Eastern Europeans are much more reluctant to accept Muslim migrants than their
Western counterparts can be traced back to circumstances surrounding a pivotal
battle, that of Kosovo, which took place on June 15, 1389, exactly 630 years
ago today. It pitted Muslim invaders against Eastern European defenders,
or the ancestors of those many Eastern Europeans today who are resistant to
the jihad is as old as Islam, it has been championed by diverse peoples
throughout the centuries (Arabs in the Middle East, Moors (Berbers and
Africans) in Spain and Western Europe, etc.). Islam’s successful entry into
Eastern Europe was spearheaded by the Turks, specifically that tribe centered
in westernmost Anatolia (or Asia Minor) and thus nearest to Europe, the Ottoman
Turks, so-named after their founder Osman Bey. As he lay dying in
1323, his parting words to his son and successor, Orhan, were for him “to
propagate Islam by yours arms.”
son certainly did; the traveler Ibn Batutua, who once met Orhan in Bursa,
observed that, although the jihadi had captured some one hundred Byzantine
fortresses, “he had never stayed for a whole month in any one town,” because he
“fights with the infidels continually and keeps them under siege.” Christian
cities fell like dominos: Smyrna in 1329, Nicaea in 1331, and Nicomedia in
1337. By 1340, the whole of northwest Anatolia was under Turkic control.
By now and to quote a European contemporary, “the foes of the cross, and the
killers of the Christian people, that is, the Turks, [were] separated
from Constantinople by a channel of three or four miles.”
the Ottoman Turks, under Orhan’s son, Suleiman, managed to cross over the
Dardanelles and into the abandoned fortress town of Gallipoli, thereby
establishing their first foothold in Europe: “Where there were churches he
destroyed them or converted them to mosques,” writes an Ottoman chronicler:
“Where there were bells, Suleiman broke them up and cast them into fires. Thus,
in place of bells there were now muezzins.”
of all Christian “filth,” Gallipoli became, as a later Ottoman bey boasted,
“the Muslim throat that gulps down every Christian nation—that chokes and
destroys the Christians.” From this dilapidated but strategically situated
fortress town, the Ottomans launched a campaign of terror throughout the
countryside, always convinced they were doing God’s work. “They live by the
bow, the sword, and debauchery, finding pleasure in taking slaves, devoting
themselves to murder, pillage, spoil,” explained Gregory Palamas, an Orthodox
metropolitan who was taken captive in Gallipoli, adding, “and not only do they
commit these crimes, but even—what an aberration—they believe that God approves
Orhan’s death in 1360 and under his son Murad I—the first of his line to adopt
the title “Sultan”—the westward jihad into the Balkans began in earnest and was
unstoppable. By 1371 he had annexed portions of Bulgaria and Macedonia to his
sultanate, which now so engulfed Constantinople that “a citizen could leave the
empire simply by walking outside the city gates.”
then, when Prince Lazar of Serbia (b. 1330) defeated Murad’s invading forces in
1387, “there was wild rejoicing among the Slavs of the Balkans. Serbians,
Bosnians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Wallachians, and Hungarians from the frontier
provinces all rallied around Lazar as never before, in a determination to drive
the Turks out of Europe.”
responded to this effrontery on June 15, 1389, in Kosovo. There, a
Serbian-majority coalition augmented by Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian contingents—twelve
thousand men under the leadership of Lazar—fought thirty thousand Ottomans
under the leadership of the sultan himself. Despite the initial downpour of
Turkic arrows, the Serbian heavy cavalry plummeted through the Ottoman
frontlines and broke the left wing; the Ottoman right, under Murad’s elder son
Bayezid, reeled around and engulfed the Christians. The chaotic clash continued
night before battle, Murad had beseeched Allah “for the favour of dying for the
true faith, the martyr’s death.” Sometime near the end of
battle, his prayer was granted. According to tradition, Miloš Obilić, a Serbian
knight, offered to defect to the Ottomans on condition that, in view of his own
high rank, he be permitted to submit before the sultan himself. They brought
him before Murad and, after Milos knelt in false submission, he lunged at and
plunged a dagger deep into the Muslim warlord’s stomach (other sources say
“with two thrusts which came out at his back”). The sultan’s otherwise slow
guards responded by hacking the Serb to pieces. Drenched in and spluttering out
blood, Murad lived long enough to see his archenemy, the by now captured Lazar,
brought before him, tortured, and beheaded. A small conciliation, it may have
put a smile on the dying martyr’s face.
son Bayezid instantly took charge: “His first act as Sultan, over his father’s
dead body, was to order the death, by strangulation with a bowstring, of his
brother. This was Yaqub, his fellow-commander in the battle, who had won
distinction in the field and popularity with his troops.” Next Bayezid brought
the battle to a decisive end; he threw everything he had at the enemy, leading
to the slaughter of every last Christian—but even more of his own men in the
birds flocked to and feasted on the vast field of carrion that posterity
remembered Kosovo as the “Field of Blackbirds.” Though essentially a draw—or at
best a Pyrrhic victory for the Ottomans—the Serbs, with less men and resources
to start with in comparison to the ascendant Muslim empire, felt the sting
years following the battle of Kosovo, the Ottoman war machine became
unstoppable: the nations of the Balkans were conquered by the Muslims—after
withstanding a millennium of jihads, Constantinople itself permanently fell to Islam
in 1453—and they remained under Ottoman rule for centuries.
memory of Eastern Europeans’ not too distant experiences with and under Islam
should never be underestimated when considering why they are significantly more
wary of—if not downright hostile to—Islam and its migrants compared to their
Western, liberal counterparts.
“We don’t want to criticize France, Belgium, any other country, but we think all countries have a right to decide whether they want to have a large number of Muslims in their countries. If they want to live together with them, they can. We don’t want to and I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country. We do not like the consequences of having a large number of Muslim communities that we see in other countries, and I do not see any reason for anyone else to force us to create ways of living together in Hungary that we do not want to see…. I have to say that when it comes to living together with Muslim communities, we are the only ones who have experience because we had the possibility to go “through that experience for 150 years.”
And those years—1541 to 1699, when the Islamic Ottoman Empire occupied Hungary—are replete with the massacre, enslavement, and rape of Hungarians.
“Critique of Violence” (Zur Kritik der Gewalt) is notorious for its obscurity, which, at least partly, is due to the impossibility of translating several of the key terms used by Benjamin into English.
The immediate encapsulation of the task of a critique of violence conveyed in the German title and the first couple of sentences is entirely lost in the English translation. An etymological clarification is therefore important if we aspire to understand what a critique of violence consists of.
Critique (Kritik) should not primarily be understood as a negative evaluation or condemnation, but in the Kantian tradition of judgement, evaluation, and examination on the basis of means provided by the critique itself.
A more significant problem is however the translation of Gewalt—which in German carries the multiple meanings of (public) force, (legitimate) power, domination, authority and violence—with the English “violence” which carries few of these senses (particularly, institutional relations of power, force and domination or even non-physical or ‘symbolic’ violence).
That the task of a critique of violence is to be understood as expounding the relationship of violence (Gewalt) to law (Recht) and justice (Gerechtigkeit), is thus much less artificial and obscure.
Two further etymological clarifications are however necessary to fully understand the task of Zur Kritik der Gewalt. Recht, as the Latin Ius, carries the meaning of both rights and law (as in the general system of laws), which is juxtaposed to specific laws, Gesetz corresponding to the Latin Lex. Sittliche verhältnisse, translated to “moral relations,” presents a more significant problem in terms of translation.
In English it is not immediately clear why the sphere of law and justice can be understood as the sphere of moral relations. Morality carries the Kantian tradition of an abstract universal law (Moralität) in English, than the Hegelian tradition (Sittlichkeit). In Philosophie des Rechts, Sittlichkeit is the term used for the political framework of ethical life, that is, the family, civil society and the state.
Violence is thus to be critiqued on basis of its relations to law and rights within the framework of ethical life in the state (sittliche Verhältnisse). For a cause” Benjamin writes “becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, when it enters into moral relations.”
Benjamin is thus not interested in force or violence of nature (Naturgewalt); but the violence present within the framework of the society, and ultimately, the state.
The critique of violence can only be undertaken through the philosophy of the history of violence (or we might add, in a “deconstruction” of the philosophy of the history of violence), Benjamin argues. In his “deconstruction” of the relationship between violence, law and justice, Benjamin erects several pairs of opposition.
However, as Derrida pointed out, many of these deconstruct themselves. The first such pair of oppositions is natural law (Naturrechts) and positive law (positive Rechts), which even though they in general are understood as antithetical (natural law is concerned with the justice of ends, positive law is concerned with the justification of means) share a fundamental dogma, namely that a relationship of justification exists between means and ends.
For this reason, the two theories agree that violence as a means can be justified if it is in accordance with the law. Benjamin raises the following objections against this dogma: if the relation of justification between means and ends is presupposed, it is not possible to raise a critique of violence eo ipso but only applications of violence.
Hereby, the question of whetherviolence in principle can be a moral means even to a just end is made impossible to address. By insisting on critiquing violence in itself, Benjamin challenges the fundamental dogma of jurisprudence, namely, that justice can be attained if means and ends are balanced, that is, if justified means are used for just ends.
The question, thus, is how violence and law relate to one another? Benjamin argues that the intimate relationship of violence and law is twofold. Firstly, violence is the means by which law is instituted and preserved. Secondly, domination (violence under the name of power (Macht)) is the end of the law: “Law-making is power-making, assumption of power, and to that extent an immediate manifestation of violence.”
Benjamin distinguishes between lawmaking violence (rechtsetzend Gewalt) and law-preserving violence (rechtserhaltende Gewalt) on basis of whether the end towards which violence is used as a means is historically acknowledged, i.e., “sanctioned” or “unsanctioned” violence (named respectively “legal ends” and “natural ends”).
If violence as a means is directed towards natural ends—as in the case of interstate war where one or more states use violence to ignore historically acknowledged laws such as borders—the violence will be lawmaking. This violence strives towards a “peace ceremony” that will constitute a new historically acknowledged law; new historically acknowledged borders.
The establishment of borders after a war is a clear example of the institutionalisation of a relation of domination inherent in all lawmaking violence. In guise of equality before the law, the peace ceremony is a manifestation of violence in the name of power; “in a demonically ambiguous way,” Benjamin writes, the rights are “‘equal’ rights: for both parties to the treaty, it is the same line that may not be crossed.”
This demonically ambiguous equality of the law, Benjamin writes, is analogous to that which Anatole France satirically expressed when he said: “Rich and poor are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridges.”
In contrast hereto, if violence as a means directed towards legal ends—exemplified by compulsory general conscription where the state forces the citizens to risk their lives to protect the state—the violence will be law-preserving.
The distinction between lawmaking violence and law-preserving violence is however deconstructed in the body of the police and in capital punishment, whereby the “rotten” core of the law is revealed, namely, that law is a manifestation of violent domination for its own sake. In both capital punishment and police violence the distinction between lawmaking and law-preserving violence is suspended.
Capital punishment is not merely a punishment for a crime but the establishment of a new law; police violence, though law-preserving can for “security reasons” intervene where no legal situation exists whereby the police institute new laws through decrees. In capital punishment and police violence alike, the state reaffirms itself: law is an immediate manifestation of violence or force and the end of the law is the law itself.
This violence of the law—the oscillation between lawmaking and law-preserving violence visible in police violence—is explained by Benjamin with reference to the Greek myth of Niobe.
Niobe’s boastful arrogance towards Leto—she having fourteen children and Leto only two—challenges “fate,” (Schicksal). The never defined concept of “fate” seems to refer to a relation of power (Macht). What Niobe challenges is not the law, but the authority or the legitimate power of Leto. When Apollo and Artemis kill her sons and daughters, it is thus not a punishment but the establishment of a law (“neue Recht zu statuiren”).
Niobe is turned into a crying stone (a statue) which is a physical manifestation of the law (the statute) as the power of the gods instituting “a boundary stone on the frontier between men and gods.” For this reason, Benjamin writes, power (Macht) is “the principle of all mythic lawmaking.”
Having now expounded the relation between law and violence, the question of the relationship between law and justice can be raised. Benjamin is not only speaking in metaphors when he writes: “Justice is the principle of all divine end-making, power the principle of all mythic lawmaking.”
Justice is an end which in principle cannot be reached within the realm of law: justice belongs to the realm of religion and it is not something we can obtain deliberately through law or reason: “For it is never reason that decides on the justification of means and the justness of ends: fate-imposed violence decides on the former, and God on the latter.”
Benjamin is however fundamentally interested in justice; Zur Kritik der Gewalt is the closest we get to a Benjaminian “theory of justice”. The impossibility of justice within the immediate manifestation of violence/force in the mythic “power-making” of law makes the destruction of law in principle “obligatory.”
The political general strike that merely aims at a coup d’état is therefore insufficient; the “force of law” can only be overcome if law in principle, and hereby state power as such, is destroyed. What is called for is therefore a proletarian general strike that aims at the destruction of all state power.
A paradoxical perspective in Benjamin’s text is that even though justice is transcendent (it is God who decides upon the justness of ends) it does not mean that human actions cannot be an expression of divine justice. The problem, as Derrida saw, is that we can never know whether actions have been a manifestation of divine violence.
Justice is possible (but not knowable)through an act of divine violence, which in all respects stands in complete opposition to the mythic violence of law: “If mythic violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythic violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood.”
Divine violence is exemplified by God’s judgement on the company of Korah, who without warning or threat and without bloodshed is annihilated by God: the earth opens beneath them, swallows them, and closes again without leaving any mark.
In contrast to mythic violence, divine violence does not aspire to institute as law a relation of domination: divine violence accepts sacrifice. This is not sacrifice for its own sake like the murder of Niobe’s children, but “for the sake of the living” (the company of Korah is annihilated not for the sake of God but for the sake of those who are spared). “In annihilating” Benjamin writes, divine violence “also expiates” (entsühnend); it is however not the “guilt” (Schuld) that is atoned for by the divine violence; divine violence purifies the guilty, not of their guilt but of the law.
How can we understand the purification of the guilty of the law by divine violence? What is “pure” (rein) about divine violence (die göttliche reine Gewalt)? The German rein as the English pure carries the double meaning of something clean, and something absolute and unalloyed.
Firstly, divine violence is pure (meaning clean) because it has not been bastardized with law; it is pure as before the fall of man; it is pure from the guilt of the law (the guilt Niobe feels for the death of her children). Secondly, divine violence is “pure” (meaning absolute or unalloyed) because of the way it relates as a means towards an end.
Where mythic legal violence does not differentiate between mediate violence (violence as a means towards and end) and immediate violence (a manifestation of anger, or a relation of domination), divine violence is “pure” and immediate because it puts forward independent criteria for means and ends.
Where mythic violence conflates means and ends, divine violence separates means and ends. As Benjamin argues, just ends can only be decided by God, and no law can be given for justified means; what we have is only a guideline (Richtschnur).
The sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is an example of such a guideline. Benjamin’s use of the word Richtschnur is very telling in this context: “Thou shalt not kill” is exactly not a law (Recht) but a guideline (Richt-schnur). A Richtschnur (which in German also is known as a Maurerschnur) is a mason’s line: a string (schnur) which is used to measure or correct (richten) out a plane for a building by the masons or bricklayers.
A Richtschnur is an approximation used practically to build a house. To build a good house the masons, in general, would have to follow this Richschnur but sometimes, because of a broken ground, a good house could only be built if the Richtschnur is ignored.
By substituting law (Recht) with the almost homophone Richt, Benjamin establishes the fundamental difference between mythic power (mytische Gewalt) and divine power (göttliche Gewalt). The commandment is not law but a guideline which in general would have to be followed for human beings to live a good life, as the masons in general have to follow it to build a good house. There might however be situations where it would have to be ignored.
Neither is the commandment law in the sense that a judgment of an act that ignores the guideline can be derived from the commandment: “No judgment of the deed can be derived from the commandment,” Benjamin argues “and so neither the divine judgement nor the grounds for this judgment can be known in advance.
Those who base a condemnation of all violent killing of one person by another are therefore mistaken.” This misunderstanding has to do with the general misunderstanding, argues Benjamin, that just ends can be the “ends of a possible law.” This misunderstanding is grounded in the belief that just ends are capable of “generalization,” that it, in other words, is possible a priori to discriminate between right and wrong.
This “contradicts the nature of justice,” Benjamin argues, “for ends that in one situation are just, universally acceptable, and valid are so in no other situation, no matter how similar the situations may be in other respects.” For this reason, no law can incapsulate justice.
The only thing we have is the “educative power” (erziehriches Gewalt) of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” which can educate us how to live a good life in the same way the masons can learn from their Richtschnur. The commandment “exists not as a criterion of judgement, but as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it.”
What are these exceptional circumstances? For Benjamin, the decayed mythic violence of the law of the modern state seems to make up such exceptional circumstances: the destruction of all legal violence and the state becomes an “obligatory” task for the pure immediate violence; divine violence.
The proletarian general strike and the abolishment of state power which constitutes a break with the oscillation between lawmaking and law-preserving violence will lead to a foundation of a new historical epoch (neues geschichtliches Zeitalter).
Here, we see why Derrida summarizes Benjamin’s position as “messianico-marxist or archeo-eschatological” (Derrida, Force of Law). The Critique of Violence is Benjamin’s political demand for a revolution: “the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence,” Benjamin writes, “furnishes proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible, and shows by what means.”
Benjamin is “messianico-marxist” in that he argues that divine violence signals the coming of the Messiah in form of the revolutionary general strike which will bring a new historical epoch.
He is “archeo-escatological” in that he argues that the eschatology of the revolutionary general strike, manifested in the true war (wahrend Kriege) or the multitude’s Last Judgement on the criminal (Gottesgericht der Menge am Verbrecher).
The multitude’s judgment on the state, will “expiate” the crimes committed by the mythic violence of law and return us to the time before the decay (Verfall) of the law: “Once again all the eternal forms are open to pure divine violence, which myth bastardized with law.”
In Benjamin’s final condemnation of mythic violence, the Judaeo-Christian connotations become apparent: “Verwerflich aber is alle mythische Gewalt.” Verwerflich meaning unrighteous, something that has to be condemned, comes from the verb Verwerfen, to dismiss or to abolish, which again comes from the verb werfen meaning to throw: the law is thus as the Fall of man: an unrighteous and condemnable (Verwerflich) deed that has dismissed (verwerfen) the guilty from Paradise.
Divine violence, however, has the power to purify the guilty of the law. In this way, Benjamin calls for a revolution, which also carries the original astronomical meaning of the completion of a cycle: the revolution which constitutes a new historical era will return human kind to the time before divine power was bastardized with law; in a word “archeo-eschatology.”
Signe Larsen main interest lies within political theory and philosophy of law.
The photo shows Walter Benjamin’s passport photo, ca., 1928.
History is about expansion and contraction – of ideas, of economics, of ambitions, and of the pursuit of power. A crucial element in this pulsation of human action is war.
Recalling von Clausewitz’s famous observation provides a meaningful framework for discussion: “We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses…War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.”
Earlier, von Clausewitz defines war as, “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”
Raymond Ibrahim actively engages with von Clausewitz in his latest book, Sword and Scimitar, by examining war as the fulfillment of the will of Islam. He looks at eight critical battles which marked how two worlds (one Moslem, one Western and Christian) view each other, down to the present.
Indeed, the encounters between these worlds stretch back more than a millennium, which means that Islam is not something new that suddenly burst into Western consciousness on and after 9/11. Rather, Islamic terrorism is part-and-parcel of a very ancient struggle which has expanded or contracted, sometimes favoring the West and sometimes giving the upper hand to Islam.
War in this context is to be understood as jihad, through which Islam subdues all those that oppose the will of Allah and the example of Mohammad. Ibrahim therefore defines jihad as, “warfare to spread Islam,” and quoting Emile Tyan, he explains that jihad must continue “until the whole world is under the rule of Islam . . . Islam must completely be made over before the doctrine of jihad can be eliminated.”
Here, the famous ideological two-fold division of the world, into the “House of Islam” and the “House of Faithlessness,” takes on its proper meaning. Moslems inhabit a reality which can never accommodate the Other, for to accept infidelity (kufr) as a viable way to live out a human life is the denial of Allah, and thus cannot be permitted. This gives the lie, of course, to those that would promote multiculturalism.
This outright rejection of the Other (termed the dhimmi), as unacceptable because he is innately hostile to Allah, renders no other outcome than continual conflict, until the Other is no more – either he is Islamized or annihilated. Here, the concept of the jizya is often trundled out (which is protection-money that non-Moslems must pay in order to live as second-class inhabitants inside Islamic territory).
But such a levy does not mean acceptance or accommodation of the Other. It simply means that each non-Moslem life is a “possession” of Islam, which yields monetary recompense. The dhimmi must pay to live. Ibrahim quotes from a Moslem jurist: “their [infidels’] lives and their possessions are only protected by reason of payment of jizya.”
At its core, therefore, Islam is a political ideology, constructed to change society into the House of Islam, governed by the laws of Allah and the example of Mohammad (Shariah). Accordingly, more than any other faith system in the world, it is the expansion and contraction of war, which defines the character and purpose of Islam.
Violence is not an evil that must be neutralized by way of love (as is the Christian view), in order to win peace. Rather, bloodshed and fear are necessary, and on-going, tools to bring about the end-game of Islam, which is the subjugation of the world. In this way, the practice of Islam in the world is radically different to the practice of Christianity – love produces a certain type of civilization; fear and violence produces another.
A serious problem in the West right now is the lazy habit of assuming that all religions are exactly like Christianity and are therefore to be “handled” in the same way. This is yielding destructive results.
This further means that Islam has always sought war, in order to vanquish its enemies, since such destruction is a holy act, which will meet with much reward in heaven. Thus, a Moslem who engages in jihad is termed a ghazi, or one who raids the territory of the faithless (the kafirs), and slays the unbelieving – because they are Allah’s enemies.
Thus, each Moslem should strive to be a ghazi. Shedding the blood of non-Moslems is meritorious, and much pleasing to Allah. As one Islamic chronicler states: “The Ghazi is the sword of Allah; he is the protector and refuge of the believers. If he becomes a martyr in the way of Allah, do not believe that he has died—he lives in beatitude with Allah, he has eternal life.”
This means that without war Islam loses not only steam but its very purpose, for the world outside Islam is to be changed through violence and the fear that the threat of violence produces. In the East, Islam was, and is, in contention with paganism.
In the West, it fights Christianity (even though the West is now more pagan than Christian). As Ibrahim observes, “Muslim armies went to war against the West more often as religious rather than as national or ethnic forces, and their warring against the Westerners was so seen as mostly a monolithic struggle against Christendom rather than particular European states.”
Thus, Islam exists to wage war in the world. The winning of territory
is simply the consequence of this purpose. In the words of Mohammad, “I have
been made victorious with terror.”
This means that a negative view of Islam (both in the East and in the West) is a historically grounded response to the violence inherent in Islam. It is not simply “racism” or Islamophobia (both these terms become useless in the context of jihad, by virtue of which each terrorist is a ghazi).
How opposing the violence of jihad can possibly be racism or Islamophobia is never properly explained by those who deploy such terms, especially when the similar opposition brings out the same negative response to Islam among non-Moslems in the East.
Ibrahim raises such crucial issues, which makes his book that much nuanced,
for it is more than a richly textured presentation of military history. Although
each battle is comprehensively analyzed and detailed, with much insight into
the “construction” of terror by Islamic warriors, Ibrahim also uses the subject
of war to lay out a social critique (of both Islam and the West), because war
also builds an outlook, a point of view, a mindset.
It is a given that Islam as a religion enjoys sociopolitical protection
by the Western elite. In this regard, Ibrahim raises a very fundamental point –
Islam has never changed; it is still engaged in subduing the world for Allah, by
following the example of Mohammad. The West, however, has changed, and in the
process has entirely abandoned its own history. This has put the West in a
position of weakness, in that it has gotten into the habit of appeasing the
violence of Islam.
The Islamic mindset is the same as it was over a millennium ago. The
best defense that the West can now muster is multiculturalism, borderless
post-nations, relentless hedonism, and appeasement. This puts the West in a
perpetual posture of weakness, for it can no longer thwart Islam’s will.
In this regard, Ibrahim ends his book
with a dire warning: “…if Islam is terrorizing the West today, that is not
because it can, but because the West allows it to.”
A little earlier, the words of Alan G.
Jamieson are highlighted: “At a time when the military superiority of the
West—meaning chiefly the USA—over the Muslim world has never been greater.
Western countries feel insecure in the face of the activities of Islamic terrorists…In
all the long centuries of Christian-Muslim conflict, never has the military
imbalance between the two sides been greater, yet the dominant West can
apparently derive no comfort from that fact.”
This paradox is easily understood, of
course. Islam has not lost its will and still wants to impose it on the world.
The West, on the other hand, no longer has a will of its own and therefore no
longer understands what it is supposed to do in the world. The only thing it
can offer is endless self-indulgence and the pursuit of pleasure. All the
while, Islam pursues power. Who will win? Perhaps, Islam is the West’s wakeup
call. But the problem now is – what shall the West wake up to?
Raymond Ibrahim’s book should be required reading for all those interested in understanding the future of Islam in the world. It would appear that the West no longer wants a future.
The photo shows, “Bedouins Taking Aim,” by Adolf Schreyer, date unknown.
a few indisputable reasons that led to the decline of the socialist state – and
its subsequent fall.
dawn of the USSR, hopes of the imminent global rule of communism soared high
among leftists of the world. But in a few decades, it became clear that the
socialistic ideals of Lenin had failed. How did this come to happen?
“It is important to distinguish socialism from communism,” says Elena
Malysheva, dean at the Division of Archival Studies at the Institute for
History and Archives. “While socialism was the formal type of state
administration of the USSR, communism was the ruling ideology. The project of
the socialist state was initially utopian and populistic.”
Rudolf Pikhoia, Doctor of historical science and the former State Archivist
of Russia, argues in
his paper ‘Why did the Soviet Union dissolve?’ that the main characteristic of
the Soviet state was the unity of government organs and the Communist Party.
The Soviet Constitution of 1977 defined the Party as “the core of the political
system”. What did it mean in practice?
Lenin argued that the Soviet – the elected organs of local
self-administration – was a direct democracy, so there was no need for
parliament or the separation of powers (legislature, executive, and judiciary).
Everything would be cared for by the members of the Supreme Soviet of the
Soviet Union, which comprised of electees from local Soviets. But the elections
of the Soviets were a sham. All officials were appointed by the Communist Party
of the Soviet Union, and its Central Committee was what really governed the
state. All military men, civil servants, the police and the secret services
belonged to the Party. State security was ensured by an army of KGB agents – in
a recent interview, General Philipp Bobkov (1925 – 2019), former Deputy head of
the KGB (1983-1991), estimated that in every region, there were about 300-500
undercover KGB agents, with up to 1,500-2,000 in major regions.
In such conditions, the discordant and the rebellious were intimidated
with jails and labor camps. The horrible GULAG system had over half a
million in camps in 1933; since 1936, there were over a million convicts,
reaching numbers of 2,5 million by the beginning of the 1950s. The atrocities
of the system were obvious, especially for foreign onlookers.
“The Soviet project contained elements of what we now call ‘a social state’:
social mobility, civil society institutes, social support, free health
services, etc. But, because of the utopian nature of the project, this all
couldn’t be implemented in full,” says Elena Malysheva. “Non-separation of
powers, self-administration of the people – all this demands high social
responsibilities that Soviet society didn’t have.”
Indeed, Lenin and his comrades might have believed that all Party and Soviet
officials would be fair and honest and wouldn’t bribe, steal or abuse their
official status. Unfortunately, the reality was far from the truth. Even at the
beginning of the Soviet state, the Bolsheviks would use inhumane methods to
extract grain from peasant farmers who produced it. They met with strong civil
resistance, sometimes bursting into rebellions like the Tambov rebellion of
1920-1921, where over 50,000 peasants were interred and tens of thousands were
killed by the Red Army.
Meanwhile, people who didn’t fit in the ‘new world’, most of all, former
bourgeoisie and landlords, were also to be destroyed: “Merciless extermination
is necessary,” Lenin wrote. “On foreigners, don’t rush with expulsion. Maybe a
concentration camp is better,” he argued. It was obvious Lenin was trying to
build an idealistic state of social justice and equality, but with atrocious
Eventually, to crush the peasants’ resistance, the state declared the
nationalization of private property, and collectivization of land and means of
agricultural production. Now, the peasants’ land, cattle, and agricultural tools
belonged to kolkhozes – collective farms. Peasants were
almost deprived of money. They worked for “day of labor” and were paid with
natural products for the number of days worked. If historians talk about the
abolition of serfdom in 1861, it had a revival in 1932-1937, when peasants were
banned from leaving the kolkhoz they were assigned to.
The collective farming system led to a sharp decline in grain production.
Provision had to be bought abroad. Once one of the world’s leading exporters of
grain (as of 1913), Russia became one of its leading importers. Rudolf Pikhoia
presents the statistics that in 1973, the USSR imported 13.2% of the amount of
grain it was using, and in 1981 – already 41,4%.
And in 1987, only 24% of the country’s production was consumer goods: the
state had boosted its unprecedented militarization at the expense of its own
But where did the income come from? From 1970 to 1980, oil production in
Siberia increased 10 times (from 31 million tons to 312 million tons) while gas
production increased from 9,5 billion cubic meters to 156 billion cubic meters.
And this oil and gas were being exported to the West – the only lifeline for
the declining Soviet economy.
“The Party apparatus and the state apparatus had merged on all levels:
executive, administrative and communicative level,” Malysheva says. “In case of
any crisis in either one of them – the other one would go into decline, too.
So, when democracy started to develop in the late 1980s, the Party couldn’t
hold the power. Although the Communist ideology in itself had the capacity for
survival, the merging with the state apparatus doomed Communism.”
The Chernobyl catastrophe showed that the executive branch was rotten to the
core. After Mikhail Gorbachev started social and political reforms, the
unstable equilibrium of the Party and the State fell apart. After the
introduction of real elections, the peoples of the Soviet republics showed a
strong inclination for sovereignty and the opportunity to make their own
Meanwhile, the old Party apparatus mostly resigned: in 1986-1989, 90% of local Party officials in all republics resigned, and eventually, the Union fell apart. Unable to reform itself along with the demands of the era, the Soviet system proved to be unsustainable.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a ghostly theologian has found himself at the very edge of heaven, having taken a bus from hell. He is invited to remain, though doing so will require that he leave behind the imaginary world of the unreal (hell), and take on the difficult task of being truly what he was created to be.
The conversation has an interesting moment when he describes his latest project: thinking about what Jesus might have accomplished had he not died so tragically young. The proposition is comic, on its surface, a misunderstanding of Christ’s work so profound as to be silly – except that it’s not. “Fixing Jesus” is a very apt metaphor for the task that secularized Christianity has set for itself. And, that I might be clear, every Christian in the modern world is tempted, at some level, to secularize his faith. We all want to fix Jesus.
As much as Jesus is admired in our culture, even quoted on occasion, He remains a bothersome and uncooperative figure. He healed the sick, but seems to have left no lasting plan or program for their long-term care. I’ve even heard the question, “Why didn’t He heal everyone?” Indeed, there is a puzzlement that He still allows us to suffer disease, and is given credit for the deep injustice of sickness itself. Why do children get cancer and Nazis live to old age in the backwoods of Brazil?
Jesus clearly spoke of justice and care for the poor. But He established no guidelines for a just economy, nor did He challenge the economic systems of His time. Sometimes He seems to have avoided the topic on purpose.
Among the most useless pronouncements in our modern culture are the statements, “Jesus never said anything about…[fill in the blank].” This is always said by people for whom what Jesus actually said already carries no weight. “Jesus never said…” means that you may not say it either, except as an example of bigoted traditionalism.
The deep drive of modern secularism has been to tame Jesus, to make Him serve the purpose of the modern project in the construction of liberal democracy. That project requires that all creeds be held in private for the greater public good. Indeed, the modern project would suggest that all religions essentially say the same thing – that liberal democracy and its prosperous peace is the goal of human progress. Inasmuch as Jesus might have done something to contribute to that project, He is useful and good.
This is much more than a culture critique, for that which we can see in the culture has also been written deep within our hearts. It is a worldview we imbibe simply by being born in this time and in this place. That worldview generally sees the world as existing for its own sake (and our lives as existing for their own sake as well). Even when those things are married to some notion of a “greater good,” that good is generally about the world for its own sake. Those things that disrupt the public good are seen as troublesome (at the very least) and needing modification.
Of course, the public good is measured only by this world for its own sake, for its wealth and our general health. Happiness (that fleeting and ever-changing thing) is the common goal of us all.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Jesus is focused on some world beyond this one. He is decidedly here-and-now (Matt. 6:34). Indeed, secularism would not exist without Christianity having preceded it. For it is in the teaching of Christ that attention is drawn directly to that which is at hand rather than to life elsewhere. In Christ’s teaching, “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). What we see today as secularism is a heresy, a false reading and distortion of the Christian tradition. It is the world, in and of itself, as a substitute for the Kingdom of God. A world without depth or meaning apart from its own self.
Christ does not abolish the world (the one that we call “secular”). Instead, He reveals it to be what it is. This material world in which we dwell, to which we are inseparably united, is shown to be the gate of heaven, the bread of life, the medicine of immortality, and so on. For all of these things are not made known to us apart from, nor in spite of their material aspects. Fr. Alexander Schmemann said quite rightly that the sacraments do not seek to replace the material: it shows material to be what it is. In St. Basil’s epiclesis we pray, “And show this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord, and God, and Savior, Jesus Christ…” In the hands of Christ, all bread becomes what it is meant to be, that which alone can truly feed us.
The world does not exist in and of itself, nor is its value and meaning in and of itself. But neither does its true existence, value, and meaning exist somewhere else of which it is a non-participant or an empty shadow. The material world is the locus of the marriage of heaven and earth. In that sense, Christ draws attention to the created order in a manner without precedent. It is the de-coupling of that attention from Christ Himself and the deeper reality that underlies the created order that has given us our present delusion. It is as though all our attention were on human bodies – without souls. As such, we are the dead among the dead.
More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.
Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty-million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.
What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.
The world’s efforts to “fix” Jesus are invariably directed towards either removing Him from this world, or placing Him in the world as a manageable object. Just as the world turned St. Nicholas into Santa Claus (he’s so cuddly!), so Christ becomes a religious mascot of whatever worldly value we want to promote. Solzhenitsyn, in his famous Templeton Lecture, described this process of secularization in profound terms:
Secularism is the forgetting of God, or remembering Him in a manner that is truly less than God. This is the cause of all injustice. Indeed, it is the great injustice: that human beings forget their Creator and the purpose of their existence. When we forget God, everything is madness.
My newsfeed must be set for “shock.” Never does a day go by that there is not something outlandishly alarming featured as a story, somewhere, illustrating the insane march of modern culture. Much of me would like to think that the problem is in the newsfeed and not in the culture itself. However, on a basis that is frequent enough to be alarming in itself, I find something in my daily experience that confirms the insanity in my newsfeed. I can only conclude that the world is getting stranger by the day.
I recently saw a story that proclaimed God to be “queer,” as if that were news. The extremes of gender studies have been buzzing around religion departments long before the concepts were even hinted at in mainstream America. Of course, the most amusing part of such notions is that the very departments that now anoint God as the ultimate version of their ideology, are the same departments that would have been embarrassed to admit that there even was a God just a few decades before. Mainstream denominational Protestantism, in danger of losing all belief, has recently found something to believe in, and does so with all the fervor of a new convert.
The Unitarian Church down the street from my parish has a lighted message board for the passing traffic. Mounted atop an obligatory rainbow, it oozes slogans daily that invite people to come and experience the new God they have found.
The conversion of God to the new cultural beliefs is not terribly surprising. Modernity is an inherently religious project. It is highly “secular” only in a very refined meaning of the term. But, more than that, it believes in secularism. This is only one of many inner contradictions within the modern project. It is thoroughly committed to the creation of a better world, while holding to philosophies that would deny the ability to actually define “better.” It is this emptiness that I suspect has given rise to the new piety.
At the heart of modernity is the belief that we can dominate nature and shape the outcomes of history to our liking. It is the placing of the human “will” at the center of all things. It is important to understand that this fundamental orientation towards creation can play both sides of the street. In America, both liberal and conservative religion are captives to modernity as they are locked in a mutual struggle of their opposing wills.
“Democracy” is one of the sacraments of modernity. It is treated as a primary means of grace in history. Political action organizes the human “will” for projects of “goodness.” What constitutes the “good” varies with each ideology. Both sides fail to see that they are arguing in a mirror where all images are reversed. Both believe in power.
It is important to understand that if every goodness intended by God were to be lawfully imposed on the world by some form of authority, the world would not be a better place. It would only be as lawful as it is now. Christ did not die to create a more lawful world (one already existed). He came to raise the world from the dead. A more lawful corpse is still a corpse.
Modernity is itself the death throes of a civilization committed to rebellion and domination. It moves from one madness to another. It cures diseases and raises the dead only to watch the rise of greater diseases and new forms of death in a whack-a-mole game of tragic futility.
The Kingdom of God only exists in Christ, with Christ and through Christ. And, lest this be seen as yet another religious imposition from above, this same Christ is none other than the Logos within all creation, who reveals the truth of each thing and everything.
Life in union with Christ is also life in union with our true selves (and one another). It is life in union with every particle of the created universe. It is the life that gathers all things together in one, in Christ Jesus, into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
The French philosopher Voltaire said, “With great power comes great responsibility” (a phrase made famous these days in a Spiderman movie). We observe this in many obvious ways. We do not put a three-year old in charge of the family cooking – the heat of the stove is too much power at that age. We do not license ten-year-old’s to drive cars for the same reason.
The technology of the modern world represents the most wide-spread harnessing of power in human history. It is tragically met by a culture whose spiritual and moral maturity are at a low ebb.
Human wars were initially fought with primitive weapons of brute force. Their brutality was face-to-face and, as such, presented a spiritual and emotional challenge to every warrior and his society. “War is hell” (Sherman’s dictum) is an apt description, drawn from experience. Modern war often deals in abstractions. Rockets, bombs and drones allow massive killing at a distance. The Global War on Terror has seen a casualty ratio of nearly 100:1. Modernity is an efficient war machine. Those deaths happen at such a remove that the general population has no awareness of them at all.
Abortion is discussed as a moral abstraction. According to the World Health Organization, 40-50 million
abortions take place every year in the world. Two-percent of that
number are in the United States. Such numbers are beyond comprehension.
Moral maturity requires a constant feedback from the consequences of our actions. Modernity creates moral infantilism. Indeed, most Americans have never witnessed a death, and increasingly avoid its reality, even in funerals (now becoming “celebrations of life”). As such, we are morally incompetent to formulate opinions in matters of consequence (we are deeply shielded from too many consequences).
In the course of writing this post, a series of articles began appearing in the New York Times extolling abortion and vilifying its opponents. I was doing my best to ignore it as a noisy distraction. However, today, an article appeared, written by a woman abortionist relating her experiences during her recent pregnancy and birth of her child. She did not shy away from the contradictions and cognitive dissonance that would inevitably arise in those circumstances. However, she offered a summary that was chilling in the extreme:
“As a doctor, I can draw a distinction, a boundary, between a fetus and a baby. When I became a mother, I learned that there are no boundaries, really. The moment you become a mother, the moment another heartbeat flickers inside of you, all boundaries fall away. Nevertheless, as mothers, we must all make choices. And we must live with the choices that aren’t ours to make. We can try to compartmentalize. We can try to keep things tidy and acceptable. But in reality, everything is messy: the work of doctors, the work of mothers, and the love of each one of us for our children. And yet somebody has to do the work.“
There are no arguments that could possibly counter such a statement. This is the confession of a modern heart. Even when all of nature is shouting the truth, “somebody has to do the work.” Be still, my heart, I have work to do.
The article served as a reminder of the character of our world. The battle is in the human heart. There are no external solutions to the madness of modernity. Such madness has always been around. Sometimes it has coalesced around moral causes of which we would likely approve. That might be a still greater danger.
The Fathers urge us to “guard the heart.” When we pray, it is right not to pray “at” those with whom we disagree. It is better to stand, somehow, within them (recognizing that their sin is yours as well), and from that place offer prayers to God. This is the work somebody has to do.
There is ultimately only ever one choice – to choose God. Understanding and seeing that as the choice before you is the grace of salvation. Lord, have mercy.
Cole presents Muhammad as a contemporary Western statesman devoted to peace,
tolerance, multiculturalism, and gender equality, and sympathetic to Christian
Byzantium. To support this portrait of Muhammad—which the author admits
“differs significantly from the picture of the Prophet in most Muslim
commentary”—Cole rejects mainstream Islamic historiography, relying instead on
select Qur’anic verses, unsourced “folk memories,” plenty of academic
conjecturing, and heavy use of the verb “would.”
For example, on the war between Rome and Persia, he writes, “Muhammad would
have watched with horror”; on the Persian siege of Jerusalem in 614, “Muhammad
would have listened with horror to the reports of travelers”; or “Muhammad …
would have been acquainted with Roman law, culture, and languages”; and
“Muhammad would have sent envoys seeking good relations with the new imperial
Why the subjunctive tone? Because there is zero textual evidence for these
statements. There is, however, plenty of contrary evidence. For example, the
only record of relations between Muhammad and Byzantine emperor Heraclius found
within the Islamic tradition—the Prophet’s order that the emperor abandon
Christianity and submit to Islam or face war—is not mentioned. Instead, Cole writes,
“Muhammad had allied with Constantinople and went to his grave that way in 632”
even though no evidence of any such alliance exists.
Because Cole is at pains to present Muhammad within the Western tradition,
the best he admits to is that “Muhammad was occasionally forced into a
defensive campaign” and that the “Qur’an allows warfare only in self-defense.”
Long quotes from Roman statesmen, church fathers, and European philosophers,
asserting that defensive war is just, typically follow such assertions, as if
to say the violence Muhammad is often accused of was exclusively
defensive—which, after all, Western authorities permit. In Cole’s view, even
the “Arabic notion of jihad, or exertion for the sake of virtue, was paralleled
in Aristotle, Plotinus, and the New Testament.”
While Cole associates Islam with classical and early Christian notions of
war, he frequently presents Islamic principles as more humanitarian. Thus,
whereas St. Augustine’s rationale for war alluded to combatting vice, “the
Qur’an gives Lockean grounds for warfare.” Moreover, “Christian law helped
create the endogamous Christian ‘race’ or ‘nation,’ whereas the law of the
Qur’an creates a rainbow race of Abrahamians.” This is because the “Qur’an …
celebrates gender and ethnic diversity as an enrichment of human experience.”
No mention is made that the Qur’an permits husbands to beat their wives and own
sex slaves (4:34 and 4:3).
Mainstream Islamic historiography flatly contradicts Cole’s revisionism. It
maintains that most of Muhammad’s wars were not defensive but offensive while
coercing non-Muslims to embrace Islam often on pain of death was the norm. It
also maintains that Muhammad engaged in any number of atrocities that would
seem to contradict just-war sensibilities: assassinating elderly men and women
who mocked him or torturing a Jewish man with fire until he revealed his
tribe’s hidden treasure—and then having him decapitated and marrying his
Cole dismisses all such unflattering but widely accepted anecdotes. Despite
much documentation, he asserts that “the Qur’an does not mention anything about
a mass slaying of the [Jewish] men of Khaybar and rather suggests that deaths
occurred during a battle but that the Believers offered the enemy quarter and
took prisoners.” Similarly, Cole suggests that Muhammad’s well-known expulsion
of Jews is a later archetype based on “Christian expulsion of Jews in late
antiquity.” Muhammad’s biographers, Cole posits, must have projected this trope
back onto him since “the few details in the Qur’an do not support” it.
This is a radical departure from how Muslims ascertain Muhammad’s biography.
Because the Qur’an is notoriously ambiguous, unchronological, and mostly
poetic, from the start, Muslims needed to turn to other sources (chiefly
the sira and hadith) to piece together their
Even Cole’s exclusive reliance on the Qur’an does little to prove that
Muhammad’s wars were purely defensive. Mainstream Islamic exegesis maintains
that the Qur’an was revealed in three phases: 1) Muhammad’s earliest years in
Mecca when he was vulnerable and outnumbered during which he preached religious
tolerance (e.g., 2:256); 2) Muhammad’s transitional years when he began making
alliances outside of Mecca and preached self-defense (e.g., 22:39); and 3)
Muhammad’s last decade (622-32) when his forces became stronger than and
overwhelmed his Meccan rivals during which he preached going on the offensive
Cole regularly quotes Qur’anic verses from the first two phases while
ignoring or reconfiguring those from the third to conform to his thesis.
Consider his approach to 9:29, which reads: “Fight those who do not believe in
Allah or in the last day, and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His
Messenger have made unlawful, and who do not adopt the religion of truth from
those who were given the scripture until they give thejizyah [tribute]
willingly while they are humbled.”
Although Islamic exegesis always interprets “those who were given the
Scripture” as Jews and Christians, Cole tells readers that this verse is
actually talking about fighting pagan Arabs; the notion that it is referring to
Christians and Jews, he believes, is “frankly bizarre.” He fails to mention
that the very next verse, 9:30, makes perfectly clear that 9:29 is talking about
Jews and Christians, as it names them, before adding “may Allah destroy them!”
Cole later confesses in an obscure endnote on his claim that the verse is not referring to Christians and Jews, “I should warn readers that I am engaged in a radical act of reinterpretation here.” The vast majority of readers will be ignorant of this important caveat tucked away in the back.
Moreover, in the main text he writes: “In my reading, Qur’an 9:29 does not have anything to do with a poll tax on Jews and Christians [as Islamic exegesis has always understood it] but rather demands reparations from pagans guilty of launching aggressive wars.”
Here is the most Cole will admit to concerning the third phase of Muhammad’s life when, according to traditional Islamic history, the Prophet launched approximately nine raids per year in search of power, plunder, and slaves.
He writes, “In one of the great ironies of history, Muhammad, who had preached returning evil with good and praying for peace for one’s enemy, had violent conflict thrust upon him in the last third of his prophetic career. The Qur’an maintains that he waged even that struggle, however, in self-defense and in the interests, ultimately, of restoring tranquility, the late-antique definition of just war.”
Cole presents Muhammad’s conquest of and entry into Mecca “as more
resembling the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 march on Washington than
a military campaign”—somehow overlooking that King did not turn up with
ten-thousand armed men threatening the denizens of D.C. with a bloodbath if
they did not submit to his rule.
Cole also whitewashes the early Arab conquests (632-750), most of which
occurred over Christian territory. Although eyewitnesses and early chroniclers
all write of devastation and atrocities from Syria to Spain, Cole dismisses
them as “exaggerated” and “hyperbolic,” unjustly causing Islam to suffer from a
“black legend.” He suggests that if excesses were committed, these were
introduced by Christian converts to Islam, who “brought into the new religion
their own long-standing practices of religious violence.”
Cole’s book is a massive distortion meant for Western consumption and catering to Western sensibilities. To validate his thesis, which is the antithesis of what Muslims believe about their prophet, he either ignores or manipulates the entirety of Islamic historiography and Qur’anic exegesis.
I have always found structural engineering fascinating, though I’m a consumer of the results, not a producer like Roma Agrawal. No doubt the life of a structural engineer is number crunching, not glamour. But the result is something useful to mankind, and even sometimes beautiful, so it must be satisfying for an engineer to see what he creates. Both facets of the engineering life come through in Agrawal’s book, Built, an upbeat look at engineering through the lens of her career, though the book is marred by some ideologically driven fictions.
Agrawal is based in London, but grew up in India, and spent a few years in her childhood in New York. This has given her a breadth of vision that informs her book. Her claim to fame, if she makes one, is that she worked as part of the team that did the engineering for the Shard, a London landmark completed in 2012, which is still the tallest building in the United Kingdom. Builtweaves together engineering principles well explained to the layman, Agrawal’s personal experiences, and examples of implementation of engineering, all to create an interesting, readable package. You may like it more if your interests run to How It’s Made rather than Jane Austen, but you’d have to be pretty dull yourself to find it totally uninteresting.
We cover ancient times and modern times. We cover construction and collapse. We cover solutions for earthquake zones and for tall buildings in wind. We cover bricks and concrete, steel and glass. We cover force and torsion, underground and aboveground, bridges and tunnels.
The book offers a judicious combination of history and science, and comparing and contrasting along both axes. Scattered throughout are many very well-done drawings (apparently done by the author), along with some black-and-white photographs, which are unfortunately mostly terrible, since you can’t see the details that are being highlighted.
The piece I found most interesting was on the stabilization of the Cathedral
of the Assumption in Mexico City, built by the conquistadors on the site of a
leveled Aztec human sacrifice pyramid, using stones from the destroyed temple
of the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli (that’s awesome). Mexico City’s soil is
a soup, since much of it was formed by dumping dirt into the lake on which the
Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was built.
The Spanish were perfectly well aware of the engineering challenges, and cleverly built a raft foundation, with an overlaying raised foundation floor designed to sink. But it sank unevenly, so four hundred years later, one corner was eight feet higher than the other. Basically, this was like fixing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, on a far grander scale.
The solution was digging large cylindrical access shafts down through the foundation, thirty-two of them, and then digging at right angles 1,500 holes, removing the dirt in a pattern calculated to gradually lower the high points. The work was finished in 1998, but the system remains in place, covered up, so it can be reactivated if future problems (carefully monitored by lasers) show up.
To her credit, Agrawal does not spend any relevant time in the text trying to make political points about women in engineering. That’s not how the book is sold, however—the blurb in the book is full of cant about “underrepresented groups such as women” and Agrawal’s supposed “tireless efforts” on their behalf.
There are very good, indisputable, and insurmountable reasons both why there are few women in science and engineering, and why the top accomplishments in those fields are almost always those of men.
But aside from that, two sections of this book shows how falsehoods become embedded in the public consciousness, because they are useful lies to advance an ideological agenda, in this case a tale of supposed oppression of women (and implicit denial of the real reasons why there are few women in science and engineering).
This type of ideologically-driven falsehood spreads like an oil slick because nobody dares to contradict such untruths, knowing if they speak truth they will be attacked without mercy as sexist, racist, and so forth. As a result, more and more lies become embedded in the public mind as truth.
The most egregious example in recent years is the fantasy that Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, which you hear everywhere, even though it’s equivalent in truth to saying she was the first Egyptian pharaoh. But there are many, many, others, being piled up to the sky.
In Built, we can observe the creation of such a new myth from whole
cloth, and the extension of another. Marc Brunel and his son, the famous
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built the Thames Tunnel in the early nineteenth
century, a fantastic engineering marvel using many techniques created by the
father-son team. Agrawal describes their accomplishments in great detail.
But then we are treated to this parenthetical: “Sophia, [Marc] Brunel’s
elder daughter, was nicknamed ‘Brunel in petticoats’ by the industrialist Lord
Armstrong because Marc Brunel, unconventionally, taught his daughter about
engineering. When they were children, Sophia showed more aptitude than her
brother [Isambard] in all things mathematical and technical—and in
engineering—but it was her misfortune to be born at a time when women had no
such career possibilities. She is the great engineer we never had.”
Now, this sounded interesting, but also forced and reaching. No source was offered, so I went looking. Sophia appears to be totally obscure; she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia squib about her, much less a biography. (Her mother, also Sophia, gets considerably more mention).
No mention other than one noting her existence is made in the Wikipedia article about Marc Brunel, or the one of Isambard Brunel, and you can be certain that if it were commonly held that Sophia was a proto-feminist genius/martyr she would have a large section devoted to her in both articles, as well as her own article.
However, I did manage to find the phrase attributed to Lord Armstrong, “Brunel in petticoats.” It comes from a 1937 biography of the father and son, by Celia Noble, and is quoted in Angus Buchanan’s 2003 biography of Isambard, where the context is clear. Namely, that Sophia “understood her father’s and brother’s plans.” No mention is made of her aptitude, much less her superior aptitude, or her supposed education, in either book, and Buchanan is somewhat mystified about the claim, since Armstrong only knew Sophia when she was in middle age. Buchanan makes no other mention of Sophia in his lengthy book.
The logical next question is whether some other source fills in the gap. The
only relevant mention online of the phrase “Brunel in petticoats,” out of a
total of ten results in Google (including two to this book), is a pamphlet from
the Brunel Museum, which looks like an intern wrote it, and which attributes
the quote, without sourcing, to Lord North. Nothing is said about aptitude or
training. I could find no other mention of any such thing, or any mention of
the younger Sophia Brunel at all, anywhere, other than of her existence in the
context of her father and brother. I ordered two books on the Brunel family,
along with what could be found on Google Books, and found nothing inside any
What appears to have happened is that Agrawal heard an urban legend circulated among female engineers, told to each other to further the myth of persecuted talent, probably based on the Armstrong quote taken out of context, and on her own initiative embellished it with falsehoods that sounded good.
But I can assure you, that in ten years we will frequently, in the engineering context, hear as fact that Marc Brunel and Isambard Brunel were decent engineers, if toxically masculine, but the real hero was their oppressed daughter and sister, who would have been certain to spin straw into gold, if the patriarchy had not put its boot on her.
Probably new falsehoods will be added: I predict one will be that much of Isambard’s work was actually done by Sophia. Any academic or engineer who points out none of this is true will find his career immediately over. Thus, as in Communist societies, are lies woven into the fabric of reality.
Once might be an accident, but twice is a pattern. We can prove definitively
that Agrawal modifies the truth by examining her discussion of the Brooklyn Bridge.
She discusses the Bridge, built by Washington Roebling, at length. The giant
supporting towers were built using caissons, excavated reinforced holes, held
under high air pressure.
As a result, the men doing the work, including Roebling, got “caisson disease”—i.e., the bends. Since her husband was debilitated, Emily took over as the frontman, dealing with the press, politicians, and the investors, shielding her husband from having to have direct contact, and acting as his intermediary and, to a degree, project manager. Such a central role is not uncommon for strong women married to strong men, even when they are not debilitated; it is true that behind every great man is usually a great woman.
But Agrawal strongly implies, and clearly believes, that Emily replaced
Washington entirely. “With unwavering focus, she started to study complex
mathematics and material engineering, learning about steel strength, cable
analysis and construction; calculating catenary curves, and gaining a thorough
grasp of the technical aspects of the project.” She concludes that everyone
knew that Emily was really doing the engineering, from such evidence as
occasional addressing of letters to her instead of her husband.
We are meant to conclude this is another example of a woman whose true
contributions have been ignored; the bridge did not demonstrate the power of
man, as contemporaneous speeches said, but “the power of woman.” She “excelled
and triumphed” “even [though] she was not a qualified engineer.” In some,
accurate sources (not specified) “she is highlighted as the true force behind
the project. In other sources, there is absolutely no mention of her at all.”
Most of what Agrawal says about Emily Roebling is obviously cribbed from David McCullough, in his comprehensive 2012 edition of The Great Bridge (the only book on the topic listed in the bibliography, and all the other facts Agrawal adduces are taken directly from there). But McCullough directly contradicts Agrawal. It is evident, reading the source, that Agrawal deliberately distorted the truth.
What McCullough actually says is that while Emily Roebling necessarily acquired “a thorough grasp of the engineering involved,” as she needed in order to speak competently to her various audiences she expertly juggled, “She did not, however, secretly take over as engineer of the bridge, as some accounts suggest and as was the gossip at the time.”
“Some accounts,” of course, mean modern ideological distortions like Agrawal, which embellishes the truth nearly beyond recognition. Still, again, I am sure that any mention you hear of this topic in the future, or any future history of the bridge itself, will embed a fictional treatment of Emily Roebling, even more embellished, and thus will another folktale turn into historical fact.
Why should we care? Aren’t these tales just nice, feel-good stories that
make everyone happy? Don’t I need to prove I’m not a misogynist? (No, I don’t.)
We should care because it is a corruption of reality, and there is far too much
corruption of reality in the modern world. Sex differences, their immutability
and their very existence, are regularly denied as equivalent to believing in
the Little People, only with supposedly worse consequences.
A toxic blend of demands for emancipation from fictitious oppression, past and present, with the modern Left vision of all human relations as power relations, means that we are force fed lies, day and night.
The goal is not just the destruction of reality, but the inversion of the masculine and feminine, with women adopting masculine traits, and men becoming unnecessary, often buffoons, such that the feminine traits are lost entirely. (This pattern of propaganda is ubiquitous in modern movies, as Jonathan Pageau has shown, from the recent Star Wars movies to Incredibles 2).
Destroying those who would destroy human flourishing, that is, those pushing
these ideological lies (of which those about sex differences are only one
manifestation) begins with declaring that Reality Is, and shattering our
enemies is made possible by forging an axe from that Reality. Like Truth,
Reality will always out, but let’s help it along. Live not by lies, as
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said.
Aside from false history, we are treated by Agrawal to occasional carping
about how women are treated differently in her profession. Here more unreality
crops up. “I’ve heard stories from other women in the industry about how
they’ve been (illegally) asked in job interviews when they plan to get married
and have children.” Illegally, perhaps, but totally rationally. The reality is
that women, far more than men, choose to leave their careers, or not achieve
maximum competence in them, in order to have children.
They always have, and they always will. That’s a good thing, as it happens, and wholly natural given the biological differences between men and women. A society that deludes itself into thinking that men and women should both share equally in providing and caregiving is a society going nowhere but down. (Along these same lines, I increasingly think that some men, such as those with families, should be formally privileged over women by employers and society in certain jobs).
That doesn’t mean women shouldn’t work in some circumstances, but the
baseline assumption should be that men should be, whenever possible, the main
providers for a family, both because it is economically rational for companies,
and, far more importantly, probably critical to a decent society. But that is a
For example, in my former profession, law, you often hear whining that while
a majority of new associate hires are women, relatively few big firm partners
are, and this is necessarily attributed to some kind of discrimination, though
what that is nobody can seem to determine, or bothers to guess. In fact, it is
men who are massively discriminated against at law firms. Law firms are
slaveringly desperate to keep female lawyers, both because of their own
ideology and because of (illegal) demands placed on them by woke corporate
No law firm would ever criticize, much less discipline, or (horrors!) fire,
a woman for failings that would instantly get a male associate instantly
bounced. For the same reason, law firms offer many months of paid leave to
pregnant associates, hoping they will return when they have a child, sweetening
the pot by promising reduced work loads and no movement off the partner track
(that is, illegally discriminating against those who produce more, mostly men,
by shifting the competition in favor of women). In the majority, perhaps the
great majority, of cases, the woman takes the money, has the child, and says sayonara.
The exceptions are women who need the money, and a handful of women who
really like the job (which is rare—almost nobody, male or female, really likes
the job, so certainly the woman’s choice to leave is wholly rational). But that
professional firms should ignore these truths is asking them to stick their
head in the sand—again, with the denials of reality. We should not permit it.
Oh, none of this means you shouldn’t read this book. But forewarned is forearmed; don’t let the lies sink into your brain.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “La Danse” by Jean Dupas, a drawing from the 1920s.
The moral bankruptcy of Western powers was exposed – inadvertently –
with the recent publication of three separate news reports. Taken
together the reports out last week illustrate the rank hypocrisy of
Also, the way that the reports were prioritized or left disconnected
demonstrates how the Western mainstream media serves as a dutiful
propaganda service for state and corporate power.
First there was the Dutch-led inquiry into downing of the Malaysian
MH17 airliner, which put the finger of blame on Russia for the disaster
in 2014 when all 298 people onboard were killed.
That nearly five-year investigation has never provided any credible
proof of Russian culpability, yet the Dutch-led investigators known as
the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) continually level allegations that
Russia supplied an anti-aircraft missile to Ukrainian rebels who
purportedly blasted the Boeing 777 out of the sky.
Despite its evident failures of due process, nonetheless Western
governments and media have lent the JIT allegations (slanders) undue
credibility. The US, Britain and other NATO members last week called on
Russia to comply with the JIT “investigation”, smearing Moscow as guilty
of causing the MH17 deaths.
However, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad denounced the
report as “ridiculous hearsay” aimed at “scapegoating Russia”.
Tellingly, his comments were not widely reported in Western media.
For its part, Russia has vehemently rejected allegations of involvement in the MH17 disaster, as have pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. Russia’s repeated offers of contributing information to the probe have been rebuffed by the Dutch-led JIT.
By contrast, Russia’s own investigation has uncovered credible radar and forensic evidence that an anti-aircraft missile fired at the passenger jet actually came from military forces under the Kiev regime’s command. Russia’s evidence has been steadfastly ignored by Western media reports.
The credible suspect party – Kiev political and intelligence
authorities – have been allowed to participate in and frame the JIT
probe to inculpate Russia. The US, European Union and NATO back the
Neo-Nazi dominated regime in Kiev, financially and militarily, since it seized power in a violent coup d’état back in 2014. That should be the real focus of scandal in the MH17 story.
On the back of the MH17 imbroglio, as well as other slanders, Western
governments have continued to impose economic sanctions on Russia.
These sanctions have cost the Russian economy an estimated $50 billion.
On top of that, Western states and their media portray Russia and
President Putin as a rogue regime and pariah.
Now contrast the undue priority given to the above dubious JIT claims
with two other reports also out last week. One was on the horrific death toll
among civilians in Yemen inflicted by the Western-backed Saudi-led war
on that country. It is estimated that over 90,000 people have been
killed in violence over the past four years, with most of the civilian
victims caused by indiscriminate Saudi air strikes.
It is an indisputable fact that the US, Britain, France, Germany and
other NATO powers have been arming the Saudi regime with warplanes,
helicopters, missiles and logistics to carry out this slaughter of
Yemeni civilians. The Western states are complicit in war crimes.
President Trump continues to defy US lawmakers by ordering
multi-billion-dollar arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite the carnage.
The British government and wannabe prime minister Boris Johnson claims
that its weapons exports are not involved in killing Yemeni civilians,
in blatant denial of the facts.
A British court last week ruled
that UK weapons exports were in breach of its own supposed ethical
codes protecting civilian lives in conflicts. The British government is
set to appeal the court ruling and will likely ignore it anyway given
the systematic relationship of Britain arming Saudi Arabia – the UK’s
biggest weapons export market – year after year.
Western media last week, as usual, gave only minimal reporting on the
shocking human suffering in Yemen. The whole barbarity and Western
governments’ culpability is largely hushed-up and omitted by the media.
The third report
we refer to was on the conclusions of the United Nations’ Special
Rapporteur investigating the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.
His tortured body is believed to have been cut up and dumped by his
killers. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard made a damning assessment
that the Saudi state was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. And she
called on Western states to impose sanctions on the Saudi monarchy.
Despite mounting evidence of Saudi regime guilt in the journalist’s
murder and in the deaths of tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians,
Western governments have not imposed any sanctions against Riyadh.
Indeed, they continue to ply this regime with billions-of-dollars-worth
of killing machines.
Admittedly, Western media did give some coverage to the UN report on
the Khashoggi murder. But in proportion to the gravity of the crime, the
response of media as well as of Western governments is woefully
Western media do not put the last two mentioned reports in the
context of Western state relations with Saudi Arabia. The oversight is
for a good reason. Because to delve into the issues would expose
Meanwhile, the US and its NATO allies impose sanctions on Russia based on unsubstantiated allegations about MH17, Ukraine, Crimea, election meddling, the Skripal spy poisoning affair, among other fabrications.
Those sanctions – based on flimsy innuendo – are leading to ever-worsening relations with Russia and international tensions between nuclear powers. Western media do not expose the insanity, they foment it.
Such media are unwilling and incapable of pointing out this gross double standard. They propagate the double standard.
The moral bankruptcy of Western governments must be covered up by a servile media. Because the state, corporate power and media are all complicit. Truth, justice and democracy, which they pontificate about, have nothing to do with the functioning of Western capitalist power; they’re mere illusions to distract from systematic criminality. Last week was an object lesson for those willing to see it.
With apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, it’s June, when a young
man’s (or woman’s, or sexually indeterminate person’s) fancy lightly turns to
thoughts of nontraditional “love” of any variety expressed by the ever-growing LGBTTQQIAAP alphabet soup. In downtown Washington it’s impossible to swing a cat
without hitting a rainbow flag or a “Pride” enthusiast.
If anyone was under the impression that established religion was a thing of
the past in secular, postmodern societies, he, she, it, they, ze,
sie, hir, co, or ey are mistaken. There is in fact an official religion of
the “democratic” West, and LGBT++ etcetera is it.
“[I]t is a no-brainer that the institution of marriage should not exist. . . . Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we’re going to do with marriage when we get there, because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change, and that is a lie. The institution of marriage is going to change, and it should change, and again, I don’t think it should exist.”
This includes pressuring compliant governments of European countries recently emerged from communism to hold “Pride parades” that offend local sensibilities. (Mystifyingly, there is no effort to force such demonstrations on Riyadh, Islamabad, etc).
The message to traditional societies still grounded in Christian morality
but with elites committed to “a European course,” meaning membership in NATO and (perhaps someday…)
the European Union is that it’s a package deal. You don’t get to pick which
part of western “democracy, human rights and free markets” you want and which
you don’t. You can’t have transatlanticism without transgenderism.
So shut up, grit your teeth, and take it . . .
At this very moment Ground Zero for the West’s campaign to undermine the
traditional Christian concept of the family is Georgia, where
the usual suspects – foreign embassies and their controlled NGOs, working in
concert with George Soros’s Open Society groups – were determined to hold
Tbilisi’s first Pride parade this week. As reported by Orthodox
Christianity on June 17:
“Georgia is a deeply traditional country, with more than 80% of the
population belonging to the Orthodox Church, and the battle between
traditional, Orthodox values and more liberal, secularized values is being
prompted and aggravated not only by the nation’s LGBT community, but by the
great Western powers, Archpriest David Isakadze, and others, believes.
“It is clearly evident who is controlling the processes in Georgia,” Fr.
David said. “We truly want to be an independent country, not in word, but in
deed. The U.S. authorities, in the person of the ambassador [Elizabeth
Rood—O.C. (JGJ: Rood
is actually Chargé d’Affaires, a.i., not ambassador)] directly interfere in
our internal affairs. She wants to control the processes here and exacerbate
the situation, knocking people against one another,” Fr. ‘David explained,
noting that he and those of like mind are prepared to demand that the U.S.
withdraw its acting ambassador if she does not immediately appeal to the
participants in the LGBT event to disband.
“The Georgian Patriarchate issued a statement on Friday, calling on the authorities to
prevent the event, citing the divisions it causes in the traditional society
that largely stands against the sinful nature of the LGBT lifestyle. At the
same time, the Church declared that there must be no violence surrounding the
“Vasadze portrayed the LGBTQ movement as part of the “ugly heritage” of
the “liberal domination” that “befell upon the world” after the collapse of the
Soviet Union. Georgians had hoped to embrace western freedoms, he said, but
instead the country is being destroyed by poverty and liberal abortion laws and
he portrayed the push for LGBTQ equality as “the last nail in our coffin.” He
said “our fragile puppet state is under tremendous pressure from the likes of
George Soros” and the U.S. embassy.”
(If anything, Vasadze is being optimistic about his country’s demographic
health: ‘In 2015, the National Statistics Office of Georgia released the
results of the first census in more than a decade reflecting that the country’s
population as of 2014 reduced to 3.7 million from 5.4 million in 1989.
… “The United Nations has put Georgia on the list of ‘Dying Nations’ and ‘Dying
Languages’,” [National Statistics Office of Georgia head] Zviad Tomaradze
warned adding that according to the UN experts, in 2050 the Georgian population
would decrease by 28 percent, while among the ethnic Georgians the depopulation
will amount to 50 percent.”)
Uniting lawmakers from over a dozen countries, the IAO includes “parliamentarians throughout the world, Christian Orthodox in faith, with the aim of joining our common cultural aspect, that of religion, as the meeting point in the participation of structuring a contemporary complex reality.”
During the visit, the president of IAO’s General Assembly, Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov, sat in the Speaker’s chair in the Georgian parliamentary chamber. While no doubt impolitic given strained relations between Georgia and Russia (which had recently been incrementally improving ties following their short war in 2008) the move was “standard practice,” according to a statement from the IAO.
Spearheaded by the United National Movement, the party of disgraced former president and Western favorite Mikheil Saakashvili (who is in self-imposed exile, fleeing from his conviction on corruption charges), the attack mimicked violent actions of “peaceful protesters” in Kiev five years ago with the end of provoking forceful police resistance and numerous injuries, which duly occurred.
In short, in the context of two seemingly unrelated but in spirit closely linked events – the postponed Pride parade and the assault on the parliament – we may be seeing the beginning of a regime change operation like that in Ukraine in 2014 and in Georgia in 2003. Indeed, it was the latter that brought Saakashvili to power in the first place.
As things stand as of this writing, Georgia is simmering in a national
crisis with deep political, social, moral, and spiritual consequences for the
country’s future. Any small progress in improved relations with Russia has been scuttled. As
Gavrilov notes on the Duma website:
“Our common opinion is that now in Georgia there is an obvious attempt of
a coup d’état and the seizure of power by radical extremist forces, which are
guided in many respects from abroad and, as we think, are associated with Mr.
[Mikhail] Saakashvili,” said Sergei
Gavrilov at a press conference.
“The meeting of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy was the
ground for inciting anti-Russian hysteria and discrediting Georgia, as an
Orthodox country, to strike at Georgian Orthodoxy and the Georgian Orthodox
Church,” he added.
“He also admitted that Western secret services could be involved in these
As if to confirm Gavrilov’s suspicions of Western involvement, in a June 21 statement the US Embassy in Georgia placed
full blame on the police (regarding the parliament) and “anti-American rhetoric
from anti-LGBT groups” (regarding the Pride march):
“Following the violent escalation of last night’s demonstrations in
downtown Tbilisi, including use of tear gas and rubber bullets by police,
additional protest activity is expected to occur tonight and possibly
throughout the weekend. Public Pride Week events may also occur over the
weekend at undisclosed locations in Tbilisi. Based on violent, anti-American
rhetoric from anti-LGBT groups, the embassy has determined that there
is increased risk that Americans could be targeted. U.S. government personnel
have been directed not to participate in any demonstrations and to avoid any
areas where a large crowd is gathering.”
What are the odds that he will heed it – or even be informed of it by his advisers? After all, they wouldn’t want him to be accused of “colluding” with Moscow by standing up for Georgia’s Christian, pro-family people targeted by American officials who constitutionally are under the President’s authority.
James George Jatras is analyst, former U.S. diplomat and foreign policy adviser to the Senate GOP leadership. Courtesy Strategic Culture Foundation.
The photo shows, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” by Ivan Albright, painted in 1943.