Tag: The Middle East

Famous 8th century Umayyad mosque destroyed in Syrian crossfire

Over the years, this blog has covered many things, and one of those, historical blogging, has accounted for a lot of my best stuff, like my essay on Zheng He and the Chinese Age of Discovery, my six-part series “Are We Rome?” (examining the Roman invasions of what’s-now-called Iraq) and most recently, my in-depth exploration of the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s… so, in my history blogger hat, I want to mention that the Syrian civil war has recently partially destroyed one of the most famous mosques of the Islamic Golden Age, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, a cultural and artistic treasure built in the 8th century. The war that has been destroying Syrian society, has now taken a World Heritage site (and rare extant example of Malmuk architecture) down with it.

The Great Mosque’s famous minaret, rebuilt to a towering height in the 11th century following damaging Mongol invasions, is lost completely.

The work of the Islamic Golden Age getting torn down by infighting and fratricidal war… seems more than a little symbolic.

This portion of Crash Course World History #14 covers the achievements of the Islamic Golden Age really well. The intellectual achievements of the Abassids included basically inventing modern medicine and mathematics, and their preservation of the texts of the greatest Greek, Roman, and Indian thinkers and reintroduction of these to Mediterranean Europe… would trigger the Renaissance.
It’s ironic that the Muslim thinkers that praise the Islamic Golden Age the most, touting its superiority over Europeans of the same period (middle ages) and calling for a return to the Caliphate and so forth, writers like Sayyid Qutb¹, are the same guys spurring the jihadists and the radicalization that is literally bombing Golden Age monuments to dust. The newest, most extremist branches of Salafi Islam have been notorious for destroying great cultural treasures, like the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or more recently destroying some of the sacred sites of Timbuktu, taking apart certain Islamic Golden Age shrines and masoleums with axes and shovels.

I have a lot of old content commenting on the Middle East in historical context, click the Middle East tag to access it.

There will be more new history content here—in-depth explorations of U.S. political history—with the Real Policy Differences video series. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the cartooning I’ve done for the series.

Stay tuned!


1. Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-winning book The Looming Tower covers the roots of the modern jihadist movement and al-Qaeda, with a detailed chapter on Sayyid Qutb, the founding father of the Egyptian jihadist movement. Wright chronicles Qutb’s time in the United States, where he became radicalized observing decadent 1950s New York City, and the women of Colorado.

The Religion Century: Challenged By European Atheists? No.

In my post in September 2006, The Religion Century, I argue that now that the world is no longer bi-polar, the only pole left is the US, and in place of a conflict between nation-states, we have clashing cultures and ideologies.  Religious fervor, among Muslims, Christians and Jews, not to mention European paganism and the ancient religions of the East are increasing.  The Religion Century post was important for this blog, predicting a groundswell in spirituality, setting a tone and establishing my position as pro-religion, favoring religion as a positive force for community building, fulfillment, artistic expression and connecting to something larger than yourself.
But what’s that, my thesis about The Religion Century is being challenged?  People think this will be the non-religious century because Europeans are rapidly going atheist?
BBC News reports:

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

BBC News – Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says

Wait, not so fast, nothing here means “The Religion Century” won’t happen.

First, this study is flawed, basing itself on the concept of “utility,” that there was more self-interested utility in belonging to a religious community in the 19th century and their model shows that utility dropping more and more in the future.  The model fails because religion isn’t always (and should never be) about self-interest, rather about something larger than the self and self-interest.  But if social services across Europe collapse as predicted, that utility model turns upside down as the lower and middle classes suddenly have great self-interest in joining a helping religious community.

Secondly, yes, atheism is on the rise across European Christendom, but these countries also have low birth rates (see List of countries by birth rate, European states are at the bottom). This means that religious communities with really high birth rates (Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, other sects) within and without Europe will more than replace them, ultimately resulting in a big jump in religious populations.

Lastly, just because “traditional Christendom” as we’ve known it in Europe for the past 1,000 years will shockingly shrink doesn’t mean that other faiths won’t move in.  Nature abhors a vacuum, y’see, and religions are no different.  In Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Switzerland, you’ll see people turning to Islam, or Mormonism, or nonsense like Scientology, or New Age paganism or old-school paganism (with Europe going full-circle back to druidism and Norse beliefs) or something worse, who knows, but it’ll definitely be something. Human beings are hard-wired to seek out and connect with spirituality.

Though I understand the fear of Christianity waning in Europe, because when Europeans have let even a sliver of their leaders put weird Norse beliefs ahead of Christianity in the past, it has ended up like THIS, the worst thing ever.

The Religion Century, an upswing in religiosity as support structures we’ve relied on (especially government) are failing and changing more and more, will most definitely have its downsides, too, with intolerance and violence.  But just because religion has gone bad many, many times doesn’t mean it can’t be great. Just because an ice pick can kill, doesn’t mean it can’t create beautiful ice sculptures.

The Arab Spring, the revolutionary wave rippling across North Africa and the Middle East has, from its outset in Tunisia, been driven by Islamic arguments about dignity for all and about how proper Muslim rulers should try to measure up to the “righteously guided Caliphs” and respect human rights as seen in Islam. Though many have forgotten this, the first actions of the Egyptian uprising were about solidarity with Egyptian Christians following the brutal Alexandria church bombing that rocked Egypt seconds into New Year’s Day, and, famously on January 6th (Coptic Christmas) groups of demonstrators formed lines of “human shields” for churches during Christmas mass. Amid reports of the Mubarak regime‘s consistent discrimination against Christians and indifference to violence against them, revolutionary demands quickly grew. The rationale behind the Arab Spring is that the brutal dictators in the Arab world have broken Islamic law and should be removed. This is a dimension of The Religion Century that is amazingly positive.

The assertion often made by scholars and social scientists that religion wanes as affluence in a society increases is false–you only really see that correlation in the Western world. In Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, China, and many others, they have built more and more spiritual interest, congregations, houses of worship and religious learning institutions as their exponential increase in standard of living and disposable income has allowed it. More income among religious populations has meant more mosques and temples built, more clergy trained, more religious texts produced. In China (most striking because the PRC has enforced atheism until recently) the newly affluent are funding an explosion of Christianity, Buddhism, even traditional Chinese Taoism. Check out this fascinating NYT story China’s Taoism Revival.

I know that I open myself up to potential ridicule by posting such unabashed pro-religion views.  But I see people across the world living in despair, and more disconnected from each other in daily life than ever before. Americans work more and more hours than any other people on earth, go home alone, veg out on fake corporate food and culture, rinse and repeat. In this rat race culture, devoid of much meaning and largely disconnected from religious traditions, spirituality couldn’t be more important, and religion is key as an organizing force that I hope will foster more human connection, community building, artistic expression (see Religious Art} and fulfillment to a bleak, materialistic world.  We need it now more than ever.


U.S. Expat Professor From Benghazi Talks To Jon Stewart (a pro-intervention viewpoint)

Everyone interested in understanding the current crisis in the Middle East should watch Jon Stewart’s conversation with Mansour O. El-Kikhia, a Benghazi-born professor who chairs the political science department at UT San Antonio. This is an important pro-intervention viewpoint to think about, though I differ in pivotal areas and OPPOSE American intervention in a third concurrent war in the Islamic world.

Dr. El-Kikhia tells Jon Stewart that he had to leave Libya in 1980 after yet another crackdown on Benghazi. He says he was trying to drive to work one day when the police choked off traffic, directing the traffic flow so that all incoming cars had to go past a series of hanging corpses–a message to the people of Benghazi about what will happen to dissidents.

The interview doesn’t have time for details, but one should note that Benghazi and its province Cyrenaica have long hated its rival in the west, Tripoli. I know at one point, Benghazi forced Qaddafi’s troops out and have built a 4-star hotel where the barracks was.

It became the capital city of Emirate of Cyrenaica (1949-1951) under Idris Senussi I. In 1951, Cyrenaica was merged with Tripolitania and Fezzan to form the independent Kingdom of Libya, of which both Benghazi and Tripoli were capital cities. Benghazi lost its capital status when the Free Officers under the leadership of Muammar Gaddafi staged a coup d’état in 1969, whereafter all government institutions were concentrated in Tripoli. Even though king Idris was forced into exile and the monarchy abolished, support for the Senussi dynasty remained strong in Cyrenaica.

Benghazi – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Dr. El-Kikhia said he was very supportive of the U.S. air strikes that saved Benghazi, including his family, from being killed by pro-Qaddafi forces. He made a point of saying “President Obama thank you!”

When Jon Stewart asked El-Kikhia the question that is on the lips of many of us, what do we do when not only civilians in Benghazi but also civilians in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain are under threat and we can’t bomb everywhere, he surprised me… answering that while Obama can’t bomb more, he has an opportunity to re-imagine the world order and address the root problem, the nation-state as run since the Westphalian system began in 1648; the old, severely outdated 1648 conception of the nation-state doesn’t make sense anymore given the communications and technology of the New Millennium.

My opinion: The nation-state hasn’t EVER made sense for the Middle East or Africa and has caused horrible violence. Libya will likely break into at least two, warring (possibly genociding each other) nations without some serious devolution of powers allowing the partisans on all sides of this old regional feud a divorce and autonomous states…like the UAE is a federation of separate, powerful emirates (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, etc.) BUT El-Kikhia never went into detail about this or what Obama can do specifically. I think Obama will miss the historic opportunity to insert new ideas about the nation-state into the process and won’t even be ready for Libyans to return to separate emirates of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, so paranoid is America about “disunion” since our own U.S. Civil War.

El-Kikhia said he’d hate to see a world run by America’s rival, China. He believes in U.S. global leadership, I suppose because Benghazi could have been wiped out without it.

Jon Stewart asked if the Libyan rebels will turn into the Taliban once armed by the U.S., and Dr. El-Kikhia reassured him that the resistance movement wants a democracy, and Libyans have never had a theocracy, that isn’t what anyone is advocating. He said the Libyan people are grateful to the United States, and celebrating with American flags. I don’t necessarily buy what he’s saying about the rebels unquestioningly, because you really can’t predict what the rebels could BECOME once the war is over.

At the end, El-Kikhia said that before Qaddafi’s tyrannical rule ruined everything, Tripoli was a wonderful city, with golf courses and sailing clubs in the warmest, most beautiful part of the Mediterranean Sea! I think it’s important to remember that the Islamic world doesn’t have to be all about brutal, repressive, fanatical fundamentalist hellholes. Libya’s beaches were a tourist destination, Beirut was the “Paris of the East,” Baghdad was a rising cultural center, with beautiful women in ’60s cocktail dresses sipping Courvoisier in open-air bistros along the Tigris, and Iran looked like this. The young people of the region want the lives in their parents’ old photographs, and if the U.S. would be smarter, it could really happen.

Religious Literacy and Understanding, For Our Own Sake

You can’t really form productive relationships with many every day folk in the U.S. (nor Mexico, South America and Africa) if you’re completely ignorant of Christianity, and, increasingly, its more charismatic groups, which are seeing explosive growth. Unless you can *get* where people are “coming from,” you won’t understand them, and the spiritual is a huge part of that. The spiritual will always become more a focus when material things fail, and they are failing on a massive scale unseen since the ’30s.

As the U.S. falls, others prosper. You can’t understand what is going on in China right now (their return to their once-familiar role as #1 global superpower) if you have no clue what Confucianism is, and the role it is playing in Chinese policy and politics.

You can’t understand how cultures across the globe are responding to the rapid changes happening, a revolution in technology and society and the economy unprecedented since the Industrial Revolution, without religious literacy.

The Islamic world and the dizzying variety of cultures within it (peoples from North Africa to the Arabian peninsula to the Indian subcontinent to China and Indonesia, each very different from the rest) are in transition too, and you can’t hope to understand what is emerging without educating yourself about Islam, its beauty and its diversity and its role in people’s lives.

a rudimentary map of the countries with significant Muslim populations
a rudimentary map of the countries with significant Muslim populations. This is what I mean by "the Islamic world."
photo by Saif Dahlah/AFP via Getty Images
PHOTO CREDIT: Saif Dahlah/AFP via Getty Images. Click the picture to go to the source, the NYT Lens blog's Pictures of the Day, August 20, 2010

Can anyone look at this photo of this Muslim girl praying to the ONE GOD, and not grasp in some way how beautiful Islam can be? There is no reason to think this girl is part of radicalism or terrorism. Only those who have closed their minds, part of the “Angry White Male” anti-tolerance, fearful, anti-intellectual fervor that’s re-emerging in force in America, would post negative comments about this beautiful photo. During times of economic anxiety, rejection of the foreign and retreat to the familiar is easy, and it spreads.

When I see deep religious ignorance, like foaming opposition to an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan because so many people can’t distinguish between the peaceful Sufis behind the Park51 project and the radical Wahabbis who support terrorism, I know we need to refocus on religious literacy and understanding.
We’ve got right-wing protesters waving signs based on fear and ignorance about Islam and rich liberals who are just as clueless about Islam as they are about Christianity; the woman that cleans their house more likely to know what Pentecostalism is than her “educated” bosses. And then there are countless hipsters and hippies with their “all religions are the same, different paths up the same mountain” crap, which ignores very meaningful differences and conflicts, and makes real religious literacy harder. All this should change.

Learn! Sufis are known for the whirling dervishes, not terror. To my knowledge, there’s never been a Sufi terrorist! It’s the splinter groups, usually radical elements of the Wahhabbi sect that want war with the West.

Wahhabism is the ultra-conservative revivalist brand of Islam that sprung up in the 18th century, rejecting traditional Sunni scholars and interpretation in favor of a new, extreme, purist form of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism brings us radical interpretations of Jihad, a focus on destruction of infidels, everybody but them seen as infidels, etc., ideas which were not widespread within Islam prior to Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab starting the Wahabbi movement, which has provided the foundation for radicalism (though it’s important to note that radical interpretations can be–and are–challenged on a textual basis, even within the movement). The radical splinter side of Wahhabism is the ideology of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, the Taliban, Hamas. Regular Wahabbism is the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia (in fact, Wahabbism is inseparable from Saudi history, from the first Saudi state (which came into being because of an alliance with al-Wahhab) onward… Note: today, most in this movement prefer the term Salafi/Salafism. The spread of radical Wahabbism hijacking Islam, a great and beautiful Abrahamic faith (some parts of the Koran are downright pacifist!), and how oil wealth has funded radical madrassahs that have caused problems from Yemen to Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent, is a really serious problem and should not be minimized.

But, my point is, media so often paints ALL Islam as crazed Wahhabi radicals likes al-Qaida, when, in reality, Islam reflects the incredible diversity of 1.5 BILLION people (read here about the many divisions in Islam). Americans can understand the nuanced and many differences within Christianity: Protestants and Catholics, Mormons and Baptists and Episcopalians, but most of us don’t understand the difference between Sunni Wahabbis and Sufis, or between Sunni Wahabbis and Shias.
Historians can easily argue that Wahhabism formed as a simpler, puritan alternative to the heavily mystical Sufism. Wahabbism is a fundamentalist response, like the “Restorationists” that sprung up from the “Second Great Awakening” in U.S. Christianity. Wahabbism is certainly (in style and content) in stark contrast to Sufism. A Wahabbi would look at the Sufi tradition of whirling dervishes and see pointlessness at best and heretical “innovation” at worst, because whirling like that isn’t in the Koran. Wahhabism rejects traditional scholars and leaders and hierarchy (akin to “the priesthood of all believers” in Protestant thought) because that may lead to “innovations” incongruous with their ultra-purist beliefs.
In diametric opposition, Shia Islam tends to emphasize scholarship, a hierarchy of Mullahs with a Grand Ayatollah (roughly analogous to the Pope) at the top, veneration of Saints, going to shrines, etc. Shia Islam is so different than Sunni, like Puritans vs. Catholics, it’s easy to understand why they’ve been in conflict for so many centuries. And Sufi mysticism is so different, you can see why Sufis are a persecuted minority in both the Sunni and Shia worlds (here is a spot-on op-ed about the precarious position of Sufis in today’s world: Muslims in the Middle). Islam isn’t a united force, and never was; it’s at war with itself in countless ways.
The diversity in Islam is real, and meaningful to understand anything going on in the world right now. But so often, media portrays Islam as one MONOLITHIC enemy. This is false, and pushes us to support stupid and disastrous decisions (like bombing and invading majority-Shia Iraq because we’re mad at al-Qaida, a Wahabbi Sunni splinter group).

Most worrying: the attitude I’m constantly hearing is ETERNAL WAR with all Islam, even super-peaceful Sufis. Too many blame ALL Islam for 9/11, somehow even Sufis are seen as connected to 9/11 even if they have been against Wahabbi interpretations of Islam since before America was founded; they can never escape! It really scares me when demagogues paint all 1.5 BILLION Muslims as enemies. Not only is that unjustified morally, it means more wars, it means we can forget our counterinsurgency strategy (which hinges on convincing Muslims we have no beef with their religion and winning hearts and minds), it means more hate; we’ll need to bring back the draft if we want war with over a billion people!

An economic and technological revolution is happening. The globalization train has left the station. Our success (hell, because of all our countless mistakes, OUR VERY SURVIVAL) as an independent nation-state will hinge on nation-building at home, which requires 1) unprecedented investment in infrastructure, education and R&D which requires 2) the absence of budget-crippling overseas conflicts which requires religious literacy and understanding and 3) welcoming the best and the brightest immigrants to our shores which requires religious literacy and understanding and 4) groundbreaking levels of diplomatic and economic cooperation with foreign powers, which requires religious literacy and understanding! 1-4 will determine whether America sinks or swims and each of these need a lack of cultural/religious animosity that keeps us divided and off-task, which, once again, requires religious literacy and understanding.

We have to have religious literacy and understanding to help us with the heavy lift ahead of us to rebuild our country. Religious literacy and understanding, FOR OUR OWN SAKE.

Every high school and college should be make mandatory reading Stephen Prothero‘s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t and
God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter
for a basic overview of the religions shaping our world. Or at least read some of the links in this post.

But, America needs more (much more) religious literacy and understanding. For our own sake.

How Will Gender Imbalance Affect China’s Future?

This topic occurred to me after reading Larry Kramer’s long rant in the Huffington Post claiming that because men outnumbered women 6 to 1 in the original Jamestown colony in 17th century America, that lots of gay sex had to be going on, and that historians are erasing gays from history out of homophobic bigotry.   I don’t dismiss the issue of whitewashing history; that IS a real problem.   But I think Kramer is angry, verging on hysteria at times, more activist than historian, and he is often reaching–asserting conclusions without enough evidence to back it up. And is his crass language really necessary?

My history professor friend Bridgett and I discussed this on her blog post about Kramer, “Same-sex sexuality in 17th century British North America,” and she explains that real historians can’t “out” people from the past as gay without definitive, absolute proof, or they’ll be filleted by critics, discredited and risk their careers.   Not a problem for Kramer, as he has no historian cred to risk.

To me, his biggest fallacy is that simply because no wives were available for many Jamestown colonists, they would “turn to each other.” It’s not something you can CHOOSE like that, and he of all people should know that. I could no more choose attraction to males amid a girl-shortage than Kramer could choose attraction to women.

Does anyone really believe that whenever there’s a scarcity of women in a society, large amounts of men will “turn to each other?” This made me turn my thoughts to China. Recently, a gay family member told me because of the lack of females in China and the fact that, mathematically, tens of millions of men will never be able to find women to marry (true) that millions will turn to gay sex. I don’t think that’s what will happen — it’s not A CHOICE!

Numerous articles about the gender imbalance in China (caused by abortions of potential girls and infanticide after birth) have been written. I recommend:

In this Washington Post op-ed, Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. Den Boer, the authors of “Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population,” wrote:

The old saying goes, “When you pick up one end of a stick, you also pick up the other.” When a society prefers sons to daughters to the extent found in parts of contemporary Asia, it not only will have fewer daughters, but it also will create a subclass of young men who are apt to have difficulty finding wives and beginning their own families. Because son preference has been a significant phenomenon in Asia for centuries, the Chinese actually have a term for such young men. They are called guang gun-er or “bare branches,” because they are branches of the family tree that will never bear fruit. The girls who should have grown up to be their wives were disposed of instead.

We have already seen in China the resurrection of evils such as the kidnapping and selling of women to provide brides for those who can pay the fee. Scarcity of women leads to a situation in which men with advantages — money, skills, education — will marry, but men without such advantages — poor, unskilled, illiterate — will not. A permanent subclass of bare branches from the lowest socioeconomic classes is created. In China and India, for example, by the year 2020 bare branches will make up 12 to 15 percent of the young adult male population.

Should the leaders of these nations be worried? The answer is yes. Throughout history, bare branches in East and South Asia have played a role in aggravating societal instability, violent crime and gang formation.

Though the existence of sizable numbers of bare branches is not a necessary condition for instability — the sex ratios of Rwanda in 1994 were normal, for example — it plays a significant role in the amplification of levels of instability and threat.

Consider the fact that in the mid-1800s, a predominantly bare-branch rebel group in the north of China called the Nien, in combination with rebel groups farther south, openly attacked imperial troops and forts, taking control of territory inhabited by 6 million Chinese citizens before it was quashed by the government years later.

More recently, Indian scholars have noted a very strong relationship between sex ratios and violent crime rates in Indian states, which persists even after controlling for a variety of other possible variables. And worldwide, more violent crime is committed by unmarried young adult men than by married young adult men.

According to sociologists, young adult men with no stake in society — of the lowest socioeconomic classes and with little chance of forming families of their own — are much more prone to attempt to improve their situation through violent and criminal behavior in a strategy of coalitional aggression with other bare branches.

Historically, governments facing a growing population of bare branches find themselves caught in a dilemma. They must decrease the threat to society posed by these young men but at the same time may find the cost of doing so is heavy. Increased authoritarianism in an effort to crack down on crime, gangs, smuggling and so forth can be one result.

At some point, governments consider how they can export their problem, either by encouraging emigration of young adult men or harnessing their energies in martial adventures abroad. There are very few good options for governments that find that their greatest threat emanates not from an external source but from an internal one.

Years ago I saw Hudson and Den Boer’s book discussed on CNN, and in that segment, they argued that the explosive growth of Islamic conquests

This map shows the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate.  In dark red, is territory conquered by Mohammed himself (from 622-632 he consolidated all of the Arabian Peninsula), in pink are the territories conquered in 632-661 by the Patriarchal Caliphate (all of the Levant, Egypt, present-day Libya, Iraq, Iran and present-day Georgia in the South Caucasus) and, in beige, the lands taken during the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750; much of Central Asia, including Samerkand, present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and all of the Maqreb of West Africa and Spain).
This map shows the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate. In dark red, is territory conquered by Mohammed himself (from 622-632 he consolidated all of the Arabian Peninsula), in pink are the territories conquered in 632-661 by the "Patriarchal Caliphate" (all of the Levant, Egypt, present-day Libya, Iraq, Iran and present-day Georgia in the South Caucasus) and, in beige, the lands taken during the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750; much of Central Asia, including Samerkand, present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and all of the Maqreb of West Africa and Spain).

…in the 7th and 8th centuries wasn’t just “to spread the faith by the sword,” but, because the prevalence of polygamy on the Arabian Peninsula made it impossible for large numbers of angry young fundamentalist males with swords to ever find wives. Large groups of them invaded Egypt, Persia, etc., where the population of widowed women had just grown considerably from the war. Hudson and Den Boer suggested a similar phenomenon may happen in China.

We are already seeing the consequences of gender imbalance in China that Hudson and Den Boer’s research predicts: increased sex trafficking, prostitution becoming more widespread and more lucrative. Will we see China invading neighboring countries as well?

What do you think? Please comment below.


A Worthy Cause: Helping LGBT Iraqis Who Are Being Chased Down And Executed

As I posted before, Iraq is now killing homosexuals at a startling rate, and since many can’t blend in, are forced into hiding.  And three safe houses have now closed for want of funding.

PaulCanning forwards an urgent request from IRAQI LGBT:

IRAQI LGBT started to establish a network of safe houses inside Iraq in March 2006.

As of today, we have only one safe house, we had to consider closing down three of them in the last couple of months, because we are unable to keep paying the rent and other expenses.

The members of our group inside Iraq urgently need funds to open at least five safe houses. These funds will allow us to keep the five safe houses running, and provide safety, shelter, food and many other needs for our LGBT friends inside Iraq. Any funds we receive that go beyond what we need for these five safe houses could be used to open more safe houses in the near future. We desperately need to add more because we have so many urgent cases in other cities. We receive requests for shelter every day, but we are not able to help yet.

Source: http://paulcanning.blogspot.com/2009/05/support-safe-houses-project-for-lgbt.html

In recent months, Iraq’s mullahs have directed a vicious purge of gay Iraqis. Evidently, the Sadrist movement (who have plenty of supporters within the current regime) and the Iraqi government reached an agreement, and if gays aren’t simply shot by militiamen, they are jailed, executed, or tortured to death by the authorities. Many have died via extrajudicial execution, while others were officially imprisoned and executed by hanging. Still others (about 200 in Baghdad) are on death row awaiting hanging.

Activists will protest for the human rights of LGBT Iraqis Sunday outside President Obama’s home in Chicago, and implore him to act.

This year in Chicago, the Gay Liberation Network (GLN) is organizing the city’s IDAHO event as a protest against the Obama administration’s continuing silence about rampant anti-gay violence in U.S.-occupied Iraq. The protest will take place at 2 PM, Sunday, May 17th outside of the Obamas’ Chicago residence at the corner of Hyde Park Boulevard (5100 S.) and Greenwood (1100 E.).

Over the past month, several news outlets have reported an escalating, officially sanctioned campaign to torture and execute gays in Iraq, promoted both by Shi’ite clerics and by the Shi’ite-dominated government which is closely allied with the United States.

As the New York Times reported April 7, “In the past two months, the bodies of as many as 25 boys and men suspected of being gay have turned up in the huge [Baghdad] Shiite enclave of Sadr City, the police and friends of the dead say. Most have been shot, some multiple times. Several have been found with the word ‘pervert’ in Arabic on notes attached to their bodies, the police said.” And as the Huffington Post reported May 3rd, “According to Iraqis and human rights workers interviewed for this post, some sort of understanding was reached between the Iraqi government and the Mahdi Army to ‘cleanse’ Iraq of homosexuals.”

Tortures committed reportedly include gluing the anuses of gay men shut, and then force-feeding them diarrhea-inducing medications which cause agonizing pain followed by death.

Back in 2005, the country’s leading Shi’ite cleric said that gays and lesbians should be “punished, in fact, killed” and that “the people should be killed in the worst, most severe way of killing.” After some protests this language was removed from the cleric’s website, and the anti-gay campaign appeared to subside.

However, over the past month, the campaign in Iraq to murder gays has ramped up again as “Sadr City’s Muslim clerics have reportedly urged the faithful to destroy homosexuality in Iraqi society and police have undertaken an effort to arrest and jail gay men,” said United Press International.

Source: LGBT asylum news: Chicago protest about anti-gay pogram in Iraq

Nick’s Crusade, strongly believing that disability rights activists shouldn’t be stuck in their traditional “silos,” but should be supporting the inalienable human rights of all people, endorses this protest Sunday. Obama should take heed, and, if he can’t pull strings in Baghdad, at the very least he could grant asylum in the U.S. to those who are now hiding in fear.

I don’t have any money (I know; I’m a charitable case myself) but if I did, helping LGBT Iraqis who’re running for their lives is a very worthy cause.    For more information, see the IRAQI LGBT blog.

Regardless of your opinions on the gay issue, if you have friends and family that are gay (I do) and wouldn’t want them killed, you should pay attention to the persecution of gays around the world, and raise awareness.


Arab League Embraces Sudan’s Genocidal Dictator

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is one the worst war criminals in recent history. His Janjaweed thugs have killed 300,000 people in Darfur, raped untold numbers, and caused over 2.5 million Darfuris to flee to perilous existences as refugees. Bashir makes Slobodan Milosovic (with an estimated 10,000 killed) look like small potatoes.

Most recently, in response to an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges, Bashir ejected all the aid workers from Sudan so that the remaining refugees are left without food or water and will die.

This weekend, the Arab League rewarded Bashir with the red carpet treatment at their summit in Qatar and a public hug and kiss session. They also drafted a resolution rejecting the ICC warrant for his arrest and continue to protect this wanted criminal.

Sudanese President Bashir Laughing It Up At The Arab League Summit
Sudanese President Bashir Laughing It Up At The Arab League Summit

Bashir Laughing It Up At The Arab League Summit

It’s unbelievable that a war criminal of this magnitude would be so embraced by his Arab neighbors, and allowed to happily jet outside his country unfettered. Ugh! Arab League, you have forever lost credibility in my eyes.


This Day In History, U.S. Overthrows Iran Gov’t

On this day, August 19, in 1953, the Americans and British overthrew the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. Mossadegh ended (BP) British Petroleum’s monopoly over Iranian oil, and *gasp* nationalized their oil fields so that Iranians would benefit from their own resources.

The Western powers, angry at being cut out of the oil money, and fearing the wave of anti-corporate sentiment would allow Iran to fall under Soviet influence, imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, plunging their people into poverty and the country into chaos. Then the UK and U.S. decided to stage a coup d’etat.

Operation Ajax, led by the CIA, deposed and imprisoned Prime Minister Mossadegh, and installed sympathetic general Fazlollah Zahedi in his place. Not only did BP retain a hold over Iran’s oil, but Shell oil and other corporations got a piece of the pie.

Imagine what could’ve happened if Mossadegh had succeeded? Democracy may have spread from Iran all over the Middle East.
We stopped democracy cold. We don’t want democracy in the region.

In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued an official U.S. apology to the Iranian people for the overthrow. “We deposed your democracy. Sorry about that.”

CIA documents about the coup were also released in 2000, and they contained the first use of the term “blowback.”
And man, was there major blowback from Operation Ajax. It created deep and lasting rage that led directly to the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and continues to be reflected in the body counts of U.S. troops in the various wars in the region since then.

Happy un-democracy anniversary, Iran!


“Are We Rome?” Part V: The Spoils of Ctesiphon

There were many wars between the Romans and the Iraqis / Persians, too many wars to adequately describe here, one time a Roman general even defected to the Parthians and invaded Syria, but suffice it to say, neither side ever gained much territory long-term. The wars continued into the era of the Byzantines vs. the Caliphate, and, arguably, the continuation of this West / East clash is ongoing as we speak.

When the Roman Empire was at its furthest territorial extent, Emperor Trajan was able to make the greatest gains against Parthia in Roman history.

Statue of Trajan

Internal divisions plagued Parthia, and Trajan crushed the Parthian army, took the key cities of Babylon, Seleucia and captured their capital at Ctesiphon in 116 AD. He deposed the Parthian king, annexed Mesopotamia and made the territory into two new Roman provinces. According to Edward Gibbon, Trajan was the first (and last) Roman Emperor to sail in the Persian Gulf.

Trajan’s conquests were the closest the Romans would ever come to their dream of duplicating Alexander the Great’s empire; they would never advance this far east again.

But the Roman hold on Mesopotamia was tenuous and short-lived. The population was still loyal to Parthia, and had no interest in being Romanized.

The Jews, who for centuries the majority of whom lived in Babylonia (thanks to the many expulsions from Judea by enemies) rose up in full insurrection against Rome. Little is known about the Kitos War (Second Jewish Rebellion) and its causes, but I suspect that Rome looting Jews’ property to finance their wars against Parthia, the continued repression and attempts to impose idolatry on the Jews, the need for revenge for the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and general sympathy for the Parthians (Jews had usually been partial to the Persians, one of the only uses of the word messiah in the Tanakh refers to Cyrus the Great) contributed to the worldwide uprising of what some would call a “fifth column” of Jews against Rome.
Around 115-117 AD, Jews revolted from Libya to Cyprus to Babylon, and according to Roman sources, it was horribly violent;
Lukuas, a Jewish “king,” basically declared Jewhad (word made up for Jewish jihad) and led the community on a rampage through Egypt, razing temples of idolatry and bathhouses, destroying roads and massacring hundreds of thousands of Hellenes, genocide so extensive that Rome had to repopulate North Africa (though they probably exaggerate all this to demonize the Jews). Unlike the First Jewish Rebellion and the Third (Bar Kokhba’s Revolt) there is little direct evidence of the Second Jewish Revolt, aside from scant Roman accounts and a Latin inscription (below) referring to the city of Cyrene being rebuilt after the tumultu Iudaico, the Judaic tumult.

The Roman reaction to the revolt was just as violent and horrifying. Moorish general Lusius Quietus (the only black African to be Roman consul) led a campaign of rape and ethnic cleansing in Babylonia (and was rewarded with the governorship of Iudaea province) and rebellious Jews in N. Africa and Judea were executed en masse.

The Second Jewish Rebellion forced Trajan to divert legions to Judea, and this loosed his hold on Mesopotamia. The Jews were not yet fully crushed when Trajan died of edema August 9, 117 and Hadrian succeeded him as emperor. Hadrian gave up on controlling Iraq and stationed the Sixth Legion to permanently occupy Judea. They had lost the war to Parthia.

But it wasn’t the last time Rome would attack
Mesopotamia. Hardly. After Parthia reconquered Armenia, the Romans under Marcus Aurelius retaliated and annexed Northern Mesopotamia in 165 AD (they would’ve conquered even more but were crippled by a plague of measles). They held it for decades, but it was an enormous burden in manpower and money to keep such a resistant, unstable area secured.

Seeing an opening during the chaos of a new Roman civil war in 193 AD, the Parthians retook the region. But in 198, new Roman Emperor Septimius Severus counter-attacked and quickly reconquered it, and subjected the capital Ctesiphon to its worst looting yet, taking enough silver and gold back to Europe to postpone an economic crisis for decades. Without its treasury, Parthia was impoverished, went into rapid decline and faded into history, and by 226 AD had been replaced with a new Persian empire (the Sassanids) that retook Iraq and would prove far more formidable than their predecessors.

Despite Rome outliving the Parthian Empire, they remained deeply etched in the Roman memory, and were so respected and feared, Christians in the East later had a prophecy that emperor Nero would rise from the dead as the anti-Christ, and the zombie emperor would lead a horde of fearsome Parthian horsemen to sack Rome.

Ruins of Ctesiphon Palace

Emperor Severus’ plunder of
Ctesiphon brings the motive of war into stark relief; it’s money. Plato warned the Greeks that “all wars are fought for the sake of getting money” and Cicero told Rome “endless money forms the sinews of war” (he was later beheaded for trying to stop tyranny) but we evidently don’t learn much from the words of wise men, or from history. Humans continue to put together vast empires in the hope of vast profits, even though large empires, whether it is Rome, Germany, Russia, Japan, Britain or the U.S., always require vast violence to maintain.

If we haven’t learned yet, how will we learn?


Next: The Final Chapter

“Are We Rome?” Part IV: The First Roman Invasions of Iraq

Did you know that for nearly 150 years off and on, the Roman Empire fought to conquer Mesopotamia?

At the time, the area that is now Iraq, Iran (Persia) and more was ruled by the Parthian Empire.

What was the Parthian Empire like, and how did they collide with mighty Rome?

The Parthians formed from the steppe tribes of Central Asia (for details on these tribes and their impressive contributions, you can listen to this mp3 of the Hardcore History podcast).

The Parthians rose and wrestled Persia back from Alexander the Great’s successors, and combined the martial prowess of the steppe tribes (they were unmatched horsemen) with the cultural, organizational and technological achievements inherited from the Persian empires of old. While the Parthian Empire was never as powerful, or expansive, as the Persian empires of Cyrus the Great and Darius that preceded them, or the Sassanids that followed them, they were nonetheless very formidable, and even their Roman enemies recognized they were not “barbarians,” but an advanced urban civilization to be respected and feared. Their capital was near modern Baghdad.

Coin showing King of Parthia Mithridates I

Rome even sent ambassadors and tried diplomacy with the Parthians when they weren’t attacking them. The first contact the Romans had with Parthia was around 96 BC, when they sent an envoy that negotiated the boundary between the two empires at the Euphrates. Plutarch reports that at the meeting, the Roman ambassador managed to arrogantly take the center seat at the table, and that the Parthian king quickly put his ambassador, Orobazus, to death for allowing such an affront to Parthian dignity.

The Romans did not view the Parthians, or anyone, as equals. Rome saw itself as the greatest nation ever, superior to any other empire in history, so they often viewed invading and annexing other peoples as helping them (i.e. “they will greet us as liberators!”) But, to be fair, they usually DID benefit the lands they conquered. It’s like in that Monty Python movie Life of Brian when the head of the “People’s Front of Judea” says:

Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Attendee: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, peace – shut up!
Reg: There is not one of us who would not gladly suffer death to rid this country of the Romans once and for all.
Dissenter: Uh, well, one.
Reg: Oh, yeah, yeah, there’s one. But otherwise, we’re solid.

On the other hand, for conquered peoples, the Roman experience (even in the best case scenario) included loss of autonomy, moderate to severe brutality and religious repression, and oppressive taxation (and what I’m talking about isn’t like taxes today, it’s more like “Roman legionaries show up unannounced and loot your $#!t.”) Also, any resistance to Roman authority may be punished with you and your entire village being crucified, and full-scale revolts could end in mass deportation and genocide.

I don’t want to glorify either the Romans or Parthians, as both were incredibly brutal, and from an era where horrific violence was fairly commonplace and men slaughtered large numbers of other men up-close with swords. But we should still examine history closely and glean all the lessons we can from it.

The Parthian border was supposed to be at the Euphrates, with Armenia as sort of a buffer state between the two empires, but with Rome feeling,
as the Hellenic heirs of Alexander the Great, they were entitled to his Persian conquests, plus their lust for glory and loot, peace didn’t last long.

The first major expedition directly against Parthia happened during the First Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus).
Marcus Licinius Crassus was the rich consul and general who had brutally put down Spartacus’ slave revolt by crucifying all six thousand rebels and leaving them lining the road as an example. However, Pompey stole the credit and told the Senate it was his victory. This made Crassus furious, and he despised Pompey for the rest of his life. Crassus, who had made himself ruler of Syria, was not content with his incredible wealth; he had to one-up Pompey and gain more prestige and power for himself.

What was his plan? Invade Iraq.

Many members of the Senate tried to dissuade him from invading Iraq, but Caesar and Pompey stood firmly behind him and the Senate relented.

Plutarch gives us the low-down. Crassus gathered around 35,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry in Syria and crossed the Euphrates at attack Parthia. Did this work? Not so much. Despite being badly outnumbered, a Parthian force of 9,000 horse archers and 1,000 armored horsemen crushed the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae. The Parthians
were one of the only foes in ancient times able to destroy an entire Roman legion at the height of its power.

How did they do this?
They were the best horsemen in the world, and they hopelessly outmaneuvered the Roman infantry. If the Romans ever chased them, they shot backwards while retreating, the famous Parthian shot. Crassus made his men assume the protective testudo (turtle) formation to block the onslaught of arrows.

But the arrows were so strong, some pierced the Roman armor. And they never ran out of ammo; they had a caravan of arrow camels there so they could reload endlessly.
But Crassus insisted on “staying the course” and not breaking formation. Then (while still bombarding them with arrows) the armored cavalry (“
cataphracts“) charged, and butchered the infantry. The Romans were routed. Crassus’ son’s head was put on a pike and paraded by the Parthians. Then Crassus asked to parley with the Parthians, but when he reached their camp to discuss terms, they executed him, and kept his head as a souvenir.

The loss of Crassus was devastating. The First Triumvirate no longer existed. The delicate balance of power between the three men was shot. Without the Crassus buffer, Pompey and Caesar soon clashed, leading to civil war and Caesar crossing the Rubicon to declare himself dictator perpetuus. Crassus’ debacle in Mesopotamia was one of the final nails in the coffin of the Republic, and the birth pangs of the new Empire.

Here is a fun tidbit: the Romans lost their famous eagle flagpole standards in the battle, a grave defeat and evil omen, and it took roughly a half-century of diplomacy for them to get it back.

They finally secured it by offering a displaced Parthian king safe haven if he agreed to broker terms for the return of the standards. He did, and the Parthians exchanged the standards for a bunch of money and some concubines.
Here’s where the plot twist comes in. According to Josephus, one of the concubines traded for the eagle married the King of Parthia. She had the other heirs sent away as hostages to Rome, poisoned the King, and took the throne as Queen Musa, and ostensibly co-ruled with her son. That’s right: the only woman to ever rule Parthia was a Roman concubine! Ha!!!

Queen Musa

Josephus says she then married her son (ew!) and this was too much, so the Parthians deposed her.

Are we Rome? Not really. America is very different, more like the British interventions in Iraq which I discussed here.

But the Iraqis are even more different today. They are carved out into separate countries, divided, weakened, stripped of their former might. What struck me the most when researching Parthia is what proud, advanced civilizations Mesopotamians have crafted over the years. The centuries of imposing Western plans on them, the lack of freedom to decide their own borders or form larger, more powerful empires is the source of much of the animosity in the region. We should lift our jackboot from their throats and allow the Iraqis the actual freedom to create a new nation.

And we should really learn from history. Attacking the Mesopotamians never works. Ever. They are a people that have never tolerated foreign conquest for any length of time.

In the next edition: more invasions of Iraq, and the fall of Rome.

Hope you’re enjoying the series!