Casual Islamophobia and Dehumanization

So a couple of weeks ago, I was talking about how Americans’ (particularly white Americans’) misguided definition of ‘terrorism’ and our resistance to calling mass shooters ‘terrorists’ negatively influences our understanding of how global terrorism actually works, in particular that for groups claiming an Islamic narrative or theology for their violence, like al-Qaeda and ISIS, we don’t seem to understand that many if not the majority of their victims are Muslims, and that we need to act to protect these communities far more than we need to be concerned with our own safety.

I came across an article that I think well illustrates another aspect of this same problem, namely that our casual association of Islam with terrorism (and resulting misunderstanding that thousands of Muslims worldwide are daily the victims of terrorism) also denies the victims their own voice and narrative of events, so that we have to go to some weird sources to serve as examples of victims.  Thus – the silent monkey victims of the war on terror.

Disclaimer: let me just say at the outset that I do not intend to discuss the pros and cons of animal testing, nor do I wish to have discussions about this in the comments.  I know this is an issue about which many people feel strongly, but I want to stay focused on the larger issue that we’re devoting column inches (albeit digital ones) to discussing the effects of the war on terror on monkeys.

Privilege can be demonstrated in a number of ways, but one of the most powerful aspects of privilege is innate authority.  The more vectors of privilege you possess, the more likely other people are to just believe you automatically.  This has been well-demonstrated academically in how people perceive women’s and men’s contributions to mixed-gender discussions or by how white culture systematically disadvantages African-American Vernacular English to make black people sound unreliable and unrelatable.  It’s also easy to find anecdotal examples in nearly any news story involving women, queer people, or people of color, for example in this utterly ridiculous story where police officers refused to believe an adult black man, until his story was corroborated by a four-year-old white girl.  Although all of the news story about this event have focused on the little girl as a ‘junior sleuth’ or a ‘pint-size detective,’ really the big story should be that police officers accepted the witness statement of a four-year old girl, but not that of an adult man.  When prejudice leads us to trust people who believe in fairies and Santa Claus more than grown adults, we need to accept that we’ve taken a wrong turn.

This privilege of believability, and its opposing silencing of victims, is essentially a form of dehumanization.  It reduces those who do not possess privilege to nonhuman entities, whose experiences, perceptions, and opinions are not relatable or deserving of empathy like other humans.  It can also have tremendous impact on how we understand the world around us because we don’t experience personally 99.9% of what goes on around us – we depend on narratives provided to us by others to experience the world beyond our current point in time and space.  If we fail to consider others’ narratives fairly or privilege certain narratives above others for reasons beyond rational ones (like were you there, could you have seen anything, do you speak the same language as the people involved, etc.), we can drastically alter our perception of the world beyond our sphere of influence.

This is exactly what’s happening when we look to lab monkeys as the victims of the war of terror in order to contextualize the ‘real’ experiences of that war.  It’s not that monkeys being used to test biological or chemical weapons don’t suffer or feel pain – the issue is how discussing that suffering influences our narrative of what has happened during the war of terror.  Indeed, talking about animal testing in warfare can be a really useful perspective, if what we’re talking about is how we weigh the necessity of war versus the cost in loss of life, a calculation in which the war of terror really does not balance the scale at all.  Yet here again, this narrative is better served by talking about the tremendous loss of human life, the cost of a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians and twenty thousand Afghani civilians (to put this in better perspective, more than the entire population of Cambridge, Massachusetts or Gainsborough, Florida), and their and their families’ experiences of pain and suffering and loss.

However, these narratives of suffering are not the central focus of how we experience and discuss the war of terror, nor have they ever been.  In this way, we can see exactly how powerful silencing victims can be for altering our perception of reality, as lacking a continuous narrative about the human suffering caused by the war of terror, it becomes all too easy to believe that there is none, that the suffering of lab animals is not only a significant outcome, but the most that we can measure or illustrate the pain and suffered we’ve caused.  That is not only untrue, but dangerously untrue, as it has allowed generations of Americans to retain the belief that our actions overseas have no negative consequences or no human impact.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

7 Myths about Why Higher Education is Failing

Okay, so I should just stop claiming that one of the purposes of this blog isn’t to talk about the current failings with higher education because obviously I can’t stop blogging about it.

I’m also a little nervous to post this, because I know there are academics who read my blog, so please, believe me that I write this out of both genuine love of what we do and genuine frustration for where it’s headed when I say, dear fellow academics, I have a question for all of us:

morello

Seriously, we do hear ourselves when we talk?  Because we’ve been talking about why higher education is failing for a while, why we’re putting an entire generation of young people in debt, why we’ve failed to create the diversity in our admissions and recruitment numbers we so desperately claim in our recruitment material, why we’ve failed to create safe spaces for young people, how we’ve failed to address the truly staggering rates of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, how we’ve allowed racism and sexism to fester among campus institutions like fraternities and social clubs, why we continue to admit students for professional and graduate degrees only to release them into a massively oversaturated market, why costs continue to skyrocket even as we double-down on adjunct and part-time teaching, and most important, why we still expect people to send us their children and a cheque for 50 grand if we can’t answer any of these questions?!  And as of yet, the answers we’ve come up with are both (a) unsatisfying and (b) often completely untrue.

My most recent exposure to our comically incompetent attempts to address our own failings comes from a special edition of Politics & Political Science that actually came out in 2013, which lists several problems facing higher education and asks four leading political sciences to address them, which they sort of do.  Unfortunately, most of the problems aren’t actually threats to higher education (or are only tangentially related), and most of the solutions are … well, oversimplified at best.  The whole symposium is also a fantastic example of how smart people get stupid when talking about things they care about – I particularly like on page 86 (second paragraph), when the author outright contradicts existing evidence when it comes to classroom versus internet learning – “Although recent quantitative comparisons have concluded the opposite (Means et al. 2010), it seems reasonable to assume that researchers will eventually be able to document the benefits of in-person over online education.”  Nothing like basing our revolution on what seems reasonable to us, the traditional institution!

However, reading it made me realize just how often I’ve read these arguments, and just how persuasive they seem when framed in academic language with citations and charts and tables.  So in response, 7 myths about why higher education is failing:

1. It’s because of the internet.  The PS symposium doesn’t even beat around the bush on this one – it’s the internet’s fault: “The first attack on the traditional brick-and-mortar university came from the Internet, which made knowledge previously attainable only on college campuses available to all. Today, Khan Academy, YouTube Edu, Academic Earth, and other outlets make educational videos available for free; many of these videos cover topics that would be standard in many college curricula, particularly in mathematics, engineering, and science (Kolowich 2011; Sengupta 2011). The Internet also makes it possible for people from all over the world to find practice exams, problem sets, visual examples and walk-throughs, worksheets, lecture notes, academic presentations, interactive exercises, webinars, and more for free.”

Oh no!  People learning stuff!  Not in a classroom!

Okay, yes, I know that’s not what they mean, and on some level, they’re right – the internet has completely changed how we access information.  But to be fair, there was free, public information available before the internet, in the form of libraries, museums, public K-12 schools, public lectures, encyclopedias, almanacs, and just ordinary, person-to-person conversations.  It wasn’t that there was no publicly-available, free information before the internet, it’s that there was a lot less of it, and it was a lot harder to find without already knowing what you were looking for.

Moreover, the availability of information online doesn’t need to be a threat to higher education, if higher ed was willing to adapt to what’s online.  Honestly, if you’re teaching a math or science course that could now be replaced by YouTube Ed or Academic Earth, I’m sorry to break this to you, but your math or science course sucked.  Education has been moving away from the base absorption of facts for the last century; the internet just gave that process a massive kick forward.  Indeed, the example the PS authors give as the biggest threat to higher ed from the internet – library resources – is also its greatest potential benefit.  Imagine not needing a library to have a university. It could substantially decrease operational costs and substantially increase the range of subjects taught, as subjects would no longer be confined by what resources are in the library.  In theory, access to more information should always make education better, not destroy it forever.

2. It’s because of for profit education.  Again, on this one, the PS authors don’t hold back.  “The third wave of attack comes from the still fast growing group of large for-profit (or “career”) universities, which have the same accreditation as traditional universities but have the intention and potential to scale up to much larger size.”  Interestingly, though, they never really demonstrate how the rise of for-profit higher ed impacts traditional higher education.

I’ve talked before about how repugnant I find for-profit education, but when it comes to threats to higher education, this one is just nonsense.  For-profit institutions are not a threat to traditional higher education because they don’t compete, they share the market.  No student is considering Harvard or the University of Phoenix, and traditional higher ed is only attempting to be a competitor to one of those institutions (and here’s a hint, it’s not University of Phoenix).  In fact, one of the things that has gotten for-profit education in trouble is its lack of admissions standards, something University of Phoenix has recently announced that it’s changing.

The only threat from for-profit education is to traditional higher ed’s reputation, by calling attention to the massively disadvantageous system of loans and financial administration that traditional, nonprofit higher ed also benefits from.  For-profit higher ed companies have been very successful in the last decade expanding the federal laws regarding student financial aid, again something that nonprofit higher ed also benefits from.  It’s a bit like a drug dealer setting up right outside a shady pharmacist’s office – the pharmacist wants to get rid of the drug dealer, not because he cares about his community, but because he doesn’t want the cops coming around.

3. We’re tired of all these m*f*ing administrators on this m*f*ing college campuses!  The PS articles largely steer clear of this one, but there are more than enough other examples, most recently this article from the New York Times, claiming to ‘reveal’ the ‘real’ reason behind university costs (despite this being the claim that universities themselves have put forward for a decade).  The Times cite the very real fact that the number of university administrators has consistently risen for the last fifty years to claim these people are responsible for fattening up university budgets.  There are a number of flaws for this theory.

First, “administrator” is the university catch-all term for many kinds of non-exempt staff.  In any university, you’re either faculty or staff, and often any staff member who is paid a salary is an “administrator.”  So the category includes everything from HR to the office of budget to the housing and catering staff.  And as someone who works in university administration, you bet your ass there are a lot of us.  That’s because universities are incredibly large and complicated institutions.  We’re a research institute that also teaches thousands of students and awards them degrees, monitors their progress after graduation (mostly to get money out of them), while also running several hotels and restaurants to provide for them while they’re here.  We have to have the institutional infrastructure of a research institute, a school, a foundation, a financial campaign, a hotel, and a restaurant.  Some elements of those can be combined – human resources, accounts payable, purchasing, and financial management, for example, are usually university-wide offices – but even within these university-wide offices, personnel need a really massive range of skills and expertise to accommodate all of the various needs of the institution.

Even if there were a huge number of unnecessary staff members in a university, it can’t be the case that our cushy, six-figure salaries are fattening up the budget because we don’t get paid that much.  The Chronicle of Higher Education collects detailed salary data, and it’s always demonstrated the same thing – the only administrators who make six figure salaries are the President and Chiefs (CEO, COO, etc), VPs/heads of divisions, Provosts, in-house counsel (whose salaries have to be comparable to private lawyers), sports coaches (because of course they do), and Deans and some Chairs.  However, those last two categories are highly deceptive because deanships and chairships are often held by faculty members, particularly to faculty members who lose funding.  Like the university’s lawyers, deanships and chairships have to pay that much to be comparable to faculty salaries.  The remainder of professional positions in a university, including ‘nonresearch deanships’ (ie. deanships held by nonfacutly members) are significantly lower, and often even lower than comparable positions outside of higher education.  In fact, if you go through CEH’s data, one of the things that pops out over and over again is that salary is determined by education level, so that people who do comparable jobs are getting paid more simply for having a PhD, regardless of whether that degree is relevant to their job.  It’s hard not to feel like that’s because people with PhDs set the salary ranges.

4. Professors can’t do their jobs anymore!  It’s a madhouse!  A!  MAD!  HOUSE!!!  There are two halves to this myth – first, that professors are now hemmed in by crazy expectations of political correctness, and second, that their day-to-day lives are consumed with administration and paperwork (which obviously ties in with number 3 – what do all these administrators do when our poor professors are doing all the admin work themselves!).

The first half is hinted at by one of the PS responses when the author talks about how ‘quirky’ professors are: “And we do honestly believe, although we have to do a much better job of articulating this, that it is far better to educate young adults in a vibrant and eclectic intellectual campus patrolled by brilliant, inquisitive, undisciplined, and (not infrequently) ornery university professors than in specialist teaching academies staffed by finely honed and hyper-effective teachers. Whisper this quietly, but we are unreservedly prepared, and we are not wrong, to sacrifice (some) pure teaching effectiveness to expose students to (sometimes) shambolic but ferociously creative thinkers.”

After a decade in universities, including conversations with a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds, I can say, without hesitation, that “vibrant,” “eclectic,” “undisciplined,” “ornery,” “shambolic” and “ferociously creative” are all code for racist, (cis)-sexist, homophobic, ableist, and classist.

Universities are not bastions of liberal diversity, despite what all of our brochures imply.  Even as undergraduate classes continue to slowly tick upwards in terms of diversity, there is still almost no diversity among university faculty, particularly among full faculty.  At the same time, however, and as I’ve talked about before, there is a deepseated belief that “freethinking” is a movement somehow separate from questions of civil and human rights, that there’s such a thing as a “freethinking movement” that has always aimed to question everything and spread skepticism across the land while only being populated by white, straight, middle class men.

This myth of our “freethinking” past is particularly strong in universities.  Professors today complain nonstop about “PC policing” and “trigger warnings” ruining their ability to challenge their students, apparently unaware that there are perfectly vibrant conversations taking place online (on the evil internet!) everyday that manage to engage directly with complicated issues while also allowing their readers to opt out of discussions they feel will damage them personally.  Professors could use the same policies, if they bothered to seek them out, but instead, they harken back to their own experiences of higher education, which, depending on their age and background, often involves harkening back to a time before integrated or co-ed education, in which many of their students would have been actively and violently excluded from the conversation, apparently blissfully unaware of this complication.  For those of us in academia who are not straight, white, middle class, able-bodied cis men, it’s hard not to hear that as “it was so much easier to talk about you when you weren’t in the room.”

This myth of the bound academic, swimming against the tide of political correctness, may help explain why, despite the occasional wave to diversity, and despite having developed many of the tools and methodologies for studying the effects of bigotry, we’re so terrible at applying those tools to ourselves.  For my reading, at no point in the PS articles does anyone discuss privilege, bigotry or bias, which is a pretty big oversight for talking about the failures of higher education.

The other half of the myth, that academics are weighed down by admin work, is really just the intersection of number 3 and the myth of the history of higher education (number 5).  For whatever reason, many professors seem to think that their job should involve absolutely nothing but research and teaching, and really only what they personally think constitutes research and teaching.  I’ve actually had a professor make the “I’m doing too much admin” complaint about submitting grades.  Seriously.  He was okay teaching the class, but submitting the grades at the end of term – that was too much.

In my experience, a big part of this half of the myth stems from a simple lack of understanding of higher education as a job, and what the standard requirements of a job are.  This makes sense considering how many academics enter university and never leave.  Being expected to do administrative work that explains, reports, or transmits your work isn’t something in addition to your job; that is your job.  It doesn’t count if your employer can’t easily find evidence for it.

For example, academics complain about having to report on their work to a superior, apparently unaware that probably 99% of all currently employed people have to do this. Even directors and CEOs usually have to answer to investors or a board.  Similarly, I’ve had loads of academics complain about how many meetings they attend, apparently unaware that committees are artificial things that they could choose to disband or reorganize, if they could get enough supporting votes from other people.  And again, I think everyone on the planet probably thinks they attend too many meetings – there’s probably a shepherd somewhere in the world complaining about too many sheepherding meetings right now.

5. Universities are preserving centuries-old traditions.  Again, the PS article goes hard for this one: “for hundreds of years: universities are not only the primary stewards of the scientific community but the most sought after way to become educated.”  In reality, only a handful of universities can claim to have been doing anything for hundreds of years – there are maybe a thousand universities worldwide that date from before the 19th century, and many of those are no longer well-ranked (and most of them are in Italy.  Apparently the Italians loved founding universities).  In the case of the US, by 1900, there were fewer than 1000 universities in the country total (today, not including for-profit universities, there are more than 4000).  Among those thousand, the newer institutions, particularly those in the Midwest and farther west, were often smaller institutions that did admit students from a range of backgrounds (including the emergence of schools specifically for the education of women and people of color, the oldest of which appeared in the US in the early nineteenth century), but the older and more illustrious universities, like the Ivy League, were exclusively and unabashedly elite organizations that only admitted children from upper class backgrounds.

The expansion of higher education, both in terms of the number of institutions and the number of students admitted, took place in the twentieth century, and the two biggest periods of expansion correspond to the two biggest reforms to federal funding for students – the 1950s, with the GI bill, and the 1960s and 70s with the Great Society reforms.  Essentially, more people could get money to go to college, so entrepreneurial folks set up a bunch of new colleges for them to attend.

So what?  Well, when we talk about the centuries-old traditions of higher education being corrupted by commercialism and consumerism, we’re really misrepresenting the facts.  The easy majority of colleges in the US exist today because of federal financial aid – it’s not a corruption of their core principles that they’re trying to get the most students and the most aid money; that’s exactly why they were founded.  Moreover, the ‘traditional’ education program that academics are fighting to preserve just isn’t that traditional – until the big education booms in the twentieth century, a PhD was not normally required for professorships, and plenty of universities didn’t even offer graduate programs (and again, arguably many of these were invented to be cash cows – that’s not a modern perversion, either).  Many early graduate programs were based on the German model, which didn’t have a thesis component and was sometimes more of a long-service award, recognizing anyone who had participated in the faculty for a certain period of time.  The tenure system is similarly a twentieth-century innovation, and only became a written, contractual arrangement in the 1970s following a pair of Supreme Court cases about professorial contracts and dismissals.

All in all, we’re essentially fighting to preserve a system that really only dates from the 1960s and 70s.  Like the myth of professors being hemmed in by political correctness, it’s hard not to see this as at least in part professors today harkening back to their own experiences as students, without thinking critically about the ‘institutions’ and ‘traditions’ they’re defending.

6. Universities are necessary to keep research alive.  This one is tough, and I admit, I even believe this one a little bit.  So let’s be clear – there is a crapload of research being done by universities that’s simply not going to be done anywhere else because it’s not productive enough, it’s too expensive, or it’s not going to produce any kind of marketable product.

However, there’s a big difference between saying that some kinds of research are done by universities and nowhere else and saying that research itself will end, full stop.  And the latter has just never been true.  Huge research advancements have been made by private industry, military development, and by crazy-determined people working out of their basements.  To take a few of the most cliched examples – the transistor, which is essential for basically all forms of personal electronics, was invented by the Bell corporation to make telephone switchboards work more efficiently; wifi and cellphones are both based on military technology (the former of which is also based on the frequency-hopping spread spectrum invention of Heady Lamar, who started inventing to help with the war effort and because she was bored of her acting career); and both Apple and Microsoft were founded by college dropouts, initially working out of their homes.

Indeed, if we want to talk about preserving traditional education, prior to the education booms of the twentieth century, it was commonplace for research to be done by ordinary civilians who happened to have an interest in a particular field.  In the case of my own field, some of the most important scholars were never or only ever briefly professors –  Alphonse Mingana, one of the founders of Syriac studies, came to the US to work at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Section and spent most of his life as a librarian of Arabic manuscripts; Montgomery Watts, who wrote two of the first widely-used English biographies of the Prophet (pbuh) was a priest and an Arabic interpreter for the Anglican church in Jerusalem, and although he was a professor, I don’t think he had a PhD; William Nassau Lees, who produced many of the first English translations of Arabic histories, was an army chaplain stationed in Calcutta, and E A Wallis Budge, who produced the first English translation of the Syriac history of Bar Hebraeus and was a curator for the British Museum, left school when he was twelve and (rather famously in my field) supposedly studied Assyrian on his lunch break from WH Smith (a British stationery shop), eventually catching the eye of the staff of the British museum, who helped raise money to send him to Cambridge.

Again, like the myth of universities’ ancient traditions, as academics we need to be honest that the idea that how you become a researcher is to go to college, go to grad school, do a postdoc, and then become a professor is really a twentieth century innovation, and has never been universally true, even in the last century, so that the continued variations to how research is done created by new technologies and increased ease of communication is really just a new variation on a very old theme.

7. They’re not!  Everything’s gonna be fine!  As someone who works in academia, I certainly want this to be true, but I don’t think it will be.  All of the things that I ranted about at the start of this post are true.  In addition, higher education in this country isn’t just getting more expensive – because of the federal financial aid programs, it’s becoming increasingly dependent on pooled, collective debt, something that did not end well for either the stock market or the housing market.  And when the education bubble bursts, it’s going to both decimate our education and research capacities and destroy the lives of thousands of young people who just wanted to get an education.  That’s a terrible position to be in, and there’s every reason for us to be trying to address these problems.  But we need to do so honestly, not hiding behind myths and a concept of tradition younger than many of our faculty members.  We need to be willing to consider serious changes and massive overhauls, including potentially losing things we consider integral to the system, like being high-contact institutions.  We maybe should also listen to our data on that one, that low-contact and online learning styles aren’t worse than in-classroom learning.

We also need to be prepared for a lot of the problems to be our fault, since we’ve been the ones running the show, and be prepared to talk honestly about issues of bigotry and bias, and about how we’ve allowed these problems to fester even to the point of endangering our students safety and wellbeing, in large part because we just didn’t know what to do and didn’t want to talk about it.  We can’t fix the past, but there are a lot of counts on which we also can’t defend it.

Above all, I feel like we need to brace ourselves that universities now are probably not going to look like they did in the 1970s.  That’s fine – universities in the 1970s didn’t look like those in the 1920s, either.  But for the love of all that’s good, we have to pull our heads out of the sand and accept those changes because the potential downside of failing to adapt is truly terrifying.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

On looking like a duck.

Okay, so I’ve been debating whether to write this post, as for my normal readership, I feel like this is really preaching to the choir.  However, it’s also really stuck in my head, so I figure getting it on paper might help.  Also, trigger warnings for discussions of terrorism, violence, abuse, bombings, shootings, and rape.

I don’t think anyone can miss that we have a huge, unaddressed problem with violence in this country.  Even though the rates of violent crime have been decreasing consistently for decades, violence remains a reality in the lives of way too many Americans.  The most recent attack against Americans in Charleston, SC, as well as the start of the trial of the Colorado theater shooter, has spurred discussions about racism, gun violence, and the role of privilege in violence that this country desperately needs to have.  However, there is one aspect of these discussions that is particularly important to me and the kind of work that I do that I want to talk about here, namely that as a country and as a community, we need to get comfortable calling these people terrorists.

There’s an old joke called “the Duck Test,” which was popularized in the 1940s, that “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I’m going to call it a duck.”  Like any piece of rhetoric, there are obviously a thousand problems with the Duck Test, but when it comes to the perpetrators of violent crimes, it does feel relevant.  Shooting up public places is, for lack of a better word, terrifying, but there’s significant evidence demonstrating the difference in how the perpetrators of this kind of crime – who are generally white, male, and middle class – are described as compared to either nonwhite terrorists or nonwhite violent criminals (or indeed, nonwhite victims of violent crimes).  Indeed, this division runs so deep that we separate terminology for almost every aspect of these crimes – “mass shootings,” “gunman,” and “gun violence” are all disturbingly neutral, and “madman,” as applied to shooters, is both ableist and essentially apologetic, attempting to explain away the perpetrator’s actions as a form of mental illness.

I’ve talked before about the dangers of our use of “Islamic terrorism,” that by constantly reinforcing the Islamic-ness of acts of terrorism by people who self-identify as Muslims, we’re creating a subconscious association between Islam and terrorism (Tariq al-Hubb wrote a great followup to my post, which is here).  The more we use the term, the more we search for something essentially Islamic in these acts of violence to accommodate its usage.  However, it’s the word “terrorism” that’s actually important – we should care about acts of terrorism worldwide because they are terrorism, not due to their association to any other ideology.

Moreover, as I think our resistance to calling mass shooters terrorists demonstrates, the focus of “Islamic terrorism” has warped our view of what terrorism is.  At its most basic, terrorism is a planned system of violent acts intended to create fear and terror in a community, in order to force that community to preserve or return to a traditional status quo (real or imagined).  In this way, terrorism is more than just violence.  In the same way as abuse, it’s violence used to a specific aim, used to mold people’s behaviors and actions through negative association with acts of violence.  Terrorists use violence – murders, bombings, kidnappings, rapes, and attacks – to keep their target community afraid with the ultimate goal of exerting power and authority over that community.

I would guess that this definition of terrorism would not fit with most white and middle class Americans view of terrorism because we’re in the lucky position to have only ever been tangentially connected to it.  As a white, middle class woman, I will only ever be the victim of terrorism by random chance.  My connection to terrorism is the same as my connection to the lottery or to lightning.  I might be afraid of being struck by lightning or excited by the idea of winning the lottery, but in both cases, these thoughts are nothing more than passing fancies, something that might pop into my head one day, but which will never be my central focus.

This is not the experience of terrorism for communities targeted by terrorists.  These communities live in constant fear of the next attack, the next murder, the next death, if it will be them or someone they love.  This may not be the experience of terrorism by white communities in the US, but as the Charleston shooting demonstrates, it is still the experience of nonwhite communities in the US.  Basically, for those of us with white privilege, understanding terrorism as a system of violence against a target community doesn’t seem relevant or accurate because we’re not the target community[1].  That makes it all too easy to see mass shootings as isolated incidents and not part of a larger system of violence.

This misconception of what terrorism is, and why mass shooters are terrorists, also impacts how we perceive “Islamic terrorism.”  It is the case that there are terrorist organizations that use Muslim imagery and narrative as part of their justification for their actions, like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram.  It is also the case that many of their victims – in some cases, even the majority of their victims -, are Muslims.  Al-Qaeda may claim to want to overthrow America and American leadership, but they’re actually much more interested in maintaining their own power in the Middle East.  Indeed, America works as an ideological target for al-Qaeda in large part because of the history of American interference and imperialist action in the Middle East.  The focus is still on the local community – attacking America can be used to demonstrate a group’s strength, but they demonstrate that strength as part of the system of violence to control their co-religionists in the Middle East.

This is why it’s so important that we revise our conception of terrorism, including calling mass shootings acts of terrorism.  As long as we only identify our tangential relationship to terrorism as ‘real’ terrorism, we’re never going to be able to do anything to seriously address the problem.  We need to let the communities who are the direct targets take the lead, offering them protection and resource to address the problem.  More than that, as white, middle class Americans, we need to accept the idea that those responsible will often look and sound like us, and that those people are using the same protection and privilege that make us only occasional victims of violence to perpetuate that violence.  Until we’re ready to accept this uncomfortable reality, we’ll never be able to make a systematic change to end terrorism.

[1] Obviously intersectionality matters here – both white women and white queer people can still be the targets of systematic violence.  However, I’d argue that even here, there is much more institutional protection to defend these communities from violence than for nonwhite communities in the US.  If nothing else, the state apparatus meant to defend people from violence – the police – is still predominately going to help a white woman or queer person who is seen to be vulnerable or in danger, which is not the case for nonwhite communities.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

1400 years is actually a really long time…

Bob asked: I appreciate your blog very much. It’s actually rather amazing that you do this.

I have a friend of the Fox News always on in the living room sort. He knows I am of a totally different political disposition, but sends me items from time to time that he thinks might persuade me to come around some to his views. Recently he sent me a link to “Why We Are Afraid, A 1400 Year Secret, by Dr Bill Warner,” a YouTube video. And he asks me what I think of it.

I found it repugnant and wrote him that I would get back to him. My assumption from my own general knowledge is that Warner is being highly selective in picking facts to embellish with his scornful, incendiary rhetoric even when he is concentrated on the period of expansion across North Africa. (His selectivity shows chiefly, of course, in simply ignoring any European war violence other than the Crusades. Not to mention American. Clearly he would argue that all that ugliness had nothing to do with Christianity, whereas the wars of Muslim nations are driven by their religion.)

In any case, when I took to the internet to find some solid responses to the Warner diatribe, I found practically nothing. Eventually, your blog did show up, but not in response to that particular and particularly ugly and perhaps sadly effective speech of his. I assume he gives it where and whenever he can, and obviously it has made it to my friend’s attention.

I have perused with interest the two blogs I find on Warner here (Crusades and 5 Principles) but they don’t get at the core of his speech, which I take to be a claim that, historically and down to the present, Muslim people are far more given to war and intolerance than Christian people. There is the corollary supporting claim that this is due to religion in the case of Muslim people, but regardless of cause, there is the question of fact about the people.

My question for you, then, is to ask for help in tracking down thinkers who have taken the trouble to respond fully to that disturbing speech. Perhaps some of your readers could help, too.

Okay, I can’t exactly say that I’m happy to do so, and sorry again for the longer-than-anticipated delay in my reply.  It turns out it’s really hard to motivate yourself to do something you know is going to give you an aneurysm.  But I have now gone through Dr. Warner’s talk – I did start out watching it on youtube (for the rest of my readers, it’s 45 minutes long and I refuse to link to it), but I already had a page of notes after the first 10 minutes, so I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work.  In the end, I found a complete transcript, which I annotated and which I may post separately because the whole thing is just so ridiculous.

As you say, it’s repugnant, but it’s also just really bad scholarship.  For those of you who’ve forgotten Dr. Warner, he is a doctor, but of applied physics.  He explains in the opening of his talk that he started studying Islam after 9/11, and that he “likes to read old books,” but stresses to his audience that he’s “not a historian.”  This may be the only thing about which we agree.  Indeed, if I got Dr. Warner’s talk as a final paper from a first year undergraduate, I would be hard-pressed not to fail that student.  His talk fails to engage directly with almost any primary sources; it doesn’t reveal any awareness of the vast corpus of secondary material about the study of Medieval Europe, Byzantine history, or the study of Islam; it suggests a serious misunderstanding about time periods, and finally, it demonstrates almost no capacity for historical or historiographic methodology (i.e. how to read texts critical, how to use material and archaeological evidence, how textual dating works) – in short, not only is his account of Islamic history factually inaccurate, his talk lacks any illustration that he understands even the most basic building blocks of how history is studied in the 21st century.

I’m going to flag some of the big, methodological errors that make this talk – and other works like it – so problematic.  This may or may not sway your FoxNews-happy friend, but it may at least demonstrate that Dr. Warner is playing really fast and loose with his facts. This post is quite long, but there’s just so much to cover, I couldn’t really find any other way to go over it all.

Why we’re afraid: Dr. Warner starts off his talk by explaining that after 9/11, he got interested in understanding Islam, and was struck that everyone he talked to seemed afraid of Islam, and so, he set out to discover the root of this fear.  In this way, he essentially argues for a Gestalt construction of history – that Islamophobia is just the current iteration of a shared communal memory about Islam, and that after centuries of warfare, Europeans (Dr. Warner is, I believe, addressing a room of Americans, but his focus lies very clearly on European history) share a communal fear of Islam and Muslims.  This overall historical philosophy reveals one of the running themes of Dr. Warner’s talk – it’s all really out-of-date stuff.  Gestalt theory hasn’t been popular in history since the days of speak-easies and flappers, mostly because it’s really hard to disassociate negative perceptions that are based on reality from negative perceptions that are based on propaganda, prejudice, and fiction.  I might support Gestalt history if it meant we could have immediate legal intervention to ban clowns, but, to put Dr. Warner’s argument in a different light, almost the exact same thesis could be stated for Judaism, which has suffered a negative association in the minds of Christian Europeans for two millennia, a fact that has basically nothing to do with the real actions of actual Jewish communities.

Understanding the Muslim Middle East: Having set out on his quest to explain why we’re afraid without first visiting any sociological or psychological theory from after the advent of television, Dr. Warner does open his talk with what is a very real and interesting historical question, that is, how did the Christian Middle East of the lifetime of Jesus and the Patristic Church become the Muslim Middle East of the Medieval and modern periods.  However, confusingly for me, Dr. Warner presents this question as if he’s the first to ask it – in fact, this is another repeated theme in his talk.  His ignorance about historical methodology is coupled with considerable narcissism about the originality of his work – he talks about the ‘historians’ he’s talked to all being completely ignorant about Islamic history, which makes me think he’s only talked to historians of European history.  It’s a bit like asking 5 ob-gyns about bone cancer, and then claiming medicine isn’t studying bone cancer.  It’s an issue of specialization.  The field Dr. Warner is address is the one I work in, the study of Late Antiquity, which is focused on the Mediterranean, and the transition from the Classical World to the Christian world to the Muslim world.  We’re not a huge field, but there are several hundred of us, and we’ve published thousands of books and journal articles on the subject.  Understanding the transition to the Islamic world has become a particularly fashionable aspect of the field recently, and there are a number of works that are intended to be accessible to a lay audience (i.e. Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests, James Howard-Johnston’s Witnesses to World Crisis,  or Fred Donner’s, Muhammad and the Believers).

Islam caused the fall of the Roman Empire: So this is one of those historical mistakes which is so massive I don’t even know how to address it.  Dr. Warner wants to argue that Islam was responsible for the end of the Classical period and the fall of the Roman Empire.  To start with, again, this is massively outdated history, as plenty of scholars don’t accept that the Roman Empire ‘fell’ – it declined, parts of it splintered into the Byzantine Empire, and then the Western side eventually re-emerged as the Holy Roman Empire (see the Cambridge Ancient History series for more).  More to the point, even if we accept that the fall of the Roman Empire happened, the major periods of instability were in the third and fourth centuries, with the ‘fall’ usually dated to the late 400s.  That’s 150 years before the rise of Islam.  Similarly, the Roman Empire that declined in the 400s bore only a passing resemblance to the empires of the Classical period – Dr. Warner seems to think these periods all blend together, but Rome was founded in roughly the 700s BCE, Alexander the Great lived in the mid-400s BCE, and Julius Caesar ruled from 49-44 BCE.  So for Islam to have brought about the end of Classical society, it would be ending something from 1000-1500 years earlier, roughly equivalent to claiming that the internet brought an end to the Crusades.

Islam caused 500 battles: This is one of the central claims Dr. Warner makes in order to support an argument for Islam as being essentially a violent religion or society.  He even has a cute little graphic showing where these battles were (which focuses almost exclusively on the western border with Europe and North Africa).  When he first said 500, I thought he meant in the Islamic expansion (the period from the 620s to 705 CE, when Islam expanded to roughly the western borders the Muslim world has today).  If we take ‘battle’ to mean any skirmish between two armies of differing allegiances, this seemed a bit high, but not unreasonable.  However, the graphic makes clear that this is 500 battles for the 1400 year period from the rise of Islam until today.  This is both ridiculously underestimating things, and tremendously misrepresentative of these battles, as battles, like arguments, always have two sides.  To start with, again, we’re talking about battles.  If we assume that every war has at least 10 battles (again, which is probably underestimating things), that’s 50 wars in a 1400-year period, or roughly 1 war every 28 years.  That’s really not that much, and also, that’s really not true.  In the Late Antique and Medieval periods, borders were maintained by having near-constant raids in order to demonstrate continued interest in the territory.  According to Muslim sources, the Muslims in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods (700-1000 CE) sent raiding parties against the border with Byzantium twice a year (so there should be at least 600 battles just in Turkey).  These raids never resulted in any serious change in territory and were largely ceremonial and symbolic, but were still going on.

As you suggest, if we were going to expand the graphic, there would be at least as many battles taking place in Europe – anyone who’s taken European history probably has vague memories of nonstop wars of succession in Europe for pretty much the whole of the Medieval period and the Renaissance, and then the nonstop religious wars during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  Similarly, many of the battles in the Middle East were the result of European aggression – aside from the fact that Byzantium and the Western Mediterranean continued to fight back against the Muslims to try to reclaim territory, the dots from the late eleventh to early thirteenth centuries are the Crusades, and those in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are European imperialist invasions.  There’s even a pause in the slide for all of the dots in the 1910s – that’s World War I!  I’m pretty sure international jihad did not cause World War I – just ask Franz Ferdinand.

Islam caused the Dark Ages: Again, this is evidence that while Dr. Warner might enjoy reading old books, he definitely hasn’t read any new ones.  Not only is Islam not responsible for the European Dark Ages, most historians no longer believe in the existence of ‘the Dark Ages.’  Chris Wickham’s excellent works Illuminating the Dark Ages and Framing the Early Middle Ages are the go-to references for pretty much anyone talking about the ‘Dark Ages’ nowadays.  Putting it simply, many historians would now argue that the idea of a ‘Dark Age’ where everyone was ignorant and superstitious was largely Protestant propaganda, meant to frame Catholicism as a backwards church that was hindering progress in Europe.  Protestant histories were accepted in a very noncritical way by nineteenth and early twentieth scholars who accepted, for some reason, that Protestantism rendered people incapable of lying or exaggerating.  Even if Dr. Warner wanted to argue for a pre-Wickhamian construction of the Dark Ages (and part of me now wants to email that sentence fragment to Dr. Wickham just to hear his reaction…), it’s also been broadly accepted that the Muslim world played an important and positive role when it came to preserving Classical thought during the Middle Ages, and that transmission of Classical works through Arabic was part of their preservation to the modern day (perhaps most famously in the works of Aristotle; see Perry et al, Western Civilization and Rosenthal, The Classical Heritage of Islam).

All told, sitting down and actually examining Dr. Warner’s writing in detail makes me wondering how much of his work really is intentionally misleading (which, to be honest, I’d always assumed it was), and how much it’s just that he’s really that uninformed about the subject.  The dating issues are really unforgivable, but the larger theory that Islam caused the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages strikes me as the kind of theories young scholars often come up with – in my experience, a lot of scholars, myself included, start out seeing big connections everywhere because we start out seeing religions, cultures, or societies as monolithic, and only start to see the complexities within them after a great deal of study.  That being said, Dr. Warner clearly is presenting himself as an expert – his website even offers (what it claims is) the world’s first self-study course on ‘Political Islam,’ in addition to his published works and international lectures.  There’s no way someone, somewhere, hasn’t pointed out to him, “um, but the Fall of Rome happened 150 years before Islam.  And maybe didn’t really happen at all.”

I suspect, actually, that this has happened repeatedly, and that’s why he repeats so often that there are no historians working on anything to do with Islamic history or the emergence of the Muslim Middle East.  As long as he’s claiming to work in a vacuum, it seems less sketchy that he has no source material or citations.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Djinn and Sidhe

Michael Mock asked: Right, so… Djinn. Also Ifrits, and the like. How much are they like the Sidhe (later called Faeries) of the British Isles?

From a folklore perspective, despite the (notable) differences in cultural and geographical background, I see some definite similarities. They’re both races of individually powerful (in varying degrees) beings, capricious and dangerous to deal with (again in varying degrees), supernatural (or at least magical), but not particularly aligned with Heaven or Hell, angels or devils. Shapechanging features prominently into stories about them; I think both races have been known to interbreed with mortals; and then sometimes they show up in some odd stories that don’t seem to quite fit with anything I’ve just generalized about.

From an anthropological perspective, there also seem to be some odd similarities; they both look like cases of older, more-or-less animistic stories and beliefs that survived and were incorporated into the arrival of newer, more formalized montheistic/dualistic religions. There’s an additional similarity in that a lot of the remaining stories about them are seen through the lenses of those later religious beliefs.

What do you think? Is it a viable comparison? Or am I way, way off-base here?

Okay, so a quick primer for people who are unfamiliar with these traditions.  The djinn (or jinn, if you prefer – we have the French to thank for the weird silent ‘d’) appear in both pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions, and are considered a sapient race separate from humans or angels with a long and varying list of supernatural powers – shapeshifting, possessing humans, supernatural speed and strength, immortality/invulnerability (at least compared to humans), just to name a few.  There are references to the djinn in the Qur’an, but much of the conception of them comes from Islamic poetry and stories, in particular from One Thousand and One Nights, in which djinn often appear to make deals with humans.  The djinn also appear in the Muslim versions of some Abrahamic traditions, in particular in stories about Solomon, who according to the Qur’an could control the djinn (Q. 27:17), which, in some later traditions, meant that he had a ring or other talisman that summoned djinn to do his bidding.  Genies in the Western tradition derive from djinn stories, as seen in the story of Aladdin, who had a djinn trapped in a magic ring given to him by a sorcerer, which appeared in the first French translation of One Thousand and One Nights, but which was actually a fake added to the original stories.

As Michael mentions, djinn as a race are not good or evil, but can serve as benefactors, enemies, or mere foils to humans.  Ifrit, but comparison, are explicitly evil.  In the only Qur’anic reference to ifrit (27:39-40), they’re described as a strong kind of djinn who took the throne of the Queen of Sheba.  They often appear in literature as malicious spirits, both in Medieval literature, and in modern stories, as in the plays of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz.  Shaytan are also often described as an evil kind of djinn, although the term “shaytan” is also sometimes translated as demon or devil, and in their use in Arabic literature, there appears to be some overlap with the Christian concept of a demon (although, again, djinn generically are also sometimes described as being able to possess people).

It’s worth pointing out that I’ve studied the djinn in a very limited manner as it has occasionally overlapped with my research (and stories of djinn have come up in some of my reading classes).  I have never studied the Sidhe, so everything I know about them is either from (a) my general trivia knowledge of Irish history or (b) research I’ve done in the last couple of days, mostly on the internet.

I can definitely see where you’re coming from in terms of the comparison between the two.  But I think the problem you run into with discussing similarities between supernatural traditions is that these traditions are so varied that you’re bound to find similarities.  In particular, from what I’ve read of the Irish stories of fae folk, there seem to be a nearly endless range of types and kinds, some appearing in multiple stories and across several regions (as with the banshee) and some being local lore that, at some point, was folded into this larger mythology, sort of like ghost stories.  The same goes for the djinn, with some authors using the term for any non-human, non-angel supernatural being, while others give precise definitions of types and kinds and their origins.  At some point, you have so much information that really what you’re comparing is pretty general – supernatural beings that sometimes mess with humans but also have their own lives.

There’s also another concern that I pretty much always have when it comes to comparing supernatural traditions from an anthropological standpoint, which is that I think there is a tendency to overemphasize the importance of supernatural traditions for ‘under-developed’ or ‘uncivilized’ traditions (which often means non-European or non-Christian traditions) and underemphasize it for ‘developed’ and ‘civilized’ (and European and Christian) traditions.  It’s hard for me to point to specific examples of this – it’s more just a general feeling I get from reading material about the supernatural.  Even within ‘civilized’ traditions, I think we also tend to assume supernatural beliefs occur more among poor people and women than rich people and men.  However, this assumption actually directly contradicts the evidence we have – for example, from a historical standpoint, both the Greek chronicle of John Malalas and the Syriac Khuzistani chronicle describe priests and monks being punished for pagan practices during the first centuries of Christianity, including communing with spirits and using runes, suggesting that these practices were widespread throughout the various strata of the culture, not something confined to specific ‘uncivilized’ classes.

For these two particular groups, I sort of feel like they’ve been singled out as historically/anthropologically important because they’ve been used to highlight the supernatural/irrational beliefs of the communities they represent.  The Irish fae stories, as least the ones I could find online, seem pretty similar to ghost stories and fairy tales from other traditions, but for some reason, we’ve singled them out as A THING, and I wonder how much that has to do with the long-standing European tradition of the Irish as being the most backward and uncivilized (and ineffectively Christianized) of all European peoples.  The popularity of One Thousand and One Nights and other Arabic and Indian stories in Europe in the early modern period sort of follows a similar pattern – these stories were often mined for information about what the Middle East was like, emphasizing how superstitious their people were, despite the fact that stories of djinn tormenting humans or granting wishes are not terribly different from the wicked witch in Snow White or the fairy godmother in Cinderella.

I think you’re right that both the djinn and the sidhe represent a intermixing of pre-conversion beliefs with a major religious tradition, but again, I think arguably you can find this with every major religion.  Local traditions that are popular or that serve a strong social/anthropological purpose don’t die out – they’re just given a nice, religious gloss.  See, for example, saints’ tales, local shrines, Easter bunnies and Christmas conifers.

One similarity I did find particularly interest, but which I think also further complicates the comparison between the two traditions is how much both mythologies have been influenced by literary traditions, and even single works within that tradition.  I didn’t realize how much of the common conception of the Sidhe comes from Yeat’s collection.  One Thousand and One Nights is similarly influential for djinn stories, and in particular, the French translation/redaction by Antoine Galland in the eighteenth century was massively influential on the Western conception of what Islamic and/or Middle Eastern belief systems were like.

But again, I don’t really know what to do with this similarity, as this connection to a literary tradition really just complicates the whole issue of believing versus knowing, in terms of the anthropological/sociological use of these mythologies.  Again, to use a more familiar comparison, most of us know about Wonderland and Never Never Land.  We can probably even answer questions about the people who live there, what they’re like, their backgrounds, and their relationships to one another.  But that doesn’t mean we believe in those places.  Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to discern the difference in historical texts because people tend to reference familiar literary/cultural references, assuming their audience knows which are fact and which are fiction.  Plenty of authors like to play around with the distinction, as well – I don’t think people would call themselves superstitious for liking Twilight or “The Walking Dead,” but those also stem from a mythology of supernatural beings who sometimes screw with humans, and because those works focus on supernatural creatures invading an otherwise normal world, it would be easy for a future historian to read into those works as representing a general belief that some people are vampires or that a zombie apocalypse is really going to happen.

Sorry, this has turned into a very rambling response, but hopefully there is some useful information in there.  Overall, I think you’re right that there are interesting similarities, but my gut tells me that those apparent similarities may be due to the diverse nature of those traditions, coupled with people outside the tradition stressing these two traditions as particularly important or distinct.  But proving that would take a ton more research.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Please don’t draw the Prophet (pbuh)

So I still haven’t submitted my thesis, but I have received an extension.  And since procrastination and completion are nearly the same thing, I am breaking my hiatus.  Partly because I have more free time now, but mostly because many of the reactions to the tragic deaths in France last week have made me feel incapable of remaining quiet.  In particular, I’ve seen a disturbing number of people online suggest that, like with the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) a few years ago, the best response is another “Draw Muhammad Day.”  I’m strongly against this, and would like to take this opportunity to explain why.  [Trigger warnings: I’m not going to post any depictions of the Prophet or link to any, but I am going to describe what some of them look like.  Also there’s some discussion of terrorism and mass murder.]

But, to start with, it’s worth pointing out (as many people on the internet have) that it is true that the Qur’an does not specifically ban depictions of the Prophet (pbuh).  The practice of not depicting the Prophet (pbuh) stems from the Qur’anic conception of graphic images, and the various ways that Islam has formulated the meaning of graphic images is way too big a topic to cover here.  Maybe I’ll do a separate post about it.  But the fact is that while the ban of depictions arises primarily out of the hadith and the early history of the Islam, and is not practiced universally in Islam, that doesn’t make it any less a religious practice for some Muslims.  To put this in perspective, I can make a solid case that the Bible provides no basis for the concepts of heaven (as a place where humans go), hell (as a place of punishment for sinners), or the soul (as an immortal aspect of all humans), but that doesn’t make these concepts any less integral to Christian theology.  That’s because Scripture doesn’t work like a cookbook – you don’t just read it and do what it says.

To turn Western depictions of the Prophet (pbuh) as artistic and/or political statements, first off, your depiction of the Prophet (pbuh) is probably not going to be original.  If you’re an artist looking to push boundaries, this is pretty much the exact opposite of that.  Non-Muslims have been producing depictions of Muhammad (pbuh), both in written works and as pictures, since their first interactions with Muslims.  Many of these depictions are negative, painting Muslims as mindlessly violent and terrifyingly evil.  The root of this meme is not hard to find – many of these works come from communities who were at war with the Muslims, whether due to Muslim incursion, as during the Islamic expansion, or due to Western incursion, as during the Crusades.  In either case, non-Muslims have routinely produced works of art that depict Muslims as evil, and Christian works in particular like to present Muhammad (s’lm) as the devil or the Antichrist.  Drawing a cartoon of him carrying a bomb is just a modern twist on a 1400-year-old artistic tradition.

Even if you have come up with something more creative than the Prophet (pbuh) as Devil trope, if you’re aim is to satirize Islam, either as it’s experienced in other countries or as it’s experienced by Muslims in the West, it’s really unlikely to be successful because it’s incredibly difficult to satirize a foreign country or culture.  This one kind of makes sense – satire is meant to be a short, pithy observation about everyday life, often relying on juxtaposition to create cognitive dissonance in the viewer or listener.  So for Westerns wanting to satirize Islam, there is a lot of ground to cover.  If you’re trying to skewer people in foreign countries, you would need some kind of access to them as an audience, as well as intimate familiarity with their culture.  If you live in the US – do you know if foreign papers are running political cartoons about the US?  Do you care?  From having lived overseas, I know they are, but I don’t think most people seek out foreign jokes about their country, and would probably be deeply disappointed if they did, as they’re liable to be wildly off base.  Case in point: one of the most common jokes in Britain about Americans is that most Americans don’t have passports, something unthinkable in Europe, where the countries are tiny, but something relatively neutral in America, where our country is massive.

For attempts at satire about Muslims in the West, the case is even more complicated, because the joke would need to succinctly demonstrate an understanding of some aspects of Islam as a global culture and an understanding of how the intermixing of that global culture with the local Western culture can create conflict, and it needs a quick and easy way to present this information to people who may have no experience of either of these things.  Which is probably why so much really great comedy about Muslims in the West comes from Muslims who live in the West, like Aziz Ansari, Dean Obeidallah, and Sadia Azmat.  They grew up knowing the first two things, so all they had to do was figure out how to present their experiences in a humorous way to an uninitiated audience.

So for one thing, I think it’s going to be very difficult for non-Muslim Western artists to create something original about Islam, especially if the intention is satire.  But beyond the questions of interpretation and expression, I do believe there needs to be an ethical consideration about drawing the Prophet (pbuh), as well.  In all of the discussions about the attacks in Paris, it feels like people are forgetting that criticism is not the same thing as censorship.  Censorship is a government or other body of authority preventing something from being visible or accessible publicly.  For example, in the US, there is religious censorship which prevents the use of “Jesus Christ” as an expletive in some forms of media, in order to protect the religious beliefs of some Christians that this qualifies as taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Freedom of speech and of the press are important for preventing censorship, and although people have already pointed out the hypocrisy of many of the world leaders who marched for freedom of the press in Paris while denying it in their own countries, I think it’s also important to point out that criticism and even violent backlash against art is NOT censorship because it does not come from a position of authority.  It’s exactly the existence of freedom of speech and the press that gives people the right to publish things that may be deeply hurtful to others, and criticism is vital in that system to address how that art functions, why it’s hurtful, and whether that hurtfulness comes from a place of bigotry and racism, which I would argue for most non-Muslim Westerners who want to draw the Prophet (pbuh), it does.  Absolute freedom of expression without thought to consequences is guaranteed to end in violence because no one enjoys being insulted over and over again – as the Pope pointed out, if you insult someone’s mother, you’ll get punched in the face.

There’s also the fact that what art a society holds in esteem says a great deal about the opinions of that society, what they deem important and what they don’t.  In the case of Charlie Hebdo, by focusing on this single event as a clash of ‘Islam and the West,’ we risk implying that this is the only way in which that clash is manifested.  This is dangerously untrue – on the one hand, there has been a horrible re-emergence of nationalist zenophobia in Europe in the last several decades, and Muslims living in France today have suffered truly terrifying levels of oppression and abuse, including 16 Muslim places of worship being vandalized or attacked in just one 48-hour period.  On the other hand, extremism in the name of Islam is an international problem, and communities outside of the West face far worse effects of it than Westerners, as evidenced by the horrifying attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria in the same week, in which somewhere between 150 and 2000 people were murdered.  Terrorism and religious extremism are not just, or even predominantly, Western problems, and treating them as such, and expecting the world to jump to our aid when the West is attacked, is a disgustingly imperialist idea.

Finally, I would argue that it has to be morally wrong to intentionally try to make some violate their private religious practices.   Choosing not to depict the Prophet (pbuh) or to look at depictions of him is not forcing your beliefs on others, and asking for images of him not to be present in public spaces is no more religion invading the public realm than having churches, crosses, or manger scenes visible in public spaces.  If someone was running around trying to trick Jews into eating pork, most people would probably consider that person a jerk, even if they labeled their action as performance art.  Similarly, although there’s plenty of room for debate as to whether using “Jesus Christ” as an expletive is blasphemy, it would still be wrong to start “Blasphemy Day,” where people run around trying to shout it in Christian’s faces as many times in 24 hours as possible.  Religion is personal, but it can’t always be private – people inhabit public spaces, and religious people have as much right to those spaces as nonreligious people.  Asking for consideration is not the same thing as demanding censorship because it doesn’t take away anything from anyone else.

I am absolutely not in favor of censorship, but again, consideration and criticism are not the same thing as censorship, and, I would argue, are actually incredibly necessary to make good art.  Part of any piece of art is thinking about how it will be experienced and what message it will send to its audience, and I can’t see what message drawings of the Prophet (pbuh) send except a big middle finger to Muslims.  It won’t be shocking to a non-Muslim audience because we have no preconceived notions about images of the Prophet (pbuh) for it to attack.  It probably won’t be shocking to Muslims because I’d guess most are aware that depictions of the Prophet (pbuh) exist; they just choose not to look at them.  As far as I can tell, the absolute best outcome that can come from papering newsstands with images of the Prophet (pbuh) will be that it will hurt Muslims, but that they will choose to accept that hurt, and bear it privately, rather than asking for consideration and respect for their beliefs.  Which is exactly what Muslims are choosing to do.  And that’s a beautiful statement about them as people, but still doesn’t validate the art.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Closed for winter!

Although it hardly seems fair to say I’m taking a hiatus from blogging when the posting around here has been so variable, I’m still claiming this as a unique period of not posting, as opposed to my normal not posting.

I’ve been in the habit of closing down for the holidays, so I don’t have to feel guilty spending all day playing Borderlands with my sister rather than writing about imperialism and violence.  Although I’m agnostic, I am super obsessed with Christmas, and I really appreciate being able to take a couple of weeks off.

However, this hiatus may last a little longer.  As I’ve mentioned a few times here, I’m in the process of finalizing my doctoral thesis for resubmission, a weirdly Oxford process that has taken more than two years for various reasons.  My final submission is probably going to be in the next two months, so between that and working full time, much of my intellectual and emotional energy is already allocated.

I’m hoping that by February, everything will be done, but I don’t anticipate being able to produce much for this blog until then.  So until February, merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy Kwanza, happy New Gregorian Calendar, and Gong Hey Fat Choi!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment