(last updated: Oct 13, 2008)

History and Politics
A History of the Islamic World  (Fred James Hill and Nicholas Awde)
Why I am not a Muslim  (Ibn Warraq)
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet  (Karen Armstrong)
The Suicide of Reason  (Lee Harris)
Culture and Conflict in the Middle East  (Philip Carl Saltzman)
The New Concise History of the Crusades  (Thomas F. Madden)

Climate Change
Under a Green Sky  (Peter Ward)
Cool It - The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming  (Bjorn Lomborg)

Personal Essays
Truth and Reconcilliation? - The Residential School Scapegoat

History and Politics

A History of the Islamic World
Fred James Hill and Nicholas Awde

In this history of the Islamic world, Hill and Awde present a consise and well organized account of the rise and spread of Islam. In the best western tradition most of the relevant facts are presented. Unfortunately, a more recent western tradition is to uncritically praise other cultures and denigrate our own, and that is the theme of this book.

After a good introduction to the economic and religious situation of Arabia, the book examines the life of Mohammed. In the text we get a single sentance glossing over Mohammed's many wives near the end of his life, but in a sidebar titled "The Family of the Prophet" we are given details of his eleven wives and two concubines, including Aisha who was married at age six but "only later consummated when in 623/624 she came of age."  Doing the math, that would be at age ten. The information is there, but you have to dig a little to get the full picture.

In the account of Mohammed's exile from Mecca to Yathrib (now Medina) we learn that he was "invited to act as a mediator in the complex disputes that had arisen in the city amongst the Arabs and three Jewish tribes". Later we are told that "the discovery of a plot in support of the Meccans amongst the Jewish Qurayza tribe [not in Medina] led to a major Muslim assault on the Jews back in Medina." Placing the facts the book presents in chronological order, Mohammed was invited into Medina by his Arab supporters in 622, and by 627 two of the three Jewish tribes had been exiled and the third one was slaughtered. Of course, as a part of a long tradition, this is blamed on the Jews. Again, careful reading is required to understand the nature of what really happened.

Although the book is generally good for providing the relevant information, the account of Mohammed's conquest of Mecca in 630 talks about the low number of fatalities involved, but it leaves out any mention of the Treaty of Hudaybiyya signed less than two years earlier promising ten years of peace. Given that Mohammed's rule is held to be an ideal example of the Islamic state, this attitude of respect for peace treaties should be kept in mind.

After describing the rapid conquest of a large part of the world by the Arab armies, the book goes into loving detail about the cultural achievements under Islam, in contrast to the ignorance of Europe. But perhaps this is because the Christian and Persian territories conquered by the Arabs were already more advanced than Europe. While the Islamic conquest provided the stability and unity that permitted civilization to flourish, there is no discussion about whether Islam itself actually made much contribution, or was it accomplished by the conquered populations in spite of Islam. The two examples of great Islamic architecture are given as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque at Damascus. These may be fine buildings, but it should be noted that they were constructed in the centers of the Jewish and Christian religions (as Syria was at the time), and served as symbols of the Muslim subjegation of those religions.

A chapter is devoted to Al-Andalus, (aka Spain), where we learn of the achievements of cities such as Cordoba and Seville, again in contrast to the ignorance of Europe. Describing the loss of Spain to the Christians, we read "While church bells rang across Christian Europe, Muslims were left reeling in shock. The unthinkable had happened - eight centuries of unparalleded Islamic civilization in Spain had been brought to an end. It would leave a permanent sense of loss among the Muslims, one that is still keenly felt today." No such sympathy for Christians is expressed in the description of the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslims, which had an even longer history of cultural achievement. In the chapter on India, Islam is described as "blossoming" over the sub-continent. I doubt that the local Hindu population thought of it that way.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of European domination over the Islamic world. Naturally, the authors can find nothing good to say about these events. For example, we are told that "Colonial powers also established a tight grip over key sectors just as banking, communications, (railways, ports, roads), and valuable natural resources, such as oil, and it was European investors who reaped the greatest rewards." Maybe that was because it was the Europeans who created those sectors in the first place. In particular, the charging of interest is prohibitted under Sharia, so Muslim banking was not exactly flourishing before colonialization. This kind of statement reveals a preconceived belief about the evils of western imperialism, as opposed to an honest attempt to determine what the costs and benefits of the colonial period really were. The authors say "Of course, western law had not simply been imposed where previously there had been chaos - Muslim populations already had there own well established systems of law." But they do not ask if those systems were truly beneficial for the people (as opposed to the religious establishment), or instead were responsible for the undeveloped state of their society.

When describing the fate of Islam in 20th century Russia, the authors lament that "Sharia law was undermined", "The Soviets attacked traditions such as the wearing of veils and polygamy - all of which were banned", and add "The damage to religious life was immense." Of course, no mention is made of the benefit to Muslim women from these reforms. Religious ideology matters more than people to these authors. Later we are told that the six republics spawned from the Sovied Union have "proudly reclaimed their Muslim heritage" and are not as radical as the West had feared. Could that be because the Muslim religious establishment was (and still is) suppressed? Every moderate Muslim country must suppress Islam to some extent if it wishes to remain moderate. The best example is Turkey, which under Kemal Ataturk in 1922 "created a new political and legal system within a distinctly secular state. His reforms took the religious elements out of government and education, gave equal rights to women..." In other words, less Islam, more progress.

There is much to be learned about Islamic history from this book, but it should not be the only book you read to get a balanced understanding of this subject. For an account that looks at Muslim military conquest rather than cultural achievement there is Paul Fregosi's Jihad in the West. But for a more critical and evenhanded history I recommend Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. It is referenced often enough in this book, why not read the real thing?

Why I am Not a Muslim
Ibn Warraq, 1995

Ibn Warraq begins the book with the statement that Western scholars have totally failed in their duties as intellectuals. They have betrayed their calling by abandoning their critical faculties when it comes to Islam. Some have even abandoned any attempt to achieve objective truth.

He identifies two main reasons: a need to see another culture as superior to bolster criticism of one's own culture, or a need to defend a religion with common roots with one's own. He traces the history of apology for Islam, begining as a variant of the "noble savage" of the sixteenth century. Praise for Islam was contrasted with intolerance and dogma of Christianity in general, and the Roman Catholic church in particular. He points out those authors did not know Arabic, and had to rely on dubious secondary sources, as they did not understand Islam at all.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was a new generation of apologists for Islam who had a much better knowledge of the subect. These were devout Christians who realized that to be consistent they had to concede religious insight to Mohammed. Islam was a sister religion, it and Christianity stood or fell together, both threatened by the rise of secular ideas in the West.

He distinguishes three forms of Islam: Islam as the Prophet taught it, as contained in the Koran; Islam as developed by theologians through the traditions (Hadith), including Sharia (Islamic law); and Islam as actually practiced by Muslims in history. Islamic civilization often reached magnificent heights in spite of the first two forms of Islam, and not because of them. The creative achievements usually came from outside of Islam, and the leading thinkers were often not Muslims, and those that were were often critical or even hostile to many of the teachings of Islam.

There are three types of response to criticism of Islam from westerners:  "Those still left with a robust sense of right and wrong take a negative view.  The apologists such as Montgomery Watt remind one of Lord Acton's dictum "Every villain is followed by a sophist with a sponge."  Finally there are the moral relativists who argue we cannot judge the life of Mohammed by modern standards. Moral relativism is self-contradictory, because ultimately nothing can be said. In practice moral relativism is selectivly applied - Mohammed gets off while George Bush is condemned. 

In the chapter "The Origins of Islam" Warraq examines the Muslim claim that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. This chapter shows that "Islam is not an invention, but a concoction; there is nothing novel about it except the genius of Mohammed in mixing old ingredients into a new panacea for human ills and forcing it down by means of the sword." The main source for Islam is Judaism, and in its early days there was not much to distinguish them. All the major characters in the Jewish scriptures appear in the Koran. After the Jews failed to accept Mohammed as a prophet, Islam became more oriented towards Arabic culture. Islam also draws from Christianity, but it does not always get it right. The Virgin Mary is confused with Miriam, the sister of Moses, and the trinity is said to consist of God, Jesus and Mary. Parts of the Koran appear similar to Zoroastrianism, the much more ancient religion of the Persians But in particular, this supposedly pure monotheistic religion takes a lot of its content from the pagan Arabic religion that preceeded it. The most obvious is the pilgramage to Mecca, a "fragment of incomprehensible heathenism taken up undigested into Islam."

In "The Problem of Sources" he calls into question some of the basic historical beliefs about Islam. Muslim tradition has it that the Koran was compiled in the years after Mohammed's death, from "pieces of papyrus, flat stones, palm leaves, shoulder blades and ribs of animals, pieces of leather and wooden boards, as well as from the hearts of men." But this is called into question, as evidence is presented that the Koran did not assume its present form until centuries later. It is suggested that Islam did not become distinct from Judaism until after the conquest of Palestine, and that Mecca was not where it actually originated. The Hadith is a collection of sayings and doings attributed to Mohammed, but these were compiled during the centuries after his death, and evidence is given that many of them were contructed to defend a political point of view. But after raising all these questions, the rest of the book proceeds as if the history presented by Muslims is essentially accurate. After all, what matters more that what actually happened is what Muslims believe happened, as that is what their behavior is based apon.

The Koran is supposed to be the infallible word of God, sent to Mohammed in perfect, pure Arabic. In fact the Koran was not written down until after Mohammed's death, and there were many different versions. It took several hundred years for a standard version to appear. There is also evidence that some verses were dropped and others added. There are also many contradictory verses in the Koran. For example, drinking wine is prohibitted in 2.219 (written in the Medina period), but 16.67 (written before that in the Mecca period) approves of its use. Islam deals with this using the principle of abrogation, - the later verse abrogates the earlier one.

Muhammed's life can be divided into two periods, the Meccan period and the Medinan period. In Mecca, Muhammed could be seen a religiously motivated sincere seeker after truth. In Medina, Muhammed becomes motivated by power and worldly ambitions. When he arrived there, Medina was inhabited by several Jewish tribes, plus a number of Arab tribes. The tribes were divided into two conflicting clans, with some of the Jewish tribes allied to each side. Mohammed tried to unify the tribes under his leadership. To support himself, he sent out raiding parties to attack Meccan caravans. After several failures, he succeeded by attacking during the pagan holy month. This offended many in Medina, but as usual, he received a revelation (2.217) to justify this. He then consolidated his power by a series of assassinations of his opponents. Finally, he attacked the Jewish tribes one by one, and five years after he arrived in Medina all the Jews had been masacred or driven into exile.

6. The Totalitarian Nature of Islam

Criticism of the book here.


Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet
Karen Armstrong, 1992

According to the jacket cover, the intention of this book is to "strip away centuries of distortion and myth to present a balanced view of the man whose religion continues to dramatically affect the course of history." Her idea of "balance" is to unquestioningly assume that Muhammad was indeed directly instructed by God, and that every action he took was righteously guided. Beyond that, she often takes a critical view of some of the Islamic mythology. To her credit, she does not hide the more unpleasant events that occured during Muhammad's career, but she does go to enormous lengths to justify these actions.

Before the biography actually begins, the introduction and first chapter seek to convince us that the western view of Islam was distorted by the centuries of conflict with it.

"This hostility [to Islam] is understandable, because until the rise of the Soviet Union in our own century, no polity or ideology posed such a continuous challenge to the West as Islam. Islam had quickly overrun much of the Christian world of the Middle East as well as the great Church of North Africa, which had been of curcial importance to the Church of Rome... This fear made it impossible for Western Christians to be rational or objective about the Muslim faith."

She provides many examples of how European writers presented a simplistic and inaccurate picture of  Islam. The conclusion we are supposed to reach is that any modern criticism of Islam is rooted in that ignorance, and thus should be dismissed as irrational and biased. This is then followed by the usual Blame the West rhetoric.

"The problem has been compounded by the fact that, for the first time in Islamic history, Muslims have begun to cultivate a passionate hatred of the West. In part this is due to European and American behaviour in the Islamic world. It is a mistake to imagine that Islam is an inherently violdent or fanatical faith, as is sometimes suggested....Indeed, when Muslims first encountered the colonial West during the eighteenth century many were impressed by its modern civilisztion and tried to emulate it. But in recent years this initial enthusiasm has given way to bitter resentment."

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the West was aggressively attacking Islam, Muslims were most receptive to western values. It is only after colonialism ended, and the west began transferring large amounts of cash to Arab states in return for the oil that westerners found and produced, that the passionate hatred of the West was developed. Clearly this hatred is not inspired by Western strength or agression, but rather by the perceived weakness and vulnerability of the West.

This book was published not long after Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, and she responds to this work several times in her book. In the first chapter, Muhammad the Enemy, she says,

It has been difficult for Western people to understand the violent Muslim reaction to Salman Rushdie's fictional portrait of Muhammad in The Satanic Verses. It seemed incredible that a novel could inspire such murderous hatred, a reaction which was regarded as proof of the incurable intolerance of Islam. It was particularly disturbing for people in Britain to learn that the Muslim communities in their own cities lived according to different, apparently alien values and were ready to defend them to the death. But there were also uncomfortable reminders of the Western past in this tragic affair. When British people watched the Muslims of Bradford burning the novel, did they relate this to the bonfires of books that had blazed in Christian Europe over the centuries? In 1242, for example, King Louis IX of France, a canonised saint of the Roman Catholic Church, condemned the Jewish Talmud as a vicious attack on the person of Christ.

I am sure the British people would be equally horrified by those events in the thirteenth century if they were occuring now. They are, or should be, rightfully disturbed that the horrific values of that time are being re-imposed upon them. But this Muslim behavior is excused by the idea that they are confused and disoriented by western society. She devotes several pages to the actions of a group of Christian martyrs in Cordova, a part of Muslim Spain. As a newly conquered people they obviously had some resentment or their rulers. These people would publicly denounce Muhammad with the intention of getting themselves executed by the Muslim authorities. While they may have been as fanatical as some of today's Muslim jihadists (who, by the way, were not conquered but chose to live in the West), a key difference she fails to mention is that the Christians killed only themselves, they did not die trying to take as many civilians as possible with them.
If you believe that medieval Europe was a utopia of religious tolerance, then these chapters may help to dispel that notion. But comparing Christianity and Islam one thousand years ago serves only to distract us from the much less favorable comparison of those two cultures today.

Perhaps one advantage of the author's sympathy for Islam is insight into what motivates people to follow that religion. She notes that most western people are not impressed when they encounter the Qu'ran. This is partly a problem of translation.  She notes that,

The most beautiful lines of Shakespeare frequently sound banal in another language because little of the poetry can be conveyed in a foreign idiom; and Arabic is a language that is especially difficult to translate. If this is true of ordinary Arabic, it is double true of the Qu'ran which is written in highly complex, dense and allusive language. Even Arabs how speak English fluently have said that when they read the Qu'ran in an English translation, they feel that they are reading an entirely different book.

In addition, the Arabic in the Qu'ran is rather different than the language spoken by modern Arabs fourteen hundred years later. Think of how different the language of Chaucer is to modern English. And many Muslims are not native Arab speakers in the first place.

The idea here is that people are responding more to the form than the content. "
Muslims still find the Qu'ran profoundly moving. They say when they listen to it they feel envoloped in a divine dimension of sound."  Or, as she puts it a little more poetically,

The fragmentary, incoherent verses - especially of the earlier suras - demonstrate human language crushed under the weight of the divine Word: it also reveals an in-coherence in the individual. In order to discover the inner, symbolic meaning of the Qu'ran, the Muslim must integrate his or her life. Reading or listening to the Qu'ran is not a cerebral experience to get information or to receive a clear directive, but a spiritual discipline. Naturally a Western person will have a completely different experience. Not only is the beauty of the Arabic inaccessible in translation, but it demands an approach that is foreign to many of us. To confine oneself to a cerebral external reading without being nudged by the quality of the Arabic to look for the ineffable that lies beyond speech is likely to be a desolating experiance, particularly if the reading is undertaken in a hostile spirit for from a vantage point of imagined superiority.

In other words, if you look at the content of the Qu'ran objectviely, the incoherence is obvious, but the message of a religion of peace is not so evident. But the content, both of the Qu'ran itself and the life of Muhammad, definitely makes its way into the lives of the believers.

The third chapter is about the concept of
Jahiliyah, the state of ignorance in Arabia before the arrival of Islam. Arabia was a tribal society, with the tribes constantly in conflict. However, it was not anarchy, there were rules and customs that were followed to limit the intensity of the conflict. Armstrong describes the concept of Muruwah, meaning "courage in battle, patience and endurance in suffering, and a dedication to the chivalrous duties of avenging wrong done to the tribe, protecting its weaker members and defying the strong."

Mecca, where Muhammad was born, was a commercial settlement occupied by the tribe of Quraysh, centred around the Ka'aba, the holiest shrine in the Arabic pagan religion. The land within a 20 mile radius was considered sacred, where all violence and fighting was forbidden. The newly urbanised population, some of whom became much wealthier than others, led to divisions that the tribal ethic they inherited was not well suited to handle. This created a disaffected subgroup that was receptive to the message Muhammad was to preach.

A major theme of the book is how immoral pre-Muslim Arabia was, and how much better things were after Muhammad. But the historical facts that she herself presents do not alway support that idea. We have the chivalry and limited warfare of the
Muruwah described above, as well as the sacred ground around the Ka'aba where all fighting was forbidden. As well, much is made of the great improvement of the rights of women that Muhammed achieved, which might not seem impressive when compared to the 20th century West, but are contrasted with pre-Islamic times when women were supposedly nothing but property. As a women, you might think that Karen Armstrong would take more interest in Khadija, Muhammad's first wife. She was a rich, successful and well educated merchant who first hired Muhammed to lead a trading expedition to Syria for her before marrying him. This is not entirely consistent with women having no rights or status. Later, after Muhammad had conquered Mecca, we learn that Hind, the wife of the Meccan leader Abu Sufyan, "was beside herself with rage. Seizing Abu Sufyan by his moustaches, she cried to the people: 'Kill this fat greasy bladder full of lard! What a rotten protector of his people!'" No consequences of this action are reported, other than that her advice was not taken. Other than Muhammad's wives after his death, there are almost no examples of independant women in Islamic history.

By all accounts, Muhammad was sympathetic towards women. This goes beyond taking a large number of them as wives and concubines for his personal pleasure or for forging alliances through family ties. He apparently had a much more respectful attutude than many of his contemporaries, in particular the four men who became the next four Caliphs (rulers) after Muhammad. He outlawed practices such as leaving baby girls to die, and gave women limited rights of inheritance. Being worth half a man is better than being worth nothing at all. But Islam has not served women as well as perhaps Muhammad wanted it to. One reason could be that his message was watered down or modified by his successors. Another problem is that Muhammad is considered by Muslims to have led a perfect life, and his example and Qu'ranic teachings must be followed without question. But the Qu'ran is an evolving response to changing events, so statements pertaining to a particular situation have become universal commands. For example, Armstrong explains that the hijab, or veil, was introduced to protect the modesty of his wives in the crowded situation they found themselves in Medina. Veiling and secluding womon became common only a few generations after Muhammad.

The life of Muhammad consists of two distinct phases. During his time in Mecca he can be compared with Jesus. 
Muhammad preached to a mostly unreceptive population, and he was in a monogamous marriage with Khadija. However, after he migrated to Medina (the Hijra, in 622) his career is more comparable to that of Alexander the Great or Napoleon. He began by conducting raids (ghazu) againts Meccan caravans. One successful raid was conducted during the holy month when all fighting was prohibitted. The people of Medina were horrified, and Muhammad was forced to repudiate it. Here is one of many examples when Muhammad's ethics were less than those of the existing Arabic culture. Then a series of battles were fought against the Meccans and their allies (624-627), which eventually led to the Treaty of Hudaybiyah (628), where the Muslims were permitted access once a year to the Ka'aba in Mecca in return for a truce for ten years. But little more than a year later, some tribal skirmishes initiated by both sides gave Muhammad an excuse to break the treaty and conquer Mecca (630).

The apologetics go into high gear when describing the massacre of the Qurayzah, one of the Jewish tribes living in Medina, after a battle with the Meccans with whom they were accused of collaborating. Seven hundred men were tied together in groups and beheaded, and dumped in a trench dug in the market. Their wives and children were sold into slavery, and their property was divided among the Muslims.  "It is probably impossible for us to dissociate this story from Nazi atrocities..." we are told. Or from the present day Palestinian attitude toward Israel, I might add. But "it is not correct to judge the incident by twentieth-century standards. This was a very primitive society - far more primitive than the Jewish society in which Jesus had lived and promulgated his gospel of mercy and love some 600 years earlier."  But other parts of the book give many examples of the ethics of this pre-Muslim Arab society, such as the ban of fighting in the holy months, the sanctuary around the Ka'aba, the concept of limited vendetta rather than massacre. It appears that it was Muhammad who had the primitive ethics.

There are times when spin turns into outright falsification.  For example,

"The Qu'ran teaches that war is always abominable. Muslims must never open hositilities, for the only just war is a war of self-defense, but, once they have undertaken a war, Muslims must fight with absolute commitment in order to bring the fighting to an end as soon as possible. If the enemy proposes a truce or shows an inclination toward peace, Muslims are commanded by the Qu'ran to end hostilities immediately, provided the terms of peace are not immoral or dishonourable."

Two Qu'ranic verses are given as reference for these statements. The first is Sura 2:19

And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.

Clearly this only forbids starting fighing in only one place, the holy Mosque. Anywhere else, slay them wherever you find them. The second reference is Sura 8:61, which I will quote starting one verse earlier.

Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly. But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah: for He is One that heareth and knoweth all things.

Starting with Muhammad himself, the Muslims initiated a large number of wars of conquest, and conquered a large part of the world. The terms of peace always included political submission to Islam, but usually not forced conversion.

Twice in the book she justifies the murder of president Anwar Sadat of Egypt by extremists for the crime of making peace with Israel, on the basis that his rule was "unjust" and "unIslamic". While explaining to the reader how moderate Islam is supposed to be, in practice she takes the side of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood that carried out the murder. An attempt to project her political beliefs onto Islam can be seen in this paragraph:

Western scholars [correctly] tell us that it is mistaken to see Muhammad as a socialist. They point out that he never criticised capitalism, which had, after all, done great things for the Quraysh, and that he did not attept to abolish poverty altogether, which would have been an impossible task in seventh-century Arabia. Muhammad may not have conformed to all the recent concepts of socialism, as it has evolved in the West, but in a deeper sense [ie. in Armstrong's imagination] he was certainly socialist and this has left an indelible impression on the ethos of Islam. True, he did not condemn wealth and possessions as Jesus did: Muslims were not commanded to give away everything that they had.

Private ownership of capital, permitted in Islam, is not socialism. Islam advocates charity as a religious duty, but that is a far as it goes. One could make a better argument that Christianity is socialism, but again the lack of concern that Jesus had for material posessions is not socialism either.


p44 "Part of the Western problem is that for centuries Muhammed has been seen as the antithesis of the religious spirit and as the enemy of decent civilisation. Instead, perhaps, we should try to see him as a man of the spirit, who managed to bring peace and civilisation to his people."

2. Muhammad, the man of Al-Llah

p 48 "We know practically nothing about Muhammad's early life before he began to receive the revelations at the age of forty. Inevitably pious legends developed about Muhammad's birth, childhood and youth and these are duly recorded, but there is nothing more solid to go on.

p49 :"Muslims still find the Qu'ran profoundly moving. They say when they listen to it they feel envoloped in a divine dimension of sound..."
p49 "Even Arabs who speak English fluently have said that when they read the Qu'ran in an English translation, they fell that they are reading from an entirely different book. I shall frequently quote from the Qu'ran, but the reader must not expect to be as overwhelmed by the words as were the first Muslims.
p50 "The power of the Qu'ran can be seen from the fact that many peoples within the Islamic empire abandoned their own languages to adopt the sacred tongue of the holy book.

p51  We know more about Muhammad than Jesus. "The Qu'ran refers to special problems that Muhammad encountered while his religion was still a struggling little sect"  The Christian gospels "had no interest in Jesus' earthly life but concetrated almost entirely on the spirtual meaning of his death and resurrection.  "Very few of the actual words of Christ have been recoreded."

p 52  ".he lived in a violent and dangerous society and sometimes adopted methods which those of use who have been fortunate enough to live in a safer [ie. Western] world will find disturbing.

3 Jahiliyah, Arabia before Islam

p57 "At the beginning of the seventh century, the Arabs of central Arabia were surrounded by deviant forms of Christiainity..."
"The Arabs felt inferior, both religiously and politically."
tribal nature, vendetta
The Ka'aba was a shrine to al Lah, the high god of the Arabs.  The land around it was a sanctuary
p65 "spiritual malaise and restlessness in Arabia".
Quraysh settled in Mecca, made it a commercial success. Newly urbanised population, some rich, caused divisions.

4 Revelation

"We know very little about Muhammad's life." But she then recounts lots of stories.
Muhammad's family fell on hard times, orphaned twice. 595 married Khadija.. At 40 he had "revelations", helped by Khadija.

5. The Warner

Muhammad's preaching in Mecca is not well received by rich and powerful, attracted young and slaves. divided families
successful until 616 when he insisted on one god
p107 "When he forbade his converts to worship the Banat al-Llah, he discovered that he lost most of his supporters overnight and that the Qu'ran was about to split the tribe of Quraysh."

6. The Satanic Verses

The Quraysh were upset by Muhammad's insistence they give up their gods.  According to the Muslim historians  Ibn Sa'd and al Tabari, "Muhammad felt inspired to utter two verses which declared that the three godesses al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat could be revered as intermediaries between God and man.

p111 "Many of Rushdie's most eloquent supporters declared that 'Islam' was a religion that vetoed scholarship and artistic freedo, even though the early Muslims founded a major civilisation of great beauty and established a rationalistic philosphic tradition which was an inspiration to scholars in the medieval West"
Other prophets have made "satanic" errors as well.

Shaitan is not the absolute evil as in Christiainity, but merely a fallen angel. "We should bear this linguistic distinction in mind when we hear some Muslims today refer to America as the 'Great Satan'."

p126 "At one level one can say that Muhammad had discovered an entirely new literary form, which some people were ready for but which others found shocking and disturbing. It was so new and so powerful in its effect that its very existence seemed a miracle."

p127 "The fragmentary, incoherent verses - especially of the earlier suras - demonstrate human language crushed under the weight of the divine Word: it also reveals an in-coherence in the individual. In order to discover the inner, symbolic meaning of the Qu'ran, the Muslim must integrate his or her life. Reading or listening to the Qu'ran is not a cerebral experience to get information or to receive a clear directive, but a spiritual discipline.

Naturally a Western person will have a completely different experience. Not only is the beauty of the Arabic inaccessible in translation, but it demands an approach that is foreign to many of us. To confine oneself to a cerebral external reading without being nudged by the quality of the Arabic to look for the ineffable that lies beyond speech is likely to be a desolating experiance, particularly if the reading is undertaken in a hostile spirit for from a vantage point of imagined superiority.

p131  "Muhammad did not know the chronology in which the scriputural prophets appeared: he seems, for example, to have thought that Mariam, the mother of Jesus, was the same as Mariam, the sister of Moses in the Jewish scriptures."   But the Koran was supposed to have been dictated to him by God.

7. Holy War

p207 - The massacre of the Qurayzah - 700 men were tied together in groups and beheaded, and dumped in a trench dug in the market. There wives and children were sold into slavery, and their property was divided among the Muslims.  "It is probably impossible for us to dissociate this story from Nazi atrocities..."  Or from the Palestinian attitude toward Israel.

p.242  His wife Hind was beside herself with rage. Seizing Abu Sufyan by his moustches, she cried to the people: 'Kill this fat greasy bladder full of lard! What a rotten protector of his people!'

The Suicide of Reason
Lee Harris, 2007

The thesis of this book is "today there are two great threats facing the survival of the modern liberal West. The first is exaggerated confidence in the power of reson; the second is its profound underestimation of the forces of fanaticism."

Harris argues that we are a long way from the victory of reason, also known as the end of history. "We are not even confronting a mere clash of civilizations. Instead we are facing the crash of civilization as we know it."  The modern liberal West is an exceptional condition of history, not the normal state and not necessarily the inevitable outcome.

Tribal behavior is the historical norm. A population that acts based on reason, his "rational actor", is a recent achveement which was made possible by universal education. But the rational actor is also an individualist, putting his own interests first. This results in the attitude Harris chooses to call "carpe diem", maybe better known as hedonsim, in which the short term interests of today's pleasures take precedence over the consequences in the future.

Islamic fanaticism must be seen for what it is: a formidable weapon in the struggle for cultural survival. It has served as a powerful defense mechanism that has successfully thwarted all attempts by rival cultures to conquer, dominate, or even influence Islam. Muslim fanaticism should not be seen as a relic of the past to be set aside in the enivitanle progress toward modernization, but as a potent weapon in the struggle for cultural survival and supremacy - as good a weapon now as in the past.

One could criticize this book for casting all Muslims as fanatics. In reality this is no more true than all westerners being hedonists. The book is valid to the extent that these attitudes do actually represent those populations. While no attempt is made to quantify these attitudes, it is at least fair to observe that these trends are increasingly true in both socieites.

The French Revolution receives a lot of attention for its role of the originator of many of the beliefs of western culture, and also as a classic example of reason leading to an even more extreme version of the fanaticism it was supposedly trying to oppose. In particular, the motivation for the Iraq war is shown as being much the same as the radicals of the French Revolution: to establish reason as ruling ethos around the world. The results are similar - chaos. The Left does not acknowldege this, instead it demonizes Bush as an evil imperialist because it cannot accept that the other side has taken over the ideals that the Left itself used to have.

Also of interest is the description of Napoleon's attempt to impose the superior values of the French Revolution on the "corrupt and imbecillic" Bourbon monarchy ruliing Spain. The rights of man and freedom of conscience were to replace absolutism and the infamous Spanish Inquisition. But the Spanish people rose up and demanded the restoration of the monarchy. The question is asked: which side should we of the liberal west be on - a liberal state imposed by force, or the despotism that resulted from the self-determination of the Spanish people? This is much the same issue as the motivation for the Iraq war.

p. 41
The differrence between Noam Chomsky and Paul Wolfowitz is largely illusionary. Both agreed that you could not really blame the terrorists, since they were merely the victims of an evil system. - for Chomsky, American imperialism, for Wolfowitz the corrupt and despotic regimes of the Middle East. Both agreed that if you could only topple the existing iniquitous system, terrorsim would disappear. Thus, both were revolutionaries, eager to overthrow the status quo - the only difference was the status quo they wanted to overthrow.

p. 80
Just as hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, so ideology is the homage self-interest pays to reason.

Culture and Conflict in the Middle East
Philip Carl Saltzman, 2008

The thesis of this book is that traditional Arab society is based on "balanced opposition" between tribal groups.  Loyalty is always to the group closest to yourself, groups being tribes based on kinship. You defend your tribe against the neighboring tribe, but when attacked by outsiders you unite with the tribe you were formerly fighting against.

Balanced opposition is decentralized, in that no central organization is required. It is democratic, kin that decision making is collective. It is egalitarian, in thajt there is no ascribed status, rank or hierarchy into which people are born. Everybody is a member of a nested set of kin groups. These groups are vested with responsibility ofr the defense of each and every one of itks members and responsibility for the harm each and every one of its members do to outsiders. If there is a conforntation, groups face other groups of a corresponding size: family vs. family, lineage vs. lineage, clan vs. clan, tribe vs. tribe, sect vs. sect, Arabs vs. non-Arab Muslims, and finally the Islamic community (the umma) vs. the infidels.

Arab society is based on much the same individual freedom, egailitarianism and responsibility as the West. The difference is the tribal orientation as opposed to the western orientation toward rule of law.

The Middle East has at its core many of the values that are presently believed to be essential characteristics of the modern western world: egalitarianism, individualism, pluralish, competitiveness, personal initiative, social mobility, freedom; but these are set within a distincive historical [or cultural] context based on chivalric honor, female seclusion, and patrilineality and that also favored invidious distinctions between men and women, whites and blacks, tribesman and peasants, nobles and commoners, freedmen and slaves, and particularly between Muslims and infidels.

This book goes into great detail about the functioning of tribal societies, which is the topic of the author's research. Islam is mentioned only in passing until we reach chapter five, where suddenly the historical record of Islam comes under a sustained attack. Much detail is given of the brutality of the Muslim conquests and the repression of non-Muslims. While this is a necessary correction to simplistic notions of Islamic peacefulness and tolerance, I think the author paints too uniform a picture of a complex history. There were intervals in Islamic history with relatively tolerant societies with advanced learning and culture (under religiously moderate rulers), along with intolerance and religious extremism he describes. This is best illustrated in the example he gives of the reaction to a Jewish official in the Muslim government of Grenada (in Spain). He describes the five thousand Jews that were slaughtered after this event, but does not mention the relatively moderate regime that appointed the official in the first place, which had just been overthrown by a more fundamentalist group.

He then lists the reasons for the uncompromising Arab rejection of the state of Israel. In increasing order of importance, he cites conflict over the physical land and resources, the use of the conflict by Arab rulers distract their subjects from internal problems, balanced opposition, and the Arab concept of honor. Balanced Opposition means that Arabs must always unite to fight the non-Arab presence in their territory, no matter what conflicts are happening between themselves. Honor is about the fact the God intended Muslims to rule non-Muslims. Arabs can never forget the humiliation of being defeated by the infidel, especially when so few Jews can hold off so many Arabs.

The last chapter, "Root Causes", examines the prospects for Middle Eastern countries. What appear on the surface to be nation states will continue to have conflict between the central state apparatus and the tribal groups on the periphery. The tribal orientation of the population makes it very difficult for meaningful change to occur. The author is not very optimistic on this point.

Iraq is a good example of a supposed nation state that was really more of a collection of tribes held together by the brutality of Saddam Hussein. Even in the cities much of the population arrived from outlying tribes and tribal ways are still strong. The results of the American invasion should have been predictable. The support the Americans expected from the population never appeared, because the tribal ethic compels people to fight the foreign invader no matter what they think of the more closely related ruling tribe that is oppressing them. After the fall of Saddam, Iraq fractured along tribal lines. Recent American success has been a result of adapting to the tribal reality. When the local tribes felt threatened by the foreign Al Qaeda fighters they fought back, and accepted aid from the Americans to accomplish that goal.

The New Concise History of the Crusades
Thomas F. Madden, 2005

This well written book by a qualified historian covers the history of the Crusades starting from the first Crusade of  1096 to the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks in 1529. He seeks to dispel the modern notion that the Crusades were about European imperialism ruthlessly attacking the civilized and peaceful Muslim states of the East, causing them irreparable harm and teaching them the value of violent conquest. He reminds us that the people of Medieval Europe simply did not think the way we do today. Christianity was central to their lives, and for them the Crusades were a just and noble calling that preoccupied them for centuries. He also disputes the notion that the crusades were carried out by Europe's castoffs who were only in it for personal gain. In fact, many of the crusaders were the leading lords of the day, those with the most to lose. Participating in a crusade could cost many times the lord's annual income, and great financial sacrifice was required, not to mention risk to life.

During the time before the first crusade, Arab Jerusalem was tolerant to Christian pilgrims because it was their major source of income. After Jeruslam was taken from the Arabs by the Seljuk Turks, oppression of Christians became much worse, with churches destroyed, clergy murdered, and pilgrims seized. It was the reaction to this which triggered the crusades. It was also Arab resentment of their loss that contributed to disunity on the Muslim side.

The First Crusade managed to acheive its goal of conquering Jerusalem, in spite of the odds against it. As with most of the other crusades, it was a tale of internal rivalry and conflict on both the Christian and Muslim sides. It seems that the side that had the least internal conflict at the time would prevail. Madden also challenges the conception that the conquest of Jerusalem was an unusually violent affair.

By the standards of the time, adhered to by both Chrisians and Muslims, the crusaders would have been justified in putting the eintire population of Jerusalem to the sword. Despine later highly exaggerated reports, however, that is not what happened. It is true thay many of jthe inhabitants, both Muslims and Jews, were killed in the initial fray. Yet many were also allowed to purchase their freedom or were simply expelled from the city. Later stories of the streets of Jerusalem coursing with knee-high rivers of blood were never meant to be taken seriously. Medieval people knew such a thing to be an impossibility. Modern people, unfortunately, often do not.

During the time in which Christians occupied the holy land there was some tendency for the westerners to adopt some aspects of Muslim culture, although there was little religious interaction between either side. A muslim writer is quoted as saying that some of the Franks (as they called the westerners) had taken to living like Muslims, there were differences:

The Franks are without any vestige of a sense of honor and jealousy. If one of them goes along the street with his wife and meets a friend, this man will take the woman's hand and lead here aside to talk, while the husband stands by waiting until she has finished her conversation. If she takes too long about it he leaves her with the other man and goes on his way.
It was during the crusades that the major Christian military orders were created, to combine faith with the necessity of defending it with force. These were the Knights Templar and the Knights of the Hospital of St. John, or Hospitallers. These orders played a major role in European history for many centuries ,and are still with us today in a more peaceful form.

The Fourth Crusade is a story of unintended consequences. The city of Venice construced a fleet for the crusaders, expecting to be compensated. The crusaders turned up in far fewer numbers than expected and could not afford to pay. The solution was for the crusaders to attack the city of Zara which had rebelled against the Venetians. Then they were enticed by an exiled prince of Constantinople to travel to that city and restore his "rightful" rule, which would meet little resistance. Of course this did not happen, and the crusaders found themselves in a desperate situation. Although greatly outnumbered, the mercenary soldiers of Constantinople had little will to fight, and the Christians ended up conquering the city. Although the city tried to peacefully surrender, the Christians brutally sacked the city, causing it permanent damage. Resentment of this event still lives on today.

Not all of the crusades took place in the middle east. Some of them attacked local Jewish populations, or pagans on the fringes of Europe. Of more interest is the crusade against the so-called Cathar heresy. A large population in southwestern France adopted this belief system, similar in some ways to Zoroastrianism in Iran. Followers led a pious life, in contrast to the corrupt and decadent Catholic clergy. Part of the response was the set up the Domincan religious order, which actually lived according to the principles they preached. But the main response was a military crusade which ultimately resulted in the large scale massacre of the heretics.

After the main crusades the Turks gradually became more of a military threat, occupying large parts of eastern Europe. One effect of this was to distract the Catholic leadership from the rise of Protestantism in Europe. It is suggested that without this the protestents would have met the same fate as the Cathars. In turn, the religious division of Europe weakened their ability to confront the Turks with a united front. Martin Luther and the Turkish sultan were in effect allies, although neither had any sympathy for the other.

Madden finishes the book with a discussion of the legacy of the Crusades, both in the West and for Muslims. He says

It is one of the most remarkable events in history that the Latin West, an internally divided region seemingly on the brink of conquest by a powerful empire, suddenly burst forth with amazing new energy, neutralizing its enemies and expanding across the globe. Amazingly, the specter of advancing Muslim armies, which for centuries had posed such danger, no longer constituted a serious threat. Indeed, as the gase of Europeans spanned new global horizons, they soon forgot that such a threat had existed at all. The Muslim world was no longer viewed as a dread enemy, but simply one more backward culture. From that perspective the medieval crusades seemed distant and unnecessary - a discarded artifact from the childhood of a civilization.

He then follows the evolution of western thought on the crusades, from Sir Walter Scott's romantic novel The Talisman, which glorified both sides, to historian Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades, which concluded that "the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost."  Even more modern accounts simply retell the distortions of this past viewpoint rather than look at the historical facts. Even more surprising is the Muslim viewpoint.

It is commonly said that memories in the Middle East are long, that although the crusades may have been forgotten in the West, they were still vividly remembered where they happened. This is false. The simple fact is taht the crusades were virtuall unknown in the Muslim world even a century ago. The term for the crusades, harb al-salib, was only introduced into the Arab language in the mid-nineteenth century. The first Arabic history of the crusades was not written until 1899.

Although the crusades were of monumental importance to Europeans, they were very minor thing to the Muslim world, no different than many other wars fought against various infidels. Even the name of Saladin was forgotten, perhaps not surprising because he was an ethnic Kurd not popular with Arabs. The prominent place of the crusades in Muslim ideology today is a "constructed memory", taught to them by Europeans in the nineteenth century. It may be convenient to blame western imperialism for the decline of the Muslim empire, but it does not fit the facts.

Climate Change

Under a Green Sky
Peter Ward, 2007

This book begins with an investigation by paleontologist Peter Ward of the cause of the major mass extinctions that have afflicted the earth many times in the past. The extinction question has been dominated in recent decades by hypothesis that the end-Cretaceous extinction was caused by a massive meteorite strike. After this was established to be fact, the search was on for the evidence of the impacts that caused all the other mass extinctions. In the first six excellent chapters Ward presents the detective story, in which he plays a part, of how convincing evidence for impact was never found and other hypotheses came to be considered. The patterm to many extinctions that Ward has discovered is best described in his own words:

First, the world warms over short intervals of time because of a sudden increase in carbon dioxide and methane, caused initially by the formation of vast volcanic provinces called flood basalts. The warmer world affects the ocean circulation systems and disrupts the position of the conveyor currents. Bottom waters begin to have warm, low-oxygen water dumped into them. Warming continues, and the decrease of equator-to-pole temperature differences reduces ocean winds and surface currents to a near standstill. Mixing of oxygenated surface waters with the deeper, and volumetrically increasing, low-oxygen bottom waters decreases, causing ever shallower water to change from oxygenated to anoxic. Finally, the bottom water is at depths where light can penetrate, and the combination of low oxygen and light allows green sulfur bacteria to expand in numbers and fill the low-oxygen shallows. They live amid other bacteria that produce toxic amounts of hydrogen sulfide, and the flux of this gas into the atmosphere is as much as 2,000 times what it is today. The gas rises into the high atmosphere, where it breaks down the ozone layer, and the subsequent increase in ultraviolet radiation from the sun kills much of the photosynthetic green plant phytoplankton. On its way up into the sky, the hydrogen sulfide also kills some plant and animal life, and the combination of high heat and hydrogen sulfide creates a mass extinction on land. These are the greenhouse extinctions.

Ward identifies three different states of the ocean through time. The well mixed ocean of today, with animal life at all levels, is only present during the geologically short periods when there is permanent ice at the poles. The temperature difference between the equator and the poles is required drive the ocean circulation that oxygenates the deep ocean. In warmer times the temperature difference is less, ocean is more stratified, and the bottom layers are anoxic with little non-bacterial life. Throughout the long pre-Cambrian era the oceans were in a third state called a Canfield ocean, which is dominated by sulfur metabolizing bacteria. Ward's hypothesis is that the Canfield oceans return in response to greenhouse warming and cause mass extinctions. This leads to the question of whether the present greenhouse warming will eventually lead to the same result.

One problem with understanding global warming is that the time scales involved are beyond normal human experience. Climate modellers may talk of a 50 year "sweet spot" where results are not affected much by emissions secenarios, but the implication that any changes we make today will not be felt for half a century is not something mentioned very often at events like Live Earth concerts. At the same time, what we do over the course of the next 50 years will profoundly affect the next century that follows it.

Another problem is people think of global warming in terms of their local (terrestrial) weather. Three degrees of warming means you get the climate a few hundred miles to the south. That may not seem to be a big deal if you live in Washington DC and look at the climate of South Carolina or Georgia. It might be of more concern to live in Oregon and look at Baha California. Still, the major effects of global warming will be on the ice caps and the oceans. Melting ice caps could lead to sea level rises of tens of meters over the timescale of a few hundred years. Ward is introducing the idea that on a timescale of thousands of years we may be causing the conditions that produced previous mass extinctions, with a dead ocean releasing hydrogen sufide gas. But is this a credible hypothesis?

Chapter six ends with the words "This should thus be the end of the book." Indeed, it should have been. The rest of the book is an attempt, in his words, to bridge the "canyon" that exists between the scientists who study the present climate and paleontologists who have studied the mass extinctions of the more distant past. Unfortunately his lack of expertise in modern climate science clearly shows in the increasingly incoherent last three chapters. Perhaps we were warned of this in the book's introduction, which ends with "Thus this book, words tumbling out powered by rage and sorrow but mostly fear..." That might be fine if it were followed up with the careful editing required for a book about science, but it was not.

Chapter seven gives a reasonable description of the cycle of ice ages we are presently in, and their connection to the set of ocean currents that has a large influence on climate. Chapter eight is when the book starts to fall apart. He uncritically presents the ideas of William Ruddiman that agriculture 8000 years ago raised greenhouse gas levels and prevented an ice age from starting over northern Canada, but fails to mention that many climate scientists do not accept this hypothesis. He also claims that Jared Diamond's two books are about how climate changes civilization, when in fact Diamond pays little attention to climate. He also shows confusion about future carbon dioxide levels, stating "Even if we stayed at a rise of 80 parts per million over the next century, by the year 3000 the atmosphere would have a carbon dioxide level of 450 parts per million." This is nonsense, as shown by his prediction on the next page of 1000 ppm by the year 2100, itself a plausible but very high end estimate. His lack of understanding about the greenhouse effect is demonstrated by the statement on page 165 "Because the heat budget of the Earth is complicated by the effects of the oceans, land, and especially currents (water and air), there is not a linear relationship between carbon dioxide rise and global temperature." The logarithmic relationship between a greenhouse gas concentration and its radiative effects is determined more by atmospheric physics rather than the convection effects he describes.

Chapter nine begins with a return to the style of the first part of the book, with an investigation into the climate of the warm Eocene period 50 million years ago. But after a few pages, we then get a world tour of the mind altering drugs used by people who live in warm climates, followed by a mish mash of global warming information and misinformation. On page 173 we are told there was "absolutely no ice at the poles," which is not true but implies a sea level 78 meters higher than today. On page 180 we are told sea level will rise by 60 meters if all the ice caps melt (close), but there was a 25 meter rise in the Eocene (actually closer to 50 meters). On the next page we have a 25 foot increase from melting all ice caps! I am sure he would give one of his students a D- if they submitted work as sloppy as this.

At this point one may wonder if anyone reviewed this work before publication. But in the final chapter he identifies the reviewers as climatologist David Battisti and geochemist Eric Steig, both from the University of Washington, as is Ward himself. So were the reviewers careless, or did Ward simply not listen? For example, several times he suggests that shutting down the Atlantic current will cause significant cooling in Europe. This is an old idea that climate scientists no longer believe. In particular, David Battisti published a paper Is the Gulf Stream responsible for Europe’s mild winters? which shows that, contrary to popular belief, stopping the Gulf Stream would make little difference to European climate.

The book does not explain why it is that rising greenhouse gas levels lead to ocean anoxia events, rather simply warmer global temperatures that lead to a lower temperature difference between the tropics and poles. That is clearly shown in this graph from his book.

He claims the ocean anoxia process was in progress during the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) fifty million years ago, and is responsible for the mass extinctions there. The papers I have read attribute it to ocean acidification. The difference should be clear, acidification kills shellfish while anoxia kills everything. PETM Carbon is isotropically light, so it must have an organic origin, not volcanic as Ward suggest.

David Battisti, of the University of Washington, is quoted as saying CO2 levels will reach 800 ppm by 2100 and 1100 ppm by 2200, which will take us to Eocene conditions.  Greenland melts in 300 years, Antarctica in 1,000.

He introduces the idea that global warming could produce a new cloud layer, higher than today, completly covering high latitudes. This is supposed to explain why polar climates were relatively warm in the past when carbon dioxide levels were much higher than today. It is not clear where this idea comes from.

Other errors and misconceptions in the text:
It is unfortunate this distinguished scientist and author of many excellent groundbreaking scientific books has produced a work so hysterical and full of errors. Perhaps the reason can be found his personal accounts of field investigation that usually make his books such a pleasure to read. This time a recurring theme is that he is not able to perform the physical feats that he used to do in the past. The frustration may have made its way into the text.

A summary of the book can be found in this Ward article in Scientific American

Cool It - The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
Bjorn Lomborg, 2007

Returning to the original topic, there is one prominent book published this year that was left out: Cool It - The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, by Bjorn Lomborg. In his own words, the argument in this book is:

1. Global warming is real and man-made. It will have a serious impact on humans and the environment toward the end of this century.

2. Statements about the strong, ominous and immediate consequences of global warming are often wildly exaggerated, and thus unlikely to lead to good policy.

3. We need simpler, smarter, and more efficient solutions for global warming rather than excessive if well intentioned efforts. Large and expensive CO2 cuts made now will have only a small and insignificant impact far into the future.

4. Many other issues are more important than global warming. We need to get our perspective back. There are many more pressing problems in the world, such as hunger, poverty and disease. By addressing them, we can help more people, at a lower cost, with a much higher chance of success than by pursuing drastic climate policies at a cost of billions of dollars.

Lomborg presents a framework for analyzing climate change as one of many problems to be solved. Spending money reducing greenhouse emissions today will reduce the negative impact of those emissions in the future. But there is an optimum amount of money that should be spent, after which the amount spent will exceed any benefits. This comes as a welcome relief to the single issue approach in most other books on this topic. Given this reasonable approach to the problem, the reader may tend to trust Lomborg when he answers the question what is the optimum effort to combat global warming. Unfortunately this trust is betrayed by a systematic distortion of the issues involving climate change.

The book starts with looking at the issues of the impact of climate change on polar bears, and heat deaths to humans from heat waves such as the one in Europe in 2003. Admittedly these straw dogs were first raised by environmentalists and the ignorant media, but Lomborg rides them hard throughout the book. You get the idea that the main problem with global warming is that more people will die of heat stroke. But don't worry, even more people will no longer die from the cold. Polar bears are cute, and it is sad when old people die from the heat, but the real issue with global warming is the ability of humanity to feed itself. This gets only cursory coverage. Instead there is a consistent pattern of distorting information from authoritative sources.

For example, on page 60 we are told "In its 2007 report, the UN estimates that sea levels will rise about a foot over the rest of the century." He does not mention that this estimate explicitly excludes melting from ice caps, which is so uncertain they want to consider it separately than the other much better understood contributors to sea level rise. There is good evidence that melting ice caps will contribute many meters of sea level rise, what is uncertain is whether that will take place over tens, hundreds, or thousands of years.

On page 36 we are told that the optimum strategy to deal with climate change is a carbon tax starting at two dollars per ton, rising to 27 dollars by the end of the century. He then quotes the two dollars figure throughout the rest of the book. The references for these pages all point to a 2006 study by economist William Nordhaus. But the Nordhaus 2007 paper (on page 18) states that the optimum carbon tax rate should start at $27 per ton and rise between 2 and 3 percent in real terms each year, reaching $90 per ton in 2050 and $200 per ton in 2100. This is more than an order of magnitude higher than Lomborg claims.

This book should not be lightly dismissed, because its logical approach to the problem will be appreciated by people of good will who cannot recognize the distortion in the details. The type of hysterical denunciation of Lomborg often seen in these pages will only reinforce how much more reasonable and balanced he seems to be. Branding him as a "denialist" is patently false, as point one from his book demonstrates. Instead, it would be better to embrace his approach, but correct the many errors and come up with a more realistic solution to this problem. A good start would be to steer people away from this flawed work, and instead consider the similar economic approach taken by Nordhaus that is more careful with the facts of climate change.

Personal Essays

Truth and Reconciliation - The Residential School Scapegoat

When trying to remedy an injustice, the normal sequence of events is to investigate the problem to uncover the truth, then if an injustice actually occured an apology is due, possibly followed by compensation for the victims. When it comes to the native residential school issue we have followed the reverse order. First we paid compensation, then an apology was issued, and soon we are going to have a "Truth and Reconcilliation" commision to investigate what happened. One may suspect that the verdict has already been determined, and all the commission will do is provide a forum for stories that support that verdict. Truth, on the other hand, is about looking at all the available information before coming to a conclusion. These are the questions a commision that was actually interested in the truth would ask:

Who was responsible for the residential school system, and what was their motivation? Were they out to "assimilate" the natives to get rid of them, or was this a well intentioned attempt to improve the lives of native children that had unintended consequences. We should ask what were the conditions for native children on the reserves at the time. How many were living in extreme poverty, ignored or abused by alcoholic parents? Without the benefit of today's moral relativism, how were people back then supposed to know they had no right to make any judgement about a different culture?

What were the actual conditions in the residential schools? We have all heard the horror stories, but how representitive of the entire system are they? How many of these schools had a serious abuse problem, and how many students were affected?. It is misleading to implicitly compare a residential school eighty years ago with a modern Waldorf kindergarten. How did the average residential school compare with a boarding school for non-native people during the same time period? Discipline was much stricter back then, especially in a boarding school, and sexual abuse was not talked about. How was even the worst abuse of natives much different than the widespread sexual abuse at institutions like the orphanage at Mount Cashel?

A genuine search for the truth will ask the question if the residential schools were in fact a net benefit for the native children in spite of the abuse they suffered. The answer may well be no, but the question should be asked and answered based on the most complete data available, not just the stories of a self selected group of individuals with a financial interest in the outcome.

If the residential school system is so responsible for the plight of native people today, are native individuals and groups that were not part of the system any better off? Either this basic question has not been asked, or someone is not very interested in telling us the answer. If there is little difference, then the case against residential schools falls apart except for individual instances of abuse. Residential schools are simply being used as a convenient scapegoat, both by those seeking financial compensation and those looking for something to pin the blame on to avoid difficult questions with unpleasant answers. The truth is that whenever a primitive tribal culture encounters a more advanced society, the tribal culture is either assimilated or lives in poverty. It makes little difference whether the tribes are persecuted, put in residential schools, or given welfare. Tribal culture is simply not able to participate in an industrial society, and fairy tales about a wonderful mythic past do nothing to change that fact.

And speaking of the unintended consequences of well meaning actions, we should enquire into the actual results of the compensation payments made to former students at these schools. Did their lives improve in any way? Or are native graveyards filling up with people who drank themselves to death because they could not handle the sudden unearned income? Maybe there is a better way to spend the money that will actually benefit native people.

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