Since colonialism brought Western and Islamic societies crashing together over a century ago, the former has struggled to understand the rage it seems to provoke in the latter.
A protester rests on a barricade near the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt. (Reuters)
In August 1857, a century before the United Nations would declare the Israeli state in what had been Palestine, before British and French diplomats would formally carve up the Middle East, before the U.S. would back a coup in Iran, before political Islamism would emerge, and before the U.S. would arm unmanned airplanes to kill Islamism's most violent and radical adherents, the British empire found itself besieged by Muslim protesters.
Officers at Fort William, in the Indian city of Calcutta, were the first to require colonial troops to grease their rifles with a compound that included cow and pig fat, a mixture guaranteed to offend both Hindus and Muslims. Many of the troops, known as sepoys, protested. The protests spread and turned violent, growing into an uprising that affected much of the British Raj at a time long before it was unified by roads or telephones, much less cell phones or the Internet. To give a sense of scale, the Raj covered about 4 million square kilometers; the countries of today's European Union make up 4.3 million.
Looking back, the cause-and-effect between the animal grease and the protests might seem obvious today, but it shocked British overseers at the time, and historians still dispute the larger causes, which seem to go well beyond just the pig fat offense. "Muslim activists called the mutiny a jihad, and their well-organized assaults suggested that the bullet-grease issue had merely been the spark," Tamim Ansary wrote in his book, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. The suddenness and vociferousness of 1857's Muslim protests, in what was then the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, as well as the West's struggle to either foresee or understand their anger, have their echoes in this past week's demonstrations against the U.S. over the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims.
As the Western world once again endeavors to understand the roots of apparently anti-Western rage that have again surfaced in large parts of the Muslim world, it's worth remembering the history of offense and backlash that has been a recurring theme of their intersections. Ansary's history of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion cited "the cultural gulf between the British officers and their [Indian] foot soldiers, a gulf that had not existed before Europeans arrived." Then, as now, Western observers looked for causes political and cultural, particular to this uprising in this moment and general to the region and its history. They've found plenty: economic disenfranchisement among certain classes, conversion anxieties, political manipulation, local factors, and of course foreign domination, among many others. Islam and its followers came under special scrutiny, also like today, although the fact that so many Hindus participated suggests that the particularities of this one religion were not a good lens for understanding the rebellion.
It's entirely possible, even likely, that there is truth to a number of these theories, just as with the sometimes similar and sometimes different theories of "Muslim Rage," to borrow from a 1990 Atlanticcover story, that Westerns have explored so many times before. We've had many opportunities to theorize: the 2010 Florida Koran burning protests, the 2005 Muhammad cartoon protests, the wide 1990 demonstrations in support of Saddam Hussein that shocked the West, the near-global violence over Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, and the deadly 1979 U.S. embassy attacks in Iran, Libya, and Pakistan. Protests and anger marked much of the colonial era as well, from the 1936 Arab Uprising in then-Palestine to the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion to the 1879 Urabi Revolt in Egypt.
It's worth considering the extent to which these movements have been connected by themes that can both encompass and be larger than the particularities of each. Many in the Middle East and South Asia are in fact furious with the U.S. for its drone program, but their anger and suspicion look awfully similar to those propelling the demonstrations in, for example, 1979 or 1988 or 1990 or 2005, during most of which drones did not exist. To say that Muslims are protesting because they're angry about drones is true in a similar way that, for example, San Francisco Democrats are likely to vote against Mitt Romney in November because they dislike his stance on gay marriage, or that people in China are protesting Japan because they disagree with Tokyo's claim over some disputed islands.
There is probably no simple, single explanation for something as old, complicated, and variegated as the anger in parts of the Muslim world against the West. Not even colonialism, perhaps the single most significant interaction between the Western and Muslim worlds since the Renaissance, is a satisfactory explanation: why, then, do the harshly colonized societies of sub-Saharan Africa report some of the highest approval ratings for American leadership in the world? (Before you answer "because oil" or "because Islam," keep in mind the Angola and Nigeria are enormous oil exporters to the U.S., and that much of Africa is Muslim.)
Perhaps the single most consistent theme in the anti-Western protests and incidents that we so often term "Muslim rage" is our perennial struggle to understand them. "Why do they hate us?" is a question we've been asking for a long time. Judging by some of the protest signs dotting Africa and Asia last week, demanding Western respect for Islam and its adherents, it might be a question that many Muslims ask of us, too. None of this is to advance a specific theory for last week's protests or the anger behind them, but rather to place them within the much longer history of offense and outrage between the Western and Muslim worlds, a generations-old mutual misapprehension that has long defied the sorts of easy answers that we might be tempted to reach for today.
Senator John McCain and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly offered starkly different visions of service—and of America.
It was a week of powerful speeches. The least memorable, oddly, was delivered by the most naturally gifted speaker, former President Barack Obama at a campaign rally in Virginia. “Our democracy is at stake,” he said, before harking back to the trope of his 2008 campaign: “Yes, we can.” Compelling in the setting, but not special.
Far more powerful was former President George W. Bush’s indictment of Donald Trump that didn’t mention the 45th president by name. It was a cry for freedom as a theme in American policy, a denunciation of “casual cruelty” in American discourse, of “nationalism distorted into nativism,” of isolationism, of attempts to turn American identity away from American ideals and into something darker, driven by “geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood.” In itself it would have been noteworthy.
Three families of fallen servicemembers received next-day UPS letters from President Trump after a turbulent week in which Trump falsely claimed he had called “virtually all” of the families.
The Trump administration is scrambling to defend the president’s characterization of his communications with grieving military families, including rush-delivering letters from the president to the families of servicemembers killed months ago. Donald Trump falsely claimed this week that he had called “virtually” all fallen servicemembers’ families since his time in office.
Timothy Eckels Sr. hadn’t heard anything from President Trump since his son Timothy Eckels Jr. was killed after a collision involving the USS John S. McCain on August 21. But then, on October 20, two days into the controversy over the president’s handling of a condolence call with an American soldier’s widow, Eckels Sr. received a United Parcel Service package dated October 18 with a letter from the White House.
Emma Perrier was deceived by an older man on the internet—a hoax that turned into an unbelievable love story.
Emma Perrier spent the summer of 2015 mending a broken heart, after a recent breakup. By September, the restaurant manager had grown tired of watching The Notebook alone in her apartment in Twickenham, a leafy suburb southwest of London, and decided it was time to get back out there. Despite the horror stories she’d heard about online dating, Emma, 33, downloaded a matchmaking app called Zoosk. The second “o” in the Zoosk logo looks like a diamond engagement ring, which suggested that its 38 million members were seeking more than the one-night stands offered by apps like Tinder.
She snapped the three selfies the app required to “verify her identity.” Emma, who is from a volcanic city near the French Alps, not far from the source of Perrier mineral water, is petite, and brunette. She found it difficult to meet men, especially as she avoided pubs and nightclubs, and worked such long hours at a coffee shop in the city’s financial district that she met only stockbrokers, who were mostly looking for cappuccinos, not love.
A stunning new speculative-fiction book by Naomi Alderman couldn’t be more timely.
One of the most succinct definitions of sexual harassment I’ve read over the past few weeks goes like this: For men, it’s anything they might say to a woman that would make them uncomfortable if it were said to them, but in prison. It’s glib, sure. But it gets at the fundamental imbalance of power that characterizes relationships between men and women. To understand what it’s like for a woman to be catcalled, or harassed, or propositioned, it isn’t enough for men to simply put themselves in that woman’s place. They also have to imagine what it’s like to sense the imminent danger in those interactions—to be weaker than their aggressor in every way, and to have that weakness woven into the fabric of society itself. As the adage often attributed to Margaret Atwood goes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Monday afternoon, President Trump delivered a press conference from an alternative reality, or perhaps a slightly-less-dark timeline. His relationship with Mitch McConnell is great! They have the votes for Obamacare repeal! The hurricane relief effort in Puerto Rico is a smashing success! Democrats are to blame for GOP divisions on Capitol Hill! These claims range from the highly dubious to the patently false.
A neuroscientist on how we came to be aware of ourselves.
Ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has been the grand unifying theory of biology. Yet one of our most important biological traits, consciousness, is rarely studied in the context of evolution. Theories of consciousness come from religion, from philosophy, from cognitive science, but not so much from evolutionary biology. Maybe that’s why so few theories have been able to tackle basic questions such as: What is the adaptive value of consciousness? When did it evolve and what animals have it?
The Attention Schema Theory (AST), developed over the past five years, may be able to answer those questions. The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Honoring the sacrifice of servicemembers requires understanding why they were put at risk, and demanding that those who did so hold themselves to account.
On Thursday morning, I planned to write a pointed screed decrying President Trump’s propensity to view the military community as a problem he can buy off with a check. Then, on Thursday afternoon, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, himself a Gold Star father, decried the noxious politicization of the deaths of servicemembers and how we treat their families in the aftermath. His remarks gave me pause, as they were meant to.
“Let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society, a young man, young woman, going out and giving his or her life for our country, let’s … keep that sacred” he implored, lamenting the ugly and voyeuristic events of the past week.
Who better to set the protocol and define the limits of this sacred space than a father who lost his son in Afghanistan? Unless you’ve walked in his shoes, don’t ask questions.
DeepMind’s new self-taught Go-playing program is making moves that other players describe as “alien” and “from an alternate dimension.”
It was a tense summer day in 1835 Japan. The country’s reigning Go player, Honinbo Jowa, took his seat across a board from a 25-year-old prodigy by the name of Akaboshi Intetsu. Both men had spent their lives mastering the two-player strategy game that’s long been popular in East Asia. Their face-off, that day, was high-stakes: Honinbo and Akaboshi represented two Go houses fighting for power, and the rivalry between the two camps had lately exploded into accusations of foul play.
Little did they know that the match—now remembered by Go historians as the “blood-vomiting game”—would last for several grueling days. Or that it would lead to a grisly end.
Early on, the young Akaboshi took a lead. But then, according to lore, “ghosts” appeared and showed Honinbo three crucial moves. His comeback was so overwhelming that, as the story goes, his junior opponent keeled over and began coughing up blood. Weeks later, Akaboshi was found dead. Historians have speculated that he might have had an undiagnosed respiratory disease.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.