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