The “religion of peace” and the politics of appeasement

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race — out of every race.

-George W Bush, September 2001

Sufism is a celebration of diversity and pluralism, expressed in the words of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, that every people has its own path of truth, beliefs and focus of reverence. These words reflect the divine message of the Holy Prophet that there is no compulsion in religion; and also that to every people, we have appointed ways of worship which they observe.

Narendra Modi, March 2016

The media’s interpretation of Modi’s comments was “Islam is a religion of peace.” If that is to be believed, then two leaders of two separate, disparate democracies have made basically the same comment, 15 years apart. But Modi is also a member of a right-wing Hindu nationalist umbrella group, some of whose cells are openly anti – minority, directing their ire particularly towards Muslims. How can Modi then be making such comments contradictory to party interest? Hadn’t he said that he would not appease anyone before he became the Prime Minister of India? Well, reality check. Or realpolitik, if you like. Welcome to the world of appeasement.

Even as Europe is trying to cope with an exodus of refugees from mainly Muslim majority countries in West Asia, Central Asia and North Africa, and intra – EU differences over policies regarding their intake, and even as the wounds Europe had incurred from the 13/11 Paris attacks last year were beginning to heal, Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU has come under attack today, witnessing two separate explosions at the airport and at a metro station close to the EU’s core institutions, obviously targeting people of business and business itself. Witnesses apparently heard now-much-dreaded Arabic chants before the bombs went off, which means that the airport attack might have been suicide bombing, which has by now become a signature of jihadist mass murder and destruction. It’s now been determined that the terrorist group IS was involved in carrying out this latest spell of barbarism on humanity, and so there is little doubt as to where the injunction to kill, maim and terrorize came from. If someone had indeed chanted something in Arabic before committing their grisly suicide-murder, it’s a safe bet that he didn’t martyr himself for the cause of Communism at the heart of Brussels.

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Myths, facts and decision making: The human animal

The world is full of facts. People are facts. Therefore myths are facts. Sounds like a logical fallacy? Well, actually it isn’t. It’s just playing with semantics a little. What I mean to say here is that facts are what help us create a picture of reality. We talk about Homo sapiens as a species because we know individuals similar to us (or me) exist, and that we can group them together. So people are facts. It also seems almost inevitable that if there are people, there will be myths, gossip and so forth. There is always a limit to our perception of reality. However, our perception of reality -which can be mistaken at times- is in itself a component of reality. We need to understand that in order to understand ourselves. That is why studying myths belonging to a particular culture is an important exercise in trying to get an anthropological or sociological picture of that culture. The diversity of myths across cultures gives us an insight into the varying ways in which human societies evolved over time. Even in relatively modern, secular societies you have truckloads of urban legends that have little basis in reality. Religion, for example, is a collection of myths. A recent study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making studied how susceptible humans are to meaningless bafflegab. Do they judge it to be more profound? This is what the study found:

We gave people syntactically coherent sentences that consisted of random vague buzzwords and, across four studies, these statements were judged to be at least somewhat profound. This tendency was also evident when we presented participants with similar real-world examples of pseudo-profound bullshit.
For example, many test subjects judged statements like these to be profound:
Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.
Which has no real meaning. Rather which begs an explanation and is given none. That is what obscurantism is all about. This kind of receptivity to pseudo-profound bullshit, of course, co – varied with other personality characteristics and indicators.
Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

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A look at cults: Dalai Lama, Swami Vivekananda and Che Guevara

collage-2016-01-14 (1)

You speak of Rastafari, but how can you justify-

-belief, in a god that’s left you behind?

Haile Selassie: Propagandhi

The cult of Rastafarianism (or Rastafari, proponents of which claim they are above all “-isms”), which is basically another plagiarized version of Christianity (or Abrahamic religion) emphasizing the black people as the chosen ones, Haile Selassie as an incarnation of their God and Ethiopia as their Promised Land, would probably not like to answer the question above. But the answer is simple enough. Apotheosis of a mere mortal doesn’t lead to that mortal acquiring supernatural powers, or even for that matter, natural powers. The opening lines of the song by Propagandhi allude to Haile Selassie’s desertion of his army and the Ethiopian capital in the face of a vicious attack against his kingdom by the Italian Fascist forces and its allies. He left his people behind to face the fury of the enemy, but apparently that kind of betrayal had no effect on his followers who continued to pretend that they thought Haile Selassie was The One.

There have always been cult figures in human history. The idea behind cultism is that there is a perfect human being who everyone ought to emulate. One who is flawless and who is the saviour of all humanity. One who brought along with them epiphanies or great intuitive or divine wisdoms that were hitherto unknown to human beings. Everything they said or did was supposed to have great meaning. Eventually the cult figures would pick up mannerisms and affectations that would complete the picture. Some cults have lasted in time, some haven’t, some have been revived and for some, a new cult figure has adopted a modified version of an old cult philosophy. Objectively speaking, these were just people who were either smarter than the ones they influenced or were charismatic or both. They carefully picked their audiences and appealed to their popular notions, and then challenged some, making people think that they had stumbled upon a gem. And this is how their popularity spread. Some extended their popularity with the sword while some did it through peaceful and measured, peripatetic sophistry. From Buddha to Dalai Lama, from Jesus to Mother Teresa and from Muhammad to David Koresh, we see the same general aspects, the same hunger for soft or hard power over the masses. Here I want to take a closer look at three cult figures belonging to disparate backgrounds.

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The new year, religious “offense” and the price of free speech

It’s the new year…according to the Gregorian calendar, which is accepted as the standard almost everywhere in the world. Different calendars have different “New Year days”. That’s one reason why I always find it difficult to take the phatic platitude of “Happy New Year” too seriously. The other is that new years are unlikely to be too “happy”. There is too much going against that possibility. For India, the new year began in a way similar to the way it did for France last year , as it did for Afghanistan and Iraq. It began with the threat of sadomasochistic suicide – murdering, commonly known these days as Islamist terrorism. It’s never in short supply when you are lucky enough to have a neighbour who suckles and nurtures terrorists or -luckier still- have them at home.

So the year last began with a ghastly spectacle motivated by religious offense – taking place in an arrondissement in Paris. It was a perfect attention – seeking stunt by murderous, ghetto – dwelling hicks who wouldn’t be given any attention otherwise. Nor would the object of their ire grab international attention. How, then, could 2016 not begin with another bout of offense taking? The Indian cricketer MS Dhoni in a new avatar:

I couldn’t take offense with this even if I tried.

The cover of a business magazine trying to be a bit creative, perhaps. I mean, it’s really a “meh, whatever” kind of picture. Some people with a sense of humour might even find it a bit quaint and funny. Not what some people seem to think, though. Late last year, he was summoned by a court in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh after a VHP leader filed a case against him for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiments.

In May 2013, Jayakumar Hiremath, a RTI activist filed a case in Bangalore under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code – intent to insult the religion of any class – for “hurting the sentiments of the Hindu community”.

In May 2014, Rajinder Singh Raja, national general secretary of the Shivesena Hindustan filed a case in Delhi saying Dhoni had insulted the Hindu religion and Lord Vishnu because he had “been portrayed as God Vishnu and instead of showing religious things, the magazine is showing products of various companies including a shoe in his hand.”

“Neither did he pose for the picture, nor were we aware of such a picture being published,”says Dhoni’s manager. Dhoni’s lawyer says he never got the summons. Whatever happened, the court couldn’t get MS Dhoni to appear before it. The result? A non – bailable warrant . Really.

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The Armenian genocide and the effect of fascism on the freedom to apologize

There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.
– Charles de Montesquieu

Earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s official admission of defeat in WWII, gave a speech in which he made an oblique reference to the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers on South Korean “comfort women“, or women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers:

We will engrave in our hearts the past, when the dignity and honour of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century. Upon this reflection, Japan wishes to be a country always at the side of such women’s injured hearts. Japan will lead the world in making the 21st century an era in which women’s human rights are not infringed upon.

While not a direct apology, there is an air of repentance there. Many wondered if an apology was forthcoming. After all, in the same speech, Shinzo Abe also said:

We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.

We now know that Abe was not paying lip service to that commitment. Japan has now officially apologized to the comfort women -many of whom have died, and the rest are now very old- and had lived with the scars without any form of emotional closure. Japan has also announced a compensation package of $8.3 million, purportedly to “restore the dignity” of the women. Such a rather old-fashioned view of female dignity notwithstanding, at least steps are being taken in the right direction. The least governments can do for the crimes of their predecessors is apologize. Differences persist, however, but that is expected when atrocities were committed on such a large scale. If anything, this gesture should begin to restore Japan’s own dignity, which had been greatly besmirched by its fascist past.

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The “juvenile” and the culture of misogyny

What chance do I have in this world?

A rapist-murderer who was one of a gang of 6 to have brutalized Jyoti Singh  -a 23 year old, ambitious paramedical student who made the mistake of going out of her home on the evening of December 16, 2012, with her boyfriend in India’s rape capital– in a horrific manner, was released after a “sentence” of 3 years of imprisonment, afforded to him by India’s Juvenile Justice Act yesterday. The reason? He was a few months short of completing his 18th birthday. The others, who were judged to be capable of taking responsibility for their crimes, were sentenced to death. So, in pampering a violent and dangerous “juvenile”, who at seventeen years and six months old was apparently as good at differentiating rape from larceny as he was at telling shit from Shinola, the Indian judiciary has overcompensated for sending the-poor-thing’s comrades to the gallows. If ever there was an instance of complete travesty of justice in a highly publicized case, this was one. There are already voices out there calling for a more considerate treatment of the issue at hand. So let’s hear what this one has to say:

We must take cognisance of the fact that the environment the children are growing up in now is vastly different from a decade ago. We are living in a ‘super sexualised world’ and the access that a common person has to the amount of depraved information available has grown multifold. It is the adversely sexual aspects of popular culture that are problematic.

If by “access” the author means “access to the Internet”, then by the same logic, one also has access to information on gender sensitivity and human rights on the Internet. Besides, correlation does not become causation. And there is no evidence that the “juvenile” (whose identity, by the way, is protected by Indian law on the excuse of being a juvenile) was influenced by “the adversely sexual aspects of popular culture” in being led to participating in the crime. One might argue that he felt encouraged to take part in the crime because he had adult friends doing it, but that does not in any way absolve him of any guilt or responsibility. The first thing that people need to understand is that brains do not commit heinous crimes. And that is the first step in reformation of any criminal, juvenile or not. The author admits as much:

Any punishment has to have a reparative effect, one that prevents an individual from repeating the crime — this cannot and should not come at the cost of fear, but should stem from a place of understanding in the individual, who takes cognisance of why what he/she had done was wrong, and, therefore, must not do again. If it is not reparative, it is vengeful and the purpose of the law is not to be vengeful.

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Religion, philanthropy and Mother Teresa

Gott ist tot.

Or “God is dead”. Thus spake Friedrich Nietzsche. Of course, there is no evidence that God ever existed in the first place, but Nietzsche meant that in another context. Even if there were any evidence from the past that it did (I have always had a queasy feeling referring to the supposedly Supreme Being as a “He”. Yes, even before I became an infidel), evidence (and/or the lack of it) from the present would certainly have repudiated it. And if God did indeed exist, it certainly has much less authority over anything than even winds do over mountains. It does nothing to rapists of infants , but must take issue with homosexual love . It is never sure which religion it wants people to follow, but must rail against those who don’t believe in it:

He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.
Matthew 12:30

Drinking wine and eating pork are graver sins than liquidating “unbelievers”(complete with the apologist’s rather enlightening take). One would also like to ask why it suffers from so much social anxiety that it can never afford to make a public appearance, especially to those damned gadflies called “skeptics”. So, if the “good God” ever did exist, it’s either dead or just as good as dead.

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A free speech round – up

News from Thailand is that the US Ambassador to that country Glyn Davies is under investigation for having candidly raised concerns about the draconian lese majeste laws prevalent there, at a conference recently. It was just last month that Davies was posted there, and it didn’t take him long to point out that this piece of legislation was being used to suppress dissent, and that the sentences handed out to offenders were indecently disproportionate to the grade of crime committed.

What is so great about this ridiculous primate?

In August, a 48 year old man was convicted for apparently having committed the grave offence of insulting the royalty, by posting messages and pictures deemed to be defamatory to the 87 year old monarch of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej. It was also in direct violation of Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights , which guarantees the “right to freedom of opinion and expression….. freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” As it happens, Glyn Davies is in danger of being charged with lese majeste himself, and we can’t be certain that his diplomatic immunity will be respected. It wasn’t long ago that I had come across this vulgar excuse for a law myself, and raised my own concerns about the potential for its abuse.

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Bach flower remedies and the problem of quackery

This is an ad that appeared in the Hindu on the 16th of November, 2015:

Bach Flower anxiety

[Update] Another one in the same newspaper on the 30th of November, 2015:

The “divine” cure (Re: The cornerstone of quackery)

Among other very interesting things (like “Medical Astrologer”), what caught my eye was “Bach Flower Remedies”. Apparently a solution for your anxiety and stress. I thought I had heard about it earlier, so I decided to take a closer look.

Bach flower remedies were divined by Edward Bach, a British practitioner of homeopathy in the first half of the 20th century. A bit of background check on sites encomiating him reveals that as a young man he had served as a medical aid provider to soldiers during the World War I. Claims are made that he “recovered completely” from some severe medical condition, varying in different accounts from malignant tumors to hemorrhage in the stomach, even though he was only given three months to live. He trained as an immunologist, and became unhappy with conventional medicine, because he was

dissatisfied with the way doctors were expected to concentrate on diseases and ignore the whole person. He aspired to a more holistic approach to medicine. Perhaps this explains why, not being a homoeopath, he took the offer of a post at the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital.

He noticed the similarities between vaccines and the homeopathic treatment philosophy of “like cures like”. He developed homeopathic”nosodes”, or doses prepared from body waste containing the products of disease, based on these observations. But he was still not satisfied. He wanted to find remedies that would be “purer and less reliant on the products of disease” than vaccines or anything of the like.

He began collecting plants and in particular flowers – the most highly-developed part of a plant – in the hope of replacing the nosodes with a series of gentler remedies.

By 1930 he was so enthused by the direction his work was taking that he gave up his lucrative Harley Street practice and left London, determined to devote the rest of his life to the new system of medicine that he was sure could be found in nature. He took with him as his assistant a radiographer called Nora Weeks.

Just as he had abandoned his home, office and work, Dr Bach began to abandon the scientific method and its reliance on laboratories and reductionism. He fell back instead on his natural gifts as a healer, and more and more allowed his intuition to guide him to the right plants.

And so Bach Flower Remedies were born. There are 38 different remedies for a range of “energy blockages”, supposedly caused by conflicts between “purposes of the soul and one’s personality and actions”. These 38 different remedies are derived from 38 different flower materials, as mentioned earlier, and then diluted to homeopathic levels using 1:1 brandy-water solution. These solutions are known as “mother tincture”.

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Thailand, monarchy and free speech

Thailand is one of the hottest tourist locations in Asia. Apart from being home to plenty of tourist attractions, it also has to deal with the problem of a booming sex tourism trade which is leading to a variety of problems , not least of which is a spread of the HIV. Nevertheless, the tourism industry is one of the greatest contributors to the Thai GDP, contributing almost 20 percent to it. Thai food is also an attraction, and authentic Thai cuisine in itself is enough of a reason to make a pilgrimage to Thailand for.

It also is a place of historical significance, being the only South East Asian country to not have come under any imperialist influence, among other things. In many ways, that seems to have a flip-side. Apparently there has been no motivation for a popular revolution in Thailand, which might make it a tempting idea that people have not felt like changing the system. This would seem to be true, if there weren’t any coups by the military, and if the democratically elected leader of the executive weren’t arrested on corruption charges. Even though the country is effectively run by a military junta, there has been no dismantling of the monarchical system of governance. Officially a constitutional monarchy, the political system in Thailand is seriously lacking in credibility. After Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide, and landmark, victory in Myanmar recently, which is likely to make it more difficult for the military to control policy making, Thailand, being another South East Asian country, can probably take heart. However, there is a difference. As mentioned before, Thailand is a monarchy, unlike Myanmar. The monarch might not be making policy decisions, but he is nevertheless the figurehead. Named Bhumibol Adulyadej, he is the longest reigning monarch in Thailand’s history. Quite a feat.

There is a problem though:

Screenshot from 2015-11-09 12:04:04I found this in the newspaper Bangkok Post. Needless to say, I found it quite striking. There are lèse majesté laws in Thailand, which means that no one in Thailand has the right to say anything that offends the monarch. A clause in their constitution says: “The king shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the king to any sort of accusation or action.” This is basically deification of an individual. An individual is above all criticism, by virtue of being the symbolic leader of the nation. This is definitely against democratic principles. For one thing, a monarch is not democratically elected. There is not a whit of evidence that the monarch at all cares about the welfare of the people. As Jack London very evocatively mentioned in his 1902 book The People of the Abyss: “There is a Chinese proverb that if one man lives in laziness another will die of hunger; and Montesquieu has said, ‘The fact that many men are occupied in making clothes for one individual is the cause of there being many people without clothes.’”, describing his emotions while witnessing the extravagant coronation of a new king in England. He knew what it was like, having experienced the plight of the people of the streets and in the workhouses in London himself. The other thing is that such a constitutional dictate has the potential to be abused. What constitutes offence towards the king is very vague, just like the sedition laws in India.

You could argue that Thailand is a high HDI country. But that doesn’t say anything about the poverty and disease that plagues the country. It doesn’t say anything about the desperation of the women who are driven into the sex trade, and who end up either contracting, or spreading HIV. It doesn’t say anything about the communal violence that people who are on the lowest rungs of the survival ladder experience. As I have opined before, such statistical measures rarely take individual factors into account, and hence tend to be seriously flawed sometimes. But coming back to my point, in a country which could use more equitable distribution of its wealth, lavish spending on retaining an undemocratic figurehead is a bit rich. What’s worse is that one cannot point out this flaw in their system if one wanted, because they would be prohibited by Thai law to do so. This kind of cultism persists in quite a few countries, most notoriously in North Korea. Whenever you are supposed to “worship” a mortal, you know things are not right. In the 21st century, monarchical systems are anyway out-of-place, if not unseemly. I really do hope that the Thai people have something to say and do about this. Like the Nepalese people did.