslim man, Syed Mahmoud, urging his fellow Muslims not to demonstrate or riot.  Mahmoud argues that by continuing to demonstrate, people are simply giving the film free publicity, for no good outcome. I agree completely, and   here’s the link to his video.

Speaking up for women in Afghanistan. A remarkable story.

I’ve been reading “Raising My Voice” by Malalai Joya, an Afghanistan woman who was
expelled from the Afghan parliament in 2007 for criticizing the presence of
warlords. When she was only a few months old, her family had to flee to Iran
while her father fought the soviet occupation which began in 1978. She grew up
in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. Iran did not let girls in the camps go
to school, and her family eventually moved to Pakistan to a town that had a girl’s
school. She intersperses her own story with bits of recent Afghan history: how
the CIA funneled money into mujaheddin groups chosen on the advice of Pakistan’s
intelligence services. When the soviets were defeated many of the groups began
fighting each other for power.

In ninth grade she became a school teacher, which gives us some idea of the level of
education of many of the other women she was teaching; in a word, ZIP.

At sixteen, having completed year 12, she returned to Afghanistan. The Taliban were in power. Girls were not allowed to go to school (again!) and she began a girls’ school
in a basement of sympathetic householder, teaching women the unthinkable: how
to read and write. She smuggled books in under the Burqa she was forced to wear
in the streets. (In an amusing aside she describes how you eat ice cream while
wearing a Burqa: with great difficulty.) The Taliban forbade music and films,
but copies of the movie Titanic circulated among people who secretly had video
players. Street vendors began naming their products after the film: Titanic
shampoo, Titanic onions, Titanic potatoes. But the world is an even stranger
place than most of us would imagine. Even as late as May 2011, America paid the
Taliban $43 million as a reward for limiting opium growing. (Seriously! Just Google
it.)

I’ve noticed that although there are a lot of references to Islam in the book, Joya
doesn’t speak about her own religious beliefs or whether she has any. Unlike ‘I
am Najood, Aged 10, divorced,’ (reviewed on one of the pages at the top of this
blog) she doesn’t claim to draw strength from her religion. Nor, like Aayan Hirsi
Ali in ‘Infidel” (also reviewed above) does she describe a religious period in
her teenage years, followed by disillusionment. Here are no references (so far)
to her visiting a mosque for religious purposes, or praying by herself.

So far I’m only up to page 100, where she has been expelled from the Loya Jirga (the council that was to frame the Afghan constitution in 2003.) I know she gets elected to
the parliament in 2005, and expelled from that later in the book. So I’m
waiting to see what else happens.

I’ll do another post by next Friday. For more – Wikipedia has an article on her. This
book is published as “A Woman Among Warlords” in the US and Canada, and “Raising
my Voice” in other English-speaking countries.