Friday, July 12, 2013

Counting Up The Bodies, Part Two

I thought that I would want to rant on about the “Body Count” ‘study’ at greater length, but really, I find there isn’t much to say. It’s a strange piece of non-history, produced by someone who apparently does work as a professional in the field. It was produced for a religious institute, and it has one clear purpose—to insist in a scientific-sounding way that Christianity is violent and Islam is not. This is not, of course, just an attempt to bash Christianity, it’s an attempt to defend Islam. “Body Count”, has its anti-Muslim counterparts. (Include Links). Similarly decontextualized and badly researched, these documents insist that the history of Islam is not only a single wash of blood, but that it was inevitably and intentionally so from the beginning, and that it is worse, absolutely worse, than any of the (now conveniently whitewashed) things carried out in Christianity’s name, let alone that of any other religion. Absolutist positions lead to absolute nonsense, and any semblance of truth lies somewhere between “Islam is the single worst thing ever to happen to the human race” and “Islam is a religion of peace which has only been misinterpreted by anyone who ever did anything bad in its name”. And both those arguments are being laid out, repeatedly, by people who really ought to know better. You can’t understand either the past or the present like that. The average Tumblr blogger forwarding Naveed Sheikh’s pointless pie charts does so, I think, out of a worthy motivation. They believe, with some reason on their side, that Islam, and Muslims, are being falsely portrayed in the West as mindlessly and essentially violent. These numbers, unexamined, seem to offer a counter to that. They hand the pie charts on, believing they’ve done something useful. I would argue that they’re not; they’re merely contributing to an already worrying pile of bad, partisan history. In the past few years I’ve debated history with people who dismiss the Transatlantic slave trade as the sole responsibility of Muslims, who insist that Jews are not actually Semites, who think that Palestine was an independent nation before the Zionist conquest, who claim that the Serbs who carried out genocide in Bosnia were simply protecting themselves from the Islamist menace…it’s all out there, being eagerly passed from site to site, a barrage of lies and half-truths and obsessive reinterpretations. Perhaps the most cloying form of the unwinnable argument is the ongoing quarrel about whether Christendom or Islam was better (or worse) for the Jews. Despite the inarguable fact that Jews lived in both ‘civilizations’ as outsiders and social inferiors, were sometimes tolerated, sometimes allowed a measure of safety and prosperity, and sometimes slaughtered, people will argue fiercely for their home team’s treatment of the Jews, firmly brushing aside evidence against their case, and highlighting the most inane proofs in their favor. I’ve had people explain to me quite seriously that anti-Semitism was introduced to Europeans by Arabs, and other people explain that it was introduced to Arabs by Europeans. And I’m tired of it, I’m bored with the bad history, the ignorance and the illogic. Naveed Sheikh is not helping, and neither is anyone who forwards his pretty numbers on, without checking their source or understanding their agenda.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Smearing the Victims of Racism: Beyonce Concert Edition

So, a group of young Israelis attending a Beyonce concert in Berlin encounter a little classic anti-Semitism:

The whole article is at:

Richard Silverstein decides that no outburst of anti-Semitism is complete without a little victim-blaming:

Defend racists, attack their victims, and do it all under the name 'Tikun Olam'. How perfect.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Adding Up The Body Count: Part One

My bachelor's degree is in history, and while I have never worked in the field, except for a short stint as a Social Studies teacher, I try to approach history from an educated and critical perspective.

Which is why THIS annoys me so very much. If only I could stop laughing.

These pie charts, currently winging their merry way around the Internet, purport to be the result of a 'study done by the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute in Amman, Jordan- on the death toll for both violence in general and specifically, genocide (from 0-2008 BCE)'. (They mean CE. The author of the actual study does say CE. Unfortunately, he does refer to the study beginning in the year 0.)

The study found that Muslim societies/governments were responsible for less than 6% of violence in general historically, and less than 8% of genocides historically.

This is being forwarded on across the Internet--Tumblr, Facebook and the like--usually with attached comments like "But Muslims are supposed to be the violent ones, amirite?" Clearly, in the mind of the forwarder, this odd pie chart has pertinence and import. Because of this, I'm taking it rather more seriously than I otherwise might.

There are a number of things here, so let's try to take them on one at a time. Today, the study itself:


First, this is an absolutely ludicrous thing to claim to have done a 'study' of. The death toll for 'violence in general', worldwide, over a period of two thousand years, isn't something you can just add up on a calculator. Real historians do not deal with issues this mindbogglingly broad and haphazard in 'studies'. So I looked a little closer. The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute is actually the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought--a full title that gives you a clue that a. we may not be dealing with the most nonpartisan of researchers, and b. we may be dealing with people who know more about theology than history here. No one who had posted the pie charts to Tumblr posted a link to the actual study, so I went hunting and found it. Its full title is Body Count: A Quantitative Analysis of  Political Violence Across World Civilizations, and it is a publication of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center. You can download the whole thing from their website, here.

The study is forty pages long, and is attributed to Naveed S. Sheikh, University of Louisville. There is some introduction, and some waffle about 'methodology', but the bulk of the paper is a very long chart listing first all the violence ever, and then all the genocidal violence ever, complete with death toll, and the 'belligerent civilization' responsible. No bibliography is given, nor are citations used. The author claims that 'we have in each case attempted to corroborate numbers from several sources and guesstimated a reasonable range, supported by scholarly accounts'. I suspect Wikipedia was the main source used.

About those civilizations: Sheikh has split the world neatly up into seven of them, as though they were the warring factions in a fantasy novel. These are Antitheist (Commie, in other words), Buddhist, Christian, Indic, Islamic, Primal-Indigenous (pagans of various sorts), and Sinic. There is also an occasional classification of 'unclassified', which seems to include Jews, and perhaps others. 

A person might wonder about the ability of the author to neatly discern whether violence carried out in China would be 'Sinic', 'Buddhist' or 'Antitheist', but the author does not worry about these things, he sweeps on quite confidently.This division of the world, of course, leads to some odd issues...well, actually, too many odd issues to actually count. It begins with the attribution of World War II to Christians and Buddhists, and just gets better from there.

The attribution of violence to religiously based 'civilizations' means that, for example, the Second Congo War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crusades, the Wars of the Roses, the Tupac Amaru Rebellion and the Mau-Mau Uprising are all classified as "Christian". 

Sheikh comes to some conclusions at the end. He concludes, somewhat poignantly, that the death toll from political violence in the past two thousand years is roughly twice the current population of the United States. 

He also determines, and this is the meat of this long, and loopily constructed argument, that "In comparative terms, we have found the open secret of world history to be that the Christian civilization is the most bellicose on all counts: It is the civilization which is responsible for the highest number of death in world history, between 119.32 and 236.56 million (median: 177.94 million). This is over 30% of global fatalities for the period 0-2008 CE. In terms of number of instances of political violence, the Christian share is even higher, accounting for 166 events out of 321 in total (nearly 52%). Thus more than half of all major acts of political violence can be attributed to the Christian civilization. Finally, in terms of genocides too the Christian civilization has perpetrated nearly half of all genocides (14 out of 30, or 46.67%). Still, these 14 genocides have had a total death toll of 33.24 million, a whopping 65.50% of all genocide deaths. The Christian civilization, therefore, emerges as the most violent and genocidal in world history."

Whopping. You've got to like a guy who uses 'whopping' in summing up his conclusions about genocide in a (theoretically) academic paper.

OK, now here's the open secret of this paper: the passage above is the money shot, the only goal of compiling all these numbers to begin with.

There is no attempt made (probably because it would muddy the waters and make the math hard) to adjust any of these numbers, in terms of world population of the Seven Civilizations, either over the complete two thousand years, or at any given time. To point at only the simplest issue, Islam is actually extant for only seventy percent of the time period artificially chosen. But that's just one arbitrary point. There's so much wrong with this that it's almost impossible to cover it all.

I hate bad history.

Anyway, tomorrow, some thoughts on why this piece is going around, what it means to those who post it, and why an equal and opposite reaction is equally stupid.

Monday, May 13, 2013

An Irritated Analogy

Imagine, if you will, that you are a white American feminist. Imagine that someone points out that white American feminists have long failed to show sufficient concern or respect for American feminists of color. We have not understood or acted on behalf of their issues and needs, we have not educated ourselves, we have not listened, we have not created an inclusive movement, we have, indeed, allowed ourselves to think that ‘all the feminists are white, and all the blacks are men’.

If you are someone who values truth, and someone who values understanding her own privilege, you will agree that these things are true, and strive to address them.

Now, imagine if you will, that someone comes along and says that women of color are oppressed solely by white feminists. This person has no interest in any other factor creating oppression in the lives of women of color. They seem entirely unaware that any men have ever been involved systemically or significantly in the oppression of women of color. They certainly don’t believe that women of color were facing any oppression before feminism came along in the nineteenth century. They’ve read, in fact, that before feminism, American women of color lived in perfect harmony with their neighbors of all colors, and had no problems at all. Now that there’s feminism, of course, they face economic and educational inequality, problems of access to adequate health care, race and gender based discrimination, and many other difficulties, and this is all clearly the result of feminism.

 All progressive people, therefore, they assert should be fundamentally opposed to feminism, and see it as an entirely and uniquely destructive force in the world. Women of color, in particular, should never be fooled into thinking that they have any problems that were not directly inflicted on them by the white feminists, and if they start to think anyone else is causing them problems, they should just review all the terrible things white feminists have done to them.

 You might be tempted to write this person off as ludicrously uninformed, or you might suspect that this is someone who hates women, and hates feminism, and is trying to find a convenient reason why feminism is awful that you will have to agree with. You might, if you did a little digging, find that they have a whole arsenal of other reasons why they assert feminism is terrible, most of them just as spurious or historically inaccurate.

This is exactly the nonsense that spills out when people who hate Israel try to use the Mizrahim, the Ethiopian Jews, and other Jewish communities of color as a way to beat up on Israel and Zionism. These are people who have somehow managed to educate themselves about the discrimination these communities face in Israel, (or perhaps ‘educate’ is not the term, given the high ratio of lies that tend to creep in) but have somehow managed to not learn about, or not care about, any other oppression these Jews experience now or in the past at the hands of anyone except Israeli Ashkenazim. Just like that, generations of segregation, bigotry, murderous hate, and racist laws simply vanish. Ancient communities become blunt instruments to try to wield against other Jews.

 In other words, yes. The Mizrahim, the Ethiopians, the Russians (oh, we forgot about them, since the anti-Israel crowd likes to paint them villains), the Bokharans, all of them, have faced difficulties and often discrimination in Israel. We have internalized colonialism and racism as much as any other oppressed people, and we continue to struggle with them. But if you like to passionately assert that these problems indicate rot at Zionism’s heart—you’re ignorant.

 If you do not know both what the Farhud was, and how it fits into the broader history of collaboration with the Nazis by Middle Eastern governments, you do not have the right to enter this discussion. If you don’t know that there were camps in Tunisia as well as Poland, you do not have the right to enter this discussion. If you do not understand the intersections of colonialism and traditional anti-Semitism as they affected the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, you do not have the right to enter this discussion. If you dismiss the fascist connections of pre-war Palestinian leadership, and think that discussions of anti-Semitism in Islamic societies are simply ‘Islamophobia’, to be scoffed and dismissed, you should stay well out of this discussion. If you do not understand the speed and the racist venom with which ancient Jewish communities were dismantled and exiled in the years following the establishment of Israel, you simply don’t know enough to even approach this discussion.

 Or you could go through life thinking that American women of color had no problems until Seneca Falls, and would have none today if we could only dismantle NOW. Sometimes willful ignorance can’t be overcome.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

An Arab Christian Israeli Military Prosecutor--With a Jewish Grandmother

(Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
I can't be the only person who thinks that this woman's life and profession would make her a natural heroine for a series of mystery novels, except that people would probably find her too unrealistic, and complain that the author was trying to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.

Arin Shaabi's story is fascinating. Her family's complicated history is similar to others I've heard about, and her thoughts and concerns about her work as a prosecutor in military courts in the West Bank are challenging and informed, something that's not always easy to find once this subject comes up. Well worth a read.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Chareidi Woman In the IDF

An eight-year-old girl, dressed for school in her light blue shirt and dark navy skirt, presses the elevator button as she hurries to school. When the elevator appears, she dashes inside and finds herself standing next to two Israeli soldiers with M16 rifles slung over their backs. The soldiers, sporting kippot, are her neighbor’s sons, who are heading back to the base after Shabbat. The little girl looks at them admiringly. She decides that one day she’s going to be just like them—a defender of the Jewish people.
That little girl was me.
The idea that religious Israeli Jews are growing in numbers, take from and control Israeli society, and don't contribute has become part of the anti-Israel narrative. It provides cover to lament that Israeli democracy is being undermined by people who--mysteriously--are imbued by the narrator with the traits that classical anti-Semitism attributes to all Jews.

The work of women like Fayga Marks, who find ways to live out their intersectionality in positive and bridge-building ways stands as a contradiction to these gleeful predictions of the destruction of Israel's democracy because of religious Jews.

The Same Ones

On a smart, politically progressive blog that I love, a post begins by solemnly announcing that, as with Aurora and Newtown, we may never find out why the Boston Marathon bombing happened. I am reminded, abruptly, of a scene in "Driving Miss Daisy", when the driver, Hoke, tells his disbelieving employer that her synagogue in Atlanta has been bombed. "Who would do such a thing?" she protests. "You know as good as me, Miss Daisy," he tells her, a little sharply. "It always be the same ones."

Now, in the present time and place, it is not always the same ones. In the first swirling days following the bombings in Boston, we didn't know who had done it, or why, and responsible people tried to stop themselves from speculating. Of course, plenty of people were speculating madly. Pam Geller and her ilk announced that it was obviously Islamist, but they say that regardless. In the progress-o-sphere, speculation ran to right-wing extremists (a theory I favored, due to the location and timing of the attack). But when we eventually identified the bombers, and learned a little about their backgrounds, it became fairly clear this was an Islamist attack.

However, scanning progressive blogs, I find people still firmly resisting that fact. We don't know, and they may have acted alone, and even if they were supplied by jihadi connections, it might not really be about religion, and we just can't know... No. I do not believe that Muslims should be the target of hate because of Islamist terror. I do not believe that Islam is an inherently problematic religion. I do not believe that any crime committed by a Muslim is motivated by religion. But do we really need to pretend that we are starting from scratch again, each time?

It's true, as people have said, that non-Muslim domestic terrorists are identified as 'lone wolves', and their crimes decontextualized. But that's a bad approach, not one to adopt for other sorts of terrorists as well. Imagine that this was the man many of us expected, an anti-government, American-born white Christian. In that case, people on the progressive blogs would be clear what his motivations were. Even if he had acted alone, they would put him in context: a tradition of violence, an ideology, and an atmosphere of incitement. All of these things are true as well of Islamist violence. It is stupid and self-indulgent to pretend that's not true.

I grew up with the constant threat of terrorism, and the experience of learning again and again that Jews around the world had been targeted. I am not willing to pretend that Islamic fundamentalist terror is not systemic, interconnected, and aimed directly at me and mine. And it frustrates the hell out of me when people ask "Who would do such a thing?" You know, Miss Daisy. I know. And we're no better people for saying that we don't.