Monday, February 23, 2015

At the gates of Vienna

300 year anniversary of the Defense of Vienna
against the Turks
Some years ago, I went to Spain and had a fabulous time in Andalusia, looking at the historical site where the Muslim world had its heyday.  I ran into two students from the Bellas Artes in Granada who were delighted to show me around and got an insider’s tour of Alhambra and other fascinating places.  One of them had a very poetic nature.  “Antes que vinieron los cat√≥licos…” he kept saying.  “Before the Catholics came…”  A very romantic view of happy days gone by.  “You would knock on the door and a servant would open it to you and say, ‘What do you require?’  You would say ‘a meal and a place to sleep,’ and they would say, ‘Come in and take a bath and I will call you when the evening meal is ready.’

“Then the Catholics came,” he continued.  “They chased the Muslims out, and taught us it was bad to take a bath because we would have to get naked first.  The Muslims are all gone now, and the Catholics have taught us to stink.”

I’ll always remember Granada, not just for the Alhambra, but for that phrase, “it was the Catholics who taught us to stink.”  The guy wasn’t just a clueless romantic.  He was a gay man and had it in for the Catholic Church and its claim to be a moral leader, a sine qua non of morality, when in fact it is the source of a vicious mindset which for centuries has caused grief for women and gay people.  Its power has greatly receded in the past few decades, at least in Europe and America, and one can be grateful for that.

I remember another chance meeting, years before that one in Granada.  I was a student in Munich and had hitchhiked to Vienna – I had no money in those days, but Europe was a wonderful place for students.  At the youth hostel where I was staying was an old man in his 80s who hung around and offered his services to anybody who would buy him lunch.  Today he would probably be labeled a suspicious character.  Then, he was seen as a marvelous source of historical information.   Several of us at the hostel pooled our spare change and he walked with us around Vienna with the same mindset as the art student from Granada.  “Back then, there were heros in the land.”  Only his heros were not Muslims who compared favorably with los cat√≥licos, but the other way around.  It was the power of the Church that held out against the Ottoman Army.  It was in Vienna, he declared proudly, where the Ottoman Empire began its decline.  For over a century, beginning in 1529, the Ottomans had tried to extend their control over Europe.  They were defeated, finally, in 1683 at the Battle of Kahlenberg, when the Christians joined forces for the first time, the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish/Lithuanian Holy League, against the Turks.  And Europe was free.  Or so the narrative goes from the Christian European perspective.

And now we’re living in the Brave New World where some speak of a new “Clash of Civilizations” between Christians and Muslims, and others, including me, reject that framing of what’s going on and insist it’s a clash between those who think and those who surrender to a religious ideology and fanatics who claim to speak for God.  I’ve been blogging lately about the struggle over how to frame Islam.  Is it a religion (and is religion a good thing?) that is being warped and twisted for nefarious purposes?  Or is it an ideology of the bronze age which we have failed to recognize for its potential to do great harm?  And if you take the latter stance, you have to ask what exactly happened to Christianity and Judaism, both of which are grounded in the same – or very similar – ideologies?

In that interview Hamed Abdel-Samad had with Peter Huemer in Vienna which I translated there is a moment when Hamed makes reference to the fact that right there in Vienna there is a “Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.”  Its full name is the “King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.”  I didn’t pay much attention at the time to what Hamed said about it, but in this morning’s Independent, there is an article on the center which reveals that the Austrian government is having second thoughts about having established the center.

Hamed commented in that interview:
 We are sitting here in Austria in this wonderful center for international dialogue built with money from King Abdullah – interreligious dialogue! – and we get all excited when IS cuts off the heads of people.  How many of you know that in the last weeks when we were occupied with the beheadings by the IS that Saudi Arabia beheaded nineteen people?   You don’t know that.  Or only a very few of you.   Do you know that my friend Raif Badawi, a very nice blogger, was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and a thousand lashes of the whip and a fine of 260,000 euros because he blogged something critical about Islam?  And we sit here, with representatives of the Saudi government and have “interreligious dialogues.”  How nice!  How nice! 
According to the Independent article, “(a) government-commissioned report demanded the centre’s ‘withdrawal from Vienna’ unless it starts criticising the Saudi government.”

I wonder what that guide at the Youth Hostel back in 1961 would say of this brave new world’s very different kind of interaction between religious organizations going on in Vienna today.

Katha Pollitt has a sardonic article on King Abdullah – “Why I Heart King Abdullah” in the most recent Nation (February 23, 2015).  She starts off by citing Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey who trained Abdullah’s troops and found the king to be “a man of remarkable character and courage.”  He’s not alone.  David Cameron loved his “commitment to ‘peace and prosperity.’”  John Kerry called him “a man of wisdom and vision.”  Barack Obama had a “genuine and warm friendship” with the man.  Realpoliticians all.   Even Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, is quoted as saying, “He was a great leader, and in a discreet way, was a strong advocate of women…”

What incredible bullshit.  What total unimaginable bullshit.  All to keep the international order in tact.  The oil money managed.  The balance of power against Iran, and now ISIS.

Who am I to argue those smart people who run the world should not make alliances that serve long-term interests of the United States?   As they see them, that is.   They do call the shots, in any case, those people who launched a war in Iraq and set civilization (and the American economy) back a decade or more.  But, as Katha Pollitt - and Hamed Abdel-Samad - point out, there is a cost.  Pollitt mentions the case of the imam who raped and murdered his five-year-old daughter because he thought she wasn’t a virgin.  Got five months in prison.  And the religious police who forced schoolgirls back into a burning building to die because they were not properly covered as they fled. Got off scot free.

So the realpolitik of supporting fundamentalist Islam has its costs.  The Saudis don’t call it fundamentalist Islam; they call it "true" Islam and they call themselves the keepers of the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina.  We don't have any control over what they call it, but we can at least be clear in our thinking about what we call it.  Sometimes you have to choose the lesser evil, you say?

Like when you choose to let religion off the hook for death and destruction in the name of the Lord?

Nothing more than a reasonable cost of doing business?

Sure thing.

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