Friday, April 29, 2011

She feels a lot like Che Guevara

Quick. Do a google search on "turkish playboy che guevara". Or, here, I'll do it for you.

"For years I subordinated myself to various societal constraints and did what others thought was right for me. This was a total act of liberation. I feel like Che Guevara."
Sila Sahin to Playboy magazine

"I would kill her is she were my daughter. If I were to see pictures like that, I would kill her. I really mean that. That's not something for me, not for my culture. I was raised differently. That doesn't fit with my culture."
Muslim restaurant owner in Bonn, Germany, interviewed by Deutsche Welle.

Deutsche Welle
Die Welt
Turkish Language CNN
Daily Mail

Also, here's David Bowie's "Panic in Detroit" (with some Japanimation to accompany it):

"Just because a medieval philosopher publicly presents himself as a Christian does not automatically mean that he was one." (duh)

First of all, this post, finally, contains the "money quote" found in the overall title of this series: "Forsaking Christ to follow Plato". For anyone who has been wondering. Also, here are links to the first two posts: Part One, Part Two.

This third installment in the "Forsaking Christ to follow Plato" series is definitely on the rangy side. But it's not my fault, honest. Blame Anthony Kaldellis (and/or Leo Strauss). Kaldellis insists on embedding his own very problematic views on late antique Platonism deeply inside of his overall analysis of Michael Psellos, whom he correctly identifies as a Platonist whose Platonism is incompatible with Christianity. Kaldellis wants to put as much distance as possible between Psellos, as a genuine Platonist, and the horse-shit dressed-up like Platonism that "mystical" Christians have been trying to pass off as the real thing ever since pseudo-Dionysos. The problem, at least according to my reading, is that Kaldellis fails to recognize that a clear bright line can, indeed must, be drawn between the Christian pseudo-platonists, a la pseudo-Dionysos, and the genuine late-antique Pagan Platonists, a la Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius, Simplicius, usw.

Now, before going any further, here is another thumbnail biography of Psellos, this one from Anthony Kaldellis' Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition:
"Konstantinos Psellos was born in 1018 in Constantinople to a middle-class family, at a time when the empire was at the peak of its power [during the reign of Emperor Basel II, who ruled from 976-1025]. He acquired a superb education and began to serve as a secretary for high officials, eventually acquiring a post at the court. His rhetorical skill and personal charm brought him to the attention of Konstantinos IX Monomarchos (1042-1055), who employed him as an official spokesman (as would all emperors thereafter). At the same time, he was privately teaching philosophy, science, and rhetoric, while his friend Ionnes Xiphilinos taught law. Monomachos was soon persuaded to reform education in the capital, founding two new departments, one of law under Xiphilinos and one of philosophy under Psellos, who took the title "Consul of the Philosophers" [the title later passed on to John Italos].

By the early 1050s Psellos' circle was losing power at the court. His friends were fleeing the capital, some of them becoming monks. He himself was accused of harboring non-Christian beliefs and was required to produce a confession of orthodoxy. With the ascendancy of the ambitious patriarch Keroularios, Psellos decided to leave and become a monk in Bythnia (under the name Michael). But Monomachos soon died and Psellos hated the monastic life, so this retreat lasted less than a year. In 1056 he was back in Constantinople, teaching, writing, and still playing politics. He was soon allied with the Doukas family, which came to the throne in 1059. Psellos advised the emperor Konstantinos X and tutored his son, who later reigned as Michael VII (1071-1078). But first Psellos has to weather the years of Romanos IV Diogenes (1067-1071), who tried to reverse years of military decline, and finally suffered a disastrous defeat at Manzikert (1071). Psellos was among those who supported Romanos' vicious blinding [see this lovely wikipedia article on "Political mutilation in Byzantine culture" for background], but the regime of his protégé Michael VII proved disastrous, bringing Byzantium to the verge of total defeat. Even Psellos lost favor at court during the 1070s, and must have died at some point during that decade. While brilliant as an orator, historian, scholar, and teacher, Psellos' political activity has been characterized as unscrupulous and he has been personally accused of contributing to the decline of Byzantium during the eleventh century."
[Hellenism in Byzantium, Anthony Kaldellis pp. 192-193]
In a different work, and the one which will be our main focus in this post, Kaldellis provides the following account of how Psellos came into conflict with Christianity because of his Platonic philosophizing. (This is from Kaldellis', The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia):
"Contrary to scholarly consensus, I argue that Psellos was a serious philosopher rather than a mere polymath or intellectual dilettante, and that he used his considerable rhetorical skills to disguise the revolutionary nature of his political thought, which was consciously anti-Christian and deeply influenced in some respects by the political philosophy of Plato. This book is therefore, a contribution to the history of Platonism. But which Platonism, and which Plato? We must begin with a digression.

The currently dominant view of Plato in the English-speaking world has been created largely by academic historians of ancient philosophy, who are not themselves philosophers. These scholars, including A.E. Taylor, W.K.C. Guthrie, Gregory Vlastos, and many others, interpret philosophical texts by employing modern tools of analysis in order to determine that validity of their arguments. Thus the dialogues are combed for discussions on particular topics which are then extracted from their dramatic and literary context and transformed into formal arguments. These are always taken at face value, subjected to rigorous logical analysis, and, more often than not, found to be false or invalid. According to Terrence Irwin, "much of what [Plato] says is false, and much more is confused, vague, inconclusive, and badly defended." While the approach that Irwin represents has taught us something about the logical structure of Plato's arguments, it has seriously misrepresented the great philosopher's thought."
[pp. 1-2]
And this point Kaldellis is still just getting warmed up with his "digression". A couple pages later he manages to come back around to what is, at least as far as I am concerned, the real crux of the biscuit:
[T]here is room for substantial disagreement about the broad nature of Plato's philosophy. Although this statement is not controversial in itself, its implications constitute a serious challenge to the fundamental presuppositions of most Platonic scholarship. Avid Platonists can perhaps disbelieve that the life of philosophy involves the rejection of the senses, that the soul is immortal, or that metaphysics and ontology take precedence over ethics and politics, and yet still be closer to their master's teachings than are those who accept such positions.

Psellos explicitly identified himself as a Platonist. It is clear from many of his writings that he had studied Plato carefully and had an intimate and thorough knowledge of the dialogues ... Instances where he praises [Plato] can be adduced at will, but a single event reveals the intensity of Psellos' allegiance. In 1054 he was accused by his erstwhile friend, the future Patriarch John Xiphilinos, of forsaking Christ to follow Plato. Plato had no illusions about the seriousness of the charge: 'you have separated me from Christ and enrolled me among the followers of Plato.' Psellos realized that, according to Xiphilinos, devotion to Plato was equivalent to a renunciation of Christian Orthodoxy .... Of course, Psellos ... claim[ed] that Plato's teaching was ultimately compatible with the Christian faith, a claim that is nevertheless hardly supported by the meager evidence presented in his letter [to Xiphilinos]."
[pp. 4-5]
Kaldellis is simultaneously putting forward two different (but not unrelated) arguments concerning Psellos' Platonism, or, to be more precise (in terms of what Kaldellis himself claims), concerning Platonism itself: (1) On the one hand Platonism, according to Kaldellis, is inherently incompatible with Christianity. (2) On the other hand, Platonism, at least properly understood, as it was (again, according to Kaldellis) by Psellos, is fundamentally a political philosophy.

Two very important subsidiary arguments are involved in Kaldellis' position: (3) the first being that genuine Platonism is a very different thing from the mystical speculations (as Kaldellis sees them) of the late antique Platonists from Plotinus to Simplicius (so-called "Neoplatonism", a term that Kaldellis crudely misuses in the most blindingly uncritical and anachronistic fashion), and (4) that "Christianity" can be viewed, like Platonism, as fundamentally a political philosophy (which at least in the context of an unabashedly theocratic Christian state like Byzantium is perfectly reasonable).

At the risk of repetitiveness, let me present these assumptions again more schematically, along with one more assertion that Kaldellis snuck in along the way:
  1. Platonism is incompatible with Christianity.
  2. Platonism is a political philosophy.
  3. Late antique Neoplatonism is a mystical philosophy fundamentally different from the genuine philosophy of Plato.
  4. Christianity is a political philosophy.
  5. The following three ideas are extraneous to Platonism itself, although they are misrepresented as essentially Platonic by "most" modern Platonic scholarship: (i) the rejection of the senses (ii) the immortality of the soul (iii) the precedence of metaphysics and ontology over ethics and politics.
One thing that becomes clear when these are spelled out like this is that 1, 2, and 4 are closely related to one another, while 3 and 5 are essentially independent of the other three, and are even arguably extraneous.

If we take 1 and 2 above as the core of Kaldellis' main argument, then of the other three points, only number 4 is intrinsic to this main argument, which revolves around making as sharp a division as possible between Platonism and Christianity as mutually exclusive world-views. The reason why position 4 is important to the main argument is that if Christianity and Platonism are both seen as primarily political/ethical in nature then the counterposition of the two is made that much neater and cleaner. To put it very crudely, Kaldellis wishes to compare apples with apples, that is, he is saying that both Christianity and Platonism are apples, with Christianity being a rotten apple not fit to eat, and Platonism being a nice, fresh, ripe apple. But if Platonism is primarily political/ethical, while Christianity is not, then we are left with apples and oranges.

However, the nature of late antique Platonism (that of Plotinus and so forth), and its relationship to Christianity, especially those Christianizing appropriations of Platonism emanating from the "teachings" of pseudo-Dionysos, is a separate, or at least a separable, issue.

That is to say, first of all, one set of positions (1, 2 and 4) comprise a single, coherent argument: Platonism and Christianity are mutually incompatible political philosophies. Secondly, the other two assumptions (3 and 5) comprise an independent argument about the nature of Platonism vis-a-vis so-called Neoplatonism: Platonism is a truly Humanist philosophy of life-as it-is-actually-lived, while Neoplatonism is a bunch of theistical/metaphysical mumbo-jumbo which tends to steer one away from a life of action and engagement with one's fellow human beings and with "the world". The interested reader can look here and here for more of my thoughts on where Kaldellis goes wrong in his analysis of late antique Platonism.

It is certainly possible that Kaldellis' treatment of late antique Platonism has not been properly understood by me, and that there are important parts of his overall argument that I fail to grasp. However, it does appear to me, as of now, that Kaldellis is perpetuating a central tenet of Christian apologetics, namely the Eusebian "strategy of breaking the ‘golden chain’ and the ‘sacred genealogy’ of Plato’s disciples," as Niketas Siniossoglou puts it in his monograph on the subject of the Christian appropriation of Platonic philosophy. Indeed, Siniossolgou's description of this apologetic strategy sounds almost as if he were talking about Kaldellis: "This [strategy] consisted in presenting the philosophical theology of Hellenes in late antiquity as alienated from Plato’s philosophy. Eusebius argued at length that with few exceptions Plato’s disciples distorted the philosophy of their master and introduced sophisms and innovations." For more on Siniossoglou see this previous post concerning his book Plato and Theodoret.

Kaldellis' analysis of Psellos demonstrates that it is possible to make a strong case for Psellos as an anti-Christian Hellene, that is, a Pagan, even if one does not approach Psellos as part of a 'sacred geneology' comprising a (more or less) continuous spiritual movement of Platonic Paganism, the so-called 'golden chain', that connects Psellos not only to Plotinus and Porphyry and Iamblichus and Proclus, but also to Cicero and Vergil and Ficino and Agrippa.

Best of all, and to end this post on a high note, Kaldellis also provides us with a wonderfully withering deconstruction of the theory of Psellos-as-sincere-Christian, as seen in the following long excerpt from The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia:
Although there are a few exceptions, modern historians interested in Psellos' philosophical and religious beliefs tend to draw their conclusions on the basis of selected passages or brief quotations. His works are ransacked for allegedly representative declarations on topics that scholars consider important. These are then stitched together and presented as 'Psellos' world-view'. This cut-and-paste approach rarely takes the original context of the quotations into consideration, for it assumes that since Psellos wrote the words, he must have believed them to be true. Like the declarations of a religious creed, or that arguments of a modern scholarly monograph, his various statements are taken at face value, though exceptions are occasionally made for the obvious exaggerations of his rhetorical compositions, and his sarcastic treatment of contemporary individuals. But in general, the individual nature of each text and the unique context of any statements it may contain are completely disregarded. This is exemplified and reinforced by the reprehensible, yet pervasive practice of citing passages by the page number of the most recent edition, even if it is a massive compilation containing dozens or even hundreds of separate texts. Readers are apparently not supposed to care what kind of work is being cited or what the context of a particular passage is.

An example of the inevitable results of such scholarly exegesis can be found in the prestigious and widely used Pauly-Wissowa ... Realencyclopädie. The author of the long article on Michael Psellos, E. Kriaras, does not hesitate to ascribe the most glaring contradictions to the Byzantine thinker, for example concerning the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy, or Christianity and Greek philosophy. We learn in the space of a few pages that Psellos believed that Greek philosophy had value independently of Christianity and that it was valuable only insofar as it prepared the ground for Chrisitanity; that rhetoric was philosophy's equal and that he despised it because it did not seek the truth. Kriaras does not attempt to explain or resolve these blatant contradictions, which are produced by juxtaposing quotations taken from different works. We are not told whom Psellos is addressing in each case, nor under what circumstances each work was composed. Consequently, Psellos emerges as a man utterly confused about the most basic principles of those disciplines to which he had devoted his life.

An article in modern Greek, entitled 'The Theological Thoughts of Michael Psellos', illustrates the arbitrariness of prevailing hermeneutical methods. The author, D. Koutsogiannopoulos, promises to resolve some of the apparent contradictions in Psellos' thought. Yet in order to do so, he simply postulates that Psellos was fundamentally a Christian, and even claims that 'Psellos, of course, could not follow every aspect of Proklos' dialectical derivations; this was due to the unsurpassable obstacle posed by the Christian source of his own philosophical thought.' The author, of course, would hardly countenance the suggestion that the same might be true of a modern Christian scholar of Neoplatonism, including, perhaps, himself. However that may be, he believes that one can derive Psellos' personal theological beliefs from a single work 'alone,' the De Omnifaria Doctrina. This work is a series of conceptual definitions and discussions on religious, philosophical, and scientific topics, which range from the nature of God to the reason why sea water is salty. This work does suggest that Psellos was a believing Christian, albeit an intellectually sophisticated one. But the crucial fact that it was composed for the benefit of Psellos' imperial protege, Michael Doukas, who was emperor from 1071 to 1078, is never mentioned in the article.

The possibility is never considered that a direct exposition of doctrinal principles before a member of the Empire's ruling family may not necessarily express its authors genuine views. But it takes only a moment's reflection to realize that even if Psellos were not a Christian, he would stil have to pretend that he was. His very circumstances would have compelled him to conceal or disguise his true beliefs. After all, he had a highly prestigious career, and was at varioius times director of the schools of higher education in the Capital, tutor of the heir to the throne, and intimate advisor to several Emperors. We cannot expect a man of such public prominence, if he had a shred of prudence in him, to reveal his lack of faith openly before his rather intolerant contemporaries. And he would certainly have declared himself an Orthodox Christian, especially when the sincerity of his faith was challenged. 'One will be able to do justice to the question of a Byzantine author of the eleventh century, only if one takes into account that he could never overstep the limits imposed by Orthodoxy without seriously endangering himself.' [Here Kaldellis is quoting from Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner by the noted Austrian Byzantinist Herbert Hunger.] In other words, just because a medieval philosopher publicly presents himself as a Christian does not automatically mean that he was one. In an age of religious persecution and enforced orthodoxy, dissimulation was often a necessary strategy for survival. The desire to wield influence at court, not to mention the fear of punishment or exile, can explain why Psellos' treatment of sensitive religious matters was occasionally conventional (which the De Omnifaria Doctrina really is not). At hte very least, he had to respect the opinions of his masters, but, as has rightly been pointed out, 'to respect opinions is something entirely different from accepting them as true.' [Here Kaldellis is quoting from Leo Straus' What is Politica Philosophy? and Other Studies.]

Thus we cannot simply assume that the De Omnifaria Doctrina reveal Psellos' true beliefs. The need for such caution is confirmed by the existence of a curious discrepency between a crucial statement in that text and a comment on the same topic in the Chronographia. In the final section of the De Omnifaria Doctrina (201), Psellos claims that its teachings represent a combination of Christian doctrine and 'those salty waters, I mean Hellenic thought.' But in the Chronographia, near the conclusion of its central autobiographical passage (6.42.16), Psellos explicitly compares the texts of ancient rhetoric and philosophy to νᾶμα, which ordinarily refers to the clear running water of a spring. He there claims that his revival of genuine philosophy was based entirely on the teachings of non-Christian antiquity. [Actually, and I really cannot resist interjecting at this point, Psellos explicitly tells us that he relies very heavily on the teachings of non-Christian philosophers of late antiquity, in other words, precisely those other-worldly "neo-" Platonists!] The apparent disagreement between these two passages is significant, regardless of the fact that they are both couched in metaphorical language. We must, in this connection, be prepared to interpret images as well as words, and on this crucial issue the image of the De Omnifaria Doctrina and the Chronographia are fundamentally at odds with each other.

What if for every statement that seems to establish the sincerity of Psellos' Christian faith, we could find another that seems to undermine it? For instance, in his apologetic Letter to Xiphilinos (lines 11-19), Psellos says that although he had read many non-Christian books, he had found them all to be corrupt and inferior to Scripture, which alone is entirely pure and reliable. Yet, in one of his letters, he instructed his students not to believe anything written by Moses and not to dismiss every aspect of Hellenic, i.e., pagan, theology. This is an astonishing statement for a thinker of his age (it would be centuries before similar ideas were pursued seriously in the West). We are thus faced with a conventional affirmation of the perfection of Scripture, and a revolutionary attempt to establish a relative neutrality between it and Hellenic theology, which inevitably calls for the creation of an independent, i.e., non-Scriptural, method of adjudicating theological truth. Perhaps we now have at least some tentative grounds on which to question the sincerity of Psellos' faith, for 'when an author living in an age when people are persecuted for heterodoxy expresses contradictory sentiments regarding religion, the buden of proof ... lies with those who would uphold the author's piety.'
[pp. 13-16]
[The closing quote is from D.L. Schaefer, The Political Philosophy of Montaigne, p. 42, n.5, summarizing an argument by A. Armaingaud.]

Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)
  • Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis' Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse
  • Part Two: N.G. Wilson's Scholars of Byzantium
  • Part Three: Athony Kaldellis' The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia (this is the post you are reading right now)
  • Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles
  • Part Five: Michael Psellos and "Ho Ellênikos Logos"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"The Christian appropriation of Platonic philosophy and the Hellenic intellectual resistance"

"The people are driven into disbelief in the existence of the Gods
due to their lack of knowledge."

[Proclus, in his Commentary on Plato's Alcibiades, 264.5-6, as paraphrased by Niketas Siniossoglou]

Some see Platonism as a kind of proto-Christianity that helped to pave the way for a smooth and painless, even "tidy", transition from ancient traditional polytheistic Paganism to the new ideology of monotheistic Christianity. According to this school of thought, Platonism in particular, and Greek philosophy generally, served as midwife at the birth of Christianity from the womb of Hellenism, thus making Christianity the legitimate heir of Greco-Roman culture.

Two simple historical facts should give pause to all those who are tempted to see things in this way. First of all, this "theory" is in fact taken bodily, in toto, from the religious writings of Eusebius and other early church fathers, which is a fine source so long as one is engaged in the work of propagating the Christian faith, but not otherwise. Second of all, those who are portrayed as the servile handmaidens of the Church turn out to have been its most stubborn, and arguably its most effective, opponents.

But please, don't take my word for it.
The view that Hellenic philosophy and paideia were maintained within the religious and cultural framework of Judeo-Christianity is widely held. Important terms and concepts of Platonic philosophy are often said to have been assimilated into the emerging Christian religion in order to meet the needs and aims of late antique apologists. Yet from the viewpoint of late antique intellectual history, this perspective has a fundamental problem: essentially relying on the argumentation of Christian apologists, it fails to perceive and recover the unresolved hermeneutical conflict between 'pagan' Platonists and Christian apologists with respect to the meaning of Plato's lexis. As a result, the philosophical, rhetorical and political dimensions of this conflict remain unexplored. Further, the significant consequences entailed by its outcome for the conceptual history of Platonic philosophy are obfuscated.
The above is taken from the opening paragraph of Niketas Siniossoglou's 2008 monograph Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance (Cambridge University Press). I have only just started reading the book myself, but fortunately Joshua G. Lollar (an obviously quite gifted graduate student at Notre Dame, working on his PhD in the History of Christianity) has written a detailed and insightful review of the book, published in the Journal of the International Plato Society and available online here.

Here is one excerpt from Lollar's review, giving an overview of the entire book:
1. In Plato and Theodoret: The Christian Appropriation of Platonic Philosophy and the Hellenic Intellectual Resistance, Niketas Siniossoglou sets out to establish the contours of the late-antique conflict between Christians and Hellenes over the proper interpretation of Plato’s philosophy. In particular, Siniossoglou seeks to define the distinction between what he calls the “philosophical mode of interpretation,” characteristic of the Neoplatonic schools, and the “rhetorical mode” of the Christian apologists who sought to appropriate Plato in support of Christian doctrine over-against pagan religion and philosophy. He focuses specifically on the Graecarum Affectionem Curatio of Theodoret of Cyrrhus, a work of Christian apologetic that has been positively evaluated by modern scholarship as an articulate response to pagan philosophy. In his reading of Theodoret, Siniossoglou seeks to uncover the dynamics of his appropriation and transformation of Platonic terminology and concepts to get at just how he, and by extension, other Christian apologists, went about rewriting Plato as a supporter of the Judaeo-Christian worldview. To do this, the author attempts to hear Theodoret from the perspective of the intended audience of the Curatio, the Hellenic intellectual elite, so as to be attentive to the philosophical and cultural significance of the moves Theodoret makes with respect to the texts of Plato. In brief, Theodoret, from this point of view, seeks to fragment the Platonic philosophical corpus so as to render it incoherent as a whole and open it to his own selective retrieval of elements that accord with established Christian dogma. It is these retrieved and appropriated elements that Theodoret (echoing earlier Christian apologists) claims to be the authentic Platonic tradition, which derive from the Hebraic tradition, whereas the Neoplatonic interpretation of Plato, Theodoret claims, is a corruption of this original intention of Plato.
And here is another excerpt discussing oracles, theurgy and ritual sacrifice (the paragraph numbers are given to aid the interested reader who wishes to refer to the original in its entirety, which I highly recommend) :
12. With respect to oracles, Neoplatonic theurgy, and ritual sacrifice, the author demonstrates Theodoret’s basic strategy of lifting positions out of the internal dialectic of Neoplatonic debates on the issue (particularly between Porphyry and Iamblichus) in support of his own interpretation of pagan ritual—that it seeks to manipulate daemonic powers for human benefit—in order, 1.) to supplant pagan oracles with Judaeo-Christian prophecy, and 2.) to separate Plato from the later tradition which, he argues, has departed from him. However, the author shows that Theodoret, either deliberately, or as a result of his sources, does not acknowledge the subtleties of Plato’s and Porphyry’s actual position on sacrifices (that they have their place in the state); neither does he acknowledge the thrust of Iamblichus’ teaching about theurgy in that he gives a superstitious view of theurgy that Iamblichus himself was at pains to criticize.

13. The author notes a similar tendentiousness with respect to Theodoret’s criticism of pagan myths and “idolatry,” arguing that Theodoret “overgeneralize[s]” the notion of idolatry with respect to paganism and then bluntly applies it to all pagan religion, ignoring the philosophical and theological accounts by the best pagan philosophers of the time. The intention here was to reduce Neoplatonism to a vulgar polytheism, which, the author argues, the Neoplatonist philosophers themselves rejected with a sophisticated notion of the place and interpretation of myth and image in the philosophic life. In fact, all of the noted criticisms of pagan cultic practice and polytheism could be applied just as readily to Christian practice.
And here is one final excerpt, almost at the end of the review, giving a more overall assessment:
25. Because the question of the relationship between Hellenism and Christianity has been vexed throughout the history of its asking by generalizations and clever one-liners— “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” “Plato is Moses in Attic Greek,” etc.—it is often difficult to find one’s way into a clear and fruitful engagement with it. Nikitas Siniossoglou provides just such a fruitful engagement in Plato and Theodoret. The author’s project of giving a reading of Theodoret’s Curatio from the perspective of its intended audience, the Hellenic intellectual elite, is, in the opinion of this reviewer, a success and a very helpful contribution to our understanding of the specifics of the engagement between Christian apologists and Platonism. It is itself a work of resistance against what the author takes to be a modern scholarly reiteration of the ancient attempt to appropriate Hellenic culture and philosophy to Christianity. [1] The author shows a firm grasp of the late-Antique Platonic tradition and is able to demonstrate convincingly the ways in which this tradition responds to Christian attempts to appropriate its master. His hermeneutical orientation in the introduction to the book is not overbearing (as such chapters often are), and provides a precise statement as to the nature of the author’s own interpretive strategy.
Now I wish to return to Siniossoglou's book itself. Below is a fairly longish (7 pages!) excerpt. Even more can be found at the publishers website here. (The same author also has a forthcoming book in the works on George Gemistos Plethon: Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon.)
The Christian apologists took key words of Platonic vocabulary and infused them with new significations. Yet by what strategies did they rewrite Plato? In what ways does their application of Platonic conceptual vocabulary diverge from that of their contemporary Hellenes? I chose Theodoret’s Graecarum Affectionum Curatio, a work now considered to be ‘one of the best Christian replies to pagan philosophy’ and praised as the last and probably the most complete of the numerous apologies which Hellenic antiquity has produced, as the most appropriate axis of reference in order to contextualize and concretize these questions. The present inquiry is not interested in a descriptive reconstruction of Theodoret’s argumentation, but rather in critically examining the conceptual shifts introduced into Platonic texts, the mechanisms of semantic change employed, and the significations ascribed in Curatio. Moreover, there is a further interest in viewing the apologetical argumentation from the perspective of its intended recipient: the educated elite of the Hellenes who strongly resisted any attempt at philosophically legitimating the Christian negotiation of Plato. This method will enable us to unveil what Theodoret is actually doing with his appropriation and application of central concepts of Platonism, that is, to recover the illocutionary force of his treatise: his actual intentions in rewriting Plato after the apologetical hermeneutical pattern.

The deeper motivation of Christian apologists extends beyond the professed aim of converting the Hellenes. This book argues that the hermeneutical conflict over Plato is the surface manifestation of a fierce intellectual battle for the conceptualization of Hellenic identity by the means of assigning specific connotations and associations to Platonic conceptual vocabulary. In the late antique political and ideological power game the interpretation of Plato becomes a two-sided weapon. In the case of Theodoret and the apologists on whom he relies, it is an instrument of attack aimed at corroborating the triumph of Christian claims of universality and exclusivity, while undermining the Hellenic identity of pagan intellectuals and eroding its philosophical substratum. By contrast, in the case of the Hellenes whom Theodoret was addressing, the interpretation of Plato is an instrument of resistance and survival: it provides them with the means to systematize and rigidify their cultural and philosophical heritage in an age of expanding intellectual imperialism, thus immunizing their world-view against the apologetical communication strategies. I shall argue that the apologetical utilization of Plato complied with the tactics and strategies set out by a rhetorical agenda and is at odds with the Neoplatonic model of interpretation as well as with the hermeneutics developed by the apologists themselves when reading the sacred Judaeo-Christian texts. Hence, the Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations stems from a clash between a rhetorical and a philosophical or doctrinal reading of Plato that had definite consequences for the conceptualization and reaffirmation of Hellenic identity in late antiquity.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus’ Curatio epitomizes this Hellenic–Christian trial of strength regarding the compatibility of Platonism with Christianity. Theodoret argues in favour of an assimilation of Plato’s philosophy inside Christianity by revisiting crucial notions, passages and myths in Plato’s corpus. The terms paideia, philosophia, logos, nomos, askesis, phugē, politeia, the ‘study of death’ (μελέτη θανάτου) of the Phaedo, the ‘assimilation to god’ (ὁμοίωσις θεῷ) of the Theaetetus, the ‘likely tale’ of the Timaeus and the myth of Er in the Republic are central to his argument. Theodoret’s lengthy work offers a clear example of how the rhetorical and exegetical tactics of the Antiochean School were employed against Neoplatonic hermeneutics in order to negate the possibility of a coherent Platonist philosophical theology by breaking its unity and claiming its most vital elements. Further, it illustrates the way in which the apologists opposed the Julianic vision of a Neoplatonic universal religion by postulating a discontinuity or rather chasm between Plato and his successors.

Theodoret refined and elaborated on Eusebius’ strategy of breaking the ‘golden chain’ and the ‘sacred genealogy’ of Plato’s disciples. This consisted in presenting the philosophical theology of Hellenes in late antiquity as alienated from Plato’s philosophy. Eusebius argued at length that with few exceptions Plato’s disciples distorted the philosophy of their master and introduced sophisms and innovations. In the same vein, Theodoret describes his contemporary (οἱ νῦν) pagan exegetes as attempting to misinterpret (παϱεϱμηνεύειν) rather than interpret Plato. Like Aeneas of Gaza, the most remarkable fifth-century exponent of this anti-Hellenic strategy, Theodoret divides the Platonic tradition into two parts: the first includes Plotinus, Amelius and Numenius, namely Platonists who are supposedly following Plato’s initial adaptation of Hebrew lore; the second phase begins with Porphyry and its hallmark is the ‘pagan’ sophisticated and allegorical interpretation of Plato. At the rhetorical level this move had two complementary aims: to deprive the Hellenic intellectual resistance of its primary philosophical resources, while conveniently appropriating, transforming and subsuming them to Judaeo-Christianity. The apologetical approach to Plato is presented as the return to Plato’s original source, Judaism. Like Clement, Eusebius and Theodoret proudly pose as the true heirs and interpreters of the arcane wisdom that inspired Plato.

How did the Hellenes respond to the apologetical claims over Plato? Already Celsus had argued that Plato’s philosophy was fundamentally alien to and incompatible with the Judaeo-Christian religion and talked of the imminent need to expose the philosophical principles that the Christians systematically misunderstood owing to ignorance. In particular, they were misunderstanding Plato’s lexis and twisting his doctrines. For his part, Julian declared that the aim of the Christian apologists was to avoid the intellectual confrontation with Hellenism by selectively usurping and misappropriating the intellectual weapons and philosophical tradition of their opponents.

Celsus and Julian made extensive use of both philosophical and rhetorical tools when openly confronting and challenging the apologists. Yet in the fifth and sixth centuries direct and explicit criticism of Judaeo-Christianity gave its place to a covert and subterranean form of opposition that used the exegesis of Plato’s philosophy as its means of articulation. Faced with the expansion of a Christian hegemony of discourse that enjoyed the support of the new political status quo, in late antiquity Hellenes such as Proclus, Damascius, Simplicius and Olympiodorus abandoned the battle at the rhetorical front. Instead of openly debating with the Christians, they fell back on the philosophical systematization and substantiation of the Hellenic world-view by means of philosophical exegesis. The Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations over Plato reflects this shift. While apologists such as Eusebius and Theodoret intensified their appropriation of Platonic terms and concepts, the Neoplatonists recognized in Plato ‘the leader of salvation’ and viewed the mission of the commentator-philosopher as holy at an age of ‘depraved polities’ – to use Simplicius’ and Olympiodorus’ expression – when temples were destroyed and religious institutions attacked.

Working surreptitiously on the Platonic corpus, Theodoret’s contemporary Neoplatonists produced a multicentred and multivalent hermeneutical model that was directly opposed to the Christian rewritings of Plato. By setting as their aim to systematize, save from oblivion and pass on to future generations their philosophy, they made sufficiently clear that they were anything but persuaded by the apologetical utilization of Plato and postulated a less outspoken, yet persistent intellectual resistance to the apologetical methods of handling and appropriating philosophical texts. Treated intertextually, their philosophical commentaries function as the response and counterpart to the apologetical rhetoric and are the main expression of what I call the Hellenic intellectual resistance of late antiquity.

A methodological note by F. Schleiermacher is particularly relevant here: authors belonging to the same period or school of thought and sharing common characteristics and intentions may be considered as a single agent. For example, in Curatio Theodoret addresses ‘the Hellenes’ as a single opponent. Hence, although we do not have a Hellenic treatise directly intended as a reply to Theodoret’s approach to Plato, we are, nonetheless, able to reconstruct his controversy with the Hellenes and recover the conflict between the Hellenic and the apologetical hermeneutical patterns; to do so requires a comparative discourse analysis that exemplifies how specific Platonic texts are read and ‘applied’ by opposed collective agents within the same historical situation. This allows us to treat the apologetical expropriation and recontextualization of key terms and passages from the Republic, the Phaedo or the Laws from a different angle.

From a late antique Hellenic viewpoint the apologetical synthesis of Christian and Platonic elements then emerges per contrapositionem to the Neoplatonic project as a contradiction in terms, sustainable only as long as one concentrates on the level of vocabulary alone and does not advance towards the meaning of the philosophical terms and concepts appropriated by Christian authors. Yet as Porphyry put it, one should proceed beyond the linguistic level of signifiers and ‘look for their significations (σημαινόμενα), so that it is sufficient that the conception remains the same, whatever the names (ὀνόματα) may be that are used’. Proclus employs this exegetical principle when arguing that his contemporary hoi polloi fail to become philosophers (φιλόσοφοι). They are lovers of mere opinions (φιλόδοξοι) who are unable to advance beyond the verbal expression (φωνή) of philosophical vocabulary. Their understanding of the Hellenic language (ἑλλη- νίζειν) is restricted to the level of the common use of names and prevents them from an adequate comprehension of philosophical concepts. This inability to penetrate the deeper layers of Hellenic philosophy affects not only the way that hoi polloi read philosophy, but their actual choices of belief: ‘these days’, Proclus says elsewhere, hoi polloi are driven into disbelief in the existence of gods due to their lack of knowledge (ἀνεπιστημοσύνη). Clement of Alexandria – one of Theodoret’s main sources – had made the same point, but turned things around: it is the Hellenes who stay at the superficial level of names (ὀνόματα), as opposed to the Christians, who advance beyond the eloquence of words into the things themselves (πϱάγματα), namely, the truth. Pagan Platonists and Christian apologists use the interweaving of hermeneutics and ontology according to their aims in a visceral, yet fierce conflict of interpretations that reached its culmination during the fifth century.

The thesis I am arguing is that the antagonistic Neoplatonic and Christian claims of possessing the key to the gates of Platonic lore, together with the mutual accusations of distorting Plato’s lexis, are only surface manifestations of a much wider conflict between the Christian rhetorical mode of negotiating Plato and Neoplatonic philosophical hermeneutics. This conflict reflects the polarization between the Judaeo-Christian and the Hellenic world-views. Before proceeding to a discourse analysis of Theodoret’s Curatio, thus providing evidence for this claim, it is necessary to make explicit what I mean by the Christian rhetorical mode of appropriating Plato. This calls for an introduction to the strategies used by Theodoret in his rewriting of Plato, and further, for a set of necessary hermeneutical and methodological criteria for an intertextual and contextual approach to the late antique Hellenic–Christian conflict of interpretations.
[pp. 1-7]

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Shew me in all the scriptures where Witchcraft went without Idolatry." (Thomas Ady's "Candle in the Dark", first published in 1656)

The following quotes, concerning "good Witches" are all taken from Thomas Ady's 1656 work A Candle in the Dark: or, A Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft: Being Advice to Judges, Sheriffes, Justices of the Peace, and Grand-Jury-men, what to do, before they passe Sentence on such as are Arraigned for their Lives as Witches. (here is a link to full, searchable text at The Witchcraft Collection at Cornell)

The bottom line is that Ady is in no doubt about the reality of either Witches or Witchcraft. He does, however, think the wrong people are being put to death. Instead of executing people mistakenly accused of malefic magic, Ady argues that it is those who practice beneficial magic, such as healing and divination, who are the real Witches, and that these women and men should "dye". Ady makes it perfectly clear that he does not question the existence of such healers, diviners, etc (and Ady is considered to be a "skeptic"!). Ady also tells us that these practitioners of beneficial magic are commonly referred to by the general public (wrongly as Ady sees it) as "good Witches" (as well as "Cunning men").

Ady's logic is as simple as it is chilling. As a good Protestant, Ady follows the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura ("by scripture alone"), which requires that all genuine Christian theology be based solidly on "scripture". And the Christian Bible says nothing about the kind of malefic magic that people were being accused of, convicted of, and executed for during the Burning Times. But the Bible does explicitly condemn to death all those who practice beneficial forms of magic, such as divination and healing, for they are truly in league with Satan.

All occurrences of either "good witch" or "good witches" in Thomas Ady's Candle in the Dark:

The First Book

Page 40
  • It being demonstrated what a Jugler is in the Scripture sense, let every one consider seriously who be the Juglers, of this and former Ages, that ought to be put to death by the Law of Moses, we might think that no man were so silly and foolish to think that it is meant common Juglers, who play their Tricks on Fayres and Markets, nor Gentlemen who sometimes in imitation of them, so in sport, play Tricks of slight of hand, or legerdemain, with confederates or without, for it si most certain and true, that if it bee rightly understood, that these do a great deal fo good, that recreation tending rightly to the illumination of people of all sorts, to whew them the vanity and ridiculousness of those delusions and lying Wonders, by which men were so easily deluded in old times by Pharaoh's Magicians, by Simon Magus, and Elimas the Sorcerer, and now adays by our professed Wizzards, or Witches, commonly called Cunning Men, or good Witches, who will undertake to shew the face of the Thief in the Glass, or of any other that hath done his Neighbors wrong privily, when as they do all by Jugling delusions, are themselves right Witches, that cause men to seek to the Devil for help, that will undertake and promise to unwitch people that are (as fools commonly say) bewitched ...
Pages 41-42
  • Yet in Queen Elizabeth's time, as appeareth in Mr. [Reginald] Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft, in the fifteenth Book, Chap. 42 there was a Master of Arts condemned only for using himself to the study and pracice of the Jugling craft, how justly I will not controvert; but this I say, That if a man may not study and practice the discovery of Cheats without being a Cheater, nor the discover of Witchcraft without being accounted a Witch, it is the way for Witches and Cheaters to play their pranks, and no man able to tax them or accuse them, or to say who they are that are Witches; and this foolish nice censuring, and ignorant condemning hath bred great and general ignorance of this subject of Witchcraft; with God himself describeth so often in the Scriptures, for people to know and avoyd the practice of seducing, or being seduced by it, but for that Master of Arts before named, the Lord of Leicester having more wisdom in some things than some had, did protect him for a time after he was condemned, but what became of his is not mentioned, but yet if he had been a Jugler, or a practicer of that Craft to this end, to withstand the Prophets when they wrought true Miracles, as Pharaoh's Juglers withstood Moses, of if he were one that practiced it to seduce the people after lying delusions, to magnifie himself as a false Prophet, like Simon Magus in the Acts, or to cause people to ascribe miraculous power to him, or to seek to the Devil as our common Deceivers, called good Witches, do, he was deservedly condemned; but to study Witchcraft, and actually to demonstrate it by practice, to shew how easily people were and may be deluded by ti (seeing God hath commanded Witches to be put to death, and what they are, is not now adays fully understood (no not by the Learned) is no more deserving death than for Master Scot to write a book in the discovery of it, or for a Minister to discover to the people the danger of an Idol; to which Witchcraft is necessarily joyned as an upholder and companion, or for a Minister to shew the secret and dangerous nature, and serveral windings of Sin and Satan; for the essence of a Witch is not in doing false Miracles, or any other Witchcraft by demonstration of discovery, but in secucing people from God, and his Truth ..."
The Second Book

Pages 107-108
  • Shew me in all the Scriptures where Witchcraft went without Idolatry (Isa.19.3), and had not a necessary dependence on Idolatry (Nahum 3.4). Look again (Deut. 18.10, 11) where all sorts of Witches are spoken of, why were they to be cut off and destroyed? The reason is immediately given, verse 14, because they defiled the Nations, in seducing them unto Spiritual Whoredom, and the Nations were destroyed for seeking, and making inquiry after their Divinations, or South-sayings, or Oracles, whereas inquiries ought to be to God's Prophets, verse 15. Was not this Saul's Idolatry, when he sought the Witch of Endor? (I Chro. 10.13,14). Was not this the sin of Manasses, where he is blamed for using Witchcrafts, when he made Juda and Jerusalem go astray to Idols? (2 Chron. 33.9) Were not the Witchcrafts and Whoredoms of Jesabel set down as two inseparable companions, her Witchcraft being the upholding of the Idol Priests of Baal, that by Witchcraft seduced the people to Idolatry? Were not Pharaoh's Magicians seducers of Pharaoh, and the people, from God? Was not Simon Magus the like? But alas, how, and where have those poor souls that are commonly hanged for Witches seduced the people to Idolatry? Who hath been led after them for Divinations, and Southsayings; many indeed have been led after Southsayers, but they are termed good Witches, and whereas they as Witches ought to dye, many have been put to death by their devillish false accusations, and if the Witch of Endor were now living amongst us, we should call her a good Witch, so blinde are the times.
Page 111
  • Also the Scripture saith, the Lord killeth and maketh alive, I Sam. 2.6 maketh poor, and maketh rich; and in Deut. 32: There is no God with me, I kill and give life, I wound and make whole; but they say, God permitteth an old Witch to send the Devil to kill, and make poor, and wound, and a good Witch can heal again by unwitching.
  • Christ gave the Disciples power of Devils, to cast ehm them out. ( Luke 9. 1) They say, a Witch can send a Devil into men and cattel to afflict them, and a good Witch can cast them out by unwitching.
  • ... they say, that is done by consent of the Devil, when a good Witch unwitcheth a man; thus do they make the words of Christ of none effect by their tradition.
Page 112
  • It is said in Isa. 41 Shew what is to come after, that we may know yee are gods; They say, a Witch can truly foretell things to come by her spirit of Divination (which they call a Familiar) and can by the same familiar tell what is done in another Town, or House, or Country, and can tell a man where are his Goods that are lost, as well as Samuel could tell Saul of his Fathers Asses when they were lost, and such they call good Witches.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Women's Rights, Sharia Law, and Secularism

In the United States there appears to be broad agreement among liberal- and progressive-minded people to turn a blind eye to Sharia. They have convinced themselves that Shaira is not a real issue, and that anyone who expresses concern about Sharia is automatically a bigoted xenophobe.

This is a potentially catastrophic mistake for everyone who upholds the foundational principles of liberal democracy: human equality, individual liberty, and separation of church and state.

The situation is similar in Europe, but fortunately somewhat better. Which is ironic because no European nation has anything approaching the historical relationship with liberal democracy that the United States has. Indeed, aside from Switzerland and the U.K., every nation of Europe spent some significant portion of the 20th century under totalitarian rule, and quite often this fate was at least partially self-imposed by fascist or communist movements that were supported by a substantial portion of the population.

Possibly it is precisely because Europeans have so much more recent experience, up close and personal, with totalitarianism and also with theocracy, that there is at least some amount of concern expressed over Sharia coming from people who are not right-wing xenophobic Christians. Something like this is suggested by the statement of 12 prominent writers (including Salman Rushdie and Ayan Hirsi Ali) published in the leftwing French paper Charlie Hebdo in 2006 under the headline: Together Facing the New Totalitarianism.

But however ironic it is, and whatever the reasons are, it is nevertheless a good thing that we can look to Europe and find genuine examples of humanists, feminists, and leftists who realize that stopping Sharia, and rolling it back wherever it has gained a foothold, is an urgent necessity.

Below is the press release put out by the UK based One Law For All campaign announcing a conference they held last month on "Women's Rights, Sharia Law, and Secularism". Extensive information on the conference, including videos of the entire procedings, can be found at the One Law For All website here.

To mark and celebrate 100 years of International Women’s Day, a one day conference was held on 12 March 2011 to discuss the impact of religion on the lives of women. The conference was organised by One Law for All and the International Committee against Stoning, Iran Solidarity, and Equal Rights Now.

The day started with an opening address by renowned philosopher A C Grayling which was followed by a hugely successful conference with speakers from across the world creating a vibrant and very important debate.

Issues explored included the impact of religion on women’s rights – and whether religion is compatible with women’s rights – and whether it should be curtailed in the interests of the rights and equality of women. A discussion on religion and secularism looked at the relationship between religion and secularism and whether these are interdependent, complimentary or contradictory. It followed with a discussion on religion and the law –looking at religion’s influence on law and law makers, and on the importance of secularism and a closing address by Maryam Namazie.

Speakers included: Ahlam Akram, Executive Committee member of the Arab Jewish Forum and Joint Action for Israeli Palestinian Peace (UK), Helle Merete Brix, Writer and Commentator on free speech and the rise of political Islam (Denmark), Philipp Bekaert, Member of Réseau d’Actions pour la Promotion d’un Etat Laïque (Belgium), Julie Bindel, Journalist and Campaigner to end violence against women and children (UK), Patty Debonitas, Spokesperson of Iran Solidarity (UK), Nadia Geerts, Co-founder of Réseau d’Action pour la Promotion d’un Etat laïque (Belgium), Maria Hagberg, Chairperson of the Network Against Honour-Related Violence (Sweden), Anne-marie Lizin, Honorary Speaker of the Belgian Senate and Coordinator of the Association against Honour Crimes and Forced Marriages (Belgium), Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson of One Law for All, Equal Rights Now and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (UK), Elizabeth O’Casey, Vice-President of the National Secular Society (UK), David Pollock, President of the European Humanist Federation (UK), Fariborz Pooya, Director of Iranian Secular Society (UK), Yasmin Rehman Campaigner against violence against women and for community cohesion (UK), Gita Sahgal, Writer, Journalist and Women’s Rights Activist (UK), Nina Sankari, President of the European Feminist Initiative (Poland), Sohaila Sharifi, Women’s Rights Activist (UK), Annie Sugier, Cofounder of the League of Women’s International Rights (France), Michèle Vianès, President of Regards de Femmes (France), and Anne Marie Waters, Spokesperson of One Law for All (UK).

There was also a reading of Ghazi Rabihavi’s play ‘Stoning’ – ‘A very strong and powerful piece of work, beautifully constructed’ as described by Harold Pinter.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It Is Already Happening Here: "Brûler un livre chez soi, je ne pense pas que ce soit interdit"

Question: How much freedom do you want to give up in the name of protecting Islam from the same kind of criticism and even ridicule that all other religions are required to put up with, for no other reason than because Islam is so much more mindlessly violent than all those other religions, and, therefore, insults against Islam are guaranteed to result in widespread death and destruction?

Only Acceptable Answer: None.

[Some of the following stories and sources are taken from the Islam In Europe blog.]

1. France
Last October, Muslim clerics in France went to the police and denounced Ernesto Rojas Abbate. It seems that Monsieur Abbate had made a video of himself in which he tears a page out of the Koran, folds it into a paper airplane, flies the airplane into a representation of the World Trade Center, burns the page, and then urinates on the ashes. The Muslim clerics had seen the video on youtube and then immediately contacted the authorities demanding that Abbate be arrested. The young man was then questioned by the police, who described him as "totally coherent". In defending his actions he is reported to have told them: "Brûler un livre chez soi, je ne pense pas que ce soit interdit." ("Burning a book at home, I do not think it is forbidden.") He did not deny being the author of the video, and he stated that he had acted "in the name of freedom". Abatte was not charged with a crime right away. First, Muslim religious officials had to return to the police and file a formal complaint accusing him of "provocation publique à la discrimination nationale, raciale ou religieuse" ("public incitement to discrimination based on nationality, race, or religion"). The subsequent trial of the 30 year old Chilean-born French citizen began just this Monday (April 11) in Strasbourg. Prosecutors are asking that Abbate be given a three month suspended sentence and a fine of 1000 €. The maximum sentence for his "crime" is one year imprisonment and a fine of 45000 €. A final judgement is expected from the court by May 9.
(source 1, source 2, source 3)

2. Switzerland
Last November, three Hindus were arrested by the Swiss police for the thought-crime of wanting to burn the Koran and the Bible. The three had publicly announced their intentions, and had thereby garnered widespread media attention. They were apprehended on their way to the would-be scene of the crime: Parliament Square in Bern, where the joint Koran-Bible burning was to take place. Just today (April 12) they were acquitted by a Swiss judge, although they were ordered to pay half the court costs "on the grounds that they had overstepped the boundaries of personal freedom and injured the religious feelings of others." If they had been convicted they could have been sentenced to up to three years imprisonment.
(source 1, source 2)

3. England
Last September, six men were arrested in Gateshead, England, after posting a video on youtube showing them burning two Korans in the parking lot of their local pub. They were all charged with "inciting racial hatred." In January it was announced by the Crown Prosecution Service that no further action would be taken because there was insufficient evidence. At least some of the Gateshead Koran burners have identified themselves as English Defense League members (source 1, source 2)

4. Wales
On Friday, April 8, Sion Owens was arrested in Swansea, South Wales, and charged under section 29 of the Public Order Act, aka, the "Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006". But then the case was almost immediately withdrawn and all charges dropped on a technicality. Owens is a candidate for the Welsh parliament representing the openly racist and neofascist British National Party. His initial arrest was prompted by the police being shown a video of him burning a Koran. Another BNP candidate, Joanne Shannon, was also arrested and also released. Prosecutor Bryn Hurford said police inquiries into the alleged incident would continue and a new file of evidence would be collected and passed to the Crown Prosecution Service for review and advice. He added: "I want the defendant and his legal representatives to be in no doubt that the withdrawal of the charge does not mean that no proceedings will be taken. Almost certainly other proceedings will ensue."
(source 1, source 2)

5. United States
On September 11, 2010, Derek Fenton stood in downtown Manhattan and started tearing pages out of a copy of the Koran and setting them on fire. He didn't need no stinking youtube: he was surrounded by TV camera crews. He was quickly, and very peacefully, whisked away by some New York City police officers, and almost just as quickly released. And almost just as quickly fired from his job with the New Jersey Transit Authority, where he had worked for 11 years. On November 4, 2010, the ACLU announced they would be representing Fenton on the grounds that his firing was a clear violation of the first amendment. Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU in New Jersey stated: "Our individual right to free speech depends on everybody having it." On February 14 of this year, NJ governor Chris Christie made his position clear when asked about the ongoing ACLU backed lawsuit: "I knew he was going to be fired, and I had no problem with it. And I still don't have a problem with it."
(source 1, source 2)

6. United States (again)
Meanwhile, (1) Molly Norris is still in hiding (but just try to find a major news outlet that has said anything about her since last fall). (2) U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham has floated the idea of putting "limits" on free speech, in particular to officially criminalize Koran burning "because we are at war." (source) (3) Houston based military contractor KBR is asking a federal judge to apply Sharia law (as implemented in Iraq, where punitive damages are not awarded) in a lawsuit filed by the mother of an American soldier who was electrocuted while on duty in Iraq. (source) A similar strategy had been employed by Blackwater in a wrongful death lawsuit back in 2008. (source)

7. Finally, some good news!
In May of 2010, Detroit's SMART bus system refused to run "Leave Islam" ads on their buses because they claimed that the ad campaign is "a purely anti-Muslim hate issue." But then earlier this month a federal judge overruled SMART and ordered that the ads must be displayed. (source 1, source 2)

8. A closing thought.
Many of the incidents described above, and others as well (such as the infamous doings of Terry Jones), involve groups and individuals who are themselves either religious extremists or right-wing racists, or both. So guess what? Not only does creeping Sharia compliance give aid and comfort to the most regressive elements of Islam, it also plays right into the hands of Christian neofascists, too!

[No Korans were burned in the making of this blog post.]

"Keeping the meat safe": Taslima Nasreen on the burqa

I shall unloose --
From the small jeweled
Doll he guards like a heart --

The lioness,
The shriek in the bath,
The cloak of holes.
[Purdah, by Sylvia Plath]

The following article by Taslima Nasreen was first published on January 22, 2007 by OutlookIndia.Com. You can download it from her website here (clicking that link will go directly to the pdf).

In February of 2010 a newspaper in the state of Karnataka, India, published a translation of the article in the Kannada language (the article was originally written in English). This was done without Nasreen's participation or even her knowledge.

The publication of the unauthorized translation of the article led to several days of bloody rioting by Muslims in the districts of Shimoga and Hassan. At least two people died in these riots and many more were injured. Rioters also burned vehicles and threw stones at buses and shops (source).

Let's Think Again About The Burqa

The Quran does prescribe purdah. That doesn't mean women should obey it.

My mother used purdah. She wore a burqa with a net cover in front of the face. It reminded me of the meatsafes in my grandmother's house. One had a net door made of cloth, the other of metal. But the objective was the same: keeping the meat safe. My mother was put under a burqa by her conservative family. They told her that wearing a burqa would mean obeying Allah.

Women too have sexual urges. So why didn't Allah start the purdah for men? Clearly, He treated them on unequal terms.

And if you obey Allah, He would be happy with you and not let you burn in hellfire. My mother was afraid of Allah and also of her own father. He would threaten her with grave consequences if she didn't wear the burqa. She was also afraid of the men in the neighbourhood, who could have shamed her. Even her husband was a source of fear, for he could do anything to her if she disobeyed him.

As a young girl, I used to nag her: Ma, don't you suffocate in this veil? Don't you feel all dark inside? Don't you feel breathless? Don't you feel angry? Don't you ever feel like throwing it off? My mother kept mum. She couldn't do anything about it. But I did. When I was sixteen, I was presented a burqa by one of my relatives. I threw it away.

The custom of purdah is not new. It dates back to 300 BC. The women of aristocratic Assyrian families used purdah. Ordinary women and prostitutes were not allowed purdah. In the middle ages, even Anglo-Saxon women used to cover their hair and chin and hide their faces behind a cloth or similar object. This purdah system was obviously not religious. The religious purdah is used by Catholic nuns and Mormons, though for the latter only during religious ceremonies and rituals. For Muslim women, however, such religious purdah is not limited to specific rituals but mandatory for their daily life outside the purview of religion.

A couple of months ago, at the height of the purdah controversy, Shabana Azmi asserted that the Quran doesn't say anything about wearing the burqa. She's mistaken. This is what the Quran says:

"Tell the faithful women that they must keep their gaze focused below/on the ground and cover their sexual organs. They must not put their beauty and their jewellery on display. They must hide their breasts behind a purdah. They must not exhibit their beauty to anybody except their husbands, brothers, nephews, womenfolk, servants, eunuch employees and children. They must not move their legs briskly while walking because then much of their bodies can get exposed." (Sura Al Noor 24:31)

"Oh nabi, please tell your wives and daughters and faithful women to wear a covering dress on their bodies. That would be good. Then nobody can recognise them and harrass them. Allah is merciful and kind." (Sura Al Hijaab 33: 59)

Even the Hadis --a collection of the words of Prophet Mohammed, his opinion on various subjects and also about his work, written by those close to him-- talks extensively of the purdah for women. Women must cover their whole body before going out, they should not go before unknown men, they should not go to the mosque to read the namaaz, they should not go for any funeral.

There are many views on why and how the Islamic purdah started. One view has it that Prophet Mohammed became very poor after spending all the wealth of his first wife. At that time, in Arabia, the poor had to go to the open desert and plains for relieving themselves and even their sexual needs. The Prophet's wives too had to do the same. He had told his wives that "I give you permission to go out and carry out your natural work". (Bukhari Hadis first volume book 4 No. 149). And this is what his wives started doing accordingly. One day, Prophet Mohammed's disciple Uman complained to him that these women were very uncomfortable because they were instantly recognisable while relieving themselves. Umar proposed a cover but Prophet Mohammed ignored it. Then the Prophet asked Allah for advice and he laid down the Ayat (33:59) (Bukhari Hadis Book 026 No. 5397).

This is the history of the purdah, according to the Hadis. But the question is: since Arab men too relieved themselves in the open, why didn't Allah start the purdah for men? Clearly, Allah doesn't treat men and women as equals, else there would be purdah for both! Men are higher than women. So women have to be made walking prisons and men can remain free birds.

Another view is that the purdah was introduced to separate women from servants. This originates from stories in the Hadis. One story in the Bukhari Hadis goes thus: After winning the Khyber War, Prophet Mohammed took over all the properties of the enemy, including their women. One of these women was called Safia. One of the Prophet's disciples sought to know her status. He replied: "If tomorrow you see that Safia is going around covered, under purdah, then she is going to be a wife. If you see her uncovered, that means I've decided to make her my servant."

The third view comes from this story. Prophet Mohammed's wife Ayesha was very beautiful. His friends were often found staring at her with fascination. This clearly upset the Prophet. So the Quran has an Ayat that says, "Oh friends of the prophet or holy men, never go to your friend's house without an invitation. And if you do go, don't go and ask anything of their wives". It is to resist the greedy eyes of friends, disciples or male guests that the purdah system came into being. First it was applicable to only the wives of the holy men, and later it was extended to all Muslim women. Purdah means covering the entire body except for the eyes, wrist and feet. Nowadays, some women practise the purdah by only covering their hair. That is not what is written in the Hadis Quran. Frankly, covering just the hair is not Islamic purdah in the strict sense.

In the early Islamic period, Prophet Mohammed started the practice of covering the feet of women. Within 100 years of his death, purdah spread across the entire Middle East. Women were covered by an extra layer of clothing. They were forbidden to go out of the house, or in front of unknown men. Their lives were hemmed into a tight regime: stay at home, cook, clean the house, bear children and bring them up. In this way, one section of the people was separated by purdah, quarantined and covered.

Why are women covered? Because they are sex objects. Because when men see them, they are roused. Why should women have to be penalised for men's sexual problems? Even women have sexual urges. But men are not covered for that. In no religion formulated by men are women considered to have a separate existence, or as human beings having desires and opinions separate from men's. The purdah rules humiliate not only women but men too. If women walk about without purdah, it's as if men will look at them with lustful eyes, or pounce on them, or rape them. Do they lose all their senses when they see any woman without burqa?

My question to Shabana and her supporters, who argue that the Quran says nothing about purdah is: If the Quran advises women to use purdah, should they do so? My answer is, No. Irrespective of which book says it, which person advises, whoever commands, women should not have purdah. No veil, no chador, no hijab, no burqa, no headscarf. Women should not use any of these things because all these are instruments of disrespect. These are symbols of women's oppression. Through them, women are told that they are but the property of men, objects for their use. These coverings are used to keep women passive and submissive. Women are told to wear them so that they cannot exist with their self-respect, honour, confidence, separate identity, own opinion and ideals intact. So that they cannot stand on their own two feet and live with their head held high and their spine strong and erect.

Some 1,500 years ago, it was decided for an individual's personal reasons that women should have purdah and since then millions of Muslim women all over the world have had to suffer it. So many old customs have died a natural death, but not purdah. Instead, of late, there has been a mad craze to revive it. Covering a woman's head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn't work. If women's brains worked properly, they'd have long ago thrown off these veils and burqas imposed on them by a religious and patriarchal regime.

What should women do? They should protest against this discrimination. They should proclaim a war against the wrongs and ill-treatment meted out to them for hundreds of years. They should snatch from the men their freedom and their rights. They should throw away this apparel of discrimination and burn their burqas.