Archive for April, 2010

Eco’s The Name of the Rose

April 10, 2010

…often the learned men of our time are only dwarfs on the shoulders of dwarfs (pp 82)

But then there are giants. Sometimes you stand on the shoulders of those giants, and other times you merely look up at the giants from below, wondering in a kind of awe how they do it. The Name of the Rose is an intense book. It displays the deep erudition for which Eco is well-known as well as a gripping plot. It is a story for academic-leaning people in both respects as the plot is only exciting if you think that old books and lost manuscripts are thrilling, as I do. As the main investigator of a series of murders in a monastery that constitute one of the major story lines of the book explains—

…here we are trying to understand what has happened among men who live among books, with books, from books, and so their words on books are also important. (pp 103)

The intellectual discourses throughout are largely related to debates relevant in fourteenth century Christian monastic circles, such as the poverty of Christ. In and of themselves, Eco’s long passages arguing either for Christian poverty or against it can seem a bit tedious at times. Nonetheless, I found that the topics often had larger issues at stake that continue to speak to concerns in the modern world. Eco also does a commendable job tying such digressions back into the plot as he moves along.

My main critique of the book would be that I felt the main characters were fairly undeveloped. All the more minor characters seemed to fit into stereotypes that worked well in the book’s plot. But William and Adso, the main investigator and his side-kick boy, struck me as not emotionally fleshed-out. It was a minor issue in the end, however, since Eco’s focus is certainly more on exploring ideas through his narrative rather than individuals. In a sense, the lack of emphasis on character development drives the reader’s focus back into the larger narrative of ideas. All in all, this is a good thing as Eco demands much attention and some rereading to fully grasp the complex web he weaves.

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Infidel: Good Narrative but Lacking Analysis

April 3, 2010

There are three major ways I see to read this book. If you want to understand Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important and influential thinker, and how she thinks, then the book is good. If you are interested in hearing the story of how a young girl overcame tragedy, violence, and constant attempts to curb her ambitions in order to make something of herself, then the book is great. But if you’re interested in Infidel for its commentary on Islam, then you will likely be left wanting.

Hirsi Ali divides her memoirs into 2 parts. The first half details her childhood in a variety of African and Middle Eastern countries, the hardships she faced, and her ongoing struggle with Islam as a child. Notwithstanding some serious doubts about factual inaccuracies throughout the book, I found her narrative to be extremely compelling and eye-opening. Hirsi Ali discusses everything from genital mutilation to the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood to domestic abuse. She is frank, brutal, and non-apologetic for the unseemly parts of her childhood and certain sections of Somali and Islamic cultures.

The second half of the book covers Hirsi Ali’s time in the West, beginning with the lies that gained her refugee status all the way through Theo von Gogh’s death and the secrecy in which she now lives. This section becomes less and less about Hirsi Ali’s life as it goes on and more and more an argument against Islam as detrimental to the world, condoning violence against women, and generally discouraging any kind of critical thought. Two things about this section really unnerved me.

First, Hirsi Ali never acknowledges a more complex viewpoint than “Islam is bad. Islam is the source of all problems.” I found this obsession with religion as the source of either everything good or bad acceptable in a childhood story as children often don’t see nuance. However, as an adult, it seems to me that Hirsi Ali is falling into the very sin for which she rails against so many Muslims—seeing life as all about religion. Looking around the world tells you that Muslims aren’t the only ones who commit acts of terrorism, nor are they the only poor people, nor are Islamic societies the only ones around that condone domestic violence. That doesn’t mean that Islam and belief have no role to play in creating and maintaining such systems of oppression, but it does mean that pointing a narrow finger to a 100% source of the problem in a single religion is probably too simplistic and ignores other important factors.

Second, Hirsi Ali offers no way out of the problem she diagnoses with Islamic society, namely Islam itself. Hirsi Ali has become an atheist, as she discusses in Infidel. I simply don’t think that it’s a viable solution to argue that every member of one of the world’s largest religions needs to give up their faith. Even the western Enlightenment,  which Hirsi Ali so admires, didn’t mandate a renunciation of belief for most. Hirsi Ali might answer that Christianity is somehow less oppressive than Islam, but that too depends on who’s doing the interpreting. I know Christians who believe women shouldn’t work, they should cover their heads in church, wear only long skirts, and never question their fathers/husbands. Such people are a severe minority in western Christianity, no doubt, but diversity of belief is often a saving feature of religious traditions. There are historical traditions of interpreting Islam more charitably as well (none of which Hirsi Ali discusses). Are there perhaps of ways of navigating and reshaping what has often become a hardened system of belief through its own history and past? I’m not sure, but I’m certainly interested in asking the question as it seems a much more feasible solution than anything Hirsi Ali has to offer.

Son of Hamas, by Mosab Hassan Yousef

April 1, 2010

Sometimes a true story can be stranger and more incredible than any fiction, and this is definitely the sense you get reading Son of Hamas. The author is the eldest son of one of the founding leaders of Hamas, but he spent years working as a spy and informant for the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal secret service. Through his work, the Shin Bet was able to prevent a large number of terrorist attacks and arrest many of the most wanted terrorists in Palestine.

Much of the book recounts Yousef’s experiences as an informant, and it often reads like a spy thriller, with lots of near misses and white-knuckle chases. It’s unbelievable that Yousef was able to maintain his double life for as long as he did, and the book is well worth reading just to get a sense of the last twenty years of history in Israel and Palestine from someone who was inside all the secret rooms and had a front row seat for all the action.

The mere fact that such a prominent scion of the Palestinian elite spied for Israel for so many years would be a bombshell in and of itself, but the book also details Yousef’s conversion from Islam to Christianity, which happened over the same period of time that he was spying for Israel. Yousef pulls no punches in his criticism of Islam, saying that the religion is inherently violent and leads otherwise good people to do bad things. These are strong words, and most people would probably want to distance themselves from such an outright condemnation of a major world religion. But Yousef has a lot of credibility on this topic, and the open-minded should hear his argument out.

He describes how he first began to question the beliefs he grew up with when he was placed in an Israeli prison in his teens and saw the imprisoned Hamas leadership overseeing a coordinated torture program over fellow prisoners. And he provides a detailed chronicle of the descent into violence and nihilism among Palestinians after the failed peace talks in 2000. In this same time, Yousef was moving in the opposite direction, towards a belief that love, not hate, was the only realistic way to achieve peace. He contrasts himself as a young boy, enthusiastically cheering when Saddam’s scud missiles rained down on Israel during the first Gulf War, with himself as an adult, feeling shocked by his countrymen’s celebrations after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Yousef has a unique view on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and it’s certainly a view that’s worth paying attention to.