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What to Remember on Memorial Day

It’s not just about soldiers. It’s about principles that they should represent


These soldiers may have prayed at different altars, but their differences weren’t as great as their common bond. The greatness of America lies in the ideal of inclusion; that all men and women share a common and unifying drive for freedom and justice.

It’s Not About the Insurance…

…It’s about the dread fear that there’s a woman out there somewhere who is making her own decisions about her own reproduction!


So, the Obama Administration decides that though churches will not be required to provide for birth control in the insurance that they provide, church affiliated organizations like hospitals will. After all, such organizations hire people of many faiths. Why should they be denied access to health services just because their employer has moral qualms about the nature of that care? Should employers also require circumcision or that their employees only purchase God approved food? After all, a majority of Americans, including a majority of Catholics and mainline Protestants, believe that contraceptives should be available through insurance programs.

Regardless, the President then negotiates a compromise in which church based organizations are no longer required to pay for the contraception package, but employees will still be able to get a contraception benefit through side plans offered by the insurance company. The insurance company will provide these benefits because it’s cheaper than paying for a baby. The religious group wins. Women win. Democracy in action!

Until you read to the bottom of this article in the New York Times.

Even the archbishop offered, initially, a grudging acknowledgment that it was “a first step in the right direction” — although the bishops later said that Mr. Obama’s fix “raises serious moral concerns.”

“…serious moral concerns?” What serious moral concerns? You guys don’t have to provide the benefit.

But women can still get access to the benefit. That’s the point. Somewhere out there, there is a woman who is able to make up her own mind about how she spends her weekend, how she enjoys her body, how she shares in that enjoyment, when she starts a family and how big that family gets. This drives the religious right crazy.

It’s not that some religious organizations are offended by a state mandate requiring them to provide a benefit that they morally oppose. The problem is that contraception exists and women have power over their own reproduction—a power traditionally held by men and by churches.

The Poor Ayatollah: Questions of Legitimacy in the Iranian Conflict

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeing the opportunity, grabbed a very angry tiger by the tail.  His support of current President Ahmadinejad, and his dire warnings against further protests exacerbates the problem of political legitimacy in Iran.  As the leader of Iran, Khamenei had to make a stand.  He had three main choices: concede, conciliate or crush.  It looks like he is choosing crush. His speech made clear that he will support the incumbent president (regardless of the fact that he’s a whackjob) and will unleash a bloodbath against those who contradict his wishes.

I can’t speak as to Khamenei’s motivations for making the “crush” decision.  As a Grand Ayatollah he is a top expert in Islamic law and expected to apply Sharia to every day life.  Since I’m not an expert in any sense with regard to Sharia it may well be that his support for Ahmadinejad is consistent with his position and title.  I do, however, know a thing or two about politics in general as well as the dissemination of power in a society.  Power seems to be a strong motivating factor. Khamenei’s stance seems inspired more by Machiavelli than Mohammad.  If so, he should understand that the Italian political philosopher is not the final say in politics.

Legitimacy is crucial in running a country.  Brutal force does not carry the day in the long run.  Those who make the nation work, the shop keepers and day laborers and teachers and soldiers must recognize those in power as having a legitimate claim to that power.  It is obvious that the legitimacy of the power structure of Iran is in dire straights.  Though it’s clear that Ahmadinejad has a broad following, his presence at the top of the domestic power structure is polarizing.  In essence, his presence, and to be fair, the presence of his key rival Moussavi, are dividing the Iranian house.  By embracing the status quo, Khamenei may be derailing the legitimacy of his government in the eyes of the people.  Resorting to violence may quell the protests, but will not re-establish lost legitimacy.  It will only fuel resentment on the part of the electorate.

But there’s an added dimension to this that is not getting much press.  Iran is a theocracy.  It is supposed to be run according to Sharia.  The ultimate representative of Sharia in Iran is the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei.  Since there is no separation between “church” and state in Iran, that which destroys the legitimacy of the state institution may also destabilize the religious institution.

Religious institutions, especially those as cohesive as Shi’a Islam, have a great ace up their sleeve.  The legitamacy of religious institutions are vouched by God, or Allah.  But that lends one to ask, could Allah have stirred up such a hornet’s nest? For any institution there are dissidents who question the status quo.  All it takes is a widespread issue, such as a contested election, to reduce the legitimacy of the power elite and increase the legitimacy of the dissidents.  This could, ultimately lead to a paradigm shift.  Could Iran, and ultimately Shi’a institutions, be facing such a paradigm shifting crisis? We shall see.

The policies of Grand Ayatolla Ali Khamenei, resorting to blunt threats of violence, is unlikely to squash the seeds of dissent that could shift the ideological make-up of the country, and perhaps the region.

In a related matter: Kudos to President Obama for refusing to stir this particular stink.  Let’s let the people decide the direction of their own nation. What a concept!

Dogmatic Propoganda and the Need for Sociology

Before reading this post, please watch the linked video.

There.  How do you feel? Are you scared? Do you think that civilization as we know it is coming to an end? Do you think something radical must be done in order to stave off the impending disaster of Europe and the United States becoming Muslim nations?

If so, that means that this video accomplished its goal; that is, it scared the hell out of you, instilled a sense of xenophobia, a perception that the barbarians are at the gates.  It is propaganda perpetuated by a tunnel visioned, dogmatic worldview. And it is this kind of media that is the reason why sociology is so important.

The video presents itself as informative and vouches demographic data that is, most likely, accurate. But in presenting this data, without deeper analysis, it is presenting a bias.  Add on top of that the ominous music, the overgeneralizations and the insinuations, and undertone of a solution that promotes an ethnocentric, Christian dogma and xenophobia and even sexism.

The plot of the video is clear.  What Muslims were unable to do after the crusades, that is conquer civilized Europe militarily, they will do demographically.  Muslim immigration and fertility rates are such that they threaten to overwhelm nations with much lower fertility rates. So there’s a tripartite of danger facing Euro-Americans: Muslim immigration, high Muslim fertility rates and low Euro-American fertility.

The video begins with dire descriptions of low fertility. It correctly notes that the replacement fertility rate to maintain a stable population is 2.1. (This is the average number of babies born to each woman in the country? Come on, how can you have .1 babies?  Think of it like this in real terms: Out of 10 woman, 9 should have two children and the tenth should have 3).  Below that number the population will decline, above this number the population will increase. Fair enough. But the video goes on to note that at a fertility rate of 1.3 the population can never recover and the society is doomed for collapse. The source for this number appears to be a magazine article from the New York Times that details a concept called “lowest low fertility.”

But the video’s claims of imminent societal collapse is not supported by history.  I can think of no societies that have ever experienced this problem, nor have I found anyone who can think of such an example. When has this ever happened in history? How have these numbers been determined? The video is silent on this matter. But the insinuation is clear.  The fact that women are not putting out the babies is leaving Euro-American culture vulnerable.

And waiting on the perimeter, like jackals ready to feed, are the Islamists. The video explains that Muslim immigrants into Europe, specifically France and England, the seats of the Enlightenment and modern European history, and the United States constitute a veritable invasion (though the video does not use this term explicitly, it is a clear inference).  The video cites scary numbers of Muslim fertility rates dwarfing that of Europeans. Then, if you haven’t gotten the message, the video claims that in the very near future, France and England will be Muslim nations, or Islamic Republics.

The math is simple:

Low Euro-American fertility + High Muslim Fertility + Muslim Immigration = Fall of Euro-American Civilization

When confronted with such a simple algorithm, the sociologist is inclined to call shenanigans, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Though the video never specifically makes this claim, it treats Islam as a single cohesive entity.  Furthermore, by associating their pointed demographics with Muslim extremism, namely Momar Qadafi explaining how Islam will conquer Europe without guns, Islam is reduced and generalized as a representation of its own radical elements.  According to Gallup and the noted book, Who Speaks for Islam,the radical fringe of Islam is a small minority, at most 7% (based on the belief that the attacks of 9/11 were justified). Indeed, Islam is a much more diverse religion and culture than expressed in the video.  Islam is divided into 2-4 major denominations with numerous subdivisions.  What’s more, these subdivisions don’t necessarily recognize the others as legitimate versions of Islam.

denominations of islam


denominations of islam 2

Muslim immigrants also represent the cultures of perhaps as many as 100 different nations.  These nations have varying levels of religiosity and are not necessarily averse to democracy and freedom according to Gallup.  Muslims in America are an example of the kind of diversity represented by Islam as compared to other major religions.



Moslem diversity

So an influx of Muslims into any particular country does not represent the kind concerted and coordinated dynamic as insinuated by the video.  But the invasion metaphor is not uncommon among nationalist or religious xenophobes. Nativists in all countries have a particular attachment to the “invasion” paradigm, from critics of the so called low cultures of southern Europe during the turn of the century to the fear of Mexicans perpetuated by contemporary pundits.  The invasion metaphor should not come as a surprise.

But immigration is not an invasion.  Immigration is a social movement, subject to sociological dynamics.  When groups emigrate they are subject to significant social pressures to conform to the dominant cultural elements of the host culture.  Unlike a true invasion or cultural imperialism, immigrants are subject to expectations of assimilation and/or pluralism. It’s unlikely that Muslims will be any different than others. The Center of Immigration Studies (CIS) has an interesting summary of Moslem immigration to the United States.Though the CIS does pay inordinant attention to “Islamists” who, according to the CIS, do have an invasion agenda, the research does suggest that Muslims are undergoing very similar social pressures as any other immigrant group in American history:  Cultural distinction and isolation of the first generation immigrants confounded by a “dual identity” of the second generation.  This dual identity includes sexual and ultimately marital relationships, called biological assimilation.

As immigrants into Euro-American society, Muslims are subject to conforming pressures of Euro-American society, including democratic values.  According to research done by Gallup, Muslims are not averse to concepts like freedom of speech, women’s rights or democracy.  Granted, most Muslims share an affinity for Sharia law, but are moderate enough to suggest an integration of democracy with Sharia.  Regardless, the vast majority of Muslims are not represented by the stereotype of radical extremists as presented by “friendofmuslims'” video.

The most interesting dynamic that I’ve seen comes from Gallup and their research on Islamic women.  The majority of Islamic women, even in the most oppressive cultures, profess a desire for equality, access to the the job market, education and political participation.  In societies that offer such opportunities it’s likely that Muslim women will ultimately take advantage of such. This is demonstrated by reports of Moslem girls wearing traditional coverings when they leave the house, but changing into contemporary clothing when they get to school. What’s more, as women achieve parity with men, the fertility rates tend to decline. We should see how this influences Muslim fertility rates in Europe and the United States.


gender parity


It should also be interesting to see how Muslim immigrants respond to secular influences.  Muslims do tend to have higher levels of religiosity, but not so much higher that one would assume a mass radicalization of the immigrant cadre.  The CIS points out that secular influences do have a moderating effect on many Muslim immigrants, though immigration could reinforce Islamic orthodoxy by creating a comfort zone and reorientation toward familiar values.


It goes without saying that the picture of Muslims painted by this video is inaccurate.  But what’s most interesting to me was the undertones of the video that were not explicitly stated.  If Muslim immigration and fertility disparities between Muslims and Euro-Americans (which the video ultimately ties to Christianity) is the threat, then what is the defense? The video does not explicitly make this claim, but it’s not hard to read between these very thick lines. The solutions are clear: restrict Muslim immigration, and start having more babies.


The former solution is the norm for xenophobic  Nativists of all cultures. But the latter is an interesting, though not unique, suggestion. Women aren’t popping out enough babies. Despite the well researched benefits of lower fertility, a shaky hypothesis of cultural collapse is offered.  If we are to stop the barbarians at the gates, women are going to have to start doing their duty and make babies.  This idea is much like that presented by the Quiverful Conviction, that it is the duty of Christian women to have as many babies as possible and thereby guarantee the future empowerment of Christianity as the secular population decreases. It’s also similar to programs devised by Hitler and Stalin to encourage women to do their duty to the state by producing more Aryans or workers…or soldiers. Again, this is not explicit in the video, but the insinuation is obvious.

Videos like this, presented as information, but presenting a narrow, xenophobic worldview, are designed to inspire fear in the audience–fear of the other.  It reinforces neo-tribal conflicts through its use of mindless fear-mongering. This is the very ignorance that should be the focus of sociology and any enlightened discipline.