I grew up in France. I know the French language inside out. I follow the French media. In that country, France, people with a Muslim first name are 5% or maybe, 7% of the population. No one estimates that they are close to 10%. I use this name designation because French government agencies are forbidden to cooperate in the collection of religious (or ethic, or racial) data. Moreover, I don’t want to be in the theological business of deciding who is a “real Muslim.” Yet, common sense leads me to suspect that French people who are born Muslims are mostly religiously indifferent or lukewarm, like their nominally Christian neighbors. I am not so sure though about recent immigrants from rural areas bathed in a jihadist atmosphere, as occur in Algeria, and in Morocco, for example. Continue reading
- Islam and the European Enlightenment the Economist
- Tales of a female bomber Lincoln Krause, War on the Rocks
- Christianity in China is uncrushable Charles Horner, Claremont Review of Books
- What would the ideal introduction to Catholicism look like? Paul J. Griffiths, Commonweal
De Bellaigue, Christopher. (2017) The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. Liveright Publishing Corporation (Norton & Company) New York, London.
In 1798, in view of the Pyramids, a French expeditionary force defeated the strange caste of slave-soldiers, the Mamlukes, who had been ruling Egypt for several centuries. The Mamlukes charged the French infantry squares on horseback, ending their charge with the throwing of javelins. The Mamlukes were thus eliminated from history. The French lost 29 soldiers. In the conventional narrative, the battle woke up the whole Muslim world from its long and haughty slumber. The defeat, the pro-active reforms of Napoleon’s short-lived occupancy, and the direct influence of the French scholars he had brought with him lit the wick of the candle of reform or, possibly, of enlightenment throughout the Islamic world.
De Bellaigue picks up this conventional narrative and follows it to the beginning of the 20th century with a dazzling richness of details. This is an imperfect yet welcome thick book on a subject seldom well covered.
This book has, first, the merit of existing. Many people of culture, well-read people with an interest in Islam – Islam the sociological phenomenon, rather than the religion – know little of the travails of its attempted modernization. Moreover, under current conditions of political correctness the very subject smells a little of sulfur: What if we looked at Muslim societies more closely and we found in them some sort of intrinsic inferiority? I mean by this, an inferiority that could not easily be blamed on the interference of Western, Christian or formerly Christian, capitalist societies. Of course, such a finding could only be subjective but still, many would not like it, and not only Muslims.
Second, and mostly unintentionally, possibly inadvertently, the book casts a light, an indirect light to be sure, on Islamist (fundamentalist) terrorism. It’s simple: Enlightened individuals of any religious background are not likely to be also fanatics willing to massacre perfect strangers. Incidentally, I examine this issue myself in a fairly parochial vein, in an essay in the libertarian publication Liberty Unbound: “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” (January 2015). With his broader perspective, with his depth of knowledge, De Bellaigue could have done a much better job of this than I could ever do. Unfortunately he ignored the subject almost entirely. It wasn’t his topic, some will say. It was not his period of history. Maybe.
Big, violent riots in Jerusalem (July 22-23 2017). Last week, three Arabs Muslims with Israeli nationality killed two Israeli policemen in Jerusalem. Reminder: All of Jerusalem is under the control of Israel, has been since 1967. Before that, under Jordanian rule, Jews were banned from the Old City. The broader city today has a diverse population that includes Jewish Israelis, Muslim Israelis, a few Christian Israelis, Palestinian Muslims, a handful of Palestinian Christians, plus a constant flow of visitors from abroad. In addition, most Palestinians from the adjacent West Bank are allowed to visit on a controlled basis, for religious purposes only.
Israel gained control of Jerusalem in 1967 the same way the Muslims did in the seventh century: Military conquest legitimized by Sacred Scriptures.
As we all know, Jerusalem is a sacred city to several religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam (by order of historical appearance). At the center of the preoccupations of the three monotheistic religions is a place called the Temple Mount. It’s the spot known as the last Jewish temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD (or “Common Era”). The supposed last vestige of the Jewish Temple standing is the Western Wall (also, “Wall of Lamentations” for Jews) where Jews from everywhere, including Israel come to pray. The Christian Gospels show Jesus visiting the same temple several times including shortly before his crucifixion. Muslims revere the area because the Prophet Muhammad is said to have started there his whirlwind “Night Visit” to Heaven. It’s so important to Muslims that they built there not one but two mosques after they conquered the city in 630. One of the two mosques, the Dome of the Rock, is supposed to have been established over the place where Abraham sacrificed his son (one of his sons, not the same son, depending on which religious tradition).
Now, Jews are forbidden by Israeli law as a well as by some rabbinical religious decisions to visit the area occupied by the mosques. It is administered jointly by a Muslim clerical organization and by Jordan (Reminder: Jordan is an Arab country with a peace treaty with Israel.) Two consequences. First, frictions between Jewish worshipers and Muslim worshipers in the area are rare although they pray within a stone throw of each other. (Metaphor not chose at random.) Second, the top of the Temple Mount, the largest part of the area where the two mosques stand, is very seldom visited by Jews at all. It’s overwhelmingly used by Muslims, day in and day out. Repeating: If you threw a stone in the air on an average day while standing in that area, it would fall down on a Muslim or on no one at all. (Christians seem to not be much interested in visiting that particular spot.)
Following the assassination of two of its policemen last week, Israel took common sense security measures against repeated acts of terrorism in the Temple Mount mosques area. By the way, the two Israeli policemen assassinated were not Jews. They were Druze, people whom some Muslims consider Muslim and many not. No one, at any rate, thinks Druze are Jewish. The fact is that the assassinated police officers were working security in or near an area frequented by devout Muslims, rather that one of the many more numerous Israeli Jewish policemen (or worse, policewomen). This suggests to me that official Israeli policy was reasonably alert to Muslim faithful’s sensitivities.
The Israeli authorities took two new security measures (amazingly late in the game, if you consider the volatility of the area). They installed both surveillance cameras and metal detectors on the access points to the mosques esplanade. That’s was precipitated the rioting and yet more deaths, plus, the formal declaration of the Palestinian Authority that it was stopping all contacts with Israel (of which, more later). Now, I can sort of understand the Palestinians’ objection to the cameras. Many must imagine that Israel will use the film to spy on them further although it’s difficult to see how or what that would accomplish beside identifying criminals after the fact. The metal detectors are the same tools in place in almost every airport in the world. They can help intercept guns and knives.
Refer back up to the description of who spends time in the mosques area: Muslims. So here you have it: Palestinians, who have to be almost all Muslims, are rioting violently to protest security measures that will protect…Muslims. What serves as their government, the Palestinian Authority, cuts off contact with Israel also in protest. But Israel acts as a customs office for the said Authority. It collects monies on its behalf and faithfully hands them over. Palestinians protest common sense Israeli action that protect them by making it even more difficult for their government to do its job. By doing so, they create more of a vacuum, that Israel will, of necessity, have to fill.
Some Palestinian leaders think that if they force others to shed Palestinian blood very publicly, the world is going to take pity and come and impose the kind of settlement they want. The calculus is going on seventy years old. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again and it never works….
A personal note. I have had several Palestinian friends; they were easy to like for their warmth, for their courtesy, for their generosity. That’s on the one hand. I also think Palestinians are victims of history; that they have been paying for seventy years for the crimes of others. On the other hand, I have not much appreciated the Israelis I have known. They tend to have the smoothness of raw alligator skin, pretty much what you would expect of people reared in a garrison state. Politically, however, it’s very hard to be a friend of Palestinians. You try and try, and then, they go and do something insane like this.
In case you wonder: I am not Jewish, never have been. I was raised a Catholic and I have been religiously indifferent as far back as I remember. I know my Bible pretty well (Old and New Testament). I try to study the Koran. It’s tough going because I am usually told that the translation I can understand is not legitimate. I am familiar with the Hadith second-hand (like most Muslims actually because few know Arabic). I listen to Tariq Ramadan, a cleric or a philosopher connected to the Muslim brotherhood who speaks beautiful French and who seems to have made it his mission to explain Islam to intelligent and educated infidels. (That would be me, for example.)
President Trump’s executive order temporarily barring entry into the US to those coming from seven countries was a rude act.* To make things worse, it was badly implemented, causing inconvenience and even distress to a number of innocent travelers. What’s more, it’s unlikely to be very effective in its stated goal of keeping Americans safe. The reason the administration gave for the order was to give the appropriate agencies some time to improve their techniques for vetting ordinary travelers from those countries.
As I write, the bar is in circuit court where it will be decided whether a previous federal judge’s order suspending application of the bar holds or not. There is a mano-a-mano between a largely liberal circuit court and a fairly conservative and decisive new executive. Whether the executive prevails or not, the order was given and it will be remembered as one of the first acts of the Trump administration. It’s worth discussing.
Much of what has been said about the order is false, ridiculous, or dishonest. I urge you to preserve your collective credibility by not falling for the falsehoods, and worse, for partially true but misleading statements you have heard. Some, you have heard repeatedly.
Beyond this, I suspect you have not done enough collective self-examination. I suspect this because no one reasonable talks to you frankly about matters concerning you. There are plenty of ill-informed hysterical, obscene anti-Muslim shouts which you probably (rightly) shut out. The rest of America is too paralyzed by political correctness to say anything to you that may seem critical. I am reasonable and I am not paralyzed by political correctness. In addition, there is a good chance I am pretty well informed. (Go ahead, Google me.) Where I am not, I listen to advice and corrections with an open mind. I wish to talk to you about mistrust of Muslims and about what you may not have done to represent yourselves in a light inducing others to be fair. Lastly, I wish to address you about what you have done that has not been helpful.
The persecution of Muslims
Fact: The seven countries the executive temporary banning order targeted are all predominantly Muslim countries.
That does not make the order an anti-Muslim measure. If President Trump had wanted to persecute Muslims, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and even India (yes, India) would be heading the list. There are something like forty predominantly Muslim countries in the world. How do you think the seven were chosen?
The seven were originally selected by the Obama administration as dangerous countries from which it was difficult to obtain enough information to vet travelers. This explains why most Muslim countries – by a long shot – did not make the list. In the case of five Arab Muslim countries on the list, they are there because they are failed states unable to provide credible information if they want to. Iran is a special case. President Trump, and some of us, think that the information should not be trusted that comes from a country where the political class has been smiling benevolently for the past thirty years on demonstrators whose main demand is “Death to America!” Taking people at their word is not a dirty trick, right? The sixth country on the list, Sudan, is there for both reasons. It’s an ineffective state and its leadership is openly hostile to America. It’s unable to cooperate in vetting and it will not.
Why should President Trump want to go to extraordinary lengths to vet travelers from those particular countries, you wonder suspiciously? It’s because – you are right – the Muslim world is widely thought to be a privileged source of terrorism. That’s in the 21st century. In the 20th century, it would have been (largely Catholic) Ireland, the (Catholic) Basque area of Spain and, especially, the (Hindu) Tamil area of Sri Lanka. The fact that no IRA terrorist, no ETA terrorist and no Tamil Tiger terrorist ever claimed to be acting in the name of God or of his religion may make a difference though. What do you think?
Personally I don’t see how anyone can disagree with the proposition that Muslim countries (not all, some, of course) generate large numbers of terrorists when those same terrorists massacre many more Muslims than they do anyone else? I can’t believe you are not aware of the many car bombs detonated near mosques during prayer from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq. And have you ever thought of what the proportion of Muslims must have been at the massacres in the French night club or during the Bastille Day festivities, in Nice, France? Let me tell you: Many French Muslims are immigrants from rural areas in Africa. It’s been true for a long time. They have more children than people born in France. Whenever you find children and young people, in France, you are looking at many young Muslims. And, go back to the “Underwear Bomber” trying to blow up a plane over largely Muslim Detroit, during Christmas Eve, of all times. Who do you think would have died, primarily? How many Christians are on a plane on that night? (Reminder: He is a young man from a good Nigerian family. He is having a bad time in federal prison, right now.) It’s your duty to be informed about the people who are massacring both your people and your neighbors, I think.
Incidentally, the fact that Muslims die much more than other people under the knife of neo-jihadists does not give your passivity a pass.
This all is sufficient to explain well why there are only Muslim countries on the ban list. It would have been more polite of the Trump administration to add, say Iceland, Paraguay, and Laos, or Timor. Perhaps, they did not think of it. No one is perfect. Perhaps they did think of this trick and decided to not implement it to signal that political correctness has to go, at last.
Before I move on, note what the paragraphs above do not (NOT) say, lest your memory tricks you later: They do not say that “most Muslims are terrorists,” as stupid liberals allege such statements mean. I don’t think most Muslims are terrorists. I do not think that many Muslims are terrorists. I am not even sure the terrorists who claim to be Muslims are Muslims, or good Muslims. I don’t really know. However much I regret it, I can see how it is easy to find justification for religious acts of violence in the Islamic sacred Scriptures. (Ask me or tell me plainly that I am wrong, that there are no such justifications in the Scriptures.)
Trump’s order was intended to keep terrorists where they are for the time being, until we learn better to spot them. It was intended to protect me and my children, and you and your children. I have my doubts about its efficacy, as I have said elsewhere. You should feel free to criticize it on that ground without going to motives you have little way of knowing. “Stupid” is not the same as “prejudiced.”
The Muslim contribution to the mistrust of Muslims: Inaction
Next, I need to ask you if Muslims collectively have done anything to contribute to widespread mistrust of Muslims in America. First I need to ask what American Muslims did not do that they should have done – and can still do. This can be brief.
Large American Muslim organizations have put themselves repeatedly on the public record denouncing terrorism perpetrated by those who claim to be inspired by Islam. They are quick to assert that religious violence is incompatible with Islam, that the neo-jihadists are simply bad Muslims, or even, not Muslims at all. This is all for the good although – I am sorry – most of the protestations sound hollow. One of the things missing, incidentally – is condemnations by obvious religious authorities.
What bothers me personally, and probably others who don’t have the time to think about it, is the lack of individual faces to accompany condemnations of neo-jihadist barbarism. There are two exceptions I know of, two Arab-American men who sometimes come on TV to reject barbarism or any links to American Muslims vigorously. I don’t have either name in mind right now and I would not name them anyway because I don’t have a clear idea of the risks they are taking.
What I am missing is reactions from individual, private persons of Muslim faith, people with a face. I ask how many of you said anything – outside the family – when ISIS was beheading an American journalist and then, an American social worker, all on video. I wonder if you said anything, at work, even if only at the water fountain, when ISIS was burning people alive in cages. How many of you expressed horror aloud or when it was turning thousands of young women and girls into sex slaves. How many dismiss Boko Haram which is burning its way through North Western Nigeria as a (black) African monstrosity?
Some of you, most of you, or all of you, think these questions are superfluous and even, that my expectations are outrageous. I have a friend, a young Muslim woman who tells me straight up that terrorism is no more her problem than mine. It’s unrealistic and it’s false. The abstract category “American Muslims” (I am not using “community” deliberately) turns out enough terrorists and would-be terrorists to destroy this presumption of distance between you and the prevalent kind of barbarism. Note also that, irrespective of provocations, since the masterful, well-planned, very successful aggression of 9/11, there has not been a single act of private terrorism against Muslims or Muslim institutions in America. (Hectoring of women wearing the hijab in public places does not quite count as terrorism.) Mind what I am really saying: It’s not your job to stop terrorism committed in your names but you would be wise to reject it forcefully and loudly, and also in person when you have a chance.
The Muslim contribution to mistrust of Muslims: Actions
There are also the things American Muslims did that contributed to the process leading to the Trump administration temporary ban on travel from seven Muslim countries.
Let me help you remember. In 2008, you voted for Barack Obama in large numbers although he was a leftist of zero demonstrable achievement but one. (He did pass the bar exam.) I don’t know if you did it because the father he never knew was a Muslim (a drunken Muslim), or because his middle name is “Hussein,” or because you were caught up in the great Democratic emotional sweep. Later, in 2016, you largely supported the candidacy of an obvious liar and cheat who had already sold some of the country to foreign powers before even being elected. What’s more, she presented herself squarely as President Obama’s successor. Many of you just bet on the wrong horse without much of an excuse for doing so. (I think I have read somewhere that American Muslims are better educated than the average American. Correct me if I am wrong.)
Had more of you voted Republican, they just might have influenced the result of the primary, perhaps, Marco Rubio (my candidate) would have won it, or the honorable Mayor Giuliani. The presidential election could have played out differently. If it hadn’t, there is a chance you would have still earned a voice within Republican politics. You chose instead to trust in liberal cliches to go with the easy flow of falsely generous liberalism.
Even with Donald Trump as president, you would have avoided getting trapped in the Democratic identity mishmash. You would have saved yourselves the embarrassment of ending up squeezed in their book between illegal aliens from China and transgender activists. At this point, your main public, visible representation in American politics – by default, I realize – is the pathetic, corrupt loser’s personal assistant. She is very elegant but she is married to a gross pervert. The fact that her parents are members of the Muslim Brotherhood does not help. It’s not a terrorist organization exactly but it’s very unfriendly to America and to its main values. By the way, you appear to still not be paying enough attention. The fact is that, right now, thousands of Americans are talking (and screaming) in the streets in defense of, and often in the names of, Muslims in general. Yet, the voices of American Muslims themselves are hard to perceive in the din. It makes no difference; when the fog clears up, some Americans are going to blame you for the riots. You are innocent, of course but, to a large extent, you put yourselves there.
There is danger in letting others speak in your place on the public square. It’s the same others who recently used the armed power of government to force others to violate their conscience. (By forcing a Catholic nuns’ order, for example, to provide contraceptive services to their employees.) How is this going to play out tomorrow when your own religious practice needs protection, I wonder.
The executive order and our constitutional order
There is much misunderstanding everywhere about the legal nature of the order. It’s all over the media and elsewhere. One Iranian woman, a distinguished MD, I am told, is suing the federal government because she suffered some travel inconvenience as a result of the executive order. (I don’t know if she is a Muslim; it does not matter.) I hope the suit only shows confusion about the American Constitution rather than some sinister plot. Whatever some little liberal judge in the boondocks may say, the Constitution does not apply to those who are not under the power of the US government. This includes citizens, legal permanent residents, illegal permanent residents, prisoners of war, to some extent, and those who are already on US soil by whatever means, or otherwise under exclusive US control. It does not apply to Mr Yokama in Osaka, to Mrs Dupont in Marseille, or to Ms Reza in Iran, or on a layover in Dubai.
The media have also shown growing confusion about the nature of a visa. It’s not a contract between a government and a private foreign party. It’s not enforceable in any court. It’s a promise to admit and evidence that someone is considered acceptable at a particular time. Either of these assessments can change in minutes. Incidentally, American immigration officers at all levels have always had discretion to do what they think is best: You can arrive at LA International from Finland, with a perfect visa, and have a fat federal employee in short sleeves get suspicious of you and deny you admission on the spot. There is no legal recourse, never has been.
Nation-states avoid canceling visas in ways that would look arbitrary, for two reasons. First it makes the relevant government lose international credibility. That’s a subtle phenomenon. No one knows how much denials and cancellation push the relevant country over the brink. Thus, any government, including, the Trump administration assumes it has a good deal of discretion in this matter. The second possible consequence of many negative visa events is that other governments may take retaliatory measures: You do it to us, we do it to you or even, we deny your citizens any visa. It’s not surprising that some governments of small, poor countries just don’t care much about serving up reciprocation to a large, desirable country such as the US. If you are an alien and you have a visa for the US, it means that you have a good chance to get in. It’s not a guarantee.
The president and his conservative supporters are not responsible for the confusion about the Constitution whipped up and smartly supported by liberal opinion.
By now, I suspect, you are thinking “Islamophobia.” I don’t quite know how to defend myself against accusations sitting in your mind about what’s going on in my own mind. It’s like suspecting me of watching porn inside my head. How can it convince you that I don’t? Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, nothing predisposes me to a blind, irrational hatred of Islam or of Muslims. I have known Muslims all my life. I have had nothing but harmonious personal relationships with them. I think there is much to love in Islamic culture. For example I am fond of calligraphy in Arabic, the language of the Koran, so fond that the Profession of Faith (the Sha’hada) hangs over my bed. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this usage by a non-believer is considered blasphemy, somewhere or other.) The few times I have lived among Muslims, I have liked it. There is even a Muslim country where I would like to live permanently now that I am old. (My wife won’t hear of it; what do you know!)
“Islamophobia” is not a real concept anyway. It was invented by liberal intellectuals to shut up debate up. If it were not so, there would be other similarly formed words such as “Protestanphobia” and “Bhuddistphobia.” The impression that Muslims in America take refuge behind that rotten old hyena hide is deplorable. It feeds many unfair stereotypes.
And, by the way, what would be wrong with being an Islamophobe? I mean in the American tradition of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech? Being a Muslim is not a race, an unalterable fact about a person. It’s a choice. If I understand a little about Islam, it’s even the supreme choice. There is widespread confusion there also.
Why should anyone not be morally, intellectually allowed to detest a choice you can reverse any time you wish? Take me, for example. I used to be a Catholic. I am not anymore. I am an ex-Catholic. Anyone could have blamed me for being a Catholic, a believer in fairy tales and a supporter of an organization massively complicit with child rape. “Catholicophobe” would not become an insult; it did not. Why would you deserve special treatment, in this regard?
No one at all blames me either for being an ex-Catholic, by the way. There is (well-founded) Catholicophobia in this country. There is no such thing as “ex-Catholicophobia.” I am also aware as I write that changing religion is called “apostasy.” I am further aware that apostasy is punishable by death in a number of countries. They are all Muslim countries, as far as I know. (Please, correct me if I am wrong on this.) One of the advantages of living in the US, as you and I do, is that there is no penalty here for transgressions of conscience. There is no punishment for walking away from a set of beliefs. This is never discussed in narratives that use the word “Islamophobia.” We don’t speak enough about such matters. Muslims, in particular, don’t speak enough. (And, I don’t believe the media suppress such conversations. The liberal media will print anything said by anyone identified as “Muslim,” especially if the speaker wears a hijab.) I realize that one can find many statements by American Muslims on the Internet. That’s not good enough; I shouldn’t have to do research.
There is also much confusion – often spread by the liberal media – about the First Amendment to the US Constitution. That main amendment to the Constitution is widely misunderstood, by native-born citizens and by many others as well. It states categorically that government cannot have a favorite religion; it says that government cannot interfere with religious practice or belief. Moreover, the Constitution forbids government to administer religious tests as a precondition to holding any government office. That’s it!
There is no part of the US Constitution that protects anyone from criticism by private parties. There are countries where such criticism is illegal; the US is not one of them. Personally, I hate Communism and Devil worship, and I also detest obsessive talk about baseball statistics, for example. Do I have a right to my dislikes? May I express them openly? Should I count on the protection of my government – whose first assignment is to protect me – when I express these dislikes? May I say safely, “Devil worship is an abomination”? How about, “Christianity is a false religion”? Should you, personally, have to forbid yourselves from detesting Devil worship aloud? How does the Constitution answer these questions?
Since I began talking calmly about things some Muslims don’t enjoy hearing, let me continue a little way. Let me affirm as a preamble that you have as much right to be here as anyone. If you are an immigrant like me, you might have even a little bit more right than most. (Immigrants contribute somewhat more than the native-born.) Irrespective of your rights, if you are a person who dislikes the separation of Church and State, if the gap between religion and government is anathema to you, I hope you will leave. I won’t do anything about you but you must know that I don’t want you as a fellow-citizen. And, if you take my suggestion, please, take with you as many Baptists, Lutherans and Catholics of the same belief you can find. I hope our government will do its best to limit or prevent the entry of people who hold such beliefs.
To end: It’s likely that most of you are people with whom I would like to have a cup of coffee or a meal. I suspect that we have more in common than not. You would yourselves be astonished at what a pleasant person of culture I am in real life. (Go ahead, Google me.) We would talk about our children and our grandchildren. We would share our experiences in the country I chose. This probable commonality creates no obligation for me to tolerate nonsense. The Trump temporary executive order of mention may well be regrettable. If it’s unlawful – I don’t see how – it will not be implemented. Our institutions are working. In the meantime, it’s not the end of the world. We, Americans, you and I, have bigger fish to fry.
About Syria: There are tens of thousands of Syrian refugees we could take in without endangering ourselves. We should do it, for two reasons. First, it the right thing to do and it’s good for our souls. Second, we are partly responsible for the unending disaster in Syria. I have not forgotten the red line in the sand the dictator Assad was not supposed to cross or else…. That was before the Russians were heavily involved. At the time, the US Air Force and the US Navy could have destroyed 95% of Assad’s planes and helicopters in one morning if there had been political will. It would have made it extremely more difficult for him to continue fighting and to massacre civilians. We did not intervene. Now, we have to give a hand, a big hand. I don’t see why this help should include a path to citizenship.
*The executive order has been suspended by a judge (a single judge) as I write. The Administration fast track appeal has been rejected. Afterwards, the administration appealed to the 9th Circuit Court. Our institutions are doing their work even if it’s at the cost of some judges believing it’s their job to make laws. To my mind, the fact that the order was issued at all is important whether it’s ultimately put to work or not.
I was on that free diving and fishing trip through Algeria I have written about before. The French, who had seemingly deeply colonized the country, had been gone for a few years. They had left behind their language and many buildings in the big cities and in some other, fertile parts of Algeria. In remote areas though, it was almost as if they had never been there. I was in one of those areas with my then-future-ex-wife (“TFEW”) in our VW camping bus.
It was in the east, in Kabylia, in a small town squeezed between the mountains and the sea. There was a tiny harbor protected by a tiny breakwater that sheltered four or five boats. There was also a café a hundred yards away. A big rock with steep sides emerged within swimming distance of the harbor. The town was a spear fisherman’s dream as well as a vacationer’s dream. It was the kind of place that travel agencies use to arouse you on TV in the winter and never, never deliver.
When we arrived, in the middle of a hot afternoon, there was no human being in sight; even the café was empty. I was an instinctive believer in the adage that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission even before I heard it spoken. So, we parked at the harbor and had our cheese, bread, and figs lunch. I prepared instant coffee on the stove. I thought I was giving whatever authorities might exist in the town ample time to chase us off if they wished. Nobody came.
Toward evening, I walked to the café where four or five men were sitting and talking quietly. I said Hello in French and they replied in the same language. I could read the curiosity in their eyes but they were too polite to inquire. So, I ordered some tea and explained briefly what I was doing in Algeria. This interested them. Being a fisherman works everywhere as an introduction. Everyone knows what fishing is (unlike “touring,” for example). Every man either is a fisherman or wishes he were. Or has a brother-in-law who is a fisherman. One of the men volunteered that the café served wine. I ordered a glass for myself and offered to treat the men. Only one accepted.
My companion and I has a small dinner under the light of an oil lamp and went to sleep in the back of the bus. In the morning, I quickly located a bakery by smell. There was hot fresh bread. (Good bread is an undeniable gift of French colonialism.) After breakfast; I cinched on a light weight belt and grabbed my speargun; I put on my mask and snorkel and my flippers. I entered the clear water of the harbor and swam to the offshore rock. The sea was bountiful. There were groupers there that did not even know I was a predator and various edible fish that seemed to only have Arabic names. (If you don’t believe me, I have a picture.)
The location was so idyllic that we lingered on. In truth, we didn’t even have anyplace to go in a hurry anyway. We ate fresh fish at every meal, with fresh bread and tomatoes, plus some fruits. There were no authorities. Only the village kids came to visit. They were sweet and full of good questions. We gave them fish. I had become almost an old-timer at the café. One of the guys there told me his name was Pierre. He was the same guy who had accepted a glass of wine the first day; I should have known. I never got the story of why he had stayed behind after all the other French left. Maybe, there was a woman involved. Or, he had no relatives in France. Asking would have been pushy
One morning, early, two older children with solemn expressions came by with a message. There was going to be a wedding the next day and we were invited. We were both flattered and intrigued. The TFEW immediately went into a flurry of activity looking for a suitable present for the bride. It was no easy task because we were camping, with minimalist baggage. Eventually, she found a small silk kerchief that she thought might do because, frankly, the locals seemed so poor. She (and I too) was thinking in terms of what we knew about: American and French weddings, pretty much variations on the same basic model: The bride is the queen and she gets presents, the bride’s mother is the dictator, the groom is a little drunk, so are many of the guests, including children. There is dancing. Most unmarried women are a little or much turned on; single guys try their luck.
On the wedding day, we cleaned up as well as we could, birdbath manner. My companion even washed her hair in cold water. Fortunately, she was wearing it in a very short afro, almost a buzz cut. She put on a light cotton mumu that looked almost ironed. It was a decent, loose garment but with discreet curves in the right areas. I thought she looked more than presentable. I don’t know about myself. I had on clean jeans and my only shirt with a collar. The kids had been vague about time. Around noon, we walked up the steep street with the same children guiding us.
A whole other street, a flat one, had been blocked off and long tables, benches and chairs lined up on the sidewalks. It appeared that our being invited had not been such an extraordinary honor after all. We guessed the whole village was invited and it would have been unseemly to leave the tourists out. (But wait….) However, we saw only male human beings on the street, from boys in short pants to bent old geezers. A band played somewhere close-by but we couldn’t see it and there were no dancers in sight. The action took place behind bed sheets hung from a rope that stretched across the street. We were instructed with smiles to sit down. After a few minutes, young men came bearing enamel basins of food. They placed a piece of mutton next to us on the table oilcloth and a bowl of semolina (grits, more or less) with two spoons. Another boy set a recently rinsed glass full of limonade in front of each of us. We noticed that other guests were waiting for our seats.
We were going to hurry off the table but a tall, handsome man in a dark suit – the only suit in sight – came by. He was the groom and he had taken it to heart to greet us personally, which he did graciously, in perfect French. We were told later that he was a fighter pilot back from training in the Soviet Union who had returned to his native town just to get married. The man was elegant and he had a great deal of presence. He would not have been out of place in an upscale bar in Palo Alto, California where we lived most of the time. I told him that my wife had a small gift she would like to give to the bride in person. He said not to move, that he would send us someone quickly.
After a short time, an older man came to tell my companion to follow him. He took her a few feet away behind a low wall where I could still see her. There, he handed her over to two old crones. One of them had red dyed hair that would not have fooled a blind man ten feet away. The three women walked away through an unlit area but in the direction of a brightly lighted structure where I lost sight of them.
About ten minutes later, the TFEW came back by herself steaming. (I was a grown man; I felt the vibes; I knew the signs.) So, I asked, did you meet the bride and did you give her the present? She said she had and she had and the bride, sitting all made up and coiffed in a gilded armchair, surrounded by her handmaidens, seemed touched. But, she said, you won’t believe what happened before that. Just as we reached the bridal pavilion, one of the two old women held me by the shoulders while the other lunged for my crotch and tried for a grab.
What do you think? Would I make this up? Do I have the talent, the imagination?
Several things. First, yes, of course, this is intended to be a pop-sociological story. It’s a commentary on something. Your guess.
Second, it should be obvious that I liked everyone I met during that stay and in that episode, every single person. That’s more than I can say for the people with whom I cross paths daily in California, for example. And, don’t get me started on the French! (Many of whom are holes in the ice as my decorous granddaughter would say.) Now, I know why I liked them but it’s hard to tell why they were so likable. Everyone in the small town was courteous and generous if he had a chance to be, even if only by offering a glass of hot tea after my long stay underwater. Again, I can’t tell why they were so gracious. Perhaps small towns are like that. Perhaps people used to be generally like that when they live in places small enough to be real communities. I can’t really believe this though because I have read too many stories (beginning with Maupassant’s), seen too many movies, where small town people behave in a completely beastly manner.
In the absence of perfect sampling, I tend to put some faith in cultural redundancy: If blondes keep treating me shabbily, I begin suspecting that there is something wrong with blondes (or about blondes and me). So, I have been treated courteously by Muslims and by people who appeared to be Muslims whenever I spend time in Muslim surroundings, even thousands of miles apart. So, until proven otherwise, I think it’s their culture that makes them friendly. Yet, naturally, I find the crotch grabbing incident and what I take to be its many implications repulsive. I don’t think it would have happened anywhere in the formerly Christian West.
The gesture and its sexual implications have a historical association with Islam, I believe. (See how carefully I chose my words.) Yet, there is almost certainly nowhere in the Islamic Scripture that mandates, commands, or even condones such behavior. Contrary to many Muslim apologists I hear on TV and on radio, that’s not the end of the story, as far as I am concerned, however. You are responsible for the baggage your religion carries. So, there is absolutely nothing in the Christian Scriptures ordering that theological deviants be burned alive. And yet, it happened in Christian lands, over and over again. Historically, it’s a sort of Christian specialty although Christ would not have applauded the practice, I am pretty sure. If you are a Christian, it’s disingenuous to say that burning people alive has nothing to do with you. It’s as much part of your heritage as are the glorious Gothic cathedrals.
And, yes, you are right; I loaded the dice by entitling this story “A Muslim Wedding.” I could have called it equally well: “An Algerian Wedding,” or “A Kabyle Wedding” (for the area), or “An Amazigh Wedding” (after the local people’s ethnicity), even “A Village Wedding.” Was I wrong? You decide.
Here is another short story. (I don’t have the talent to compose characters so, most of my stories are autobiographical by default.)
I am on the same free-diving and spear fishing expedition I mentioned in another story. We are driving and living in a VW bus I equipped myself for the purpose. This time, my then future ex-wife (“TFEW”) and I are stopped in a small town in coastal western Algeria. We just arrived and it’s a sunny quiet morning. We are enjoying a rare cup of real coffee at the also rare terrace of a small café. I will never forget that insignificant non-event, because, suddenly, out of nowhere, a baby camel came ambling down the street. The charming animal walked straight up to me and began browsing my hair. (Go ahead, don’t believe me; I have a picture!)
So, we are just lingering when a handsome teenage boy stops by to make conversation (in French, of course): Where are you from? What are you doing here? What kind of fishing, again? How do you like Algeria?
We invite him to sit down and have coffee with us but he insists he is in a hurry. He wishes us a good vacation and walks away. Then, suddenly, he wheels around to tell us he would like to invite us to his house for couscous. He is too young to be married and to have his own house. I ask him how his mother would respond to sudden unannounced guests. He replies that she would love it, that she misses her old French bosses; that she likes to speak French with real French people. I am beginning to feel peckish. Against my better judgment, we follow him around the corner.
We drive through a metal gate he closes behind us. The young man stops at the door to the house and calls out with several sentences in Arabic. A woman’s voice responds and the door opens immediately. A woman in her early forties stands smiling at us. Her dark shiny hair is partially covered. She has beautiful apricot skin and dancing black eyes. Under other circumstances, in spite of a fifteen-year age difference, I might have fallen in love with her on the spot. I must have been fairly obvious because the TFEW secretly yanked hard on the back of my shirt.
We sit down on cushions in the living room. There is an opening into the kitchen so we can communicate with the mother while she works. Actually, I am pretty much the only one doing the communicating because the TFEW is not a native French speaker and she is a little hesitant on that account. The thought crosses my mind that the mother is flirting with me verbally a little from the kitchen where I cannot see her face. The charming son soon serves us tea and two quiet teenage girls dart in and out on what I think is a mission to keep us company although they do not say anything. I am not sure whether they were shy or if they did not know French. There is no man in sight and no mention of any adult male.
After quite a long time bantering back and forth without the help of an adult beverage precisely, the steaming couscous garni appears on the rug in front of our knees. (Tech note: “couscous” is the grits-like grain; it’s “garni” when it is accompanied by a vegetable stew including chickpeas, and meat, usually boiled mutton, sometimes chicken.) Everyone is starving by that time and the family sits around and next to us each holding a bowl into which the mother dishes out couscous topped with veggies and mutton. One of the girls has thoughtfully placed a spoon in front of us, the visitors, which we make a point of honor to ignore, of course because we want to appear cool.
The mother tells us gaily how she had worked for fifteen years for a French family, as a servant with broad responsibilities, including the care of small children and the kitchen. She says she loved the lady of the house and the lady of the house loved her “like a niece.” I guess that’s how she has learned her grammatically perfect and lively French. After the French left, suddenly, feeling threatened (and probably with good reason) there was no work for a woman with her skills. Nothing is said, again in this story, about a husband. There is no explanation about how the family sustains itself.
It’s often difficult to say how poor people are following a revolution. Those don’t look poor. They are all well though simply dressed. The house in which they live is consequential and Western-style. (I mean that I would have moved into it in a minute.) As far as I know, it is her beloved lady boss’s house they are all occupying. Perhaps, the lady boss has slipped her the title before fleeing. I am told there was a lot of that that went on. I am also told the new Algerian government, its hands full of pressing matters, was happy to let sleeping dogs lie on this issue. I can’t judge what the family’s everyday food is like but none of them look skinny and the couscous was well garnished and ample. (But then again, the latter is not a good indicator of anything in North Africa where a feast is a feast however meagre the fare on ordinary days.)
If you eat enough food and it’s tasty enough, at the end of the meal, you will feel a little like drunk. Those who talk after dinner, including the Mom, talk louder. The pleasant son tells me of his wish to go work in France and of his modest ambitions in general. Even the young girls smile more broadly. Perhaps seeing their mother happy makes them feel happy. I am asked to explain for the tenth time in Algeria what I am doing there. I explain my quest for big fish and spiny lobster (and also for slipper lobster, a grotesque looking but delicious creature). I describe how I go under water holding my breath to shoot them in the face with a rubber spear gun. The family seems a little incredulous but they are visibly charmed by the concept. They have already made themselves believe that the TFEW and I really sleep in the VW bus as we travel from place to place. (The bus was parked out of view in their courtyard while we ate.)
Then, out of nowhere, the mother says something astounding: I envy you – she says to spend so much time looking at the sea. I love the sea and I haven’t seen it for so long. Say this again, I request. Isn’t this house, your house, about four or five blocks from the sea cliff? It is, she said but I can’t go there (“Je ne peux pas y aller.”) French does not not distinguish between physical impossibility and moral interdiction. So, I am a little confused but not for long. I guess quickly what’s on her mind.
I have an idea, I say. I tell you what: Tomorrow morning at five when the sun is up but everyone is still asleep, you will put on your hijab and wear a shawl around your shoulders that you can raise to hide your face if necessary. Your son will open the gate to let my bus out and then, he will sit next to me in front where everyone can see him. You will be in the back next to my wife with the curtains drawn. Your son will direct me to a suitable point on the cliff where I will park. There, you will raise the curtain as much as you want to and look at the sea as long as you wish. She agrees and her face is filled with anticipation.
Early the next morning, the son wake us up with cups of hot coffee. There is a defeated look on his face. He tells us that his mother has changed her mind and that she will not take up my proposal after all; that she says thank you and good-bye. He adds she is too embarrassed to get up and wish us a good trip face-to-face. We shake hands and leave with much sadness in our hearts.
Is this a story about religion? All Algerians were Muslims, if nothing else, by default; so was our pleasant hostess, no doubt Yet Muslim intellectuals will point out that there is no part of the Islamic sacred scriptures that enjoins women to hide at home. There is certainly nothing in the same scriptures that says they can’t enjoy contemplating the sea, one of God’s first creations, in Islamic as well as in Jewish and Christian tradition.
Personally, I disagree. I think this is a story about religion although indirectly. If the woman had been a Lutheran, a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, or a Mormon, she would have had her fill of the sea before I met her. I can even imagine a Hindu woman being somewhat self-cloistered but not one fluent in a foreign language, not one with a long history of happy interaction with Westerners.
Two main points. First, every follower of a religion is not a scriptural expert. What people think is their religion often differs a great deal from what theologians say is true religion. I addressed this issue in an article in Liberty Unbound. (“Religious Bric-a-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad.”) Second, religions are vehicles for all kinds of cultural practices that are not religious or only in a distorted manner. Thus, Catholicism, besides its rich history of burning people alive for their opinions, is largely responsible for the consumption of fish among inland Catholics. It probably even had a lot to do with the establishment of the long lasting Newfoundland cod fishery. (Ask me.) It’s fair to judge religions for the cultural baggage they carry and that they could put down if they really wanted to. Passive assent is a form of complicity.