Monday, August 31, 2009

No more handshakes

In the Netherlands, and no doubt other countries as well, Muslims have drawn attention to themselves by refusing to shake hands with women officials. While their specific motives are open to criticism, there may nonetheless be a good justification for not jumping into the risks of the handshake, let alone the kiss. Stop all this huggy-bear and kissy-face.

Some time back, I had to take high doses of a medicine that neutralizes the immunity system. In accordance with medical advice, I abstained from the usual handshaking and kissing that is common in our part of the world when you meet a relative, friend or occasional acquaintance. Actually I liked it, especially after people had accepted this odd new habit of mine. There were, after all, good alternatives established by centuries-old custom. I India, I rarely shook hands, and that only with Westernized Indians. Hindus would fold their hands and say "Namaste" or more colloquially "Raam Raam", Muslims would touch their hand palm to their forehead and say "Aadaab Arz" or "Salaam". Chinese people with a sense of tradition put their right fist in their left palm in front of the chest and bow slightly.

Touching someone is a mutual invasion of privacy with all the impurities you carry. Therefore, some cultures consider it a very intimate act not entered into loosely. While they didn't know about micro-organisms, they sensed correctly that such an invasion may have more than merely symbolic effects. Today, with the Swine Flu paranoia, health authorities advise the public to refrain from kissing and shaking hands except in situations of true and intentional intimacy. So, the coolies and fellahs were right all along. We ought to learn from them.

A handshake between a man and a woman creates an additional problem. The purity threat in the traditional view is in this case that the woman may be menstruating. This constitutes a radical impurity in most traditional cultures in South and West Asia, Africa and elsewhere, to the extent that menstruating women are not allowed into their own house nor to prepare food. This is also the reason why women are often not allowed into particularly sacred spaces. In this respect, Christianity was a forerunner of modernity by generally ignoring this monthly impurity, though it barred women from becoming priests or speaking in the assembly for other reasons.

But apart from the taboo on touching a woman in a state of impurity, there are more reasons for frowning upon a handshake between man and woman. In Islam, there is a veritable obsession with the chance that the slightest provocation may arouse in them an unstoppable sexual arousal. That is why a woman must not show an inch of flesh or hair, and why she is not permitted to spend even the shortest time in the sole company of a man who is not a direct relative of hers, such as a medical doctor making a diagnosis. Give a man and a woman half a chance and they will have a go at each other right away.

In European and some other civilizations, by contrast, a man is expected to control himself even when exposed to a woman's near and less-than-fully-covered presence. But he too should not shake hands with her. A handshake, after all, is a form of greeting between equals. When you are received in audience by the Pope, you don't shake hands with him, you kneel and kiss his ring. Likewise, when you meet a woman, you must use a form of greeting that befits your inequality.

In some respects, a woman is considered inferior, in others superior. In Chinese, a language expressive of a patriarchal but courteous culture, the numerical classifier zuo, "pedestal", is used for both women (sanzuo nĂ¼ren, "three women") and mountains, (sanzuo shan, "three mountains"), because a woman is something you look up to and possibly aspire to climb. She is never your equal, never "one of the boys". Depending on who she is to you, a gentleman of the old school may take off his hat and bow, or he may kiss her hand, or nod and give a merely verbal greeting. Us carefree moderns would feel more comfortable giving her a hug or a kiss on the face, slightly more intimate but at any rate allowing for an expression of the distinction between man and woman.

A handshake, by contrast, is a purely symmetrical gesture, and therefore contrary to the traditional sense of courtesy, which always wants to do justice to people's specific status. It is a recent innovation, and there is always something uneasy about it. Let us follow the example of our Muslim fellow-countrymen and take some distance from the modern ways at least in this respect.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Delhi, Dilli, Indraprastha

The elite that affects cosmopolitan airs derides de restoration of pre-colonial names or name forms for cities as "provincial" or worse. They wouldn't dare to say that to Robert Mugabe who restored Rhodesia to its ancient glory as "Zimbabwe". But they do say it to harmless people such as the Hindus who want to de-anglicize "Delhi". An article by one Sadhvi Sharma expresses the Anglo-secular elite's impatience with "provincial" attempts at restoring old city names such as Mumbai for Bombay and, according to her, "Dilli" for Delhi. She falsely claims that the common people don't support these endonyms (indigenous names). To create this impression, she uses the typical Time/Newsweek trick of interviewing one or two people on the street, possibly real but certainly unrepresentative, who by coincidence express as their own the elite viewpoint buttressed by a one-dimensionalist argument about how these names don't affect their "real" (i.e. economic) concerns.

In the name-change debate, the usual double standars apply: indignation over the Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena's "Mumbai", tacit acceptance of the Communist Party (Marxist)'s "Kolkata" or the ethnic-chauvinst Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's "Chennai". But that's so common we needn't discuss it here. What does raise my curiosity, however, is the choice of "Dilli" (the present colloquial Hindi form) as the supposed original of "Delhi". That is most certainly wrong, and seems to exemplify how even educated Hindi-speakers are losing the grasp of their own language.

The original was "Dhillika", and that the /h/ shifted due to the Persian aversion to aspirated occlusive consonants like /dh/ (cfr. Sindhu > Hindu), hence "Dihli-", which in turn was messed up by the British to "Delhi". There is, as Sarvesh Tiwari informs me, also an old name "Devali".

At any rate, if the name must be restored to its original form, why not go the whole hog and return to the name given to the capital by its founder Yudhishthira hero of the Mahabharata, probably ca. 1500 BC), viz. "Indraprastha"? That is what the Hindu-nationalist party Jan Sangh used to promise decades ago, and likewise "Karnavati" for Gujarat's metropolis Ahmedabad. And promises should be kept. As Ms. Sharma notes, the Shiv Sena promised Mumbai, and implemented the name change not long after coming to power.

But the Jan Sangh or at any rate its successor party BJP is made of mellower stuff. The BJP has been in power numerous years at the city, state and central levels in Delhi and Ahmedabad, and yet no move was ever made in this direction. Possibly the present crisis in the BJP will churn up a new resolve to get serious about the Hindu nationalist agenda. Restoring the capital to its traditional name would be a resounding international statement of self-respect.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Clenardus and the way out of Islam

When I write that we don’t have much to fear from the Islamic aggressor, one reaction I often get is that I am overly and unduly optimistic, making light of a massive threat. In fact, my position is that if we are alert, we are capable of outwitting the Islamic designs.

When I write that we don’t have much to fear from the Islamic aggressor, one reaction I often get is that I am overly and unduly optimistic, making light of a massive threat. Recently someone paraphrased my position as: “Europeans can go to sleep peacefully tonight.” This is an allusion to what, according to legend, the Dutch Prime Minister Hendrik Colijn said in a radio speech on the eve of the German invasion in May 1940, in a ludicrous world record of false reassurance. In reality he said it years earlier, though on a related occasion, viz. the German remilitarization of the Rhineland. Moreover, he said it after announcing a partial mobilization of the army, thus presenting the common people’s peaceful sleep as the reward for the vanguard’s vigilance. At any rate, I am not at all saying that Europeans should go to sleep. On the contrary, my position is that we should be alert and outwit the Islamic aggressor.

In this endeavour, we may take inspiration from some of our ancestors, who faced the same problem. Not that they were successful in their counterstrategy, we should learn from their limited results as much as from their correct premises. They had at least got the basics right: the solution for the Islam problem is to liberate the Muslims from the mental prison-house of Islam.

The first Orientalists were Christians trying to re-establish contact with the various Christian churches in the Muslim world, and to lay the intellectual foundations for the conversion of the Muslim heretics. (In Catholic theology, Muslims are not so much pagans, who have never known Christ, but heretics, who have known Christ but embraced a false doctrine about him, viz. that He was a mere prophet and was superseded as such by Mohammed.) The most famous example should be Raimundus Lullus, the polymath from Catalonia who went to North Africa to preach, but died as a consequence of the stoning he received. He is not known to have wrought any lasting conversions.

An example from closer home was Nicolaas Beken Cleynaerts, better known as Nicolaus Clenardus (1495-1542). He grew up in Diest, a town in the eastern corner of Brabant, now called “Diestambul” by its fast-growing Turkish community. He spent most of his working life teaching Greek and Hebrew in Leuven University. After studying Quran Arabic on his own, he went to Spain and Portugal to learn spoken Arabic, all while teaching his usual courses. He crossed to Morocco, initially only to get to know the place, but took ill soon. Shortly after his return to Spain, he died and was buried in the Alhambra in Granada. So, mission not accomplished at all. A statue in Diest commemorates him: “Verbo non gladio gentes Arabas convertere ad Christianam fidem nisus est”, “He made the effort to convert the Arabs to the Christian faith with the word, not the sword.”

Preaching on a town square in Tunis or Fez proved to be less than effective as a method to free the Muslims from Islam. Elsewhere, even military conquest rarely proved successful. The Russians left the defeated Tatars and Chechens to their Islam, and the French, British and Dutch colonial policies only strengthened the position of Islam in their respective domains. So in that respect, the past doesn’t offer us much guidance. It is our own job to find better ways of reaching out to the prisoners of Islam. If this lack of alternatives for self-reliance is a reason for pessimism, then please consider that we may not be all that important.

Can’t you feel the impact of knowledge and its novel ways of direct availability in colleges and private homes throughout the Muslim world? The phenomenon of ex-Muslims speaking out openly and informing their stay-behind relatives is slowly but surely changing the ideological landscape of the Muslim world. The attempts by Muslims to present their religion as tolerant and pro-woman are admittedly untruthful but do nonetheless show an impact of non-Islamic values and sensibilities that is bound to increase and hollow out the attachment to Islam.

This wind was already blowing in the colonial age, when a full option for modernization could have been the end of Islam. Through calculations of short-term interest and a lack of ideological focus, the colonial administrators instead chose the way of compromise with the Islamic establishment, thus giving it an unnecessary new lease of life. In the postcolonial age, de-islamization can no longer be imposed from above even if we had wanted to, but it is now growing from inside. It is up to us to find inconspicuous but effective ways of strengthening this tendency. This is an appeal to European alertness and resourcefulness.

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