[Comment] Bi-Polar Politics & Syria

I’m writing this post in the wake of the UK parliament passing a vote to support the expansion of aerial attacks against ISIS in Syria (they are already involved in action against them in Iraq). To state my position upfront: overall I agree with military intervention by Western powers against ISIS, and in Syria more broadly (including against Assad’s brutal regime) and I agree with the UK lending its support to such efforts. Yet, I also agree with those who maintain that the UK government’s current strategy does not seem likely to be successful. Specifically, all the well-informed military analysts I’ve heard have repeated the same mantra: aerial bombardment without complementary ground troops will be unable to rout ISIS. Furthermore, Assad’s forces are responsible for inflicting suffering on a much grander scale and as such attacking his opponents, no matter how distasteful, has the potential to prove disastrously counterproductive.

However, my primary motivation for making this post is not to try and justify my position but to lament the bipartisan grandstanding surrounding the Syrian intervention on both sides of the debate. Increasingly, it feels like the UK is slipping into US style bipolar politics, as was evident with the recent election campaign and its ‘fear the Scottish’ tenor (masterminded by Lynton Crosby and his ‘wedge politics’). Cameron labelling all opposition to Britain’s involvement as ‘terrorist sympathisers’ is a clear illustration of such binary thinking and has the reek of cynical opportunism. His refusal to apologise during the 11 hour debate that followed, despite the repeated requests, was also depressingly consistent with his sound-bite focused, morally bankrupt leadership. In summary, I still really don’t like David Cameron or the general policies of the current Tory government.

And yet… I find the liberal anti-interventionist rhetoric to not be much better. Instead of recognising that politicians, or people more generally, could genuinely disagree on whether intervention against ISIS will be beneficial or harmful, the most selfish motivations or profit making conspiracies are presented as indisputable facts. Similarly, any left wing politician who disagrees with ‘Stop the War’-esque rhetoric is immediately labelled as a closet Tory, traitor, morally bankrupt, war monger, or worse. It is theoretically possible that all those supporting British involvement are morally bankrupt capitalists, purely concerned with increasing their personal profits from untold conflict and suffering, but it is not actually very plausible (Jonathan Haidt’s research should be required reading for those who want to demonise the OTHER side of the political spectrum).

To illustrate the problem: Yesterday, a British friend, after declaring that the UK will kill ‘millions’ in Syria, asked what gave David Cameron the ‘right’ to take the UK into Syria. Well, the answer unfortunately is DEMOCRACY. The conservatives won a majority in the general election, and then won a majority for the Syrian intervention in the Commons, following an eleven hour debate. Whether the intervention is justified, will have the desired effect, or will be waged sensibly, are all different (important) issues but if you value democracy you have to live with outcomes you don’t agree with and it doesn’t necessarily mean the system is broken.

This is also incidentally why it should be of concern to liberals whether the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn can attract a majority in an election. If people dislike what the Conservatives are doing in power then a primary goal should be to ensure they are defeated in the next general election. Protesting from the opposition benches, or outside of parliament, is never going to be as effective as being the party in charge. It’s not just cynical pragmatism to be concerned with elections.

[Comment] Know Thy Enemy


Displays of solidarity in Paris (image from BBC News)

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, articles about ISIS are appearing at a remarkable rate. These articles are highly variable in quality (and in the relevant expertise of the authors) but commonly contain commentaries on how ‘we’ can defeat ISIS and their ‘true’ causes and motivations.

For ideologues on the right, this typically means emphasising the danger posed by refugees and Muslims in general, alongside exhortations to bomb ISIS into the ground in Syria. Meanwhile, their ideological counterparts on the left are busy reframing the issue as not really being about ISIS but rather how everything is the inevitable result of illegitimate Western wars and profit driven expansionist foreign policies. Their preferred solution is to withdraw all Western forces from Syria and welcome more refugees.

I find little of merit in ideological pieces. Their content is predetermined and rarely changes to reflect any potential insights from a new event. Instead, events just become grist for the mill of their preferred narrative and are reframed accordingly, regardless of any leaps in logic required. This doesn’t mean that the ideologues are never correct; leftist ideologues, for instance, are right when they emphasize how the West’s bigoted treatment of Syrian refugees and demonising of all Muslims is counterproductive and harmful. But occasionally advocating sensible positions is not evidence of good critical thinking, or valuing reliable research, instead it just demonstrates that ideologies occasionally line up with evidence supported positions. Like vaccines and autism, the error lies in mistaking such correlations as an illustration of any fundamental connection between the two.

To offer something other than just frustrated complaints about the state of current coverage, I thought I would point to a few articles/resources that avoid bipartisan posturing and offer strong, frequently horrifying, analysis:

  1. What ISIS Really Wants? (The Atlantic) by Graeme Wood: A justly famous extended article based on the journalist Graeme Wood’s interviews with ISIS supporters based in the West. The importance of the groups millennial religious ideology and how it is too readily dismissed as non-Islamic by well intentioned liberal analysts is also discussed. There are a number of follow ups to this piece that are also worth reading, including Wood’s recent discussion of whether the Paris attacks were actually masterminded by ISIS or whether it just sought credit.
  2. 7 Things I Learned Reading Every Issue Of ISIS’s Magazine (Cracked) by Robert Evans: This isn’t a long or deeply analytical piece, instead it offers a very straightforward summary of the major recurrent themes in ISIS internal propaganda magazine Dabiq. Several of the points identified unfortunately seem to be popularly unknown, such as ISIS ongoing conflict with Al Qaida and their hatred for Iran. If you are a glutton for punishment the actual magazines are available online via the Clarion Project.
  3. What I discovered from Interviewing ISIS Prisoners (The Nation) by Lydia Wilson: This is a fascinating ‘on the ground’ account by a researcher working with Scott Atran and interviewing captured ISIS fighters. It provides nice, rich ethnographic description that is typically excised from academic papers and hence also serves as an important reminder of how academic research on terrorism is not as infallible as it is often portrayed.
  4. The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS (NY Times) by Olivier Roy: A useful article that summarises the differing interests amongst the various groups active in Syria. The main take-away point is that any portrayal of the conflict as a simplistic ‘West’ vs. ‘ISIS/the Rest’ is completely misleading.
  5. ISIS: The State of Terror (by Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger): This is a book I read some time ago to help get a better understanding of ISIS. It provides a good summary of the origins of ISIS and its leader al-Baghdadi’s murky history. It is strongest in the chapters that deal with ISIS’ propaganda and online tactics and how these represent a fundamental departure from Al-Qaeda and other previous terrorist groups.
  6. ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape (NY Times) by Rukmini Callichi: A long, depressing article by a very well informed journalist, which details the horrific and systematic sexual abuse of minorities endorsed and promoted by ISIS. This article alone should serve as a clear rejoinder to those who argue for a moral equivalence between ISIS and Western nations. Callichi was also interviewed on the Reply All podcast about her twitter interactions with ISIS supporters and fighters. It’s short and worth a listen.
  7. Can ‘Islamic State’ Be Defeated? (BBC World News- The Inquiry): A short radio/podcast episode interviewing experts with differing opinions on how to defeat ISIS, and whether this is even a feasible. It is short and succinct and I felt that all of the experts provide well informed opinions.
  8. The Islamic State (VICE News): A 5 part documentary series that you can now watch as one full length documentary. The series was made some time back but the level of access that the VICE journalist managed to achieve remains unsurpassed. The depictions of life under ISIS are deeply depressing, especially in regards the indoctrination of the kids filmed, but they also highlight how they ISIS are capitalising on the persecution felt by many Sunni Muslims living in Iraq and Syria.

There are certainly other good sources out there and I’m making no claim to the above being a comprehensive list. If anyone has any other resources to recommend, please let me know in the comments section. I’m always interested to discover new (good) writing and analysis.

[Comment] is Free?

Be quiet, my friend. You can't tell my secrets.

As anyone who read this blog has probably noticed, it’s been pretty silent for the past six months. That is largely due to most of my energy being focused on writing up my PhD thesis, which is almost finished… but still not quite there. While it remains unsubmitted, I can’t internally justify taking the time to research and write articles for pleasure. Hence, the lack of new posts.

However, my blogging efforts were originally intended to serve as a supplement to my research activities so I’ve decided that, for the time being, I’m going to use the blog as a kind of mental escape from my thesis and write short commentaries on articles or news stories that I find interesting or have something to say about.

I hope that some people find these posts interesting but I’m providing some advance warning that they will likely touch on topics that will be a bit broader, and potentially more political, than is typical for this blog. They will all be labelled with the tag [COMMENT] in the title so should be easy to distinguish between the longer articles, which I do intend to get back to, after that fabled submission.

That’s all folks!


Misogi Cold Water Rituals (Pt 2)

In the previous post in this series, I described my personal experience of an extreme misogi water purification ritual performed in Kikonai in Northern Japan. In this post, I will continue that discussion and recount an altogether different experience I had more recently (about one month ago) at another misogi event, this time held at Teppozu Inari a Shinto shrine located in a suburb of central Tōkyō.

Kanchu Misogi

Misogi event at Teppozu Inari Shrine in Tōkyō. Image provided by Yoshio Wada


Planet Money’s MTurk episode

The NPR podcast Planet Money (of which I am a fan) just released an episode that looks at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk)- a website where people are paid small sums of money to complete online micro-tasks (like categorising photos or writing transcripts of recordings). The site is named after an 18th Century chess playing ‘robot’ that was actually controlled by a hidden person (see above). This is an elegant analogy for the modern MTurk platform where anonymous workers complete Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) like a well oiled machine. If you want a slightly more in-depth and accessible introduction then I’d heartily recommend listening to Planet Money‘s short episode (available here).

However, while the episode does provide a useful introduction, as a researcher who has run a variety of studies on MTurk, I also have some specific (/pedantic) reservations with what their portrayal. In some ways the Planet Money reporters went to a lot of effort to dig into the topic: interviewing one of the founders of MTurk and embedding a ‘secret message’ in an MTurk task so that they could speak to some actual workers. Yet  I still found listening to the episode frustrating, due to some surprising misrepresentations that implied a low level of fact checking. I realise what follows will likely be too ‘insider baseball’ for most people, but for those who have some interest in how research on MTurk works, below are some of the biggest inaccuracies/pet peeves I had with the episode. (more…)

Misogi Cold Water Rituals (Pt 1)

This article also appears over on http://genealogyreligion.net/ where I am very pleased to say I will now be a regular guest contributor. I’ll still be cross posting my articles here and will also post anything that falls outside the remit of the Genealogy of Religion blog. If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out some of the articles by Cris Campbell the creator of the Genealogy site, in fact I already recently recommended you to do so…

A misogi performance at Kanda Myōjin in Tokyo.

A misogi performance at Kanda Myōjin in Tokyo.

Misogi (禊) can loosely be translated as ritual purification by cold water and is a practice most strongly associated with Shintoism. It is also performed by practitioners of Shugendō, a syncretic ascetic sect with a long history in Japan, and by martial arts groups, such as Aikidō practitioners. The precise practices involved vary; at some locations the misogi is performed by immersion in streams/pools and at others by sitting or standing under waterfalls, sometimes the event involves collective practices by large groups (up to 200) and sometimes it is a solitary performance. But despite such diversity a clear unifying thread to all misogi practices is the endurance of cold water in order to purify oneself and by extension the surrounding community.

I’ve now participated in two misogi events: the first was held last year, in a small town called Kikonai in Hokkaidō in Northern Japan and the second was performed just last week, at Teppozu Inari Shrine in a suburb of central Tōkyō. Both events were spectacular and I was extremely fortunate to be invited to take part. However, these two events were also very different and I think they serve as a good illustration of how a single ‘type’ of ritual can be expressed differently, even when performed within the same country (Japan) and ostensibly within the same tradition (Shinto). In this first post, I’ll focus on my experience at the misogi in Kikonai last year, then in the next post I’ll make some comparisons with my experience at the recent event in Tōkyō and finally, I’ll relate both experiences to some important theories which I think help illuminate and explain some of the psychological aspects of these ritual performances.


Recommended Blogs on Research on Religion

There are tonnes of blogs and websites out there that deal with religion both from a positive and a critical perspective and during my studies I’ve read A LOT of them. I suspect most readers of this blog are likely already aware of popular anti-theist blogs, such as those ran by PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, which occasionally present themselves as providing a ‘scientific’ response to religion. However, I would have severe hesitations about recommending either of these blogs (or any similar sites) to anyone, atheist or otherwise, who wanted to develop an informed opinion about current scientific research into religion. Fortunately, there are a number of good sites out there and in this post I want to highlight three sites that I would strongly recommend and a fourth that is worth checking out:


1. Science on Religion (Connor Wood)

This is one of the most readable blogs out there addressing science & religion. It is also regularly updated and provides both stand alone articles and more nuanced coverage of research that is often breathlessly reported elsewhere. Connor is a very good writer and even when disagreeing with his points I often find myself admiring the way he has constructed his arguments. By and large, the articles here also tend to aim for a ecumenical and conciliatory tone in regards the relationship between science and religion, which reflects Connor’s own clearly stated ideological position. This approach makes for refreshing reading, especially after experiencing one too many hostile anti-theist articles, but it also does lead to it’s own issue that negative features of religious traditions are occasionally downplayed or ignored while positive attributes are emphasised. As such, I would also advise that readers consult the comments section under Connor’s articles which often contains lively debates and contrasting opinions to those found in the target article. One commentator in particle, who goes by the title of Gemli, often responds with an anti-theist take on Connor’s posts and while his comments rely primarily on personal sentiment rather than detailed research, they still provide an interesting contrast to the more positive message of the main articles.


2. Genealogy of Religion (Cris Campbell)

I stumbled upon the Genealogy of Religion blog about a year ago and have been an avid consumer of its articles since then. The tone for longer articles is a bit more academic than Science on Religion but it also features short commentary pieces in which the author, Cris, provides some personal reflections on interesting articles or books he is reading. While these are often entertaining, they also reveal the impressive range and depth of knowledge that the author commands over the research literature, particularly in regards to the ethnographic literature of hunter gatherers. I have discovered numerous useful (and obscure) references through Cris’ posts and have also come to better recognise the significant, often underappreciated, variation in hunter gatherer societies. Despite being a researcher who endorses scientific approaches to studying ‘religion’, Cris also expresses quite severe skepticism about the conceptual coherence of the term ‘religion’ in the premodern world, as well as being critical of some of the broader claims and associated methodologies employed by evolutionary psychologists. His skepticism extends a little too far for me at times, but as with Science on Religion, the arguments are always well presented and Cris is always willing to engage with criticism or counter arguments in the comments section. He also has some challenging views about the unitary nature of hunter gatherers animist worldviews which I’ve found at times to create a slight sense of an exceptionalism, if not romanticism, surrounding portrayals of non-agricultural societies. However, Cris is too much of a rationalist to over indulge in this and he is also always willing to spell out the evidential basis for any claims he presents. In short, come for the hunter gatherers but stay for the frequent thoughtful reviews and in-depth serial articles.


3. Epiphenom (Tom Rees)

Recently relocated from the Field of Science to Patheos, Epiphenom is a long running blog with a straightforward premise- present and comment on new research papers on religion- that is executed with admirable precision by Tom Rees. Tom not only tends to cover new research remarkably quickly but his accounts have often identified and discussed several key issues with a study in the amount of space it would take me to write my introduction. The concise nature of the articles means that they can be consumed quickly, while the copious and thorough referencing and links to other relevant studies encourage those that are interested to look more deeply. I’ve also found the comments on statistical methods here to often be remarkably insightful, which is probably due to Tom’s day job as a medical writer and his experience in biotech. As with the other blogs mentioned above, the comment section is remarkably free of trolls and often features thoughtful, well thought out responses.

Sam Harris

4. Sam Harris’ Blog

Sam Harris is a well known New Atheist and author of popular anti-religion books. He is also generally polemical and displays a lack of interest into research when it is not seeking to expose the negative influence of religion on society. His place on this list may thus seem a little incongruous but hear me out. For a start, I think Harris is much better informed about the topic of religion than folks like Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers, that may be a low bar to overcome but I think it enables Harris to better engage with his critics. And here is the crux for why I advocate readers to follow Harris’ blog, namely it introduces debates and perspectives that are both relevant and controversial and which more academic discussions often do their best to ignore. I don’t always agree with Harris but I do find his work and his replies to critics to be engaging. Moreover, while there certainly is a clear anti-religion agenda to his blog, I happen to think that at times such an approach is not only justified but necessary- we need people who are willing and not afraid to criticise the abuses of religion worldwide and Harris certainly fits this bill. His interest in ‘spirituality’ and meditation also mark him out from the other New Atheists, and while I am not persuaded by a lot of his claims in this area, I do think it gives him a better understanding of his religious counterparts than someone like Dawkins.