Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Islam’

Halvesies

According to a report on The Intercept, a US anti-Muslim group has been pushing back against claims that Texas teenager Ahmed Mohammed, who was recently arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, was the victim of anti-Muslim prejudice, or, indeed, that he was unfairly treated in any way.

Center for Security Policy vice president Jim Hanson argued on his organization’s podcast that the clock “looks exactly like a number of IED triggers that were produced by the Iranians and used to kill U.S. troops in the war in Iraq.” He said the clock “was half a bomb.”

Rightwing organisations spouting nonsense is nothing worth commenting on, but I find the particular logical construction here fascinating. He’s right, after all. It is indeed half a bomb. It just happens to be the half without explosives. And if any Muslim teens think of bringing homemade telescopes to school, I trust they’ll be arrested for bringing “half a sniper rifle” to school. That may look like an innocent block of wood to you, but it’s actually half a combat knife; no more innocuous for being the part without a blade.

All very logical. I admit, it’s slightly odd to hear this obsession with dangerous components coming from the same side of the political spectrum that inclines to dismiss the dangerousness of firearms because they can’t kill people all on their own.

Abercrombie cool

I don’t know anything about Abercrombie & Fitch. I know it’s a chain of stores that sell clothes, I’m sure I’ve seen their stores, but I’ve never been inside them. Everything I know about their brand comes from an 80-year-old satire by James Thurber that begins

 I always try to answer Abercrombie & Fitch’s questions (in their advertisements) the way they obviously want them answered, but usually, if I am to be honest with them and with myself, I must answer them in a way that would not please Abercrombie & Fitch. While that company and I have always nodded and smiled pleasantly enough when we met, we have never really been on intimate terms, mainly because we have so little in common. For one thing, I am inclined to be nervous and impatient, whereas Abercrombie & Fitch are at all times composed and tranquil…

Take the one recently printed in an advertisement in this magazine. Under a picture of a man fishing in a stream were these words: “Can’t you picture yourself in the middle of the stream with the certain knowledge that a wise old trout is hiding under a ledge and defying you to tempt him with your skillfully cast fly?” My answer, of course, is “No.” Especially if I am to be equipped the way the gentleman in the illustration is equipped: with rod, reel, line, net, hip boots, felt hat, and pipe. They might just as well add a banjo and a parachute….

I was reminded of this in reading about a case that is currently being considered by the US Supreme Court, in which Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has charged the company with religious discrimination, after it refused to hire a Muslim woman, because her headscarf would conflict with the Abercrombie dress code. (As the law would require reasonable accommodation to be made for religious observance, the legal case turns on the relatively uninteresting question of whether the district manager who made the decision, and who reportedly said  “if we allow this then someone will paint themselves green and call it a religion”, is really the last man left in America so uncontaminated by media representations of Muslims that he is not even aware that Muslim women often wear headscarfs as part of their religious practice.)

According to court documents,

Abercrombie described its brand as “a classic East Coast collegiate style of clothing.” When Elauf applied for a job in 2008, the Look policy included prohibitions on black clothing and “caps”; these and other rules were designed to protect “the health and vitality of its ‘preppy’ and ‘casual’ brand.” As Justice Alito put it during oral arguments, Abercrombie wants job candidates “who [look] just like this mythical preppy or … somebody who came off the beach in California.”

From fly-fishing in an east-coast stream to a beach in California. You’ve come a long way, baby!

Birmingham

A “terrorism expert” on Fox News in the US has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic by informing his viewers that

in Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in. And parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.

This is, of course, well known, and was first brought fleetingly to public attention by the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. As some people have forgotten, in his role as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (based in Brighton, I believe) Dr King attempted to open the totally Muslim city of Birmingham to Christians, by staging a nonviolent march. After his arrest by the Muslim religious police (who actually beat and actually wounded him seriously) he penned these stirring words:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.”[…] I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. […] I cannot sit idly by […] and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I am offering my services to Fox News, to appear as a history expert and discuss this neglected background to the current crisis in Birmingham.

It is perhaps to the credit of “expert” Steve Emerson that his organisation has posted the transcript of this interview, together with a sort-of-apology:

I have clearly made a terrible error for which I am deeply sorry. My comments about Birmingham were totally in error[. …] I do not intend to justify or mitigate my mistake by stating that I had relied on other sources because I should have been much more careful.

There are several more sentences in the same vein, followed by a non sequitur offer of a donation to Birmingham Children’s Hospital. While I appreciate his refusal to “justify or mitigate”, I think in this case an exposition of his sources would be informative, or at least entertaining. But these think tanks are not so much scholarly organisations as conspiratorial cells, and unless we take him to Guantanamo we’ll never get the names of his contacts.

I guess he’s standing by the London comments. I think this is a real opening for Labour, if the government is cutting housing assistance but still funding the Muslim religious police. And he hasn’t yet apologised for neglecting Dr King’s contributions to intercommunal understanding in Birmingham.

Spitting on the corpse

The great political cartoonist Joe Sacco has written a thoughtful — and thought-provoking — cartoon-essay about “the limits of satire” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I can’t disagree with a lot of what he says, but I find his choice to say some of them now weirdly offensive, in exactly the way that much of Charlie Hebdo was offensive, and so undermining the point that he seems to be making.

Sacco writes, over a background of a hillside covered with crosses made of fountain pens — the cartoonist’s Calvary?

Though tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous, it has never struck me as anything other than a vapid way to use the pen.

Implied is that everyone must agree that CH has been tweaking the noses of Muslims. That is, making pointless and puerile attacks that publicly shame people who are socially weak. One could claim that, but I think many people would disagree. I do, and I believe that most of the Charlie Hebdo staff would. Which suggests that this might not be the best time to criticise them, when some have just been murdered, and the rest are in shock, and unable to defend themselves.

Why do so many people, most of whom I’m sure never commented on Charlie Hebdo before, feel incapable of publicly saying, “It’s a terrible crime, and a threat to everyone’s sense of security and freedom of expression,” without needing to pair it immediately with a disclaimer “I never liked them, and I object to their approach to journalism and cartooning and politics and life in general.” Can’t it wait, at least until the survivors are back on their feet? No one goes to a funeral and feels obliged to say to the widow, “Yes, heart attacks are terrible, but he really was a shitty colleague, I found him dull, and he always smelled kind of bad.”

Sacco then proceeds to some intentionally offensive drawings of his own: One of a black man with a banana falling out of a tree, the other of a “Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class.” He then asks, “And if you can take the ‘joke’ now, would it have been as funny in 1933?” Imagine that at Sacco’s death (after, one hopes, a long and happy life) people pull out these images and reprint them with comments like “Talented cartoonist. Shame he was such a racist and antisemite.” This would be terribly unfair, because it ignores the context in which it was written. But Sacco seems to be arguing that the only context that matters is the political context, in which Muslims are an oppressed minority in Europe, and relatively powerless in world affairs. It’s a complex problem, and I can’t fault Sacco for having his say on it, but it arouses in me a sense of unfairness when people

My personal reaction? The sort of comedy that CH engages in, like the underground comics tradition in the US that started in the 1960s — and still being pursued by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and others — has never been exactly to my taste, but I have never felt any urge to dissociate myself from it. The job of caricature is to reduce humans to their common bodily level, and show how ridiculous we all are, the highest and the lowest. It can serve the purposes of racist marginalisation, and it can serve important democratic principles. If Mohammed is caricatured, is he a representative of the oppressed Muslims in the Paris banlieu, or is he another big boss, needing to be taken down a peg? It’s a subtle argument, but I admire those willing to risk crossing the line, in order to explore where the line is, or if there should be any line at all.

An observation: Twice in the past few days Andrew Sullivan has reprinted reader comments or tweets that showed an outrageous CH cover, with a comment of the sort, “Yes, no one should have murdered them. But can’t we agree that they’re obviously a pack of racists? Just look at this outrageous example.” And each one of these posts got updated with a comment from a reader who actually knew the political context, and could point out that the cartoon was not racist in intent, but was illustrating an argument over the position of racial minorities in France. For example, a caricature of Justice minister Christiane Taubira (a black woman) as an ape was a response to racist comments by the right wing, including throwing bananas at her.

Is it a positive thing to concretise the racism of others in an unforgettable image? I think so, but it’s debatable. It’s a debate worth having, which is why I admire the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and their ilk.

Betrayal

After the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many physicists felt that their discipline’s principles had been betrayed. Oppenheimer said that physicists had “known sin”. Their abstruse subject, seen as a pure source of enlightenment, had revealed its enormous destructive potential. The healing arts, the quintessence of noble pursuits, have also been showing their dark side, as the power to cure disease is inseparable from the power to cause disease. An Oath Betrayed was the title of a recent book on the role of U.S. physicians and psychologists in facilitating torture in Guantanamo. And now, yet another betrayal: The BBC reports that

The apparent killing of a US journalist by an Islamic militant with an English accent is "an utter betrayal of everything British people stand for", the foreign secretary says.

What of goodness and purity remains in the world, when even English accents may also be deployed for nefarious ends? (Of course, in Hollywood films they are used for almost nothing else.)

More profoundly, two thoughts occur to me: (more…)

Trojan hobby horses

Don’t forget: Troy was in Turkey — a Muslim country!

A scandal has been rumbling on in the UK primary and secondary education establishment. A few months ago the UK press splashed around the text of The Protocols of the Elders of Islam the “Trojan Horse” letter, purporting to be a missive from one group of Islamists to another, describing the progress of their nefarious plan to take over and islamise the Birmingham schools, and recommending methods for expanding the process to other cities. The quotes read like uncensored excerpts from Nigel Farage’s fever dream:

We have caused a great amount of organised disruption in Birmingham and as a result now have our own academies and are on the way to getting rid of more headteachers and taking over their schools. Whilst sometimes the practices we use may not seem the correct way to do things you must remember that this is say ‘jihad’ and as such using all measures possible to win the war is acceptable.

One needs to imagine an Osama bin Laden lookalike twirling the ends of his beard and laughing maniacally as he reads this aloud. (more…)

Dawkins’ faulty taxonomy

Science enthusiast Richard Dawkins is always good for a laugh, even if the laughter sometimes curdles at his anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim bigotry, and his inclination to minimise the the significance of child rape when it serves the interests of the former. He has recently published on Twitter the comment

All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.

There are all kinds of comments one could make about this, and many have, but what I find most striking is the utter failure of logic in the area that is closest to his area of purported expertise, which is not religion or sociology, but taxonomy. To a statistician, this comparison seems risible. Not only are Muslim and Member of Trinity College not comparable categories (I hope Professor Dawkins won’t get the vapours when I mention that they are not even mutually exclusive), but even if they were, Dawkins seems to be suggesting that the difference in NPF (Nobel Prize Frequency) between the devotees of Muhammed and of the Cambridge Trinity are due to negative selection by Islam, whereas another observer might suspect that there is some form of positive selection by Trinity College.

To put it baldly, you don’t need a Nobel Prize to get a post at Trinity College, but it doesn’t hurt. For example the most recent Trinity College Nobel Prize went to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who had a nearly 30-year scientific career before joining Trinity College.

A more valid comparison would ask, why does Trinity College, Cambridge boast so many more nobel laureates (32) than the comparably sized Trinity College, Oxford. (2, by my count from this list).  Is it the vitiating effect of Oxford’s high-church Anglicanism? Or is it that Dawkins cherry-picked one of the wealthiest, most exclusive academic institutions, one most concentrated on exactly the sorts of subjects that attract Nobel prizes? Why have Scandinavian authors received so many Nobel Prizes in Literature? Religion? Climate? Reindeer?

I leave the resolution of these questions to the skeptical reader. Those who are interested in a more amusing version of Dawkinsian taxonomy can have a look at Borges’s essay “John Wilkins’ Analytical Language“. Borges describes an imaginary ancient Chinese encyclopedia, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge that divides up all animals into the following categories:

(more…)

Universal human rights, with some qualifications

A public statement of the US military’s Southern Command:

We do not force-feed observant Muslims during daylight hours during Ramadan.

That creaking you hear must be the sound of the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice…

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