Category Archives: Religion

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.

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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.

If you think the Snowden revelations are only about the US and Germany, you don’t understand what’s happening.

The revelations about US intelligence gathering that Edward Snowden made public have had repercussions around the world, and not just between the US and Germany. The bugging of Angela Merkel’s phone has received a lot of press coverage in the US, but other countries now have problems.

SnowdenOne of the revelations to emerge was that in 2009, Australia attempted to bug the phone conversations of the president of Indonesia, his wife and his inner circle. As a result, Indonesia has suspended cooperation with Australia on intelligence sharing, and has stopped any cooperation in relation to people smuggling. (Boatloads of refugees often travel from Indonesia or through Indonesian waters to get to Christmas Island, a tiny chunk of Australia , 300 miles from Indonesia and 1600 miles from Australia. Numerous people have drowned when their boats smash on rocks near Christmas Island.)  At the time of writing, Indonesia has said that if boats are passing through its waters, towards Australia, they can do so. Indonesia won’t interfere. Australia will just have to handle the problem when the boats appear off Christmas Island.

The Indonesians are understandably offended, since we are supposed to be allies. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country on earth, and one of Australia’s only three near neighbors. The truth is we have to be able to get along with them, because unless there is a religious miracle that rearranges geography, neither country is going anywhere any time soon.

Jakarta has said that before cooperation resumes, Australia will have to sign some formal agreement about intelligence gathering between the two countries. In a nutshell, Australia will have to eat humble pie, suck it up and promise to be good boys in future. The Indonesian reaction is totally understandable. Most of us know the Asian concept of “loss of face.” Apart from the offense caused by spying on friends, the revelations involve a loss of face. Indonesia has to recover ‘face” and to do this, Australia will have to lose some.

In addition, there is an internet cable called SEA-ME-WE-3 that runs from Japan, across Southeast Asia, through Singapore, across the Indian ocean, up through the Suez, through the Mediterranean, and round the coast of Europe to end in Germany. As the cable passes through Singapore, the Singaporean government has been tapping into it and giving the US and Australia the goodies. Jakarta has asked Singapore to “please explain.” So this massive intrusion, and its  exposure is not just a problem for the US.

The most recent revelations are that the NSA has been monitoring charities. From the Guardian newspaper:

The papers show GCHQ, in collaboration with America’s National Security Agency (NSA), was targeting organisations such as the United Nations development programme, the UN’s children’s charity Unicef andMédecins du Monde, a French organisation that provides doctors and medical volunteers to conflict zones.

So how is the average American taxpayer going to feel about that use of their taxes? The most recent extensive article about Snowden is here.   It contains this interesting quote:

“For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished,” he said. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated. Because, remember, I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.  All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed,” he said.

How will history judge Snowden? My guess is that as more revelations come out, the public will feel more incensed at the NSA’s  actions, foreign allies will be more incensed at being treated like enemies, US lawmakers will be forced to act on what the NSA is doing, and public sentiment will turn more in Snowden’s  favor. History may look on Snowden as it now looks on Woodward and Bernstein, the two journalists who broke the Watergate story, and Mark Felt, the Assistant FBI Director who for years was only known as “deep throat.”

It’s only an educated guess, but I think it’s a fair guess. What do you think? Anyone who wishes to re-blog this may.

My vote for the Nobel Peace Prize: the girl who defied the Taliban.

Sometimes there are people who seem to have guts and moral fibre that leave the rest of us behind. 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck a year ago by the Taliban, for advocating that girls should be allowed to go to school.

MalalaShe had been writing a blog about life in the Swat Valley, where the Talibs were gradually taking over, forcing girls’ schools to close by threats of violence. Violence was so common that one day, when her younger brother was playing in their front yard, she asked what he was doing. “Digging a grave,” he answered. The Taliban found where Malala went to school, got on her bus and fired. The results became world news. After surgery and rehab in England, she is now (this Wednesday) on the anniversary of the attack talking about her future. She can’t go back to Pakistan yet, but she wants to improve her education, and keep pushing.

She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a long shot, since there are over 200 nominees. But I hope she gets it.

Malala reminds me a lot of people who have stood up against injustice, and/or to promote the cause of women. Rosa Parks may not have been shot or lynched  for refusing to go to the back of the bus with the “coloured folk,” in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, but she could have been. Protesters in Egypt two years ago risked death in the hope of democracy. Aun Sung Sui Kee endured 20 years of house arrest in Burma for upsetting the military by winning a democratic election.

The world needs more Malalas. The world need more people like you and I to give to charities that are specifically directed to educating girls in third world countries. The world needs people to put their money where their mouth is.

Malala has a book out, the kindle version is here, and there is a paperback in Book Depository.

Best wishes until next week.

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.

Aayan Hirsi Ali’s “The Caged Virgin”

This isn’t so much a book review as a few thoughts sparked off by Aayan Hirsi Ali’s “The Caged Virgin.” The book is a collection of essays, but Hirsi Ali sums up some of her positions in the preface to the book.

In regard to Islam she says:

(first)  “… a Muslims relationship with God is one of fear.” (p.x)

(second) “… Islam only knows one moral source: the Prophet Muhammad.”  (p.xi)

(third) “…Islam is strongly dominated by a sexual morality derived from Arab values dating from the time the Prophet received his instructions from Allah, a culture in which women were the property of their fathers, brothers uncles , grandfathers or guardians. The essence of a woman is reduced to her hymen…. A man’s reputation and honor depend entirely on the respectable, obedient behaviour of the female members of his family.” (p.xi)

In the opening essay, “Why Can’t We Take a Critical Look at Ourselves?” she says “…we Muslims have religion inculcated in us from birth, and this is one of the very reasons for our falling behind the West in technology finance and health.” (p.7).

Hirsi Ali repeatedly points out the unequal, and sometimes appalling treatment of women in Muslim countries: girls who have been raped getting flogged in addition (p.72), and an alleged 5,000 “honour killings” of girls every year in Muslim countries. (p.12.)

She returns at various points to the claim that Muslim society has fallen behind the west. I do not recall the page, but at some point she makes the claim that the big advances of the last 100 years have come from the west. She does not explicitly name them, but she might be thinking of things like air travel, immunisation, television, organ transplants, the internet, or many other technological advances. (One might add that some of the blights on modern society like fast food, and the processed manufactured gunk that a lot of us eat also came from the west.)

She refers to a United Nations report (Arab Human Development Report, 2002)  (P.45 of her book) in which twenty-two Muslim countries are examined and which comes to the conclusion that “the (Arab)  region  … is plagued by three key deficits that can be considered defining features: a lack of freedom; disempowerment of women; and a lack of capabilities or knowledge.”

Thinking about this set me searching for Muslim responses to Hirsi Ali on the internet. It was hard to find them at first, because the search engines initially throw up Hirsi Ali herself, including many videos of her interviews.

One site I came across was http://answeringchristians.blogspot.com  maintained by a Pakistani woman. This site is not specifically related to Hirsi Ali, but it contains examples of honor killings by Christians and murder by Christians in Ghana who burned a woman to death for being a witch. The site also quotes the old testament verses about raped women becoming the wives of their rapists. The Old Testament contains some very violent passages.

See   http://answeringchristians.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html  but  you need to scroll down through 6-8 entries.

Another site that does specifically discuss Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel” is http://goatmilkblog.com/2008/04/06/ayaan-hiris-alis-infidel-commentary-by-asma-t-uddin/

It’s hard to summarize his views, but he states that “The drama, deceit, and sensationalism kept me hooked, I guess.” He makes a legitimate point, I think when he points out that Ali never refers to Christian fundamentalists in the US:  “I am not sure where and when she educated herself about Judaism and Christianity, but she seems to have completely overlooked each of these religion’s fundamentalist strains.”

I also found a site that discusses Christian witch hunts in Africa and Papua New Guinea and Hindu witch killings in India: http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/04/witch-hunts/