The pope’s address

Posted in Religion with tags , , on January 26, 2013 by shirhashirim

Half the world got angry at the pope for allegedly speaking up against gay marriage in his Christmas address to the Curia. Yet, I cannot find anything in his speech about gay marriage, not even obliquely. Am I the only one who’s puzzled?

I have two reasons for assuming the pope was nog speaking about gay marriage at all. This twelve-paragraph speech devotes two paragraphs to ‘family’ and the threats the pope sees to it. In the first paragraph he sketches the problem in a series of questions:

[…] the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human. The challenges involved are manifold. First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for? Man’s refusal to make any commitment – which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself […]

If you ask me, questions like these might just as well apply to gay couples as straight ones. The problems the pope indicates are neither typical for gay couples nor do they occur more often among them. In fact, I think his speech is about divorce, broken families and the growing lack of commitment between spouses. I’m quite sure the pope is not including gay couples here. He may think gays too are a threat to the family, but what he’s talking about is a problem that might -if you share the pope’s views on the sanctity of marriage- actually be a real threat, given its much bigger size.

There’s a second reason why I think the pope cannot possibly be referring to gays. In the second paragraph he offers an explanation in the form of his ideas on gender. According to his diagnosis mankind is shifting its view on gender, and in the wrong direction.

According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.

The pope is describing the views of his opponents here. But if he were referring to the opinions of homosexuals or gay rights activists, there is nobody -literally nobody- to be found among them who claims that being homosexual is a choice. Instead the claim gay rights activists make all over the world is that homosexuality is drafted into the very nature of gay people. They are born with it. Their argument is exactly the same as the pope’s, it only points in the opposite direction. Homosexuality according to them is -in a religious sense- an ‘act of God’ that should be respected as such.

I find it hard to believe that the pope would be unaware of the fact that he and his opponents use the very same argument about ‘nature’ when discussing homosexuality. So when the pope comments on the idea that gender role is a matter of choice, I think he must be referring to something else: the choice people want or claim to have to release themselves from certain commitments.

Of course the pope’s views on gay marriage are well-known. I happen not share them and many others don’ t either. I won’t argue with those who claim the pope’s views on the matter are old-fashioned, outdated or backward. Yet Joseph Ratzinger is an intelligent and smart man. His holding on to backward views is no reason at all to assume he must be the village idiot, who is completely unaware of what people say. That’s too easy.


Posted in Religion, Society with tags on November 4, 2012 by shirhashirim

There is this theory that all violence is ultimately fear. Apart from recreational violence, usually perpetrated by young men in groups and often under the influence of alcohol or drugs, I have yet to find a form of violence that isn’t.

Still, reality keeps being more fantastic that fiction because who would imagine being afraid of a fifteen year old girl?

Yes, they are there: adult men afraid of a fifteen year old, afraid enough to shoot her twice at close range…

…and fail to kill her. You have to be very, very wrong -and know it!- to feel that afraid of a fifteen year old.

As I write this, the news has it that Malala Yousafzai is doing very well, considering her circumstances.

Next years nobel peace prize candidate?

Dear Mr. Prosor,

Posted in anti-semitism, World politics with tags , , , on April 21, 2012 by shirhashirim

Your contribution in the Wall Street Journal of March 23th 2012 baffles me. You are the ambassador to the UN of the state of Israel. Have they not provided you with a spin doctor? Is no one available to comment on your drafts? Do you not have enough staff to check your facts? Propaganda is a profession mr Prosor. It’s not a job for mere ambassadors. You need to leave it to the experts.

You claim the international community is blatantly, and unjustly, disregarding the rockets Hamas terrorists are firing into Israel from Gaza. In you contribution you lament:

…over the past decade, the ratio of rocket attacks to words of condemnation from the United Nations Security Council is 12.000 to zero.

Here’s a word of advice. If you want to play the underdog, you should always understate you case. Not overstate. Because some people reading your text will start checking your facts. Bastards like me. If they find out that it’s even worse than you say, you can sit back and relax. But if they find out you’re exaggerating, you spent your time writing for nothing. They just won’t read on and even if they do, you’ll have lost their confidence.

Just five minutes of browsing delivers the figures for rockets fired from Gaza. They’re from your own ministry of foreign affairs: 4.728 rockets between 2001 and 2010, less than half. If you want to get close to your statistics you have to add 4.442 mortar attacks during the same period. And even then you still are 2.830 short of your claim of 12.000 ‘rocket attacks’.

Five extra minutes of browsing and you find figures that come a bit closer to yours.  That’s mainly because they’re up to date: 11.625 attacks, just 273 short of your 12.000. But again we need to count rockets and mortar-grenades together. Only 7.222 attacks really are rockets.

What’s worse, the newly found figures also include the fatalities. We didn’t ask for them, nor were we looking for them. But now that we found them, what does it tell us? A mere 31 dead for 11.625 attacks. That’s a disastrously bad perfomance (less than 0,5%). These are no terrorists as we know them, these are bunglers. I almost felt sorry for them. Even Israeli traffic does a better job. No wonder the UN Security Council is not paying attention.

You try to paint a gloomy picture of impending doom and by accident we find out it’s by far not as bad as you want us to think. What you say is just propaganda. What else may be wrong that we don’t know about?

See what harm a bit of browsing can do when you don’t do your job properly? And that’s not all. Because when average readers find out someone is being careless about his facts, or worse, they start reading your text much more attentively, but this time to find more mistakes.

Here we come to the central argument in your contribution, in which you claim that an Israeli attack on Gaza is imminent and only depends on a stray rocket hitting the wrong place, i.e. causing a lot of casualties:

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that if rockets fall on your head, you have a right to defend yourself. It’s a simple equation. Calm will return to Gaza when rockets stop falling on Israel. However, one rocket that explodes in the wrong place at the wrong time -in a grocery store, shopping mall or school- and Israel will be forced to respond in a completely different manner. Time and time again, Israel has warned the world that Gaza is an disaster waiting to happen.

But an Israeli intervention is not ‘inevitable’, nor it is ‘a disaster’ waiting to happen. Regardless how devastating, no rocket attack ‘forces’ an intervention. No Hamas terrorist has the ability to push an Israeli red button. And no Israeli officer is ever going to say: ‘Oops, look what happened, we intervened!’

You are portraying Israel as a victim, helplessly kicked around by circumstances and completely out of control. This is a blatant misrepresentation of the situation. Israel is not helpless, it has a choice, it can and does decide for itself. We all know decisions like that are hard and at times even cynical. Nobody likes to make them. But that does not mean the choice isn’t there. Israel is in control of itself, not Hamas. The devil did not make you do it, it was you yourself.

By trying to shift the blame in advance of its actions you have done the state of Israel a disservice. You should resign or hire some people who know about manipulating public opinion and who are metriculous about facts. Because with enemies like you, Hamas doesn’t need friends.

The down sides of research schools

Posted in Science with tags , on February 24, 2012 by shirhashirim

In the past few weeks I’ve been reading:

Ohlig, K.H. & M. Gross, 2009. Vom Koran zum Islam. Berlin (Hans Schiller).

It’s already the fourth volume published by the Inarah group. It’s a research school in which a group of scholars have gathered that have what you might call ‘revisionist’ views on the origins of Islam. These views are published regularly in articles that are gathered in volumes like the present one. Inarah are the people that are propagating the theory that Islam originated in present day Iran, as a branch-off from Christianity among Arabs living there. That’s a rough summary.

I am no expert in the field, but I do know something about science in general. A lot of their idea’s simply do not sufficiently fulfill requirements of scholarly rigour. Having reached their fourth volume, they are now getting attention and criticism. In the present volume I found some contributions adressing that critisicm that were quite confrontational. That’s not a good sign.

Let me illustrate my statement on scholarly rigour with an example I found in the fourth volume: Markus Gross’ Fruhislam und Buddismus, neue Indizien (pages 347-396). Gross claims in his contribution that the form of islamic hadith resembles that of Buddhist stories called Itivuttaka and Udana. Hadith are traditional stories that were gathered by muslim scholars for legal and historical reasons. They invariably start with a chain of transmitters, telling the reader who this story is from, who he heard it from and so forth. Ideally these chains go back to the prophet.

Gross has found out that Buddhist traditional stories start out with a comparable chain of transmitters. He supposes Islam has taken over the idea from Buddhism. This would make an origin somewhere in Iran more probable, as Buddism was widespread along the Silk Road. Gross supports his claim by stating that chains of transmission were unknown in Judaism and Christianity.

This however is demonstrably not true. To begin with, the Talmud is full of indications like this. I checked the tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 8 and noted down a few:

Rabbi Abiah b. Rabba b. Nahmani in the name of Rabbi Hisda (according to others in the name of Zeeli) said:
Rabbi Hisda in the name of Uqba (according to others Mar Uqba in the name of Rabbi Sakkai) said:
But did Rabbi Hana b. Mouldha in the name of Rabbi Huna not say that…

And then there are the christian apophthegmata, sayings of the desert fathers, that sometimes also indicate their origin more extensively:

Abba Poemen said that Abba John said…
Abba Poemen said about Abba John the Dwarf…
Abba Doulas, the pupil of Abba Bessarion said…
This is what Abba Daniel, the Pharanite, said: ‘Our Abba Arsenius told us…

I found all these on the internet. As I said: I am no expert, but it was a piece of cake to find evidence to the contrary that Gross should have dealt with.

It shows one disadvantage of research schools, especially if they represent ‘dissident’ views like Inarah. Huddling together with like minded scholars may have its advantages, but in cases like this criticism should be actively sought from outside. Inarah is isolating itself.

كل يوم كربلا

Posted in Music, Religion, World politics with tags , , , , , on December 7, 2011 by shirhashirim

Today Shiites all over the world commemorate the death of the grandson of Muhammad, Hussain, at the battle of Kerbala in 680 CE. Hussain, being a direct descendant of Muhammad had a fair claim on the caliphate which in 680 had just been assumed by Yazid, the son of Mu’awiya, who in 661 CE had usurped the function following the death of Hussain’s father, and caliph, Ali. Hussain went to Kufa to claim his rights and was caught at Kerbala, where he and his followers were massacred by an army that far outnumbered them.

In Shiism the commemoration of this battle has acquired a far wider meaning than just this historical incident. Hussain for Shiites is the epitome of everything that is good and just, while Yazid… Well, you may have guessed. The conflict between the powerless and the powerful, the oppressed against the oppressor. It all comes together at Ashura.

One day in Esfahan during Ashura, I read a phrase on the back window of a car, the title of this post. It means ‘every day is Kerbala’. According to Shiite Muslims Ashura is there to remind us of that sad fact. Those who are not Shiites need only to open their newspapers and read.

Kerbala is commemorated with passion plays in the streets, with music, public mourning and self-chastisement. In some parts of the world this even turns into self-mutilation, but not where I was. I’ve been told the latter is forbidden in Iran.

Flagellants in the main square of Esfahan (Iran) celebrating Ashura in 2010.

Beating oneself, in Iran with a bundle of chains of varying thicknesses, however is an integral part of the commemorations. It is done in groups in procession on the beat of a drum. It has a little choreography to it, that differs from group to group. Everyone wears black shirts and you can see small particles of iron shimmering on the backs of the men (no women beat themselves with chains). I’ve tried it myself. It does not hurt as much as you might think, it’s just a heavy thump on your back. But I’ve never tried doing it during half a day, as these men do.

It’s the beating with chains that impresses people the most, but once you’ve been at Ashura, you realise it’s just a detail. It’s the general atmosphere of mourning that is most impressive.

Bloody shame

Posted in Arabic, Religion, The odd post with tags , , , on October 4, 2011 by shirhashirim

(source: Sotheby’s website)

In a few hours a page from the so-called blue qur’an will be auctioned at Sotheby’s, chances are it will disappear in the vaults of some private collector. Rumor has it that almost all old qur’anic manuscripts disappear there…

Somehow I cannot but think that things like these are world heritage, that should be publicly available for everyone to see and enjoy.

(source: Sotheby’s website)

Incidentally: a hijazi manuscript is also up for sale. This type of manuscript belongs to the very oldest group of manuscripts we have of the qur’an. They are important for the study of early Islam and the textual history of the qur’an. They should not only be available for everyone to see, but also for all to study.

The page from the blue qur’an contains surat al-Baqarah (2), verses 267 to 273. The hijazi manuscript contains surat Yusuf (12), verses 30 to 50.

And we’re back!

Posted in The odd post with tags on September 13, 2011 by shirhashirim

September, as promised. No whooshing sounds as deadlines fly by…