God kicked the door in

October 31, 2006

General Sir Richard ‘We kicked the door in’ Dannatt has an interesting article in which he says God saved his life three times, prompting him to become a Christian. ‘He said that it was his belief that God first intervened to spare his life in 1973, amid rioting in Belfast, when he found himself stranded with two of his men in a Loyalist paramilitary area. A hail of gunfire cut down the other soldiers, fatally injuring one, while Sir Richard emerged unscathed.’ A similar thing happened two years later when the officer he had been walking alongside was killed by an explosion. Now why would God decide to spare Sir Richard and none of the other unfortunates? Was it rank? Were they incorrigible sinners? Or were they already Christians and so if fatally wounded would go straight to heaven? If we knew what saved the General it could save us taxpayers a few bob on protection equipment for the troops. Another strange statement from the General: “God had no choice but to take a stick and beat me over the head.” It does seem as if God really went out of His way to save Sir Richard but I’m not sure how theologically correct that business about God having no choice is. Better stick to kicking doors in, Sir.

Who’s sorry now?

October 27, 2006

Spot of bother down under over some injudicious remarks made by Sheik Taj Din al-Hilaly. The learned mufti and his entourage have clearly learned a trick or two from Pope Benedict when it comes to the apologies. Both sort of apologised and then tried to make excuses. Their defences sounds remarkably similar:

We were taken out of context
Pope The director of the Vatican press office stated: “Pope Benedict’s remarks about jihad may have been taken out of context. The Pope’s remarks were actually addressed to Western culture, to avoid ‘the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom.’

Mufti: A spokesman for the Lebanese Muslim Association said ‘Well no, obviously those comments have been made but he provided us with an apology, and basically he was taken out of context. Dr Ali said the mufti “was simply trying to make the point that in the fasting month all pleasure is prohibited and we must resist anything sensual”. “He wasn’t talking about rape in any way,” Mr Trad said. Of course he wasn’t. Having read his remarks in translation I can confirm that he was simply giving housewives some practical advice on how to store meat.

We had no intention of being offensive
Pope: The press statement asserts that the Pope had no intention of insulting Islam or Prophet Muhammad.
Mufti: ‘The mufti had no wish to insult woman and doesn’t condone rape’

We were only quoting
Pope: “These in fact were quotations from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought,” he said in his regular Sunday blessing.

Mufti: Abdul El Ayoubi, of the Lebanese Muslim Association, said al-Hilali was quoting an ancient scholar called al-Rafihi.

We were misunderstood
Pope German Chancellor Angela Merkel also defended the German-born Pope on Friday, saying his critics misunderstood the comments.
Mufti: Mr El Ayoubi: Certain statements made by the Mufti was misrepresented, the mufti was misinterpreted.

We’re sorry for the reaction (not for what we said)
Pope: Pope Benedict has said he was “deeply sorry” for the reactions “to a few passages”
Mufti: “I unreservedly apologise to any woman who is offended by my comments.

It’s all the fault of the media
Pope: The Vatican blames some media for “playing a negative role” in reporting the Pope’s speech and for not considering “the good relations the Catholic Church has” with Muslims
Mufti: “I had only intended to protect women’s honour, something lost in The Australian presentation of my talk.”

Australian Muslims have been quick to chastise the errant cleric. “He needs to be more eloquent”, said a prominent Muslim. If only Muslim clerics would use a few more striking metaphors and elegant turns of phrase, problems like this would never arise.

Shazia Mirza is a Muslim woman from Birmingham who is a stand-up comic. She has been invited by the British Council to go to India to try and convince Muslims there that there is such a thing as a sense of humour. A similar trip to Pakistan was cancelled when the Pakistani authorities decided it was too likely to stir up violent reactions. It seems that while most non Muslim audiences of both sexes warm to Ms Mirza, the reaction from Muslim men is less enthusiastic to the point where she has been attacked while on stage. It appears, too, that her appearances in the States caused a certain amount of unease. With statements like ‘Americans love to ask questions and not learn anything.’ it’s not surprising. Although Ms Mirza does not like being branded as a Muslim woman comic, she might not be quite so successful if she weren’t and it’s clear that that’s where the source of her material lies. Add to that a style that seems to owe something to Jasper Carrott and Dave Allen and you get lines like these which definitely seem more Birmingham than Islamabad:
“I was walking past this building site in Mecca when a group of Muslim builders shouted, ‘Show us your . . . face.’ “

—  On arranged marriages:“My friend Julie says, ‘How can you sleep with someone you don’t know?’ – but she does it all the time.”

— On the search in Iraq for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction: “Look up his wife’s purdah , because nobody looks up there.”

— Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mirza captured laughs this way: “My name is Shazia Mirza. . . . At least that’s what it says on my pilot’s license.”

— She recounted the time in Mecca when a man touched her inappropriately: “I felt a hand on my bottom. I ignored it. I thought, ‘I’m in Mecca. It must be the hand of God.’ It was great, I’m going back there”
— “Anyone with a moustache is now a target,” she says, poking fun at strained Anglo-Muslim relations. “My mum’s been attacked.”
“Muslims in America are the new blacks. Great, they’re going to be playing our music, wearing our  clothes…”
“Afghanistan has banned high heels because the click is sexually attractive to men. All goats have been locked up.”
“The news that there are British bombers means that they’re going to blow us up but they’ll do it politely”

She recounts her experience with American customs when she was asked for her profession and said ‘comic’. “Prove it,” was the officer’s reply. She was then asked a series of questions including “Have you ever grown a beard?” to which she replied  “yes I’m a South Asian woman of course I have.”

The Ayatollah Khomeini maintained that “there are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam.” but the average Muslim’s humour continues to exist in spite of their unfunny Islamic faith. Humour has long flourished in the Arab world both in its literature and in everyday life. Your average Muslim enjoys a good joke as much as the next man, and I suspect the differences with Western humour are not that great. I got the impression that humour was not quite as prominent in Muslim South East Asia but have absolutely no evidence to support this feeling. The Muslim firends I’ve had certainly loved telling jokes, much of the humour being directed against Egyptians unless the speaker was from Egypt when it was either against Israel or Saudi Arabia.  Their jokes included laughing at themselves (as long as it’s not an outsider making fun of them) but also a fair amount of cruelty. Religion was almost but not quite off limits-I’ve often heard Mulsims say that they don’t drink wine but they can drink whisky because it is not expressly forbidden in the Koran. In this sense the Thais, who can respond to the most unfunny of situations with gentle humour, are less liberated as their religion, the King and even, as I have been told on several occasions, the spirits are taboo topics for jokes. I imagine we all have our taboos as far as jokes are concerned- either the topic, the language or the occasion. I think I have a pretty good idea what mine are. Do you?
Back to the Muslims, we are told here that “both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of “laughing at religion,” at times to the point of irreverence.”

In present-day Iraq there’s even more humour, most of it, as one might expect, a grim attempt to make light of the rather unfunny events around them. Some examples, quoted here:
Nearly every night here for the past month, Iraqis weary of the tumult around them have been turning on the television to watch a wacky-looking man with a giant Afro wig and star-shaped glasses deliver the grim news of the day. In a recent episode, the host, Saaed Khalifa, reported that Iraq’s Ministry of Water and Sewage had decided to change its name to simply the Ministry of Sewage — because it had given up on the water part.
Another show’s raucous theme song, which has become a popular cellphone ring tone here and is sung by children in schoolyards, laments that it would be better to be a lowly cat on the street than an Iraqi: “No one asks the cat where you are from, which party you’re from, whether you are an Arab, a Kurd, a Sunni or a Shiite.” He sings on, “I am the last Iraqi alive, but I still do not own a house,” a reference to the country’s acute housing shortage‘.

It’s good to know that “since the fall of Saddam Hussein, comedies have proliferated on Iraqi television.” Shame that humour and chaos often go hand in hand.
Azhar Usman, one of the many Arab-American comics in the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, who has very similar material to Ms Mirza, says: “Just about anything is fair game, just as long as it’s done tastefully and artfully,” he said. “I have some boundaries, based on religion. I won’t do any sacrilegious material, make fun of God or the prophet.” One of his gags goes: “I’m a Muslim, but I’m an American Muslim. That’s right, I consider myself a very patriotic American Muslim, which means I would die for my country. By blowing myself up. Inside a Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Back to Ms Mirza, at least her jokes are better than the one joke with which Mohammed is credited: “On one occasion, the prophet Muhammad told an elderly woman that her likes will not go to paradise; she was obviously astounded by the Prophet’s remark… But he explained that this is so because in paradise people are forever youthful…” But then, I don’t imagine Jesus would have had them rolling in the aisles in the Comedy Store and the Bible, whatever its other merits, does fall a bit short in the jokes department. Will Ms Mirza’s humour offensive prove successful in bringing extreme Muslims more into line with the West?  Will waving a red rag with ‘did you hear the one about…’ scrawled on it endear you to the bull?

Here’s a nice cartoon by the Syrian  Ali Farzat

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polymer creep

October 25, 2006

Read on another blog (can’t rememer which):
“I rarely get involved in discussions about the existence of God. Since I’m a Christian, I’ve obviously had that question answered to my satisfaction or I wouldn’t be pondering the Resurrection, and dealing with arguments about whether there really is a God is like being sent back to first year chemistry class after getting an advanced degree in the practical application of polymers.”

This reminds me of a student I once taught who was vainly attempting to complete a degree in English language. He turned in a paper which, amongst other things, was filled with elementary grammatical mistakes. When I told him that these were in part repsonsible for his low grade, he said “you can’t take points off for those, they’re first form mistakes’. It is possible to construct the most elaborate arguments and theories on the basis of flimsy premises. Cathedrals and sinking sands is an image that comes to mind. Polymer creep is another. Polymer creep is, apparently, progressive deformation under sustained load and is something, I understand, that polymers are subject to. It occurs to me that a lot of belief systems constitute a ‘sustained load’ which can often lead to deformation of simple thought processes. Me, I’m a strictly monomer guy.

I believe in my left foot

October 22, 2006

Strange article in the London Review of Books by one Terry Eagleton lambasting Richard Dawkins.

Starts like this:
“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding.”
I like the ‘in one sense’; in another sense, to my mind the more sensible sense, they are the best-equipped to understand what theology is about since they have not surrendered their reasoning powers to a blind faith in God.
Eagleton, who is obviously a very clever fellow, develops his argument further:
“What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope?”
Apparently unless you have you are not qualified to address the issues raised by theology. Measured by this yardstick I am hardly qualified to open my mouth on anything as I have read neither Mr Dawkins nor Harry Potter and the last time I read Aquinas I was only just out of short trousers.
Mr. Eagleton then turns to the reason-faith question.
“Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. ….Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain…. While faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it.”
Sure, we all believe things we can’t prove for ourselves. I believe that the North Pole exists though I’ve never been there and that I’m in some ways intellectually superior to my cats. I even (against all the odds) believe in true, reciprocated love. But I’m pretty sure that either someone else can come up with good evidence for these things or that they fit the facts as I’m aware of them. So far any omnipotent omni-benevolent beings out there have been noticeably slow to make any signs in my direction.
It’s on this point that the very brainy Mr Eagleton really loses me, when he demonstrates the reasonableness of believing in God.

“Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”

I hope one day that someone will explain all this to me. In the meantime I will continue to exercise my mind on matters of more consequence like why my bike makes a funny scrunch scrunch scrunch noise every time I change gear.

prayers for today’s youth

October 19, 2006

A new Catholic prayer book aimed at teenagers includes a prayer for God’s help to avoid talking rubbish when drunk.
“Lord, if in an unsober state, and under the influence of those around me, I say something stupid, please give me strength to retract my words. Protect me against senseless bravado and pride,” reads the prayer. The book, released in Poland by Dominican monk Wojciech Jedrzejewski, has angered the Polish Catholic community as well as national media. But Father Jedrzejewski stands by his work. He said: “This book will make it easier for young people to meet with God.”
Other prayers in the book include one asking God if boys really have to be rude to girls and teachers in order to get peer respect.

I offer one more little prayer which the ingenious brother is welcome to use if he so desires.

O God, the creator of all things, you framed the laws concerning theft and robbery and mugging for the good of the human race. Graciously grant, by the example and patronage of St. Joseph, that we may do the jobs you provide us with and earn the reward you promise and, above all things, not get busted.
Dear Lord, protect me against jealousy of other kids’ mobiles and let me not fall into the temptation of nicking them. And if I do, oh Lord, protect me from the temptation of using excessive violence. But if the bastards resist, give me oh Lord the strength to stick one on them. And, oh, by the way, Dear Lord, if you happen to witness said nicking, just don’t tell the bacon that it was me what done it, right? Amen

An interesting article, found by the Times religious blogger  and referred to in an excellent post on the MadPriest’s enjoyable blog, about the origin of the hijab and the burqa.

Living in poverty, “Muhammad had to house his wives in places with very primitive or non-existent toilet/sanitary facilities. He had no choice but to ask his wives to go to an open field nearby and answer the call of nature…….The new converts of Islam were so haplessly poor that they even had no shelter and privacy to engage in sexual intercourse. The only place where they could satisfy this biological need was in the open sky. Thus, having sexual intercourse in open field was also common.”
Muhammad asked Allah what he should do to avoid the women being pestered by the local menfolk and received the answer “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad)”. I am delighted to know that Allah expressly gave permission for ladies to answer the varied calls of nature out in the fields, though I think I will delay my conversion. For one thing, I don’t think I could afford all the wives (though that might solve another little problem I have).
Here. Northern Thai beliefs require me to ask permission of the spirits before relieving myself in the countryside. I assume permission is granted, not having had any indication to the contrary. Unfortunately many people seem to adopt the same stance when tipping rubbish in the negihbouring woods, although I have several times asked the spirits to refuse any requests firmly. This need to ask the spirits is just one of the irrational beliefs that litter the landscape out here, like not cutting hair or nails on a Wednesday, not whistling when there’s a storm or pointing at rainbows. Although  intellectually such beliefs, like the restrictions of martial law, are pretty dubious, I can live my life reasonably well around them. And until someone requires me to wear a burqa I will continue to satisfy my biological needs according to Allah’s wishes.