Sunday, August 30, 2009

Where is the Muslim anger over Darfur?

by Ed Husain

As war raged in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, people around the world called for international intervention to stop the shelling of civilians. In January this year, millions shared similar feelings of horror and anger witnessing the bloodshed in Gaza. Both events were especially painful to Muslims watching other defenceless Muslims being killed. But why have the deaths of vastly more unarmed Muslims in Darfur caused so little concern among co-religionists?

The Khartoum regime, brought to power in a highly ideological and fundamentalist Islamist coup 20 years ago, has killed an estimated 400,000 of its fellow Muslim citizens. Yet, there is near silence about massive human rights abuses in the remote western corner of Sudan. As Tareq Al-Hamed, editor of the Asharq Alaswat paper, has asked, "Are the people of Darfur not Muslims as well?"

When the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese leader, President Bashir, in March, Muslim politicians from Senegal to Malaysia rallied behind him. The same people who demand international justice for war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza abruptly changed their tune. Instead of denouncing Bashir as the architect of ethnic cleansing, they congratulated him for defying the "conspiracy" to undermine Sudan's sovereignty so the West can take its oil. The Iranian Parliamentary Speaker, Ali Larijani, said the ICC warrant was "an insult to the Muslim world".

Mercifully, the views expressed by Arab and Muslim leaders are at odds with their citizens. The Lebanese American pollster James Zogby found 80 per cent of those questioned in four Arab countries were concerned about Darfur and felt it should have more media attention. However, they were reluctant to apportion blame, and, not surprisingly, they were hostile to international intervention. Meanwhile some commentators in Muslim-majority countries are questioning their leaders' support for Bashir.

According to The Daily Star of Lebanon, "Bashir has sought to cultivate an image of himself as an Arab/African hero who is standing up for his fellow Arabs/Africans by defying the edicts of foreign 'imperial' powers."

So, are Darfuris the "wrong" kind of Muslims because they self-identify as black Africans rather than Arabs, despite widespread inter-marriage in Sudan? The Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, cites Arab chauvinism against Africans. I have lived in Arab countries and seen first hand the racism and bigotry that commands the minds of the Arab political class.

The Canadian academic Salim Mansur claims: "Blacks are viewed by Arabs as racially inferior, and Arab violence against blacks has a long, turbulent record."

For the Nobel Prize winning novelist Wole Soyinka, the unwillingness to confront Arab racism is rooted in the role of Arabs in the slave trade. "Arabs and Islam are guilty of the cultural and spiritual savaging of the Continent," he writes.

The Ethiopian academic Mekuria Bulcha estimates that Arab traders sold 17 million Africans to the Middle East and Asia between the sixth and twentieth centuries. Yet, there is an almost total reluctance on the part of Arab intellectuals to examine their central role in slavery, past or present. Any attempt to confront persistent Arab racism is shouted down by appeals to Arab/African solidarity against the neo-colonialist West, a sentiment that seldom moves beyond slogans.

Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan, a member of the senior council of Wahhabi clerics responsible for writing Saudi school text books, states: "Slavery is part of Islam. Slavery is part of jihad and jihad will remain as long as there is Islam. It has not been abolished."

Arab racism is familiar to African guest workers in countries like Libya and Egypt, enduring routine verbal and physical attack. Sudanese Arabs suffer from their own racial identity dilemma, viewed as black by their Egyptian neighbours to the north (Sudan is a corruption of the Egyptian word for black). I have heard the Arab Sudanese use the word for slave (abid) to the faces of their fellow citizens who self-identify as non-Arab. It is also known for Sudanese parents to tease their darker-skinned children, calling them slaves.

To be charitable, it seems that Muslim and Arab leaders wish Darfur would simply go away. Hence their enthusiasm for postponing Bashir's arrest warrant "to allow peace talks to work". Shortly after the ICC announcement, key members of the Khartoum regime attended an Arab League summit. They were confident the League would call for the cancellation of ICC jurisdiction in Darfur, conferred by the United Nations Security Council in 2005. The meeting failed to agree on anything stronger than the usual denunciations of Israel and America. Privately, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi were urging Sudan to deal with the ICC through legal channels. The Sudanese also failed to get a solidarity summit in Khartoum. However, Bashir did enjoy a victory tour of countries where he was hailed rather than arrested.

Arab and Muslim leaders are by no means unique in failing to back up their words with action. Both the US and the UK until recently had leaders who frequently cited their Christian faith, yet did little to help Christians being persecuted in China, Nigeria, Eritrea, North Korea or Egypt.

However, "Muslim solidarity" matters for two reasons. The Khartoum dictatorship is sensitive to the opinion of Muslim and Arab leaders. A genuine peace deal will be more likely as a consequence of private pressure from Iran or Egypt rather than Canada or Sweden.

Muslims' amnesia about Darfur is also symptomatic of the malaise affecting the public face of a faith that lacks the confidence to engage in constructive debate or renewal. Until Muslims can be self-critical without being condemned as heretics, there will be atrophy where there should be vibrancy, and polarisation and extremism where there should be tolerance and inclusiveness. Darfur's tragedy is fast becoming an indelible stain on the collective name of Islam and Muslims.

Ed Husain is co-director of the Quilliam Foundation and author of The Islamist

Republished from the Independent

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The evolution of religion

Michael Shermer and Francisco Ayala discuss the theory that religious belief is hard-wired in humans by evolution.

Today's topic: What do you think of the theory that religious belief and experience are wired through evolution?

Homo religious
Point: Michael Shermer

Did humans evolve to be religious and believe in God? In the most general sense, yes, we did. Here's what happened.

Long ago, in an environment far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. And as a social primate species, we also evolved social organizations designed to promote group cohesiveness and enforce moral rules.

People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking primates. We connect A to B to C, and often A really is connected to B, and B really is connected to C. This is called association learning. But we do not have a false-pattern-detection device in our brains to help us discriminate between true and false patterns, and so we make errors in our thinking. A Type I error is believing a pattern is real when it is not (a false positive) and a Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is (a false negative).

Imagine you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume it is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error, but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, there's a good chance you'll be lunch and thereby removed from your species' gene pool. Thus, there would have been a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous.

I call this process "patternicity" (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise) and "agenticity" (the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents who may mean us harm). This, I believe, is the basis for the belief in souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracy theorists and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

People are religious because we are social and we need to get along. The moral sentiments in humans and moral principles in human groups evolved primarily through the force of natural selection operating on individuals, and secondarily through the force of group selection operating on populations. The moral sense (the psychological feeling of doing "good" in the form of positive emotions such as righteousness and pride) evolved out of behaviors that were selected because they were good either for the individual or for the group. An immoral sense (the psychological feeling of doing "bad" in the form of negative emotions such as guilt and shame) evolved out of behaviors that were selected because they were bad either for the individual or for the group.

While cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as good or bad, the moral sense of feeling good or feeling bad about behavior X (whatever X may be) is an evolved human universal. The codification of moral principles out of the psychology of the moral sentiments evolved as a form of social control to ensure the survival of individuals within groups and the survival of human groups themselves. Religion was the first social institution to canonize moral principles, and God -- as an explanatory pattern for the world -- took on new powers as the ultimate enforcer of the rules.

Thus it is that people are religious and believe in God.

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and the author of, most recently, "The Mind of the Market."

We die, therefore we are religious
Counterpoint: Francisco J. Ayala

The formal name of the human species is Homo sapiens, or "knowing human." As a consequence of evolution, ours is the most intelligent species on Earth. A likely explanation of how our exalted intelligence came to be has to do with our ancestors of 2 million years ago, known as Homo habilis, who started to make very simple stone tools. Making tools requires seeing such objects as "tools," in other words, something to be used for a particular purpose: a knife for cutting, an arrow for hunting and so on. Seeing something as a tool requires forming mental images of realities not present: the deer I'll seek to kill and the flesh I'll cut for eating. In turn, forming mental images of things not present requires advanced intelligence, which is why so few animals make tools, and the tools they do make haven't developed into anything resembling the advanced technologies of our species.

The evolution scenario suggests that those more intelligent among our remote ancestors were able to make better tools. And those who made better tools survived better because they got more food and were more effective at killing their enemies or defending themselves. Therefore, those more intelligent left more descendants, and genes for higher intelligence increased in frequency for thousands and thousands of years among our ancestors.

Our intelligence is curious: We want to understand the world around us, how things happen and why they happen. We seek causal explanations of natural events. Before modern science came of age in the 17th century, humans attributed natural events for which they did not know the explanation to supernatural agents. Spirits or gods caused rain and drought, floods and storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, surely in retribution for human deeds. These beliefs would often lead to worship and rituals.

Seeking causal explanations for events in the natural world was one source of religious beliefs and practices. Humans live in complex societies, which need to be governed by laws and moral norms. Seeking justification for moral norms and social laws was another source of religious faith and cults. Israelites, for example, were told by Moses to observe the Ten Commandments because these were ordered by God.

But there is one more source of religion that also depends on our evolution-endowed intelligence: self-awareness and its consequence, death-awareness. Except for young infants, every person is conscious of existing as a distinct individual, different from other people and from the environment. Self-awareness is the most immediate and unquestionable reality of our experience.

Moreover, we humans are the only animals with full experience of self-awareness, which implies death-awareness. If I know I exist as a distinct human individual, I know I will die because I see other people die. Because we ceremonially bury our dead, we know humans are the only animals that are death-aware. All human societies have burial rituals, although the rites are very diverse. Ritual burial follows from death-awareness: If I know I will die, I will treat other dead humans with such respect because I want to be treated this way when I die.

Because we humans are aware of the transitory character of our existence, we develop anxiety over death. This anxiety is at least in part alleviated by religious beliefs and rituals, which give meaning to one's own life even though life will end. Anxiety about death is further relieved in the many religions that attribute immortality to the soul, either through successive reincarnations or in the form of life beyond death.

Evolution, by making humans intelligent, predisposed us to be religious.

Francisco J. Ayala, a biology professor at UC Irvine, is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science in 2001.


Republished from
Los Angeles Times