Review: Islamofobi, by Mattias Gardell

In a time when billboards scream at us about the Muslim threat, whipping up fear, Mattias Gardell’s book Islamofobi (Islamophobia) is a timely book and a book that deserves to get read. Gardell methodically shows how the fear of the Other have moved targets over the millennia, catching normally level-headed people inclined towards freedom of thought, speech and expression in it’s wake, making loud cries for control and inhibiting of human rights based on arbitrary and general criteria.
The history of islamophobia in the western world is only one part of the book. For most of the volume he details how Muslims are treated on a daily basis, both politically as a group, and individually, describing conditions I am sure no person would want their kin to endure.

There are those who accuse Gardell of silencing people who want to discuss the Muslim threat. In my opinion that is not what he does. What he says is Muslims are as diverse as Christians in their beliefs and practises, not to mention in interpretation of their holy texts, and that just like Christians are looked at and judged as individuals, so should Muslims.

I don’t agree with him throughout. As an atheist I find no religion inviolable – in fact, I find no religion agreeable but I find many people who believe in what for me is pure superstition to be not only agreeable but nice and kind people, as well as bad-ass egotists. Just like the rest of us.
And no one should be judged based on such superficial grounds as another person’s projection of his or her own fears for the unknown. Especially so when so much of the fear is based on actual falsities, as Gardell shows.

People truly need to read more science fiction, to learn to analyse their own reactions to the unknown. I hereby recommend a healthy dose of anything SF by Cherryh, as a start.
And yeah, I’m serious.
But prior to that anyone reading in Swedish should read this book. Of course.

Review: Rules of Engagement, by Elizabeth Moon

When I opened the first page of Elizabeth Moon‘s Rules of Engagement I expected a fast and light read, which just what I needed, all things considered. Of course, there has to be some element of drama or danger, or there would not be a book worth picking up, but at least I thought it would not pose an intellectual challenge – what I’ve read so far from Moon is well written but uncomplicated, as in no real complex political or historical context. Even when tackling difficult topics she does so in a straight forward way that lends at least the first four of the Serrano books a decidedly YA feel.

This fifth book ventured into darker territory, though, lending her characters and universe to the writing of a pamphlet against religious fanaticism. This in itself does not imply a darker setting but she takes it upon her self to describe in detail the consequences of the beliefs of this particular sect, not backing down from either the outright gruesome or the more systematic injustices.

The tool for this is to let rich brat girl Brun, once Bubbles, get kidnapped by a sect that firmly believes that women are the tools of men and not to have a voice of their own. The sect has not made it’s mark in Familias Regnant space which means it is a large universe to search through before she’s found, time during which she is subject to the culture of that sect, a culture that thinks a man forcing himself on a woman is in his right, were women aren’t allowed the skills of reading or writing, or to walk the streets or to look at a man’s face.

The ending is pure cliché, with some characters we know from earlier books who haven’t really made an appearance here jump in and make the day, rescuing Brun, without much explanation (or show). Despite this I enjoyed reading the book; in the end it was a smidgen darker than expected but all in all light and entertaining.
Not essential reading, but then not everything need be :D

Review: Society without God, by Phil Zuckerman

My original reason for reading this book was a curiosity in how an “outsider”, an “american”, perceived the Danish and Swedish societies. Recent years have made me very aware of the rather large differences between Swedish and US culture, be it northern, southern, eastern or western brand, and so looking at this through the eyes of someone who knew how to dissect those differences held it’s lure.

Zuckerman states in the introduction that he has an axe to grind – with ultra-religious people, zealots who claims that a society not firmly centred in Christian religion is a society in chaos, where people live without regard of others. He then goes on to discuss his methods, being open about the fact that the method he used is slightly biased and that the results cannot be used to make specific conclusions – the selection is too small and too non-random.

I started to suspect that what he was about to present would be too influenced by his agenda.

What I found was… a very apt description of Swedish and, I assume, Danish culture, especially as regards to the role of religion and faith in the society.

He paints a picture were most people just don’t care much, and never have put much though on issues like what happens after we die, or the meaning of life, or religion. A lot of people expressed a vague belief in “something” but his impression was most people would think that if someone claimed he had been told by God to do this or that this person would be viewed as slightly off his head. He then describes the societies as caring, even emphatic, with strong security networks, and goes on to try to find an explanatory complex of theories.

While I, from a Swedish perspective, can see large glitches in this “caring society” – as per more than one of my previous posts (and with great surety more than one to come in the future!) – compared with the US the general security network is strong and encompasses most people, as is the educational system.

During the read I more than once had to stop, to reflect and ponder my own experiences and my own opinions, to look at myself and the people I meet. And I had to realise that yes, my own atheism is viewed, even by myself, as too aggressive a stance on an issue that’s not that important, to most people. (Off topic I also think this is a large part of why most people don’t realise that the agenda put forward by the right-wing Alliance is inhumane in its consequences – they can’t analyse it as the fundamental RELIGIOUS agenda that it is; “Oh, so you’re deaf? You have yourself to blame /or God would had helped you/ so you can pay for your own health care”. If more people understood that the Alliance wouldn’t be as strong as they are. Because most people while not wanting to pay too much tax doesn’t genuinely believe illness is caused by a life in sin, either.)

I think the most shocking episode he tells about is when he describes how he after he returned to the US stood in line at a bank, overhearing a clerk speaking to a client with heavy debts giving the advice to put all the debt statements in an envelope and go visit a certain pastor. The pastor would bless and anoint the envelope, and then the person should donate US$50 a month to that church, and then the debts would be gone. Well, if that’s how US society works I’m not amazed that the author gawked through his stay in Denmark.

The cover is cheesy, the title and the chapter headings have a distinct New Age feel which makes it awkward to read in public. But – don’t judge a book by it’s cover; this one is thought-provoking, and therefore a good read. Highly recommended!

Confessional schools, and the future

Swedish law states that schools operating within the public framework has to be non-confessional. The reason for this is the state – in this specific case the municipalities – should not pay for religious schools. Schools operating within this framework are subsidised (I’ll not go into the technical details, this is just an intro for those who aren’t familiar with the background) and grades earned can be used to enter into higher education.

Recent years has seen an explosion in privately run schools, approved by the National Agency for Education, that features confessional elements. The schools are both Christian and Muslim (and others) and the whole gamut is present, from sectarians to people who barely would be accepted as Christian in an US context or as Muslims in Saudi Arabia. They aren’t allowed teach creationism. They have to promote equal rights. And they have to comply with the national grading system and the national tests. Confessional elements are allowed on the grounds but not inside what is considered the curriculum.

This leaves a lot of manoeuvring space. As an example saying the graces is allowed if it’s not compulsory. But what child wants to differ from everyone else?

The general state of the public schools differ. The ones where I live are generally very good. The parents are engaged in the education of their offspring, which I think is key to a good school, and most schools aren’t that big, which to me is another key.
In other places things are not as well – bullying is overlooked by the teachers, who feel ill used, and the quality of the education suffers from negligent parents who don’t help kids with their homework or manages to see to it that they get enough sleep and food to be able to handle school.
In cases like that people that cares moves their kids to a private but publicly endorsed school, in some cases even to a school founded on religious tenets the parents don’t support only because at least there their kids can get peace and quiet. This last thing, that what is needed is a good environment and that it isn’t the faith or the fact the school is private that makes it better, is generally overlooked (sorry, link in Swedish only).

My personal opinion is that it is gross negligence and bad strategies AND tactics, ultimately destructive for Sweden as a nation, that makes public expenses related to the school system ever tighter. And it is restricted funding that is one of the biggest problems for most schools – a scarcity of textbooks, with a lot of them dated and in pieces, low salaries, no money for equipment, no or few resources for kids with special needs.
The situation has made for a reality where a private school has begun to look like an acceptable alternative, not because parents wants a private school but because they want their kid to get a good start in life and the public school closest to them is in a bad state.
It should be noted that only people well off enough to actually be able to be away from work for extended periods, because private schools often have shorter hours than strictly public ones, or who have the freedom to work flexible hours.
Clearly not for those who works shift hours or who have set schedules.

We live in a world were most manual work, things that are made in factories, have moved to low-salary countries. Much as I oppose it this is the world as it looks like, right now and in the foreseeable future. If we in the western world want to avoid unemployment to surge we need to focus our resources on education and on creating a society that encourages research; we need to have schools that encourages kids to think, to learn methods for questioning and theorising. By cutting the funds to the public schools, and by encouraging confessional schools engaging in fostering mono-cultures, the opposite is what is happening. If this is allowed to go on I’m certain in 50 years time Sweden will be a highly segregated country with a huge portion of the people living in relative poverty and with now way out of it.

This is not the future that I want. In just so many words I think the portion of taxes that goes to funding the educational system should increase. Significantly.
After all, it’s our future. And an equal opportunity educational system is one of the few ways to ensure true social mobility but it’s also the key to a just politic society. Which is what I want.

Politicians can eat a few less tax funded dinners.

Our love for arbitrary givens

This planet takes approximately 365 days to complete one circuit around the sun. Where we start counting these days is totally arbitrary. If you start at Midsummer’s Eve or August 15th or February 2nd you’ll get the same amount of days. There’s nothing intrinsically different, except where in the continuous circuit across the universe the planet is, happening on January 2nd if compared with December 29th. Indeed some cultures starts their counts according to other calendars, not coinciding with the western/xtian one.

Despite this most people uses this arbitrary date, the break between December 31st and January 1st, to signify the beginning of something new, something Other. If it, like now, marks the end of an equally arbitrary thing like a decade, then it also is a signal to start a summary of the past 10 years, trying to figure out what’s so special about that particular time. It’s often funny, because as we all know these transitions are not clear breaks just because we want them to be so, and some of the things marked down as ‘typical’ are forgotten the the next day.

I think maybe we humans needs these anchor points in the time-space continuum, to make us feel more real, as a way to validate our being here. We are so afraid to face the reality, of there being no higher reason for us being here, nothing else beyond the biochemical reactions making us function. It makes us construct a reality that essentially aren’t there but without which we wouldn’t survive as a species.

Or – would we? Dare we try?

No patience for fantasy

As a rule I have small patience for works in the fantasy genre. I have not stopped to analyse why; I just tend not to choose to read a work of fantasy, except if it has gotten raving good reviews by people who I trust.

Reading Eco‘s The Search for the Perfect Language has inadvertently provided me with some tools for analysing, though. While telling the story of the search for the perfect language the book also works as a rough catalogue listing different beliefs and concepts ruling the statesmen, intellectuals and the church of Europe, starting with the late Greeks and proceeding through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and into our own time.

This exposé of the evolution of ideas is extraordinary (and quite fun, Eco has a wry sense of humour and I do not agree with those deeming this a “dry” book). He connects the need for different ideological constructs with the economic history of Europe, the development of the nation states, etcetera, all the while telling the reader about one bizarre idea after another – ideas genuinely held as true, at least by the originator, some hundreds of years ago.

And as I said – it also helped me analyse my aversion against a lot of fantasy. Because there, in the clear open, lies a smorgasbord of ‘magical’ concepts commonly used in fantasy novels. Everyone of them justified, historically, by a lack of knowledge and a wealth of imagination, and a basketful of faith, in one god or another (but mainly one in number, lol, whatever the creed of the originator).

Today superstition can’t be justified, at all – it’s just ignorance, or wishful thinking. Of course, most fantasy isn’t about today, or about ‘here’. This means that if the concept is well executed and the characters are nicely done the book can be a highly enjoyable experience. If not it just becomes a hotchpotch with deus ex machina on deus ex machina – it’s just poor writing, nothing more. However famous the author.

Urban fantasy is even worse. It’s supposed to be here and now, with werewolves and demons and whathaveyou (zombies, now, are the worst – don’t get me started…). It’s just so unbelievable and… downright INANE.
I get very sad when authors I otherwise think highly of do this kind of book. Like Guy G Kay did with Ysabel

Most of these books are written as pure ‘entertainment’, many of them utilising the horror trope. I have no problems with that. Entertainment is good, I read a lot of books for entertainment, not to mention watching TV or films. Now, to me, of course, entertainment is not having to wince inwardly twice on every page, like I do when I read a Harry Dresden book. So it’s poor entertainment.

I accept that some people like these things. Everyone to his or her own. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s NOT my cup of tea. At all. And now I know why.
Thank you, Umberto Eco, for that.

Swedish schools breaks the law, and no one cares

Today I got really REALLY upset. Earlier this week my son came home from preschool (which is a kind of preparatory school – every kid has the option to start school one year early, the year they turn 6) singing on a religious song about the birth of Jesus. It certainly didn’t feel good. I’m an atheist, to me religion are important to know but then I mean ALL religions, and schools should not teach what is arbitrary belief.

But. It’s Yule, and Sweden has a strong tradition regarding the singing of carols and such at this time of year – I too did that when I was a kid, and I survived.

Despite this I called the National Agency for Education, to check what the law said regarding this. I had a clear memory of the schools having to be non-confessional, but couldn’t find any information on the subject.
The call confirmed my memory – it’s both in the Education Act and in the Curriculum for the Compulsory School System, which all public schools has to follow.

I decided to talk to the teachers about it, to see how they reacted. My guess was they just hadn’t thought this through. We live in a relatively segregated area, consisting mainly of middle- to high income families, so maybe parents thought this OK.

Then, today, my son came home and told me they had been reading about Jesus, from the Bible, during these past days.

That was when I got upset for real. Did they mention Eid al-Fitr back in September? Chanukha, just recently? No, of course not. They teach the Bible not as a literary reference – I’m not convinced 6 year old kids understand the distinction, anyway – but as a belief system that we all adheres to.

Well – here’s news for you; I’m not!

And – if you’re Christian and reading this. How would you react if your kids came home and told you Mohammed is the true prophet? Or that Jesus is a false messiah?

I’m a great believer in knowledge. I think kids should know that there’s a lot of different ways to look at the world, out there. Without that knowledge they’ll not be able to analyse and understand what’s going on around us.

Forcing a belief – a faith! – on small kids, against the will of their parents, is NOT a widening of knowledge; it’s brain washing. And. In Sweden, it’s against the law.

The school is going to hear from me, believe me.