Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hmm, what an interesting point RICHARD DAWKINS

"Men on a lower level of understanding, when brought into contact with phenomena ofa higher order, instead of making efforts to understand them, to raise themselves up to the point of view from which they must look at the subject, judge it from their lower standpoint, and the less they understand what they are talking about, the more confidently and unhesitatingly they pass judgment on it. ...From the basement one cannot judge of the effect of the spire. But this is just what the learned critics of the day try to do. For they share the erroneous idea of the orthodox believers that they are in possession of certain infallible means for investigating a subject. They fancy if they apply their so-called scientific methods of criticism, there can be no doubt of the conclusion being correct. This testing the subject by the fancied infallible method of science is the principal obstacle to understanding the Christian religion...for so-called educated people."

- Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You, 1893, p. 67, 71

The New Atheists: 118 years late to the game.

Further reading (from a communist, no less - recommended by the great Kenny Gradert).

PS: I've finished Islam Without Extremes by Mustafa Aykol, and hope to review it here soon. Now I'm working on this Tolstoy book. More insights as they come.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Alvin and I's Still Untitled Podcast

My housemate Alvin Shim and I have been making podcasts. Alvin's the brains behind the operation. He picks the topic, poses the questions, edits the audio and writes out the transcript. I just run my mouth off. But it's a lot of fun.

Anyway, if you're inclined to have a listen, I'd love to hear what you think. In this episode, we talk about Rick Perry's new Iowa ad, "Strong."

And here's the ad itself, in all its glorious condescension.

What Rick Perry says:

What Rick Perry means: "I think Iowa Republicans are stupider than potatoes with mouths."

Prove him wrong, comrades!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Levant is Not Enough

This graphic, courtesy of the the insightful and talented Adam McClure:

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Etiquette note to this oh-so-cultured and Western president: Don't LAUGH when you're talking about the murder of 4,000 of your countrymen.

(Bonus quote from the interview: "We don't kill our people. No government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person.")


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fail of the Day

While I love my church, it usually takes me an hour or more to get there on the subway, best case scenario, after which I have to walk about a mile to actually reach the church building. Since I have a new bike, I decided that this morning I would try to bike there instead. It’s only about eight miles by Google Maps’ reckoning, so I thought I’d have a nice, scenic ride instead of two hours of dark subway time.

Scenic? Yes. Nice? Not so much.

Turns out, at about the midpoint on the route I plotted between my house and my church, the Potomac River courses through a valley so steep that, according to the historical markers on the way, the Union Army used is as a natural defense for the Capital against the advancing rebel army.

Robert E. Lee I am not.

The bike path descends sharply downward into the valley, crosses the massive Chain Bridge, and then promptly runs into a highway with “no biking” signs posted everywhere. On the other side of the highway was a hill even steeper than the one I had just come down.

At that point I was already ten minutes late for church. So, I pushed my bike back up out the valley and pedaled sadly home.

At least it was a nice day.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg

I love Gershom Gorenberg. He is a magnificent storyteller, a bold whistleblower, a clear-minded historian, a sober analyst and a humble advocate. His books and writings, while almost exclusively devoted to Israeli history and politics, have a way of illuminating politics as a whole.

Gorenberg is an American-Israeli historian and journalist. I had the honor of hearing him speak in Jerusalem three years ago, and I have been a devoted fan ever since. I based one of my final papers in college on his book The Accidental Empire, which I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again ever since. And so, when I heard about his latest work, The Unmaking of Israel, I ordered it almost immediately.

The book does not disappoint. Instead of focusing on settlements or the conflict, Gorenberg examines the history of the Israeli political system as a whole, from the near-civil war between the Labor Party and hardline nationalists in 1948 to the division and paralysis of the present day.

Palestine-sympathizers are perpetually flabbergasted at the sheer ferocity and dogmatism of U.S. support for Israel. It seems completely disproportionate to America’s actual interest in the matter. What could possibly explain this?
they ask.

While some blame apocalypse-minded evangelicals, some cite the influence of the Israel lobby, and some see Israel as a projection of colonial power, I would argue that, while all of those explanations are true to some extent, the biggest factor in America’s unyielding support for Israel is our perceived cultural similarities. We look at Israel, and see ourselves – a first-world, secular-but-religious, democratic, filthy-rich, high-tech society with a shady (to say the least) founding story, under assault from Islamic terrorists.

A huge part of our getting over this most entangling of alliances will be to begin to see ourselves in the Palestinians as well. The Unmaking of Israel accomplishes the opposite. Gorenberg strips the mask of civilization off of Israeli politics, and shows us the tribalism and savagery at its core.

One priceless example from pg. 149: After listing some prominent Orthodox rabbis who have spoken out in favor of the rule of law in Israel, Gorenberg comments, “They provide a reminder – sadly necessary at the moment – that Orthodox Judaism and democracy are compatible.

Judaism and democracy are “compatible”? That’s the way Westerners talk about Islam. Surely speaking about the State of Israel in the same way is beyond the pale.

Well, no. It only seems that way because Israel shares so many of our cultural trappings.

In fact, Israel is a land where the military’s chief rabbi proclaims that an army medic should allow a wounded gentile to die rather than break the Sabbath, where state money is used to build homes for one ethnic group on land stolen from another, where the government can only rely on certain (and few) military and police units to enforce the law, or risk mutiny and perhaps civil war, where the foreign minister openly advocates redrawing the country’s borders to exclude its minority citizens.

Gorenberg’s sobering conclusion: Zionism and Israel have failed to “graduate from being an ethnic movement to being a democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality.” If Israel does not succeed in implementing the rule of law on its territory (and defining the borders of that territory), it will collapse into “a territory marked on the map, between the river and the sea, where the state has been replaced by two warring communities.”

As I said before, Gorenberg’s writing about Israeli politics has a way of illuminating all of politics. Seeing Israeli politics for what it is can help us in the States to do the same with our own. Americans tend to think of our political system as different in kind, not just degree, from the totalitarian menaces of the 20th century and the dictatorships and failed states of the modern era. We have elections. We have separation of church and state. We don’t target civilians in our wars.

And yet.

And yet, our politics, our magnificent constitution and checks and balances and educated citizenry produced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the oppressive and one-sided politics of the IMF and World Bank, and scores of client dictatorships around the world.

To those on the outside, does the distinction in the manner in which these policies were arrived at matter so much? Are these disasters so easy to dismiss as aberrations in a system that otherwise delivers peace and justice? Is the destruction of Iraq merely a stumbling block on the road to the “least bad” political reality? Or is it a symptom of a political system that is just as rotten as those we vilify in our press and public rhetoric?

Anyway. It’s a great book, and I would recommend it to all students of politics and the Middle East.

Now that I’ve praised it to the firmament, let me enumerate its flaws.
Gorenberg is a forceful advocate of the two-state solution. One state for the Jews, one state for the Palestinians. Self-determination for all, everybody’s happy.

His argument against the “one-state solution” – one man, one vote, one government for all the Jews and Palestinians in the land – is that, “A single state would not be a solution – or even a workable arrangement… It would be a nightmare: another of the places marked on the globe as a country in which two or more communities do battle the most educated or well-connected members of each look for refuge elsewhere.” Gorenberg cites Lebanon as an example.

Yes, of course, it would be a disaster. And yet, The Unmaking of Israel does not seem to offer a way to avoid that outcome. Just because Lebanon is a perpetual mess does not make a “four-state solution” (Christian, Sunni, Shia, Druze) possible there. So too with the Jews and the Palestinians.

Gorenberg knows exactly what must be done save his country. The tragedy is that, in explaining what must be done, he demonstrates its impossibility.

One example: Gorenberg writes, “Ending the occupation is…the precondition for disestablishing religion and creating equality for the Arab minority.” This, he says, is because the occupation makes it politically impossible to include political parties representing Israel’s Arab minority in coalition governments, thus giving small Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties effective veto power on things like civil marriage and religious education.

This is akin to arguing that, in order to get into the car, we will need to drive to the locksmith.

A political party that has the power to block, say, civil marriage, most likely also has the power to block the surrender of the Holy Land, yes?

And once Israel somehow achieves a coalition government willing to end the occupation, how will it be accomplished? There are over 500,000 Jews living on occupied territory. As Gorenberg admits, even with the most creative redrawing of borders and land swaps, 65,000 settlers, at a minimum, will have to be evacuated to create a Palestinian state.

As Gorenberg details in the book, removing just 9,000 settlers from Gaza required a combined force of 25,000 soldiers and policemen, or almost three security officers per settler. The operation utilized 10,000 police, a third of Israel’s police force, which was called upon because Israel’s leaders were uncertain if the army could be counted on to carry out the evacuation without mutinying.

Will the Israel Defense Forces really carry out the biggest forced expulsion of Jews since 1948? Will Jewish soldiers deport Jews from Bethlehem and Hebron and Shechem and Jerusalem?

The uber-depressing reality of this conflict is that it has the potential to continue for decades, if not a century. While American presidential candidates grandstand about their unswerving support for Israel, Israel’s own policies have very likely already doomed it to dirty ethnic conflict for the foreseeable future. Two-state? One-state? Probably, none of the above.

For all the talking that gets done about Israel in this country, I rarely hear these realities acknowledged. If we’re going to continue butting in to this conflict, then it’s our responsibility to listen to voices like Gorenberg’s. There may yet be hope.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Speaking the Queen's

About that last post...sorry if it threw you for a loop. Sometimes I get grandiose notions about writing here in Arabic EVERY DAY, and slowly building a bilingual audience. Then I actually try it, and it takes me half an hour to write three paragraphs, and I scale back my ambitions slightly.


I have a permanent place to stay, but not a permanent place to sleep.

I shall explain.

For the first five weeks I was in DC, my best friend since I was 9, Adam, let me crash on his futon in his tiny apartment in Arlington. This was a good arrangement, and I'm blessed to have friends as generous as him, but I clearly needed a place of my own.

I had originally planned to housesit for some Dordt alums in the area who were selling their place. That didn't work out in the end. So I got on the interwebs, and found a great house out in a suburb called Falls Church. There are six other Christian guys living here, most of whom have jobs in the city, and a few of whom are going to seminary.

So I moved into the house's basement two weeks ago. It's really nice, and very spacious - it has a kitchen, a living room and a bathroom. My housemates are great, although they're pretty busy. One of them works on for a congressman on the hill and rides the same train as me and reads the same science fiction novels as me. So that's pretty special. Another went on the exact same study abroad program as me a year after I did!

All of which is to say, it's very nice to be grounded for the first time in a while. But the basement apartment is unfurnished. And I haven't had the time to go bed shopping. So I've been sleeping on an air mattress for the past two weeks.

I'll get around to it. Eventually.


Almost every Sunday since I moved here, I have attended services at the Arabic Baptist Church, in the northwest corner of the District. I went the first Sunday I was here, the congregation welcomed me very warmly, and I understood a lot more of the sermon than I thought I would, so I've kept going. The congregation is made up almost entirely of Arab immigrants and their families - from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and elsewhere. I feel very blessed to have found this congregation, and honored by their welcome. The only hitch is that it's kind of far from my house. Hopefully I'll be able to keep going.


LAST Sunday though, my good friend Jordan, who was in Syria with me and now, providentially, is working with the Mennonite Volunteer Service in the District

invited me to go to a Syriac Orthodox Church service in Virginia. A bishop he knew from his time in Syria was visiting, and he wanted to see him.

Like the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, the Syriac Orthodox Church preserves the language of the Christians of Syria from before the Arab-Muslim conquest in the 7th century. That language is Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and his followers, and still widely spoken in Syria today.

The mass was awesome! The ushers gave us books that printed the entire liturgy in English, Syriac, and Syriac-transliterated-into-English-letters so we could chant along with the congregation. It amazed me how similar Arabic and Syriac are. Still, I was able to tell when the bishop stopped speaking in Syriac and started speaking in Arabic. There was no apparent rhyme or reason to which of the three languages was spoken at any one time. It was exhilarating.


My brother Simon and his friend Matt came to visit two Saturdays ago, my first weekend in the new house. They were kind enough to drive my parents' car home for me (I hate city driving, and I love the DC Metro), but that took them all day Sunday, so we had to pack all of our activities into Saturday. To that end, I marched them out the door at 9:00 AM and didn't bring them back until 10:00 PM.

We had a great time! Though, barring an imminent proletarian revolution, I'm pretty sure I've got some career-devastating dirt on my bro.

"Let a unbathed COMMIE teach our kids math? Not my Jimmy!"


Also - ALSO! - I am sharing my massive new basement apartment with one of my best friends from college, Proconsul Alvin Shim himself. His is a life to be imitated by all lost 20-somethings out there in Recessionland. Fresh off a year of teaching English in Korea, when I told him I was moving to DC for work, he decided to move here too - to job search. I have never done anything that courageous. I have no doubt he'll find work soon. Any company would be lucky to have him. And I am very blessed to have his company and wisdom. Here's to you, pal.


Work is good. But I can't really talk about it. Omar B. is probably watching this page...


With a paycheck comes an illusion of riches. I recently succumbed to this illusion by buying five books on Amazon, sheerly for pleasure.

Two days ago, the first three arrived. The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg, Islam Without Extremes by Mustafa Aykol, and Formic Wars: Burning Earth, by Orson Scott Card.

Ohmygoshimsoexcitedicanhardlywaittofinishallthree...No. No. Have to pace myself.


Speaking of books, my friend Adam (not the guy who let me crash on his futon) recently asked me this:

"What books were foundational for you? I'd like to read more but I don't know where to start. A budding Pacifistic Socialist needs some guidance."

Pacifistic socialist? Slow down, Karl.

The Accidental Empire by Gershom Gorenberg
Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East by Rashid Khalidi
The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy
The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell
Night Draws Near by Anthony Shadid
The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria
The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott
The Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul
The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky
The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald Sider
Living in the End Times by Slavoj Zizek
Jesus for President by Chris Haw Shane Claiborne (why lie?)
Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
Until Justice and Peace Embrace by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Mind you, these are simply the books I've read that influenced me the most. There are almost certainly better books out there.

What do you think, readers? Which books would be on your list?


If it's all the same to you guys, I'm not going to blog much more about the 2012 presidential race. What more is there to say than this: we live in an age and a country where the national frontrunner can forget which country we were at war in last, where our news media is so nihilistic that the only question they ask about any occurrence or utterance is, "Will this help/hurt him/her in the polls?," where a momentary brain lapse during a debate is both universally acknowledged to be an uncontrollable side effect of stress and universally proclaimed to be a candidacy-shattering moment, where candidates boldly propose cutting ALL foreign aid, only to have their spokespeople rush in after the fact to clarify that, of course, they didn't mean to imply that we would ever, EVER cut off aid to Israel.

In a race like this, camping out with a bunch of petulant signs and no demands actually is a rational alternative to voting.


Oh the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin'.
Like the stillness in the wind
'Fore the hurricane begins,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Oh the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking.
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking.

Oh the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they'll be smiling.
And the rocks on the sands
Will proudly stand,
The hour that the ship comes in.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they're spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline.
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck,
The hour that the ship comes in.

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin'
And the ship's wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin'.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'.
But they'll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it's for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they'll raise their hands,
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands,
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh's tribe,
They'll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

دفتر اليوم بالعربي

مرحبا و سلام, يا اصدقائي. قررت ان ابداء اكتب بالعربي هنا, على بلاجي. تبعا, اعرف سوف يكون كثير غلط, لاني مثل الولد بالعربي. ولكن, اريد ان امارس. ان شاء الله, شي يوم سوف اقرا هده كلمات و اضحك معكم.

الان, اعيش في مدينة واشينتن, العاصمة الامريكية. هده مدينة لها كثير عرب. تقريبا كل يوم, اسمع الناس يتكلمون عربي. احيانا, احاول اتكلم معهم. عداة, لا. انا لا اريد ان اعزبهم, و تبعا, في كثير امريكيين هنا انهم يتكلم عربي افضل مني.

ولكن اليوم, ذهبت الى حلاق, و كنت متفاجئ و سعيد, لانه الحلاق و اخه كانوا من الاردن!  و ايضا كان فيه ضابط من السفارة الكويت. كلهم كانوا لطيفين فعلا, و عندما دركوا اني اعرف بعض عربي, تكلموا معي شوي. الضابط عزمني لاشرب قهوة معه شي يوم في السفارة!

ايضا اليوم, شتريت الدراجة. كان غالي شوي (ثمانين دولار) ولكن, امبيا كل شي هنا غالي. و ايضا,افكر انه الراجل هو باعه علي كان غشاش. صديقي شترا الهويس عشرة دولار, ولكن عندما حاولت اشتري نفس الهويس, قال "عشرين دولار"! فكرت كنت في القاهرة مرة ثانيا.

هدا بس. شكرا للكم لتقراون, و اذا تشهدون غلط كبير, اقولوني, من فضلكم.
مساء الخير و الله معكم.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

I went to Occupy DC today. Actually, today it was more like Occupy DC/Statehood for DC/Stop the Machine/Out of Afghanistan/Martin Luther King Jr. Dedication/Troy Davis was framed/Marxism, yay! The local DC political leadership decided to plan a march to call for DC statehood the day before the official dedication of the MLK Jr. monument. Of course, Occupy DC and all the other usual suspects had to join in.

It was fun.


"So, Joel, what do you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement?"

Why thanks for asking!

Occupy Wall Street is a grassroots, spontaneous outpouring of anger at the situation our country is in, and an acknowledgement that the democratic political process in the United States has failed. It has failed about as completely as it could without sparking an actual armed revolution.

The correct way to address grievances, we are told, is to lobby, write letters, and above all, vote. And vote we have. In 2008, after seven years of horrifically bloody war and the biggest economic disaster in eighty years, we replaced a WASP conservative president with our first minority president ever: a liberal, half-term senator of Muslim ancestry. If that wasn't a sign that the electorate was fed up with politics as usual, I don't know what could be.

That president has continued the last one's war policy almost unaltered - except for the new methods he has devised to flout the Constitution - and has done very little to help the millions of Americans facing unemployment or foreclosure, or hold accountable the financial sector that got us into this mess. So we voted the opposition party into power in Congress. In the past year and half, the opposition party has nearly shut down the federal government twice, nearly sent us into national debt default once, and has challenged the president on abortion, gay rights, healthcare, foreign policy, increased taxes on the rich - just about everything but help for the middle class and meaningful economic reform. Last week, after killing the president's plan to create more jobs, the Loyal Opposition unveiled its own job creation plan: repeal universal healthcare, add a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, expand offshore drilling, and cut corporate taxes (in a year when GE paid NO TAXES WHATSOVER). Thanks, GOP! Glad you're taking our Third World unemployment rate so seriously.

9.1% of Americans are unemployed.

17.8% are underemployed

25% of American children are in poverty.

Average wages for middle class and poor Americans have declined by 7% and 12% respectively in the past decade.

800,000 homes will be foreclosed on this year. 1 million were last year.

All this, in the richest country on earth. That's insanity.

Mass unemployment and poverty is only the biggest crisis our country is facing. If we ever get it sorted out, we will have to proceed to tackle the debt crisis, the entitlements crisis, the immigration crisis, the environmental crisis, the education crisis, and so on. And once the crises are dealt with, we must address the host of fundamental, unspoken unjustices of the American system: regressive taxation, massive corporate subsidies that distort the free market and undermine developing economies around the world, a military budget that exceeds the combined military budgets of every other country on earth, military aid to dictators overseas, the war in Afghanistan/with Pakistan.

Do YOU think, based on the last three years, our political system is up to the challenge?

The normal political channels are not working. The media cycle, the campaign finance system, and the two-party power structure all conspire to ensure that no one who might actually fix things will win an election. The odds that the 2012 elections will bring in leadership who would enact true change are similar to the odds that the 2005 Egyptian elections would have.

And so, our dispossessed have opted for an Egyptian solution. Go outside the political process. Occupy a public space. Interrupt business as usual. Focus the attention of the media and the political class on real issues facing us, as opposed to fake ones. ("Will Sarah Palin run? Will Amanda Knox be released? Do conservatives think Obama is the Antichrist?")

Thus far, they have manifestly succeeded. And for that, they deserve our gratitude.


"What do the protestors want?" the media and conservative politicians ask over and over again. It's a fair question. I asked it myself when the protests were first starting. At that point, I didn't think they would come to anything. The fact that they have become a global phenomenon WITHOUT a clear set of demands or objectives is astonishing, and should tell us just how bad things have become. Grilling the Occupy Wall Street protestors should be the last thing on our minds. In a world in this state, we should be posing questions to our political and economic class, as they are.

But if the protestors refuse to make demands...then how does this end?

Keep in mind that the whole point of these protests is to effect change OUTSIDE the normal political/economic system. I found this statement on a pro-OWS blog: "Making demands is ultimately disempowering because it gives the other side the power to address or ignore them as they see fit."

Those words sound like academic bullhonkey at first blush. But I find them kind of chilling. By not making demands of those power, the protestors are declaring that they don't recognize the power of those in authority. Nothing short of unconditional surrender will do.

Carrying that thinking to its logical conclusion leaves us with nothing less than a dictatorship of the proleriat stepping in to assert the "General Will" of the people. Hey, it happened in Egypt and Libya.

Of course, that won't happen. But assuming these protests spread, it does give the powers that be extra incentive to make concessions, eh?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Mask is Off و نشاهد الوجه الحقيقي

I spent more of my day than I'd like to admit translating a flurry of Facebook postings from my Egyptian Christian and Muslim friends. I learned a lot of new Arabic words - "cowardly," "dogs" [plurals are tricky] and a curse word that's pronounced "mdasesh" and isn't found in any of my dictionaries.

OK - some context.

On February 18, Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt after three weeks of massive street protests, transferring power to a military council. The military council pledged to restore order and hold democratic elections after an appropriate transitionary period.

Since then, Egypt's economy has stalled, its violent crime rate has exploded, at least one person has been arrested and hauled before a military court for saying mean things about the army on his blog, and most worryingly, violence against Egypt's Christians (10% of the population) has spiraled out of control. Scores of Christians have been killed in attacks by Muslim extremists on churches, priests, and Christian homes.

Still, there was still a chance that Egypt's new military rulers were serious about steering Egypt towards a genuine, liberal democracy. The Egyptian people trusted them. I did too.

Sunday, that question was settled for us.

On Sunday, 1,000 Egyptians, mostly Christian, but also some Muslims, marched in Cairo to protest the burning of a church in southern Egypt by a Muslim mob on September 30. (There's a book I want these fanatics to read. It imparts insights like this: "لا اكراه في الدين.")
The protestors, quite understandably, demanded better protection for Christians from the government, an end to inflammatory rhetoric against Christians on state TV, and the sacking of a governor who incited the mob.

A few hours into the peaceful march, the protestors were assaulted by plainsclothed thugs. When the protestors tried to resist, the military suddenly appeared with tanks and guns. Troops fired indiscriminately into the crowd, and the tanks starting deliberately running over protestors. When it was all finished, around 25 people were dead.

Egypt's military rulers appear to have found a solution to the embarrasment of Muslim-on-Christian violence: kill the Christians until they shut up about it.

The revolution is betrayed. The Egyptian military, having prospered muchly under three decades of rule by Air Force commander Hosni Mubarak, owns anywhere between 5 and 30 percent of Egypt's economy. That's not a whacked-out conspiracy; that's life in the third world. It seems clear now that the Egyptian military's strategy to survive the revolution is, and has been from the start, to assume the role of the Guardian of Liberty, transfer political power to a democratically-elected government that's seen as legitimate by the people, then slip behind the curtain to enjoy its portion. Equal rights for Egypt's Christians have no place in that strategy. The military isn't about to risk upsetting the majority on their behalf.

After this massacre - judging by the press accounts there appears to be no other word for it - Egyptians of good will, Muslim and Christian, may unite again in Tahrir to demand the end of the military power structure. Or, maybe, the military will succeed in its intimidation strategy, hold elections as scheduled on November 28, and run off into the night, plunder in tow and minorities hung out to dry. They may get away with it.

But know this, ya mushir: there is a God in heaven, and there is a Judgment Day.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Weekly Standard explains why we should stick with Hamid Karzai

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."

- George Orwell, 1946

"At the center of any effort to build an independent Afghan state is [President] Hamid Karzai, who is much maligned for a realpolitik approach to statecraft, ties to corruption, and a changeable personality. But however correct these critiques may be, it is also true that Karzai is the product of a particular political system, a man with clear interests and largely predictable behavior and, crucially, whose political objects largely align with our own in the region."

- Richard Cleary and Thomas Donnelly on the Weekly Standard blog today

And translating into Old English: "Yes, Hamid Karzai is an election-stealing, drug-running, double-dealing thug, but he's the only political figure in the country who will do our bidding, and really, what can else can you expect from Muslims? Let's continue to send him American money and weapons and young American men and women to die defending his regime."

Ben Ali Mubarak Qaddafi Saddam Suharto Pinochet Arafat Diem Zia Reza Shah Ceaucescu the House of Saud Saleh Bashir Montt Mobutu Karimov Bakiyev Duvalier. Mind you, this is only off the top of my head.

How much longer are we going to do this, kids?

U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama With World Leaders at the Metropolitan Museum in New York
Obama and Michelle pose with this guy.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Of Settlers and Cemeteries

A good friend of mine from my semester in Egypt is currently attending med school in Beer Sheva, Israel. This is good for him, because he is an avid traveler, who documents his travels to many places* on his blog Not Enough Clothes in my Bag. Recently, he posted about his trip to Hebron, the former capital of ancient Israel, home to 400,000 Palestinians, 400 Jews, 2,000 Israeli soldiers and a whole heck of a lot of trouble. His writing is both entertaining and illuminating (and in this age of austerity, I think we can all appreciate the fact that he refuses to capitalize anything). I highly recommend reading this post.

A sample:

"there are all kinds of 'historical' placards in [Hebron] (in english), describing the variety of ways that the arabs have insulted judaism in the city throughout history. one talks about how they disrespected a jewish cemetary by allowing a farm to built beside it. literally across the street, there is an overgrown arab cemetary with an israeli army bunker built in the middle of it, and huge spools of extra barbed wire stacked on top of the graves."

That is all.

I miss you, Jason.

*Like Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Kenya, India, Dubai, the UK, Nepal, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Greece, Iceland, Kosovo, Kuwait, Latvia, Montenegro, Oman, Qatar, South Korea, Serbia, Uganda, France, Albania, Italy, Sri Lanka and such.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Phantom Menace

"The tribulation may be upon us," warns Washington State professor Matthew Avery Sutton in the New York Times.

Not the Great Tribulation predicted in the Bible. No, the tribulation that will be shortly ushered in by American evangelicals voting for "anti-statist" candidates, because of their fear that Obama is the Antichrist.

In times of trouble, from World War I to the Great Depression, Professor Sutton tells us, American evangelicals have long sought comfort and explanation in biblical apocalypticism. And these are times of trouble! Sutton concludes, "The sentiment that Mr. Obama is preparing the United States, as Roosevelt did, for the Antichrist’s global coalition is likely to grow. Barring the rapture, Mrs. Bachmann or Mr. Perry could well ride the apocalyptic anti-statism of conservative Christians into the Oval Office."

What evidence does Professor Sutton present to demonstrate this "growing sentiment"?

This three-year-old campaign ad from John McCain.

And that's it.

Sutton's piece was one of the Times's most e-mailed pieces last week.

Over at CNN's BeliefBlog, the editors have written a piece entitled, "A movement to paint Obama as the Antichrist?" They at least quote someone who's called Obama the Antichrist in the past year - a lone protester at a recent dinner where the president was raising money for his re-election campaign.

Based on that incident, Sutton's piece, and, once again, that pre-recession McCain ad, the editors ask, "What do you think? Is there a gathering movement to paint the president as the Antichrist? Are such charges overblown attempt to discredit Obama's critics?"

Do you want me to answer that honestly, BeliefBlog?

I'll be the first to admit it - evangelical politics, by-and-large, is whack. (Although considering the level of affluence we're afflicted by, it could be a lot worse.) But that doesn't mean the millennialists are on the verge of destroying the American system. The left's treatment of evangelicals in politics is starting to resemble the Oklahoma legislature's campaign against Shariah law. (With Oklahoma's Muslims constituting .008% of the population, it was a close call!)

Unemployment in this country has been nearly at 10% for three years, and we're most likely headed into another recession. Health insurance premiums are through the roof, as are insurance deductibles. The wars are going terribly. Social Security is going insolvent, and the immigration, education and environmental crises continue to fester, with scarcely any attention from the national government. 40% of the babies born in this country this year will be born out of wedlock, and a fifth of the pregnancies in this country will end in abortion. Our national debt is skyrocketing, and our federal government has, so far this year, nearly shut down three times.

Maybe that's why reactionary candidates like Bachmann and Perry are doing so well.

Or maybe it's because evangelicals who are scared of the Mark of the Beast are driving national politics.

You never know. As Professor Sutton tells us, "evangelicals have grown ever savvier and now constitute one of the largest interest groups in the Republican Party." And how is it that this ginormous interest group can't find better presidential candidates? "A leadership vacuum exists on the evangelical right that some Republicans — Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and even Ron Paul — are exploiting." Ah. A savvy, influential leadership vacuum. How incredibly devious.

Cultures rarely castigate the true sources of their decadence. The amount of abuse that Bachmann and Perry are receiving from the political elites are as sure a sign as any that, whatever their failings, they are the sideshow.

But maybe I'm wrong. Tell me readers - when was the last time you heard someone seriously claim that Obama is the Antichrist? For me, it was November 2008.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The State of Arab Pride

Preface: I wrote this post six months ago, when I was still in Syria. Everyone concerned in the story is now outside the country, so I feel safe posting it. (Yes, I'm still a paranoiac. So sue me.)

March 7, 2011

I recently attended a college fair with one of my Syrian friends, who is trying to go study abroad. The fair hosted booths from colleges in Dubai, Malaysia, England, Turkey and America. Several Syrian universities also made an obligatory appearance: the University of Damascus and Tishreen University in Lattakia among them. The Syrian Ministry of Education also had a booth there. These booths were mostly devoid of activity. They had only a few standard pamphlets and posters, and few Syrians were looking at them. When I tried to ask about Arabic classes at the University of Damascus booth, the men seemed gratified and enthusiastic that an American was interested, but could do nothing more than refer me to the school’s website.

My friend lived for most of his life in America, and as a result did not learn written Arabic (which differs vastly from spoken Arabic) in school. Since all Syrian high schools use written Arabic, he is working towards taking the GED test, so he can go study abroad. At the fair, one of the organizers told him that even if he got an American college degree, he wouldn’t be able to work in Syria without a Syrian high school degree. I’m pretty sure this is crap, but it worried him, so he went to the Ministry of Education booth to clarify the point with the representatives there.

He ended up telling most of his story to a man behind the Ministry table. When he mentioned that he had only recently moved to Syria from America, the representative of the Syrian Arab Republic’s Ministry of Education, whose mission under the Syrian constitution is to create a “socialist nationalist Arab generation which is…attached to its history and land, proud of its heritage…” had this to say:

“Leesh rej3at?” “Why did you return?”

Why indeed? (In point of fact, he had no choice.)

I didn’t understand most of the conversation, but my friend later told me that in the end, the representative insisted that he would have to get a Syrian high school degree, and boasted that Arabic is the hardest language in the world. “No it’s not,” my friend replied. “What about Chinese?” At which point, the representative said, “We will never accept your trash degree here.”

I think my friend will live.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Now our lives are changing fast...

This picture makes me smile. (If you're curious, yes, it really does. Hat-tip to my Iraqi friend Saif, who found this picture and posted it on his Facebook page.)

I post this picture because it portrays two things that, God willing, are about to feature very heavily in my life: Arabic, and Washington DC. This Thursday, I will be leaving to start working for a Christian human rights organization whose American branch is based in Washington.

The office where I'll be working is in sight of the Capitol building. I'll be living...actually, I'm not 100% sure where I'll be living yet. I'll keep you updated though. (I leave on Friday).

I will be joining my friends Adam and Jordan, and I expect eventually to be joined by my friends Alvin and Brian. I am driving, not flying, out there, and I hope to visit some dear friends from Iraq and Syria who are studying at universities between here and there. I am excited to see them, excited to live in a big city again, excited to start working for an organization I believe very strongly in.

How did all this come about, you ask? Good question. The answer's too long and complicated to post here. Short version: very randomly and very providentially. This is not at all what I had planned two months ago. As he is constantly reminding me, God doesn't care about my plans.

Although I'm not returning immediately to the Middle East on a long-term basis, my quixotic quest to learn Arabic continues. Washington DC isn't Damascus, but it does have Arab churches, Arab restaurants, Arabic classes and Arabic-speaking people. I hope to use this to my advantage. Plus, I plan to focus on Modern Standard Arabic, which is used very little in street conversation, making living in an Arabic-speaking environment somewhat moot.

Anyway, that's about it for now. It has been a good summer, a blessed summer. And now, once again, I'm off.

The leaves are falling all around. Time I was on my way.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ali Farzat

Ali Farzat is a Syrian political cartoonist. 

To those who follow Syrian politics, that might seem like a contradiction in terms. As a rule, the Syrian dictators of the last forty years haven't taken kindly to dissent. Ali is a big enough man that he did it anyway.

When Bashar al-Assad first came to power in Syria in 2000, Ali was allowed to open an independent, satirical newspaper. However, Ali's work is such that even this small enterprise was deemed too dangerous for Assad to countenance, and in 2003, his newspaper was shut down.

"Mauritania: Leaders of military coup pledge of hold early elections"

My thrice-weekly bus ride through Damascus used to take me right past his gallery, near the Seven Seas' Square. I always wanted to visit it. When the revolution broke out, I lost my nerve. I didn't want to give Syrian intelligence any excuse to deport me.

Ali Farzat did not suffer from this same fear, and as the revolution intensified, he started drawing cartoons like this one, which illustrates President Assad's decree "lifting" Syria's emergency law.

But here's the one that really got him into trouble.

Last Thursday, masked gunmen grabbed him off the street, threw him into a jeep, and viciously beat him, breaking both his hands before dumping him on the side of the road outside Damascus.

Is the pen stronger than the machine gun?  We'll find out soon enough.

Here's to Ali's health, and to good old-fashioned disrespect.  God bless him.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Koran by Heart

Yesterday, I watched one of the saddest documentaries I have ever seen: Koran by Heart. (It’s free online here:

The documentary follows three young children who traveled to Cairo, Egypt in 2010 to compete in an international Qur’an recitation competition – a young boy from Senegal, another young boy from Tajikistan, and a young girl from the Maldives. All three of them have memorized the entire Qur’an, from start to finish, in the original, classical 7th-century Arabic. Every syllable, every vowel, every inflection.

None of them speak or understand Arabic. None of them know the meaning of what they are reciting.

To devout Muslims, that’s irrelevant. The spoken word of the Qur’an, understood or not, is significant. It carries power within itself. Muslims believe that Mohammad recited the Qur’an to his followers exactly the way the angel Gabriel recited it to him (cf. Galatians 1:8), and that it has been preserved for them in that exact form to this day. According to one of Mohammad’s preserved sayings, when the Qur’an is recited, God’s peace descends.

Nabiollah, the boy from Tajikistan, was enrolled in an Islamic school by his father, whose own education was cut short by Tajikistan’s civil war, and who desperately wants his son to be educated. Early in the film, we learn that Nabiollah’s school has been shut down by Tajikistan’s government, as part of its campaign against Islamic extremism. His father takes him to a boarding school in another city, hoping to get his son accepted there. When the headmaster interviews Nabiollah, he realizes that Nabiollah’s entire education has consisted of memorizing the unintelligible sounds of the Qur’an. He can barely read or write his own language, Tajik.

Rifdha, the girl from the Maldives, is a beautiful, hyperactive 10-year-old girl, who sometimes speaks to the camera in her native language, and sometimes reads carefully crafted essays in English from scraps of notebook paper. Her mother boasts to the camera about her daughter’s perfect scores in math and science, and tells Rifdha to talk to her father about the possibility of getting a secular education.

Rifdha’s father is a Muslim fundamentalist who is not impressed with the level of piety exhibited by the Muslims he meets in Cairo. He believes it is a sin for a man to cut his beard, and tells the camera that any part of man’s leg above his ankle left uncovered by clothing will burn in hellfire. The documentary uses him a counterpoint to Egypt’s deputy minister of religious affairs, who is in charge of the competition. The minister rages against the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, which can only be corrected by a return to the truth of the Qur’an. Cut to Rifdha’s father, who has made his prodigy of a daughter memorize the entire Qur’an in a language neither of them understand. He insists that his brilliant daughter will not be allowed to become anything but a housewife.

In one scene, Rifdha and her mother have a private reception with the former “president” (blood-soaked dictator) of the Maldives at his home. The ex-strongman complains to the camera about the rise of fundamentalism in the Maldives – an odd complaint from a man who made it illegal for any of his citizens to belong to a religion other than Sunni Islam, a law that stands to this day. (“لَآ إِكۡرَاهَ فِى ٱلدِّينِ.” “Let there be no compulsion in religion” – Sura 2:256, as translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali). The ex-president asks Rifdha why her father didn’t come with her to visit him. “He’s at the mosque,” she replies.

Frankly, Arab-centrism is on full display in this film. The Arab judges are constantly making remarks about how amazing it is that these kids “who don’t even speak Arabic” are doing so well in the competition. Despite their amazement, it doesn’t seem any provisions are made for those competitors unfortunate enough to come from non-Arabic-speaking countries. The rules are explained to Nabiollah in Arabic, even though, as the judge says while laughing, “you have no idea what I’m saying.” After passing the first round, Rifdha is left completely oblivious to the fact that there is a second round of the competition two days later, apparently because she and her father didn't understand the announcements. In one heart-rending scene, a non-Arabic-speaking African boy is told to begin reciting from a certain verse in the Qur’an. The prompt he is given appears in multiple chapters in the Qur’an, and he begins reciting the wrong passage. The judges repeatedly cut him off and yell at him in Arabic that he has the wrong passage. Of course, he doesn’t understand a word. Tears streaming down his face, he bravely finishes the passage (all the while I’m screaming at the screen, Ween mutarjim? Where is your freaking translator?) He is failed out of the competition.

The filmmakers do a pretty good job of masking their feelings about their subject matter, but I don’t know how any fairminded person can watch this film and come away feeling good about it. Here are three kids who are absolutely prodigious. What should we do with them? Let’s have them memorize an entire book in a language they don’t understand and that no one even speaks anymore. Will they someday get a decent education and realize the potential of their stunning talents? Eh, maybe. Hey, let’s have the kid with the nice voice who doesn’t even know how to read recite for the unelected mass murderer who rules our country!

And remember everybody – extremism is bad.

In his speech at the awards ceremony in the film, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, unaware that he will be on trial for his life in under a year, declares, “Tonight is the holiest night of Ramadan, the Night of Revelation, when the Qur’an was first revealed. The night of wisdom, to lead people from darkness into light.”

Not quite yet, apparently.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


I made this video after my trip to Hama in January 2011, halfway through my nine-month stay in Syria. I intended to post it while I was still in Syria (which is why my narration is so oblique.) I never got around to it. Now that the Syrian army is attacking Hama once more, I thought some of you might want to see this beautiful city. The people of Hama are, without exaggeration, the friendliest people I have ever met. In three days, I had coffee or tea with seven groups of complete strangers, and probably turned down twice as many invitations. They sure could use a break. God bless them.

(Everything about this video/slideshow is highly amateur. Please have mercy on it.)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Imperial Insanity

This morning over breakfast, my younger brother Simon once again recommended Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22 to me. (Is breakfast too early in the day for literary philosophy? Not in my family.) He explained, "The Catch-22 in the book is, you can only get a discharge from the frontlines of the war and go home if you're insane - but no sane person would WANT to stay, so your desire to go home is proof of your sanity."

The United States has 5,113 nuclear warheads in its operational arsenal. There are only 3,158 cities in the world with more than 100,000 inhabitants.

But all of those weapons mean nothing if you don't actually have flesh-and-blood people ready to push the button. Not pick up a phone and tell someone else to push the button. Actually push the button that will send a nuclear warhead flying through space to the other side of the world to vaporize and sicken millions of people.

Where do those people come from? And how does the U.S. military train them to do their jobs?

Last week, we got a partial answer.

Apparently, the U.S. Air Force enrolls its nuclear missile launch officers in a training course on war ethics. The course uses many different sources to justify the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal, including St. Augustine and the Bible. By way of explanation, David Smith, a spokesman for the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command, told the Washington Post that the program's purpose was to “help folks understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. In the missile launch industry, it takes a certain mindset to be able to walk in the door and say, yes, I can do that.”

Yes, I suppose that goes without saying.

But don't worry. American civil society is all over this one.

Concerned about the content of the course, a group of 30 Protestant and Catholic military officers took a powerpoint from the training course to an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which then released it to the public. The Air Force quickly announced that the course was being redesigned, presumably to remove religious references, or at least supplement the course with teachings from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and secular humanism that justify maintaining a standing threat to murder millions of human beings. That way, our country's precious wall between church and state will remain intact.

Mikey Weinstein, president of the foundation, wants to reassure us that he isn't anti-Christian. “This isn’t about attacking someone’s faith,” he told the Post. “What it’s about is remembering that in this country … we separate church and state. They don’t do that in other countries. We do that here.”

There. Feel better now?

Jesus-free since 2011.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What Kind of America Do You Want? (Pt. 2)


I read an (I thought) excellent book this summer: The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell. I wish I hadn't returned it to the library so I could quote from it now, but one of Schell's main points is: Empire abroad is corrosive to liberty at home. This seems to be a pretty well-established law of modern history. When a democratic government acquires the power and the will to dominate entire foreign nations with violence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep that government from doing the same at home. Returning to the example of Israel, the Jewish state's refusal to relinquish its "accidental empire" is starting to produce some nasty results, the most outrageous and recent of which is a law banning boycotts of goods produced by Israeli settlements built on colonized land. To sustain its colonies, Israel must place limits on free expression at home.

What about here?

I am convinced that the U.S.'s global power has grown to the point where it can't possibly be regulated by a concerned public in the same way that our economic and domestic policies can. Sure, Iraq and Afghanistan grab the headlines (sometimes), but our foreign policy touches every country on the planet. There is no way a single person, much less an organized constituency, can keep it all straight. For instance, do you know our country's policy towards Equatorial Guinea? It's pretty horrifying. Have a look-see.

Our Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. They haven't done so since 1941. Following the Vietnam disaster, Congress succumbed to the realities of empire and passed a law called the War Powers Act, giving the president the authority to go to war for 90 days, after which he could seek a congressional "authorization" to use force in lieu of an actual declaration of war. Ten years ago, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the use of military force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. (It was as vague as that.) Today, our current president is using that resolution to occupy one country, Afghanistan, and bomb three others - Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. He's been bombing a fifth country, Libya, for 126 days without any congressional authorization at all. His official explanation? It doesn't qualify as "hostilities." He's ordered the assassination of American citizens. Warrantless wiretapping, military tribunals - all standard procedure. This is what an antiwar president looks like in the American empire.

I am currently reading a non-fiction book called Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which follows the tragic tale of a Syrian-American family living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. (Thanks Alvin!) The book's main subject, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, stayed through the storm to protect his house and rental properties while his family evacuated. He was seized by the military from his own home on suspicion of being a terrorist (really) and was held for 23 days without counsel, without being charged, and without being allowed to call his desperate wife, who we certain he had been killed in the post-storm chaos. In effect, he was disappeared by his own government.

Early in the book, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco announces that "war-hardened U.S. soldiers were on the way to New Orleans to restore order at any cost. 'I have one message for these hoodlums,' she said. 'These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.'" (p. 118). Later in the book, A. Zeitoun's wife ponders the news reports of the military being deployed to New Orleans to "maintain order":

"[Her] mind spun as she read about the unprecedented concentration of armed men and women in the city. ...Blackwater USA, a private-security firm that employed former soldiers from the U.S. and elsewhere, had sent hundreds of personnel to the region. They were there in an official capacity, hired by the Department of Homeland Security to help maintain order. They arrived in full battle dress. ...As well as she could surmise, there were at least twenty thousand National Guard troops in New Orleans, with more arriving every day. ...If each one of those soldiers had at least one M-16 assault rifle, there were about twenty thousand automatic rifles in the city. Too many. And if Governor Blanco was right, that these were vets coming straight from Afghanistan and Iraq, it could not bode well for her husband. ...There were 5,750 Army soldiers in the New Orleans area. Almost a thousand state police officers, many of them there with SWAT teams, armed for urban combat. ...And snipers. They were sending snipers into the city to shoot looters and gunmen. Kathy added it up. There were at least twenty-eight thousand guns in New Orleans." (p. 194-196)

A. Zeitoun was held in a massive prison that was built nearly overnight at New Orleans' train station just two days after the storm hit. Eggers: "This complex and exceedingly efficient government operation was completed while residents of New Orleans were trapped in attics and begging for rescue from rooftops and highway overpasses. The portable toilets were available and working at [the prison] while there were no working bathrooms at the Convention Center and Superdome a few blocks away. Hundreds of cases of water and MREs were readily available for the guards and prisoners, while those stranded nearby were fighting for food and water" (p. 311)

Who says empire never comes home?

All of which is to say: empire is not simply another side project, another thing to cut. It is something that has already changed the fundamental character of our nation, and will change it further if we cling to it as doggedly as we have thus far.

What kind of America do we want? We can't have both the empire and the republic, and not just because we can't afford both.

Full disclosure: four years ago, I found myself on the opposite side of this debate. I was in one of my college's student research seminars, presenting a response to a paper from a Kuyperian scholar about the future of globalization. In my response, I argued that there was going to have to be a dominant superpower in the new world order. I argued that, given our democratic, religious and liberal heritage, that superpower should (continue to) be the United States, rather than China, Russia or Europe. Professor Kok challenged me on this point in the question-and-answer session. He reminded me that according to 1 John 5:19, the whole world is under the control of one person. Like any good Dordt freshman, I was about to answer, "Jesus," when he cut me off and said, "Read the passage, and you'll find out who that is."

What kind of America do we want? The Debt Crisis is over. The question is still unanswered.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Kind of America Do You Want? (Pt. 1)

So, the Debt Crisis is over.

At least until next year.

In this intensely divided political environment, what everyone seems to agree on is that this is a terrible deal. It raises the debt ceiling, which was necessary, but in exchange, we get less than a trillion dollars in cuts over the next decade. (Our national budget is $3.7 trillion a year.) No new taxes, even on those who could well afford them, and no cuts to our biggest entitlement programs.

Under the deal, a special special committee will be set up to recommend a whole 'nother $1.2 trillion in cuts by Thanksgiving. Their recommendation will have the rare advantage of an undelayed, unamended up-or-down vote. Hopefully their recommendations will be good and hopefully the vote will be "up." But even then, we'll have no permanent solution to our debt problem, and our economy will still be languishing. And probably, their recommendations will only lead to another fight, this one in an election year.

So...there you go.

I'm not interested in assigning blame. We're in the mess we're in not because the Tea Party is crazy (though you could make that argument) or because Obama is a bad negotiator and too-righteous in his own eyes (and he is). Both sides are responsible. Both sides set down "red lines" that were incompatible with each other. Both sides thought they could not compromise without betraying their core principles, and both sides were right. We're in this mess because our country has overextended itself.

This country has made more promises than it can keep. The time is coming when we will have to break some of those promises. We haven't reached that point yet, but this crisis makes it clear that we are reaching it. We cannot be a country that provides quality education to all its children AND maintains a global network of military bases AND gives free healthcare to all its poor and elderly AND subsidizes health insurance for everyone else AND periodically bombs and occupies rogue states AND gives old people paychecks for being old AND is an industrial power AND is environmentally friendly AND is a free market low-tax paradise AND is a place where everyone owns their own home AND has a military budget equal to the military budgets of the next twelve countries after us combined AND that is "the last best hope of mankind" whatever the heck that means.

No doubt we would like to be all those things, because no presidential candidate that hasn't at least paid lip service to all those things has even come close to winning in decades. But we cannot. It is a pipe dream, and we are exhausting ourselves trying to accomplish it. The Tea Party may be misdirected and misinformed (and really, really annoying) but its enduring power and appeal testify to this fact. This country is not headed in the right direction; it's headed in three or more different directions, and it's starting to tear us apart.

American antiwar activists love to show pictures like this one:

"Whoa, look man, more than half our budget goes to the military, that's so whacked-out and here we don't even have government-provided daycare in this country..."

FALSE. If anyone ever says something like that to you, or shows you a pie chart like the one taped to that van, visit upon them a scowl of withering contempt, and then explain the following:

That pie chart shows DISCRETIONARY spending - or, money that is spent at the discretion of the current president and congress. But more than half of federal spending is MANDATORY - that is, the government is required to spend it by law. This includes Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid - both of which carry price tags higher than our defense spending (impressive as it is.) A more honest pie chart would look like this:

Over 37% of that circle is money we don't have.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel conquered territory three times the size of its own, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol asked President Lyndon Johnson for continued military support. Johnson responded by asking, "What kind of Israel [will] expected to support...What kind of Israel do you want?" (Gershom Gorenberg, The Accidental Empire, p. 127 - yes, I cite this book a lot. It's awesome, that's why.) This is the question America faces today: What kind of America do we want? The empire, the farmer-governed republic, the social welfare state? There are precedents for all of these in our national narrative, but we cannot be all of them at once. Not anymore.

So...where should we start?

Monday, July 18, 2011

I went to Point of Grace Church yesterday, and now I want to know…

What does it mean to be a Christian?

What good does it do for us, or anybody else?


If you acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life and the Lord of the universe, what does that mean? What does that look like? How does that separate you from other people? What is the essence of “calling on the name of the Lord”?

Do we just need to get the name right? Is it enough to refer to our Lord as Jesus, or Yeshua, or Yesua, depending on what language we’re speaking? Do we have to know that he lived as a man in first century Palestine, and died on the cross for our sins? Do we have to declare that he is a part of the indivisible Trinity? Is that all?

At the conclusion of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan destroys the old, fallen world and brings all his followers into a new Narnia, deeper and fuller than the old. There, the protagonists of the story are shocked to find a soldier from the enemy nation, from the Calormen Empire, who worship a bloodthirsty god named
Tash. The soldier tells them the story of how he met Aslan:

“[He] said [to me], ‘Son, thou are welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no servant of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’ Then I…said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites – I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.”

100,000 civilians were killed in Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990. The war was triggered when gunmen belonging to a Christian militia group, alarmed at the growing number of Muslim Palestinian refugees entering the “Christian” nation of Lebanon, opened fire on a bus full of Palestinians, killing scores of civilians. On September 18, 1982, following the assassination of the Christian president-elect of Lebanon, Bashir Gamayel, Christian Lebanese militias entered two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and murdered around 800 Palestinian men, women, children and babies, sometimes carving Christian crosses onto the chests of their victims.

Who accepted that deed? Aslan or Tash?

In the 1990s, as the communist state of Yugoslavia was rapidly disintegrating into a patchwork of warring nationalities, the Christian Serbs of Yugoslavia set out to seize as much land from the dying country as they could. The best way to keep a Christian country Christian, they figured, was to cleanse Serb-held areas of their Muslim inhabitants. This was accomplished through a campaign of forced relocation, rape, torture, indiscriminate shelling of Muslim towns, and outright massacre. When the Muslim town of Srebrenica, once designated a “safe city” for Muslims and guarded by UN peacekeepers, fell to Christian Serb forces in July 1995, the Christian commander, Ratko Mladic, seized every Muslim male in the city, 7,000 in all, marched them into a football stadium, and executed every last one of them.

Who accepted that deed? The Lord Jesus or the prince of this world?

The speaker I heard at Point of Grace Church yesterday told us that the Allah of the Qur’an is the Satan of the Bible.


But when that same speaker called on us to vote for leaders who would close all the mosques in the United States, ban Muslim immigration to the United States, expel all Muslims from jobs in the U.S. military and American airports, cut off all foreign aid to Muslim countries, and deport our Muslim population, or else the Muslims would take over our country and we would lose our freedom – and his listeners applauded and shouted “Amen!” in response – who accepted those words as a sacrifice?

When he told us that the former king of Saudi Arabia used to travel around with a slave in case he needed an immediate heart transplant, that Muslims in the U.S. military refuse to kill other Muslims, that Obama’s church sends money to Hamas, that Obama’s church pays for abortions, that Muslims worldwide are part of a conspiracy to infiltrate and take over America, that Obama is deliberately bringing in thousands of Muslims to shift the demographics of the U.S., that Obama specifically invited the Muslim Brotherhood to listen to his address in Cairo, that Muslims have never invented anything, that Obamacare is a plot to bring more Muslims to America in the form of doctors and nurses who will replace the ones being driven out by shrinking profits - was he speaking the language of truth, or the language of the father of lies? (John 8:43-44).

I am not exaggerating a whit. The entire service, the pastor (!) informed us, will be posted on Point of Grace’s website. You'll be able to watch it for yourself, here, if you can handle it.

The speaker told us that President Clinton had betrayed America and Christianity by attacking Serbian “Christians” in Europe and allowing their Bosnian Muslim enemies to come and live in America. He repeatedly conjured up the image of Hillary Clinton kissing arriving refugees from Bosnia in welcome, as if that would disgust any right-thinking Christian.

One of my bosses in the fields this summer is a Muslim Bosnian woman named Amira (Arabic for “princess”) who came to Iowa in 1995, at the height of the Serbs’ campaign to kill and drive out the Muslims of eastern Bosnia. She greets me every morning with a giant smile. “Hello, Mr. Joel!” she says in a beautifully thick Bosnian accent. She worries about her daughter’s ear infection, makes sure we drink plenty of Gatorade in the 110+ heat index, and commiserates with me about my fears for Syria.

Who is more closely following the path of Christ? Amira, or Point of Grace’s speaker, the pastor who prayed over him, and the audience who applauded him?

“Hold on, Joel – are you saying that profession of faith in Christ is unimportant?”

I don’t know, my friends. All I am saying is this: By their fruits, you shall know them.

That, and:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 7:21

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” – Luke 6:46

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” – James 2:14

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” – James 3:9-10

“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” – I John 3:14

These verses are in the Bible for a reason.

The speaker in question is Usama Dakdok, an Egyptian Baptist Christian who runs a ministry, “The Straight Way,” to educate Christians about Islam. He is insistent that his first name be pronounced “Yoo-sama,” not “Oo-sama.” (When I lived in Egypt three years ago, I had a Christian friend named “Oo-sama.” He felt no need to change its pronunciation.) He tells us that the first time he saw a Muslim in America, he knew freedom in America was doomed. To those who claim, “Only 1% of Americans are Muslim; how could they possibly be a threat?” he says, “Would you take only a centimeter of blood infected with AIDS?” He is certain that President Obama is a Muslim in hiding, who is working steadily to destroy the United States financially and militarily. He knows this because Obama was “born a Muslim,” and in Islam you cannot leave the faith without someone issuing a fatwa calling for your death. There are over a billion Muslims, and not one has issued such a fatwa. Therefore, all of them must understand the plan. Yoosama told us stories of how he, pretending to be a Muslim, spoke in Arabic to other Muslims in the U.S. and confirmed their love of Osama bin Laden and hatred for the infidels. He told us the death of Osama bin Laden was faked. He claims that Obama is trying to give the Iranians the nuclear bomb, that he orchestrated the Arab spring in order to bring Muslim regimes to power in all the nations around Israel, which will soon have to fight for its life – and if the U.S. doesn’t support Israel then, God will judge it with firestorms, earthquakes and hurricanes.

And, in case you missed it earlier, he wants us to close all the mosques in America and deport all Muslims from America.

And his “Christian” audience applauded and shouted “Amen” when he said that.

Yoosama ended his talk with a call for all of us to turn over our lives to Jesus. You can only be free in Jesus, he told us – which is why we’ll lose our freedom if people who don’t believe in Jesus keep moving here. He told us, “If you can’t name the place and time you were born again, then you’re not a Christian!” I can’t name the place or the time. And that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. My King allowed himself to be tortured to death for my sake, and the sake of the lost. I want nothing to do with Usama’s king, who wants to terrify me into kicking the lost out of my homeland.

I don’t claim that twelve non-consecutive months in the Middle East make me an expert. But I do know something about how Christians and Muslims get along in Egypt and Syria, and it’s not a merry story. There are fourteen hundred years of strife between the two groups, even if it’s below the surface most of the time. The vast majority of the time, the Christians, being the minority, are the victims. As Usama Dakdok, the South Lebanon Army, the Phalangist militias, and the Army of Republika Srpska demonstrate, sadly, this dynamic of persecution has sometimes managed to reduce the gospel to a tribal siege mentality in Middle Eastern Christians, with deadly, even genocidal consequences. I don’t blame Usama for his hatred. I pity him, and I grieve over the difficulties he must have had growing up as a Christian in Egypt. I do blame Point of Grace Church for inviting him to purvey his conspiracy theories and blood libels in this country, which until lately has been perhaps the most welcoming Western country for Muslim immigrants. We have suffered no Muslim persecution. We have no excuse.

Dear readers, I’m sorry this post isn’t very funny or entertaining. I get sick at heart thinking about this whole mess. During my sojourn in Syria, I often despaired at finding people I could talk to who would share common ground with me. Who I wouldn’t have to convince that the U.S. government was not behind 9/11, that the Holocaust really happened, that the CIA was not orchestrating the Syrian revolution, that Jews don’t drink blood for the Passover, that their Muslim countrymen weren’t ready at the drop of the hat to kill their men and rape their women. I longed to be back in America, where I could talk to people who were both in touch with reality as I know it, and willing to look past the religion of their neighbor and see him as a person.

Can you imagine how depressing it is to come home to this?

When did these twin toxins of bigotry and conspiracy theorizing infect the church I grew up in? Did it happen while I was away? Am I now seeing the American church with clear eyes for the first time, as a result of being away? Is a black man as president all it took to send us completely over the edge?

When did the American church become like this? When did it become a rendezvous point for scared white people, instead of a home for the dispossessed and an army of the mighty, ready to face death for His sake and the sake of the least of His brothers all day long?

Hate crimes against Muslims in the United States are on the rise. This is not an accident. Are American Christians going to be the protectors of our Muslim brothers and sisters, or will we feed the hatred?

If you think I’m wrong, if you think Usama Dakdok is right on any point, PLEASE e-mail me or leave a comment. I’m not angry at you, I promise. I just need to understand, for the sake of my own mental health. Please let me try to convince you.

Oh God. Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old.

Unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.