ISIS is not the product of another era

Giles Fraser writes: Among the various reactions to the Church of England’s vote on women bishops, one comment really got under my skin: “Welcome to the 21st century.” Almost everything about it irritated me. For unless the person who made this comment was partying somewhere like Sydney on the evening of 31 December 1999, I suspect that we have both been sharing the 21st century for exactly the same amount of time. So how come he gets to welcome me to it? And with all the assumed and self-satisfied cultural superiority of a native welcoming an immigrant off the boat at Calais.

Back in 1983, the German anthropologist Johannes Fabian published a brilliant account of how western anthropologists often used the language of time to distance themselves from the object of their study and to secure the dominance of a western Enlightenment worldview. In Time and the Other he noted there was something fishy about the way early anthropologists went out and studied other cultures, talking and interacting with people in the same temporal space, yet when such encounters came to be written up, the people being studied/talked with tended to be situated back in time. The anthropologist always lives in the present. The people being studied live in the past. It’s what Fabian calls “a denial of coevalness” – a denial that we share the same temporal space with those who have different values or different political aspirations. This denial of coevalness, argues Fabian (very much in the style of Edward Said), is often a political power-play, a discourse of “otherness” that was commonly used to buttress the colonial exploitation of others.

But it’s not just colonialism-justifying anthropologists who play this linguistic/moral trick with the clock. The same thing happens in contemporary journalism all the time. Isis, for example, are often described as “medieval”. Travel to Damascus or Baghdad, and you travel not just to the Middle East but also to the middle ages. In part, this familiar trope is based on the idea that the extreme violence of contemporary jihadis has more in common with the extreme violence of the middle ages. As a comparison, this is most unfair on the middle ages, which is transformed from a rich and complex period of human history into modernity’s “other” – little more than that against which modernity comes to define itself. Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that: in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers. This is just as much a salvation myth as any proposed by religion – though in this version of salvation it is religion itself that we need to be saved from. [Continue reading…]

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EU must open doors to avoid Syrian refugee catastrophe, says UN

The Guardian reports: The crisis posed by millions of refugees from Syria’s civil war flooding into neighbouring countries is becoming a humanitarian and political catastrophe that can only be eased if Europe opens its doors, the UN and European commission have warned.

More than 2.1 million refugees have been registered by the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) in Syria’s four neighbouring states; hundreds of thousands more are known to be living outside Syria’s borders without access to aid.

The scale of the crisis is perhaps the most acute since the end of the second world war. David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), described the ever-deteriorating situation in Syria as “the defining humanitarian crisis of our time”.

The UNHCR, European commission and British Refugee Council have urged EU leaders to acknowledge the exceptional crisis posed by the Syrian civil war and accept the temporary settlement of Syrian refugees inside their borders – relaxing “fortress” policies designed to keep migrants out of Europe.

The UN has issued an urgent call to resettle 30,000 of the most vulnerable Syrians worldwide – a call that remains unmet as the exodus from Syria into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq fast outpaces the capacity to provide for them. The UK government has refused to take part in the resettlement scheme, calling the idea tokenistic and stressing the importance of the £500m of aid it has sent to the region. [Continue reading…]

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Why non-believers need rituals too

Suzanne Moore writes: The last time I put my own atheism through the spin cycle rather than simply wiping it clean was when I wanted to make a ceremony after the birth of my third child. Would it be a blessing? From who? What does the common notion of a new baby as a gift mean? How would we make it meaningful to the people we invited who were from different faiths? And, importantly, what would it look like?

One of the problems I have with the New Atheism is that it fixates on ethics, ignoring aesthetics at its peril. It tends also towards atomisation, relying on abstracts such as “civic law” to conjure a collective experience. But I love ritual, because it is through ritual that we remake and strengthen our social bonds. As I write, down the road there is a memorial being held for Lou Reed, hosted by the local Unitarian church. Most people there will have no belief in God but will feel glad to be part of a shared appreciation of a man whose god was rock’n’roll.

When it came to making a ceremony, I really did not want the austerity of some humanist events I have attended, where I feel the sensual world is rejected. This is what I mean about aesthetics. Do we cede them to the religious and just look like a bunch of Calvinists? I found myself turning to flowers, flames and incense. Is there anything more beautiful than the offerings made all over the world, of tiny flames and blossom on leaves floating on water?

Already, I am revealing a kind of neo-paganism that hardcore rationalist will find unacceptable. But they find most human things unacceptable. For me, not believing in God does not mean one has to forgo poetry, magic, the chaos of ritual, the remaking of shared bonds. I fear ultra-orthodox atheism has come to resemble a rigid and patriarchal faith itself. [Continue reading…]

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How can a better understanding of sacred values help us resolve intergroup conflicts?

Scott Atran writes: Humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they strive for lasting intellectual and emotional bonding with anonymous others, and make their greatest exertions in killing and dying not to preserve their own lives or to defend their families and friends, but for the sake of an idea—the transcendent moral conception they form of themselves, of “who we are.” This is the “the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only’” of which Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. In The Descent of Man, Darwin cast it as the virtue of “morality … the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy” with which winning groups are better endowed in history’s spiraling competition for survival and dominance. Across cultures, primary group identity is bounded by sacred values, often in the form of religious beliefs or transcendental ideologies, which lead some groups to triumph over others because of non-rational commitment from at least some of its members to actions that drive success independent, or all out of proportion, from expected rational outcomes.

For Darwin himself, moral virtue was most clearly associated not with intuitions, beliefs, and behaviors about fairness and reciprocity, emotionally supported by empathy and consolation—which constitute nearly the entire subject matter of recent work in the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of morality—but with a propensity to what we nowadays call “parochial altruism”: especially extreme self-sacrifice in war and other intense forms of human conflict, where likely prospects for individual and even group survival had very low initial probability. Heroism, martyrdom, and other forms of self-sacrifice for the group appear to go beyond the mutualistic principles of fairness and reciprocity.

Whether for cooperation or conflict, sacred values, like devotion to God or a collective cause, signal group identity and operate as moral imperatives that inspire non-rational exertions independent of likely outcomes. In interviews, experiments, and surveys with Palestinians, Israelis, Indonesians, Indians, Afghans, and Iranians, my research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges and Douglas Medin finds that offering people material incentives (large amounts of money, guarantees for a life free of political violence) to compromise sacred values can backfire, increasing stated willingness to use violence toward compromise. This research, supported by the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, shows that backfire effects occur both for sacred values with clear religious investment (Jerusalem, Shariah law) and those with initially none (Iran’s right to nuclear capability, Palestinian refugees’ right of return). [Continue reading…]

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“I am both Muslim and Christian”

“I am both Muslim and Christian”

Shortly after noon on Fridays, the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding ties on a black headscarf, preparing to pray with her Muslim group on First Hill.

On Sunday mornings, Redding puts on the white collar of an Episcopal priest.

She does both, she says, because she’s Christian and Muslim.

Redding, who until recently was director of faith formation at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, has been a priest for more than 20 years. Now she’s ready to tell people that, for the last 15 months, she’s also been a Muslim — drawn to the faith after an introduction to Islamic prayers left her profoundly moved. [continued…]

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