Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Terrorists - Are they evil or what?

I’ve found the actions of terrorists both disturbing and confusing. Disturbing for the obvious reason. Confusing in that I don’t understand their motivation. What would lead a person to drive a van down a sidewalk and then jump out and start stabbing random individuals on the street? Or wait outside a concert filled with teenage girls and their moms in anticipation of them leaving en mass and then, blowing yourself up? Or going back to the first major attack on “Western” soil, what would motivate a few young men to fly a plane full of passengers into the World Trade Centre? George W. Bush called them just plain evil and if I believed in evil, then that might be sufficient. But I don’t. So. I wonder.

Reza Aslan has written a number of books on religion and the Muslim faith and hosted the show “Believer” on CNN.  Unfortunately, this was recently cancelled after Mr. Aslan described Trump as a “piece of shit” on Twitter following the president’s comments after the Manchester attack in London.

In his book, “Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of
Globalization”, Reza argues that terrorists are engaged in a cosmic war where good fights evil both here on earth and in the afterlife as well. As a cosmic war, participants can look forward to the intervention of God as well as reward or punishment in the afterlife. There’s a lot at stake here.
The book describes a terrorist attack on children in Baghdad. They were in a square where children were celebrating the end of Ramadan with money they’d been given as a reward for making it through the month. A stranger enters the square pushing a cart filled with candies and stuffed toys to attract the children. When they’ve gathered around waving their money to grab his attention, he blows himself up killing dozens along with their parents and relatives. What could have been going through his head?

To begin, Mr. Aslan assures us that this has nothing to do with Islam.  He quotes the Qur’an which states, “Do not kill yourself: if someone does, so [God] shall cast him into hell.” As well, he says that the Qur’an is completely against the killing of women, children, the elderly, protected minorities and especially other Muslims.

For the terrorist, jihad provides the rationale and motivation. In the Qur’an, jihad refers to the struggle against the self with the goal to act in accordance with its teaching. This is similar to the Christian battle against sin or for the Freudian, the conflict between our instincts or id and societal expectations, the superego.

Jihad can also be called on behalf of the collective for defensive reasons when a Muslim group is being attacked. It should not be used as an act of aggression like flying planes into buildings or blowing innocent people to pieces. “God does not like the aggressor,” 2:190, says the Qur’an.

Jihads can only be authorized as a collective duty by a qualified imam or cleric. Osama bin Laden wouldn’t qualify as either of these nor would Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who took his place as leader of al Qaeda following his assassination.  After all, Bin Laden was educated as an engineer and al-Zawahiri, as a doctor. And yet, in 1998, after creating the World Islamic Front, they issued a fatwa calling for a jihad to kill all Americans and their allies. They said that this is “the individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim.”
Osama bin Laden & Ayman al-Zawahri
Included under that umbrella of allies are the kafirs. They include Christian or Jewish or Shia or anyone who doesn’t rise up against the rule of a kafir. Iran is mainly Shia and so the reason for al-Qaeda’s recent attack on its Parliament and the mausoleum of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It’s a call for the minority Sunnis to rise up against their kafir government that’s been on the vanguard of attacks on ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Where did bin Laden and Zawahiri get the authority to issue a fatwa and why would young men listen to them? Mr. Aslan explains it thus. 84% of terrorists are first or second-generation immigrants. They’ve grown up in Europe and, as a consequence, have embraced the Western concept of individualism. Individualism emphasizes a reliance on the self.

Modern European individualism originates with Martin Luther when he said that the faithful should be directly responsible to God. They do not require an intermediary like a priest to interpret the meaning of the scriptures. They can read it themselves.

Muslims growing up in Europe have been steeped in a culture of individualism. As a result, they may prefer the “self-styled spiritual gurus to traditional imams and to abandon clerical precedent for ‘self-actualization.’” Many are unemployed or semi-unemployed, trapped in ghettos like those in Paris where riots took place in 2005 or Brussels where those responsible for the Paris attacks of 2015 were raised.   
Muslim ghettos - Paris
The problem, says Mr. Aslan, is that these young men do not feel a sense of place. They no longer identify with a nation. In the age of globalization, they have learned to identify with their religion. Al-Qaeda appeals to their sense of injustice they feel at home. They see their fellow Sunnis embroiled in a war with Western powers. By helping to fight a cosmic war, they can gain some individual meaning to their lives.

Reza Aslan believes that the terrorist activities of Jihadism should be replaced by the political solutions provided by Islamism. Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are examples. These organizations are concerned with solutions in the here. They fight to gain control of the government in the country where they reside. They are not engaged in a cosmic war without end.

Hamas has always been considered a terrorist organization and was never recognized by the government of Israel. If it had, Mr. Aslan believes it would have been made responsible for improving the lives of its people. He states that by allowing them to participate more fully in the political process “could conceivably force them to moderate their radical ideologies, as occurred with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Unfortunately, events since the publication of his book in 2010 have weakened these examples of support. In 2011, a popular uprising in Egypt forced the military to depose Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of oligarchic rule. The Muslim Brotherhood won the ensuing general election and Mohammed Morsi became president. Within the year, he granted himself unlimited powers to protect the country against Mubarak loyalists within the government. Journalist and opposition members were jailed and hundreds of thousands protested in the streets and Egypt became a military dictatorship. As well, his argument that Hamas would moderate it’s demands for an end to the Israeli state if they were given legitimacy may be a bit circumspect. 
Morsi, once president and leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood - sentenced to death
That said, Mr. Aslan’s writing provides at least the beginnings for understanding a very complex situation. With understanding comes tolerance. It’s easy to make pronouncements about situations we know little about. Ignorance can breed confidence and hatred and we have much to fear from a confident ignoramus who hates. Books like “Beyond Fundamentalism” help us understand and make us aware of how little we know.

Check out clips from Reza Aslan’s show “Believer with Reza Aslan” on Youtube.   


Friday, 2 June 2017

“Barbarian Days: A Surfer’s Life," The best memoir I've read since "Angela's Ashes."

Surfing has an appeal that’s certainly been appealing to me. Being alone, in your own head, conquering waves on your own terms, the rush of speed, the skill of carving a path that seems to go on forever, coming out of a tube still in an upright position. The lifestyle of hanging out on the beach, chilling with friends and never being cold. After all, people only surf where it's warm. Of course, I discovered my impressions to be very wrong after reading William Finnigan’s new book, “Barbarian Days: A Surfer’s Life.” In San Francisco where he surfed some of the biggest waves in the world, he got so cold he had to get strangers to open the door of his car. 

Mr. Finnigan’s surfing life begins as a child and continues right into his sixties when he’s writing the book. His dad worked at various jobs in the film industry eventually becoming a producer and director of television and so, lucky for the author, they lived first, along the coast of Los Angeles and later, Hawaii. He spent the money he made doing odd jobs on surf boards and the rest of his free time in the water.

After graduating from college, he embarks on a world-wide search for the ultimate wave with Brian, a close friend. They visit islands of Micronesia, travel Australia, surf Indonesia and Java. When they’re not surfing, they write which they eventually both do as a career. They’re search for the perfect wave also pays off in Indonesia. It’s a monstrous wave they can ride seemingly forever. However, they must always be cautious of the reef below that will tear their skin to pieces should they fall. Alone on the island, help could arrive by boat after they lit a signal fire on the beach. The risks were considerable. 

After a year and a bit of surfing, Brian tires of the life and tells Bill that, he wants to go home. They separate in Singapore where Bill meets his girlfriend and simultaneously suffers a severe bout of malaria. "Your blood is black with it," proclaims the doctor. Interesting for me is the fact that he also saw gargoyles in his malaria induced fever hallucinations, an experience I shared with my blood black with malaria. 
William Finnegan from "Surfer Mag"
After recovering, he continues on his search for the perfect wave, this time with his girlfriend for companionship.  Intent on always moving west, his next move is South Africa where his girlfriend tells him she’s had enough. She leaves him and he gets a job teaching school that he pursues with passion. It’s the early 1980s and apartheid has become an issue of concern to the entire world. Suddenly, Bill’s got something to write about that everyone wants to read. The “New Yorker” magazine agrees to publish his article and so his professional writing career begins. 

The author moves to San Francisco with his his Zimbabwe, originally Rhodesian born girlfriend and later wife. There, he meets Mark Renneker, the crazy doctor willing to surf the most monstrous of waves that break off the nearby coast. A few years later, he and his wife move to New York where he continues his surfing passion off the coast of New Jersey taking surfing holidays in Medeira, Portugal, an island just off the coast of Morocco, and the island where he and Brian had found the perfect wave only now it’s an exclusive resort.  
Doc Renneker
Mr. Finnigan complains the rising popularity of surfing at the same time writing a book about his own passion for it, and passion is contagious. Surfing has been the thread that’s providing meaning to his life. It’s hard not to imagine if others, after reading this book, won’t think that it could do the same for them. The best memoir I've read since "Angela's Ashes."