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Old 07-03-2008, 09:29 PM   #64
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Originally Posted by HarryT View Post
Where is he "coming from"? The way the books came across to me - and perhaps this is an American/British cultural difference - is as playing unashamedly on the "the Islamic world is out to destroy us" paranoia which a certain segment of the US population seems to be afflicted by. The UK is an extremely "multi-cultural society" and I have many friends who are Muslims. I would be deeply embarrased to have any of them read these books.
I know some folks who would like the BDSM stuff, and others who would be deeply offended. I don't recommend the series to the latter. By the same token, I'm not going to recommend them to Muslims. But I'm not embarrassed by them. I didn't write them.

It's one thing to have nasty aliens in SF books (I have no issues with his "Posleen" books, and very much enjoyed them). I do have major issues when someone appears to be deliberately setting out to "demonize" all followers of a major world religion, and to cause them gross offence, which, to my mind, is what "Ghost" and its sequels do.

Sorry, but I just find them horribly offensive books.
Harry, from where I sit, this isn't really about Islam at all. But saying why I think so will take a bit while I explain the assumptions I make. Patience, please. There's a pot of something at the end of this rainbow. Whether it's a pot of gold or a chamber pot is up to you.

Different people in different places have different cultures, and see the world in very different ways. One of the most common mistakes people make is assuming others are just like them. Not so, and often tragically not so.

Culture is sometimes defined as "everything we know and do", and that's true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Culture is like the proverbial iceberg: 90% of it is invisible, happening on an unconscious level and handled by reflex. Culture is learned by osmosis growing up, as the child observes and imitates the behavior of adults around it. The model I use has culture as an extended form of communication. Cultural patterns evolve to cope with the environment in which a society exists, and many we find inexplicable are there because they once contributed to the survival of the sociey that practices them.

Animal behaviorists have the concept of the "action chain". An action chain may be thought of as an extended reflex. It is triggered by a stimulus, and proceeds through a set of steps in a particular order to produce a result. Mating behavior is an example of an action chain. So is nest building. Two key points apply here: first, if all steps in the chain are not carried out, in the defined order, the result does not occur. Second, animals are not capable of "picking up where they left off". If you interrupt an animal in the middle of an action chain, it must start over from the beginning.

There is pretty conclusive evidence that action chains exist in human behavior, too. To give a pertinent example:

During the later stage of WWII, hundreds of thousands of American GIs were bivouacked in Britain, waiting for the Joint Chiefs to set the date on which they would board their transports for the Normandy Invasion. Allied command got a number of complaints from a girls in a British village that had an American base nearby. The girls called the GIs "pushy" and "sex-crazed". The GIs called the girls prudes or whores. A little investigation revealed what was happening.

A GI would take a village girl on a date. Thinns would go well, and they would enjoy each other's company. When he took her back home, the GI would attempt to kiss the girl goodnight. The kiss, in Britan at the time, was a specifically erotic act, that did not occur until much later in the relationship. Culture as communication: the GI thought he was just conveying "That was fun! I like you! Let's do this again!" What the girl got from it was that she had to either scream and run or get ready to have sex. The actions chains in mating had the steps in a different order in Britain than they had in the US, and potentially tragic misunderstandings occurred.

This misunderstanding took place between two peoples with a common origin, shared language, and common history up until a century and a half or so earlier. Imagine the potential for disaster between cultures that don't have that common heritage, especially when the action chains involve "fight or flight" behavior and conflict resolution. Each side will do something expecting a particular response from the other, and not get it. Things will deteriorate rapidly, and the results won't be good.

The conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors can be viewed in this fashion. Jews and Arabs are both semitic peoples, who consider themselves descended from a common ancestor (Abraham), and share the concepts that there is a single all powerful God, whose word is given in a holy book, and whose thoughts are communicated through prophets. They have similar languages and similar dietary and religious taboos. In biblical times, Jews and Arabs lived together in relative peace on a village level. Then came the destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora. The Jews scattered all over the world.

In the aftermath of World War II, many Jews were left without homes to return to, or with homes in places they didn't want to go back to, like Russia. The Allies had the question of how to handle hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees. For various reasons, some practical and some due to simple Antisemitism, the Allies didn't want them. Neither Britain, France, nor the United States were enthusiastic about providing a haven for hundreds of thousands of displaced Jews.

The UN fastened upon the idea set forth in the Balfour Declaration to carve a new Jewish state out of what had been Palestine, as a new homeland for the Jews. The partition was approved by the UN, the state of Israel was created, and Jews emigrated to it to create a homeland. Palestine had been a British protectorate, but the British were leaving, and Israel would be on its own.

The surrounding Arab states saw an opportunity in this. When the British left, they would invade and push the Jews into the sea, increasing thier own territories. The Jewish settlers recognized existing deeds, and most Palestinian Arabs living in what became Israel retained their homes. But the surrounding Arab states sent agents into Israel to tell the Arab population their land was about to become a battle ground, and that they might be wise to go elsewhere for the duration. They were told they would get more land when they returned after the Arab states were victorious. Many took the bait and left. The Arabs weren't victorious, and a large number of former residents of Israel were left homeless refugees, unable to return.

Arab culture features the concept of the mediator. When two Arabs have a dispute they cannot resolve between themselves, they go to see the mediator. The mediator may be a village elder, or imam, or tribal sheik. He is someone all agree will be impartial, and is empowered to listen to both sides and render a judgment which should be followed. This permits both sides in the dispute to back down without losing face, and avoids many conflicts. (The rabbi serves this function in many Jewish communities.)

There was no such mediator in the dispute over Palestine. A good deal of the Arab resentment over Israel centers on the fact that no one ever listened to their side of the story.

The Jews who returned to Israel after WWII were not the same Jews who had left nearly two thousand year before. Underlying cultural patterns had changed radically. Unconscious assumptions on each side about how the other thought and would react were untrue. An Arab general during one of the Israel/Arab conflicts commented "We aren't fighting Jews! We're fighting Europeans!" He was spot on. The culture of the Israeli settlers building the new state derived from Europe, not the middle east. They weren't at all the same people the Arabs used to live with.

You mave have noticed that Judaism and Islam aren't mentioned above. For good reason, because the underlying conflict isn't Jew vs. Muslim.

Religion governs what we believe. The culture in which we grow up determines how we express it. This is certainly true of Christianity, as witness the variety of beliefs, from Roman and Orthodox Catholic though a bewildering variety of Protestant sects. The US has continuing problems with fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally, believe that God created the heavens and the earth in six days of 24 hours each, and that this all happened a bit over 4,000 years ago. Any evidence to the contrary is the work of Satan.

Religious belief operates on a gut level, not a rational one. From where I sit, a lot of believers cherry pick scripture, selecting the bits that support and defend their particular biases, and ignoring or rejecting the others. Fundamentalist condemnation of homosexuality falls into this bucket. The underlying emotions are fear and loathing. The portions of scripture selected to support their position don't cause the position -- they simply allow them to justify what they already believe, and tell themselves it's OK because God says so.

There are as many schisms and flavors in Islam as there are in Christianity. Start with Sunni vs Shia, stemming from a dispute among the descendants of Mohammad over who rightfully inherited control of Islam, since Mohammad died without a son to be clear successor. There are also differences in underlying cultures. There is interesting evidence coming out that climate change long ago caused a split in the Arab peoples, with some (the Bedouins) remaining nomadic herders and adapting to the arid climate, while others settled around oases or migrated to more fertile areas and became agriculturalists, forming essentially two separate peoples with rather different viewpoints.

An old friend of mine (who is a Jew and an ardent conservative) thinks the conflict in the middle east is fundamentally a civil war between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims, and we simply happen to be caught in the middle. He makes a good case for it. Folks like Osamu Bin Laden are attempting to cast the conflict as a struggle between Islam and the West. From his point of view, it is. He champions a fundamentalist state organized on tribal lines with government by a hereditary aristocracy (The usual successor to a tribal sheik is his eldest son), and law based upon the sharia of Islam. This sort of culture is quite incompatible with that of the West. He sees Western influence as eroding the basics of his desired culture, and he's right, it is. I recall an interview with an old Imam in Saudi Arabia who lamented that the young men would go off to the west for schooling, and when they returned, they weren't interested in Islam any more.

So we are left with questions. Is it possible there are human cultures that are simply incompatible, and contact between them will inevitably result in violence, and the possible destruction of one or the other? In a multi-cultural society, how far do you go to accommodate practices of member cultures, and at what point do you draw the line and say "We don't do that here, and if you do, you can't live here!". How do you enforce that line once drawn? (As a horrible example, take clitoridectomy, practiced by some middle eastern and African cultures. Those who do so are Muslim, but Islam isn't the cause. The practice is rooted in the structure of the society. The reasons for it have been removed by technology, but cultural habits don't go away that simply. Cases of it pop up in the US once in a while among immigrant populations.)

Bottom line, I don't think Ringo is a xenophobe, not do I seem him as demonizing all Muslims. I think he sees a particular subset of the Muslim population who stem from cultures and hold beliefs that are fundamentally antithetical to ours, and that a peaceful resolution of conflict with them probably isn't possible.

Frankly, I think I agree.

Note: the concepts I use above aren't original. One of the most influential sets of books I read were the writings of Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist doing studies in comparative culture. Before he could meaningfully compare cultures, he and his research partner Norman Trager had to come up with a theory of culture, to define what functions culture fulfilled and what they were comparing. I read Hall, and a lot of pieces of a puzzle suddenly fell into place. See Hall's books _The Silent Language_, The Hidden Dimension_, _Beyond Culture_, and _The Dance of Life_, available in Doubleday Anchor trade paper editions. See also his website, at, and the Wikipedia entry for him

Hall has been surprisingly missed by SF writers. I'd think his ideas would be naturals for SF and stories of alien contact and relations. The only SF author I know who drew upon Hall's work was the late Janet Kagan, particularly in her Tor novel, _Hellspark_.

If none of the above convinces you, I'm afraid we'll have to disagree.

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