Existential Threats

[The following is slightly adapted from a comment written for a Facebook post, based on this article about President Obama’s December 6, 2015 speech, which for some reason Facebook would not allow me to post. Possibly because, at nearly 3,500 words, it’s too long. What can I say? I felt inspired. The comment that inspired me basically expressed doubt that Obama has put as much thought into “ISIS and the implications of radical Islam” as the article’s author thinks. I have adjusted some formatting and added some links.]

You may be right about Obama not thinking through the full implications of radical Islam, but the exact same can be said for people on the right who posit radical Islam as a threat to “Western civilization” (a fluid and undefined term if ever there was one) on a par with German fascism or Soviet communism. Lest this seem like a tu quoque argument, I’ll even concede that Obama might underestimate the short-term threat posed by radical Islamism, but only because I believe the proponents of the radical-Islamism-as-mortal-threat viewpoint drastically overstate its dangers—furthermore, by arguing for such an aggressive stance against it, they paradoxically serve its aims. Continue reading


What I’m Reading, February 24, 2015

The First Victims of the First Crusade, Susan Jacoby, New York Times, February 13, 2015

The message from the medieval past is that religious violence seldom limits itself to one target and expands to reach the maximum number of available victims.


Cultural ignoramuses portrayed President Obama’s references to the Crusades and the Inquisition at the recent National Prayer Breakfast as an excuse for Islamic terrorism, but the president’s allusions could and should have been used as an opportunity to reflect on the special damage inflicted in many historical contexts by warriors seeking conquest in the name of their god.


Thomas Asbridge, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at the University of London, commented in this newspaper that “we have to be very careful about judging behavior in medieval times by current standards.”

This issue is better judged from the other side of the looking glass. What we actually see today is a standard of medieval behavior upheld by modern fanatics who, like the crusaders, seek both religious and political power through violent means. They offer a ghastly and ghostly reminder of what the Western world might look like had there never been religious reformations, the Enlightenment and, above all, the separation of church and state.

Unreconciled History: Why even victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past, Michael Kinsley, Slate, February 13, 2015 Continue reading


He Made the Case Pretty Easy for Them

The legal underpinnings of the charge of “attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization” seem like they could become constitutionally problematic fairly quickly, but in this particular case, the defendant sure seems to have done prosecutors’ jobs for them:

An American teenager disgusted with the American way of life has been arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International airport after he allegedly tried to travel to the Middle East to join and fight with ISIS.

Federal prosecutors announced on Monday that FBI agents arrested 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan, of suburban Bolingbrook, on Saturday evening before he boarded a flight to Istanbul, Turkey, via Vienna.

They accuse him of attempting to travel overseas to support terrorism which carries a maximum sentence of 15-years and Khan is also charged with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

*** Continue reading


What I’m Reading, September 11, 2014

Satire and fake news stories, Mano Singham, Freethought Blogs, September 2, 2014

I enjoy satirical websites like the The Onion that take current political events and trends and then twist them around and manufacture a ‘story’ to illustrate some point about it or to highlight some absurdity. It is not uncommon for people who are not aware that these are satirical sites to take them at face value, even though it should be fairly clear that they are meant as humor.

But there has emerged a new kind of website whose purpose seems to be to write stories that are not clever satire but are written as straightforward supposedly news items, just with fake ‘facts’. The point of these sites seems to be to dupe readers and even news organizations into reporting on them as if they are true stories.


Admittedly, drawing a clear line between ‘real’ satire and ‘fake’ satire is not easy because it can come down to intent. The idea of the The Onion seems to be to make people laugh while that of sites like National Report seems to be to fool them into thinking it is real. Some of the latter’s stories are so extreme that it is hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously but clearly some people do.

Islamic State is a threat, so let the neighbors deal with it, kos, Daily Kos, August 27, 2014 Continue reading


The Yazidis

You may have heard about the Yazidis in the news recently. I you’re not familiar with them or their culture, you’re not alone, especially among Americans. An article by Michael Smith in Vice* gives a brief overview of the Yazidis, their beliefs, and the possible reasons why the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL, hates them so much. Since their beliefs are so unfamiliar to the outside world, there is a long history of outsiders misrepresenting them, intentionally or not. I don’t actually know how much Vice gets it right, but the article is worth a look.

By Hadi Karimi (http://www.panoramio.com/photo/111356808) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

According to Wikipedia, the Yazidis “are a Kurdish ethno-religious community” numbering about 700,000, with about 650,000 living in Iraq. Sizable populations also live in Syria, Germany, Russia, Armenia, and Georgia. Their religion is linked by scholars to “Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions,” and is part of a tradition known as Yazdânism. ISIS has been trying to annihilate them, as Vice reports:

An entire people forced to abandon their ancestral homeland with only the shirts on their backs, they’re making the gruelling and perilous trek to refugee camps in Kurdistan, on foot through mountains and along desert dirt tracks. Many weren’t fortunate enough to escape mass executions at the hands of Islamic State militants, and thousands are still trapped up Mt. Sinjar in the baking heat with no food, water or shelter. Children and the elderly are dying in their droves.

As well as the attempted annihilation of an ethnic group, it’s also their religion IS want to destroy. One of the strangest survivals throughout the entirety of human culture, their faith has been viewed as so subversive and unsettling that it’s brought holy war and near extinction to the Yazidis throughout history. Continue reading


The World’s Policeman

King Abdullah wants the West (i.e. the United States, one presumes) to take action against ISIS/ISIL.

Because, apparently, his 200,000-man armed forces are busy.