Forget Allah, Buddha, Christ, etc. Two minor Greek mythological deities excavated by Freud in his theory of what makes us humans tick have been ruling the world forever. Eros, the god or drive for love and Thanatos, that of death. Of course, any number of cultures follows the established pattern of duality. Be it yin and yang or the light versus darkness of my Zoroastrian ancestors, these warring forces live inside all of us. Looking at the state of the world, one would have to wonder if, for several decades now, more than explaining humanity, they aren’t actually splitting it in two
Populations with a pea-sized brain (and I’m being generous here) in countries or communities prey to religious superstition and/or battleground to sectarian or other conflicts, tribalism, warlordism, illegal occupation, and/or crushed under brutal regimes—take your pick—have every reason to believe in Thanatos’s supremacy. That is what they see all around day in and day out. You can preach all you want about peace and love and the brotherhood of man, they would sooner drive a sharp dagger through your lying heart than listen to more pieties. Death is all there is and you are responsible for this, they will assert time and again, you caused this war and the one before that. You brought to power that tyrant. You stole our ressources, you victimized us, and now you insult our prophets. You deserve death, I will kill you and die myself rather than live to see another day.
There you go. Thanatos once more spreading his dark wings, grabbing his scythe. What can you do against imbeciles whose most powerful emotion is hatred, who will always destroy rather than build, who will hold the most asinine beliefs and defend them to the death?
Also powerful believers in Thanatos are the vicious regimes which we, to our shame, pretend are no better and no worse than any other, whose repulsive heads we invite at our tables, with whose governments we sign juicy contracts, whose terrible crimes we pretend not to see. Did our administration voice even a modest protest over the 47 executions in Saudi Arabia last Saturday? Is decapitation horrendous only when performed by ISIS? Is crucifixion bad when putting Christ to death but okay to get rid of pesky teenagers who send out one tweet too many? Yet, even that kingdom built on sand has executed only 150 people in 2015. Our real best buddy since the signing of the doomed-to-crumble nuclear agreement is Iran where nearly one thousand people have been executed during the year that just ended. (Hurray for Iran, they’re getting there, though still far from our own United States where this past year 33,000 of our citizens died through gun violence—thirty-three THOUSAND?—and where cops killed almost 1200 people, mostly from minorities and often unarmed. All this to much cheering from the half-wits who refuse gun control and police accountability.)
We can’t confront Thanatos, his hold is too strong on fanatics and deranged individuals (for whom we continue to voice excuses and understanding.) That shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing his cult as the big divide between civilized discourse and mayhem. Or from picking Eros.
My gorgeous Paris has once again been attacked. So far, the toll stands at 129 people dead, scores more between life and death in hospitals. The eight perpetrators too are dead (no great loss, that), some blowing themselves up, one shot by police. Huge police operations are underway, two more suspects were killed on Wednesday.
Once again, after September 11, 2001, after the massacre of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo last January, following terrorist attacks too numerous to list or even count in the West and throughout the world, we are left stunned and heartbroken. Then, right away, awash in pieties: Don’t paint everyone with the same brush, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t hate. Except that it is becoming more difficult every time to refuse to see the obvious: that Islam is a pretty awful religion and its followers benighted for the most part.
It wasn’t always the case. I’m not even talking about Islam historically. Over the centuries, superb art and thought have come out of the Islamic world. One might be allowed to think that these grandiose cultures—Persian, Syrian, Egyptian, etc.—flourished despite Islam as none ever grew out of the sands of Arabia where Mohammad was born. The only gift humanity received from that country is a violent religion based on a “holy” book of dubious origin (discussion of which is blasphemy and punishable by death) and forced by the sword upon countless people. Today, Saudi Arabia is still rotten to the core, home to a corrupt and repulsive highly conservative regime.
No, when I say Islam wasn’t always awful, I’m talking about the way it was before it became a political ideology when the Islamic Revolution happened in Iran in 1979. When I was growing up in that country, people didn’t pay much mind to religion and Islam was, as the grandfather of the Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk used to put it, “for servants and for the poor.” I didn’t know anyone who paid more than lip service to religious belief. Indeed, Iran was not religious. Our feasts and holidays went back to ancient Persia, we celebrated the spring equinox, we jumped over fire as our Zoroastrian forefathers had (it speaks to the resilience of the Iranian spirit that not even the mullahs’ regime managed to ban these, though not for lack of trying). I don’t remember ever seeing a Koran or the inside of a mosque—except once or twice for a funeral.
All that to say that if I didn’t pay much mind to Iran’s official religion, I wasn’t born anti-Islam. But I’m fast becoming so and not only because of extremists and raving lunatics. Muslims demand respect but this cuts both ways. I cannot accept that they would block traffic on Paris streets for public Friday prayer. There aren’t enough mosques? That’s just too bad. How about praying at home? How dare Muslims ask for an equal number of mosques and churches? (BTW, how about building a couple of churches in Jeddah or Karachi?) How dare they ask that all the French eat meat from animals slaughtered according to Muslim rites? How dare they consider eating pork or drinking alcohol as an attack on their faith? How dare they harass on the streets women whose attire they find immodest? On top of all that, how dare they take offense at people’s negative reactions and their growing resentment? Public perception is going to change when Muslim communities accept that even if societies in the West are secular, their culture is judeo-christian (I myself don’t believe in anything. Faith, religion, or even spirituality are all, to me, as Bill Maher puts it, “intellectually embarrassing anachronisms from the Bronze Age.”)
But the worse part of the war of civilizations we are living through, though pretending we’re not, is, as I said above, that in the last decades Islam has become an ideology with a world domination goal. Muslims are first Muslims, then citizens of the Western countries that have taken them in. I myself am not first agnostic, then French-American. My friends in Virginia are not first Presbyterian, then American. My neighbors in Paris are not first Catholic, then French. This is as should be. We belong to a community, to a country, to a flag, to a constitution and a set of laws. But since the horrendous Paris attacks, Muslims interviewed by media or expressing themselves on various sites can only talk about the fact that their faith will once again be viewed negatively. I didn’t hear a single one—except for renegade Muslims whose numbers gratifyingly grow by the day—express chagrin at the actual events, sorrow for the victims, condemnation of the perpetrators or worry about the future of Europe–or the world, for that matter. Not one expressed fear of further attacks against the country. The extremists rejoice while all the so-called moderates have to say is “this is not Islam.” It’s not? Only George W. Bush, not the brightest intellect, ever believed that Islam is a religion of peace.
Things will change only if the Muslim communities in the West reverse their stance. The day Muslim French or British or German or Italian or American citizens define themselves through belonging to the country that has taken them or their parents or their grandparents in, and then, only then, as belonging to this or that faith, is the day they will be fully accepted. Until then, a day probably long in coming, they will continue to be resented and feared. In the meantime, another threat looms larger and larger: that of European nationalist and extreme right parties attracting more followers. Then we can all relive the horrors of seventy years ago—this time aimed at immigrant minorities—courtesy of the Prophet.
The discussion continues over PEN members* signing their names to a shameful refusal to award the PEN American Center’s Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. As a reminder to those of you who have since been washed over by successive waves of news, twelve Charlie Hebdo staff members were slain in Paris last January 7th over the publication’s cartoons deemed offensive by irate Islamists. These, Kalashnikov in hand, showed their displeasure in the swift and bloody Islamist manner we are learning to expect and recognize.
The controversy has raged on: What latitude does free expression give us? Can any faith claim infallibility and demand total respect not only from its followers but from everyone regarding its tenets, its holy book, its founder? Honestly, Read more…
Despite the complicated and not always happy world we live in, I most often manage to avoid being driven by contempt or hatred. For moral reasons—surely, despising and hating must be harmful to the soul–for trite aesthetic ones (to avoid those vertical lines a lifetime of disapproval etches round the mouths of older people and to prevent those between my eyebrows from deepening), for health reasons (to keep my blood pressure normal, my heart rate slow, my hands warm). Also, my mental setup is such that I believe in silver linings more than in clouds, I deliberately take things at face value, I don’t believe that a new conspiracy is being spun every minute, and I see the line running from A to Z as always straight. In sum, I refuse to be goaded into suspicion, anger or indignation.
Not an easy resolve, as this past week demonstrates.
First, the appearance, seemingly out of nowhere, of hordes of m-f-ing murderous flesh-eating Islamists, the ISIS. And how do these names, acronyms, abbreviations, become legitimate so quickly, how do we go in a few hours from “the IS what?” to “yes, of course, the ISIS,” and start bandying the letters as though these people form a bona fide political group with which, sure, we can talk once we bring them to the table, and indeed, the Sunnis have been ill-treated by Maliki so naturally enough they eat the heart of their enemies or post videos of themselves smoking, relaxed, beside the heads of decapitated soldiers, occasionally pausing in their banter to insult one of the cut heads. What? Several thousand dead already? Well, this is war, it’s not supposed to be pretty. Read more…
Picture this. You live under one of the most repressive regimes possible, a dictatorship not only enforced by thugs, which would be bad enough, but by Islamist thugs, so that ideology and faith gone astray are stirred into the already unpalatable mix. (Gallup’s most recent rankings of positive emotions find Iran at #93 on a list of 138 countries. As for highest negative emotions in the world, Iran comes second only to Iraq.) You chafe, you fret, there must be an outlet. Iran’s population is young, often hip, and not easily cowed, as we saw in June 2009 when boys and girls in practically equal numbers took to the streets to protest rigged presidential elections.
These youths are irrepressible in their thrust toward freedom. Today, theirs is not a political struggle—they don’t want regime change, they don’t challenge the existing order, they don’t even care about the sinister robed and turbaned clowns in power. They have chosen a different route. You won’t let me write or express myself? Okay, I’ll sing, how about that? You won’t let me have the life I want? Then I’ll dance. Just try and stop me. Read more…
We live in a complicated world, awash in a sea of information where topics swell and shrink according to immediate relevance like words in the computing cloud. Right now the two subjects du jour that top every list are a) everything JFK and b) the Iran nuclear talks. This may be as good a place as any to bring the two together.
Although the talks in Geneva, two weeks ago, regarding Iran’s nuclear program became a non-event ending on a stutter, bringing about another Netanyahu conniption, a sudden show of resolve from France’s pitiful government and an exchange of forced smiles between Kerry and the Iranian delegation, that door remains ajar.
The possibility of a deal when these talks resume rests on the fact that Iran has a new president, one that at least on the surface seems more palatable than his miserable predecessor. Also, Iran, on its knees economically, is ready to talk. The country’s oil exports have been slashed in half and remaining clients aren’t allowed to pay in cash but in manufactured goods, which in turn shuts down the industries that used to produce the same goods inside Iran. Given that present sanctions don’t allow financial transactions, the country’s banking institutions are in a coma. Inflation stands at 45 percent. I don’t know if Iran pursues or has pursued in earnest an actual nuclear weapon but at this point the Islamic Republic’s position is not tenable; either it gives in or it collapses. Read more…
American we knew and Kenyan we knew, but Iranian? Trust me, now we know. Let me explain. Iranians famously don’t like to fight. I’m not talking about actual killing—since its inception 34 years ago, the Islamic Republic has amply demonstrated that it has no qualms about that. No, I mean street fights. On a Naples or Medellin or Peshawar street, no one would think twice about engaging in fisticuffs in retaliation for a perceived offense but when an Iranian male feels insulted, his first reaction is to look around to make sure there are enough buddies nearby to restrain him and prevent him from jumping on the offender. When living in Iran, I used to see any number of these displays—two guys yelling bloody murder at each other and occasionally turning to the people subduing them to say “hold me, don’t let me hit him” (begir mano, nazar bezanam), as the last thing on their mind is to actually fight. Read more…