Religion Gone Global

Reza_new_smallNathan Schneider interviews Reza Aslan in The Immanent Frame:

NS: Last April in Pasadena, California, I heard you announce, for the first time, your support for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine situation. What convinced you of that position?

RA: What has brought me to the bi-national state, instead of the two-state solution, are the enormous obstacles, both political and religious, in the way of implementing the peace process as it was defined in UN Security Council Resolution 242. To be as frank as I can possibly be, there’s not much left of a Palestinian state. Every single day, more Palestinian land is being irretrievably lost to Israeli settlements, so time is running out. These are the realities on the ground in the region.

I also have to say that, for years now, the two-state solution that I’ve been championing in my writings, speeches, and discussions with political leaders has not been exactly aligned with my political and philosophical outlook. I am a globalist. I believe fully in the promise of globalization. We are fast approaching a world without borders, without boundaries, and the ethno-nationalist conception of nationhood that was so much a part of the twentieth-century way of thinking, especially when it came to the establishment of the state of Israel, is no longer feasible in the twenty-first. A two-state solution is anachronistic. The rest of the world is starting to look like the EU, so why are we trying to create something that would be anathema to that in Israel-Palestine?

NS: In this and other questions of geopolitics, how does your training as a scholar of religion affect your thinking?

RA: When I say that I’m a scholar of religions, people sometimes think that what I do is textual exegesis. My job is to talk about the role that religion plays in human societies. We have to understand that all religions, in all parts of the world, are always more a matter of identity than they are a matter of belief. We in the United States, a quintessentially Protestant country, have been lulled into the false idea that religion is about one’s private, confessional experience. It’s not, not even here in the United States. When one says “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Jew,” or “I am a Christian” that person is making an identity statement. Religion is about who you are in an indeterminate world. It’s about your worldview. It encompasses every aspect of your identity, from where you live to how you vote. To think that we can have a full and complete conception of the world, and of international relations, without literacy in religion is, in the twenty-first century, absurd.

anyone who hasn’t begged in the time of Mubarak will never beg


On 6 October 1981, President Anwar al-Sadat attended a parade to mark the anniversary of the crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 war with Israel. It was also an occasion to display the American, British and French aircraft Egypt had recently acquired: symbols of its realignment with the West after more than two decades as a Soviet ally. Sadat wore a Prussian-style uniform but no bullet-proof vest: it would have ruined the line. Rumours of a plot were in the air, and his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, had warned him not to go. Sadat brushed this off, but when he stood to receive the salute, he was killed in a hail of grenades and bullets, fired by a group of Islamist soldiers in his own army. ‘I have killed Pharaoh, and I do not fear death,’ the lead assassin, a 24-year-old lieutenant, declared. Only eight days later a new pharaoh rose in Egypt, and he has been in power ever since. Hosni Mubarak, who stood beside Sadat at the procession, was an improbable successor: a circumspect career soldier whose appointment to the vice presidency in 1975 had come as a shock to political observers. Born in 1928 in a small village in the Nile River Delta, the son of an inspector in the Ministry of Justice, Mubarak was little known to Egyptians, or even to his colleagues: he was a loner, with no outside interests to speak of, and no taste, or talent, for the rituals of mass politics at which both Nasser and Sadat excelled.

more from Adam Shatz at the LRB here.

the mystery of the mysterious mystery cults


The ancient Greeks and Romans must have been very good at keeping secrets. Or so our lack of information on the famous “Eleusinian Mysteries” (celebrated in an impressive sanctuary just a few miles outside Athens) would suggest – not to mention our lack of information on all the other, similar, initiatory religions found throughout the ancient world, from the ecstatic cult of Dionysus featured in Euripides’ Bacchae to the worship of the god Mithras by the Roman squaddies on Hadrian’s wall. There must have been literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of initiates, across the millennium of Classical history. And at Eleusis they included some of the most prominent (and garrulous) writers, thinkers and politicians of antiquity: Socrates and Plato, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, and many more. These cults are often set apart, by modern writers, from the calmer, less participatory, less emotional traditions of Graeco-Roman state religion. But we have no explicit ancient account of what the secret mysteries of any cult actually were, what happened at initiation or what exactly was revealed to the initiates. So far as we can now tell, there was hardly a leaky vessel among them; or, at any rate, whatever the gossip on the ancient street, there was no one who risked committing the religious secrets to writing and so sharing them with posterity.

more from Mary Beard at the TLS here.

Out of the Bois d’Amour and into the fire-ravaged Griffith Park


Once upon a time a boy named Pierre went into the woods … actually he first went to the San Fernando Valley — it wasn’t until much later that he made it to the woods, although clearly it was worth the wait. The Pierre in question is Pierre Picot, an artist with a quintessential L.A. pedigree — UCLA undergrad in the ’60s, CalArts student in the ’70s, and a lengthy teaching stint at Art Center — but who was actually born in France and emigrated here at the tender age of 12. His relationship with Art Center ended on a sour note (as relationships with Art Center often seem to) a few years ago, and by a string of coincidences, he wound up teaching at the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Brittany, right next to the Bois d’Amour forest, where Paul Gauguin invented modern art. That’s when he went into the woods. When he emerged, Picot had embarked on a series of landscapes — ink on paper and oil on canvas — that have carried him along for the last four years, and make up half of his new show at Tom Jancar’s Chinatown gallery. It’s Picot’s first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery in many years. Though he crops up regularly in group shows and has been featured at venues like Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, his profile has been restrained compared to the a-go-go ’80s, when he was part of L.A.’s contingent of neo-Expressionists, exhibiting alongside the likes of Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Robert Longo. “I was doing the right stuff at the right time — it was sort of punky New Imagery. For five years it was like fwishhhht!” Picot makes the sound of an ascending bottle rocket. “But I hated the art world. I quit the art world and my gallery — Jan Baum — in 1985.”

more from Doug Harvey at the LA Weekly here.

The Wise Man

From The New Republic:

Laqueur-logo This wise and interesting book condenses a lifetime of political learning into a few hundred crisply written pages. Laqueur came of age as Europe entered the worst of times. He grew up in Weimar and then Nazi Germany, and then worked as a journalist in the Middle East from 1938 to 1953. In London, he helped to found and edit two important journals, Survey and the Journal of Contemporary History, before moving to Washington and working as a scholar of international affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the last decade of the Cold War. (He is certainly the least K Street-like man ever to work on K Street.) Laqueur has been a significant figure in historical scholarship regarding Nazism and the Holocaust, the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the history of Zionism, anti-Semitism and the Israel-Arab conflict in the Middle East, European history since 1945, and the academic study of terrorism—the latter was his theme long before September 11. He may be the only scholar of contemporary history who has made important contributions to all of these fields. Along with Aron, he is one of those few intellectuals who, for decades, was an important voice in both the academy and the policy world.

More here.

Dr. Craig Venter shakes the heavens with synthetic life

From The Daily Bruin:

Venter If imitation is the highest form of flattery, what then are we to make of Dr. Craig Venter’s recent stab at God? La Jolla’s own mad scientist and crew might just give the Big Guy a run for his money, raising all sorts of moral crises, ethical dilemmas and plumbings of faith. Team Venter shook the scientific world last week with its announcement of the first successfully synthesized self-replicating bacterium. The bacterium in question – a chimeric copy of Mycoplasma mycoides, genomically synthesized and injected into a recipient cell – has a new nickname (Synthia) and an even louder reputation (the first synthetic life form). Like Mary Shelley’s pithy Prometheus, our Dr. Venterstein has done what was once the sole domain of the gods – that is, creating new life. A product of synthetic genomic engineering, Synthia is perhaps the first creature since Jesus to lack proper earthly parents.

The DNA she bears was not written by God or nature, but by our Craig and his cronies at the J. Craig Venter Institute, on a computer. Somewhere in her genome lie some James Joyce quotes and an e-mail address, coded in the language of life itself. Critics are quick to point out that the good doctor did not build Synthia from scratch. This explains the words of second-year behavioral neuroscience student Christian Frese, who dismissed it as little more than “putting a new operating system on your computer.” This, of course, is a feat even the CLICC Lab is all too capable of accomplishing; is the Venter lab any more deft? To be sure, our Craig did recycle 3 billion years’ worth of natural life, sculpting his Synthia after a pre-existing genome and molding it into a pre-existing cell. If not rivaling God, it certainly plagiarized.

More here.

Is the Tea Party the New Black Panther Party?

Panthers Cord Jefferson in The Root:

They were armed to the teeth. They were mad. They gathered at public buildings, guns tucked into their waistlines, demanding limited governmental authority and the right to self-determination. They believed the Democratic White House to be an untrustworthy, imperialistic power, one that “robbed” them under spurious circumstances. They were wary of the “Zionist media,” and they loved to quote at length from America's founding documents, specifically violent, revolutionary passages like, “it is their duty, to throw off [an abusive] Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” They were members of one of the most fringe political organizations in modern American history.

They were the Black Panthers. Had you anticipated Tea Partiers?

As the Tea Party movement continues its steady ascent toward the mainstream, it has also begun filling out its ranks with a small but vocal cadre of African Americans. To many outsiders, this is unconscionable; how could any person of color align himself with a group whose protest signs frequently depict President Obama morphed into a primate? And yet in some ways, the coupling makes perfect sense.

Crystal Hayes disagrees, in Race-Talk:

My father, Robert Seth Hayes, was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP), and ever since that day some 37 years ago, he has been a political prisoner in the state of New York. So when I read Cord Jefferson‘s article, “Is the Tea Party the New Black Panther Party?” on The, I could not help but remember, and relive, the pain and trauma of that day. I also became frustrated and angry because Jefferson’s article is ahistorical and continues the tradition of attacking the Party and misrepresenting its history and legacy. What’s more, it does so in a forum that prides itself on getting African American history correct.

Jefferson begins his piece predictably, by drawing on caricatures of the Party – images of armed, angry, Black men going to war against the US government. But the images that are used aren’t even of Panther members. His opening lines are accompanied by a photo of Malik Zulu Shabazz, a member of the New Black Panther Party (NBPP), an unaffiliated group founded in 1989 that has no connection to the BPP other than the name that it appropriated.

In fact, original BPP members openly reject the NBPP because its ideology promotes violence, separatism, and nationalism, values my father and other BPP members have long abandoned as part of an effective political ideology and strategy.

M.I.A.’s Agitprop Pop

30mia-inline1-popupLynn Hirschberg in the NYT Magazine:

Maya’s political fervor stems from her upbringing. Although she was born in London, her family moved back to Sri Lanka when she was 6 months old, to a country torn by fighting between the Tamil Hindu minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. In the ’70s, her father, Arular, helped found the Tamil militant group EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students), trained with the P.L.O. in Lebanon and spearheaded a movement to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country. EROS was eventually overwhelmed by a stronger and more vicious militant group, the Tamil Tigers. In their struggle for political control, the Tigers not only went after government troops and Sinhalese civilians but also their own people, including Tamil women and children. “The Tigers ruled the people under them with an iron fist,” Ahilan Kadirgamar at Sri Lanka Democracy Forum told me. “They used mafia­like tactics, and they would forcefully recruit child soldiers. Maya’s father was never with the Tigers. He stayed away.”

In 1983, when she was 8, Maya, her mother and her two siblings moved to London. Her father stayed in Sri Lanka. Throughout her music career, which began in 2004, and especially around the time of the Grammys, Maya has used the spotlight to call attention to Tamil grievances. She named her first album “Arular,” after her father. Even though her father was not a Tiger, she also used tigers on her Web site and her album artwork and she favored tiger-striped clothing. This was not an accident. By the time her first album came out, the Tamil cause was mostly synonymous with the cause of the Tamil Tigers. Maya, committed to the cause, allied herself with the group despite its consistent use of terror tactics, which included systematic massacres of Sinhalese villagers. (In turn, government forces were known to retaliate against Tamil villages and were accused of supporting death squads.)

In the press, Maya was labeled a terrorist sympathizer by some; others charged her with being unsophisticated about the politics of Sri Lanka. “People in exile tend to be more nationalistic,” Kadirgamar said. “And Maya took a very simplistic explanation of the problems between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese government and the Tamils. It’s very unfair when you condemn one side of this conflict. The Tigers were killing people, and the government was killing people. It was a brutal war, and M.I.A. had a role in putting the Tigers on the map. She doesn’t seem to know the complexity of what these groups do.”

danto sits with Abramovic


At this point, something striking took place. Marina leaned her head back at a slight angle, and to one side. She fixed her eyes on me without — so it seemed — any longer seeing me. It was as if she had entered another state. I was outside her gaze. Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain. She was luminous without being incandescent. She had gone into what she had often spoken of as a “performance mode.” For me at least, it was a shamanic trance — her ability to enter such a state is one of her gifts as a performer. It is what enables her to go through the physical ordeals of some of her famous performances. I felt indeed as if this was the essence of performance in her case, often with the added element of physical danger. The question was how long to sit. On the one hand, I thought I could sit there interminably. For a wild moment I thought my physical ailments would fade away, as if I were at Lourdes. I don’t really believe in miracles, but I do believe in courtesy. After 10 minutes I decided that it would have been inconsiderate to take much more time away from the other visitors, who had waited their turns so patiently. I held out my arm as a signal, and someone wheeled me away.

more from Arthur Danto at The Opinionater here.



It was 1979 and I had just started primary school. That summer was the first time I witnessed what later became known as iskokotsha, a craze that would, in the euphoria of a newly independent Zimbabwe, trigger the focus of motion in popular dance to snake decisively, seductively, up the body, from the feet to the hips – a sex pantomime of outrageously suggestive moves that enthralled our young nation for the decade to come. Being onomatopoeic, iskokotsha is derived partly from the beat of the snare-drum rim and the appropriate twirling of the body to that rhythm. The dance takes on a fuller character when understood by its other name, kongonya, which alludes to the carefree, if not contemptuously deliberate, rhythm in the gait of a large stubborn animal. The day I first saw the dance was the day we had expected to end with the execution of my maternal grandfather.

more from Brian Chikwava at Granta here.



The story of English in India epitomizes its strange history. English has been a language of occupiers and imperialists, but also one of insurgents and democrats. It has often been shaped by populations upon whom it was imposed; a large number of common English words (“jungle,” “nirvana,” “bungalow”) were, for instance, taken from Indian languages. English has also become, as Robert McCrum asserts in “Globish” (Norton; $26.95), the “world’s language,” and it is a merit of his book that he is alert to the many dichotomies of English’s rise. “Is this revolution a creature of globalization,” he asks, “or does global capitalism owe some of its energy and resilience to global English in all its manifestations, cultural as well as linguistic?” “Globish” is not quite the same as global English. The term was coined by Jean-Paul Nerrière, a French former I.B.M. executive, who noted that non-native English speakers were able to communicate with a minimal, “utilitarian” vocabulary of English words. McCrum, a British author and editor who has co-written several editions of “The Story of English,” explains that Globish is an overwhelmingly economic phenomenon—the language of Singaporean businessmen closing deals with the help of a small arsenal of English words, and of European officials calming financial markets by uttering stock phrases on television. He offers a journalistic account of its worldwide use in tandem with a historical one of the development of English as it made its way around the world. This history shows the depth and complexity of the role of English in the political and cultural evolution of the societies to which it spread. Globish’s influence is unlikely to be as revolutionary or as lasting.

more from Isaac Chotiner at The New Yorker here.

Young Romantics

From The Telegraph:

Book Visiting Rome on her honeymoon, an enthusiastic young academic whisked a fond husband off to view that little oasis of serenity, the Protestant Cemetery, in which lie the remains of two of England’s most celebrated poets.

What struck her then – as Daisy Hay reveals in the Preface to her immensely accomplished first book – were the claims of the two friends who lie buried, respectively, beside Keats and Shelley. Joseph Severn, the artist who accompanied Keats to Rome and nursed him through his final illness, was content to be recorded as the poet’s ‘‘devoted friend and death-bed companion’’. Edward Trelawny, the Cornish raconteur who travelled to Italy to meet Byron and fell, instead, under Shelley’s spell, made a bolder claim. ‘‘These are two friends whose lives were undivided,’’ proclaims his epitaph, conveniently failing to add that Trelawny’s unsevered bond with Shelley had lasted for only a bit less than a year (admittedly, the crucial one preceding, in the summer of 1822, Shelley’s death at sea).

More here.

All evolution, all the time

From Nature:

Evo Endlessly energetic scholar David Sloan Wilson is best known for his work on group selection — the idea that natural selection can operate on traits that improve the success of groups rather than individuals. As well as running a cross-disciplinary evolutionary studies programme from his home institution of Binghamton University in New York and opening the Evolution Institute think tank to inform public policy, he recently began studying altruism in Binghamton neighbourhoods and is promoting the field of evolutionary religious studies. He took time to talk to Nature at a philosophy of biology conference last week in Madison, Wisconsin, where he spoke about using evolutionary thinking as a tool for good.

You wrote a book called Evolution for Everyone. Why is it important to you that the public understand evolution?

Because it is useful. The way most people understand evolution, it is not consequential, and so they don't need to believe it. The 50% figure — how many people in the US don't accept evolution — doesn't impress me. Close to 100% of people don't connect it to matters of consequence in their own lives.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Oxbow Lake

From Lesotho to Sullivan's Quay,
Maurice Scully inscribed in his book
of poetry to me. Because I caught
wind of him mentioning a Basotho blanket
in one of his poems. We got
talking—how we both went to Lesotho:
seeking adventure, growing our hair.
And we ran through places
we visted there, like a river snaking down
the mountains, till our paths
criss-crossed here—converging
like an oxbow lake. From the Kingdom in the
to the People's Republic of Cork
below the sea. And under his signature
X marked the spot to me.

X marked the spot to me
below the sea, and under his signature,
to the People's Republic of Cork.
Like an oxbow lake. From the Kingdom in the
criss-crossed here—converging
the mountains. Till our paths
we visted there, like a river snaking down.
And we ran through places,
seeking adventure, growing our hair.
Talking—how we both went to Lesotho
in one of his poems. We got
wind of him mentioning a Basotho blanket
of poetry to me. Because I caught
Maurice Scully—inscribed in his book
From Lesotho to Sullivan's Quay.

by Adam Wyeth
from Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland
Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2010

Oil Shocks

Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker:

100531_talkcmmntillus_p233 The news out of the Gulf continues to range from grim to grimmer. Recently, it was revealed that the spill has created an undersea plume of oil ten miles long, and that some of the oil has already entered the loop current and is being carried toward Florida. Then the federal government doubled the area of the Gulf that had been closed to fishing. On Friday, the government increased that area again, to forty-eight thousand square miles. President Barack Obama has called the spill a “massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster,” a characterization that, if anything, probably understates the case.

In an immediate sense, the causes of the catastrophe are technical. Apparently, the Deepwater Horizon well was inadequately sealed, and natural gas built up inside it. When workers on the rig tried to activate the well’s blowout preventer, it failed. An attempt to activate the blowout preventer after the fact, using undersea robots, also proved unsuccessful. Another effort to cap the leak, by using what amounted to a hundred-ton steel funnel, flopped as well. Last week, BP finally succeeded in inserting a mile-long tube into the riser leading from the well. The company said that it was capturing a thousand barrels of oil a day, which is what it originally claimed that the well was leaking; nevertheless, crude continued to pour into the Gulf. (In a recent column in the Miami Herald, the author Carl Hiaasen joked that BP’s next move would be to try to seal the well with thousands of tons of instant oatmeal.)

But the real causes of the disaster go, as it were, much deeper.

More here.