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Book Reviews

Book reviews and abstracts

Is God Happy?: Selected Essays

Is God Happy?: Selected Essays

 

The first biography of Siddhartha, the future Buddha, reveals that for a long time he was entirely unaware of the wretchedness of the human condition. A royal son, he spent his youth in pleasure and luxury, surrounded by music and worldly delights. He was already married by the time the gods decided to enlighten him. One day he saw a decrepit old man; then the suffering of a very sick man; then a corpse. It was only then that the existence of old age, suffering, and death—all the painful aspects of life to which he had been oblivious—was brought home to him. Upon seeing them he decided to withdraw from the world to become a monk and seek the path to Nirvana.
We may suppose, then, that he was happy as long as the grim realities of life were unknown to him; and that at the end of his life, after a long and arduous journey, he attained the genuine happiness that lies beyond the earthly condition.
Can Nirvana be described as a state of happiness? Those who, like the present author, cannot read the early Buddhist scriptures in the original, cannot be certain; the word “happiness” does not occur in the translations. It is also hard to be sure whether the meaning of words like “consciousness” or “self” corresponds to their meaning in modern languages. We are told that Nirvana entails the abandonment of the self. This might be taken to suggest that there can be, as the Polish philosopher Henryk Elzenberg claims, happiness without a subject—just happiness, unrelated to anyone’s being happy. Which seems absurd. But our language is never adequate to describe absolute realities.

When Religion and Culture Part Ways

When Religion and Culture Part Ways

 

Every winter Fox News, seeking to stir up anger through the land, uncovers evidence of a war on Christmas. Secular humanists ignorant of religion and hostile to its traditions, someone in the studio will declare, want us to say “Happy Holiday” or give Kwanzaa equal standing. But Christmas, as its name suggests, is about Christ. These enemies of Christianity will stop at nothing to get their way. Not even Santa Claus is sacred to them.
Actually, as the brilliant French social scientist Olivier Roy points out in “Holy Ignorance,” it is those defending Christmas who are not being true to their traditions and teachings. There are no Christmas dinners in the Bible, which is why America’s Puritans, strict adherents of what that venerated text offers, never sat down by the raging fire awaiting St. Nick; indeed, they briefly banned Christmas in Massachusetts.

Yule as we celebrate it today owes more to Charles Dickens than to Thomas Aquinas. Our major solstice holiday is what Roy calls a “cultural construct” rather than a sectarian ceremony, which explains why Muslims buy halal turkeys and Jews transformed Hanukkah into a gift-giving occasion. Mistakenly believing that Christmas is sacred, those who defend it find themselves propping up the profane. The Christ they want in Christmas is a product not of Nazareth but of Madison Avenue.

Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War

Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War

In an attempt to reconceptualize the destruction caused by the American Civil War “as an imagined state, an act of destruction, and a process of change,” Megan Kate Nelson innovatively combines environmental and cultural history methodologies (p. 9). Using an interdisciplinary approach, Nelson explores how Americans–Northern, Southern, black, white, female, and male–interpreted the large-scale obliteration of cities, houses, forests, and soldiers’ bodies. By emphasizing ruin as both a metaphor and a reality, the author proves that the Civil War both destroyed and created, which allowed many Americans to cope with the war and to find a common ground in spite of the national divisiveness.

To demonstrate that ruin affected all aspects of life between 1861 and 1865, Nelson divides her work into the destruction of urban areas, individual houses, wilderness, and soldiers’ bodies, specifically amputees. She aims to show that almost every soldier and civilian encountered the fragments of war in some form. By organizing her work into these four sections, Nelson strives to illustrate that Americans understood these ruins in different ways depending on who they were, where they lived, the type of object destroyed, the moment in time, and the perpetrators. The author illuminates that both Northerners and Southerners reacted in similar or identical ways to wartime ruination. For example, Nelson maintains that all types of ruins (whether they were scarred soldiers’ bodies, flattened forests, burned cities, or raided homes) were short-lived and all Americans were able to wipe the ruin from their consciousness and start anew.
Beginning with an environmental history approach, Nelson examines the narratives and images that Americans produced as they confronted architectural ruins–cities and houses. Both soldiers and civilians used the devastation to explain the “savage” nature of men on both sides. Even if the destruction was a result of military necessity and strategy, civilians saw it as barbarity. For instance, Union soldiers destroyed Southern homes as revenge and deterrence against guerrillas. Yet, Southerners saw such as a breach of privacy, humanity, and proof of Union savagery. Likewise, the invasions into the domestic sphere proved that Northern soldiers were barbarians. To Southerners, this was “personal pillage” (p. 79). Nevertheless, as Nelson reveals later, Southerners also used destruction as a form of revenge when they burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. According to the author, both Union and Confederate soldiers, who accidentally or deliberately created domestic ruins, understood such as the expected consequence of warfare. So although they may have disagreed on the motives, many soldiers accepted the debris and found a common ground through destruction and ruin.

Likewise, even though the image of flattened forests disturbed people and stirred up anxieties about the impact of wartime technologies on nature, both soldiers and civilians perceived the devastation of roads, rivers, and forests as predictable and natural. Yet, like the destruction of towns and buildings, these ruins quickly disappeared from vision and consciousness and led to rebirth. For example, although frequent marches led to many roads’ deterioration, repairs resulted in the roads’ widening. Such devastation resulted in the mass macadamizing of roads in the South. Furthermore, the obliteration of trees and undergrowth allowed for new saplings to fill their fallen forefathers’ places. Similar to the ruination of cities and homes, such devastation led to renewal.
Unlike cities, houses, and forests, however, Americans did not easily forget or cope with the high number of mutilated soldiers’ bodies after the war. While they were still ephemeral (men eventually die), the prevalence of amputees stirred countless anxieties about wartime technologies and the possibility of the “machine man” (p. 161). Therefore, while Nelson’s examination of the destruction of cities, houses, and forests is enlightening, her cultural analysis of wartime amputees is especially profound. Adding to the historiography, Nelson proves that historians have overlooked the cultural significance of the “missing and rebuilt limbs” of veterans (p. 9). By examining the “empty sleeves and government legs” that haunted postbellum cities and towns, the author shows that, like the urban and natural ruins, bodies held their own symbolic meaning and source of rebirth (p. 161). Nelson argues that for the American public–both Northern and Southern–disfigured men presented a problem for postbellum society, because they threatened Americans’ concepts of masculinity and even humanity. Nelson also maintains that mutilated men even destabilized beliefs about citizenship and restructured Americans’ thoughts on death in general. Nelson’s innovative analysis of the impact caused by more than a million shattered and broken men is by far the strength of her work.
The one shortcoming of Nelson’s work is her range of sources. Although she cites an impressive number of primary and secondary sources, the archives’ locations are limited. Most of her Northern sources come from Massachusetts and Connecticut, and her Southern sources are from Virginia and Georgia, with a few exceptions. This reviewer would have liked to see more analysis of the old Southwest and the Union’s destruction of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Although these states did not endure the same brutality as Virginia or Georgia, their residents still experienced the “hard hand of war” and deserve attention.[1] Although Nelson did not look at these states in depth, her work lays the foundation for other scholars to tackle the subject.
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The twilight of the dictators: A spring of unrest, an autumn of discontent

The twilight of the dictators: A spring of unrest, an autumn of discontent

Four must read books:

The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era. By Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren. Yale University Press; 350 pages; $28 and £18.99.

The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life. By Roger Owen. Harvard University Press; 248 pages; $24.95 and £18.95.

The Syrian Rebellion. By Fouad Ajami. Hoover Institution Press; 240 pages; $19.95 and £14.95 .

Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising. By Stephen Starr. Columbia University Press; 226 pages; $20. Hurst; £14.99.

WHY did they fall? In the months that followed the advent of the Arab spring, authors have rushed to explain why some dictators have been unseated but not others; whether Islamist revolutions will flourish in their wake; and whether there is anything sensible the West can do other than hold its breath.

These are not easy questions, but one of the strongest attempts to answer them is “The Battle for the Arab Spring” by Lin Noueihed, a Reuters correspondent, and Alex Warren, who runs a Middle East consultancy. This book describes what happened, considers the role of new media among frustrated youths and provides a wealth of data about the economies and demographics of the countries at the heart of the drama—Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen.

The authors refrain from predicting the fate of the newly empowered Islamist movements, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. But they imply that Islamist revolutions are unlikely. The Arab spring, they suggest optimistically and persuasively, has created a new frame of mind—an unwillingness to accept humiliation and corruption, a readiness to transcend fear. There is a new faith that people can resist tyranny and change their lives.

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Does the sharia deserve its bad reputation, asks Sameer Rahim reviewing Heaven on Earth by Sadakat Kadri

Does the sharia deserve its bad reputation, asks Sameer Rahim reviewing Heaven on Earth by Sadakat Kadri

 

Heaven on Earth: a Journey Through Sharia Lawby Sadakat Kadri; 332pp, Bodley Head, t £16.99 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) Buy now from Telegraph Books (RRP £18.99, ebook £9.99).
 
In February 2008 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered a lecture called “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective”. The title sounded innocent enough, but the archbishop’s comments on the Islamic legal code – or sharia – drew much feverish comment. From some of the media coverage you would have thought the head of the Church of England had called for Songs of Praise to be replaced by live whipping of adulterers. His lecture envisaged that in some cases Islamic personal law regulating finance, marriage and minor disputes could be dealt with by voluntary arbitration panels run by clerics or scholars, similar to the way Jewish Beth Din courts already work.
All this sounds perfectly reasonable. But what the archbishop didn’t consider was what kinds of pressures some British Muslims – in particular women – might come under to sort out their problems at the mosque rather than take advantage of the protection of British law. And what about the thorny issue of what exactly the sharia is: who defines it and who enforces it?
Sadakat Kadri’s lively, yet scholarly, book Heaven on Earth attempts to unravel these questions. Kadri is an ideally positioned guide: born in London to a Finnish mother and Pakistani father, he is a barrister and the author of an acclaimed history of criminal justice in the West.
 
  
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