Friday, 29 July 2016

Fasting Against ISIS

I think there is more we can do to fight the scourge of Islamist terrorism than pray and fast, but
praying and fasting may certainly be the necessary conditions, just as keeping fit, hydrated and fed are the necessary conditions for going on a walking pilgrimage.  The French bishops have asked French Catholics to fast today--presumably as a sign of mourning. It would be brotherly if all Catholics who can fasted, too.


  1. Dear Dorothy
    I have read your writing on religious life, politics and literature with great pleasure for a long time. I am commenting today in the spirit of friendly exchange because I am troubled by the way in which Islamic terror is discussed by commentators, such as yourself, without any regard for recent history. Believe me, those of us who come from parts of the world (such as India) who have had to suffer bomb blasts in our cities for two decades now, have no interest in offering apologia for Islamist terror or terrorists. The trouble is if we do not pay attention to the geo-political machinations through which this form of violence has taken hold then we will never be able to move beyond it.
    You are a well-educated person and I don't presume to give you, or anyone else, history lessons. It is for that reason then I wonder why in your writings, and the writings of others in the blogosphere, there is never any mention of how, why and under whose protection and encouragement Wahhabi Islam has become what it has. Surely we are all aware that Wahabbi Islam is hated, most of all, by other Muslims. We know that the vast majority of the targets of this terrorism are Muslims: Shia muslims, Ahemadi muslims, Ismaili muslims and those practicing any variant of Sufi Islam. Even today it is ordinary Muslims who are fighting against this in their own communities and suffering for it. We also know that this kind of suicide bombing is new: we can date it precisely to at most 51-20 years ago. So what happened then in this recent past?
    The bald facts are that western powers, the USA, Britain and Russia, have installed, and supported, bankrupt regimes across the middle-East from Lebanon, to Syria, to Iraq to Saudi Arabia. Till they attacked Saddam Hussain in 1990, he was the darling of the British and American governments. The same is true of Assad. Syrian refugees flooding Europe are a direct consequence of US policy that bolstered and armed Assad while he tortured detainees for the CIA.
    Is there any recognition in the west of how deeply implicated are the actions of your own governments in creating this mess? Instead it is much easier to claim there is something about Islam which produces jihadi terror. The problem is not Islam. The problem is that geo-political games by successive western governments arming and training and funding terrorist groups has now resulted in a situation where the official ideaology of the Saudis (the unquestioned ally of the west) has been taken up by renegade groups. The genie is out of the bottle and it seems that it will consume not just those people the west doesn't care about (such as the Iraqis who are being massacred on a daily basis), but also targets western populations.
    For the rest of us watching from parts of the world where we have had to deal with this with much more devastating consequences, the ostrich-like attitude of the western public strikes us as hollow. Why do you not hold your own governments, and allies, responsible for floating terrorist groups from Turkey to Syria to Afghanistan to Iraq? Till the invasion of Iraq, and the complete destruction of any semblance of a society, not one suicide bombing had occurred in that country.
    Without an honest conversation we can continue in this vein: wail about terror, and demonize 'Islam' and never move forward. Did ISIS come out of nowhere? ISIS is the latest incarnation of terror groups created by the US in its war against Russia, and continuing games with Iran. We know this. So why then does this understanding never inform how you write about terrorism? Instead you attack 'Islam'.
    I have no interest in picking fights. There is terrible stuff going on in the world and we are all trying to find a way out. Those killed in the brutal attack in Dhaka were close friends of friends of mine. This violence is not far away from us; it is intimate and close. I am commenting because if we don't think about recent history we will be condemned to continuously repeat it.

  2. Thank you for your posts! It deserves a lot of thought and answers by people more knowledgeable than me.

    The first things I can think of is that westerners do know to a certain extent how much our politicians are to blame for the outrageous situation in the Middle East, but are unsure what we can do, either to fix their mistakes or to keep new leaders from making new ones. At least as a Canadian, I take some comfort that my country was not dragged along with the USA and the UK in the invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, Tony Blair is now an utterly despised figure in the UK. Many Britons want to see him tried as a war criminal.

    We also know that the roots of Taliban are the mujahideen of Afghanistan who were certainly supported by the USA against the Soviet Union. It would seem that then, as now, politicians went for "quick fix" solutions without considering what this would mean in the future.

    Also, I am glad you mention indigenous forms of Islam. Often when westerners talk about Islam, they are thinking only of Wahaabism. Certainly as a traditionalist Catholic, I carry no brief for any form of Islam, but I recognize that Islamic terrorists are happy to kill anyone they think are not true Muslims. An Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow was brutally and horribly murdered recently by a Pakistani who travelled all the way from Bradford to kill him. He had been inspired by Mumtaz Qadri.

    The UK--or, rather, England--has a large migrant Pakistani population, so the inability or unwillingness of elements of this population (or their children) to integrate into British life has become a concern. Films like "East is East" and "Bend it Like Beckham" illustrate how culturally the British have been determined to stamp out racism against South Asian migrants. However, contemporary incidents like the Rotherham scandal make it all too apparent that racism in the UK is a two-way street (or, since Britain is a multi-racial country with a large Central/Eastern European minority, a many-laned highway). This is a here-and-now problem that people in Britain have to address, just as France has to address the anger/disillusionment of elements of its Arab/North African population, and Germany has to address the anger/disillusionment of elements of its Turkish and now Middle Eastern communities.

    I personally cannot do anything about the CIA funding the Mujahideen in the 1980, the Syrian government or even whatever the Prime Ministers of Britain and Canada choose to do. What I can do--I hope--is write from the perspective of a migrant to Europe about what makes British, and European, culture great and not something to be dismissed by other migrants.

    Also, I come from one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and although I had to listen to a lot of "Canadian girls are sluts" and "Canadians have no culture" and "Canadians had no culture until we got here" remarks from children of immigrants while I was growing up, Canada has a lot of wisdom to offer about integrating immigrants into Canadian society. Of course, every decade, and every wave of immigration has brought new challenges to Canada. We too have suffered from terror plots and "lone wolf" jihadists--although not, thank God, from the large casualties of 7/7 in London and the Bataclan massacre in Paris.

    One last point: when I write about Islamist terrorism, I do not flat out condemn Muslims or Muslim popular piety, but Islam-ISM and Islam-ISTS by which I mean to stress the political aspects of the religio-philosophy.

    I am curious about your email address. You speak of "your governments", and yet you are at Columbia University in Washington, D.C.?

    Finally, I am very sorry about your friends. My husband knew a girl who was killed on 7/7, but they weren't close friends or anything like that.

    1. Oh sorry. It seems that Columbia University is in New York City. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about American geography, etc. I've never been to New York City, either.

  3. I am an international student in Columbia university. I came to America for graduate school on a scholarship, taught as part of my fellowship and once my P.hD is done I will presumably go back to India.

    The question of how to absorb migrants into the host culture is a difficult one, but again I would like to stress, that it is only recently that these internal negotiations have taken this form. Migration to Europe is not a new phenomenon, but migrants attacking the populations of host countries is a recent thing is it not? So again, why is this happening now? That is all I am drawing attention to. You see we cannot solve this unless we face, very clearly and head on, our own complicity in creating this situation.

    In India we have a far-right Hindu government in power which is making life very difficult for minority communities like Christians and Muslims, communities that have existed in India for centuries. Some of the earliest and oldest Christian communities in the world are in India, such as the Mar Thoma Church established in the 1st century of the common era. Now, as a Hindu Indian, am I going to demand that Indian Christians not slaughter cows? Of course not. There will always be negotiation when people are trying to find ways of living together.

    But this is separate from the question of terrorism: Wahabi ideaology, though it does not appear so to western eyes, is a highly unpopular, hated and reviled ideaology across the Muslim world. In Afghanistan today you cannot use the word Wahabi in public. It is because it is so hated by the vast majority of Muslims, because it is considered a bizarre right-wing foreign ideaology with no grounding or linkage to any living traditions of Islam, that its spread is directly linked to Saudi petro dollars. The day the Saudi Arabian dictatorship falls, Wahabism will lose its economic and ideaological center.

    I realise that the intricacies of variants of Islam, their history and culture seems like a far away thing for most westerners. But the fate of the people fighting to save their communities and ways of life across south-Asia and the middle-east, Muslims, are now directly connected to the fate of Europe. And while the tragedies in Nice and Paris and London and New York are horrifying, these are actually a terrible and tragic side-show to the real battle occurring in those parts of the world which seem very far away. Even if terrorism is somehow stamped out, which it will not be unless something changes dramatically in American foreign policy and I see no prospect of that any time soon, we will still be left with trying to repair and salvage cultural traditions that have been so deeply ravaged by Wahabism. And this destruction has happened, I'm sorry to speak so frankly, because for 3 decades and more, western geo-political strategy has pursued its own ends without any regards for what it is creating.

  4. What do you recommend the ordinary western person--particularly one who does not live in the USA--do, in that case? This is a serious question. Short of churning out essays on what is beautiful about Britain and glorious about France, etc., in the hopes that they might somehow reach the minds of unhappy teenager, and giving money to charities that help Middle Eastern Christians, and encouraging others to do so, I do not know what to do. Nobody voted for the current British Prime Minister, you may have noticed.

    The variants of Islam may seem like a far away thing for many westerners, but I assure you that I pass Edinburgh Central Mosque quite frequently, so it does not seem like a far away thing for me. Also, if there is a massacre during the Edinburgh International Festival, it will not be a sideshow but an unthinkable tragedy to my community--and to my family, should I be one of the hurt or maimed. I don't want to get into a "who is suffering the most" body count, but "side-show" is not a word you ever want to use to describe real people who have been tortured, mutilated or murdered.

    Meanwhile, I do not believe American foreign policy rules the world. It is tempting to think this, especially when you live in the USA, but I suspect its day is done. (What is the American deficit today, this hour? $19,000,000,000,000?) I remember in Boston listening with disbelief to an American classmate wailing that "we have to do something about Darfur". Who was we, I wondered. And what was that something? And why did "we" "have" to do it? I suppose if I were on the ball I could have asked "What are YOU going to do about Darfur?" And I suppose I could ask you, what are YOU going to do about western geo-political strategy?

    You see, people write articles and blogs, and people repeat ideas, and people confront people for not having the same ideas, and people place blame on George W. Bush or Tony Blair or Edward Heath, but all that doesn't interest me as much as what I personally can do to stop a British (or French or German) resident from maiming or killing other British (or French or German) resident.

    No doubt this makes me akin to teenage jihadis living in Europe, in a way, as they are definitely taking it upon themselves, personally,to influence western geo-political strategy. Come to think of it, I wrote a novel on this very topic.

  5. This is a very good question. And I do not have any easy answers: I am, like you, an ordinary person trying to make sense of what is happening in the world. I did not mean to slight deaths that have occurred in Paris and elsewhere. "Side-show" was a poor word choice, I apologize. What I meant by it was not to rack up a body-count but to say that the daily violence of ISIS is being borne by the very people who are currently being demonized: for every one Syrian refugee who turns out to be an attacker, there are millions and millions of people feeling war and terror because of what has happened to their region as a result of US foreign policy.
    We are caught right now in a cycle of violence about which private citizens can do little except hope that they are able to keep those they know safe. We are paying the price for decisions that most of us were not party to. But now that we are in it, we can think about what sort of world we would wish to build. Most importantly, British citizens can demand that their government stop assisting the US in its murderous expeditions. After all the UK is the closest ally of the US with a "special relationship" and has supported and sent troops from the first gulf war onwards. This includes not just participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but also participation in the extraordinary renditions programme whereby persons were picked up, tortured and held without charge for years in Guantanamo. Many of these persons, from countries as far away as Zambia and Morocco, were captured by British intelligence and handed over to American authorities so they could be sent to lackey countries like Syria and tortured. The UK conducted drone strikes across Afghanistan and Waziristan in concert with American troops, so for many people there is no real distinction between British and American foreign policy. If we truly want this to stop, all private citizens have to hold their own governments accountable. We have to educate ourselves because we have no other choice.
    What I do to deal with US geo-political strategy, in the context of my own country, is to not allow my current right-wing government to point to the specter of Islamist terror to justify attacks on Muslims at home. What I do, as a teacher, is keep stressing to my students, over and over again, the relationships between domestic policy, foreign policy and their impacts and consequences. I show my students what is happening in India as a result of a right-wing Hindu majoritarian ideaology. I show them that the division between western civilization and Islam is a recent one: indeed many of the Greek texts that now constitute the western canon found their way into Latin translation via the work of Arab logicians and translators. For centuries Jewish, Islamic and Christian philosophers and theologians were engaged in a lively exchange. I try and show them that the history of the modern west, its intellectual and philosophical heritage, is deeply interwoven with the history of Islam. I show them that to portray India as a "hindu" country with a "classical hindu tradition", is a false characterization. That we cannot think of India's history or traditions separate from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and countless other traditions. This is not "multiculturalism". It is a recognition of how deeply marked those things we consider to be our own are by the traditions of others. And nor is this just an academic exercise since the consequences of creating monolithic visions of history and culture are playing out around us. After all, would an Indian today say English is not an Indian language? We wouldn't despite the colonial history through which it arrived. Likewise, migrants to the UK may learn English, but it might also happen that over time other languages become national languages in the United Kingdom: half of Africa speaks French. I try and tell my students not to fear this.

    1. As someone who lectures at Columbia, you certainly have an audience. And your ideas are certainly not going to get you into trouble in the Senior Common Room--unless, of course, there are right-wing Hindu nationalists in it. (I imagine there are much more likely to be right-wing Hindu nationalists than right-wing Christian nationalists in the Columbia JCR.) They remind me of syncretist elements of South Asian Christian theology. I was told at BC that Indian culture in general (although obviously not among right-wing Hindu gangs) is very open to syncretism. I felt that such theologians embraced syncretism as a compromise that would reduce tensions and violence. Meanwhile, given the Mughals dominance over parts of India (and about this I know almost nothing, I admit), I am perfectly willing to believe that various schools of Islam have had strong influences in India. However, this is not as easy to believe in Europe, which has a long history--especially on the fringes--of resisting (or in some cases, capitulating to) Islamic domination. Every country/nation has its own history of this, of course.

      Again without wanting to argue for any stream of Islamic thought, I do have sympathy for centuries- old, indigenous (or almost indigenous) Islamic communities, particularly in Europe (as I am arguably a European and, thanks to natural law, care more about people closer to me than those farther). One of the arguments against accepting Muslim refugees to Poland is the conflict suffered by Poland's Muslim Tartar community thanks to Muslim foreigners with their own ideas about what "True Islam" is.

      Cont'd below)

    2. Part 2

      This leads me to my next point, which is it seems that Muslims need to stop saying "That boy couldn't have been a Muslim; a Muslim wouldn't kill even a cat" or "Ahmadis aren't real Muslims", etc, etc, etc. There seems to be a "shoulder-to-shoulder" approach when dealing with Western media, but it isn't ringing true to Western audiences. Why don't Muslims take out billboards condemning Wahabists? The only thing I have seen close to that was a poster along the side of an Edinburgh bus crying out for peace. It was sponsored by Scottish Ahmadis who, I understand, are here because they fled religious persecution in Pakistan.

      This is what makes the murder of that Glasgow shopkeeper so horrible. He fled the violence of Pakistan, but the violence of Pakistan came to him in Glasgow. Glasgow is no stranger to religious hatreds (au contraire), but that really shocked the stuffing out of Scotland.

      Have you read Houllebecque's novel "Soumission"? I would be interested in your take on it. It's not the kind of book I would recommend to modest young girls, but as a scholar who lectures students on Islam, you should certainly find it interesting.

      (Cont'd below)

    3. Part 3

      As for English, India really lucked out that English became the lingua franca of the 20th and 21st centuries. I have argued that English should not have been made the official language of the Asian Catholic Bishops, as this gave Indian and Filipino theologians an unfair advantage over the Koreans and Japanese.

      It is very unsettling to live in a monolingual community that becomes multi-lingual overnight. I read a lot about languages, and I understand that it is normal in India for people to speak several different languages, however badly, depending on who they are speaking to. This, however, is not not normal for the greater part of the UK. (The Welsh, of course, speak both Welsh and English, and there is a small Gaelic-speaking minority in Scotland.) English-speaking people, in general, feel uncomfortable when they are no longer able to understand--for example--signage. (I read an interesting article by a thoughtful English journalist who had never been troubled by the large influx of South Asians--who seemed to her, as sharers in the history of the British Empire,thoroughly British--but finally felt like a stranger in her native London because of the Poles. The last straw was Polish shop signs--which I completely understand, as the mix of Korean and Persian signs in my parents' once bucolic neighbourhood drive me nuts.) Had she asked me, I would have recommended that she learn enough Polish to read the signs. My attitude towards the bullying children of Italian migrants to my neighbourhood was transformed when I studied Italian in high school. (Naturally I still think they were mean, but I feel interested, not excluded, when I hear loud Italian conversations on buses.)

      The national languages of the UK include Welsh, Cornish, Scottish Gaelic and possibly Irish in the North of Ireland, although I doubt anyone in Ulster speaks it as a native tongue. (There are also a number of dialects.) Practically, however, the most widely spoken language in the UK after English (and, in Wales, after Welsh) is Polish. Polish is fiendishly difficult for anglophones to learn. I confidently predict that it will NOT become a national language but, as in Canada and the USA, merely spoken at home, in Polish shops and in Polish-dominated workplaces (like, currently, restaurant kitchens) by ethnic Poles.

    4. Here's a "Guardian" article on the impact of the murder of Father Hamel on the French. If you don't know it, the "Guardian" is a British left-wing paper held to be highly respectable by academics throughout the anglosphere.

  6. Placing all of the blame on the US strikes me as just much an oversimplification as as placing it all on Islam.

  7. I have most certainly gotten into trouble for my views in India :) Thats ok, I consider it part of my job to save our country from the right-wing fascists who are currently in power.
    Islam came to India within the first century of its emergence: around the 7th century, over 800 years before the Mughals. The Mughals were an Imperial state: like medieval Christendom in Europe, Islam was the Imperial religion of the Mughal empire. It is certainly impossible to think of the history of India without the Mughal empire, but we would not collapse, or associate the history of Islam in India with the Mughal empire.
    Again this is something you would know much more about than me: but what I meant by the history of Europe is entangled with the history of Islam is not just the fact that there was a continous flow of ideas, translations and concepts between say Islamic spain, or the medeieval trade nodes of Sicily; but also that many Christian communities existed in the Ottoman lands. The trouble is that we often extrapolate back modern categories of 'tolerance' 'freedom' etc that do not make much sense for how the relationship between religion, politics, and rule was conceived in the Medieval world. So, one of the enduring debates in India today is that 'Muslim' rulers destroyed 'Hindu' temples to build mosques. Certainly they did. Except that more Hindu temples were destroyed by conquering Hindu rulers than by Muslims to build new Hindu temples. During a period where the modern secular distinction between 'state' and 'religion' did not exist, and religion was a fully political thing, i.e. it was a means by which temporal authority established and legitimized itself, destroying the temples of the earlier ruler to build new ones was a means of marking a change in who was boss. In modern India the destruction of Hindu temples is deployed to paint Islam as a foreign religion into 'Hindu' India, however this is a very modern notion, in the service of a political project to paint India as having always been a land of 'Hindus' which is just not true. I suspect this is also true of the destruction of Churches and Mosques in medieval Europe. Not that christianity is not the dominant religion of Europe, again you would know this history much better than me, but that for the periods were are talking about the sharp distinctions we now draw in the modern period between religions were much more blurry, if not in terms of doctrine, then certainly as regards shared cultural practices, symbols, art. Think of Islamic spain for instance. You are right, I suppose I am much more comfortable with the notion that the cultural and traditional life of a society comprises a universe of values and practices which are not located in any one source but derive from a deeply interconnected set of traditions and beliefs. I guess as an Indian this is a basic fact of the kind of society I live in; this is what India is. I went to convent schools and was taught by nuns for much of my life. And I am very grateful for it.

  8. Yes, I can well believe you get into trouble in India for your views! Personally, I do not think I would last a week in a theology department at Columbia, if they have such a thing. I don't know anything, really, about the Mughals, except that they were important for Indian history and architecture. However, I do know that there has always been a separation, however tenuous it may seem, between the church and state in Christianity (also called the temporal and spiritual spheres). The pope's role as ruler over the papal states (when he still had them) was separate from his role as Vicar of Christ. Naturally (for Europe) rulers were almost always Christians themselves. The Americans take "separation of church and state" to an extreme level when it comes to schools, etc. Britain has a state religion, but this has been rather ceremonial for some time. The Church of England bishops are, however, in the House of Lords, where presumably they have some influence, which would be unthinkable in the USA.

    Yes, missionary priests and sisters (properly speaking, nuns are cloistered and so don't teach non-nuns) did establish great schools in India, didn't they? I am sure your teachers would be very proud that you are doing your PhD at Columbia. I am sure too that they they are happy you are thinking and writing against religious extremism. When Catholic sisters are attacked by Hindu extremists, we most definitely find out about it in the West.