Monday, May 29, 2006

Responding to Roobart

Note: Based on email dialouge with him, I have respect for Spencer and am primarily teasing with this post - my more important point, about the value of Spencer's work being obscured by his biases and the environment at his site, is the main point I want to make below).

In the continuing blog argument between Dean Esmay and Robert Spencer, Spencer attempts to demonstrate his erudition by signing his name in Arabic. Unfortunately, the result is more akin to Roobart Sbunsar. Not that the choir to which he preaches will notice; he could have signed his name "bebsi" and they'd still have applauded him for his scholarship.

Obviously Spencer's signature there was to try and validate his credentials as a supposedly objective analyst of Islam. However I think that the quote, which bears repeating:

Christianity and Judaism have well-developed traditions that reject literalism on things approved of in the Old Testament such as stoning adulterers and slavery.

(which by omission implies that Islam does not have such traditions) clearly suggests that Spencer's scholarship is founded on an a-priori bias. Not to mention his background, which suggests that he has a financial stake in his niche as an Islam-critic.

This is the same problem I have with the state of textual analysis of the origins of the Qur'an - most of it is premised and funded by those with a specific agenda rather than an independent sense of historical inquiry. So, like Jihadwatch and MEMRI, what could be a useful and respect-worthy project is tainted by the underlying bias. What I find most depressing about that is that these are resources that are needed by my community (muslim-Americans) to remain vigilant. But they are not taken seriously for the rather obvious reason that to make use of them, one has to first un-filter the prejudices of the hosts, and then wade through the morass of the Islamophobic commenters and supporters, to reach that nugget of informative value. This is a pointless slog that would deter Indiana Jones, let alone the average pious muslim.

Spencer also references Ibn Waraq's screed about why knowledge of Arabic is not needed to understand Islam; but Warraq's main argument is a numbers game. The fact is that the Qur'an is written in Arabic, and therefore to claim authoritively using the Qur'an as your basis that Islam is barbaric compared to the other Abrahamic faiths, requires knowledge of Arabic. As an example, lack of knowledge is what led so-called Muslimpundit to falsely argue that the Qur'an synonymizes the word jihad with the word qitaal (kill). For this, muslimpundit was accorded widespread respect in pro-war circles, at the expense of truth and his own self-declared faith. Bin Laden himself would applaud Muslimpundit's scholarship, surely.

Arabic is a fascinating language, and I have discussed the inherent problems of translation before.

So, amusement value of his Arabic literacy aside, there is some irony in Spencer's title of his post, "on assertions without evidence." I still have some respect for Spencer (after all, he is ultimately trying to defend his tribe, to which I also feel a sense of allegiance). The real debate is whether or not Spencer does more harm than good, and to that I think that what harm he does is a neccessary burden of free speech. Ultimately I don't think that direct attention should be paid to him, though a muslim blogger looking for a niche (and with more fortitude than I) would do the community a sincere service by reading LGF, Daniel Pipes, Spencer, and MEMRI weekly and providing factual re-summaries of the important things.

UPDATE: Robert Spencer emailed me to point out, fairly, that I neglected to mention explicitly that there is no letter "p" in Arabic. I alluded to this with my "bebsi" remark, btw. In actuality, Robert probably got as close to spelling his name in Arabic as can be reasonably expected, and deserves kudos for trying.

It should also be pointed out that the very fact that his own name cant be directly translated to Arabic letterings justifies Matoko's point, to which Robert took offense. Matoko seems to have typoed the name Al Azhar, and then got defensive when called on it. However her broader point was that:

"there are different clerics in all schools of shari'ia, that make different rulings. you are quoting a single source."

The minor troubles Spencer had with finding the right consonant and inferring the right vowel are symbolic of trying to interpret rulings, or even try to infer the position of an Islamic authority on the basis of a single ruling. Matoko herself also fell prey to the same when she argued that Azhar outlaws violent jihad. But she is more right than Robert is - as a whole, the institution does not sanction violent jihad, apart from the isolated opinions of some of its scholars.

UPDATE 2 (12/11/06) Robert was deeply offended by this post. I want to make clear that I do respect Robert's knowledge of Arabic. Since I originally wrote this post I have had numerous constructive email exchanges with him and I think he and I share the same goals, but differ on methodology (see this post I wrote at Dean Esmay's for more). At any rate, I would like to apologize to Robert for this post and any implication that his scholarship of the Arabic language is inadequate. I urge people who may disagree or take issue with Robert to treat him with respect and focus on factual areas of disagreement rather than indulge in cheap and easy name-calling and insults - he deserves basic decency and respect in a discussion as much as anyone else. That includes using his real name when referring to him.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Judeo-Islamic relations

Brian Ulrich has a must-read post that summarizes the history of Jews and Muslims in the middle east.

Some highlights, in conveniently digestible factoid format:

- Documents such as the Covenant of Umar (third caliph) were the inspiration for many of the dhimmitude laws, but these guidelines were never in the Qur'an.

- The Covenant was really theory, but in practice was rarely fully implemented by local rulers. The prejudices and stereotypes against Christians and Jews in practice were analogous to those against Hispanics in modern America.

- The Cairo Geniza is a vast collection of correspondences of medieval Egyptian Jewry, that fully demonstrate how well-integrated Jews and Christians were in the Islamic society, and that they played important political and social roles therein.

- Muslim rulers relied on Jewish and Christian religious leaders to help govern their respective communities.

- The Crusades and the Mongol invasions were when a cohesive pan-Islamic identity really began to emerge - as external threats often have a crystallizing effect on identity.

- Anti-semitism in its present form in the middle east was largely a European import of recent (post-colonial) origin.

Brian later posts a related note from the Qur'an, namely 9:29:

"Fight against those who (1) believe not in Allâh, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allâh and His Messenger (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islâm) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."

Brian explains, using the uncontroversial Yusuf Ali translation,

the first 29 verses of this were proclaimed to reflect the policy of the new state following this victory. It was an aggressive policy against those who had attacked or betrayed the Muslims. At this point, again according to the Muslim tradition, there was a warlike environment in which fighting for the faith was required. Now granted, I strongly suspect that later generations of Muslims used this to justify expansionist policies, but that hardly seems the most natural interpretation - plausible perhaps within this sura, but not in the context of the Qur'an as a whole. The last clause is grammatically complicated; as Bernard Lewis noted in his book there are a bunch of different interpretations, particularly of the last word. This is also clearly a source for the later practice of jizya, something also affirmed in hadiths about Muhammad's relationship with the Jews of Khaybar, though there humiliation wasn't an issue - the aggression here seems to be entirely based on the specific conditions it is addressing.

I have little to add to Brian's commentary, and also look forward to his coming discussion of Sura 5, especially verses 12 onwards. In addition, I think that the matter of the Banu Qurayzah is important and I will address that in a future post.

Brian teaches Middle Eastern history at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, my alma mater. He also blogs regularly at American Footprints, the absolute best liberal foreign policy group blog out there.

Friday, May 26, 2006

proposal: The Carnival of Brass

The Islamsphere needs a Carnival. Of course, we already have a yearly award ceremony to celebrate the best blogs. However, a carnival focuses more on the level of individual posts, and hence by its nature does more to promote individual voices.

Last year, Umme Yasmin inaugurated the State of the Ummah carnival, which was then taken up by Thabet this year. However, the SotUmmah lacked sufficient participation to maintain momentum.

The basic mechanics of a carnival are straightforward. Every so often (say, two weeks) bloggers are invited to submit links to the host blogger. The submission window would be finite - say, the last Friday through Sunday of every two week period. The host then subjectively chooses the best 10 or 15 posts of the submissions and links to all of them in a post, and all members of the community are asked to link to that post. The designated host is a rotating position between 3-5 bloggers who have made the commitment to do the work. Given the partly subjective nature of a carnival, host rotation also allows for some diversity in taste.

We can also learn from the problems that the SotUmmah faced, in that both times there was very little advance notice, promotion, or discussion of the idea between the major muslim bloggers. Hence, the carnival never attained enough mindshare to really garner the submissions it needed to be self-sustaining.

Some argue that a carnival is an exercise in self-promotion. Well, that's true. But that's the point - a carnival gives any blogger, no matter their daily traffic or Technorati rank, a chance at bringing an idea to the forefront of the collective consciousness. With enough submissions, the competition to be selected will ensure a certain rigor and heft to the final choices.

The seminal idea is that mere traffic is not a measure of the success of a given blog community. Rather, the true currency is ideas. With a recurring carnival of high quality posts every two weeks, the Islamsphere will present a distilled, refined product to the larger blogsphere beyond. It is better to build an audience based on the quality of your arguments than merely a mob of passers-by. We seek not traffic but influence.

We need a carnival. I hereby pledge to make the time commitment to host, and I ask for at least three others to join me. A serious commitment is required - the kind where you might stay up late at night and annoy your wife if need be. But with the right people, we can get this off the ground for real this time, and we can succeed.

I believe that the Islamsphere is a diamond in the rough of the blogsphere. My experiences hosting the Brass Crescent Awards have truly humbled me. I think that all of us collectively speak with a voice far greater than the sum of our individual voices. It's time to harness that power.

aside. I have several ideas on how to improve upon the basic carnival model, by using link-tagging systems such as rather than email for link submissions. Once I have recruited enough hosts, we can get into these logistical details.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Category 6

All signs point to a hurricane season just as bad, if not worse, as last year. To add insult to injury, looks like there might well be a new category introduced: Category 6.

there have already been hurricanes strong enough to qualify as Category 6s. They'd define those as having sustained winds over 175 or 180 mph. A couple told me they'd measured close to 200 mph on a few occasions.

The Saffir-Simpson hurricane category scale is based on wind speed: A Category 1 hurricane has sustained winds from 74 to 95 mph, Category 2 has sustained winds from 96 to 110 mph, Category 3 has sustained winds from 111 to 130 mph, Category 4 has sustained winds from 131 to 155, and a Category 5 storm has sustained winds greater than 155 mph.

The categories run in roughly 20 mph increments, so a Cat 6 would be greater than 175 or 180 mph.

"Remember, for each 10 mph increase of wind speed," says atmosphere scientist Greg Holland, "there's about 10 times more damage, and 20 times more financial loss."

In other words, the increase is not "linear" but "exponential."

The article points out that there is alink between gloal warming and hurricane strength, but overstates it slightly. As the RealClimate folks pointed out, it's impossible to ascribe cause for any single event (ie, Katrina) to global warming. However, there definitely is a relationship - in a nutshell,

while we cannot draw firm conclusions about one single hurricane, we can draw some conclusions about hurricanes more generally. In particular, the available scientific evidence indicates that it is likely that global warming will make - and possibly already is making - those hurricanes that form more destructive than they otherwise would have been.

The key connection is that between sea surface temperatures (we abbreviate this as SST) and the power of hurricanes. Without going into technical details about the dynamics and thermodynamics involved in tropical storms and hurricanes (an excellent discussion of this can be found here), the basic connection between the two is actually fairly simple: warm water, and the instability in the lower atmosphere that is created by it, is the energy source of hurricanes.

The RealClimate folks also point out that Al Gore's global warming movie An Inconvenient Truth treated the topic of hurricanes and global warming with the proper restraint.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Amir Taheri: tool

I just lost all respect for Amir Taheri. His story on Iranian jews being forced to wear yellow stars was false.

When a cause is just and honorable, it should be promoted with honesty. That people like Taheri, with gifts that they could bring to bear in support of worthy causes, resort to dishonesty, is a real tragedy.

UPDATE: The the false yellow stars story was already debated earlier at Dean's World. I don't think Taheri is a "neocon" (whatever definition of that we are using today) but I do think that he's long since left his original approach of rpeorting and analyzing, to outright spinning. Not to some nefarious end; he is a genuine believer in freedom, but unlike Fareed Zakaria, Taheri is not critical enough and allows his desired narrative to drive his journalism rather than the other way around. Ultimately, honesty and factuality is critical to the war on terror and Taheri is reduced to a propaganda tool rather than a positive contributor. I'm simply unable to rely on him.

Thank god for Zakaria's book.

UPDATE 2: More at Dean's World, including a healthy discussion where I debunk the claim that Taheri has been vindicated or has issued a retraction.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

towards faith

A good friend recently mentioned that they were reconsidering their life-long atheism, and asked me what my thoughts were. I'm obvously a non-objective voice on the matter, but I value my friends' happiness more than mere prosletyzation scorekeeping. In that spirit I offer these thoughts on the issue of finding faith, not to try and lure people to Islam but rather to help people who are sincerely ready begin journeying towards God. What path they choose is not my business - it's a supremely personal matter, one that requires a re-examination of all the values and motivations in life. Belief gives a new perspective on every issue, on every topic, on every debate, and anyone undertaking such a journey with sincerity is a courageous person who deserves genuine respect.

Many atheists are perfectly comfortable in their atheism - it sustains them sufficiently. However, someone who is atheist and finds themselves questioning their disbelief has basically run into the limit of what spiritual sustenance atheism can provide. That limit is profoundly a personal one and in my opinion is not reflective of atheism's lack, but rather the questioner's capacity.

But if atheism is insufficient, that does not neccessarily mean that religion is needed! This may seem a surprising position to take for a strong believer as myself, but it is actually consistent with the conviction that religion is unlike atheism in that it is a dynamic journey, not a static one. In that regard, religion is like science - it drives its practitioners forward.

I would advise the atheist to consider agnosticism first, as a means to overcome the limitation of atheism. But then to take the next step, towards actual religion, I would argue that there needs to be a genuine recognition of a void that religion will fill. And the desire to maintain forward motion. The worst thing would be to accept a nominal faith, look up the big answer to the routine Questions (why are we here, etc) and then stop, satisfied. Religion is not atheism+god, an easy answer - it's a hard path to trod and many who claim to trod it are really just treading water without really unlocking the full potential of what faith can bring to their understanding of the universe.

I suppose most of the above is rather generic, vague, and meaningless to anyone who has not really invested in faith. It's probably compelling to believers, and strangely alluring but not quite convincing to those on the cusp. All I can say to that is, that's faith for you. You can never accept faith on evidence; in fact proof actually denies faith (as Douglas Adams said, ironically given his own militant atheism!).

Look first, only to choose what direction you'll leap in. But then leap with all your heart.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

he blogs the rains down in Africa

Africa. The Dark Continent.

I referred to it the "single highest locus of barabric misogyny on the planet, irrespective of religion" for the simple reason that no continent has had a more wretched history of genocide, imperialism, colonialism, plunder, and exploitation. The origins of the human species are there, shrouded in time, and the origins of human civilization are there too, stained with blood.

Bringing light to Africa should be the greatest human rights priority of the human race.

But whatever stereotypes we have of Africa, it is true that for hundreds of years Africans have strived to bring themselves out of the darkness and empower themselves. Some efforts are more publicity than pragmatic policy; look to Muammar Ghadafi's United States of Africa proposal which is a fine concept in the ideal but has never amounted to anything more than rhetoric.

The real work being done to change the direction of the Mother continent is painstaking and slow, by the usual flawed yet still essential levers of democracy. However, the blogsphere has been largely silent on the matter of African liberty, preferring to focus more on the Middle East.

With one exception: Jonathan Edelstein, of Head Heeb blog. He's better known for his essential Israeli-Palestinian conflict analysis (which I credit with single-handedly convincing me that the Israeli Wall was a good policy move and not a brazen land grab). But the Head Heeb has been blogging on Africa for years - both Politics and Society. I strongly urge everyone with any interest in African liberty to be a regular reader.

Jonathan is as essential a voice in African politics as Abu Aardvark is to middle-eastern media analysis.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: an ally, not an alim

Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently resigned from the Dutch parliament after being stripped of her Ducth citizenship by the prime minister. As Bill Ardolino notes, there is considerable irony in this, given that she was essentially forced out by the Dutch right-wing, people who should be her allies in the public debate against Islamic extremists in Holland.

It is rumoured that she will come to the US - if so, I welcome her to my nation, she is a true American in spirit. I'd love to see her run for Senate!

However I have to say that while I have great admiration for her courage, I also do not grant her even a modicum of legitimacy on her views of Islam. Dean argues that muslims, instead of ignoring her, should ask themselves why Ayaan Hirsi Ali left the faith. Well, I have never advocated ignoring Hirsi Ali, but I won't accept that she has anything to teach me about my faith. Her abandonment of the faith was a personal decision - and as such has absolutely no relevance to the broader faith as a whole, only to the circumstances of her experiences and (with all due respect) tribal African heritage - an entire continent which unfortunately remains the single highest locus of barabric misogyny on the planet, irrespective of religion. One need only look to Darfur for evidence.

The solution is more liberty, not less Islam. In fact there is a route to liberty within Islam, so I argue that the solution is therefore more Islam (of a certain strain, to be sure).

I applaud her. And on issues of liberty she is my ally against the extremists. But not on matters of faith - her pronouncements on what Islam is are as irrelevant to me as bin Laden's. I won't be shamed from my beliefs as the "progressives" have been.

UPDATE: Tavis of Lantern Torch blog says that Ali is neither an alim nor an ally. I disagree that alliance with Hirsi Ali violates the principle of "enjoining the good and forbidding the evil". Neither do I particularly feel sorry for her; she's a big girl and can make (and has made) her own decisions. I think that being Ali is too rigid on whether Islam needs to be changed in order to achieve her goals; likewise some muslims are too rigid on demanding purity of those who they could make alliance with to help wrest the debate from the extremists' frames.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Online Integrity: A statement of Principles

I was honored to have had a role in drafting this:

Online Integrity: A Statement of Principles

  • Private persons are entitled to respect for their privacy regardless of their activities online. This includes respect for the non-public nature of their personal contact information, the inviolability of their homes, and the safety of their families. No information which might lead others to invade these spaces should be posted. The separateness of private persons’ professional lives should also be respected as much as is reasonable.

  • Public figures are entitled to respect for the non-public nature of their personal, non-professional contact information, and their privacy with regard to their homes and families. No information which might lead others to invade these spaces should be posted.

  • Persons seeking anonymity or pseudonymity online should have their wishes in this regard respected as much as is reasonable. Exceptions include cases of criminal, misleading, or intentionally disruptive behavior.

  • Violations of these principles should be met with a lack of positive publicity and traffic.