Monday, May 30, 2011

How to argue with an Islamist

A few days ago I chatted with an Islamist, a young Pakistani man who dreamed of establishing a pan-Islamic caliphate stretching across the Muslim world and based on the ancient laws of Muhammad. This young man voiced ideas that would have shocked me once, but which I have become familiar with over years of online discussions. A mutual friend, however, was appalled and baffled by his theocratic notions so I decided to put together this list of tips for debating with Islamists.

These tips should not be used thoughtlessly. I often see Islamists and other political radicals regurgitating simplistic arguments taken from radical blogs without ever bothering to consider them. Here I encourage readers to introspect and question their own prejudices. You should not try to brainwash your Islamist friend. Rather, this post will help open-minded people to expose the contradictions and fabrications relied on by Islamist propagandists.

For sake of brevity, I will assume your Islamist friend is male and use ‘he’ instead of the more awkward ‘he or she’. Also, this article is intended for a Western non-Muslim but could be used by anyone, including a Muslim who rejects the political ideology of Islamism.

1) Ask for examples
Islamism is a radical political ideology. We are surrounded by wealthy liberal democracies so we already know what life is like in them. The onus is on your Islamist friend to convince you that his radical religious alternative is better, so ask for an example of a modern Islamist society. This will probably provoke one of two replies:

a) He will give real examples like Saudi Arabia or Iran. If he does, you may be able to use these later. As real-world examples Saudi Arabia and Iran are - like all countries - flawed. It can be helpful to explore those flaws.

b) He will argue that no Islamist society exists today, but that it did in the past. This is a very likely response, and it shows your friend to be a Utopian thinker, dreaming of a perfect political system that would be correct in all circumstances and for all people. It is harder to debate with Utopianists because you can’t compare real countries with their imagined alternative, but simply pointing out his lack of a modern example might get him thinking about it.

2) Don’t attack Islam
The religion of Islam is not your concern, the political ideology of Islamism is. Remember that a great many Muslims are comfortable with relatively secular government, including some who consider themselves devout and serious believers. Attacking Islam is off-target and could provoke anger from potential allies.

A second reason is that your Islamist friend is probably more knowledgeable about Islam than you, unless you happen to study or practice it yourself. I have not studied Islam so I prefer to avoid getting bogged down in scriptural arguments.

3) Pick your fights
Related to this, remember that you don’t have to disagree with everything your Islamist friend says. Even successfully challenging a few points could inspire him to introspect and question his prejudices. Many Islamists will bombard you with loosely-related, or irrelevant, information. Don’t feel that you must answer each point he makes: focus on some central issue.

You can also play to your strengths. If you are an evolutionary biologist, you can tackle their Creationist beliefs. If you like geology, you can explain how we know that Earth is billions of years old, not thousands. If you know about politics, pick apart their dream theocracy. Just finding one weak point could undermine the whole ideology.

4) The West doesn’t exist
Islamists will sometimes define their ideal society by contrast with a corrupt, godless West. Yet this relies on the understanding that there really is a single uniform Western society.

There is not. The borders of the West are utterly unclear. Is Russia Western? Japan? Industrialised China? What defines Westernism? If it is industrialisation, democracy or women’s rights then no European countries were Western a few centuries ago. Dissect Islamist generalisations by exploring this. They complain sometimes about Western Crusades but is the West they oppose medieval Catholic theocracy or modern secularism?

Many political radicals like to deal with monolithic political alternatives: black and white, right and wrong. Yet reality is fractured and complex. No perfect society exists. No culture ends discretely at the political border without leaking some way across or being influenced by its neighbour. The West is a broad and ever-changing concept that today rarely refers to Christendom and usually implies a set of modern values that are as comfortable functioning in Japan or South Korea as Western Europe. Islam, for that matter, is no different.

5) Dissect Islam
Some Islamists use two different standards to calculate the number of Muslims in the world. The first is broad and inclusive, so that anyone who claims to be Muslim is included. When Islamists boast about Islam being the ‘fastest growing religion’, they use this inclusive estimate.

The second is exclusive, and insists that only a minor core of believers are ‘true Muslims’. In that estimate, individuals who drink alcohol, listen to music, wear revealing clothes, associate with non-Muslims or have pre-marital sexual relations are excluded. Also excluded may be all Muslims who do not belong to the sect of that particular Islamist. Ahmadis and Sufis are out, Sunni or Shia may be excluded too.

When boasting about the population of Muslims many Islamists take the former estimate, but when discussing the correct behaviour of Muslims, they shift to the latter. It may be useful to question this, and to find out how your Islamist friend decides which individuals are Muslim. If he tries to switch between the two estimates as it is convenient for his argument, point out the inconsistency.

6) Use sources he accepts
If he challenges one of your claims, you need to be able to point quickly to a reliable source, and it needs to be a source that he accepts. He may dismiss inconvenient statistics or news by attacking the source, so this is important. Will he accept UN statistics? World Health Organisation? World Bank? OECD?

One way to do this is to use the same sources as he does. For example, many Islamists will denounce the US for killing ‘millions’, ‘hundreds of thousands’ or ‘over 650,000’ people in Iraq. The latter figure actually comes from a survey by the medical journal Lancet, published in 2006. If he uses their figures, you can infer that he accepts Lancet as a source. This is a perfect opportunity to undermine his simplistic understanding of the Iraqi conflict because the Lancet survey explains:

Deaths attributable to the coalition accounted for 31% (95% CI 26–37) of post-invasion violent deaths.

46% of violent deaths were caused by unknown actors while 24% belonged to ‘others’. The implication here is that a great many of victims in Iraq were probably not killed by the US-led coalition, challenging his anti-American assumptions.

Likewise, see what news media he accepts. Many Islamists believe that ‘Western media’ is deliberately biased against Muslims, or that it is controlled by Jews. In reality channels like Al Jazeera cover quite similar ground to major Western sources like BBC or Reuters, so use sources like Al Jazeera rather than getting side-tracked trying to convince him of the merits of BBC.

7) Don’t defend the invasion of Iraq
The biggest anti-war marches in history happened in Europe, before the invasion of Iraq. Mention the three million people who marched in Rome against the war. (Ask your Islamist friend if he also protested against the war! In reality the European protests vastly outnumbered those held in Muslim-majority countries.) These protests undermine Islamist claims about an anti-Muslim West, itching to go to war against Islam.

I was among those marchers and I still think the invasion was unwise and harmful. However even if you supported the invasion, recognise how it strengthened the Islamist narrative of a Crusader West fighting against Islam. Try to break that narrative down, perhaps by highlighting Saddam Hussein’s violent repression of Shia Islamist group Da'wa. Hussein was a brutal secularist, hardly a hero of Islam.

It helps, though, if you oppose the Iraq war.

Radical political movements like Islamism need a nemesis, something to push against, someone whose perfectly opposing views gives Islamists a sense of identity. Anti-Muslim Westerners who boast about Western supremacy and revel in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provide them with that. Knowing when to yield and to agree with your Islamist friend renders their bitter defiance unnecessary. If they push and you step aside, they fall over. Destabilise and surprise them with agreement, and you force them to think. Cracks in the implacable structure of Islamism will follow.

7) Don’t defend imperialism
Much modern Islamism dwells heavily on European colonialism, especially the colonisation of Muslim-majority lands. Islamists have to explain why most Muslim-majority countries have failed so far to develop wealth to the extent of the West or Far East, and one way is to blame economic stagnation on Western imperialism. The Europeans supposedly only became wealthy by looting the wealth of their innocent Muslim neighbours.

This is a very simplistic view of imperialism, but rather than argue over the details, you can puncture their argument with a few simple points.

First point to the fact that most European countries didn’t have colonies, at least since 1800. In fact a great number of Europeans live in countries which were colonised by their own neighbours: including Ireland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Hungary and Romania. Millions of Europeans live in countries once conquered by the (Muslim) Ottoman Turks too: Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Cyprus and so on.

Ireland is a useful example because it was colonised by Britain for far, far longer than any Muslim-majority country: its occupation by Anglo-Normans began in the 12th century. If British colonialism is to blame for modern poverty in Egypt or Pakistan, then Ireland should be truly abject. In reality there is no clear link between British colonialism and modern wealth. Here are some former colonies along with UK, from the CIA World Factbook’s list of countries by GDP per capita, PPP:

Singapore: $57,000
Ireland: $37,600
UK: $35,100
South Africa: $10,700
Bangladesh: $1,700
Zimbabwe: $400

In the long-term, imperialism seems to be a poor way to generate wealth, while victims of imperialism can outgrow their former oppressors. Switzerland never had colonies and hasn’t been to war since 1815, yet today is one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Don’t actually defend colonialism, however. Centuries of oppression and looting may not make future economic distress inevitable, but they leave bitter memories – here in Ireland as much as in Muslim lands.

8) Mention Muslim imperialism
In the 1960s Muslim-majority Indonesia took control of Christian-majority West Papua, which the Dutch colonial power had been preparing for independence. Indonesia began widespread mining in West Papua and large-scale migration of Muslim Indonesians followed, prompting separatist violence by the natives. Indonesia also invaded Catholic-majority East Timor in 1975, and brutally suppressed its people until, with a final burst of violence, the state became independent in the 2000s.

Morocco has a similar experience, seizing Western Sahara after the withdrawal of the Spanish colonial power, and suppressing a separatist movement there. Islamists are not likely to discuss these matters because they are inconvenient: depicting Muslims as imperial aggressors instead of victims.

Further back into history Muslim Barbary Pirates living in North Africa terrorised European shipping for centuries, raiding as far north as Iceland to seize Christian slaves for the Arab slave market. Much is made today of the pan-Atlantic slave trade which took Africans to the US, but millions of African slaves were also dragged north and east into Arabia.

Anti-Muslim bigots try to depict Muslims as being exceptionally violent, talking of the bloody borders that supposedly run everywhere between Muslim and non-Muslim populations. Islamists try to depict Muslims as being exceptionally peaceful, victimised by barbaric – especially Western – invaders. A more honest look at history shows that Muslims are people, and prone to the same failings as all other peoples, including the temptations to invade and loot their neighbours.

9) Question the Ummah
The Ummah is the Muslim World, or all Muslims. Islamists sometimes try to exaggerate the bond unique to the Ummah, which would reinforce their belief that Muslims would one day unite into a single Islamic caliphate.

In reality Muslims are extremely diverse, a point denied as often by anti-Muslim bigots as by Islamists. In modern history there have been multiple wars fought between Muslim-majority states: Muslims divide as readily into national, tribal or local allegiances as any other peoples do.

Considering the special symbolic importance of Palestine to Islamists, it could be useful to point to the Black September incident of 1970, when Jordan brutally crushed Palestinian militant groups like Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation. Thousands of people were killed. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who would become Pakistan’s president (and would work to Islamify that country), led a Jordanian division against his Palestinian fellow-Muslims.

10) In general, though, don’t talk about Palestine
Many Islamists obsess about the conflict in Palestine and some have quite a bit of knowledge (or have internalised lots of anti-Jewish propaganda) regarding this issue.

You can discuss Palestine of course, and seek to show the complexities of that conflict. But to focus on Palestine is to acknowledge that it is a major world issue. In reality the Israel-Palestine conflict is a relatively minor one. The real carnage goes on mostly in Africa, in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo that don’t fit easily into the simplistic global narratives we use to interpret events.

The Second Congo War killed around three million, vastly more than the fatalities suffered in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few dozen deaths in Palestine attract greater outrage than millions in Africa. I notice Islamists often complain about double standards in the coverage of world events, yet the double standards are their own. If your Islamist friend changes subject suddenly and reverts to simplistic complaints about Palestine, change course too. When he says: ‘What about Palestine?’ you demand ‘what about Congo?’

11) Emphasise non-Crusader conflicts
A final foreign policy point. Many Islamists will become enraged about the ‘Western’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which reinforce their belief that peaceful Muslims are under siege from an expansionary, arrogant West. This narrative requires that they ignore a great many of other conflicts.

For example, in 2009 Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province of China rioted during tensions with Han Chinese. Communist China has a history of religious repression: Islam was persecuted, mosques desecrated and Qurans burnt during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s.

Not all Islamists have ignored this. An Al Qaeda-affiliated website said of the Han Chinese: ‘Chop off their heads at their workplaces or in their homes to tell them that the time of enslaving Muslims has gone’. In online forums, though, I see very little rage directed at China. Instead Pakistani Islamists side cheerfully with China because they see in China a natural rival of their Indian and Western enemies.

American sabre-rattling with China gives Islamists a strange opportunity to pick sides. They could side with the US, where millions of Muslims live and practice their faiths in freedom, or with China, with a modern history of brutal religious repression. The choice should be obvious, but most Islamists are pragmatic enough to leave aside principle when it gets in the way of convenient narratives. So they side with the communists.

Something similar is true for Burma, where the Muslim minority faces persecution. Since Western authorities tend to side against the Burmese government, many Islamists are quick to abandon their Muslim brethren just to keep the anti-Western spirit alive.

12) Beware of Zakir Naik
Some Islamists I encounter online have very few original thoughts of their own, preferring to copy and paste the arguments made on other Islamist blogs. If you find your Islamist friend’s language suddenly change, or find that they are posting large chunks of text, it can be worthwhile to put a piece into Google and see if it is simply copy-pasted from an Islamist site.

This unoriginality is an opportunity too. You need only show them one or two of the (myriad) internal contradictions of this copy-pasted ideology to get them thinking about it.

One of the common Islamist sources is the Islamic Research Foundation, founded by Zakir Naik. The IRF has a frequently asked questions section featuring exactly the kind of copy-past material used by armchair Islamists, like a ‘Comparative Belief’ section which explains to believers of other faiths why they’re wrong.

I guess that Naik is popular because he tells insecure young Muslims that the culture they were born into is superior: always a satisfying message. Yet his ideas are truly bizarre. Here he argues that eating meat from ‘violent and ferocious’ animals will make people violent! These mad claims are weak points in his ideology. Just point to Japan where people eat ‘violent’ tuna fish, but have a low crime rate!

13) Disprove imagined media bias
Despite the fact that huge African conflicts are ignored by mainstream journalists while politically-sensitive conflicts in Palestine and Iraq get saturation-coverage, many Islamists are convinced that ‘Western media’ are anti-Muslim and pro-Israel. This is easily disproved. Point your Islamist friend to articles by Robert Fisk, for example or any number of editorials in The Guardian. The non-existent pro-Israel agenda by media is one of the more absurd but prevalent Islamist myths.

There are also plenty of Islam-friendly media stories to point to, like Channel 4’s Sharia TV.

14) Question claims about crime
Islamists often deride the West as a failed society riddled with crime, especially sexual violence. First, refer to statistics, which inevitably depict a world far more complex than any Utopianist expects. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime compile occasional estimates for intentional homicide per 100,000 people that throw simplistic Islamist expectations into doubt. For example, below are the ‘high estimate’ intentional homicide figures for some Muslim-majority countries:

Morocco: 1.1
Algeria: 9.6
Niger: 20.2
Kazakhstan: 16.2
Brunei: 1.4
Indonesia: 8.9
Iran: 2.9
Jordan: 6.9
Pakistan: 6.3
Saudi Arabia: 3.2

Meanwhile here are a high estimates for ‘Western’ countries:

Denmark: 1.1
Estonia: 8.9
Ireland: 1.1
Germany: 1
Finland: 2.8
Italy: 1.2
Switzerland: 2.9
Australia: 1.5
United States: 5.9

Most Western countries have relatively low homicide rates. Muslim-majority countries run from very safe to very dangerous. Even the US, criticised constantly for having high crime rates, is safer than Pakistan or Indonesia by these figures.

Remember that the intention here isn’t to show some kind of Western superiority. The US and Estonia really should be more like Morocco or Brunei! Rather it undermines their casual assumption that Western countries are corrupted with violence and crime. In reality, Latin American countries like Jamaica (55.2) and El Salvador (57.5) tend to do worse than either Western or Muslim-majority states in this regard.

Sexual violence is a more difficult issue, since much of it goes unreported. It is plausible that more conservative societies have lower reported rape since victims are scared or ashamed to discuss it. You can point to the wave of Catholic clerical sex abuse cases which emerged in the 1990s and 2000s as evidence that a veneer of religious conservatism could conceal sexual crime - and that cultural liberalism reveals it. They may use Catholic sex abuse to promote anti-Christian ideas: you can use to show how political power corrupts religion.

Also, countries in which marital rape is legal may have distorted figures by excluding all those rapes that happen within marriages. Either way, it can be useful to call your Islamist's bluff by actually requesting comparative statistics, which inevitably portray a more complex picture of reality than they expect. How do they explain an 85% decline in reported rapes per capita in the US since the 1970s?

Some anti-Muslimists insist that rape is endemic among Muslims, while much less common in the West. If you can find reliable evidence for this then discuss it, but it’s likely a grand exaggeration. Remember that you don’t have to denounce every aspect of Islamism. It is perfectly possible that some aspects of Islamist policy could have positive effects. Executing rapists, for example, may or may not reduce sexual violence.

There are no perfect justice systems. Here in Ireland the largest prison is overcrowded and violent. Prisoners are forced to sleep sitting up in cramped cells – and just over a quarter of Irish prisoners are back in prison within a year of release: nothing to boast about.

The execution or mutilation of criminals can feel barbaric to those of us raised in societies which reject this kind of punishment. But avoid the temptation to talk about ‘barbarism’: leave aside your emotions and try to discuss crime only in terms of what seems to work.

A final thought on crime is that even if it happens in Western countries, it need not be perpetrated by the natives. In 2005 Sweden’s National Council for Crime Prevention found that immigrants were fives times more likely to be investigated for sex crimes than Swedes, and that ‘those from North Africa and Western Asia were overrepresented’. What religion could North Africans and West Asians be?

15) Dealing with alcohol
Be honest about this, there are real and major social problems caused by excessive alcohol use. Here in Ireland we see strong connections between alcohol use and suicide , and alcohol is a factor in ‘97% of public order offences’ and ‘half of all assaults’.

There is no point in hiding or denying these grim facts. Yet some Islamists are confused by differences between high-risk binge-drinking and low-risk moderate drinking. In fact there are positive health effects from drinking alcohol in moderation, like lower rates of heart disease. You can point out the differences between riskier binge-drinking cultures of north Europe with the healthier wine cultures of France or Italy.

The misconception I see the most is a great exaggeration of the immediate effects on behaviour of alcohol, as though just a single drop would drive a consumer into madness. Different people respond to the same quantity of alcohol in different ways and very low doses will not usually make adults go berserk. You can prove this point by knocking back a beer mid-argument and carrying on without making spelling mistakes – just call a halt after one!

The IRF argues:

Many may argue in favour of liquor by calling themselves ‘social drinkers’. They claim that they only have one or two pegs and they have self-control and so never get intoxicated. Investigations reveal that every alcoholic started as a social drinker. Not a single alcoholic or drunkard initially starts drinking with the intention of becoming an alcoholic or a drunkard.

Yet you can easily show that not all social drinkers become alcoholics. If they did, almost all Irish people would be booze-addled alcoholics, which is clearly nonsense. Don’t get carried away here. Your purpose is not to convince your Islamist friend to drink alcohol, but rather to dispel the exaggerations spread by Islamist propagandists like the IRF.

17) Deal with Feminism
One of the weirder tendencies I’ve seen in Islamists is their use of Western feminism to promote a deeply anti-feminist ideology. Western feminists sometimes denounce their own socieities for being misogynist, for having a ‘rape culture’, for dehumanising and sexualising women. Islamists agree. They add that if women were forced for their own good to be covered with hijab or - in extreme cases - niqab, then sexual violence would decline and women would live more dignified lives. The IRF, for example, have this to say:

Western talk of women’s liberalization is nothing but a disguised form of exploitation of her body, degradation of her soul, and deprivation of her honour. Western society claims to have ‘uplifted’ women. On the contrary it has actually degraded them to the status of concubines, mistresses and society butterflies who are mere tools in the hands of pleasure seekers and sex marketeers, hidden behind the colourful screen of ‘art’ and ‘culture’.

This is clearly nonsense but it’s also rather difficult to argue about. In all likelihood you already know lots of women who live active and healthy lives - or you are one - but your knowing this personally may not convince your Islamist friend. You can offer these personal examples first: women you know who work fulfilling jobs, who are valued for their intellectual or artistic skills.

You may need to refer to statistical evidence, however, as a way of comparing the ‘West’ with other regions. This is difficult, as there is no obvious indicator which your Islamist friend will accept. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap, for example, inevitably puts European Scandinavian states at the very top with countries like Pakistan, Chad and Yemen down at the bottom. Your Islamist friend will probably dismiss this immediately as Western propaganda.

The report may be useful for its sub-headings, though. If Western countries treat women as concubines, for example, why do so many Western countries educate their women to as high (or higher) standards as men? Or see the ‘Political Empowerment’ subheading, which shows that women are politically powerless in countries like Saudi Arabia.

Another important point to make is that men and women in Western countries are fairly free to behave as they wish. Yes they can work in pornography, or use sex to sell advertising and pop music. But they don’t have to. (Be clear about the diversity of law on such matters as prostitution, by the way. In some Western countries it is legal, in others it is not.) If a young woman here films herself stripping and puts it online, she will not get her head chopped off. Since some young men and women enjoy this - or enjoy getting paid for it - they do it just as they would in repressive states were they not afraid of being punished. (Meanwhile, inability to put explicit material online doesn't stop anybody from accessing it in repressive states.)

Liberty is usually considered an important part of Western society, yet anti-Muslim Westerners sometimes make foolish boasts about the extent of Western freedoms. The truth is that there are no absolutely liberal countries, only countries with greater or lesser degrees of personal freedom.

18) Stick up for freedom
I often see Islamists raging about the hypocrisy of Western countries in their selective adherence to liberalism. Insulting Islam is legal, they argue, but denying the Holocaust is not. They use this apparent double standard as evidence of an anti-Muslim or pro-Jewish conspiracy.

First, remember again the diversity of law: I don’t know how many times I saw Islamists denounce Denmark for allowing Muhammad cartoons while forbidding Holocaust denial, when Holocaust denial is actually perfectly legal in Denmark. Actually it is legal in lots of Western countries, including Ireland, Britain and the US.

Nonetheless the presence of laws prohibiting Holocaust denial in some European countries does play into the Islamist narrative of Western hypocrisy. This is one reason I strongly support a wider liberalisation of society, especially in matters related to free speech. If one is free to burn Bibles, Qurans and flags then Islamists have difficulty in complaining about double standards.

Prohibitions on Islamic veils also seem unwise. I fear that France’s ban on the niqab lends weight to Islamist complaints about double standards. If an Islamist raises this ban, first point out that niqabs are still legal in many Western countries. Another option is to agree with them that niqab and hijab should not be prohibited, on liberal grounds: the state should not police the appearance of its people.

As it is, all societies are irrational mixtures of liberty and repression, with lines drawn arbitrarily in the sand based on the inheritance of forgotten traditions, or on political compromises. Remember that you don’t have to hide the inconsistencies of different Western democracies. Utopianists are concerned with perfect societies, practical people are concerned with acceptably imperfect societies.

19) Don’t be obnoxious about it
Some Western commentators take an arrogant line in these debates, defending every aspect of their own culture and attacking every aspect of Muslim cultures. This is counterproductive and silly. One of the strengths of Western cultures, after all, has been their ability to absorb and reinterpret foreign ideas and technology. Where would Europe have been without paper, gunpowder, tea, and the compass?

Japan is another country famous for its ability to reinterpret foreign cultures, and another country famous for climbing out of poverty to sit among the world's economic giants. It seems that an openness and willingness to change is a theme common to successful nations. So there may be plenty we can learn from Muslim cultures. Listen to your Islamist friend and think about what he says. Simply seek to get him thinking and questioning his beliefs too. Lead by example.

20) Ask what is wrong with modernity
Political radicals of all kinds have an interest in viewing modern life as being disastrous and in need of revolutionary change. Islamists will complain about supposedly rising poverty: the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

The convenient truth for you is that modern life is great. Smallpox was eradicated - by vaccination, not prayer - and modern medicine has reduced the lethality of other infectious diseases. We know this partly because of population growth. Ask your Islamist friend why the world population has grown so quickly in modern times. The correct answer is that massive increases in food production thanks to modern pesticides, fertiliser and mechanisation, and massive decreases in mortality thanks to the mastery of diseases like smallpox, have allowed human populations to expand. In the old days they would have disappeared through starvation and pestilence.

There is ample evidence of massive improvements in living standards around the world. Point out the recent Brookings Institution report claiming that over half a billion people emerged from extreme poverty since 2005. Send him a link to the Gapminder Foundation, with its clear evidence of soaring global wealth and health. Things are improving rapidly under the systems he wants to destroy. Convincing a Utopianist of this is difficult because the world as it is has clear problems, but the world as he imagines it does not.

21) Disasters are natural, not supernatural
Some Islamists blame God’s wrath for natural disasters like earthquakes or floods. Simply point out Ireland and ask why God has left it free from earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes (usually), major tornadoes, snakes, scorpions, wolves, tigers and lions. The weird implication is that God must dislike Muslims in earthquake/volcano-prone places like Indonesia and Pakistan, while He must quite like people living in safe places like Ireland.

This is not to mock Muslims, or those suffering from true natural disasters. Rather it should throw Islamist assumptions into doubt. Disasters are caused by geography, and by the political responses to them, not by divine anger.

22) Question the growth of Islam
Islamists often claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. There are major questions to ask about this.

For example, the percentage growth of major religions like Christianity and Islam tend to be low since they already have high numbers of followers. The Chinese religion Falun Gong increased from one believer in 1992 to two million (Chinese government estimate) or 100 million (Falun Gong estimate) by the end of the decade. That is, it increased by millions of percent over a few years: at this rate of growth all humans should be Falun Gong believers before long!

More seriously, many people identify with a religion without taking it seriously, like the ‘À la carte Catholics’ who attend church only for baptisms and funerals, and fornicate cheerfully most of the year round. The same kind of selective approach to religion can be seen in the alcohol consumption of some Muslim-majority countries. Turkey, for example, is officially about 99% Muslim but this WHO study says that the average adult (above 15) in Turkey drank a total of 2.87 litres of pure alcohol in 2005. Kazakhstan, about 70% Muslim, also features among those countries with the ‘most risky patterns of drinking’, the average adult drinking 10.96 litres in 2005. Kyrgyzstan, 80% Muslim, had 5.09 litres per adult. Tajikistan, 98% Muslim, had 3.39 litres. Turkmenistan, 89% Muslim, had 4.63 litres.

Are these individuals, resisting Islamic prohibitions on alcohol, really Muslims? In some cases non-believers may retain a public pretence of being Muslim to avoid peer pressure or apostasy laws. Considering ‘Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia and Egypt all have laws on the books that punish apostasy with death’, there should be little surprise that the number of believers appear to be growing. If Islam is treated as a cult or organised criminal gang where retirees are executed, it can only increase in numbers.

A final point relates to demographics. Boasts about growing numbers of Muslims need to take into account differences in fertility: some countries have high fertility rates and rapid population growth, others have low fertility rates and stagnant growth. (In general, richer, healthier countries have lower fertility rates. So those Muslims boasting about population growth are really boasting about poverty and ill health.)

23) Muslims aren’t breeding like rabbits
Nonetheless that theme of both Islamists and anti-Muslim bigots that all Muslims have huge families while non-Muslims (especially Westerners) are dying out is nonsense. All economically developed countries have low fertility rates and as Muslim-majority countries develop they experience the same demographic transition. Already Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon are at or below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. This means that without a return to bigger families, or inward migration, countries like Iran and UAE must experience population decline in the future.

Once again we see that Muslims are unexceptional, responding to rising health and wealth in the same way as all other people. The Malthusian fears of anti-Muslimists and expansionary dreams of Islamists are unfounded.

I’ve tried here to deal with some of the ideas I’ve seen voiced by Islamists over the years. Yet there is nothing unique about my experience with them. I have clashed heads with other kinds of radicals over the years too, including West-supremacists who mythologise European history and try to depict Muslims as natural and ancient enemies of civilisation. By referencing medieval conflicts between Christians and Muslims, like the Gates of Vienna blog does, these West-supremacists strengthen Islamist narratives and make conflict more likely.

When you engage in these discussions with Islamists, be polite, open and honest. Say nothing you cannot back up with reliable evidence.

I like peace, and I try to nudge people away from conflict by exposing the myths they use to stir up hatred. The truth is too complex for people to be constantly outraged. Knowledge should lead to doubt, doubt to calm, calm to truce.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Being plagiarised, weirdly

Searching for an old article of mine published online, I came across this instead, an article called A tale of two orthodoxies -by Adnan Rehmat. The article starts like this:

Imagine a former British colony where most citizens practice a religion that has become tightly knit with both national identity and bitter anti-British feeling. After a violent war for independence, the new country’s earliest leaders align themselves with religion through law and start to exercise censorship of any narrative or discourse that upsets its hierarchy. Egged on by clerics, the religion is officially ordained as divine and by law all are made subservient to God’s will — and even manage to win a special position for religion in the new constitution.

Sounds like Pakistan? It’s in fact a description of early Ireland — in the very heart of the liberal Western world and secular Europe.

This begins with text taken nearly word for word from an article I wrote in The Nut Graph, an online Malaysian magazine. I had been pointing out that Ireland had briefly experienced a strong anti-secular Catholic movement, similar to - if not as severe as - modern Islamist movements. Yet I was writing for Malaysia, not Pakistan, and this article mixes my own words with totally new text.

Digging around a little more, I tracked the new article down to several other Pakistani sites. One continues:

The radical cleric leader who tried to make Catholicism Ireland’s state religion was Father Denis Fahey, who saw Rome-dominated Western Europe of the 13th century as an ideal golden age of Christianity before the emergence of European secularism. “Since then, there has been steady decay, and that decay has been accelerated since the French Revolution,” he wrote. How eerily reminiscent this is of parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema Islam — both with considerable electoral following in Pakistan — that seek a rejection of procedural modernity and a return to the Muhammadan period and the era of the caliphate thereafter.
The original paragraph ends much less specific:

How eerily reminiscent this is of Islamist calls for a rejection of modernity and a return to a Utopian pan-Islamic caliphate.
So I have been drafted to fight on behalf of Pakistani secularists! They do at least acknowledge me in part, calling me 'political scientist Shane Leavy'. I'm not a political scientist, but thanks for the upgrade!

I suppose this is plagiarism but I'm more bemused than annoyed. I just hope the author's use or distortion of my text does not provoke any kind of backlash. If it does, kindly keep this 'political scientist' out of it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Fall and Fall of Poverty

I've argued here before that the world is mostly drifting in the right direction: towards peace and prosperity. Negative news stories about regional disasters or wars fail to show a general positive shift. Horror stories about people living in poverty ignore that in the past these people would simply have starved to death, or died by disease, and disappeared from the statistics. Growing numbers of poor could really be a sign of development, not decline, as lives lengthen and infants survive childhood.

So I was delighted to see very positive news from research organisation Brookings Institution about rapid improvements in global standards of living:

In the new Brookings Institution report "Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015," we updated the World Bank's official $1.25-a-day figures to reveal how the global poverty landscape has changed with the emergence of developing countries. We estimate that between 2005 and 2010, nearly half a billion people escaped extreme hardship, as the total number of the world's poor fell to 878 million people. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short period.

Half a billion people climbing out of poverty in just five years is an incredible success. But this should not surprise us. Most of the fastest growing economies are poor, developing nations. Earlier this year The Economist magazine put the top ten fastest growing economies between 2001-2010 as:


(Two quick caveats are necessary. First, some of these countries are experiencing rapid population growth. This means that their economic growth per capita is probably less impressive. China, with a fairly stable population, is all the more remarkable to show such high growth. Second, countries that start with very low levels of income can rise in percentage quickly even while remaining very poor. $1 to $2 is a 100% increase, but it is still low. $1 billion to $1.1 billion is only a 10% increase, but a gargantuan increase in actual wealth.)

Still, it shows that many poor economies are very quickly heading in the right direction

The Brookings Institution adds that the real causes of concern are 'fragile' states:

According to at least one classification, the number of fragile states across the world has risen from 28 in 2006 to 37 today. Furthermore, in a number of critical countries, the degree of fragility is increasing. Countries that remain locked in fragility are unsurprisingly not recording the same rates of poverty reduction achieved by stable countries. Rapid poverty reduction is directly undermined by the failure of the state to perform its core functions.

So the development of stable state structures could be a necessity to fight poverty. In any case we should be happy with the way the world has changed in recent years. Too much discussion has been miserable and pessimistic, too often commentators have complained about 'poverty' without seeing that today's poor are often climbing out of much worse conditions suffered by their parents.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Constantly fighting World War II

By the 1930s the US had, on paper, returned to an isolationist foreign policy. Worried about dragging the Depression-hit nation into another bloody European war, Roosevelt passed a number of Neutrality Acts, designed 'to preserve its neutrality in wars between foreign states and desiring also to avoid involvement therein'. The simple story told of this period was that the US was neutral and minding its own business when it was dragged unwillingly into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and subsequent declaration of war by Germany.

In reality the US had been diplomatically engaged with East Asia for years. When Japan's army was bogged down fighting in China in 1941, the US passed an oil embargo on the country, forcing resource-poor Japan to look elsewhere to keep its war machine going. Japan decided to remove remove American power from the Pacific with a single decisive attack on Pearl Harbour, leaving them free to seize oil from their South East Asian neighbours. Nonetheless, the history most of us hear is simpler than that, depicting pre-war USA as a peaceful, independent giant.

The shock of World War II pushed the US towards a much more forceful and global approach to foreign policy. Terrified that a successful communist revolution in one country could spark revolutions in neighbours, toppling friendly nations like a line of dominoes, the US intervened aggressively in countries like Korea and Vietnam.

Since the end of the Cold War the lesson of World War II still influences foreign policy debates: again and again I see Americans reject non-interventionism on the grounds that Pearl Harbour proved it unwise.

Likewise British hawks point to Neville Chamberlain's failed attempts to win peace through diplomacy with Adolf Hitler as justification for a more assertive British foreign policy. This latter case is sometimes used in debates about Iran, as Chamberlain is accused of weakness in failing to check German militarism with actual military force. If, they say, Chamberlain had acted early in the 1930s to prevent the Nazis from developing its army, there would never have been the dreadful World War. Likewise, they argue, we can prevent a belligerent theocratic Iran from developing nuclear weapons if we act right now to prevent future atrocity.

The massive cultural impact of World War II, so great that it is still sometimes simply called 'the war', still influences how people perceive military threats. A good example is the word 'appeasement', used to describe Chamberlain's attempts to negotiate with Hitler to avoid war. Since then the word has come to mean something extremely negative, a sign of cowardice and surrender. This was the theme of a brilliant article by Paul Kennedy in The National Interest, who argued that sensible governments have long appeased foreign rivals:

For example, in 1895 London decided on a diplomatic solution (read: concessions) regarding the disputed Venezuela–British Guiana border they had spent more than five decades arguing over because of the belligerent language coming out of Washington on the side of Caracas. In 1901, the cabinet overruled Admiralty opinion and agreed that Britain would give up its 50 percent share of a future isthmian (i.e., Panama) canal, to which it was perfectly entitled under the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty signed with the United States in 1850 to guarantee the waterway remained neutral. In 1903, London outraged Canadian opinion by siding with the U.S. delegates over the contentious Alaska–British Columbia border. Yet another retreat. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who so eagerly reckoned to benefit from an Anglo-American war that distracted his European rival, was bewildered that the British kept giving way—kept appeasing—when it was obvious to most naval observers that the far larger Royal Navy could have spanked the nascent U.S. fleet.
By ceding territory and power to the rising United States, Britain was able to build a mighty alliance with them on their entry to World War I. Instead of wasting money, lives and goodwill by fighting against the US, Britain backed down and led to a nearly century-long cooperation with that country.

With hindsight we can see how the events of 1930s Europe and Asia led to the terrible catastrophe of World War II, but at the time nobody knew how far Germany and Japan were willing to take aggressive measures. Even Hitler was astonished by British determination to fight, he had hoped for a Germanic Anglo-Saxon alliance with Britain in his drive to defeat eastern communism. (Interestingly, Germany and Japan learned the opposite lessons to the US. Intead of assertive expansionism and interference in the affairs of their neighbours, they learned to become peaceful and demilitarised.)

Likewise today nobody can know the consequences of Iranian nuclear armament, nor of a military strike to prevent it. Terror of another Hitler in Saddam Hussein led the US to start an unnecessary and harmful war in Iraq, though: seeing new Hitlers everywhere is as dangerous as missing his threat was in the first place.

Kennedy adds that at the time, there was no clear-cut division between 'cringing appeasers and stalwart anti-appeasers' in Britain and France:

A politician wishing to stand firmer against Germany was all too often inclined to want to keep on good terms with Italy. British navalists and imperialists who sought a sturdy defense of their Far Eastern possessions were hoping that Hitler would stay still or, perhaps better yet, turn eastward against the equally detestable Soviet Union.
Convinced by Pearl Harbour that non-interventionism is unworkable, modern hawks push for war and aggressive intervention in every situation. Convinced by Chamberlain's errors that appeasement is impractical, hawks demand an aggressive solution to every foreign policy problem. By constantly reliving a simplified telling of World War II and failing to learn the lessons of other conflicts, hawks leave themselves unready to deal with modern conflicts, especially those non-state conflicts involving decentralised organisations and mass-populations who can be persuaded to join either side of the struggle. Everyone knows the story of Pearl Harbour, few know about Britain's successful concessions to the rising power of America. Chamberlain's appeasement is known and despised, but Tony Blair's successful negotiations with the IRA are underrated.

In reality, withdrawal and quiet concession is often necessary. Appeasement is sometimes sensible. And not all mustachioed dictators require horrified and hasty intervention.

Monday, May 23, 2011

No anti-war movement against Obama?

US President John F Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963, to rapturous applause. When George W Bush arrived in 2004 he was greeted by thousands of anti-war protesters demanding that he leave again.

What caused this shift, from ecstatic welcome to aggressive rejection? Some commentators argued that Ireland, like much of Western Europe, had become anti-American. Others, though, blamed Bush's aggressive foreign policy: this was just a year after the invasion of Iraq.

Today we get to understand this a little better because President Barack Obama has arrived in Ireland, partly to visit the small town his own Irish ancestor emigrated from. Instead of anti-war protests, we've returned to JFK-era rapture and awe. For weeks local people in the town of Moneygall have been tidying up to prepare for the visit, decking it in US and Irish flags, and now he has joyfully arrived:
Barack and Michelle Obama have kissed babies, hugged locals and spent 15 minutes signing autographs, posing for pictures and shaking hands, on their visit to Moneygall in Co Offaly today.

The first couple's walkabout was unscheduled, and locals had been told it was unlikely they would be able to meet the Obamas personally.

However, a grinning Barack Obama took time to chat to well-wishers and kiss a toddler girl as the couple made their way down Main Street, which was lined with cheering locals.

They then crossed the road to the site of Mr Obama’s ancestral home, where a one-storey thatched home once stood, and also nipped into Moneygall's 'An Siopa Beag'.
As I write thousands of people are attending a free open-air concert in Dublin with Obama in attendance. Irish music, cinema and sporting heroes are being paraded cheerfully on stage to shrieks of approval from the crowd. Discussions of this visit have ranged from positive to outright exuberant: even Ireland's state broadcast company RTE featured shamelessly pro-Obama features like that by radio presenter Derek Mooney.

All this would suggest that Bush was simply a blip on an otherwise excellent Irish-American relationship, and his foolish policies were the cause of a brief negative backlash. Certainly the anti-American vibe of the Bush years has been replaced by energetic celebration for the arrival of this new president.

Yet I wonder if there is a little more to it too. Obama's policies are in many ways continuations of Bush's hated policies. Obama has withdrawn some troops from Iraq yet tens of thousands remain. Bush ordered a 'troop surge' into Iraq in 2007; Obama ordered the same thing in Afghanistan so that around 100,000 US troops are now stationed there.

Bush began using unmanned drones to bomb militants in Pakistan, Obama greatly increased these attacks and has killed many hundreds of people with them, of whom at least dozens were allegedly civilians. Obama has also brought his country into conflict in Libya, another war that has thousands of deaths under its belt already and no sign of resolution.

Some American right-wing pundits attempted to portray Obama as a naive dove who would balk at using war. Instead he has repeatedly violated the sovereignty of their Pakistani ally by bombing or raiding their territory, and even bombed targets in Libya. Obama is another hawkish president, keen to get the US involved in wars in distant lands.

So where is Ireland's anti-war outrage? I see two possible reasons for its relative silence:

1) Left-leaning warriors are alright
A study by the University of Michigan showed that many Democrats who were involved in anti-war protests during the Bush era simply abandoned the movement with the election of Obama:

“As president, Obama has maintained the occupation of Iraq and escalated the war in Afghanistan,” says Heaney, assistant professor of organizational studies and political science. “The antiwar movement should have been furious at Obama’s ‘betrayal’ and reinvigorated its protest activity.

“Instead, attendance at antiwar rallies declined precipitously and financial resources available to the movement have dissipated. The election of Obama appeared to be a demobilizing force on the antiwar movement, even in the face of his pro-war decisions.”

...After Obama’s election as president, Democratic participation in antiwar activities plunged, falling from 37 percent in January 2009 to a low of 19 percent in November 2009, Heaney and Rojas say. In contrast, members of third parties became proportionately more prevalent in the movement, rising from 16 percent in January 2009 to a high of 34 percent in November 2009.
Similar things may have happened in Ireland, where anti-war protests were often organised by left-wing groups. Since Obama is considered more left-wing than Bush, his victory reduced the movement's sense of urgency. They couldn't get quite so mad with one of their own.

2) The Retarded Cowboy Effect
George W Bush was notorious for his poor speaking skills, giving rise to talk of 'Bushisms': bizarre and meaningless statements he occasionally came out with. (Like his claim that America's enemies 'never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.' Though perhaps I misunderestimate him.)

This awkwardness was picked up by comic impersonators who depicted Bush as a total idiot, albeit a fairly benevolent one. It wasn't difficult to make Bush look like a dumbass and comedians revelled in it. Bush looked, as British comedian Russell Brand pointed out, like a 'retarded cowboy'.

But Obama was completely different. He had a deep, impressive voice. He was charming, and either he or his scrip-writers were able to write half-decent jokes. He didn't sound like a dumbass. He talked about 'change', a supremely simple concept that lots of people approved of. And he was 'black', or blackish anyway.

So my guess is that lots of people simply warm to this tall, cool, charming man. Since they like the guy, his actual policies become irrelevant and the antiwar movement grinds to a halt.

As I write, a huge Irish crowd is chanting 'OBAMA, OBAMA, OBAMA!' on television as they wait for the president to give a speech in Dublin. Who cares about Pakistan and Libya? He's cool and that's the only thing that seems to matter.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Look at this apple." "But what about this orange?"

A friend posted a video discussing a campaign to get the UN to oppose 'defamation of religion' onto Facebook. The video was presented by the daughter of Salmaan Taseer, a Pakistani politican murdered recently for alleged blasphemy. Naturally, this woman who had lost her father to religious fanaticism was concerned that anti-defamation laws would be harmful.

The first person who replied to my friend's post wrote this:

what about resolution for people killed in palestine,afghanistan,iraq where weapons of mass destruction were not found after killing and abusing so many people lol

Puzzling stuff! He shifted from blasphemy laws to Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, which are simply irrelevant to the conversation. This is not an either-or situations, it is perfectly reasonable for someone to be against the blasphemy campaign and to be against the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israeli policies in Palestine. But they simply have nothing to do with it.

My friend: Look at this apple.

Commentator: But what about this orange?

I see this in online debates often. One person raises an issue and a rival raises an unrelated issue, insisting that the first cannot be discussed unless the second is also. Bad political debates accept these distractions and spiral outwards into discussing ever less related topics while the original one is left neglected.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

An honest economist under attack

Steven Levitt writes in the Freakonomics Blog that his beliefs about what activities should be legal or prohibited are shaped by concern for his own daughter.

Levitt points out that while there is agreement about most activities considered criminal - like murder, rape or robbery - there are also some activities like gambling, prostitution and recreational drugs over which there is still controversy. Levitt adds that he is never sure what shapes his decisions about which of these activities should be illegal:

Not that my opinion matters at all, but despite strong economic arguments in favor of drug legalization, the idea has always made me a little queasy. Conversely, although logic tells me that abortion as practiced in the U.S. doesn’t seem like such a great idea... something in my heart makes me sympathetic to legalized abortion.

Levitt concludes:

I came to realize that the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity?

If the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind the government passing a law against it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cocaine addict or a prostitute, so in spite of the fact that it would probably be more economically efficient to legalize drugs and prostitution subject to heavy regulation/taxation, I don’t mind those activities being illegal.

On the other hand, if my daughter had good reasons to want an abortion, I would want her to be able to have one, so I’m weakly in favor of abortion being legal, even though I put a lot of value on unborn fetuses.

The comments that follow this admission are full of anger as readers told Levitt that this was a 'flimsy' argument for or against prohibitions. Today I noticed that the EconLog, also run by economists, also has a condemnation of Levitt's argument, written by David Henderson.

If you listen carefully you'll hear the sound of Steven Levitt's point soaring, gracefully undetected, over the heads of his critics. Levitt wasn't using the 'daughter argument' as a good way to decide what activities should be prohibited.

Instead he was simply showing some healthy introspection. Levitt recognised that his stances on political issues were being determined, not by reasonable contemplation, but by an emotional attachment to and concern for his daughter. He's not saying that this is good, he's saying only that this is how his mind works.

We're all emotional beings and we are all prone to biases that interfere with rational thought. That Levitt acknowledges his personal bias or blind spot in public is a very healthy thing, and it shows that he is capable of challenging his own prejudices.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

That rape thing

Showing again how sensitive the topic of sexual violence is, British justice secretary Ken Clarke has caused a fuss there over his distinction between 'serious rape' and other rape:

At prime minister's questions, Mr Miliband said Mr Clarke had suggested there were "serious rapes and other categories of rape" adding: "The justice secretary can't speak for the women of this country when he makes comments like that."

What Clarke actually said was pretty reasonable, however:

..."That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15 year olds.."

"Serious rape - I don't think many judges give five years for a forcible rape frankly, the tariff is longer than that. A serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman - the tariff is longer than that."

When BBC interviewer Victoria Derbyshire interrupted to say "Rape is rape, with respect" Mr Clarke replied: "No it's not, if an 18-year-old has sex with a 15 year old and she's perfectly willing, that is rape. Because she is under age, she can't consent... What you and I are talking about is we are talking about a man forcibly having sex with a woman and she doesn't want to - a serious crime."

He confuses us with the phrase 'date rape' here, since what he is describing is statutory rape. He's right, of course. It is perfectly plausible that a 17-year-old and 15-year-old are in love and have sex within a loving relationship. The 17-year-old is breaking British law however.

Legal ages of consent exist to protect children and vulnerable young teens from being manipulated into having sex by older, predatory adults. The age of consent itself is, however, always going to be a little arbitrary, as individual teenagers may be mature for their age while individual adults may still be vulnerable or immature. Across Europe we have ages of consent spanning from only 13 in Spain to 18 in Malta.

That is, in Spain a 40-year-old man could have sex with a 13-year-old girl and get away with it. In Malta a 19-year-old boy could have sex with a girl just one day younger, and be jailed.

So in individual cases when the couple are actually very close in age, statutory rape could be a very mild crime, illegal on paper but understandable in practice. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juilet is one of the greatest romances in the English language yet Juilet is a child of 13. It's not clear how old Romeo is, but in some European countries he would probably have been jailed for actions, however consensual.

Back to Clarke. Here the opposition leader Ed Milliband sought to depict Clarke as uncaring or out of touch. Instead it shows how opportunistic and dishonest Milliband is. There's no way that consensual sex between confused teenagers is as serious a crime as sexual assault on an unwilling victim.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Catholic Church: sexy or scary?

I saw the Hollywood vampire film Priest yesterday and was amused to see its depictions of apparently Christian clergy. In Priest these clergy, male and female, have a crucifix tattoed across their brows and wear hoods and long jackets. These are impressive, threatening characters, dark with memories of their bloody part in the war on vampires, shunned by nervous laypeople. In action they are skilled martial artists, ruthless killers of the undead.

The Church to which these men and women belong dominates this post-war world, with crucifixes or sun crosses omnipresent throughout the city, along with constant reminders that: 'To go against the Church is to go against God'. This is fantasy that little resembles reality. But 'the Church' here is stylistically similar to the Catholic Church: hierarchal, celibate, and prone to wearing black.

Of course these bloodthirsty clerics have nothing in common with modern Catholics clergy, but Hollywood has a history of depicting the Catholic Church like this. A popular theme is the Church's role in dealing with occult dangers, with films like End of Days, The Exorcist and The Omen putting Catholic clergy into the front line of an eternal battle with demons. In End of Days we see Hollywood's love of a kick-ass, conspiratorial Church, as a group of Catholic zealots called the 'Vatican Knights' attempt to murder the woman destined to give birth to the Antichrist.

Catholic imagery features heavily in many vampire film, where crucifixes and holy water keep the beasts at bay. Catholicism's medieval heritage of grand gothic cathedrals and elaborate rituals serve modern fantasy-horror directors with spectacular backdrops for fighting vampires. In Van Helsing the demon-hunter is authorised to kill monsters by the Catholic Church and is accompanied by a Catholic friar-inventor, armed to the teeth with anti-occult weapons. In one scene Van Helsing dips his automatic crossbow into a font of holy water to successfully shoot down a vampire.

Hellboy features muscular Catholicism too, as Hellboy himself carries Catholic rosary (prayer) beads and his adopted father Broom is a Catholic. Even the 2009 Spanish horror film Rec2 imagines a Catholic conspiracy in which an attempt to create a vaccine against demonic possession instead causes the outbreak of a contagious zombie-like demonism.

Hollywood's attraction to Catholicism in these fantasy movies is understandable. This is an ancient, visually-impressive organisation, with mystery lingering about the inner workings of the Vatican: ripe for conspiracy theories and fantastical rumour. Folk traditions of some Catholic populations took seriously the dangers of fairies and witchcraft. Finally the Catholic Church still authorises exorcisms and supports the idea that real divine miracles can happen, intriguing concepts to these fantasy-horror film-makers.

Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code continues with the narrative of a Church struggling with internal corruption, conspiracy and fanaticism. The Church is shown as having massive political clout, even in secular France. Da Vinci Code features a mad, murderous albino monk who Church insiders use to kill enemies: that is, just having killer monks wasn't enough, they had to be albino! Often films like these talk vaguely about 'The Church' without specifying the Roman Catholic Church, skimming over the Reformation and earlier schisms that divorced a huge proportion of Christians from Rome. They also ignore the decisive shift towards secularism throughout the developed world, preferring to imagine an almighty Church still pulling strings behind the powers that be, even while church attendances continues to freefall.

All this bears no resemblence to the Catholicism I'm familiar with, which in modern Ireland is often bland and undramatic. People go to Mass, mumble the prayers they learned as a child, stand, sit, kneel, half-listen to elderly priests giving vague sermons about being good, and then go home. Most of the priests I've come across are pleasant enough, friendly and inoffensive. Far from the fist-shaking zealots of old, these guys tend to be lacking in confidence a bit, and generally advocate common sense approaches to morality: treat other people well, try to be a bit humble, forgive people who wrong you, consider your own flaws. Far from denouncing sexual activity as their predecessors apparently did, these priests tend to avoid mention of it altogether. Sex is awkward and to be ignored if possible!

Anyone, Catholic or not, can wander into a church and see what Catholic Mass looks like, for free, with no pressure or expectation to convert. The rituals that might seem odd to outsiders (like the question put to Catholic Mass-goers: 'do you reject Satan?' 'I do.' 'And all his works?' 'I do.') become unremarkable with repetition. I do hear occasional complaints of old-school priests still intolerant of other faiths and of modern hedonism, but the ones I've come across are usually polite and eager to please. No more witch-burning, Inquisitions or Crusades, and only an ever-weakening impact on public policy.

That cool image of Catholic clergy as all-powerful conspirators or the secret defence against Satan, dressed eternally in sleek black, faces an uncomfortable rival. This second depiction is less flattering, as it refers again and again to Catholic clergy as sexual predators, especially paedophiles.

In V for Vendetta Natalie Portman's character dresses as a child, all frills and pigtails, to seduce the Bishop Lilliman in order to kill him. The Bishop, corrupt to the bone, attempts to rape her before V intervenes and tortures him to death. The actual denomination of this Bishop is unclear though the Church seems to play a role similar to that in Priest, an all-powerful branch of government which, after all, has as a motto: 'Strength through unity, unity through faith'.

(Weirdly, the real Guy Fawkes was a radical Catholic who attempted to destroy Britain's Protestant parliament in favour of a Catholic monarch. This would have been a devestating act of terrorism and a blow in favour of the 17th century Catholic Church.) V for Vendatta repeats the familiar theme of a creepily powerful Christian, perhaps Catholic, Church, with the other theme of clerical perversion thrown in for good measure.

This year's Sucker Punch rather puzzlingly repeats this narrative. Sucker Punch is a mixture of events and the character's fantasies, and it's quite confusing to tell them apart. An orphan is sent by her barbaric stepfather into a lunatic asylum. At that point, however, the stepfather appears as a lecherous priest, the asylum transforms into a brothel. It is just a moment, long enough to stamp that old narrative of the abusive, hypocritical priest onto the film.

Sin City dabbles with the narrative, as the corrupt and murderous Cardinal Roark is connected by family to a corrupt senator and a murdering paedophile. The Cardinal keeps as a companion a serial killer and cannibal called Kevin, tying together the twin themes of Catholic conspiracy and child abuse.

Depictions of Catholic clergy being perverse and especially prone to raping children is understandable in films like Song For a Raggy Boy or Meryl Streep's impressive Doubt, when the drama around these crimes make up the films' central stories. There have been abusive priests in reality, and real internal Catholic conspiracies to cover the truth.

Yet fantasy-action films like Sin City need not tie Catholicism in with child abuse. The attraction for cinema probably comes from a mix of the visual aspect - Catholic clergy draped in robes and rings, signs of authority and opulence - and the pleasuable scandal of hypocrisy. Since priests are supposed to be men of God and celibate, their deviations into sexual perversion are more horrific and captivating than those of others.

All in all, depictions of Catholicism in American mainstream cinema are often weird and poor indicators of the true organisation. In some ways the cinema version is pretty cool - muscular Catholic clergy hacking heads off demons - while in others it is rather more disturbing.

It's mainly funny, though. I live in hope that one day 'priests' will look less like this:

And more like this!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Asian-Americans: alien turned admired

Seeing race riots in Bradford, ethnic ghettos in Germany and Islamist bombings in Madrid, I worry sometimes about integration failures for modern immigrants in Europe.

Ethnic separatist movements exist still in countries like Sudan, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Scotland and Nigeria. We saw modern ethnic violence in Rwanada, Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Basque Spain, Afghanistan and so on: it seems that in many places ethnic groups still act towards one another with suspicion and antagonism, despite public political talk about relishing diversity. Writing in Foreign Affairs Magazine Professor Jerry Muller even argued that Europe's modern peace comes largely from its division after World War II into small, monoethnic states:

And a survey would show that whereas in 1900 there were many states in Europe without a single overwhelmingly dominant nationality, by 2007 there were only two, and one of those, Belgium, was close to breaking up. Aside from Switzerland, in other words--where the domestic ethnic balance of power is protected by strict citizenship laws--in Europe the "separatist project" has not so much vanished as triumphed.

This troubling argument implies that ethnic minority immigrants could continue having difficulty in being accepted, regardless of cheerful government talk about multiculturalism or cosmopolitanism. I worry too that modern political sensitivities about racism inhibit discussion of this topic.

Yet my fears are allayed a bit when I see some of past ethnic conflicts which today seem ludicrous. The US, for example, had a powerful anti-immigration movement in the 1840s, called the Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings were bothered by the mass-immigration of European Catholics into the Protestant-dominated US, particularly after hundreds of thousands of starving Irish began to flood the east coast during the potato famine. Catholic fealty to an Italian Pope seemed treasonous to Know Nothings, an indication that the new immigrant wave were loyal not to the US but to a foreign power.

The influential Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher wrote in A Plea for the West that American Protestants were naive to allow their children to be educated by treasonous Catholics. He denounced the newcomers:

The number of the immigrants, their lack of information, their unacquaintance with the principles of our government, their superstition and implicit confidence in their ecclesiastical teachers, and the dependence of these on Rome, and of Rome upon Austria,- all constitute an influence of dangerous action in themselves, and offers to the powers of Europe easy and effectual means of disturbing the healthful action of our institutions.... It is like a train of powder between an enemy's camp and our own magazine.

How similar this talk is to modern anti-Muslim rhetoric! Muslims, like the Catholics of old, are presumed by opponents to be loyal to Mecca instead of their new countries: ignorant, massive in numbers and superstitious.

Yet the Catholics of America were gradually integrated: John F Kennedy was a Catholic president little more than a century after the Know Nothings peaked.

The Catholics weren't the only scary immigrants. There were also Chinese and Japanese migrants who flocked to the west coast in the late 19th century, provoking anti-Asian legislation by the state. The Chinese queue, a long ponytail worn by men, was prohibited in San Francisco in 1870 - perhaps the burqa of its day. California banned marriage between Chinese people and whites in 1880 while the US Chinese Exclusion Act forbade further immigration of Chinese.

World War II fed fear of the Japanese minority, over one hundred thousand of whom were rounded up and kept in internment camps. The government posted crude anti-Japanese propaganda unthinkable in modern times:

By 2009 a survey by the Committee of 100, a non-profit Chinese-American organisation, found that most of this antipathy towards East Asians had vanished:

In 2001, 23% of the general population said they would feel uncomfortable voting for an Asian American as President of the United States. In 2009, that number has reduced to 9%.... Seventy percent of the general population believe the increase in Asian immigrants over the past ten years has been good for America, up from 49% in 2001.... In 2001, 56% of the general population believed that Chinese Americans have contributed much to the American culture; the number has now risen to 73% in 2009.

That survey found that Americans were still suspicious that Asian-Americans were more loyal to their country of origin than the US. Yet its results are overwhelmingly positive. Americans even thought that East Asians were less inclined to break the law than other Americans.

The rehabilitation of perceptions of Asians and Catholics in the US gives me some hope that the integration problems experienced in some European countries today will be solved with time. The US was multiethnic at an early stage, perhaps another century will work out the kinks on this side of the Atlantic too. Prof Muller warns that ethnonationalism remains strong in Europe, creating conditions less open to integration than in the New World. Perhaps, though, time will heal these fresh wounds.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The vulgarity of terrorism

I knew this would be a great article when it began like this:

Oscar Wilde got it right when he said, “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”

The same should be true of terrorism. It is wicked of course, but that is not the point. When you embark on mass killing you want to be wicked.

I was delighted by this argument, by Thomas de Waal in The National Interest, because I'd often thought Wilde's phrase made even greater sense when it came to terrorism, where political criminals seek to be upgraded to warriorhood.

Terrorism is grimy and miserable, the acts of desperate and weak organisations, often despised by the masses they claim to represent. Depicting terrorists as being wicked could backfire, by implying that they are actually potent and threatening, capable of overthrowing states. Darth Vader was wicked, powerful, and incredibly cool. Terrorists are vulgar.

De Waal continues:

Far more than regular warfare, terrorism relies on the message—it is one part violence to ten parts terror. In an asymmetrical fight, a comparatively weaker actor targets civilians with mass violence not because he can win a victory but because he wants to sow terror in the enemy and inspiration in the hearts of followers....

Half the counterterrorist effort is also PR. Obviously, you need a huge operational intelligence effort. But you strike the strongest blow when you manage to preserve a state of normality and refuse to dignify attacks against you with the name of a war or a clash of civilizations. To accept the terrorist’s challenge is the geopolitical equivalent of a woman telling a stalker that she regards him as an existential threat.

Normality is the enemy of terrorist groups, and as they drift off the front page they grow ever less potent. Instead of panicking and calling them a "threat to our way of life" as George W Bush did in 2001, terrorists should be reminded how insignificant and impotent they are. They're not, after all, a threat to the way of life of Americans or Europeans, who carry on doing most of the things they did in the 1990s. They're not scary, they're dirty. Not impressively evil: vulgar.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Who is reading The Harvest?

The Harvest blog is over one year old now and I am astonished after checking the blog statistics to find that I've clocked up some thousands of pageviews. Since only a handful of people comment I never know if these posts are being read at all, so I'm gratified to find that they aren't disappearing unnoticed into the ether.

The overwhelming majority of pageviews - 3,589 so far - come from the United States, another surprise. I often reference my blog on Twitter or Facebook where, to my knowledge, I have only a few American friends/followers. So I'm not sure where the Americans discovered The Harvest, but welcome! After the US come the following countries:

Ireland 1,772
United Kingdom 1,108
India 565
Canada 442
Brazil 392
Norway 337
Japan 319
Germany 221
Australia 212

Ireland and UK I understand. I know at least one Indian and one Norwegian who regularly reads and comments. But who in Germany is checking The Harvest? If you are reading now, say hello!

Blogger allows me to see the source from which people clicked through to The Harvest. The majority come via Twitter, which is a relief since I worried sometimes that nobody was paying my promotion there any attention.

The next highest source is Diverse Similarities, the blog of a Pakistani writer called Tahera who kindly links to some of my posts. I owe you one, Tahera. The (non-alcoholic) drinks are on me! Tahera writes on topics similar to some of those covered in this blog: development, media, poverty, health and so on.

Pageviews have gradually increased since the blog was founded, but seem for some reason to have peaked and gone into reverse:

I'm hoping this last dip is just because we are only a few days into May and once the month's full pageviews are tallied it will look healthier. The peak month so far is February of this year, with 1,771 views.

So what posts are people viewing? I am a little bothered by this, for the most popular post by far is this one, crudely titled "Modern art is BULLSHIT". Written with tongue partly in cheek, this post was an experiment in writting aggressively and confidently about a topic I knew little about.

Two days later I admitted my ignorance about modern art, pointing out how much more authoritative and impressive it read when I wrote with conviction. Confident nonsense, I realised, was more persuasive and compelling than caution. It seems I was right, since my confident anti-modern art post got 883 pageviews and the careful explanation for it got fewer than 100.

Other popular posts were:

Why brutal rape porn probably isn't sexist
664 Pageviews

Did the War on Terror work?
630 Pageviews

Just how kinky is Pakistan?
231 Pageviews

Colonisation does not explain modern poverty
221 Pageviews

China's Cultural Revolution was Western Cultural Imperialism
150 Pageviews

Murder rates steady or falling
136 Pageviews

Doubts about Equality
133 Pageviews

Coastlines, climate and coin
124 Pageviews

Good times for weird ideas
119 Pageviews

So some of the more controversial topics attracted the greatest number of readers. The rape porn post suggested that pornography which depicts men violently abusing women might not be necessarily sexist, but only indicate that a certain proportion of men enjoying dominating the people they find sexually attractive, be they men or women. The War on Terror post argued that attempts to find a military solution to Islamist terrorism had mainly failed.

So that is the way The Harvest looks right now. Thanks to all my readers, and to those who haven't commented so far, feel free to! Otherwise email me with comments at, or simply follow me on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"The Surface Banalities"

One of the things that makes action films so enjoyable is the way heroes are able to cut through ordinary social conventions. Films like the James Bond series or Die Hard place their protagonists in modern urban settings, but with such extravagant emergencies to deal with that they charge about blowing things up, wrecking cars in mad chases and commandeering the private property of innocent bystanders. All this anti-social behaviour is justified in the film by the urgency of their causes.

Watching this at home, still prone to the boring conventions and rules that make social life possible, we can take vicarious pleasure in this violent madness. We'll never have morally-acceptable excuses to rob cars (Bourne Identity), drive through a building (Lethal Weapon 4 and Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift), chase a terrorist on a motorbike into a hotel, on horseback (True Lies), start a gun fight in a brothel (Taxi Driver and Taken), set off a DIY bomb using a microwave (Under Siege), or murder an assassin on the subway (Collateral). Instead we are stuck with politeness and deference, which can be dull.

Crime, revolution and war cut through those social conventions, giving individuals real-life opportunities to engage in taboo behaviours. Some of those young men who pull fashionable scarfs over their noses and mouths while rioting must get a massive kick out of that disorder, the sudden collapse of rules and brief opportunities for loot. Miserably poor and despised youngsters get to batter and rob their social superiors in a sudden flip of status. In old wars, poor soldiers had the chance to win fortune and glory that could offer them new lives. The excitement of chaos must be great.

This in mind, I was interested to read this line from French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who worked as a stretcher-bearer in World War I:

The war stripped away the surface banalities and conventions. A window opened up on the secret mechanisms and deep layers of human destiny.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The other West

If asked to name a central European country I would go for Germany, Austria or, above all, Switzerland, sandwiched right in the middle of the great nations. So I was astonished to read Norman Davies's comment in Europe: A History that the 'dead centre of geographical Europe' is actually Lithuania.

Lithuania! I could have believed Poland or the Czech Republic but in my mind Lithuania was one of the old USSR states, squashed up on the far eastern fringe of Europe against Russia. My mistake was in forgetting that Russia is by far the biggest country in Europe. Most of Western Europe could be squeezed into European Russia alone.
I'm still a little sceptical that Lithuania is really the centre, though it looks it in this map:

It showed me how mixed up I was about the nature of Europe. To me it was a collection of significant central states like France, Germany and Italy, surrounded by smaller and weaker states like Portugal, Ireland, Latvia, Hungary and so on. Instead I see that Europe is mostly the Old East. Greece, Serbia and Ukraine are the central states, Germany and France are peripheral.

One reason for my confusion is that lots of Cold War-era maps simply cut off chunks of the uneventful Soviet East, so that Europe seemed to be divided roughly down the middle by the Iron Curtain:

Comforting, maybe, but inaccurate. Really most of Europe was east of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War:

Davies points out that even in ancient times there was confusion about the eastern limits of what was known as Europe. For centuries people referred to the River Don as the border; only in the 18th century was that shifted hundreds of kilometres east to the Urals.

Even the Urals make an arbitrary border as peoples and nations (especially Russia) poured easily across it. A glace at a world map shows all the continents distinctly divided by seas and oceans with Europe-Asia being the only exception. Eurasia is a natural-looking continent: Europe is simply its western peninsula.

This matters because of the way people use words like 'Europe' and 'West'. Sometimes 'Europe' really means the European Union, at other times it means quite different things like, lately, the European NATO members intervening in Libya. I wrote about this confusion for New Geography, pointing out that both left and right-wing pundits were generalising about a Europe which does not exist, using it as a social democratic alternative to the US.

Europe is troubling enough as a concept, but the West is just baffling. Is Poland Western? It is a member of the EU and, unlike Ireland, of NATO. It is Catholic-majority and democratic, although two decades ago it was part of the 'Eastern Bloc' of Communist countries.

If Poland is Western, how about Kosovo? Muslim-majority, poorer than Yemen or Nicaragua, but democratic and an official potential candidate for admission to the EU. Then there is industralised Russia, and the highly developed democracies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - each with Buddhist heritage but strong military connections to the US and relatively liberal governments and cultures. There are further shades of grey in Latin America, whose Christian-majority democracies are usually excluded from discussions of 'Western' policies.

The main problem in all this is that there are specific organisations like NATO and the EU, as well as specific groupings of countries like the alliance of states that became involved in Libya. Yet outsiders aren't always to spot these distinctions. Instead the entire West or Europe get blame or credit for the actions of a few states. The British Islamist organisation Muslims Against Crusades complain about 'the West's continued interference in Muslim lands' for example. How odd this must be for Swiss people, unquestionably Western but unaffiliated with NATO or EU and peaceful since 1815.

Words like 'Western' and 'Europe' can be useful but only so long as all parties understand to what they refer. We can discuss the arrival of Westerners to 19th century Japan so long as others understand the nature and nationality of those arriving. We can discuss Western values only if it is understood that we mean liberalism and not fascism, imperialism, Christian fanaticism, communism and all those other anti-individualist ideas that developed here. Europe is a manufactured concept, with no natural border. The West seems mainly to be a set of vague modern ideas about individual rights, liberalism and democracy, ideas alien to Europe for most of its monarchial past. So, be careful! The West has no policies since it does not exist as any kind of organisation. There are no European attitudes, common to all 850 million inhabitants of the European subcontinent but not shared by others.