Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Winner of $1.4 million Templeton Prize announced

The winner of the 2009 Templeton Prize has been announced.  According to the NY Times:

Bernard d’Espagnat, 87, a French physicist and philosopher of science, has won the $1.4 million Templeton Prize for his work on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics, the John Templeton Foundation said Monday in Paris. Noting that the rules governing the behavior of subatomic particles contravene common-sense notions of reality, Dr. d’Espagnat, a professor emeritus at the University of Paris-Sud, coined the term “veiled reality” to describe a world beyond appearances, which science can only glimpse and which he said could be compatible with “higher forms of spirituality.”

ScienceNOW reports that “Over the years, he has developed the idea that the reality revealed by science offers only a ‘veiled’ view of an underlying reality that science cannot access, and that the scientific view must take its place alongside the reality revealed by art, spirituality, and other forms of human inquiry.”

The Templeton Prize (Wikipedia article), established in 1972, is the best known award given out by the Templeton Foundation; it is awarded to a person who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”  Until 2001 it was formally known as the “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion” and from 2002-2008 it was called the “Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.”  The monetary award, currently £1,000,000 (ca. $1.4 million U.S.) exceeds the cash that accompanies the Nobel Prizes.

M. d’Espagnat will formally receive the award from the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace on 5 May.

Two Afghan men could be executed for translating Qur’an

The Flag of Afghanistan, adopted in 2004.  Afghanistan has had 23 flags since the start of the 20th century---more than any other country--- including one that was all white and another that was all black.

The current Flag of Afghanistan

Just when you thought the human rights situation in Afghanistan couldn’t get more outrageous: two men in said country now face possible execution, and four others have been jailed, for the crime of… translating the Qur’an.  Frequent readers of this blog will no doubt recall the case of Parwez Kambakhsh who was first sentenced to death and then had that commuted to 20 years in jail for discussing women’s rights.  His case is still pending.

The present case involves Ahmad Ghaws Zalmai who translated to Qur’an from Arabic into one of Afghanistan’s several local languages for people who can’t read the document in the original language.

Many clerics rejected the book because it did not include the original Arabic verses alongside the translation. It’s a particularly sensitive detail for Muslims, who regard the Arabic Quran as words given directly by God. A translation is not considered a Quran itself, and a mistranslation could warp God’s word.

The clerics said Zalmai, a stocky 54-year-old spokesman for the attorney general, was trying to anoint himself as a prophet. They said his book was trying to replace the Quran, not offer a simple translation. Translated editions of the Quran abound in Kabul markets, but they include Arabic verses.

Most English-language editions of the Qur’an include the Arabic text side-by-side with the English, and since books written in Semitic languages (including Hebrew) read back-to-front (from out point of view) you turn the pages of such books from left to right, not right to left.  Editions of the Qur’an without the Arabic are often considered to not really be the Qur’an, by some Moslems, but merely interpretations thereof, thus Marmaduke Pickthall’s well-known translation (as we would call it) is titled The Meaning of the Glorious Koran instead of just The Qur’an.

The Qur'an, or Koran, if you prefer

The Qur'an, or Koran, if you prefer

I can find no source indicating what, if any, errors or mistranslations the mobs in question are upset about.  Quite possibly, this is just an excuse for the imams to exercise power to keep people in line and for and the crowds to demonstrate their loyalty thereto.

All the men charged are pleading ignorance: the publisher didn’t read the book, the imam who signed a statement of support for it was tricked into doing so, Zalmai didn’t know it’d be a problem to omit the Arabic text.  Hopefully this case will garner international attention and the central government, led by Hamid Karzai, will be able to work something out.  Like they did with that convert to Christianity who, instead of being executed, was declared insane and allowed to flee the country.

Mecca to be remodeled

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.  The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

The Economist has an interesting story about Saudi plans to remodel Mecca, the holiest city is Islam.  The city is the original hometown of Mohammed, the founder and chief figure in Islam, and was a key religious center even before that time.  Muslims are supposed to pray five times each day, at appointed times, all while facing in the direction of Mecca, and are urged to participate in the haj, a pilgrimage to the city during the holy month of Ramadan, at least once in their life if they are able.

As international travel has gotten easier, more Muslims have been able to visit Mecca, causing significant logistical problems (including people often being trampled to death).  A chief reason for remodeling parts of the city, including the most important mosque there, the Masjid al-Haram (“Sacred Mosque”) is to accommodate the 2.5 million pilgrims that come to Mecca during the haj each year.  At present, the mosque can hold up to 900,000 visitors; plans are to expand it to a capacity of 1.5 million.

Given the great importance of the mosque and Mecca to Muslims, it is not surprising that the Saudi plans are stirring up debate.  The fact that one of the architects chosen for the project, Briton Norman Foster, is a non-Muslim has added to the controversy.  Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca, so he’d have to supervise the project from a distance and couldn’t visit the site itself.

But the city has already undergone huge changes.  The Economist reports:

Even before the plans to give the Haram mosque a facelift emerged, many Muslims were uneasy about the renovations already underway in Mecca. The modern city bears little resemblance to the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Visitors to Mecca can buy a latte from Starbucks and a snack from KFC or McDonald’s. Moreover, the first Islamic school where Muhammad is believed to have taught as well as the house of Khadija, his first wife, are believed to have been destroyed as construction in Mecca has boomed. Critics such as Mr Angawi fear that if these plans go ahead, more damage will be wrought upon Mecca’s historic buildings. Some suggest that Saudi Arabia’s rulers don’t concern themselves much about preserving these historic sites because their interpretation of Islam regards venerating holy places as akin to idol worship.

It will be interesting to see what sorts of decisions are made by Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah—who is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (in Mecca and Medina)—in this matter.

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted. (Click to enlarge)

Newsweek says Bible supports gay marriage. They’re right.

Newsweek magazine has an excellent cover story in their most recent issue that argues that the Bible does not support the position of same-sex marriage opponents, despite their claims that it does. The article opens with this:

Let’s try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?

This book supports same-sex marriage rights; it doesn't oppose them

This book is supportive of same-sex marriage rights

The authors point out that fifteen decades ago the Bible was used to support (and to oppose) human slavery.  They also point out the many ways that the institution of marriage has already changed, both since the Mosaic Code was written and within the past few years. They deal with the anti-homosexuality passages in the Bible, albeit with a bit less skill and thoroughness, and give a status update on the state of same-sex unions in various U.S. denominations.  Further polling data on how Americans view same-sex unions and homosexuality are also included.  (See also my prior post, Newsweek poll: support for gay rights is up.)

The article argues that, far from supporting the position of same-sex marriage opponents—who too often go unchallenged theologically—the Bible supports an inclusive view of the institution.

The religious argument for gay marriage …  “is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.”

The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage. If one is for racial equality and the common nature of humanity, then the values of stability, monogamy and family necessarily follow. The religious argument for gay marriage, he adds, “is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.”

Not surprisingly, the article, “Gay Marriage: Our Mutual Joy” (available online here), has proven pretty controversial.  The usual suspects among conservative religious groups is accusing Newsweek of blasphemy, relativism, and the whole gamut of their normal charges.  The magazine’s editor anticipated this and wrote in the issue that “Religious conservatives will say that the liberal media are once again seeking to impose their values (or their ‘agenda,’ a favorite term to describe the views of those who disagree with you) on a God-fearing nation.”  He continued, “Let the letters and emails come. History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion.”

Whether you’re inclined to agree with it or not, I highly recommend you check out the article for yourself and make up your own mind.

Bob Jones University apologizes for past racist views

Bob Jones University, the private, fundamentalist Christian college founded in 1927, has just issued an apology for racist views that they formerly held and justified on biblical grounds.  The school did not admit black students until 1971 and prohibited interracial dating until that particular policy gained attention during the 2000 presidential election when George W. Bush gave a speech at the school.

This blog commends Bob Jones University for apologizing for the racist views they formerly promoted

This blog commends Bob Jones University for apologizing for the racist views they used to promote

The detailed rules that Bob Jones University developed in the 1970s prohibited not just interracial dating and marriage but threaten expulsion for any student who even advocated interracial marriage, who was “affiliated with any group or organization which holds as one of its goals or advocates interracial marriage,” or “who espouse, promote, or encourage others to violate the University’s dating rules and regulations.”  The Internal Revenue Service revoked the University’s tax exempt status; the school appealed the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the University met all other criteria for tax-exempt status and that the school’s racial discrimination was based on sincerely held religious beliefs, that “God intended segregation of the races and that the Scriptures forbid interracial marriage.”

The just released apology (full text) says in part:

We failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.

The South Carolina chapter of the NAACP welcomed the apology from the Greenville-based school.  “It’s unfortunate it took them this long — particularly a religious, faith-based institution — to realize that we all are human beings and the rights of all people should be respected and honored,” said Lonnie Randolph, president of the state NAACP.

The school has never reapplied for tax exemption, though they could presumably qualify now.  This blog commends the school and its leadership for having the courage to admit these past mistakes.

Mormons, proxy baptism, and the Jews

The Salt Lake City Temple is the largest of 128 currently operated by the Mormon Church

The Salt Lake City Temple is the largest of 128 currently operated by the Mormon Church

Jewish leaders have expressed renewed opposition to Holocaust victims being baptized by proxy by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (Mormons) despite their agreement in 1995 to stop the practice. Many Jews find the baptisms offensive and a possible threat to identifying their relatives as Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.  Mormons, for their part, see the practice as an inoffensive expression of their care for the salvation of others and the matter touches on a number of their core religious beliefs.

Mormons, like many conservative Christians, believe that a person must be baptized in order to qualify for the highest levels of salvation, a.k.a. exaltation; but they believe that the baptism can be just as effective if conducted by proxy after the person’s death.  In his recent book God is not Great noted atheist and critic of religion Christopher Hitchens explains and comments on the practice as follows:

It must be said for the “Latter-day Saints” (these conceited words were added to Smith’s original “Church of Jesus Christ” in 1833) that they have squarely faced one of the great difficulties of revealed religion. This is the problem of what to do about those who were born before the exclusive “revelation,” or who died without ever having the opportunity to share in its wonders. Christians used to resolve this problem by saying that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, where it is thought that he saved or converted the dead. … The Mormons have improved on this rather backdated solution with something very literal-minded. They have assembled a gigantic genealogical database at a huge repository in Utah, and are busy filling it with the names of all people whose births, marriages, and deaths have been tabulated since records began. This is very useful if you want to look up your own family tree, and as long as you do not object to having your ancestors becoming Mormons. Every week, at special ceremonies in Mormon temples, the congregations meet and are given a certain quota of names of the departed to “pray in” to their church. This retrospective baptism of the dead seems harmless enough to me, but the American Jewish Committee became incensed when it was discovered that the Mormons had acquired the records of the Nazi “final solution,” and were industriously baptizing what for once could truly be called a “lost tribe”: the murdered Jews of Europe. For all its touching inefficacy, this exercise seemed in poor taste. I sympathize with the American Jewish Committee, but I nonetheless think that the followers of Mr. Smith should be congratulated for hitting upon even the most simpleminded technological solution to a problem that has defied solution ever since man first invented religion.

Despite Hitchens’s inauthentic praise, most Americans find baptism for the dead to be an odd and bizzare practice.  Mitt Romney, the first Mormon with a legitimate shot at winning a major party’s nomination for president, was asked numerous questions about his religious beliefs earlier this year, including at least one about proxy baptism.  While acknowledging that he had performed such baptisms, he declined giving details and referred the reporter to the LDS Church for further information.  In my experience, Mormons typically don’t volunteer information on proxy baptism (or their other ordinances) to non-Mormons and seem somewhat defensive about the practices, which are all conducted in their temples which are off-limits to non-Mormons and even many Mormons who participate inadequately in the life of the church.

This statue of Jesus is a well-known image among LDS members

This statue of Jesus is a well-known image among LDS members

Most commonly, proxy baptisms are conducted by a relative of the deceased (thus, as Hitchens points out, the vigorous interest in genealogy research among Mormons) or with at least the permission of a relative of the deceased.  The church actively encourages members to conduct such proxy baptisms for as many people as possible.  In their eagerness to do this, some Mormons began using sources other than their family trees to find people to get baptized for, like concentration camp records and the Israeli archives.  Despite rules put in place, LDS members have been baptized for Catholic popes and saints, the aforementioned Holocaust victims, and even Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.  At times, Mormon missionaries have baptised (living) people who clearly had no intention of becoming a Mormon, or even of understanding the event—the infamous “baseball baptisms“—just to preserve the people’s chances of salvation in the afterlife. Note that, according to Mormon dogma, the mere fact of a baptism—proxy or otherwise—doesn’t make a person a Mormon or ensure salvation; the person must, in the afterlife, accept various beliefs and such in order to make the baptism effective.

Despite what Hitchens wrote, baptism for the dead doesn’t solve all of the doctrinal problems.  Namely, what about those people who left no historical records or who had lazy descendants who couldn’t be bothered to do their temple work? Apparently, people who didn’t have a proxy baptism done for them will still be okay and able to become a Mormon in the afterlife through some mechanism or other that wasn’t made particularly clear to me (eschatological beliefs are frequently difficult to pin down).  If this is so, then doing a proxy baptism for someone seems superfluous, since they’ll be fine anyway.  It makes the ordinances just seem like busy work or worse.

Incidentally, I recently visited a Mormon discussion forum asking if the church had anything like a “do not baptize” registry that I could put myself on.  As with all of my conversations with Mormons, including the three I had with their missionaries this past summer (thanks for the free Book of Mormon and the discussions, Elders Humphrey and Poulson) the folks on the forum were very pleasant and polite.  After fielding their queries about why I’d want to take such a chance and their attempts to dissuade me (“just in case”) and I eventually obtained an address for the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and an indication that they might be able to handle such a request, but I’ve yet to write them to see if such an opt-out is possible.  Even if it is, I’m not sure I’d go through with it; I have Mormon relatives and I’d hate to cause them any grief just to make a point; that wouldn’t be a very loving thing to do. In any event the actuaries predict I have many decades yet to live.  Hopefully the Jews and Mormons can reach an agreement on how to proceed with this that demonstrates mutual respect and tolerance, though I think that’ll be tricky.

Monks fight at tomb of Jesus. For the second time. This year.

If you worked here you'd be a monk. And you'd be getting in fights all the time.

If you worked here you'd be a monk. And you'd be fighting all the time.

This is embarassing.  Armenian Christians and Greek Orthodox Christians got into a brawl at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the shrine which probably marks the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial—so it’s only about the holiest spot on the planet to Christians.   Too bad we can’t say this is the first time it’s happened.  This year.

The Guardian describes the action:

Armenian monks and their worshippers had been participating in a ceremony marking the 4th-century discovery of the cross on which Christ was crucified when they found their path blocked by a Greek Orthodox monk posted in Jesus’s tomb. Fists began flying, kicking monks lost their footing and 10ft ceremonial candlesticks and banners toppled to the ground. Police dragged priests from the melee in head locks and arrested two Armenian clerics, who were later released.

Here’s a video of the brawl that has been circulating on YouTube:

Monks get in fights at the church all the time—this is the second time this year alone that police have had to break up fisticuffs there.  The situation is complicated, but these fights and ill will stem from a centuries old agreement that divides up the church amongst the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenians, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Churches; it governs which group controls which areas and when and how they can use common areas.  The agreement was imposed by the Ottomans, who controlled Palestine at the time, in 1767 and divides the church among the claimants; it was confirmed and made permanent in 1852. 

But the agreement hasn’t really helped things much; there is no sense of unity or charity amongst the various groups controlling the Holy Sepulchre.  In 2002 a brawl resulted in eleven people being hospitalized.  The cause?  A Coptic monk stationed on the roof moved his chair on a hot day from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, who apparently had control over the shady spot, and a fight broke out.  How Christian.

If that desn’t tell you how sad the situation is, maybe this will: above the entryway to the church—which, again, probably marks the place where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried—is a ladder.  No big deal, right?  Right.  Except it’s been there for over a hundred and fifty (150) years because the various factions can’t agree about what to do with it.  Here’s an idea: move the dang thing!  Their inability to reach agreement has bigger consequences too. Recent inspections indicate that the roof is unstable and will collapse soon and destroy the whole church; it needs urgent repairs but the Ethiopians and Coptics who control the area can’t agree on what to do.  For a simpleton like me, the solution seems obvious (fix the roof) but these holy men of God can’t reach an agreement on that so soon there won’t be any roof at all—shady spots and all will be destroyed in a massive collapse which will be well deserved if these simpletons can’t get their act together.

The entrance to the church.  Note the ladder above the doorway has been there, in that same exact spot, for at least 150 years.

The entrance to the church. Note the ladder above the doorway; it has been in that exact spot for at least 150 years.

What happened to the unity that Jesus called for his followers to have?  What happened to the charity that we are supposed to show others?  Turning the other cheek, anyone?  Or does being at the tomb of Jesus absolve one from the need to actually follow what he taught?  Happily, the keys to the church are controlled by two Muslim families, who Saladin himself entrusted with that duty in 1192.  Can you imagine how much worse this ridiculous squabbling would be if any of the Christian groups got their hands on the keys?  If they don’t straighten out pretty quick there won’t be any church anymore.  Maybe that’d actually be better; this fighting does more to sully Jesus’s legacy than the presence of the building can ever do to preserve it.

Wikipedia has a good article on the church, including the history of the building, and reasons to think it may be the real place.  It also has lots of pictures of the interior and exterior, including the ladder.

Lawsuit against God dismissed in Nebraska

About a year ago, Ernie Chambers, then a long-serving member of Nebraska’s unicameral state legislature, filed a lawsuit against God.  He was seeking “a permanent injunction” to “cease certain harmful activities and the making of terroristic threats…of grave harm to innumerable persons, including constituents of Plaintiff who Plaintiff has the duty to represent.”  These activities allegedly included:

fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects and the like. …[Often causing] calamitous catastrophes resulting in the wide-spread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants including innocent babes, infants, children, the aged and infirm without mercy or distinction. …[And] has manifested neither compassion nor remorse, proclaiming that defendant will laugh [Proverbs 1:26].

His filing indicate that “Plaintiff, despite reasonable efforts to effectuate personal service upon defendant ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are,’ has been unable to do so.”  He said that this failure to serve process in a normal manner shouldn’t prevent the suit from going forward, since the defendant could be presumed to have knowledge of the suit.  Somehow, I don’t think this is what C.S. Lewis had in mind when he wrote God in the Dock.

This

This seal on a field of blue is Nebraska's flag, one of the worst in North America according to a 2001 survey of vexillologists.

Some anonymous people filed motions for the defendant and one even filed a countersuit.  However, this week Mr. Chambers’s suit was dismissed with prejudice (meaning he can’t refile it), ruling that God wasn’t properly served due to his unlisted home address. Chambers responded by saying “the court itself acknowledges the existence of God. A consequence of that acknowledgment is a recognition of God’s omniscience. Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit.”  Chambers, who is listed as an agnostic on his Wikipedia page (which gives lots of information about the interesting case), has filed a notice of appeal—taking the suit to a higher authority, as it were.

The plaintiff, a member of the legislature’s judiciary committee, filed his suit to protest recent court rulings that made it, in his view, too easy for frivolous lawsuits to be filed.  He wanted to demonstrate that anyone could sue anyone else with far too much ease in Nebraska.  I guess that makes him an advocate of tort reform.

Chambers, who represented the Omaha area for 38 years in the Nebraska Senate, was forced out of office this past April by a term limits law passed in 2000.  He would have likely won re-election if allowed to continue in office.

Saudi Arabia tries to reform jihadists

The Saudi flag bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet"). Note that the hoist end is to the right.

The Saudi flag is green, a color associated with Muhammad, and bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet").

The New York Times Magazine has an interesting article on a several year old Saudi program to deprogram jihadists.  The issue of deconverting people from radical, violent Islam is an important one for the Kingdom, which has produced huge numbers of terrorists recently, including 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers and bin Laden himself.  In may areas of the world, from Chechnya to the Philippines, the largest contingent of Islamic militants is comprised of Saudis; it’s a big problem.

Of course, to get someone to renounce terrorism it is important to understand why people join terrorist groups in the first place.

Though the exact nature of the role that religious belief plays in the recruitment of jihadists is the subject of much debate among scholars of terrorism, a growing number contend that ideology is far less important than family and group dynamics, psychological and emotional needs. “We’re finding that they don’t generally join for religious reasons,” John Horgan told me. A political psychologist who directs the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State, Horgan has interviewed dozens of former terrorists. “Terrorist movements seem to provide a sense of adventure, excitement, vision, purpose, camaraderie,” he went on, “and involvement with them has an allure that can be difficult to resist. But the ideology is usually something you acquire once you’re involved.”

The article points out that other scholars disagree with this assessment and do stress the significance of political belief and grievance.  “But if the Saudi program is succeeding, it may be because it treats jihadists not as religious fanatics or enemies of the state but as alienated young men in need of rehabilitation.” 

At the end of the two-month program, which includes instruction in the correct understanding of jihad as well as art therapy, many of the men are given a car and financial assistance to rent a home along with help getting additional education and employment.  They are also encouraged to get married since “getting married stabilizes a man’s personality … He thinks more about a long term future and less about himself and his anger.”

I found the description of what the rehabilitation centers are like to be interesting.

On arrival, each prisoner is given a suitcase filled with gifts: clothes, a digital watch, school supplies and toiletries. Inmates are encouraged to ask for their favorite foods (Twix and Snickers candy bars are frequent requests). Volleyball nets, PlayStation games and Ping-Pong and foosball tables are all provided. The atmosphere at the center — which I visited several times earlier this year — is almost eerily cozy and congenial, with mattresses and rugs spread on stubbly patches of lawn for inmates to lounge upon. With few exceptions, the men wear their beards untrimmed and their thobes, the long garments that most Saudi men wear, cut above their ankles in the style favored by those who wish to demonstrate strict devotion to Islam. The men are pleasant but many seem a bit puffy and lethargic; one 19-year-old inmate, Faisal al-Subaii, explained that they are encouraged to spend most of their daytime hours in either rest or prayer.

The article also describes one of the classroom sessions, a discussion of jihad, and some conversations that the men have with their instructors.  Their experience as people who went to Iraq to fight the infidels was very interesting for me to read about.  On man, Azzam, said that he “didn’t have the chance [to fight]. For months, we went from safe house to safe house. There wasn’t anything to do — no action, no training. Finally, they asked me to be a suicide bomber. But I know that suicide is forbidden in Islam, so I came back home.”  It sounds incredibly banal.

Riyadh, the Saudi capital, at night.  Your gas money at work.

Riyadh, the Saudi capital, at night.

Another former militant, Abu Sulayman, said that “most people just want to carry weapons,” and didn’t really have any well thought out religious reasons for joining the fight.  Many of the men were disappointed with the poor organization of the militants in Iraq and disapproved of the infighting between the various Muslim groups.  The rehab process encourages them to feel victimized by propaganda and a distorted form of Islam.

One topic they especially want the men there to correctly understand is takfir, a concept in Islamic jurisprudence referring to the declaration that a fellow Muslim is an apostate and, therefore, subject to attack.  Some extremists have been applying this to the Saudi regime, which ranks up there with American support for Israel on the list of Al Qaeda’s grievances.  The Saudi Royal Family is pretty corrupt, but they rather like being in power and would really rather not have to change too much.  But they need to, if they really want to eliminate terrorism, both against their country and exported from their country, they’ve got to stop using textbooks in their schools that portray the rest of the world as being against Islam and call for a literal application of Shariah.  They also need to create better opportunities for their people.  This rehab program seems to recognize that, as it tries to reintegrate the men back into society in a productive role.

Doing that will be a better long-term solution than simply trying to blow up as many of them as possible before they blow us up, without all the collateral damage and blowback.  The Times article also gives some indications that police action may be more effective in breaking up terror cells than military force. 

In any event, there’s a lot of work to do still.  Saudi officials claim that no graduate of the program described here has returned to violent jihad.  We’ll have to see if that holds true.

Somali girl, 13, executed for being raped

I don't particularly feel like commenting on the Flag of Somalia right now

I don't really feel like making any light-hearted comments on the Somali flag right now. Fly it at half staff permanently, in mourning for the whole country.

A thirteen-year old Somali girl, Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, who reported being ganged raped by three men, was stoned to death this past Monday.  The public execution was ordered by Islamic militants who accused her of adultery; it was held in a stadium and attended by 1000 spectators.  Amnesty International and Somali media, who initially said Duhulow was 23, provided information on the execution, which took place in the nation’s third largest city, Kismayo.

Somalia is probably the only country on our planet that can give North Korea a challenge in the “most screwed up country” competition.  Since warlords overthrew the country’s dictator in 1991 it’s had virtually no government; it’s among both the most violent and poorest nations on Earth—a quarter of all Somali children die before the age of five.  Recently, Islamic militants, with Al Aqeda support, have gained strength in their fight against what government there is there.  The insurgency has killed thousands of people, gained control of Kismayo, where Aisha was killed.

The execution was carried out by about 50 men who killed another person, a young boy, during attempts by some witnesses to save her.  She was buried up to her neck in the ground before the stoning began.

At one point during the stoning, Amnesty International has been told by numerous eyewitnesses that nurses were instructed to check whether Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was still alive when buried in the ground. They removed her from the ground, declared that she was, and she was replaced in the hole where she had been buried for the stoning to continue.

According to Sheikh Hayakalah, the Sharia court judge, “the evidence came from her side and she officially confirmed her guilt, while she told us that she is happy with the punishment under Islamic law.”  Yeah.  I’ll bet.  I’ll also bet that, on Judgment Day, Sheikh Hayakalah would do anything to be a Sunday prostitute rather than who he is, the man who condemned Aisha in the name of God.

Every soul shall have a taste of death: And only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense. Only he who is saved far from the Fire and admitted to the Garden will have attained the object (of Life): For the life of this world is but goods and chattels of deception. — Qur’an, 3:185