Saturday, August 25, 2007

Gartenstein-Ross memoir on a year inside radical Islam

Author: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.
Title: My Year Inside Radical Islam: A Memoir.
Publication: New York: Tarcher-Penguin, 2007. ISBN 978-1-58542-551-8. 224 pages, hardbound, with brief bibliography.

The author, now a lawyer helping with counter-terrorism, went through several religious transformations, starting with a syllogism about the nature of Christ, CS Lewis style, over the apparent (to some people) contradictions about the Trinity and lordship. At Wake Forest in North Carolina, he would convert to Islam, first, he says, out of comfort. He wanted to believe in something. Gradually he would doubt the equivocations of more moderate Islam and wind up working for a radical Islamic charity, the al-Haramain Foundation, near his hometown of Ashland, Oregon. After starting law school in New York City, Greenwich Village no less, the edges of his practice would crumble, he would become Christian. When he went to work for the courts in Washington DC he would need a security clearance, and through a series of conversations with the FBI he would come to agree to work with them as some of the principals of the charity would be indicted for money laundering to send funds to Chechnya.

Christiane Amanpour interviewd the author toward the end of her segment “Muslim Warriors” in her three-part series on CNN, “God’s Warriors.”

It seems remarkable how he gets seduced by the world of radical Islam. Working for the charity, he first finds out that he is not free to express his own ideas; all idea come from Allah, or Mohammed – aka the authorities who speak for the faith. He is surprised at how his bosses quibble about this, and yet he comes to accept it. Then there are the myriad rules, about prayer, about not having a savings account because it draws interest (there is a discussion that Muslims associate interest and usury with Judaism), about beards, about the length of trousers. The rules get to seem more unreasonable as they expand into the world of “otherness” that expands to absolute righteousness and moral certainty. It becomes a life that cannot tolerate differences for exceptions for any reason. Persons are not free to leave the “faith.” He explains apostasy well.

Late in the book he discusses Islamic marital courtship, which radicals claim is superior, making sure that a couple can spend a life together. But it sounds like a canard. The “moral perfection” through the immersion into the life of Islam seems like a good excuse to avoid emotional intimacy with others on their terms and the ability to accept the imperfections of others and remain intimate – something that marriage and family life demands. Yet, with only some tinkering, it would seem that religious faith is supposed to promote this openness. Maybe the Christian idea of forgiveness is essential to this process.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Amy Chua: World on Fire

Author: Amy Chua.
Title: World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.
Publication: New York: Anchor, 2003, 2004 (with Afterword). ISBN 0-385-72186-2, 346 pages, indexed, paper.

The author is a law professor (apparently “liberal”) at Yale and recently she spoke on the McLaughlin Group. Her thesis, starting with the observation that the United States is overdoing it in trying to export democracy and capitalism at the same time to the third world (especially the Middle East) as if it were like doing an upload on a computer server, bears comparison with Robert Merry’s similar book, reviewed here June 6. But her observations seem more refined. She is particularly concerned that there is intrinsic tension between free markets and democracy, which can be resolved in an advanced country where the economic and political control is effectively spread around with programs like affirmative action, aggressive non-discrimination, minority participation, and some redistribution of wealth. This is largely the case in modern western states, more so in Europe than the United States. But in other parts of the world, ethnic or religious minorities often control the economy (sometimes the political apparatus) and create explosive resentments among the native underclass.

The pattern in quite varied around the world. Ethnic Chinese control several economies in Southeast Asia, even though China itself is emerging (reluctantly) from Communism and does not have a western market economy as we perceive it. In some cases, there are odd effects. Singapore is a prosperous city-state “ruled” effectively by Chinese (after managed into place by Britain). It has strict social, pro-family and pro-birth social mores that are sometimes cited as an example to support conservative notions of family values and seems free of normal corruption; yet some of the social policy could be related to a desire to remain the ethic group in power. She quotes Singapore's president Lee Kuan Yew as saying that Eastern cultural values regard family identity more important than personal individuality.

Latin America is interesting because of the various societies set up by the Spaniards and Portuguese, with “color consciousness” that bears comparison to American experience with race. Likewise, Africa has many examples of colonialism and apartheid (South Africa). The Middle East, with the Israel problem, makes an interesting comparison. She supplies an Afterword in the paperback edition that was written some time shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, when it was only beginning to become apparent how difficult it would be for the United States to implement its neo-conservative dream.

When you think of these global social programs as a whole, you come away with the notion that “fairness” is an important moral value, especially group fairness. Indigenous populations resent the economic and political control of “aliens” or foreigners, especially when they take the wealth for themselves. It’s easy for fundamentalist Muslims to blame the lifestyles of the West for “exploiting” Arabia for oil, and that gets to be elaborated into religious gripes about “infidels” occupying their Holy lands. Now, that really doesn’t do a lot of good, to blame the West for wrongs done 800 years ago – when the moral focus ought to be on how individuals behave today. (From a moral point of view, that is one of the things that do not make sense in all of the videotapes coming from Al Qaeda). It’s interesting that discussions of personal morality in the west today often assume individual sovereignty and the keeping of commitments that one has voluntarily entered into (like marriage), and avoidance of rampantly self-destructive behaviors. That theme comes across in the Dr. Phil show, for example. But the ability to share burdens at an individual level is certainly a moral issue, that is more often dealt with by religious faiths (including Islamic law) than it is in modern western political systems. That may change.

The Palestinian problem seems like a confluence of group and individual justice. Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza (and to some extend the original territory of Israel) involved taking away land from Palestinians by force and consigning them to second-class citizenship, comparable to second-class citizenship in many areas of the world (by race historically in the US). To some extent, Israel, justified by religious destiny and a historical claim to land, committed wrongdoing to native populations similar in concept (though maybe not degree -- Chua writes carefully about The Holocaust) to what the Germans and other groups did to them. This has led to a sense of personal shame (due to expropriation from an occupying power that itself claims to be aggrieved and predestined) among Palestinians that leads to the violence (and fatwa) that we see today. Shame assigned by others is a most unacceptable emotion.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sharon Darby Hendry: Soliah: The Sara Jane Olson Story

Author: Sharon Darby Hendry.
Title: Soliah: The Sara Jane Olson Story.
Publication: Minneapolis (Bloomington): Cable, 2002.
ISBN 1-893088-35-9. 367 pages, Paper with extensive forewords and illustrations, with 16 pages in roman numerals of detailed introduction.

This is the biography of Kathleen Soliah, who was part of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in the 1970s, She was indicted for participation in bank robberies by fled and assumed an alias, married, and lived in Minnesota until her arrest in 1999, followed by extradition to California, a recanted guilty plea (after 9/11) and eventual sentencing.

Ms. Hendry discussed this book at a Writers Conference in Minneapolis in the Summer of 2002, as an example of a self-published book. She indicate that she had difficulty getting some book columnists to review self-published books. But the presentation is quite professional: interesting red and white cover with a picture

The early part of the book gives valuable history of the extreme Left in its resistance to the Vietnam war, including the draft, and the extreme indignant moralism of the Left, which led it into terrorism, where it used very blunt tactics to attack the "decadent capitalist rich." It was determined to force a "cultural revolution" by expropriation and force. The determination of the SLA to forcibly “right the wrongs of the world” in the left-wing sense that some people get what they have by “exploiting” the labor or poverty of others is very clear, and this shows up in connection to the whole draft deferment and Vietnam issue. Their ideas make an interesting comparison to more conventional ideas of morality, as well as to the ideology of today's radical Islam, which bears a collective resentment from a religious rather than economic source. The book mentions a couple of left-wing "manifestos" authored by SLA members. The word "manifesto" (sometimes applied to my own first DADT tome) has become a bit of a pejorative.

The book goes into detail about the Patty Hearst kidnapping (Hearst's autobiography is called Every Secret Thing (1982), co-written with Alvin Moscow.)

It would have been incredible to live for over twenty years in hiding, an exemplary "selfless" life as a soccer mom in some many volunteer efforts, and know that any day there could be a knock at the door. The account of her freedom is rather brief, but the details of her prosecution and politics of the plea bargaining are quite detailed. Her "egolessness" was her undoing.

Update: March 21, 2008

Sara Jane Olson has been released on parole. The story by Daisy Nguyen is "Ex-SLA Member Freed From Calif. Prison," link here.

March 23: The latest now is that this was an error, that Olson is back in prison, and cannot be released until 2009 (NBC4 in Washington).

Friday, August 10, 2007

National Geographic on Saturn and Titan

It appears that there are at least four places in the Solar System besides earth where carbon-based life is possible or may have existed in the past. Mars, the Jupiter moon Europa (as in the movie 2010), and now Enceladus.

The 2006 issue of National Geographic is called “Saturn As You’ve Never Seen It”, and then “Beautiful Stranger: Saturn’s Mysteries Come to Light.” There are two live color pictures from the Huygens probe of Titan (Jan. 2005), one having two low mountains with rivulets. The other (better known) is a river bed covered with ice pebbles. The smoggy sky is brighter than expected at such a distance from the Sun. The article maintains that methane (CH-4) rain may fall once a millennium near the equator, but much more often near the poles where the countryside looks like northeastern Minnesota (without vegetation), with methane or ethane lakes, some twenty miles across. Along the equator there are miles of parallel sand dunes. Carl Sagan, in a book written in the late 1980s, had speculated that thiolins fall onto the surface of Titan. Scientific American had a major article on Titan in 1986, and discussed its "reducing atmosphere."

Enceladus apparently has interior water, the erupts as ice geysers. It’s unclear how it got there.

Saturn itself is, of course, a gas giant (like Jupiter) with the thickening atmosphere, liquid hydrogen, probably metallic hydrogen, and rocky core. The article has huge pictures of the rings.

Venus could have had life at one point, before a runaway greenhouse gas effect and “global warming”, maybe rather suddenly less than a billion years ago, produced the current furnace.

Another possibility, besides Europa (with its underground ocean) could be Ganymede, which also might have an internal ocean.

I have a sci-fi “sociological” screenplay called “69 Minutes to Titan” at this link:
Because of certain sensitivities, some material has been removed form the version displayed on line; my private version is more complete (about 124 min, R). One of my hypotheses is that angels use Titan as a staging area before traveling to Earth to interact with humans, who are finally abducted and invited to come to Titan.

I'd like to see an Imax movie show the surface of Titan.

Picture: A Titan-like smog hides the US Capitol.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Time: America: An Illustrated Early History

Time Magazine offers, for about $10, a large illustrated paperback “America: An Illustrated Early History,” 120 pages. (Oddly I can’t find an ISBN). The editor is Kelly Knauer, the writer is Matthew McCann Fenton; the picture editor is Patricia Cadley, the designer is Ellen Fanning. There are nine chapters and every page has multiple illustrations in the form of a filmstrip, with many original black-and-white photos from the late 19th Century. The book covers the years 1776-1900. The book makes an effective prequel to Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster, The Century, Doubleday, 1998.

The most telling part of the book is the treatment of slavery (“The Bondsman’s Toil”), with the paradox created early in American history created by property rights and the reluctant recognition that the slaves were human beings. Yet the Supreme Court twice, first with Dred Scott, and then after Reconstruction with Plessy, regarded African Americans as “inferior” and then later worthy only of “separate but equal,” not to be overturned until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. There is a picture ad of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and “Caution” poster for “colored people” in Boston to avoid police officers. There is a picture of the handwritten opening of the manuscript of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”