Friday, March 28, 2003


Last Saturday night before going to bed i clicked on the arts and letters daily website to see if there was anything interesting that had been put up since i last checked. the first, newly-posted, blurb in the articles section was a provocative-sounding piece on a radical Islamic philosopher named Sayyid Qutb. I opened the link and began reading Paul Berman's cover story for the new york times Sunday magazine which was to be published in hard copy the next morning.

As i read I imagined with mischievous pleasure the scenes of upset that were going to occur because of this article, of lazy Sunday morning coffee being spilled or left to go cold, of lazy Sunday morning moods being jarred from complacency to fret.

I am not all broke out with genius nor are my friends but we are intellectually curious and better-read than the average bear and spend some time thinking and talking about public occurrences and, after the significance of qutb's work sunk in, the first reaction was "why the hell haven't we heard of this guy before?"

it wasn't just us. Berman makes clear that Qutb's writings were largely unknown outside of Islamic circles despite their centrality to current events and their resonance to prominent western philosophies like existentialism and philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche. it is astonishing that this man, whose philosophy was so influential among Islamic intellectuals that his support was sought by Gamel Abdul Nasser, and who was imprisoned, hung and thereby martyred when he spurned Nasser's entreaties, who created the Islamist movement and whose surviving brother, an Islamic scholar himself, TAUGHT OSAMA BIN LADEN, would be so anonymous in this cyber-linked small world.

Berman singles out for special significance Qutb's gargantuan thirty volume set of commentaries, "in the shade of the Qur'an," written while Qutb was in Nasser's prison for ten years. as further testament to the apparent inexcusable parochialism that kept this work from wide western attention only one volume of the work has until recently been available in English and even that was not available (but soon will, it is predicted) from amazon or Barnes and Noble's main sites but had to be ordered specially from their string of affiliated smaller specialized stores.

i have thus only read that one volume, i have not read the Koran, i am not a religious scholar and i seldom have a positive word to say about any religion, so this post can be discounted as seen fit. i was raised a christian and so have some familiarity with the bible and christian theology and i have an educated, curious person's passing familiarity with Jewish and Hindu thought.

there are two different things to think about when reading a commentary, one is the thought of the commentator and the other is the nature of the text being interpreted. maybe the commentator takes liberties with or misinterprets the text. William Shirer wrote of how the Nazi philosophy was based on crackpot economics, astrology, paranoid sociology and lunatic genetics. Qutb's commentaries on the Koran are rigid and doctrinal but no less so than the text being interpreted.

the first impression of "in the shade of the Qur'an" was how different the tone of the Koran was and how different the image of the almighty was from the other religions. Thomas Friedman wrote last year that "Islam is not an angry religion, it's just that a lot of Muslims are angry." i don't know how he could say that. the Koran is an angry, violent, frightful book. over and over again there are vivid, horrific, Bosch-like images of the vengeance that awaits unbelievers.

all religions divide and i am contemptuous of them for that divisiveness, of Judaism's claim to "the chosen people," of Catholicism's similar hubris that it is the church's way or no way. but they are nothing compared to the Koran. the Koran carves the world up into a dichotomy of believers and unbelievers in the starkest terms.

the metaphor used to describe the godhead in Christianity is the "father" with the connotation of benevolence, protection and tough love. the relationship between Allah and Muslims is one of dictator to subject.

religions are exasperating with their irrationality and the degree to which they have in the past thwarted scientific and intellectual advances because they clashed with official doctrine. the Koran has that too but it has in addition a command not to ask questions that to me is far beyond anything in Christianity, Hinduism or certainly Judaism, which it's my impression, is the most knowledge-friendly religion.

I know the temptation is to discount everything I say and to feel that the portions of the books below are being maliciously taken out of context because of my antipathy to religion and limited exposure to Islamic or any religious thought, but it required no deep textual analysis by me to come to these observations. the fact is, i don't know ENOUGH to interpret maliciously. the books, Qutb's and the Koran, have the subtlety of a two by four.

The Koran consists of 114 surahs, roughly, chapters. the only volume of "in the shade..." that is in English translation is the last, volume 30, covering surahs 78-114.

Below are examples of the many Bosch-like descriptions of the hell that awaits unbelievers in the Koran. clearly Islam is not alone in this. The old testament contains many florid, awful images of the same and in the Bhagavad Gita the setting for the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna is a battlefield but, the Koran seems to me to be singular in the prevalence of this imagery.

"[in hell] they shall abide for ages
tasting neither coolness nor any drink,
save boiling fluid and decaying filth:
a fitting recompense." (surah 78)

"On [judgment] day when the earth shall quake,
followed soon afterwards by the sky,
all hearts will be filled with terror,
and all eyes shall be downcast." (surah 79)

"When the sun is darkened,
when the stars fall and disperse,...
when the camels, ten months pregnant, are left untended,...
when the seas are set alight...
when the records are laid bare...
every soul shall know what it has put forward (surah 81)

Qutb comments are not crackpot interpretations of the Koran. here he writes on surah 81: "The one of violent movement which leaves nothing in its place. everything is thrown, smashed or scattered away. the movement is so violent that it excites and frightens."

"The only thing we know of [hell] is that it 'has fuel of men and stones' [from surah 66]. this is, of course, after they have been thrown in it."

"[on judgment day] there will be horror far greater than any man could have ever experienced."

In addition to their frequency of occurrence, passages like the above are made more frightening oftentimes by being combined with rage-filled invective directed toward disbelievers. For example, immediately following the passage quoted above from surah 78 is this:

"They did not expect to be faced with a reckoning,
and roundly denied our revelations
but we noted and recorded all,
(and we shall say:) 'taste this then;
the only increase you shall have is increase in torment.'"

This is now how the Koran says Muslims will treat non-Muslims on judgment day. disbelievers are taunted and vengeful pleasure is taken in their torment, the recompense for the insult of "roundly den[ying] our revelations." Throughout the Koran and Qutb's commentary is this theme of past humiliation avenged. Qutb: "It is inconceivable that...evil and tyranny can get away without retribution, or that good, justice and right can be left to suffer...without there being a chance to put things right."

Surah 78 concludes with Allah stating judgment day will be so awful for unbelievers that they will say, "Would that I were dust."

Surah 80:

"Some other faces on [judgment] day shall be covered with dust,
veiled with darkness.
These shall be the faces of the disbelievers, the hardened in sin."

surah 83: "woe on that day to the disbelievers...
they shall roast in hell."

In a remarkable footnote Qutb explains matter-of-factly Islam's Manichean worldview: "Islam divides all societies, beliefs and practices into two groups: Islamic and ignorant. whatever is in conflict with Islam can only be derived from ignorance...[Allah] will lead mankind in one direction, namely the Islamic direction...Islam describes such [disbelieving] attitude as one of ignorance, and whatever social setup it produces as ignorant."

On surah 81: "anyone who follows a different path shall, therefore, bear responsibility for his action."

iIremember Shirer's amazement at the directness of Mein Kamph and how the entire Nazi programme was laid out very directly for the world to read. Qutb's writing reminded me of that and it seems to me to be consistent with the words of the Koran itself.

Fear, not love, is what the Koran uses to influence behavior which is why the relationship between Allah and man was analogized to that of dictator and subject above. in surah 49 the prophet says:

"The noblest of you in Allah's sight is he who fears him most."

In commenting on this sentence Qutb writes that man's earthly concerns with family, power and wealth are made void by Islam, "which substitutes for them a single value [fear] derived directly from Allah, the only value accepted by him."

Qutb says in his commentary on surah 79, "The fear of Allah is the solid defence against the violent attacks of desire...fear of standing before his lord, the almighty, should be of great help to [man]."

"The [82nd] surah closes with an air of fear and speechless expectation, which contrasts with the air of violent horrors of the opening. in between the two man is addressed with that remonstrance which overwhelms him with a feeling of shame." Allah is a dictator who rules through fear. there is not one democracy in the Arab world and I believe only one, turkey, in all of Islam.

By contrast the relationship between man and god in Hindu thought is described in the introduction to the Penguin classics edition of the Gita as "the vision of god as man, as the friend to the struggling soul." iIam sure that there are passages in Hindu thought that would seem to contradict that characterization but the point made earlier is that individual passages do not obscure the overall tone of a work. the author of the quote on the Gita is Juan Mascaro and the full context of that quote is his comparison of the tone of the Gita to a piece of music: "After those ineffably sublime harmonies the music descends to softer melodies: it is the vision of god as man, as the friend of the struggling soul. whatever we do for a human being we do it for him."

"In the shade's..." place as the intellectual basis of the Islamist movement is apparent in several places. Surah 79 concerns the futility of a Pharoah's power in the face of Islam and Qutb writes, "One can only imagine what will be the fate of the disbelievers who do not have similar power, authority or glory but still resist the call of Islam and try to suppress it."

In commenting on surah 80: "the only hope that remains is that the new Islamic movement will be able to rescue mankind once again from the clutches of ignorance and bring about a second rebirth of humanity..."

On surah 81: "...the declared aim of Islam, to destroy ignorance and save mankind from sinking..."

Islam's anti-intellectualism is clear in several places. Qutb makes this commentary on the themes of surah 78, the discouragement of inquiry, the umbrage taken at disbelief of Islam's revelations and the fate of the unbelievers:"this horrifying position of the disbelievers is the subject of the questions and doubts they raise concerning that fateful tiding."

Below are the first words of surah 78, which concerns the unbelievers questioning of judgment day and resurrection:

"About what are they asking?
about the fateful tiding
on which they are at variance.
no indeed, they shall certainly know!
again, no indeed they shall certainly know."

Qutb writes in commentary, "The surah opens by shunning the enquirers and the enquiry."... "The surah asks what they are talking about: 'about what are they asking?'"..."The question is not meant to solicit information but to draw attention to the singularity of their questioning..."

The last two, "no indeed," lines Qutb says are an "implicit threat which is much more frightening than a direct answer."

"Allah has revealed to us what we need to know of the secrets of the universe so that we may not waste our energy in futile pursuit of useless knowledge."

This is from surah 79:

"They question you about the hour of doom, when will it come?
But why should you be concerned with its exact timing?
The final word concerning it belongs to your lord."

n surah 82 Allah warns mankind that there are angels, "noble recorders...watching over you...who know all your actions." This is not god the father, this is god as an all-knowing dictator. Qutb writes of this passage that it is not clear how this recording is done, nor does it matter, "Allah knows that we are neither given the ability to understand it nor are we going to benefit by understanding it because it does not affect the purpose of our existence."

Allah's unquestioned omnipotence means, and this circular argument is certainly common to all religions, not just Islam, that the complexity and beauty of the universe are proof of that omnipotence. Throughout "In the Shade..." Qutb is utterly dismissive of the possibility of a random universe:

"[One] would then find completely insupportable the argument that all this had been the result of coincidence."
"The very nature of this universe rules out any possibility of its formation by chance."
"The harmony starts with the fact that our solar system is unique among millions and million of planetary systems."

This of course has been proved wrong in the last few years, which presumably led to more rage like the above directed at the "ignorant" unbelievers.

"The fact of elaborate planning, so apparent everywhere in the universe." This is Public Occurrences.

Sunday, March 23, 2003



it has always been maintained here, wrongly in the opinion of the administration and almost all "respectable" opinion, that the war we are now engaged in is one with the civilization of islam, not with one terrorist group or rogue state. part of the reason why that opinion is viewed as so paranoid and psychotic is the, commendable, contemporary aversion toward unfairly tarring a group with too broad a brush.

that commendable aversion however has taken the uncommendable leap from rule of thumb to prohibition and in that i think there is not just a discourse objection to register but an insidious consequence to policy.

the discourse objection to group references is that not every single member of the group has the complained of characteristic. duh, as they say. but to dispense with this tiresome point let it be said that i do not mean by holding that our war is with islam that our war is with every single muslim worldwide.

the problem with having to make that tautological point is that for most people that ends the discussion. since i concede that in not every muslim chest there beats the heart of osama bin laden it is viewed as just not cricket to continue to claim that we are at war with islam. but i do.

words have consequences. a single individual may be described as both a "freedom fighter" and a "terrorist" and there are no two more opposed words in the language today. although i am in the political discourse equivalent of siberia with my opinion that the war is with islam, EVERYONE uses the word "war" to describe what we're doing here. president bush says we are at "war" with terrorism, osama bin laden says we are at war,the men in birkenstocks and the ladies in sensible shoes, those who have no power to exercise in their lives and therefore believe that any exercise of power by those who have it is icky, those who missed the call of the 60's protest generation, all those who protest, protest against the "war." even as sensible and angst-ridden a chap as thomas ("it's not that islam is an angry religion, it is just that a lot of muslims are angry") friedman holds that we are at war. and of course i hold that we are at war.

and here i register my own discourse objection. "war" is one of the most extreme words there is but it has been devalued by discourse abuse of it's horrific meaning. there are all kinds of wars now, wars on poverty, wars on aids, wars on racism, worthy goals all but those are not wars. if nothing else a war is (1) a military action (2) by one people against another. president bush's war on terrorism is no more definite than those social scourges. and i defy anyone to deconstruct all that thomas friedman has written in the last year and a half and define what the hell it is that he says we are at war with. you have to have a clearly defined enemy to have a war that means what the word is intended to mean.

and here my opponents attempt to hoist me on my own petard. they say i don't even meet the second prong of the my own definition, that for there to be a war there must be a clearly defined enemy. they say islam has no state boundaries, it is a religion, so therefore we can't be at war with it.

that view is too facile; in fact my view has a direct, immediate historical antecedent and that is the war we just fought, and won, against communism. communism was the religion to end allegiance to all religions. it had no state boundaries, there were communist states but there were also communists worldwide, including freely-elected ones in western governments like france, england and italy. even the united states had a communist congressman or two. we were certainly at war with communism even though we didn't shoot an m-16 at france's jacques berlenguer.

islam is as totalitarian a philosophy as communism and as hostile to the united states. if anything, it is at least as confined to specific states as communism: the entire arab world plus turkey, pakistan, indonesia and a handful of others and of course saying that does not mean that to be consistent we must shoot all pakistani convenience store owners or taxi cab drivers.

two things happened yesterday that should and will cause a change in some peoples views of islam and of individual muslims, and policy change should result. the first was the arrest of sgt.asan akbar for the grenade attack in camp pennsylvania in kuwait. as soon as i heard that he was a muslim i knew the motive. it was, as he has now said, because of his opposition to this war, because the united states was attacking a muslim state, not as every military veteran i heard speak on the matter say, a result of battlefield "cabin fever," or some such. that he was a muslim acting out of pan-islamic solidarity was viewed as unfortunate by most.

it should not have been. former under secretary frank gaffney was the only one, i heard at least, who made the obvious point that we better pay closer attention to muslims in our military than we have in the past and he went on to say that it was his understanding that something like nine of the fifteen muslim chaplains in the military preach the violent, intolerant wahibbi strain, that adopted as the official variant of islam by our "friends" the saudis, it turns out. finally gaffney made another point that all those who work in the american criminal justice system know already, that this same totalitarian islam is also taught in our prisons. if memory serves, it was in prison that dirty-bomber wannabe jose padilla also was converted to islam.

i do not propose that we round up every muslim and put him in a concentration camp, but those teachings in our military and in our prisons must stop, just as we are now intensively investigating certain muslim mosques and charities for what they are preaching and who they are financing, just as i say we should order saudi arabia, pakistan, et al to stop their teaching that jews are pigs and snakes and that jewish women should be enslaved for the pleasure of muslim men.

i would further hold that it is more important that we keep an eye on individual muslims in this country than we did individual germans and japanese during world war ii. a german-american did not equal a nazi, nor a japanese-american a loyalist of tojo but islam is a totalitarian philosophy and though most, i would guess, american muslims love and are loyal to america, their religion is generally hostile to other religions, to tolerance, to diversity, and to seperation of church and state, three pretty bedrock principles of the american republic.

the second development last night was the publication, at least on the internet, of the seminal cover story in the new york times magazine by paul berman on the radical islamic philosopher sayyid qutb. berman's article appears balanced, which is frightening because he was so moved by the intellectual depth and keen analysis of qutb and especially one book, "in the shade of the qur'an," frightening because he shows how so much violence and hatred is combined with so much brilliance and beauty. he makes the obvious analogy to das kapital, still the most intellectually rigorous critique of capitalism ever made, even though it's rigor was the philosophical basis for the barbarous soviet state, and to nietzsche, whose existentialism still thrills even as his ubermensch was a harbinger of the nazis "great man."

the new york times, especially the sunday edition, especially the magazine, is the most prominent outlet for ideas in the west. this article will result in the publication of a new edition of this, till now, obscure book, and it may cause a change in the views of islam held by many influential opinion-makers, maybe even thomas friedman.

-benjamin harris

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Shock & Awe

Shock & Awe

the frisson of america's "shock and awe" phase of the iraqi war was felt by even the jaded, war-tested, ink-stained wretches "embedded" with the troops, reporters like peter arnett and john burns of the new york times who wrote of the "almost biblical power" inflicted on baghdad by american missiles.

so to avoid being awestruck we acknowledge reasons for caution: it is early in the war, murphy's law was invented for military operations, the fighting will probably get tougher in baghdad, we may yet face bio/chemo attacks and lose large numbers of men, and there are angry demonstrations against the u.s. throughout the arab and the larger world.

having acknowledged that, this war has been and will continue to be a spectacular success. it was not only the fearsomeness of the bombing that so impressed arnett and burns but its precision. as comically one-sided as the first gulf war was it is clear that gulf war part deux is not your grandfather's gulf war.

we are four generations more technologically advanced than we were in 1991. we can now read a newspaper headline from our space satellites (ana identify a wounded dictator on a stretcher), the target range of our smart bombs has been reduced from several meters to less than a meter, and we no longer have to destroy civilian infrastructure to destroy military command and control. burns spoke on cnn friday of watching the fusillade from a hotel balcony just a few hundred yards away and feeling perfectly safe. television images routinely show the incongrous site of street lights on in the east half of the city while the west, military, side burns.

the surprise opening salvo wednesday night against hussein personally and senior iraqi leadership was a spectacular preview of the power and concentration of american bombing. hussein is either dead or wounded. in that one brief, opportunistic foray we may have decapitated the iraqi regime.

it is now more true than it was a year ago when paul kennedy wrote in the aftermath of the afghan campaign that american military dominance is the greatest since at least the roman empire, perhaps the greatest the world has ever seen.

"from those to whom much is given, much is expected." we should use our power to make the world safe for ourselves and our values by (1) remaking the entire middle east. (2) reconfiguring the international diplomatic and alliance structure and (3) solidify the nascent bush doctrine of preemption into a grander framework such as the "international federalism" proposed on this site last june.

for fifty years the arab-israeli conflict has smoldered without resolution, causing the deaths of thousands. diplomacy, whether from the u.s. or the u.n. has failed. only the u.s. with it's military and economic power and trust by both sides can end this conflict once and for all. all sides, the palestinian, israeli, and american, have committed themselves to the establishment of a palestinian state. now one should be imposed. we should tell israel that a demilitarized palestinian state will be established on the entire west bank now. israel should be told to remove the settlers and we should offer to pay for some or all of the cost of the resettlement. we should tell israel that if they do not agree to this that we will immediately cease all military and economic aid.

we should tell the palestinians that they are to get their state but that it will be demilitarized, there will be seperation of church and state at least to the extent as in turkey and that will be no teaching or preaching of hatred of jews or other religions. we should tell the palestinians that if they do not agree, or if such a state becomes a staging ground for guerilla attacks on israel, that we shall permit and assist if necessary, israel in forcibly and permanently annexing the entire west bank and relocating the palestinians to jordan, or killing those who resist.

throughout the islamic world--for are at war with islam--from saudi arabia to egypt to jordan, libya, syria, iran yemen, pakistan and indonesia, we should tell governments that the teaching and preaching of hatred of jews and others will stop or we will topple their regimes. islam is going to have reformation forced upon it. we should tell pakistan and saudi arabia that if they cannot get control of the lawless regions in their countries and the terrorist training camps, that we will do it.

we should bomb any suspected sites of wmd facilities in the arab world, such as the nuclear site in iran.

we should withdraw from nato, a position long-advanced here and reconfigure our alliances to reflect the post-cold war realities. in our conflict with the islamic civilization for intance our permaent alliance would consist of the united states, great britain, and israel. we should negate our treaty obligations with taiwan and south korea and encourage japan to remilitarize.

we should withdraw from the united nations, another relic of the cold war. its failure to deal with the iraqi problem has made its league-of-nations impotence apparent.

there should be severe, temporary, symbolic diplomatic sanctions against the coalition of the unwilling--france, germany, russia, and china. they opposed u.s.-british military action simply as an attempt to increase their power and diminish america's. that attempt has failed. perhaps a temporary break of all diplomatic relations as a political "shock and awe" tactic, or at least the recall of our ambassadors should be done.

how radical. how unrealistic. how naive.

these things will happen, at least some of them and at least in some form. there will be a palestinian state established, our military involvement in the arab countries will not end with regime change in iraq. listening to the talking heads last night there is forming a critical mass of respected conservative opinion now calling for withdrawal from the united nations and on the, or to the, left, thomas friedman famously advocated france's eviction from nato last month.

morton kondracke, fred barnes and charles krathammer have advocated an aggressive remaking of the middle east. the administration has already adopted preemption as a principle of action and it is predicted here that they will use it against north korea, and should usse it against iran if that principle is to mean anything.

we have been hamstrung too long by geopolitical stare decisis. the rotten structures, alliances and thinking of the ancien regime should be kicked over by the one world power that can do it, the only nation that has ever been able to do it, not to establish a pax americana but to clear the world's landscape of dictators who threaten our security, of weapons of mass destruction that threaten humanity and to allow peoples the world over their right to self-determination.

-benjamin harris

Thursday, March 20, 2003


Actual telephone conversation, trying to get a witness to come in for a pre-trial conference on a murder case. The witness's grandmother, the head of the household, answered the phone.

Her: "Hello."

Me: "Is Clarence there?"

Her ( in soft office receptionist voice): "Who's calling?" Me: "This is Ben Harris from the District Attorney's office."

Her: "Just a minute."

(Her exasperated head of household voice heard in background): "CLARENCE, GET YOUR WEED-SMOKIN' ASS OUT OF BED! YOU GOT A PHONE CALL!

(heard in background: loud male voice saying yelling something indistinguishable)

Her: "He ain't comin' out of the room."

Me: "He was supposed to be in my office at 9."

Her: "Oh well."

Me: "And his deposition is set for 11:30."

Her: "He ain't gonna make it. You're depending on the undependable."

Me: "Well can you have him give me a call when he wakes up?"

Her: "Well i'll tell him and he won't do it and then I'll have to beat his ass again. Seems like a lot to go through for a phone call but I will."

Me: "Thank you very much."

-benjamin harris

Saturday, March 01, 2003

on a gray, hot, humid day, i died a little.

-benjamin harris