My Fair Islam

Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana has posted a threat to “radicalized Islamists” (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Higgins claims that his words are being twisted by the left for political gain.

And what, my dear Mr. Higgins, do you think the ISIL propagandists are doing right now? Telling the impoverished Muslim world that they will find security if they recite the Pledge of Allegiance with marbles in their mouth?

After all, from their point of view, America sends special forces and fighter jets around the world to murder women and children.

There’s no tracing back to the origin of fault. Your job as a political leader is thus not only to fund security, but to build coalitions that reach across sectarian lines. That includes running incendiary words past Islamic leaders. They’re the ones that bear the brunt of hatred, and you damn well better ask permission before you claim the privilege of “free speech.”

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming!

RussianCodeWe are engaged in World War III. Vladimir Putin go the drop on us, organizing a disinformation campaign that has allowed nationalists throughout the Western World to rise to prominence, undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by releasing hacked documents to support the Republican contention that she was unable to secure secrets.

Russia’s leading opposition figure released a video that both documents the luxurious lifestyle and the ownership structure that allows Putin’s inner circle to protect the wealth they have embezzled from the Russian people. The production include footage from drones flying over huge compounds owned by Putin’s second-in-command, Dmitry Medvedev, a man whose government salary is less than the U.S. President’s.

I don’t think that I need to make any claims regarding the source of this information. It’s almost certainly a tit-for-tat by our intelligence services.

In the last year of his term, the Obama Administration leveled a $700 million fine against DeutscheBank for facilitating embezzlement by Russian officials. Donald Trump netted nearly $60 million through the sale of an estate in Florida to a Russian kleptocrat. The key question in this war is whether American’s intelligence services have the means to hack the hidden accounts to drain away the funds, or means through financial accountability laws to freeze the assets.

If Vladimir Putin had a significant portion of his personal wealth seized by foreign governments, would he respond with a nuclear counter-strike?

It’s hard to judge. The similarities between Putin and Russia’s last strongman, Josef Stalin, are eerie. Stalin, too, sent state security agents around the world to assassinate actual and supposed enemies.

Stalin set the terms of the Russian campaign to build nuclear weapons. The program was driven by terrifying threats against failure, leading to short-cuts that left massive environmental degradation around many of the facilities. Russia eventually created a hydrogen bomb capable of vaporizing everything within a ten-mile radius of the explosion, with a 100-mile-wide fireball.

Stalin was motivated by threats against the Soviet system on his own territory, and may have seen nuclear weapons simply as a protection against invasion. Putin, however, feels free to cross international borders to achieve his domestic and foreign policy aims. Would he honor the constraints recognized by Stalin?

If he does, this war will proceed much as did WW II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Better, it will progress at internet speed. Putin has already seized two of Russian’s most senior information security officers, presumably believing that they were responsible for some of the information that appeared in the US intelligence briefing on Russian intervention in the presidential election. Given that Putin has engaged in a war with an invisible enemy pushing photons down optical cables, this kind of paranoid response is going to run out of control. While Putin is decimating the ranks of his information security office, the US side will tighten control over technical secrets at its facilities, preventing any future WikiLeaks releases, and focus narrowly on the weaknesses of Russian cybersystems.

Putin may rely on couriers to run the country, but you can’t move money and conduct cyber warfare by those means. His international web of criminal terror will be strangled.

The Struggle

These thoughts began to form this Sunday during services at the University Catholic Center down in Westwood.

May all those that surrender their light in service to dispelling the darkness be gathered by welcoming arms into the healing heart of Christ.

And from that sacred nexus that joins all open hearts, may the one lost realize the opportunity, in that place outside of time, to reach out to those that grieve for their loss – to whisper into our hearts words of comfort and encouragement in every moment that offers an opportunity to renew our strength and courage, and so to guide us toward healing.

And may we that grieve not build a wall of resentment against God, who suffers in sorrow alongside us, but remain open to the voices of those we have lost, and so discover that we are not abandoned – that our loved ones, while no longer physically present, are still with us in spirit.

Finally, may we all remember that our sorrow, if we but seize it as an opportunity to continue the work of healing begun by Christ, is but a momentary experience on a journey that leads to an eternity of love.

Islam Reflected

While my understanding of Christianity is rooted in my personal spiritually, my reflections on other religions are stimulated by my encounters with writings that I feel express an authentic immersion in cultural experience. Among these writings I include Wouk’s This is My God, which celebrates the depth of Jewish faith while revealing honestly the costs of its insularity. Thich Naht Hahn’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching is similarly powerful, though Ethan Nichtern’s The Road Home serves better to situate Buddhism in the modern world.

As regards Islam, apologists have the enormous benefit of written records that describe the formation of the faith. This is abused, perhaps, in their claims of authenticity and authority. But it also means that we are allowed a more intimate look at the personal and social transformations generated by a prophet. In Islam and the Destiny of Man, Charles Le Gai Eaton rendered this history appropriately, disentangling cultural and religious influences, but also with a sympathy found only in one steeped in spiritual experience. This summary of the essence of the Qur’an is not untypical:

Other books are passive, the reader taking the initiative, but revelation is an act, a command from on high – comparable to a lightening flash, which obeys no man’s whim. As such, it acts upon those who are responsive to it, reminding them of their true function as viceregents of God on earth, restoring to them the use of faculties which have become atrophied – like unused muscles – and showing them, not least by the example of the Prophet, what they are meant to be. To say this is to say that revelation, within the limits of what is possible in our fallen condition, restores to us the condition of fitrah. It gives back to the intelligence its lost capacity to perceive and to comprehend supernatural truths, it gives back to the will its lost capacity to command the warring factions in the soul, and it gives back to the sentiment its lost capacity to love God and to love everything that reminds us of Him.

The universality of this formulation reflects Eaton’s awareness that revelation is not unique to Islam. Mohammed and the Qur’an are manifestations of the Divine intention in circumstances that were unique to Arabia. Eaton dwells lovingly on those unique characteristics: the vast open spaces traversed by spice traders, the restricted word roots that make Arabic a richly allusive language, and the culture of the warrior poet – all were aspects that made the people’s minds uniquely susceptible to wisdom in the form emanated by the prophet.

But Eaton was also a European writing in 1985. The Occident was just recovering from the first of the OPEC oil crises, and the paroxysms of WWII were kept fresh in mind. Israelis and Palestinians blew each other up in hotels and apartments across Europe, to be succeeded shortly by kidnappings and bombings by home-grown radicals. The scheduled deployment of tactical nukes heightened global tensions between the US and USSR, threatening a conflict that would leave a radioactive waste along the fault line dividing NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Seeking prescriptions for healing, Eaton’s comparative anthropology led him to elevate the virtues of Arab and Muslim culture. He places much of the blame for the onset of social decay in Muslim states on colonialism (including Zionism) and Westernization of the elite. Worse, his analysis tends to dismiss the virtues of European culture, characterizing our economics as an obsession with administrative efficiency, Christianity as immature idolatry, separation of church and state as self-destructive materialism, and our rational science as justifying exploitation of the natural world.

Placed in proximity, these attitudes seem damning, but Eaton presented them without polemics. To the Muslim, these are obvious realities not worthy of great fanfare, and generally of no great concern except in that the instability of Occidental nations threatens to engulf the Muslim world. But the comparison seemed also to blind Eaton to the subtle miscegenation of Islamic and Arabic virtues, and so perhaps blinded him to the lessons that could beneficially be learned from the history of other nations.

Among the characteristic values of Muslim culture, Eaton lists the sword, manifesting as a willingness to embrace risk in seeking greatness, and a conciliatory attitude towards death. But the symbolism is pertinent: the Muslim world was always a world of conquerors financed by the Central Asian traders whose camel trains linked the Orient with Europe. As in feudal Europe, religion forced the warlords to rationalize their ambitions in religious terms, but it was in large part the constraints of technology and flesh that limited  hardship among the people. Remove those constraints, as happened in Europe following industrialization, and both rational analysis and experience proves that there are no winners in modern warfare. It is far easier to destroy infrastructure than it is to build it. And so, after two great paroxysms, Europe chose to ensure that the struggle for dominance between national leaders was constrained to the free market. Rather than learning from this history, today we witness the Muslim world slowly grinding itself up in Lebanon and Iraq and Iran and Yemen and Egypt and Libya and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yes the sword created the Muslim empire, but replace it with rifles and suicide bombers and tanks, and no culture has proven itself wise enough to resist the rush to self-destruction.

To the degree possible, restless aggression is moderated by the second Arab fascination: women. Eaton celebrates coitus as the most direct route to spiritual union, but then turns around and supports strict cordoning of the masculine and feminine worlds to guard against sexual immoderation. In a culture of aggressive males, these constraints inevitably fell most heavily upon women. This catering to masculine weakness discourages expression of the feminine virtues, principally among them conciliation and healing. In America, conversely, in my lifetime we have seen a steady disciplining of institutionalized misogyny, starting with removal of cheesecake calendars, passage of anti-harassment laws, and finally aggressive reconstruction of the workplace to assimilate graduating college classes that are more than fifty percent female. If the West is failing anyone today, it is the men that have not been provided the spiritual tools to control their youthful passions.

But can Islam, celebrating a man with twelve wives, offer anything more? Considering the brutal enforcement of female dress codes throughout the Muslim world, it would seem not. Yes, the West is in the ugly stage of the transition to sexual equality, but we are learning from the process, and will emerge far stronger for the investment. The Muslim world should take note.

But this criticism does not detract from the power of Eaton’s presentation. Like a great novel, his work immerses the reader in the Muslim mind-set, aided in no small part by a detailed rendering of the heroism of the founder and his heirs. It is a great story, guided by a holistic faith that has inspired artistic and intellectual achievement for more than a millennium. In recognizing defects, I seek merely to inoculate the Western reader against making too much of them, and to warn the Muslim reader to appreciate the costs of their insularity.

Islam and the Destiny of Man presented its religion as a profoundly human story, much as Christianity did in casting God’s devotion to us as the sacrifice of a son. In that commonality, the true Christian should find all necessary means to reach across the divide, inspiring and being inspired by the greatness that faith calls from humanity.

Looking Ahead

It’s such a beautiful experience, moving through a crowd of gentle people, and then getting hooked on life, stretching out a hand and feeling the pulse of the Amazon, caressing the Andes and then making the leap from Tierra del Fuego to Cape Hope, gently cupping the Congo and pausing before merging into the thrum of Ethiopia. Stuck there, I reached across with the other hand and felt the rainforests of Southeast Asia, roamed over the Russian tundra, and then slowly squeezing inward around the pustule that is the Middle East, soaking it with the healing energy of life and love.

And later she said, hesitantly “It seems that it’s going to get worse.”

“I’m afraid that is what I see, too.”

With the air of one surrendering innocence, she hazarded “But it’s not going to affect people like us.”

I had to look away, trying to find a formulation that did not take air out of the joy she was sharing with me. “Well, in order to bring healing, we have to make a diagnosis. That means getting close enough to feel their pain.”

It’s the last hurrah of selfishness. It knows it, and so figures there’s nothing to lose.

As Matt Maher promises in “Hold Us Together”:

It’s waiting for you knocking at your door
In the moment of truth when your heart hits the floor

And you’re on your knees

And love will hold us together
Make us a shelter to weather the storm
And I’ll be my brother’s keeper
So the whole world will know that we’re not alone

Economic Nation Building

The engineers at NASA have been warning for at least a decade that the constellation of junk orbiting the Earth is reaching critical levels. Beyond a certain point, the junk multiplies through collision with working satellites. I first became aware of this as a just-deserts illustration: a nation had launched a satellite with a loose wrench on board. When the satellite failed, they launched its replacement into the same orbit. Shortly after activation, the wrench, still in orbit, sheared through the boom that tethered the solar panel to the antenna.

NASA tracks space junk large enough to cause such incidents, and satellites commonly maneuver to stay out of their path. The job was made far harder when China, without notice to the international community, decided to demonstrate its ability to threaten global communications by blowing a satellite out of orbit. This was not done in a clever way, which would have been to destroy the satellite from higher orbit, pushing the fragments into the atmosphere. Instead, the Chinese destroyed the satellite from below, creating fully one third of our orbital space junk in a single incident.

This is only one example of a large number of similarly irrational incidents. When I stopped to chat with a Chinese co-worker one day, he was pulling his hair in exasperation. The pig farmers upstream from Shanghai had overbred, and many could not sell their stock. Rather than negotiating with their neighbors, they simply pushed the pigs into the river. Thousands of pig carcasses were floating through Shanghai to the ocean. The Three Gorges Dam, once seen as a manifestation of the efficiency of authoritarian rule, is a large open septic pit, filled with junk that is damaging the dam wall. More recently, we have the idiotic bulldozing of coral reefs in the South China Sea to create a landing strip to support Chinese claims to resource rights. The Obama Administration has chosen to thumb their nose, sailing naval vessels within the artificially created “territorial waters.”

When fighting a war to suppress authoritarian rule, we are confronted daily with death and destruction, and tend to bemoan the difficulty of nation building. The situation in China is a disaster in slow motion, but the fundamental problem is the same: where in Iraq the political preconditions for multi-party rule had not been established before Saddam’s ouster, in China the preconditions for a managed economy had not been established.

Foremost among these is a clear separation of economic, military and political spheres of influence. When Russian liberalized its economy, Western advisers recommended a distribution of state assets to the public. While the common share holder was generally defrauded of their ownership, the strategy did create a class of corporate ownership that can resist totalitarian excess. As Putin has fought to reassert totalitarian control, many of them have relocated to England, where Gazprom reportedly has headquarters in London.

No such separation exists in China. This means, for example, that when China realized that it could not divest itself of its US Treasury debt, and in fact had to continue to finance it to avoid watering down of its existing holdings, it choose to extend its global reach by repurposing consumer electronics technology received from the West for military applications.

Given our deep dependency on China for manufacturing of our electronics, it’s not clear how we are going to wriggle out of this situation. Industrial automation is one possibility – I am aware that Philips has resumed manufacturing of electric razors at a lights-out facility in the Netherlands. The maker movement pushed forward by hobbyists in America may spawn a flood of such innovations over the next generation.

More immediately, we have the Pacific Trade Pact, which allows companies to sue governments for unfair trade practices. I am hoping that this includes fair labor, industrial hygiene and environmental preservation as criteria. This removes the problem of jurisdiction faced by federal negotiators attempting to negotiate trade disputes involving multinational corporations. But the likely outcome will be to force China to reduce its cultural bias against foreign investment, with the result that labor and environmental justice will lose its focus.

And then there is the standard proposition of economic nation building: concentration of wealth drives competition for creative minds, which creates a population that lobbies for universal rights. The alternative, of course, is the creation of a privileged class that looks only to its own interests, as illustrated in The Hunger Games, or as actually existed in the European nobility that successfully suppressed capitalism through the use of royal monopolies until the monarchy in England was distracted by a long struggle over succession.

In Russia, the West is in some sense fortunate that Putin has chosen to cement his power through military aggression. We have prior experience in resisting that practice, primarily through the application of economic pressure. But China has carefully insulated itself from that pressure, while simultaneously reaping the profits from manufacturing operations relocated by cost-cutting multinationals that cannot be regulated by any single national government. Worse, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United hearing the ruled that corporate political spending is “free speech” came suspiciously close on the tail of revelations that China was funneling money into the American political process through our Chamber of Commerce. China’s trade surplus is being used to control our political decision making.

What worries me most about this situation is that the problem of nation building through military intervention is a subject of open dialog in our policy institutes. No such focus appears to exist for the theory, practice and dangers of economic nation building.

Hitler created a German boom by renouncing reparations during the Great Depression, and rode the authority granted by the German people into World War II. The rest of Europe did not recognize the threat he represented, and ultimately had no leverage over his conduct. China is creating growth by exploitation of the environment and workers, and has proceeded to military breast-beating. Do our leaders in government and industry recognize the potential threat, and what are they doing to ensure that we can reign in the Chinese ruling class?

The Middle East as a Model for Climate Crisis

As the Ice Age ended, the Middle East was the cradle of Western civilization. The “four rivers” mentioned in the Bible met in the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates River Valley, cultivated with a sophisticated irrigation system, was a breadbasket for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the mountain waters coated the soil with clay long before iron and steel plows were invented. The climate warmed, and the introduction of sheep in the Central Asian steppes caused the grass to loose its purchase. The soil washed away in the rain. The carrying capacity of the land plummeted.

Today, much of the region is dessicated. Population levels are sustained by imports financed by oil revenues. Unfortunately, those revenues are not distributed uniformly. Both ethic and class prejudice allow a small minority to capture most of the wealth, while the less fortunate scrabble for bread and shelter.

What will happen when the oil is gone?

This is a significant factor in the rise of ISIS: the Sunni/Baath minority in Iraq lost control of oil revenues to the northern Kurds and southern Shias. While IS also uses extortion and sales of archaeological treasures to finance its operations, sale of oil from captured Iraqi and Syrian facilities is a mainstay.

The brutality of the regime is intense. As in failed African states, many of its fighters are locals without any other means of support.

Is there any means for external actors to control the downward spiral in such situations? Obviously the oil economy allowed the Sunni/Baath community to amass enormous wealth, and given the focus on capturing territory over sustaining a viable economy, an investment in guns and bullets reaps huge gains for the violent few. The material left by the US for use by Iraqi government forces was also a boon to IS. But is it reasonable to expect that we can keep weapons out of the region?

The harsh climate and conditions also make it difficult to secure borders. IS is now spreading eastwards into Afghanistan, the source of much of the world’s opium, a cash crop that has moved for decades into the Western world in spite of efforts to suppress it.

The response of much of the Syrian population has been to flee. Is it possible to supply them in the region, or must they relocate to more stable societies? The Palestinian refuge camps in the ’70s and ’80s were not successful. Do we have the wisdom and skills to do better now?

My concern is that if we do not set about applying ourselves to understanding how to manage this kind of chaos, we are going to be facing the same situation all over the world in the next eighty years. Although driven initially by natural glacial cycles, the Middle East and Central Asia are archetypes for the ecological collapse and social instability that comes with global warming.