Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ebola and Public Interest

As the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) spreads, public interest has followed in lockstep.

This is unsurprising. Facing EVD’s transmission across international borders, its extraordinary death rate, and its symptoms – such as bloody excretion from multiple orifices – EVD is hellish. We want to know how to protect ourselves. Media coverage is thus centering on EVD risks, symptoms, treatments, and containment plans.

Yet, this specificity is unusual for a crisis. For example, consider our ‘understanding’-driven interest in EVD, with our ‘conjecture’-driven interest in the disappearance of MH370.

When MH370 disappeared back in March, we were obsessed by the apparent implausibility of the circumstances. How in the digital technology age of multiple satellites and advanced radar, could a plane simply disappear? The circumstantial, often contradictory reporting fueled easy conspiracies. As I suggested at the time, “The longer the conundrum continues, the more our analytical tendencies give way to our expanded imaginations.” But where MH370 had indirect relevance to our own reliance on aviation, today’s EVD crisis has much more direct relevance to us. We were quietly confident that MH370 was a freak event; something that would not befall us. But the EVD outbreak has become a personal danger. With EVD, we no longer find excitement in the punditry of unknowns.

Still, with EVD, our variable perception of the danger has driven our variable attention to it. It's telling that the EVD outbreak only attracted widespread western attention after cases were identified outside Africa. Before, it was psychologically distant. Now, it is physically (and thus psychologically) near. 

Of course, in large part, our attitudes are also indelibly shaped by our modern cultural understandings of danger: a world of virus disaster movies bound to a more unpredictable world. As the BBC notes, from Brazil to Chile to Spain, false social media reports of EVD outbreaks are spreading fear in  the psychological proximity born of internet networking.

But it goes deeper than culture.

After all, there’s another in-the-news example here. Just as our desire to understand EVD attached to its arrival in the west, our desire to understand ISIL attached to the video beheading of westerners. Before that, the ISIS threat could be ignored or pontificated upon. After, however, it became personal. My underlying point is basic. Today, although modern technology grants an unmatched ability to understand global circumstances, our interest in crisis events is framed by our physical and psychological proximity to them. In short, we rarely care except when it directly concerns us to care. Until then, we prefer to close our eyes. And hope for the best.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reza Aslan and the question of Islamic extremism

“Do you know that Muslims have elected seven women as their heads of states in those Muslim majority countries? How many women do we have as head of states in the United States?”

That was how, in a recent CNN interview, Professor-commentator Reza Aslan rebutted female genital mutilation (FGM) in the Islamic world. In Mr. Aslan’s view, women in many Muslim societies are better off than women in America.

Few claims are more ridiculous.

Mr. Aslan has since doubled down on this mantra. In an interview last Friday, he lambasted the media for a thinly veiled bigotry in its presentation of Islam. But with the controversy rumbling on, it’s worth considering the assertions Mr. Aslan made on CNN.

First off, that FGM is an African rather than an Islamic problem. While this is partly true – FGM is not specific to Islamic nations - the preponderance of FGM in many Muslim majority states is undeniable. Islamist-extremist clerics continue to agitate in its favor. They’re motivated by horrific notions of masochistic purity and anti-women fervor.

Mr. Aslan also suggested that Islamist extremists are no different from other religious extremists. As he put it, “There are Buddhist - marauding Buddhist monks – in Myanmar, slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not.” In short, Mr. Aslan believes religious extremists lack theological underpinnings and that correspondingly, Islam has no greater an extremism problem than Buddhism.

That’s just the start.

Asked whether there’s a specific problem with women’s rights in the Islamic World, he freaked out.

“Did you hear what you just said!”, he berated the CNN anchors, “You said ‘in Muslim countries’. I just told you that in Indonesia women are absolutely 100% equal to men. In Turkey they have had more female… stop saying things like ‘Muslim countries’!” For Mr. Aslan, these Islamic nations exemplify women’s rights and thus repudiate criticisms of political Islam. Yet when Mr. Aslan is then asked about Pakistan, he insists that the problem is a Pakistan-centric rather than Islamic-centric concern. ‘Hypocrisy’ is not a word in the Aslan dictionary. Mr. Aslan concludes by telling CNN that they’re “stupid” to suggest there might be a systemic problem with female rights in Muslim countries.

To be fair, Mr. Aslan is right about one thing. Much analysis of Islam is often oversimplified. As I’ve argued before, identifying political Islam as a pure Sunni vs. Shia conflict, for example, is pathetic. That being said, Mr. Aslan’s main contention is plainly wrong. As much as he might point to variable human rights in different Islamic states, contemporary political Islam is clearly rotting.

It’s a rot proved by the tens of thousands of young men who find their own Islamic purpose in a literal state of death.

It’s a rot proved by the political strength of Islamist totalitarians in Egypt, Iran, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Qatar, Kuwait, and in many other nations. Indeed, mentioning Iran and Saudi Arabia as aberrations for women’s rights, Mr. Aslan helpfully neglects to mention the extraordinary Islamist-political influence of these states. Saudi Arabia, after all, is the world’s exporter of Wahhabi authoritarianism, and Iran the world exporter of Khomeini’s totalitarian guardianship.
For all Mr. Aslan’s ranting - his preaching of Turkey’s democratic virtue is particularly ludicrous - today’s Islamic world encapsulates governmental corruption and incompetence, tolerated or promoted extremism, and human misery (especially for women).

Correspondingly, when Mr. Aslan and his ignorant flock hide these truths (remember the human piƱata?), and bully those (like Ayaan Hirsi Ali) who challenge them, they perpetuate grave injustice.

While the vast majority of Muslims are kind and generous people, today, their religion has been hijacked. And the victims of this hijacking are growing.

That’s a fact. Denying it, Mr. Aslan renders himself an apologist for ignorance and immorality.


2014 Midterms