Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Politics of Fear

An Ottawa police officer runs with  his weapon drawn

The killing of two Canadian soldiers in the space of about 48 hours has upset many Canadians more than any other event in recent memory, in part because these deaths occurred in Canada, one of them near Montreal and the other in the nation's capital, Ottawa, and not overseas. This is what makes them so terrifying for many people. And this is something that the Conservative government has capitalized on.

The details of these killings are well-known to most Canadians by now, thus I am not going to concern myself with them. Rather I want to discuss what I call the politics of fear.

By the politics of fear I mean the fear that is generated by events such as these, and how politicians manipulate this fear for their own advantage by promising to rescue us from threats that people cannot see and do not understand.

Today the greatest threat is said to be posed by international terrorism, but much of this threat is really a fantasy which politicians have exaggerated and distorted. It is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned by governments around the world, as well as security services and the international media. This is a form of fear mongering.

Fear mongering has been used for a long time by politicians, but it is also used by advertisers to steer people into making decisions using emotions rather that reason. H.L. Mencken expressed it this way: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and hence clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

The screen title of the BBC documentary series

The term politics of fear is not original with me. As I discovered after I first wanted to use the term, it is part of the title of a BBC documentary called The Power of Nightmares, with as subtitle, The Rise of the Politics of Fear. The series argues that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of destruction is a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries in an attempt to unite and inspire their people and for the politicians to amass more power.

This series documents how and why that fantasy was created. It also notes who benefits from it: primarily American neo-conservatives and radical Islamists, Both groups were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world, and both have a very similar explanation of what caused that failure.

Together these two groups have created today's nightmare vision of a secret organized evil that threatens the world, a fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age.

Now the same politics of fear has arrived in Canada. Soon after Canada committed planes to fight ISIS in Iraq some voices within ISIS had threatened to take the conflict to Canada. That threat has now materialized, at least according to the Conservative government. But is this threat real?

Immediately after these two killings Prime Minister Stephen Harper pointed an accusing finger at ISIS. He claimed that the two men who were responsible were associated with ISIS and part of an ISIS-inspired plot. But there is little evidence for this, and both are, conveniently, dead so that we may never know exactly what inspired them.

Harper addressing the nation after the Ottawa shooting

Harper described these killings as an attack on Canada. He interpreted them as part of a broader bid by terrorist groups to bring “their savagery to our shores.”  And he vowed that his government would take all necessary steps to protect the country, and would work together with its allies to fight ISIS. 

Both Martin Couture-Rouleau  and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had sympathies with ISIS, but that does not mean that they were part of an ISIS plot. Thus their attacks are not enough to justify Canada's participation in the fight against ISIS, as Harper did. Nor should their association with Islam be used to smear all Muslims, as some Canadians are already doing. This is yet another example of Islamophobia.

Couture-Rouleau was a Canadian-born convert to Islam, while Zehaf-Bibeau was the son of a Libyan father and Canadian mother. Both had problems with their parents, and both had a troubled past. Zehaf-Bibeau was well-known to the police as a petty criminal and a drug addict. In addition, he was no longer welcome in his mosque in British Columbia.

Neither man can properly be called a terrorist, at least on the basis of the information I had when I was writing this. The terror they inspired lasted only a few minutes in each case, although the effects linger. We don't call every murder terrorism. But Harper's description of these killings as terrorism is part of the myth making that typifies the politics of fear.

These men did have much in common. They were both self-radicalized individuals who wanted to go and fight with ISIS.  They were lone wolves who had grievances against the government, yet only one of them was under surveillance by the RCMP. One man used a car to kill a soldier, the other used a hunting rifle to shoot a soldier standing guard in front of the War Memorial in Ottawa, yet there is no evidence they were part of a plot. Apparently they did not know each other.

Michael Zahef-Bibeau from an ISIS Twitter account

Both has mental issues, which may be the primary reason for these killings. Thus the government should not get carried away by implementing security measures that will diminish the civil liberties of Canadians.

Security was lax in the Parliament buildings, but that is the result of Government-imposed cutbacks. Tweaking security measures ought to be enough. Canada does not need a repeat of the implementation of the War Measures Act in !970 at the height of the FLQ crisis.

What happened near Montreal and in Ottawa was not part of a terrorist plot, but rather the bizarre acts of two men who happened to have sympathies for ISIS. Canadians should not let themselves be terrorized by them. They should certainly not become fearful as a result.

Terrorist groups such as ISIS want to inspire fear. That is their main strategy. Governments too often react to that fear and try to use it for their political advantage. Hence my use of the term politics of fear. Fear can be generated by terrorists groups such as ISIS, and politicians are easily tempted to use it for their own political advantage.

Fear must never be permitted to erode civil liberties. These are to precious to squander at the hands of of politicians. Instead, Canadians and those in other countries who value these liberties must expose such politicians and show that the emperor is without clothes. What they preach is a myth.

The War Memorial in Ottawa the evening after the shooting

I am not contending that Harper is going to introduce a police state in Canada, but he has displayed enough despotic tendencies in the past to make me wary of his intentions after the recent killings. I do, however, expect him to use these killings in the next federal election, which is scheduled for a year from now. He is already making political hay out of them.

In the election Harper will present himself as the political leader who is best able to protect Canada. He has already demonstrated that, he will argue, by sending planes to Iraq to fight ISIS. And now, by vowing to implement stricter security measures he will appeal to the natural desire of people for security in order to win a further mandate for his party.

Canadians should be careful not allow themselves to be sucked in by Harper's arguments. They must reject the politics of fear,since such politics are based on emotions, not reason and thus they are highly suspect. A healthy hermeneutic of suspicion is needed whenever politicians use fear.

The price for Harper's politics of fear is too high: the loss of civil liberties in Canada. If Canadians want to protect these liberties, they must not reelect Harper in the next election. He is too dangerous in my opinion. He must not be allowed to use the politics of fear to win reelection. The damage he has already done to Canada is incalculable.

Canadians must also be careful not to endorse other politicians we preach a similar message. There are too many politicians of every political stripe who are willing to capitalize on the politics of fear, if this would allow them to gain power or to retain that power. A word to the wise!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola, the latest pandemic

According to the World Health Organization there are currently 1,000 new Ebola cases per week, but the WHO now estimates that this will rise to 10,000 new case per week by the end of the year.

The WHO has also warned that the death rate in the current outbreak has risen to 70%. Previously it had estimated the Ebola mortality rate at around 50%. In contrast, in the past flu pandemics the death rate was approximately 2%. Some estimates of the death rate for Ebola place it as high as 90%.

Ebola virus disease, which was formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a severe, often fatal illness. It is one of the world’s most virulent diseases. The infection is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, body fluids and tissues of infected animals or people.

Severely ill Ebola patients require intensive supportive care. During an outbreak, those at higher risk of infection are health workers, family members and others in close contact with sick people and deceased patients.

Unfortunately, the West African countries that have experienced the most cases (about 8,000 by now) and the most deaths (approaching 5,000 currently) have been unable to control the outbreak in their countries. They lack the resources to control the spread of the disease and have difficulty controlling their own citizens.

The number of Ebola cases and deaths, as of October 15, 2014

A pandemic has been defined as a global epidemic -- an epidemic that spreads to more than one continent. By this definition, Ebola may already be a pandemic since it already found on more than one continent, even though it not yet epidemic except in Africa.

A pandemic is determined by how the disease spreads, not how many deaths it causes. In order to be a pandemic a disease must also be infectious. Ebola is highly infectious, It is spread by direct contact with infected animals and people. Some have suggested that it may be spread in other ways as well, although there is as yet no evidence for this.

In West Africa the number of deaths caused by Ebola is predicted to grow exponentially if no way is found to stop the spread of the disease. The international community is now very much involved in that region in order to help stop spread of Ebola, but these efforts have thus far been unable to do so.

The WHO has a six-stage classification that describes the process by which a new virus moves from the first few infections in humans through to a pandemic. The process ends with a pandemic when infections from the virus have spread worldwide and it might then be out of control until it is eventually stopped.

Bubonic plague

There have been a number of significant pandemics recorded in human history. Perhaps the most well known one is the Black Death which started in Asia and was responsible for an estimated 75 to 200 million deaths worldwide over several decades during the 14th and 15th centuries. Since then it has recurred in Europe and elsewhere, most recently in China in the 19th century.

Today it is commonly assumes that Black Death was a bacterial bubonic plague pandemic caused by flea bites and spread by rats. But there is evidence to the contrary that the Black Death also killed a high proportion of Scandinavians who lived in a region that was too cold for fleas to survive.

The Biology of Plagues (Cambridge University Press, 2005) helps to explain this mystery. It analyzed 2,500 years of plagues and concludes that the Black Death was caused by a viral hemorrhagic fever pandemic similar to Ebola. If this view is correct, the future medical and economic impacts from Ebola have been vastly underestimated.

The authors, Dr. Susan Scott, a demographer, and Dr. Christopher J. Duncan, a zoologist, contend that the threat of plagues such as AIDS and Ebola is constantly with us. They point out that the Bible used the term "plague" to describe a catchall of afflictions resulting from divine displeasure.

The researchers discern “Four Ages of Plague”, including the "Plague of Athens" from 430 to 427 BC that killed about a third of the city; the "Plague of Justinian" from 542 to 592 AD that killed 10,000 a day in Constantinople; the Black Plague from 1337 to 1340 AD that killed a third of Eurasia; and a series of plague outbreaks in Europe from 1350 to 1670 that killed about half of the populations of a number of cities.

The book combines modern concepts of epidemiology and molecular biology with computer-modelling. By applying these to the analysis of historical epidemics, the authors show that these plagues were not outbreaks of bubonic plague but a viral pandemic similar to Ebola.

The Athenian plague, for example, was similar to the Black Death and the current Ebola pandemic. Like Ebola, this plague is believed to have originated in Africa and then traveled northward. 

The bubonic plague, which was first recorded in China about 37 AD and still is a worldwide public health problem, with thousands of cases each year, is a very different disease and should not be confused with the viral plagues that Biology of Plagues deals with.

An inguinal bubo on the upper thigh of a person infected with bubonic plague.

The first symptom of bubonic plague is a mild and non-alarming fever. Bubonic swellings follow within a few days. Sufferers either go into a deep coma or become violently delirious, paranoid and suicidal. Most victims die within a few days. Before antibiotics, the appearance of black blisters was considered a sign of imminent death.

Bubonic plague is very seldom spread from person to person. The disease needs a rodent population, usually rats, to carry fleas to spread the infection to humans. However, once the local rats die out from the infection, human infections tend to tail off.

In the 2011 book The Black Death in London, Barney Sloane, an archaeologist who has worked on medieval sites for the Museum of London, documents the 1348-49 epidemic that killed two thirds of the city and argues that this could not have been bubonic plague. He writes:
The evidence just isn't there to support it. We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren't there. And all the evidence I've looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn't time for the rats to be spreading it.
Bubonic plague is a bacterial disease that is spread by animals, while Ebola and its kindred diseases is viral and spread especially through person-to-person contact. These diseases should not be confused.

Today scholars remain divided about the nature of the Black Death. Many would still argue that it was bubonic plague. Whether that was the case or not does not detract from the argument that a viral hemorrhagic disease similar to Ebola may have been responsible for many plagues in the past.

This argument offers a reason for hope. It means that Ebola can be stopped. It has stopped in the past and it can be stopped again today if the necessary measures are taken.

Many people today are so frightened of Ebola that they want to quarantine parts of Africa by cutting off air travel with the countries that are currently infected. But, as the head of the Center for Disease Control in the US has argued, this would be ineffective since people would find other ways to travel to the rest of the world and this might make it even more difficult to track possible infected people.

Rather, I suggest that Western countries, because of the relative wealth, should fund the efforts to stop Ebola in West Africa. UN Secretary-General,Ban Ki-moon has issued another urgent appeal for funds to help fight Ebola. He said a $1bn trust fund he launched in September has received just $100,000 so far (from Columbia).

Ban joins a growing chorus of world leaders who have criticized the global effort to tackle the Ebola outbreak. Donors have given almost $400m to other UN agencies and aid organisations directly, but these funds are still inadequate. Much more money and other aid is needed immediately.

Ebola is the latest pandemic, but the world must not panic in fear. Ebola can be stopped, but that will require the best efforts from many countries to fund these efforts and provide the necessary manpower. 

Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are unable to do so on their own. They need help urgently. If that help is not provided soon, Ebola threatens to become one of the worst pandemics of all time. The medical and financial consequences of the latest pandemic may exceed that of the Black Death.

Let us pray earnestly that that does not happen.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Religion and Violence (2)

This is the second in a series on religion and violence. I want to examine religious extremism and those who use religion to justify their extremism and use of violence to achieve their ends.

Religious extremism is noted for its promotion of violence. That makes this type of extremism a natural choice in any discussion of religion and violence. However, religious extremism, contrary to popular opinion, is not limited to Islam.

Other religions have given birth to it, either in the remote past or in the current era. The atrocities perpetrated by Christians during the Crusades can be matched by many extremist groups at present. No religion can claim that it has no extremists groups that practice violence. Even Buddhism is guilty of resorting to violence, as attacks on Muslims in Thailand demonstrate.

The Islamic State is arguably the prime example today, but it has lots of company not only in the Middle East but also elsewhere in the world. Yet whatever abbreviation is used, whether IS, ISIS or ISIL, this group is so extreme that even Al Qaeda has disowned it.

However it would be foolish to hold Islam responsible for all the violence that ISIS has perpetrated any more than blaming other religions for the violence done by some of their adherents. It is not the religion that is to blame but the people who have perverted that faith.

Nearly all religions preach peace, Islam included. In fact, a good case can be made for Islam as a peaceful religion since the name Islam, which means submission, also contains the root for peace.

The jihadists of ISIS are a case in point. It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of westerners in ISIS. But the US State Department estimates that about 12,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria from at least 50 different countries to fight with a number of different groups, including ISIS. Many of these men from Britain, Germany, France and a few other European countries, as well as the US, Australia and Canada.

Women are still rare in ISIS, but that changed after the establishment of the caliphate, although ISIS still does not permit women on the battlefield. They are often married off to other jihadists, generally foreigners.

Many of the westerners are new converts to Islam, and very few know much about their new faith. Two British jihadists purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies before they left for Syria  The Islamic faith, it seems, has little to do with the modern jihadist movement.

What are the drivers of radicalization? There are many: moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, and the search for a new identity and for a sense of belonging and purpose. These wannabe jihadists have been described as "bored, underemployed, overqualified and underwhelmed" young men for whom "jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer . . . thrilling, glorious and cool."

Many jihadists have led and continue to lead un-Islamic lives. They are pathetic figures. The best way to fight them is to deprive them of the publicity that they crave. The media should ignore them.

Muslims are not all Islamists, Islamists are not all jihadists. And -- most crucially for this argument -- jihadists are not all devout. The danger, therefore, does not come only from those who are the most devout but also from those who are largely ignorant about Islam. New converts are often the most dangerous.

Religion, of course, does play a role. A politicized form of Islam has been very successful in focusing the anger of many Muslims and mobilizing the masses. The new caliphate is not recognized by all Muslims, but for some it represent a beacon of hope. These Muslims continue to form the bulk of the fighting forces of ISIS.

The message of ISIS is a perverted form of Islam. This message has been rejected by many Muslims, even in the heartland of Islam, Saudi Arabia.That country is supporting the US-led coalition that is fighting ISIS, although the Saudi government has not been able to win the support of the Saudi religious in confronting the ideology of ISIS.

The woldview of ISIS is apocalyptic, sectarian, and Salafist. It shares this extremist worldview with Boko Haram and al-Shabab, among others. It is not interested in democracy. On the contrary, it is committed to use violent means against all those, including Muslims, who reject their ideology.

Just as the US was responsible for creating Saddam Hussein, Muslim religious leaders throughout the Arab world are responsible for creating ISIS. They are unwilling or unable to confront ISIS and other extremist groups because they share the same anti-pluralistic, puritanical, Wahabi-shaped ideology.

This perverted form of Islam has become ascendant in the Middle East. This perversion is united with a misreading of the Qur'an in light of a fatwa that seems to endorse violence against non-Muslims.

The typo in the Mardin fatwa that changes the meaning

The Mardin fatwa, written originally by Ibn Taymiyya (d 1328) who was from the Mardin area of Turkey at the time of the Mongol invasion, was, and is still used by many militant terrorist groups such as ISIS to support and justify their killings of countless numbers of innocent people. 

The relevant part of the fatwa text (in Arabic) was yu’āmal (trans. should be treated), but the word was rendered yuqātal (trans. should be fought) in subsequent printings. This typographic error changed the meaning of the phrase drastically.

This typo changed the meaning of the entire fatwa. It has become a mandate for some to kill anybody who they consider an unbeliever (takfir). ISIS is using this fatwa to justify its violent behavior. But if this fatwa has been changed through this typo, and later misused by jihadist groups, then the entire Muslim world needs to be taught about this egregious error.

Shayk Abdallah bin Bayyah, a distinguished Mauritanian scholar, first unearthed the Mardin fatwa error, He recently addressed the United Nations, where he stated that bombs do not change ideas. The only realistic course of action is to to teach the next generations that the pursuit of violence does not lead to paradise and is, in fact, contrary to the teaching of Qur'an and Prophet Muhammad. But this will take time. He proposes, in his own words, a war on war to create a peace upon peace.

Shayk Abdallah bin Bayyah

One of the problems in the contemporary Muslim world is that there us little recognition there for the role of authority. At one time, among Muslim scholars, the authority to teach and pass on knowledge was paramount. The tragedy of the modern Islam, however, is that any unqualified person who owns a hadith collection can today pronounce fatwas. The consequence of this has been disastrous.

ISIS cannot quickly be eliminated. Bombing alone is not going to achieve this. Even the use of ground troops -- who should only come from the Arab world -- will not get rid of ISIS. The pathology that gave birth to ISIS lies so deeply embedded that it cannot be removed in any other way than that proposed by bin Bayyah: education.

Violence only begets more violence. Education indeed takes time, but in the end it can produce good results. In contrast, the war that is currently being waged by Obama will end in failure as the previous wars in the Middle East involving the US have. Successive bombings of ISIS will only produce more recruits. It may help to protect some cities or groups, but it will not bring about peace.

As a Canadian, I am disappointed -- no make that outraged -- that the Conservative government has joined the US-led coalition against ISIS. This misguided action was one of the factors that prompted this series on religion and violence. 

What is the proper response of religiously-motivated violence. The answer is surely not more violence. It must be peace.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Religion and Violence (1)

This is the first in a series in which I want to examine the relationship of religion and violence. I will begin by discussing Karen Armstrong's new book on this topic. Later I hope to discuss the role of religious extremism, especially Islamism, in the context of religion and violence.

The topic of religion and violence is very much in vogue. Last week I attended a panel discussion on this topic, held at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. Last week also saw the publication of Karen Armstrong's latest book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (Bodley Head). And last week the author provided a gist of the book in an article in The Guardian.

Is religion is to blame for most of the bloodshed throughout human history? Many would concur, but this view is strongly countered by Armstrong, who is one of the world’s leading thinkers on religion.

This book is both an apology for religion and a history book, It aims at supplying the context of what may look like religiously motivated episodes of violence, in order to show that religion as such was not the prime cause. Armstrong admits from the onset that it is impossible to provide a clear answer to the question of what religion is.

Armstrong argues that in history there are many underlying social, economic, political reasons for war and violence and that violence often has little to do with religion. Instead, she celebrates the religious ideas and movements that have opposed war and aggression and promoted peace and reconciliation.

Her book is well summarized in the introductory remark (made by the editor, I assume) in The Guardian article : "The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple."

Since I do not yet have access to the book, which at 499 pages is massive and covers everything from the ancient period to the present, I am going to use her article to provide the gist of the argument that she develops at great length in the book.

Armstrong begins the article by describing the jihadists of the Islamic State who quote the Qur'an as they behead their hapless victims. Their actions are what prompts for her the question about the connection between religion and violence.

Many blame religion for these atrocities, as Richard Dawkins and others do, or take shelter in the concept of a liberal state that separates politics and religion, as most Westerners do, And all of them question the attachment of Muslims to theocracy and their reluctance to enter the modern world.

Armstrong, however, poses another question:
But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.
According to her, history shows that for the longest time there was no coherent way to divide religious causes from social causes:
Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began.
Parenthetically, I should add, that for Muslims, as indeed throughout much of the world, religion still permeates all human human activities. The west, however, has left a legacy separating religion from the rest of life.

She points especially to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the European wars of religion. It was the European wars, in the 16th and 17th centuries, that helped create "the myth of religious violence." They also led to a new understanding of religion and the development of the separation of church and state.

Next Armstrong traces the development of the liberal state, starting with philosophers such as John Locke, for whom the separation of religion and politics was evident in nature. She is merciless in her description of the pioneers of secularism as intolerant not only of religion but also of non-Europeans.

Secularism led to the disestablishment of churches in North America, which was achieved with relative ease, but in France required the confiscation of church property, the slaughter of priests, and the replacement of traditional religion with a newly invented one by the revolutionaries.

Similarly, in Germany, under the urging of  Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the nation replaced God; people would die for their nation, but not for their religion. The development of the nation-state was paired with a concept of tolerance that permitted everyone, including religious outsiders, to be incorporated.

But this tolerance was only skin-deep, Armstrong claims. In Europe it gave birth to antisemitism and in the US to calls for the extermination of the native peoples. Here she points to Thomas Jefferson.

When secularism was introduced in the developing world it was seen as disruptive and rejected a a foreign import. Fundamentalism, which exists in a symbiotic relationship with secularism, is rooted in a fear of annihilation, she explains.

Armstrong points to the example of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, who epitomizes the cruelty of secular nationalism. Among other things, he abolished the caliphate. Today the Islamic State is seeking to reverse this decision by reintroducing the caliphate.

Armstrong concludes the article by examining fundamentalism further as a reaction to secularism:
After a bumpy beginning, secularism has undoubtedly been valuable to the west, but we would be wrong to regard it as a universal law. It emerged as a particular and unique feature of the historical process in Europe; it was an evolutionary adaptation to a very specific set of circumstances. In a different environment, modernity may well take other forms. Many secular thinkers now regard “religion” as inherently belligerent and intolerant, and an irrational, backward and violent “other” to the peaceable and humane liberal state – an attitude with an unfortunate echo of the colonialist view of indigenous peoples as hopelessly “primitive”, mired in their benighted religious beliefs. There are consequences to our failure to understand that our secularism, and its understanding of the role of religion, is exceptional. When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction – and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.

While I have been necessarily selective in my discussion of Armstrong's argument, I hope that I have captured enough of her lengthy historical analysis to do justice to it or at least share the flavor of it. However, I have refrained from critiquing Armstrong. That I will to the reviewers of the book.

My purpose is simply to provide a brief description of her argument. The book -- to judge by her own summary in the article -- is an impressive piece of historical scholarship. One does not have to agree with all her claims to be able to recognize her thorough grasp of the history of religion.

This is above all a much-needed defense of religion in an age when people like Dawkins continue to attack religion as promoting violence, and secularism reigns supreme, at least in the west. Armstrong has made an important contribution to the ongoing debate on religion and violence.

For this reason, I want to suggest this book for those who want to immerse themselves further in this topic. Those who have less time or interest may just make due with Armstrong's article.

This posting is merely the first in a series on religion and violence. Next time I want to examine religious extremism and those who use religion to justify their extremism.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to deal with climate change (more) effectively

The United Nations Climate Summit on September 23 was an important step in dealing with climate change. With more than 120 world leaders in attendance, it may yet prove to have been a major step or even a turning point in the long process of dealing with climate change.

The attendance at this summit alone is a significant step in the international community's recognition of the problem. Many countries have for too long denied human-driven climate change and have thus refused to acknowledge its urgency.

Even before the summit began people in cities all over the world marched and called upon the leaders of the world's governments and businesses to take immediate action. In New York City an estimated 300,000 took to the streets. This is the largest crowd ever demanding action and a marked change in the world's attitude to this enormous environmental concern.

This summit was called by the Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the UN. In his opening remarks he said, "Today we must set the world on a new course. Climate change is the defining issue of our age. It is defining our present. Our response will define our future."

According to Ban, part of that response should be a reduction in carbon emissions in order to limit global temperature rises to under two degrees Celsius as many nations have already agreed to. But that goal set in 2009 is unlikely to be met within the next thirty years.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Can films help to change the world?

A change of pace this week as I reflect on five films that I viewed recently. All are powerful expressions of a unique art form and all have a political aspect even though that may not always be their primary theme.

Can films help to change the world? This question was prompted by watching several films at the Toronto International Film Festival recently. Watching these films was a first for my wife and I at TIFF, which is now one of the premier film festivals in the world.

These films we were all in TIFF's Contemporary World Speakers series. This series included not just viewing films but also a Q & A afterward with the director or actors, as well as a speaker from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto because of the international character of the films.

We had bought tickets for the five films in the series, but at the time we did not know either which films or on which date they would be shown. All the films, as we discovered, were very powerful, even if not all of them could be classified as equally great.

Two films were set in Iran, one in Australia, one in Germany and Belgium, and one in Israel. All made an enormous impact on audiences, and will no doubt have had or will have a large impact in their home countries as well as other counties around the globe. Some films had world premieres.

TIFF does not award prizes the way that Cannes, Venice and other film festivals do, although several films, in various categories, are selected every year for TIFF's People's Choice awards,

The first film in the series, Red Rose, was made on a shoe-string budget, yet is extremely powerful. Perhaps, with a bigger budget, it might have become a greater film.

This film prompted me to ask the director afterward the Q & A what impact the film would have in Iran, where the film is set. She explained that it is still not allowed to be screened there because of its highly political nature. The two main actors, whom I also spoke to, live outside of Iran and cannot return to their native land because of their political views.

The film tells the story of a twenty-something activist who during student protests surrounding the 2009 elections in Iran has an affair with a fifty-year old man who is hiding in his apartment. He had participated in earlier protests and is therefore afraid of any further involvement. At the end of the film he is arrested.

What was surprising, at least to us and most Western audiences, was the open sexuality that was displayed in the film. This contrasts sharply with the image that most people have of the Middle East. Yet the sex is only a sub-text for the political discussions that the two engage in during the film.

This was also the film that motivated me to consider the question: Can films help to change the world? But other films in the series later prompted the same question, which is why I am writing this post.

More than 300 films were screened during TIFF. The five films we viewed were only a drop in the bucket and probably not even the most outstanding ones, at least to judge by the awards.

Charlie's Country tells the story of an aged Australian Aborigene named Charlie who journeys into the Outback to live the life of his ancestors,

Government intervention in his culture's traditional way of life has left many aboriginals, Charlie included, feeling powerless to control their destinies. When his gun and spear are confiscated, leaving him nothing to hunt with, Charlie defiantly heads into the bush to live in the old way.

Charlie's story is universal, in the sense that aboriginal people everywhere can recognize themselves and their situation in what happens to him in this film. It should be an eye-opener to non-aboriginal people. The acting is superb and helps to make this drama real and relevant in many countries, the US and Canada included.

Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is set in Israel. It is the story of a woman who spends five years trying to get a divorce from her cruel and manipulative husband. He refuses to grant a Get, the bill of divorce that only a man can give.

Viviane is effectively put on trial by her country's marital laws. Marriage and divorce in Israel are both controlled by Orthodox rabbis, who not surprisingly want to preserve the integrity of Jewish families. The power of the Orthodox in Israel is illustrated in their monopoly on religious divorce. Those, like Viviane, who were married by rabbis had to go to the rabbinical courts. Only recently has civil divorce become possible, but it is already widely recognized.

In this film, Viviane finally wins a divorce, but not before her husband exacts a promise from her that she will never get married again. He remains manipulative to the end.

The action of the film is limited to a small courtroom, which serves as a metaphor for Viviane's trapped situation. The acting again makes this film riveting and spell-binding. It is also infuriating because of her situation.

The fourth film was a German production called Tour de Force about several friends who make an annual bike trip throughout Europe. This year the choice of where to go falls on Hannes who has chosen Belgium.

Only later during the trip does he reveal why he chose Belgium. They are going to Oostende, where Hannes intends to end his life. He has ALS and his health has suddenly declined. As required by Belgian law, he has already visited a doctor there who will will administer the fatal injection.

Unlike the other films in this series, this one is not political, but it concerns itself with the end-of-life question that is currently being debated in many countries. The Canadian province of Quebec has already passed such legislation, but it will probably be questioned by the Supreme Court of Canada. Only a handful of jurisdictions have legalized doctor-assisted suicide.

This film is incredibly funny. The humor makes the topic of the film more palatable. It shows the final moments of Hannes. It ends with his friends celebrating his life on the first anniversary of his death.

It is a moving film even if you cannot endorse his' decision to end his life. The director of the film in the Q & A suggested that Americans should look at the drug that is commonly used in Belgium so that the recent spate of botched executions in the US could be be avoided.

Finally, we watched yet another Iranian film, Tales, in which the director weaves together a series of vignettes about seven characters who are linked by their shared social, political and economic struggles.

The director draws together many of the concerns she addressed in her earlier films, In this film she shifts effortlessly between nightmarish suspense, forceful drama, bureaucratic satire, and even some unexpected comedy. This film is an inspiring paean to the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, which is perhaps is the primary key to its impact.

Truly one of the most powerful films in this series, it is both a microcosm of contemporary Iranian working-class society as well as a luminous portrait of human fallibility and virtue. This serves to make these vignettes universal.

All five films are extremely powerful. Yet they represent only a very small selection of the many films that were screened at TIFF this year. Obviously I could not view all of them. Five films in only four days was as much as my wife and I could manage. We had overdosed on serious films.

Can films help to change the world? My response after seeing these five films is affirmative. Film is a compelling medium that rivals and may even exceed the written word in the influence it can have. It involves both eyes and ears in a way that written cannot, since even though the latter make a strong appeal to the imagination they appeal only to the visual sense.

While too often films deal with the banal and are intended purely as entertainment, in the hands of experts they can stir up deeply buried emotions, challenge preconceived notions, and ultimately lead to changes, whether great or small, in the wider world.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Who won the war in Gaza?

An earlier version of this post somehow disappeared a few days ago as the result of a hectic weekend. I rewrote it, but it has now taken on an entirely different appearance, even if my conclusion is the same.

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate ceasefire, August 26, 2014

When a permanent ceasefire was announced on August 26, 2014, between Israel and the Palestinian resistance, Hamas immediately announced victory. Israel agreed to reopen Gaza's borders after 51 days and nights of relentless bombardment by Israel, which was in retaliation for the many missiles lobbed at it by the Palestinians.

While much of the world is happy that a lasting ceasefire has been agreed to and the war is over for the time being, there is nevertheless great concern about the casualties, especially on the Palestinian side. Yet can one properly speak about victory in this case?

This claim of Palestinian victory was echoed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which admitted, "What Netanyahu and his colleagues have brought down on Israel, in a conflict between the region’s strongest army and an organization numbering 10,000, is not just a defeat. It’s a downfall."

The same newspaper reported, "The Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel accepted on Tuesday did not deliver a single achievement [for Israel]."

In a poll in Israel after the Gaza war ended, 79 percent of respondents said they believed that Hamas won the war, three percent backed Israel and 17 percent said both sides were losers.

Palestinian losses during only the first seven days of the war

But can anyone speak of victory for the Palestinians when more than 2,100 people were killed, 11,000 were injured, 17,000 homes were destroyed, leaving more than 100,00 homeless, and countless lives were disrupted? It has been estimated that it will take about two or three decades to rebuild the infrastructure in Gaza, and this assumes that the new agreement to reopen the borders will remain in effect.

That is not victory; that is disaster. Palestine may have won a moral victory in the eyes of the world, but it has lost so many people and so many lives have been devastated that the victory is a phyrric one at best. I will argue that the Palestinians failed ethically, as did the Israelis.

Others have reported that Israel won the war. Hamas' missile attacks, which killed 69 Israelis -- of whom all except for four were soldiers -- have mercifully stopped, even though Gaza has not yet been demilitarized, which was Israel's ultimate goal.

For Israel, if victory is measured in the number of civilians an army kills and injures, or the number of homes, hospitals, mosques or schools it destroys, Israel is the clear champion. By that measurement, the US won the war in Vietnam.

But in terms of the political and strategic balance sheet that will determine future relations between Israel and the Palestinians, some have argued that Israel suffered a clear loss on the battlefield and internationally. Israel has not gained anything from the ceasefire.
This map dates from 2007, but many essential details are correct

The terms of the ceasefire do not mean a whole lot. This ceasefire is just a ceasefire. What matters ultimately is how the ceasefire is implemented and the results of the talks that are build on it.

There is a major, novel provision of the ceasefire deal, however, according to which the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, is expected to take over from Hamas responsibility for administering Gaza's borders. Israel and Egypt now hope that the PA will be able to ensure that weapons, ammunition and any 'dual-use' goods are prevented from flowing into Gaza.

Therefore this ceasefire could be a huge deal for the PA, which has not had a major security presence in Gaza since Hamas kicked it out during the 2007 Palestinian civil war. Under this interpretation, the PA has won, while Hamas has lost. If there is a victor, it is the PA.

The war has weakened Hamas militarily and politically. Yet it is unclear if Israel and the PA are able or willing to take advantage of the opportunity. But if Hamas is able to rearm and rebuild its political legitimacy, then the war ill prove costly to Israelis and other Palestinians.

Wars do not always have clear victors. In fact, wars produce more losers than winners, especially if measured in human and monetary terms. The costs are so enormous that one wonders sometimes why there are so many wars.

The cover of The Economist dealing with the Gaza war

The "Just War" theory supposedly provides a justification for war. If the following conditions are met, a war is deemed to be justifiable (I am listing these principles here for the sake of convenience):
  • A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
  • A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
  • A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
  • A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
  • The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
  • The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
  • The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.
In the case of the war in Gaza, neither side followed these principles. If only for that reason, I would argue strongly that both sides lost the war. Even aside from the enormous human costs, both sides failed ethically. Thus this war deserves to be roundly condemned by the entire world, but that will not happen, of course.

The participants and their allies see things differently. However, from my perspective, both sides lost, even if factions within each may have made some gains.

My own position has evolved over many years from the "Just War" theory, which I would contend is no longer tenable in the 21st century, to the "Active Non-violence" position that was made famous by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. 

Rarely (I want to express myself very carefully) can a war be justified. Most wars are unjustifiable, The war in Gaza belongs in this group. Moreover, it was extremely expensive.

I am not an absolute pacifist, although I may seem to be such in the eyes of many, and even though I may have a difficult time explaining my position adequately to everyone. I invite your response.

Who won the war in Gaza? No one did.