Sunday, July 29, 2007

To the believers go the spoils

"As far as I am aware," writes Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great,
there is no country in the world today where slavery is still practiced where the justification of it is not derived from the Koran. This returns us to the retort delivered, in the very early days of the Republic, to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two slaveholders had called on the ambassador of Tripoli in London to ask him by what right he and his fellow Barbary potentates presumed to capture and sell American crews and passengers from ships using the Strait of Gibralter. (It is now estimated that between 1530 and 1780 more than one and a quarter million Europeans were carried off in this way.) As Jefferson reported to Congress:
The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them whenever they could be found and to make slaves of all they could take prisoners.
      Ambassador Abdrahaman went on to mention the requisite price of ransom, the price of protection from kidnapping, and last but not least his own personal commission in these proceedings. (Religion once again betrays its man-made conveniences.) As it happens, he was quite right in what he said about the Koran. The eighth sura, revealed at Medina, deals at some length with the justified spoils of war and dwells continually on the further postmortem "torments of fire" that await those who are defeated by the believers. It was this very sura that was to be used only two centuries later by Saddam Hussein to justify his mass murder and dispossession of the people of Kurdistan. [p. 181]

"Spoils of War"

If I were going to post some comments on this, I thought I'd better have read the eighth sura myself, so I got out my copy of Thomas Cleary's English translation of The Qur'an and three times read the sura titled "Spoils of War." It opens as I think all of the suras do with the invocation, "In the name of God, the Benevolent, the Merciful." Then:
1. They ask you about the spoils of war.
      Say, "The spoils are for God and the messenger
            [i.e., the Prophet Muhammad].
      So be conscious of God,
      and reconcile dissension among you.
      And obey God and God's messenger,
      if you are believers."...
12. Then your Lord inspired the angels,
      "I am with you, so steady those who believe.
      I will cast fear into the hearts
      of those who scoff,
      so strike above their necks,
      and strike off their fingertips."
13. That is because they contended
      with God and the messenger of God;
      and for anyone who contends
      with God and the messenger of God,
      God is severe in punishment:
14. "There you are, so taste it—
      for the atheists there's the torment of the fire.
15. Oh believers, when you meet
      the atheists on the march,
      never turn your backs to them.
16. Whoever turns his back on that day,
      except when turning to fight
      or withdrawing to regroup
      has brought down wrath from God;
      and his abode is hell,
      and what a miserable destination!...
38. Say to those who scoff,
      "If you desist, what is past
      will be forgiven you;
      but if you resume,
      the example of the ancients
      has already occurred."...
41. And know that a fifth
      of anything you gain as spoils
      is for God and his messenger,
      and for relatives, and orphans,
      and the poor, and the traveler,
      if you do believe in God
      and what We sent down to Our servant
      on the day of distinction,
      the day of the meeting of the two armies;
      for God has power over everything...
57. So if you prevail over them in war,
      then disperse their followers with them,
      that they may take a lesson.
58. And if you really fear
      treachery from a people,
      default on them equally;
      for God does not like the treacherous.
65. O Prophet, rouse the believers to battle:
      if there are twenty of you
      who persevere patiently,
      they will defeat two hundred;
      and if there are a hundred of you,
      they will overcome a thousand
      of those who scoff,
      because these are the people
      who do not understand....
70. O Prophet, say to the captives in your hands, "If
      God recognizes good in your hearts,
      God will give you better than what was taken
      from you, and God will forgive you.
      And God is very forgiving, most merciful."
71. But if they intend to betray you,
      they have already betrayed God;
      so God has given power over them.
      And God is all-knowing, most wise....[pp. 84-88]
      What a fluttering thrill this must give the believer. To be led by an all-powerful (but benevolent and merciful) father protector. And to be assured of victory on the battlefield. But what a shudder for the freethinker to read even the invocation:
In the name of God, the Benevolent (but not to me!), the Merciful (but not to me!)
I am, against these warriors of God, destined to become spoils, a slave. Or have my head lopped off, or my fingertips, or both!
      "Of course," I'm thinking, the belief that this twaddle came from God is a fantasy. It's just men, with no more human resources than nonbelievers have, whipping themselves up into the delusion that they are not only irresistible and indestructible, but also morally superior into the bargain. But people so whipped up are not to be messed with lightly. Our own cops are often sorely challenged to take down a crack-head.

Kill Alle

Less than an hour after preparing the material above for posting, I was startled out of impending sleep while listening to Kingsley Amis's The Folks That Live on the Hill:
While [Fiona, Harry's stepdaughter by a previous marriage] waited for the minicab she sang a little—a hundred years ago she and her parents too had thought she might make a singer, which was a laugh if ever there was one.
Und ein Schiff mit acht Segeln
Und mit Fünfzig Kanonen
Wird leigen am Kai...
She had known some German too at the same sort of stage, which was another laugh, even bigger when you thought about it, but she had long forgotten what it was exactly that the ship with eight sails and fifty guns got up to after reaching the quay, though she did remember that at the end the crew asked the girl Jenny who was supposed to be singing the song how many of the people in the town she wanted killed and, speaking not singing the word, she answered, "Alle!" [pp. 128-129]
      For I had heard not the German word "alle" but the Arabic word "Allah," as though the girl Jenny were voicing the secret desire, Death to Allah! Be done with Islam once and for all! My creative hearing struck me as uncannily appropriate in the context of Barbary pirates and sailing ships with cannon. The magical thinking part of myself of course wanted this to be a divine signal of some sort, hopefully telling me:
Right on, Islam is a crock of thuggery and brutishness, too many of its Arab adherents caught up in a death cult stemming from some no doubt interesting psychological complex, if not, as Thomas L. Friedman and others have suggested, from their ambivalently feeling at the same time both superior in their status with God and inferior on social, cultural, and scientific scales.
But such a reaction on my part could be but the mirror image of the predictable response of "good Muslims" (following another of their seeming moral imperatives) to condemn Hitchens for not really knowing anything about Islam, by which they really only mean that he doesn't know it sympathetically and apologetically—the way they do—so how dare him tell them about Islam. He, they jeer, emphasizes the wrong things, they emphasize the right things (the same way that Christians play down Leviticus and play up God's loving mankind so much that He gave his only begotten Son, etc.).
      So I'll not claim that hearing "Allah" was any sort of divine inspiration or sign, but will only assume that it was an unconscious mental act helping me deal with cognitive dissonance, as if I'd decided at the last minute to buy a Ford instead of a Chevy and proceeded to see a lot of bad Chevies on the road, so wasn't I lucky I switched to a Ford.

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