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The Way You Hold Your Pens and Pencils

So, the mallards have moved away. For two days, they tried out the neighbour's pool. Then he moved on, and she lurked around, paddling disconsolately around in a circle. Then she left, too. Which is a little disappointing and also a big relief.

So we opened the pool. There was a perfect halocline about a foot under the water, where leaves too heavy for the sweet and too light for the salt floated in a stratum. I took pictures, but they didn't come out. It reminded me of the verse from the Koran that, when I was growing up, I was told had convinced Jaques-Yves Cousteau to convert to Islam. To wit:

And He it is Who has made two seas to flow freely, the one sweet that subdues thirst by its sweetness, and the other salt that burns by its saltness; and between the two He has made a barrier

It's funny how "convert to Islam" is interpreted. I guess most people who see through a lens CNN-ly means this means growing a beard, putting on a beanie and white clothes, and running off to some godforsaken wilderness to learn how to make bombs out of semtex and cellphones. Again, when I was growing up, I was told that it mainly involved saying the shahadah ("I attest that there is only one God and Mohammad is his [implied final, i.e. Rasul] Prophet") and meaning it.

I remember the first time I met a real Radical Islamicist (note caps). He was American, In Islamabad. I was saving up for a VIC-20 by working in the Embassy mail-room. It was 1982, I think, in the temporary Embassy set up after the main one had been burned down in November '79.

Embassies are there, partly, to help U.S. citizens to relate back to their country in any important matters, and this is called "consular affairs". So this guy wandered around the Embassy for a day, dressed like a Pathan, in a Shalwar-Chemiz, shawl, and knitted hat, the uniform of a Mujaheddin.

[Remember that this was when the U.S. was actively arming and training "freedom fighters" to take on the Russians in Afghanistan, so the enemy of our enemy is our friend, even though our "friend" later became the Taliban.]

He cornered some of the post-office staff, and was talking about Islam. He was trying to get people interested in Islam, and talking about how he, as an AMERICAN, was turning to Islam, and it was a fine thing. At one point, he wanted to convert me. so he played a game, where he asked me to recite the shahadah. He said:

HE: Repeat after me: I'shuhaduallah I'Allah Illulah.

Me: Shaddalah yallah illalah.

HE: Good. Now: I'shuhaduallah Mohammad Al-Rassul Allah.

Me: Shaddallah Mohammad alrasullallah.

He: Now you are a muslim.

Me: Really?

He: Yes. You have affirmed that you believe that God is one God and Mohammad is his prophet.

Me: Oh.

I'm still taken aback when facing this kind of simpleminded B.S. The Koran is the Word of God is Magic. It does not require faith or understanding.

When I got back to the States, to the South, I'd hear similar stories from people (like ginamariewade) facing the American Taliban, in their Baptist, or Evangelical, or Pentecostal forms. A forced dunk in the water, and an assertion pried out of you that you "Believe in Jesus" (whatever that means) and you are magically re-born/saved/ginger-peachy. There were even "Jesus Camps" to be sent to, where the main purpose was to trick you into admitting that you'd found Jesus and made him a part of your life.


The more of this stuff I see, the more it seems like a symptom of Democracy and individual empowerment. Somewhere the idea that having equal rights gets translated to equality, not egalitarianism. Your half-baked, crotch-level assertion of faith is somehow equal to a long life's work of carefully considered moral philosophy and theology. We are equal in assertion. One man, one vote.

So when handed this power, it's awfully comforting to be told what to do. Or at least to know your every action is sanctioned by God-Magic. Very comforting.

Which is a remarkably uncomforting thought today, when the old Colonial Powers are considering arming the Syrian resistance. Which is exactly how we got into this problem last time, by sending light arms by donkey over passes through the Hindu Kush. Who could have predicted Grozny and 9/11 back then?

Well, we could have, actually. But it's comforting not to look too far ahead to consequences, and to go for that golden rush of liberation that will come with the fall of Damascus.

Inch'Allah iya bokhra fa mishmish...


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 28th, 2013 08:13 pm (UTC)
This magical approach to conversion is rather like infant baptism, I think: designed not so much to trick people into conversion but rather to assure people of it. In other words, I don't think it's designed as a trap for skeptics or agnostics--who, in any case, will not feel bound by a smear of water when they were newborns or by a bunch of words they don't understand--but rather, as a way of removing obstacles from the path of those who want to find an easy-access safe harbor. You're boggling over the lack of carefully considered moral philosophy or theology, but I think the whole notion is to spare people who aren't interested in those deep questions the need to trouble themselves about them. The bug is the feature.

It's rather like the chanting schools of Japanese Buddhism that said all you needed to do to attain salvation was chant the name of Amida [Amitabha] Buddha, or the first lines of the Lotus Sutra over and over again to be saved. Eventually one school decided just saying it once was enough! For some people, it's precisely NOT theology and moral introspection.

... But yeah, not sure I want to arm people who don't like to think about the morals of the positions/doctrines they're espousing.

Edited at 2013-05-29 12:13 am (UTC)
May. 29th, 2013 08:27 pm (UTC)
I'm more concerned with the political manipulation thereof. Apostasy is a capital crime under the strictest interpretations of Islamic law, and if simply reciting the shahadah is equivalent to conversion....

....not that I have much evidence of it being used precisely in this manner, but as a political brainwashing technique for young recruits, it's pretty effective. Much as it is in the politically active branches of fundamentalist christianity in the States. That "all you have to do is believe in Jesus" mantra is flung about more as a net than as an aid.
May. 30th, 2013 08:09 am (UTC)
My sense of realpolitik tells me that it would be pretty nuts to trick people into conversion and then kill them for apostasy, though maybe if you wanted an excuse, since you were planning on killing them anyway...

Can you expand on the brainwashing angle? Also the net angle. I haven't watched any of the movies you talk about.

When I was a kid, the only summer fun in town was provided by some evangelically connected group, so in addition to learning about costumes around the world (one session I remember participating in when I was under eight years old), you got fifteen minutes or so of Bible reading (my parents were atheists and agnostics, so they definitely weren't sending me there for indoctrination). The organization did the whole get-Jesus-in-your-heart thing, but even with us youngsters, they urged introspection. Is he in there? yes? no? better invite him in! (I went home panicked: "Mommy--I need to get Jesus in my heart and I don't know how to do that!!" My poor mother!)

May. 30th, 2013 08:50 am (UTC)
Your poor mother, indeed. At least you didn't go searching under the furniture to find Jesus.

No, that sounds like legitimate religion, and there's plenty of that both in the Christian and Islamic spheres.

No, this is something modern, as in Post-WWI modern. It's about the motivation of masses, and it's like putting a brand on someone to claim them. But it's based on a carrot-stick mechanism that's much older.

The early history of Islam had a lot of it, and almost perfectly paralleled the christian takeover of Spain. First, you were allowed to convert or pay heavy fines or bear the brunt of the taxes. Then, if you renounced your conversion or were caught practicing it in secrecy, your life and possessions were forfeit.

And it's similar: first, you take the easy road in, which borrows from the legitimate ethos of Islam: that there is more and less perfect ways of worshipping God, and all "followers of the book" have some legitimacy. So you can affirm some truths of Islam without buying into the whole farm, under the assumption that "because Islam is the one true religion, even you will eventually submit as you learn more". Pretty much the same as the school you describe.

But an essential part of brainwashing is to get the victim to buy into their own conversion. That's where the shahadah-magic comes in. "Look, you were baptised. You are made new! So why do you want to spoil the new life you've been given?" or "So, you say Mohammad is the prophet, then prove it: here's the rest of the doctrine (interpreted by me), and by the way, if you run off, you will burn in hell and one of these other guys is obligated to take you there."

There has to be that "you chose this" moment, or it doesn't work.
May. 30th, 2013 08:59 am (UTC)
I see: wow, yeah, I see how that works, and that's tricky, and I can see how it would be hard to wiggle out of that. I think the especially pernicious part--and this goes for any religion that tries this--is the compelling of the faithful to bring you down if you start to slide.


I gotta go for a walk and clear my head now.
May. 30th, 2013 09:20 am (UTC)
Indulging my lingual archaeology habit (sorry), I'm reminded by the origin of the word "decimation". Do you know that one?
May. 30th, 2013 09:48 am (UTC)
Heh. I do. These days we should perhaps talk about centimation, or even millimation, though -_-
May. 30th, 2013 10:06 am (UTC)
Oh, it was far more nefarious than simply "destroying 1/10". It was a punishment for a contubernium (10) soldiers. If they broke discipline in some serious infraction, they would be required to choose one of their member to kill, and perform the execution themselves. Since they were all tent/messmates, it was a particularly brutal punishment for the whole squad.

You would think it would make people liable to mutiny, but apparently it did exactly the opposite, and helped instill that cold killer instinct (and, incidently, cut down on the number of cowards, thieves, and other "backsliders" in the army).

So it's not just a powerful threat; it actually makes the movement more resilient.
May. 30th, 2013 10:34 am (UTC)
Yes: it's like you'd think cutting off people's hands would not make them vote for your political party, but Ivory Coast politics show otherwise. And apparently making kids shoot their parents helps them with loyalty to the army you've kidnapped them into, too.

--and I'm saying this not with sarcasm... I know it's actually true :-(
May. 30th, 2013 10:35 am (UTC)
(and I didn't realize that about decimation--thanks for the correction)
May. 29th, 2013 08:45 pm (UTC)
There was a lot more emotional terrorism involved in getting someone to profess faith in Jesus - if you don't profess faith, you will burn in hell and be separated forever from everyone you ever loved, and here's a movie about how it will be. Very different from the trick you describe about getting someone to convert to Islam, and very different from infant baptism, which is really just making a baby part of a community.
May. 30th, 2013 07:34 am (UTC)
There you are. You've been away for a bit and a half.

Yes, sounds terrifying. From what I hear, there are madrassas that are similar all up and down Pakisatan. "Get them while they're young", seems to be the watchword.
May. 30th, 2013 08:12 am (UTC)
I can see how fear of hell would work for someone growing up in the community (i.e., surrounded by others who believe in hell), but does it work on people who don't have a preexisting belief, or inclination to believe, in hell? (Which sounds like a combative question, but I really mean it in just a musing sense--I mean, it may work very well; I'm just wondering if in fact that's the case.)
May. 30th, 2013 10:36 am (UTC)
By the way, I only just now noticed the title of this post. I was always corrected for holding my pencil wrong until at last they gave up on me. Two of my kids hold their pencils wrong too--and in a different way from the way I hold it wrong. Pencil-holding diversity, yo.
May. 30th, 2013 09:31 pm (UTC)
I'll admit, I'm pretty terrible with the subtexts. One half of my brain is usually rebelling at what the other half is writing, and it usually comes out in snatches of remembered song or poetry. So I put it up in the title. There, my secret is out.

In this case, it's borrowing from Laurie Anderson to remind me that I'm fed up with all these people convinced of their infallibility.
May. 30th, 2013 09:37 pm (UTC)
"You know . . . we could all be . . . wrong. Wouldn't be the first time."

Is one of my favorite lines from her, and one I often think on.
May. 31st, 2013 08:40 am (UTC)
"Oh boy... Right... Again..."
May. 31st, 2013 08:57 am (UTC)
LOL. You hat-check clerk, you.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )