Category Archives: philosophy

Schisms in Islam and Christianity

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2431-40, 2477-88:

The great schisms of the Christian church, between East and West, and later between Catholic and Protestant, came centuries after the time of Christ. But the great schism in Islam that still divides Muslims today, between Sunni and Shi‘a, originated in the earliest days of the faith—even before Karbala, in the time of the Prophet Mohammad himself. Comparisons with the Christian schisms do not really work. A more apposite analogy, as noted by the historian Richard N. Frye and others, can be drawn between, on the one hand, the emphasis on law and tradition in Sunni Islam and Judaism and, on the other hand, the emphasis on humility, sacrifice, and the religious hierarchy in Christianity and Shi‘ism. The public grief of Ashura is similar in spirit to that which one can still see on Good Friday in some Catholic countries. The purpose in making comparisons between Shi‘ism and various aspects of Christianity is not to suggest that they are somehow the same (they are not), nor to encourage some kind of happy joining-hands ecumenism (naïve), but rather to try to illuminate something that initially looks unfamiliar, and to suggest by analogy that it may not be so strange or unfamiliar after all. Or at least, that it is no more strange than Christian Catholicism.

Despite the schism, in the early centuries there was a fairly free interchange of ideas, a considerable pluralism of belief, and considerable diversity of opinion among the Alids or Shi‘a themselves. Overall, Shi‘a theology and law tended to be looser than in Sunni Islam, more open to the application of reason in theology, more inclined to a free will position than a determinist one, and more open to some of the more heterodox ideas circulating in the Islamic world. This was partly the result of a broader hadith tradition, which included the sayings and doings of the Shi‘a Emams. Shi‘a theology also differed because it addressed problems that were specific to the Shi‘a, such as conduct under persecution.

The sixth Shi‘a Emam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq, developed a strategy for the evasion of persecution that was to prove controversial. The doctrine of taqiyeh, or dissimulation, permitted Shi‘a Muslims to deny their faith if necessary to avoid persecution—a special dispensation that has striking similarities with the doctrine of “mental reservation” granted for similar reasons by the Catholic church in the period of the Counter-Reformation, and associated with the Jesuits (though it originated before their time). Just as the Jesuits acquired a reputation for deviousness and terminological trickery among Protestants (whence in English we have the adjective “Jesuitical”), so the doctrine of taqiyeh earned the Shi‘a a similar reputation among some Sunni Muslims.

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Persian Poets Favored in the West

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:

Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.

On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.

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IVS: Role Model for Peace Corps

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 5687-5725:

IVS emerged from a confluence of church and government engagements with the decolonizing world. Shortly after President-elect Dwight Eisenhower announced late in 1952 that John Foster Dulles would be his secretary of state, Dulles declared in a radio address that US foreign aid programs needed to be supplemented by organizations of volunteers who would go abroad to help the peoples of the non-Western world to develop the resources of their own countries. This idea appealed to Harold Row, the director of the Church of the Brethren’s social service agency, the Brethren Service Commission. Row approached his counterparts on the Mennonite Central Committee and the Friends Service Committee, the social service agencies of the other “historic peace churches” which, like the Brethren, had been eager to find foreign postings for the “alternative service” that conscientious objectors performed under the terms of the Selective Service Act of 1940. The Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers all maintained missionary programs, but it had not been possible to assign conscientious objectors to missions because of the latter’s official involvement in religious proselytizing. Hence, most of the conscientious objectors served their two years of alternative service stateside in a variety of medical, construction, and agricultural endeavors. Row rounded up his Mennonite and Quaker friends and they went to Washington together and started to knock on the doors of officialdom.

While the churchmen were making their rounds, a middle-ranking officer of the State Department’s Point IV Program—President Truman’s foreign aid project—returned from a posting in Iran and voiced to colleagues his wish that churches or some other private party would send volunteers abroad to do vocational training and other work to enable the Iranians to modernize themselves. Dale D. Clark knew nothing of Dulles’s speech, but had come up with this idea while contemplating the needs of people in Tehran. Clark had been a Mormon missionary in Europe for two years as a youth, an experience that may have influenced this episode, although he did not say so. Clark was delighted when his aides excitedly told him that there were church officials in town at that moment trying to get someone to listen to exactly such a plan of their own. Row and his friends had found an official who was ready to work with them. In February 1953, the Brethren, Mennonites, and Quakers established a new NGO, International Voluntary Services (IVS), a name suggested by Row as a variation on his own denomination’s Brethren Volunteer Service.

IVS came into being at a time when ecumenical Protestants were divided about the viability of their missionary programs but more committed than ever to the service ideal. IVS was a means for expanding service projects without having to deal with the uncertainties of missionary purpose and ideology. IVS’s director for its first eight years was John S. Noffsinger, a Brethren minister who in his youth had been a teacher in the Philippines, then spent most of his career in the United States working for vocational training organizations, including the Federal Board of Vocational Education. Once in place, Noffsinger quickly dispatched young men and women abroad. They almost always operated “missionary style,” interacting directly with local populations in villages and learning to speak the indigenous languages.

IVS was a secular organization that welcomed volunteers with no religious affiliation, but throughout its history—including the volatile Vietnam years which I discuss below—its volunteers were overwhelmingly ecumenical Protestants. Noffsinger himself seems not to have pushed the analogy to missions, but some of his staff did. “You are still missionaries,” one staffer told a group of volunteers, “for like Christ you are working to improve peoples’ lives. Your job is to bring your great American know-how to Asia.” One volunteer from the mid-1950s recalled that the Foreign Service officers in Laos, where he was serving his alternative service, referred with some derision to his IVS group as “the missionaries.”

By the late 1950s, IVS had “won a reputation,” historian David Ekbladh explains, “as an exemplar of community development with its programs in Africa and Asia.” In 1961, immediately after President John F. Kennedy announced that Sargent Shriver would head such an agency, Noffsinger wrote to Shriver offering assistance. Members of Shriver’s newly appointed staff began attending IVS staff meetings to get a sense of the operation. IVS was not only the ideological model for Shriver’s agency, but the practical one as well. Historian Daniel Immerwahr notes that IVS staffers “showed Shriver’s team how to set up payrolls for international work [and] screen recruits.”

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Reasons Germany Lost WW2

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 199-225:

It is obvious that men make wars. The corollary that men lose wars is a truism that is often forgotten. The popular tendency at the moment is to identify all man’s military achievements with the machine. The aeroplane, the tank, the battleship, radar and the atom bomb amongst others are all credited by various proponents with having been the decisive factor in winning the war for the Allies. It seems to be felt, in some quarters, that given enough aeroplanes, or enough battleships or enough atom bombs, any power could guarantee for itself ultimate victory in a future war. But the story of Germany’s defeat in World War II convincingly destroys such theories.

Germany had sufficient machines to have assured victory for herself more than once during this war, yet she failed. This view has been expressed over and over again by leading military personalities in the Wehrmacht. They propound it every time they talk about Germany’s greatest military mistakes — and each general suggests a different one. Some say it was allowing the British to escape at Dunkirk, others the failure to invade England in 1940, others the refusal to invade Spain and seize Gibraltar, others the attack on Russia, others the failure to push on and take the Suez when Rommel was at El Alamein, others the stupidity at Stalingrad, and still others the disastrous strategy adopted at Normandy. At each of these decisive phases, except perhaps the last, Germany had sufficient material strength to have enabled her to defeat her immediate enemy or to have prevented that enemy from defeating her.

Yet why did the superior power of these machines not prevail? Because the men who controlled them lacked either the courage or the faith or the imagination or the ability to make them prevail. It is a fundamental principle of war that to win battles superiority of machines and men must be brought to bear at the right time and the right place. German strategists failed to carry out this tenet time and time again. Why, then, did these men who guided Germany’s destiny make blunder after blunder until victory became impossible? In the answer to that question, rather than in the quantity and quality of machines, is the real reason for the fall of Germany in World War II.

The causes of the defeat of the Reich were substantially either political or military. The evidence and judgment of the Nuremberg Tribunal has done much to clarify the political reasons behind Germany’s collapse. The military reasons, while obviously subordinate to political events, have not been given the same searching scrutiny and therefore still remain relatively obscure. The discriminating and scientific study of psychologists, sociologists and soldiers will undoubtedly produce the answers. But what evidence have we now on hand to help the historians and students of the future? The men of the Wehrmacht themselves. And their evidence is both interesting and important.

If men make wars, what manner of men were these who led the armed forces of the Reich to its worst defeat in history? What fundamental causes forced the military leaders of Germany to act as they did for five years of war? Why did a group of men with more training, more experience and more passion for the art of warfare than any other contemporary group of similarly trained men fail to ensure the victory that was so often within their reach? It is suggested that at least three weaknesses existed in the framework of the Wehrmacht which combined to produce a defeated, rather than a victorious, Germany. These weaknesses might be summed up in three words — Hitler, discipline and ignorance.

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Weaponizing Famine in Ukraine, 1930s

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 194-221:

But the bourgeoisie had not created the famine. The Soviet Union’s disastrous decision to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms; the eviction of “kulaks,” the wealthier peasants, from their homes; the chaos that followed; these policies, all ultimately the responsibility of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, had led the countryside to the brink of starvation. Throughout the spring and summer of 1932, many of Stalin’s colleagues sent him urgent messages from all around the USSR, describing the crisis. Communist Party leaders in Ukraine were especially desperate, and several wrote him long letters, begging him for help.

Many of them believed, in the late summer of 1932, that a greater tragedy could still be avoided. The regime could have asked for international assistance, as it had during a previous famine in 1921. It could have halted grain exports, or stopped the punishing grain requisitions altogether. It could have offered aid to peasants in starving regions—and to a degree it did, but not nearly enough.

Instead, in the autumn of 1932, the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that widened and deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside and at the same time prevented peasants from leaving the republic in search of food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and party activists, motivated by hunger, fear and a decade of hateful and conspiratorial rhetoric, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, anything in the oven and anything in the cupboard, farm animals and pets.

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger—holod—and extermination—mor.

But famine was only half the story. While peasants were dying in the countryside, the Soviet secret police simultaneously launched an attack on the Ukrainian intellectual and political elites. As the famine spread, a campaign of slander and repression was launched against Ukrainian intellectuals, professors, museum curators, writers, artists, priests, theologians, public officials and bureaucrats. Anyone connected to the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, which had existed for a few months from June 1917, anyone who had promoted the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian history, anyone with an independent literary or artistic career, was liable to be publicly vilified, jailed, sent to a labour camp or executed. Unable to watch what was happening, Mykola Skrypnyk, one of the best-known leaders of the Ukrainian Communist Party, committed suicide in 1933. He was not alone.

Taken together, these two policies—the Holodomor in the winter and spring of 1933 and the repression of the Ukrainian intellectual and political class in the months that followed—brought about the Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet unity. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who invented the word “genocide,” spoke of Ukraine in this era as the “classic example” of his concept: “It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.”

Famine was also an effective weapon of mass destruction in Ethiopia during the 1980s.

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Sources of Lenin’s Red Terror, 1918

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 904-43:

Lenin’s turn towards political violence in 1918—a set of policies known as the Red Terror—to his struggle against his political opponents. But even before the Red Terror was formally declared in September, and even before he ordered mass arrests and executions, Lenin was already discarding law and precedent in response to economic disaster: the workers of Moscow and Petrograd were down to one ounce of bread per day. Morgan Philips Price observed that Soviet authorities were barely able to feed the delegates during the Congress of Soviets in the winter of 1918: “Only a very few wagons of flour had arrived during the week at the Petrograd railway stations.” Worse, “complaints in the working-class quarters of Moscow began to be loud. The Bolshevik regime must get food or go, one used to hear.”

In the spring of 1918 these conditions inspired Lenin’s first chrezvychaishchina—a phrase translated by one scholar as “a special condition in public life when any feeling of legality is lost and arbitrariness in power prevails.” Extraordinary measures, or cherzvychainye mery, were needed to fight the peasantry whom Lenin accused of holding back surplus grain for their own purposes. To force the peasants to give up their grain and to fight the counter-revolution, Lenin also eventually created the chrezvychainaia komissiia—the “extraordinary commission,” also known as the Che-Ka, or Cheka. This was the first name given to the Soviet secret police, later known as the GPU, the OGPU, the NKVD and finally the KGB.

The emergency subsumed everything else. Lenin ordered anyone not directly involved in the military conflict in the spring and summer of 1918 to bring food back to the capital. Stalin was put in charge of “provisions matters in southern Russia,” a task that suddenly mattered a lot more than his tasks as Nationalities Commissar. He set out for Tsaritsyn, a city on the Volga, accompanied by two armoured trains and 450 Red Army soldiers. His assignment: to collect grain for Moscow. His first telegram to Lenin, sent on 7 July, reported that he had discovered a “bacchanalia of profiteering.” He set out his strategy: “we won’t show mercy to anyone, not to ourselves, not to others—but we will bring you bread.”

In subsequent years Stalin’s Tsaritsyn escapade was mostly remembered for the fact that it inspired his first public quarrel with the man who would become his great rival, Leon Trotsky. But in the context of Stalin’s later policy in Ukraine, it had another kind of significance: the brutal tactics he used to procure grain in Tsaritsyn presaged those he would employ to procure grain in Ukraine more than a decade later. Within days of arriving in the city Stalin created a revolutionary military council, established a Cheka division, and began to “cleanse” Tsaritsyn of counter-revolutionaries. Denouncing the local generals as “bourgeois specialists” and “lifeless pen-pushers, completely ill-suited to civil war,” he took them and others into custody and placed them on a barge in the centre of the Volga. In conjunction with several units of Bolshevik troops from Donetsk, and with the help of Klement Voroshilov and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, two men who would remain close associates, Stalin authorized arrests and beatings on a broad scale, followed by mass executions. Red Army thugs robbed local merchants and peasants of their grain; the Cheka then fabricated criminal cases against them—another harbinger of what was to come—and caught up random people in the sweep as well.

But the grain was put on trains for the north—which meant that, from Stalin’s point of view, this particularly brutal form of War Communism was successful. The populace of Tsaritsyn paid a huge price and, at least in Trotsky’s view, so did the army. After Trotsky protested against Stalin’s behaviour in Tsaritsyn, Lenin eventually removed Stalin from the city. But his time there remained important to Stalin, so much so that in 1925 he renamed Tsaritsyn “Stalingrad.” During their second occupation of Ukraine in 1919, the Bolsheviks never had the same degree of control as Stalin had over Tsaritsyn. But over the six months when they were at least nominally in charge of the republic, they went as far as they could. All of their obsessions—their hatred of trade, private property, nationalism, the peasantry—were on full display in Ukraine. But their particular obsession with food, and with food collection in Ukraine, overshadowed almost every other decision they made.

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Bolshevik Attitudes Toward Ukraine

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 652-76:

At the beginning of 1917, the Bolsheviks were a small minority party in Russia, the radical faction of what had been the Marxist Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party. But they spent the year agitating in the Russian streets, using simple slogans such as “Land, Bread and Peace” designed to appeal to the widest numbers of soldiers, workers and peasants. Their coup d’état in October (7 November according to the “new calendar” they later adopted) put them in power amidst conditions of total chaos. Led by Lenin, a paranoid, conspiratorial and fundamentally undemocratic man, the Bolsheviks believed themselves to be the “vanguard of the proletariat”; they would call their regime the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” They sought absolute power, and eventually abolished all other political parties and opponents through terror, violence and vicious propaganda campaigns.

In early 1917 the Bolsheviks had even fewer followers in Ukraine. The party had 22,000 Ukrainian members, most of whom were in the large cities and industrial centres of Donetsk and Kryvyi Rih. Few spoke Ukrainian. More than half considered themselves to be Russians. About one in six was Jewish. A tiny number, including a few who would later play major roles in the Soviet Ukrainian government, did believe in the possibility of an autonomous, Bolshevik Ukraine. But Heorhii Piatakov—who was born in Ukraine but did not consider himself to be Ukrainian—spoke for the majority when he told a meeting of Kyiv Bolsheviks in June 1917, just a few weeks after Hrushevsky’s speech, that “we should not support the Ukrainians.” Ukraine, he explained, was not a “distinct economic region.” More to the point, Russia relied on Ukraine’s sugar, grain and coal, and Russia was Piatakov’s priority.

The sentiment was not new: disdain for the very idea of a Ukrainian state had been an integral part of Bolshevik thinking even before the revolution. In large part this was simply because all of the leading Bolsheviks, among them Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Piatakov, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin, were men raised and educated in the Russian empire, and the Russian empire did not recognize such a thing as “Ukraine” in the province that they knew as “Southwest Russia.” The city of Kyiv was, to them, the ancient capital of Kyivan Rus’, the kingdom that they remembered as the ancestor of Russia. In school, in the press and in daily life they would have absorbed Russia’s prejudices against a language that was widely described as a dialect of Russian, and a people widely perceived as primitive former serfs.

All Russian political parties at the time, from the Bolsheviks to the centrists to the far right, shared this contempt. Many refused to use the name “Ukraine” at all. Even Russian liberals refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian national movement. This blind spot—and the consequent refusal of any Russian groups to create an anti-Bolshevik coalition with the Ukrainians—was ultimately one of the reasons why the White Armies failed to win the civil war.

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