Saturday, July 23, 2011


Like many yesterday, I read and watched media speculation about al-Qa'eda's responsibility for the Oslo bombing and shooting that has resulted in over 90 innocent civilians dead, most of whom are children. Even al-Jazeera Arabic last night circulated the same al-Qa'eda storyline. However, it appears to be something much more troubling since the Norwegian Government has confirmed that it was not an international terror attack by al-Qa'eda or its affiliates but a domestic terrorism attack committed by right-wing blogger, political activist, and Christian militant, Anders Breivik, against the politically liberal Labor Party of Norway. The distorted logic at work here is that both Muslims and liberals are ruining the country and world, and so killing either or both is basically the same. This is reminiscent of comparable right-wing Christian militia plots here in the US, such as the Hutaree, which mirrors the spike in right-wing, conservative anti-government plots during the Clinton era. The US has been aware of this since a 2009 Homeland Security report, and yet there appears to be little political traction in taking up this issue.

If a terrorist ideology grounded in Islam has been problematic enough for the US government to spend billions in international outreach to combat ideologies of violence, hold congressional hearings, and conduct massive intelligence and counter-terrorism operations, then should the US not allocate similar resources against these right-wing ideologues and their group affiliations in terms of monitoring and intercepting financial donations, communications, organizational and political activities in order to idenitfy the size and scope of such groups in the attempt to undercut any who might decide to take comparable actions as Breijik since the ideology has proven to be a resource for terrorism?

On another note, this issue also raises major problems for media narratives that rely more on pre-fabbed speculation than journalistic source triangulation. See the following excerpt from an article on  
That Terrorism means nothing more than violence committed by Muslims whom the West dislikes has been proven repeatedly. When an airplane was flown into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, it was immediately proclaimed to be Terrorism, until it was revealed that the attacker was a white, non-Muslim, American anti-tax advocate with a series of domestic political grievances. The U.S. and its allies can, by definition, never commit Terrorism even when it is beyond question that the purpose of their violence is to terrorize civilian populations into submission. Conversely, Muslims who attack purely military targets -- even if the target is an invading army in their own countries -- are, by definition, Terrorists. That is why, as NYU's Remi Brulin has extensively documented, Terrorism is the most meaningless, and therefore the most manipulated, word in the English language. Yesterday provided yet another sterling example.
One last question: if, as preliminary evidence suggests, it turns out that Breivik was "inspired" by the extremist hatemongering rantings of Geller, Pipes and friends, will their groups be deemed Terrorist organizations such that any involvement with them could constitute the criminal offense of material support to Terrorism? Will those extremist polemicists inspiring Terrorist violence receive the Anwar Awlaki treatment of being put on an assassination hit list without due process? Will tall, blond, Nordic-looking males now receive extra scrutiny at airports and other locales, and will those having any involvement with those right-wing, Muslim-hating groups be secretly placed on no-fly lists? Or are those oppressive, extremist, lawless measures -- like the word Terrorism -- also reserved exclusively for Muslims?
But this probloem runs deeper than media bias, it cuts through our political mindset and forces upon us the burden of reassessing not only our prejudicial blind spots but, more importantly, requires that we treat white, conservative terrorist threats with the same, if not more, urgency as Muslim ones. Perhaps the US gov't should focus less on the Muslim threat since not a single civilian has died in the US from a Muslim terrorist attack since 9/11. Moreover, a recent US government-funded Rand report has shown that terrorism is actually lower in the 21st century than it was in the 1970s, and that the whole Muslim terrorist threat is overblown in respect to the actual data. However, numerous "terrorism and counter-terrorism" experts have little interest in focusing on statistically higher threats because 9/11 and Muslim terrorism is what their speaking engagements, media appearances, governmental consulting, and security contracts rely on. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Muslim Youth & New Media

Here's a link to an interesting article on Muslim youth and new media from online Muslim magazine ELAN.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Country Music & Religious Dissent I

At first glance, most would confidently claim that country music has maintained a traditionalist, conservative position concerning religion that unapologetically asserts what is termed as "family values" in politics--and this is mostly true. You typically do not hear country music artists delving into critiques of God or country as those are the two pillars of its rural and nationalist roots.

Yet, with the rise of outlaw country in the late 60s and early 70s there developed a very minor but significant shift in country music discourse on religion. The outlaw status gives artists the license to explore and discuss taboos that upstanding members of society normally shy away from: such as sexual promiscuity, drinking binges, drug use, aimless road trips, political and religious hypocrisy, revelrous rebellion, and so on. And there are some interesting expressions of such music that I will get into below.

To the best of my knowledge, a strain of religious critique developed starting with Cal Smith's 1972 hit single, The Lord Knows I'm Drinking. It is with this song that a public dialogue begins about the hypocrisy of small-town religious church-goers who slip into bars on occasion. More than that, though, this is a rejection of the church as an institution that also upholds an individual connection to God. So, the trick of the critique is to undermine someone's moral criticism by applying their own logic to shut them up and have them mind their own business.

But that critique had been around for quite awhile and it just took time before it was condensed into direct confrontation of public morality concerning religion and society. But, by 1975 Charlie Daniels unleashed the unrepentant single Long-haired Country Boy. He takes on preachers, politicians, and class elitism from a libertarian-rural-drunk-stoner perspective. He just gets "stoned in the morning and drunk in the afternoon," while "a drunkard wants another drink of wine and a politician wants a vote, I don't want much of nothin' at all but I will take another toke." Here's his religion part of the song with refrain:

Preacher man talkin' on the TV,
Puttin' down the rock 'n' roll.
He wants me to send a donation,

'Cuz he's worried about my soul.
He said: "Jesus walked on the water,"

And I know that is true,
But sometimes I think that preacher man 

Ought to do a little walkin', too.

But I ain't askin' nobody for nothin',
If I can't get it on my own.
You don't like the way I'm livin',
You just leave this long-haired country boy alone.

Despite his take no prisoners approach, CD ultimately applies the same logic as Cal Smith: leave me alone you hypocrite. However, he hints at something original, that religion is another form of desire/pleasure/addiction. This is a theme further elaborated on by Waylon Jennings's 1976 single, Are You Ready for the Country -- another decisive critique of religious evangelism. Notice how Waylon compares a preacher to a drug dealer in the following lines on the grounds that religion is just one among other addictive highs that people are drawn to:

Talkin' to a preacher, said God was on his side
Talkin' to a pusher, they both were selling highs
Well, I gotta tell the story, boys,
I don't know the reason why

This was a time when Waylon was extremely strung out on cocaine (over a $1,000/day habit according to some) and he had previously criticized Johnny Cash for "selling out to religion" as he sobered up from his own addictions and rediscovered his religious sensibility that he would retain till his death. Even Waylon succumbed to religion as a source for escaping drug abuse and addiction, or to apply his rationale, replacing one high with another.

Steve Earle is another indie/outlaw artist who takes risks in his music in both style and substance. He has two songs that really delve into religion from unique angles. The first is God is God which is really a theological piece of poetry on SE's religious views. But since I'm addressing critique let's take a look at the following lines:

And I believe in God, but God ain't us.

God, in my little understanding, don't care what name I call.
Whether or not I believe doesn't matter at all.

I receive the blessings.

That every day on Earth's another chance to get it right.
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night.

It is subtle, but notice that his claim that humans are not God is a indirect swipe at those who speak for God, thus undermining religious authority. Also, there is little need for religious groups and institutions if God does not need people to believe. So what's the technique here: keep God but throw out religion. This is a classical move of religious mystics (and contemporary spiritual but not religious folk) who challenge religious authorities and institutions by claiming that God is everywhere so why reduce him/her to one time, place, or person?

But, it is SE's next song that really pushes the boundary of acceptability from his American country music audience. While country artists have shown a willingness to criticize religion, you do not find a complete rejection of religion/Christianity or an acceptance of another faith in the industry. Well, SE received much criticism for his post-9/11 song, John Walker's Blues, where SE adopts John Walker Lindh's perspective of converting to Islam and fighting alongside the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan after seeking religious education in Pakistan. The piece really steps into the subject's shoes and avoids judgment to facilitate understanding, a difficult task with which any translator grapples. Confronting his audience with the new public enemy is something that takes courage due to the severe risk of losing his audience altogether if rejected. But, that is what many great artists have interpreted their role to be, and SE really stands up for artistic license with such a song.

Speaking of conversion, the soothing sounds of Dan Seals balanced a nature-religion in his 1984 single, God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart, and then pushed his audience's limitations with his single, We Are One, as a lyrical expression of his conversion to the Baha'i Faith, based on religious, racial, and gender harmony that still acknowledges his Christian roots.While not explicit, the "flowers in one garden" metaphor is straight from the Baha'i scriptures.

To top it all off, I was quite surprised to learn about rebel redneck David Allan Coe coming from a Mormon background. In the song Heavenly Father, Holy Mother he waxes poetic about his upbringing, but with a twist where he pines for the good ole' days when Mormons were polygamists that leaves a lingering critique of Brigham Young's reforms. I did a brief fieldwork expedition with a sociology professor while studying at Northern Arizona University in the summer of 2001 and visited a few polygamous Mormon communities along the Arizona/Utah border. Legend has it that DAC actually attempted to gain membership into one of the Mormon sects that still have their own line of living prophets, but was denied. Here's a few lines and the video:

If grandpa was alive right now there ain't no tellin' what he'd have to say
Why he had fifteen wives a living with him all when he finally passed away
And though I've just got two now mama that's enough to keep me satisfied
I haven't had a son yet but the good Lord knows the three of us have tried
Cause the Pennsylvania Dutch that we once spoke has been forgotten
And the Mormon way of life is almost gone.

Well, from singing drunkards, stoners, and coke-heads, to conversions to Mormonism, Islam and the Baha'i Faith, country music is not nearly as monolithic in its take on religion as one would initially suspect. Stay tuned for part two where I discuss how I gained a greater interest in pop culture and religious dissent in graduate school through a cross-cultural comparison of the Sufi poetry of Hafez and the Texas country music of Kevin Fowler.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

ISNA Convention 2011: Shari'a Law

Given the heightened concern over Islam surrounding the pre-election 2010 Republican political mobilization around the 'Ground Zero' mosque (here), Peter King's Muslim Radicalization Congressional hearings (here), and a recent wave of anti-Shari'a measures by a number of US State Legislatures (here), I was interested in finding out how Muslims view the centrality of shari'a, i.e. Islamic law, for their lives. Well, many Americans would probably be surprised to know that while they were bbq-ing on this 4th of July tens of thousands of Muslims were gathering at Chicago's Rosemont Convention Center with a strong message: shari'a enhances their commitment to living peacefully and prosperously in America as American Muslims.

While politicians and pundits equate shari'a with criminal punishments such as beheadings and stonings, American Muslim spokespersons and audiences were in complete agreement that they have no interest in applying any form of punishments in the US and only seek to observe the ethical shari'a guidelines on how to properly practice their religious rituals and holidays, as well as inform their day-to-day lives with such moral precepts. Some Jews are also worried about this since Islamic shari'a is very similar to Jewish Halakha, or Jewish law (here), and also because there are already Jewish Halakha courts openly operating in the US (here). Ultimately, either Shari'a arbitration will be allowed to operate like Halakha courts do or both will be denied legal status.

The other issue worth noting is that most Muslims I came across or heard speak cited one important source for how they interpret shari'a as Muslims living in the US as a minority. This source was also the most widely available shari'a guidance via cd and dvd sales at the ISNA Convention, which shows that people are buying, listening to, and watching this material in droves. So, who is this source??? No, not the fundamentalist faves: Ibn Taymiyya, Sayyid Qutb or Mawdudi.

Rather, his name is Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah. He is a Mauritanian Muslim Shari'a Authority who currently resides and teaches in Saudia Arabia. I know, you probably think that makes him a Wahhabi militant...not exactly. He sought refuge there after a military coup in his own country. He has arguably been the most influential shari'a authority for Muslims in Europe and North America on how to live as good Muslims in secular non-Muslim countries. He has a popular cd set: Sacred Law, Secular Land. A short excerpt from this talk can be found here as 'Muslims Living in non-Muslim Lands' (you only need to read the first half, till the Moderation section). Reading this should alleviate any fears that the largest Muslim organization in North America (ISNA) is doing anything other than cultivating law-abiding citizens who are well-informed about their religious duties to be good Americans.

In case that is not enough ISNA was prepared to provide more solid stats to support their pro-America / pro-Islam stance. According to the Muslim Political Affairs Council (MPAC), 7 out of the last 10 domestic terror plots by Muslims have actually been thwarted by Muslim individuals, mosques, and organizations working with local police and intelligence authorities. MPAC has published a Terrorism Database Report (here) to demonstrate that Muslims have only accounted for approximately one-third of total domestic terror plots since 9/11, pointing out that while 48 plots have been by Muslims 105 have been by non-Muslims. Their aim is to statistically dissociate American Muslims from terrorism in the US.

While Peter King's recent Congressional hearing on Muslim radicalization attempted to emphasize the threat, LA County Sheriff Leroy Baca provided numerous examples of how Muslim individuals and organizations in California as well as nationwide have been pivotal to Homeland Security. To express this commitment further ISNA invited LA County Sheriff Leroy Baca to their convention to express gratitude for his Congressional testimony and to give him the opportunity to address the American Muslim community directly.

I could continue and get into the details of my observations of Shari'a Q&A sessions and such, but that is better suited for an analytical essay than a blog post. On a lighter note, enjoy the tongue-in-cheek Muslim hipster humor of the American Muslim band the Kominas' song: Shari'a Law in the USA


Unleash the Re-

During a lunch at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2005-06 Religious Studies superstar J.Z. Smith noted that were it not for the Christian monopoly on the prefix re- to mean the resurrection of Jesus he would have it engraved on his tomb. The complexity of the prefix implies a constant need to re-member/re-late/re-make/re-turn/re-play that encapsulates so much of the human endeavor.

Well, it is now time to re-turn and re-make the blog after nearly a year en absentia as I prepare to re-locate for doctoral study to the Anthro. Dept. of the University of California @ Irvine. I have re-formatted the blog to reflect my primary research interests and institutional identity, which will also provide me more flexibility to use the blog as a lab for testing out new ideas and analytical angles. Till then....