Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Why I am an Islamophobe

[Osama bin Laden’s] claim to speak for Islam or for all Muslims might be contested, but the religion itself was an expression of deeper yearnings that needed to be sympathetically understood. On no account–and this imperative was put forward by President Bush as well as by many liberals–were the less tender elements of his doctrine to be used as a critique of religion. A hitherto marginal propaganda term, “Islamophobia,” underwent a mainstream baptism and was pressed into service to intimidate those who suspected that faith might indeed have something to do with it.
—Christopher Hitchens, The Enemy
What worries me is that so many moderate Muslims believe that “Islamophobia” is a bigger problem than literalist Islam is. They seem more outraged that someone like me would equate jihad with holy war than that millions of their co-religionists do this and commit atrocities as a result.
—Sam Harris, in Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
Note: This isn’t about anything proposed by Donald Trump, who is a bigoted narcissist with a hopelessly simplistic view of the world. Please give yourself some time to read this essay beyond the headline. The truly impatient might at least look at its conclusion.

When my mother called me on the morning of September 11, 2001 and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, my first reaction was, “So what?” I pictured the small wreck of a Cessna stuck into a few windows, an accident resulting from some grossly incompetent private pilot.

September 11th [Flickr page]

After I’d rubbed the sleep from my eyes and walked over to my computer to watch the live coverage online, I saw that huge plume of smoke and realized this was bigger than I’d thought. Then the second plane hit, and Islam–as envisioned by a small group of its most fanatically devoted followers–had introduced itself to my world.

In an effort to understand what my President was calling a “religion of peace,” I bought a paperback copy of the Qur’an1 and started reading. It didn’t seem all that peaceful to me. Just in the first three pages, Sura 2 (“The Cow”) went on and on about infidels who will receive “a severe chastisement,” whose hearts are diseased, for whom a fire has been prepared.

On page 17 (still in Sura 2), I encountered a command for Muslims to “fight for the cause of God against those who fight against you.” It was accompanied by the caveat that they should not attack the unbelievers first, at least, though that’s pretty much a moot point now, with Middle Eastern grievances stretching back many hundreds of years. Then, the text went on, “kill them wherever ye shall find them, and eject them from whatever place they have ejected you; for civil discord is worse than carnage.” With the sound still fresh in mind of turbofan engines and screams and bodies falling onto the pavement, this didn’t seem like a promising start.

And it wasn’t. Sura 8 (“The Spoils”) instructed the reader, in the name of “thy Lord” who’d apparently told some angels, “I will be with you: therefore stablish ye the faithful. I will cast a dread into the hearts of the infidels,” to “Strike off their heads then, and strike off from them every finger-tip,” because “they have opposed God and His Apostle.” Further instruction was to “Fight then against them till strife be at an end, and the religion be all of it God’s.” Sura 9 (“Immunity”) urged, “Believers! Wage war against such of the infidels as are your neighbors, and let them find you rigorous: and know that God is with those who fear him.”

September 11, 2001 [Flickr page]

Sura 24 (“Light”) sets forth a brutal punishment for the “whore and the whoremonger,” of the type that is still being carried out by faithful Muslims of ISIS and Saudi Arabia today: “scourge each of them with an hundred stripes; and let not compassion keep you from carrying out the sentence of God, if you believe in God and the last day.” Raif Badawi may have recalled the next line as the lash bore down on him in January: “And let some of the faithful witness their chastisement.” As he himself recalled it, “when I look within, I only see that thin man who miraculously withstood fifty lashes, while a group of people celebrated his pain, repeatedly chanting Allahu Akbar.”2

The first verses of Sura 47 (“Muhammed”) included this framework for interfaith dialogue: “When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them, and of the rest make fast the fetters.” Two pages later, it urged believers not to be fainthearted, “and invite not the infidels to peace when ye have the upper hand.” In Sura 66 (“The Forbidding”), the Prophet was told to “make war on the infidels and hypocrites, and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their abode! And wretched the passage to it!”

My passage through the text to this point had been pretty wretched, too. It was all so very repetitive, bleak, defensive, and angry. Denunciations of infidels were littered everywhere, along with copious eternal threats (“for the infidels is the torture of the Fire!”, Sura 8). There were provisions giving special privileges to slaveholders (“Forbidden to you also are married women, except those who are in your hands as slaves,” Sura 4) and the prophet (“No blame attacheth to the Prophet where God hath given him a permission,” Sura 33).

“Make war on the infidels” [Flickr page]

One entertaining diversion from the overall gloom of my reading project was coming across this license given by Allah to the man who (coincidentally!) was the very one to transmit the divine words:

O Prophet! We allow thee thy wives whom thou hast dowered, and the slaves whom thy right hand possesseth out of the booty which God hath granted thee, and the daughters of thy uncle, and of thy paternal and maternal aunts who fled with thee to Medina, and any believing woman who hath given herself up to the Prophet, if the Prophet desired to wed her–a privilege for thee above the rest of the faithful. [Sura 33, “The Confederates”]

That’s some real forward thinking on Mo’s part there. If you’re going to write a holy book, you might as well get all of your special sexual privileges defined right up front.

It’s an example of how “temporal power, aggrandisement, and self-gratification mingled rapidly with the grand object of the Prophet’s life” during the latter period of his life, in Medina. That char­acterization is from William Muir’s four-volume, mid-19th century biography Life of Mahomet, which the ex-Muslim writer Ibn Warraq says passed “a judgment on Muhammad’s character that was to be repeated over and over again by subsequent scholars.” Muir observed that Muhammad’s “personal indulgences were not only excused but encouraged by the divine approval or command.” In addition, “Battles were fought, executions ordered, and territories annexed, under cover of the Almighty’s sanction.”3 The Arab pagans of the 7th century had plenty to be Islamophobic about.4

The Prophet also seemed–to my layman’s reading at least–pretty touchy about the idea that his revelations might be questioned. He has Allah proclaim reassuringly that infidels like me will say, “This Koran is a mere fraud of his own devising, and others have helped him with it, who had come hither by outrage and lie” (Sura 25, “al Furkan”). We unbelievers scoff at Allah’s “distinct signs” by saying, “This is merely a man who would fain pervert you from your father’s worship,” and “This (Koran) is no other than a forged falsehood” (Sura 34, “Saba”).

Circling the sacred black building with its very special black rock in Mecca [Flickr page]

But wait! Sura 41 (“The Made Plain”) provides a handy rationalization for our skepticism. It’s one that sounds all too familiar from my days in Christian fundamentalism: The Qur’an “is to those who believe a guide and a medicine; but as to those who believe not, there is a thickness in their ears, and to them it is a blindness.”5

I’ll agree to that, at least. In all those pages, I saw nothing about love, nothing about joy or any real wisdom. It looks to me like blindness, all right–to everything that is good and decent about humanity.6

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), famous historian of the Roman Empire, wasn’t impressed, either. The Qur’an he called an “endless incoherent rhapsody of fable, and precept, and declamation, which seldom excites a sentiment or an idea, which sometimes crawls in the dust, and is sometimes lost in the clouds.” Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was even less charitable, calling it a

wild and absurd performance. Let us attend to his [Muhammad’s] narration; and we shall soon find that he bestows praise on such in­stances of treachery, in­human­ity, cruelty, revenge, and big­otry as are utterly incompatible with civilized society. No steady rule of right seems there to be attended to; and every action is blamed or praised, so far only as it is beneficial or hurtful to the true believers.7

The Qur’an and Muhammad’s sword are, in the assessment of biographer Muir, “the most stubborn enemies of Civilization, Liberty, and Truth, which the world has yet known.”8 Admittedly, in the 150 years since he wrote that, we have seen plenty of uncivilized behavior totally unrelated to Islam or even religion–the Holocaust, Stalin’s murder of millions, the Bataan death march, and my own country’s detonation of two nuclear bombs over civilian populations come to mind. But we are also still seeing all too much of the bloody sword of Muhammed, not just in the Middle East, but in the concert halls, banquet rooms, and subway stations of the Western world.

Submit or Die

And fuck you, sir.

Nor is Liberty (to say nothing of an impartial search for Truth) a viable partner with Islam. Its very name–meaning “submission” or “surrender”–is contrary to that.9 Islam is a totalitarian ideology that hacks away at human rights and freedoms with two bloody edges of Muhammad’s sword: sharia, which subjugates those currently under Islamic control, and jihad, which seeks to extend that control to everybody else, having “for its ultimate aim the conquest of the entire world, in order to submit it to one single authority.”

The sharia or Islamic law is “based on four principles or roots.”10 One of course is the Qur’an, with all its restrictions and barbaric punishments. And it’s not going anywhere. Even the moderate Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz, who is doing much-needed work to help promote a tolerant (and tolerable) form of Islam, admits that “most Muslims today believe that the Qur’an is the eternal, literal word of God.”11

The other three principles behind sharia are “the sunna of the Prophet, which is incorporated in the recognized traditions; the consensus (ijma) of the scholars of the orthodox community; and the method of reasoning by analogy (qiyas or kiyas).” The whole thing is a “doctrine of duties” that is

aimed at “controlling the religious, social and political life of mankind in all its aspects, the life of its followers without qualification, and the life of those who follow tolerated religions to a degree that prevents their activities from hampering Islam in any way.” . . . It intrudes into every nook and cranny: everything–to give a random sample–from the pilgrim tax, agricultural contracts, the board and lodging of slaves, the invitation to a wedding, the use of toothpicks, the ritual fashion in which one’s natural needs are to be accomplished, the prohibition for men to wear gold or silver rings, to the proper treatment of animals is covered.12

Warraq notes that Christianity has a biblical basis for separation of church and state (“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s, Matt. 22:17), but there is no such separation with Islam. The reason goes back to Muhammed, who

was not only a prophet but also a statesman; he founded not only a community but also a state and a society. He was a military leader, making war and peace, and a lawgiver, dispensing justice. Right from the beginning, the Muslims formed a community that was at once political and religious, with the Prophet himself as head of state.13

“Western Islamic apologists and modernizing Muslims continue to look for democratic principles in Islam and Islamic history,” says Warraq, noting many reasons why their search will be in vain. Perhaps most glaring is the legal inferiority of women, whose testimony in court is worth half that of a man, whose movements are strictly restricted, and who are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims. Non-Muslims of either sex who live in Muslim countries suffer their own form of subjugation, while atheists and apostates from Islam can expect only death. (Warraq notes Islam’s hypocrisy in welcoming converts who move in the other direction.)

Indeed, the very “notion of an individual–a moral person who is capable of making rational decisions and accepting moral responsibility for his free acts–is lacking in Islam.” One of the greatest obstacles standing in the way of any Islamic democracy is Islam’s “emphasis that it is the final word of God, the ultimate code of conduct: Islam never allows the possibility of alternatives.”14

Mission Work, Muhammad Style

Intolerance was built into Islam from the very beginning. No “religious toleration was extended to the idolaters of Arabia at the time of Muhammad. The only choice given them was death or the acceptance of Islam.” The Prophet himself slaughtered around 600-900 Jews, expelled others, and subjugated the rest under extortionate taxes.

Then, just a couple of years after Muhammad’s death, “the caliph Abu Bakr organized the invasion of Syria,” expanding the reach of Islam outside the Arabian peninsula.

During the campaign of 634, the entire region between Gaza and Caesarea was devastated; four thousand peasants Christians, Jews, and Samaritans who were simply defending their land were massacred. During the campaigns in Mesopotamia between 635 and 642, monasteries were sacked, the monks were killed, and Monophysite Arabs executed or forced to convert. In Elam the population was put to the sword, at Susa all the dignitaries suffered the same fate.15

Islamic expansion under Muhammad (622-32), the Patriarchal Caliphate (632-61), and the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750). Dark brown, light brown, then gold.

About 70 years later, the Umayyad Caliphate, “the second of the four major Islamic caliphates established after the death of Muhammad,”16 provided another example of such early barbaric behavior. Another Muhammad, bin Qasim, was a commander tasked with conquering the Sindh and Multan regions of what is now Pakistan. According to Warraq’s recounting of this bit of early jihadist history, the commander had instructions from Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, governor of Iraq, to “bring destruction on the unbelievers.” He was “to invite and induce the infidels to accept the true creed, and belief in the unity of God.”

This was not accomplished by door-to-door missionaries offering copies of the Qur’an. Al-Hajjaj prescribed harsh treatment and injury to anyone who “does not submit to Islam.” But after three days of slaughter at the port of Debal, it seems that commander bin Qasim got soft and allowed many of the inhabitants to stick with their religion.

The governor shot off a displeased letter to the commander via Indus Express, citing one of the same Qur’anic passages I did above, the one about striking off the heads of unbelievers. That was, he admonished, “a great command” that “must be respected and followed. You should not be so fond of showing mercy, as to nullify the virtue of the act.”17 Alas, governor Al-Hajjaj hadn’t gotten the memo from Reza Aslan et al. that Islam doesn’t promote violence.

Iraq was at the center of the Umayyad Caliphate. It’s the same neighborhood as another Caliphate that exists in the Qur’an-crazed imaginations of our latest outbreak of Islamic fanaticism, the Islamic State or ISIS. Christopher Hitchens, who did not live long enough to witness the current horrors of ISIS, saw its genesis as “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” in 2011 calling it “the fantastically sadistic and homicidal so-called ‘insurgency’ put together by the Jordanian jailbird and psychopath Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”18

In his recently published dialogue with Maajid Nawaz, Sam Harris recalled how the Islamic State had “been burning prisoners alive in cages and decapitating people by the dozen and gleefully posting videos attesting to the enormity of their sadism online.” These atrocities, he observed, “represent what they unabashedly stand for.”19 Yet, when “one asks what the motivations of Islamists and jihadists actually are, one encounters a tsunami of liberal delusion.”20

Nawaz acknowledges many of the difficulties Harris raises throughout their discussion, and laments “regressive leftists” (his words) who “have a poverty of expectation for minority groups, believing them to be homogeneous and inherently opposed to human rights values.”21 Regarding the Islamic State, he notes that more “violence does not necessarily equate with greater religious conviction. Each group is deeply convinced of its approach to achieving Islamism in society, and both face much danger in pursuit of that goal.” Not only do “they differ in methodology,” but they also very much despise each other.” Islamic State, for example, “would kill members of the Muslim Brotherhood” in Egypt.22

His efforts to salvage something separate and worthwhile from “Islamism” are commendable, but knowing that various Islam-inspired groups hate each other as well as everybody else doesn’t make me feel much better about Islam itself. My “Islamophobia,” a term I accept for myself despite its pejorative intentions, is a very reasonable aversion to Islam. It is not a phobic (i.e., irrational) fear at all, but an entirely sensible response to something very dangerous.23 Frankly, I wouldn’t want either the Islamic State or the Muslim Brotherhood anywhere nearby.

Nawaz also attempts to draw a distinction between Islam and what the Islamic State is doing, as he and millions of other decent Muslims must. “Islam is just a religion,” he says, contrary to what we have seen above from Ibn Warraq about totalitarianism. “Islamism is the ideology that seeks to impose any version of Islam over society. Islamism is, therefore, theocratic extremism. Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism. Jihadist terrorism is the use of force that targets civilians to spread Islamism.”

“It is this extremism,” he says, “that must be named as Islamism and opposed,” adding “that one cannot argue that the Islamic State represents all of Islam.” Then, with refreshing candor, Nawaz goes on to admit the obvious:

one cannot argue that it has nothing to do with Islam. But it should be obvious that “a desire to impose Islam” cannot reasonably be said to have “nothing to do with Islam.” Clearly, it has something to do with it.24

Yes, it certainly does. And it has everything to do with those bloody bodies of innocents lying on the ground in Paris and San Bernardino.

The Empty Quarter

Camel market - Saudi [Flickr page]

Perhaps the best example of a devoutly Islamic society today is the place where Islam got its start, the portion of the Arabian peninsula now governed by the Al-Saud. In the assessment of John Bradley, a rare Western journalist who had some real experience there, they are “perhaps the most corrupt family the world has ever known.” Saudi Arabia, he says, is

teeming with extremists, where children are taught that “the Jews” are the eternal enemy, and where Westerners are periodically blown up in their residential compounds or gunned down in the street by attackers filled with hatred for them and seeking martyrdom. It is a place that treats Third World immigrants like slaves, where Saudi men never get to see a woman who is not a direct (and usually very close) relative, and where Saudi women themselves cannot leave the house without a male chaperone, let alone drive, and live for the most part in absolute purdah [separation from men].

Fluency in Arabic, an eager cultural curiosity, and a willingness to risk living outside some fortified expat compound allowed Bradley to spend time in another Saudi Arabia. This was one

where Westerners with an open mind and sense of adventure can and often do encounter the finest traditions of Islamic hospitality, generosity, and kindness. In this Saudi Arabia, they may spend an evening sitting with liberal-minded, and even secular, Saudi friends, drinking coffee in Starbucks while talking about the latest Western movies. Princes and princes­ses, selfless and in­corruptible, can talk pas­sionately of the need to in­troduce sweeping reforms that would limit their own power. Teenagers surf the web in Internet cafes while watching the World Cup or Superbowl on widescreen TVs, or play soccer in the street. Women, shed of their long black cloaks in the home, can quickly prove themselves to be as independent and single-minded as any in the West.25

Guess which version of the country is more faithful to Islam? Despite that business about “Islamic hospitality,” which I suspect is really no different than Arabic hospitality, it is the first one–the repressive, hate-filled, all-controlling Saudi Arabia–that has enacted a bleak dystopia of pure Islam. The “universities, charities, schools, orphanages, and print media are all . . . now in the control of the Wahhabi clerics,” spewing and sowing the seeds of extremist rhetoric, indoctrinating the next generation with the joys of jihad and martyrdom.26

University College London in Saudi Arabia. No burka on the glossy brochure. [Flickr page]

For this we can thank the British and their tragic decision in the 1930s to back a certain Abdulaziz Ibn Saud,27 whom they “viewed as the leader most likely to pacify rival tribes in the Arabian Peninsula and [who] had already proved himself very willing to cooperate closely with Britain in order to achieve his goal of carving out a state for his family to rule over.”28

Ibn Saud did not arrive on his own. He was accompanied, like a dog with a bad case of worms, by clerics who followed the depressingly fundamentalist Islam of one Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who had signed a pact with Ibn Saud’s ancestor back in 1744. “Their aim was to bring about, through force if necessary, the reign of the word of God.” Sound familiar? “Abdul Wahhab had begun his preaching some years earlier. Wahhabism, his legacy, advocated a literalist and legalistic stance in matters of faith and religious practice.”29

Now, more than two hundred years later, the Saudis remain “loyal to the cynical pact that earned Wahhabi clerical endorsement of the ruling dynasty in return for heavy subsidy of Wahhabi clericalism,” as Hitchens observes.30 Together they have produced a miserable cultural desert where the only form of public entertainment, apart from soccer matches, are the beheadings that take place in “chop-chop square.”31

Funded by the second-largest oil reserves on the planet, Allahu Akbar, they are “putting billions of dollars at the disposal of madrassas and mujahidin alike” to infect the rest of the world with their toxic meme of Islamic madness.32 And once again, the darkness has made its way north from the Arabian Peninsula to Iraq:

For their guiding principles, the leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam. The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls. Videos from the group’s territory have shown Wahhabi texts plastered on the sides of an official missionary van.

There’s one difference, which is of critical importance to Saudi Arabia itself: “Wahhabi scholars preach obedience to earthly rulers,” probably because they themselves are captive to the House of Saud. ISIS wants to do the ruling and taxation (i.e., extortion) itself in Iraq and Syria, not just the kind of religious propagandizing and religious policing that the Wahhabis handle in Saudi Arabia. Despite that and the Islamic State’s absolutist “with us or against us” attitude, which made even the likes of Al Qaeda uncomfortable, “a certain mutedness” lingered among the Wahhabis about ISIS. Finally, King Abdullah, a sort-of-secular ruler put in an uncomfortable position by all this Islamic caliphate business, “publicly urged them to speak out more clearly.”33

Calling the project of ISIS “nothing more than reviving the Wahhabism of the founding generation” and noting how the Islamic State’s leadership “absorbed the Wahhabi doctrine and mastered all its details,” Saudi researcher Fouad al-Ibrahim explains in one tidy sentence the Wahhabi clerics’ reluctance to condemn ISIS: It “adopts a global project that Wahhabism tried to achieve from the mid-eighteenth century until the end of the 1930s.” But that is a serious threat to the House of Saud, “which seeks to undermine any internationalist project that might reach within its borders.”34 The nation is, after all, the product of Al-Saud’s bloody victory over and repression of “various tribes, sheikhdoms, emirates, and kingdoms” across the Arabian Peninsula.35

Hubbert’s oil production model (upper bound) vs. actual oil production for the U.S. lower 48 states, with a recent and unsustainable fracking uptick.

The Saudi dog is feeling pretty sick nowadays from that load of Wahhabi worms it carries. But none of its symptoms, or the manifest moral failings of the Al-Saud family itself, can be publicly acknowledged by Saudi Arabia’s oil-thirsty clients. The Obama administration surely recognizes how tenuous our own oil supplies are, 45 years after the peak of conventional crude production in the U.S.36 And don’t count on hydraulic fracturing to keep your gas tank full for long: The depletion rate of those fracked wells in the Bakken is averaging 85% three years after drilling.37 If that upward spike at the end of the graph above looks anomalous to you, you’re on to something. It’s not gonna last.

Until the supergiant oil fields that lie beneath the sands of Saudi Arabia finally run dry, the United States will remain in what Bradley calls a “fundamentally absurd and self-contradictory ‘special relationship’ with the Kingdom “that has stood since February 1945, when Ibn Saud met President Roosevelt on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal.”38 We will continue to look the other way as the cowled barbarians of Riyadh lash and behead their bloggers and poets and make a mockery of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and as their Wahhabi parasites continue promoting toxic Islamism around the world.

We may not have that long to wait before the whole pathetic charade comes to an end. Ghawar, the biggest of the supergiants, which alone supplies 60% of the Kingdom’s output, has been producing for nearly 70 years. The notoriously secretive Saudi Aramco reported that it had gotten about halfway through the field’s proven reserves in 2008, and it may well have peaked a few years before then.39

Withdrawal symptoms will be severe, of course, for a world grown addicted to this black tar heroin from the earth’s depths. Nor can we expect Saudi Arabia to face its own austerity with much good grace. It will finally exhaust its last ancient reserves of groundwater40 along with the fossil energy it needs to run desalination plants, along with the sole economically viable export it can trade for food from the infidel world its clerics hate and condemn.

The place is an overpopulated hellhole, hotter than ever due to climate change41 and packed full of unemployed and entitled youth who have no work ethic, useful knowledge, or positive role models to fall back on once the handouts stop. A large part of what their educations have been about is the hatred of others, repression, and jihad. There a “complete lack of any kind of youth culture.” Except for a bit of four-wheeling out in the sand dunes,

young Saudis who do not have the means or desire to travel abroad remain, by and large, locked away with their frustration in their bedrooms, watching satellite TV, surfing the web, and con­templating an in­creas­ingly dif­ficult life in a kingdom full of un­employ­ment, poverty, re­pres­sion, and nepotism. That, of course, is great news for radical Islamists, ever-eager to recruit to their ranks young men who have few critical faculties and a crudely simplistic world outlook. With so many youngsters wandering aimlessly into adulthood with increasingly few prospects of a decent job, ruled by a corrupt elite closely aligned to an America the young are told to hate and hold responsible for Israel’s ruthless suppression of the Palestinians, the call of the Islamists is not falling on deaf ears.

Their “essentially shallow understanding of Islam” has been taught to them “by hard-line Wahhabi teachers and clerics,” and it “sits in their minds like a highly combustible tinder box, just waiting for a loose spark to set it alight.”42

Watch out, world. Things are just getting started.

A Civilized Defense of Civilization

Women in The Hague, Netherlands: one free, and the others?

Is it any wonder, gentle reader, why I fear and loathe this ancient and insidious Arabian export? Yes, indeed, I am an Islamophobe. I embrace the slur that was intended to shame people into not questioning this totalitarian belief system, just as some gays have decided to embrace the term “queer.”

Islam is different, of course, than a race or an innate sexual orientation. It is a belief system, one that aspires to be more than just a religion. A religion it is, though, and as such, our Constitution and sense of human de­cency (not shared by Is­lamists or a certain nar­cis­sis­tic pres­iden­tial candidate) demand that we tolerate its free exercise. At least to the extent that it doesn’t threaten us with harm, which is an important caveat.

But I damn well don’t welcome its spread into Western society, nor do I intend to be kept silent about it. Even so, more out of consideration for your attention than the hair-trigger sensitivities of Islamists and their doe-eyed apologists, this essay has glided pretty gently over the atrocities and pain that Islam inflicts, and has from the very beginning, on its followers and resisters alike. Some of its crimes against women so disgust me that I have declined to mention them at all.

Nor have I said much about the combination of mental anguish and physical danger it poses for those who dare to shake off its cold embrace, probably unequaled in any other religion. There too, many gripping stories could be told here, like the one from “Jamila” who wrote recently about the question of when the apostasy she’s been hiding will come out and tear her apart from her family. That troubling question–when?–lurks

in the double life I live with the man who shares my bed after my father drops me home, it’s there telling me that I can’t keep him a secret forever. It’s there in the folds of the headscarf I pull out of my drawer on visit days, whispering to me that if I don’t tell them, the lies, like the material I drape over my head, will suffocate me. It’s there in slight hesitation in my voice when I recite the duaas to younger siblings and I wonder if they realise that this is not the recitation of a person who prays regularly. It’s there, it’s there, it’ll destroy us again one day, and I don’t know how to stop it.43

You can see more of this personal evidence about the iron grip that Islam keeps on its subjects via the /r/exMuslim subreddit and the #ExMuslimBecause Twitter hashtag, and by following the work of courageous and vocal ex-Muslims like Maryam Namazie, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Riz Rashid, Ali A. Rizvi, and Aliyah Saleem. And be sure to read the sobering article by Suraiya Simi Rahman, MD–an ex-Muslim who has lived in Bangladesh, the UAE and Pakistan–in which she says one “really can’t tell until the moment before they pull the trigger, who is moderate and who is jihadi.”

These people are all standing up to the many bullies and defenders of Islam, not just mullahs and creepy ISIS shills, but their own families and even–dismayingly–supposed feminists and leftists whose good intentions have somehow been co-opted to serve the Islamist meme. I have tremendous respect for the courage and strength of character that ex-Muslims have shown. To help support them, I’ve made donations to each of two important organizations that assist people like them on their difficult journeys to freedom: the Ex-Muslims of North America and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

The stories of apostates from this backwards, controlling religion need to be told–more and more, and with polite but firm criticism of the religion itself. Ibn Warraq was another one who courageously did so, regardless of the risks. “Without criticism,” he writes, “Islam will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, medieval fortress; ossified in its totalitarian, intolerant, paranoid past. It will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality, originality, and truth.”44

Standing up to all that is a project of civilization well worth our effort, and with care to avoid adopting any of its loathsome aspects ourselves.

The first Twin towers photo is from Mark Yokoyama and the second from Wally Gobetz, both CC-NC-ND licensed. The UCL London photo is CC-NC licensed by UCL Institute of Education.
The photo of firefighters at the World Trade Center is CC licensed (re-licensed?) by Flickr user World Trade Centers with the note: “Andrea Booher–FEMA Photo News.Mandatory byline–No payment.” The caption, a quote from Sura 66, is my own.
The map of Islamic expansion from 622-750 A.D. is adapted from a public-domain SVG file accessible at Wikimedia Commons The crude oil production graph is adapted (with my annotation) from “Hubbert Upper-Bound Peak 1956,” CC-SA licensed by “Plazak,” Wikimedia Commons.
The photo at the sacred mosque is CC-SA licensed by Citizen59. The Saudi camel market photo is CC licensed by Michael Glasgow. The photo of women in The Hague is slightly post-processed from a CC-licensed image by Flickr user FaceMePLS. The “Freedom go to hell” protester photo is a cropped version of a CC-licensed image by Vayou Desoeuvre.


  1. The Koran (Ballantine Books, 1993), based on an English translation by J.M. Rodwell. All of the following quotes are from there, as I encountered them during my reading. An ex-Muslim correspondent once advised me that the preferred spelling of the name is Qur’an, and so that’s the one I use here. 

  2. Raif Badawi, 1000 Lashes (Greystone Books, 2015). For guidance on judicial amputation and crucifixion, see Sura 5 (“The Table”). The horrors of ISIS are, of course, merely the result of careful and uncompromising attention to the text. 

  3. William Muir, quoted in Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim (Prometheus Books, 2010), p. 87. Here I depart from my usual practice of only quoting from books that I’ve actually read. Hopefully you will excuse me for declining to slog through a four-volume biography of Muhammed written 150 years ago. I have read Warraq’s book, however, and highly recommend it. 

  4. “The basis of the Islamic attitude toward unbelievers is the law of war; they must be either converted or subjugated or killed (excepting women, children, and slaves); the third alternative, in general, occurs only if the first two are refused. As an exception, the Arab pagans are given the choice only between conversion to Islam or death. Apart from this, prisoners of war are either made slaves or killed or left alive as free dhimmis or exchanged for Muslim prisoners of war” (Warraq at p. 181, quoting Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law). 

  5. E.g., “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1:5). 

  6. “But what about the Bible!” is the common interjection at this point by Islam apologists. Well, yes, what about it? I’ve amply criticized that collection of backwards and violent writings, in two books and plenty of essays. See, e.g., Gutting Your Kid for God, Moral Midgetry, Jehu’s Jihad, and Fighting Words

  7. Both quoted in Warraq, p. 10. Again, I must confess to not having read the original works cited here. But it’s hard to imagine any context in which Gibbon and Hume might have written that would have made these scathing critiques much less forceful. Indeed, Warraq says Gibbon “painted Islam in as favorable a light as possible to better contrast it with Christianity” (p. 21). 

  8. Quoted in Warraq at p. 88. 

  9. “Islam is a verbal noun originating from the triliteral root s-l-m which forms a large class of words mostly relating to concepts of wholeness, safeness and peace. In a religious context it means ‘voluntary submission to God.’ Islām is the verbal noun of Form IV of the root, and means ‘submission’ or ‘surrender.’ Muslim, the word for an adherent of Islam, is the active participle of the same verb form, and means ‘one who submits’ or ‘one who surrenders.’ Believers demonstrate submission to God by serving God, following his commands, and rejecting polytheism” (Wikipedia). That part about “following his commands” is problematic, of course, when they include the Qur’anic violence described above. 

  10. Warraq at p. 163. 

  11. Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue (Harvard University Press, 2015), loc. 626. 

  12. Warraq at p. 163. I have taken the liberty of replacing Warraq’s quotation remarks with italics in quotations that include Arabic words. 

  13. Warraq at p. 164. 

  14. Warraq at pp. 172-73, 83-84 

  15. Warraq at p. 215-16, 219-20. 

  16. Umayyad Caliphate, Wikipedia. 

  17. Warraq at p. 220, writing about Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, governor of Iraq and his commander Muhammad bin Qasim in 712 A.D. The passage is Sura 47.4, which reads as follows in Warraq’s quotation of Hajjaj’s letter: “O True believers, when you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads.” 

  18. Christopher Hitchens, The Enemy (2011), loc. 124. 

  19. Harris and Nawaz at loc. 706. 

  20. Harris and Nawaz at loc. 457. 

  21. Harris and Nawaz at loc. 481. 

  22. Harris and Nawaz at loc. 425. 

  23. See also this truly excellent video counter-argument to the silly and pernicious “Islamophobia” meme. 

  24. Harris and Nawaz at loc. 1196. 

  25. John R. Bradley, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (St. Martin’s Press, 2015). 

  26. Bradley at loc. 1223, 1237. 

  27. His full name, in case you were curious, is Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud (Wikipedia). 

  28. Bradley at loc. 235. 

  29. Bradley at loc. 243. 

  30. Christopher Hitchens, The Enemy (2011), loc. 172. 

  31. Bradley at loc. 2537 

  32. Hitchens at loc. 172. 

  33. David K. Kirkpatrick, “ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed.” New York Times, September 24, 2014, nyti.ms/​Y4erG6

  34. Fouad al-Ibrahim, “Why ISIS is a threat to Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism’s deferred promise.” Al-Akhbar, August 22, 2014. english.al-akhbar.com/​node/21234

  35. Unification of Saudi Arabia, Wikipedia. 

  36. Hubbert Peak Theory, Wikipedia. 

  37. J. David Hughes, Drilling Deeper: A Reality Check on U.S. Government Forecasts for a Lasting Tight Oil & Shale Gas Boom (Post Carbon Institute, 2014). shalebubble.org/​drilling-deeper

  38. Bradley at loc. 1374. 

  39. Ghawar, Wikipedia. 

  40. Bradley at loc. 1863. 

  41. Nathan Halverson, “What California can learn from Saudi Arabia’s water mystery.” Reveal, April 22, 2015. Center for Investigative Reporting (link). 

  42. John Schwartz, “Deadly Heat Is Forecast in Persian Gulf by 2100.” New York Times, October 26, 2015, nyti.ms/​1LRVcSO (“By the end of this century, areas of the Persian Gulf could be hit by waves of heat and humidity so severe that simply being outside for several hours could threaten human life”). 

  43. “I craved too much the warm welcome home,” atheistinaheadscarf.wordpress.com

  44. Warraq at p. 14. 


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Frozen and the Chosen

It hit me as I was walking home–I could think anything! I could have any opinion on any subject, and it would be my own! No longer would I have to check against Scripture and other doctrine to make sure that my opinions were in line with God; I could decide my opinions with my own reason! . . . That moment was one of the most liberating, beautiful, and happy experiences of my life.
—Michael Amini in Generation Atheist, Dan Riley, editor (2012)
[T]he whores of the world wash their hands in the blood of creatures, but the daughters of Jerusalem do not wash themselves in the blood of the innocent Lamb, but with soap and with lye, and nevertheless their filthiness is visible.
—Lars Levi Laestadius, randomly selected passage from a random sermon (Palm Sunday 1854).
Kristoff Levi Laestadius, reindeer fan

Last week, I went with my wife and some of our kids to see the Disney on Ice figure-skating adaption of the musical movie Frozen. It was great fun to see Anna and Elsa zipping around the rink with Olaf, Kristoff, and Sven, who materialized as a rather large reindeer comprised of two skaters inside a furry brown costume. When Elsa went out on the ice under blue light for her big solo act, two little girls sitting behind us sang along at the top of their lungs: “Let it go, let it GO!”

A husband-and-wife pair of composers wrote Let it Go as “Elsa’s Badass Song,” specifically intended to be sung by Idina Menzel, “one of the most glorious voices of Broadway.” They succeeded brilliantly. The song is the highlight of the film and has sold over 10 million copies on its own.1

Lamplit Tree [Flickr page]

I first heard it while sitting in a theater with my family nearly two years ago. This was still a fairly novel experience after a lifetime of being told–and then allowing it to be told to my children–that seeing movies is a sin. Laestadianism and its oddities were still very much on my mind as I watched Anna make her cute wisecracks and accompany a socially-inept ice merchant and his furry best friend on a quest that included, among other delightful implausibilities, a visit with some witty and wise rock-rodents who dispensed relationship advice.

“So he’s a bit of a fixer-upper,” they sang about Kristoff while working on setting him up with Anna. Aren’t we all, I thought, musing about all the mental remodeling my wife and I were doing on ourselves and our older children, after the nonsense we’d all heard for years and years sitting alongside each other in a very different setting.

When Elsa finally broke out of her self-imposed shell, flung out her arms, tossed back her head, and proclaimed that she wasn’t going to hold back anymore, I felt like applauding.

Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know

Well, now they know!

Yes! You go, girl! I silently cheered, feeling a bit embarrassed about how emotional I was getting watching this movie. But there was a good reason for it. For a year, I’d had to “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know” what I’d learned from some diligent and sincere research about my childhood faith. Sharing that information with a few friends in the church got me hauled into a meeting with my local congregation’s preachers and board of trustees.

After a two-hour inquisition, having been told I was to retrieve the dozen or so copies of the book I’d given away, “I went home and told my wife, ‘You are about to witness the intellectual disintegration of your husband.’ Then the years of doubt, fear, and frustration–culminating in being muzzled into silence by a church far more interested in rebuke than reality–boiled over. I collapsed into my wife’s arms in tears, and went to bed for a fitful night.”2

Let it go, let it go

Can’t hold it back anymore

Let it go, let it go

Turn away and slam the door!

After some months, I just couldn’t hold it back anymore, either. My half-hearted promises to stay away from dangerous studies didn’t stick, of course, and I “learned and questioned more about church history, the Bible, and aspects of science that conflicted with important points of doctrine.” I also “lost the energy to continue swimming against the current of the church’s clannish, insular social scene,” which treated my family and me like we all had some dangerous and contagious disease once my doubts became known.

I was ready to “shake off the muzzle” and put into print what had “been swirling around my head and flagged in the pages of my library of books.” The result, An Examination of the Pearl, wound up being more than twice the size of the print-shop copy that had gotten the elders so bent out of shape.

Given the outraged reaction I encountered to a very limited, private distribution of the book, which consisted mostly of church statements and relatively restrained footnotes about those statements, I have no illusions that this published edition will be well received. As Ken Daniels noted about his own book, “whether I take a gentle or harsh approach, I am sure to elicit criticism. The very act of confronting deeply cherished religious convictions is unforgivable to some, regardless of my tactics.”3

Frost on Ponderosa [Flickr page]

I’m not the only one who has been moved by Let it Go as an anthem of liberation from fundamentalism. Blogger “Libby Anne” wrote about that in March 2014, after being shocked at how much her conservative evangelical mother obsessed over the movie. “How could they see Frozen and not realize that it was about self acceptance and freedom from others’ expectations–and moral standards?” she wondered.

When she first watched Let it Go on YouTube,

before seeing the movie in theaters, I completely choked up at the line “no right no wrong, no rules for me.” Tears started streaming down my cheeks. It was beautiful. I grew up in a conservative evangelicalism that I eventually found highly restrictive. As I began to extricate myself, my family and friends put me through a special kind of hell. But even through all of the pain and the tears, I entered into freedom when I left behind their rules, their expectations, their control. This song spoke to so many emotions. I’ve watched it again and again many times since that first time, and each time I’ve achieved some form of catharsis.

It’s now her personal theme song, she says.4 Another blogger, Maranda Russell, says she fell in love with the song as soon as she heard it:

At times in my life I felt like I had to hide my true self to get approval and love from friends, family and the church. I had to pretend to be a “good girl” who never questions anything and believes blindly what I am told. I still feel like many wish I would just shut up and believe what they tell me is true, but I just can’t do that anymore.5

I don’t care

What they’re going to say

Let the storm rage on,

The cold never bothered me anyway!

Maranda admits that “maybe I still care a little (after all I am still human), but I won’t let it rule me.” I did, too, about what I knew my “brothers and sisters in faith” were going to say, but I went ahead anyway. A storm would rage, friendships would be lost–most of those that I’d forged since childhood, it turned out, in a church that discouraged social contact with the outside world.

And the stakes were infinitely higher than what one friend called “social suicide”: Publishing the book against the wishes of the Laestadian Lutheran Church would inevitably be viewed as an act of apostasy, no matter how balanced I tried to be in presenting my findings. Eternal damnation loomed in my future.

To those who tell me my writing was courageous, I reply that it took less courage then what many of them have done–simply walking away. I needed to have my brethren push me out instead, simply for making the facts known, asking difficult questions about them, and refusing to accept the tired old insistence that the most important matter of one’s life “cannot be understood by reason.”

My introduction to the book quoted Clement of Alexandria from 18 centuries earlier: “If our faith is such that it is destroyed by force of argument, then let it be destroyed; for it will have been proved that we do not possess the truth.” Recalling the “faith” of a board member who said he won’t read anything critical about what he supposedly believes,” I asked if that was

really faith in anything other than the people around him who are repeating the old slogans? They, too, are ignoring the facts about their “faith,” making the whole thing a self-sustaining doctrinal bubble that quivers unsteadily in the air, vulnerable to being poked by the slightest intrusion of fact.6

Looking Back [Flickr page]

Now, nearly four years later, these words from Let it Go are exactly my experience:

It’s funny how some distance

Makes everything seem small

And the fears that once controlled me

Can’t get to me at all!

There is simply no fear anymore. And it’s not for any lack of knowledge about what this weird little sect thinks my eternal fate will be. Hell, I still listen to sermons sometimes to get to sleep, because the preachers’ somber, familiar, repetitive intonations send me drifting off faster than anything else. Sometimes I get several nights’ worth of use out of a single sermon, because I start the iPod at different points in the recording and am out within ten minutes.

One correspondent told me, “My old Laestadian world view is gone. If I talk to certain people or listen to sermons I can feel the world view there and experience it sometimes. I don’t think it’s ever coming back, though, and I am the better for it.”

Yes, my friend, you are. And, as Elsa sings out, fully embracing her unique identity and abilities, “one thought crystallizes like an icy blast”: You’re “never going back. The past is in the past!”

The picture of Lars Levi wearing Kristoff’s reindeer-hide coat was fair-use adapted from a Frozen wallpaper image and a classic portrait of Lars Levi Laestadius. Take a look online at Laestadius’s sermons and you’ll quickly see what I mean by the “People suck” paraphrase. He was not a happy man. The fictional Kristoff of Frozen seems to have had a more meaningful “conversion” experience with Anna than old Lars ever did.
The other photos are Copyright © 2013-15 Edwin A. Suominen. Click to enlarge, or check out my Flickr photostream. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
See the online Dictionary of Christianese for an interesting discussion of the expression “frozen chosen.”


  1. Wikipedia, Let it Go

  2. An Examination of the Pearl, §1.2 (“Introduction–Disputation– The June 2010 Edition”). 

  3. §1.2 (“Introduction–Disputation–Alienation”), quoting Ken Daniels, Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary (self- published, 2010). 

  4. “Let It Gay? Subversive Messages from Disney’s Frozen,” Love, Joy, Feminism blog, March 4, 2014 

  5. “What the Disney ‘Frozen’ song ‘Let It Go’ means to me,” Maranda Russell blog (April 25, 2014). 

  6. §1.2, quoting from Clement’s Stromata, 6.10.80. William Wilson’s translation, freely available online, goes as follows: “But if the faith (for I cannot call it knowledge) which they possess be such as to be dissolved by plausible speech, let it be by all means dissolved, and let them confess that they will not retain the truth. For truth is immoveable; but false opinion dissolves.” 


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Let it Snow

When the glaciers are gone, they are gone. What does a place like Lima do? Or, in northwest China, there are 300 million people relying on snowmelt for water supply. There’s no way to replace it until the next ice age.
—Tim Barnett, climate scientist1
Genesee residents during the winter of 1912-132

Autumn came late this year, and climate change was very much on my mind as the skies remained warm and dry throughout much of October. With our house windows left open long after dark to cool the place down, I lingered over the pictures and stories of deep snows in the book I’ve just finished editing and publishing for my fellow Eastern Washington resident Gerald Hickman. Good Times in Old Genesee: A Tale of Two Families (Tellectual Press, 2015) is about a tiny dot of a pioneer town a couple hours’ drive south of here where Gerald and his parents were born and raised.

When he was growing up, it snowed there. A lot, if the “walked through miles of snow to school, uphill both ways” memories of an elder citizen can be relied upon:

My brother and sister and I would walk down the steep hill on our ranch road about a half mile through the snow drifts to catch a ride to school on the bus. We had to buck the drifts about ten months of each year. Finally, when summer came, we were mostly snow-free, and free of classes as well.3

He recalls snowball fights and sled riding down a hill on the drive to his childhood home. “The best part: We were really close to home for hot chocolate from Mom’s warm and loving kitchen.”4

Detail: Snowball

In the early 1900s, he says (here drawing on historical research rather than memory), “there was often so much snow that they had to tunnel under the snow to cross Main Street.”

His great-uncle John Platt, who arrived in Genesee as a child with his family in the late 1800s, “said that the snow did not seem so deep around Genesee in the later years of his life,” and Gerald agrees. “With the exceptional year or two, winters seem to have become less severe in my later years as well.”5

Just in the 15 years or so we’ve been in the Inland Northwest, we’ve seen a decrease in snowfall. I love the feeling of huddling inside our house with the woodstove burning wood I grew, logged, hauled, bucked, split, and stacked myself, from my own property, as the snow fills the skies and piles up outside. I love stomping through it and seeing the cold clean whiteness of it all, the graceful curves of it piled on trees and roofs, softening every sharp angle. One memorable winter, I spent 26 days skiing down it on a mountain that is less than 40 minutes from my driveway.

Now, thanks in part to automobile trips as long as the ones I made back and forth to that ski hill, undertaken every day by millions of commuters across the country and beyond, those snowfalls are faltering. Climate change, driven by greenhouse gas emissions from my tailpipe and everyone else’s, has thinned the clouds in our Pacific Northwest skies. When they do offer us the winter moisture that has carpeted this region with evergreens, it often comes down as rain rather than snow.


According to a Nepalese study cited in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, there has been an annual temperature rise of 0.1°F in the Himalayas. That, McKibben observes, works out to “a degree every decade in a world where the mercury barely budged for ten millennia.”

Detail: Eye contact with the past

In 2008, a 57-year old Nepalese man looking at a glacier that’s retreated more than a mile since he played on it as a child said, “I feel that the sun is getting stronger, and in the past there used to be a lot more snow in winter. We used to get up to two metres in the winter, and it would stay for weeks. Last winter we only had two centimetres.”6

The drastic warmth in Nepal “is spurring melt with almost unimaginable consequences,” says McKibben.

Indian researchers recently predicted that glaciers could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas as early as 2035, including the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 percent of the dry-season water to the Ganges River. That would leave 407 million people looking for a new source of drinking and irrigation water.7

On the other side of India lies Pakistan, “a country that is essentially a desert with a big river flowing through it.”8 That river is the Indus, which is fed by glaciers in “the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram, forming the largest reservoir of ice outside the poles.” This is a country that is already getting hit by climate change, with “catastrophic floods which displaced millions, and a deadly heatwave this summer that killed 1,200 people.”9

But the suffering is only going to get worse, because those glaciers are retreating fast. By 2050, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “predicts a decrease in the freshwater supply of South Asia, particularly in large river basins such as the Indus.” Karachi, which draws almost all of its water from the Indus “will somehow have to manage its growing population with even less water–a population with a significant poverty rate that will also struggle should food prices rise.”10

This is not just a problem for some distant people we never see except occasionally on the news, because India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons, about a hundred between them as of 2010. They glare at each other across a hostile border, possibly “the most worrisome adversaries capable of a regional nuclear conflict today.”11 What happens when one of them–thoroughly infected with religious fanaticism and filled with millions of desperate, starving citizens–finally decides to lash out at its hated rival?

Consider, as Gwynne Dyer does in his scary look forward to a planet at war over climate pressures, that five

of the six rivers that eventually feed into the Indus system rise in Indian-controlled territory. In undivided, British-ruled India, the water flowed unhindered into the intricately linked irrigation canals that covered much of the provinces of Punjab and Sind, but Partition in 1947 left most of the headwaters in Indian hands, while well over four-fifths of the farmers who depended on the water lived in the new state of Pakistan.12

Nations do not “go gentle into that good night” when dwindling resources make bare survival look impossible. Backed against the wall, with military options at hand–frightfully so in Pakistan and India to say nothing of China, another thirsty nation with dicey water prospects–they follow Dylan Thomas’s poetic admonition to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”13 The consequences are horrific for their neighbors, sometimes the entire world.

This is what Lebensraum was all about, as historian Tim Snyder soberly explained on a recent episode of Tom Ashbrook’s On Point NPR program. Climate change could well return us to a tribalistic world convulsed by resource wars. We are already seeing the beginning of sorrows in the mass exodus from Syria.

“Organized societies can endure a lot of hardship and still carry on, but when populations go hungry all bets are off for cultural cohesion and political stability,” observes James Howard Kunstler in his masterpiece Too Much Magic.

If world events follow their usual perverse course, food shortages and other resource scarcities will express themselves indirectly in quarrels that may seem to have little to do with the pertinent issues: conflicts over abstractions such as interest rates and currencies, trade wars, revolutions, fights over boundaries and islands, nationalist chest-beating displays, and religious warfare of the jihad and crusade variety. There may be little public acknowledgment or even consciousness of the reasons behind one outburst of trouble or another.14

And we certainly can’t expect that an abused planet already under stress would respond well to even a “local” outbreak of mushroom clouds in the Subcontinent:

A nuclear war could trigger declines in yield nearly everywhere at once, and a worldwide panic could bring the global agricultural trading system to a halt, with severe shortages in many places. Around one billion people worldwide who now live on marginal food supplies would be directly threatened with starvation by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan or between other regional nuclear powers.15

Snowy street in early Genesee, Idaho

It’s a grim picture, and there has been no shortage of what doomsday ecologist Guy McPherson memorably calls “hopium” to assuage a public that’s becoming increasingly concerned, despite campaigns of denial financed by fossil fuel interests. The pharmacopoeia of hopium includes grandiose techno-fixes such as implausible carbon capture schemes and seeding the stratosphere with sulfates to reflect solar radiation. Bill McKibben is critical of such fantasies, though with some sympathy for “the daydreams of the developing world” like the suggestion made at a meeting of Asian journalists that “Bangladesh could be relocated to Siberia and Iceland.” Melting snows would, it was claimed, “turn them into ‘bread-baskets.’” How, he asks, does one tell these front-line casualties of our war against nature “that the tundra is turning into a methane-leaking swamp?”16

Besides, there is the small issue of what the Russians and Icelanders might think about an invasion of 150 million Bangladeshis. Even an enlightened new generation of Germans ever mindful of their grandparents’ Holocaust is getting twitchy about all the Syrian refugees mobbing their borders.

January 2009: Our last really good snow in Eastern WA [Flickr page]

“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,” the Book of Job has God sniff at us mere mortals, storm-stuff that he has “reserved for the time of distress, for the day of war and battle?”17 Those storehouses are not hidden somewhere above clouds in God’s heaven, but on snow-capped mountains right here on earth. Their stock is running low, not just in the Himalayas, but around the world in this time of distress we have made for ourselves.

The last of Bolivia’s 18,000 year-old Chacaltaya Glacier melted away in 2009.18 Andean glaciers like that one are “the main source of water across South America, from Colombia to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile,” and their disappearance is going to cause major problems. One climate change advisor for Latin America at a humanitarian organization says that conflicts over water “will become explosive over the coming decades because the glaciers will dry out.”19

An increasingly rare treat [Flickr page]

Agriculture “is practically at an end in California’s Central Valley,” says Dyer, “due to the failure of the rivers that used to be fed in the summer by the melting snowpack on the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.”20 This is not a trivial situation: The Central Valley “accounts for one-quarter of the food grown for human consumption in the United States.” But its rivers will likely become seasonal in world that is 2°C warmer, flowing only in the winter with precipitation that falls on the mountains mostly as rain instead of snow.21

The Sierra Nevada mountain range is, or was, “a giant water faucet in the sky, a 400-mile-long, 60-mile-wide reservoir held in cold storage that supplies California with more than 60 percent of its water.” Now the snow is coming later and melting earlier.22

Rainwater, alas, runs off immediately instead of adding to a storehouse of moisture that melts and feeds rivers late into the spring and summer.23 Farmers and ranchers in the American West need that slowly melting snow to keep water flowing throughout the dry summer. Otherwise, a lot of the water is gone by the time their crops need it.24

And there are a lot of us eating food produced from those crops. Don’t kid yourself about agricultural abundance from the Midwest, either. About 30% of the groundwater used for irrigation in the U.S. comes from the Ogallala Aquifer, the saturated volume of which has gone down by about 9% since 1950, according to Wikipedia. “Depletion is accelerating, with 2% lost between 2001 and 2009 alone. Once depleted, the aquifer will take over 6,000 years to replenish naturally through rainfall.”25 In the crucial Kansas section of the Ogallala, 30% has already been pumped out and farming there will likely peak by around 2040 due to water depletion.26

Brown Christmas, 2014 [Flickr page]

Meanwhile, back in Latah County where Gerald Hickman’s little town of Genesee still sits among the monoculture, petroleum-fertilized grain fields of Big Ag, a local club in the Idaho State Snowmobile Association (“Snodrifters of Latah County”) canceled its February 15, 2015 “Raffle Run” due to lack of snow. “Look for us to be back next year,” they plead on their website.27

For reasons that go far beyond a little winter recreation, we can only hope they will be.

The pictures with Flickr links are my own, and you can click on them to enlarge and download for your own non-commercial use, as usual.
The Genesee snow pics are digital restorations I’ve done of photos from the Latah County Historical society. If you’re interested in some plain-spoken personal and local history interspersed with old photos, check out Jerry’s book page at tellectual.com.


  1. Quoted in “Retreat of Once-Mighty Glacier Signals Water Crisis, Mirroring Worldwide Trend” by Doug Struck (Washington Post, July 29, 2006), dougstruck.com/​journalism/on-the-roof-of-peru-omens-in-the-ice

  2. Dated according to Julie R. Monroe in her book Latah County (p. 41). 

  3. Gerald Hickman and Tea Joe Hickman, Good Times in Old Genesee: A Tale of Two Families (Tellectual Press, 2015), loc. 333. 

  4. Hickman at loc. 511. 

  5. Hickman at loc. 522. 

  6. “Himalayan villagers on global warming frontline,” phayul.com/​news/article.aspx?id=23518

  7. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Henry Holt and Co., 2010), p. 7. 

  8. Gwynne Dyer, Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats (Oneworld Publications, 2010), loc. 1758. 

  9. “Climate Change Bomb Ticking in Pakistan”, Khaleej Times (Oct. 21, 2015). 

  10. Khaleej Times

  11. Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon, “Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering,” Scientific American (Jan. 2010), pp. 74-81. 

  12. Dyer at loc. 1761. 

  13. poets.org/​poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night 

  14. James Howard Kunstler, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation (Grove/​Atlantic, 2012), loc. 3477. 

  15. Robock and Toon. Ironically, one result of a nuclear war (even a regional one) would be a drastic cooling of the planet into a “nuclear winter” situation. Some consolation! 

  16. McKibben at p. 100. 

  17. Job 32:22-23, New American Standard Bible

  18. McKibben at p. 7. 

  19. Eva Mahnke, “Water conflicts come to the Andes as glaciers melt” (Deutsche Welle, Nov. 13, 2012), dw.com/p/16iC6

  20. Gwynne Dyer, Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats (Oneworld Publications, 2010), loc. 387. 

  21. Dyer at loc. 997. 

  22. Tom Knudson, “Sierra Warming: Later snow, earlier melt: High anxiety” (The Sacramento Bee, Dec. 28, 2008, online version here). 

  23. Dyer at loc. 997. 

  24. McKibben at p. 44. 

  25. en.wikipedia.org/​wiki/Ogallala_Aquifer 

  26. Brad Plumer, “How long before the Great Plains runs out of water?” (Washington Post Wonkblog, Sept. 12, 2013). 

  27. idahosnow.org/​latah