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Tuesday, December 18, 2001

Should We Get Bin Laden?
I think we should let Osama bin Laden get free. For now.
If we catch bin Laden and kill him now, we may make it harder to find the others who support him. Running free he will go to those who support him, either in Indonesia, Sudan, Yemen, or any other place. By watching who aids him, we will have a much easier time in taking them out as well.

Let bin Laden live, so we can kill more of our enemies. Then when we have killed them all, we can kill him as well.

Wednesday, December 05, 2001

A lot of people, mostly politicians and pundits, go on and on about how Islam is a peaceful religion. Either these people are completely ignorant, or they choose to ignore Islam's record. Militant Islam today is very consistent with most of its history in that it is very intolerant of other religions and has expanded almost entirely through military conquest. This is a legacy of its Judaic past in an indirect way. Christianity and Islam, the two modern forms of Judaism, have taken from their predecessor the belief that their god is the only god and that worship of any other god is incorrect and evil. This was a belief almost unique to Judaism in ancient days. Almost every other religion or cult besides the Jews were henotheistic; that is, they believed that the existence of other gods besides their own was not inconsistent with their own gods' existence. For instance, in early Hellenistic Greece they mostly still believed in Athena and Demeter et al., but these were only a part of the concept of "god" which transcended individual deities who were but messengers of "god." The Greeks, as did almost every other religion, believed that there was one universal "god concept" which was represented by individual deities, thus all gods were legitimate to a certain extent. The Jews in contrast believed that all other gods besides their own did not exist and it was sinful to worship any others. This was the profound change brought about by Judaism.

So where am I going with this? I can write all day about the history of religions or the fundamental evil of believing in a deity, or even the fundamental inconsistency of theism and morality, but here I want to concentrate on how Judaism and its modern versions in the form of Christianity and Islam have changed the world in fundamental ways, and not for the better.
There have been religions among people for as long as we can tell, and these have taken many forms. There have been cults of Isis and the Mother of the Mountain and other female deities, all with very similar origins. There have been Cybele worshippers that for centuries believed that castrating oneself with a rock in a formal ceremony was the way to be indoctrinated into the highest level of their religious order. The Greeks had the Eleusinian Mysteries (and mysteries they remain, their secrets having been taken to the grave of the last of the initiated, surely a sign of devoutness) among many other beliefs. All of these religions had people as devout as any modern Franciscan, Mufti or Rabbi with as profound a belief structure as any today. A remarkable characteristic of all these religions was that they acknowledged the equal legitimacy of other gods. Almost every major ancient religion was henotheistic except Judaism.

The Jews were the first major religion to declare that their god was the only god. At first they only claimed that their god was the most powerful god, but that quickly changed after the very earliest period of their long history. This intolerance of others' beliefs caused the Jews to be isolated for most of their history, but it also encouraged a homogeneity that made them strong. It wasn't until the Romans conquered them that they began to splinter into sects (there were other sects, i.e., the Samaritans before the Romans but these were less political in their schism) that had various levels of tolerance for other beliefs. The Zealots, Sicarrii, and the Essenes among other sects could not accept the tolerance the Romans had for their culture and beliefs and insisted on rebelling, with a fanaticism and totalitarian control over their people not unlike the Taliban today. These sects were destroyed by the Romans, almost to the last man, but the idea of changing Judaism to another form caught on and Christianity was born as a pacifist version of these rebellious sects. Being non-violent, they were allowed to survive.

The primary difference between Judaism and Christianity, beyond the superficial detail of the messiah figure, is that unlike Judaism, Christianity was evangelical. That is, they recruited from non-Jews to join their cult. Judaism almost never, even to this day, tries to expand to non-Jews because their belief in being the "chosen" people implies that others aren't naturally disposed to be Jewish. That is, they won't turn away converts, but it doesn't normally occur to them that non-chosen people, gentiles, would wish to join them, and they make it more difficult to convert with their requirement to mutilate male genitalia.

The appeal of Christianity was to combine the certainty of there only being one god, with the inclusiveness of not having the idea of genetic purity which was the hallmark of Judaism. Christianity spread through this type of appeal, and then became dominant in the Roman Empire through exerting political power, mostly without violence. Usually starting with recruitment of individuals, Christianity would eventually convert existing nations wholesale, but early Christians were not content with mere official status, they had to eliminate all other beliefs. Using propaganda and political influence they destroyed non-christian temples, and as their popularity increased they chased down worshippers of pagan beliefs and forcibly converted them. Early and medieval Christian writings about other beliefs have an air of paranoia generally, these beliefs were considered evil. In fact, much of our current ignorance of other cults besides Christianity is due to their systematic destruction of competitor religious writings and places of worship, not too unlike how the Taliban destroyed the Buddha statue recently in Afghanistan.

Islam came from a similar beginning, the desire to be more inclusive. In fact the founder of Islam was an Arab and not a Jew. To distinguish themselves from the genetic purity of Jews, they claimed to be followers of Abraham's first son, Ishmael who was born to Abraham's Egyptian slave girl, rather than Isaac who was Abraham's son through his wife, Sarah. Islam's strength was again the appeal of monotheism, the certainty that there is only one god, combined with the inclusiveness similar to the Christians, and topped off with complete and total control of every aspect of life even more so than Judaism, perverting life from "living" to an existence that is a sort of halfway house for death (or eternal life as they would claim). This total control of life was an incredibly powerful social tool, as we have seen over the millenia; a similar control was used to enact the Russian Revolution in 1917, and many other totalitarian regimes. The remarkable thing is that Islam has had periods and places where they had some tolerance for non-believers, and even then this tolerance was based on the belief that these non-believers were generally not worth associating with; religious and social tolerance was almost never granted to their own people. For instance, in medieval Spain, the Muslims allowed Christians and Jews to continue worshipping and living as they wished, so long as they stayed within areas set by the Muslims, there was to be little or no intermingling of cultures officially (reality was a little different, of course).

This period of tolerance in Islam was the height of Arab history but unfortunately, as it seems to always happen, religious intolerance brought about the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba to the Almoravids and then the Almohads around the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These fundamentalist sects, especially the Almohads, destroyed the beautiful culture of the Taifas of Iberia, whose art, science and poetry were justly famous, and re-instituted fundamentalist Islamic culture -- backwards, and less literate. The extent and form of this decay is a topic for another day but it is sufficient to say that fundamentalism is not new today, and has been ever present in the world of Islam with varying degrees of prominence.

So back to the topic at hand. Judaism, with its monotheism and intolerance of observing and acknowledging other gods spawned Christianity and Islam which shared that trait of not recognizing other gods (with some debate as to whether Christians were really monotheistic what with hundreds of saints, the Virgin, the Trinity, etc.). Jews revolted from Rome and ceased to exist as a nation and took on a very tolerant (or acquiescent) patina. Christians adapted and adopted various pagan rituals and observances and turned them into new Christian rituals and thus spread their political power while at the same time keeping secular and religious lives separate to a degree. Muslims spread through the sword and made (and make) no distinction between secular and religious authority.

Since the Romans destroyed Judea, the Jews have accepted other religions in their host nations wherever they happen to reside. Since the turmoil of the Reformation, Christianity has generally kept that which is Caesar's for Caesar, and that which is god's for god and kept religion and politics less stringently tied together. But Islam still believes and still has as a major fatwa (a ruling of recognized scholars) that a Muslim cannot be a Muslim properly and live in a non-Muslim state. For true Islam, not only is there no distinction between religion and state, to want a distinction is heresy. This intolerance of other religions which is common to Judaism and Christianity, is more severe in Islam in its fundamentalist forms, creating a danger for the rest of the world from their seemingly insane insistence on declaring "Jihad" on people half a world away who know little to nothing about them.

I don't pretend that the world will be without war and violence with a return of henotheism to our various cultures, nor do I pretend that a renewed henotheism could happen within the next few centuries. I do know, however, that the religious intolerance, the fundamentalist tendency for Jihad, the co-mingling of religious and secular power is something that Islam has proven all too often is dangerous among them. I believe firmly that people have the right to worship as they wish, but when their beliefs require coercive enforcement and participation in a medieval culture, then that religion has ceased to be protected. It is a fundamental requirement that we transform Afghanistan, Iran, and other nations from the backwards, oppressive theocracies that they are into modern, prosperous capitalist nations. The people of those nations have a right to be free, and no one has the right to force religion onto them. More importantly to us immediately is that until we transform these cultures like we transformed Germany and Japan, they will be extremely dangerous to us. It is my sincere hope that this is what President Bush means when he says that this will be a long war.