Muslim Wire

Imran Khan: Why The East Sticks To Religion

Posted in Life, Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009

My generation grew up at a time when colonial hang up was at its peak. Our older generation had been slaves and had a huge inferiority complex of the British. The school I went to was similar to all elite schools in Pakistan. Despite gaining independent, they were, and still are, producing replicas of public schoolboys rather than Pakistanis.

I read Shakespeare, which was fine, but no Allama Iqbal – the national poet of Pakistan. The class on Islamic studies was not taken seriously, and when I left school I was considered among the elite of the country because I could speak English and wore Western clothes.

Despite periodically shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ in school functions, I considered my own culture backward and religion outdated. Among our group if any one talked about religion, prayed or kept a beard he was immediately branded a Mullah.

Because of the power of the Western media, our heroes were Western movie stars or pop stars. When I went to Oxford already burdened with this hang up, things didn’t get any easier. At Oxford, not just Islam, but all religions were considered anachronism.

Science had replaced religion and if something couldn’t be logically proved it did not exist. All supernatural stuff was confined to the movies. Philosophers like Darwin, who with his half-baked theory of evolution had supposedly disproved the creation of men and hence religion, were read and revered.

Moreover, European history reflected its awful experience with religion. The horrors committed by the Christian clergy during the Inquisition era had left a powerful impact on the Western mind. To understand why the West is so keen on secularism, one should go to places like Cordoba in Spain and see the torture apparatus used during the Spanish Inquisition. Also the persecution of scientists as heretics by the clergy had convinced the Europeans that all religions are regressive.

However, the biggest factor that drove people like me away from religion was the selective Islam practiced by most of its preachers. In short, there was a huge difference between what they practiced and what they preached. Also, rather than explaining the philosophy behind the religion, there was an overemphasis on rituals.

I feel that humans are different to animals. While, the latter can be drilled, humans need to be intellectually convinced. That is why the Qur’an constantly appeals to reason. The worst, of course, was the exploitation of Islam for political gains by various individuals or groups. Hence, it was a miracle I did not become an atheist. The only reason why I did not was the powerful religious influence my mother wielded on me since my childhood. It was not so much out of conviction but love for her that I stayed a Muslim.

However, my Islam was selective. I accepted only parts of the religion that suited me. Prayers were restricted to Eid days and occasionally on Fridays, when my father insisted on taking me to the mosque with him. All in all I was smoothly moving to becoming a Pukka Brown Sahib. After all I had the right credentials in terms of school, university and, above all, acceptability in the English aristocracy, something that our brown sahibs would give their lives for. So what led me to do a ‘lota’ on the Brown Sahib culture and instead become a ‘desi’?

Well it did not just happen overnight.

Firstly, the inferiority complex that my generation had inherited gradually went as I developed into a world-class athlete. Secondly, I was in the unique position of living between two cultures. I began to see the advantages and the disadvantages of both societies.

In Western societies, institutions were strong while they were collapsing in our country. However, there was an area where we were and still are superior, and that is our family life. I began to realize that this was the Western society’s biggest loss. In trying to free itself from the oppression of the clergy, they had removed both God and religion from their lives.

While science, no matter how much it progresses, can answer a lot of questions – two questions it will never be able to answer: One, what is the purpose of our existence and two, what happens to us when we die? It is this vacuum that I felt created the materialistic and the hedonistic culture. If this is the only life then one must make hay while the sun shines – and in order to do so one needs money. Such a culture is bound to cause psychological problems in a human being, as there was going to be an imbalance between the body and the soul. Consequently, in the US, which has shown the greatest materialistic progress while giving its citizens numerous rights, almost 60 percent of the population consult psychiatrists. Yet, amazingly in modern psychology, there is no study of the human soul. Sweden and Switzerland, who provide the most welfare to their citizens, also have the highest suicide rates. Hence, man is not necessarily content with material well being and needs something more. Since all morality has it roots in religion, once religion was removed, immorality has progressively grown since the 70s. Its direct impact has been on family life. In the UK, the divorce rate is 60 percent, while it is estimated that there are over 35 percent single mothers. The crime rate is rising in almost all Western societies, but the most disturbing fact is the alarming increase in racism. While science always tries to prove the inequality of man (recent survey showing the American Black to be genetically less intelligent than whites) it is only religion that preaches the equality of man. Between 1991 and 1997, it was estimated that total immigration into Europe was around 520,000, and there were racially motivated attacks all over, especially in Britain, France and Germany. In Pakistan during the Afghan war, we had over four million refugees, and despite the people being so much poorer, there was no racial tension.

There was a sequence of events in the 80s that moved me toward God as the Qur’an says: “There are signs for people of understanding.” One of them was cricket. As I was a student of the game, the more I understood the game, the more I began to realize that what I considered to be chance was, in fact, the will of Allah. A pattern which became clearer with time. But it was not until Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” that my understanding of Islam began to develop.

People like me who were living in the Western world bore the brunt of anti-Islam prejudice that followed the Muslim reaction to the book. We were left with two choices: fight or flight. Since I felt strongly that the attacks on Islam were unfair, I decided to fight. It was then I realized that I was not equipped to do so as my knowledge of Islam was inadequate. Hence I started my research and for me a period of my greatest enlightenment. I read scholars like Ali Shariati, Muhammad Asad, Iqbal, Gai Eaton, plus of course, a study of Qur’an. I will try to explain as concisely as is possible, what “discovering the truth” meant for me. When the believers are addressed in the Qur’an, it always says, “Those who believe and do good deeds.” In other words, a Muslim has dual function, one toward God and the other toward fellow human beings.

The greatest impact of believing in God for me, meant that I lost all fear of human beings. The Qur’an liberates man from man when it says that life and death and respect and humiliation are God’s jurisdiction, so we do not have to bow before other human beings.

Moreover, since this is a transitory world where we prepare for the eternal one, I broke out of the self-imposed prisons, such as growing old (such a curse in the Western world, as a result of which, plastic surgeons are having a field day), materialism, ego, what people say and so on. It is important to note that one does not eliminate earthly desires. But instead of being controlled by them, one controls them. By following the second part of believing in Islam, I have become a better human being. Rather than being self-centered and living for the self, I feel that because the Almighty gave so much to me, in turn I must use that blessing to help the less privileged. This I did by following the fundamentals of Islam rather than becoming a Kalashnikov-wielding fanatic.

I have become a tolerant and a giving human being who feels compassion for the underprivileged. Instead of attributing success to myself, I know it is because of God’s will, hence I learned humility instead of arrogance.

Also, instead of the snobbish Brown Sahib attitude toward our masses, I believe in egalitarianism and strongly feel against the injustice done to the weak in our society. According to the Qur’an, “Oppression is worse than killing.” In fact only now do I understand the true meaning of Islam, if you submit to the will of Allah, you have inner peace. Through my faith, I have discovered strength within me that I never knew existed and that has released my potential in life. I feel that in Pakistan we have selective Islam. Just believing in God and going through the rituals is not enough. One also has to be a good human being. I feel there are certain Western countries with far more Islamic traits than us in Pakistan, especially in the way they protect the rights of their citizens, or for that matter their justice system. In fact some of the finest individuals I know live there.

What I dislike about them is their double standards in the way they protect the rights of their citizens but consider citizens of other countries as being somehow inferior to them as human being, e.g. dumping toxic waste in the Third World, advertising cigarettes that are not allowed in the West and selling drugs that are banned in the West. One of the problems facing Pakistan is the polarization of two reactionary groups. On the one side is the Westernized group that looks upon Islam through Western eyes and has inadequate knowledge about the subject. It reacts strongly to anyone trying to impose Islam in society and wants only a selective part of the religion. On the other extreme is the group that reacts to this Westernized elite and in trying to become a defender of the faith, takes up such intolerant and self-righteous attitudes that are repugnant to the spirit of Islam. What needs to be done is to somehow start a dialogue between the two extreme. In order for this to happen, the group on whom the greatest proportion of our educational resources are spent in this country must study Islam properly.

Whether they become practicing Muslims or believe in God is entirely a personal choice. As the Qur’an tells us there is “no compulsion in religion.” However, they must arm themselves with knowledge as a weapon to fight extremism. Just by turning up their noses at extremism the problem is not going to be solved.

The Qur’an calls Muslims “the middle nation”, not of extremes. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was told to simply give the message and not worry whether people converted or not, therefore, there is no question in Islam of forcing your opinions on anyone else.

Moreover, we are told to respect other religions, their places of worship and their prophets. It should be noted that no Muslim missionaries or armies ever went to Malaysia or Indonesia. The people converted to Islam due to the high principles and impeccable character of the Muslim traders. At the moment, the worst advertisements for Islam are the countries with their selective Islam, especially where religion is used to deprive people of their rights. In fact, a society that obeys fundamentals of Islam has to be a liberal one.

If Pakistan’s Westernized class starts to study Islam, not only will it be able to help society fight sectarianism and extremism, but it will also make them realize what a progressive religion Islam is. They will also be able to help the Western world by articulating Islamic concepts. Recently, Prince Charles accepted that the Western world can learn from Islam. But how can this happen if the group that is in the best position to project Islam gets its attitudes from the West and considers Islam backward? Islam is a universal religion and that is why our Prophet (peace be upon him) was called a Mercy for all mankind.

(Mr. Imran Khan is the Chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf PTI. His article first appeared in the Arabnews

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Women Pants Ban Irks Acehnese

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009

CAIRO — An official decision to ban women from wearing jeans and pants in West Aceh is stirring uproar in the Indonesian province, amid accusations of violating women’s rights.

“The enforcement of the regulation is an accumulation of the negative views against women,” Norma Susanti, Head of the woman and children’s division at Aceh Human Rights NGO Coalition, told The Jakarta Post Saturday, October 31.

Officials in West Aceh have forbidden women from wearing jeans and tight pants as of January.

Under the decision, Shari`ah police, tasked with enforcing Islamic law, will shred any offensive clothing and ask women to change the outfit into government-issued skirts.

The West Aceh district has already ordered 7,000 skirts of various sizes.

Norma argued that the decision was discriminatory and not in line with Islamic Shari`ah, applied in the autonomous province.

“Islamic Shari`ah is not discriminative against women,” she said.

“But it’s different when it is used as a political means by men to restrain women’s movements.”

The activist accused the local administration of enacting controversial laws to distract the people’s attention away from their economical and social woes.

“There are many important issues the government should be handling rather than dealing with dress codes or someone’s sins,” Norma said.

“We are accused of being people who are against God when we criticize such policies. These accusations have made us tired of continuing the struggle.”

Aceh enjoys autonomous rule since signing Helsinki Memo of Understanding (MoU) with the Indonesian government in 2005.

The historic agreement brought to an end three decades of bloody conflict between Aceh separatists and Indonesian forces in the region that had seen the death of some 15,000 people.

Muslims make up 98.6 percent of the province’s 3.93 million population.


“The ordinance is merely a circular which has no legal standing, except for the internal interests of the regency administration,” Saifudin said. (Google)

Rights activists said that the ban would violate the women’s rights.

“The regulation is against the principles of human rights and the 1945 Constitution,” said Taufik Riswan, director of West Aceh Women and Child Protection Research Institute.

Muslim Ibrahim, chairman of Aceh Ulema Assembly (MPU), agrees.

“We should not be arrogant and force others not to wear pants,” he said.

Experts argue that the ban has no legal grounds.

“The ordinance is merely a circular which has no legal standing, except for the internal interests of the regency administration,” said legal expert Saifudin Bantasyam from Syiah Kuala University.

He said the province has a law regulating the dress code in accordance with the Islamic Shari`ah.

“The ordinance doesn’t regulate on the types of clothing women should wear, but only a dress code that is decent and in accordance with Shari`ah, and only that.”

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A. K. P-NESS: The Condition of Being AKP, Turkey’s Ruling Islamic Party

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009

The AKP, the Islamic ruling party in Turkey, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, the Justice and Development Party which brought neither justice nor development—

The AKP, seven years in office spent worrying about whether a woman should touch a man’s hand, and calling it modernity—

The AKP, seven years in office, squeezing the heads of women into headscarves, covering their bodies in bedsheets, and calling it freedom—

The AKP, seven years in office with a prime minister who has grabbed responsibility for both women’s ovaries and men’s testes (and use thererof) by encouraging, at the top of his lungs, the production of at least three children in each family, and calling it democracy—

The AKP, seven years in office, still banning thousands of websites, in the name of morality—

The AKP, seven years in office, still spewing nonsense that the reason Turkey was spared epidemics in the 16th century was due to the Islamic religious ablution five times a day—

The AKP, seven years in office, and its education ministry still distributes maps to students that depict Armenia, Bulgaria and Georgia residing within Turkish borders—

The AKP, seven years in office, falsely imprisoning doctors, journalists, writers, businessmen, former military officers, and labor union leaders for their dissenting political views and depriving them of the constitutionally guaranteed rights—

The AKP, seven years in office, and now picking a mindless quarrel with Israel to satisfy its egomaniacal cravings—

The AKP, seven years in office, conducting stealth foreign policy initiatives under the direction of western puppet masters that lead to alienation, humiliation, and embarrassment for the Turkish people, and the Turkish Army—

The AKP, seven years in office, resulting in fabulous wealth to party members, their families, and their special friends—

The AKP, seven years in office looting the nation and trashing its culture, and calling it development—

And now this same AKP, is preparing for the big cultural event of next year by continuing to do what it does best… the P-word…PLUNDER!

Of surprise only to those who have spent the last seven years at the North Pole watching the polar ice cap melt, the Istanbul agency in charge of next year’s culture fest is being charged with corruption. Big money is missing. And, as usual, no one knows what’s going on. Bear in mind that this money comes from another sweetheart deal, this one a hosing system that the AKP-controlled parliament approved two years ago. And it’s a beauty. Every time a long-suffering Turkish citizen buys gasoline a few kurus are siphoned off to feed the “culture agency.” The opposition party, the normally inert CHP, claims that this could amount to 250 million lira a year, adding that it smells a lot like the Deniz Feneri swindle that reaches, according to German Prosecutors, the highest levels of the Turkish government. But in typical AK-Plunder party style that investigation has been delayed, deferred, and otherwise quashed. But one thing remains absolutely clear; when the public’s money goes missing, the AK Plunder-party is involved. Playing with Erdoğan’s immortal words uttered in Davos: AKP, about plunder, you know stealing very well.

Beyond money, what has also gone missing is brainpower. It seems that the centerpiece “cultural” project focuses on yet another p-word: the penis. In particular, the penis of Prince Mehmet who had his prepuce removed to great and long acclaim in 1582. The prince’s father was Murad III, whose reign was described in My Name is Red, the book by the relentlessly self-promoting Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, another P-word. Pamuk also got money from the culture agency—750,000 lira. Pamuk will use the money to open a museum—the Innocence Museum—the name of his latest book. For certain, connected and cooperative Turks, the rich get richer. And Yaşar Kemal, Turkey’s greatest writer gets exactly what?

It seems that back in the good old days of 1582, the celebration for paring the prince’s prepuce lasted a record 52 days (some sources say 55, but who’s counting). By any measure, that’s a long time to celebrate a teeny-tiny piece of skin from a wee pup of a boy. Moreover, it seems a rather weird event to play such a huge role in any representation of Turkish culture, even by rock-bottom AKP standards. But maybe I’m missing something. Of course, there was much pomp associated with the prince’s penis, considering where it came from and who it emulated, that is, the sultan and the sultan’s. (The boy’s mother seems to have played an uncredited role in the original production.) In this case, certainly pomp is important. Just examine politics and politicians for example (two more P-words). Thus one should pay notice to, and take heed of, the various and sundry processions, gift presentations, and celebratory performances that lasted so long. All this will be staged and dramatized, animated and filmed, documented and published. It will be like living in the 16th century, precisely where the AKP is bringing the country. In a somewhat penetrating article, the Turkish Daily News reported that the cultural commission’s project about the princely penis would not last the full 52 days. Instead, it would be a “shortened performance.” Indeed. Whether this wording was meant to be tongue-in-cheek was not immediately apparent. Nevertheless, even the “shortened” re-creation of Mehmet’s circumcision ceremony is estimated to cost Turkish automobile drivers 12 million lira. And that’s a whopper of a resurrection.

All of this sent me scurrying to my archives to find how some costs might be cut. Perhaps the actual cutting scene can be cut? Perhaps a cast member can be cut? Perhaps? Perhaps? I leave the reader to judge. As luck would have it, right next to my Atatürk biography by Andrew Mango, I found my copy of Jarrahiya Ilhaniye a tome about royal surgery by 15th century surgeon Serafeddin Sabuncuoğlu. It deals with everything one would want to know about Ottoman surgical techniques, particularly as applied to circumcision, more sharply applied to Prince Mehmet. I have read the details of the actual procedure. It might be sufficient to just peruse the following and decide for yourselves whether this event is worth all the time and millions.

The author, Dr. Sabuncuoğlu, suggests a scissor with slightly curved blade tips. He also recommends that two ligations be made for health and safety. No argument from me. He advises that “the surgeon cut the perpetual skin between the ligatures so that there will be no flow of blood and the glans won’t be wounded.” Again, this sounded like good advice to me. But then he began to discuss a complication that often occurs. Oh-oh, I hate complications, particularly”well”. Okay, it’s about”never mind, I’ll let the doctor tell the story*”

(Note: The bold-faced comments in brackets are mine and were recorded on a listening device in the prime minister’s office while I was reading Dr. Sabuncuoğlu’s book. I thank the prime ministry for the use of the tape. Such understanding people.)

“If a part or whole layer of the foreskin slips from your hand”[YIKES!], Sabuncuoğlu cautioned, and is inverted during the operation [INVERTED? HOW”? LET ME OUT OF HERE!] draw it out immediately with a hook or a crochet [A HOOK? OH MAMA! ANNE! İMDAT!] and make your incision before the place swells.” [WHAT INCISION? WHAT PLACE? WHAT SWELLS?]

Sabuncuoğlu seems unusually calm about such things. He adds, “If you fail to do this, let it be.” [LET IT BE? WHAT KIND OF A DOCTOR ARE YOU?].

Not to worry says Sabuncuoğlu. [I’M WORRIED! I’M WORRIED! IT’S MY PENIS FOR ALLAH’S SAKE!] “Allow the swollen part to subside, and then gently peel the skin.” [SUBSIDE? WHAT AM I? A PATLACAN? PATLICAN MIYIM?].

“Be careful not to cut the tip of the penis,” warns the doctor, “but if it is cut there is no harm done.” [EASY FOR HIM TO SAY! ALLAH KAHRETSİN! HE SOUNDS LIKE ERDOĞAN AND HIS TEĞET ECONOMIC POLICY!]

“Dress the wound with flesh-generating powders.” [YOU QUACK! ŞARLATAN HEKİM!]

“Should the foreskin be cut away more than needed and the skin is wrinkled up that will do no great harm either.” [AAAGH!!! LANET OLSUN!!! AHMAK! DANGALAK!!!!]

But perhaps I overreacted.

Nevertheless, this great leap backward by the AKP, typical as it is, should be thwarted on the grounds of defamation of the character of the Turkish people. We live in a dangerous, difficult age. And that’s the point. We are not Ottomans who kept their women enslaved beneath the veil and behind the lattice, and all their people ignorant and illiterate. Our cultural reference is not their dark-mindedness. We, all of us, are modern, vital citizens of Turkey. Our cultural reference point is the Enlightenment not the corruptions of the Ottoman Empire. That’s the message that should be conveyed to Europeans, and indeed, the world. But first we need to convey it to ourselves. It is far, far better thing to light a candle than continue to curse the darkness. And that is the one sure way to dispel the murk of AKP-ness.


Islam from a Western perspective (Part 2 of 2)

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009

Nikolaos van Dam

In 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered. The extremist Muslim perpetrator left a written message stating that he had committed the murder because Van Gogh had openly criticized Islam. This brought about a change in the Netherlands: politicians and other participants in the public debate were threatened and there were even sporadic incidents in which mosques, churches and schools were attacked.

These events have raised the question as to which extent Islam, in its present forms, is compatible with the democratic core-values and practices in the Netherlands. Combined with concerns about integration, such as the continued low levels of mastery of the Dutch language, low rates of inter-ethnic marriage (more than 70 percent of the Turkish and Moroccan youth marry a partner from their country of origin), high numbers of school drop-outs and relatively poor school results among the Muslim population, these issues have led to heated societal and parliamentary discussions.

Although the Dutch government and civil society organizations are making serious efforts to implement integration policy, one point remains problematic: the split which threatens to develop between Muslims and non-Muslims. This threat is fuelled by some Muslim fundamentalists who take advantage of dissatisfaction among second and third generation immigrants with the slow progress of integration.

These Muslim fundamentalists do not want to be part of the society in its present form, but place themselves outside of it and even reject the Dutch standards concerning democracy and rule of law. Fortunately, however, this group is just marginal and most Dutch Moroccans (or Moroccan Dutch) and people from other ethnic groups in fact do accept Dutch shared values. But, as is well known, individuals and marginal groups can cause a lot of harm.

Finally, there are political parties in Europe which play upon the theme of Islam and violence. Actually their position may have little to do with Islam as such, but much more with existing feelings of discontent towards immigrants from Muslim countries and the disliked or deviant behavior of some of them.

Usually, discussions about Islam deal mainly with some outward or visible phenomena or symbols. Only rarely is there a discussion about religious principles themselves.

Discussions deal with, for instance, women wearing the veil in public life. It being used in Europe is met with opposition, because it is often being seen there as a symbol of non-integration, also limiting the freedom of women.

Other topics of Islam which attract particular attention and usually have a negative connotation in the West are: the carrying out of Sharia regulations such as beheading, cutting off hands, stoning to death or caning; polygamy (men allowed to marry up to four women); marrying girls at a very young age; violent jihad; the issue of having 60 or more virgins in Paradise after men have been “martyred” during a jihad operation; and other phenomena which are not necessarily Islamic, but are nevertheless often being portrayed as such, such as female circumcision (which also is very common in non-Islamic parts of Africa), honor killings, condoning violence against women at home (which occurs even stronger in non-Muslim parts elsewhere in the world like South America)

When such practices are being propagated or carried out in certain parts of the Islamic world, even if they are exceptional, they may in Western public opinion also have a negative side effect on the perception of those parts of the Islamic world where such practices are not followed, or where they are even rejected.

For instance, the Acehnese sha-ria bylaw which makes it possible for adulterers there to be stoned to death (rajam) may negatively affect the positive image existing abroad of Indonesia as a moderate country, even if all other Indonesian provinces would reject this practice.

It should be stressed that what may have been considered normal or acceptable in the past is no longer necessarily acceptable by 21st century standards; it is often no longer acceptable to a majority of Muslims, some of whom may take issue with these outdated attitudes. But this is not always clearly seen as such in the West.

It would therefore be very useful if the more moderate Muslims would let their voices and views resonate much clearer and louder, so that they may compete with those radical voices that are currently distorting the image of Islam and so that they may help correct this distorted image of Islam which presently prevails among some people in the West and in some parts of the world. It would be equally useful if people in the West would listen attentively, not dismissively, to these voices.

Dr. Nikolaos van Dam is Ambassador of the Netherlands in Jakarta and former ambassador to Germany, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. He served most of his academic and diplomatic career in the Arab world, also covering Libya, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian occupied territories. This article is part of a lecture he delivered at Bimasena (The Mine & Energy Society) in Jakarta, on Oct. 8, 2009.

Berserkers on the shore

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009
WHY were Viking raids on Christian Scotland so violent? Leading historian ROBERT FERGUSON outlines a new thesis that pins the blame on Charlemagne

IN THE absence of historical documentation from Scotland to compare with the Annals of Ulster or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Anglo-Saxon monk Alcuin’s letter of bewildered distress to King Ethelred of Northumbria in the wake of a Viking attack in 793 on Lindisfarne must stand for the reaction of all those other communities on the fringes of northern Britain who were victims of the first furious onslaught of Viking violence over subsequent decades:

“We and our fathers have now lived in this fair land for nearly three hundred and fifty years, and never before has such an atrocity been seen in Britain as we have now suffered at the hands of a pagan people. Such a voyage was not thought possible. The church of St Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God.”

Historians have taken Alcuin’s astonishment at the Viking raid at face value, yet he went on to rebuke Ethelred and his courtiers for aping heathen fashions: “Consider the luxurious dress, hair and behaviour of leaders and people. See how you have wanted to copy the pagan way of cutting hair and beards. Are not these the people whose terror threatens us, yet you want to copy their hair?” Clearly these northerners were already familiar with their visitors. What was new was the violence, and it is reasonable to ask why it happened.

In northern Europe at the time the major political powers in the world were Byzantium in the east; the Muslims, whose expansion as far as Turkistan and Asia Minor created an Islamic barrier between the northern and southern hemispheres; and the Franks, the dominant tribe among the successor states after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west.

After Charlemagne became sole ruler of the Franks in 771 he devoted himself to the subjugation of the heathen Saxons on his north-east border. In 782 his armies forcibly baptised and then executed 4,500 Saxon captives at Verden, on the banks of the river Aller. Campaigns of enforced resettlement followed, but resistance continued until a final insurrection was put down in 804. Their physical subjugation complete, the cultural subjugation of the Saxons followed: death was the penalty for eating meat during Lent; death for cremating the dead in accordance with heathen rites; death for rejecting baptism.

Several times, in the course of the campaign, the Saxon leader Widukind sought refuge in Denmark, and his accounts of Charlemagne’s fanaticism must have travelled like a shock-wave through Danish territories, which included Vestfold, over the waters of the Vik in Norway. How were heathen Scandinavians to respond to this threat to their culture? Should they merely wait for the Franks to arrive and set about their conversion? Or should they fight?

War against the might of Frankish Christendom was out of the question. Feasible goals, symbolically important and, in the parlance of modern terrorist warfare, “soft targets”, were the Christian monasteries – like Lindisfarne and Iona – dotted around the rim of northern Britain, which were centres of Christian spirituality and learning. And so these first Viking raiders set off in the grip of a psychopathic rage that unleashed itself on Christian “others” in an orgy of transgressive behaviour. The Annals of Ulster for 794 announced “the devastation of all the islands of Britain by the Heathens”. In 795 the Isle of Skye was “overwhelmed and laid waste”. Iona was attacked for a first time in 795 and again in 802. In 806 the monastery was burned down and the community of 68 killed. Blamac, an Irish chieftain’s son who had chosen the religious life, took it upon himself to warn others to flee when Viking ships again appeared off Iona. He stayed behind himself to bury the relics of St Columba and was tortured to death after refusing to reveal their whereabouts.

Their geographical proximity as well as the large number of Irish who had settled in Scotland over the preceding centuries – the original meaning of “Scots” is “people from Ireland” – meant that details of Viking raids on the Western Isles appeared regularly in the Annals of Ulster. Attacks on the more remote Northern Isles were not similarly documented, but the likelihood is that the first wave of violence also involved the Viking colonisation of Shetland and the Orkneys, as well as mainland Caithness and Sutherland.

The author of the Historia Norwegie, a 12th-century history of Norway, tells us that the islands were occupied by Irish priests and Picts until the arrival of Vikings, who “totally destroyed these people of their long-established dwellings and made the islands subject to themselves”. The wholesale eviction or extinction of the indigenous people is a likely explanation for the fact that the names of all towns, settlements, farms, rivers and natural features of the landscape of Shetland and the Orkney Islands are, with the obvious exception of modern names, Norse in origin. Something similar probably happened to the isolated communities of the Outer Hebrides. By the middle of the ninth century, Irish annalists had started to refer to the Western Isles as “Na hInnsi Gall” or “the islands of the foreigners”.

In England, Viking bands that later became full-scale armies went on to subject the inhabitants of its four main kingdoms to 250 years of desultory warfare that culminated in a conquest. In 865 the “Great Heathen Army” arrived from Denmark. Some 15 years of warring against the kingdoms of Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia left them in control of England from York down to East Anglia.

By the reign of King Ethelred in the 990s, Viking armies were extracting huge “danegeld” payments – money paid in return for being left alone – with a punishing regularity. In 1012 the archbishop of Canterbury was captured for ransom and then murdered for sport by a drunken group of men under the Jutland earl Thorkell the Tall, who pelted him with stones and the skulls of cattle before finishing him off with the flat of an axe. The loss of its spiritual head brought the faltering Wessex monarchy to its knees, and within five years a Danish king, Sven Forkbeard, sat on the throne of England. By 1028 Sven’s son Cnut was ruler of a North Sea empire that comprised Denmark (with Skåne in the south of Sweden), Norway and all of England.

Mainland Scotland did not attract the same large-scale military interest from the Vikings and was not part of Cnut’s empire. Perhaps the most lasting effect of the raiding and settling was to split the island fringe into two separate and thriving maritime power centres: the earldom of Orkney, where proximity to the Norwegian west coast encouraged men to bring their whole families to settle; and the Western Isles, where the pattern of settlement more commonly involved a young man taking a local woman for his wife.

The difference in settlement patterns is reflected in the greater density of the genetic and linguistic heritage in the Northern Isles, where early 20th-century lexicographers recorded about 10,000 Norse words surviving in Shetland and where a unique form of Old Norse known as Norn was spoken until well into the 18th century.

As late as 1758, Macaulay noted that the islanders on remote St Kilda were still speaking their own form of Gaelic with “a little mixture of the Norwegian tongue”. The name itself may well be a corruption of Old Norse kelda, “well” or “spring”, denoting a source of fresh water and thus an important piece of information for Viking Age seafarers, with the “St” added later in the mistaken belief that the source was named after a saint.

In 1098 formal power in the Western Isles was ceded to Norway, which retained possession until 1266 when the island chain, which included the Isle of Man, reverted to Scotland. A thousand years on, the Viking inclusion of Man as part of the Hebridean chain is still echoed in the diocesan name “Sodor and Man”, from Old Norse suðreyjar, “Southern Isles”, in contrast to norðreyjar, or Northern Isles. Shetland and the Orkneys remained Norwegian possessions until 1469.

Danish rule in England lasted less than 30 years. Another 15 years on and the memories of King Cnut and his North Sea Empire were all but wiped out by the greater drama of Duke William of Normandy’s overnight conquest of 1066.

The long and uninterrupted duration of Viking influence in the Western and Northern Isles is thus unique in a British context, although after about 1100 and the establishment of the first Scandinavian bishopric at Lund in Sweden it is hardly correct to refer to “Vikings” any more, for by that time the rulers of Norway, Denmark and Sweden were always – at least in name – Christian.

• This is an edited version of a longer article that will appear in the December edition of BBC History Magazine. Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings is published by Allen Lane next week, priced £25.

Namaaz & Namoh Namah

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009

While Muslims consult him with queries on fatwas, Hindus seek him out to deliver discourses on the Vedas. He is Pandit Mufti Mohammed Sarwar

Namaaz & Namoh Namah

For Pandit Ghulam Dastagir Birajdar (left) and Pandit Mufti Mohammed Sarwar Farooqui (above) Islam and Hinduism are two sides of the same coin

Farooqui of Lucknow’s massive Nadwatul Ulema or Nadwa madrassa. The bearded pandit-mufti quotes the Quran and hadith (Prophet Mohammed’s sayings) with as much felicity as he does slokas from the Puranas.

In Mumbai, Pandit Ghulam Dastagir Birajdar juggles many hats – he is general secretary of the Varanasi-based Vishwa Sanskrit Pratishthan, member of the Maharashtra government’s Sanskrit Standing Committee, a body that oversees Sanskrit education in the state, and head of Sufi saint Syed Ahmed Badwi’s centuries-old dargah near his house in Worli.

Farooqui and Birajdar are among the handful of Muslim pandits in the country who have not only mastered Sanskrit but are also actively taking the language forward. For these scholars, two religions and cultures sit comfortably in one soul.

Farooqui, who is a specialist in fatwas and holds a post-graduate degree in Sanskrit from Sampurnand University, credits his love for Sanskrit to a Quranic command that says one should learn as many languages as one can. To him, Islam’s concept of monotheism is a reiteration of the Vedic principle ekam brahma dutia nasti (God is one and there is none except Him). “Even Prophet Mohammed once said he felt soothing breezes coming from India. This belief led me to explore the exciting world of Hindu scriptures,” says 41-year-old Farooqui who has written several books, including commentaries on the Quran in Hindi.

Birajdar too is considered a walking encyclopaedia on Sanskrit. “Muslims are learning Sanskrit as it houses vast knowledge,” he says. “For far too long, the Brahmins held Sanskrit captive. They spread the lie that the language would be ruined if non-Brahmins learnt it,” says 75-year-old Birajdar, seated in his book-lined house where volumes of the Vedas share shelf space with the Quran and its commentaries.

As a child labourer in Solapur in Maharashtra, Birajdar worked in the fields by day and went to school at night. He fell in love with the language when he was nine, mesmerised by the sound of children chanting Sanskrit lessons. “One day, I asked the Brahmin teacher if I too could study. Though it was a pathshala exclusively for Brahmin boys, the teacher relaxed the rules.” Years later, the Brahmin teacher would proudly introduce Birajdar as his most accomplished pupil.

Some Hindus even ask Birajdar to solemnise marriages, preside over pujas and help perform last rites. “I decline such offers since they are purely religious. Instead, I have trained many Hindus to perform such rituals,” he says.

Recently, Farooqui addressed a massive Hindu gathering at Ghazipur. “Many in the audience thought the organisers had invited the wrong speaker. They were amazed when I spoke on Hinduism,” he says, smiling.

Academics say that Muslims are learning Sanskrit in an attempt to understand India’s glorious past. Ramnath Jha, head of the Sanskrit department at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, says, “There were Muslim scholars among those who supported the proposal to make Sanskrit India’s official language after Independence . Unfortunately, Hindi won the race. But Sanskrit is the mother of all Indian languages and it’s not surprising that many Muslims are learning it.” Dr Jha adds that he has at least one Muslim research scholar in his department at any time.

And who’s producing the maximum number of Muslim scholars in Sanskrit? Aligarh Muslim University. “AMU has produced 20 PhDs and 12 MPhils so far,” says Dr Khalid Bin Yusuf, head of AMU’s Sanskrit department. Mohammed Khan Durrani was the first Muslim scholar in India to have done a doctorate in Sanskrit, completing it from AMU in 1963, and, in the process, encouraging other Muslims to study the language.

As a schoolboy in Maharajganj, Uttar Pradesh, Ashab Ali avidly read the Vedas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He went on to study the Vedas in detail and do a comparative study of Islam and Hinduism. “Islam and Vedic Hinduism have a lot in common,” he says. “Like Islam, the Vedas too believe in ek ishwarvad (monotheism). Again, like Islam, there is no concept of rebirth in the Vedas. This attracted me,” says 61-year-old Ali who heads the Sanskrit department at Gorakhpur University.

A devout Muslim, Ali has performed Haj twice and says he easily passes off as a paanchewing , kurta-pyjama-clad maulvi on the street. In fact, he objected strongly when a television reporter once addressed him as maulvi sahab. “I told him that not every bearded Muslim is a maulvi. I am a Sanskrit scholar and should be known as such,” says Ali, who is concerned about the fate of his huge private collection in Sanskrit. “My daughter is an Urdu scholar while my son is studying Unani medicine. Nobody in my house will read the rare collection of Sanskrit volumes after I die,” he says.

However, other Muslim scholars aren’t worried . Birajdar’s daughter Ghiasun Nisa, a graduate in Sanskrit, is working on a comparative study of Islam and Hinduism. His grandson, 15-year-old Danish, is also learning the language . “They have inherited my love for the language and will carry on my mission,” he says, as he replies to a stack of fan mail in Sanskrit.

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Terror suspect denies charges

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009

Suspect says he was duped by a friend and denies the charges of plotting a terrorist attack on a newspaper

Lawyers for one of the Chicago men accused of supporting a plot to attack Jyllands-Posten newspaper, say he thought the whole thing was a joke.

Tahawwur Hussein Rana appeared in court yesterday charged with providing material support to terrorists by using his business as a cover for main suspect David Coleman Headley’s trips to Denmark.

Rana’s lawyer said his client may have been aware of Headley’s links to radical groups in Pakistan, but knew nothing of the plot against the paper which published the infamous Mohammed cartoons in 2005.

The Danish Security and Intelligence Agency (PET) went through Jyllands-Posten’s offices yesterday following the revelation of the terror plot.

Politicians are demanding a legislative review following the news.

The Danish People’s Party wants terrorism laws tightened, as was done in Britain following the 2005 London bombings.

Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said he was willing to review the legislation but made no promises that laws would be tightened.

‘I can’t guarantee that a terrorist won’t ever slip through the net, but we must do what we can to minimise the risk,’ Rasmussen said.

PET has made no new announcements on the status of their investigation and head of the Copenhagen Police Per Larsen said surveillance measures in the capital hadn’t changed.

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Ranking Terrorist Threats By Degree Of Separation

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009

Dina Temple-Raston

This past year has been one of the FBI’s busiest — at least when it comes to terrorism cases. In the first 10 months of 2009, there have been possible plots exposed in Denver; Springfield, Ill.; Dallas; Boston; and, just this week, Chicago.

With so many alleged plots, it’s difficult to know how seriously to take any particular threat. So the intelligence community has an informal system for ranking them. The basic idea: The closer the link to al-Qaida, the more serious the plot.

Consider the case of Najibullah Zazi, the Denver-area shuttle bus driver who stands accused of plotting to blow up targets in New York City. Intelligence officials claim that the Zazi case is the most serious this country has faced since Sept. 11, 2001, because they believe Zazi had a direct link to senior al-Qaida leaders. Officials say that in addition to allegedly training in an al-Qaida camp, Zazi apparently called someone in Pakistan for instructions just before he was arrested.

That’s seen as a red flag, because it suggests that al-Qaida was behind the plot in some way. And al-Qaida, as a general matter, likes its attacks to be big.

“In my view, these tend to be the most serious [cases], because, of course, the goal of them is to create a terrorist spectacular,” says Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown professor who advises the U.S. government on terrorism. “They are looking to stage an enormous attack that will, as 9/11 did, change the game or change the calculation.”

So that’s the highest-level category — a plot connected directly to al-Qaida.

The Second Level

Plots backed by other terrorist groups with links to al-Qaida are seen as the second most serious level of terrorist threat. These groups are essentially affiliates of al-Qaida. That, experts say, makes them only slightly less dangerous.

“I think how we understand al-Qaida and how we categorize different affiliations with al-Qaida is actually very important — and changing,” says Karen Greenberg, the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University.

She says a growing number of terrorist groups now identify with al-Qaida and then, in turn, train their own recruits for terrorist operations.

What worries intelligence officials is that, increasingly, these affiliate groups are training people from the United States. The alleged terrorist plot uncovered in Chicago this week fits into this second category.

Prosecutors arrested two Chicago men they said were plotting a terrorist attack overseas. According to the complaint, the men wanted to attack a Danish newspaper that had published controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in 2005.

The two men arrested in Chicago apparently wanted to exact some sort of revenge against the newspaper and its editors. But what got the attention of U.S. intelligence officials was that one of the Chicago men allegedly trained with a Pakistani terrorist group called Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has ties to al-Qaida. The group was behind the attacks on Mumbai, India, nearly a year ago. That’s the kind of affiliate group that intelligence officials worry about.

Level Three

The third category of plot usually involves angry young men, who are often radicalized on the Internet. They get into chat rooms, meet like-minded people and then begin dreaming up their own plots.

Hosam Smadi, a Jordanian teenager living in Texas, allegedly drove a truck full of what he thought were explosives into the underground garage of a skyscraper in Dallas earlier this month. He allegedly told FBI undercover agents that he wanted to blow up the building because he was a supporter of Osama bin Laden’s.

The agents first discovered Smadi in a chat room. As the investigation proceeded, they posed as al-Qaida operators and furnished him with fake explosives. He was arrested after he dialed a cell phone number he thought would detonate the bomb.

Then there’s the Boston man also arrested earlier this month and accused of planning an attack on a U.S. shopping mall. In this case, Tarek Mehanna trolled the Internet, visited jihadi chat rooms and decided to travel to Yemen in search of terrorist training.

Mehanna didn’t manage to get into any of the camps. Frustrated, he allegedly came back to Boston and decided to lash out on his own.

As it turns out, prosecutors say, he couldn’t get the automatic weapons he wanted for a mall attack, either. Mehanna reportedly asked a local gang member for help getting weapons, but the gang member apparently refused to help him.

According to Vahid Brown, a fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, these kinds of plots tend to be much less lethal. “These have not proven to be people who are able to do much damage,” he says. “So I think it is appropriate to consider them as being much less dangerous than groups, or cells, or operational units who are closely connected to al-Qaida central.”

Finding The Connections

Sam Rascoff used to work the intelligence desk at the New York Police Department. He says that ranking plots based on how closely they are connected to al-Qaida or its affiliate groups is a good first step toward understanding them. But that’s only the beginning.

“Part of what you do when you do counter-terrorism is not to think about just this case, but the run of cases that are currently going on or may go on in the future,” Rascoff says. Rascoff says law enforcement has to figure out why people in this country turn to violent jihad in the first place — and why the number of homegrown plots is growing at such an alarming rate.

2 charged by U.S. with plotting attacks

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009

Carrie Johnson

Federal prosecutors unsealed charges Tuesday alleging that two men participated in a terrorism plot that took them from Chicago to Denmark. The case is the latest example of U.S. citizens accused of seeking to travel overseas to carry out violent extremist attacks.

Using e-mail messages, recorded conversations and surveillance, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force traced the movements of David C. Headley from his apartment in Chicago to Pakistan, where he met at least once with a top al-Qaeda figure to plan foreign operations, according to court papers.

Headley has been in custody since he tried to leave Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport three weeks ago, but authorities said they had delayed public notice of the conspiracy charges against him so they could conduct “further investigative activity.”

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney in Chicago, assured the public Tuesday that there was no “imminent danger” to the community. The arrests came after a series of unrelated terrorism charges against American citizens in Boston, New York, Colorado, North Carolina, Texas and central Illinois.

Headley, 49, legally changed his name from Daood Gilani three years ago to avoid suspicion when he traveled, FBI special agent Lorenzo Benedict wrote in a sworn statement. In the past nine months alone, Headley journeyed twice to Denmark, where he posed as a businessman interested in placing ads in a newspaper that in 2005 published cartoons making fun of the prophet Muhammad, the statement said.

Authorities think that Headley was taking steps to carry out terrorist strikes as part of a plan he called “the Mickey Mouse Project,” the court documents say. The FBI affidavit described contacts between Headley and two unnamed operatives of Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistani group with ties to al-Qaeda, and with Ilyas Kashmiri, the operational chief of another Pakistani militant organization who survived a U.S. drone attack this year.

The FBI document cited Headley’s posting on an electronic message board last year. “I feel disposed towards violence for the offending parties” at the Denmark newspaper who, he is alleged to have said, were “making fun of Islam” by depicting Muhammad in unflattering cartoons.

David S. Kris, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s national security division, and Robert D. Grant, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Chicago office, said they had worked closely with foreign partners in the case to share information and disrupt possible threats. Leaders in Denmark held a news conference Tuesday to discuss the case.

U.S. prosecutors also charged another Chicago man, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, 48, with conspiring to provide support to terrorists, accusing him of helping to plan and conceal the purpose of Headley’s travels. Headley did not work regularly or have a ready source of income, authorities said, but he told others that he was employed by First World Immigration Services, owned by Rana.

Patrick W. Blegen, an attorney for Rana, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that his client is a “well-respected businessman in the Chicagoland community. He adamantly denies the charges and eagerly awaits his opportunity to contest them in court, and to clear his name and his family’s name.”

John Theis, an attorney for Headley, declined to comment.

Headley was born in the United States but relocated to Pakistan as a youth. Rana was born in Pakistan but eventually became a Canadian citizen who lived in the Chicago area. Both men allegedly attended a military school in the Pakistani town of Hasn Abdal, according to postings on a Yahoo message group, the FBI’s Benedict wrote in his sworn statement.

After his arrest Oct. 3, Headley told the FBI that he had personally met with Kashmiri, identified as the fourth most wanted man by the Pakistani Ministry of the Interior, and that he had received training from another group designated as a terrorist outfit, according to court filings.

When agents searched Headley’s checked bags, they uncovered a memory stick that contained 10 short videos of the entrance to the newspaper office in Copenhagen, military sites and the city’s central train station.

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Bosnian war criminal’s strategic repentance

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 31, 2009

Binoy Kampmark

‘I ask my brothers, Croats, to forgive us, their Brother Serbs, and I pray for the Serb people to turn to the future …’ – Dražen Erdemovic, 24 January 2004

The only woman convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has returned to Serbia. Biljana Plavšic, former Bosnian Serb President (1996–8), had spent two thirds of her 11-year sentence in a Swedish prison after being convicted for a single count of crimes against humanity.

As with so many things with the administration of justice, her guilty plea formed part of a bargain, another sign that guilt and punishments are often matters of tactics and basic arithmetic. Charges such as genocide were dropped. She agreed to testify against some of her colleagues, excepting Slobodan Miloševic.

On sentencing, her speech suggested a change of heart. The pro-nationalist victimiser and ideologue had turned into a mourning figure of repentance. ‘The knowledge that I am responsible for such human suffering and for soiling the character of my people will always be with me,’ she said.

She also insisted, in her 2005 book I Testify, that Radovan Karadžic, himself awaiting trial, and Ratko Mladic, surrender to the UN court. Her argument about Mladic was simple: render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s. Being a ‘great’ soldier, it was fitting he now sacrifice himself before the people at The Hague.

Her comments for Karadžic were less charitable. ‘Nothing surprises me … he is a man who was never willing to make sacrifices.’

The victims of that particularly savage war will not be so gracious. Their understanding of Swedish penal law and leniency, or how Plavšic passed her time in prison baking at leisure, will be beside the point. Memories of slaughter tend to be elephantine, especially in the Balkans. ‘Plavšic is a disgrace and her release is a disgrace,’ claimed an indignant Hajra Mulic, who lost her son at the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.

The former Bosnian Muslim president joined the chorus, complaining about the scarcity of justice in the system. Chairman of the Bosnian Presidency, Željko Komšic cancelled his visit to Sweden on Tuesday in protest.

The politics of releasing high profile criminals, notably political ones, offers societies chances to reflect and move on. The President of the Hague Tribunal, Judge Patrick Robinson, had noted ‘substantial evidence of rehabilitation’. The Tribunal’s first trial — that of Dražen Erdemovic, who had killed dozens of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica — witnessed a shattering confession of crimes that could not be undone. He had been asked not to testify by Milan Babic, leader of the Krajina Serbs. He refused.

Babic himself was eventually moved to repentance. As he told the Tribunal on in January 2004, ‘I can only hope that by expressing the truth, by admitting to my guilt and expressing remorse, [I] can serve as an example to those who still mistakenly believe that such inhumane acts can ever be justified.’

When handled poorly, such cases merely incite anger and the desire for more retribution. Komšic is not one of those who would have liked mercy to be shown to Plavšic. ‘That kind of mercy’, he said, ‘shown to a person who as a Bosnian Serb war leader committed the worst crimes against humanity and participated in planning, creating and implementing the destruction of Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs in Bosnia, would be a great mistake.’

Might she become a figure of Serbian pro-nationalist sentiment, despite her guilty confessions at sentencing in 2003? Will she herself be safe? No one knows. Serbia’s current interests, focused on European integration, will be directed away from this incident. The days of slaughter are now replaced by commercial dictates and institutional debates. The less said about such releases, the better.

This approach would be a mistake, a far cry from various moving statements of contrition, which, even if made by those whose hearts were in the dark house, are essential to the healing of a nation.