Her story is of a very brave woman who defies her family and Jihadism in Pakistan, but her refuge in Christianity carries every organized religion’s contradictory teaching. Her journey from organized Islamic religion to organized Christian religion is trading one mythology for another.
The history of Christian religion is as violent, and conflict ridden as Jihadist Islam.
Depiction of the Eleventh Century Christian Crusades
Absolute belief cannot come from the written word because the written word is man’s interpretation of what may or may not be the word of God, Allah, Yahweh, or whatever name the Divine is given. Esther Ahmad’s journey is heroic. She lives in a culture of violence and overcomes its alure through a will-to-believe. She abandons Islam, marries a Christian, and flees her father’s Jihadism to eventually arrive in America.
What is disappointing is Ms. Ahmad trades one organized religion for another, both of which are based on a man’s interpretation of Holy books. Human interpretations do not prove the existence of Divinity.
Ms. Ahmad’s journey to Christianity is reinforced by what appear to be two miracles. Her mother is cured of heart disease and her brother’s infected leg are healed through prayer. A skeptic might argue they were not miracles because her mother never had medically diagnosed heart disease and her brother’s infected leg may have naturally healed. Organized religion and human belief neither prove nor disprove a Divinities’ existence.
Ms. Ahmad faces an inquisition by Muslim scholars in defending her belief in Christianity.
Depiction of a Christian Inquisition.
She is questioned on four different occasions in front of other Muslim believers. Her knowledge of the Koran trips up the first three inquisitors and the third offers her a bribe to return to the Muslim faith. Ms. Ahmad’s defense is ironic because she shows inconsistencies in the Koran that make Muslim clerics look foolish. The irony is that the Christian Bible is equally riddled with inconsistency, but the Muslim clerics choose only to defend the Koran without pointing to the inconsistencies in the Christian Bible. That is the weakness of the cleric’s inquisition because, like the Koran, the Bible is written and re-written by humans.
The strength of Ms. Ahmad’s story is in her will to resist a patriarchal organization, and her own father who is prepared to murder her for blasphemy.
One can believe in Divinity without believing in organized religion, particularly with the force-of-will demonstrated by Esther Ahmad. “Defying Jihad” is, without question, a story of bravery but also a story of organized religions’ delusions. Ms. Ahmad’s story is a false flag for belief in any organized religion, rather than belief or disbelief in Divinity.
This is a remarkable story of an extraordinary woman, but it fails to move one who has read many histories that show how organized religion has misled people by lying, abusing, robbing, and murdering innocents on their way through life.
Fault Lines (The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe)
By: Voddie T. Bauchham
Narrated by: Mirron Willis
Voddie Baucham (Author, pastor, educator, BA from Houston Baptist Univ. and M. of Divinity from SWestern Baptist Theological Seminary.)
“Fault Lines” is a troubling book. It gives too much shade to racial and ethnic inequality in America. On the one hand, Voddie Baucham relies on story telling to counter the singular atrocity of George Floyd’s murder and on the other he tells stories of inaccurate accusations of police discrimination during traffic stops. White America has enough shade without being forgiven by a black preacher for hundreds of years of discrimination.
George Floyd’s murder.
Baucham implies unequal treatment is less odious because white people are killing white people at a higher rate than white people are killing black people. How does that look when a young teenage black boy knocks on a front door and is shot in the head by a 84-year-old white man because he is afraid?
Ralph Yarl shot in the head for knocking on a front door.
Baucham is right when he argues facts matter but untextualized facts fail to reveal the whole truth. As a preacher, Baucham chooses scriptural text from bibles that have been interpreted in many ways by different preachers and scholars. A skeptic credibly argues truth is fungible in the Bible.
Some would argue the Bible is a proximate cause for belief in inequality of the sexes and races in the world.
Baucham’s story telling may be factually correct while being fundamentally wrong. When the proof he reveals comes from the Bible, a skeptic cringes. That may be because of a skeptic’s own biases and beliefs but how many people in history have justified murder of innocents because of religious belief and biblical interpretation?
It comes as no surprise that Bauchham is a strong proponent and supporter of Thomas Sowell, an American author, political conservative, and social commentator.
Sowell espouses many of the same views of American society that Bauchham endorses. Both are anti-abortionists despite over-population and America’s history of child neglect. Both opposed the election of Barack Obama. Both decry the absence of black Fathers from their families and the consequence to their children. (There is little doubt that absence of fathers in black families is an important issue but the poverty cycle in which black families are trapped is of greater consequence.) They may come to their political views from different angles but undoubtedly voted for Donald Trump in 2017 (Bauchham because of the abortion issue and Sowell for his political party).
Human nature drives us all.
Humans, whether Believers or heathens, strive for money, power, or prestige to differentiate themselves from others. To a humanist, belief in God and the Bible or the devil and purgatory are only tools of human nature. Baucham is a human who believes in God and the Bible who uses those tools to unjustifiably shade the iniquity of humankind.
Patricia Lockwood (Author, poet, novelist, and essayist. Winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and the Dylan Thomas Prize.)
This is the second Lockwood’ book listened to with interest and limited praise. Praise is limited because Lockwood writes with a customized perception of the world that diminishes its broad appeal. Like this critic’s review of “No One is Talking About This”, “Priestdaddy” reinforces Lockwood’s singular perception of the world. However, “Priestdaddy” adds depth to her personalized view of life. “Priestdaddy” has broader meaning than “No One is Talking…” but its appeal remains singular more than universal.
Lockwood’s literary success is remarkable considering the life she reveals. Lockwood’s sense of humor seems inherited from her mother, but her view of the world seems locked in a struggle with perception of her “Priestdaddy” father. Her father became a Catholic Priest, which is possible after marriage with the support of the church. In Lockwood’s struggle with her “Priestdaddy” and unrelated 20th century revelations about Catholic Bishop’ pedophilia, she loses faith in organized religion.
Relationship with one’s parents and the church are only part of Lockwood’s world view. Personal life experiences revealed in “Priestdaddy” also affect Lockwood’s perception of the world.
Reference to the author’s rape and miscreant priests that abuse children is a reminder of the horrors of human perversion. The broader contribution Lockwood offers is the extreme intimacy required to achieve success as an acclaimed writer. Not everyone has the courage, willingness, or skill to tell stories of their personal lives to the public. A listener will agree or disagree with Lockwood’s personal view of the world based on their own parental inheritance and life experience.
Praise is something all writers seek but few achieve. Lockwood is an interesting writer, recognized with national awards for her writing, and praise by many of her readers.
To some extent, one’s interest in Lockwood’s writing is because of the intimacy of her stories. Others fail to have wider appreciation of Lockwood’s writing because her story is not their story. When reading or listening to a book, many are looking for a broader understanding of life, not necessarily revealed by perceptions of a writer’s intimate experience.
Southeast Asia 2023, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam
Written by Chet Yarbrough
Over Christmas 2022 and New Year’s 2023, America’s storied history in Southeast Asia is vivified in a 20-day trip to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
THAILAND BOAT TRIP
Chaopraya River in Bankok
Visting the Thompson house in Thailand is quite a treat. The mystery of Thompson’s disappearance remains unsolved but the tour through his custom home, built from sections of different houses, is a remarkable display of architectural ingenuity. As an architect, Thompson designed a unique house with tapered doors to each room. Every room is protected from evil spirits by traditional high wood partitions at the bottom of each entry door.
The mystery surrounding Thompson has to do with his background as a former CIA agent. Some suggest CIA association might have something to do with his disappearance. Others suggest he was kidnapped for ransom. Still others suggest he just got lost and was eaten by the jungle. His real story is about the beginning of the silk trade for which he became well known. In any case, his home is a monument to East Asian art and a fitting end to a well-lived life.
Recalling America’s war in Vietnam, one becomes reacquainted with America’s carpet bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trails. The trails extend through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Hearing of mid-20th century and Asia’s ancient history of Hinduism and Buddhism, some Southeastern Asia’ travelers will leave with a sense of guilt, shame, or sadness.
Feeling guilt comes from hubris in believing American Democracy is desired by all people of the world.
Sadness comes from the many Asian believers in non-violent Hindu’ and Buddhist’ teaching that are diminished by war.
The atrocity of war in Cambodia spits in the face of humanity. The Khmer Rouge gather together to enforce Pol Pot’s demented idea of forcing farmers to join communal farms under one leader’s bureaucratic control. Such an idea was tried and shown to be a failure by Mao in China. America supports Pol Pot’s genocidal attack on citizens who resisted Pol Pot’s forced indenture and relocation. 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians were murdered.
The Nixon/Kissinger administration supports Pol Pot in part because of their belief in the domino theory of communism (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand would become communist if one became communist).
The irony of America’s support of Pol Pot is that Vietnam’s communist army, not America, liberates Cambodia from Pol Pot’s atrocity.
The Nixon/Kissinger policy of Pol Pot support is compounded by America’s decision to carpet bomb the southern route of the Ho Chi Minh trail. America’s hope is to interrupt the communist takeover of Vietnam. Of course, this is taken out of the context of a sincere belief in the domino theory of one country falling to communism leading to more countries falling to the same fate.
To some Americans, the support of Pol Pot is justified because communism did gain some level of control of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. What seems clear is the southern part of Vietnam, and all of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand have endorsed a form of communism. However, all four countries show a level of economic competition and prosperity that suggests capitalist influence exists in every sector of the economy.
No communist party in these four countries appear in complete control. All four governments seem more like a work in progress than an inevitable probability of either communism or democracy. Corruption is alleged in all four countries we visited but that is a refrain one hears in every form of government, including America.
A level of discontent is exhibited by a young college graduate in Thailand. He explains his ambition to become less controlled by government, with freedom of speech, and a right to pursue an independent career. Student protest is rising in Thailand.
The Hmong were recruited by the CIA during America’s Vietnam war. A few of the fighters were evacuated to American after the war, but many were left to fend for themselves. Laos is the least developed of the four countries visited on this trip. However, some small villages seem to have done well for their residents.
Our local guide suggests there is a threat to this rural life. An elevated train system has been built by China that crosses the river near this local community. China approached local residents with a proposal to relocate their village. China wishes to build a casino on their land for the entertainment of Chinese tourists.
On one of several village visits in Laos, we visit local artisans plying their trade.
Later, visiting the Cambodian “killing fields” one recognizes the atrocity citizens lived through. No thoughtful Cambodian would want to return to a Pol Pot authoritarian government. Cambodia’s monument to Pol Pot’s atrocity is a reminder of his misanthropic idea of an agricultural utopia.
The first two pictures are of a vertical tower filled with the skulls of the “killing field”, victims from Pol Pot’s reign of terror.
Southeast Asia is undoubtedly influenced by communism. However, resistance to authoritarianism is apparent in every nation we toured. What is striking in all four countries is the continued investment in ancient Hindu and new Buddhist temples. An equally surprising realization is that the younger generation places much less faith in these dominant religions than seems warranted by the investment.
In a dinner in Thailand with the son of our guide, the son explains he is 50/50 on belief in Buddhism. The inference one draws is that the value of investment in Hindu’ and Buddhist’ temples is for its tourism value more than belief in religious doctrine. On the other hand, one cannot discount a fundamental belief in these religions that have a “let be” attitude about life that offers a level of social stability beyond any government influence on life.
There is a sense of uneasiness in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia in regard to Vietnam encroachment. Vietnam seems the “big dog” in the kennel. Though our local guide in Vietnam believes there is no chance of war, there seems fear of invasion or dominance by a stronger, more experienced military in Vietnam than in the other peninsula countries we visited. However, the greater concern in all four countries seems to be the potential for domination by China. Though relations appear quiescent at the moment, the authoritarian character of China’s current leadership seems worthy of some concern. In Vietnam, our local guide, who is 30 years of age, explains neither he nor the older Vietnamese generation wish any war in Southeast Asia but express guarded concern about China’s intention.
The following pictures are of the seat of power in Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon) Vietnam during the American war. It is now a museum showing the government offices and a bunker in the event of an attack.
All our guides in Southeast Asia were excellent. Our primary guide, Lucky, practiced for a short time as a novice monk. As a part of the tour, we were able to ask questions of a monk that exemplifies the resilience and strength of Buddhism and its teaching. Questions were answered with grace and intelligence that reinforce one’s un-schooled understanding of Buddhism and its place in world religions.
MONUMENTS TO THE HINDU AND BUDDHIST RELIGION THROUGHOUT SOUTHEAST ASIA.
And, of course, no one can leave Cambodia without a visit to Angkor Wat the largest religious monument in the world, built in the 12th century.
Many personal conversations with Lucky, our primary guide, gave insight to the strength of Buddhism and a way of life that eschews conflict and promotes peace. Lucky believes in the traditions of his Thailand upbringing with acceptance of things as they are with the hope that the traditions of his country will continue.
In a sense, Lucky is a royalist who believes in the importance of the blood line of royalty as a moral compass for the country. The many experiences we had on this brief trip suggest Lucky’s hope for a limited monarchy is possible but with reservation. History never repeats itself in the same way.
The Hidden History of Burma (Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century)
Narrated by: Assaf Cohen
Author, Thant Myint-U, is the son of the former secretary-general of the UN, U Thant (1961-1971). His circle of acquaintances ranges from Presidents to diplomats to people on the street.
U Thant (Secretary-General of the United Nations 1961-1971, died in 1974 at the age of 65.)
Thant Myint-U’s report on Burma (aka today’s Myanmar) reveals a capitalist’s “canary in a coal mine”. “The Hidden History of Burma” reveals what can happen in capitalist countries that ignore the rising gap between rich and poor.
Like canaries, all people are not the same.
Thant Myint-U resurrects the reputation of Aung Suu Kyi, a leader of conscience. He exposes Myanmar’s 2021 military revolution and its unfair trial of Burma’s storied and unfairly maligned national patriot. Thant Myint-U’s history implies no leader of conscience could withstand the inept Burmese government’s management of human diversity that led to the accusation of Rohingya genocide in 2020.
Aung San Suu Kyi (Burmese politician, diplomat, author and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureat. She is the daughter of Aung San, the Father of Independent Burma.)
Aung San (Burmese politician, Father of Burma independence from British rule, assassinated six months before independence granted.)
All capitalist economies are threatened by human greed when capitalism is unregulated. Capitalism falters when it fails to provide an adequate safety net to its citizens. When countries fail to offer an opportunity to acquire the basic needs of life, the poor disproportionately die. When the poor are not treated equitably by society, they have two choices. One is to bare unfair treatment and die. The other is to fight unfair treatment and die. (Note that is not to suggest hand-outs but to suggest hand-ups to jobs, income, and opportunity.)
Human nature compels a turn to God when one feels out of control.
One reason the Islamic religion is the fastest growing religion in the world is because many Muslims are poor. They live in countries where governments fail to treat diversity as a strength, not a burden.
Burma’s return to military autocracy is shown by Thant Myint-U to be a consequence of the gap between rich and poor, largely caused by an unregulated capitalist economy. Lack of capitalist regulation in autocracies or democracies make the rich richer and the poor poorer, the twain do meet but mostly in conflict.
Democracy is a form of government that can offer a voice to diversity. When democracy fails to respond to that voice, it risks revolution, and its consequence-autocracy. In “The Hidden History of Burma, Thant Myint-U shows Myanmar’s government is not listening to the voices of diversity.
There is a lesson for America in the story of Burma. The gap between rich and poor is rising. American Democratic capitalism is listening but struggling with its response. America does not have the history of Burma, but government leaders can learn something from Burma’s inept reaction to diversity.
Charles Taylor is in his 90s. This 42-hour exploration of the Western hemisphere’s transition from religious to secularist belief is daunting and enlightening. One is reminded of the evolving framework of belief in the death of God initiated by Nietzsche and sustained by Camus. Nietzsche, and Camus suggest humanity is on its own. There is no heaven. There is no hell. These two philosophers imply there is only a life one chooses to live. Taylor circles and circles this argument but never agrees. Taylor argues the western world has arrived at “A Secular Age”, not meaning God is dead but that western society’s view of God has evolved and is evolving.
Taylor writes the history of how the western world became the exemplar of “A Secular Age”. Taylor does not suggest western philosophy is ahead or behind eastern philosophies like Buddhism with its Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, and reincarnation. Secularism and Buddhism are similar in their emphasis on societal self-worth. What Taylor illustrates is the wide gulf between eastern fundamentalist religious belief and the secular evolution of western religions.
To some, God is not dead in the west, but He/She seems to some to be on life support. Taylor suggests that is a premature conclusion.
Taylor notes eastern nations did not follow the humanist history of the west and is not a significant part of his research for this book. However, he acknowledges a humanist’ perspective in eastern Buddhism. The Buddhist’ objective is to find the path of enlightenment with reincarnated lives, seeking Nirvana (a transcendent state where suffering, desire, and self are embodied within one’s peaceful existence). Buddhism’s focus on ethical behavior might be considered analogous to living a secular life. However, Taylor notes a significant difference, i.e., Buddhist’ belief includes supernatural figures that either help or hinder Buddhist followers from finding the path of enlightenment. In Taylor’s parlance, a Buddhist remains a believer in enchantment whereas a western secularist abandons enchantment.
Buddhism departs from secularism because of its belief in supernatural influences.
The struggle of “A Secular Age” is in medical diagnosis and therapeutic treatment rather than singular dependence on God’s wrath or grace. In the western world, transcendence becomes more a human rather than Godly resolution of human crises.
In Taylor’s history of the “…Secular Age”, religion and belief in God remain a force in the 21st century. God is not dead in the west to those who believe.
However, Taylor’s response to a question about the existence of God is alleged to be: “There’s probably no God: now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Taylor acknowledges stories like Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” in the “Brothers Karamazov”, a poem by Wordsworth like “Dover Beach”, and philosophical treatises by Nietzsche and Camus that literarily address the existence and diminishment of enchantment in the western world. The breadth of Taylor’s knowledge and research for “A Secular Age” is remarkable.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (Author, Russian novelist, 1821-1881 Died at age 59)
Taylor gives us a credible history of change from the age of enchantment to “A Secular Age”. However, there remains no definitive answer to what the world is about, what life means, or where “understanding of life” is heading.
Douglas Adams (Author, humorist, satirist.)
So, what is the world about, and what is the meaning of life? At the end of Taylor’s tome, one comes to the same conclusion as Douglas Adam’s comically suggested number, “42”.
In broad terms, Taylor suggests human evolution and history are origins of Western civilization’s secularization. His supporting arguments are many with the advance of science playing a smaller role than one might expect. His reasoning reaches back to the stone age, advancing through to the 21st century. The range of his reasoning, and the length of his book, raises the scholarly value of his book but diminishes its appeal to a lay audience.
The Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul
By: Jay Lombard
Narrated by: David Acord
Dr. Jay Lombard (Author, Neurologist, specializing in child neurology, Ted conference presenter.)
The introduction to Dr. Lombard’s book is by Patrick Kennedy. Kennedy’s self-effacing acknowledgement of his personal struggles draws one into Lombard’s story. As an introduction, a listener is interested in a scientist’s belief in God. However, by chapter 3, some listeners will be tempted to quit listening.
Patrick Kennedy (Former Democratic Representative from Rhode Island, Nephew of President Kennedy, son of Ted Kennedy.)
Lombard agues God is real because His existence is proven by evolution and human consciousness.
The basis for his argument is the “miracle” of evolution and human consciousness. The idea of “miracle” is a return to a neolithic age. Lombard’s “miracle” argument is off-putting for three reasons. One, miracles are frequently used by those who have not yet proven something by science. Two, evolution is proven by science. Three, consciousness remains undefined.
Earth is flat and the center of the universe, i.e., until Galileo proves otherwise. We live in a world of Newtonian physics (cause and effect), i.e., until Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and others discover quantum theory and mechanics. Time is a precise measure of the past, present, and future, i.e., until Einstein proves time is relative. History shows miracles are often explanations for something humans do not understand. The human mind consciously interprets and intentionally believes the absurd–like lightning strikes because Zeus is angry. One is justifiably skeptical of those who argue God is the origin of creation and human benefaction.
What may draw a skeptic back to the book is Lombard’s experience as a neurologist in treating patients with proven brain dysfunction. Lombard shows an empathy for his patients because of his professed beliefs. Whatever one’s belief, empathy is essential ingredient of a good life.
Lombard’s empathy is an evolutionary pattern that offers hope to the world.
Philosophers of the past like Nietzsche and Camus, reject God because they believe He/She is a construct of human consciousness, not an omniscient being who created heaven and earth. Nietzsche argues humanity killed God by becoming Superman or Woman, without the need for something greater than themselves. In contrast, Camus suggests belief in God makes no difference.
The world to Camus is an unpredictable place and every human must consciously seek a mission in life to be free.
Lombard agrees with Camus’s argument. However, Lombard believes evolution of human consciousness is proof of God. Lombard suggests proof of God’s presence is shown with transformation from human self-interest to empathy. That is Lombard’s gigantic leap of faith, unwarranted by facts. It is the equivalent of an oft quoted comment by Einstein about God not playing dice.
The last patient in Lombard’s book is a Buddhist monk who is at early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Ironically, as Lombard notes, Buddhist belief is to “let go” of human emotion. Dementia results in “letting go”, but dementia is not a conscious act.
Dementia gives no comfort to one who is older and has a fear of Alzheimer’s and its consequence for others. Others, who are left to care for the stricken. What makes this chapter interesting is Lombard’s careful diagnosis, attentiveness, and empathetic care for his patient.
By the end of Lombard’s book, one is convinced of the need for science, with a hope for clearer understanding of brain, mind, and consciousness.
God may or may not have anything to do with brain, mind, and consciousness. Lombard’s argument for God’s existence is no more convincing than a bolt of lightning from Zeus.
God’s Shadow (Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World)
By: Alan Mikhail
Narrated by: James Cameron Stewart
Alan Mikhail (Author, Chace Family Professor of History, Chair Dept. of History at Yale.)
Alan Mikhails’s “God’s Shadow” speculates on the historic impact of the Ottoman Empire on the rise of the Islamic religion and its conflict with Christianity. His book is well received by the public but panned by some who believe Mikhail’s scholarship is more speculative than factual. That criticism seems well earned when the last chapter of Mikahail’s book summarizes his opinion about Islam’s past and future.
What is surprising to this reviewer is not Mikhails’s speculation about Islam’s future but his failure to explore Ottoman history’s success in diminishing Shite Muslim growth while hugely increasing Sunni Muslim Islamic influence.
When Muhammed, the founder of Islam, dies, he leaves no heir to Allah’s teaching. In not leaving an heir, a split occurs between those who argue only a direct descendant of Muhammed, not a mere follower, can be a leader of the faith.
Shite Muslims believe an heir to Muhammed’s leadership can only be to a male descendant of the Muhammed’ family. Sunni’s argue Islamic leadership is based on any man who demonstrates success and ability to spread the faith.
Sultan Bayezid II (1447-1512, reign 1481-1512.)
The spread of the Muslim religion is laid at the feet of Sultan Selim I. He is one of the sons of Sultan Bayezid II who gains control of what is known as the Ottoman Empire.
“God’s Shadow” recounts the rise of the Ottoman Empire which is the primary cause of Sunni growth in the Middle East. A major part of Mikhail’s book is about Selim I because he is the leader that conquers and combines most of the Muslim world into the Ottoman Empire.
An interesting opinion of Mikhail is the role of harems in the Islamic world. He argues male heirs are a primary function of the harem. Once a male is born to a concubine of a Sultan, Mikhail suggests further conjugal relations cease. Every born male is a potential Sultan.
This naturally leads to a competition and often death of male heirs who are chosen by the acting Sultan to be his replacement. “God’s Shadow” tells the history of a younger son who disagrees with Sultan Bayezid II’s choice and successfully replaces that choice by force. Selim I ascends the throne of Sultan despite his father’s choice of heir. Selim’s road to hegemonic Sultan is through the conquering of nations beyond Istanbul and the Balkans, to Hungary on the north, Egypt on the south, Algeria on the west, and Iraq on the East.
Selim I (1470-1520, 9th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire-reigned from April 1512-September 1520.)
An apocryphal story told by Mikhail is that, in the earlier years of Selim I’s conquests, he is presented a colored map of the then-known world that shows nations beyond the Ottoman Empire. Selim I tears the map in half because he is satisfied with what he has done. Mikhail notes that incident occurs in Selim’s earlier years because when a later map shows the Americas, Selim suggests more is to be done. A fundamental argument made by Mikhail is that the growth of the Ottoman Empire is the precursor of modern governance.
In the final chapter of Mikhail’s book, a step beyond reason or history is taken. Mikhail posits Selim’s reign and the rise of the Islamic religion presages future dominance of Islam in the world. He argues by 2070 Islam will be the dominant religion of the world. That seems hyperbolic when the role of religion in the world is arguably in decline. Mikhail compounds hyperbola by suggesting the world’s reaction to Islam has been a foil to create Christian and democratic nations. The growth of Christianity and democracy are patently more than a reaction to the religion of Islam.
This is an unfortunate digression for Mikhail because he makes a good historical case for the Islamic religion’s tolerance of other faiths in the face of historically murderous Catholic Crusades. On the other hand, many atrocities accompany Selim I’s expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Mikhail notes Selim’s soldiers are compensated by plunder and rape when ordered to invade new territories. And of course, there is the faction of the Muslim faith that carried out the death of over 2,000 people on 9/11/21 in America.
Interestingly, Mikhail offers an encomium to President Erdogan in Turkey by praising him for resurrecting the legend of Selim I in a bridge dedication.
Erdogan is revivifying the Islamic religion in Turkey even though its history was dramatically changed by Ataturk who turned Turkey into a secular rather than Islamic state.
2023 is an important year for Erdogan. He has been President of Turkey since 2014. Some suggest the recent earthquake in Turkey jeopardizes his re-election. To an outsider, it seems Erdogan has reversed some of the secular drive of Ataturk by increasing Islamic influence in governance.
President Erdogan has made his voice heard in the West by initially voting against Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Sweden has been a haven for the PKK, which Turkey characterizes as a terrorist organization that aided an attempt to overthrow the Turkish government in 2016. Sweden’s legislature is voting on March 9, 2023, on a measure that would prohibit recruitment and financing of the PKK in Sweden. One wonders, if that will change Turkey’s “no” vote for Sweden to join NATO.
Erdogan seems an odd choice for comparison to Selim I’s Islamic reign based on a personal perception of this critic’s visit to Turkey. Erdogan seems much less a revered leader by the public than Ataturk, let alone Selim I depicted in “God’s Shadow”.
Black Wave (Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry)
By: Kim Ghattas
Narrated by: Kim Ghattas, Nan McNamara
Kim Ghattas (Author, Dutch Lebanese Journalist for the BBC)
Kim Ghattas capsulizes the causes of cultural and religious conflict in the Middle East. Her complex explanation of politics in the Middle East shows the importance of religious freedom and the negative consequence of mixing religion in nation-state governance. Ghattas’s intimate understanding and experience in the Middle East illustrates how ignorant America has been in confronting Middle Eastern leaders in their struggle for peace in their own countries.
“Black Wave” is a difficult book to summarize. Some reader/listeners will conclude from Gattis’s book that the heart of Middle Eastern conflict is religious intolerance. However, it is not religion itself but political leaders who distort religious belief for personal power that roils the world. America has its own religious zealotry, but it is tempered by a political culture that demands freedom of religion, independent of political governance. It does not keep American political leaders from distorting religion for their own agendas, but it tempers its potential for state acceptance of orchestrated violence.
Osama bin Laden used religion to justify his directed murder of innocents. He sought political power at the expense of religion.
Ghattas dances around America’s bungled effort to democratize the Middle East. Some would argue Iran democratically elected an Imam to lead their country. Ghattas notes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia clearly fears popularly elected leaders.
In ancient times, the middle east is known as Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Empire, and Babylonia (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and today’s Saudi Arabia).
America’s self-interest has made many enemies in the Middle East. America is a cultural and political baby in respect to the ancient cultures of the Middle East. The birth of the Islamic religion dates to 7th century in Saudi Arabia.
As is true of all religions that have stood the test of time, the Islamic religion has broken into different factions that consider themselves Islamic but with different interpretations of their faith.
The added dimension of poverty, cultural identity, and economic inequality encourage belief in religion. A religious believer’s purpose in the world is to gain some peace in this world, with hope for eternal life in the next. Therein lies the source of much violence within and among all countries of the world. There can be little peace in a world where people are being indiscriminately murdered, starving and treated unequally.
An example of how violent and unfair nations can be is Syrian leaders’ murder of its own people.
Ghattas explains there are two major versions of the Islamic religion in the Middle East. One is Sunni, the other is Shite.
The hegemon for the Sunni Islamic religion lies in several countries but its center of power is Saudi Arabia. The center of power for Shite belief is Iran. “Black Wave” recounts a history of both power centers and how they use religious belief to increase their influence and power in the Middle East.
Ghattas argues religious interpretation is a tool used by Saudi Arabian’ and Iranian’ leadership to gain power and influence in the Middle East. Ghattas infers the leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia do not believe in peaceful coexistence but in hegemonic power. They use the Islamic religion to maintain control of their power. When state power is threatened, their leaders’ resort to interpretations of Islam that preserve their control.
Ghattas recounts many examples of Middle Eastern leadership that show little concern for their citizens, e.g., Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi, Syria‘s gassing of Syrian citizens, and Iran’s imprisonment and torture of citizens who choose not to follow political leaders’ interpretations of the Koran.
Ghattas’s book implies the consequence of American ignorance of Islamic beliefs victimizes the poor, powerless, and disenfranchised. A western country that does not understand the subtlety of religious beliefs in the Middle East has little influence on the course of events. With a better understanding of Islamic faith and how it is being used by Saudi Arabia and Iran, there is some hope for peace.
Understanding and acceptance of those who fervently believe in a religion, along with economic opportunity for those who are victimized by hardship and/or violence, offers some hope for peace. Without understanding of foreign cultures and economic assistance for those victimized, world conflagration is an ever-present danger. One must ask oneself–how wise is it to use political policy or trade to victimize the poor and disenfranchised?
Living with the Devil ( A Meditation on Good and Evil)
By: Stephen Batchelor
Narrated by: Stephen Batchelor
Stephen Batchelor (Author, Scottish Buddhist, teacher.)
Stephen Batchelor offers a view of religion and reality in an attempt to move beyond the “let it be” implication of a meditative life. Batchelor places Buddhism in the context of most religions’ beliefs. He explains Buddhism personifies the devil as a master of seven dimensions of heaven.
The devil assigns one of the seven heaven’ disciples to inspire sin in human life. That disciple is Mara who is directed by the devil to seduce Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism. Mara assumes the visage of a woman but fails to distract Siddhartha from “the way” and, like Christ in Christian belief, Siddhartha becomes a symbol and guide for humanity.
Image of Mara who takes the image of a woman to seduce Gautama Buddha, (Siddhartha).
Batchelor explains Buddhism is the door to “the way” which recognizes the devil as a part of life’s yin and yang. Hardship and death are part of life. Those seeking eternal life delude themselves. It is not possible to have life without death. It is not possible to have “the way”, a path without evil because evil defines good by being its opposite. This leads to a “let it be” mentality of those who meditate on “the way”. Batchelor is not condoning the evil of violence, destruction, or death but explains its role in defining “the way”. Therein lies a criticism by some.
Buddhist guidance is described as “the way” by Batchelor.
One presumes, it is the same “way” referred to in the adventures of Disney Studio’s “The Mandalorian”.
Batchelor describes the path that most of humanity takes is deflected in the same way as a human walking with one leg shorter than another. The path of humanity is circular which suggests why history seems to repeat itself. (To paraphrase Mark Twain–history may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.)
One who is not a Buddhist is not comforted by Batchelor’s explanation of “the way” or his acknowledged acceptance of living with the devil. Batchelor, like Buddha, Jesus Christ, and a Divinity, may be correct in their knowledge about human life but it does not give one comfort. It proffers fear that violence and destruction is to be tolerated by humanity because it is a part of living life as a human being.
Batchelor implies homelessness, despair, and human degradation are incurable and acceptable because the devil’s work helps define “the way”.
Accepting Buddhism seems to encourage meditation at the expense of human effort to give succor to those in need. All religions and societies should be focused on social and economic equality for all. Accepting less is failure. “The devil made me do it” is a cop out.