Jihad and That Kind of Thing

September 27, 2010

Arnold Toynbee, in “Islam, the West, and the Future,” describes two different responses in the Islamic world to the threat poised by the ascendancy of the West in the 20th century. By analogy to two trends in the Jewish response to Hellenism around the beginning of the Christian era, he terms these “Zealotism” and “Herodianism.” “Zealotism,” a kind of “archaism evoked by foreign pressure,” was exemplified by the “Central Arabian Wahhabis.” The “Herodian” took the opposite approach, “abandoning his traditional art of war and learning to fight his enemy with the enemy’s own tactics and own weapons,” as was the case in the Turkish revolution.

“Zealotism” in the Islamic world has, of course, undergone a dramatic revival since Toynbee’s time, reaching even the most modernized Muslim societies, and a new population of Muslims, firmly planted in the heart of Western civilization through immigration, appears to have learned to combine zealousness in religion with effective exploitation of liberal institutions and freedoms.

Toynbee recreates a memorable conversation that illustrates the way of thinking of a “Zealot” who has taken from the West military technology alone but who wishes to exclude all other influences:

This state of mind may be illustrated by a conversation which took place in the nineteen-twenties between the Zaydi Imam Yahya of San’a and a British envoy whose mission was to persuade the Imam to restore peacefully a portion of the British Aden Protectorate which he had occupied during the general War of 1914-1918 and had refused to evacuate thereafter, notwithstanding the defeat of his Ottoman overlords. In a final interview with the Imam, after it had become apparent that the mission would not attain its object, the British envoy, wishing to give the conversation another turn, complimented the Imam upon the soldierly appearance of his new-model army. Seeing that the Imam took the compliment in good part, he went on:

‘And I suppose you will be adopting other Western institutions as well?’
‘I think not,’ said the Imam with a smile.
‘Oh, really? That interests me. And may I venture to ask your reasons?’
‘Well, I don’t think I should like other Western institutions,’ said the Imam.
‘Indeed? And what institutions, for example?’
‘Well, there are parliaments,’ said the Imam. ‘I like to be the Government myself. I might find a parliament tiresome.’
‘Why, as for that,’ said the Englishman, ‘I can assure you that responsible parliamentary representative government is not an indispensable part of the apparatus of Western civilization. Look at Italy. She has given that up, and she is one of the great Western powers.’
‘Well, then there is alcohol,’ said the Imam, ‘I don’t want to see that introduced into my country, where at present it is happily almost unknown.’
‘Very natural,’ said the Englishman; ‘but, if it comes to that, I can assure you that alcohol is not an indispensable adjunct of Western civilization either. Look at America. She has given up that, and she too is one of the great Western powers.’
‘Well, anyhow,’ said the Imam, with another smile which seemed to intimate that the conversation was at an end, ‘I don’t like parliaments and alcohol and that kind of thing.’

….Those words indicated, in fact, that the Imam, viewing Western civilization from a great way off, saw it, in that distant perspective, as something one and indivisible and recognized certain features of it, which to a Westerner’s eye would appear to have nothing whatever to do with one another, as being organically related parts of that indivisible whole. Thus, on his own tacit admission, the Imam, in adopting the rudiments of the Western military technique, had introduced into the life of his people the thin end of a wedge which in time would inexorably cleave their close-compacted traditional Islamic civilization asunder. (1)

Westerners have been slow to learn about Islam in the years since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and those who should know better – the educated opinion-shapers of our society – rather than studying the history and doctrines of Islam, have repeated the unproven assertion that Muslims are “just like us.”

Consequently, Western resistance to Islam has flared up mainly in symbolic areas. In Europe, we have seen it at the parliamentary level with the possible French ban on the burqa, or the Swiss ban on minaret construction, all enacted by parliamentary process. In America, we have seen the still strongly felt belief in “free speech” lead to deliberately provocative movements like Terry Jones’s proposed Koran burning or the “Draw Muhammad Day” Facebook project.

If this resistance remains stuck at the symbolic level, without leading to policy changes – mainly the reduction of Muslim immigration – it will ultimately fail. But it should be applauded and encouraged in whatever form it takes. For these demonstrations show the possibility of the Western consciousness of Islam shifting to a very different form than it takes today. They give evidence that Westerners are seeing the danger of Islam, and showing this understanding to their fellow citizens. Washington’s famous quote is pertinent here:

It is among the evils, and perhaps is not the smallest, of democratical governments, that the people must feel, before they will see. When this happens, they are roused to action–hence it is that this form of government is so slow.

It is very important for us to acquire a thorough knowledge of Islam. But it is even more important for us to understand ourselves, our history, and what we would be willing to die for. If we accomplish this, the danger of Islam – and other foreign threats – will be sufficiently obvious at all levels of society for us to take the actions that need to be taken, even if we fail to gain an expert’s grasp of the subject. Like the Imam, we can start by affirming that we don’t like headscarves and stonings and the Koran and “that kind of thing.”


(1) Arnold Toynbee, Civilization on Trial, New York: Oxford University Press, 1948, 190-191.


Why We Must Oppose Koran Burning

September 11, 2010

Though we may find your views offensive,
God forbid we get defensive.
Our Constitution gives full immunity
To members of your faith community:

From beer commercials and sniffing dogs,
And food products derived from hogs;
And Merry Christmas, and kids who stare
At the funny hats your women wear;
And those who claim the Towers’ destruction
Was at your holy Book’s instruction.

And should some dimwit Pastor plan
To build a bonfire with your _____,
Our F.B.I. and Commander-in-Chief
Will dress him down and give him grief
While fork-tongued Imams threaten and plead
Till fear and confusion stop the deed.

A thousand concessions we’ll make with patience
To turn Land of the Free into United Nations
And with you we’ll bow down as one nation
To the god of Submission – and obliteration.

Hangin’ Danny Deever

September 7, 2010

How amazing that there was a time that the poems of Rudyard Kipling, set to music, were known throughout the English-speaking world, sung in recitals and sold as records and sheet music. I learned about these songs through my father, who used to recite some of the poems from Barrack-Room Ballads to his not-very-appreciative kids. Nice versions can be found on a CD by the American baritone Leonard Warren (1911-1960), which I have been enjoying recently. (How amazing that sea shanties were so popular during that era, cleaned up, naturally, of the obscenity which was probably their original raison d’être. I wonder what the reason was for their popularity?)

Kipling’s poems are often quoted by traditionalists for their unforgettably rhythmic and concise statements of socially conservative truths. “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” tells us that the commonsense moral platitudes of traditional society will endure when progressive utopian dreams have been dashed to pieces. “The Stranger” makes an argument for preserving ethnic homogeneity. “If–” exhorts us to live lives of truth and courage. George Orwell famously describes Kipling as a “good bad” poet and finds a strong streak of sadism in his attitude towards the “natives” of the British Empire. No matter. The Empire is no more, but Kipling’s verse lives on in the English language.

Danny Deever,” set to music by Walter Damrosch and sung by Reinald Werrenrath in the above link, tells the story of military hanging. (One link to sea shanties, incidentally, is that it has been speculated that Kipling had the ditty “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” in mind when he composed it, although the resemblance is not very close.) Despite its bleak, gruesome theme, it somehow goes beyond merely horrifying the reader.

“WHAT are the bugles blowin’ for?” said Files-on-Parade.
“To turn you out, to turn you out,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What makes you look so white, so white?” said Files-on-Parade.
“I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play
The regiment’s in ‘ollow square – they’re hangin’ him to-day;
They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,
An’ they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

“What makes the rear-rank breathe so ‘ard?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s bitter cold, it’s bitter cold,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What makes that front-rank man fall down?” said Files-on-Parade.
“A touch o’ sun, a touch o’ sun,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, they are marchin’ of  ‘im round,
They ‘ave ‘alted Danny Deever by ‘is coffin on the ground;
An’ e’ll swing in ‘arf a minute for a sneakin’ shootin’ hound
O they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’!

” ‘Is cot was right-‘and cot to mine,” said Files-on-Parade.
” ‘E’s sleepin’ out an’ far to-night,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
“I’ve drunk ‘is beer a score o’ times,” said Files-on-Parade.
” ‘E’s drinkin’ bitter beer alone,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin’ Danny Deever, you must mark ‘im to ‘is place,
For ‘e shot a comrade sleepin’ – you must look ‘im in the face;
Nine ‘undred of ‘is county an’ the Regiment’s disgrace,
While they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

“What’s that so black agin the sun?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny fightin’ ‘ard for life,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What’s that that whimpers over’ead?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ‘ear the quickstep play
The regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day,
After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.

Kipling does something easily here that I don’t think a contemporary poet could do: he conveys the horror and tragedy of the death penalty without indicating in any way that executions should not take place. There is no question that Danny Deever is a murderer and deserves to die in disgrace, yet he is also a human being, and though his perspective is never given every soldier (including the officers) easily imagines himself in Danny’s place.

I have a relative who became very involved in the anti-death penalty movement, corresponding with death-row inmates and becoming emotionally involved with them in a way that made the entire family very uncomfortable. Although I always was troubled by this relative’s actions, for her sake I found myself wishing that some of these men not be executed, and I drifted toward an anti-death penalty position. I reasoned that getting rid of the death penalty would ensure that no innocent people get executed by mistake, and that this on the balance could make society more civilized and just.

Since then, though, I’ve come to feel quite certain that although it might be best if the number of executions is kept as low as possible, “civilization rests on the hangman” (if anyone knows the source of that quotation please let me know) and guilty murderers with no mitigating circumstances need to be removed from society – completely removed, not made wards of the state. The moral and material cost to those who honor the commandment not to kill is just too great. My purpose here is not to prove this to skeptics, just to state it clearly.

What a different world Kipling inhabited. In the British Army of the 19th century, not only was murder of fellow soldiers swiftly punished, it was ritualized from beginning to end, as described in the notes to the poem. A bugle assembly called the men to witness the hanging; the condemned man had his insignia cut off and walked, to the accompaniment of a dead march, behind his own coffin to the gallows. The men of his battalion were not only forced to watch the execution but also to file past the corpse afterwards and look directly at it. The violent nature of execution was not disguised, and the entire community participated in it. I would probably be swooning like the young soldiers in the same situation, but there is an undeniable logic to the practice.

It is easy to be convinced that these executions were excessively cruel and that it is a blessing that they have been done away with in the modern military. I submit to those who feel this way the case of the Fort Hood massacre, carried out not as a personal vendetta against some rival but as an enemy assault on the Army, the American people, and really against humanity itself. I do not follow the case anymore as it is too painful to contemplate the failure of our once-honorable military to administer justice for the sake of its own people. A military execution 19th-century style would be far too kind for this killer, but it would be an acceptable resolution to the incident. More: in a military that defended itself in this manner, this crime would not have happened, because the perpetrator’s hostile jihadist beliefs would have been identified long before and he would have been handled accordingly. 43 people would have been saved from being wounded or killed – the invisible beneficiaries of a system of justice willing to carry out the grim task of execution.

Here, Kipling is no sadist, but a realist who retains his capacity for compassion. I remain struck by the strange beauty of “Danny Deever,” and also by the fact that Western culture, not long ago, not only produced poems like it but also produced composers able to craft perfect melodies for them.