Thursday, February 23, 2006

I've been busy rewriting. A publisher wants to publish one of my novels, but the editor asked for some changes. The biggest was wanting me to make all my flashbacks linear; this necessitated creating some bridging material to connect the time frame of the flashbacks with the time frame of the rest of the book. Thankfully, today I finally completed the first draft of that bridging material. I can breathe again. Now all I have to do is rewrite it, then make some corrections and additions here and there in the rest of the novel, and make sure all the continuity issues are taken care of.

Okay, so I still have a lot to do. But today was a milestone, nevertheless.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times once again had an interesting article. He points out the hypocrisy of the Times in not showing any of the Dutch cartoons that certain tyranical governments have used to stir up unrest in the Middle East.

Earlier this week, I proposed illustrating this column with examples of the caricatures first published last fall in a Danish newspaper. If readers are to form rational opinions about both the ferocity of Islamic reaction and the American news media's response to it, I thought, surely at least a glance at one or two of these mild cartoons is required. I suggested that the cartoons run inside the Calendar section with a notice in this space concerning their location. That way, those who wanted to see them could, while those who might be offended simply could avoid that page.

I fully expected the proposal to be rejected, and it was — quickly and in writing, though the note also expressed the hope that the column would be as forceful and candid as possible.

This paper has ample company. The New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today all have declined to run the cartoons because many Muslims find them offensive. The people who run Associated Press, NBC, CBS, CNN and National Public Radio's website agree. So far, the only U.S. news organizations to provide a look at what this homicidal fuss is about are the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Austin American-Statesman, the Fox cable network and ABC.

Then, later in the collumn he points out:

Nothing, however, quite tops the absurdity of two pieces on the situation done this week by the New York Times and CNN. In the former instance, a thoughtful essay by the paper's art critic was illustrated with a 7-year-old reproduction of Chris Ofili's notorious painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. (Apparently, her fans aren't as touchy as Muhammad's.) Thursday, CNN broadcast a story on how common anti-Semitic caricatures are in the Arab press and illustrated it with —you guessed it — one virulently anti-Semitic cartoon after another. As the segment concluded, Wolf Blitzer looked into the camera and piously explained that while CNN had decided as a matter of policy not to broadcast any image of Muhammad, telling the story of anti-Semitism in the Arab press required showing those caricatures.

He didn't even blush.

If the Danish cartoons are, in fact, being withheld from most American newspaper readers and television viewers out of restraint born of a newfound respect for people's religious sensitivities, a great opportunity to prove the point is coming. A major American studio, Sony, shortly will release a film version of Dan Brown's bestselling novel "The Da Vinci Code." It's fair to say that you'd have to go back to the halcyon days of the Nativist publishing operations in the 19th century to find a popular book quite as blatantly and vulgarly anti-Catholic as this one.

Its plot is a vicious little stew of bad history, fanciful theology and various slanders directed at the Vatican and Opus Dei, an organization to which thousands of Catholic people around the world belong. In this vile fantasy, the Catholic hierarchy is corrupt and manipulative and Opus Dei is a violent, murderous cult. The late Pope John Paul II is accused of subverting the canonization process by pushing sainthood for Josemaría Escrivá, Opus' founder, as a payoff for the organization's purported "rescue" of the Vatican bank. The plot's principal villain is a masochistic albino Opus Dei "monk" for whom murder is just one of many sadistic crimes. (It probably won't do any good to point out that, while it's unclear whether Opus Dei has any albino members, there definitely are no monks.)

Now many Catholics, this one included, regard Opus Dei as a creepy outfit with an unwholesome affinity for authoritarianism gleaned from its formative years in Franco's Spain. But neither it nor its members are corrupt or murderous. It is a moral — though thankfully not legal — libel to suggest otherwise. Further, it is deeply offensive to allege — even fictionally — that the Roman Catholic Church would tolerate Opus, or any organization, if it were any of those things.

So how will the American news media respond to the release of this film?

Certainly, there should be reviews since this is a news event, though it would be a surprise if any of them had something substantive to say about these issues. But what about publishing feature stories, interviews or photographs? Isn't that offensive, since they promote the film? More to the point, should newspapers and television networks refuse to accept advertising for this film since plainly that would be promoting hate speech? Will our editors and executives declare their revulsion at the very thought of profiting from bigotry?


It won't happen for a simple reason that has nothing to do with the ideas being expressed or anybody's sensitivities, religious or otherwise. It won't happen because Pope Benedict XVI isn't about to issue a fatwa against director Ron Howard or star Tom Hanks. It won't happen because Cardinal Roger M. Mahony isn't going to lead an angry mob to burn Sony Studios, and none of the priests of the archdiocese is going to climb into the pulpit Sunday and call for the producer's beheading.

On the other hand, perhaps the events of the last two weeks have shocked our editors and news executives into a communal change of heart when it comes to sensitivities of all religious believers.


That will happen when pigs soar through the skies on the wings of angels, when the lion reclines with the lamb on high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and no one bothers to beat the world's very last sword into a ploughshare because all the hungry have been fed.

Until that glorious day, those of us who inhabit this real world will continue to believe that the American news media's current exercise in mass self-censorship has nothing to do with either sensitivity or restraint and everything to do with timidity and expediency.

Read the whole thing:Let's be honest about cartoons. It is intersting to me that the Los Angeles Times allows such harsh criticism of its editorial policies on its own pages.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Apparently Moslem prohibition on images of Muhammed is only when it serves their propaganda purposes; here is an interesting website that shows images of Muhammed made by Moslems over the last few hundred years. See here.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Tim Rutten writing in today's Los Angeles Times had another interesting aricle. He writes about the current controversy regarding some cartoons that many Moslems take offense at:

THERE'S a difference between a piece of journalism that unavoidably provokes and one that is merely provocative. So which were the cartoon caricatures of Muhammad published in European newspapers from Bulgaria to Madrid this week?

The cartoons, which really are rather mild little doodles, first were published in a Danish newspaper last fall. Outraged Muslims in the Persian Gulf states launched a boycott of Danish goods that lead the government in Copenhagen to express regret for the offense, but to defend the paper's right to publish. By this week, the Danes were facing not only violent protests in the Islamic streets but also mounting demands from governments in the Mideast and elsewhere that they apologize and do something to the paper.

By week's end, papers and magazines across Europe had republished some or all of the cartoons in a gesture of solidarity with their Danish colleagues and in defense of their refusal to be intimidated out of free expression. Muslim outrage mounted. Palestinian gunmen surrounded the European Union mission in Gaza and others threatened to kidnap Westerners in reprisal. Violence spread and Western diplomats including Kofi Annan and the British foreign secretary began falling all over themselves to apologize for their news media's insensitivity.

All this would be slightly more edifying if it didn't reflect the destructive and dangerous double standard that the Western nations routinely observe when it comes to the government-controlled media in Islamic states. There the media is routinely rife with the vilest sort of hate directed at Jews and, less often, Christians. The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" remain widely available in countries where nothing is published without government permission, and quotations from that infamous forgery are a staple of commentaries published across the Middle East. In recent years, government-owned television stations in Egypt and Syria have broadcast dramas that repeat the blood libel.

Where were the united and implacable Western demands for apologies?

If you want to see the continuing consequences of this double standard, consider these reactions to this week's events as reported Friday by the Associated Press: In Gaza City, Palestinian terrorists tossed a bomb into the French cultural center. Ismail Hassan, a 37-year-old tailor marching in an anti-European protest there, said, "Whoever defames our prophet should be executed."

Meanwhile, the imam who preached the Friday sermon in Gaza's Omari Mosque told 9,000 worshippers that the cartoonists who executed the caricatures should be beheaded.

In the remainder of the article, he makes the argument that the reaction in the Moslem world is a consequence of philosophical/theological presuppositions that are radically different from what exists in Judaism and Christianity:

Whatever the religious sensitivities involved, reactions such as these may strike you as threateningly — even viciously — irrational. That's because they are, and there's a reason.

Back in the High Middle Ages, the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — reached one of those fundamental forks in the historical road. For centuries, a series of Islamic scholars had preserved the works of Aristotle that one day would lay the foundations for the secular logic and science that have made the modern world possible. Their "rediscovery" by medieval scholars provoked a crisis. They recognized that reason was a powerful tool, but were fearful that using it would undermine faith, which was the basis for authority in all three communities.

What to do — or, more precisely, how to think?

Three intellectual giants rose to the challenge. Two of them — the philosopher and jurist Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, and the great rabbi and physician Moses Maimonides — actually were contemporaries, both born in the Spanish city of Cordova. Tradition has it they even met and befriended each other while on the run from the Almohads, Islamic fundamentalists from the Maghreb, who had captured Andalusia and destroyed its storied culture of tolerance. The third was Thomas Aquinas — of whom his admiring coreligionists one day would say, "He led reason captive into the house of faith." Recall that this was an age in which the literate West, not unlike today's Islamists, still regarded theology as "the queen of the sciences."

Averroes' exposition of Aristotle was so widely admired and influential that when Aquinas took it up a century or so later at the University of Paris he referred to Aristotle simply as "the philosopher" and to Averroes as "the commentator." But while Maimonides and, later, Aquinas — who also read and admired the philosopher rabbi — held that there exists a single truth and that faith, properly understood, never can conflict with reason, Averroes took the other fork. He held that there were two truths — that of revelation and that of the natural world. There was no need to reconcile them because they were separate and distinct.

It was a form of intellectual suicide and cut off much of the Islamic world from the centuries of scientific and political progress that followed.

As the events of the last week have demonstrated pretty forcefully, all this is more than an historical curiosity, because the globalization of markets and peoples has brought the rest of the modern world to Islam whether Muslims want it or not. One of the minor paradoxes at work here is that long before the imams' fiery sermons sent people into the streets this week, they'd been whipped into a frenzy by quintessentially modern creations — cellphone text messages and the Internet. Islamic societies are enthusiastic consumers of nearly everything the modern West produces — except such indispensable values as separation of church and state and freedom of expression.

Read the entire article: Drawn Into a Religious Conflict, by Tim Rutten (Saturday, February 4, 2006) Los Angeles Times.
I get thoughts on occasion. Like yesterday, as I was reading Mark 6, something popped into my head. I'm still toying with it; perhaps I'll write an article.

There is a tendency in the church to regard all ethical standards as unchanging absolutes. Almost goes without saying. The idea that there could be a progressive quality to it strikes most as absurd. But in Mark 6:7ff Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel and heal the sick and gives them instructions on how they should conduct themselves. Later, in Luke 22:35ff when he sends them out again, he gives them different instructions for when they go out. The purposes and needs have shifted. We recognize, as theologians, the progressive nature of God’s revelation to his people, but somehow imagine that this is not the case with ethics, or that progressive development ceased with the appearance of the closed biblical canon.

But perhaps a consideration of Jesus’ changing instructions to his disciples gives us a principle for the interpretation of morals and biblical injunctions: they may sometimes be more circumstantial in their implementation than many might think. Or be comfortable with. Circumcision seems clearly an eternal command in the Old Testament, impossible to ignore or do without. And yet Paul dismisses it entirely for in the NT without qualms. More than that, he actively argues against it—-despite the clear-cut biblical commands to the contrary, and despite the severe criticism he faced for his position from traditional Judaism and even from many within the Christian sect. Likewise, Christians (including Paul and Peter) jettisoned the kosher laws regarding what could be eaten. Peter’s vision of the animals let down in a sheet contributed to a shift, despite clear cut biblical commands to the contrary; the Jerusalem Council’s letter (as recorded in Acts) makes it clear that the church very early decided that the dietary regulations no longer needed to be enforced.

So, it appears that simply because some may think that certain biblical commands or injunctions are eternal truths does not necessarily mean that they actually are. The principles of grace and love are ever important, more than the strictures of the law. Jesus points out that the law comes down to just two commands, to love God and love people; these remain the guiding principles in morality, rather than the detailed lists that appear within the sacred texts. Consider the story of the woman caught in adultery and Jesus’ consistent violation of Sabbath restrictions: mercy, love, justice take precedence over any legalistic following of the biblical laws.

No one has a problem recognizing that certain injunctions in the Bible are contextually specific, rather than universal, eternal commands. For instance when Jesus tells Peter to pay the temple tax by going fishing, I know of no one who imagines that Jesus has given Peter an eternal command that tells us we are going to be instructed in how to pay our taxes today. Perhaps the same is true of other legalistic formulations as well?

The Bible is not a frozen thing. From it, we can alter and adjust our understanding of ethics to fit new circumstances, not remain hidebound in stasis. The temptation, of course, for some will be to use such a realization to rationalize selfish and unloving behavior. If you imagine that now, based on this idea, you can justify taking an axe to your annoying neighbor, then you're missing the point. Perhaps revisiting the central theme of love, mercy, grace would be useful in considering behavior. But that central theme must, I believe, have a role in making sense of how we interpret the bilical texts.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

I signed up for a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone service a couple of days ago and set it all up late this afternoon. The setup was easy and everything worked right the first time. It seems to work well, at least so far: good voice quality and no issues of any sort. It seems, frankly, indistinguishable from our old phone company. The big plus in all of this for me is that our phone bill (combined local and long distance) now drops to nearly a third of what the old phone bill was monthly, from about 100 dollars per month down to 35, and that's with having a separate fax line! And we now have unlimited minutes; we can call anywhere in the US and Canada for as long as we like for that flat rate of 35 bucks a month. I like it!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

An interesting review of the book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror by Mary Habeck, published by Yale University Press (243 pp. $25). Mary Habeck is a military historian and associate professor in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Here's an excerpt from the review by Tim Rutten from the Los Angeles Times:

Habeck contends that Western analysts err when they insist on attributing the rise of jihadism to secular causes — economic deprivation of the Muslim masses, the legacy of European imperialism, American sympathy for the state of Israel. Taking the 9/11 terrorists as her examples, she convincingly argues that they did what they did because of what they believed as Muslims:

"Muhammad Atta and the other 18 men who took part in the September 11 attacks were middle-class and well-educated and had bright futures ahead of them," she writes. "They participated in the hijackings not because they were forced to do so through sudden economic or social deprivation, but because they chose to deal with the problems of their community — for religious/ideological reasons — by killing as many Americans as they could." Similarly, "If the entire purpose of jihadism is to break an imperial stranglehold on the Islamic world symbolized by U.S. support for Israel, why did the U.S. become the focus of [jihadi theorist] Sayyid Qutb's anger in the early 1950s (more than a decade before the United States became associated with Israel)? Moreover, how do the effects of colonization account for the fact that one of the earliest jihadist thinkers, Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, developed his version of radical and violent Islam long before the West colonized Islamic lands? … The consistent need to find explanations other than religious ones for the attacks says, in fact, more about the West than it does about the jihadis. Western scholars have generally failed to take religion seriously."

(It's worth recalling that Wahhab's interpretation of Islam is Saudi Arabia's official orthodoxy and that Riyadh's petrodollars are financing its missionary work around the world at this very moment.)

Because Habeck is deadly serious about the jihadis' religiosity, she is scrupulous about their relationship to contemporary Islam. It would be "evil," she argues, to contend that a billion-plus Muslims supported or desired the mass murder that occurred on 9/11. Nor is it correct to conflate jihadi ideology with Islamist politics, such as those of Turkey's Justice and Development Party. On the other hand, she writes, it "would be just as wrong to conclude that the hijackers, Al Qaeda and the other radical groups have nothing to do with Islam."

Nor can the jihadis' key beliefs be dismissed as "the marginal opinions of a few fanatics. The principal dogmas that they assert … have roots in discussions about Islamic law and theology that began soon after the death of Muhammad and that are supported by important segments of the clergy today."

Here an American reader confronts the necessity of reaching beyond the undergraduate impulse that equates a facile acceptance with tolerance. It's a step that requires the recognition, as the philosopher Richard Rorty once put it, that some ideas, like some people, are just "no damn good."

Habeck does an efficient job of demonstrating how the jihadis pick and choose texts from the Koran and the hadith (traditions concerning the life of the prophet) and insist on their right to interpret them for their ideological convenience. The texts and traditions, however, are there to pick.

She locates the origins of contemporary jihadism first in the writings of Wahhab and the 13th century Koranic commentator Ahmad ibn Abd al Halim ibn Taymiyya. Then came the crucial contributions of the 20th century Egyptians Hasan Banna — founder of the Muslim Brotherhood — and Qutb, who lived for a time in the United States, as well as a Pakistani, Sayyid abu al-ala Mawdudi.

Banna contributed the notion that every aspect of Western thought was as much a threat to Islam as any imperial occupation. Mawdudi argued that since God's sovereignty is absolute, no law but that of Islam is valid. Qutb held, among other things, that Muslims who do not conform to the jihadi interpretations of the Koran are unbelievers, which makes it permissible to kill them at will, and that the whole notion of separating church and state in any way was "hideous schizophrenia."

The entire review is available on the LA Times website.