Sunday, July 31, 2005

Several swans a-swimmin'

Journeywoman (aka Mary P.) and I live in Ottawa, Canada's capital city. Our home is only half a block from the Rideau River, so we spend a lot of time walking beside the water.

Among other attractions, the Rideau River is home to several pairs of swans during the summer months. Below are some photos I have taken of the swans this summer. The text comes from the City of Ottawa Web site.

Where did the City of Ottawa get its swans?

In 1967, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II gifted the City of Ottawa, Canada's capital, with six pairs of Mute (Royal) swans. Her Majesty's gift was in celebration of Canada's 100th birthday.

Where do the swans live?

Each pair of swans has it own "favourite" area where it lives for the spring and summer months. Swans prefer to nest in private areas that are surrounded by tall grass or brush and that are not easily accessible to predators and people. They want to protect their cygnets, or brood, from harm.

The swans are removed from the River in the Fall - late October or early November - to live in what is fondly known as the "Swan House", located at the City's Leitrim Nursery, until May, or so, of the following year. There, each pair of swans has its own indoor pen with a resting area and a swimming pool, and its own outdoor pen. The swans enjoy the outdoors, even in winter. They must be wintered off the River not because of the cold but, because there is not enough open water, which they require in order to sift their food.

What do swans eat?

While on the Rideau River, the swans eat the plants that grow in and around the River. They are often fed bread and other "people food" by well-meaning citizens but, "greens" such as lettuce, spinach and alfalfa sprouts are much better for them. The swans must compete for food with ducks, gulls and other birds while on the River.

The swans' winter diet is quite different from their summer diet because they cannot forage for naturally-occurring plant material in their winter home. There, they are fed a grain-based ration called "Duck Grower" and are provided "greens", like lettuce, each day.

Is it safe to touch the swans?

It is not safe to touch the swans. Even though they cannot fly, they are in a semi-wild state and it is best that people enjoy them from a distance just as one would any other wild animal or bird.

Swans usually sleep at night, and will rest from time to time during the day. When asleep or resting, they lay with their necks across their backs and their heads under one wing. This resting posture is often mistaken for an injury.

Why are their wings clipped?

The City's swans cannot fly because they are pinioned, meaning that the primary feathers of one wing have been permanently clipped. The primary feathers are the long feathers furthest from the bird's body without which a bird cannot fly. The Canadian Wildlife Service requires that the swans be pinioned so that they do not migrate and disturb other North American bird populations. That the swans are pinioned is also one of the reasons that they must be removed from the River for the winter as they cannot fly south like other migratory birds.

How long do swans live?

Swans can live for over thirty years if they are well cared for. Their most common predators are uncontrolled dogs, raccoons, and fox. Large fish and snapping turtles may prey on very young swans. Much like Canada geese, the swans use their very strong wings to fend off unwelcome visitors.

Swans mate for life but, may accept a new mate if the other dies.

Friday, July 29, 2005

The struggle for the soul of Islam in Canada

In yesterday's post, I spoke of the struggle for the soul of Islam. The struggle is certainly underway in Canada, as illustrated by the following two news items.

Imams meet with Prime Minister,
promise to help root out extremism

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Praising the decision to stay out of Iraq, Canada's leading imams promised Prime Minister Paul Martin last night that they would help root extremists out of the Muslim community.

"It's been a rough road after 9/11," said Riad Saloojee, who helped organize the meeting with the PM. "We're not going to make Canada safer if there's mistrust and alienation." Mr. Martin drew attention to a declaration from 120 imams last week that denounced terrorism, calling it "a very important statement."

"They said that those who advocate violence against innocent civilians and the taking of life represent a perversion of the Koran," Mr. Martin told reporters after more than an hour behind closed doors with 19 imams from across the country. …

Mr. Martin did not give details of the discussion, but did say that there is a mutual desire to improve the relationship between government and Canadian Islamic leaders. In that context, he was reportedly urged to address allegations that security officials have intimidated members of the Muslim community. …

Mr. Saloojee, executive director of the Canadian Council of American-Islamic Relations, said the imams also brought up the issue of Iraq, praising the "moral course" charted by the government in staying out of the war there.

Meanwhile …

Leaders clash over who speaks for Muslims in Canada

From Friday's Globe and Mail

As a small group of conciliatory Muslim leaders met with Prime Minister Paul Martin last night, a war of words broke out between two other leaders whose irreconcilable world views stand as bookends to the diverse opinions of nearly 600,000 Canadian Muslims.

"Imams like Aly Hindy are holding the entire Muslim community as a hostage. A vast number of Muslim Canadians don't want to have their leadership from almost medieval imams," Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress told the CBC yesterday.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hindy — who has given more than 20 news media interviews this week urging Muslims not to co-operate with Canadian security agencies — once again took to the airwaves to say that people like him, and not Westernized Muslims like Mr. Fatah, are the true voice of Islam in Canada.

The controversial imam defended his decision not to put his name on the recent sheaf of signed statements from Islamic leaders condemning recent terrorist strikes in the United Kingdom. "We've already condemned terrorism, this is obvious," Mr. Hindy said. "Why don't the churches, for example, condemn terrorism done by George Bush and Tony Blair?"

So, while the Prime Minister held a meeting that organizers called historic, crucial conversations are taking place in mosques, basements and banquet halls as Muslims in Canada debate what it means to be Muslim in Canada.

In Islam, as in all religions, factions wage a perpetual battle for souls. Within Canada's burgeoning community, debate rages as to how the seventh century's Prophet Mohammed would have wanted his followers to live today. …

Many Muslims find it difficult to say what is mainstream.

"Who speaks for Canadian Muslims? I would say any Muslim in the sense that there is no Vatican in Islam," said Salim Mansur, a newspaper columnist based in Southern Ontario.

He added that the differences are so great that "any organization that claims that they are the legitimate spokesman for a body of people that are so diverse as Muslims -- for that very claim they should be dismissed as a buffoon."

Nader Hashemi, a political scientist who teaches Middle Eastern studies at the University of Toronto, said the dominant strain of Islam in Canada is a harder-line version of the religion than most people realize.

"The imams who have been preaching in Canadian mosques have been imports, people not born and raised in Canada, and their training tends to be in the theological seminaries of the Muslim world," he said.

"When they come here, there is an intellectual chasm between the training they've received in the Muslim world and the reality of secular modernity here in Canada," Mr. Hashemi said. "It's not changing yet but it's going to have to change."

He said that younger Muslims who were born in Canada are seeking a newer generation of leaders whose opinions are more in keeping with their own. In fact, he said, young people cringe at the "often embarrassing" remarks of older leaders.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Fuel for antisemitism in the Qur'an

No religion perfectly mirrors its scriptures. Nonetheless, Islam's history begins with the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad.

Whatever is good about a faith is likely to be derived from its scriptures; whatever is bad about a faith, likewise. This is true even if the bad elements constitute a distortion or an exaggeration of the holy text.

The Qur'an is ambivalent about Jews and Christians. Some texts commend them; other texts condemn them. The contemporary Muslim community appears to be divided along similar lines. At one extreme, Islamic rhetoric actively promotes hatred of Jews and the West (note the shift from Christianity to "the West").

After 9/11, I took a good look at the Qur’an for the first time in my life. This month, because of the terrorist bombings in London on July 7, I have been revisiting the same questions that troubled me in 2001.

Muslim apologists insist that Islam is a peaceable religion, but one has to wonder:  Where does this murderous hatred of Jews and the West come from? Does the Qur’an provide any justification for it, or is it abberant behaviour on the part of a fringe group?

My studies have led me to the following conclusions:

(1) The Qur'an lays an adequate foundation for peaceful relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The Qur’an recognizes the Torah and the Gospel as authentic revelations from God, and hails Jews and Christians as fellow "people of the book."

(2) On the other hand, certain texts criticize the Christians* and especially the Jews in very strong language. The texts I have in mind are bound to inflame antisemitic prejudices where such sentiments already exist.

Let me begin by quoting a text that, on the whole, is relatively favourable toward Jews and Christians:
To each of you [Jews, Christians, and Muslims]
Allah has given a law
and a way and a pattern of life.
If Allah had pleased He could surely have made you
a single people.
But He wished to try and test you
by that which he gave you.
So try to excel in good deeds.
To him will you all return in the end;
It is he that will show you
the truth of the matters
over which you are in dispute.

Judge between them in the light
of what has been revealed
by Allah, and do not follow their whims,
and beware of them lest they lead you away
from the guidance sent down to you by God.
If they turn away, then know
that God is sure to punish them for some of their sins;
and many of them are transgressors.
The criticism of Jews and Christians in this passage is quite mild. And the commendation of Jews and Christians is expressed in terms which are quite startling.

To paraphrase the text: The Torah and the Gospel are authentic revelations from Allah. There is no essential difference between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In principle, Allah could have brought all three faiths together to constitute a single people.

On the other hand, "many" Jews and Christians are transgressors, and Muslims are warned not to be led astray by them. Muslims are to take the Qur’an as their guide where there is any disagreement with the other people of the book.

The following quote comes from an article entitled Does the Qur’an Sound Anti-Semitic? I think the article accurately describes Qur'anic texts like the one we have just considered:
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was in the line of previous Prophets of Allah, including Prophets Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and the Qur'ân is in the line of previous scriptures revealed by Allah. The Qur'ân does not condemn the Semitic race and, in fact, accords Jews a special status given their shared Prophetic traditions with Islam.

The Qur'ân instead criticizes those Jews who turned away from Allah's authentic message and admonishes those who scorned and ridiculed Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and the message of the Qur'ân. Such criticism is similar to the criticism against Jews found in other scriptures, including the Bible, and should be taken by all people as a reminder and warning against forsaking and straying from the authentic message of Allah. Such specific criticism has never been interpreted by learned scholars of the Qur'ân to incite hatred against all Jewish people and should not be confused with anti-Semitism.
In particular, I wish to express my agreement with the statement, "Such criticism is similar to the criticism against Jews found in other scriptures, including the Bible."

It is a universal fact of human experience that no one lives up to his or her ideals. It is true of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists; it is equally true of philosophers, secular humanists, etc.

According to the Hebrew scriptures, whenever the nation of Israel went astray, God sent prophets to rebuke and warn them. (I should add that the prophetic warning was invariably coupled with a message of hope and restoration to God’s favour.) Isaiah 5 is a good example of the sort of thing I have in mind.

In principle, then, the Qur'an should not be declared antisemitic merely because it contains criticisms of the Jews. Perhaps some of Muhammad's criticism was unfair. No doubt Muhammad was disappointed that the Jews rejected his message; and, no doubt, it was this rejection that led to some of the criticisms contained in the Qur’an. But such criticism is not inherently "evil" or "antisemitic", as long as it does not go beyond the sorts of remarks contained in the Jews’ own scripture.

Regrettably, this is not always the case. Other passages in the Qur’an use stronger language to criticize the Jews. Here is a notorious text:
O believers, do not make friends
with those who mock and make a sport of your faith,
who were given the Book before you
[i.e., Jews and Christians] …

Say:  "Shall I inform you
who will receive the worst chastisement from God?
They who were condemned by God,
and on whom fell His wrath,
and those who were turned to apes and swine,
and those who worship the powers of evil.
They are in the worse gradation,
and farthest away from the right path." …

Why do not their rabbis and priests
prohibit them from talking of sinful things
and from devouring unlawful gain?
Evil are the acts they commit!
The Jews say:  "Bound are the hands of God."
Tied be their own hands, and damned may they be
for saying what they say!
In fact, both His hands are open wide:
He spends of His bounty in any way He please.

But what your Lord has revealed to you
will only increase
their rebellion and unbelief.
So We have caused enmity and hatred among them
(which will last) till the Day of Resurrection. …

Some among them are moderate,
but evil is what most of them do!
(5:57-66, the “Contemporary Translation” by Ahmed Ali)
It is only fair to note the beginning and the end of this passage. The beginning sets the context:  the text rebukes Jews and Christians who not only rejected Muhammad’s message, but actively mocked and opposed his mission. The end of the passage indicates that Jews and Christians are not condemned indiscriminately; "some" among them are deemed "moderate".

But, in between these two points, the language used is undeniably offensive. Some Jews and Christians were "transformed into apes and swine". (The language is presumably metaphorical:  Abdullah Yusuf Ali suggests the interpretation, "those who falsified God’s scriptures became lawless like apes, and those who succumbed to filth, gluttony, or gross living became like swine.") They are accused of worshiping the powers of evil. Their rabbis and priests are accused of condoning evil acts. They are even cursed:  "damned may they be for saying what they say!"

Finally, the text says, "We have caused enmity and hatred among them till the Day of Resurrection." This provides a pretext for Muslims to hate Jews and Christians, and regard them as enemies, from now until the end of the age.

Texts which employ such immoderate language will inflame antisemitic sentiment where it already exists. And such texts will be exploited by those who wish to stir up murderous hatred against Jews and Christians (i.e., the West).

Earlier, I quoted a Muslim scholar who adopted a conciliatory tone toward the Jews. Now I want to quote a less conciliatory scholar. In an article entitled Jews as Depicted in the Qur’an, this scholar offers a very negative interpretation of the Muslim scripture. He lists only a single verse that commends the Jews (45:16). Then he lists twenty blameworthy Jewish attributes, including:
  • They love to listen to lies (5:41).
  • They feel pain to see others in happiness and are gleeful when others are afflicted with a calamity (3:120).
  • Their impoliteness and indecent way of speech is beyond description (4:46).
  • It is easy for them to slay people and kill innocents (2:61).
  • They rush hurriedly to sins and compete in transgression (5:79).
  • Miserliness runs deep in their hearts (4:53).
Note that, for each of the blameworthy qualities, the author supplies a proof text from the Qur’an. I have verified that he quotes the texts accurately (by comparison to other English translations). However, his interpretation is sometimes forced and every quotation is divorced from its context in the Qur’an.

The reader may suppose that I am trying to be even-handed in my analysis. In fact, I am prepared to go even further; I am prepared to give Islam and the Qur'an the benefit of the doubt.

As a Christian, I have spent thousands of hours painstakingly interpreting the Bible. I am aware that many verses in the Bible are subject to several different interpretations.

I am also familiar with Christianity's ugly underbelly:  the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch trials, etc. Moreover, I understand that the New Testament also contains texts with an antisemitic tendency. (The examples which I find most offensive are found in the Gospel of John.**)

In the end, it comes down to the attitude of the religious community. Christians who are predisposed to antisemitism will find grist for the mill in the New Testament and, historically, they have done so.

Likewise, the Qur'an is dangerously open to misinterpretation and abuse. Some Muslim scholars support an antisemitic reading. Others offer a conciliatory interpretation. The international Muslim community will determine which interpretation prevails.

Some people say that a war is being waged for the soul of Islam, and I believe it is true. Yes, Islamic extremists are waging a war against Israel and the West. But they are also precipitating a crisis within their own faith.

For the first time, here in Canada, Muslim leaders are taking a hesitant stand against other members of their own faith. (See today's Globe and Mail.)

This war, for the soul of Islam, is barely beginning. And global peace rests on the outcome.

*Christians are praised at one point in the Qur'an, in a text which sharply distinguishes them from the Jews:

You will find the Jews and idolaters most excessive in hatred of those who believe; and the closest in love to the faithful are the people who say:  “We are the followers of Christ,” because there are priests and monks among them, and they are not arrogant. For when they listen to what has been revealed to this Apostle, you can see their eyes brim over with tears at the truth which they recognize, and say:  “O Lord, we believe.” (5:82-83)

The text obviously reflects a specific occasion when Muhammad found a favourable reception among Christians.


**In John's Gospel, Jesus himself speaks disparagingly of "the Jews". At one point, he refers to "their law" (John 15:25). This is clearly unhistorical:  Jesus was a Jew, and certainly did not speak of the Jews in the third person. Their Torah was also his Torah.

In John chapter 8, certain Jews say, "Our father is Abraham". Jesus replies, "You are of your father the Devil" (8:44). Imagine how that text could be construed by a Christian antisemite who wanted to stir up animosity toward the Jews: Jesus himself says that Jews are children of the Devil

Monday, July 25, 2005

A harsh new reality begins to emerge

It seems that I underestimated the significance of the terrorist attacks on July 7 in the London subway system.

Consider the following news items. A harsh new reality is beginning to emerge.

Item #1 —

More may be shot, chief says

from Monday's Globe and Mail

Britain's most senior police officer apologized for the killing of a young Brazilian man mistaken for a suicide bomber, but warned yesterday that more such deaths are possible.

The frank statement from Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair forced many Britons to consider a difficult question: How much police violence can they accept in the name of public safety? …

"Somebody else could be shot. But everything is done to make it right," [the police commissioner] said. "This is a terrifying set of circumstances for individuals [i.e., police officers confronting a potential suicide bomber] to make decisions."

If officers are dealing with someone suspected of carrying a bomb, they must be lethal, Sir Ian added. "The only way to deal with this is to shoot to the head. There is no point in shooting at someone's chest because that is where the bomb is likely to be." …

Jean Charles de Menezes, 27, was followed to work by three undercover police officers. Mr. de Menezes ran away from the armed men, disobeyed their shouted orders, and was shot five times as he boarded a subway train.

The officers apparently first came to suspect the Brazilian electrician because his Scotia Road apartment block was already under surveillance. …

Police say Mr. de Menezes attracted further attention because he wore a padded jacket in summer and because he reportedly jumped the subway turnstiles.

Around his neighbourhood, people shook their heads at these explanations. Immigrants from equatorial regions often dress more warmly than other residents, they say, and anybody — especially Mr. de Menezes, from a region of Brazil plagued by crime and police brutality — might have run away from men brandishing pistols. …

Witnesses say he was lying on the floor of the carriage when officers pumped bullets into his head and upper back at close range.

Note the last sentence:  witnesses say that police had the suspect on the ground before they shot him.

British police have now adopted a policy established by the Israeli security services, wherein suspected suicide bombers are shot up to five times in the head. The rationale is that it doesn't do any good to shoot at the chest, where the bomb may be located; and it doesn't do any good to shoot at the extremities, which would still give the individual an opportunity to detonate the bomb.

Police may be faced with a decision to kill a civilian in a public place, and be forced to make that decision without sparing a moment for reflection.

Imagine the fear among visible minorities in London, facing this new "shoot to kill" policy.

Item #2 — closer to home

More attacks inevitable, Americans warned

from Monday's Globe and Mail

In the wake of horrific bombings in Egypt and Britain, Americans girded for more terrorist attacks, warned by leading political figures and intelligence analysts that such strikes were inevitable.

In New York, millions of subway riders faced the prospect of random searches during this morning's rush, while gun-toting police appeared on subway trains in the nation's capital.

"Our luck may be running out, it's only a matter of time before something is attempted here," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism specialist.

"Both FBI and CIA people believe that the risk of something happening here has increased greatly as a result of the pattern we have seen abroad," Mr. Cannistraro said in a television interview on ABC. …

Last week's attempt at a repeat attack [in London], apparently averted only because four backpack bombs did not explode, left Americans jittery.

There have been no successful attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, but U.S. President George W. Bush has consistently warned further strikes must be expected and that no amount of security can thwart all plots.

Imagine the fallout if there is a successful terrorist attack in the New York subway system.

The first job of any government is to maintain security:  to keep its citizens safe. If terrorists escalate their attacks, and make them a fact of daily life — as they are in Israel — our governments are going to clamp down, however much we may regret that course of action.

My oldest child is seventeen years old. This weekend, I wondered, for the first time, what kind of world awaits him as he enters his adult years.

As a child, I worried about the possibility of a nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. But, in general, we North Americans have been privileged to go about our daily lives without the shadow of imminent danger constantly hanging over us.

I fear that we are one terrorist attack removed from a reprioritization of fundamental western values.

I fear that my son is not the only one who is leaving the innocence of childhood behind.

UPDATE, July 26, 9:30 a.m.

Jack, a fellow blogger, has rebutted the information I provided about Israeli policy vis-à-vis suicide bombers. As I explained to Jack, my information came from another Canadian newspaper, the National Post.

But Jack pointed out, There have been multiple circumstances in which [Israeli security forces] caught the bomber and did not use their sidearms. Jack illustrated his point by referring me to the following examples:  here and here.

Jack also provided a link to this opinion piece from the Jerusalem Post:
Israel has taken enormous care in its "targeted killings" of "ticking bombs," almost never killing anyone in a case of mistaken identity.

CONTRARY TO the absolute lies told in British media in recent days, the Israel Defense Forces have not instituted a shoot-to-kill policy, or trained the British to carry out one. …

Had Israeli police shot dead an innocent foreigner on one of its buses or trains, confirming the kill with a barrage of bullets at close range in a mistaken effort to thwart a bombing, the UN would probably have been sitting in emergency session by late afternoon to unanimously denounce the Jewish state.
Thanks, Jack; point taken.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The time is short

prepare ye the way

When I saw this man carrying his sign through downtown streets, I had to get his story.

The top of the sign isn't too legible in the photograph, but it says, "July 24". He told me that Jesus will return on that date. (That's approaching quickly, folks:  Sunday.)

But he wasn't dogmatic about it; he made a motion with his hands and said something to the effect of (as the lawyers would put it), "on or about that date".

I thought "TOTAL 33" must refer to how many converts he had made, but that wasn't the explanation he gave me. Actually, I never got an explanation of "TOTAL". But 33, he said, was Jesus' age when he died.

"e" means that Jesus still exists.

I asked him if he preaches to people on the streets, but he said No. He just carries his sign, and explains its message to people who ask. People like me.

He was very gentle, not strident. He seems to have implicit trust in God; he's not taking the burden on himself.

In short, I liked this man. This post is not intended to mock him — not at all! I am a Christian. I think religion is a positive force in the world, as long as it isn't aggressive or judgmental.

I'd rather trust a man
who doesn't shout what he's found.
There's no need to sell
if you're homeward bound.
If I choose a side
He won't take me for a ride.

This man was very gentle and he radiated peace.

I asked if I could take his photo. He said I could take a picture of the sign, but not him. He laid the sign on a bench where I could photograph it.

I negotiated a bit. "Would you at least hold it, so I can get a picture of your arm holding the sign — but I'll leave your face out of the photo? It would be more interesting that way."

"You can take a picture of me as I walk away," he answered. He took up the sign and walked off while I hurriedly snapped the photo.

He never looked back. But he's still out there, preparing people for Jesus' return. I saw him, across the road, earlier today.

The lyric is from Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, The Chamber of 32 Doors.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

120 Canadian imams condemn terrorism

This is an update of the story I posted yesterday (scroll down). I note that the imams stopped short of issuing a fatwa, which would have greater authority among Muslims. However, the imams did declare that they would turn extremists over to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service or the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

From the Globe and Mail
Friday, July 22, 2005
by Unnati Gandhi

Working with authorities 'a religious duty,' Canadian Muslim leaders announce

TORONTO -- Just hours after yesterday's [second series of] explosions in London, 120 imams from across Canada issued a statement condemning terrorism in the name of religion, going so far as to say it is their "duty" to turn extremists in to the authorities.

The spiritual leaders, who represent about 600,000 Muslims in Canada, issued the statement in place of a fatwa -- a binding religious edict -- calling this month's transit attacks "evil" and "an enemy of Islam."

The statement condemned terror and religious extremism as "twisted acts [that] betray the most basic value of the sanctity of human life."

The declaration was co-ordinated by the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN), marking the first time in Canada such a large group of imams from diverse ethnic backgrounds have articulated their position on jihadi Islam. …

"I myself thought this was a wave that was going to go away but it's not subsiding; it is increasing," said Imam Mahmoud Haddara, who represents a mosque in St. John's.

"We have to realize that whether the aggression comes from outside or within, it doesn't really matter. There is a loss of life and there is terrorism, and that's really what we should face." …

The imams were prodded to go further, and asked how they would deal with someone harbouring extremist thoughts in their congregation.

They said they would help the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP.

"You try to deal with the situation. You educate that person that even joking about this is not appropriate," Imam Haddara said. "And if they are serious about it, then it is my obligation as an imam to report this to the authorities."

Religious edict by 120 spiritual leaders to declare
London bombings un-Islamic

from Thursday's Globe and Mail
By Marina Jiménez

In an unprecedented move, 120 Canadian imams and other Islamic religious leaders from across the country will release a statement today denouncing terrorism and vowing to confront religious extremism.

The declaration, co-ordinated by the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN), will be released at a news conference at a downtown Toronto mosque following noon-time prayers. Imams from Calgary, Newfoundland and Toronto will attend.

The planned statement comes several days after Britain's largest Sunni Muslim group issued a fatwa – a binding religious edict – condemning the July 7 bombings on the London Underground and a double-decker bus that killed at least 56. The attacks were carried out by four suicide bombers, three British-born men of Pakistani origin and a Jamaican Briton.

Organizations representing Canada's 600,000 Muslims have struggled to articulate a co-ordinated response to jihadi Islam, and today marks the first time such a large group of imams from diverse ethnic backgrounds will issue what is expected to be a similar fatwa or declaration condemning the bombings as un-Islamic. …

In an interview last week, CAIR-CAN's executive director, Riad Saloojee, [said] "The Muslim community is coming face to face with the challenge of ensuring that those among us, especially the youth, can internalize Islam in a comprehensive way that has nothing to do with violence or terrorism, which is inimical to Islamic teachings."

Tarek Fatah, with the Muslim Canadian Congress, called the imams' initiative long overdue, and said all Muslims must clearly support a separation of religion and state as a first step to fighting extremism.

Monday, July 18, 2005

When God commands an immoral act

UPDATED Wednesday at 7:20 a.m.

I think the following post conveys an important message, but I didn't succeed in bringing it out. Hence the update.

When I chose the title for the post, "When God commands an immoral act," I was thinking of current geopolitical events. I was thinking of the terrorist acts which are carried out in the name of Allah.

The rest of us — those who don't share the terrorists' ideology — find the rationale incomprehensible. How could God command the slaughter of innocent men, women, and children?, we wonder. How could a holy God will what is plainly an immoral act?

And the problem is not limited to Muslims. Within the Christian community, "pro-life" believers who murder abortionists are in approximately the same position.

I have placed "pro-life" in quotation marks because anyone who carries out a murder has effectively renounced their membership in the truly pro-life community. And, to be fair, this is a very tiny fringe group which is condemned unequivocally and universally within the mainstream Christian community. Nonetheless, the problem is the same. The extremists kill in the name of Jesus.

Which brings us to the text in Genesis 22, where God commands Abraham to kill Isaac. If the text is taken at face value, it says that God wills the death of an innocent child. (Though someone will no doubt point out that God doesn't actually will it, and stops Abraham before he carries out the execution. More on this point below.)

In the end, I pulled my punches, and I suspect I failed to make my point. Now that I've added this introduction, I will allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

The subject has a broader application, but the connection to current geopolitical events was in my mind as I was writing.

Yesterday, the pastor of the church I attend did something radical. He challenged the traditional interpretation of Genesis 22.

(OK, maybe it doesn't seem so radical. But believe me, it's radical coming from the pastor of a conservative church.)

Genesis 22 is a passage that presents profound moral problems. God commands Abraham to kill his son. God commands Abraham to commit an immoral act. Clearly, Brent (the pastor) has been wrestling with the moral problems raised by the passage.

I don't know precisely what Brent believes with respect to the inerrancy of scripture. But he isn't so liberal that he can just dismiss the passage as a big mistake, an immoral text, a text that misrepresents God and cannot possibly edify the Church.

Brent believes that all of scripture is good; but he did feel compelled to challenge the traditional interpretation of the text. According to the traditional interpretation, Abraham did a good thing when he set out to kill Isaac in obedience to God's command.

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, "Abraham!"

"Here I am," he answered.

"Take your son," He said, "your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

So early in the morning Abraham got up, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his young men and his son Isaac. He split wood for a burnt offering and set out to go to the place God had told him about.

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we'll come back to you."

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. In his hand he took the fire and the sacrificial knife, and the two of them walked on together.

Then Isaac spoke to his father Abraham and said, "My father."

And he replied, "Here I am, my son."

Isaac said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

Abraham answered, "God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." Then the two of them walked on together.

When they arrived at the place that God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.

But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!"

He replied, "Here I am."

Then He said, "Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from Me."

Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that place The Lord Will Provide, so today it is said: "It will be provided on the Lord's mountain."

Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, "By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed My command."

[translation:  the Holman Christian Standard Bible]

This is a very disturbing story. How could a holy God command anyone to commit an unholy act? If God does command such an act, does it become holy merely because God commanded it? How could Abraham meekly agree to obey such a command?

Faithful Christians and Jews will quickly emphasize that God stopped Abraham before he killed Isaac. But this doesn't eliminate the moral difficulties.

Look at the event from Isaac's perspective. With no warning, his father seized him. Presumably Isaac cried out and struggled, but was overmastered by his father. Abraham then tied him up, laid him on the altar, and picked up a knife to kill him. God stopped Abraham in time, it's true; but there is no doubt what he intended to do.

Millions of people in the western world have suffered abuse — physical, sexual, psychological — carried out by a father, a mother, a teacher, a priest, or some other authority figure. When they read this passage, they will identify with Isaac in his abject terror.

To his credit, Brent faced these difficulties squarely. His response was to challenge the surface meaning of the text.

(I should point out that Brent's interpretation owes a great deal to a book by Leonard Sweet, Out of the Question … Into the Mystery.)

On the face of it, the text is unequivocal:  Abraham did a good thing. He was right to obey; God blessed him for it, and it was no small blessing!

In fact, Abraham is remembered and lauded for his conduct on this occasion, more than for any other event of his life. Abraham's example became the model of faithful obedience for all subsequent believers. In Christian theology, this story is regarded as prefiguring the Gospel:  Abraham was prepared to offer up Isaac, his only and beloved son (see verse 2); and God did something parallel when he offered up Jesus.

But did Abraham, in fact, do a good thing — despite all of the moral problems we summarized above? Brent called the traditional interpretation into question, based on the following considerations:
  • God never spoke to Abraham again after this occasion. Even on this occasion, after Abraham picked up the knife, God spoke only through an intermediary (an angel).

  • Nor did Isaac ever speak to Abraham again. The only subsequent interaction between Abraham and Isaac was conducted through an intermediary (Gen. 24). When Isaac's mother died, Isaac and Abraham did not comfort one another (Gen. 23:2 and 24:67).

  • The nation of Israel was not named after Abraham, contrary to what we might have expected. Abraham is told that he will become a great nation (Gen. 18:18); but the nation is named after his grandson, Jacob (aka Israel).
In other words, Brent argued, God wasn't as pleased with Abraham as a surface reading of the text would lead us to believe.

Brent (following Leonard Sweet) argued that God does not want us to be blindly obedient. God wants a relationship with us. And relationships involve a healthy give-and-take; friendships, by definition, are bilateral, not unilateral.

Abraham understood this principle. When God set out to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham disputed and negotiated with God (Gen. 18:22ff.). How could he fail to do the same thing when God commanded him to murder Isaac? Brent pointed out that there were lots of things Abraham could have said to God:
  • This can't be your will, Lord — it's contrary to everything I know of your character.

  • If this is really your will, confirm it by presenting me with an unmistakable sign.

  • You will break my heart, and the heart of Isaac's mother, if you insist that I kill him.

  • It will bring your holy name into disrepute if I carry out this command.

  • Take my life, Lord, but spare Isaac.
But Abraham just said, "OK". And he set out to obey the command.

According to Brent, this was a two-part test. Abraham passed the easy part, the multiple choice part of the examination:  he was obedient to God's command. But Abraham failed the more rigorous part of the examination, the essay question:  he forgot that God wants friends who walk in relationship with him, not slaves who obey uncritically.

So far I've told you what Brent argued. But what do I think? Strictly in terms of exegesis (the formal methodology for interpreting written texts), Brent's exposition is suspect. His argument is based almost entirely on silence:  that is, it is based on what is missing from the text.

For example, Genesis doesn't record that Abraham argued with God; but maybe he did. Maybe Abraham argued until he was blue in the face, but God was resolute in his demand. And maybe the author of Genesis thought that Abraham's initial resistence decreased the impact of the story — it made him appear less than 100% obedient — so he didn't write it down.

But, in fact, Brent's case is stronger than that. The argument from silence is offered in support of an argument based on principle. The principle is, God is holy; God does not command people to commit immoral acts. This command, the command to offer a human sacrifice, runs contrary to what we know of God's character from elsewhere in the Bible. So it is legitimate to raise questions about the text. It is legitimate to present an argument from silence in support of the greater principle.

I am more liberal in my views. I might argue that the whole story is a myth, to teach the people of Israel that human sacrifice is not pleasing to God. I would certainly point out the cultural context:  that neighbouring religions offered human sacrifices, so Abraham might have been under a misconception; and that children were viewed as mere chattel in this era. I would distance myself from the concluding portion of the text, and seek to draw a more appropriate lesson from the story (just as Brent did).

Mostly I want to commend the example set by my pastor. He is not captive to his evangelical presuppositions. He is still able to see moral difficulties for what they are, even if they arise from a biblical passage. While maintaining a biblical faith, he is also attempting to practice a rational and compassionate faith.

I am a liberal, and evangelicals often offend me. But the problem is not with evangelicalism, per se. It is possible to be biblical, rational, and compassionate, all at the same time.

All believers need to embrace this ideal:  evangelical and liberal Christians alike; Jews, Muslims, Sikhs — people of all faiths.

And non-believers — secular humanists et al. — need to hold believers to this standard, instead of merely attacking their faith.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Summer jobs

Since I've bought my camera, I've been approaching total strangers and asking permission to photograph them. I've even had some "business" cards printed with the URL of my blog. When I ask permission to take a photo, I give the person a card.

So far, to my surprise, no one has turned me down. (Someone I approached today set some terms and conditions on the photo I took; but that's a story for another day, when I post that particular photo.)

"Summer jobs" is the theme of this set of photos. Thanks to all my "models" for saying Yes!

Counting pedestrians

A few years ago, I noticed young people like Holly, here, sitting in lawn chairs at the side of busy intersections. Being naturally curious, I had to ask what they heck they were doing.

Usually, they're counting cars that pass through the intersection. But on this day, Holly's thrilling summer job involved counting pedestrian traffic. Oh well; it's a good opportunity for her to work on her tan, right?

A balloon and a smile

I think this photo is self-explanatory. Balloon and a burger, anyone?

Shaken, not stirred

Taken on a very hot Canada Day (July 1). This is our angel of mercy, mixing up a refreshing martini — strike that, I mean a lemonade — with style. But it must really suck, spending all day in an overgrown lemon. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Low tech taxi service

Also taken on Canada Day. Fancy a rickshaw ride, anyone? I don't know how she can do it, especially given that the temperature that day was above 30 degrees Celcius (approximately 90 Fahrenheit). We were melting while standing still in the shade.

Man of stone

A little beefcake for my female readers. Journeywoman says I have the same "V" shape, if I could only see my own back.

Chiselled features

I know I don't look like this, in profile. Journeywoman doesn't even bother to pretend.

Update: Saturday, July 16, 2:55 p.m.

I belatedly remembered this jpeg that circulated around our workplace a few years ago. It seems appropriate to our theme:

Elephant dropping catcher

This young woman dreams of a job counting pedestrians!

New chief of Canadian armed forces talks tough

The purpose of this post is to call your attention to an article in today's Globe and Mail. The article says that Canada is sending 2,000 troops to Afghanistan to combat terrorism. Canada's elite "Joint Task Force 2" soldiers, described as a secretive commando team, will be deployed in combat missions against the remnants of the former Taliban regime and supporters of al-Qaeda.

I share this information because of a discussion on Jack's Shack. As Jack mentioned at the time, my previous post (Is President Bush evil?) inspired a post on his blog.

I don't intend to respond to most of what he wrote on Jack's Shack (The Power of Language), but I agree with the substance of the following remark. Jack wrote:
Maybe I am being hypersensitive, but I have read numerous comments from outside of the U.S. in which they complain that the U.S. should have focused on fighting the terrorists and not on the invasion [of Iraq]. What bothers me about this is that it comes across to me as if they are saying that the US is the sole country that can do this. Where is the responsibility, where is the accounting of how their countries are responding to the threats of terror.
In response, I commented:
I plead guilty as charged. Canada doesn't spend enough on its military, and arguably (some would say inarguably) we are too soft on organizations and individuals with connections to terrorism.

I hope you and your readers don't misunderstand my position. I do not fault the USA for responding to terrorism with massive force. Canadians agree with the actions that were taken in Afghanistan, for example.

My criticism is that the war in Iraq appears to have had no rational connection to the war on terror. It is precisely for this reason that I think it was a colossal blunder, one which deflected attention from the real enemy.
Coincidentally, today's news item speaks to this exchange between Jack and me. Canada continues to support efforts against terrorism in Afghanistan, even as we stay out of the war in Iraq. And Canada has appointed a new Chief of the Defence Staff, who was chosen because he promises to take a tougher line than his predecessor in the position.

In the excerpts from today's Globe and Mail, I have selected mostly quotes from General Hillier, the new Chief of the Defence Staff:

JTF2 to hunt al-Qaeda

Canada's elite JTF2 soldiers are heading to Afghanistan as part of a 2,000-troop deployment that will target the "detestable murderers and scumbags" behind the rise in international terrorism, General Rick Hillier said yesterday.

In a blunt briefing that signalled a new aggressiveness at the top of the Canadian Forces, the Chief of the Defence Staff said the impending operations are risky but necessary in light of last week's bombings in the British public-transit system.

"The London attack actually tells us once more: We can't let up," Gen. Hillier told reporters.

He said terrorists are ready to target Canada as much as any other Western country and that Canadians have to be aware that their soldiers are in for some "risky business" as they head out to Afghanistan.

It was the first time Gen. Hillier has confirmed that members of the Joint Task Force 2 — the country's secretive commando team — will be involved in combat missions against the remnants of the former Taliban regime and supporters of al-Qaeda.

"These are detestable murderers and scumbags, I'll tell you that right up front. They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties," Gen. Hillier said.

"We're not the public service of Canada, we're not just another department. We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people."

Previous Canadian missions in Afghanistan have provided security in Kabul, the capital. But the next three missions, involving 2,000 troops, will be heavily centred in the southern mountains, where soldiers will be called upon to hunt down and fight the insurgents.

Gen. Hillier said Canada is already in the crosshairs of the terrorists, and he does not believe it becomes a bigger target by participating in military operations that give hope to the Afghans.

He pointed out that during the Second World War, Canadian soldiers did not shy away from fighting the Nazis.

"Did they say, 'No we might be attacked over here if we actually stand up against those despicable murderers and bastards?' No, they did not," Gen. Hillier said.

The native of Newfoundland has been the top soldier in Canada for five months. Bolstered by a growing budget, he is promising a "radical transformation" of the forces to make them more effective in their daily operations.

With his straight-talking style, Gen. Hillier has already effected a major change at the top of the military hierarchy in comparison with his blander predecessor, General Ray Henault.

The recent Canadian rotations in Afghanistan have been centred at Camp Julien in Kabul.

Gen. Hillier said that the coming missions will "shift the centre of gravity to Kandahar," the area of southern Afghanistan that saw the rise of the Taliban.

The goal is to bring stability and democracy to the area, he said, adding that this is "the exact opposite of what people like Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and those others want."

I must admit, some of General Hillier's language sends a shudder down my spine. But I sincerely believe that Canada has been too soft to date in its response to terrorism, so General Hillier's appointment seems to be a step in the right direction.

I also agree with Canada's general policy, that units like JTF2 are the most effective way to combat terrorism. The military strategy which was employed during the cold war is of limited utility in the war against terrorism.

To conquer an enemy nation will rarely help the cause. It was the right decision with respect to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, which provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda, but that is a highly exceptional example. In general, we will need to root out terrorist networks which are hiding within friendly (or neutral) states:  i.e., states which do not sponsor terrorism. (The position in which Afghanistan now finds itself.)

JTF2 is designed to engage in precisely that kind of work. It may be a modest contribution to the war against terrorism, but at least it's something a Canadian can point to with pride.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Is President Bush evil?

Bloggers on the left of the political spectrum often assert that President George "Dubya" Bush is evil. To some extent, I am sympathetic to that point of view.

Like most Canadians, I disagree with the decision to invade Iraq. The original justification for going to war — i.e., that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction — was proved to be without merit. Meanwhile, attention and resources were deflected from the real enemy:  the loose network of terrorists who were responsible for 9/11 and subsequent atrocities (e.g. in Madrid and London).

The Iraqi people were delivered from Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule, and a democratic election was held. But thousands of Iraqi non-combatants were killed in the process. The ongoing American presence is interpreted as an occupation, eliciting violent resistance, and American casualties mount steadily. The Americans and their allies have been unable to restore order and make life tolerable for the Iraqis.

In sum, it is arguable that George Bush and his advisors have screwed up, big time. But "evil" is very strong language, and I doubt it is warranted in this instance.

Recently, I made a comment on Snaars' blog that immediately called forth a rebuttal. (Snaars, I hope you don't mind that I've decided to address the issue on my blog. I'd like to broaden the discussion to include my regular readers, who will certainly be interested.)

Snaars' original post, Minority Me (which is quite interesting in its own right) had nothing to do with the war in Iraq or George Bush's presidency. I made a tangential remark, "I do not think Bush is evil in the way Hitler was evil."

To me, this seemed a perfectly unobjectionable assertion. But one of Snaars' regular readers took issue with it:
Why is hitler made out to be this evil that is so astronomical that in today's society individual's can't compare? … I think evil is as evil is. I think the fact that our defense secretary said that torture was ok to use in abu grave was evil. …

My point is not that bush is more evil then hitler, but i certainly would not want to say it isn't possible … I just want to keep my eyes open, and it is difficult right now because i feel like i'm in the same position as a german during the beginings of World War Two.
I should note that I respond sympathetically to the last sentence of the comment. The writer is deeply concerned about the direction his country is headed and, as an American, he feels personally responsible for it. He speaks for many other Americans who are similarly distressed. Their distress shows in their readiness to characterize President Bush as evil.

I responded, in part, by emphasizing the vast scope of Hitler's atrocities. Hitler not only killed six million Jews in a methodical attempt to exterminate that race. He also killed gypsies, homosexuals, communists, trade unionists, people with physical or mental infirmities, and any German who dared to oppose his absolutist rule. In addition to that, he invaded and/or bombed a series of neighbouring European nations in a bloody attempt to establish an empire.

Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, President Bush simply isn't in the same league as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and the very few others who arguably belong in that elite category. I reach this conclusion based solely on the scope of the atrocities committed by these men.

But we still haven't answered the question, Is President Bush evil? To address the question directly, we have to define the term. What do mean, "evil"?

I'd like to introduce a distinction drawn from the field of criminal law. In law, behaviour is not considered criminal unless two criteria are met. It isn't enough merely to commit the prohibited act (actus reus); one must also have the intention (or guilty mind, mens rea).

Arguably, President Bush has made some terrible decisions with horrific consequences. We might go so far as to say that he has committed the evil act (actus reus). But has he done so intentionally? Does he have the second characteristic, the guilty mind? I hesitate to go so far in my criticism of his presidency.

Admittedly, there is one consideration which gives me pause. It seems to me that President Bush knowingly lied to the American people, and the rest of the western world, with respect to the justification for going to war in Iraq. A growing body of evidence suggests that the administration did not just exaggerate the facts, but actively sought a pretext for the invasion, and ultimately invented such a pretext.

If so, this deliberate misrepresentation of the facts was truly evil, in my view:  an instance where President Bush possessed the guilty mind in conjunction with the guilty act. This is a grave offence, when a democratic leader lies to the electorate on a life-and-death issue.

But that is the only case in which I am prepared to go so far. And even in that case, I wonder what President Bush would say in his own defence if we could have an honest and open dialogue on the subject — without political posturing. Presumably he thought the invasion of Iraq was justified, even if the private reason differed from the public pretext. In other words, he still didn't knowingly set out to do evil.

In general, I do not believe we can judge people's motives based on media reports. This is particularly true in the present climate, where objectivity is a forgotten virtue and even journalists seem to divide along ideological lines.

I would encourage people to be more circumspect in their language, but I suspect it's futile. I recognize that measured and nuanced positions are ineffectual in the current political climate. It's necessary to use inflammatory language, if you want anyone to pay any attention.

And that causes me deep concern for the future of democracy as a viable system of governance. But there I go again, off on another tangent.

[cross posted on The Art of the Rant]

Monday, July 11, 2005

My father's respect

I have just returned from a quick trip to the town where my parents live. I went there to speak at the church my father attends. This has become an annual task for me, during the month when the regular minister takes her vacation.

Only a few years ago, I was still trying to earn my father's respect. I'm glad to say I've finally gotten there.

Act One

The struggle began when I was a teenager. (No surprises there.) Hard work is one of Dad's fundamental values. But, as a teenager, I didn't see any reason to hurry to join the ranks of the gainfully employed.

One of the best summers of my life was spent staying up every night, until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, listening to music outdoors. We had a pit for a campfire in the yard. I would run an extension cord out there, set up my turntable and speakers, kindle a fire, and watch it burn while Pete Townshend delivered some power chords.

I wasn't drinking or smoking pot, and I didn't keep anyone awake. (We had no neighbours and my parents' bedroom was on the other side of the house.) But I did sleep in until noon every day. And Dad found the whole scenario galling.

To illustrate the contrast in our lifestyles, I'll describe my father today. He is in his mid-seventies, and he's still only semi-retired. He owns an upholstery business, and he puts in some hours in "the shop" every day. Yes, he supervises the staff. But he isn't above sweeping the floors or brewing the coffee or cleaning the toilets. It doesn't matter who's the boss; it only matters that a job needs to be done. Why shouldn't he be the one to do it?

As you might imagine, the clash in our lifestyles when I was a teenager drove him nuts. Some nights, my turntable would suddenly lose momentum; Bachman Turner Overdrive would spin slower and slower, then the amplifier would cut out. My dad had awakened in the night and pulled the plug.

Bedtime! (I always complied with the unspoken demand.)

Act Two

Then a strange thing happened; it should have earned me Dad's grudging respect, but it didn't. In my last year or so of high school, I got interested in theatre. I even got a summer job as a technician with a local professional company. Suddenly I was working as many as sixteen hours a day, six or seven days per week. And being paid … not much. I was working for the love of the theatre, not for material gain.

Strangely, Dad still didn't approve. He told a family friend, "He finally got a job, and he's earning 16¢ an hour." I don't think the problem was the wages, really; he just didn't respect the work I was doing. Theatre? — hah! What useful thing does it contribute to society?

Act Three

After high school, I struggled for a couple of years, followed by a dramatic conversion to evangelical Christianity. As I had done with theatre, I threw myself into religion with abandon. I completed a Bachelor of Theology degree and became a clergyman only four years after my conversion.

Dad is a deeply religious man. (One of his sayings is, "Life consists of a series of small miracles.") My religious awakening might have elevated me in Dad's esteem, but I still had it wrong, as far as he was concerned. I was ordained in an obscure fundamentalist denomination. And I was making about two thirds the wage I had made in the theatre.

Dad didn't approve of any of it:  not my education, not my choice of a church, not my theology, not my inadequate income. He belongs to a mainstream, liberal denomination. In that denomination, ministers are required to complete an undergraduate degree before they begin their theological training. He said to me, "We believe you should know something before you begin to study the Bible."

Act Four

Fifteen years later, I went through both a spiritual crisis and a marital crisis. (It came to a head in 1997.) This time, I couldn't argue the point:  my life was a mess.

Around that time, there was a family gathering and Dad (as is his wont) decided to make a little motivational speech. He went round the room, finding something praiseworthy in each individual, with one exception. When he came to me, he could only manage something to the effect of, "Maybe some day he'll get his shit together." Not an exact quote, but it captures the substance of the remark.

Act Five

A great deal has changed since then. I went back to school and completed an Honours B.A. in Law. I changed careers; I have a steady job that pays considerably better than anything I have done previously. I'm in a second marriage (without the formality of a wedding) and I'm a homeowner for the first time in my life.

Sorting out the spiritual crisis has been a slow and painful process. I'm somewhat amazed to find, now that the dust has settled, that I continue to have faith. I think of it as a Hebrews 12:27 phenomenon:  what could be shaken has been removed from me; what remains is unshakeable.

Once a year, I speak at my father's church. This is a big deal for him. He is part of the team that is responsible for organizing the service, and he worries over it for six weeks before the big day.

We've now carried out this task together six or seven times. Dad is confident that I will do my part, reliably and effectively. Yesterday he was quick to praise the content of my message.

Somewhere around age 40, I finally earned my father's respect. These are the things we appreciate most in life:  the things we struggle hardest to achieve.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Antisemitic native leader must forfeit honour

This is a sad story. It concerns a native leader who received one of Canada's highest honours, but has now has fallen into disgrace for making brazenly antisemitic comments.

(I should briefly comment on the awkward problem of politically correct terminology. In the USA, the term "Indian" is still in common use. In Canada, the preferred term is "First Nation" but "Indian" is still the correct designation in legal contexts. News media typically use "native".)

The Assembly of First Nations summarizes the achievements of David Ahenakew:
He served in the Canadian Armed forces for 16 years prior to entering First Nations politics. Mr. Ahenakew was leader of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations for 10 years. He served as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 1982 to 1985.
(The Assembly of First Nations is a national organization with considerable political clout.)

Mr. Ahenakew received one of Canada's highest honours in 1978, when he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. His troubles began on December 13, 2002, when he told a newspaper reporter
that the Jews were a "disease" and Hitler was trying to "clean up the world" when he "fried" six million of the "guys" during the Second World War.
Mr. Ahenakew was charged with willfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group. Three years later, during his trial, he was given an opportunity to show how much he had learned in the interim. The answer turned out to be, not much:
"So you still believe today, in 2005, that the Jewish people started the Second World War?" Crown prosecutor Brent Klause asked Ahenakew.

"Yes," he responded.
The Government of Canada has notified Mr. Ahenakew that he must forfeit his membership in the Order of Canada. According to Wednesday's Globe and Mail:

David Ahenakew will be stripped of his membership in the Order of Canada if he doesn't take the option to resign first, CBC's The National reported Wednesday. …

The order's advisory council sent the 71-year-old Mr. Akenakew a letter last week informing him it had begun the process of revoking his membership and offering him the option of resigning first, CBC reported.

The council has contemplated revoking Mr. Ahenakew's membership since 2003, when it issued a statement saying there would be no final decision on the status until after the conclusion of the legal case against him.

The case is expected to wrap up on Friday with a verdict from Saskatoon provincial court Judge Marty Irwin. Mr. Ahenakew faces a maximum of six months in jail or a $2,000 fine.

Doug Christie, Mr. Akenakew's lawyer, would not confirm the report.

"I can only say that Mr. Ahenakew will be speaking at a press conference on Friday about anything and everything. I have no business talking about it until then," he said Wednesday.

During his trial, Mr. Ahenakew blamed his inflammatory remarks on a recent doubling of medication for diabetes, being tired, and having two glasses of wine.

One would expect more sophistication from an individual who had served as a national First Nations leader for several years. Presumably David Ahenakew knows, first hand, what it is like to suffer racism. He should be able to recognize it wherever it appears, not only when his own people are targeted.

I'm not naive enough to be shocked by this case, but it is certainly sad and disappointing.

UPDATE, posted Friday at 4:30 p.m.

From today's Globe and Mail:

Aboriginal leader guilty of hate crime

Saskatoon — A defiant David Ahenakew lashed out at the Jewish community, the courts and the media Friday shortly after being convicted and fined for promoting hatred.

Mr. Ahenakew said he is convinced authorities decided to strip him of the Order of Canada before the court reached its verdict.

"This, of course, was the direct result of the pressure put on the (Governor General's) advisory committee by some of the Jewish community, including a letter-writing campaign and the lobbying by the Canadian Jewish Congress," he said at a news conference.

"If I'm forced to choose between freedom of speech and the Order of Canada, I chose free speech."

Mr. Ahenakew, 71, is currently a member of the Order of Canada, but on Thursday the Governor General's office confirmed it has begun the process of stripping him of that honour.

The former First Nations leader was found guilty of wilfully promoting hatred when he referred to Jews as "a disease" and justified the Holocaust in December 2002, a judge ruled earlier Friday.

Provincial court Judge Marty Irwin handed down his decision in a tiny courtroom packed with Ahenakew's supporters, members of the Jewish community and reporters.

He then imposed a $1,000 fine on Mr. Ahenakew.

"To suggest that any human being or group of human beings is a disease is to invite extremists to take action against them," the judge said.

Mr. Ahenakew addressed the court before he was sentenced.

"I am, of course, disappointed and at the same time very confused at what is justice and freedom in this country," he said. "I didn't mean to hurt people's feelings."

Later, during his news conference, Mr. Ahenakew, who was decorated for military service in the Second World War, said he wondered if the government would revoke those awards as well.

He also said Canada's aboriginal people have been victims of a foreign and hostile justice system.

"First Nations people have never received a fair trial in Canada's judicial system," he said.

He said he believes he is innocent, but will not appeal the verdict.

"The jails of our country are full of our people. My case was as much about racism against First Nations as it was about alleged racism against the Jewish community."

Mr. Ahenakew also attacked the media for its coverage of aboriginal Canadians.

I'd like to contrast Mr. Ahenakew's attitude with the response of Jewish bloggers to the bombings in London.

I've just read today's post at Kerckhoff Coffeehouse, by Dr. Bean. I am struck by the last sentence, "You [residents of London] make us proud. We grieve with you. We will not forget this."

More than any other group, the Jews have been victims of terrorism. The Londoners are not Jewish, but that's irrelevant to Dr. Bean. He expresses solidarity with their suffering. He abhors what was done to them. He admires their courage in the face of a cowardly but terrifying attack.

This is how Mr. Ahenakew should respond to antisemitism. He knows what racism looks like; he knows what it feels like to be a victim. But instead of expressing solidarity with the victims of antisemitism, he has turned on them in a racist attack of his own. Now, after his conviction, he is hiding behind the misfortunes of First Nations individuals to try to garner sympathy.

I agree with Jack's comment (posted before the update): "every group has its own share of fools." In other words, Mr. Ahenakew is not representative of his people — not with respect to his antisemitism.

So maybe I've devoted too much space to this story. But it presents an opportunity to make a serious point, and I needn't hesitate to make an example of Mr. Ahenakew.

He plainly deserves the criticism he is receiving.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Debating etiquette, part 3:  Arguments

People are opinionated. (In my opinion.)

To be opinionated is not necessarily a bad thing. Opinions are ideas, after all; the world needs more of them, assuming they are thoughtful, informed, insightful, and well supported.

But there's the rub. Usually, when we describe someone as opinionated, we mean their opinions aren't any of those things. They aren't thoughtful, for example, because opinionated individuals won't consider other peoples' perspectives. And they aren't well supported, which is the subject of this post.

Opinions aren't valid just because they are clever, or because we would like them to be true. As I said in part 1 of this series:
Judging from what I read in the blogosphere, many people mistake assertion / counter-assertion for debate … Every debate begins with an assertion, but a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate.
Snaars expressed it very well in a recent comment:
I am troubled by the fact that people place their faith in certain radical ideas without testing those ideas. It seems much more sensible to withhold belief until one has sufficient evidence.
I agree with Snaars:  opinions have to be supported by the evidence. This is what I mean when I speak of arguments. An argument appeals to objective facts, then proceeds to make rational deductions from the facts, in a methodical attempt to substantiate an assertion.

Arguments are tricky. With respect to facts, it isn't wise to trust one's memory. Before offering an opinion, it is prudent to double check that you've got your facts straight. The smallest factual error can diminish your credibility.

With respect to deductions, we have to avoid fallacies. As I said in part 2 of this series:
A logical fallacy will sidetrack your argument. It's like taking the wrong turnoff from a highway:  when you reach your destination, you discover you aren't where you intended to be. If your destination is Truth, logical fallacies are a shortcut to la-la land.
Now that we have the above preliminaries out of the way, I want to turn our attention to an even trickier problem. Even when we take care to avoid fallacies, people may find our arguments unpersuasive.

The problem is particularly acute when we reason from analogies. What seems like a perfect analogy to me may be rejected as spurious by someone else.

When this happens, an opinionated person will begin to repeat himself. I see this all the time in the blogosphere. "A" makes an assertion and "B" dismisses it. "B" makes a counter-assertion and "A" dismisses it. Then "A" and "B" begin to repeat themselves, as if an argument becomes more persuasive by dint of sheer repetition. The only thing they "add" to their "arguments" is a liberal sprinkling of gratuitous insults.

Until this week, I wasn't sure what I wanted to say about arguments. The debate over same sex marriage has brought things into focus for me. If it seems like I'm digressing, bear with me for a moment. I want to solicit your opinion — there's that word again — on some analogies used in an actual debate.

As noted in my previous post, the Canadian legislature recently voted in favour of same sex marriage. The decision has received a lot of attention from political bloggers, and I've joined the debate on some of the conservative blogs.

Ken Epp, a Conservative Member of Parliament, recently contrasted same-sex marriage to the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the United States. According to the CBC Web site:
"Blacks in the United States," said Epp, "never asked to be called white. They just wanted the same rights." Epp then went on to say that women in Canada sought equal rights without demanding to be called men.

"And so I ask the question in this struggle for so-called equality for same-sex couple, why do they want to use the word that describes heterosexual marriage and has for millennia?"
Note that Epp is employing an analogy. In his view, when a gay man wants to call his relationship a marriage, it is analogous to a black man who wants to be called "white".

ALW, a fellow Canadian blogger, comments on Epp's analogy, Pretty legitimate point, wouldn't you say? But I disagree, and I said as much.

ALW, I am trying to decide whether your concluding question — Pretty legitimate point, wouldn't you say? — is intended as sarcasm.

Blacks don't want to be called "white"; women don't want to be called "men"; gays and lesbians don't want to be called "straight" or "heterosexual". They just want the right to marry — the same rights as everyone else.

So, no, I don't think Epp's point is legitimate.

I don't understand what you are saying. We're not talking about substantive rights here, we're talking about a label. Men and women, blacks and whites, have the same substantive, legal rights. Marriage by any other name - so long as under the law it is treated equally - would not be discriminatory.
[Note:  I assume ALW is referring to "civil unions", an alternative legal arrangement proposed by the Conservative Party of Canada. Under the proposal, homosexual couples would have the same legal rights that would accrue to them if they were married, but the actual label "marriage" would be reserved exclusively for heterosexual couples.]
Don't conflate rights with labels -it's intellecutally dishonest and oversimplifies the issue. Legal standing and word connotations are two completely different things.

Epp's point is invalid because the examples he uses are not parallel.

Women don't want to be called "men" because they aren't men. You can't make a woman a man by calling her one. Sex is a biological fact, not a mere label.

Gays and lesbians shouldn't be called "married" because they aren't married? It isn't parallel.

Marriage is not a biological construct but a socio-legal construct. Society can change it at will, as the courts and now the Government of Canada have seen fit to do.

You say it isn't a question of substantive rights. So you favour "separate but equal" treatment for gays and lesbians?

For example, if we provided swimming pools for gays and lesbians, we could ban them from swimming with heterosexuals?

Ah, but marriage isn't just a social construct. It has its origins elsewhere.

Your swimming pool analogy is very weak. Gays don't want entry into the institution as it exists. They want it changed to suit them. Hence, they want another, parallel swimming pool for themselves. And nobody objects to that: except some people don't want it to be called a "swimming pool".

More to the point, who cares what it's called, so long as they have what is, functionally to them, a swimming pool?

The exchange intrigues me because both of us presented arguments, but the arguments didn't bring us any closer to agreement.

We both employed a specific form of argument, an analogy. Ken Epp's analogy (to call a same sex relationship a "marriage" is analogous to calling a black person "white") seems valid to ALW, but I dismissed it as not parallel. Similarly, my analogy (civil unions are analogous to separate swimming pools for homosexuals) seems valid to me, but ALW dismisses it as very weak.

At this point, thoughtful reader, I invite you to weigh in. But please don't misunderstand your assignment.

I'm not trying to start a debate on same sex marriage, though it may be unavoidable, given the examples I've used. (My previous post presents an opportunity for people to say what they will about same sex marriage.) And I'm not asking you merely to take a side — to vote in favour of ALW's position or in favour of mine. (The only vote that counts is already past.)

Your assignment is this:  please explain to me which analogy is valid, and why. (Or why they're both valid, or both invalid.) Help me to identify objective criteria for determining when an analogy is valid.

My primary purpose is not to win the debate on same sex marriage. My purpose is to help people think more accurately, so they can contribute substantively to public discourse, on this and other controversial matters.

Special bonus material:

In part 1 of the series, I used a Monty Python sketch to enliven the discussion of assertions. I can't resist the temptation to do the same thing here. I therefore append, for the readers' amusement and enlightenment, the Dead Parrot sketch.

Note the keen reasoning employed by the protagonists. The customer asserts that the pet store sold him a dead parrot. The shopkeeper offers a counter-assertion:  the parrot is merely resting, or (alternatively) pining for the fjords.

The customer appeals to a fact in support of his assertion:  the parrot had been nailed to its perch. The inference is, the parrot must have been dead; no one nails a live parrot to its perch. But the shopkeeper offers an alternative explanation of the data:  the parrot was nailed to its perch merely to keep it from flying away.

See how instructive Monty Python can be? A careful reader will learn much from an examination of the sketch. Study it closely, and increase in wisdom.

I wish to make a complaint!
Sorry, we're closing for lunch.

Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.
Oh yes, the Norwegian Blue. What's wrong with it?

I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. It's dead, that's what's wrong with it!
No, no, it's resting, look!

Look my lad, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now.
No no sir. it's not dead. It's resting!

Yeah, remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue, beautiful plumage, innit?

The plumage don't enter into it - it's stone dead.
No, no — it's just resting!

All right then, if it's restin', I'll wake him up! [shouts into cage] Hello Polly! I've got a nice cuttlefish for you when you wake up, Polly Parrot!
[jogging the cage] There, it moved!

No, he didn't. That was you pushing the cage!
I did not.

Yes, you did! [takes parrot out of cage, shouts] Hello Polly, Polly [bangs it against the counter] Polly Parrot, wake up. Polly. [throws it in the air and lets it fall to the floor] Now that's what I call a dead parrot.
No, no. It's stunned.

Look my lad, I've had just about enough of this. That parrot is definitely deceased. And when I bought it not half an hour ago, you assured me that its lack of movement was due to it being tired and shagged out after a long squawk.
It's probably pining for the fjords.

Pining for the fjords, what kind of talk is that? Look, why did it fall flat on its back the moment I got it home?
The Norwegian Blue prefers kipping on it's back! Beautiful bird, lovely plumage!

Look, I took the liberty of examining that parrot, and I discovered the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been nailed there.
Well of course it was nailed there. Otherwise it would muscle up to those bars and voom.

Look matey [picks up the parrot], this parrot wouldn't voom if you put four thousand volts through it! It's bleedin' demised!
It's not, it's pining!

It's not pining, it's passed on. This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker.This is a late parrot. It's a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot. …

Friday, July 01, 2005

Canadian legislature votes for same sex marriage

Today is Canada Day, and this is my nod to the occasion. The vote in our legislature this week marks Canada as a progressive society. For me, it's another reason to celebrate this great country.

I don't anticipate much action on my blog, since it's a holiday weekend both in Canada and in the USA. Rather than offer any substantial analysis when no one is likely to be visiting, I decided simply to report on this historic vote.

On Tuesday evening, Canada's House of Commons voted in favour of same sex marriage. The Bill still requires the approval of the Senate and the Governor General (the Queen's representative in Canada). The latter two stages are formalities, however, and the legislation should take effect within a couple weeks.

Canada will be the third or fourth country to legalize same sex marriage, after Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain. (The Spanish legislature voted in favour of same sex marriage Thursday; the law still awaits final approval from the King of Spain.)

Members of Parliament are taking a political risk, albeit one that was forced on them by Canada's Courts of Appeal. In nine (ten?) of Canada's provinces and territories, Courts of Appeal had already found that the restrictive definition of marriage — the "one man, one woman" definition — was unconstitutional. Without the legislature taking any action, same sex marriage was already legal in those nine jurisdictions.

The effect of the Bill is to legalize same sex marriage in all thirteen Canadian provinces and territories.

I will be writing more on this subject early next week. I've decided it provides good illustrative material for my continuing series on debating etiquette. Thus there is more to come when the holidays are over.

[from Wednesday's Globe and Mail — link above.]

OTTAWA -- Canada is on its way to becoming the third country in the world to openly embrace homosexual marriage after the House of Commons gave its final approval last night [June 28] to a bill that changes the definition to include same sex couples.

The historic 158-133 vote capped an intense and divisive two-year Commons battle that maintained its political drama to the end, as Liberal minister Joe Comuzzi resigned from cabinet yesterday because he could not support his government's move.

Réal Ménard, a gay Bloc Québécois MP who has been one of the leading proponents of the bill within his party and within Parliament, said the vote was extremely important. "If you are gay, [no matter] who you are, whatever are your rights, you have the right to be in love," he said as his eyes welled with tears. "And I am very proud today for what we have done." …

But, just as there were celebrations, so too was there a feeling of dejection and loss among those who had worked hard to block the bill. Religious groups held prayer vigils after the final count was read and other opponents who had crowded the public gallery of the Commons walked quietly away.

Conservative Vic Toews, who has fervently opposed same-sex marriage, said he does not think the issue is closed.

"There are still a lot of concerns about how effective this bill is going to be in terms of protecting religious freedoms," he said. …

All that remains for the same-sex bill to become law is debate in the Senate, where Liberals vastly outnumber the opposition Conservatives and are expected to pass the bill early next month.

Belgium and the Netherlands are the only two countries to have legalized same-sex marriage, but Spain is on the verge of passing a similar law that will soon be put to the King for final approval.

Alex Munter, of Canadians for Equal Marriage, praised last night's vote, as well as gay and lesbian Canadians who have long advocated for gay rights. "This is a proud and exciting day to be a Canadian."