Saturday, July 30, 2005



For about a year I've had a bumpersticker on my car, "ISLAM HAS BLOODY BORDERS." I've gotten remarkably few reactions to it positive or negative. One negative, one of those Sunday morning bicycle riders, the ones with the compression shorts on and those absurd looking helmets that make them look like praying mantis's when they're riding, like a plague when they're in a group.

I had parked my car in front of an Einstein Bros bagel shop and as my daughter and I were leaving, Tights was crossing the street and literally stopped in his tracks. "Is that your car?" "What does that mean?" he said, screwing up his face in exagerrated faux puzzlement. "It's the quote from Samuel Huntington's book "The Clash of...," I began.

"Samuel Huntington, Samuel Huntington," he replied actually looking perplexed this time. "But what does it mean?"

"I think we're at war with Islam...", I began again.

"It's such a hateful message," he interrupted again. "You ought to be concerned for your safety, especially your little girl's."

It bothered me that he thought it was a hateful message; I don't hate, don't want people to think that I hate but I believe the message and it has grounding in, and maybe therefore provides me with the psychological fig leaf of, scholarship.

"Oh I haven't had any problem with that," I said, referring to his safety advisory, which I hadn't seriously considered previously either.

"If you'd read as much military history as I have, you'd know that generals are the greatest peacemakers," he said, changing subjects. Now I laughed. He was one of Those.

"I've read some military history," I rejoined but now bemusedly. "I've also read the Koran and a few books on Islam and I believe that we're at war with Islam..."

"Such a HATEful message. You really ought to be concerned about your safety."

He said that a time or two more. Was Tights actually threatening me in a veiled way? My temper can go from 0-60 in nanoseconds but the idea that this fruit fly would actually be calling me out was comical. Still, pleasing images of a fallen praying mantis lying in the middle of the street, his bicycle wheels spinning forlornly in the breeze popped into my mind.

"Well what do you think?," I asked.

"Well, of course, we are sort of at war with them," he improvised, perhaps trying to recall a pithy quote from one of his generals but then broke off with, "It's such a hateful message."

"What do you think?," I asked again, truly, if amusedly, curious.

"Oh my thoughts are too complex for you," he stated, gazing off in the direction of Complexity. I swear to Allah, he actually said that, "My thoughts are too complex."

The stereotype that praying mantis's have of Warmongers is that we (Warmongers) are simple-minded and see things too simply. For P.M.s evil is not a matter of good and evil, it is more "complex" than that.

The stereotype that Warmongers have of P.M.s is that their compression pants and helmets are on so tight that they can't see or think straight, much less make decisions. All they can do is bitch. "I don't know what to do about terrorism but whatever Bush is doing is wrong." As Eddie Murphy said to the limo driver in Trading Places, "Thanks, you've been very he'pful."

Tights continued explaining that he could give no explanation to me owing to my complexity deficit and then, distracted again, he called to "Heather" who, unseen by me, apparently had emerged from Einstein's and was leaving, having turned a corner nearby.

"I want to continue this conversation, I really enjoy this conversation, hold on a minute," he lied and then, a praying mantis in heat, went off running after Heather, his bike cleats clicking on the asphalt like high heels,"Heather, Heather!

That was the one negative reaction. I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. On Saturdays they walk, machinery being against the wishes of God unless operated for them by Gentiles. A family walked by the house and saw my car with the bumpersticker. I was leaving at the time and walking to the car. The man paused and took a couple steps back to read it.

"Is that your car?," he asked.


"It's a pleasure to meet you, " he said and gave me the thumbs up sign. That was my one positive reaction.

Then yesterday. I was driving to my little girl's end-of-camp iceskating show, the one that all summer camps provide to parents to justify their expense, when a car pulled alongside me and the passenger rolled down the window. He was twenty-something, olive-skinned, but who isn't in Miami, and made a gesture to the rear of my car. It was an ambiguous gesture, but being the sunny-dispositioned chap that I am I decided to interpret it as an endorsement and flashed him a thumbs up.

That wasn't what he meant. He continued to gesture, this time drawing out his hands in elongated fashion to refer to the bumpersticker but still with ambiguous intent. He was not smiling but his face was not distorted with rage either. Still, now having no doubt as to what he wanted to converse with me about, I thought it prudent to call my office answering machine to leave a suicide note. "If I am found killed I am being followed by a car, a gray sports car; the passenger is twenty-something, medium-dark skin, round face, close-cropped hair." I couldn't get the license plate number.

Something, let's call it Stupidity, still didn't take the moment in all of that melodramatic seriousness and I decided to pull over and see what the gent wanted.

I exited the off ramp, and rush hour traffic being rush hour traffic, it took a few blocks before I could pull over. I lost the gray car and thought perhaps he had lost me too. Then I saw the guy running towards me, his car still out of my sight.

He was a completely decent fellow, a Saudi with the Christian name (irony intended, Complex-thinking P.M.s) of Rakim as best I could understand it.

"What does that sign mean?," he said, the conversation now beginning precisely as did the one with Tights. I explained.

"There are two sides to every story," he said, "Would you be interested in hearing the other side of the story?"


"I have a tape I want to give you. It's not Islam, it's a small group of terrorists."

"Rakim, I have nothing against individual Muslims but I believe that Islam is a fascist ideology in the guise of a religion."

When we speak, we don't have time to reflect fully, to choose the most right way of expressing ourselves. Neither of the two statements that I had made to Rakim was what I would have, say, written to him. I do have something against individual Muslims, I think that anybody who is Muslim, who believes even semi-literally what the Koran says, has Nazi-like thoughts.

I do not advocate rounding up all Muslims and putting them in concentration camps like we did Japanese-Americans in World War II. But I might in the future, depending on who attacks us, and the issue would be of greater moment to me if I were British.

The difference, to me, is that a person belonging to the Japanese "race" or ancestry or whatever the proper anthropological term would be, tells me little about what (s)he believes. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz has written (pre 9/11) that we have to come to consider our thoughts AS action. Maybe not that far for me, but one's thoughts and beliefs clearly are relevant to one's actions.

In my view, it would be P.M.s-head-burying to ignore a group of people living in America who worship the same religion--or who follow the same ideology, as I prefer to think of it--as those who attacked us on September 11. Especially since Islam, as widely noted and bewailed, has not gone throught its Reformation.

The Koran is MUCH more literally followed throughout the Islamic world than is the Bible anywhere in present-day Christendom. And although I believe what I told Rakim about Islam being fascism in religion's guise, I would not have been I had the time to think that is a condition precedent to writing.

I would like the U.S. to consider some policy of extending the prohibition that we have against certain types of hate language to Muslims and I would like to have a debate on whether it would be constitutional, efficacious and just to regulate in some way the gathering of Muslims, obviously in Mosques among other places, again as we at least have attempted to do with Nazis and Communists in the past and with the Aryan Nation and Posse Comitatus now.

And I certainly do not advocate individual violence against individual Muslims. Psychologically, I prefer to do it from planes. I haven't had a lot of success in convincing people of the necessity of that.

Those were the thoughts that were going through my mind as I briefly spoke to Rakim. I also felt bad. It is one thing to write impersonally--and anonymously-- about these things but here I was face to face with a Muslim, a real live person holding beliefs that I find abhorrent, racist and dangerous. And his demographics couldn't have been worse from my point of view. He was Saudi, as were fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. He spoke to me plaintively about his religion, plaintively also asking implicitly for understanding.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan would be the first two Islamic states attacked in a Harris dicta... er, administration. Saudis practice the most dangerous branch of Islam, Whhabism. I seriously doubt that Rakim is one of the "good" Muslims in, or from Saudi Arabia, who take the Koran's teachings "with a grain of salt."

Rakim allowed as to how his country was "corrupt" but reiterated that the problem was not his religion, that I needed to hear the other side of the story and that he wanted to give me a tape. I was now late for my daughter's recital, I was standing in 95 degree heat. I told him I would keep an open mind but that I had to go now. I gave him a business card and told him to call me, that I would be glad to have lunch with him and he could bring me his tape.

-Benjamin Harris

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Things that You'll Like and that Are Good for You Too

Remembrance of Remembrance

I can count on about one finger the number of books I've reread. So many books, so little time. And of all books, Remembrance of Things Past, dense and 3000 pages long, would seem the absolute least likely candidate for a reread especially by me, a slow reader. It took me six months to finish it the first time and I had to take about a month's break after Part II to give my brain a break. The book I had read immediately before "Remembrance..." was "War and Peace," which seemed like a Reader's Digest condensation in comparison.

So as I neared the end of "Remembrance..." I put in an order for a new batch to Barnes and Noble and immediately upon finishing "Remembrance..." eagerly picked up a new book.

There's the proverbial "something" about "Remembrance...", though. Maybe it's just as simple as the beginning being so long ago from the time I finished that I had a hard time remembering how it began. Maybe too that anytime you read a work of Literature you know that you're missing a lot of nuances in a first read.

But in addition to those things I think it was the feeling that I had that this was The Book, that it was the Story of Life or something. I remember being in the middle of my next book, Thomas Kuhn's "Essential Tension," and just lifting my eyes up and stopping and getting up and going over and taking the first part of "Remembrance..." down and beginning again.

A couple of days later I was in my "reading room" at work, the one with the porcelain fixtures, and was reading a recent issue of Newsweek. They had a small obit on Shelby Foote that mentioned that he loved Proust and had read "Remembrance..." NINE times. I was in good company. There's something about that book.

-Benjamin Harris

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

started reading "Remembrance..." again.