1. Weasel
    George Stephanopolous did a pretty good job yesterday of holding Indiana Governor Mike Pence's feet to the fire.  And Pence did a pretty good job of playing the weasel.

    I think I just made an understatement.  You sort of expect politicians to be weasels, but every once in a while a four-ply, government-inspected, no-doubt-about-it, honest-to-goodness political weasel will come by and redefine the weasel category.

    Watch the interview.  It’s only 12 some minutes long.   The piece starts out with Pence claiming Indiana’s new “Religious Freedom” law has nothing to do with discrimination.  “… (I)f I thought it was about discrimination, I would have vetoed it,” he says.

    You have to laugh sometimes when politicians go this far into the red pants-on-fire liar zone. You wonder how anybody can survive the headaches that must come with being so brazen.

    What Pence is doing, of course, is what George Lakoff has been trying for years to get democrats to do – grab hold of the narrative and make your opponents tell the story according to your framework.  By labeling his bigotry “religious freedom” he gets the non-critical religious right – his kind of folk – to see him in heroic terms.  Looking out for their interests.

    What’s going on here is a direct nose-to-nose confrontation between civil rights and the right of a religious group to claim their God is behind them in their disapproval of somebody.  Christians did it when slavery was in harmony with the spirit of the times.  They did it when keeping Jews out of country clubs was simple Episcopalian common sense.  They do it today when radical lefty pastors open the church to the homeless and they can’t get the stink out of the pews so they put pressure on the pastor to stop.  All well and good to turn the other cheek, give your coat to the guy who asks for your jacket, and walk two miles when he asks you to keep him company for only one.  Just so long as it doesn’t burst your comfort zone.

    There is terrible nastiness in religious scriptures.  Parts of the Qur’an the Islamicists use to justify their brutality.  Parts of the Gospels that Martin Luther and all sorts of Christians before and after him used to justify blaming the Jews for the ills of the world.  Parts of the Old Testament that encourage genocide and smashing the heads of small children against the rocks.  And parts that many Christians use to this day to justify keeping women subordinate to men and gays on a permanent sinner shit list they can get off of only if they give up any hope of a satisfying sex life, including one with a loving partner for life.

    We live with taboos.  One of those taboos is that we must never criticize what is in the Bible or the Qur’an.  We must honor religion.  It’s a social requirement.  Although the number of atheists is on the increase, it’s still a good way to flunk a job interview to let it be known you don’t believe these Bronze Age texts are definitive.  And a certain way to lose an election.  This country is still cursed by religion, and despite our separation of church and state we have the unwritten rule that this includes never telling anybody their religion sucks.  Even if you make plain it's only some particularly wacko misinterpretation of their religion you're going on about. Nice people, we are told, don't say things like that. And I know my rights, they say.  Your freedom of speech is OK as long as it doesn't make me feel bad.  And my freedom to believe nonsense entitles me to cross the church/state line and make laws affecting you and frame it as freedom of religion.  What a royal pain in the ass these religionists can be.

    That’s why Mike Pence can make a fool of himself on national television refusing to admit that the new law in Indiana will prevent LGBT people from getting equal treatment.  He knows the religious right, which is very much in control of his party and his section of the country, will not worry about his prevarications.  They are in what they consider a good cause.

    One can only hope reason will ultimately prevail and this is merely a bump in the road to the still elusive goal of equality in America.

    picture credit: http://media.washtimes.com.s3.amazonaws.com/media/image/2014/07/27/7_272014_ap9366833150848201.jpg  (The caption "weasel" is mine - and not part of the source material)


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  2. I’m still trying to get my head around the anti-gay legislation that passed a couple weeks ago in Arkansas. 

    A quick history.  Fayetteville, where the University of Arkansas is located, passed an anti-discrimination ordinance last August 19.  Almost immediately, money started pouring in from folks like the infamous Christian media family, the Duggars (“19 Kids and Counting”), to pay for a fear and loathing campaign.  Shades of the California Prop. 8 campaign, pushed particularly hard by the Mormons and Knights of Columbus.  In Arkansas, where evangelicals are the major homophobic force, the pitch was even dirtier.  According to Christian mama Michelle Duggar,

    I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls.  

    The law that was aimed to protect not just LGBT people, but other minorities as well, and not just the transgender people the religious right have now focused their particular loathing on, was repealed, 52 to 48.  

    Turns out that was only a warm-up.  Arkansas then went on to pass Arkansas Senate Bill 202, with the deliciously cynical name, “Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act.”  And how is commerce improved, you ask?  This bill, now law, prohibits any municipality in the state from passing a law protecting minorities specifically.  The argument?  Christians, whose religious rights are trampeled on when they are forced to serve gays and lesbians, would not want to settle in Arkansas with cumbersome laws like this, you see.  By protecting their right to discriminate, business can only flourish in the long run.

    It’s an idea whose time has come.  People are freaking out over the possibility that the Supreme Court may legalize same-sex marriage in all fifty states.  Once that happens, it will be hard to explain to your kids that you know gays are inferior because if they weren’t they would be allowed to get married and have their relationships recognized by the state.  No parent should have to explain that to their kids, right?  At least with this anti-pro-gay ordinance, you can assure your kids that you don’t have to worry about sitting next to one of them at a lunch counter.  Or be waited on by one of them.  Or if you do, and you don’t like the service, you can at least tell the restaurant owner and get his ass fired for being gay.

    And so other states are following Arkansas’s lead.  A similar ordinance, identical to the Arkansas law right down to the “Commerce protection” label, have been passed in West Virginia and Texas. 

    And if you are in the American majority and get your news from Fox or CNN, you can be excused for not knowing about this.  Neither network covered the news.  MSNBC did, but they are part of the lamestream media and only hardliner lefties listen to them anyway.

    This too shall pass.  It’s merely a bump in the road.  A reminder that gay liberation is a long hard slog and there will be many more setbacks before equal rights and gay dignity are universal values.

    I have finally begun to tackle my out-of-control personal files of several decades of old stuff.  I’ve got utility and phone bills back to the 80s and that’s just for starters.  So I’m trying to get ruthless and clean.  It isn’t easy.

    I keep coming across things I just don’t want to throw away.  Like this letter I wrote to an unknown student some twenty-two years ago.  I was teaching in an English program at Keio University in Japan and we were reorganizing the courses.  We put the word out that we wanted student input for workshops we might offer, hoping to get a sense of the kinds of things students were interested in talking about.  My colleague, Yoshiko Takahashi, came to me in some distress over a letter she got from one of her students.  “I just don’t know how to respond to this!” she said.  I told her I would take care of it.  Here’s my response:

    To the Student in Professor Takahashi’s class who is afraid of gays:
     I have just seen your response to the request for new workshops.  On that response sheet, you have written that you would like a workshop to teach people how to “escape from gays.”  You included my name, in parentheses, as an example of one of the people in that category.
     I don’t know who you are, and I don’t need to know your name.  I am asking Professor Takahashi to give this letter to you.  (Or if she doesn’t know who you are, to give this letter to the whole class so you will be sure to read it.)  I cannot tell whether you are serious or joking, but in either case, since you suggested I am one of those people you would like to run away from, I would like to say something to you.
     Gay people are everywhere.  Many of your classmates and many of your teachers are gay.  Some will readily tell you this; others consider this a part of their private life which they choose not to share with you; some are ashamed of being gay.
     The world is changing, however, and more and more gay people are insisting on being recognized as both gay and human, and deserving of the respect that is due all human beings.  It will become increasingly difficult for you to “escape from gays” as you go through life.
     The question is, why would you want to?  If you are gay yourself, and ashamed of it, you will come to accept yourself in time and realize there is no more reason to be ashamed of yourself than if you are blind, or left-handed, or very short or very tall or in any way “different” from the majority of people.  If you are not gay, you need to realize most gay people have no interest in bothering you; there is nothing to “escape” from!
     If you suggested this idea as a joke, you should realize that the suggestion is not a joke to gay people.  On the contrary, it is hurtful.  Think how you would feel if you were living in a foreign country, and somebody suggested that they wanted advice on how to “escape from Japanese.”  You would then feel the oppression of bigotry and you would understand why this is not a joke.
     If you are serious, and you are suggesting that people who are gay should be removed from your sight, let me urge you to think very carefully what you are asking.  Do you also want to separate yourself from people that are different from you in other ways?  Are you afraid of people of other races?  Other religions?  Are you afraid of handicapped people?  Or is your prejudice only against people whose sexual and emotional feelings are directed toward people of the same sex?  Do you really think we should put people in jail, or in a hospital, or on a desert island somewhere because they love differently?
     Gay people, like any people who seem strange and different to you now, can turn out to be people you know, people you like, people who can teach you things, people you care about, and people you can live with, if only you take the trouble to find out more about them.
     Please take that time.  Learn about gay people, as you learn about people from other cultures.  There is no need to run from the blind, no reason to run from the French or from Chinese or from Africans, no reason to run from people with blue eyes or people who wear strange clothes or people who are gay.  The world is big enough for us all.
     You don’t need to be afraid.  As I said, I don’t know who you are and I am not going to try to find out.  But if you and your friends would like to come talk to me, I would be happy to talk with you about this or any other subject.  My office hours are Tuesday and Thursday afternoons between 2:30 and 4:30.
     Yours truly,

    I never heard from this student and have no idea of whether this letter even registered on his radar. Gay students on my campus were so closeted in the early 90s in Japan that my being openly gay worked against me.  Students who wanted to keep their gay secret avoided me like the plague, at least on campus.  Within the decade they began to get noticeably better, however, and not too many years after this, our English Department actually made a film about coming out.  

    It's useful, I think, to look back.  Finding this letter put the Arkansas setback in perspective.  And reminded me of that wonderful Italian saying:

    Piano, piano, si va lontano - If you're going a long way, take it slow.


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  3. Future travelers to the planet Mercury, especially hedonists and perhaps the occasional LGBT historian in search of milestones,  will no doubt want to locate the crater there named after the Arab/Persian poet Abu Nawas.  Those who don’t want to wait that long may wait till the current troubles are over in Iraq and Baghdad is returned to normal.  They will then be able to stroll along the banks of the River Tigris, on one of the city’s major boulevards, which also bears the name of Abu Nawas.

    And not just bisexual readers, of course.  The Encyclopedia Britannica identifies Abu Nawas as an “important poet of the early ‘Abbāsid period (750–835).”  The Abbāsid caliphate is sometimes referred to as the beginning of the "Islamic Golden Age," when "the ink of a scholar (was) more holy than the blood of a martyr."  Arabic-speakers know him as one of the greatest of Arab poets.  He is said to have spent a year living with the Bedouins to acquire the original purity of the Arabic language.  That experience would seem, however, to have lasted him a lifetime, because when he was done, he returned to write of the joys of living in the city, chiefly for the access it provided to wine and pederasty, and apparently never looked back.

    His was given the full name at birth of Abū Nuwās Al-hasan Ibn Hāni’ Al-hakamī .  At some point, his Persian mother sold him to a grocer.  He never knew his father.  The experience only made him stronger, apparently, and he shows up as a character in the Thousand and One Nights, and is known to have influenced the Persian poet Omar Khayyam.  He’s also known as the first Arab poet to write about masturbation.  And how women can be complete sluts.  Which, he says, is probably a good thing.  Especially when they are not fat.

    A girl who is slender, not clumsy and flabby, will show you how to rub and grind.

    I mention Abu Nuwas because I’ve come across his name repeatedly in recent weeks as I’ve been reading about Islam and trying to decide whether there is any substance to the claim that of the three Abrahamic religions it’s the most violent and restrictive and puritanical.  I’m leaning at present toward the view that religion is not what its scriptures tell you God wants for you to believe so much as it is about how it spreads out through the cultures which take it in and make it their own, filtering it and molding it over time, to suit local interests and fit local expectations of how the world should be run.

    One of the most interesting claims made by Hamed Abdel-Samad, which I have now found repeated in a number of places, is that the great heyday of the Muslim world was a time of great creativity and intellectual imagination not because of Islam, but despite Islam.  That if you look at the places where Islam held sway – Mecca and Medina, chiefly – you find the most stifling lack of imagination and creativity.  Only in places characterized by a multitude of cultures do you find the gold in the label, The Golden Age of Islam.  And when people speak of this gold, the name Abu Nuwas often pops us.  Not sure everybody shares the view that Nuwas is a golden contribution to Islamic culture, but how does one reach these conclusions anyway?

    O the joy of sodomy!  So now be sodomites, you Arabs.
    Turn not away from it – therein is wondrous pleasure.
    Take some coy lad with kiss-curls twisting on his
    temple and ride him as he stands like some gazelle
    standing to her mate
    Make for smooth-faced boys and do your very best to
    mount them, for women are the mounts of devils!

    I cannot be sure how much has been lost in translation.  How much better it sounds in the Arabic of 1100 years ago, where I presume there is better rhyming and perhaps alliteration and perhaps other rhetorical delights.  I doubt he achieved his reputation for world’s best Arabic poet (or one of them) for his choice of topics.

    The question is, “Is it golden?”

    And, of course, “Is it Islamic?”

    source of Abu Nawas’ poetry: Shaykh Nefzawi’s Perfumed Garden, p. 24 and 37-39, cited in Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim

    picture credit: Collected works of Abu Nawas (in Indonesian)


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  4. Trai Byers
    I went in to see Selma yesterday prepared to find an angry polemic, and defensive over what director Ava DuVernay and others involved allegedly did to LBJ’s reputation.  Instead, I found him portrayed as a man who had a grasp of the bigger picture.  For black Americans there can be no greater issue than injustice based on white racism.  For LBJ, I expect that the world was framed on the basis of political expediency.  And for that reason, watching him resist the pleas of MLK to act to protect black lives and black rights didn’t make him a monster in my eyes.  It made him a believable historical figure.  What makes him look (relatively) bad is that the story is told from a black perspective – and Lord knows it’s high time the story of Civil Rights is told without white heroes who save the day in the end becoming the centerpiece of the story.  LBJ’s legacy is intact. 

    Just wanted to get that out of the way at the start.

    This is one of those times when dwelling on the imperfections of a movie feels unworthy.  The imperfections here come from an artist's choice of what to film and what to leave out.  Left out are the realistic depictions of blood and guts and snot, although there is plenty of violence, because to leave that out would be not to tell the story at all.  And what comes through with powerful clarity is the dignity of MLK and the Movement.  Getting David Oyelowo to play Martin Luther King was a superb choice.  Just brilliant.  And I want to say that without slighting the performances of virtually all the rest of the main characters.

    Selma is an American way of telling history – through highly stylized drama, with good guys and bad guys.  There’s plenty of that in Selma, and in one case – the J. Edgar Hoover character – they went way over the line by making him half clown/half zombie. Usually one feels the need to criticize this black-and-white American habit.  But in this story I left the theatre trying to brush from my clothes the ugliness of white people carrying Dixie flags and shouting abuse at dignified ladies with their church hats on walking steely-faced and determined, not knowing whether they were going to be tossed off the bridge into the water or mowed down by horses.  Sometimes the bad guys simply are bad guys and coming up with Hitler-built-the-autobahn rationalizations does a disservice to honest story-telling.  The physical discomfort one feels at the thought that Americans had to endure that kind of abuse in the lifetime of many of us stays with you.  I woke up today, the morning after, with a feeling of panic, imagining myself in their shoes. There are certain films I find myself wishing I could make required viewing for all the schools in America.  Milk is one.  So is the TV serial, The Wire.  And Selma is another.

    The story is tight.  The pacing feels just right.  The tone is lofty (that’s how the dignity comes through).  The scene where MLK and Coretta face his infidelities brought tears to the eyes, so effectively had I been made to care for these characters by this time.  There is a sense of excitement as you spot Andrew Young and John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, the Rev. Hosea Williams and other players in the film and in real life you’ve come to know from these times.

    Another powerful emotion wells up as you watch this film, and that’s the realization that this tale of an historical moment, the sacrifices made to attain voting rights for blacks in the south, is being told in a modern context in which today’s conservative forces are still at it, still trying to remove the rights forced from the hands of LBJ in the 1960s.  It brings to the film an immediacy you don’t get from every historical drama.

    Selma is a well-told tale.   History come alive.  I’m concerned that black people will stay away because they think they know the story already and white people will stay away because they don’t want any more bad news.   I went to see it with a friend at the AMC Metreon, the giant theatre complex at 4th and Mission yesterday with seats for hundreds.  There were only five or six of us in the place.  It was 2:40 in the afternoon on a weekday, of course, but still…

    That would be a mistake.  Selma is a must-see.

    And for a review that says what I think better than I just have, try this one

    Picture Credit:  Trai Byers.  He's only a minor character in the film, but I include him here because he's so damned good-looking.


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  5. Crkva Uznesenja Blažene Djevice Marije - Church 
    of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
    Crikvenica, Croatia
    Jakubinskij's law, or Meyer–Jakubinskij's law, is a sound law that operated in the Serbo-Croatian  Čakavian dialect (you may write Č with a ch, as I will do henceforth, if your typewriter doesn’t have a Č)  in the 12th–13th century, named after Lav Jakubinski who discovered it in 1925, and sometimes also after K.H. Meyer who expanded and refined the rule in 1926.  Basically, it governs the distribution of the mixed Ikavian–Ekavian reflexes of the Common Slavic yat phoneme, occurring in the Middle Chakavian area.  The yat represented a Common Slavic long vowel. It is generally believed to have represented the sound [æ], which was a reflex of earlier Proto-Slavic */ē/, */oj/, or */aj/. That the sound represented by yat developed late in the history of Common Slavic is indicated by its role in the Slavic second palatalization of the Slavic velar consonants. Significantly, from the earliest texts, there was considerable confusion between the yat and the Cyrillic iotified a . One explanation is that the dialect of Thessaloniki (on which the Old Church Slavic literary language was based) and other South Slavic dialects shifted from /ě/ to /ja/ independently from the Northern and Western branches.  The confusion was also possibly aggravated by the fact that Cyrillic Little Yus ѧ looks very similar to the older Glagolitic alphabet's yat. An extremely rare "iotated yat" form also exists.

    The Chakavian dialect may be heard in the song “Vilo moja.”  Moja is the feminine adjectival for “my” and Vilo may refer to some girl named Vilo, or to a fairy, and thus translated, “My Vilo” or “My fairy” respectively.  It may also be translated by “My villa on the Adriatic,” although that makes less sense, since the song is a complaint about speaking to someone falling asleep and not being spoken back to.  It may also refer to something else entirely.  Note that the song appears to be in normal Chakavian, which makes use of the palatal č, as opposed to the ts sound in its place, a phenomenon referred to as “non-palatal tsakavism.”

    Here’s the song, “Vilo moja” sung by a bunch of young men from the town of Crikvenica, population 7,121 in 2001 - and apparently nobody has counted them since, one more handsome than the other.  A certain friend, who shall remain nameless, has declared the third guy in from the right will be his next husband.  I am not completely certain the third guy in from the right has accepted the offer, but one remains optimistic.

    My Croatian is a bit rusty, so I resorted first to Google.  Since Google was obviously on drugs, I was forced to move on to guessing at a translation – which I provide below.

    Hope you enjoy this music.  I found it (like my friend Jason, whose name I shall withhold) quite beautiful.

    original Croatian lyrics (in the  Čakavian dialect, if I am not mistaken – I may be mistaken)
    Google Translation
    My guess at a better translation
    Skoro saki put
    Kad se mi pogjedamo
    Ti i ne odzdraviš
    Ko da se ne poznamo
    A da mi te k sebi zvat
    Kad ćeš zaspat
    Prvo sna da ti rečen
    Da volin te još.

    Vilo moja
    Ti si moj san, ti si moj san,
    Al lagje bilo bi
    Da si tuja mi
    Da te ne poznan
    Da te ne znan.

    Almost saki time
    When we pogjed
    You do not odzdraviš
    When you do not know
    And that to me and to himself beckon
    When will you fall asleep
    The first dream that you told to
    Yes volin and more.

    Vilo my
    You are my dream, you are my dream,
    Al nave would be
    If you were foreign to me
    If you do not known
    If you do not known.

    Nearly every time
    We look at each other
    You don't respond when I talk to you
    It’s as if we don't know each other
    If I could only call you to me
    As you fall asleep
    Before your first dream I'd tell you
    That I still love you.
    My vilo
    You are my dream, you are my dream
    It would be easier
    If you were a stranger to me
    If I hadn’t met you
    If I didn't know you.

    And, if you prefer, here is a translation into Polish, where “Vilo” gets translated as Wróżko, for reasons which are beyond me:

    Wróżko moja Prawie za każdym razem Kiedy patrzymy na siebie Ty nie odpowiadasz na pozdrowienie Dopóki się nie poznamy Ale wołam Cię do siebie
    Kiedy chcesz spać Przed pierwszym snem Ci powiem Że Cię kocham Wróżko moja Ty jesteś moim marzeniem, Ty jesteś moim snem Lecz łatwiej było by
    Gdybyś była mi obca Gdybym Cię nie poznał Gdybym Cię nie znał 

    And now, a reward for those of you who have managed to find your way to the end of this story:

    Enjoy the song, “Vilo Moja” on YouTube, sung by the Klapa Crikvenica.  Click HERE!


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  6. Suddenly it seems like everybody’s talking about this issue I raised (here and in subsequent blog postings) first with Hamed Abdel-Samad’s claim that Islam is a form of fascism and then with Graeme Wood’s argument in The Atlantic saying much the same thing – that we’re making a mistake to let Islam off the hook as the source of the current problem with ISIS.  Now Robert Wright of The New Yorker has published a piece taking Graeme Wood to the woodshed for helping the radicals by taking the same position they do – that they are not only Islamic, but very Islamic.

    Wright has published a complaint that Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory, a geopolitical view more at home on the political right than on the left, is becoming mainstream.  He cites two political journalists, The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, and The Atlantic writer Graeme Wood, both presumed to be liberals, who seem to have taken a putative clash of civilization position.  He quotes Roger Cohen as saying “the West has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world.”  

    To make sense of what he is saying, let me lay out my understanding of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis as I understand it.  I’m not a political scientist or a historian, but I’ve worked in the area of culture theory and have followed the Clash of Civilizations theory debates from early on, so I’m also not coming to this totally out of the blue.

    The Cold War was a clash of values between capitalism and communism, between those who stressed the benefits of the free market, particularly its power to generate wealth, and those who wanted to make fairness and equity primary (from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs.)  Francis Fukuyama declared that history was over, meaning the communist/capitalist clash was over, and capitalism had won.  Huntington, though, thought that clash had simply been replaced by another one, this time between cultures.  (Culture and civilization have always been difficult to define and the terms are often used interchangeably, as in this case.)  Not economic, not ideological, but cultural values will be fought over from now on.  Huntington writes as a theorist, not as a political advocate.  He sees his work as merely descriptive and he doesn’t take sides.

    Without going into details (the Wikipedia article on “Clash of Civilizations” provides a good history and explanation), I agree with critics who complain Huntington has overlooked diversity within civilizations, that none of the world’s great civilizations is uniform, and all affect one another in the age of broad communication, particularly since the advent of the internet. 

    What I think Robert Wright is saying is that he understands Roger Cohen and Graeme Wood to be advocates of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory, and a booster for Western values over and against Islamic values.   But Wright then stops working in a philosophical, analytical mode, and switches to a political mode.  It’s not smart to construct the world in terms of clashes and antagonize Muslims by describing them negatively, he seems to be saying.  Better to seek to work cooperatively with the Muslims.

    If I understand Wright’s point correctly, he may be right to criticize Roger Cohen, but with Graeme Wood, I think he’s barking up the wrong tree.  Roger Cohen uses what is to me an unfortunate choice of words.  He says, “Across a wide swath of territory, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, the West has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world.”  If that isn’t a “clash of civilizations” claim, I don’t know what is.

    With Graeme Wood, though, I think Wright may have it wrong.

    My starting point, remember, was the very active discourse on Islam in Germany, which centered initially on the difficulty of integrating Muslims from rural Anatolia into a largely post-Christian European setting, but has been expanded now that Salafists in Germany are recruiting for ISIS and right-wing groups are forming to resist the so-called islamicization of Germany.  One piece of that discourse is represented by Hamed Abdel-Samad, who emigrated to Germany years ago and has emerged as Islam’s harshest critic, along with a number of women committed to fighting destructive patriarchal values among immigrant (chiefly Turkish and Kurdish) communities in Germany’s cities and towns.  Those critics all maintain that they remain “culturally Muslim” but at the same time find something inherently wrong with Islam itself. 

    For this to make sense, you have to accept Abdel-Samad’s definition of Islam as the ideology laid out in the Qur’an and in Hadiths attributed directly to the prophet Mohammed.  Initially, Mohammed took a passive stance when he was surrounded by enemies and preached peace.  Later, when he began to build his empire through war and conquest, he took a more aggressive stance and began to speak of the importance of punishing non-believers and eliminating opposition.  Those who read the Qur’an this way see his development into a more aggressive absolute ruler as the argument against Islam as pacifist. 

    “Cultural Muslims” like Abdel-Samad and the feminists working with Germany's immigrant community to bring them safely out of a world of honor killings and forced marriages and raise women's consciousness about gender rights in Germany's modern democracy, have left the religion behind and come to define themselves in terms of the spiritual values which have grown up in Islamic countries over the years and which can be attributed to the early period recorded in the Qur’an.  

    But there are also differences even between “religious Muslims,” some of whom cherry-pick the Qur’an for the peaceful parts and others of whom, the radical Islamists, cherry-pick it for its fascist parts, its focus on the imposition of an absolutist Caliphate, violence and martyrdom as a strategy for ultimate world domination, infallibility, and inviolability of the person and even the name of the Prophet Mohammed.  What should not be missed, though, in all of this, is the extent of the diversity even within the Muslim world.  This diversity matches to a significant degree the same kind of diversity in other civilizations, down to the contrast between literalists on the one hand and those who read religion as poetry and history as metaphor.  This diversity should serve as a counter-argument to Huntington’s tendency to see civilizations are essentially monolithic and opposed to one another. The lines, in other words, should be drawn horizontally, between subgroups of civilizations, not vertically, between civilizations themselves.

    And that’s how I read the Graeme Wood article in The Atlantic, as well – through an Abdel-Samad filter.  I assumed both are saying that though there is a problem with Islam, there is no problem with Muslim individuals, who are as capable as anybody of assuming the values of humanism and democracy.  The fact that they have not done so in great numbers means nothing.  The fact that Muslims, or African Americans, or Australian indigenous peoples have not won a whole lot of Nobel Prizes doesn’t mean that they are not capable of it; it means they have not had the benefit of the grounding in the kind of education and critical thinking that develops Nobel Prize winners.

    Robert Wright’s reading of Wood fails to see his nuanced thinking, in other words.  What Wood (and Abdel-Samad) are after is recognizing the power of Islam as an idea – specifically aggressive absolutist Islam as inspiration for the kind of people drawn to fascist power and claims to certain truth.  Wood begins by complaining that Obama repeatedly refers to ISIS as “not Islamic,” and suggests that this analytical error has “contributed to significant strategic errors,” namely that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, by declaring he had reinstated the caliphate, was drawing in thousands of dreamers.  (I am reminded of the “next year in Jerusalem” line spoken at Passover over centuries of Jewish exile, and remember the joy after the Six-Day War when Jerusalem was back in Jewish hands.  Some ideas are overwhelmingly powerful.)

    Wood never speaks of the radicals of ISIS as representative of Islamic Civilization.  On the contrary, he compares them more to the “dystopian alternate reality” of people like David Koresh and Jim Jones.  He knows they represent a very small portion of the Muslim world; it’s just that they have a colossal power base.  But this means it is anything but what Huntington would like to call a battle between Western and Islamic civilizations.  It is a battle between radical fundamentalists using what is there in the Qur’an to support their views on the one hand, and non-radical Muslims and others inside and outside of the Muslim world, who would rather live in peace.  And that includes a great many Muslims who would join across “civilizational” lines with people of Asian, Christian, Jewish, non-religious European “civilizational” lines to build on humanist democratic values.  I realize I am overlooking the arguments over whether critical thinking, gender equity, and other humanist democratic values can come directly to Asia and the Middle East without Western baggage, but the point still remains – in fighting ISIS, one is not fighting Muslims.  One is not even fighting Islam as it may come to be; one is fighting it as it is currently understood by radical fundamentalists. 

    These are inordinately complex issues.  Some question whether Islam is even amenable to change, as Christianity was when faced by the Enlightenment, for one thing.  Then there is the fact that those fighting ISIS include both Saudi Arabia and Israel on the same side.  And the fact that Al Qaeda and ISIS are now on opposite sides.  And that ISIS is actually at the center of a Sunni/Shiite Civil War, that Saudi Arabia, the chief Sunni state and the chief sponsor of the Sunni madrasa which fostered the kind of radicalism that built up Al Qaeda, is a strong, some would say the chief, sponsor of the fight against ISIS.  Jordan, with its penchant for neutrality, experienced tremendous nationalism and a desire to fight when one of their pilots was burned alive by ISIS.  Egypt, the home of the Muslim Brotherhood, another Sunni group with tyrannical fundamentalist instincts, is also fighting ISIS.  There is no justification to call this a “war of civilizations.”  Not even close.  More than anything, it is actually an intra-Muslim world conflict.

    And of all these complex issues, the most complex of all is the question of whether there is an “essential” Islam, as Abdel-Samad claims there is and Wood seems to be arguing if there isn’t, there might as well be.  There are two counter-arguments to the claim that Islam is essentially bad.  One is that you have cherry-picked wrong, that it is “essentially good” (and then it becomes a power issue -who gets to cherry-pick what).  The other is that one should not judge Islam by what it says it is but by what it demonstrates itself to be, that it is the “lived Islam” that we should focus on, not the theoretical (Qur’an-based) Islam.  And that leads us to more complex questions, like how and why there are more books translated into modern Greek than into modern Arabic, despite the huge disparity in population.  And the fact that women's rights are perfectly shoddy in virtually all the so-called Islamic countries.  And to what degree are those countries that way because of Western imperialism and to what degree (remember the refusal to accept the printing press for 300 years after it was invented) are they retrograde for Islamic and self-inflicted reasons.

    I know Robert Wright by reputation, chiefly from his bloggingheads.tv days, and I know he is a good thinker and has an impressive list of books to his name, two with God in the title.  I would have thought he'd perhaps want to engage in this debate over what is Islam, and I'm disappointed he chose instead to make the political argument that we should be pragmatic and politically correct.  That we should not say or do anything to encourage the radicals.  Tiptoe carefully so as not to step on any Muslim toes. 

    Wright, like many others, worries that by calling ISIS Islamic, one is only playing into their hands and making them stronger.  To label them Islamic, the argument goes, is to make other Muslims who love Islam want to be in their number.  Instead of driving home the point that one can be opposed to Islam but solidly in support of the right of Muslim people to full participation in modern democracy, fairness and equality, Wright worries that we may be providing right wingers with ammunition.  By saying bad things about Islam, he suggests, we give them an opportunity to say, “Look at that.  Even the liberals at the New York Times and The Atlantic agree with us that we are at war with Islam,” and the clear and terribly wrong implication to that is that we are at war with Muslims.   No.  That’s wrong.  One needs to keep making the distinction clear.  Muslims can be culturally Muslim.  They can even be religiously Muslim but advocate a peaceful Islam.  What we are fighting, Muslims, as well as anybody else with decent values, is Islam as Abdel-Hamad and Wood define it, as an insidious force.  Just because this is a nuanced argument does not mean it is too difficult for the world to come to terms with.

    Wing nut Christians, those who think there is no need to work for peace on earth because the Rapture is right around the corner, are usually too uninformed about the world to do much damage, although they do buy a lot of television time and reach into the homes of millions of vulnerable people.  But wing nut Muslims pose a much greater danger at present.   And here, I think Roger Cohen makes the point very well.  I dismissed him earlier for failing to distinguish between Islam and Muslims, but to give him his due, he makes the point that it's a whole lot of Muslims we are talking about - even tens of millions. And his latest article makes the point that we're by no means talking only about ISIS when we speak of Islam-inspired mischief.

    Still, even tens of millions are not the majority, or even a critical mass.  When people like Abdel-Samad speak of wing-nut Islam as the “essential” Islam, wing nut Christians say, “See!  Muslims are the enemy!” à la Huntington, and we are usually too cowardly (or bored) to say, “No, wing-nut-ism is the enemy – and that means we're talking about you guys and your essentialist Christian nonsense as well as ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Boko Haram and all the radical Muslims.  You’re all from the same deck of cards.   Now let’s get to work on diffusing the power of angry religion to ruin our lives, Christians, Muslims, whoever wants to join in.  Whether you are a Muslim who wants to stress the peaceful nature of the Qur’an and admit you don’t read the it literally, a Christian who speaks of the “salvific power of the Eucharist” and rejects both literalism and church hierarchy, or a non-believer in religion, doesn’t matter, we can all agree any religion with exclusivist truth claims is not the way to go.  Keep your eye on the donut. The problem is not civilization.  The problem is the closed mind, of which fundamentalist religion is one manifestation.

    What Wright is suggesting is actually a terrible insult to Muslims.  To suggest that they can’t see the difference between their brand of peaceful Islam and the radical brand of violent Islam, and for that reason we need to be careful when criticizing Islam is to sell them short.  Those who argue Islam is essentially violent can usually accept that this Islam can be modified as Christianity was modified and modernized when the Enlightenment came along.  And they can find common ground with those who argue Islam is essentially peaceful and merely misunderstood by the radicals and opponents of Islam who happen to find themselves on the same side for now.

    Wright seems to have no intellectual argument, in other words.  Merely a political one.  And his appeal is to those who are afraid that the truth will wreak havoc with our lives.  Better, he is suggesting, to lie a little and make those we disagree with think we are on their side.  Or, to put less harsh words in his mouth, to use diplomacy and tact, instead of honest opinion.

    The problem with that is that truth comes out eventually.  Lying or dissembling is always a short-term solution to problems at best.  When insincerity is exposed, when it becomes obvious to Muslims that we were supporting Islam only for political expediency, those who follow Wright’s proposed strategy will be come to be seen as hypocrites and liars.  

    Human rights is what we're after, not play-nice and "who am I to tell you you can't beat your wife?"   

    "As long as you don't hit her in the face?" you say?

    Why not stick to the message.  Take a look at what motivates you.  If it doesn't lead in that direction, call a spade a spade - and let it go.


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  7. 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 católicos…” 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 católicos, 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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  8. For a number of reasons, a group of radical Sunni Muslims currently headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have joined the civil war already going on in Syria.  They have intensified the struggle Al Qaeda was already engaged in to expel foreigners from the region, and taken the focus off of American and other Western enemies.  They are now concentrating on restoring the Caliphate and expanding it, initially through Syria and Iraq.  This changes the "enemy" primarily from military imperialists to all they consider non-believers, with a particular animosity directed against Shiite Muslims.  The result is there are two civil wars going on simultaneously.  One is about unseating Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria, and the other is to bring back the glory that was Islam and usher in Armageddon along the way .  These are primarily intra-Muslim struggles, and of interest to Europeans and Americans mostly because some 20,000 people from around the world have left to fight for ISIS, including 3400 Westerners at last count, and one worries about whether they will take the battle back home with them if and when they come home.  Beyond that, we are burned out after Iraq and Afghanistan and most people in the West don’t want to fight any more over what is essentially Muslim territory.  If, outside of the neocons, they ever did.  I know that’s anything but the whole story, but I think that is more or less where we are at the moment.

    Potential trouble from war returnees is not the only spillover concern.  The violence of ISIS has non-Muslims, ex-Muslims, and I imagine a whole lot of doubting Muslims as well, wondering if there is something inherent in Islam that leads to this fascination with violence and martyrdom.  It’s the martyrdom part, the fascination with death and with having a cause worth fighting to the death over, that is attracting people far and wide, just as fascism’s force was irresistible to many in the last century.  This question gets picked up in Europe, where a sufficient quantity of “undigestibles” – Muslim immigrants with widely divergent values from mainstream humanistic values held by most Europeans these days – are scapegoated.  In some cases the danger that accompanies the fear of these alien folk is real – consider the 550 Germans who have left to fight with ISIS, for example.  More often the racist fears lying just under the surface are not justified.  I’m talking about fears such as that evidenced by the fact Thilo Sarrazin’s book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is doing away with itself) has become a best seller.  The book worries about Muslim immigrants pulling the IQ level down much in the same way Herrnstein and The Bell Curve worried that blacks were doing the same in the U.S.  And by the Pegida phenomenon, groups marching in German cities under the banner of “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamicization of the West” – where “islamicization” upon close inspection often turns out to be not much more than giving Muslims dispensations in school from eating non-halal meat.

    Political leaders and others, including no small number of intelligent progressive folk, have rallied around the notion put forward by some scholars that one should draw a sharp distinction between Islam and Islamism, that one should respect the former as one respects all religions, and fight against the latter as an abuse of that religion, as one fights against abuse of all religions.  A typical voice in the German-speaking world espousing this view is the Viennese Muslim political scientist Farid Hafez, who insists the Islamism practiced by ISIS isn’t religion at all, but a political movement.

    Others point out – and to me they are far more convincing – that it takes religion to draw the kind of fierce loyalty al-Baghdadi’s movement is generating from around the world, that one does not go off to fight in other people’s political struggles, but they do if it’s for religion.  And what are we to make of the fact that the very heart of the ISIS struggle is the imposition of the shariah as the law of the land and the restoration of the Caliphate?  A Southern Baptist and a Mormon and a Roman Catholic may each preach from their pulpits that the other two are not real Christians, but all three join forces to demand the "religious" (sic) right to withhold rights from gay people.  These differences of opinion shift according to the goals at hand.  But it's not either/or.  There is no doubt we're talking about religion as well as practical politics.

    CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, under its leader Nihal Awad, announced last September that 126 Muslim scholars had sent off a letter to al-Baghdadi,  with some very powerful arguments on how he was badly misinterpreting the Qur’an, complete with chapter and verse.  Al-Baghdadi, as far as I know, never responded and I’m pretty sure he has his reasons for not taking those arguments seriously – Islam is at war, for example, so most of the constraints Awad and the other scholars are urging presumably don’t apply. 

    I’m pretty sure that while Farid Hafez’s signature is not among the 126 Muslim signatories to the letter (more have been added since), he would acknowledge these men as religious leaders.  But note that the tone of the letter is “one Muslim to another” urging al-Baghdadi to reconsider the Qur’an’s dictates from a broader perspective and pointing out allegedly overlooked passages.  So much for the contention that the ISIS movement is only politics, and not religion.

    This takes us to the next question, whether one can fight one group of people who quote from the Qur’an with another group who also quote from the Qur’an.  The only thing this accomplishes is to make an even stronger endorsement of the Qur’an as the arbiter of all things that matter – not constitutions, not individual consciences.  Both share common ground, the view that submission is the only method for arriving at the truth.  We are back at the arguments made by those who see Islam as fascist – fascist being defined in particular here as making claims to exclusive and infallible authority.

    I have danced around the question of whether stressing the point that there is something foul in the state of Islam is maybe a terribly unwise approach to fixing things.  It looks like friendly fire,  like a divide-and-conquer-your-own-guys strategy.  Since the ultimate goal should be to do two things simultaneously – look out for the rights of Muslim people, protect them against ISIS and against racists and xenophobes in countries to which they have emigrated – and get at the motivations of ISIS fighters and root them out, why are we stopping along the way to say nasty things about Islam?  Why are we fighting on two fronts here?  Why not just say, as Obama and the political leaders of Europe, are all saying, “Islam is a fine thing.  It’s the misuse of Islam that is the problem." And we know who uses it correctly and who doesn’t.  The people who ignore the violent passages and stress peace are using it correctly, and those who cite the violent passages are abusing it. That’s not factually correct, but it’s a pragmatic approach, because when you say that you do not have to face the ire of countless numbers of Muslims who, when it comes to their faith, take a "don't give me no bad news" approach.

    You know what this reminds me of?  Back in the day when it was perfectly acceptable to say out loud anywhere that gays and lesbians were defective people, LGBT people had to set realistic goals and beg for tolerance.  Later, when some gay people wanted to marry, many gay activists, including Barney Frank, the leading political figure fighting for gay rights, urged us to move slowly and not ask for too much at once.  Ask for domestic partnerships.  Later, he/they said, we will ask for equal rights.

    I think that’s what’s going on here.  It’s simply too much to ask to get people to take a close look at organized religion and see it naked, with all its warts.  Better to put lipstick on the pig, enter her in the beauty contest, and concentrate on providing excellent wine and cheese (or hot dogs and beer, depending on who you're partying with) for people to remember the day by.  Patience.  You’ve got to have patience.

    Maybe so.  I’m not going to fight to the death for the idea that we expose Islam as a fascist ideology – and demand that we stop pretending that we’re all simply interpreting the Scriptures differently and admit that what we’re after is to get people to ignore the Scriptures.  That’s what I would really like to see happen, but I admit that probably in this case the politicians and other pragmatic people have a point.  

    Better to dissemble.  Wait.  Hold your tongue.  It will serve you better in the long run.

    Doesn’t mean it's right.

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  9. psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

    After posting those pieces on this blog on Hamed Abdel-Samad’s Islamic Fascism the past few days, I went in search of counterarguments, hoping to find something I overlooked, and perhaps convince me I'm barking up the wrong tree.  I know there are arguments out there being made right and left that “radical Islam” no more represents Islam than “radical Christianity” represents Christianity.  The Ku Klux Klan does not convey the message of Jesus.  I don’t need persuading of that.  But I am not finding arguments against Abdel-Samad’s claim that you can’t call yourself a Muslim without claiming the Qur’an is infallible and unchanging, and to read the Qur’an is to see what ISIS and Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood and all the other so-called radicals see – right there in black and white.  There are plenty of assertions that Islam is the "religion of peace," yes.  But no serious arguments so far that it's the violence-prone radicals who are getting it wrong and the peaceniks who are getting it right.  God love the peaceniks.  I want them to be right.  I want them to find a way to defang the ugly parts of the Qur'an, or to claim those urging a return to the caliphate are reading the texts wrong, or simply to say, as Abdel-Samad does, the text needs to stay in the 7th century and Muslims need to find a way to get modern.  But, unlike with other religious scriptures which allow for cherry-picking, the Qur’an says in the text that a literal interpretation is the only interpretation.  And a careful reading of the text will read it says what the radicals say it says.

    I found a critical book review of Islamic Fascism by Daniel Bax, the home editor of the “alternative” Berlin newspaper, die Tageszeitung, but that turned out to be more of an ad hominem attack on Abdel-Samad and an incomplete appreciation of the points he was making, rather than a serious criticism and decided to critique Bax's review.

    This critique of a critique is of little interest to English-speaking audiences, and I decided at first not to post it.  But then, this morning, I came across this article in The Atlantic, by Graeme Wood, which underlines the arguments Abdel-Samad has been making, that we are doing ourselves no favors by pretending we don’t have a problem with Islam itself, and I decided to just go ahead and get my protest registered against the view that Islam is benign.  

    Obama repeated again today the old mantra that the violence in the Middle East has nothing to do with Islam.  I understand that to argue against that polemic looks for all the world like a fool's errand. Muslims are not going to want to hear they are following a killer ideology any more than Christians do.  It seems politically savvy to foster the delusion that their religion is whatever they say it is.  A patronizing approach, to be sure, but pretty good Realpolitik.

    But I'm not a politician, and I leave that approach to the politicians.  I prefer to describe what I see and challenge people who think I'm wrong to show me the error of my ways.

    So I'm going to do both - include that review of the review here - and include a link to that brilliant Atlantic article.  If you only have time for one, by all means read the Atlantic article.

    And next time you raise a glass to a better future, drink to the success of the future Voltaires and the Humes and the Kants and the Descartes and the Francis Bacons and the Diderots and the Thomas Jeffersons and the John Lockes and the Rousseaus being born all over the Muslim world today.  May they grow up to make the world a better place.  (They're being born outside the Muslim world, as well, obviously, but I'm thinking of the ones who can speak to their surroundings from a culturally Muslim perspective.)

    Daniel Wood's Atlantic article, “What ISIS really wants" is available here.  

     My critique of Daniel Bax's review, "Caution, Explicit Content Follows!" - follows:

    If you want to find people who take issue with Hamed Abdel-Samad’s argument that there is something inherently different about Islam that makes it not merely a misguided ideology but a pernicious one, you don’t have to go very far.  Leaving aside the millions of Muslims for whom Islam is at the heart of all that is meaningful and holy, who read into the Qur’an all things bright and beautiful, and who feel he’s wrong to let the militants represent their faith, there are also people who criticize him on rational grounds.  One such is Daniel Bax, the home editor of the lefty Berlin newspaper Tageszeitung, usually called TAZ.  Wonderful institution.  Alternative journalism.  A lefty daily owned by its readers.  Interested in the environmental and social issues.  Supported by the Green Party but not afraid to bite the hand that feeds it when it feels biting is warranted. 

    So imagine my disappointment when I came across this review of Abdel-Samad’s book by TAZ’s home editor, Daniel Bax. A truly awful review.

    Bax calls Abdel-Samad’s book, Islamic Fascism, “not a serious analysis, but a platitude-laden polemic against political Islam.”  He starts his criticism by suggesting that Abdel-Samad is making too much of the fatwa against him, and very ungenerously suggests that “some people use the fact that they have at some point been threatened by one Islamist or another as a kind of seal of approval or badge of honour,” describes him as “overblown, pretentious and dubious,” and suggests journalists and anybody in the German media who call him an expert on Islam are doing so only by “graciously turn(ing) a blind eye to the obvious contradictions and inconsistencies” out of a belief that “that's what people are like in the Middle East; they have a tendency to exaggerate.”  The only qualification Abdel-Samad has for being called an Islam expert, according to Bax, himself supposedly an Islam expert, is that he is Egyptian.  Bax totally ignores the fact that Abdel-Samad grew up with an imam as a father, was in Islamic studies at the University of Erfurt and has appeared in countless venues in the media debating Islamic scholars and has published two books dealing with Islam before this one.

    When Bax finally finishes with the ad hominem attacks and gets to the heart of the issue, he complains that Abdel-Samad “does not make much of a distinction between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, the Mullah regime in Iran and the Wahabbis (sic – it is spelled correctly in the original German version) in Saudi Arabia – they're all religious fascists in one way or another.”  Well, yes!  That’s the point.  Abdel-Samad’s goal was not to do an in-depth study of modern radical movements, but to make the point that they all share something in common – Islam in its original form is radical and violent.  Bax then argues that Saudi Arabia was behind the military coup in Egypt which overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood because it was against democracy and this somehow means Abdel-Samad is looking at the world in black and white terms.  Never mind that Abdel-Samad makes a great deal out of the fact that the Brotherhood was overthrown precisely because it was so obviously anti-democratic. 

    Bax goes on to claim that Abdel-Samad “ignores the current status of research…on the subject of anti-Semitism in Arab nations,” but he doesn’t explain how that is relevant or give any examples to support the claim.

    About the only criticism of Abdel-Samad’s thesis that holds water, in my view, is that it is not original, that others have used the term “islamofascism” before him.  How that invalidates anything Abdel-Samad has to say when he goes about making his own case for this assertion is not clear.   Ditto for the claim that all Abrahamic religions are inherently fascistic.  That claim, says Bax, has been made before by cultural scholar Jan Assmann.  Assmann’s argument was weak, Bax suggests, because he doesn’t explain why other religions, in India and in Japan, for example, also have fascism in their histories.   What, one wonders, is the point here? 

    When Bax finally gets to the heart of the matter, to the questions most people are asking about Abdel-Samad’s thesis, you begin to wonder if he even read the book.  First off, other monotheistic religions have allowed themselves to be pacified; why not Islam? he asks.  (I rest my case.)  And secondly, most of the violence of the twentieth century was not caused by religion but by overblown nationalism, by which I assume he means German fascism and authoritarian regimes, by which I take it he is referring to Stalinism.  Well, yes!  Abdel-Samad’s point is not that religion caused the wars; his point is that Islam is, like Nazism and Stalinism, a form of fascism and that there was considerable sympathy in the Muslim world during the Second World War for the Nazi cause.

    Bax then argues that it’s the Muslim Brotherhood which is now being victimized by violence and complains that Abdel-Samad took the wrong side, and shows entirely too much sympathy for the military.  Bax appears to be unaware that Abdel-Samad has said of the struggle for democracy in Egypt that it is like peeling an onion.  When you remove the neo-colonialists (Mubarak), the next most powerful force takes over, the Muslim Brotherhood.  They then have to be peeled away, as well.  He never claimed that the onion only has two layers.   Bax claims that Abdel-Samad’s criticism of the army was too feeble.  They used “inappropriate means.”   And “this is not the way to deter terrorists.”  That’s true.  That’s pretty mild.  But what, I wonder, does this have to do with Abdel-Samad’s claim that Islam is fascistic?  “His own definition of fascism is much more applicable to the current military regime in Egypt than to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Bax claims.  A cheap shot.  It’s totalitarian, to be sure.  But worse than the Muslim Brotherhood?  According to whom?  Beside the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, I mean.

    Finally, Bax criticizes Abdel-Samad for his position that modern day Islamic fascism must be fought militarily.  That, says Bax, reveals the “ice-cold causticity of an extremist” and makes him “hard and belligerent.”   One wonders if Bax will be at the head of the line when the opponents of the Islamic State approach them with olive branches.

    Bax concludes with:  “(S)ome detractors of political Islam have much more in common with the fundamentalists they criticise than they realize.”  Which brings us back to the ad hominem attacks where this book review of Islamic Fascism started.


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  10. In Der Islamische Faschismus: Eine Analyse (Droemer Verlag, München, 2014), Hamed Abdel-Samad makes a case for including Islam, in its original form, alongside Nazism and Stalinism as one of the three variant forms of fascist totalitarianism Western Civilization has had to contend with.  He argues that it drove conquest from its 7th century origins into modern times and its essentially fascist nature can still be seen today in such organizations as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State.   As you will see in the interview below, Abdel-Samad's reasons for calling Islam fascist are the following:
     ... The idea that the world can be divided into good and evil, the idea that comes out of a Fuehrer principal and the idea that its adherents see the rest of the world as their enemy.  That sees anti-Semitism as its raison-d’être  - Islamism and fascism are united in that.  The ideology that the masses glorify struggle and make battles sacred, martyrdom, death.  It's identical with the jihad principle in Islam.   One doesn’t fight to live; one lives to fight.   That’s what unifies Nazism and Islamism.  The concept of the chosen.  In Nazism it’s the Aryan race.  With Islamists, it’s the Islamic body of believers.  They are lifted above mankind, both morally and in human terms.   The dehumanization of the enemy.  That they take on the status of animals, that their entire destruction becomes a goal.   That binds Islamism to fascism.  

    Islam is absolutist (the Qur’an cannot be subjected to criticism); it follows the Führer principle (Mohammad cannot be subjected to criticism or disrespect); it punishes apostasy; and seeks to establish itself, ultimately, as the sole power on earth.

    Abdel-Samad’s polemic is to be distinguished from anti-Muslim tirades, like the best seller Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is abolishing itself) by Thilo Sarrazin, the most popular book in a decade, which mirrors the pseudogenetic notions we saw in the United States in The Bell Curve,where an argument was made that certain groups of people were bringing down the intelligence level of the community.  Or the views of the Dresden PEGIDA protestors, who were looking at the social problems in Berlin and other big cities and trying to head them off by stopping further immigration.  All Sarrazin accomplished, he says, was to provide xenophobes with a leader and Muslims with justification for playing the victim.  His own goal, Abdel-Samad says, is to generate more useful discussion on the topic of how Germans with a non-immigrant background and Germans with an immigrant background can find common ground in a love for German democracy.  These new euphemisms are of consequence, since they make the point that Germans of Turkish and other immigrant origin are now well established as fully German citizens, and it’s no longer a case of  “Germans” vs. “immigrants.”

    But rather than relate his ideas second hand, let me try to quote them directly as much as I can.  Abdel-Samad has given a large number of interviews in which he details the content of his book.  Let me cite some of his answers to one such interview he gave in Vienna with the Austrian writer, historian and journalist and public commentator, Peter Huemer.       

    For the sake of readability, I will not reproduce the entire interview and I will take the liberty of summarizing and rewording some of the questions and answers, while making every effort to retain their accuracy.   The translation is mine.

     *          *          *

    PH: It is my understanding that the fatwa imposed on you by Islamic authorities in Egypt resulted from your claim that there is something fascistic about Islam itself that goes back all the way to its origins, i.e., Mohammad, and that that was considered an insult to the prophet.  Do I understand that correctly? 

    AS: Yes.  That lecture I gave in Cairo was focused on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, but I maintained that things did not begin with the Muslim Brotherhood but are grounded in the ancient history of Islam.   Islam has many faces.  It has a spiritual side, which I personally find very agreeable, a social teaching, which is important to a lot of people, which give comfort to a lot of people.  But Islam also has a legal and political side which has a fascistic character.   I like to say that Islam has a birth defect.  Islam was successful early on in its history.  It came to power in the lifetime of the Prophet and founded a state, in contrast to Christianity, which lived for three hundred years as a minority, which led it to allow the concept of secularism.  

    In contrast to Jesus, who was on the world stage no more than eighteen to thirty months, Mohammad had to assume several functions at the same time.  He was Prophet, head of state, general, finance minister, lawgiver, judge and politician, all at the same time.  All of this got mixed in with the texts of the religion.  All this is to be found in the texts and runs counter to the idea of secularization.   Islam takes the position that a Muslim is a Qur’an on two legs.  That a muslim’s every day life is regulated, twenty-four hours a day, by the Qur’an.  Islam determines what you are to do before going to bed, when rising in the morning, what you are, how you are, what you say before eating, what you say after eating, how you are to behave on the toilet, what you say before and what you say after you perform your duties.  

    And this orientation has something to do with a particular image of God, an image shared by the other monotheistic religions, but is in Islam’s case exaggerated.  A jealous God, who tolerates no other gods, a God that directs man from afar, that watches you twenty-four hours a day, knows your deed and your thoughts.  Who punishes your smallest crimes with the torture of hell, but who cannot be questioned himself.  An angry God.  All that is in Islam.  The Islamism of today didn’t fall from the trees.   It is founded in this history. 

    PH:  OK, so this Islam of the 7th Century is a great success.  And this has to do with the fact, as you have just pointed out, that religion, politics, the military build a single entity.  Within one century a great kingdom was establish extending from Persia to the Atlantic, to Andalusia, an enormous accomplishment considering the infrastructure, roads, etc., of the time.  A giant logistic accomplishment.  And with the fact that from the early Middle Ages to the late Middle Ages, Islam was far superior to Christianity.  In science, in culture, whether you consider astronomy, mathematics, medicine – a thousand years ago they were performing operations.  You say Islam became a problem, but this dynamism was at least at the beginning a formula for great success. 

    AS: Granted, that we see period between the 7th and the 11th centuries a golden time for Islam.  For the Arab and Persian governed states.    You say, “Islam was superior to Christianity.”   But was it really Islam that brought this culture into being?  That’s an important question. …

    PH: …and let me add something here.  And it was far more tolerant of others than was Christianity.

    AS:  You say Islam was more tolerant, and not the rulers of the day.  They were pragmatic, and had little to do with the Shariah.   Harun Al Rashid* sat in his palace and drank alcohol – according to Islam, he ought to be whipped for that.  He listened to music, there was dancing, there were poetry contests in his palace in which Muslims, Jews and Christians criticized each other’s religions.  

    Mohammad was criticized in Harun Al Rashid’s court by a Jewish poet!   There was erotic poetry, including homoerotic poetry, all kinds of things forbidden by Islam.  The fact that a ruler is a Muslim does not necessarily mean that his regime is Islamic.  The fact that these countries were ruled by Muslims does not mean that it was Islam that brought philosophy, culture and science into being.  Just look at the cities in which this knowledge blossomed.   Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo and Damascus.  Why these cities?  Why not Mecca and Medina, where Islam began?   Were Mecca and Medina ever cities of knowledge or cities where people of different religions lived together?   No.  Since the beginning of Islam, Mecca and Medina were made free of Jews and Christians.  They had to be driven out, and to this day are not allowed into the cities of Mecca and Medina.  There was never in Mecca and Medina the study of philosophy, the natural sciences, or all these wonderful accomplishments.   

    What came into being in Cordoba, Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus was the mixing of different cultures, and distancing of the rule from the shariah.  That’s what made tolerance, and science, and living together possible.  And we can see from Islamic history that whenever one distanced oneself from the shariah, people of different religions were able to live together.  Because religion did not determine that everything was determined by a higher force.  And freedom was possible.  But as early as the 12th Century, both in Andalusia and in Baghdad, in came Islamic fundamentalists who insisted we can’t go on living like this, we have to introduce the shariah, we have to live by the laws of Islam, and in no time it came to pogroms.  In Granada, 4000 people were killed in one day – 4000 Jews.  Philosophers like Averroes were driven out, sent into exile, because the religious leaders held them as apostates.  We have to keep these two things separate – Muslim rule and Islamic rule. 

    PH: That means, if I understand you correctly, that the question of that time was whether the Qur’an should be interpreted, or whether it should be taken literally for all time.   And it was the orthodox forces who came to power, those who insisted on taking the text literally.  Even if it is 500 years old (at that time).  And with that began the fall of Islam?

    AS: Yes.  Earlier, the rulers were pragmatic and understood that they had to allow certain freedoms.  They had to listen to the expertise of the Jews and the Christians and the Alawites, and learn from other minorities, and integrate.  If we do that, we can develop economically.  But there were certain events in Islamic history that stopped that development.  The Crusades played a role.  And the invasion of the Mongols played a role.  But these events cannot be used as an excuse for the retrograde movement of Islam.  All they were doing was what Islam had done previously.  When they had the power, they invaded and determined how things would be run locally.  The question is why one became weak…

    PH: A counter argument…  When you read the texts of the Arab historians, they write of the Barbarian Invasions, i.e., the Crusades, and about the sacking of Jerusalem, where, for all practical purposes the entire Jewish and Christian population was murdered – the Jews retreated into their synagogues and the Christian knights rode in circles around them as they burned – just as the Nazis did – this kind of genocidal killing I just don’t see in the early days of the Islamic movement. 

    AS: But how did Islam come to Egypt and Iraq and Syria?  The locals were given the choice: convert, pay taxes or die.  Those were military units, or bands, no different from ISIS today.   My Egyptian ancestors were not Muslims.  They were Copts who were forced to convert.  At first, they could get away with paying a tax, and there was actually an economic advantage for the rulers to not having them convert.  There’s a story about a tax administrator who, when faced with Christians who wanted to convert, said no – you remain Christians.  It’s better for you and better for me.  All that changed with the Crusades, when the Muslims enforced the protection of the Christians.  What you saw in Mosul, where the houses of Christians were marked with an N – (Nasari = Christian)*** – all that dates back to the time of the Crusades.   

    But this came with laws that prevented Christians from repairing their churches or building new ones.  These laws apply to this day in many Islamic states.  There were even laws that requiring that their clothing show their faith.   They had to cut their hair off in front, and were forbidden to part their hair – that was limited to Muslims.  That’s the reality of life under the shariah.   There were times in history when the shariah was set aside, and at those times people were able to live together.   You can’t say “Islam” was more tolerant than “Christianity”.  You have to say that certain Muslim rulers, the ones that had the least to do with religion, made this possible.    That’s how history needs to be corrected.  I know that certain scholars of Islam and Islam experts make the claim that Islam is responsible for this freedom.  It wasn’t.  It was political pragmatism, and economics. 

    PH:  If we go back to the 7th Century, soon after Mohammed’s death, we find a catastrophic split into Shiites and Sunnis tied up with the murder of caliphs, so yes, it’s true that this disastrous tradition entered Islam very early on.  And a second thing, which you mention in your book Islamic Fascism, around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press with moveable type, and the Muslim theologians succeeded, right up to the time of Napoleon, around 300 years later, in preventing the importing of the printing press into the Arab world.   That is an unimaginable catastrophe that has consequences even today.   I remember reading once what Karl Marcus Gauss said.  He pointed out that today, there are more books being translated into modern Greek than into Arabic.  There are ten million Greeks, and there are three hundred million Arabs, and the majority of books translated into Arabic are religious texts.    And that’s an unimaginable catastrophe and unbelievable atrophy that goes back to this decision, to prevent the printing press. 

    AS: Yes.  I call that, in the book, the mortal sin of the Ottomans.  Because the rulers of the Ottoman Empire refused to introduce the printing press.  Without the printing press, Martin Luther would be meaningless.  Without the spread of the theses the Enlightenment would not have taken place, modern science would not have come into being.  The printing broke the monopoly on knowledge that was in the hands of the church and the princes, and privatized knowledge and gave access to knowledge to the average person.  People could read not only their Bibles, but  also secular works, critical and philosophical texts,  and that led to the Enlightenment.  The Ottoman Empire, especially the religious scholars, were afraid that the printing press would lead to a widespread distribution of the Qur’an, and that would mean the Qur’an could be falsified and that would mean the loss of control over the Qur’an.   

    And this motivation has continued for a very long time.  The fear of touching the holiness of the text.  The fear of counterfeiting of the text.  In my view, that’s what prevented the Islamic world from becoming critical of their own history.  To escape this lack of maturity – as Kant says when he speaks of enlightenment as “man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” – that one stops leaving it to others to make decisions.  That’s why he said, “Have courage!”  Use your own reasoning.  And it’s exactly that that the religious scholars rejected.    

    The printing press actually came a little earlier.  It came to Constantinople in 1729 and to Egypt in 1798 with Napoleon.  But even then, these machines could print only worldly texts and no religious texts.   And what an intellectual ossification came from that.  Three hundred, three hundred fifty years were stolen from us.  We had no idea what was going on on the other side of the Mediterranean.    

    In the middle of the 18th century wonderful ideas were spreading – the ideas of Kant and Voltaire and Rousseau and Spinoza and there was a critical relationship to one’s own religion and one’s own society and political theories were developed.  And what’s the parallel in the Islamic world?  Especially in the Arab world?  In the middle of the 18th century?  Wahhabism.  The most radical form of Islam that we have.   Islam missed all discussion of how to deal with their own texts, how to relativize them.  That’s what the enlightenment accomplished, to create a certain distance between man and his ideas.  

    With this distance it is possible to look critically at one’s own society and thus to develop it.  But when self-criticism is seen as a sin, when new thoughts are seen as a danger, when a harmless printing press can be declared to be a work of the devil, one can see why the Islamic world is 500 years behind. 

    PH: Still, are we not to be thankful for the fact that Greek knowledge and science, that the Bhagavad Gita was protected in the monasteries.  Europe needs to be grateful to the Arabic/Persian culture for …

    AS: Europe has the Arab/Persian culture to thank for a great many things.    Europe has no need to thank Islam for anything

    PH: I should have said the Arabic/Islamic culture.  It’s not the Arabic/Persian but the Arabic/Islamic culture  

    Take note here that Peter Huemer completely misses Abdel-Samad's point that it wasn't "Islam" that was responsible for transmitting Greek knowledge and science, but the Arabs and Persians working beyond the influence of Islamic doctrine.…  

    And now I want to talk about a definition:

    There are many political scientists who see fundamentalist Islam, i.e., Islamism,  as the third variant of totalitarianism, after fascism and Stalinism.  But you chose to use the term fascism.  I’m surprised by that.  For me, the leading definition of fascism is Reinhard Kühnl’s.  He defined it as a pact between the old elite and a new mass movement.  Take Nazism as an example. In Germany, the old elite was the military, the industrialists and the banks and large landowners, that is the old nobility and the higher bureaucracy, and they united with a new mass movement, and that’s the National Socialist Party.  And that leads to something explosive, and new.  And that’s not what I see in this case.  I don’t see a mass movement with Islamism.

    AS: Iran 1979?

    PH: 1979, yes.  But what about with the Islamic State?  And that leads me to another question.  Is Islamicism modern or anti-modern?    Nazism, in the end, was a modernist movement at the time.  Islamism, as it presents itself to us, is it not a form of anti-modernism? 

    AS: It depends on how you define modern.  In terms of technology, then yes.  But modernity is essentially an intellectual attitude, and intellectual history, and Nazism was light years removed from that.  Modern means stress on individualism, on personal freedom and free thinking, critical thinking.  All that was missing in national socialism.  For that reason National Socialism was for me an anti-modern, anti-enlightenment, movement, exactly as Islamic is.  

    You have used a definition of fascism that is limited to the outward structure.   I would define it differently, first in terms of ideology, then of organizational structure, and then of its goals.  And that’s where Islamism and fascism meet, in my understanding.   The idea that the world can be divided into good and evil, the idea that comes out of a Fuehrer principal and the idea that its adherents see the rest of the world as their enemy.  That sees anti-Semitism as its raison-d’être  - Islamism and fascism are united in that.  The ideology that the masses glorify struggle and make battles sacred, martyrdom, death.  It's identical with the jihad principle in Islam.   One doesn’t fight to live; one lives to fight.   That’s what unifies Nazism and Islamism.  The persecution complex.  The concept of the chosen.  In Nazism it’s the Aryan race.  With Islamists, it’s the Islamic body of believers.  They are lifted above mankind, both morally and in human terms.   The dehumanization of the enemy.  That they take on the status of animals, that their entire destruction becomes a goal.   That binds Islamism to fascism.

    When it comes to the organizational structure, I’ve already mentioned the Führer principle, the strong hierarchy,  the idea of the infallibility of the leader, the terror militia, which they copied – there was a relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood of the day and the Nazi Germany and the militia was built on the model of the SA and the SS to reach their ends.  

    Then we come to the goals.  And that’s where it becomes clear that national socialism has little to do with modernity.  NS wanted to roll back society to old family structures, to old social structures.  NS proceeds from the assumption that all men “tick” the same, that they must all have the same goals and that there must be a uniforming of the masses.  That unites fascism and Islamism.  Surveillance, mistrust of individualism, of art, of divergent creative energy, all that was seen as a danger, by both fascists and Islamicists, and the skepticism of the state as a site of decadence.  Islamicism has as its goal to eliminate individualism and make the masses into a block,  and the highest goal of both is world domination.  They both proceed from the assumption they have an inherent right to rule the world.  

    If these many similarities are not sufficient … I’ve put them together to reveal the similarities and the dangers and the effect on and the fascination of the masses, all this is far more interesting than the distinctions that people, especially fascism scholars are arguing no no no, they’re not the same thing.   Those foreigners, first they take our jobs away and now fascism too? 

    PH: I’ll stop with the pursuit of a definition, except to say what you have described applies as well to totalitarianism.   But let’s move on.  You said at one point, “Islam has certain fascistic tendencies that are evident in Islamism.”  No normally we make distinctions between Islam and Islamism.  But if I understand you correctly, you don’t dwell on this distinction, but for you it’s a fuzzy area. 

    AS: As I see it, it’s fuzzy for Islam itself.  The transition from one to the other is very fluid and non-transparent between Islam and Islamism.  I used to belong to those who made a sharp distinction between the two until I realized the distinction is of no use to anybody, and actually it is more useful to the Islamists.  Islam is perfect, they say.  But there are a few people who misunderstand the Qur’an, and misuse Islam.  That's a very dangerous notion, because it opens the door to the notion that there will always be new forms of Islam.  Others will come along and say, "The IS people, they had it wrong.  Follow us.  We'll get the real political Islam right."  That's what they all say.  The IS people say, “Al Qaeda was wrong, but we are the ones who will apply the correct Islam politically.    The Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, Boko Haram, AKP in Turkey, all old wine in new skins.  

    Fascism was ultimately defeated in Germany and there was a rethinking.  But people did not conclude that racism was a correct policy, just misapplied by the Nazis.  No.  People noted that that was the ideology itself.  And that it is us human beings that allowed ourselves to be misled by this ideology.  And that one is missing the opportunity in the Muslim world to name the heart of the problem correctly.   Either for centuries one fails to recognize the illness, or one situates the sickness elsewhere and calls it something else.  Either one refuses to take medicine or takes the wrong medicine and the problems multiply.  And I find that we are living in a time when Islam is developing into a ticking time-bomb.

    PH: Islam?  Islam?

    AS: Naturally, Islam.  What else?  I’m interested in a solution.  That’s why I call the illness by its name.  The sickness is anchored in Islam itself.  And when you don’t call this problem out for what it is, then one treats the outward infections but fails to address the tumor itself.  We’ve danced around the problem in the Muslim world and here in Europe for a very long time.  We’ve swept the problem under the carpet.  The increasing violence of Islam is a result of a failed educational policy in the Islamic world and a failed policy of integration in Europe. 

    PH: I think we are in agreement that there is no such thing as the Muslims and a single Islam, that there is a multitude of…

    AS: We are not in agreement.  I agree that there is no such things as the Muslims.  There is an enormous variety, from Sufis from Mali, who behaves quite differently from a Sunni from Saudi Arabia, or an Alawite from Syria or an Alavite from Turkey.  There are Shiites and Sunni and many streams and variations and there is no shortage of Muslims who long ago depoliticized their Islam.  In my view they are peaceful not because they are Muslims, but peaceful although they are Muslims.  But one Islam.

    PH: But there are so many varieties! 

    AS: Yes.  But actually, politically, within Islam all these differences are relatively uninteresting.  Maybe for ethnologists and other scientists and for people interested in different varieties of dance, then maybe it’s interesting.  But from a political perspective, it’s not interesting, because there it’s not a question of what divides Muslims, but what unites them.  And that’s Islamism.  And that’s the idea of the caliphate and of the introduction of the shariah.  The idea that it’s not man, but God who is the lawgiver.  That the laws of God are neither malleable nor negotiable.  And that’s the problem.  And that is the Islam.  Not a kind of Islam, but Islam.  Mainstream Islam.  The fact that there are many Muslims today who have grown up with the modern, who think liberally, who can think freely, who can draw positive elements out of their religion, of course, they are thinking people.  Many Muslims are against the idea of hacking off hands and beheading unbelievers.  But Islam is not against these things.  These Muslims, are for us an opportunity and I think when we in Austria or in Germany want to have partners, then we should extend our hand to these thinking Muslims instead of strengthening conservative communities and giving them a political leg up.

    PH: Let’s see if I understand you correctly.  There is a variety of Muslims, but Islam itself you consider to be incompatible with democracy. 

    AS: Neither Islam, nor Christianity, nor Judaism are compatible with democracy.  (loud applause)   They were not established to be compatible with democracy.  They come from another time.  They were politically neutralized and established under democracy.  I think in Europe Christianity and Judaism have found a way to play another role, under democracy, with new duties.  We are not done yet with the process of secularization.  Austria still has a lot to do.  We need another Joseph II to bring more secularization to this country.  That’s the problem with Islam.  Christianity and Judaism lived a long time as a minority and found a way to accommodate secularism.  Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar…”  But Mohammad himself was Caesar!  It was already too late.  And this duality between Caesar and the pope, created a space for politics which never existed in Islam.  This duality is missing.  Islam sees itself as the last message from God to man, the last book that God wrote personally, addressed directly to mankind.  That is an incredible demand.  Before God became silent forever more, he spoke directly to us, and left us with this final message, there is no way Islam can become part of democracy.  Islam cannot become part of anything!  It must determine everything from above.  And that is the very heart of Islamic fascism. 

    PH:  OK.  So the monotheistic religions, if we follow Jan Assman, are since Moses, all three especially dangerous, murderous religions, and naturally the crusades have something to do with Christianity, and naturally the executions under Franco have something to do with Christianity.  And on the other side, naturally the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has something to do with Islam.  The question, on the one hand, naturally, is whether one can see this as a deformation or as abuse of religion.  And I concede, Christianity took a long time. I mean the pope once sang the praises of fascism.  It was only with Vatican II fifty years ago that a reconciliation took place between Christianity and democracy.  But I think it wasn’t due just to a loss of power of the Catholic Church, but the idea that religions can change in substance and in their basic structure.  My question is to what degree do you think this change is possible in Islam?  And to what degree will this concept of abuse by the likes of the Islamic State be accepted?

    AS: In essence, religions don’t change by themselves, but must be forced to change from without.  But something happened in Christianity which did not take place in Islam.  When the Reformation took place, when one was no longer in agreement with the Catholic Church,  Luther’s approach was to return to the teachings of Jesus as a model.  And one can build on that.  He didn’t kill anyone.  He didn’t impose any inquisition, he didn’t start any crusades, he even taught the contrary.  He said love your enemies, who among you is without sin cast the first stone.  I’m not a Christian, have no intention of converting and am critical of all religions equally.  But when one sees these differences, then one can see that the crusades, and the inquisition and the witch burnings are a deformation and an abuse of Christianity.  At least of the teachings of Jesus.  But why are we talking of Khomeini and Hamas and Al Qaeda and Boko Haram as a form of abuse.  It’s a way of reading (the Qur’an), not an abuse.   When you go back to the figure of Mohammad,  you have to recognize that he conducted wars, beheaded people, drove Jews from their homes, and imposed his religion with the sword.  That may have been normal for his time, and I don’t want to judge him by the standards of today.  My problem comes when he is presented as a model for life in the 21st Century.  That’s when I consider what he did as crimes against humanity.

    We have to make a deal.  I won’t insult the Prophet and the Qur’an, but they must remain in the 7th Century.  And not mix in with our affairs in the 21st.  Many Muslims have already accomplished that in their heads.  But the IS people proceed from the assumption that the message applies forever, that what is to be found in the Qur’an is not just for the 7th Century but applies to the 21st.   That what applies to the non-believers of then applies to the non-believers of today.  It’s not an “abuse” but a direct… they are not “interpreting”.  The people who are “interpreting” are the Muslim theologians who find themselves in a dilemma.   On the one hand they are a part of the modern world, and they are ashamed of such things as cutting off hands, and so they diddle with the verses in the Qur’an in such a way as to make them compatible with today.  They pick at a few raisins in a stone hard cake and tell us they have found proof that Islam is a religion of peace.  The fact that their interpretation makes them more sympathetic to us does not mean that their interpretation is correct. 

    PH: When I listen to what you say, then I have trouble understanding why Islam needs theologians. 

    AS: Exactly. 

    PH: It’s a power position that established itself in the high middle ages and now it’s all set in stone.  Anybody who wants to read it can read it.  There is no interpretation to be made.   So who needs theology?  OK.  I want to move on to something else.  We’re sitting here in the Education Center of the Labor Chamber.  The Labor Chamber has many Muslim members.   They will say that what’s going on in Syria and Iraq is gruesome.  Something terrible is going on.  But it doesn’t have anything to do directly with us here.  Only what we are experiencing here directly is the general suspicion that falls on all Muslims.  And you are criticized for inciting criticism of Muslims.  What are we to say to these people?

    AS: That’s a problem that has to be taken seriously.  But anybody who has read what I have to say can see that while I minimize the difference between Islam and Islamicism, I make a huge distinction between Islam and Muslim people.  Many people think a Muslim is a Qur’an on two legs and he or she goes around applying everything that is written in the Qur’an.  No.  Most Muslims have neutralized those things…

    PH: So in your interpretation, the good Muslims are the less pious Muslims. 

    AS: No.  I didn’t say that.  One can be both pious and secular.  People who limit their religion to the spiritual and make no political demands.  Among my friends there are a number of believing Muslims who are secularists and democrats, people who understand that the demands of the Qur’an do not apply in the modern age.  I had a wonderful grandmother who prayed five times a day, who taught me much, much love and warmth, and she was never violent or radical.  It’s important to stress that.  But I protest that my book is against Muslims or that it creates hostility to Muslims.  

    What you said earlier, that the IS have misunderstood the Qur’an and abuse it for their violent and hate and resentment.  The Qur’an, God’s book.  God himself can’t prevent the abuse of his book, and me, a mere mortal, am supposed to defend my book against misinterpretation?  [laughter]  I know that Muslim organizations try to bully me with this logic.  They say, you know, with your appearances and your writing you make life difficult for us.  There have been charges of rabble-rousing.  But when I see that there are some Muslims who are highly incensed that I should publish a book with this title, or that a certain cartoonist from Denmark who sketched the Prophet with a virtual bomb in his head, then they go wild.  They go into the street and 150 people died at that time.  But when the IS runs around with a flag with the name of Mohammad on it, and they march and they massacre people, suddenly they don’t get excited.  For me that’s a part of the problem.  And I challenge Muslims with my books.  Take this criticism seriously.  And react with books and articles, and not with hatred and rage.  And not with the role of the victim.  We are not victims here.  We are citizens.  We have the opportunity here in Europe to play the role of the citizen.  In fact, we have a responsibility to Muslims in the countries where dictatorships have grown up, who cannot develop any free theology, cannot express any thoughts freely.  That’s my criticism.  Not of the normal Muslim, the technical worker, not on the mothers at home.  

    I don’t expect these people to take action and make excuses for the deeds of the radicals in Iraq and Syria, but I do ask of the Muslim intellectuals that they at long last finally stop this PR for Islam.  The problem we have with Islam is not an image problem, but a problem that Islam has with itself.  The problem Islam has with the interpretation of its own texts, with its political demands, with the establishing of equality between men and women, with the nurturing of hatred, with this message of fear, fear of hell,  those are the kinds of things which terrorists make use of when they are not debated and discussed.  Believe me.  I’m not a problem for Islam.  I’m a symptom.  I’m pointing to the problem.  When I see that a house is burning, and I start shouting, "Hey this house in on fire," then you can’t attack me for disturbing the peace.  

    We don’t have that luxury.  We’ve got much more serious problems than image problems.  I’m against racism, and we can fight racism only when we name the problems clearly and seek solutions.  As long as we dance around the problem of Islam, then we give space for the right wing to take control of the problem.   These topics belong in the middle of society,  in politics, and it’s time to stop avoiding these problems because of a fear of being saddled with the charge of being racists.    When we writers and politicians are to speak honestly with Muslims about the problems, then we will develop a sensibility in the general public.  But when we start with the assumption that all criticism stems from a kind of islamophobia and block it, then we defame not only Muslims but a majority of people in Austria and Germany.  A phobia is an illness.  The fears people have in regard to Islam are not an illness.  These fears are real.  And justified.   And should be taken seriously. 

    PH: You say that there is such a thing as islamophobia, but that the term is misused.

    AS: I reject the term islamophobia.  This term is a political construct.  The first person to use it was the Ayatollah Khomenei, in order to describe the attitude of the west, especially American.  Then along came the islamophile scholars and researchers from Germany and America.  Then came a business man from Saudi Arabia by the name of Al-Waleed bin Talal who financed some twenty centers in the USA for Near East Studies and Islamic Studies and suddenly the term islamophobia was on everybody’s lips and in all these centers.  You can’t take this seriously.  What I do take seriously, I prefer the term “Muslimfeindlichkeit” (hostility to Muslims).  I was a member of the Islam Conference in Germany and the leaders wanted to establish the term “Islamfeindlichkeit” and I said no, it’s “Muslimfeindlichkeit” that is the problem.  Because we can limit it and define it.  Hostility to Muslims is when a Muslim wants a job, and because of his name he doesn’t get that job.   That’s a disgrace, and something we should fight against.   But what is “hostility to Islam” – when I say “In Sura 4, verse 34 it says a man may beat his wife” and I detest this verse.  Does that make me “hostile to Islam”?  Should I go on trial?   No.  I may, if I choose, take certain things in Islam and be hostile to them.  

    And it’s particularly Muslims who have to fear what’s in Islam, since it’s primarily Muslims who are the victims of Islamism.

    PH: To criticize religion, and the representatives of the religion, is in a western enlightened society obviously a right.  And the applies to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc..  That’s not the issue, but what there is that you don’t want to subsume under islamophobia, is a general prejudice against Muslims.  In Austria and in Germany.  And it’s a kind of general suspicion which these people live under.  It has to do with the fact they represent different cultures, and it has to do with the question of whether they are compatible with our democracy.   And that is in fact a problem. 

    AS: It’s a problem that concerns all of society, but it’s also a problem with the way the Muslim communities and Muslim intellectuals present themselves.   If they were to be self-critical and engage in discussion about the problems that we have and take a stand against them, this problem would diminish.  But there is this general impression that they are all hiding under a blanket, they never speak the truth.  Just look at the public Muslims in Austria.  I just had a discussion with a couple of them in ORF.  They can’t come out with an honest opinion.  They always have to take into consideration who their clients are and who pays for them, domestically and internationally.  That’s very problematic.  Only an honest debate can draw the poison out of this climate.

    We need a new formula.  I understand Austria has a long tradition of working with Muslim organizations, but I think these arrangements are not longer appropriate for today and they should be renegotiated.  The question of Islamic instruction has be be renegotiated. 

    PH: That’s happening now in Austria.

    AS: Exactly.  But too late.  That should have been done in 2009 with that study published by Mr. Khorchide** in which it was revealed that 22% of the Islam instructors in Austria are anti-democratic.  We now have teachers, financed by the state, presenting anti-democratic and violent ideological ideas in the schools.   When that study was published, it was a golden opportunity for both the state and the community of believers as well as the secular intellectual Muslims.  But what happened?  From the community of believers the study was blocked and called the scientific validity of the study in question.   Not true.  All our teachers are so dear and democratic and nice.  And “Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen” (love, peace and harmony) and that’s the kind of thing that causes anxiety in the land, that they don’t see that this is in our own interest to identify these teachers.  What did the state do?  They called the teachers together and they had to fill out a form.  That is to say, “Starting today, I’m a democrat.”  It’s all eyewash.  That’s when the Muslim community itself should have stepped in and cleaned itself up. 

    I am a secular man.  I think it is wrong that this discussion of integration is constantly islamicized and dumped on the Muslim community.   That’s wrong.  We are integrating people.  Individuals.  Not groups.  Not mosques.  Not churches.  Religion is a private thing.  I’m opposed to Islamic instruction in schools for a variety of reasons.  It’s not the job of the state to transmit religious truths to children.  Rather, the school should offer a balance to that which is taught in the family and in the mosque.  Critical thinking.  Questioning of religious truths.   Those are our citizens of the future.  And not religious communities in need of protection.  That’s no solution for integration.  It’s my opinion that – I don’t want to make a generalization of all mosque communities, but many of them have no interest in integration.  Rather they thrive on the skepticism the Muslims have about Austrian society.  It is in this gap that they thrive.   And that’s what they have to offer to Muslims.  And that’s why they should not be involved in integration.  Integration begins precisely with the emancipation from these faith communities. 

    PH: Good.  I grant you that religion should be taught as cultural history with the significance of religion in society...

    AS: It should be called “Religionskunde” (the study of religion) and not “Islam”. 

    PH: Right.  But I would take issue with what you say about taking religion out of the schools.  Particularly at this time, when there is a new law governing the teaching of religion by the state, I consider that a giant step forward, because when you take it out of the schools, what happens is exactly what you fear most, it gets it wanders away into the back alleys and that gives precisely those people access as religion teachers that we don’t want teaching about religion.   It must be controlled by the government – and I know this is a border area between freedom of opinion and religious freedom – it’s my opinion that it has to be strongly controlled what is taught in the schools, and it has to be in strongly controlled what is taught in the mosques.   

    And now I’d like to turn to something else you brought up.  There were intensive demonstrations in the summer when Israel bombed Gaza and Muslims died.  In this instance, Muslims were the victims of bombing.  In the case of the IS, it’s Muslims who are the perpetrators.  And the victims too are almost entirely Muslims.  But there have been no demonstrations so far because the perpetrators are Muslims.  That’s the negative part.  Then last August, in Die Furche, the Catholic weekly in Vienna, I read, “How does the Muslim community stand in regard to the Islamic State?  The rejection is widespread, yet in the media this fact is largely overlooked or not taken seriously.  

    In the meantime, in France – and this is connected with the murder of the Charlie Hebdo people, and in Germany – there are demonstrations by Muslim officials who say, “Enough with this barbarism.”  And in the U.S. and Britain, there is the “Not in My Name” movement.  That means that’s a beginning.  Muslims in responsible positions are standing up and saying that is an abuse of our religion and we want to have absolutely nothing to do with it.  Those are criminals.  I consider that hopeful.  There are I don’t know how many hundred million Muslims in Europe.  I’d like to see large Muslim demonstrations in the cities that make it clear that this is not our Islam.  It would be especially nice if we non-Muslims could march alongside them, because that would build a community.  And a large demonstration like this, which should be organized by Muslims, that’s something I am hoping for.

    AS: It is of course always praiseworthy when representatives of Islam take such initiatives,  and start a movement.  It comes, in my opinion, a little late.  Time to reject the IS was sooner rather than saying, “What does that have to do with me?  This has nothing to do with Islam.”  That’s where the problem begins, when people try to push this problem away from Islam because that eliminates the possibility of a critical engagement with the religion itself.  Instead, the Muslim organizations began in the same week as the Gaza War a giant movement of all Muslims – the Muslim brotherhood was of course a part of this – against the war – egged on by the Turkish government because it’s in the interest of the head of government in Turkey.  There were many many Muslims in the street in the same week.  I'm talking about the representatives.  There are few Muslims who approve of what IS is doing.  That’s a fact.  But the representatives, those people who speak in the name of Islam hesitates, washed their hands in innocence.  

    Then the pressures started.  There were a couple of mosques set on fire, the details are still not clear.  But then they combined the two topics.  I think that was a mistake.  It’s clear we’re all against burning down mosques.  But by putting the two things together, it makes a statement, “I’m against what the IS is doing, but I am also a victim.”  Reminds me of an Egyptian joke.  There was a watchmaker who wanted both to place a notice in the paper about the death of his son and to place an advertisement about his business.  He didn’t have enough money to do both, so he published one notice:  “I mourn the death of my son and I repair watches.”  That's what the Muslim leaders in Germany did.  They should have just gone into the street and said we are against the IS, period.  But this…

    PH: We are in agreement that this would have been the best way to prevent enemies of Islam, however you define them, set fire to mosques.  But before we end, I want to pose a question that will no doubt be directed to you.  When you were a student you were a Muslim brother.  Why did you leave?

    AS: I was with them for two years.  It’s the typical story.  I came from a village, was all alone in Cairo, didn’t have any friends, felt alone in the masses, had no way to express myself politically, and there was a death in the family and I couldn’t deal with it.  I needed this organization.  And they were super at the beginning.  They take you in, give you support, then you begin to feel important, you take on a role and a long-term project.  That's very important for young people.  Then suddenly comes the indoctrination and brainwashing.  I am a born sceptic and I began to see that these were people interested in substituting one dictatorship for another.  The way they dealt with us, blocked criticism, denied things, double talk - outwardly they talked about reform, and among themselves talked about taking over - that led to serious doubts and I began to realize I was on my own.  There was a time when they marched us into the desert in a terrible heat.  We each had an orange to eat.  After hours we were excited to finally have something to eat and drink and began to peel the orange when the leader says to us, “Now put the orange in the sand and eat the peel.  It was at that moment that I realized that there was no way such men as these were capable of constructing a working state.  The only people they could control would be those who followed them blindly and didn’t think for themselves.   We know that from all kinds of groups – not just Muslim ones -  and I’m glad I had that experience, because it taught me what they think, how they operate, what they say publicly and what they say privately.  

    That’s why I remain skeptical when I hear their protestations about democracy.  I know what they think and am glad I got out.  It would have been fatal for me.  I might have become one of the radicals.  So many things go into the fascination, world conquest, jihad, changing the world, but also inferiority complex of the individual – a mixture, actually, of inferiority complex and the vision of power.  And that brings us back again to the comparison between fascism and Islam.  This combination of humiliation, illness and the lust for revenge.

    PH: Last question.  In your book, The Fall of the Islamic World, a prognosis: If Islam does not fail in Europe what is the faith community, and how should they behave if they want to prevent this downfall, since there is a universal suspicion against these people, a massive hounding of these Islam and Muslims (sic)

    AS: I don’t know how much the communities themselves are capable of changing themselves from within.  They have to be forced to change from two sides.   Normal Muslims have to stand up and say “Not in my name.”  They have to say to these representatives, “You don’t represent me.”  No matter what you say, the Qur’an is much older and it is constantly being called into question.   And the state needs to stop valuing the Islamic organizations so highly.  Not treat them like the Oracle of Delphi whenever there is a problem.   The way to go is this: Muslims are people.  They are children in kindergarten and school, they are workers, they are a part of this society.  And the way you take part in society is to become a part of the organizations, the economy.  

    And these false debates don’t work.  One doesn’t solve problems debating whether there should be more minarets or bigger or smaller mosques.  Instead, we need to invest more in these people.  People who need emancipation.  They need help in learning how to think critically.  They will change their communities eventually.  For Islamic intellectuals, the biggest danger comes from outside.  What happens in Islamic history.. they are living with great difficulties, an increase in population, badly led educational programs that lead automatically to radicalization.  What we see in Syria and Iraq, is increasingly in places like Yemen and Libya.  Algeria may break apart.  And who knows what may happen in Saudi Arabia.  Now there’s a big issue.   

    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 euro because he blogged something critical about Islam?  And we sit here, with representatives of the Saudi government and have “interreligious dialogues.”  How nice!  

    Real dialogue begins with honesty.  When I respect Muslims, I take them seriously and I criticize them honestly and trust them to take this criticism on and react positively and honestly.  And we have to do that inside the country, as well.  This pretense of dialogue doesn’t bring us together.  It does no good to sit in an air-conditioned room in Vienna and tell each others great stories about Abraham while men in Saudi Arabia are being beheaded and women are humiliated and toyed with and whipped for the slightest offense.  Honesty means, “No my friend, before you sit down at a table with me to discuss the wonders of the three monotheistic religions, go home and have an inter-Saudi conversation with your people and solve your problems at home. 

    PH: I thank you for this discussion (to AS) and (to the audience) for your interest.

    *Harun al-Rashid was the fifth Abbasid Caliph. His birth date is debated, with various sources giving dates from 763 to 766.   His surname translates to "the Just", "the Upright", or "the Rightly-Guided". Wikipedia
     ** Mouhanad Khorchide is a professor of the sociology of religion at the Islamic Religion and Pedagogical Institute at Vienna University.  Read more at http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=e7d_1233866244#BPhoKhAwDk5LZVrW.99]  
    See also: http://gatesofvienna.blogspot.com/2009/02/martyrs-hand-grenades-and-austrian.html
    ***nasara - from "Nazarene" a pejorative term in Arabic for Christians


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