IS ISLAM RIGID AND INTERFERING?

Faith Doubt

Press coverage of Islam, negative or otherwise, is nothing new. I myself have written plenty of blog posts extoling the virtues of this faith, but I have also written a blog post or two where I have also been somewhat critical of Islam. For some 1,400 years this religion (a religion that is at least theologically peaceful) has been stereotyped, typecasted, loved, hated, dehumanised, chastised, scapegoated, attacked, demonised, praised, and lauded, all in equal measure and from all quarters.

Whilst Muslims feel that we are more than just beheadings, bombings, beards, burkas, biryani, and bad breath, if you look at the way Islam is currently being reported in the media it is easy to see that the narrative, the agenda, the context, the framework, call it what you will, that is being set is focused on several key pockets of interest.

One such area is the modernisation of Islam, specifically the culture and lifestyle of Muslims. Examples of this include the progress in modernity shown by Saudi Arabia when it opened its first cinema earlier this year, with Marvel’s Black Panther the first movie to be shown in the Kingdom for well over a generation. Women are also allowed to drive now, and the Kingdom is hoping to open up theme parks to rival those of Disney. These changes maybe more financially driven than they are religiously driven, but they are deemed to be progressive changes nonetheless.

Another pocket of interest is the reformation of Islam, a viewpoint championed recently by the French government. In certain French circles calls have been made asking that “the verses of the Quran calling for murder and punishment of Jews, Christians, and nonbelievers be struck to obsolescence by religious authorities.” Good luck with that.

France also has a long history of trying to create a brand of Islam particular to itself, one that “conforms to national values, notably secularism, and is immune to the radical interpretations that have gained a footing in certain parts of the Muslim world.” Basically, the French would like Islam to move along the social and cultural spectrum, sliding along the scale from the religious end to the more secular end.

France is perhaps the best of many examples where the lines around Islam and its place in western democratic societies are constantly being redrawn due various ongoing debates. Such is the intensity of these debates that a recent New Statesman article declared that in France, and indeed in many other countries as well, “Islam…has become the secularists’ favourite topic of discussion.” The same article went on to describe the trials and tribulations of 19 year old university student Maryam Pougetoux and the ridiculous hypocrisy she faces from French society for simply wanting to wear a hijab:

Whatever they wear – and whether or not it is their choice – Muslim women in France find themselves in the middle of a secularism debate they have no voice in. They are guilty by association: it is assumed that their hijab is a sign of their adherence to conservative societal values preached by a strict vision of Islam, values that many in France see as incompatible with French secular society. The religious indicator overrules individuality…Pougetoux summed up the Catch-22 situation French Muslim women find themselves in: “If we stay at home, they say we are submissive. If we speak up, if we take action, they say that we are not allowed to do so.” – Pauline Bock, May 2018, from the New Statesman article The Outrage Over A Hijab Reveals The Hypocrisy Of French Secularism

Likewise critics and proponents of Islam, such as Ayaan Hirshi Ali, Reza Aslan, and Irshad Manji, have for many years been calling for a reformation, which is another area of media interest. However, reforming Islam maybe a little more complicated than most people realise, plus we may already be in the middle of such an exercise anyway, as noted by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf:

In Saudi Arabia two hundred years ago, a movement emerged which was a puritanical movement which was a radical departure, it was more of a protestant movement against a kind of Catholic Islam. It was more of a protest movement against a traditional Islam. People say Islam needs a reformation; this is what we’re witnessing. People that say Islam needs a reformation don’t know how bloody the Western Reformation was and how horrible it was and how it fragmented Western culture, and because of it, secularism arose as a treatment…The truth is that secularism has a history that actually outdoes religion in its severity and barbarity. I mean, nobody has been as bloody as the secular ideologues, Stalin and Hitler. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, from an interview in The Cairo Review, Fall 2015

Sexuality within Islam is also prominent in the news. Recent examples include new pro-transgender laws in Pakistan and the #MosqueMeToo movement, created by the formidable Mona Eltahawy, which continues to gain further prominence. The issue of female genital mutilation is also still widely discussed, with some suggesting that this hideous cultural practice is part of Islam (it most definitely is not).

Another area of media interest seems to be focused on people leaving Islam. Ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirshi Ali make regular appearances in the media, and there are many groups supporting ex-Muslims such as the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and the Ex-Muslims of North America. Many of these groups are quite vocal and organised in drawing others to join them. They are also unfortunately subject to a great deal of unwanted harassment and intimidation, even death threats, for obvious and expected reasons. Here is a short video providing further details about the group Ex-Muslims of North America:

This particular topic of people leaving the faith is of personal interest to me as I have a close relative who essentially left Islam to become an atheist several years ago, and more recently the sister of a close friend converted from Islam to Christianity. Certain events in her life pushed her to study her religion in more detail above and beyond the simplistic notions of Islam her parents had told her, mainly to clarify what others were saying to her and, for whatever reason, Islam was found wanting.

The sister and I have spoken for several hours, and we have covered many topics. She has questioned various Qur’anic verses, ahadith, YouTube clips, etc. I have tried my best to provide answers. However, unhappy with the counter arguments I have presented, she has essentially decided to leave Islam and it seems she is heading towards Christianity. Not only that but she is now a vocal critic of her former faith. I guess for me the frustrating thing was that, despite knowing and feeling with all of my heart and mind that Islam is the right path, despite being able to convince myself of this glorious realisation, I failed miserably in trying to convince someone else.

Islamic tradition has many examples of individuals who have great changes in their personal faith. Umar, one of the four rightly guided caliphs, drastically changed from someone who wanted to kill the Prophet to someone who wanted to protect the Prophet with his own life. The Prophet Moses went from being a prominent member of the Egyptian royal household to the one who caused its downfall. And even Satan himself went from the highest to the lowest, from being the most devoted of God’s creation at that time, to the most disobedient. Despite knowing this, it is still weird to see someone you know change from believing in Islam to be the right path, to someone who is now so openly negative about it.

So how do you handle such a situation? How does one react? Two logical options seem clear to me. One option is to be aggressively critical of her newly chosen faith. Whilst I could indeed criticise Christianity, I find such an indifferent approach to be futile and backward. It makes no sense to me to nit-pick religious texts of other faiths just to score theological points. Such debates usually end in tit-for-tat escalations with angry words being exchanged, and you end up with no clear winners and everyone else a loser. I have yet to win an argument by shouting. Does the truth need to be shouted?

Having said that, one should be careful of criticising other faiths because people often fail to realise the criticisms one can make of another faith, those same criticisms can be made of your own. Accusing another faith of circular reasoning, desiring world domination, being unable to conclusively prove your holy book is the word of God, etc, are accusations that could easily be made of your own faith. You just may not be able see it due to your unconscious bias, which is why it is so easy to not only make your own Kool-Aid but to then unknowingly overdose on it.

I have also noticed that the modern world has seen an increased atomisation and individualisation of us all, and this has resulted in increasing clashes between personal freedoms and religious norms. A good example of this is a recent legal case involving Chavie Weisberger, a 35 year old ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who declared she is essentially a secular lesbian. Weisberger had to go through the wringer in court just to get custody of her kids. At first the court said she had to pretend to be ultra-Orthodox just be around her children, even though she was no longer religious, in order to spend unsupervised time with them. This decision was later overturned on appeal. I have no doubt that we are likely to see more and more of these clashes of individual liberties versus religious tradition.

One can add to this the reality that the internet is so vast that you can easily take a faith and paint it in a brilliantly glowing light or a darkly negative one. Such is the fluid nature of faith that there always has been and always will be a movement of people from one religion to another. So there is no wonder that people can become frustrated and confused when trying to learn about a particular faith. The old adage of doubting your doubts before you doubt your faith seems less and less applicable these days. And this is why I guess for every Muhammad Ali there is a Salman Rushdie.

And never mind different religions disagreeing with each other, even within religions plenty of disagreements exist. The Republican politician Mitt Romney recently spoke out against the controversial evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, who delivered a prayer at the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018. Romney tweeted the following harsh words:

Christianity has Catholics and Protestants, Islam has Sunnis and Shias, Hindus have their castes, and pretty much every religion has liberals, secularists, reformers, and progressives in one corner, and the stony-faced orthodoxy in the opposite corner. Islam alone has over 70 sects, each covering differing areas of belief and theology. And this is why I guess for every Malala there is an Osama.

You can actually go further and say that the whole debate about religion is even more nuanced than that. There will be Muslims looking at me and, from their religious perspective, some will say I am too extreme and I need to calm down a wee bit, others will say I am too liberal and I need to be more serious, and I have no doubt that others still (here’s looking at you ISIS) will say I don’t even qualify as a Muslim because I live the west and partake in democratic processes.

The other logical option I could take in responding to the sister is to be more empathetic. In Islam there is a verse of the Quran (chapter 109, verse 6) that translates as (according to the Sahih International translation) “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.” It took me a long time to appreciate that this short verse is actually a mercy from Allah. Rather than argue with others over cherry-picked religious texts that we will invariably be taken out of context (since when have I been a Biblical or Qur’anic scholar?!), I feel it is best to let people be, whether they are from the same faith or outwith. For at the end of the day it does come down to faith, peace, happiness, and contentment, and whichever religion can provide you that, then that is the one you should follow. It seems therefore that context, along with personal circumstance, is everything.

I briefly mentioned the situation of my friend’s sister on a Muslim forum website. From the responses given it was clear that this phenomena of people leaving Islam is more common than I first realised. I was also surprised by the varied suggestions and comments:

It doesn’t matter if people are born as Muslim. The journey to God Almighty is a deeply personal one and what is crystal clear to one individual is a point of contention for another. Any person seeking the truth will travel to the furthest corners of the universe in order to find it…Religious commitment is heavily influenced by personal experience, opportunities (or the lack of), personality, age, upbringing, social experiences and so forth…

Acknowledging what the sister feels is critical here. I appreciate there is an arsenal of hadith commentary, YouTube clips and soundbites we can share, but let’s not forget that what she is feeling is sadly common today. Whether her sentiments are a reflection of the confusion of our times or simply the stupid behaviour of other Muslims that she has been subject to, it is worthwhile adopting empathy as a first port of call. I have met many Muslims who feel this way. I even recall Shaykh Hamza Yusuf commenting that he knows people whose children have opened up classical Islamic texts and read ahadith on stoning someone to death or other punishments that are now outdated, and they have simply left the Deen because they were so disgusted with rulings that were at odds with the environment they have grown up in…

This is a time of trial and tribulation, and the tests are coming thick and fast. Sometimes you think you believe, but then something happens which shakes your foundation and makes you think otherwise…

All you can do is offer support, provide avenues for her to get answers if she really wants them, give her time, and be careful not to overwhelm her. You cannot convince someone unless they are open to being convinced. If I really wanted answers for myself, I wouldn’t try to find them from watching videos of ex-Muslims…

I also came across the following quote from a recent article I read. The globe-trotting photographer Lynsey Addario has travelled the world and has encountered many different cultures and peoples, especially across the Muslim world. She was recently featured in an online National Geographic article where she was asked about her spiritual upbringing. This was her rather interesting response:

I was raised Italian Catholic, with the tradition of going to church every Sunday, before a big family lunch at one of my grandmothers’, and religion classes on Tuesday afternoons. But as I grew into a young woman, I identified less with Catholicism, and learned to appreciate different aspects of different faiths. I am a spiritual person, and I have great respect for all different religions, but I personally no longer go to church every Sunday. It’s interesting, because I have been photographing in relatively dangerous places for a long time now, and have spent a great deal of time with people from different faiths. I often receive messages or emails or calls from friends around the world, saying that they are praying for me—whether Christian or Catholic or Muslim. My grandmother, who is 104, always prays to Saint Ann for me, and my close friend Lubna, who lives in Saudi, will literally go to Mecca to pray for me when I have gone to Syria in the past. I love and respect that about faith, that everyone has his or her beliefs which carry them through difficult times. – Lynsey Addario, 17 Apr 2018, from the National Geographic article Why This Photographer Set Out To Break Muslim Stereotypes

Despite our lengthy conversations neither the sister nor I really brought anything new to the theological table. Essentially we were rehashing centuries old arguments such as the reality of shariah law, the status of women in Islam, the authenticity of the Qur’an, the psychological state of the Prophet, the age of his wife Aisha when she was married, and more of the same old. What we were really doing, with all our to-ing and fro-ing, was confirming the spiritual path we had already decided to travel upon in our hearts and minds.

However, I realised there was another thing we were doing. I think in some weirdly ironic way we have not just confirmed but also strengthened each other’s faith. By questioning Islam in the way the sister did, she forced me to re-evaluate my relationship with Islam. That re-evaluation has only increased my belief in Islam and I honestly feel I am on the right path. And by perhaps not being able to answer all her questions to her satisfaction, I may have inadvertently strengthened her commitment to the new spiritual path she now seems to be undertaking. And at the end of the day is that not what faith is all about? An educated and sincere leap into the great unknown?

My cousin and the sister are in some ways more active with their faith than some Muslims currently are. Many Muslims are far too complacent, which leads to indifference towards Allah, which is indeed a slow spiritual death. One should always remember that the opposite of love is not hate, it is complacency. So in their own way questioning their faith is a good thing because they are at least interacting with it, rather than just being comfortably self-righteous. You could even argue that their words, deeds, and actions are more in alignment than those of many so-called practicing Muslims.

Going back to the pocket of interest that involves ex-Muslims, I came across an article from the New Statesman that openly spoke of people leaving Islam for various reasons. Whilst I agree with some of the points made in the article there are plenty of other points that perhaps could do with further discussion, especially in the presence of a learned Qur’anic scholar. Presented below are selected quotes from the article which, as always, is well worth reading in full.

Finally, to all fellow truth seekers out there, be you monotheist (like Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and Christians), polytheist (like Hindus, Shintoists, and Zoroastrians), atheist (like Kumail Nanjiani, Steven Pinker, and Stephen Hawking), agnostic (like Neil Gaiman, Edward Said, and Charlie Chaplin), anti-theist (like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, aka the famous ‘Four Horsemen of Atheism’), or whatever your belief, whatever your faith, may you be brave enough to take the steps you need to take, and I wish you all the best on your own personal spiritual journey. See you on the other side!


What I Learned When I Spoke To The People Who Chose To Leave Islam

Fiyaz Mughal, 09 May 2018, newstatesman.com

As a Muslim, I believe that we need to face up to the fact faith can become rigid and interfering.

Faith gives comfort, solace and reflection to many. But the Islam practised by many Muslims in the UK is not one of reflection, but of ritual without understanding. It is about punishment, pain and barriers, rather than enlightenment, openness and the nurturing of creative thought. The Wahabbist-Salafism that has so infected Islam over the last 100 years has done so because of petrodollars from Saudi Arabia’s coffers. These petrodollars have stifled and throttled the natural development of Islam in modernity, choke-holding it and keeping it in the medieval period that Wahabbi-Salafists want as a means of control.

This rigidity reflects itself in various ways. I find Muslims half my age, angry and disaffected that the world hates them. I find Islamist groups in the UK that try and defend some of the more unsavoury and vile practices around elements like apostasy in Islam where punishment through with-holding access to children, inheritance rights and at the extreme end, the threat of execution, is a way to ‘redeem’ and ‘reclaim’ someone who just does not believe. I find Muslims in the UK unable to historically challenge child marriage and even re-affirming child marriage because it is somehow Islamic to betroth someone at childhood, as if we live in the 12th century.

Then, sadly, I also find the defensive brigade. These include those who push away difficult issues such as punishment for apostasy, the place of Jews, Christians and other faiths in Muslim majority countries and even the history of the Arabian peninsula before Islam. I simply don’t buy into the age of the “Jahaliyya” –that dismissal of the period of Arabian history before the advent of Islam as the “age of Ignorance”. Ask the vast majority of British Muslims what history and culture existed in that period, and they will be unable to describe any detail, apart from the fact that it was idolatrous, tribal and “ignorant” of the word of God. Indeed, much of the physical evidence of that history has been wantonly destroyed. This is isn’t religion – it’s religious propaganda.

In the end, Islam does not stand alone. To many Muslims, it may be the word of God, but in thinking this, they deny the fact that faith is a lived experience and the faith that they follow has been shaped by human lives who have gone before. Islam has also been shaped by those who leave it and this happened early on in the formation of an Islamic community in seventh century Arabia. To deny that, is to deny Islam’s history.

 

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RAMADAN ON SESAME STREET

Not Even Water

We are now well and truly in the blessed month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year. Because the Islamic calendar is based on a lunar cycle and the western (Gregorian) calendar is based on a solar cycle, Ramadan keeps shifting back about 11 days every year, which is why this year’s start of the month is earlier than last years, as will be the case next year.

For me this month is an intense spiritual period where we Muslims step up a gear, where we try to be a better version of ourselves compared to the previous 11 lunar months. I remember reading Ramadan being described as ‘high altitude training for the soul.’ This is the month where we use the power of fasting to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. This month is when we Muslims try to rebalance our spirituality, in order to gain further insight into our faith, a concept best expressed by the Muslim caliph Imam Ali:

Conquer your lustful desires and your wisdom will be perfected. – Imam Ali (AS)

Also, it is this time of year where Muslims have to listen to the famous non-Muslim proverb of “What? Not even water?” There is even a website called notevenwater that provides further details of Ramadan. The idea of fasting for religious purposes is something that other faiths, such as Christianity, are also fully aware of:

We observe that in the scriptures, fasting almost always is linked with prayer. Without prayer, fasting is not complete fasting; it’s simply going hungry. – Joseph B Wirthlin

As expected, there is currently a glut of articles written about Islam, Muslims, fasting, and Ramadan. Below is my attempt to collate a few bits and bobs that I have come across over the past few days, things that I hope provide further awareness and deeper understanding of what Ramadan is all about. Enjoy!


An interesting article about Ramadan and the British retail industry…

Fun, Fashion And Halal Lipstick: Retailers Cash In On £200m Ramadan Economy

Harriet Sherwood, 29 Apr 2018, theguardian.com

Muslims observing Ramadan are increasingly being targeted by supermarkets and brands in the UK, which has led to a rise in spending on food and gifts during the month, according to new research.

The Ramadan economy in the UK is worth at least £200m, with supermarket chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons increasingly gearing products, displays and special offers on popular food items to Ramadan in areas with significant Muslim populations. This year, for example, Morrisons is selling a Ramadan countdown calendar, similar to an Advent calendar, aimed at children.

The month-long Muslim religious observance starts in mid-May and its ending is marked with the Eid al-Fitr holiday. MAC cosmetics, the Body Shop and Godiva chocolates are some of the brands specifically packaging goods as Eid gifts.


Why do Muslims fast? Here is an interesting answer…

The most common question I get from people of different faiths has to be why we fast. Many people answer this question with a response, “to feel how the poor feel when they have nothing to eat.” Personally, I think that since fasting in Ramadan is not that difficult, it is almost an insult to claim that it is to feel the poor’s hunger. The hunger they feel is much greater, especially since they may not know when their next meal will come. Fasting is a means to gain something called Taqwa. Taqwa is an Arabic word that means many things, such as being aware that Allah (our word for God) has full knowledge of your actions and intentions. In Islam, Allah has knowledge of everything we do and even think. Fasting is more than abstaining from food and drink. It is understanding that Allah has full knowledge. And because of this, we must navigate through the world with caution of our actions and intentions – to be good to our fellow human beings and to yourself. All of our deeds and intentions should be virtuous and for the sake of Allah. Ramadan is an opportune time to be able to reflect and be more aware of this. – Dr Magda Abdelfattah, May 2018, from an interview in the Wisconsin Muslim Journal


My favourite Ramadan 2018 tweets so far…


Wajahat Ali wants more from his Ramadan…

This Ramadan, I’ll Try Praying for Enemies, Friends, Frenemies and Kanye West

Wajahat Ali, 16 May 2018, nytimes.com

In recent years, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, has become part of mainstream American society. It is frequently cited in hip-hop and even made an appearance in Eminem’s epic freestyle takedown of President Trump at the BET Awards. In keeping with the tradition started by Thomas Jefferson, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama hosted community leaders and dignitaries at Ramadan dinners featuring a variety of exquisite halal meats. (Mr. Trump eliminated that beautiful gathering. That’s not surprising given his belief that “Islam hates us.”)

The holy month is now even linked to the most sacred American tradition, consumerism: Party City has introduced a line of Ramadan decorations featuring mosques, stars and crescent symbols.

But I want more. This Ramadan, I’m in search of something substantive that nurtures my soul and truly transforms America, which is wounded, suffering from a resurgence in open expressions of hate against racial and religious minorities, and politicians who seek to profit off the divides. I know the solution will start at home, so this month, I aspire to evolve into an overweight, middle-aged superhero without a cape, disciplined and mindful, grateful for my privileges, spiritually aware and more compassionate. I’ll try praying for enemies, friends, frenemies and Kanye West.

The Arabic root for the word Ramadan means “scorched.” The month deliberately disrupts your routine, your comfort and your mode of thinking. You hunger, you thirst, you long for sex, you engage with family members and community members that you’d otherwise avoid and disown.

The disruptions bring pain and annoyance, but they can also create opportunities for growth. I welcome these strictures as an invitation to expand my community and capacity for generosity. This might sound like a Deepak Chopra Hallmark card, but I really do try to practice what I preach.

Try is the key word here. The hassles of everyday life don’t stop during Ramadan.


The casual Muslim Zanny Ali confesses all…

On Ramadan – Confessions Of A Casual Muslim

Zanny Ali, 16 May 2018, refinery29.uk

I wouldn’t say I’m a bad Muslim. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly good one. I’m not so sure you can even say either of those things about someone that follows Islam. There’s a sense that, simply put, you are or you aren’t a Muslim. But what about someone that’s a ‘bad’ Muslim for 11 months of the year and then tops up on God points for 30 days during Ramadan? That’s the category I’d fall into.

Still, I identify as Muslim. I am Muslim – albeit a sinful one for most of the year, during which I’ll overindulge without a second thought: eat and drink what and when I want, stay up all night, live the life of a heathen. Then for one month I’ll be on lockdown: eating well, no boozing, early nights, working hard, thinking pure thoughts. It is genuinely my favourite time of the year and I always look forward to it.

I wouldn’t say I’m a bad Muslim. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly good one. I’m not so sure you can even say either of those things about someone that follows Islam. There’s a sense that, simply put, you are or you aren’t a Muslim. But what about someone that’s a ‘bad’ Muslim for 11 months of the year and then tops up on God points for 30 days during Ramadan? That’s the category I’d fall into.

Still, I identify as Muslim. I am Muslim – albeit a sinful one for most of the year, during which I’ll overindulge without a second thought: eat and drink what and when I want, stay up all night, live the life of a heathen. Then for one month I’ll be on lockdown: eating well, no boozing, early nights, working hard, thinking pure thoughts. It is genuinely my favourite time of the year and I always look forward to it.

Towards the end of the month, with nearly 30 days of clear(er) thinking in the bank, it becomes obvious that Ramadan is not about the hunger or thirst at all. My favourite thing about Ramadan, and one of the things that made me start fasting again in my mid-twenties, was seeing how it brought family and friends together each day. Having the excuse and making the effort to see my large extended family, and eating with them at sundown, is something I cherish. Every day there is genuinely something to look forward to. How many are fortunate enough to say that? And what I’m most anticipating on Eid isn’t being able to stuff my face during the day, or going to meet my friends for a drink afterwards – it’s seeing my family all together.

For me, Ramadan serves as a reminder to do things that I should already be doing throughout the year. To be kind, to help people out. I shouldn’t need a month of fasting to be reminded of this, but it does help. It is carrying out, or at least trying to carry out, these lessons for the rest of the year that forms a large part of my identity as a Muslim, despite other people’s assumptions of what a Muslim is or should be. And in the current political climate, with some idiots-calling-themselves-Muslims preying on the softest of soft targets with increasing regularity, it does make you rethink your own relationship to your religion and the expectations that go with it.

WHY DO PALESTINIANS THROW ROCKS?

Aggressor

The current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington is the most divisive politician of modern times. Bear in mind in this modern era we have had politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Robert Mugabe, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, George W Bush, Vladimir Putin, and many other contenders to the throne of undisguised tribalism.

Politics all around the world is moving quickly and dangerously to the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Divisions are growing not just between countries but within them. In Britain we have a virtually empty centre ground, with only the Liberal Democrats clinging on to dear hope. And then at one end we have the austerity mad immigrant hating Conservatives, and at the other end we have the increasingly anti-Semitic socialism of Labour.

Over in the States the right continues to radicalize, becoming more and more ideologically homogenous and extreme. This has resulted in a white supremacist now in power, supported by the predominantly white Republican Party and its base. Trump is opposed by the Democrats, a toothless party who are meandering politically with no clear direction. Whilst American society is increasing in diversity, it is also paradoxically becoming more and more polarised and segregated, as described in detail in the Washington Post.

This does not bode well for the future of politics as politicians all over the world, especially conservative politicians, now know that anything goes. According to journalist David Roberts in order to have “a long and comfortable career in conservative politics…corruption in service to tribe is no vice at all.” Which basically means that if you think things are bad now then you ain’t seen nothing yet. In the same article Roberts goes on to describe a link between the Republicans, Trump and tribalism:

The GOP has rolled over for Trump like a puppy. His naked corruption and overt authoritarian tendencies do not occasion any oversight or even objection, because they are deployed on behalf of the tribe. When you are involved in zero-sum warfare, the ends justify any means…For the tribalist, there are only opposing tribes and the battle between them. Pretense to the contrary, appeals to any sort of trans-partisan standards or restraints, are merely a ruse, a gambit in the endless war. – David Roberts

This ‘them’ and ‘us’ narrative is hardly a new one, indeed it’s as old as human history, but the increasing ease with which populists are adopting and exploiting this is disturbing. Whether the ‘them’ in question refers to immigrants, perceived scroungers, elites, people of another political persuasion, or even adjacent countries, one of the most pervasive effects of globalism seems to be how easy it is to convince people that they’re missing out. A simple way that Trump divides groups into ‘them’ and ‘us’ is through the use of pronouns such as ‘them’ and ‘us’ in his speeches, a point noted by Time magazine:

President Trump likes to talk about “us” and “them.” In speeches and interviews, Trump frequently uses collective pronouns to talk about the United States versus other countries, especially China and Mexico, as well as to address his supporters. That’s not uncommon. A 2013 study of candidates for Australian prime minister since 1901 found that the winners used “we” and “us” more frequently than their unsuccessful opponents in 80% of elections. But how Trump defines those terms is unusual, at least in American politics. In several notable instances, Trump has used “we” to refer to men, used “us” and “them” when discussing Islam and America and talked about taking down Confederate statues as “trying to take away our history.” – Ryan Teague Beckwith

Ian Bremmer, author and staunch globalist, has written a new book called Us Vs. Them: The Failure Of Globalism. The book looks at how this ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality has resulted in a worldwide explosion of growing nationalism and populism, a direct consequence of which is support for anti-establishment politicians like Trump and other far right groups. Bremmer sees little light at the end of this tunnel, as the divide between the haves and have-nots continues to sharpen, so the book offers a dark prognosis for the world and the future.

Whilst the book is well worth reading in full (Bremmer has a very confident writing style) presented below are 2 quotes that offer a taste of what the book is like. The first speaks about the overall failure of globalisation and the subsequent rise in inequality, whilst the second is about Trump and the state of democracy in the ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture we find ourselves in. Enjoy!

PS Before we start, here is a little joke from the American comedian Jay Leno about throwing rocks…

An Israeli man’s life was saved when he was given a Palestinian man’s heart in a heart transplant operation. The guy is doing fine, but the bad news is, he can’t stop throwing rocks at himself. – Jay Leno

Anyways, on to the excerpts from the book Us Vs. Them: The Failure Of Globalism by Ian Bremmer…

Ian Us Them

Why do Palestinians throw rocks? To attract attention? To improve their lives? To make progress toward creation of a Palestinian state? They throw rocks because they want others to see that they’ve had enough, that they can’t be ignored, and that they can break things. Voting isn’t helping them. Outsiders don’t care. Where are the opportunities to bring about change? There is nothing left but to throw rocks.

In that sense, there will soon be Palestinians all over the world. Workers everywhere fear lost jobs and wages as a shifting global economy and technological change leave them behind. Citizens fear surging waves of strangers who alter the face and voice of the country they know. They fear terrorists and criminals who kill for reasons no one can understand. They fear that government cannot or will not protect them. Gripped by anxiety, they get angry. To make themselves seen, heard, and felt, they start to throw rocks.

Then the call for help is answered. Donald Trump tells an excited overflow crowd that he sees them, that he sees their enemies, and that only he can take them (back) to the promised land. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders tell cheering fans that big corporations and Wall Street banks are robbing them blind. Champions of Brexit tell voters they must reclaim Britain’s borders and reject laws and rules imposed by Europeans. European populists tell followers they will lead the charge of patriots against foreigners and globalists.

These leaders aren’t arguing that government should be bigger or smaller, that it should tax less or spend more. They’re challenging the right of “elites” to make the rules that govern our lives. They tell citizens they’ve been cheated of their chance to succeed, and that the media is in on it. They promise to comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, and burn down the houses of power.

We can attack these populists, mock them, or dismiss them, but they know something important about the people they’re talking to, and they understand that many people believe that “globalism” and “globalization” have failed them. These would‑be leaders have a talent for drawing boundaries between people. They offer a compelling vision of division, of “us vs. them,” of the worthy citizen fighting for his rights against the entitled or grasping thief. Depending on the country and the moment, “them” may mean rich people or poor people, foreigners or religious, racial, and ethnic minorities. It can mean supporters of a rival political party or people who live in a different part of the country. It can mean politicians, bankers, or reporters. However applied, it’s a tried-and-true political tool.

This book is not about the rocks or the damage they do on impact. Rocks are expressions of frustration. They don’t solve problems. Instead, we must look more closely at the deeper sources of these frustrations, at how governments around the world are likely to respond to them, and how political leaders, institutions, companies, schools, and citizens can work together to make things better.

There was no wealth where I grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, but from my childhood street you could see it in Boston’s green and gold skyline. I had no idea what went on inside those towers, but they had my attention. How do you get from here to there, I wondered? When my high school offered a program called “Teach a Kid How America Works,” I leaped at the chance to join. We junior achievers put on our coats and ties, headed downtown, up the crowded streets, past the men in suits, through the tall glass doors, up the quiet elevator before gliding to a silent stop, waiting, and stepping into the place where the executives worked. I think it was a bank. It had the deepest carpet I’d ever seen.

Then we were ushered in for an audience with Tim, a man who seemed genuinely glad to meet us. He had a strong handshake, and he looked at me like he was really looking at me. “Would you like to work here?” he asked the group. One of us said yes and the rest nodded in agreement. “Nobody’s stopping you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you want to be successful, you just have to study hard and work hard. It’s totally up to you.” He believed it, so I did too.

He was right. From the projects, I earned a college scholarship and then a PhD, got an idea, launched a company, made money, got on TV, and wrote books. A kid born on the hard edge of a great American city, the child of a single mother (my dad died when I was four) who, with uncommon singleness of purpose, walked two boys past every trap and pushed us toward success. One small example of the American dream.

As a young adult, the American dream came wrapped in a package of “globalism,” a belief in universal interdependence and international exchange that seemed to provide paths to prosperity for both the poor boy I was and the successful man I hoped to become. Globalism seemed a generous choice; it’s the game everyone can win. Embrace capitalism, lower the walls, hire, build, and expand. People who’ve made it, or who believe they’ll get a fair shot, are drawn to globalism. I devoted my professional life to it. Why not? The system worked for me, and it has lifted hundreds of millions around the world from poverty. Why can’t it one day work for everyone?

It didn’t, and it hasn’t. An early counterexample came with the rioting at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization, where what began as a peaceful, well-organized, pro-labor protest became a magnet for anticorporate, antinuclear, anti-what-else‑ya‑got anarchist street theater, and then a running battle between kids dodging rubber bullets and cops dodging rocks. Globalists didn’t pay much attention. In retrospect, it was a warning sign.

In 2008, years of deregulation, bad bets, and bad faith brought down some of the world’s biggest banks, sending shock waves around the world. Next came the Occupy Wall Street movement, leaving bankers worried that the vagrants might get violent. The World Economic Forum at Davos that year was fascinating. No one knew how bad things would get for the global economy or what would happen next. But then came the bailouts for banks, which stabilized the markets. China’s leaders injected billions to keep China’s economic engine humming, the world’s elites went back to business, and Wall Street’s occupiers went home.

The Arab world’s aborted revolutions got our attention, and the refugee crises it triggered brought them closer to home, but it wasn’t until Britain voted to leave the European Union that the indictment of globalism became unavoidably obvious. Then Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States.

Today, the watchword is inequality. We have always known the world remained an unfair place, but most of the world’s elites believed, with plenty of evidence, that globalism was the solution, not the problem. But while the elites convene for debate, more people are getting frustrated.

Back in Chelsea, in my old neighborhood, people are angry. They no longer believe that hard work and education are enough. They don’t see a path, and they feel they’ve been lied to. For decades. My brother voted for Donald Trump, and if my mother were alive, I bet she would have too. She certainly wouldn’t have voted for anyone who has spent any time in Washington over the past thirty years. The anger is becoming more obvious—in Appalachia, in Gaza, in Latin America, in North Africa, and in Eastern Europe.


No one voted for Donald Trump because he believed the United States was growing more secure and more prosperous. In a country where working-age men without jobs outnumber those with jobs by three to one, and half of unemployed men take daily pain medication, a lot of people want “change.” It’s hard to imagine what sort of future Americans can expect if the fate of these people is ignored.

It’s easy to find fault with populists like Trump. He’s obnoxious, dishonest, and incompetent. But Donald Trump didn’t create “us vs. them”. “Us vs. them” created Donald Trump, and those who dismiss his supporters are damaging the United States.

There are good reasons to want smaller government. It’s natural to fear that Washington spends too much money. There are reasons to worry that political correctness will kill freedom of speech and the birth of good ideas. There are plenty of Americans who care sincerely about people with preexisting medical conditions, but who fear that creation of another entitlement program will one day bankrupt the country, leaving government without money to cover anyone.

These people aren’t stupid or mean-spirited. They don’t hate poor people. Some of them are poor people. Many are Americans who fear that intellect too often overrides common sense, that their countrymen are more interested in what they can get than in who will pay, that too many politicians care more about universal ideals than about American workers and their families, and that the country they knew is fading away.

Many Trump voters, including those who once supported Barack Obama, backed him because they wanted change. Actual change, not the kind of change promised on campaign posters. There’s a working class in the United States that really has seen more losses than gains from free trade. U.S. infrastructure is crumbling, the country’s education system is underperforming, its health care system is in real trouble, and the U.S. penal system doesn’t work. American soldiers have fought and died in wars that seemed to accomplish nothing and that were never adequately explained to the American people.

These failures belong to the entire U.S. political establishment. Citizens feel lied to or ignored — by politicians, the mainstream media, the business elite, bankers, and public intellectuals. They believe the game is rigged in someone else’s favor, and they have a point.

American democracy itself is eroding. Donald Trump was elected president with votes from 26.3 percent of eligible voters. Hillary Clinton won 26.5 percent, but lost the electoral college. Yet here is the most revealing number: Nearly 45 percent of eligible American voters didn’t vote at all.

Some didn’t show up because they felt their vote represented a drop in the ocean, and some lived in states where the outcome wasn’t in doubt. Others felt that none of the candidates could or would make things better. But many of these more than 100 million eligible American voters just didn’t believe the outcome mattered. Just 36.4 percent of those eligible voted in the 2014 midterm congressional elections.

It gets worse. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it’s important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today. Fewer than one in three young Americans say that it’s important to live in a democracy. In 1995, just one in sixteen Americans agreed that it would be “good” or “very good” to have military rule in the United States. In 2016, it was one in six.

Trump has made things worse. He has further poisoned the attitudes of his followers toward government and the media, inflicted lasting damage on U.S. ties with close allies, and embarrassed the country before the world. Worst of all, he has deliberately pitted Americans against one another for political gain. We see the polarized electorate in Trump’s own poll numbers. His supporters have backed him through conflicts and controversies that would have ended the careers of any other public official, and his detractors wouldn’t thank him if he pulled them from a burning building.

But when critics focus on the man and ignore the underlying emergencies that lifted him to the White House, they exacerbate the American problem of “us vs. them”. They make it easier to build walls and harder to help those who need help most. It’s much easier to mock Donald Trump, rail at his excesses, and caricature his backers than to work toward solutions to the problems that leave many convinced they have no future and that their fellow Americans don’t care.

As in the United States, it’s easy to demonize those Europeans who fear open borders as heartless racists who care nothing for refugees and hate Muslims. We can ignore those who say their governments have ceded too much power to bureaucrats in Brussels. But these people know that if they welcome unlimited numbers of migrants, they’re inviting large numbers of people to risk their lives and those of their children to make the journey and that smaller European countries will struggle to manage the overflow. They’re right that not all these migrants are truly refugees, and that encouraging so many to leave their home countries allows autocrats in North Africa and the Middle East to drive out those who don’t support them. It is not racist to acknowledge that the best of intentions sometimes produce terrible consequences.

Further, democracy is undermined when growing numbers of the decisions that govern people’s lives are made by people who don’t stand for election within the borders of their countries. Attacking political demagogues like Beppe Grillo and Marine Le Pen is one thing. Dismissing the hopes and fears of those who turn to them exacerbates the problem of us vs. them and makes it more difficult to rework the European social contract in ways that both left and right can accept.

Challenges that are serious for the United States and Europe are even more daunting for developing countries. The introduction of automation and artificial intelligence into the workplace will create more turmoil for workers in wealthy countries, but it will be profoundly disruptive in the developing world, where there will be fewer factory jobs to pull less educated people from the countryside into the urban workforce. Governments without money to invest in technological innovation—and to upgrade education systems and retraining programs to help citizens profit from it — will create fewer opportunities for young people. Social unrest will test the resilience of governments, and political officials will stoke more conflict between us and them to protect their own power and influence.

The result will be a widening of the divide between wealthy countries and poor ones — and between rich and poor within each country. And if we focus mainly on the demagoguery of the populists who try to take advantage of these trends, we will only widen the gap between those who can afford to ignore them and those who can’t.

There is another danger common to every nation on Earth.

Each year, human beings now produce more data than in every previous year combined.

The choices we make, particularly online, help algorithms understand our interests, wants, and needs better than our friends and families do. Add the reality that people are easy to influence. Fake news generated on the Internet shapes public perception in ways we still don’t fully appreciate, and a coming wave of digitally sophisticated fake images and video will complicate things further.

It’s not difficult to imagine a world in which technical specialists looking to make money help politicians looking to gain power understand and manipulate us in ways that undermine the political influence of citizens in every country.

Over time, people wise up. They become less easy to fool. But they can easily become more cynical, and that can lead them to turn their backs on politics altogether, leaving elections to be decided by the angriest and most opinionated.

In the meantime, there are choices to make. Build walls? Or rewrite the social contract? Both strategies can work in many countries, at least for a while. Both demand capable government with the resources to construct and sustain these systems. The construction of walls won’t kill the idea of responsive government. It will simply create a form of digital apartheid that ensures some are well served while others aren’t served at all. As in Israel. And, increasingly, as in the United States.

Reinvention of the social contract is going to be politically impossible in many countries for many years to come. The sense of crisis isn’t yet strong enough, because so many globalists continue to profit from the system as it is, and walls of various kinds will protect them, temporarily, from real danger. Things have to become much worse, particularly for the winners, before they can become better for everyone else. This is the ultimate failure of globalism.

Where and when it becomes possible to experiment, efforts to rewrite the social contract will work most easily in countries with relatively homogenous societies, borders that face relatively little pressure, and the means to continually expand economic productivity. But this principle can work in any country where a positive political consensus is possible. Remaking the relationship between citizens and government is much more likely than the construction of walls to create lasting security and prosperity for the greatest number of people.

History and personal experience show that people give their best when the best is required of them. That day is coming sooner than we think. Even those who think they want war will change their minds when they see its costs. Human beings use their natural ingenuity to create the tools they need to survive. In this case, survival requires that we invent new ways to live together.

Necessity must again become the mother of invention.