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The United States Supreme Court

So US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg left a last instruction, dictated to her granddaughter. It said, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

That’s a pious but improbable hope and #RBG, as the judge is called, must have known it as she went into the night.

Like the rest of us #RBG knew that Donald Trump and his senate change-maker, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would fall over themselves to replace her within hours of the news she’d passed.

Like the rest of us #RBG knew that Mr Trump and Mr McConnell would hasten to ensure a conservative judge is placed on the bench, come hell or high water (or a Democratic president and senate and house) by January 20, 2021. That would bring the Supreme Court’s conservative tally up to six (currently, it is five), thereby ensuring that liberal opinions remain in a small minority of three, which is entirely possible to ignore. The big and impassable conservative majority on the Court is likely to last nearly the next half-century. ( Click here to read my September 2018 blog ‘A world of non-traditional coups and justice dispensed with one eye on politics’.) …

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Veteran foreign policywallah Kishore Mahbubani once wrote a piece for The New York Times titled ‘How Strongmen Co-opted Democracy’. He should know. Mr Mahbubani was, from 2004 to 2017, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore). His country knows all about strongmen. That’s not to be snarky, just factual.

Anyway, Mr Mahbubani made an interesting argument about the spread of democracy. It was meant, he says, “to result in the election of liberal, pro-Western leaders.” Instead, it’s allowed for the election of “a wave of strongmen rulers…many of whom have clear non-Western identities.”

As part of his “wave” he listed Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, India’s Narendra Modi and, “looking back further, Vladimir V. …

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‘Conscious uncoupling’ became famous — both as a term and a concept — in 2014, when actress Gywneth Paltrow and singer Chris Martin were in the throes of a divorce. But the neologism was coined much before, and not by Ms Paltrow. In fact, it was California marriage and family therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas who detailed the five-step process she thought could help with the conscious end of a close relationship.

Ms Thomas sketched out the following steps: Find emotional freedom; reclaim your power and your life; break the pattern, heal your heart; become a love alchemist and create your happy even afterlife. …

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Michelle Obama and Jason Wu look at the gown she wore to her husband’s inaugural ball, on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History

New York recently had its first pandemic fashion show but the event, just like the clothes industry at the moment, made a number of contradictory points at the same time.

First, that it is possible to have a fashion show during a global pandemic and that it suggests life is returning to normal. But second, what’s the point of fashion shows and fashion itself now that no one has any particular reason to dress up?

The pandemic has accelerated already declining sales of high heels. Both men’s and women’s dress shoes are now one of the least desirable fashion items in the US, not to mention men’s suits, sales of which are forecast to plunge by a quarter this year. …

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The first edition of ‘Robinson Crusoe’

The story goes as follows. Ibn Tufail, a 12th century Arab Andalusian thinker, wrote a philosophical novel titled ‘The Epistle of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan on the Secrets of Eastern Philosophy’. (When I bought a Kindle version, incidentally, it bore the following name: ‘The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan’).

The treatise featured Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, a baby who grows up on an isolated island, mothered by a gazelle and learning philosophy and natural reason from observing himself, the animals and all of the world around him. …

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There’s no question that Europe’s food and beverage superpowers are France and Italy.

Half of the products on the 100-strong list of unique European products that China agreed to protect (on Monday, September 14) come from France and Italy.

The list has 200 products altogether — equal numbers from China and the European Union (EU). …

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Abbasid Caliph Harun Al Rashid receiving a delegation from Charlemagne in 768, oil on canvas (1864; Maximilianeum, Munich)

The gains from the Greek-to-Arabic translation movement were many. It proved to be a great investment for the Arabs.

Not only did they create a vibrant environment of intellectual enquiry, they were able to use their very appetite for Hellenic knowledge as a cultural cudgel against their rivals next door, the Christian Byzantines.

Interestingly, Muslim intellectuals blamed Christianity for the Byzantines’ lack of interest in the ancient philosophical sciences. They didn’t extol paganism at the expense of Christianity, but advanced the argument that Christianity had somehow dulled the senses and the intellect of Byzantines.

As scholars have noted, the moral sought to be conveyed was that the Greek sciences, as transmitted through the translation movement, were a cultural good. And that the Christians, in hock to an illogical faith that required them to believe in the trinity, had proved to be an evil for the Byzantines. …

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A 16th century portrayal of the people paying homage to the new Abbasid Caliph Al Mamun

Why did the second Abbasid Caliph Al Mansur (r.754–775) initiate the Greek-to-Arabic translation movement?

He was no scholar but there was a very particular reason to lay claim to the fruits of Hellenic thinking.

Al Mansur had an interest in astrology and may have been keen to form a dynastic ideology. This was to be a fusion of Zoroastrian imperial ideology (assisted by the Sasanian cultural roots of the court elite) and political astrology.

Also the transfer of the seat of the caliphate from Syria to Iraq placed Abbasid life in the centre of a Persian-speaking population.

Interestingly, the belief was that all Greek books were part of the Zoroastrian canon because it was Alexander’s pillage of Iran that caused all their books to be known among the Greeks. …

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Scholars at a library in the Abbasid caliphate. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

The 200-year-old Greek-to-Arabic translation movement begun by the Abbasid Caliph Al Mansur (r.754–775) has no equivalent in world history.

Never before and never since has one culture tried to import the knowledge of another in so sustained a manner as the Arabs did with Hellenic thought.

It was an expensive business too, creating its own supply and demand price structure.

The demand for translation from Greek into Arabia via Syriac required fluency and facility in at least two, if not three languages.

Knowledge of Greek especially, had to be good enough to turn out decent approximations of the original Hellenic text. Generally the Greek would be translated into Syriac, which would then be further translated into Arabic. …

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The culture wars between the Muslims and the Byzantines had decided effects.

Often, they left the Byzantines feeling small and with the sense that they were late-starters.

Consider this interesting story recounted by British archaeologist and academic of Late Antiquity Judith Herrin. The Byzantines were trying to brush up on their knowledge of math and set about studying ‘Arithmetica’, the Greek text written by the mathematician Diophantus in the 3rd century AD.

The Arabs had already studied Diophantus but when the Byzantines worked through the 13 books, they found that six in the middle were missing. …

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Leaf from an Arabic translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, on the “Preparation of Medicine from Honey”

Not too long ago, British sociologist Frank Furedi wrote a piece on the culture wars in the US and UK. He asserted that the culture war was historically “set in motion in Western societies by a powerful impulse to detach the present from the past, which emerged at the turn of the 20th century”. He went on to distinguish the current conflict that’s roiling the two countries from “the German Kulturkampf of the 19th century, when there was an overt cultural struggle between Chancellor Bismarck and the Catholic Church”.

But those who despair at the state we’re in — i.e., fighting over symbols of continuity and change — should take heart. …

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Quacy (L), Quintan, 12 (2L), Milo, 16 (2R) and Quacy Jr., 16 (R) holds signs as they walk in the rain after attending a protest in front of Lafayette Park next to the White House, Washington, DC. AFP

Race relations can be a fraught subject anywhere but especially so in the US right now. The long hot summer of national reckoning on race and policing has slipped into an autumn of continuing anguish and defiance.

Americans’ view of the relations between black and white races is now the most negative of any year since Gallup started asking the question in 2001. And the issue of racial injustice has become one of the top four concerns, according to an NPR/Ipsos poll, as Americans prepare to vote in a consequential presidential election that will be closely watched around the world.

It figures. …

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Photo by Pau Casals on Unsplash

Will Donald Trump win re-election?

The truth is no one knows and anyone who says they do is deluded, delusional or just too darn sure they’re always right.

But we owe it to David Leonhardt of The New York Times to remind us why everyone seems to hope — or fear — that Mr Trump will triumph, come November 3.

Mr Leonhardt writes that it’s got quite a bit to do with a tendency described by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1974 as availability.

That’s to say the mental shortcut that leads people to make judgments about the likelihood of an event based on how easily an example, instance, or case comes to mind. In the process of using the availability heuristic, people often ignore other relevant facts. …

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The tendency towards aniconism and the erasure of the secular-religious distinction is a bit of a conundrum.

Some scholars posit that it was part of a trend from before the rise of Islam. Indeed, even in the 6 thcentury, before the coming of Islam, there was already starting to be a drift away from representational art and a corresponding preference for geometric and stylized vegetal decoration. Notably, Byzantine artists, for instance, made less use of portraiture and depicted human figures, if any, as types rather than real people. This is seen as a reaction to the verisimilitude of Hellenic art.

So the region as a whole may have been in the throes of a cultural shift favouring abstract decoration. …

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There are many examples of the gradual hardening of Muslim opinion towards aniconism.

Aniconism, not iconoclasm. It’s important to note the distinction. Aniconism refers to cults where there is no iconic representation of the deity [anthropomorphic or theriomorphic, which is to say in animal form] to serve as the dominant or central cultic symbol. As for iconoclasm, it has many meanings, from a period in Byzantine history, via a set of events that are meant to have occurred at that time, to a form of activity involving damage to images at any time and place in human history.

Those are accepted academic definitions, by the way. …

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What’s clear is that early Muslims maintained a separation between art considered appropriate for sacred and secular spaces.

In the religious space, the Abbasids, the second Muslim dynasty, followed their predecessor Umayyads. Both employed great restraint in terms of decoration.

So the Dome of the Rock, built by the Umayyads, followed Christian techniques of construction in its arches, domes, windows and masonry, but made a remarkable change in the mosaics that decorate a vast span of about 280 square metres. …

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In the beginning, there was art. Lots of it, in fact, in the secular space.

Consider this.

Within 30 years of Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, there was abundant art for the secular space. The palaces and bathhouses of the Umayyads, the first Muslim dynasty (661–750), were rich with exuberant figural art.

Three Umayyad palaces — Qusayr Amra in present-day eastern Jordan, Qasr Al Hayr West southwest of the Syrian city of Palmyra and Khirbat Al Mafjar, which is north of Jericho in the West Bank — are full of frescoes and sculptures.

At Qusayr Amra, a long-robed prince is shown, enthroned and haloed, an attendant with a flywhisk standing on one side, while a richly dressed dignitary is on the other. This desert castle also has the well-known Six Kings painting, intended to drive home the victorious advance of Muslim armies. …

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The issue of Islam’s attitude to free expression is back in the news with the trial having begun of 14 alleged accomplices of the gunmen who massacred ‘Charlie Hebdo’ staffers in January 2015.

The massacre, remember, was supposed to be revenge for ‘Charlie Hebdo’s’ 2006 republication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which were deemed blasphemous by some Muslims. They were originally published by a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Well, ‘Charlie Hebdo’ has, in 2020, re-re-published the cartoons. …

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Except for the pandemic, it feels like 2015. The French satirical magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ has republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, deemed blasphemous by some Muslims.

And the trial has begun (Sept. 2) of 14 alleged accomplices of the gunmen who massacred ‘Charlie Hebdo’ staffers in January 2015.

The magazine’s cover featuring the cartoons bears the headline “Tout ça pour ça” (“All that, for this”.)

Quite so.

Is there any particular point in the republishing of those cartoons in 2020? Yes.

Will ‘Charlie Hebdo’s’ 2020 republishing of the cartoons get Muslims (in France or anywhere) riled up all over again? …

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Caricature by DonkeyHotey
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

President Trump’s fellow Republican, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, has been on the airwaves to champion “citizen soldiers”. Presumably the senator meant people like 17-year-old Trump-supporter Kyle Rittenhouse, who crossed state lines from Illinois into Wisconisn with an assault rifle, which he used to shoot dead two anti-racism protesters in Kenosha last week. The senator was explicit enough to CNN on Sunday: “Two people died because citizens took matters into their own hands. I’m not for vigilantism; I’m not sure that’s what was happening.”

Now, President Trump has spoken about Rittenhouse, a high school dropout whose only discernible interests appear to have been Donald Trump, the police and guns. Mr Trump said Rittenhouse appeared to have shot dead two people in self-defence. Without even a tinge of compassion for the Americans who were shot dead, Mr Trump inserted himself into the middle of a deeply contested account and a case that is yet to be prosecuted and tried. …

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UK ‘Prime Minister’ Carolyn Steel

BBC Radio 4 has aired one of the more unusual — and inspiring — food programmes I’ve ever heard. ‘Sitopia — a land with food at its centre’ is set in 2030. It features a Prime Minister Carolyn Steel, who led her Sitopia Party to victory in the 2022 general election and proceeded to turn Britain into the land of the good food revolution. ( Click here to listen. It’s a riveting 29 minutes, 30 seconds.)

What happens is as follows. After the 2020 pandemic, says the BBC journalist, there were food protests when the supply chains finally did show signs of breaking down. Ms Steel, a campaigner for Sitopia (sitos is Greek for food and topos means place) wins the election and institutes a programme under which the government buys up empty central London office space and gives grants to unemployed people to bake bread (of all sorts, including rotis and naan) and tend urban gardens. Whitehall has apple and plum trees, the familiar black railings of Downing Street are wreathed in hops, and vacant car parks have become food-producing gardens. Ms Steel also bans the Chorleywood bread process, which uses lower-protein wheat and reduces processing time to roughly three hours, thereby turning out insipid white loaves. …

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Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

Why should it have taken a Kamala Harris — half Jamaican, half Indian, all American — to show the United States that race isn’t a Black or White matter?

Perhaps because people can be fairly “illiterate” about multiracial identity. So says Nitasha Tamar Sharma, a professor at Northwestern University specializing in African American and Asian American studies.

That’s an acute diagnosis but it’s still not clear why people are afflicted by the condition. …

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Many Muslims, Christians, Jews and Druze travelled up to Mount Precipice to release hundreds of balloons for peace after breaking bread together in Nazareth in December 2019. Photo: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Does the “Arab street” still exist? I mean in the sense of the broad swath of Arab public opinion, passive, non-violent and emotionally attached to the idea of helping Palestinians achieve justice and self-determination.

Does the politics of ummah still work? I mean in the sense of Muslim solidarity on certain core issues to do with co-religionists. Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya…and in the 21st century, the Rohingyas and Uighurs.

On the surface, both questions assume new importance this month.

For, the UAE suddenly normalised its relationship with Israel, thereby seeming to publicly disengage from efforts to push the two-state solution.

And Saudi Arabia suddenly demanded Pakistan pay back a huge part of a loan because Islamabad expressed frustration over Riyadh’s silence on Indian actions in Kashmir. …

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Photo by Mostafa Meraji on Unsplash

This week, Donald Trump’s official and unofficial secretaries of state — Mike Pompeo and Jared Kushner — fanned out across the Middle East and North Africa to push Arab-Israeli rapprochement in the aftermath of the August 13 Israel-UAE deal.

The US-sponsored deal between Israel and the UAE was only the third such accord Israel has struck with an Arab country, after Egypt and Jordan. It was denounced by the Palestinians as a “betrayal” of their cause.

Mr Pompeo visited Sudan, Bahrain, the UAE. Before he set off on August 24, the itinerary also had possible stopovers in Oman and Qatar. Even before Mr Pompeo set foot in Khartoum there was a lot of talk about Sudan’s urgent wish to normalise ties as a way to reach its cherished goal of being removed from the US list of state sponsors of “terrorism”. But it’s not just Sudan that’s being pragmatic. There seems to be a somewhat similar sort of thinking among some other Arab nations too, despite Palestinian angst, which prompts two key questions. …

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Those making their way back to the gym for the first time since March 11, when the WHO declared a pandemic, may probably feel more sanguine than parents looking to soon despatch their children to school in England.

Gyms, by all account, have done a pretty good job of making themselves Covid-19 safe. …

About

Rashmee Roshan Lall

Journalism by trade & inclination. Sign up for free email updates on https://www.rashmee.com email me at rashmee@rashmee.com http://muckrack.com/rashmeerl

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