December 31, 2010

Top 10 Viral Videos of 2010

And with 12 minutes left in the day, this is my last post for this year. See you on the flip side. :)

December 17, 2010

Tintin and the Muslims

I was asked to comment about a blog post from June 2008 entitled "Europe" vs. "Western Civilization". The post is primarily a commentary about the Adam Tooze book, Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (with which I am not familiar), that has the unusual linkage of comparing Tooze's book to Hergé's comic book, Tintin in America (originally published in 1931). I will also admit to ignorance about Hergé's work, although I've tried to do a quick review about Hergé and the comic book in question.

The author of the blog post, "CPA," makes his primary argument in the following two paragraphs:

After reading Tooze's book, the answer I think is pretty plain: Nazism wasn't just about racism, it was also about Europeanism. In other words it was not just about making "Aryans" triumph over Jews, Roma, and other inferior races in Europe, it was also about making Europe as a continent triumph over rival continents. And by rival continents, the only one really in question was North America. One could even go so far as to say that the racism was instrumental to the "continentism"; that grinding inferior races in Europe into the dust was only a means to the end of keeping Europe the world's leading continent. What is so striking about this is how geography trumped race even in the strategy of the most justly notorious racists in history. How could this be?

Here is where Tintin in America comes in. To understand European fear of North America, one needs to understand the European image of America. Tintin's America is a gangster paradise, a land of skyscrapers and anarchy, of grotesque slaughterhouses and industrialized food, drunken sheriffs enforcing Prohibition while citizens have fun at a lynching parties, a land where oil companies routinely dispossess Indians, where you can go to sleep in a prairie one day and wake up in a traffic-jammed metropolis the next. Now, this is Tintin, and it is all fairly light-hearted. ... As Tintin leaves on a steamer back for Europe, he sighs, "Funny, and I was just starting to like the place." But make no mistake, America is not part of some "Western civilization" -- it is just as alien to Herge's European readers as Africa, the Soviet Union, or the Arab world and India, scenes for his immediately preceding and following Tintin volumes.

Now I bring up the stereotypes presented in the Tintin comic book because the specific request made of me was, "Do you have any thoughts regarding it [the blog post], perhaps on what it means on Muslim relations with America versus Muslim relations with mainland Europe?" Hergé's work seems somewhat similar in its "production values" (for want of a better term) to the current situation between Muslims in the United States and Europe.

In Wikipedia's article on the Tintin series (The Adventures of Tintin), it notes that Hergé did research on the people and countries to which Tintin traveled. However, one of the specific criticisms regarding Tintin in America is that "much of the sequence in the American West is less realistic, as it depicts the West as it was in the days of the Wild West, complete with cowboys and Indians", as opposed to the American west of the 1930s. (Much of the story takes place in Prohibition-era Chicago, with Al Capone being a character in the book.) So my thought is, what media was available to Hergé for his research at that time? Books, photographs and news accounts, certainly, but not much else. One wonders if the "cowboys and Indians" portion of the comic was influenced by Hollywood Westerns that had crossed the Atlantic into Europe in the 1920s and early 1930s. My point here is that with limited research materials, for Hergé and the rest of Europe at that time, was this a reason why there are the various European stereotypes of the United States as depicted in Tintin in America?

I would like to say that Muslim relations in America and Europe (indeed the rest of the world) follows along a similar vein, that the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims depends upon how well non-Muslims know Muslims, not just Muslim society in general but individual Muslims personally. (For North America and Southeast Asia, I think this theory works pretty well, but I'm not as convinced for Europe. More on that later.) If a non-Muslim knows a Muslim personally, he or she should (in theory) be less likely to demonize Islam and Muslim society. One would hope that a non-Muslim who personally knows a Muslim or Muslims won't think of Muslims in general as a dangerous "other," but that they are like Muhammad who works in the office or Yasmin who presents the news on TV.

In North America (and the U.S. in particular), I think that most non-Muslims are terribly ignorant about Islam and Muslim society, and that this ignorance has driven most of the fear and myth-making. (Myths about Islam including, "Muslims want to dominate the world," "Muslims want to impose Shari'ah on non-Muslims," and so on. That sort of nonsense.) Some of the problems facing the American Muslim community include the fact that Muslims make up a small (but growing) percentage of the total population, and that Muslims have been largely invisible to the American public for most of the country's history. I think Muslims only started coming into the American public's consciousness around 1973, when OPEC punished the U.S. for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Of course, since then, most reactions among Americans toward current events involving Muslims and Muslim countries have been negative (e.g., the Iranian Revolution and the Iran Hostage Crisis, hostages in Lebanon and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Israel/Palestine, Iraq before, during and after the two Gulf Wars, 9/11 and other terrorist attacks around the world, Afghanistan, etc.). Never mind the fact that the vast majority of Muslims in Western countries are peaceful, law-abiding citizens; never mind the fact that most non-Muslims don't recognize their own countries' actions as contributing to the Muslim world's problems. We're all innocent of any wrong-doing; don't you know? ("The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do." (p. 51 of Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations))

Another problem in America is simply that this type of behavior has a long history in the country. White Protestant culture has a difficult time accepting other people. The same problems Muslims face today have happened to the Blacks, Chinese, Hispanics, Jews, Gays, Catholics, and other groups, cultural, ethnic, religious, and so on. Racism and bigotry in America may have been tamped down in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but it never died out completely. It simmered on the back stove for several decades, and began to become unleashed once more in the 90s. Add to the fact that some Islamophobes have found fearmongering to be lucrative financially, and the lies began to be promoted much more strongly than in the past. The good news is that, in both the U.S. and Europe, people of good conscious have begun to fight back with the Muslims and other discriminated groups. Muslim projects such as the building of mosques in America have found supporters from non-Muslims.

In Southeast Asia, Islam has been a significant religion for centuries (roughly 900 years for Malaysia and 1,000 years for Indonesia). With majority populations in Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, plus significant minority populations in the southern Philippines, Singapore and southern Thailand, most non-Muslims in this region are much better acquainted with Islam and Muslim culture than non-Muslims are in America and Europe. The problems that exist in the U.S. and Europe between Muslims and non-Muslims don't really exist in Southeast Asia. (Of course, there are other problems here between the two communities, but these issues don't seem to be as severe as in the West.) I think one of the key differences between America and Southeast Asia is that Asians are much more conducive toward tolerance between different groups. There are so many different ethnic and religious groups here that people are more willing to make a multicultural society work. (This is one of my complaints with Europeans who proclaim that multiculturalism doesn't work. Not true; it has and does in Asian cultures. Europeans just aren't trying hard enough.)

The question, then is, "Why aren't European non-Muslims more like Asians in their relations with Muslims? Why are they more like Americans?" On the one hand, you have a continent that is neighbors with the Muslim world and, in fact, has several distinct European Muslim communities within Europe itself (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia). Likewise, the absolute numbers and percentages of Muslims throughout Europe are much greater than they are in North America. For example, the Pew Foundation estimated that there are 38.1 million Muslims in Europe, comprising 5.2% of the total population, whereas the total number of Muslims in the Americas (North, Central and South America) totals 4.5 million, or 0.5% of the total population. (Pew estimates that there were 2.454 million Muslims in the U.S., or 0.8% of the population.) So, theoretically, there should be more interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims throughout Europe, even in countries with smaller Muslim populations, which should lead to less ignorance on the part of non-Muslims. But, based on my observations from afar, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Which makes me wonder, could any or all of the following be part of the problem: 1) Economic insecurity - Are worries over Muslim populations in Europe due to the same sort of worries regarding "Polish Plumbers?" In other words, that the cheaper labor coming from Muslim countries will take jobs away from Europeans of a lower socioeconomic level? 2) Racism - Are Europeans worried that Muslims represent a "browning" of the European gene pool similar to the miscegenation fears of Germans intermixing with Jews through World War 2 (or between blacks and whites in the U.S.)? 3) Socioeconomic status of Muslims (and non-Muslim Islamophobes) – One of the known differences between the American and European Muslim communities is that the American Muslims tend to be richer and perhaps more educated than European Muslims. This is due in part to American immigration policy, which, like many countries, encourages people with wealth, high levels of education (normally a minimum of a graduate degree), and/or vital-skill jobs (e.g., IT, medical, education, etc.) to move there. The immigrant Muslim community in the U.S. was able to move to America because they had these qualifications. European Muslims, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily as rich or well-educated; many families, of course, immigrated to European countries due to either post-WW2 labor shortages and/or relaxed immigration rules for countries that were once European colonies. This issue might tie in with the first issue mentioned above, economic insecurity. Perhaps the lower socioeconomic levels of Muslim immigrants in Europe are too similar to that of the native population, leading to the economic and/or xenophobic insecurities? (This issue is less of a problem in the U.S., where Islamophobia tends to be driven either by xenophobia or ideology (hatred of Islam as an ideology/religion).) 4) Tribalism in European society – I’ve read enough European history to know that, deep down, Europe is just as tribal as many other “tribal cultures.” (In today’s vernacular, most tribal conflicts are described as ethnic disputes between two or more groups, or international conflicts in which nations composed of different ethnicities clash over various issues.) I wonder if conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe might be considered a form of tribal conflict; for example, between the Germans and Turks living in Germany or the French and Muslims who come from the various North African countries?

(I claim no expertise regarding the European relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims; this is based solely upon what I've read on the Internet. If Muslim bloggers from or living in Europe wish to correct me on this section, I'd be happy for their input.)

* * *

John Espinoza brought up several good points in a recent essay at Huffington Post. On the one hand, he writes,

…those that think the root cause of Muslim-West tensions is political are more likely to see it as avoidable. Those who see it as religious are more likely to believe it as unavoidable. Therefore, if the conflict is framed as "political," people are more likely to work to find a solution.

I agree with this, and perhaps this is a factor that should be considered for relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in America and Europe. (I don’t think a political/religious dichotomy is as apparent in Southeast Asia. Most people in this region, I think, recognize that tensions here are mostly political rather than religious in nature, even when the personalities involved are deeply religious.) I’m not able to judge how well the European non-Muslim population views their conflicts with Muslims between politics and religion; however, I do think that most Americans view conflicts with Muslims as being religious in nature instead of political. (This is ironic considering that the far right in the U.S. has begun to argue, fallaciously, that Islam is not a religion but a political ideology.) In fact, I would even go so far as to say that many Americans find it difficult to distinguish the political context for many conflicts. If a conflict involves groups with different religions, Americans will tend to define the conflict in terms of the religions involved instead of the political factions. This happens often with "Muslims vs. ..." whomever (Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc.), but also with conflicts that don't involve any Muslims (Northern Ireland in particular). The problem, of course, is that while religious beliefs may play a part in the conflict, other factors are often involved that have nothing to do with religion (e.g., conflicts between ethnic groups, calls for self-determination, control of natural resources, economic inequalities, etc.).

Esposito provides potential solutions that Muslims offer to help improve relations with non-Muslims:

Majorities of Muslims expressed their deep concerns about this lack of respect but they also offered positive solutions: stop desecrating the Quran and religious symbols, treat Muslims fairly in the politics that affect them and portray Muslim characters accurately in popular media.

The problem is, I doubt that even these simple solutions can be performed by non-Muslim society. There is just too much profit (figuratively and literally, as I mentioned above) to be gained from not improving relations between non-Muslims and Muslims.

Update: Quarkstomper wrote a very good comment over at Street Prophets, where I had cross-posted this diary, regarding Hergé and his research:

Hergé did a great deal of research for his later Tintin stories, but not at the beginning. His first one, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was based on material from a book about the Soviet Union that his editor gave him. (The paper Tintin originally appeared in was a Catholic one with a strong conservative and anti-communist slant). His second one, Tintin in the Congo, was likewise written at his editor's request and was an embarrassing pro-colonial apology. After that, Hergé was permitted to write pretty much what he wanted, which was to take Tintin to exotic places that captured his imagination. Like America.

After Tintin in America and The Cigars of the Pharaohs (taking place in Egypt and India), Hergé announced that he would next take Tintin to China. He received a letter from a Roman Catholic priest asking him to please take care to portray the country accurately. The priest introduced him to a young Chinese student from his school named Chang. The young man became Hergé's assistant for the next story, The Blue Lotus, and provided him not only with factual information and calligraphy, but also a bit of cultural understanding. The Blue Lotus gave a much more sympathetic view of China and the Chinese people than was common in western media at the time.

After The Blue Lotus, Hergé took the lesson about research to heart, and his later adventures were all meticulously researched.

Update #2: Quarkstomper has expanded upon his comment, and has written the diary Hergé and Tintin, which gives a brief biography of the cartoonist and the cartoon strip. I've also cross-posted this essay over at Daily Kos (glutton for punishment that I am ;) ).

December 15, 2010

SP Crater and Lava Flow

SP Crater, a volcanic cone and flow in Arizona, is visible in this image obtained by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft. Instrument scientists designated radiation of 0.81 microns red, 0.66 microns green, and 0.56 microns blue. Vegetation is red in that combination. The image was obtained around 2001.

Although I lived in Arizona for 20 years, I was not familiar with this particular volcano or its unusual name. (Other volcanos, such as Sunset Crater and the San Francisco Peaks are much better known in the area north of Flagstaff.) Curious about a volcano I thought I should have known about, I looked up the Wikipedia page for SP Crater and found this amusing section about how the volcano got its name:

The naming of the mountain is a bit of lore from the Old West. S P Crater can be climbed, and the lava flow can be viewed from the crater rim. C. J. Babbit, an 1880s rancher and early landowner of the mountain, expressed his opinion that the mountain resembled a pot of excrement (Shit Pot), and this became the accepted local name. When viewed from certain angles on the ground, the combination of the smooth round shape of the cone, the dark lava spatter on the rim, and the long dark lava flow extruding from the base do indeed resemble a toilet catastrophe. Mapmakers refused to spell out the full name, and the mountain has been shown on maps and other literature with the abbreviated name.

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

November 23, 2010

National Service

Thomas Ricks at Foreign Policy suggests that, instead of re-instituting a military draft, the US government create a three-option national service program:

The military option. You do 18 months of military service. The leaders of the armed forces will kick and moan, but these new conscripts could do a lot of work that currently is outsourced: cutting the grass, cooking the food, taking out the trash, painting the barracks. They would receive minimal pay during their terms of service, but good post-service benefits, such as free tuition at any university in America. If the draftees like the military life, and some will, they could at the end of their terms transfer to the professional force, which would continue to receive higher pay and good benefits. (But we'd also raise the retirement age for the professional force to 30 years of service, rather than 20 as it is now. There is no reason to kick healthy 40-year-olds out of the military and then pay them 40 years of retirement pay.)

The civilian service option. Don't want to go military? Not a problem. We have lots of other jobs at hand. You do two years of them -- be a teacher's aide at a troubled inner-city school, clean up the cities, bring meals to elderly shut-ins. We might even think about how this force could help rebuild the American infrastructure, crumbling after 30 years of neglect. These national service people would receive post-service benefits essentially similar to what military types get now, with tuition aid.

The libertarian opt-out. There is a great tradition of libertarianism in this country, and we honor it. Here, you opt out of the military and civilian service options. You do nothing for Uncle Sam. In return, you ask for nothing from him. For the rest of your life, no tuition aid, no federal guarantees on your mortgage, no Medicare. Anything we can take you out of, we will. But the door remains open -- if you decide at age 50 that you were wrong, fine, come in and drive a general around for a couple of years.
(When The Rich Abandoned America -- and What That Has To Do With Defense)

In general, I don't have a problem with this. Both South Korea and Singapore, where I've lived, have compulsory national service for young men, and in both countries the system seems to work well. (Malaysia also has a national service, but I've gotten the impression that the system may be somewhat dysfunctional. If a national service is implemented it needs to be applicable to everyone; for example, if the above system was used, everyone who is not exempt for certain reasons would have to pick one of the three options.)

South Korea provides for a civilian service in addition to a military service. Those men who chose the civilian service have several options to chose from. The most visible option chosen was that of the police force, in which the young men would work as a foot patrol officer. I also knew a guy who did his civilian service working as a prison officer.

Singapore also has a civilian service in that the men can join either the police force or the civil defense force (fire/ambulance services). The men are also required to continue their service as reservists after their two years of active service until the age of 40 (or 50, depending upon their rank)

Both countries have penalties for not performing national service. In South Korea, I remember a case of a pop musician who had avoided his national service and had left the country to go on tour. When he returned home, he was refused entry back into the country.

The thing that really strikes me about this proposal is that none of it, including the "libertarian opt-out," is really new. Robert Heinlein had his own libertarian opt-out when he wrote Starship Troopers in 1959. In the novel, if a person didn't serve in the military, he was allowed no voice in the running of the government (i.e., through voting). Personally, given the laxity of Americans to vote in elections to begin with, I don't think that penalty goes far enough.

November 8, 2010

Ian McKellen Reenacts "The Bridge of Khazad-Dum"

Classic, and very funny! If you're a fan of The Lord of the Rings movies, this short video is a must watch! Although, obviously, McKellen had never watched Ralph Bakshi's 1978 version of LOTR (or perhaps even read The Fellowship of the Ring by that point in the filming of the movie).

November 4, 2010

Mount Merapi, Java, Indonesia

On October 26, 2010, Merapi volcano in Indonesia erupted, killing at least 38 people and prompting authorities to evacuate tens of thousands of inhabitants from around the mountain. On the night of October 30, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft captured a thermal infrared image (center Figure 1) of the hot volcanic flow that resulted from collapse of the summit lava dome, and that led to the ensuing release of ash plumes (center Figure 1; hot areas are brightest). In the daytime image from 2003 (left Figure 1), vegetation is displayed in red, and older volcanic flows are in blue-gray. The composite image on the right superposes the hot flow and summit dome areas from 2010 in yellow on top of the 2003 image. Gaps in the hot areas are due to concealment by intervening clouds in the 2010 night infrared image. The ASTER image is located at 7.5 degrees south latitude, 110.5 degrees east longitude. The image covers an area of 17 by 19 kilometers (11 by 12 miles).

With its 14 spectral bands from the visible to the thermal infrared wavelength region and its high spatial resolution of 15 to 90 meters (about 50 to 300 feet), ASTER images Earth to map and monitor the changing surface of our planet. ASTER is one of five Earth-observing instruments launched December 18, 1999, on Terra. The instrument was built by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Update: Another, less impressive image from ASTER can be found at PIA13607: Merapi Volcano Continues its Destructive Eruption.

Update #2: Another set of photos (visible light and infrared) from NASA: PIA13634: ASTER Images Merapi's Continuing Eruption, (released 18 November 2010).

October 22, 2010

In the Courtyard of the Beloved

IN THE COURTYARD OF THE BELOVED is a visual and aural portrait of Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah, a Sufi shrine in New Delhi, India. Made from over 18,000 still images and ambient sounds recorded on-site, rapid-fire bursts of kaleidoscopic imagery assemble into fractured collages where a moment expands outwards and then converges back into itself, fleshing out a three-dimensional rendering of place.

Each day, hundreds of pilgrims travel by airplane, train, car, rickshaw and foot to reach this shrine, which honors a 12th century Sufi mystic who believed in drawing close to God through renunciation of the world and service to humanity. Beginning with imagery from these journeys, the film then enters the physical space of the shrine; a unique nexus of marketplace, social space and spiritual haven, where devotees come to offer their prayers and find a moment of reflection away from the din of Delhi traffic. As the sun sets behind the dome, musicians begin the qawwali, a style of Sufi devotional music that ranges from contemplative religious elegy to raucous crescendo.

October 21, 2010

Shouts Banish Doubts

Shouts Banish Doubts

An interesting article on doubt and advocacy: the more one doubts, the more one advocates his or her position in an effort to convince one's self in the rightness of his or her beliefs. The case example is the tea baggers:

If confidence in one’s core tenets becomes shaky, a common response is to proselytize all the more vigorously. The apparent reason ... is that advocacy on behalf of one’s beliefs helps banish any uncomfortable lack of certainty. “Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence ... the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.”

October 12, 2010

Hungary's Toxic Sludge Spill

On October 4, 2010, a million cubic meters (35 million cubic feet) of red sludge spilled from a reservoir at an alumina plant in Ajka in western Hungary. Four people were killed and about 100 injured.* The sludge entered the Marcal River and has reached the Danube. Aquatic life in the Marcal was severely harmed; the mud also caused significant damage in nearby villages and towns, as well as adjacent farmland.

On October 11, when the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA's Terra spacecraft captured this image, the reservoir breach and downstream flow of the red sludge were still prominently visible. The ASTER image is located at 47.1 degrees north latitude, 17.5 degrees east longitude. The image covers an area of 14 by 34 kilometers (8.9 by 21 miles).

Photo credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

* At the time of this posting, the death toll has risen to eight; 45 people are currently hospitalized, with two in very serious condition. (Source)

Update:  One of the towns affected by this disaster has made the best of their recovery efforts; see  Eco-Friendly Makeover for Hungarian Village.

October 10, 2010

Why It's Time to Panic

If you didn't figure out that last year's uproar over the health care reform law was motivated by greed, this graph will set you straight. The piece of the pie with respect to health care in the United States (taken by hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, among others) has grown so big as a percentage of US GDP, it should come as no surprise why those with vested interests tried to keep health care reform from becoming a reality.

Remember that elections count and that the GOP not only wants to repeal health care reform, but replace it with something that won't help individuals and families. The GOP isn't interested in your welfare; they're interested in corporations' welfare. Vote for the Democrats this November.

HT: The Incidental Economist

October 5, 2010

Self-Identification as a Muslim

I've had an odd conversation with someone on Daily Kos, the topic of which was one's self-identification with a particular religion, in this case, Islam. The original comment read, in part:

I don't think that any Muslims have authority to tell another Muslim that he's not a Muslim if he believes he is. I think each person has a right to determine his own religion.

My original response to this was the following:

Muslims can and do have the authority to tell another person that he or she is not a Muslim. Granted, this power should be used rarely, if at all. However, self-identification as a Muslim is not accepted within the Muslim community, and in some countries, such as Singapore, Muslim converts are tested as to their knowledge and practices of Islam before they are officially registered as a Muslim.

There are several reasons why self-identification is not allowed in Islam. One reason is because there are some groups, such as the Ahmadiyya, who are deviant offshoots of Islam who wish to be recognized as part of the greater Muslim community. The Ahmadiyya fail in this test because they have some beliefs regarding their founder that go against Muslim beliefs (specifically, against the Qur'an). Despite their wish to self-identify as Muslims, orthodox Muslims do not recognize the Ahmadiyya as part of the Islamic community.

A second reason is because some people wish to infiltrate the Muslim community by pretending to be Muslims. A recent case of this happened last year, when Chris Gaubatz [also see here] pretended to be a Muslim in order to obtain an internship at CAIR, where he stole thousands of pages of documents. (The most "damning" thing the documents spoke of was CAIR's goal of trying to get as many Muslims placed as Congressional interns as possible. The right tried to make hay of the story, but were ridiculed by virtually every group that has some sort of political interest, where they all agreed that they too had the same goal.)

Because of these and other concerns, Muslims don't accept self-identification. A person may self-identify as a Muslim, and they may truly be Muslim (only Allah (swt) actually knows what is in his or her heart), but that doesn't mean that we, the Muslim community, have to take their word for it. As with many other religious claims, we would tell that person, "Prove it!"

To which that person responded:

I don't care if self-identification isn't used among Muslims. Most Jews don't accept it. Some Christians don't accept it, but I see no other policy which is reasonable. As long as you don't accept group responsibility, which I don't, then self-identification is the the right approach to take. If someone claims they are an X, then they are that religion.

And I replied:

You may not care but that's not how it's going to be among Muslims. One person's opinion is not going to trump a consensus opinion among both Muslim scholars and non-scholars based upon 1400 years of experience. We have our reasons, as I mentioned above, and I believe them to be good reasons.

To be sure, as I also mentioned above, the naming of a person or group as a takfir (an apostate) is an act that is fraught with peril for the person who does so, as I wrote about on one of my blogs (Why Muslims Don't Pronounce "Takfir"). However, the minimum requirement to be accepted as a Muslim among Muslims is a public declaration of the shahadah in front of two Muslims. But even there, it is still possible for someone who does not have the proper intentions to deceive. Hence, our rejection of self-identification.

To which that person replied:

OK, I still don't care. If someone raised a Muslim decides he's an Atheist or a Christian or whatever, that's what he is. I think all of these regulations on who gets to count as a Jew, Muslim, Christian, etc... are offensive and illiberal.

My final comments are:

If someone raised a Muslim decides he's an Atheist or a Christian or whatever, that's what he is.

Which is fine by me. I'm not arguing this point.

I think all of these regulations on who gets to count as a Jew, Muslim, Christian, etc... are offensive and illiberal.

That's your opinion, and you're welcome to it. There's nothing to stop a person from self-identifying or becoming a Muslim, but that doesn't mean that the Muslim community must recognize that person as a Muslim. If that's "offensive and illiberal" so be it. The Muslim community expects certain standards to be met in terms of both beliefs and practices. Muslims themselves may fall into and out of a state of Islam throughout their lives (although we do, of course, hope to die in a state of Islam when that time comes, insha'allah). It's not terribly difficult to be recognized by other Muslims as a Muslim, but we do follow our rules, not the rules other people think we should follow.

September 30, 2010

Night of the Living Trekkies

Screw the book, give me the movie! :) I was LMAO while watching this video. And if you're a real Trekkie, you know the name of the female reporter at the beginning. ;)

September 24, 2010

On Camels

I am currently reading T.E. Lawrence's (Lawrence of Arabia) book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The book itself is fascinating, being both a war memoir of the Arab Revolt and a travelogue describing the geography and peoples of northern Arabia and Jordan.

I've come across two paragraphs about camels that I found of interest; the first paragraph answers a question for us non-Arab Muslims who are unfamiliar with camels: Why is the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) always mentioned in the various biographies as riding on a female camel?

We grew short-answered to one another; but relief came toward six o'clock, when we halted for supper, and baked ourselves fresh bread. I gave my camel what was left of my share, for the poor animal went tired and hungry in these bad marches. She was the pedigree camel given by Ibn Saud of Nejd to King Hussein and by him to Feisal; a splendid beast; rough, but sure-footed on hills, and great-hearted. Arabs of means rode none but she-camels, since they went smoother under the saddle than males, and were better tempered and less noisy: also, they were patient and would endure to march long after they were worn out, indeed until they tottered with exhaustion and fell in their tracks and died: whereas the coarser males grew angry, flung themselves down when tired, and from sheer rage would die there unnecessarily. (p. 258)

Two paragraphs later, Lawrence relates how camels from one part of Arabia might not do as well in other parts of the country:

Camels brought up on the sandy plains of the Arabian coast had delicate pads to their feet; and if such animals were taken suddenly inland for long marches over flints or other heat-retaining ground, their soles would burn, and at last crack in a blister; leaving quick flesh, two inches or more across, in the centre of the pad. In this state they could march as ever over sand; but if, by chance, the foot came down on a pebble, they would stumble, or flinch as though they had stepped on fire, and in a long march break down altogether unless they were very brave. So we rode carefully, picking the softest way, Auda and myself in front. (pp. 258-59)

Photo credit: Wikipedia: Lawrence at Aqaba, 1917

September 21, 2010

Ibu Sakit Gigi

I had an interesting lesson in grammar recently. About a week ago, Milady had a toothache that ultimately required her tooth to be pulled. As I drove away from the dentist's office, I tried to tell my two-year-old daughter why we had left Ibu (Mother) behind: "Ibu gigi sakit" (literally, "mother teeth hurt"). The maid, who was sitting behind me in the car, corrected my sentence: "Ibu sakit gigi."

I found this difference in syntax interesting. Using the rules of English syntax for a Malay sentence, I was trying to say, "Mother's teeth hurt." But the Malay syntax makes it seem to me that "Mother hurt (her) teeth." In English, of course, we assign blame (or not) in our sentences as the case may be. Milady didn't hurt her teeth deliberately; the tooth began hurting of itself. From my perspective, it seems like the Malay sentence is casting blame on my wife for having hurt her tooth intentionally, even though I know that's not really the case.

August 28, 2010

One Day in Ramadan

Earlier this month, I had been asked to provide an insider's perspective on Ramadan. That person had written:

I would like to know more about Ramadan ... I mean I could look it up in Wikipedia ... However, I would like to know not only about the event itself, but the event and the event [sic] from a more personal view.

This diary tries to present a small glimpse into the Ramadan experience.

4:30 a.m. - The alarm goes off to wake my wife and I up to start the new day. We eat some breakfast, take our respective sets of pills, then brush our teeth. The break of dawn doesn't begin until 5:45, but we stop all eating and drinking ten minutes earlier to make sure that, by 5:45, any remaining food or liquid in our mouths will have been swallowed.

This is my eleventh Ramadan; the first time I fasted for Ramadan was back in 2000. I had reverted to Islam only a few months earlier so, when I approached some friends at the mosque and asked them how I should prepare for fasting, they correctly advised me, "You don't." There is no correct way to prepare for fasting; you just plunge ahead and do it. The first four days of my fast were excruciatingly painful. My stomach had never gone through a full day without any food. On the fifth day, my stomach started to understand that there was not going to be any meals until supper, so the hunger pains began to let up. However, I still dealt with the issue of thirst, especially for the next nine days or so, when I ultimately discovered that the best thing to do was to keep my mouth shut, literally. Talk as little as possible (not always possible for a teacher), and breathe primarily through my nose. After that, fasting became easier. That first year, I lost a lot of weight, forcing me to buy a new, smaller belt during the middle of the month.

Fasting is about depriving one's self of some of the basic physiological necessities of life. But when one doesn't feel any hunger pangs or thirstiness during Ramadan, as I rarely do anymore, other issues come to the forefront. In recent years, I have begun to notice "themes" during Ramadan, spiritual lessons regarding different subjects that have tied into Ramadan. Ramadan is a time when there is an emphasis on feeling empathy for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. In the last few years I had had some relatively minor health issues to deal with during Ramadan (severe head aches toward the end of the day, and sticky mucus at the back of my sinuses that gave me some difficulty in breathing early in the morning). These discomforts have reminded me of those people who have little or no access to health care, something that perhaps some people take for granted, but an issue that can become the focal point of other people's lives. This year's theme has centered around family, as I suspected it would. With the sudden passing of my father-in-law earlier this year, my wife's family has worked to give more emotional support to some of the family members who have taken the loss of "Abah" the hardest.

One aspect about Ramadan that many non-Muslims don't grasp is the close connection there is between fasting and zakat, the giving of charity, which is another pillar of Islam. The two are closely connected in that both are about purification. Fasting helps to purify the body, while zakat helps to purify one's wealth. In Islam, income and wealth need to be "pure," meaning that the source or manner in which the wealth and income has been obtained must be halal. Muslims often work through moral quandaries in deciding whether to take certain jobs: Can she work as a cashier when the grocery store sells pork and alcohol? Can he work in a hotel that is attached to a casino? Can she become a teller at a bank that relies upon interest for its primary source of revenue? To help purify that money, Muslims donate some of their personal wealth each year to help the poor.* In Singapore, it is not uncommon to see people or even businesses donating food to the poor as part of their effort to give charity. (The most common food given away here is rice porridge with chicken; however, one year, I walked through a shopping center where a business was about to give out fried chickens to a long queue of people who were waiting to take some home for their dinner that night. That was one of the few times recently where I grew hungry during the day - the smell of all that chicken was very strong.)

In many countries with significant Muslim populations, the month of Ramadan has become commercialized although, at least here in Singapore, that degree of commercialization is nowhere near the level of the American Christmas season. Some countries increase the number of cooking shows and "crazy soap operas" on television (as an Internet friend living in the UAE put it). In Singapore, the commercial side of Ramadan means shopping in the Malay Village section of Geylang and Sims Roads. The difference between the Christmas and Ramadan shopping seasons, though, is that Muslim shoppers aren't necessarily looking for gifts to give. In Singapore, at least, gifts are only given to children during the Eid festivities, and the gifts are almost always some money. (I was shocked when, last year, my wife's grandmother gave me a gift of money for Eid; money, if it is given to adults, is almost always for older relatives, like parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, who may be living on fixed incomes.) Instead, Muslim shoppers normally buy merchandise to prepare their families and their homes for Eid. Thus, apparel like color-coordinated Baju Melayus for men and Baju Kurungs for women, home furnishings (curtains, cushion covers, rugs, etc.), and all sorts of traditional cookies are some of the most popular items sold at the Ramadan markets.

But ultimately, Ramadan is a religious observance, in which mosques become a little more crowded for all of the prayers other than the Friday noon congregational prayer (which remains consistently full year-round). In Singapore, evening tarawih prayers are often conducted at housing block void decks because there is not enough space in the mosques to accommodate everyone who wishes to perform them. Religious talks are often given publicly, some of which are broadcast on television, as well as Qur'an recital competitions. The hope of every Muslim during Ramadan is that each of their daily fasts are accepted by Allah (swt), in addition to all of the good deeds that they may have performed.

7:12 p.m. - I had actually fallen asleep on the bed late in the afternoon when my wife rushed into the bedroom. "Wake up! The adhan is playing!" she said as she handed me a glass of Coke Zero (not the traditional drink to break one's fast with ;) ). I swallowed a little bit of the pop while giving a prayer of thanks for having made it through another day in Ramadan. A few minutes later, my wife and I ate our dinner for the evening.

* The percentage varies depending upon the type of asset that is "zakatable," but for most Muslims who live in cities, the percentage tends to be 2.5%. Also, various assets are subject to zakat, while others are not, such as family homes. The calculations to determine zakat can become rather complex, depending upon what the person owns. BTW, zakat is a wealth tax, not an income tax.

Update: I am pleased to say that this essay has received some recognition on a few major websites. On Street Prophets, where it was originally published, the essay was immediately promoted to the Front Page. On Daily Kos, the essay was one out of only seven diaries "rescued" by the DKos volunteers. (Rescued diaries, for those who don't know, are those diaries that did not make the "Recommended List" but are deemed an overlooked "must read" essay; at DKos, it's a very high honor to have one's diary rescued as it too is mentioned on the Front Page.)

August 24, 2010

Preaching the Qur'an in Church

Larry Reimer, a minister of the United Church of Gainesville, Florida, has decided to use selected verses from the Qur'an to preach in a sermon against the proposed Qur'an burning by the Dove World Outreach Center, also of Gainesville. His attitude is, "If they can burn it, we can read it." (Read the full story here.) Several other ministers have said they will join Reimer in preaching from the Qur'an as their way of protesting the Qur'an burning.

I had been thinking about what surahs and/or verses these ministers might use in their sermons. On the one hand, I'd want something that a Christian audience could well relate to but also something that provides some foundation for trying to understand Islam (such as could be provided in 10-15 minutes). If I had a lot of time, I'd be tempted to discuss Surah Yusuf, which is the story of the Prophet Joseph (pbuh). The Qur'anic text closely follows that of the Bible and would be a familiar story to a Christian audience; alas, it would probably take too long to cover, even in a very abbreviated manner.

So, keeping things short and to the point, I would first use Surah Al-Fatihah (#1), using the Pickthall translation, which I think is more powerful in its impact:

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,
The Beneficent, the Merciful.
Owner of the Day of Judgment,
Thee (alone) we worship; Thee alone we ask for help.
Show us the straight path,
The path of those whom Thou hast favored; Not (the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.

This surah has been rightly compared to the Lord's Prayer, and is the most important surah in the Qur'an, bar none. At least one author has written an entire book on this one surah alone. The remainder of the Qur'an is, in essence, a response, an answer to this surah. Each Muslim, if he or she does all five prayers required, will have recited this surah at least seventeen times each day.

The second surah I would use is Surah Al-Iklas (#112), "The Unity":

Say: He is Allah, the One!
Allah, the eternally Besought of all!
He begetteth not nor was begotten.
And there is none comparable unto Him.

At a mere four verses, this surah is not quite the shortest surah in the Qur'an, but it is probably the second-most important, after al-Fatihah. It has been described as being equivalent to one-third of the Qur'an because of its focus on Allah (swt) and the Islamic concept of Tauhid, strict monotheism.

I would wrap up the sermon with a longer passage, an excerpt from Surah Mariam (#19:16-35):

Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East.

She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.

She said: "I seek refuge from thee to (God) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear God."

He said: "Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son.

She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?"

He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us': It is a matter (so) decreed."

So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.

And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): "Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!"

But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee;

"And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.

"So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if thou dost see any man, say, 'I have vowed a fast to (God) Most Gracious, and this day will I not enter into talk with any human being'"

At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: "O Mary! truly an amazing thing hast thou brought!

"O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!"

But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?"

He said: "I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet;

"And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live;

"(He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable;

"So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)"!

Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.

It is not befitting to (the majesty of) God that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, "Be", and it is.

[All of this post, except for the first paragraph, was originally published at Street Prophets: A Call to Progressive Christian Ministries: Read the Qur'an on 9/12.]

August 21, 2010

Mosques and Suraus

There has been some discussion on the Internet regarding the Park 51 community center (aka the "Ground Zero Mosque") as to whether the prayer space in the community center will be a mosque or not. This question has devolved into one even more basic: what is the difference between a mosque and a prayer space, such as one might find in a building that is not considered to be a mosque? This is my answer:

The distinction is somewhat hazy, but there is some distinction between mosques and other places in which we Muslims pray. Generally speaking, mosques are capable of holding more than 40 people (the minimum number of Muslims required for jumu'ah, the Friday congregational prayers), have a mihrab (the central niche that points the direction toward Makkah) and minbar (the pulpit from which the sermon is spoken from during jumu'ah), and normally performs all prayers with an imam present, including jumu'ah.

Here in SE Asia, we call a non-mosque facility a surau. A surau differs from a mosque in that it usually cannot fit 40 or more people in the facility*, may or may not have a mihrab, never has a minbar, and has no imams attached to the facility. They are used only for individual prayers and never for congregational prayers. (If two or more people happen to be at the surau at the same time, they may choose to pray together, but that's not considered congregational prayer.)

The Park51 facility may or may not be a mosque; it would at the very least be a surau. The key question from a Muslim perspective is, will jumu'ah be done there with the imam physically present? If yes, then it would be a mosque; if no, then it's only a surau.

* I've used several suraus over the years, the smallest of which was located in an Ikea store here in Singapore. That surau was big enough to fit in four people praying together at the absolute maximum.

August 18, 2010

The False Hope for "Reform Islam"

I came across a recent comment in which a person at Street Prophets wrote about their hope for a "reform" Islam that would be on a par with reform Judaism. the following is my response to that comment:

I hate to break this to you, but there will be no "reform" Islam anytime in the foreseeable future, insha'allah. The so-called "progressive" Muslim movement reached its peak in the early 2000s before self-imploding; their leaders were too full of ego to be able to work with each other, and they were never taken seriously (in fact, completely rejected by) the orthodox Muslim community. No group has ever taken their place, and they have no significant web presence.

A few weeks ago, in a report by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre (Jordan), entitled "The 500 Most Influential Muslims - 2010," the authors broke down the worldwide Muslim population by both doctrine and ideology. The ideological divisions are as follows: Traditional Islam, Islamic Fundamentalism, and Islamic Modernism. The authors described Islamic Modernism as follows:

Islamic modernism is a reform movement started by politically-minded urbanites with scant knowledge of traditional Islam. These people had witnessed and studied Western technology and socio-political ideas, and realized that the Islamic world was being left behind technologically by the West and had become too weak to stand up to it. They blamed this weakness on what they saw as ‘traditional Islam,’ which they thought held them back and was not ‘progressive’ enough. They thus called for a complete overhaul of Islam, including — or rather in particular — Islamic law (sharia) and doctrine (aqida). Islamic modernism remains popularly an object of derision and ridicule, and is scorned by traditional Muslims and fundamentalists alike.

Of the three groups, Islamic Modernists make up the smallest percentage worldwide, at 1%. Traditional Islam come in at 96%, and Islamic Fundamentalists at 3%. (The Sufis, called "Mystic Brotherhoods" in the report, are classified (correctly) under Traditional Islam.) The Modernists have no standing to influence the Muslim community, whether in the US or any other country.

If you want to encourage the positive aspects of Islam, you must deal with orthodox Muslims. This is not simply a case of conceit or real politik, it is simple fact as verified through academic studies. A recent study (January 2010) by researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina (Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim-Americans [pdf]) found that, rather than increasing radicalization, mosque membership actually helped to reduce radicalization by working on community building. Moreover, that

"This research reinforces the generally accepted observation that Muslim-Americans with a strong, traditional religious training are far less likely to radicalize than those without such training."

Likewise, a 2008 study published by the Harvard Kennedy School (Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam's Global Gathering ) found that:

...participation in the Hajj increases observance of global Islamic practices such as prayer and fasting while decreasing participation in localized practices and beliefs such as the use of amulets and dowry. It increases belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups and Islamic sects and leads to more favorable attitudes toward women, including greater acceptance of female education and employment. Increased unity within the Islamic world is not accompanied by antipathy toward non-Muslims. Instead, Hajjis show increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions.

So don't waste your time pining away for "reform" Islam; it is we orthodox Muslims whom you must talk with.

August 6, 2010

Darth Schwarzenegger

A humorous "recasting" of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the voice of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars. NSFW (profanity).

July 30, 2010

Response to George

Would reducing or eliminating America's dependence on foreign oil undercut the economic basis of Islamophobia?

It might to a degree, but not nearly to the extent that it might have if this was the mid 70s. Although I was only a teenager at the time, the mid 70s seemed to be the main era when Islamophobia was based largely on economics. The trigger event was the oil crisis of '73-'74, which awakened the Western public to both their oil dependence and the fact that Middle Eastern society (in particular) was being built upon petrodollars. This awakening brought about a number of articles that I remember reading which tended to be anti-Arab, anti-Islam. One cartoon I remember from that era showed an Arab sheikh in his thobe and kaffiyah standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and being told by a man in a business suit behind him that "It's not for sale." (This reminds me of the late 80s, when Japanese businesses began buying up a lot of American businesses and properties, with a resultant backlash against the Japanese at that time; Michael Crichton cashed in on that xenophobia with his book (and movie), Rising Sun.)

But since the mid 70s I'd say that the economic basis for Islamophobia has dwindled fairly dramatically. American Islamophobia today tends to be rooted in a lot of other, non-economic factors (e.g., terrorist acts committed by Muslims, American military misadventures in the Middle East (Lebanon, Iraq) and Central Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan), the Iranian hostage crisis and the dysfunctional diplomatic relationship between the US and Iran ever since, America's blind support for Israel, and the rise of a more visible, more active Muslim community, both in the U.S. and worldwide, that scares American non-Muslims both politically and religiously).

As for foreign oil, as of two years ago (June 2008, when I last wrote about this), five of the top ten countries the U.S. imported oil from were non-Muslim: Canada (who was the #1 seller of crude oil to the US at the time), Mexico, Venezuela, Angola and Ecuador). The first three of those countries provided over 44% of all the U.S.'s imported crude oil. So the U.S. is not quite as dependent upon oil from Muslim countries as perhaps they were in the past.

Personally, I don't think that, even if the U.S. didn't buy a single drop of crude oil from a Muslim country, that would stop all the Islamophobia in the U.S. Many Americans simply can't live without having someone else to hate. Some Muslims haven't helped the American (and worldwide) Muslim community with their actions, but Muslims aren't the only group currently being vilified in the U.S. at the moment. The Hispanics can attest to that.

July 27, 2010

Are Muslims Organized to Resist Bigotry?

There was an interesting comment over at Daily Kos on a diary that discussed the Cordoba House community center and mosque (the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque"). Here is the original comment:

I wish Muslims were organized to resist bigotry
I don't think they realized the importance of political engagement or are simply unprepared to deal with this level of discrimination that came after 9/11. It is time they learned from the civil rights movements and get very active. The fact this bigotry is tolerated demonstrates how much bigotry our media is willing to propagate at the expense of those who don't loudly resist.

And this is my response:

It's not that Muslims aren't organized to resist bigotry or that we don't realize the importance of political engagement. On the contrary, there are several organizations that engage in both of these aspects every day, including CAIR and MAS among others. Could these organizations do a better job than they are now? I'm sure they would say "yes," along with a request for more manpower and money.

But let's be realistic here: the real issue is not the Muslim community's level of organization vis-a-vis bigotry, it's the level of bigotry among non-Muslims. And the real problem there is that these types of attitudes, once set, rarely change. There are a number of Islamophobes here at Kos who one might think would change their opinions and attitudes toward Islam and Muslims after participating in so many discussions on these topics, but I have yet to see any evidence that those attitudes have changed at all. They have had the opportunity to learn about Islam and the Muslim world, they have discussed Islam and the Muslim world with a number of different Muslims here at Kos, but there is no change. They continue to sputter in their rage against Islam.

If the 2008 presidential campaign and the Obama presidency have shown anything, it is that racism never died out. The success of the civil rights movement may have caused racists to lower their profile in the 70s and 80s, but their attitudes never went away. They were the true sleeper cells within American society. Muslims have been doing their part to resist bigotry and to organize politically, but I don't ever expect Islamophobia to ever go away in American society. For that to happen, American would need to revert en masse to Islam. Not that that couldn't happen; it's done so with a number of different cultures before, but I'm not holding my breath until that time.

Feet and Shoes in Korea and Singapore

One of the blogs I read through Google Reader is Juliette Wade's TalkToYoUniverse. Juliette is a science fiction author who blogs about the writing process. One of the topics she frequently writes about is how more realistic fictional worlds can be created by taking real-life examples and using them as the basis for fictional settings. In particular, Juliette examines cultural perspectives on different subjects, and tries to get other writers to think about how people in their fictional world/culture would approach the subject. As a former expat who lived in Japan, many of Juliette's blog posts discuss Japanese culture.

In a recent post, Juliette wrote about feet and shoes across cultures, asking, "What do you know about feet?" In the post, she discussed a number of topics about shoes and attitudes toward feet; for example, different types of shoes (e.g., Japanese fishing boots and snow boots, shoes for the bound feet of Chinese women, etc.), form vs. function in the design of shoes, walking vs. driving, and attitudes toward the wearing of shoes inside one's home or not.

Having been exposed to several different Asian cultures, I decided to comment on some of the observations I've made about the wearing of shoes in South Korea and Singapore. In my comment, I tried to complement her topics by adding additional reasons why attitudes toward shoes are the way they are here in Asia. Below is most of my comment that appears on her blog:

There are actually quite a few other factors that help determine the style and wearing of shoes in addition to those you mentioned. When I lived in Korea, their attitudes toward the wearing of shoes in the home probably mirrored that of Japan, although I can't say about whether most Koreans wore slippers within their homes. Certainly my apartment had the equivalent of the genkan (1) where shoes were taken off and left. Actually, that area next to the front door was "sunken" or, rather, the rest of the apartment floor was raised because of the onbol (2) that lie underneath the floor, providing some warmth to the room.

A lot of attitudes toward taking shoes off in the home come from practical considerations. Singaporeans universally take off shoes before entering a home (regardless of ethnicity or religion) because the climate is very wet here and one walks through lots of puddles and/or mud. Korean and Singaporean men also frequently spit and, while one tries to avoid stepping in that, one never knows if one did accidentally, so, best to take the shoes off rather than tracking that into the house as well.

Both Singapore and Korea are still developing economically, and construction sites tend to be muddy and/or dirty.

Various religious facilities (e.g., Mosques and Buddhist temples) require one to take off one's shoes before entering those buildings. (In Islam, that consideration is practical as there is no furniture in the prayer hall which allows people to walk anywhere, and one puts one's face on the carpeting during prayer.) Also, because one needs to take off one's shoes within mosques, many Muslims choose to wear shoes that don't have laces. In Singapore, sandals and flip-flops are the preferred shoe to wear to the mosque because they are the easiest to put back on when one is leaving the building.

In Singaporean and Korean homes, bathrooms tend to be wet as there are no bathtubs, thus showering is done in the middle of the bathroom floor (there's a drain in the floor for the water). Only rarely have I worn flip-flops in the bathroom; usually it's just bare feet, which also means that many Singaporeans walk around with bare feet in the rest of the house; wearing socks means needing to take them off before going into the bathroom.

Singaporeans tend to have two places to store shoes, one indoors and one outdoors. Many apartments here have an outdoor shoe rack, which may be used by family members or guests. However, many people just leave their shoes lying outside their front door when they come home and leave them there overnight. (I used to do that with a pair of flip-flops, but they were stolen, probably by an estate maintenance worker who had big feet like me. Since then I always keep my shoes indoors, unless I know I'm going to be leaving the house within an hour or two.)

One other factor is health. Several members of my family, including me, all wear sandals as our normal foot wear because we are type 2 diabetics. Type 2 diabetics are susceptible to bacterial and fungal skin infections, and closed-toe shoes are perfect environments for those types of beasties (moist, warm). With sandals the feet are drier and cooler, which helps to minimize infections (which are very painful itches). With the exception of some athletic shoes that are only worn for an hour or so at a time, I haven't worn anything but sandals since 2005. (That includes at work, so I tend to buy more stylish sandals. ;) )

One other side issue is home flooring. Singaporeans and Koreans almost exclusively use ceramic tiles for their floors. With so much dirt and mud here, people would be forever vacuuming their carpets. With tile, cleaning is much faster: just a sweep through and mopping. Those few rugs that are used here tend to be small rugs, either for the kitchen and/or bathroom or larger carpets (like a Persian rug) that's used for decorative purposes.

(1) A genkan is an area inside the front door of a Japanese home where shoes are taken off and stored before entering the rest of the house or apartment.
(2) An onbol is a set of water pipes located underneath the floor of a Korean home or apartment; the onbol heats up the floor during the winter months, helping to make the home a little bit warmer.

July 25, 2010

Is Sarah Palin Gunning for 2012?

This is a rather humorous news article about Sarah Palin, I believe from Taiwan. On the one hand, the news presented orally (see the translation below) is straight-forward and non-partisan. However, the animation on screen mocks Palin and her family mercilessly from start to finish. I particularly liked the "notes" scribbled on Palin's hands: "abstinence," "small government" and "obama sucks" on her left hand, and "drill, baby, drill," "Dutch have dikes" and "Norwegians = Dutch sorta" on her right hand.

Sarah Palin was a virtual unknown, even in the US, when John McCain picked her as his vice-presidential running mate in August 2008.

But after parting ways with McCain, Palin has since become the standard bearer of the Republican Party and the conservative right in the United States.

Her opinions are sought after by a highly respected broadcast news organization.

Her family life is the subject of much fascination. There have been rumors her daughter and future son-in-law could feature in a reality TV show.

With her rising political profile, Sarah Palin has waded into New York City politics and in the process, invented new words. She compares herself to William Shakespeare.

She has used her popularity to raise US$1.3 million so far this year for her political action committee, SarahPAC.

This fund-raising largess has raised speculation that Sarah Palin could be preparing to run against President Barack Obama in 2012.

If she wins, that would indicate the American people have "refudiated" Barack Obama and chosen conservative values.

July 18, 2010

Happy Birthday, A'ishah!

Today is A'ishah's birthday; my daughter is now two years old. Happy birthday, Honey Bun; I love you so much! :)

Painting by Michael Whelan: The Ultimate Sandbox

July 8, 2010

Dream Machines

Every now and then, NASA reminds us of the "little a" in the agency's name; that is, that NASA is also involved with aeronautics as well as space exploration. NASA recently held a design competition for passenger planes of the future and, not surprisingly, the proposed supersonic jets are very beautiful. The description for the above plane, the Supersonic Green Machine, is below:

This future aircraft design concept for supersonic flight over land comes from the team led by the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

The team used simulation tools to show it was possible to achieve over-land flight by dramatically lowering the level of sonic booms through the use of an "inverted-V" engine-under wing configuration. Other revolutionary technologies help achieve range, payload and environmental goals.

The next plane is the Icon-II:

The "Icon-II" future aircraft design concept for supersonic flight over land comes from the team led by The Boeing Company.

A design that achieves fuel burn reduction and airport noise goals, it also achieves large reductions in sonic boom noise levels that will meet the target level required to make supersonic flight over land possible.

Don't hold your breath waiting for the chance to fly on either of these two babies. NASA expects that they would enter service into the global air fleet some time around 2030-2035.

To see the four other airplanes submitted for the design competition, click here.

June 18, 2010

Death Ray from Space!

On Shari'ah and American Politics

Recently, Oklahoma state senator Rex Duncan proposed "a ballot measure that would prohibit courts from considering international or sharia law when deciding cases. He says the measure is a 'preemptive strike' against 'liberal judges' who want to 'undermine those founding principles' of America."  The proposition is a glaring example of wingnuttery at its worst but, to add fuel to the fire, another person asked the question, "What is 'liberal' about Sharia law?"

This is my response to that question.

Shari'ah is neither "liberal" nor "conservative."  It is a codification of Islamic rules and regulations on topics that are both discussed in the Qur'an and Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) and on topics that are not discussed directly but are derived from fundamental principles (for example, much of Shari'ah law on Islamic finance is derived from principles such as the ban on usury (interest)).  Whether Shari'ah matches up with American liberal or conservative political thought is not a concern to most Muslim jurists... or most Muslims for that matter.  Muslims think of Islam as the middle path, a religion that tries to avoid the extremes.  And while some positions within Shari'ah match up with what American conservatives believe in, other positions match up with what American liberals believe in.

If a liberal non-Muslim doesn't believe that Shari'ah takes "liberal" positions, they don't know Islam or Shari'ah that well.  Islam believes in social justice.  Islam believes in an equitable distribution of wealth within society.  Islam believes in the equitable treatment of people and their human dignity.  Islam believes in promoting a healthy society.  Islam believes in preserving life.  Islam believes in a healthy business environment ("Main Street") rather than a casino economy ("Wall Street").  Islam believes in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.  (There are probably more "liberal" positions I could mention, but these seven will have to do for the moment...)

Trying to prevent Shari'ah from being used as a code of law is like trying to prevent water from doing what it does.  Non-Muslims can try to channel Shari'ah away or dam it up, but Shari'ah finds its own way.  Muslims use Shari'ah without the consent of non-Muslims as much of Shari'ah is simply the rules of conduct Muslims use between themselves in their day-to-day lives.  It is largely only within certain issues (e.g., family issues, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance) that Muslims want to incorporate Shari'ah within the existing legal frameworks.  That some non-Muslims want to prevent this from happening only speaks to their ignorance about Shari'ah and Islam.

June 16, 2010

Aravane Rezai

A couple weeks ago a big stir was made over Rimah Fakih's being crowned Miss USA. But I was a little surprised that no one in the Muslim blogosphere (those few of us who are left) brought up the success story of French tennis player Aravane Rezai.

I first started noticing Aravane a few months ago. Currently ranked #19 in the world (her highest ranking is #16), she is one of several Muslim tennis players playing professionally today. (Another is Sania Mirza of India.) Aravane was born in France to Iranian parents, and competed for Iran in the Women's Islamic Games, winning gold medals in 2001 and 2005.

Aravane is known for a very powerful forehand shot (she puts a lot of muscle behind the ball), and recently had the biggest win in her career at the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open, in which she upset Justine Henin, Jelena Janković and Venus Williams to win the clay court title. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to follow up that success in the French Open (where she lost in the third round); however, she reached the semifinals of the Aegon Classic, and has just defeated the number one-seed and last year's champion, Caroline Wozniacki, in the Aegon International (two grass court tournaments preparatory to Wimbeldon).

So, if you want to encourage Muslim girls with a better role model than a beauty queen, a tennis player like Aravane Rezai might make for a better choice, insha'allah.