Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Other things I'm interested in

Although the major subject of this blog is "early [pre-railway] history," and providing my students with extra material is a priority, sometimes I comment on more recent events.

I've written and researched the world history of democracy, and so I can hardly be indifferent to democratic issues in my own country. One recent issue has been the question kicked around in the last few days: whether veiled women can vote in Canadian elections without showing their faces. The idea that it might be possible to vote veiled has provoked some hostile comment, notably from the Prime Minister. The Chief Electoral Officer of the country points out, though, that he has no legal power to require unveiling and if Parliament doesn't like it, only it can change the law.

I have conflicting feelings about veiling but it occurs to me that in many parts of the world, including this one, veiled Muslim women are quickly becoming an easy target, easier even than thin women (who must be anorexic) or even fat women. Are veiled women victims? If so, "blame the victim" seems to be awfully popular. (It may be a case of "blame the Muslim," but somehow it looks a little more like "blame the woman.")

Thanks to Chet Scoville for discussing this issue in his blog, The Vanity Press, in two recent posts, this one and this one. I particularly liked this historical allusion:

It's worth remembering that until the end of the nineteenth century, we did not have a secret ballot. In those days, people (well, men) voted by standing on a platform and openly declaring their allegiance -- and often fighting off gangs of the other party's thugs while they did so. It was called "the manly art of voting." Alexander MacKenzie introduced the secret ballot, and did away with all that. The "manly art of voting" was all about being required to show your face when you voted, and it was barbaric. There's nothing particularly wonderful, or, as far as I can see, anything urgent, about requiring citizens to show their faces when they vote -- especially not when most will anyway.

I don't always agree with Chet but boy he's interesting and passionate. See his recent postings for more hot stuff.

And who could forget September 11th (which I discuss both in World History and History of Islamic Civilization)?

Well, I went through all of this September 11th without anyone mentioning the six-year-old tragedy to my face. Online I did see some thoughtful reflections; but none as thoughtful as this post from driftglass which was called Sunday Mornin' Coming Down but might have been entitled The Better Universe and This One. Once again it brought home to me what a squalid era, morally and intellectually we live in.

Image: Read this.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The crisis of our times

It is indicative of the cause of our current crisis, and its depth, that a commentator in the USA can say the Iraq War had this effect on him, and think he's saying something smart and profound.

I no longer have confidence in the ability of our military, or any military, to solve deep cultural and civilizational problems through force alone. I mean, I thought nothing could stand in the way of the strongest military fielded since the days of ancient Rome. No more.

Here's the column at

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Living in the future (?)-- battling Apocalypses

Brad DeLong says it best in his post Battling Apocalypses, where he cites other linked material. The story, briefly, is that the location of Jesus' appearance on the Last Day has become a minor (we can hope) issue in the American presidential campaign. And as Brad points out, there are international implications...

This reminds me that Robert Heinlein's pioneering science fiction series "Future History" featured a theocratic dictatorship in the USA.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Two developments of interest to students of Islamic Civilization

I am writing this and subsequent similar posts for the benefit of the students who just finished the course in Islamic Civilization, if any are still reading and any regular or chance readers who are also interested in recent news about Islam and Muslims. I have two items for today.

This past week saw an election for President in France, which was won by the "conservative" candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy. I put "conservative" in quotation marks because old terms like "conservative" and "liberal" have all sorts of meanings and certainly don't translate well across political systems, or generations. Heaven knows, for instance, what "conservative" is supposed to mean in the United States these days.

In any case, Sarkozy, who is a descendant of Hungarian immigrants himself, is widely considered to be anti-immigrant, especially Muslim immigrants. As a result of French colonialism in North and West Africa, there are a lot of French Muslims, some of whom come from families that have been there for generations. Juan Cole a few days back had an extended piece on his blog, Informed Comment, discussing what Sarkozy's narrow French nationalism -- leaning toward an ethnic or cultural or racial national identity rather than a civic one, "open to all ethnicities." If you know nothing about this set of issues I'd recommend taking a look; if you know more than Cole does, or have a different view, please comment, or send a link to something good.

Phil Paine, still traveling in Europe, has been writing about similar issues. Recently he found himself in the poor but famous London district of Whitechapel, where he saw unhappy Muslim youth wandering the street, radiating a sense of being excluded. Phil, who has lived in Toronto practically since it was "The Belfast of the North," has experienced many waves of immigration and I take his observations on such a matter very seriously. Here's what he says on another tricky word, "multiculturalism:"

I hear repeated references to “multiculturalism“ in Britain, but the word seems to have a different flavour here than back in Canada. In Britain, it seems to refer to government and institutional efforts to get Britons to accept Muslims as fellow-citizens, or at least to tolerate their presence. In Canada, acceptance is taken more or less for granted. The word there refers to the efforts of immigrant community organizations to preserve and transmit the elements of traditional cultures to the generation born and raised in Canada. One usage presumes that assimilation is difficult, the other that it is so swift and effective that there is a danger that parents and children might not understand each other. But the two countries have such profoundly different histories and social systems that the different attitudes and results are understandable.

This brings to mind my mind the "immigrant grandmother test" which I put forward on the very rare occasions I hear someone of old Canadian stock making remarks about immigrants not fitting in. I say, ask any immigrant grandmother about her grandkids. She'll say, perhaps sadly, "Oh, they are Canadian."

For more on this from Phil: go here and read the May 4th entry.

Another recent set of developments come out of Turkey. My former students know that the constitution and philosophy of Turkey is secular, despite the fact that 99% of the Turkish population is Muslim. This is due to the fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who built the modern Turkish state on the post-WW I ruins of the Ottoman Empire, was personally quite hostile to Islam and believed that the Turks had to join "the whole civilized world" by adopting European standards in just about every sphere of life, from the alphabet, to the law, to the wearing of fedoras instead of fezzes or turbans.

As you may imagine, a strictly secular constitution in an overwhelmingly Muslim country doesn't suit everybody, and for the last 20 years or so political parties that prize the Islamic heritage have proved pretty popular at the polls. The current ruling AK party (controls the cabinet and parliament but not the presidency) is one of these. Recently the AK put forward its foreign minister as a candidate for president, a powerful post. A significant number of people took to the streets to protest this nomination in the name of Ataturk's vision. In one interview I saw, a woman in her 60s said that the AK was trying to take them back to "the Dark Ages."
AK's candidate was blocked in parliament when the opposition parties were able to deny quorumm on the crucial vote. What's going to happen next? A law may be passed making the presidency a popularly-elected post.

In the past, when threats to Ataturk's model, whether socialist or religious, seemed to be strong, the Turkish military, which sees itself as the guarantor of his legacy, has intervened, either behind the scenes or through an open military coup. For them and many others, secularism trumps democracy. Could a coup be launched this? What would be the consequences for Turkey and the world? Remember, this is the most stable country in the Middle East, a candidate for European Union membership. Should it prove to be unstable...(an article that cites Algerian experience since 1990 as a warning).

On the other hand, what happens if AK takes control through democratic means? Plenty are willing to argue that they are a democratic organization, hardly extremists. But there are violent extremists in Turkey, as in most other places, and other Turks fear them.

Update: A huge demonstration of secular Turks against the ruling Islamist party on May 12.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

An interesting set of recent quotes

Chester Scoville has some interesting quotations from American pro-war writers over at his blog, The Vanity Press. There are days I am that angry.

Do people talk like this in Canada?

Image: Mussolini as the people.

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