How sectarianism matters and how it doesn’t

I wanted to flag this piece in the Washington Post from a week and a half ago because I think it’s important to pound against the notion that Islamic sectarianism is all you need to know to explain the current situation in the Middle East. It’s written by Nick Danforth, a grad student at Georgetown, and takes the long historical view of things, which I like, to argue that the Sunni-Shiʿa dynamic over the centuries has mostly been one of peaceful co-existence, which if you know anything about Islamic history you know to be correct.

Consider, for example, the ­ninth-century Abbasid Dynasty (based in modern-day Iraq), celebrated for cultural contributions such as “The Arabian Nights” and the number zero. Historical accounts treat the dynasty as the most famous Sunni caliphate in Islamic history. But when the first Abbasid caliph seized power, he was challenging another Sunni dynasty, the Umayyads. In doing so, his propaganda championed a Shiite belief — that Islam’s leadership belonged to those, like him, who were more closely related to Muhammad. Thus, the noted scholar Bernard Lewis declared the Abbasids’ victory over the Umayyads a “resounding success” for Shiism, adding that at this point, Shiite doctrines “differed to no great extent from those of Sunni Islam.”

But after claiming the Shiite mantle in revolt, the Abbasids defended Sunni orthodoxy against Shiite groups rising in revolt against them. And when, a century later, the Abbasid caliphate fell to a Shiite dynasty called the Buyyids, the revolutionaries were perfectly content to keep a line of Sunni caliphs in power as their figureheads.

(It’s actually two centuries later — the Abbasids took power in 750, and the Buyids seized Baghdad and placed the Abbasid caliphate under their “protection” in 945 — but the point is still accurate.)

After the shaking out period early when “Shiʿism” (or “Alidism,” as it’s sometimes termed in its formative decades) really meant “political opposition to the caliphate,” discord between the sects really calmed down a fair amount. Continue reading

Ah, democracy in action

It’s always nice to see a good man or lady being rewarded for their commitment to public service by being reelected in a free and fair election, and today we’re blessed to have two such occurrences to celebrate. Lucky us!

First, in Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir was returned to office for another five year term with a big groundswell of support, winning 94.5% of the vote. It seems to me that anything over 90% is a sure sign that not only is your democracy working perfectly, but your president must really be super popular! Bashir has already been in office for 26 years, so you know he’s beloved by his people and has lots of important experience running Sudan. Oh, sure, you’ll have naysayers calling the election a “political charade,” or saying that Bashir failed “to create a free, fair and conducive elections environment,” or being even being rude enough to point out that Bashir is “the only sitting head of state facing genocide charges at the international criminal court.” But who needs those Debbie Downers? The people of Sudan have spoken, or at least been spoken for, and isn’t that all that matters! Congratulations, President Bashir!

Who wouldn't love this guy? Even the International Criminal Court can't wait to see him in person!

Who wouldn’t love this guy? Even the International Criminal Court can’t wait to see him in person! (via)

For our second case in point, take Kazakhstan (…please! Ha ha, I kid, please don’t cart me off to prison like you do with your political opposition). President Nursultan Nazarbayev just won his fifth election since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, this time with a whopping 97.7% of the vote! The Kazakh people must really love this guy! Oh sure, he ran virtually unopposed (it’s hard for your opposition to field a candidate when the most prominent opposition figures are either in one of your prisons or objectively worse than you are), but so what? The truest test of a democracy’s strength is how it survives the absence of democracy, don’t you think? Well, that sounds like it might be true, anyway. Like President Bashir, I’m sure President Nazarbayev will get nitpicked by busybodies for, say, Kazakhstan’s “poor human rights record” or the fact that it “has never held an election judged to be free or fair by the West,” but screw that noise.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, seen here probably getting ready to throw another opposition voter in prison. (via)

Nursultan Nazarbayev, seen here probably getting ready to throw another opposition voter in prison. (via)

You know who likes Kazakhstan? Cool dudes, like UK Prime Minister David Cameron and former UK Prime Minister Bloodlust McBombsalot Tony Blair, that’s who! Cameron cut a massive trade deal with Kazakhstan in 2013, and was so impressed with the Central Asian republic’s commitment to human rights that, when reporters asked him about it, he essentially said “Get the fuck off my back about it, OK? There’s a lot of money on the table here” (though to be fair to Cameron, it’s clear that human rights in general isn’t really his thing). As for Blair, well, he’s not about to do PR for just any dictator president for life. You need to show a real commitment to paying Tony Blair a shitload of money being way nicer to people, or something like that, if you want the Blair Treatment (NOTE: this is the post-PM version of “the Blair Treatment,” where he lets you pay him lots of money to lobby for you, and not the version that he used when he was PM, which involved doing war on you). So congrats to President Nazarbayev and his important British pals!

Saturday Night Tunes: New Soil

After stints playing for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Charles Mingus, whom he apparently once nearly stabbed in self-defense after Mingus punched him, plus a two-year (1956-7) stretch recording under his own name for Prestige, 1959’s New Soil was alto saxophonist Jackie McLean’s first recording for Blue Note, where he would remain for eight incredibly fruitful years. This was a period that would see the hard bop-immersed McLean experiment first with modal jazz and later with elements of free jazz, creating a unique sound and style in the process. You’ll only hear hints of that on New Soil, which finds McLean still pretty firmly embedded in his hard bop roots (though he was clearly aware that the move to Blue Note heralded a major change for him musically, hence the title of the album). It’s a great album and well worth a listen or several.

Alongside McLean here are Donald Byrd on trumpet, Walter Davis Jr. on piano (he also wrote four of the six tunes), Paul Chambers on bass, and Pete La Roca on drums.

McLean’s “Hip Strut” is all hard bop, though you can hear him playing around with different tonal elements especially in the vamping sections throughout his solo:

“Minor Apprehension,” also by McLean, is a fast changing burner that really puts everybody through their paces (nobody moreso than Chambers, who has to keep walking a baseline at this blazing tempo). The highlight is La Roca’s extended drum solo, which goes entirely outside the tune and gives him complete freedom:

Davis wrote the four other tracks on the album, starting with “Greasy,” a nice shuffling blues over a walking piano line:

“Sweet Cakes” starts off in a Latin feel before transitioning into a swing for the solos. McLean and Byrd both really tear into this one:

“Davis Cup” is another uptempo swing, though not as blazing as “Minor Apprehension.” I sometimes like to point out when we get to hear a bowed bass solo, because I think they’re cool, and Chambers gives us one here. I like Byrd’s solo as well:

Last up is Davis’s “Formidable,” in which he once again blends a Latin feel into the melody. Solos are McLean, Byrd, and Davis, and all of them seem to be having a good time with this medium-tempo number:

Where to give: Nepal

If you haven’t already heard, the area around Kathmandu, Nepal was hit with a whopping earthquake earlier today, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale with an epicenter located close to the surface, meaning that its destructive power was concentrated so as to really wallop a relatively small area. At last count over 1000 people have died (UPDATE: as of Monday morning that number now stands at over 3600, and likely to keep going up) as a result of the quake, undobtedly many thousands upon thousands more have been injured and/or uprooted, and the entire area’s infrastructure appears to have virtually collapsed, including several of its irreplaceable World Heritage sites.

If you have the ability, please consider giving to one of the many charities already working in Nepal or responding specifically to this earthquake, including the ones I’m listing here:

2016 can’t come soon enough

The New York Times is our nation’s Newspaper of Record, which is a fancy name for “most important newspaper.” As such they’re supposed to set a standard for how news is covered, and, to be perfectly honest with you, if their 2016 campaign coverage over the past couple of days is The Standard for what the rest of this campaign is going to be like, I’m going to see if I can get myself cryogenically frozen until January 2017.

Yesterday, the Times decided for some reason to publish the writings of 2016 GOP hopeful Bobby Jindal‘s ghostwriter, and you should be thrilled to know that Governor Jindal is “Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage.” I’d like to be thrilled except I’m not entirely sure what the hell that means. Is Governor Jindal personally busting up gay weddings across the country, tearing up marriage licenses for same-sex couples, or what? Gay marriage isn’t an advancing army or a tsunami, so what does it mean that he’s “holding firm” against it? Anyway it seems to be all about religious freedom something something:

In Indiana and Arkansas, large corporations recently joined left-wing activists to bully elected officials into backing away from strong protections for religious liberty. It was disappointing to see conservative leaders so hastily retreat on legislation that would simply allow for an individual or business to claim a right to free exercise of religion in a court of law.

Our country was founded on the principle of religious liberty, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Why shouldn’t an individual or business have the right to cite, in a court proceeding, religious liberty as a reason for not participating in a same-sex marriage ceremony that violates a sincerely held religious belief?

"How can we allow other people's basic freedoms to infringe on the religious right to be a bigot?"

“How can we allow other people’s basic freedoms to infringe on the religious right to be a bigot?”

I’ve figured out what Jindal’s 2016 theme is: he’s a pretend candidate who’s here to solve all of America’s imaginary problems. Continue reading

Islamic History, part 27: early Shiʿa traditions (632-c. 800)

Islamic History Series

So last time out we looked at the history we’ve already covered from the perspective of the emerging Shiʿa minority. Here we’ll take a (hopefully shorter) look at Shiʿism itself as it began to emerge over the first century and a half after Muhammad’s death. That will then take us back to the Sunni side of things, where we’ll look at the early development of Islamic law (a process in which a few Shiʿa imams played important roles), which will then take us into early Islamic philosophy, mysticism, the arts, and maybe someday actually back to the basic historical narrative.

Before we do that, though, I’d like to briefly explain what a terrible term “Sunni” is. Marshall Hodgson actually referred to Sunni Islam as Jamaʿi-Sunni Islam, and at that he only added the “Sunni” bit in protest. “Sunni” derives from the word sunnah, which means “path” or “flow” and refers to the life and teachings of Muhammad as the model for how a true Muslim should live his or her life. Maybe you already see the problem here; using the term “Sunni” to describe non-Shiʿa Muslims implies (or maybe it’s not even that subtle) that Shiʿa somehow ignore or reject Muhammad’s example, which of course they do not. The Shiʿa have their own traditions about the life of Muhammad that they revere just as much as Sunnis do. Hodgson argued that the term Jamaʿi (from jamaʿah, or “community”) more accurately reflected what really separates the two communities, which is that Shiʿis rely on the guidance of a leader or imam in legal/religious matters, while “Sunnis” rely on the consensus of learned scholars and the community as a whole. Needless to say, Hodgson’s attempt to rename the Sunni community didn’t take, and with this objection out of the way I’ll keep referring to it as “Sunni.”

A comparison is often made by Western writers between the Sunni-Shiʿa split and the Protestant Reformation. Sometimes this comparison is made by writers who aren’t able to understand anything that happens in the world without analogizing it to something that they already know, and sometimes it’s made by well-meaning writers who are trying to explain to their readers that, hey, we in the West don’t have any room to talk about somebody else’s inter-religious violence. Whatever the reason why this comparison keeps getting made, it’s not a particularly great one. The Sunni-Shiʿa schism happened just under 9 centuries before the Catholic-Protestant one, at a time when Islam was just beginning to organize itself, whereas Catholic Christianity was in a pretty developed form when the Protestant reformers began cropping up. Continue reading

Here’s a bright idea to solve Europe’s refugee crisis

This is sure to end the migrant emergency, and really, what could go wrong?

Italy pressed the EU on Wednesday to devise robust steps to stop the deadly tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, including considering military intervention against smugglers and boosting U.N. refugee offices in countries bordering Libya.

“We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather,” said Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti. “The plans for military intervention are there.”

Logically, if European nations employ their advanced military might to seek out and blow up a bunch of unseaworthy smuggler dinghies, that will fix everything. It’s not as though the smugglers would be able to replace those rickety pieces of junk in about ten minutes, and it’s certainly not as though hundreds of thousands of people will still be willing to pay those smugglers to get them the hell out of Libya, Sudan, Nigeria, etc., right? What’s that you say, Nigerian refugee?

In the latest arrivals of migrants, an Italian naval vessel docked in the Sicilian port of Augusta with 446 people who had been rescued off the southern coast of the Italian mainland. The navy said 59 were children.

“We prefer to die trying (to migrate) than stay back there and die,” said Emmanual, a Nigerian migrant who recently arrived in Sicily. “Stay at home and get shot dead or maybe burnt to death, I just prefer to die while trying or survive.”

Huh, go figure. Well, what if the Europeans took after Australia, which deals with its migrant problem by either detaining and repatriating migrants or by literally towing boats back to where they came from (or putting would-be migrants in inflatable rafts if the boats they’re on are too shoddy to make the return trip)? Well, there is just the one tiny problem with that idea:

Paul Barrett, a former secretary of Australia’s defence department, said turning back asylum-seeker vessels to Libya was far different from turning them back to Indonesia.

“One immediate difference is that when we turn back boats to Indonesia, objectionable as that policy is, we know the Indonesians aren’t going to shoot them when they come back,” he said.

“If they’ve fled Iraq or Afghanistan they’ve got no rights in Indonesia, so they need to move on to a country where they can retain the benefit of the Refugee convention.

“Whereas if you turn around boats that are fleeing from Libya and send them straight back to Libya you’re injecting them straight back into the danger where they’ve fled.”

Yeah, turns out its a wee bit…oh, let’s say “morally dubious,” to pick up people who are literally fleeing a war zone and plop them right back in the middle of that war zone. So morally dubious, in fact, that doing so is against international law. The principle is called non-refoulement, and nations that have signed any of the various treaties on the status of refugees that have been adopted since World War II are obliged not to repatriate refugees if doing so would threaten their lives. It doesn’t take but about 2 minutes worth of Googling to see that forcing people who are fleeing Libya to return to Libya in its present state of affairs would clearly threaten their lives.

I realize that times are tough all over, but they’re a hell of a lot tougher in some places than they are in others. Bombs aren’t going to stop people trying to cross the Mediterranean because they’re at high risk of dying if they stay where they are. Forcing those people back into a war zone is morally and legally indefensible. The international community, Europe included, is going to have to find a way to cope with this stream of refugees unless and until a solution is found to the conflicts they’re trying to escape.