Religion, War, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood

CoverOver breakfast this morning, today’s session titled Religion: What is it good for? led inevitably to impassioned discussion regarding Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bruce Springsteen, and the (mis-)appropriation of pop music for literary purposes.  Sadly, our lot failed to reach consensus, unlike the panelists in the real Festival session.  Adrian Wooldridge, Michael Otterman and Antony Loewenstein were remarkably united on several fronts, not the least being their disdain for Richard Dawkins.  I’ve already outlined some of the main points about these three guys here, and for Michael Otterman’s session, here, and told you it’s impossible to cover their topics in a short blog post, so won’t revisit, but I will attempt to provide a bit of the flavour of this combined session, before you rush off to find the books.

Chair Sean Plunket led off with a request for each speaker to make his own personal declaration of their beliefs.  In their own words – Antony Loewenstein identifies himself as a Jewish atheist who is agnostic about whether religion is good or bad; Michael Otterman is an agnostic cultural Jew from New York, which means he loves Seinfeld and eats bagels on Sundays; and Adrian Wooldridge, having been born C of E, is therefore an atheist who is relatively sympathetic to religion, and who also enjoys Seinfeld.

Whether or not you believe in God, Wooldridge says, current research shows that religion itself is Continue reading

Michael Otterman: The ‘unforseen, unthinking consequence’ of Erasing Iraq

I have decided there can be no light and witty blog title for a subject such as the one Michael Otterman tackles in his latest book, Erasing Iraq.  Chair Sean Plunket describes it as a difficult and uncomfortable read, and not a book to be curled up in bed with at the end of the day.  A collection of interviews with Iraqi refugees displaced all over the world, the very first tale relates the story of a Mendaean family whose son is kidnapped and murdered by fundamentalist extremists, and who then must go to retrieve the body.

The main thrust of the message is that the United States invasion of Iraq represents not a liberation, but an occupation, triggering what Otterman calls sociocide – the killing not just of a group of people but of a way of life, with the Mendaeans being a case in point.  A small and very insular group with strong religious beliefs, before the war they numbered around 50,000.  Now there are less than 5000 remaining, and with their cultural and religious beliefs precluding them from marrying outside their society, they are the last of their people.  Otterman describes the “unforseen, unthinking consequence” of United States foreign policy and actions, and has documented the devastating human cost of this thoughtlessness through the tales of those he interviewed.

The session was riveting, and had a deeply appreciative and attentive audience (apart from the dear old ladies sitting next to me, who on discovering which session they had wandered into, said rather loudly, “Oh, dear! That doesn’t sound very nice!”).  Nice it wasn’t, but compelling it certainly was, with Sean Plunket making some (rather brave, I thought) comparisons between what is going on in Iraq today, and the Holocaust.  As it turns out, however, Otterman’s own father and grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and he is more than happy to discuss the similarities and differences.

There’s no way I can do justice to the gravity of this message, and thus all I will do is relay the advice that Michael Otterman gave the audience, when asked what we as New Zealanders and as individuals can do:  read the book.  Read as much as you can find from outside mainstream media.  Go to Google and type in “Iraq blogs”.  Lobby the government to admit Iraqi refugees (in 2006 we took in just 86 Iraqi refugees, despite the fact that more than 3 million are now stranded outside their own country with nowhere else to go).  And remember that the Fox Network  should never be the sole provider of news and information from places like Iraq, or Afghanistan, or indeed, anywhere.