Thursday, 8 October 2015

Taqiyya and the "Islamic Conspiracy"

When I was a young man the World Government Conspiracy was quite popular (or should I say unpopular?) in the conservative church circles in which I moved for a while.  The basic idea was that various powerful forces were working in secret to create a single world government, perhaps with the United Nations as its initial vehicle.  This government would appear benign and desirable initially, but once firmly established would show its true Satanic character in fulfillment of various prophecies in the Book of Revelation.

There were a number of usual suspects in this conspiracy - Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Club of Rome, Jewish bankers (or Jews in general) and Communists.  Many elements were imported from earlier conspiracy theories.  For instance, the Jewish aspect of the conspiracy was imported directly from Nazi propaganda.  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - a clumsy forgery created by the Russian secret service which purported to describe a Jewish plot for world domination - was still being taken seriously by right-wing conspiracy theorists in the 1980s.  For all I know it still is today.

The thing about a good conspiracy theory is that it is pretty much impervious to criticism.  Of course conspirators will lie, cover their tracks and create false records.  Hence, those producing evidence which discredits the conspiracy theory are either part of the conspiracy, or duped by it.  Once this mindset has taken hold, all argument is futile.  Even the clumsiest and most outlandish conspiracy theories are protected behind this wall of circularity.

I haven't heard anybody advocate the World Government Conspiracy for years, but lately my Facebook feed has been infused with a steady drip of articles and memes about the Islamic Conspiracy.  This particular conspiracy has quite a bit on common with its older cousin.  Islamic forces (vaguely defined) are plotting world domination.  They wish to impose Sharia Law on the whole globe, by force if necessary.  Where it is feasible to do so they will impose their will by force (as in Saudi Arabia, or Iraq and Syria), but where it is not feasible they will do so by infiltration, getting a foothold in Western countries through immigration (sometimes as "refugees") and having large families to mavouvre themselves into a position of demographic dominance.

In the vanguard of those promoting the notion of this conspiracy are neo-fascist groups such as Reclaim Australia and its counterparts around the globe.  However I'm also hearing these ideas from people who I know are definitely not neo-fascists, including many conservative Christians.

While many aspects of the Islamic conspiracy are less detailed and less well-thought-out than the World Government Conspiracy, it far surpasses the older theory in its capacity to insulate itself from criticism.  This self-protective structure is founded in a rather peculiar interpretation of the Islamic concept of taqiyya.

The anti-Islamic website Religion of Peace provides the following description of taqiyya, which it translates as "lying".

There are two forms of lying to non-believers that are permitted under certain circumstances, taqiyya  (saying things that aren't true) and kitman (lying by omission). These circumstances are typically those that advance the cause Islam - in some cases by gaining the trust of non-believers in order to draw out their vulnerability and defeat them....

Leaders in the Arab world routinely say one thing to English-speaking audiences and then something entirely different to their own people in Arabic.  Yassir Arafat was famous for telling Western newspapers about his desire for peace with Israel, then turning right around and whipping Palestinians into a hateful and violent frenzy against Jews.

The 9/11 hijackers practiced deception by going into bars and drinking alcohol, thus throwing off potential suspicion that they were fundamentalists plotting jihad.  This effort worked so well, in fact, that even weeks after 9/11, John Walsh, the host of a popular American television show, said that their bar trips were evidence of 'hypocrisy.'

These are just some extracts to give you the flavour.  They cite a number of verses from the Quran and the hadith to back their case.  Other anti-Islam sites provide similar arguments, and there is no shortage of such sites out there.

The upshot of this description is that Muslims cannot be trusted.  Even if you make friends with a Muslim or work with one and they seem nice and "normal", chances are that they are simply practicing taqiyya, lulling you into a false sense of security, waiting to strike when the moment is right and either make you a willing convert or force you to bow to their will.

There is a lot wrong with this argument.  For a start, it is not clear that Yasser Arafat, never mind the 9/11 conspirators, are models of Islamic behaviour.  It may well be that Arafat practiced deception - plenty of politicians of all religious persuasions have done the same.  It may also be that the 9/11 conspirators deliberately concealed their Islamic fantaticism in order to throw police off the scent - after all, they were desperate criminals.  On the other hand it could be as Robert Pape suggests, that they simply weren't that devout and were motivated by nationalism not religion.

If we turn to Islamic sources we find the term understood very differently.  We learn for instance that the idea is mostly argued by Shiite Muslims rather than the majority Sunnis.  The Shiite online library describes it in the following way.

The word "al-Taqiyya” literally means: "Concealing or disguising one’s beliefs, convictions, ideas, feelings, opinions, and/or strategies at a time of eminent danger, whether now or later in time, to save oneself from physical and/or mental injury.” A one-word translation would be "Dissimulation".

…a better, and more accurate definition of "al-Taqiyya”is "diplomacy.” The true spirit of "al- Taqiyya”is better embodied in the single word "diplomacy” because it encompasses a comprehensive spectrum of behaviors that serve to further the vested interests of all parties involved.

It goes on to provide a lengthy exposition, citing various seminal Sunni and Shiite teachers, the upshot of which is that the purpose of al-taqiyya is self-preservation - such dissimulation is to be used in the face of persecution, at which point it is permissable for believers to conceal their belief and even commit forbidden acts in order to preserve life and limb.

A kind of footnote at the end of the article responds very dismissively to a Wahabbist comment suggesting the wider meaning.  (Wahabbism, remember, is the interpretation of Islam preferred by Al Qaida, IS and Saudi regime).  Al-Islam's author suggests that this is a fringe interpretation based on an ignorance of Islamic tradition and scholarship.

The Washington Post quotes Khaled Abu El Fadl, a professor of law at Harvard and leading authority on Islamic law.

“Yes, it is permissible to hide the fact you are Muslim” if a person is under threat, “as long as it does not involve hurting another person,” Abou El Fadl said. “But there is no concept that would encourage a Muslim to lie to pursue a goal. That is a complete invention. Any Muslim is raised on the idea that lying is a sin.”

Neutral sources echo this more narrow interpretation.  For instance the article on Rational Wiki says this:

This concept has been seized upon by bigots to suggest that all Muslims are constantly focused on deceiving their neighbors to appear more likable, and then once they've lured you into a false sense of security - bam - the old fork in the eye.

The truth of the matter is that the standard for employing taqiyya is particularly high. For example, during the Spanish Inquisition when Muslims (along with Jews) were tortured by the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, it would have been permissible for a Muslim to claim to convert to Christianity to avoid torture and death for himself and his family, while continuing to practice his faith in secret. 

Even such a sober and neutral source as the Oxford Dictionary of Islam expresses the same view.  It defines taqiyya as follows.

Precautionary denial of religious belief in the face of potential persecution. Stressed by Shii Muslims, who have been subject to periodic persecution by the Sunni majority. 

I could go on but I don't want to labour the point.  The interpretation of taqiyya advanced by anti-Islamic campaigners like Religion of Peace is at odds with the vast majority of Islamic teaching on the subject.  Islamic scholars are clear that deception is permissible in extreme situations where there is a direct threat to the life of the believer.  This is why it emerged first in Shia Islam, whose followers have been much more subject to persecution across their history than the majority Sunni faith.

This is not to say that no Islamic person will lie to you, or even that no Islamic preacher will advocate the more expansive interpretation of taqiyya.  What I'm pointing out, though, is that if this is taught it is a minority position which does not reflect the mainstream of Islam.  It is a problem within Islam rather than a problem with Islam, just as white supremacism or the Children of God are problems within Christianity but do not reflect the view of the majority of Christians.

The problem is, I can argue this all I like.  Those who are convinced that there is an Islamic conspiracy will simply say that I have been duped, that Al-Islam and Abu El Fadl have practiced a clever piece of taqiyya and that people like the Washington Post journalist and even the Oxford Dictionary have been taken in.  Conspiracy theories are not rational, they are expressions of our deep fears, and we cannot argue them away.

However, their existence makes the goodwill of the rest of us all the more important.  Just as it is important to show that terrorism and deception are  not the norm in Islamic communities, it is important to show that bigotry is not the norm in secular Western societies, or in Christian churches. Acts of friendship and humanity can help to bring down the wall, or at least lower it.  Do you have Muslim neighbours?  Say hello.  They will probably say hello back.  They will not mean anything sinister by it.  They are just people, like the rest of us.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Bee Apocalypse

There are many different ways to bring on the Apocalypse.  One of them, apparently, is to be so careless as to lose all the honeybees.

Bees make honey, which is very tasty, but they also cross-pollinate plants, including many of our food crops.  Apparently about one third of all the crops in the world rely on bees to pollinate them, including most fruits, nuts and seed crops.  If the honeybees were to disappear some of the slack might be taken up by other species including other bees, butterflies, dragonflies and birds.  However, none of these do such a good job, and at such volume, as our cultivated honeybees.

Unfortunately, large-scale honeybee loss is not pure speculation, it is an actual, present risk.  I've just been reading a book on the subject by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum called A World Without Bees, first published in 2008.  Benjamin is an environmental reporter for the UK Guardian and McCallum is her partner and fellow hobby apiarist.

A World Without Bees is about a condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, which was first observed in the USA in 2006 and subsequently affected hives across the US and Europe.  In 2006-07 some US beekeepers lost more than 50% of their colonies to the disorder, and losses occurred on a similar scale in 2007-08.  They have continued to take place each year since although on a smaller scale.

CCD has a baffling and disturbing pattern.  Colonies that seem healthy and thriving will collapse, with the adult worker bees disappearing leaving behind the queen and unprotected larvae which rapidly starve.  There are no bee carcasses, and unlike normal hive abandonments the honey and larvae are not raided by other bees or predatory insects.

Although Benjamin and McCallum wrote their book in 2008, more recent information like this from the US Department of Agriculture suggests that entomologists and apiarists are no closer to understanding the phenomenon in 2015 than they were back then.

A number of causes have been suggested - neonicotinoid pesticides; genetically modified crops such as sunflowers; mites such as varroa and tracheal mite; viruses such as Israeli paralysis virus; intensive management practices such as trucking bees the length of the US and artificially rousing them in February to pollinate California's almond crop; a shrinking gene pool brought on by breeding for docility and honey production; and loss of diversity of flowering plants in their environment due to monoculture and urbanisation.

However, while each of these has been shown to have some connection with the phenomenon none can be shown to cause it, as opposed to simply being correlated with it.  It is not even clear if all instances of CCD are the same - is it a disease, or the end result of a number of different problems?  It is also possible that a number of these causes may act together to stress the bees to the point where the colony collapses.

My current quest to describe the world through a series of diagrams made me immediately think of a diagram to describe bee collapse.  Here it is, with a set of hexagonal boxes to match both the shape of honeycomb and the shape of the lenses in the bees' compound eyes.  If you click on it you can read the words.

Colony Collapse Disorder is shown surrounded by a cluster of factors.  At the first step out from CCD is the immediate bee-related causes - the mites and viruses, the insecticides and modified plants, the loss of food sources, the factors related to breeding and management.

However, each of these things also have their own causes and factors which aid their spread and these are shown in the second step out from CCD.  These are more general factors in the environment and the human societies with which bees co-exist - increasing monocrop agriculture, urbanisation, loss of biodiversity, increasing economic pressure on agriculture, habitat loss, globalisation.  My list here is hardly comprehensive, it's just to give you the idea.

What's interesting about this process is that the more steps you take, the larger and more universal become the issues.  For instance, varroa destructor is pretty much just a parasite that affects bees.  However, the process of global trade which allowed it to spread from bee populations adapted to it to those which were not, and from there around the globe, is pretty much the same process which has led to the spread of a large number of other invasive species.  Similarly, the habitat loss which affects bees affects hundreds of other species as well.

No doubt you could also take the diagram out a further step, finding further factors which contribute to these second level causes.  You would find that these are the major ecological challenges facing our planet - climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, habitat destruction and population growth.

Our global ecology is indeed so fragile that something quite small could bring it down - even something as small as a bee.  However, the bee itself is only this fragile because it is connected to a number of crucial aspects of our ecology, all of which we have been damaging with foolish abandon.

In European folklore bees are wise creatures and they need to be kept informed, and listened to carefully.  It's time we started listening!