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How Islam shaped the WestSt Augustine was probably the first major thinker to discuss at length how states use enemies for their own internal purposes. He traces with acid clarity the way in which the Roman Republic begins to collapse from its inner tensions and conflicts once Carthage, the great historic enemy, has been destroyed, and concludes that if you have no means of generating coherence and justice within your own polity, you will always be on the lookout for new enemies on to whom you can displace the threats arising from your own political failures. It is an analysis that applies with uncanny accuracy to a range of modern political phenomena, from the insanity of the nuclear arms race in the Cold War to various more recent mythologies, including some popular characterisations of “the West” against “the Muslim world”. Noel Malcolm’s brilliant study looks at a period not wholly unlike the Cold War: the three centuries during which the Ottoman empire was the unsettling Other to the Western Europe of early modernity. It was a period of sporadic (sometimes very extreme) military collision and long stretches of uneasy stand-off, complicated by the fact that the empire could be and was drawn into the diplomatic and military conflicts between Western states. Malcolm has some wry and intriguing pages on the theological gymnastics required to justify the fairly consistent pro-Ottoman diplomatic policies and strategic alliances of the “Most Christian” kings of France. But his interest, as he states clearly in his introduction, is not so much in the details of diplomatic relations (though the book is a splendid guide to much of this history), nor in the actual development of social and political institutions in the Ottoman world. The focus is on the ways in which Western thinkers used what they knew about Islam and the Levantine world to make points to their own European readership. The utility of having on hand a sort of reversed image of one’s own society is not only its helpfulness for rallying people in solidarity against a manifest threat; it is also about how the real and imagined strengths of this enemy throw light on the failures and weaknesses of one’s own environment. In the process that Malcolm nicely calls “shame-praising”, Western intellectuals can point to the discipline of Ottoman armies, or the visible piety of Muslim citizens, or the orderliness of Levantine households in order to reproach their own societies. Muslim forces are prevailing against Christian ones because Muslim populations exhibit virtues that Christians have forgotten – despite the superior truth of Christian teaching and the innate feebleness of “Orientals” in general (thanks to the hot climate of the region, apparently, which suggests that not enough of these experts had spent time in Thrace or Anatolia in November). Malcolm warns us against taking language appreciative of Muslim societies at face value. He is rightly critical of scholars who have dubbed some 17th century writers as “Islamophile”; they have failed to see that Christian commentators on the Muslim and Ottoman worlds (virtually synonymous in the eyes of most Christians at this time, though some show an awareness of the difference between the Near Eastern, North African and Balkan territories of the Ottoman empire, and the very distinct environment of Persia) will happily deploy contradictory tropes. They may deplore Ottoman tyranny and cruelty, and praise Ottoman discipline and efficiency; magnify the threat of Ottoman expansionism and predict the imminent collapse of the empire depending on the precise point they want to reinforce for home consumption. There is much illumination here about the intricacies of Western perceptions of Islam as a religion, and on the tension between two competing medieval models of Muslim belief, a tension that survives in one form or another well into the early modern period. Is Islam a distorted form of Christianity, a heresy? This was the general view of polemicists in the Byzantine empire, and by the 12th century it was transmitted to the medieval West, when Latin translations of the Quran were beginning to appear. But it stood alongside a rival picture in which Muslims were simply “infidels”, the equivalent of pagans and (ironically, given the Muslim condemnation of image-worship) idolaters, devoted to a false God. The further twist of irony is that there were real advantages for Muslims in being classed as pagans when they lived within Western societies or under Christian rule; it meant that they were not subject to the draconian penalties for heresy. It helped to be more rather than less “Other” for certain purposes. Conversely, it was something of a challenge to Western orthodoxies that the Ottoman empire was unusually tolerant of religious diversity (though the Western texts that use this to condemn official intolerance in their own setting rarely, if ever, make any effort to explain the civic disabilities of non-Muslim populations in the Ottoman empire). Once again, contradictory points were being made for internal Western audiences: the Muslim state was one in which religious and secular authority were combined, yet it was less intolerant of religious minorities than Tudor England; or, because the Sultan was supreme in both religious and secular matters, he was an exact image of the corruptions of the papacy. Playing the Islamic card in these and other ways was an effective tool of both Protestant and Catholic pamphleteers in the 16th and 17th centuries. But as time went on and the level of familiarity with the actual teaching and practice of Islam grew in the West, the inherited models became harder to sustain. Malcolm gives a fascinating account of how traditional polemic against Islam acquired a new and subversive dimension in the course of the 17th century. It had been conventional to describe Muhammad as an ambitious fraud – one of the legacies of the “heresy” model for Islam, as all major heresiarchs were routinely presented as deceiving their followers for personal gain or advantage. But as confidence in claims to supernatural revelation weakened in the West, there was a gradual recognition that any claim to an authority based on revelation could be represented by a hostile observer in much the same way. What was said about Muhammad could be said about Moses; and even if hardly anyone dared to suggest that the same might apply to Jesus, it could certainly be applied to Paul and other early Christian teachers. In other words, anti-Muslim polemic gradually turned in some quarters into a sort of universal acid to dissolve all traditional religious claims. Or, if it did not go quite that far, it could prompt some Christian or para-Christian radicals in the 17th century to suggest that Muhammad was in fact the ancestor of revisionist Christianity, opposed to the mystifications of Trinitarian theology, priestcraft and superstition. Here is one of the many ironies that this book highlights. If Islam was seen as the Other of an orthodox and traditional Christian West, this also meant that Western critics of that tradition could interpret it almost as a beacon for Western reform – for “modernity”. And Malcolm traces with great subtlety how something of this emerges also in the uses of Muslim-related tropes in political philosophy. In three admirably lucid chapters on “despotism”, he outlines a succession of characterisations by Western writers of Ottoman polity as “despotic” – that is, as a system of untrammelled and arbitrary government where all authority is concentrated in a single sovereign figure. In contrast to Western monarchies, the Ottoman sovereign was not embedded in a complex of subsidiary and interdependent jurisdictions or bound by feudal reciprocities. Just as the Muslim religious world presented an austere landscape purged of the clutter of saintly mediation, sacramental duties, priestly control of the laity and so on, so the Muslim political environment similarly offered a drastically simplified and centralised picture, with no connection between public status and traditional land ownership, no entrenched hereditary nobility, no dense fabric of “rights” and “estates” and mutual obligations such as characterised Western monarchies. A regular cliché was that the Sultan’s subjects were his “slaves”, deprived of the protections of common law and feudal solidarity. This could be set out as a condemnation of Ottoman polity – and so as an oblique warning to Western monarchies not to go down this alien route – or as a demonstration that the logic of all monarchical government inexorably led to slavery. It could also be seen as something rather enviable: the “modernising” trends in Western monarchies that sought greater central power for monarchs and a reduction in the untidy multiplicity of feudal networks and quasi-independent jurisdictions could find in Islamic polity (as understood by some observers) a pattern worth contemplating in a more positive way. Just as a 17th-century Unitarian rejecting the the Christian Trinity in the name of up-to-the-minute intellectual consistency might see Islam as an early template for doctrinal reform, a 17th-century political theorist might consider the Sultan’s position as the single, unequivocal source of legitimacy to be a quite appealing version of the direction in which the rational state ought to be going. The extensive reforming activities of Suleiman “the Magnificent”, for example, whose long reign spanned the central decades of the 16th century, left a lasting impression on Western minds of what could be achieved by coherent and forceful direction on the part of a strong monarch. Agricultural and military reorganisation, rational systems of taxation and the reinforced legal protection of religious minorities all offered diverse interest groups in western Europe an enviable model. Of course, much of this rested on significantly distorted understandings of Ottoman polity, let alone Islamic law. A good deal of what is written in this period about the “despotic” authority of the Sultan shows not the least grasp of Islamic jurisprudence – though there are some laudable attempts to correct this ignorance and to establish that, in terms of property law, for example, the Sultan had no authority to override existing rights. But it was a persistent myth well into the 18th century. Malcolm discusses at length the portrait of despotic government painted by Montesquieu in his classic treatise on The Spirit of Laws (1848), and notes its influence on other writers of the period such as Turgot. The latter describes despotic rule as involving the control of a population by targeted educational strategies, and also depicts the process of building up a despot’s image as both remote and at the same time capable of terrifyingly unpredictable incursions into all areas of civil life. It has little to do with 18th-century Turkey, but is an uncanny adumbration of more recent totalitarian methods of rule. Interestingly, Turgot sees Islam as intensifying the “Asian” tendency to despotic rule, as the Ottoman empire is, in his eyes, so much more arbitrarily governed than China or Japan. Like Montesquieu, he is innocent of any knowledge of Islamic law; his concern is to create an ideal type for the purposes of argument. And those who responded to Montesquieu, Turgot and others in defence of the Ottoman system did not fail to observe that centralised and “rationally” absolute government (ie government with a single clear sovereign power from which there was no appeal – not the same as despotism) offered better security for private property than the confused pluralism of older Western patterns. What Malcolm triumphantly establishes, with a wealth of scholarship drawing on primary sources in many languages, is that the Ottoman empire, and to some degree the wider Islamic world, provided for early modern Europe not just a diabolical opposite to be condemned and resisted at all costs, but a sounding board for some fundamental thinking on religion and politics: about the jurisdiction of the state in religious affairs; the nature of sovereignty; the limits of religious toleration; the importance of standing armies for a stable state; the relation between local ethnic identities and homogenised multinational administration; and a good deal more. The book’s importance is thus not only to do with its nuanced account of the varieties of western European responses to Islam – though this is valuable enough, if only to show how inadequate is the narrative of a static and “medieval” Islam confronting a dynamically changing western Europe. It is also about how Europe has thought through – and often failed to think through – its own political identities. The Ottoman Other prompted Western thinkers to a variety of what were in effect thought experiments about politics, couched as descriptive essays; political philosophy disguised as social anthropology, in a style that continued to characterise Western accounts of “alien” societies for quite a long time. Malcolm leaves us with an abundance of pertinent contemporary questions: how do we now use “enemies” to define ourselves? How do we now think about the balance between a sovereign power that guarantees universal legal equality and the need to recognise the reality of diverse affiliations and solidarities that are not dependent on the state? How do Muslim majority states in the modern world balance legal or civic equality with the priority of the needs or rights of the community of faith? But perhaps his most important contribution is to help us think again about the clichés we still recycle that presuppose a radical ideological incompatibility between an innately pre-modern Islam and a timelessly liberal or pluralist West. Western arguments about Islam and Christianity helped to shape the vocabulary of Western thinking around sovereignty and law, even if they rested on a woefully one-sided version of Ottoman polity. And in these arguments, Islam could be deployed in various ways, including being seen as a kind of first draft for religious and political futures in western Europe. As Malcolm insists, in a brief but pungent couple of pages in his conclusion, an analysis of early modern versions of the Levant in terms of “Orientalism”, the reductive exoticising of an alien society, is deeply misleading. Without blurring the basic points of real diversity, religious and social, between western Europe and its menacing, tantalising, enviable and bewildering neighbour, Malcolm prompts us to ask not only how the West got to be “modern”, but whether the categories of “modern” and “pre-modern” are as clear cut as we might have thought when we try to do justice to our global political environment. The West did not arrive at its current “rational” self-depiction by the exercise of abstract, enlightened reasoning but by negotiating complicated arguments about its convergences and differences with a formidable antagonist, thinking through its own internal tensions via the medium of speculation, observation, polemic and semi-fiction about that useful enemy. Rowan Williams is a theologian and poet. He writes on books for the New Statesman
The Supreme Court Is Playing Favorites With ReligionLast week, the Supreme Court permitted the state of Alabama to execute a Muslim man, Domineque Ray, without his religious advisor present. The court’s 5-4 decision reversed an emergency lower-court order that had temporarily delayed the execution because of grave concerns that Alabama’s practice of allowing only the state’s Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber unconstitutionally favored Christian prisoners.Without even acknowledging those concerns, the court issued a brief, callous decision that is, as Justice Kagan noted in dissent, “profoundly wrong.” It is also the latest example of a disturbing trend of religious favoritism, in which minority faiths — particularly Islam — are given second-class legal status.The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that the “clearest command” of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause “is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” The strict rule against denominational preference lies at the heart of American religious liberty, and it dates back to the founding of our nation. The constitutional framers recognized that “religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by a civil magistrate.” When the government officially favors one faith over others, it intrudes on matters of conscience and religious autonomy, fosters religious division and animosity, and tramples our national commitment to equality among faiths.Yet that’s precisely what happened in Alabama last week. Although Alabama routinely permits a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber to minister to the needs of Christian prisoners, state officials rejected Ray’s request for the same treatment. With the green light from the Supreme Court, Alabama executed Ray without his imam to attend him in his final moments. As the court of appeals recognized, the religious favoritism could not have been clearer: “If Ray were a Christian, he would have a profound benefit; because he is a Muslim, he is denied that benefit.”Alabama prison officials offered no meaningful defense of their discriminatory policy, beyond unfounded, conclusory assertions that in the interest of safety and security, only the state-employed Christian chaplain could be present. As Justice Kagan made clear, however, the state “offered no evidence to show that its wholesale prohibition on outside advisers is necessary to achieve” the general goal of prison security. And the Supreme Court majority simply ignored the substance of the policy and any claimed justifications for it. Rather, in lifting the stay of execution and reversing the lower court, the majority merely fell back on a two-sentence procedural argument that Ray had waited too long to make his request.But Justice Kagan easily refuted that theory, noting that Ray had, in fact, sought judicial relief only five days after learning that his imam wouldn’t be with him in the execution chamber — and not, as the majority implied, three months after. Faced with compelling evidence that Alabama’s policy violated “the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” the Supreme Court could have allowed the lower courts to address this weighty constitutional issue. Instead, the majority rushed to “short-circuit that ordinary process,” just to let the state have its “preferred execution date.” Sadly, the Alabama case was hardly the first threat to religious equality in recent years. Just last term, the Supreme Court issued a pair of decisions that cast serious doubt on its commitment to religious liberty for all. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the court ruled on narrow grounds in favor of a Christian-owned bakery in Colorado that wouldn’t sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple on the same terms as all other customers. The court in Masterpiece excused an indisputable violation of the state’s civil rights law because, in the majority’s view, state officials had acted with anti-religious hostility when enforcing the law against the bakery.The purported evidence of bias was weak at best, yet the court went to great lengths to remind us that fundamental religious freedom “bars even subtle departures from neutrality on matters of religion.” The First Amendment, the court noted, “commits government itself to religious tolerance, and upon even slight suspicion” that state policies “stem from animosity to religion or distrust of its practices, all officials must pause to remember their own high duty to the Constitution and to the rights it secures.” Alabama prison officials apparently never got that message. Nor, evidently, did President Trump, when he repeatedly disparaged Islam and Muslims and then enshrined that animosity into national immigration policy with his Muslim ban. Remarkably, only weeks after the Masterpiece decision, the Supreme Court let him get away with it.In Trump v. Hawaii, a deeply divided court upheld the president’s ban, which imposed strict, indefinite entry restrictions on individuals from certain Muslim-majority countries. Unlike in Masterpiece, the evidence of anti-religious hostility underlying the Muslim ban was massive, consistent, and unambiguous. Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump regularly vilified Islam and called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” in a statement that remained on his campaign website well into his presidency. Only one week into his presidency, Trump made good on that deplorable promise, issuing an executive order that targeted Muslim-majority countries and included thinly veiled attacks on Muslim communities here and abroad. Later iterations of the ban followed the same basic blueprint, and the president continued to malign Islam throughout the process. But none of that mattered to the Supreme Court majority in Trump v. Hawaii. In upholding the final version of the ban, the court essentially ignored the overwhelming evidence of blatant anti-Muslim animus underlying the policy, crediting superficial changes the president made in response to earlier court rulings. In the end, the court gave Trump a free pass to discriminate against an entire faith. Coming on the heels of the Masterpiece decision, the message came through loud and clear. The Muslim ban ruling, Justice Sotomayor explained in dissent, “erodes the foundational principles of religious tolerance that the Court elsewhere has so emphatically protected, and it tells members of minority religions in our country that they are outsiders, not full members of the political commu­nity.” Later this month, religious neutrality will face another crucial test in the Supreme Court. On Feb. 27, the court will hear oral argument in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, addressing the constitutionality of a 40-foot-tall, government-owned Latin cross. Applying decades of precedent, the lower court in the case concluded that government’s giant display of the cross — “the preeminent symbol of Christianity” — as a war memorial to honor the sacrifices of all veterans violates the First Amendment’s ban on official religious preference. Proponents of the state-sponsored cross, including the Trump administration, hope to upend that precedent and thereby open the floodgates to divisive religious meddling by the government.But the lower court got it right, and the American Legion case powerfully illustrates the multiple dangers of governmental favoritism in matters of faith. First, the state’s elevation of this singular, prominent religious symbol as a war memorial conveys a message of exclusion and disfavor to non-Christians who sacrificed their lives for their nation. As the Jewish War Veterans of the USA explained to the court, “A government undertakes few tasks more solemn than honoring its war dead. And when the memorial takes the form of a religious symbol of an afterlife available only to Christians, the government favors one faith over others in a profound way. . . . Veterans of all stripes are united by their love of country, but they are not united by the cross.”Second, just as the founders feared, the government’s display of a Latin cross, including its strained effort to secularize the meaning of this unambiguously and uniquely spiritual symbol, threatens a serious degradation and corruption of the faith. In their amicus brief to the court, a coalition of Christian and Jewish groups, led by the Baptist Joint Committee For Religious Liberty, pointedly noted that the government’s “welter of alleged secular meanings for the cross, and their efforts to minimize its religious meaning, are offensive to many Christians. The [state] violates its obligation to be neutral among faiths both when it sponsors the cross and when it spins stories attempting to secularize the cross.”Although the Supreme Court continues to pay lip-service to the “clearest command” of the Establishment Clause, its recent decisions have fallen woefully short. In the American Legion case, the court has another chance to honor the constitutional promise of religious neutrality. For Domineque Ray, it’s already too late. But let’s hope the trail of religious favoritism ends here.
Trump sues in bid to block congressional subpoena of financial recordsWASHINGTON - President Donald Trump sued his own accounting firm and the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight Committee at the same time Monday - trying an unusual tactic to stop the firm from giving the committee details about Trump's past financial dealings. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in the District of Columbia, seeks a court order to squash a subpoena issued last week by the committee to Mazars USA. Trump's lawyers also are asking a federal judge to temporarily block the subpoena until the court has had a chance to review their request. The move amounts to Trump - the leader of the executive branch of government - asking the judicial branch to stop the legislative branch from investigating his past. Former House counsels from both sides of the aisle called the challenge a long shot and an apparent delay tactic. Over the years, Congress has had broad leeway to use its subpoena power to probe possible corruption in other branches of government. For instance, during the 1990s the GOP-led House spent years investigating President Bill Clinton's involvement in the "Whitewater" scandal, which began long before he was elected. Trump's lawsuit seeks to upend decades of legal precedent that have upheld Congress's right to investigate, arguing that his past personal dealings are irrelevant to the legislative branch's fundamental job: writing bills. "There is no possible legislation at the end of this tunnel," Trump's attorneys wrote in their brief, talking about the Oversight Committee's inquiry into whether Trump misled his lenders by inflating his net worth. "The Oversight Committee is instead assuming the powers of the Department of Justice, investigating (dubious and partisan) allegations of illegal conduct by private individuals." The subpoena Trump is...
What's a Trade War?TweetPinFacebookYummly Reading Time: 2 Minutes Golly gosh, it’s that time of the week again right? Another episode offfff TheFrugalSamurai. A bit late on this post, apologies guys – been driving around half of Sydney yesterday chasing my tail. THEN I realized I was doing so somewhat illegally… as I completely forgot about renewing the bloody car insurance. LUCKILY nothing happened (breathes huge sigh of relief). Excuse my absent-mindedness, got a lot on my plate. Like? To tell the truth, a big sticking point is figuring out where to make my dollars work the hardest right now. Traditionally I’m a property and shares kinda guy as you know, BUT currently real estate in Australia ain’t doing too well, and values are still a bit high for my liking (a 10-15% pullback from a million dollars is still a lot of dough). Inter-state ain’t doing too much better, and with the high likelihood of a change in government… What about shares? Again, my belief is that it’s looking a bit “toppy” at the moment, with values grinding their way upwards… I’ve just taken a bit of cash off the table and waiting to see what happens. Waiting for what? This “Trade War” to settle down for a start. What’s a trade war? It’s when two countries decide they have nothing better to do than lob taxes against each other’s well, trade. Usually one country (USA) imposes additional taxes called tariffs against goods – let’s say Apples, imported from another country (China). This has the effect of raising prices, hence discouraging consumers to buy less of those delicious, juicy apples and more of a cheaper (untaxed) competing good, let’s say succulent, wholesome oranges. Consumers (you and me) are usually worse off because we pay higher prices for a smaller amount of apples and exporters (China) are worse off for having sold a smaller quantity of apples at a lower price. So what? As expected, China has imposed retaliatory tariffs against some US goods, and have left the door open for more action. Hence watching a full-blown trade war evolve before our eyes is something not many of us have experienced. Seemingly volatility in the markets across currencies, interest rates and equities has returned and movements are guided largely on gut instinct and very little on fact. Which is incredibly scary when these days we may as well be relying just on President Trump’s twitter account for market movements. Why’d he start it? Jeepers Creepers you are pushy aren’t ya. Look, I’ve no idea why he started it BUT I do have this very TELLING interview clip on Youtube he gave to Oprah way back in 1988. Some of what he says are just… go on, watch it yourself. (Note, I don’t own the video, so please Google/Youtube/Internet Gods, don’t take it down here, but in case Big Brothe… I mean it does get taken down, it’s called “Donald Trump Teases a President Bid During a 1988 Oprah Show”). Oh. Yes indeedy. Logically and with good reason, you’d think that this “tit for tat” stance of both countries benefits neither, which is why many people (myself included), have hit the “sell” button to wait it out for when a clearer picture is formed. Smart. Well, not necessarily – there are some winners here. Like who? Well, domestic (China and US based) orange sellers for a start. As the cost of importing those luscious, tender apples increase – more and more consumers head over to the orange market. Which leaves orange sellers to sell more (more profit) or increase prices (more profit). That’s President Trump’s reason for starting this “war” methinks, for the betterment of domestic companies. So… buy the shares of the orange companies then? Yeah… yeah… I… I think I will. What else? Now that you mention it, as Chinese exports to the US come under more and more pressure, other exporter countries unaffected by the tariffs have thrived. Electronic exports from South Korea and Taiwan to the US have increased rapidly as Chinese exports of these products fell. And from the Chinese side, they’ve exercised their political clout to do business away from the US. President Xi recently signed a whopping $35 billion deal with European Airbus for 300 new planes – leaving the US based Boeing very much in the air. It’s looking up for those countries China seeks to ground the US. Just plane awesome… OKOK, I’ll stop now. Hm, well then buy into those countries that benefit from this trade war! Wow… you’re good. So Simpaul. Now you’re just showing off. What do you think? Did you enjoy this post? Please help me out if you enjoyed this and put your email in and click on the little “subscribe” button at the top right. This way, you’ll never miss my words of awesomeness! So do the right thing, be a subscriber and get it straight to your inbox fresh out of the oven! TweetPinFacebookYummly Related