Iranian Women Remove the Hijab: Is It the End of the World?

What are we to make of the women in Iran who are taking off their head coverings and waving them on sticks in public? Are they…

  1. dire threats to the very foundation of the Iranian nation
  2. misguided young people acting childishly
  3. noble freedom fighters to be admired for their courage

29 have been arrested that we know about, and it remains to be seen whether the gesture will spread like wildfire as more and more women throw off the symbol of their servitude, or whether it will peter out, relegated to the many failed attempts of reformers through the ages to alter religious customs and strictures.

Their bravery is considerable. We know they are fined at the very least, but are they also harangued, beaten, tortured?   Are they called whores? Molested? Sentenced to lengthy jail terms? And what is their argument when confronted by the men who run the country, the ultra-islamists who point to the verse in the Holy Qur’an that clearly backs up their belief that women must cover their hair? Could they ever convince their jailers that there are good reasons to throw off the head coverings and let each woman dress as she pleases?  The argument might go something like this:

Woman: The covering is uncomfortably hot.

Islamist: It’s in the Qur’an that you have to wear it.

Woman: It makes me feel like a second-class citizen.

Islamist: It’s in the Qur’an, don’t you understand.   The Blessed Prophet wrote that you must wear it.

Woman: That was 1,400 years ago. Times have changed.

Islamist: You are wrong. His words came from Allah, to be respected for all time. Are you saying that Allah came to you with a message that his Prophet was mistaken when he wrote that 1,400 years ago? Have you lost your faith?

If you look more closely at the hijab arguments of an Muslim apologist, the parsing of words, the minutiae, it’s remarkably like the arguments from Catholic holy fathers with regard to the finer points of their rituals and why they must be performed just so and not any other way.   Any change is a hole in the dyke that will weaken the entire structure, built up carefully many centuries ago to hold back the pounding waves of sin and chaos that threaten to overwhelm our race.  Or in short, it’s the Word of God. Believe it.

An interesting way to approach the hijab issue would be a Muslim trying to convince a non-Muslim to get on board with Islam. There are many good arguments for embracing Islam including a sense of peace, a spiritual connection with the universe, a rejection of materialism, wealth, and lewdness.  But how do you convince a heathen that Allah spoke to Mohammed and Mohammed is the one who wrote it all down in the 7th century?  Look into your heart?  Intuition?  Faith, faith, faith…..! A tall order.  The question raised by the women of Iran is, basically, can we edit the Qur’an and agree that much of what is a part of Islam is of tremendous value, but other parts are reflections of an ancient culture, not the mind of God at all, but the desire of men.

So what it comes down to with the hijab is this: If you believe that centuries ago the Creator of the Universe told His Prophet everything we all need to know about how to live our lives, then there is no point in arguing. The head covering stays on, the disgruntled go to jail.

But if you believe that positive change is possible, and the way to gauge whether a change is positive or not is by whether it delivers benefit to individuals, then you have made the transition from a faith-based philosophy to one based on the Greater Good.



Athena Speaks to the Middle East

If there’s one thing the Middle East needs right now, it’s a touring company performing Aeschylus’s Oresteia. This ancient trilogy shouts down the centuries to us, begging us to reconsider our self-destructive, violent behavior and come up with better answers than suicide bombers, chemical weapons, and macho warriors.

To remind you of this tale: Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks, returns home from war only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. Their son, Orestes, at the insistence of Apollo, then kills his mother to avenge his sire. But this stirs up the Furies, the frightening, bloodsucking goddesses of vengeance, who haunt Orestes and drive him nearly mad as the images of his bloody deed repeat endlessly in his mind.

The third play in the trilogy is the resolution of the battle between the old bloodthirsty way of doing things and the new. The Furies represent the older paths of revenge killings and eternal war between tribes.  As they close in on him, Orestes flees to Athena (Wisdom) and begs her for justice –“Apollo made me do it!”   Athena proposes an innovation: the jury system where evidence of crimes is heard and a vote is taken among the citizen-jurors to pronounce guilt or innocence. When it’s all over, Orestes has won, and the Furies have lost. They are furious and threaten to let loose their anger, poisoning the ground of Athens with blood and blight, but Athena convinces them—and this is the key part– to give up this outmoded thinking and instead, to join her in helping the people of Athens by watching over them. In return, the mortals will bow to them, thank them, and bring them offerings.   After some heavy-duty persuasion, the Furies agree. They are given a new home, new duties, and a new name. They are now called the Eumenides—the blessed ones. The jury system was born and blood feuds are no longer the norm.  It’s called civilization.

The fighting in the Middle East may not be about family feuds, but there is enough enmity between religious sects and ethnic groups to keep the countries of the region in chaos for many centuries to come.   They invoke the name of Allah, but Ares, the god of war, seems to have a firm grip on the minds of many.

Where is the Goddess of Wisdom that could convince them to put down their weapons and arbitrate their differences?   Where is the tribunal that could hear them impartially? And what is the argument that would transform the losers, whoever they might be, into partners for peace and protection?

No one knows, and so we have the civil wars, the tribes and sects, Us vs. Them.  The UN, which could be the tribunal, is ineffective.  The peaceful passages in their holy books are ignored in favor of those that promote violence and retribution.   The old ways aren’t working.

As Lucretius said so long ago: Tantum religio, potuit suadere malorum.

“Religion can lead us to so many evils.”

Wisdom crieth aloud in the street but can’t be heard over the sound of gunfire.

Turkey, Stop the Attack on Kurds in Syria!

The madness in the Mideast never ends.   If one area calms down, you can bet that another part of the region is heating up.   Now Turkey is charging into what was once Syria in order to quash a Kurdish takeover of the province of Afrin.   The Turkish president Erdogan tells us that the Afrin Kurds are linked to the Kurds in Southeast Turkey who have been fighting for independence from Turkey for years. He is determined to clear the Syrian border of Kurds, not just in Afrin but perhaps all along Turkey’s lengthy southern frontier. He’s setting about doing it this week with airstrikes, artillery barrages, and now tanks on the ground.

If only there were someone with some good sense and charisma who could step in and say, “Let’s stop the bombing, stop the tanks—let’s sit down and figure this out before any more people die!”   There is no one like that apparently, unless it would be Vladimir Putin who commands some respect in the region. It’s hard to think of an American who could step up to the plate. Is there anyone in the Land of the Free who the people of this region look up to enough to listen to? Some movie star? Some Dennis Rodman of the Middle East who has won the hearts of the dictators, demi-dictators, and rebels?

But isn’t it clear to everyone what the best outcome would be?  Let’s look at what the various parties want:  The Kurds want self-determination for the regions where they are a majority. They’ve already got it in Iraq (though they almost blew it with a demand for absolute independence recently). The Turks want to keep their borders as they are, and they want to stop Kurdish militants from acts of violence within those borders.  OK, so let’s try giving the Kurds autonomy, lots of autonomy over there in the Southeast….maybe that would be enough self-determination for them to stop their attacks. As for Assad in Syria, he wants his country back intact, and the only way he’s going to get it without an even lengthier bloodbath is by granting autonomy to the Kurds in the lands they currently control. And then, the Syrian rebels, who come in different varieties– well,….OK, they will be left out of this particular discussion because there are only so many complications that can be dealt with at one time.

So given all this, my imaginary charismatic hero would say: “The key is to keep the borders as they are, but guarantee more autonomy for ethnic groups within those borders. That’s what’s happening in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, and that’s what is happening in places like South Tyrol, Scotland, Quebec, and was happening in Catalonia until the latest rise in tensions. Grant the Kurds in Syria autonomy in provinces and villages where they are a majority, guaranteeing the rights of other ethnic groups within those regions as well.   Grant the Kurds of Turkey the same autonomy, while denying them independence. If the Turks are worried about the potential for terrorism, let’s set up a UN force that will police the area for a while. It would be cheaper than years of war, thousands of deaths, decades of anger and vows of revenge that the current direction will inevitably bring.

If the parties won’t come to the table or won’t agree once they’re there, let’s bribe them with a sizeable chunk of money that would go to infrastructure, rebuilding what has been destroyed, and upgrading what has survived.    It would be money well spent.

Autonomy vs. Sovereignty: the Case of South Tyrol

Let’s take a look at a place where terrible decisions made after World War I resulted in a map that left an ethnic group divided by an international border instead of united under a single flag—and no, I’m not thinking of the Middle East where the Kurds were spread over four countries without a nation of their own. The place I have in mind is South Tyrol, a German-speaking Alpine district, once part of the Austrian Empire, but in 1918-9 handed over to Italy (some would say stolen) where it remains today.

In Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points for world peace, number 9 was about adjusting the borders of Italy along lines of nationality.  Well, they blew it big time. Even though 90% of South Tyroleans were Germans, they now had to pledge allegiance to Italy. Their language was no longer taught in schools, their names were changed (from Josef to Giuseppe, for example). They were the American Indians of the Alps, given the raw end of the stick in many ways as their culture was gradually suppressed. World War II changed some of that briefly, but the Allies let Italy have the province again in 1945 so it was back to being second-class citizens with attempts to de-Germanify the entire population, a feat France accomplished so successfully in Alsace-Lorraine.

A terrorist group of Germans rose up in the 60s, protesting their treatment, and the Italians, to their credit saw the error of their ways. They worked with the Austrians and locals to resolve the tension. What was the answer? Greater autonomy. Now German is spoken almost everywhere again, it’s the most prosperous area in Italy, and people get along just fine for the most part.

Is everything good in South Tyrol?   There are still reports of dissatisfaction with some still wishing for independence or to rejoin Austria. Then at the end of December, the leader of the Freedom Party in Austria, now a partner in the government, stirred things  up by pledging to allow the German South Tyroleans dual citizenship.   That got some Italians living there pretty mad, but by and large things are peaceful there on top of the Alps, as far as anyone can tell from this distance.

The moral of the story is that you’re never going to satisfy everyone when it comes to questions of freedom and sovereignty.   Get used to that idea—there will always be those who are unhappy.   But perhaps the best answer to solving the tension is more autonomy and less concern about sovereignty; more focus on getting along and building bridges and avoiding divisive gestures.   Maybe more autonomy might be all that Catalonia and the Kurds and the Karens, the Southern Cameroonians and the many other ethnic groups who feel slighted would need to stop protesting, or stop killing each other and to channel their energies into more productive avenues than chasing the elusive bubble of sovereignty.



Pope Francis in Myanmar Gets It Right Again

It can drive you crazy how the media takes a story and focuses on the wrong thing.   Take the Pope’s visit to Myanmar, for example.   The headline from all the news outlets was all about how he did not use the word ‘Rohingya” to refer to the Muslim people being ethnically cleansed in that largely Buddhist nation.   The media needs a storyline and they’ve certainly got an important one in the misery of these poor people, now barely surviving in refugee camps.   A solution to the problem is desperately needed, but by focusing on this terminology issue, they diverted us from the most important thing that the Pope said:

“Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building.”

What an earth-shaking statement!  The leader of the Catholic Church wants to find common ground with other religions to build a better, more peaceful, more tolerant, more united world!  What a difference from the bad old days when Protestants and Catholics went to war over an argument about the communion bread and the Faithful slaughtered whole cities in the name of the All-Merciful Creator.  If only today’s fundamentalists around the world could buy in to Francis’ statement we’d be halfway to heaven on earth.

The Pope is essentially signing on to what the Enlightenment was all about back when Voltaire told us it’s so easy to get distracted by unimportant things like how you should dress to please God, or what foods God told us not to eat.   If only we could all latch onto the big things, like we’re all searching for a meaning and purpose in life, and religion is a road that gets us there, each religion a different path to the same ultimate place, a place where we recognize the common humanity in each other while honoring the differences.

The Rohingya crisis is a version of the same problem that the United States is facing on its southern border, where over a period of decades or even centuries, poor families have sought a better life in a neighboring country where they can find work.   Are they citizens or not?  We haven’t figured out how to deal with that yet and neither have they.   How much of what is driving this comes from the difference in religions, and how much from simply being different?   Whatever the answer, as the international community works to try to help the situation, let’s hope that Pope Francis’ appeal to our higher selves will not get lost.

Let the Kurds and Catalans Go!

The Kurds in the former Iraq have voted–let them go!  The Catalans want to vote–let them! What is this mentality that the borders are sacrosanct?   By all means, split these “countries” up into viable entities that can thrive and be trading partners and good neighbors to the Arab part of Iraq, to the rest of Spain, the rest of Europe.  Think outside the box!  Split Libya up, split up the South Sudan, Syria, the Ukraine and yes, Turkey, the UK, the USA if that’s what the people in one region want.  It will be expensive and confusing at first, but then, with good will on all sides, it will be better.

Self-determination has been a watchcry of democracy for eons.   The problem is defining at what level the self-determination will take place:  the city? the county? the province?  There will always be a tension there, but this bullying, chest-thumping attitude has no place in the 21st century.   I had a Spanish student who told me that if the Catalans tried to break away he would be there with a gun to make sure they did not.   Is it worth even one life to keep the border as it is now?  Do we think we’re locked into the political map of the world that exists today?  Folks, get out a historical atlas and take a look at the shifting borders over the centuries.  There will always be changes and the question should be, how will we facilitate them so that no one gets hurt, no wars flare up, no dictators seize power in wars of aggression.


The Unpardonable Sin: Examples from Christianity and Islam

The Bible contains a cryptic passage in Mark 3:28-9 where Jesus tells his disciples that all sins and blasphemies can be forgiven

But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

There have been a lot of sermons written on this idea of the unpardonable sin, but perhaps what it really means to “blaspheme against the Holy Ghost” is to deny the divine spirit that exists in each of us, that part of us that raises us above the beasts and makes us human.

We have seen examples of what it is to deny our humanity too often recently.   A death cult has grown and spread that under the guise of religion, of serving a deity,  demands that its faithful seek out innocent people and kill them in any manner possible. Blow them up, hack them to death, gun them down—it doesn’t matter.   Men, women, children, Christian, Hindu—it’s all the same if they are infidels. That’s the way to a better world, by starting a war of attrition that will end with a lot of people dead, but remember, the infidels don’t matter, and the faithful die as martyrs and martyrdom is a great blessing. It must be true, that’s what the holy men say, and if I doubt what they say, then perhaps I am an infidel too.

Lest we in the Western World get too righteously indignant, let me remind you of an event that occurred back in the 13th century. At that time in southern France a sect of Christianity spread called Catharism, which among other things, rejected the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, and so, logically, rejected the priest’s power to perform these miraculous rites. Rome got worried about this challenge to its power, and let it be known that if anyone would take up arms against these heretics, all past sins would be pardoned, and not only that, any sins committed in this crusade against the Cathars (Albigensians) would be pardoned too.   That was nothing short of a license to rape, plunder, and murder at will, and there were plenty of knights and desperados kicking around who were just waiting for an opportunity like this.   Led by the newly-formed Inquisition they ravaged, ravished, and burned these unfortunate, good-hearted people, until none of them were left, one of the first recorded genocides.   The crusade succeeded and God smiled once again on his servants in the Vatican. It was just a warm-up for the Inquisition which continued to torture and immolate infidels and apostates for six centuries.

I’ll have more to say about the Cathars later, but the point this time around is that we’re re-living that horrible time in history, where religious leaders utterly distort the central message of the founders of their faith.  It’s no longer “help people who are suffering,” but “believe what I tell you or I will kill you.” The focus should not be on conversion, but compassion.   To twist that around is to forget we are human beings, it’s to become a kind of monster that sees a crowded street full of people, full of life,  as nothing more than a place to spill blood.  That is the unpardonable sin.

After Charlottesville Will It Be West Side Story?

If anyone wants to know where we’re heading now after Charlottesville, it’s easy to see. More rallies are planned, more anti-rallies will confront them. The ideologies are diametrically opposed, but the hotheads on both sides are united in their hope  for a good fight and will look for any excuse to lash out. They are the Jets and the Sharks, pounding their chests, as they circle each other singing:

We’re gonna hand ’em a surprise…Tonight.

We’re gonna cut ’em down to size…Tonight.

We said, “O.K., no rumpus,

No tricks.”

But just in case they jump us,

We’re ready to mix….Tonight.

Planning to go to a future rally near you?  Be aware that many young men love the idea of  fighting and violence.

We’re gonna rock it tonight,

We’re gonna jazz it up and have us a ball!

They’re gonna get it tonight;

The more they turn it on the harder they’ll fall!

You’re not going to have a reasonable discussion with anyone. It’ll be more along the lines of

JETS: Well, they began it!

SHARKS: Well, they began it!

ALL:  And we’re the ones to stop ’em once and for all,   … Tonight!

The answer is not to do nothing, it’s to hold your own rally in a different part of town or, if you find yourself in the presence of speakers or marchers you disagree with,  silently turn your back in protest.

Just a reminder: both the leaders of the Jets and the Sharks ended up dead.

see also Charlottesville and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry


Charolottesville and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

I was struck by some similarities between the conflict in Charlottesville and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.   Fanatics were the leaders in both cases, and both groups were looking for instant publicity in order to stir up a rebellion: Brown wanted the slaves to rise against their white masters, while the alt-right wants the whites to rise up and claim their putative place in the Home of the Brave. The alt-left or the antifas also want to stir up their side and confront their opponents head-on.   The disciples of violence are primed and ready. More confrontations are being planned.

Watch out! These clashes will only escalate and lead to a Second Civil War, just as Harper’s Ferry led to the first one.   They get everyone going, mad at the other side, spoiling for a fight. Have we learned nothing in 150 years?   Even our saner leaders are not doing enough to head this off.

This is the USA.   Certain things are legal: to carry guns, to march in protest, to say what you want to say in public and private forums.


we could make things illegal and safer if we wanted to by passing new laws that would forbid non-governmental marches and protests in which people are carrying weapons of any kind.   We could outlaw military-style firearms period.   We could censor (yes, dammit, say it proudly, censor!) certain kinds of speech as the Germans have done, in outlawing any support or symbols of the Nazi ideology. The Germans have figured out you need something called “defensive democracy” designed to keep the state safe from demagogues.  German  law bans the incitement of hatred or violence, or ridiculing parts of the population in a manner apt to breach the peace—including racist speech (Volksverhetzung).

This is what’s needed. So, come on, Congress! Step up to the plate and pass some laws for the greater good!

In the meantime, if you disagree with someone’s views, don’t do this:

Yell and scream at them

Throw things at them

Provoke them in any way

Do this: hold your own rally in a different spot of town or stand in silent protest with your back turned to the speakers or marchers that you disagree with.  You could also try to reason with them, but Reason is in short supply these days.

see also Charlottesville: In the Absence of Reason Try Reconciliation

Free Speech in Germany?  Up to a Point


Charlottesville: In the Absence of Reason Try Reconciliation

Charlottesville goes down in history now. Once again we have people on both sides hell-bent on confrontation–shouting, raging,… you can almost hear their blood boiling as fists are clenched, the curses fly, and the trigger fingers start itching.

What an exercise in futility!   The anitfas are not going to change anyone’s mind this way.   They are just going to make more people on the margins become actively sympathetic to the alt-right.  We all know that the good people of Charlottesville did not want to let a white nationalist march go unchallenged, but where does this kind of angry challenge get us?  Innocent people dead and injured.

Ideally, rational people would sit down and talk about their differences and come to a way of working them out. But there comes a time when reason is absent, when people are so brainwashed, so ignorant, or so worked up they can’t think straight. What do you do then?

Suppose someone stands up in a meeting and says something outrageous, like “We should kill all the _________” (fill in the group of your choice).  There are several options for how to deal with it:

1) ignore it.

2) suppress it. We are loath to do that in our country because of the First Amendment.

3) shout them down. That’s what the counter-protesters were trying to do in Charlottesville.

4) indicate your disapproval publically but silently.   Stand up in the meeting and turn your back. Line the march with counter-protesters but silently fold your arms, shake your heads.

The fourth way is the best and is something I’ve heard the Quakers sometimes do. The third will almost surely lead to increasingly violent conflicts and ultimately deaths. It breathes oxygen into a smoldering fire.    The second way has its place, and every country in the world does outlaw certain kinds of speech, but this will lead to underground movements espousing forbidden causes. The first runs the risk of outrageous viewpoints spreading, which also is the case with the third.

This issue of the Confederate monuments is a difficult one. Of course Robert E. Lee was on the wrong side of history, defending a horrible institution, but is there a better way to go about this than rubbing the noses of the soldiers’ descendents in their defeat?

How about a competition to commemorate all sides in the War Between the States—more monuments to be placed near Lee’s, representing slavery, emancipation and most importantly, reconciliation.   I believe the leaders of Charlottesville are wise enough to realize that simply telling the alt-right to “Go home!” as the governor of Virginia did is not the answer. They ARE home and we have to live with them, just as they have to live with us.

see also Free Speech Rallies and Death in Portland and Confronting the Dark Side in Portland