Some are more equal than others

Quote for the day:

If it’s a choice between Heather Has Two Mommies or Heather Has Four Mommies And A Big Bearded Daddy Who Wants To Marry Her Off To A Cousin Back In Pakistan, bet on the latter.

That’s Mark Steyn, writing in Macleans. Steyn is that rare bird, a Canadian who has staked out turf on the far right of the socio-political spectrum.

Steyn also happens to be very funny. I often find myself laughing out loud (loling?) even when I vehemently disagree with him. In this case, I think Steyn has a point.

In the eyes of a human rights tribunal, all oppressed minorities are equal. But Muslims, according to Steyn, are more equal than other oppressed minorities. Nobody wants to take them on.

Agree or disagree, the column is an entertaining read. Typical of Steyn, it’s also unabashedly politically incorrect.

Sometimes, the death penalty may be warranted

The death penalty was abolished in Canada in 1976. Even in the ten years before that date, capital punishment was used only for the killing of on-duty police officers and prison guards.

Mostly, I agree with the policy. There have been many cases of wrongful conviction in Canada, which is a strong argument against the death penalty.

But sometimes, in cases where the guilt of the accused is established beyond a reasonable doubt, I could be persuaded to support the death penalty. This week, I feel that way about a local case which is making national news.

Four people were found dead in a car in the Rideau canal. Three of them were sisters, aged 19, 17, and 13.

Their parents and an 18-year-old brother are accused of murdering them.

The father, Mohammad Shafia, had two wives. The fourth murder victim, Rona Mohammad, was one of Mr. Shafia’s wives.

Reportedly, the parents disapproved of the boy that 19-year-old Zainab Shafia was dating. For this, they murdered her. That’s outrageous enough:  but what possible motive did the family have for murdering her two younger sisters and Ms. Mohammad?

The family originally lived in Afghanistan, where “honour killings” of “rebellious” girls is a repugnant cultural norm. But this case is extraordinary even by the standards of fundamentalist Islam.

As my colleague Les Perreaux, who has been to Afghanistan, wrote me last night, while killing a rebellious teenage daughter might fit with that view of justice, while killing the “other” wife might be understandable if hardly defensible, surely wiping out the lot of them, including the 13-year-old, is a stretch, even for the Afghan mind. “I can’t say I ever even heard of a mass family honour killing, even in Afghanistan,” Les wrote.

As I’ve already mentioned, three family members are accused of the crime. But is there any doubt that the father bears primary responsibility?

Mr. Shafia, a well-to-do businessman, was authoritarian and violent; Rona [his wife] feared for her life, her brother said.

Rona was unable to bear children — hence the need for Mr. Shafia to acquire a second wife. Polygamy is legal in Afghanistan. Here in Canada, where it is neither legal nor socially acceptable, the family passed off Mr. Shafia’s childless first wife as a cousin.

When it became apparent to Rona that she was an unsatisfactory wife, she asked for a divorce. Mr. Shafia refused to grant it.

His second wife is a veritable baby-making machine:  she has provided Mr. Shafia with seven children.

I am a strong believer in women’s equality. It seems to me that you can divide the world’s cultures into two camps:  those which respect women, and those which repress women.

Perhaps the single most telling test of a nation’s civilization is how women are treated.

Mr. Shafia’s cultural commitment is clear. It was once said of Herod the Great, “better to be his pig (Greek hus ) than his son (Greek huios )”. Likewise, better to be Mr. Shafia’s dog than his daughter.

Better his whore than his wife.

I could be persuaded to support the death penalty for this man, assuming that the evidence against him is overwhelmingly clear. Many details of the case have yet to be revealed. We don’t even know the cause of death:  although the four bodies were found in a car, submerged in the Rideau canal, autopsy results have not yet been released.

Earlier this week, Kingston Police Chief Stephen Tanner held a press conference to announce that Mr. Shafia, his second wife and his son were being charged with murder. He opened the press conference with a moment of silence to honour victims of domestic violence.

Amen to that.

Obama appeals for mutual understanding and respect

Some commentators have criticized President Obama’s speech in Cairo because it couldn’t be boiled down to any one, organizing thesis. For example, the L.A. Times quotes Professor Avraham Ben-Zvi, an expert on American-Israeli relations at the University of Haifa:

The speech was disappointing, addressing too many issues. When such high expectations are built up, one expects a founding declaration, a central thesis. This was more of a mixed salad. It touched many issues — although elegantly, but lacked a central thesis. […] in the end, it contained many trees but very little forest.

It seems to me, there’s an organizing principle that applies to almost every major address Obama delivers. The principle is the promotion of mutual understanding and respect.

Obama began:

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace. […] I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

At the outset, Obama indicated his awareness of, and empathy for, the experience of Muslims around the world:

The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Obama’s reference to modernity shows admirable sensitivity. Those of you who do not have roots in a conservative religion cannot possibly understand how threatening modernity is to many people. Reliance on God supplanted by reliance on science and technology. The separation of church and state as a Trojan horse for the promotion of secular humanism in public schools. Moral relativism making it impossible to assert any clear distinction between right and wrong. Promiscuity and homosexual rights following in the wake of moral relativism, and new technology bringing pornography into mainstream society. Court decisions leading to a Holocaust of aborted babies, with tax revenues used to pay for those abortions (effectively making every taxpayer complicit in them, at least here in Canada).

I don’t necessarily sympathize with that perspective on the world. But the point is, Obama’s passing reference to “the sweeping change brought by modernity” shows an awareness of the core sensitivity of religious conservatives everywhere — certainly including many Muslims.

Next, Obama acknowledges the West’s indebtedness to the historic learning of Muslim civilization:

The struggle for the soul of Islam, part 3

(If you’re wondering where parts 1 and 2 are, I’m reaching back a bit:  more than two years! See Fuel for antisemitism in the Qur’an and The struggle for the soul of Islam in Canada, both posted in July 2005.)
Johann Hari tells the story of a Somali woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who fled fundamentalist Islam for sanctuary in the Netherlands. Hari says that Ayaan is deeply conflicted. There are “two Ayaans … with clashing and contradictory views on Islam.” On the one hand:

She has no time for what she sees as the ignorant, woolly Islam-is-peace message of Western liberals, insisting: “I see no difference between Islam and Islamism. … Sayyid Qutb [the thinker who inspired al Qaeda] didn’t invent anything, he just quoted the sayings of Mohammed.”

On the other hand, reform of Islam is possible:

She insists, “It’s wrong to treat Muslims as if they will never find their John Stuart Mill. Christianity and Judaism show people can be very dogmatic and then open up. There is a minority like Irshad Manji and Tawfiq Hamid who want to remain in the faith and reform it. …

Can you be a Muslim and respect the separation of church and state? I hope a large enough number of Muslims will agree you can, and they will find a way to keep the spiritual elements that comfort them and live in a secular society.”

The struggle (= jihad) for the soul of Islam is dramatized in Ayaan’s ambivalence. I hope the part of her that dares to hope for reform is right. All of us have a stake in the outcome of this particular struggle.

The interview is gut-wrenching. Ayaan continues to live in grave danger:

The internet is littered with pledges to torture and slay Ayaan Hirsi Ali. … When she describes the people who want to hack her body to pieces, it is in paragraphs that feel pre-packed. Perhaps it is all she can bear to show.

The government of the Netherlands used to provide security services for Ayaan, but now they have thrown her to the wolves. Sam Harris hosts a site where you can make a donation to help defray the costs of private security.

Quote of the day

We don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you that we have it.

Iran’s President Ahmadinejad feigns innocence.


These two gay teenagers existed in Iran. But I must admit, they don’t exist in Iran now. For further horrific details, click on the photo.

On not reducing the world to black and white

I could have titled this post, Quadriforms as a tool to avoid binary opposition, but I feared people would immediately stop reading! Instead, let’s begin with a concrete illustration: both to introduce a somewhat abstract concept and, hopefully, to engage the reader.

1. The harm that results from binary thinking:

George Bush is a prominent example of someone who thinks in binary terms. The statement, “You’re either with us or you’re against us” is an obvious example. In other words, there are only two options, however they may be characterized: with/against, us/them, yes/no, white/black, good/evil, etc.

President Bush implied the same thing when, on another occasion, he described certain countries as forming an “axis of evil”. The implication is, The world consists of good guys and bad guys, at both the individual and the national levels.

Bush in white cowboy hatWherever he looks, President Bush evidently sees cowboys in white hats vs. outlaws in black hats. And such a claim may be defensible in rare instances. World War II and 9/11 are the exceptions that are normative for President Bush. (But even here, the idea of “pure evil” is arguably misguided.)
To think in binary terms encourages conflict rather than reconciliation. Thus President Bush is one of the most polarizing figures in the world today. (Notwithstanding his claim, “I’m a uniter, not a divider”.) It isn’t a coincidence: it is an unavoidable consequence of his binary worldview.

Moreover, to think in binary terms results in a loss of moral perspective. “Good guys” can do no wrong because their goals are just. Therefore even torture can be justified, so long as the good guys are doing it.

Religion provides a second prominent example. Christianity, Islam and other faiths must resist a natural tendency to think in binary terms: us/them, believers/unbelievers, saved/unsaved, those who possess the truth/those who are deceived.

I believe the distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists is legitimate. But evangelicals must exercise constant vigilance to maintain the distinction. To some extent, evangelicals necessarily share the binary worldview of the fundamentalist — thus the natural affinity between George Bush and conservative Christians in the USA.

2. An alternative way of constructing the world:

In a previous post, I mentioned that Sam Harris would like to obliterate the distinction between “moderate” Christians (whatever that may mean, exactly) and fundamentalists. In other words, Harris advocates a binary worldview: theists/atheists. Here Harris makes “strange bedfellows” with the fundamentalists he loathes.

But what is the alternative? How can we conceptualize the world so as to capture at least part of its complexity, instead of thinking in reductionist, binary terms?

I came across an answer in a surprising source: Appearance & Reality by Stephen Hogbin. The book is described as “a visual handbook for artists, designers, and makers”. Hogbin utilizes 30 quadriforms to convey his ideas. For example, this one (p. 22):

mind/emotions, body/spirit

The above quadriform isn’t original to Hogbin, of course, as he himself acknowledges. The point is, notice how it sidesteps the potential for binary opposition: on the one hand, between mind and emotions; on the other hand, between body and spirit.

By incorporating these four elements of the human psyche, the quadriform creates an open space: akin to a narrow forest path that suddenly opens up into a clearing. An individual may conceive of himself or herself as belonging anywhere within that space, instead of being limited to the usual binary left/right choice.

Other examples come readily to mind. For example, here’s a quadriform that Sam Harris would do well to contemplate:

fundamentalist/atheist, moderate/agnostic

The fundamentalist and the atheist represent one continuum. They have something significant in common: they are both relatively certain of what they claim to know.

The moderate theist and the agnostic provide a cross-cutting continuum. Moderates and agnostics alike acknowledge the uncertainty of all human knowledge of ultimate realities. Therefore both remain open to competing points of view.


Admittedly, the quadriform cannot capture the full complexity of human experience:

Nothing is so simple that it can be placed only or always in four ways, but this does offer a start to the inquiry. … The elegant simplicity of a neat experiment carries with it the danger of losing important phenomena, so it is well to think of the quadriforms as a broad map and not as a substitute for the complexities of life. (Hogbin, p. xii)

However inexact the fit may be, the quadriform has its merits: it reminds us that a binary worldview is simplistic and necessarily leads us into error.

Controversial Christmas tree #3

Last Christmas, I blogged about two controversial Christmas trees. Surprise, surprise … Christmas trees are controversial again this year.

A judge in Ontario ordered that a Christmas tree be removed from the courthouse lobby. This time, the community wouldn’t stand for it.

The story was reported in Thursday’s Globe and Mail:

Toronto — A judge’s order to have a Christmas tree moved from the lobby of an Ontario courthouse for fear it would offend non-Christians backfired Thursday, drawing the ire of everyone from the Muslim Canadian Congress to Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Ontario Court Justice Marion Cohen ordered the tree moved from the lobby of the Toronto courthouse to an out-of-the-way corridor because it was a Christian symbol that might not make everyone entering the building feel comfortable.

“This is stupidity and takes political correctness to new heights,” said Farzana Hassan, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress.

“We should ban political correctness, not the Christmas tree.”

the worst of a bad lot

Premier Dalton McGuinty … was happy to rally behind the tannenbaum.

“We’re not asking any one of the wonderful communities that make up our province to somehow abandon their traditions,” said Mr. McGuinty, who noted that Judge Cohen likely erred by not suggesting instead that the lobby be decorated to represent other faiths.

“What we’re saying is, let’s share in those opportunities, let’s better understand those celebrations.”

The Ontario legislature celebrated the Hindu holiday of Diwali a few weeks ago, the Islamic holiday Eid shortly afterward, and will mark Hannukah next week with the lighting of a menorah, Mr. McGuinty noted.

The Canadian Jewish Congress agreed it would have been a nice gesture to include decorations from other faiths, but opted not to dignify what it considered a non-issue.

“This, in one way or another, comes up every year and I think it’s just part of a multicultural society’s growing pains,” said CJC executive vice-president Manuel Prutschi.

Mr. Prutschi said he himself would not be offended by the sight of a Christmas tree in a courthouse or government building.

“The presence of the Christmas tree is a symbol for a lot of people — believing Christians and perhaps non-believers — of a joyous holiday, and we respect that and acknowledge that.”

The Ontario Bar Association wrote Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant, urging him to put a policy in place that “promotes a greater understanding of the diverse religions and cultures in Ontario by allowing displays and symbols, such as Christmas trees, in our courthouses.”

“Our sense is that it’s better for Canadians to respect all the cultural traditions and having a Christmas tree in the courthouse is not problematic,” said president James Morton in an interview.

“We should ban political correctness, not the Christmas tree” — that’s a great line!

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